The Source

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THE SOURCE

A Warhammer 40,000 Novella

By

Richard Swan

PROLOGUE
‘Heresy is like a tree; its roots lie in the darkness whilst its leaves wave in the sun, and to those who suspect nought, it has an attractive and pleasing appearance. Truly, you can prune away its branches, or even cut the tree to the ground, but it will grow up again ever the stronger and ever more comely. Yet all awhile the root grows thick and black, gnawing at the bitter soil, drawing its nourishment from the darkness, and growing even greater and more deeply entrenched. Such is the nature of heresy, and this is why it is so hard to destroy, for it must be eradicated leaf, branch, trunk and root. It must be exorcised utterly or it will return all the stronger, time and time again, until it is too great to destroy. Then we are doomed.’ - Inquisitor Lord Galan Noirgrim, Master of the Ordo Malleus, prelude to the Abominatus INS Black Manticore Ultima Segmentum 02:35 (Ship time) 60.982.M41 ~Murder~ It was dark. Onboard the Mars-class battlecruiser, not a soul stirred on the barracks decks. The four thousand Imperial Guardsmen, reserve regiments awaiting deployment, knew the importance of sleep. Spread either side of the kilometre-long gangway, two ranks of lockers and cots stretched, each containing a sprawling Guardsman. A cacophony of light snoring filled the air, interspersed with a few mumbles from the deep sleepers. Rigorous drilling and unrelenting exercise had certainly taken its toll on the men; enough to make sure they had at least one good night’s sleep before the looming planetfall. They made the most of it, all too aware that it would be the last decent rest they would have in a long while. Not even the usual whispered conversation or the dull glow of a torch concealed under a blanket disturbed that night’s sleep. On the levels above and below, it was not so peaceful. The upper decks, consisting of lavishly furnished state rooms and luxurious mess halls, were crammed with officers, commissars and tacticians, going over final preparations and tactics, event scenarios and orders. On the lower decks, the thousands of ship hands and crewmen were readying the cruiser for the move to low anchor and disembarkation – refuelling landers, arming support craft, checking bulkheads, the vast engines, and the many weapon systems. On the bridge, the officers of the night shift sat, each with steaming mugs of caffeine, watching consoles and charts with tired eyes, making minor adjustments to the ship’s anchor, maintaining communications with the other ships of the battlegroup. Barracks decks aside, the ship was as busy as it was during its day cycle. No thought was spared to the thousands of sleeping Guardsmen, recharging their aching muscles for the coming deployment. In the minds of the crewmen and officers, they had it easy. Sleep was a luxury seldom afforded to the members of the Imperial Navy, and the garrison were often begrudged for their perceived excess of slumber. The fact that many of them would be going without rest for the next month they were planetside wasn’t even thought of, and that most of them wouldn’t even return was considered even less so. It was fair to say that on that particular night cycle, the Guard were held in particular disregard by the remainder of the Manticore’s occupants. ***

It was just after half past two when Trooper Greaves awoke. In the few blissful seconds before he realised where he was, he stretched, content in his lethargy. He felt the reasonably soft white sheets over his vest, weakly gripped the olive-green sleeping canvas around his waist, and pulled it up to his chin, lazily drifting in and out of consciousness. Then with a horrible pang of adrenaline, his mind registered the two flanking cots, the dulled ceiling lamps clinging to the network of pipes and grilling five metres above his head, and remembered. He remembered that he was now an Imperial Guardsman, no longer a civilian stable hand back on his home world. He remembered that he was a member of the 141st Imperial Hussars regiment, recruited not two years ago to combat the enemies of the Emperor. And he remembered that he was currently on a nine-kilometre, Mars class battlecruiser, holding high anchor above a Tyranid-infested world he had never heard of, preparing for disembarkation on the turn of the next morning cycle. Annoyed that he was no longer in his bed at home, like his dreams had promised he was, he opened his eyes, unwilling to sleep. His thoughts wandered, from his recruitment to his parents, waving him goodbye whilst he sat on the hard wooden bench in the back of the cargo10, heading for basic. All so distant now, too distant. He had been on this cursed ship for eight months whilst it transported the regiment to Illythia Prime, an agri-world somewhere on the Eastern Fringe, and had hated every moment of it. It was a commonly discussed maxim that Guardsmen never saw their homeworld again, but any world would have been fine for Greaves, as long as he didn’t have to board another ship again. Sighing, he swung his legs out of bed, feeling the cold, metal grilling dig into his feet. He walked to the gangway, hearing his knees crack with the new movement, and headed for the nearest chemical toilet. Either side of him, Guardsmen in various levels of attire lay spreadeagled on their mattresses, breathing peacefully. Greaves envied them to the point of hatred. He reached the cubicle at the nearest intersection of the gangway. To either side, plunged in darkness, were two doors, currently open. Thinking nothing of it in his lethargy, he pulled open the door to the toilet, and began to relieve himself. A second later, strong hands grabbed his throat. A rag was stuffed into his mouth. He felt urine soak into his legs as he struggled briefly, before something sharp and metallic was plunged into his kidneys and lower back repeatedly. It had to be a dream. Even as hot, sharp pain exploded through his body, he felt he could see himself from above, squirming in slow motion, his head swimming in a fanciful, otherworldly state. He continued to observe, tasting salty tears, feeling warm blood soak into his vest. A million miles away, the knife wormed its way into the base of his spine. He watched, sluggishly intrigued, as it twisted. The sickening crack snapped him from his obscurity, seconds before his legs went limp.

PART 1 Chapter 1
“In every man there is a sense of duty, whether it be apparent on the surface, or buried deep in the dark corners of his soul.” ~ Extract from ‘Imperial Verses vol. I’

INS Black Manticore Ultima Segmentum 06:44 (Ship time) 60.982.M41 ~The Demands of Duty~ Fleet Admiral Kursk arrived on the bridge of the Manticore in a foul mood. As the doors hissed closed behind him on concealed pistons, he took in the wide amphitheatre consoles and fresheyed crewmen, and scowled. ‘Report!’ he snapped, arriving at the command pulpit. He gripped the brass railing beneath his white velvet gloves, turning his hands slightly as if he were wringing a neck. ‘The preparations for planetfall are complete, sir,’ his First Officer, Hyrgen said, snapping smartly to attention. ‘The Guard are in the process of falling out. Disembarkation should go through as planned.’ Kursk scowled. ‘Unlikely,’ he remarked, releasing the railing and turning to what the crewmen referred to as ‘The Throne’. It was a simple command dock, with a large, ornate chair, surrounded by pict displays and whirling holoscreens. Kursk gathered up the folds of his navy blue trench coat and sat down heavily, exhaling as he did so. He was certainly not a young man; pushing eighty, with a shock of white hair and a frail, arthritic form. He had been in the Imperial Navy for seventy years, starting as a lowly cabin boy and working his way to the top in what made for a fantastic story. A story which he was less than inclined to ever tell anyone. ‘I want half-hourly reports on the disembarkation,’ he continued, once satisfied with his seating arrangements. ‘And keep the long range auspex scanning. I want absolutely no surprises this morning. No splinter groups, no stray ships, nothing. Those damned xenos had better get it through their ugly heads pretty quickly that this ship, at least in their eyes, is indestructible. Understand?’ Everyone nodded. There were a few grunts. 'Good.' He settled back into his chair, flicking through the messages warranting his urgent attention, whilst the crewmen busied themselves with their duties. They knew the mood – it was the same before every move to low anchor. Kursk hated it because it put them much more comfortably within the range of surface-to-orbit ballistics. The various ship sounds took over the bridge, replacing what had been a dull thrum of conversation before the entrance of the Fleet Admiral; various beepings of the consoles and the distant metallic clamours from the lower decks; staccato bursts of vox chatter and the whine of servitors crammed into the bridge’s sub-deck, drifting up through the metal grilling of the floor. To a stranger, the cacophony would have been extremely prominent and annoying; but to the crew, who had spent the majority of their lives in the amphitheatre, it was akin to

