System IGC-23772, Ultima Segmentum
To the Imperium it was nothing, an unsettled system that had never been given a name to replace its entry code in the Imperial Galactic Catalogue. Sometime during the Dark Age an unmanned probe had charted the system, finding a handful of asteroid belts and several gas giants, orbiting an unremarkable yellow star. In contrast to the barren, lifeless void around the system, local warpspace writhed in a storm that reached fifty light years in every direction, making warp travel to 23772 impossible. Without the warp, no ship could make the centuries-long journey.
The Furies had named the system Aventine. Liela stared out of one of the viewports on the heavy cruiser Artemis, her eyes drifting over the myriad activities being carried out beyond. Short-range freighter-haulers were making the trip to the asteroid fields and back, mining and refining the metals they found there. On arrival they docked at a massive construction grid, where the first stages of the station that would house the Alliance headquarters - Star One - were taking shape. Closer, in one of the smaller drydocks, the framework of a new heavy cruiser, the second Castalia, glittered beneath a swarm of construction craft.
Liela's eyes found their reflection in the dark steelglass viewport, her own face traced in barely-visible lines of light and shadow staring back at her. And you, the reflection said, what part of this are you? Remember how it was once, when the mission was the only consideration. There were targets, and they were neutralised. And now it's all different. For many to live, sometimes one must die, but they are no longer targets. No matter the reason for their death, they are people, and people can't be neutralised. You have to kill.
Was it any better, she countered silently, being nothing but a weapon? I killed just as many, and the only difference was that I never asked myself why. Knowing that, sometimes, the survival of the many required the death of the one, but never asking myself whether it was this one. If it has to be done, is it better to be a sword wielded by someone else's hand?
And now you control yourself, the reflection told her mind, and when you kill you must accept the responsibility.
Despite all the trials, the years of endless training, screening, it seemed that being an assassin had been easy. Being human hurt.
Liela turned away from the viewport, hearing a sound from behind her. Despite her mood she found a smile as Inquisitor Vail's face appeared around the side of the door leading off the observation deck.
"We're needed," she said, and disappeared again. With a sigh, Liela followed.
The archive chamber of Artemis was a massive cylinder, thirty metres tall and as wide across. In its centre, supported by a bridge jutting out from the curved wall, was the control station, where Commander Warfield now stood. Vail and Liela crossed the bridge quickly, as the door out of the chamber disappeared behind the massive hologram floating just away from the wall. The chamber disappeared as the image strengthened, showing nothing but blackness for a moment until stars blinked into view. Warfield turned as a planet zoomed into sight ahead of the control station.
"This is Praesidium," she said, "the only habitable world of its system, population fourteen million. For the last five years the system's governor has been diverting funds from Imperial tithes to expand his own forces. Our agents have informed us that Governor Konnor intends to launch an invasion of the nearby Ulti mining colonies within the next month." The planet scaled back to a dot, and an asteroid field not far from the system was highlighted instead.
"Does Terra know about this?" asked Vail.
"The Senatorum sanctioned an assassination four months ago. No contact has been made with their agent since he entered the system shortly after that time."
"Who?" asked Liela.
"Salis," answered the Commander, "of the Callidus temple."
"I remember him," said Liela thoughtfully, "he was one of the best. Not at all careful, he'd kill his way in and out, but he always managed."
"Not this time," added Vail.
"No," continued the Commander, "not this time. The Officio Assassinorum referred the case back to the Senatorum, and they have yet to review it. In the meantime, Konnor's Planetary Guard is already stationed on his system fleet, and could make the jump to warp space within days. If they attack the Ulti colonies the Merchant Guild will blockade the Praesidium system; they have enough armed ships to do it. Trade in the sector will shut down, and the Imperium will have yet another weak spot for its enemies."
"Excuse me for asking," said Vail, "but isn't this a military matter? What are we supposed to do against an invasion fleet?"
"I thought you'd ask that," said Warfield, turning back to the controls. Praesidium reappeared ahead of them. "What we couldn't understand was how Governor Konnor believed he could openly attack the Guild without drawing more attention to himself. Instead of falling back into line after the failed assassination, he's practically inviting a repeat. And he doesn't have enough ships or troops to hold Praesidium and Ulti at the same time. Either he withdraws from the Ulti colonies as soon as the Guild blockades the Praesidium system, or the Guild can sail in and take Praesidium armed with nothing but a laspistol. Governor Konnor, whatever else he may be, is not a fool."
"The planet's defended in some other way?" asked Vail. Warfield nodded.
"That's what we guessed. The Avenger recorded this during a long-range scan three days ago." At the touch of a button the image of the planet was replaced by a square of its surface, almost a mile across by the scale at its side. At the edges were traces of greenery, a forest, but for the most part the land had been cleared, and a canyon had been gouged out of it. Heavy machinery lined the sides, mining equipment, termite borers and earth-movers. Out of place among these were Chimeras, enough to carry a hundred soldiers, forming a perimeter around the excavation.
"Archaeotech," said Liela.
"Dark Age, Eldar, maybe older," continued the Commander, "we have no way of knowing. Based on our scans of this site, it was discovered right before Konnor began to mobilise his forces for the Ulti invasion. We think it is most probable that he has found some sort of defensive system that will allow him to hold the world without having to give up Ulti. Your job is to get down there, find out what's buried on Praesidium, and neutralise it. If Praesidium is undefended, Governor Konnor won't dare launch his invasion."
"I remember the world," said Vail, "isn't it inside the Astra Telepathica intruder web?"
