Behind the darkness of the interstellar void is the realm of chaos. Lights and colours shift, blur, tempting the unwary to stare into them, inviting the creatures that dwell there to stare back. It is a place where thought is reality, where the dreams and nightmares of countless billions of souls fight for dominance. Here the rules that bind mortal creatures are broken on a whim.
Through this sea of souls drifts a tiny shape, a single emissary of reality in this realm of the unreal. Among the swirling masses of energy and thought, the shape silently travels, as if aware that it survives here only so long as it remains unnoticed. As it nears, allowing itself to be drawn by currents in the warp, the indistinct flickering of shields can be seen, surrounding a long, ungraceful hull scarred by decades of service in the unforgiving depths of space. For a moment it is close enough to see properly, the bulky ion engines, the single fission reactor behind its heavy radiation shield, the rows of cargo bays, the lights of life inside, the armoured prow bearing the name 'Silver Lance.' Then it is gone, disappearing back into the immaterium as suddenly as it appeared. In its wake follow a handful of creatures, things made of fear and hatred, but for now they remain at a distance.
"Is my gene code stable?"
Inside the Silver Lance, two of its handful of passengers ignored the tiny porthole's view of the warp, concentrating instead on the more mundane surroundings of their cabin. On one side of the small room was a single case, open, inside which were a handful of needle-thin blades, a collection of unusually-shaped crystals, and an ornate gauntlet marked with a skull and dagger symbol.
"Did I die in battle?"
Opposite them, behind the armoured figure sitting at the single desk in the cabin, an adept of the Administratum lay on the lower of two bunks, eyes closed in concentration. On closer inspection, inconsistencies in this description would become apparent. Most Administratum scribes were not female, nor did they wear synskin underneath their robes. Nor did they typically relax by realigning the crystal element in a neural shredder, as this one appeared to be doing.
"Was I assassinated?"
The crystal clicked into place, lighting briefly with a blue glow, then fading back to its normal appearance.
Inquisitor Vail shrugged in a gesture of defeat, and turned from the data tablet she had been idly reading.
"You only got that," she said, "because your Temple has a shrine to the agent that caught him."
"Well then," answered the assassin, crossing the cabin and replacing the shredder in its case, "next time choose something more difficult." She crossed to the porthole and looked out, watching the patterns in the warp for a moment. "I'd forgotten how bright it was," she continued, "I don't know how I used to put up with it."
Vail opened her mouth to answer, but was cut off by a muffled crash that echoed through the hull. She was on her feet instantly, while Liela retrieved her shredder. By the time Vail had opened the cabin door the assassin had resumed the appearance of a scribe that her clothing suggested. The lights died for a second, to be replaced by red emergency lights along the corridor outside the cabin. An alarm echoed from somewhere towards the front of the ship.
"That sounded like it came from the bridge," said Vail. The pair headed towards the central access corridor that lead from the passenger section to the control deck.
The bridge of the Silver Lance was not an awe-inspiring sight, lacking both the majestic view of space offered by capital ships, and the sheer power of a fleet warship. Instead it featured a collection of equipment, bolted together seemingly in any way that would make it all fit, with the addition of a pair of duty stations almost as an afterthought. Among the assortment of outdated and jury-rigged flight controls, the Navigator's chamber had been the only component that had looked as if it belonged on a starship. Now though, its smooth, perfect carapace was torn open from within, the delicate controls blasted to pieces. The body of the Navigator, what remained of it, rested inside the broken shell.
Vail arrived on the bridge directly behind a bulky man wearing a flamboyant uniform that corresponded to no regiment that Vail knew of, and which she had assumed to be his own design. From the little she had observed prior to the transport's departure from Orien Prime, the man was a rogue trader of some importance in his field. His name, Makros, had been recognised by the captain.
"What in blazes happened," he began in a loud voice - an unnecessary question, Vail thought to herself. She had taken an instant dislike to the trader's manner from watching him earlier. He was the type, she had noted, who automatically assumed he had the right to be attended to before anyone else, no matter the situation. He clearly now expected the captain, who had only just begun to approach the shattered chamber, to deliver a full report.
"Stay clear," warned the captain. He at least was not panicked, but Vail knew he had seen worse in his days as a pilot. She had checked his record prior to taking passage on his ship, having no wish to end up in an emergency without at least one competent Navy-trained officer. If necessary she could handle a small ship, but it would be infinitely preferable to have a professional available. The captain opened a pouch on his belt and produced a small power scanner.