silence. They continued about their duties in relative quiet for a further ten minutes, whilst Kursk finished reviewing his morning cycle picts. Then something shattered the calm – an expression of disbelief rarely heard from the Fleet Admiral. A gasp. Kursk, the staunchest, most foul-tempered man this side of Segmentum Solar, was holding a dataslate with a worried expression adorning his face. ‘Helms, when the order comes through, take us to low anchor,’ he said tightly. ‘Low anchor, aye sir,’ came the response. Kursk nodded. ‘Mr Hyrgen,’ he continued, ‘come with me please,’ *** They marched down the arterial walkway, heading away from the bridge and towards the upper deck state rooms. Hyrgen almost struggled to keep up, slightly amazed at the turn of speed the small old man in front of him could produce. They carried on past the planning chambers and into the first of the mess halls, where plush cerulean carpeting and wood-panelled walls greeted them. Kursk brought them up short at the large oval dining table centring the room, and pressed the dataslate onto its varnished surface, looking at him expectantly. Hyrgen picked it up, scanning the green letters and numerals lining its surface. By the time he had finished, he too looked worried. ‘Another one?’ he asked simply. Kursk nodded. ‘That makes eleven this week. Eleven killed or missing. I don’t think I need to emphasize the gravity of this situation.’ ‘No sir,’ Hyrgen said. He watched as Kursk turned away from the table, walked away for a couple of paces, and turned back around again, gripping the edge of the hardwood. ‘We can always expect a few deaths amongst the garrison, Clemens. Horseplay that gets taken too far, a prize-fight here and there, an accident on the ranges.’ ‘Aye sir,’ Hyrgen nodded. ‘But eleven?’ Kursk hissed, incomprehension screwing up his features. ‘The eleventh man reported AWOL in eight months? It’s a big ship Clemens, but it’s not that big. Someone is killing these men, and I think it’s high time we found out who. Nobody has a clue, and as of yet nobody has had the inclination to get a clue.’ There was a pause, before the Fleet Admiral sighed. He pulled out a chair and sat down, signalling Hyrgen to do likewise, and it was in that moment that the First Officer could see just how frail and tired the Admiral really was. Usually, most Captains by now would either be heavily augmented, or integrated into the ship in a marriage of flesh and machine. Since Kursk was neither, the ravages of mortality were taking their toll on his fragile body. It wouldn’t be long before he had to choose whether he accepted an eternity as part of the Black Manticore, or whether he chose to be retired on the nearest Imperial world and replaced. Hyrgen couldn’t even begin to fathom making such a choice. ‘It’s not so much the Guard I’m worried about,’ Kursk carefully explained, ‘it’s the morale.

Sitting at high anchor, or low anchor or whatever, for months at a time is dreadfully dull, even I’m prepared to admit that. The arrival of the Guard does have its benefits. But something as foul as…well, as far as we can see indiscriminate murder, can make a man scared to do his duty. Imagine, Clemens, if on the way to your station you had to traverse several dark gangways. Would you be inclined to do that if you knew there was a man – or group of men – on the loose, killing at will?’ Hyrgen shook his head slowly. ‘Of course you wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. It needs to be destroyed at its root, before this ship – the lynchpin of this battlegroup, ceases to function. And I’ll be damned if that happens whilst I’m in command.’ Hyrgen nodded again, unsure of what to say. Kursk took the dataslate back off the table. ‘141st Imperial Hussars,’ he remarked after briefly searching the screen. ‘Either someone has a grudge against this regiment, or there’s something else at work here none of us are familiar with. Whichever it is, a non-regimental investigation is required. I think duty demands we do at least that.’ ‘Who did you have in mind?’ the First Officer asked, leaning forward slightly. ‘An Inquisitor?’ ‘Heavens no, man, an Inquisitor has better things to do. Besides, don’t you think the presence of an Inquisitor would drive our quarry further underground?’ He paused, taking a deep breath. ‘Actually, I had in mind a certain Commissar.’

Chapter 2
‘Praise the day the Emperor gives you work, for you shall soon lament the day when he does not.’ - Inquisitor Brochs, ‘Reflections’
Farrax-Carthage naval port Ultima Segmentum 21:14 62.982.M41

~Charter Pending~ It was the same dream again. Not a nightmare, for he no longer had nightmares. For a dream to be classified as such, it would have to reach beyond the nightly plague of ghostly faces; beyond the taunts and whimpers and cries of rage and hatred that had blighted his sleep since his enrolment in the Commissariat. No, it was not a nightmare. Just a dream. It started in the desert, as it had done for the last twenty nights. There was a man with him, a familiar man. Lieutenant Julian Codey, of the 15th Vargonroth. They were both dying of thirst. A few moments later, Codey’s head split open, down the middle, from an apparent gunshot wound. When he checked his hand, he found himself holding the pistol responsible. He dropped the pistol and tried to staunch the bleeding, every time without success. His hands scooped clumps of ruined brain back together, but they simply dissolved through his fingers. Rotten black flesh and grey matter bled from the horrific wound, drooled onto the sand and turned the whole desert ebony, as if transformed by the flick of a switch. Above, the sky turned thick with gunmetal thunder clouds, and chaotic vortices whirled into life, each one screaming and cursing his name. Seconds later, Codey’s chest opened up, a gaping cavern filled with blackened organs and ringed by stained, broken teeth. Flies poured fourth from the spasming cadaver, surrounding him with their incessant buzzing, filling his mouth, his eyes and ears and crawling up his nose and – Drenched in sweat, Commissar Albrecht Vandemarr woke with a start. *** After taking stock of his surroundings, he slid out of bed and made his way to the small kitchen unit on the other side of the room. He searched irritably in a few stained cabinets, and eventually pulled a bottle of amber ethanec down and placed it on the counter. He then found a tumbler in the rusty sink, poured himself a generous measure, and knocked it back, grimacing as the strong, spicy liquid worked its way down his gullet. He shook his head, and slammed the tumbler back down on the side. He was angry. Events had certainly not turned out the way he had wanted them to. After filing for a transferral from the 15th Vargonroth twenty days before, he had found himself only a short while later living in a miserable basement hab-cell of an Imperial port – quarters a gun-deck slave would turn his nose up at. The walls were marked with great, pale yellow stains where a colony of mould had been steamed off. Everywhere was rust and grime. The bed linen was old and had been sprinkled with anti-vermin powder, the refrigeration unit worked only intermittently, and the lighting was on a ten minute ration timer. His night vision had never