"Yes it is," answered the Commander, "another reason why we can't just send a cruiser to blow the jump drives off Konnor's fleet and be done with it. But we've had a bit of luck there." She turned and tapped another button, replacing the archive hologram with a standard projection, showing the interior of the ship's docking bay. Centre screen was occupied by a sleek silver transport, its unbroken lines gleaming in the light. Where it widened at the rear, just outside one of its twin engines, a blaze of colour stood out from the chrome hull, a bird rising on wings of fire. Alisha Selene, phase-spanner in hand, appeared from one side of the image.
"Are the tests positive?" asked Warfield. Alisha nodded, and gestured at the transport with the spanner.
"Absolutely," she answered, "I've added a second layer of psionic scramblers to the main deflector grid, and made a few adjustments to the resonance buffers on both sides of the main hyperlight projector core, which should cut down the field emissions." She stopped for a moment, noticing their expressions. "It's got a cloak that will fool the intruder web," she explained.
"How soon until you're ready to launch it?" asked the Commander.
"She's ready now," answered the engineer. "Ladies," she added, to Vail and Liela, "the Phoenix is yours. Try not to scratch the paint."
Alliance Transport Phoenix, en route to Praesidium
"Do we start with the excavation?" asked Liela. Vail shook her head.
"No, I don't think there'd be any point. Look here," she added, pointing to an enhancement of the scan image of the site. "Tracks from more Chimeras. I'd guess there was a force at least twice the current size stationed there not long ago, but they're not there now."
"They're pulling out?"
"And look at the vehicles that are still there," Vail continued, "they're all from the regular armoured groups. According to Terra's records the governor of Praesidium has his own armoured group, the Shield Guard. If they're not there I'd guess Konnor isn't either. I think he found whatever he was looking for down there, and he's moved it somewhere else."
"Any idea where?" asked Liela, concentrating on aligning her shredder's crystal. Vail shrugged.
"Not really. There have been heat flares in the upper atmosphere all over the place, from ships coming and going, but Praesidium's a busy planet for freighters so that might not be unusual. I haven't seen any sign of any important transports moving to or from the system fleet, so I think Konnor's keeping his surprise planetside for now. We'll know more once we're there. The satellite system is one of the old EM wave grids, so we should be able to sit in orbit and do some scans without being seen."
"Have you ever run across this sort of thing?"
"Archaeotech? Once or twice. Strange bits and pieces are always turning up, mostly on hive worlds. Nothing much, but sometimes it attracts the attention of the Arbites, and they call an Inquisitor in because they don't know what's going on. That's generally just left-over weapons from old layers of the hives. Sometimes a scout or a trader will find a crashed explorer ship on a frontier world, that's when the Mechanicus jumps in. Some of those ships have Dark Age tech still intact, maybe even fragments of STC data. I found Princess in one of those ships, crashed on a planet out beyond the Lifeline gate. I think some of the tech adepts might have suspected there was something missing when they got to the crash site, but they weren't about to ask an Inquisitor." Vail busied herself for a moment altering the transport's course slightly as they passed the Praesidium system's outer navigation marker.
"What about Salis," she asked, "how would he have tried to get to Konnor?"
"Standard," answered Liela, "replace someone close to him, kill the target, fight his way out."
"Not very subtle."
"Salis wasn't. But he could fight. Probably the best the temple had, he'd trained in every facility the Officio has. He must have been detected before he reached the governor. Perhaps Konnor used some sort of identification system that a Callidus can't get around, but I can't think what that would be on a world with this level of technology. The Mechanicus has some bioprint scanners on Mars that can tell the difference, but here?"
"Maybe he was careless."
"Could be," mused Liela, "he always assumed he could fight his way out of anything he got into. He always had in the past."
Praesidium, Segmentum Solar
The Phoenix slipped into orbit, unnoticed by the distant surveillance drones that surrounded the planet. By the standards of space travel the planet's orbital paths were crowded, but this still left most ships outside visual range of each other. Miles below a steel ring encircled the planet, glittering in the starlight. Massive cables, surrounded by structural force fields, stretched down towards the planet's surface, the paths along which huge cargo crawlers moved up and down.
"ATC," said Vail, running her hands across the scanner controls, "air traffic control. If the governor wanted to move his entire bodyguard group he'd need transport vehicles, yes? Probably something like the Devourers the Imperial Guard used to use."
"So we look for large transport aircraft?" asked Liela.
"No, they'll be scan shielded, but you can't fly that sort of craft in crowded skies, and Praesidium has more air traffic than most. So Konnor would clear the skies in front of him whenever he moved his group."
"Can you break into the ATC system?"
"Easily. It's a civilian network, there won't be the same safeguards a military system has. Konnor won't use standard flight path orders, anyone would be able to see where he was moving. But if we compare the flight patterns currently," she brought up a second scan of the hundreds of aircraft running errands over the planet's surface, "with all the recorded flight path requests, there'll be an airspace gap where Konnor's aircraft have gone."
"The excavation site's being abandoned," commented Liela, scanning the area of the planet that had been observed before, "there's barely a dozen vehicles still there."
"I know where they're going," said Vail. She pointed to a space on the air traffic display that was noticeably devoid of aircraft. "Nothing here, yet there aren't any public orders to keep away from the flight paths that cross that space. I'd say Konnor's people have access to the ATC system at a higher level, so they can shunt flight paths around without the controllers even knowing."
"Where is it?" asked Liela.
"The night side," answered Vail, "curious. It's exactly opposite the first excavation."
"Not a crash site then," guessed Liela.
"Very unlikely," answered Vail as the Phoenix began its descent, "but I checked the Terran databanks for colonisation records of this sector, and they're all gone. Most of the worlds within twenty light years of here had reverted to feral or feudal societies by the time the Crusade got this far, and no-one's really sure how advanced the original colonies were."
"Advanced enough to have planetary defence?"
"That was the Dark Age. Only the Mechanicus knows what they had back then. You hear stories that make it sound like magic."