"Damn," he muttered to himself. Vail stepped forward, interrupting Makros, who had been in the act of drawing breath for his next demand.
"How bad?" she asked. Without the Navigator the situation was not good. Without at least a functional navigation chamber, it was exponentially worse. The captain's expression gave her the answer, confirming what she had thought when she first saw the wrecked shell: the warp navigation system had been completely destroyed.
"Excuse me... what in the Emperor's name?" The voice came from the rear of the cramped bridge, where a tall merchant had just finished pushing past Liela, still imitating a scribe, to see for himself. The captain straightened up and looked around, as if seeing the visitors on his bridge for the first time.
"We have a problem," he said, his voice calm, projecting authority. It seemed to silence whatever exclamation the merchant was about to make, and Vail deliberately stepped back towards Makros, forcing him to retreat from the vicinity of the navigation chamber and delay whatever remark he was about to make.
"I see this is indeed the case," said a hissing voice from behind the merchant. The man moved aside to reveal a hunched figure clothed in a faded red robe. A series of wires ran form somewhere beneath the folds of his robe to the wrist of one hand, where they disappeared under his skin, and a flexible tube ran from under his collar to a connection port on the bottom of his jaw. His voice was given the artificial hiss by the sound of the respirator.
"Lord, I was about to call you," said the Captain, addressing the Tech-priest in formal terms. "It appears the navigation chamber has been severely damaged. Would you be good enough to make repairs?" The priest moved towards the wrecked chamber, inspected it briefly, then turned to the captain.
"I will require privacy," he hissed, "I must talk with the machine." The captain gave a short bow and headed for the door, herding the passengers out before him. "Also," said the Tech-priest, "you have a Logis on board. His aid may be useful."
"I will inform him of the situation, Lord," said the captain. He completed clearing the bridge, stepped around the two servitors who had lumbered along the corridor in the wake of their master, and closed the bridge door after they had entered.
"Gentlemen," he said, raising his hands to quiet the beginning of an argument from the trader, "the matter is being attended to. His Lordship will repair the damaged equipment, and our journey will continue with only a minor delay. In the meantime, please return to your cabins."
"Now wait a minute," began the trader, but the captain silenced him with a stare.
"I must attend to my ship, as I'm sure you're aware. You will all be informed of further developments as they occur. Now please vacate the command deck. We have a missionary on board, he will attend to the Navigator." Vail moved out of the trader's field of vision, and after a moment he followed her down the corridor towards the passenger deck.
As soon as the cabin door had sealed, Liela resumed her usual shape and turned to Vail.
"That wasn't a malfunction," she said. Vail nodded.
"I saw the blast marks. Nothing in a navigation chamber has that sort of power, not even when it overloads."
"A bomb, then."
"Most likely," answered the Inquisitor. "The question is, who was it aimed at?"
"Apart from the Navigator, you mean?"
"Navigators don't interact with others if they can avoid it. And if anyone within the Guild wanted a particular Navigator dead, they'd go about it differently."
"Call an assassin, you mean?"
"Most likely. This wasn't the work of an assassin, not an Imperial one anyway. I think the intent was to strand the ship by knocking out the warp navigation equipment. No way to locate a jump point, no way out of the warp. Someone wanted this ship to disappear."
"We're not carrying any significant cargo," said Liela, "it must be one of the passengers. You don't think it's us?"
"If the Imperium knew that either of us were on this ship, do you think they'd have hesitated to blow it out of orbit as soon as it took off from Orien Prime?"
"Good point. One of the others then. Or the captain."
"It could be the captain, but I doubt it. His file didn't indicate he had any enemies, not the killing sort. Makros?"
"Well," said Liela thoughtfully, "it's possible. I've only known him since we left Orien, and I've considered killing him."
"I heard him talking to the captain in the dock," continued Vail, "he said he was going to command a mission out on the perimeter, up beyond the Eye."
"It could be someone who wanted to delay that."
"Maybe. Probably not the Logis, if he's anything like the ones I've met he'll be a walking logic machine. Not the kind to make enemies, any more that you'd hold a grudge against a memory core. Something bothers me though, setting a ship adrift in the warp..." she trailed off, looking out of the small porthole. Liela thought for a moment.