been so good. He poured himself another glassful of ethanec and took the three steps back into the bedroom. The noise of heavy machinery worked its way through the thick concrete ceiling and into the hot, stuffy room; heavy hydraulics pumping and grinding away above, swinging docking clamps and arms, engaging the massive warships and attaching fuel hoses and rearmament conveyers. It was a miracle he managed to sleep at all. He drained the second glass and slumped backwards onto the bed, his attention briefly caught by the multitude of scars marking his torso – adornments from a lifetime of battle. Then his frustration returned, and he dropped the tumbler on the bedside table, amongst the leather wallet containing his identification, and a small black commcaster. To be disregarded by his former CO with such callous abandon infuriated him. The very mention of his transferral request had been enough for his deposition on the nearest port to the battlegroup – a lifetime of service forgotten overnight. It was perhaps inevitable that many had come to view him as something of a loose cannon after the events involving Captain Garrick and his somewhat chequered court martial. In fact, they were probably glad to be shot of him. Transferrals were, after all, notoriously difficult to successfully pursue. He let out a long, slow breath. It was unbearably hot in the hab-cell, and the air seemed heavy and close. Had his whereabouts not been known to the Commissariat – who were, he suspected, more than content to let him slide off their radar – it was likely that he would be almost impossible to trace. He could die then and there and no-one would know for weeks. Such morbid thoughts were routine now. He had hit a low point he didn’t think possible. If the Commissariat didn’t find him a nearby unit to link up with soon, it was likely he’d be forced into a penal regiment – a proposition which only made him angrier. He was better then that. He knew it, and his superiors knew it. He sighed, and grasped the ragged canvas that passed for his blanket, pulling it up to his hips. A second later, the commcaster bleeped into life next to him, the noise sending a painful shot of adrenaline through his guts. He sat up quickly, grabbed the unit from the table and thumbed it on. ‘Commissar Albrecht Vandemarr?’ came a dreary voice, made tinny and nasal from the static. ‘Yes?’ Vandemarr replied, feeling his heart rate increase slightly. ‘Gortlémund Administratum sector 797/2G, re-routed from Office of the Commissariat, Department of Imperial Justice, Kalen Primo. You have a comms pending from the INS Black Manticore, 702nd Ultima Segmentum battlegroup. Will you accept? ’ ‘Yes,’ he snapped impatiently. The background wash increased half an octave, and a barely audible pre-recorded message filled the earpiece. ‘Commissar Vandemarr, this is Senior Communications Officer Grippen of the INS Black Manticore, 702nd Ultima Segmentum battlegroup. Fleet Admiral Kursk requests an immediate audience. Mission details deemed unsafe for broadcast. Collection point Farrax-Carthage naval port, 62-64th, 982, dock C9/a. Charter pending. End message.’ The line dropped back to its original tone, and the static reduced. ‘Repeat transmission?’ the infinitely bored Administratum clerk asked. But Vandemarr was already out the door.

Chapter 3

‘There is a terrible darkness descending upon the galaxy, and we shall not see it ended in our lifetimes.’ - Inquisitor Czevak on Tyranids, at the Conclave of Har

Illythia Ultima Segmentum 17:32 (local) 62.982.M41

~Illythia~ As the sun dipped slowly to the west, they came. Preceded by blood red streaks of atmospheric dust and fingers of striated cloud, the advance horde moved forward with a single purpose; to overwhelm and destroy the beleaguered Imperial defenders. In the sky, leathery-winged gargoyles clawed through the air, screeching and hawking and bringing to bear their terrible fleshborers. On the ground, hundreds of gaunts and genestealers tore across the once fertile plans of the agri-world, churning the fields and irrigation canals into a tangled mudscape. Lieutenant Karl August was in the planning and operations tent when the alarms sounded. Old brass horns wailed into life like the death moans of some wounded beast – a sound every Guardsman posted on the continent had learnt to fear from their first day. With a quick glance to the other men surrounding the table, he picked up his lasrifle and jogged though the doorway. Outside, hundreds of Guardsmen were running through the camp to the frontline trench, worried expressions marking many of their faces. Helmets were hastily thrust on heads, fresh magazines were slammed into rifles. The alarms were louder outside, piercing what would have been a peaceful summer’s evening on Illythia’s second largest continent. Shouts and orders rose above the rhythmic clamour, directing men and armour. In font of him, a junglepattern Leman Russ rumbled past on its giant tracks, its driver scanning the lines with a pair of magnoculars. August exhaled sharply and fell into step next to a squad of 18th Bavarian Rangers, running

down the arterial access passage to the camp’s primary trench. Behind him, the thick, rolling booms of artillery opened up, huge barrels of self-propelled guns and Basilisks recoiling sharply and raining down high explosive death amongst the fast approaching horde. As he approached the line, he could hear them above the panicked cacophony of the stronghold – the shrieks and screeching and chittering of a thousand soulless aliens, full of irrational, indiscriminate hatred. Above, the first of the fleshborers rained down, hitting the ground with sickening wet thumps and scuttling rabidly into the mud. A Bavarian next to August was hit in the chest, and he writhed and screamed in pain as the beetle scurried into the folds of his chest cavity, pulping his heart. He sank to the ground in a flurry of blood, his dead eyes bulging from their sockets in frozen terror. ‘Keep moving!’ August shouted as some of the younger men faltered, already horrified by the attack. It was the second test of their defences that day, and many of the greener troops had already had their fill of the horrors of Tyranid warfare. He reached the trench whilst the first of the horde’s runners were still half a kilometre out, but above the sky was thick with gargoyles and their intolerable keening. The phosphorescent blue of high energy las fire filled the air around him, crackling and hissing as hundreds of Guardsmen fired wildly into the sky. The chopping of a heavy stubber boomed on to his left, its thick, loud shot perforating the dense, electrically-charged air and bringing down several of the proximate aliens. Their ruined, ichor-drooling forms flapped and spasmed frantically as they plunged into the ground, before they were shot to pieces by the Guard lining the trench. August looked to his left and right, but there was no sign of his regiment, the 141st Imperial Hussars. Bavarian Rangers, instead, surrounded him, their accents and mannerisms almost as alien to him as the Tyranids themselves. He planted his feet on the duck boarding lining the base of the trench, and rested his lasrifle on the firing shelf, more concerned with the now very close gaunts than the gargoyles above, which seemed to have shifted further west. Now, it was the Termagaunt’s fleshborer rounds that hissed past and slapped into the rear trench wall, sending clouds of dirt into the air and signalling the start of the ground exchange. August muttered the Litany of Benediction as he pulled back the trigger of his lasrifle, and sent a string of loosely-aimed shots towards the xenos. To the uninitiated, it would have been a terrifying sight to behold. The gaunts, slavering, wretched beasts with great scythed talons, needle-sharp teeth and mouths pulled back into constant and frightening leers; and the genestealers, bipedal, four-armed humanoids, with rigid, bony spines and powerful muscular legs. They clawed and pushed over each other like squabbling siblings, drooling manically and scrabbling across the ruined earth, soaking up the thousands of hard rounds and las shots being poured at them and advancing on their defiant quarry. Next to August, a Ranger took three fleshborers in the chest and cartwheeled backwards, his thoracic cavity draped over the rear trench wall like some bloody marionette. Further down the line, a belt feeder for one of the heavy stubber nests’ neck exploded, and warm carotid blood ejected from the torn flesh in regular gouts. He struggled to control his breathing as the unbearable chittering increased, like the squealing, un-oiled cogs of some gigantic grain thresher. Sweat drenched his fatigues as he fired more frantically. Another Ranger dropped, his face bursting out the back of his skull like a bloodfilled water balloon. One of the few Hussars in the vicinity fell clutching a messy stomach wound, slippery intestines drooling from the fresh cavity and collecting in a pile on the floor. Something was wrong. Usually these advance hordes were stopped in their tracks by a simple ballistics exchange; but more fleshborers were hissing into soil and flesh, and the aliens were getting closer – much closer. Vox chatter filled his ear, indecipherable overlapping signals cramming the net with orders and

requests. August quickly fixed his bayonet, and awaited the inevitable wide-band broadcast; ‘All lines prepare for close assault.’