"I've seen what the Mechanicus has, I don't think even they know what had been built that far back. There could be anything down there."
The clean ion drives of the Phoenix burned without light as the ship set down half a mile from the collection of civilian and military transports that had landed in the desert. Massive floodlights cast an eerie glow above the dunes, and the distant sound of engine turbines echoed across the sand. Liela stood on the peak of a dune and looked towards the landing site while Vail unloaded her equipment.
"They're moving fast," the assassin reported, handing her digi-lens to Vail as she reached the top of the dune.
"We've got five hours of night left," said Vail, leading the way back to the Phoenix, "then sunrise and they'll see the ship for certain."
"Not a lot of time. Travel time there and back, plus infiltration and dealing with whatever we find there."
"We can pick up a bit of time," said Vail. She walked up the low ramp leading into the cargo bay and emerged towing a sleek jetbike, which hovered quietly behind her. "It's shielded," she continued, "so we can get through their security scanners."
"Just the one?" asked Liela.
"Get on," said Vail, powering up the flight controls and swinging her leg over the bike's seat, "I'll drive."
Konnor watched as his technicians unloaded equipment from their transports, piling it onto antigrav platforms as fast as they could. He was not a large man, but he was heavily-built, with wide shoulders that gave the impression he was continually flexing his muscles. He had the look of someone used to giving orders and having them obeyed without question.
"As we thought," his chief adviser was saying, "the complex is identical in layout to the Kalatar Province site. Our search teams are five levels down, but we have secured the nexus chamber."
"How long?" asked the governor.
"The team leader reports that the defences have been neutralised. The same systems as we found at the other site. It's safe to proceed now."
"Very well, see to it that they get there," said Konnor, indicating the technicians, "and have a squad of Guard meet me at the main ramp. I'll go in now and see to the preparation of the chamber personally."
One of the technicians loaded a biotronic scanner onto its antigrav, then sidestepped around the edge of the transport it had come from and disappeared between the rows of vehicles parked near the floodlit entrances to the underground complex. Liela had resumed her usual appearance by the time she found Vail.
"Konnor's here," she reported, "he's going inside the complex. I heard one of his people say they had gone down five levels."
"Big complex," said Vail.
"There were some sort of defences as well," continued Liela, "but they knew about them from the other excavation. It sounds like the two are identical."
"Makes sense, I suppose. Possibly an STC installation, built to the same plan. Where's Konnor now?"
"He said he was going to the main ramp, and then to the nexus chamber, whatever that is."
"Best we find out. I've been running passive scans from here, it looks like there are three areas that have been blasted open." Vail brought up a rough map on a compact version of an auspex. "This one must be the main ramp, it's large enough to fit vehicles and that's where most of the activity has been. This one might be useful," she said, pointing to another, "but it's heavily guarded according to the thermal scan. I think our best bet is here." She indicated a smaller area, quite a distance from either of the others. "It's not such a large opening, but I think it leads down into the underground, and there aren't too many people around it. With any luck we can find Konnor once he's inside."
"Well then," said Liela. She reached over her shoulder and pulled out her shredder, hearing the tiny whine of power as the crystal charged itself. "Ready?"
"Ready," said Vail, locking the laser cell into a needle pistol, "let's go."
There were two guards standing with their backs to a metal cylinder half a metre across which stood in a trench dug by heavy machinery. One heard a whisper, like a soft breeze, then collapsed as a serum dart buried itself in his neck. The other clutched at his leg for a moment, finding a thin needle embedded in it, then slumped to the ground next to his companion. Vail and Liela approached the cylinder cautiously.
"Some sort of venting system?" asked Liela. Vail made a quick scan of the area with her auspex, then directed the device down the cylinder. It extended down as far as the attached flashlight reached, vanishing into seemingly bottomless darkness after that. The shaft had been capped with a lid, made of dull black metal, which had been tossed to one side by whoever uncovered it.
"There doesn't seem to be any artificial airflow," she answered, "but it might just be inactive. There's a connecting shaft a few metres down. You brought the rope?" Liela unwound a length of thin cord from around her shoulder, as Vail placed a charge clamp on the inside of the shaft. There was a brief whine as the clamp bonded to the metal, then Liela looped the end of the cord over it, checking the strength of the clamp.
As promised, a lateral conduit connected with the shaft several metres below ground level. Liela swung herself in, then scrambled ahead as Vail followed. Light shone from up ahead, through an opening in the side of the conduit.
"This doesn't look like an air shaft," said Vail, peering through the hole. It opened into a corridor, at floor level. Liela slid out of the conduit and checked both directions, then waved Vail out.
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"No grille over the opening," said Vail, "and the conduit had grooves on the inside surface, did you notice?" Liela had noticed, but had thought nothing of it. "Perhaps some sort of maintenance system," Vail continued to herself. She dismissed the thought and looked at her auspex.
"The passive scan isn't very clear," she said after a moment, "there's a lot of metal down here bouncing the image around. I don't want to try active scan, the governor's guard may have some sort of scan detector set up to counter those defence systems they found. This way, I think." Liela followed Vail's direction, finding a junction at one end of the corridor. Five others disappeared into darkness, lit at irregular intervals by a hazy yellow light from the ceiling.
"Which way?" the assassin asked. Vail looked at the auspex, but it was still having trouble.
"This thing's no use," she said, "there must be some alloy in here interfering with it." She glanced down each of the corridors in turn, using the scanner's basic functions to turn it into a night-sight telescope of sorts. She caught a hint of movement from one of the corridors, and steadied her view. Again, a shadow moved.
"Movement," she said, pointing ahead. Liela nodded and darted forward into the shadows, her synskin fading from black to the dull grey of the corridor walls. Half-invisible in the darker sections of corridor, she moved ahead without a sound. Vail followed, keeping her eyes both on the end of the passageway and on Liela herself, ready for any sign of trouble.