"I see what you mean," she said, "it's not a guaranteed kill. If the bomb misfired, or the ship got a signal out, we'd stand a good chance of getting out of here."
"Speaking of which," said Vail, "how long until we get rescued?"
"I sent our flight plan to Artemis before we left. Should be two days, give or take a few hours to scan the warp tides. But wait a moment, how would you destroy a ship, if all you had was a bomb?"
"The reactor would be no good," said Vail after a moment's thought, "the servitors would notice anything out of place down there, no matter how well it was hidden. Probably this, destroy the navigation equipment. Or maybe the shield generators. Damn," she finished, jolting to her feet, "probably both." Liela followed Vail out of the cabin, and again towards the command deck.
"No, absolutely not," said the captain a moment later. Vail was surprised, seeing no reason not to at least check the cargo bays where the shield generators were located, especially given the situation.
"Captain," she began again, hoping that her reasonable tone of voice was carrying through the vocal modulator properly, "surely we should make sure. If the shields fail while we're in the warp, you know what will happen."
"Listen, mister," he struggled for a moment to remember the name Vail had given, "Rica, the situation is not as serious as you are assuming. The damage on the bridge is being repaired, and we are quite safe. Now if you'll excuse me, I have work to do." He turned and entered the bridge door behind him. Vail was about to follow, but the captain stopped short.
"Emperor curse it!" he swore. Vail pushed past him, to see the body of the Tech-priest lying draped over the navigation chamber, which had been disassembled in part. A pile of equipment lay to one side of him, but on second glance Vail saw that it was not from the chamber. She looked closer, noticing various familiar parts, a scanner eye, muscle enhancers, bioregulators.
"What happened," said the captain to himself, "where are the servitors?"
"Here," answered Vail grimly. The bionics were quite obviously those of the servitors, but of their organic hosts there was no trace, not even a drop of blood on the discarded parts.
"We must search the ship," the trader was saying. Having reached the end of his short patience, he now seemed to be assuming command.
"I still don't," the captain began, but he was cut off as Makros held up a hand in a gesture inviting no further discussion.
"We have a murderer on board," he continued, "if it is a stowaway we must find him. That is," he added, sneering at the captain, "providing you have nothing to hide?" Having no ready response, the captain backed down. "You," he said, pointing at Vail, "you've been on a ship before? You know your way around?" Vail nodded, allowing the trader to draw his own conclusions as to how she acquired that knowledge. She had assumed the identity of a Imperium-sanctioned explorer, a lifestyle which offered the opportunity for any unusual skills she might have to display, as well as a reputation for eccentricity that had explained her reluctance to shed her armour. "Good," Makros continued, "you and your scribe start at the aft cargo bay and work forwards. "You," he turned to the merchant, "and I will work through the forward bays. You stay here," he added to the captain and the robed Logis, who had not said a word since he had arrived a moment ago.
"I must return to my cabin," said a small voice from the vicinity of the navigation chamber. It was the missionary, who was kneeling over the body of the Tech-priest. "It would be best," he continued, indicating the deceased, "in the absence of a chapel, if he received the Emperor's blessing there."
"He requires the rites of the Machine God to be spoken," said the Logis.
"Of course. If you would care to perform them?"
"Whatever," said Makros, as the Logis moved to stand beside the missionary, who was wrapping the body in a shroud, "just stay in the cabin."
"It's not this, particularly," said Liela as she scanned the stacks of crates with a torch, "Emperor knows I'm used to skulking around all sorts of awful places, but taking orders from Captain Proton there is starting to get to me." Vail nodded, checking the spaces between the crates.
"Look on the bright side," she said, "no trader gets to be that obnoxious without being able to keep himself alive against the odds." She raised an eyebrow, within her helmet, at the sight of the decaying remains of a long-forgotten snack nestled between a pair of cargo drums - not recent enough to have any bearing on their current situation. Her eyes scanned the serial numbers on the crates idly as she passed them. One caught her attention, and she returned to it.
"Wait a moment," she said. Liela stopped and returned to where Vail was standing. "I recognise the prefix code on this. These aren't spare parts." She searched for a moment for the crate's key coder, and entered an Inquisition code that overruled the passcode and caused the top of the crate to snap open. Vail looked inside.