Chapter 4
‘It is a sad thing, time; too much and one becomes frivolous; too little and one becomes overburdened. It is for that reason I no longer wear a watch.’ - Inquisitor Brochs, ‘Reflections’
INS Varagar Ultima Segmentum 09:32 (ship time) 63.982.M41

~Human Again~ Through the metre-thick porthole thrust into the side of the hull, Vandemarr watched the approaching cruiser, and below it, the fertile green orb that was Illythia. Both were magnificent; one, a whole world ripe with life, thousands of kilometres of rich farmland forming one of the many breadbaskets for the Western Mordant Zone; and the other, a thousand yearold battleship, furnished with ranks of mighty crenelations and spires over a proud golden hull. He made the sign of the Aquilla, and sat back into the uncomfortable harness-rigged bucket seat. The charter had turned out to be a Navy frigate, rearming at Farrax-Carthage before heading back to support the Black Manticore. Now, however, he was spending the remainder of his journey on a small and entirely uncomfortable short-range shuttle, counting down the hours whilst it waited for the cruiser to manoeuvre back to high anchor. As far as he had been made aware, there had been a drop two mornings previously, on the 60th, and then another on the 61st. There were a few men in the seats opposite him. One, a friendly Naval Commodore by the name of Aleks Hechter, who had engaged him with a rather lively debate for about an hour and then contented himself with a book for the ensuing four; and a civilian man and his young son, who, as far as he could tell, either hadn’t worked up the courage to talk to him, or simply weren’t interested. Vandemarr had occupied himself by re-reading his order slip; but since that was only about fifty words long, and almost verbatim what he had already heard on his commcaster the night before, he had simply stared out the window, bored and unwilling to talk. As he began making a second mental attempt to label everything on the side of the Manticore – fore, aft, the AV cannons, the big bombardment cradles, the disembarkation decks and so on – the brass horn above his head crackled into life, and the various sounds of the bridge fuzzed through into the small personnel hold. ‘We’ve just received word from the SVO that the Manticore has completed its manoeuvres, and so we should be looking at docking within the next hour or so,’ came the tired voice of the pilot. Vandemarr rolled his eyes in silent thanks, and as if the expression had suddenly humanised him, he found himself suddenly accosted by the civilian man. ‘Excuse me sir, I ‘ope you don’t mind my askin’,’ he fumbled in an unfamiliar accent, ‘but what is it that you’ve come ‘ere for? To the ship, I mean.’ Vandemarr looked over at him and the young boy by his side, momentarily thrown off guard by the question. He could see Hechter shift his attention from his book as well, bemused by this new exchange. ‘I am here to…investigate a certain matter,’ he replied, choosing his words carefully – partly due to secrecy protocols, mainly because he hadn’t a clue. He didn’t even know if what he’d said was vaguely accurate. For all he knew, his ‘audience with the Fleet Admiral’ could simply be his transferral order being confirmed in person, before he was stuck on the next drop pod to

the grinder. ‘Ah I see,’ the man continued. He was old, but not by age. Rather, toil and hard labour had reduced the man’s figure to a lean, slightly muscular form, and whichever sun he worked under had left him wrinkled around the face, and his skin leathery and calloused. A typical agri-worker, consigned to the fields for the rest of his life. Vandemarr didn’t envy him. ‘Just bringin’ the lad ‘ere to the ship. The Fleet Admiral says ‘e can take him on as a ship’s boy, runnin’ errands an’ the like, leasts until ‘es old enough to be a ratin’ or summat. The best I can do for ‘im. He don’t want to end up a labourer like ‘is ole’ da.’ Vandemarr watched the man with a slight melancholy. It had probably cost him a lot of money to have his son even considered by a Fleet Admiral, and even more to pay for a naval charter. Decades of a labourer’s wages. In fact, he had probably received the money from some underhive loan shark. ‘A commendable gift,’ the Commissar said, smiling. ‘some of the best Admirals around are ones that started as cabin boys. I cannot think of a better start in life.’ Hechter emphatically nodded his head in agreement, smiling as well. But as he turned back to his book, he caught Vandemarr’s eye, and a grim expression briefly marred his features. Their combined reassurances and words had seemed to cheer the old labourer, but neither man believed in them. A Fleet Admiral would have a lot to do, for hundreds of solid hours at a time, and the boy would have to be very quick, very intelligent and very strong if he was to even survive as a hand. Otherwise he would be condemned to the disease-ridden gun decks in less than a week, working as a slave without adequate food until he died. As he slowly appreciated what the lad was in for, Vandemarr found himself full of sadness. The father, thinking he was doing the right thing, would probably be murdered in less than a year if he couldn’t clear his debts; and the son, a scrawny young lad, not even in his teens, would know nothing of the tough Naval life ahead – which only became anywhere near tolerable above the rank of Commander. To see such a young life, just one amongst billions virtually condemned to death in front of his eyes, was unbearable to a very old and remote part of Vandemarr – a side of him which he had all but buried long ago. It seemed almost alien to him – expressing emotions, even inside his head, concealed from all but the Emperor’s most holy. Even in its weakest form, his sense of moral duty told him exactly what he needed to do. He cleared his throat. ‘I’ll keep an eye on him,’ he said, nodding slowly. ‘So will I,’ Hechter concurred, almost immediately after Vandemarr had finished – having evidently thought exactly the same thing. The Commissar smiled. ‘Why, thank most kindly sirs,’ the old labourer said, relief clear on his face. ‘That’s very good of you – both of you.’ Vandemarr nodded, noting the tears in the man’s eyes. Somewhere deep in his soul, he felt human again.

Chapter 5
‘They have only one purpose, and there is nothing they will not do to accomplish it, no matter how vile or loathsome it might be. These abominations mean to destroy everything proud and noble, everything we hold dear and have fought so long to achieve.’ - Inquisitor Angmar, on tyranids
Illythia Ultima Segmentum 17:37 (local) 62.982.M41