Liela reached the end of the corridor without incident, and carefully peered around the corner. Vail saw her step forward to get a better view, then her arm came up and waved for the Inquisitor to join her. She did so, and stopped dead when she saw what was beyond the corner ahead.
The corridor took a right angle, then almost immediately opened onto a massive shaft, fifty metres across. A thin walkway ran around the edge of the shaft, other corridors running off it at intervals. It was the centre of the shaft that drew attention, however. A huge column of steel, so intricate that Vail could not see half of its detail, ran down the exact centre. Above, the column split into thousands of strands of metal which wound their way into the ceiling of the shaft, disappearing among a mass of energy conductors and relay conduits. Vail glanced down, and saw a large gantry twenty metres below, on which a number of the governor's guard stood, watching over the technicians who were clustered around the column. It passed through the centre of the gantry and vanished, as the shaft dropped down further than the light from above could reach.
"How far down do you think this goes," whispered Liela. Vail glanced at her auspex, which was performing marginally better in the open space.
"I can't scan the bottom," she answered, "who know?"
"It can't go all the way, can it?" the assassin asked. "The other excavation was exactly opposite this one."
"That's impossible," said Vail, "no-one could build something like that, not even in the Dark Age. It'd have to pass right through the core." She couldn't help wondering, but returned her attention to the gantry as more guards appeared, followed by Governor Konnor. The technicians hurried to complete their work, then stood back out of his way.
"I can't quite hear what he's saying," said Liela. Vail activated a sonic pick-up in her auspex, and the sound of Konnor's voice emerged from her earpiece.
"He's asking if the technicians have finished whatever they were doing," she relayed for Liela's benefit, "now he wants them to enter the core access codes."
"What does that mean?"
"I don't know. He's telling them to prepare to disconnect the neutron accelerator chamber." The governor went silent, then approached the column and placed his hands on it, his head tilting forward.
"What's he doing?" asked Liela. On the tail of her words a rumble of power echoed through the shaft. Tiny lights began to play across the surface of the central column, then the column itself began to pulse, the tiny electronics that formed it moving against each other. It reminded Vail of something organic, as the entire surface of the structure writhed in a complex pattern. The lights swarmed across the column, converging where it passed through the gantry.
"None of the technicians are operating anything," said Liela, "it can't be a mind control, could it?"
"Maybe," wondered Vail, "but he'd need tremendous mental discipline to operate it. Even the Mechanicus Lords have trouble with those system for non-psykers. I've never met a governor with that sort of training." The centre of the column was glowing with light now. Konnor raised his head, then quickly took a step back. All at once the entire structure seemed to heave, the electronics twisting around each other in a single mass of movement, then the light died. Where the column met the gantry, there was now a large bulge, where conduits had warped around each other to form an oval-shaped device. The technicians rushed forward, disconnecting the device's links to the rest of the column.
"The power readings on that thing are incredible," whispered Vail, showing Liela the screen of the auspex. The tiny bar indicating potential output had topped its scale.
"They must already have one of those, from the other site," said Liela, "so they're taking them both somewhere. Get back to the ship," she continued, turning to Vail, "track whatever transport that thing goes on. I'll stay close to it and find out what they're doing with it."
"Be careful," Vail cautioned, "he's already killed one assassin. Don't be the second."
"I'll see you later," said Liela, "I promise. Now go." Vail nodded and disappeared back the way they had come. Liela continued to watch the activity below, silently uncoiling a rope as technicians and guards began to drift off the gantry below.
Governor Konnor watched for a moment as the stasis chamber containing his prize was loaded into a specially outfitted Chimera. The vehicle backed slowly up the ramp into the cavernous hold of a heavy cargo transport, escorted by a dozen Planetary Guard. Konnor boarded his own Chimera just as the ramp was swinging shut, not noticing one of the Guard glancing out of the transport towards him.
The transport lifted off with a roar, gravitic thrusters fighting all the way as it lurched into the air. Surrounded by smaller, faster troopships it swung around towards the horizon, where the first glimmers of dawn were approaching, and fired up its main turbines for the journey ahead.
The Phoenix shadowed the small fleet from low orbit, watching as the transport eventually set down on one of the many landing pads connected to one of the giant orbital tethers. The cable's massive cargo crawler was waiting at the bottom of its path, and Vail guessed that it would shortly be carrying Konnor and his artefacts into orbit. She set the Phoenix to silent running and waited, monitoring every signal she could find from the planet below.
In the organised confusion around the landing pad, no-one noticed a single guard slip into a storage bunker. Liela discarded the guard's bolter and assumed the form of one of the facility's service technicians, who were moving all over the landing pad on a variety of errands. Without being challenged she followed the stasis chamber at a discreet distance, watching as it was escorted into the loading centre for the cargo crawler which towered above the other buildings. Outside the loading centre a flight of troopships was setting down, and Liela turned her attention to the platoon of Planetary Guard that emerged, heading for the centre. She recognised the emblem on their uniforms: these were the Shield Guard, Konnor's personal bodyguard unit. They vanished into one of several smaller entrances in the loading centre.
Rade Mak Oulor paused briefly, thinking he had heard a noise behind him. He glanced over his shoulder, found the corridor empty, and continued on his way. As he walked through the loading centre towards the crawler gate he adjusted the isolation layer just under his uniform, rechecking its seals. He was not naturally paranoid, but the thought of being required to go EVA in orbit gave him a strong interest in making sure his suit was properly prepared. He was in the middle of running a gloved finger around the inside seal of the helmet in his hands when someone cleared their throat behind him. He turned, wondering if one of the techs had forgotten to give him part of his support equipment.