"Power cells," she said, extracting one from its packing and turning it over in her hands, "standard pattern for Imperial lasguns. On their way to Cadia, with the street gangs on the warpath again... our captain must be an arms dealer on the side. No wonder he didn't want the cargo bays searched. Not that it helps us, he wouldn't have sabotaged his own ship with all this on board."
"What about that?" asked Liela. Vail turned to see the beam of her torch directed between the crates behind them. In the small space, there was a collection of complex-looking equipment. From its condition, and the way the deck beneath it had been cleared of the miscellaneous dirt and metal shards that littered the rest of the cargo bay, it was a recent addition. Vail leaned closer, inspecting the equipment.
"Flow regulator, molecular builder, bioprobe," she listed the components as she identified them. "Useful, if you want to make a bomb out of non-scannable materials." She raised one of the ship's battered communicator links and activated it. "Makros, are you there?"
"What?" came the reply a moment later.
"This is Rica, we're in bay three, second section. We've found something."
"I'll be right there. Don't move." A short crackle indicated the link had shut off from the other end. Vail closed the crate of illegal weapons modules and returned to her inspection of the equipment. Several moments later Makros emerged from the shadows in the direction of the access corridor, slightly out of breath.
"Where's the merchant?" asked Liela. Makros looked slightly surprised that a scribe had addressed him directly.
"Indag? I left him in the forward bay. What is it?" Vail pointed between the crates, and the trader bent down to get a better look. "What is all this stuff?" he asked after a moment.
"That," said Vail, pointing out individual pieces, "is a molecular builder. They're used to make protein strings that degrade in a set time, useful if you need to put a detonator into a liquid explosive, like Arex-D. Which is what you get if you use this," she pointed to the flow regulator, "to combine all of these," then to the collection of empty liquid containers, "in the right quantities."
"How do you know so much about explosives?" he asked suspiciously.
"I've worked around the Ghalior systems," she answered, citing one of the more anarchic regions of Imperial space. Makros nodded, then switched on his communicator link.
"Indag," he said, "we're on our way back to the bridge. Stay there, we'll pick you up on the way." He waited for an answer, but none came. "Indag? Are you listening?" He looked up at Vail in confusion.
"What section was he in?" she asked, already heading towards the access corridor.
"First, in bay one," he replied, pushing himself to his feet as Liela disappeared after Vail. Putting two and two together, he swore in base gothic and followed them.
Vail skidded around a corner to find the merchant, Indag, lying face-down on the deck. She felt for a pulse, but her suspicion was confirmed when she felt nothing through the sense transmitters in her gauntlet. She rolled the body over, looking for a wound. There was a single cut in his neck, just below the jawline. Nothing else, no sign of a struggle. That was strange, he was a big man. Either they were dealing with a trained assassin - and what were the odds of having two on board - or it was someone he knew, who he hadn't thought he had to fear. An odd shape among the dead man's robes caught Vail's eye, and she pulled back a fold to reveal a short, slim pistol, conveniently placed so that it would be easily accessible, but not visible through the material while he was standing. She carefully drew the weapon from its place. Makros finally caught up, rounding the corner at speed as Liela stepped aside to avoid being run down.
"What happened?" he barked. Vail simply leaned back, giving him a clear view of the body. Then she stood and looked to Liela.
"Would you escort trader Makros to the bridge," she asked, "and see that the captain understands the situation." Liela nodded, while the trader looked confused.
"What for?" he asked. "You don't think I did this?" He seemed genuinely surprised at the notion.
"You were the last person to see him alive," countered Vail. "You say you left him alone. And he was probably attacked by someone he knew, someone he wouldn't be wary of." Liela leaned close to Vail for a moment, as Makros glared at the pair of them.
"You don't think he did it?" she asked quietly.
"No," Vail answered, "but with the captain he'll be safer."
"Where will you be?" Vail looked again at the pistol in her hands. It was of very high quality, its supply of bolts fully loaded, but it had none of the functionless decoration that wealthy merchants usually adorned their sidearms with.
"I want to find out a little more about mister Indag," she said. Liela nodded, and set about escorting Makros away from the corpse of the merchant. Vail followed, but turned off the central corridor towards the passenger section.
Liela entered the merchant's cabin to find the contents of his case unpacked on the desk. Vail was busy working on the lock of a second, larger case.
"They should be safe," she said as Vail looked up, "they're not trusting each other an inch. At least nothing will take them by surprise. What did you find?"