~Brief Encounter~ It happened in slow motion. In front of him, the keening, slavering hormagaunt, its scythe-like talons outstretched, pounced clear of the ground a full ten metres from the front of the trench and shrieked through the air towards him. Without thinking, August brought his lasrifle up and let out a long stream of panicked shots, no longer conserving his ammunition. The fundamental urge to survive the next ten seconds was far greater than any rational foresight of the coming battle. August watched as the searing hot laser bolts lanced through the thing’s chitin armour plating, cauterising the ichor inside and exploding through its spine in clouds of purple; and with the ensuing, ear-splitting wail, suddenly, everything snapped back into focus. In a flurry of screeching talons and claws and flesh, the dying, writing alien slammed bodily into him and knocked him off his feet. He landed hard against the duck boarding, the full weight of the gaunt landing on his chest-plate and knocking the wind from his lungs. ‘Throne!’ He gasped, rabidly battering his fists against its head whilst it thrashed above him. Its bony jaws snapped at his face, encompassing rows of needle-sharp teeth stained purple from its haemorrhaging blood vessels, and talons and claws whickered and snatched at his vulnerable body. One of the scythes dug into the wood next to his head, drawing blood from his cheek; he felt his knee pad become entangled in one of its claws and shove down the length of his leg, ending up over his ankle; a second talon slammed into his shoulder pad, raking through the thick armour and touching the duck board below. August squirmed like a man possessed, adrenaline firing through his body and his heart punching against his sternum. Every second was drawn out into a lifetime, as he lashed out with his fists and feet, punching and kicking with all his strength, knowing that it if he could just hold on, it was only a matter of time before the alien died of its wounds. But it was still taking too long, and his biceps were tiring. Much longer and its teeth would find his face. In one last ditch attempt before he resigned himself to death, he closed his hands around its throat – And recoiled sharply as his fingers pierced the skin of its neck and sank four inches into the flesh below, inadvertently yanking a clump of stringy blood vessels out with them. His hand was smothered and dripping in a green, presumably venomous fluid, and it stank worse than anything he’d smelt. Above him, the gaunt’s shrieking turned to a gurgling, and more purple ichor drooled from its mouth, mixed with the green poison. Seconds later, it was dead.

Sweating and panting, August let his head hit the duckboards, allowing himself a brief moment of relief, before he set to work on pushing the very heavy gaunt corpse off. All around him, las fire spat and whistled through the air, and the larger chopping of heavy stubbers and autocanons boomed further down the line from sandbagged emplacements; but the chorus of screeching was dwindling, and the trench was, as far as he could see, free of gaunts – and Guardsmen. With all the strength he could muster from his painfully fatigued arms, he shoved the corpse to the side, rolled over to grab his lasrifle, and stood up, instinctively bringing the weapon to bear. Directly in front of him, a second screeching hormagaunt was midway through its killing-leap, all six limbs arranged to converge on his upper chest, neck and head. ‘Oh sh-’ he began, but was cut off by a hastily directed burst of stubber fire. Limbs, chitin and ichor splattered into the Lieutenant, followed by the still heavy remains of its thorax, and he hit the back of the trench once more. ‘Throne damn it!’ he shouted, wiping blood from his eyes and firing several rounds into the alien’s thoroughly dead remains. Once he had taken stock of the situation, he calmed his breathing and stood up again, weapon prone. In front of him, Bavarians and fellow Hussars stood on the ground above and beyond the trench, having evidently counter-attacked the small advance horde. They stood in mixed, ramshackle groups where the shift-defenders had been joined by the sudden influx of troops responding to the alarms, kicking alien corpses and tending to the wounded Imperials. There were some human bodies littered about, and other lumps of flesh and gristle that he couldn’t for the life of him identify as human or xeno; but the vast majority of the dead, to his relief, were tyranids. That wasn’t to say, he noted grimly, that there were many alien corpses. The large harvester constructs had recycled the bodies of the dead and moved back to the main horde, retaining the DNA and jellying them in vast underground pools so the genetic material could be used again. August shuddered at the thought, before he recognised his Vox Officer amongst a squad of Hussars twenty metres away. ‘Udray!’ He shouted, hoisting himself out the trench and jogging over. He reached the gaggle of men and wearily returned their salutes. ‘Let’s get some stretchers, up front.’ He nodded across to the wounded. ‘And some fresh water.’ ‘Aye sir,’ the young man replied – small, grimy, wearing a pair of oversized tank commander’s sun goggles. He pulled the mouthpiece from the side of the bulky voxcaster and began making the Lieutenant’s requests. ‘You three,’ August continued, referring to the Hussars in the group, their regimental green jackets smothered in filth and blood. ‘Where’s your CO?’ They looked uneasy, before one shrugged. ‘Not sure sir,’ he said simply. August cursed under his breath. ‘Who’s your CO?’ ‘Uh, Lieutenant Cusken, sir.’ There was a brief pause while he checked the time. ‘You’re not on this watch,’ ‘No, sir.’ August nodded.

‘Find Cusken. Find out your orders. Get some water down you. Understood?’ ‘Yes sir,’ all three muttered. ‘Go on. Shift.’ He watched as they walked off, left with Udray and a pair of Bavarian Rangers. Both sported thick handlebar moustaches and large, bearskin shakos, and spoke in a regional variation of Gothic that had much the same vowel sound as the Hussars’, but a softer edge to the consonants. August listened for a few seconds, before turning back to Udray. ‘Anything?’ he asked. ‘They want you back in the ops tent,’ Udray said, watching as the medics amongst the regiment appeared on the scene with stretcher bearers. August nodded. ‘Where’s the rest of the regiment?’ ‘They’re all in this sector. It’s the Rangers who’ve got it wrong. They’re meant to be waaay further down, on the centre-north line.’ There was a brief pause as the Lieutenant nodded, looking out across the churned fields in front of them. Teams of Guardsmen were piling the tyranid corpses and burning them, sending plumes of stinking black smoke into the evening sky. Two weeks ago and it would have been a very different scene indeed. ‘I’ll have a word with the Captain, see if we can get our distribution sorted.’ He said after a while. In front of them, a chimera with attached dozer blades cleared the burning alien remains into one of the many craters scarring the field. ‘Come on,’ August said, turning back to the encampment.

Chapter 6
‘We are at war with forces too terrible to comprehend. We cannot afford mercy for any of its victims too weak to take the correct course. Mercy destroys us; it weakens us and saps our resolve. Put aside all such thoughts. They are not worthy of Inquisitors in the service of Our Emperor. Praise his name for in our resolve we only reflect his purpose of will.’ - Extract from ‘Book of Exorcisms; the verses of Inquisitor Enoch’ INS Black Manticore Ultima Segmentum 10:59 (ship time) 63.982.M41 ~Arrival~ With a whining, pneumatic hiss, the docking umbilicus of the Varagar attached to the mooring clamps on the side of the Manticore, and the two atmospheres mixed in a fusion of stale and fresh gasses. Oil, engine coolant, ozone, sweat, metal – a hundred smells reached Vandemarr’s nostrils as he, Commodore Hechter, the man and his son walked through the cramped umbilicus and into the embarkation level. ‘By the Emperor,’ the man said, both him and his son equally awed by the sheer scale of the battleship. Though Vandemarr was no stranger to the Navy, the embarkation level didn’t fail to impress. For four kilometres either side of them, ranks of Vulture gunships, Thunderbolt and Lightning attack craft, Valkyrie troop landers and Marauder bombers stretched, manned by scuttling servitor crews and draping fuel hoses and armament conveyances. At regular intervals, a Guard lander depot split the neat lines of atmospheric craft – huge, chunky, almost cubic aircraft each one as big as a hab block. Automated voices echoed from concealed speakers lining the tangle of pipes and wires above, and cargo vehicles hummed across the ground and through the air. ‘Amazing, isn’t it?’ Hechter asked, appearing next to Vandemarr. The Commissar suddenly became very aware of his gawping, and promptly straightened his tunic. ‘Yes,’ he said, smiling at his over-obvious indifference. ‘I suppose it’s…alright.’ He fished in his pocket for his orders and pulled out the foil-thin wafer. ‘Any idea if someone’s coming to meet us?’ he asked. ‘I should imagine so…’ Hechter replied, checking his chrono. ‘Oh. Never mind. It’s eleven o’ clock.’ ‘Why? Did someone give you a time to meet?’ ‘Three hours ago,’ the Commodore said, rolling his eyes. ‘Emperor knows that shuttle was slow. Not to worry, there’ll be a vox around here somewhere.’ He made to move, but Vandemarr caught his arm. ‘Hold on a second,’ he said, nodding towards the nearest accessway. A trio of naval personnel were marching in quick step towards them, all three clad in cerulean tunics and cream breeches. Hechter stepped back, bringing a hand to his chin as he took stock of them. Vandemarr noted that a grin had spread across his face. ‘What?’ he asked.