His life up until this point had not been particularly varied. He had served the required two year term with the Guard as soon as he had finished schooling, and finding that it was not too taxing a life for him he had stayed on. He was not inclined to socialise, but the uniform attracted attention, the Shield Guard more so, and his comrades had often dragged him off to some bar in whatever city they were posted in to try his luck with the ladies. The woman who now stood in front of him made him forget the others, even the dancer in Calva City he had become quite attached to. She smiled invitingly and gave a little toss of her head, beckoning him forward. His brain momentarily sidelined from the decision-making process he took a step forward, and met Liela's fist coming in the other direction.
"Sorry," she said as she dragged him to a maintenance hatch and bundled him through, taking a moment to memorise and copy his face. She took his helmet and rifle, but decided there wasn't enough time for the rest of his isolation suit, hoping that she would not be required to use it. She knew she could make her synskin airtight if necessary, but it would be too obvious if she were forced to do so.
She came to the end of the corridor and found herself in a staging area, where the rest of the Shield Guard unit were filtering in from other doorways. Beyond a steelglass airlock she could see the walkway leading out to the cargo crawler, their apparent destination. In the distance she could make out three other walkways leading into the crawler, and through the airlocks at their ends she could see moving shapes, more Shield Guard. One of the distant airlocks folded open and the squad moved onto the walkway, weapons ready.
"Green light," called one of the soldiers surrounding her - she saw his shoulder for a moment, recognising the insignia of the squad sergeant. The rest of the squad formed into two lines, awaiting inspection. Liela waited for a moment as the lines began to form, then headed for where there seemed to be a gap that no-one else was filling. She copied the stance of the soldiers on either side of her, holding her rifle, a bolter with a grenade launcher, in front of her. The sergeant walked up and down the small ranks, then took a step back to address them all. As one the unit fell into an at-ease position, weapons by their sides. Liela was only half a second slower, and no-one noticed.
"Alright people," said the sergeant, "you've done the training, you know the drill. This time it's for real, so keep sharp. Alpha team, you have point duty. Beta team," at this he turned towards Liela's half of the unit, "you'll attach to the Governor's unit after deployment. Move out!" The soldiers began to move, one by one, through the airlock which had opened for them, heading in single file towards the cargo crawler. Liela kept her position in the line, eyes darting around, searching for the Governor on one of the other walkways. She caught a glimpse of another unit starting towards the crawler, and saw a distant figure that might have been Konnor for a moment before the hull of the crawler got in the way, cutting off her line of sight.
The cargo crawler rose slowly out of its ground cradle, picking up speed as it passed through the structural force fields that held its cable in place. Massive gears locked into place on the cables and turned, as a series of gravitic reactors hummed into life, pushing the crawler away from the ground. The loading gantries retracted into the walls of the crawler's pit, clearing the way for the machine to lift itself on its journey to the planet's orbit.
It was forty minutes later that the crawler slid noiselessly into place in its orbital cradle, its engines whirring to a halt as huge mechanical claws latched it into its dock. Automatic systems extended gantries to the crawler, connecting it to the cargo ring that stretched all the way around the planet. Around the other tethers freighters and tractor shuttles swarmed, but on this section of the ring there was no movement, except the cannon turrets of a dozen Planetary Guard patrol ships, which swung back and forth, scanning space for intruders.
Liela followed her team of guards as they left the crawler's passenger bay, thankful that their seating for the trip to orbit had been sufficiently isolated to discourage conversation between the soldiers. The team leader led them through the corridors of the cargo ring, towards the outer docking platform where, though a viewport, Liela caught a glimpse of the patrol ships waiting for their passengers. She kept silent as the squad boarded its ship, disappointed not to see Konnor. Her anxiety was alleviated as the squad settled into the grav couches on the ship, and the speaker in her helmet crackled into life.
"Team leaders, report status," said a voice. She heard several of the leaders, including her own team's, report that their troops were secure and ready for launch. The voice then ordered communication channels between the soldiers to be left open, and went silent.
"Brace for launch," said another voice a moment later, presumably the ship's pilot. Liela was pushed back into the couch as the ship blasted away from its dock, accelerating until it reached its cruising speed. The g-force lessened, and the other soldiers coughed and wheezed as their stomachs ceased complaining. Liela was used to the inadequacies of older inertia systems, which tended to respond sluggishly, but she guessed that the rest of the team had not experienced it for real before now.
"Five minutes to docking," said the pilot's voice. Liela felt the ship begin to turn, and peered out of the tiny steelglass porthole beside her, hoping to see its destination. She caught a glimpse of another ship, immobile in space, but nothing else. "Final deceleration," said the pilot, and the squad braced itself as the ship slowed, the inertia systems countering the motion better than they had the more extreme thrust of the ship's launch. When the engines fell to a background hum the team leader stood and motioned the soldiers to prepare. Liela quietly made her way to the rear of the group as they prepared their weapons.
"Move out in five," said the team leader, as a clang echoed through the ship, followed by the dull thump of an airlock sealing outside. Liela reached behind her back and felt the reassuring weight of her shredder as it slid into her palm. She quickly swung the weapon around and fired it, in a low-powered sweep that covered the entire passenger section. The soldiers collapsed to the deck, unconscious in an instant.
"Pressurised," said the pilot's voice, "deploy when ready." Liela felt inside her helmet and removed the compact communicator, discarding the helmet and bolter. She swiftly moved through the bodies of the soldiers and stood in front of the airlock as it slid open, revealing an iris door on the other side which opened a second later. Liela stepped through, feeling a slight loss of balance as she moved from the ship's gravity field to that of the structure it was docked at.
She stood in a corridor, a perfectly circular tunnel except for the floor, which was barely a metre wide. There were no airlock controls, no markings of any kind. Ahead the corridor tilted upwards, disappearing as its angle took it beyond her line of sight. The airlock iris hissed closed behind her, and she wasted no time in putting some distance between herself and the ship, listening to the communicator for a sign that the ship's crew had discovered their sleeping cargo.