"See for yourself," said Vail, pointing at the desk. Liela looked over the scattered items. Travel plans, rations, various robes and other assorted clothes. The assassin's eyes widened as she spotted something out of place. She picked up the metal symbol, shaking the thin chain free of the robe beneath it. She knew the shape - Vail had one just like it.
"Indag was an Inquisitor?" she asked. Vail nodded, still trying to open the other case. Her Inquisition codes hadn't worked, which in itself would have been a clue. By arrangement with the Mechanicus, the Inquisition could override any legitimate access code system in the Imperium, except those issued by the Inquisition itself. "Here," said Liela, activating the sword gauntlet on her arm. The uncooperative lock was sliced away in an instant, causing the case to spring open. Inside was a collection of weapons, each one of the same quality as the pistol Vail had found on the Inquisitor's body - needle pistols, grenades, even a stripped-down boltgun in several pieces.
Vail reached inside the case and took a small capsule from where it was clamped, just inside the lock. She held it up to the light, and caught a glimpse of a tiny fragment of crystal inside, suspended in a stasis field being projected by a delicate unit built into the base of the capsule.
"What is it?" said Liela, peering at the capsule.
"Holy relic," said Vail, calming herself. She had never even seen one of these in person, let alone touched one. "It's a fragment of the blade from the Emperor's own sword. They're said to carry his power inside them. Very rare."
"How did he get it? Who was he?"
"Ordo Malleus," answered Vail, "a daemon hunter."
"He was an Inquisitor," repeated Vail, "he must have come on board to follow his target." Makros threw up his arms and stomped away, so far as it was possible on the cramped bridge.
"Of course!" he barked, "the bloody Inquisition. As if we didn't have enough trouble!"
"He's not going to cause you any trouble right now," said the captain, whose temper with the trader had apparently been put to the test during their brief co-existence on the bridge.
"There's still a killer on this ship," said Vail, "and it's one who could kill an Inquisitor. That's not easy, even if he wasn't expecting an attack."
"We don't even have enough people left to search the bays again," said the captain, "how are we going to stop this?"
"We don't have to search," countered Vail. "The bomb was made after the ship took off, correct? Otherwise the dock scan would have picked up the explosive. It had to be assembled after we left Orien."
"Right," agreed the captain.
"So the killer is on board," Vail continued.
"We know that!" exclaimed Makros.
"And," Vail ignored the interruption, "the bomb was placed during the flight. You were on the bridge at all times, captain."
"You!" screamed the trader. He lunged towards the captain, but was blocked by Liela, who surprised him by grabbing his arms and twisting them a fraction short of breaking.
"It wasn't me!" the captain protested, "I was almost killed when that thing went off!"
"I know," said Vail, "but someone must have come onto the bridge and placed the bomb. There aren't any security locks on the ship, not that you'd need more than a static charger to get around. Was anyone else on the bridge, captain?"
"No," he said, genuinely confused, "no-one." Vail looked over to Liela, hoping for another idea. "Well," said the captain, "there was the missionary, but no-one else." Vail's head snapped back around to stare through her helmet's eyes at the captain.
"What?" she said, in a low voice.
"The missionary?" repeated the captain. "He came up just after we left dock, to give a prayer for the voyage. They always do it, whenever there's one on board." Makros, who had stepped away from Liela, made an angry noise and disappeared out of the door.
"Damn," said Vail, breaking into a run. She could hear Liela right behind her.
"But he's a priest!" said the captain as they raced out of the bridge.
Vail reached the door to the missionary's cabin just in time to see it close. She had heard a noise a moment earlier, but had been unable to identify it. She flattened against the wall on one side of the door, Liela following her lead on the other, waiting for a moment, listening for any noise from inside. At a signal, Vail turned and kicked the door inwards, allowing Liela to dive through. Vail followed, making herself the more obvious target. If someone inside had a weapon, she at least was armoured.
The scene inside was not something she had seen the like of before. On one wall, surrounding the small porthole, was an eight-pointed star, painted in blood. The source of the blood was presumably the Logis, whose body was laid out below it, painted with symbols as if on a sacrificial altar. Something seemed to be consuming his flesh, his body wasting away to nothing without any visible cause. A scattered pile of bionics in the corner indicated a similar fate for the Tech-priest, and the body of the Inquisitor was in the middle of being prepared in the same way the Logis had been. Over it stood the missionary, one hand clamped on Makros's face, the other on the handle of a vicious-looking curved blade which protruded from both sides of his neck. He released the body, which crumpled to the deck, and turned to face Vail.