‘These guys,’ Hechter replied, nodding towards them. ‘You’d think we were under arrest.’ The Commissar snorted as their presumed escort drew up short, snapping off a smart salute. Both he and Hechter returned it, and to their bemusement, the man and his son. ‘We’re here to escort a Commissar Albrecht Vandemarr, Commodore Kurt Hechter and a master Kai Bastian to the Princeps suite,’ said the lead man. He was tall, with cropped brown hair and a prominent nose that angled downwards like a beak. His eyes narrowed on the old man, still in a simple grey labouring smock and woven jacket. ‘You’ve come to the right place then,’ Hechter said, unwrapping some small pink delicacy from a parcel of sugar paper and sticking it in his mouth. The lead man offered a sardonic smirk. ‘I am First Officer Hyrgen,’ he continued stonily, ‘and on behalf of the Fleet Admiral, I welcome you onboard the Black Manticore.’ Vandemarr smiled inwardly. It was clearly a line Hyrgen loathed saying, yet was bound by protocol to wheel it out whenever they had any high-ranking company. ‘I’m sure the pleasure will be ours,’ he said, extending his hand. Hyrgen gripped it. ‘Don’t count on it,’ he said brightly, turning on his heel and heading back down the accessway. Vandemarr rolled his eyes and looked to the man, who was in the process of hugging his boy. ‘You be a good lad now,’ he said, pain straining his voice. ‘Do everything the Admiral tells you.’ The boy was crying as well – Kai Bastian, if Vandemarr had heard correctly. An odd name. ‘If you would accompany me,’ Hyrgen called from twenty metres away, his façade of politeness already wearing dangerously thin. He let the sentence hang. ‘Come on,’ Hechter said. ‘The Fleet Admiral probably has some drinks waiting anyway.’ Vandemarr nodded as he watched the man and his son part ways forever, before turning towards Hyrgen and his ever-withdrawing sidekicks. ‘Suddenly I’m not looking forward to this as much as I thought I would,’ he said, breaking into a jog. *** The Princeps suite was every bit as lavish and expensively decorated as Vandemarr would have expected. Rich, royal blue carpeting with a banner of golden Aquillas covered the floor, and large, deep brown wood panels lined the walls, each one bearing paintings of former Admirals and Generals. The wide, rectangular table in the centre of the room was overhung by a wide crystal chandelier, though it was not turned up to full power, giving the whole room a dark, conspiratorial feel to it. Around the table, a man who was obviously the Fleet Admiral sat, as well as a second, considerably younger man clad in a green jacket and fatigues, with a mop of red hair and a red moustache curling over his upper lip. Hyrgen stiffened slightly as Vandemarr, Hechter and Bastian lined up on opposite sides of the table, and the Fleet Admiral stood up to greet them. ‘My lord, may I present Commissar –’ ‘Albrecht Vandemarr and Kurt Hechter,’ Kursk interrupted, annoyance screwing up his weatherbeaten features. ‘There is no need for an introduction at this point in time, Mister Hyrgen.’ ‘Very good sir,’ the First Officer replied. Vandemarr had to admire him; he contained his frustration excellently. ‘Gentlemen,’ Kursk continued, his eyes momentarily settling on the boy. ‘My name is Aldritch Kursk, Fleet Admiral and commander of the 702nd Ultima Segmentum battlegroup. I hope that

title alone gives you some bearing of how busy I am. We’ve had a very eventful few days planetside, so you’ll forgive me for being a little short with you…’ He paused, leaving his place at the table in favour of pacing the room, hands clasped behind his back. ‘That being said, I suppose you’re all wondering what I’ve called you here for.’

Chapter 7
‘You are not free whose liberty is won by the rigour of other, more righteous souls. You are merely protected. Your freedom is parasitic; you suck the honourable man dry and offer nothing in return. You who have enjoyed freedom, who have done nothing to earn it, your time has come. This time you will stand alone and fight for yourselves. Now you will pay for your freedom in the currency of honest toil and human blood.’ - Inquisitor Czevak, Addressing the Council of Ryanti Illythia Ultima Segmentum 18:02 (local) 62.982.M41 ~That'll be Captain August, sir~ Inside the ops tent, the air was rank with nervous sweat. The majority of the higher ranking Guardsmen – a pair of Generals and a handful of Colonels and Majors – had remained inside the room whilst the attack was beaten off; and though most of them were hardly expected to traipse to the front line with the rest of the footsloggers and risk life and limb for the sake of an advance horde, August could still smell their apprehension. They all looked up as he knocked the entrance flap aside and stepped inside the dingy tent, the only light provided by a single glow globe dangling from a roof pole. The large, olive-green canvas was centred by a planning table, smothered in well-worn maps, orbital photographs, dataslates and other paraphernalia; and around the edges of the interior, banks of communications and radar consoles sat in neat lines, each manned by an earphone-wearing Guardsman. Dull chatter filled the close air. ‘Lieutenant August?’ a voice said. He looked across to find himself accosted by Major Johannes, a short, fat man with the customary handlebar moustache that so many of the Bavarian troops seemed to grow. ‘Sir,’ August replied, deftly catching a small parcel of green paper. ‘You’re being promoted to Captain. Three Company. Captain Tamas was good enough to die for you, so I’d thank him later.’ August stood, taken aback as he unwrapped the parcel. Inside were a pair of epaulettes and a rank slide – one of them marked by a small rust-coloured stain. No doubt Captain Tamas’ legacy. ‘Captain August,’ a new voice said – that of Colonel Taschen, Augusts’ new commanding officer. He felt a thrill of adrenaline prick up the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck at the mention of his new rank. ‘Yes sir?’ he said, clearing his throat. He walked over to the table, peering down at the map where Taschen was pointing. ‘It appears we’re having some difficulty with our distribution,’ he said, sliding his white-gloved finger across the primary trench. ‘The Rangers have drifted too far south, when they should be manning the centre-north line up by Galensbad. It means the Hussars’ one, two and three Companies are being pushed too far towards Dugsdale.’ He tapped the second small hab centre, before withdrawing his hand and picking up his mug of caffeine.