The corridor continued, straight but for the upwards curve. The gravity seemed to follow the angle of the floor, so that Liela still stood upright even when she guessed she was at right-angles to the ship's airlock far behind her. After a hundred metres or so she found a slim ladder leading up into a hatch in the ceiling, and climbed into a small chamber, a viewing platform of some sort with three large oval windows looking out into space. She looked back over her shoulder to see the patrol ship, but of the structure it had docked at there was no sign. She wondered for a moment whether it had detached, and glanced down, peering over the edge of the window to try to see the structure's hull. She shook her head, confused - even where she should have seen the corridor directly below her, there was nothing but empty space. She ducked down through the hatch briefly, confirming that the corridor was still there.
"Command, this is transport gamma," came the pilot's voice from the communicator, "our team is unconscious, we have not deployed."
"Why not?" This was Konnor's voice. "What happened?"
"Unknown, Command," answered the pilot, "they don't seem injured. Perhaps a malfunction in the inertia dampers, we're running tests now."
"Understood. All teams, alert one. Be advised that nexus units one and two are in place, primary shields will be activating now. Transport gamma, detach and return to base. All other units prepare for loss of refraction shields." Liela listened carefully, and was about to drop back down the ladder when she caught a glimpse of movement from outside. She looked up, but it was only the patrol ship firing its thrusters, undocking.
Then, just as she looked up, space shimmered in front of her. As if a cloak were being pulled back the blackness peeled away, revealing a tapering silver arm reaching up to the ship, ending in a conical airlock module. The corridor she had traversed was visible among massive support pylons, bending down from the airlock and passing beneath the viewing platform in which she stood. Liela turned slowly, looking down in the direction she had been travelling.
In front of her, where there had been only vacuum, there was now a giant glittering wheel in space, a fortress a mile wide. Its central tower rose like a monolith above banks of defence turrets, a dozen connecting pylons reaching out towards docking arms like the one she was in. Below, through gaps between the pylons, she saw more weapons, massive racks of warheads, the dark muzzles of railguns, and the gleaming contacts of beam weapons. Her eyes followed the central tower, noticing two protrusions halfway up its height, almost hidden by the masses of power cables running off them, and the row upon row of shield generators protecting them. At the top of the tower was a gleaming silver dome, where figures could barely be seen moving in the light.
Liela dropped back into the corridor and set off at a run towards the centre of the fortress, no longer bothering to keep up the appearance of the soldier she had ambushed. After a moment she emerged from the docking arm to find herself in a massive gallery that curved away to both sides, seemingly running the full perimeter of the structure. Diamond-shaped viewports faced out into space, staring past the barrels of turrets. Liela paused for a moment, taking a closer look at the weapons, but they were only familiar in their apparent purpose - she had never seen their type in the Imperium. Wasting no time she sprinted along the gallery until she found a corridor running further inward. From here on in the place was a maze, but she had had good practice of keeping her bearing.
She passed section after section of empty rooms, control stations of some sort, until she came to a sealed doorway. No corridors had branched off this one for some time, and rather than double back on herself Liela raised her hand to the smooth metal of the door. With a flick of her wrist the phase sword flashed into existence, slicing through the metal effortlessly. A moment's work provided a hole large enough to get through.
The corridor on the other side was dark, and Liela found she could see only by the light from the broken door behind her, which faded after a few metres. She was about to turn back to find another way, when something caught her eye. She peered at the side of the corridor - the wall was not flat, as she had first thought, but a series of tubes, each one almost half a metre across, and running from floor to ceiling. She took a step closer and activated her shredder, cycling a tiny charge through its crystal to provide some light, and found herself staring into the black eyes of a metal skull. She took a step back in shock, then calmed as she realised the thing was inactive. She looked closer at it again - yes, she had seen this thing before.
"All teams, be advised main power is coming online now," said Konnor's voice, through the communicator still in Liela's other hand. There was a hum of power, then the corridor lit up. Liela looked along it, and saw more tubes, stretching off into the distance. She noticed that the deck was a metal grille, and saw another corridor beneath her, identical in every way. Looking up she found another above, and another. As far as she could see, in every direction, row upon row of Necrons waited in silent sleep, their eyes blank, metal arms folded across their armoured chests.
Ahead, in the distance, she saw a slight glow, and she ran towards it. After passing untold hundreds of mechanical warriors she arrived at a vertical cylinder, much like the one she had seen on the planet. Instead of the single column there were dozens, each one passing near one of the doors that led into the shaft. Liela leaned out of the doorway, looking up, and nearly lost her balance as gravity disappeared. She quickly pulled herself back, then tentatively edged forward again. Just as she was on the edge of the deck, almost in the seemingly bottomless shaft, she felt the edge of the gravity field. She looped one arm around the nearest of the columns and pulled herself away from the door, floating out slowly as she passed completely out of the gravity field's hold. She looked up again - there was a bright light at the top of the shaft, and her sense of position told her she was below the dome she had seen earlier. She pulled herself up the column, finding that she needed only set herself in motion to keep floating up.
She rose silently past deck after deck of silent Necron tombs, steadying her flight occasionally as she drifted too close or too far away from the column. She counted twenty levels of the warriors, then the decks were filled with larger, wider tubes - a different kind of warrior, she guessed, her experience with the machines was limited to a few brief encounters. After ten decks of these the tubes disappeared, replaced by row after row of vehicles, large and small, all resting silently, waiting for their pilots. It was a further sixteen levels before she slowed her ascent, nearing the dome. Voices echoed down the shaft, and Liela pushed herself away from the column, catching a handhold on the wall instead and slowly easing herself upwards. Each of the columns ended with a platform at their top - elevators, with their own gravity fields by the look of the projector plates mounted on their underside. Liela caught hold of one of them and swung herself up, fighting down a slight nausea as gravity took hold halfway through the move.