"Too late," he hissed, his voice changed from its earlier unassuming tones. Although no psyker, Vail had learned to recognise the slight bending of light that accompanied a manifestation of psychic energy. The missionary was covered with it, making him seem a shade darker than his surroundings, as if in his own personal shadow. He lunged towards Vail, slashing with the blood-covered blade. He was unnaturally fast, and Vail barely had time to dodge, let alone counterstrike.
"What in the Emperor's name!" The missionary drew back, his eyes locking on the captain, who stood in the open doorway, stunned. The arm holding the blade drew back to throw it.
"Get down!" shouted Vail, at the same time as the captain snapped out of his momentary shock and hurled himself sideways. The blade left the missionary's hand, spinning end over end, then shot sideways just as it would have passed through the doorway. The captain clawed at it for a moment as it buried itself in the side of his chest, then slumped to the deck. Liela, still in the form of an Administratum scribe, leapt past the body, bringing her phase sword around in a wide arc aimed directly at the missionary's head. He ducked at the last moment and lashed out a hand, the arm stretching as if made of rubber, the fingers growing claws in an instant. The blow connected below the hood of the assassin's robe, sending her crashing back into the desk which had been pushed to one side of the cabin. Through the torn fabric of the robe, the wound could be easily seen, a gaping tear below the jaw, half-severing her disguised head.
Vail brought both fists together, striking at the creature's chest with all her armour-enhanced strength. She heard bones crack, but the flesh seemed to ripple, turning an ugly red, swelling beneath her fists. As the creature shed the last vestiges of human appearance, it lifted Vail by the neck in one clawed hand, staring at her through pure black eyes.
"Enough flesh to sustain me," is said, its voice resonating with power, "I will enjoy you." It smiled, revealing a row of long yellow fangs.
"Want to eat something?" said a voice from behind it. "Eat this!" Liela, once again in her natural shape, leapt up to the creature's height, bringing her arm around in a tightly-controlled arc, burying the point of the phase sword deep in its throat. As she dropped back to the deck she pulled sideways, tearing the side of its neck open and nearly severing its jaw. It dropped Vail and howled in agony, red light spilling out of the wound instead of blood. Even before she landed Vail's hand was on her belt, reaching for the tiny capsule she had attached there earlier. As the creature bent over, clutching at the gaping tear in its face, Vail shoved the capsule into the wound and slammed it hard with her other fist. There was a tiny noise, that should have been inaudible above the enraged roar the creature made, the crack of the capsule's glass as it shattered. For a split second a brilliant pinpoint of light shone from the tear in the blood-red flesh, then a blast of light knocked Vail to the ground.
Pure red poured from the daemon's wound, as it arched back in agony, drawing itself to its full height. It raised its head, giving one last bellow of rage and pain, then it started to dissolve, becoming thin, insubstantial. As it lost its solidity its vapour-like flesh was drawn into the point of light, as if it were being consumed by a vacuum. It barely took a second, then the creature was gone, and a minute shard of crystal fell to the deck, glowing faintly. Vail pushed herself up off the deck, and looked over towards Liela, who had been knocked backwards by the sudden blast.
"I guess I owe you one," she said, "that was a pretty convincing mortal wound you faked there."
"Well," said the assassin, "I've practiced. Anyway, I figure we're even. You killed it."
"Fair enough," answered the Inquisitor, getting her breath back. "One thing, though. Next time we have to travel, I'm waiting for my own ship to be ready."
The tiny transport drifted through the warp, being pulled along by its currents. Not too far away, so far as distance has meaning here, a ripple in the sea of souls showed where something was scanning the immaterium, searching for the lost ship. In realspace, separated from the warp by the width of a thought, an Alliance corvette patiently continued its search pattern, closing in on the ship it was looking for.
"Am I a Chapter Master?"
As the ripples drew ever closer to the Silver Lance the warp creatures scattered, like a school of fish suddenly interrupted in their travels.
The transport, protected from them by its shields, drifted on.
"Emperor's sake, there's a thousand of them!"
"You wanted something harder, didn't you?"