‘Any further and we’re in danger of crossing over the Palden line, and then we’ll start getting shot up by five Company. Plus, it’s leaving the Bavarian Light overstretched on the centrenorth.’ He took as sip and wandered away from the table to a freestanding map – an enlargement of the surrounding area, complete with all the lines penned in red and black. He jabbed his finger at Galensbad. ‘The Bavarians need to shift their arses back up this way, before the enemy makes good his assault and destroys us from the north down. The problem is, they’re not responding to our signals.’ ‘Since when?’ August quickly asked. ‘Since about twenty minutes ago.’ ‘Runners?’ ‘Dispatched, naturally,’ Taschen said, ‘but dreadfully slow. Unfortunately that’s not the point.’ August hesitated, deciding to let the Colonel continue rather than ask the obvious question. ‘The point is that we must fear the worst, and that Galensbad has in fact been overrun and destroyed. In which case, it needs reinforcing.’ August nodded. It initially seemed a drastic move, but he could see the logic in it. To lose contact with a stronghold for such an extended period of time, in the midst of twice-daily tyranid attacks was not something to be taken lightly. ‘What are my orders sir?’ he asked, still unable to shake the excitement of promotion. ‘I want you to take three Company to investigate,’ Taschen said simply, ‘and if necessary, to retake it. I’d make sure you take with you functioning vox equipment, seeing as we’ll be in contact quite a lot. If it has been overrun, we’ll send you what we can by the way of reinforcements. If it hasn’t, I want you to give the Bavarian CO there a kick up the arse so hard he’ll be cleaning his teeth with a boot brush. Clear?’ ‘Yes sir,’ August said, smiling briefly. Taschen paused, checking his chronometer. ‘I make it 18:09 now. Four kilometres - you can hitch a ride with the Chimeras when you reach the Gort line…I’d say, twenty minutes?’ ‘Aye sir, I’d agree with that,’ August replied, setting the timer on his own watch. ‘Let’s say half an hour for rallying and briefing,’ Taschen concluded, no longer interested in the conversation. ‘First contact at 18:40.’ ’18:40, very good sir.’ *** Outside the tent, the air was refreshingly clear. The smell of rain on grass and mud met his nostrils – a hangover from about two hours beforehand, though judging by the clouds on the horizon, it wouldn’t be long before they were hit again. He found Udray smoking a lho stick a hundred metres away, next to a line of Leman Russ

tanks each undergoing servicing of some kind. Techpriests dressed in hooded robes whirred and clicked and intoned words of the Machine Spirit around them, and August watched as he jogged up, pulling a folded, tattered map from his thigh pouch. ‘Udray,’ he said as he approached. The young man turned around. ‘Yes?’ ‘We’re moving out, to Galensbad. We’ve only got half an hour to do it in as well, so get Three Company on me, now.’ ‘Yes Captain,’ Udray mocked. ‘Where’s Tamas?’ ‘He’s dead. I’m the new Captain,’ August replied matter-of-factly. It was then he realised he was still holding the rank slides in his hand. ‘Ah,’ he said, quickly sliding the epaulettes and chest-mount on. Udray did a deliberately dramatic double-take, and let the cigarette slide from his mouth. August scowled. ‘I’m kidding!’ he said, shaking his head and pulling the mouthpiece from the side of the vox caster. ‘Two this is zero, over.’ ‘Zero this is two, go ahead,’ came the crackled reply. ‘Three Company report to vehicle pit, sector one, over.’ ‘Copy that zero. Two out.’ Udray slid the mouthpiece back into its cradle and turned back to August. ‘What?’ he asked, seeing the look on his face. ‘You know you put on a funny voice when you talk into that?’ he replied, grinning. ‘Oh shut up.’

Chapter 8
‘Tyranid assaults are characterised by the waves of creatures that pour across the battle field. With each successive attack, the waves of beasts weaken the enemy until they cannot resist the final, terrible onslaught.’ - Extract from ‘A treatise on the Kraken’, Inquisitor Carrax INS Black Manticore Ultima Segmentum 11:03 (ship time) 63.982.M41 ~The Problem~ ‘You are here, because we have a problem,’ Kursk said to the silenced table. Each man – Hyrgen, Vandemarr, Hechter and the several attending personnel, were as eager as young boys to see exactly what the Fleet Admiral, this shrewd artefact forged from a lifetime of war, had to say. ‘The problem has only very recently become what I would consider a serious one,’ he continued, stroking his chin, ‘but perhaps more fool me for not stemming it sooner.’ He walked round the side of the table, behind Vandemarr and Hechter, and came to a stop behind the boy. The silence seemed to deepen, if it was possible. ‘Murder,’ he said simply, slapping both his hands on the boy’s shoulders and making him jump. ‘Eleven to be precise. Most of them amongst the garrison, the Hussars if I recall; but a few ship hands – which I’m more concerned with.’ Another pause, whilst the news sank in. Kursk continued round the end of the table, and this time, stopped behind Hyrgen. Vandemarr took the short time to run a few scenarios through his head – this time implicating Hechter into the mix, who he had not yet considered part of the investigation. Memories of his former colleague, Lieutenant Codey, flashed through his mind; and in an instant, he acquired an unhealthy suspicion of the Commodore next to him. ‘I have called you both here for a number of good reasons,’ Kursk said, snapping the Commissar from his musings, ‘all of which will no doubt become clear to each of you in time. For now it will suffice to give you the facts, and what I will request of you.’ Both men nodded their acknowledgement, and both reclined slightly. Hechter was even so bold as to rock back on the hind legs of the chair. ‘It started about four months ago,’ Kursk said, returning to the head of the table. ‘We were half way moving between Oberon Minor, where we’d just handed over the defence to the Marines, and Illythia. No real problems. There are splinter fleets all over this part of the galaxy – an unfortunate hangover from ‘Kraken – but we stayed in warp space for almost the full eight months, much longer than I had originally anticipated.’ ‘Who was it on Oberon?’ Hechter asked, breaking Kursk’s monologue. The Feet Admiral looked briefly angry, before regaining his composure. ‘The Tyranids, naturally,’ he said, narrowing his eyes. ‘Why naturally?’ Vandemarr asked, also eager to get his foot in the door. ‘Because we’re on Illythia now,’ Kursk replied, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

‘I had two decks full of men who had spent the best part of three months wiping out the damnable things on Oberon. You just can’t buy that kind of experience. Thankfully, Lord Marshall Tartovski was of similar mind, and was willing to wait the extra month or so it would have taken us to arrive, rather then send the nearest regiment which would have invariably been slaughtered. And though I am no great fan of the Imperial Guard, I’m a stickler for efficiency. Understood?’ ‘Yes,’ Hechter nodded, ‘although it was risky leaving the planet for an extra month whilst infested with Tyranids.’ Kursk looked at the Commodore like he’d made a pass at his mother. ‘What I think the Commodore is saying, lord, is that the fault lies with the Tyranids, for the very crime of their nature,’ Vandemarr interjected smoothly, ‘which is of course, speed,’ He noticed Hyrgen cast his eyes heavenward in silent thanks. ‘Ah,’ Kursk said, clearly unconvinced but, for once, disinclined to make an issue of it. ‘Well yes, but you have to remember that these splinter groups are not the behemoths – if you’ll excuse the pun – which the great Hive Fleets were. Yes, some ground was sacrificed – but, actually, come to think of it, there was something else which you may find interesting; the splinter group that landed isn’t even behaving like you’d expect a normal horde to behave.’ Vandemarr blinked at the sudden change in the man’s direction of thought. ‘You’ll have to excuse me, Fleet Admiral, but I’m afraid I’m rather unlearned of the ways of the Tyranids.’ he lied, steepling his fingers in front of his mouth. ‘Would you…care to elaborate?’ Kursk took a deep breath. ‘Have you read any of the works of Inquisitor Carrax?’ ‘Yes,’ both Vandemarr and Hechter said in unison. ‘Well,’ Kursk fumbled briefly, slightly put off, ‘he likens the Tyranids to waves, with each successive assault like a wave breaking on the shore. They mass and hit the defenders, and then withdraw with their dead, and then mass and strike again. This is how it has been observed countless times before.’ Vandemarr nodded, feigning enlightenment. ‘But here, they aren’t doing that. Here they’ve actually…hm.’ He paused, evidently trying to think of the words. ‘It seems they’ve set up some kind of subterranean base camp. And they aren’t massing and devouring everything in their path, as is usual; rather they send forward a few hundred at a time, which invariably get slaughtered, and then retreat with their dead. It’s very, very odd.’ ‘How many men have you got planetside?’ Hechter asked. ‘About four thousand.’ Hyrgen said from across the table. The Commodore nodded. ‘Have they even come close to overwhelming the Guard?’ ‘To be honest, Mister Hechter, what happens on Illythia isn’t much of a concern to us,’ Kursk said, evidently tired of this particular line of questioning. ‘We pick up the odd signal here and there, but unless they want us for something – an orbital strike, a couple for atmospheric fighters or whatever, we seldom exchange. You’d have to speak to the Guard officers on board if you wanted any more information.’ ‘I see. My apologies.’ Hechter relented, leaning back on his chair once more.