"Governor," said a voice from above her, "we have a reading of an airlock opening on tower three." Liela found herself beneath a circular platform, twenty metres across. The elevator shaft was directly below it, and walkways from each of the elevators led to wide stairways, curving upwards. Liela cautiously made her way to the nearest stairway, shredder ready.
"Check that," came Konnor's voice, "what do sensors show at that airlock?"
"Sensors show nothing, sir," said the other voice. Liela silently climbed the stairs, peering over the edge of the platform above her to see Konnor, surrounded by technicians. The governor stood in the centre of the platform, below a black sphere that hung from the top of the dome high above. Vapour-like strands of energy were running from the sphere, playing over the deck, but Konnor seemed unconcerned by them, and they seemed to cause him no harm when they touched his shoulders. The rest of the platform was covered by control stations of all kinds, around which the technicians were clustered.
"Visual on that airlock," said Konnor. A hologram shimmered into being on the dome wall behind him, and Liela looked over his shoulder to see the Phoenix nestled up against one of the docking arms. Konnor turned and looked at it, then turned back and activated a comm receiver on his wrist.
"All patrol teams, intercept hostiles boarding from tower three. Lethal force." Liela glanced at the nearest technician and copied him, as Konnor turned to another of them. "Give me a targeting matrix for the gauss pulsars," he said. Liela stood up straight and stepped onto the platform as a target appeared on the hologram, locked onto the Phoenix. The other technicians glanced up at her, but made no protest as she walked past them towards Konnor. "Fire on my order," continued the governor.
"I'd rather you didn't," said Liela, raising her shredder and firing in one motion. The heat-haze of the weapon scattered against the energy from the black sphere, giving Konnor time to leap to the ground. The technicians stampeded towards the far stairways, but as Liela returned her shredder to its place on her back Konnor stood up slowly, calmly, keeping the sphere's downward energy arcs between himself and the disguised assassin.
"Who are you, then," he sneered as she closed the distance between them, "one of the pacifists? An Administratum saboteur?"
"No," said Liela, letting her phase sword activate again, "I'm an assassin." She slashed down with the blade, but it was blocked as a second blue sword flashed into life, parrying her strike.
"What a coincidence," said Konnor, "so am I." He knocked Liela's sword away and slashed at her head, but she leaned aside to avoid the blow. She took a step back, then lunged at him, but he parried and retreated.
"Salis," she said, "I didn't think you'd get yourself killed by some backwater governor." She parried his sword away and attacked again, but he was fast, regaining his defence too quickly.
"What do you think you're doing?" he snarled, aiming a cut at Liela's arm and missing by an inch, "can't you see what's around you? Don't you realise what this could be?"
"Yes, very good," said Liela flatly, "you're activating an army of machine killers to rampage across the sector. Remind me why?" She leapt over a control console as Salis slashed at her, then spun sideways and lunged back at him as he recovered.
"I can control them," he insisted, "I know how to guide them."
"The Officio will be so pleased to hear that."
"Ha!" he barked, parrying a cut headed for his leg, "they're nothing. You must have realised it, why else would you have left? They're weak. All of them, they live meaningless lives, scurrying through the dirt, full of self-delusion. And they have the arrogance to use us!" He backed away for a moment. "They used us as weapons, as if we were just like those machine creatures. No more! Konnor had no idea what he had, he thought it was just some ancient curiosity, but I knew! I knew what was buried on this world, don't you see? This gives us the power to rule, to break free of all the worthless creatures that have ordered us for so long! You don't need to fight me," he finished, blocking another lunge.
"Why not?" asked Liela, pressing forward, keeping Salis on the retreat.
"You know already," he answered, "that's why you left. We're not like them, we're better. We are the ones who stand in the sky, looking down on the tiny lives below, deciding who lives and dies - we are gods to them! And yet they use us. But now we can fight back, we can take our rightful place, above the lessers! Stop that!" he added, as Liela lunged again.
"You know," she said, recovering and slashing at his arm, "I thought for a moment you were just self-centred and power-hungry, but you're actually insane, aren't you?"
"Very well," Salis said, parrying her strikes and retreating, "if you won't join me, it's your life that's forfeit."
"I doubt it," said Liela, "I'm a better swordfighter than you. I always was."
"Indeed," replied Salis, taking a step back, "but I know something you don't."
"You're not left-handed?"
"No," he answered, stashing at her chest, "I don't fight fair!" Liela raised her sword to parry the blow, but as the two weapons met an arc of electricity leapt from Salis's blade, travelling along Liela's sword and down her arm, covering her body. She fell back, the sudden pain making all her limbs tense, and looked up to see Salis aiming a needle pistol at her neck. For just a moment he was still, then his finger curled around the trigger, the weapon's laser guide flashed on and there was a hiss as it fired.
Liela acted on instinct alone. For the merest fraction of a second she felt the heat of the laser, then she was back in the temple training centre, stretched out on one of the meditation tables, eyes closed, her mind travelling through her body, sensing every curve, knowing every cell. Without thinking she let her instincts control her, running through the steps she had been taught, never stopping to plan, but letting her body shape itself. The synskin covering her neck tore as the needle dart punched through, but ahead of it the skin opened, forming a tiny hole. Liela's subconscious mind worked at a feverish pace, allowing cell bonds to stretch and contract, feeling herself flow like water. The hole closed up after the dart, opened again ahead of it, and the film of synskin on the back of her neck tore as it passed through. There was a tiny metallic noise as the needle dart embedded itself in the console behind her.
For a moment she was still, her mind still catching up to her instincts. Then she rose, one hand grabbing Salis by the shoulder, the other punching into his chest, feeling the slight resistance as her sword cut through him in one swift motion. He stared at her, wide-eyes.
"I was always better at shaping, too," she said. Salis opened his mouth, but his words died as he did, collapsing backwards, the sword cutting up through his shoulder as he fell. Liela deactivated her sword, then carefully did the same to Salis's, which still glowed beside him, cutting slightly into the deck. She unclipped the phase generator from around his arm, and was about to turn to leave when a noise from behind her made her pause.
The black sphere glowed for a moment, purple, then red, the blinding white. Tendrils of energy leapt from it, running over Salis's body. Liela leapt aside, but one of the energy arcs caught her, and the rest followed, immobilising her in a cocoon of light. The dome faded from view, and she found herself floating in darkness, no weight, no stars, not even herself. She tried to speak, but there was no voice, no mouth to form it.
She felt the presence of another mind, which she had only ever felt before during the routine telepathic scans that used to follow each mission she performed for the Officio. This was so much stronger, though, that she tried to pull away from it, but she could not. She glimpsed images, memories not her own. Gleaming cities, thousand of miles of beautiful towers and pyramids, their jewelled surfaces shimmering in the sun. Graceful, perfect beings, a civilisation at the apex of its life. A civilisation under threat, but unwilling to exterminate its enemy to save itself. Blackness descending, sleep, until nature had run its course.
"Who are you?" she tried to ask. She felt herself try to speak, but no words emerged. Nonetheless, the mind seemed to hear her.
You know us as Necrontyr, it said.
"The Necrons?" More images flashed through her mind, her own memories this time. She saw the machine warriors stalking across the battlefield, flaying their enemies as they went. Scarabs swarming forward, claws and wings cutting and slicing in an endless tide of death. The Lords, watching as their enemies crumbled. And as she relived these, she felt the mind watching it all. She felt its horror at seeing its technology used to destroy, felt its shame as it saw the metal bodies turned to engines of warfare. Finally the memories vanished, and there was only sorrow.
This is not our way, it said. Liela felt the mind recede, then nearly fell over as she found herself back in the dome. She looked up to the hologram that had shown the Phoenix, but it had vanished. As she watched, all the controls died, the power flowing out of them. She looked through the transparent dome, inspecting each docking arm in turn, finally finding the one at which she could barely make out the silver hull of the Phoenix. As she watched, she saw a flicker of movement from the fortress's hull. She watched as row after row of the turrets turned, swivelling to face inwards.
Go, said a voice in her mind. She looked up at the sphere above her, but it was as dark the rest of the dome, the energy that had played across it gone. Taking a final look at the body of Salis, still in the form of the Governor, she headed for the nearest stairway, clasping his sword gauntlet around her other arm. Remembering her communicator she retrieved it from her belt and, after slipping into the elevator shaft and pushing herself downward, she managed to switch it to function on the frequency she knew Vail would be listening.
"Can you hear me?" she asked. The device crackled for a moment, then answered.
"I'm a little busy at the moment," Vail said, the sound of bolters nearly drowning her out, "where are you?"
"Get back to the ship, I'll explain later."
"Will do." Liela gave herself another push from the column she was following, counting the decks quickly as she passed them. Above her, one by one, the lights vanished from the storage decks.
She sprinted around the gallery corridor, hearing the sound of bolters as she neared the docking arm the Phoenix was attached to. She quickly resumed her earlier appearance of one of the soldiers, and rounded the bend to find almost a dozen crouched behind armoured shields, firing into the docking arm corridor. The nearest turned to see her approach, waved her behind the shields, and turned back. She waited until she was close enough, then activated both swords and shifted into her natural form. By the time the next pair of soldiers heard their companions stop firing Liela was among them, blades flashing. She heard more firing, this time from the docking arm, and set about driving the soldiers away from it. After a moment they fell back, the survivors scuttling backwards behind their shields. Liela turned to see Vail step out of the corridor, armoured and carrying a pair of storm bolters.
"We're leaving," said Liela, taking her arm and hurrying back along the corridor. Vail didn't question, sprinting beside her, dropping the storm bolters.
"Low on shells anyway," she explained as she ran.
"New armour," commented Liela as she passed a ladder like the one she had found earlier in the other docking arm.
"Had it finished before we left," answered Vail, "you like it?"
"Very attractive," Liela said, seeing the inner airlock iris open ahead of her. She and Vail ran through, and immediately headed for the Phoenix's command deck. Vail was at the pilot controls as soon as she had taken her seat, and Liela felt a slight tremor through the deck as the ship drifted away from the airlock.
"I was going for functionality," said Vail, steering the ship away as the main engines came online.
"It can be both," answered Liela. She watched the fortress, shown in one of the pilot console's screens, as the ship picked up speed. There was a flash from the central tower as its weapons fired, vaporising the command dome. The two modules to its side tore apart, severing the remains of the dome from the rest of the tower. Level after level of the tower exploded downwards, shattering into dust until the blasts reached the main body of the structure. Another row of turrets fired, tearing up the hull and beginning a wave of destruction that flew outwards from the fiery remains of the tower. The fortress core exploded in full, throwing debris above and below it as the blasts reached the docking arms. Fire trailed along each one, tearing open the corridors and breaking the support pylons into nothing but scrap metal. Finally the remains of the blast burned itself out, and the debris field darkened as it passed into the planet's shadow.
"Would you mind telling me what on Terra that was," Vail asked, turning in her seat as soon as she had switched the ship to silent running. Liela looked at the screen for a moment, then switched it off. "For that matter," continued Vail, "where did you pick up another sword?"
"Set the autopilot," said Liela, "I'll tell you on the way home." She got out of her seat and headed back to the small passenger section of the transport, Vail following a moment later.