Vandemarr watched the Fleet Admiral in the ensuing silence, and he found himself almost unable to decipher the man’s character. One moment he was open and willing to converse, the next he was irritable and closed-off. His mood changed so quickly that he was almost impossible to follow. ‘You were telling us what needed to be done,’ he said. ‘Ah yes,’ Kursk replied, as if jolted from some distant memory, ‘the problem. Well, as I have said, it can be stated very easily. Eleven men amongst the garrison have been murdered – well, we assume murdered; we haven’t actually recovered the bodies,’ Hechter made to speak, but Vandemarr stopped him with a kick under the table. ‘Usually we wouldn’t care, but as I said, we’ve lost a few ship hands as well; and as I explained to Mister Hyrgen here, if the crew are aware of a man – or group of men, unchecked and abducting personnel at will, it will certainly make them think twice before traversing that dark corridor – of which there are plenty – to do his duty on the other side of the ship.’ ‘So you want us to find out who it is and stop them?’ Vandemarr said, trying to cut a long story short. ‘Exactly,’ Kursk said, a smile briefly crossing his face. ‘I, naturally, am far too busy to deal with it; but Hyrgen here will be more than happy to show you around. He knows everything I know, so I’ll thank you not to bother me during your investigation. Is this clear?’ Both men nodded, though Vandemarr’s right hand balled into a fist under the table. He no longer wished to be in the presence of a man who had such a callous disregard for life. ‘Excellent,’ Kursk continued, as if a burden had been lifted from his shoulders. ‘In that case, I leave you in the very capable hands of my First Officer. Good luck, gentlemen.’ He turned to leave the room, and stopped just short of the door. ‘Come along, boy,’ he snapped. Bastian, their silent colleague, scramble off his chair and ran towards the Fleet Admiral. ‘Hell, I already dislike him!’ the old man said, by way of a joke. Vandemarr couldn’t even bring himself to fake a smile.

Chapter 9
‘Time is your best currency; spend it well.’ - Imperial Navy maxim Illythia Ultima Segmentum 18:11 (local) 62.982.M41 ~Battle Plan ~ August swallowed as the four hundred men from 3 Company gathered before him – far more than he’d originally envisaged, and each one having expected Captain Tamas. Indignant in their enlightenment, they watched him grimly as he counted Lieutenants, none of whom had moved to the front rank, and when he was satisfied, he stood on a small crate so that the men at the back could see him. Behind, a purloined map of Galensbad rested on the track of a nearby troop transport, and he held in his hand a pencil nub for a pointer. ‘As you all know, Captain Tamas is dead,’ he half-shouted – as good a start as any. He searched for his next words, and decided that simplicity was the key. ‘And I am Captain August, your new OC ops.’ In front of him, sour eyes narrowed. He could almost hear their thoughts of resentment, though they remained dutifully quiet. Many of them were older than him, that he knew; but he consoled himself with the fact that he must have been promoted for a reason. He was an Imperial Hussar, and to be one meant to be one of a professional elite, a regiment of Guardsmen whose history and proud traditions stretched back thousands of years. He would earn the respect of these men, on or off the battlefield. ‘It is sad, yes, and many will grieve for him,’ he continued with resolve, though he felt Udray wince at the delivery, ‘but right now we have a potentially large problem to deal with. HQ suspects Galensbad has been overrun, and they want us to investigate, and if necessary, retake it.’ He concluded his opening, and stood off the crate, whilst behind him a thrum of low chatter filled the late evening air. He reached the map and pointed the pencil at his sketchy annotations. ‘HQ is going to contact us in…twenty-three minutes,’ he said, checking his watch, ‘which gives us about ten to reach the Gort line. From there, you’ll split into fire teams and take half a Chimera each, and deploy into platoons once we reach the southern perimeter fence. From there I want platoons one to seven to sweep and clear the western third of the hold, platoons eight to fourteen to do the centre, and platoons fifteen to twenty-one to sweep the east.’ He circled the three areas as he spoke, and was glad to note men writing them down. It was a very basic plan, and he knew that if they made contact with the enemy then things would go very differently for them; but for now he was more worried about making the stronghold by the deadline set by Taschen. He checked his watch again. ‘We haven’t got much time, so I’ll assume you all still know how to perform a building clearance,’ he said, not looking up. There were a couple of laughs. It hadn’t really been a joke, but he was thankful for them nonetheless. ‘In which case I suggest we move out. I’ll be with one platoon all day, so if they could form up one me now…’

He let it hang as the Company formed into platoons and moved out north, towards the Gort line. In front of him, one platoon sauntered up; a group of twenty Guardsmen, each one bearing the traditional strip of cloth on their firing shoulder to symbolise the 141st Greenjackets. They looked tired and haggard, but at least there was some determination in their eyes. Or was it animosity? ‘I’m Karl August, this is Vox Officer Udray,’ he said, after they had gathered round. He was glad to have Udray with him. ‘I’m very happy to be here, I know that 3 Company is an excellent unit of men.’ If they felt any pleasure at the compliment, they hid it well. Instead they just stood, watching him with unreadable expressions. ‘So we’ll fall out with the rest. I just want to speak to the Lieutenant, now please,’ he said, slightly annoyed and put off by their silence. He suspected that demanding a welcome would only lose him more favour. He watched as the men moved to rejoin the rest of the Company, and then turned back to the Lieutenant, who had remained where he was. He was as tall as August, with a mop of red hair and a thick red moustache. His face was lined with dirt and scars, and there was a worn look about him, like an over-read book. Like many of the men, he was older than August, though the Captain wasn’t yet sure if the man begrudged him for that. ‘Lieutenant,’ he said, proffering his hand. The man looked at if for a second, then grasped it warmly. ‘Piter Janus,’ he said, briefly smiling. August was immediately taken aback by the man’s good nature. ‘You’ll have to forgive me, Lieutenant,’ he said slowly, breaking into a walk, ‘but why are you the first man to talk to me?’ The man chuckled. ‘We have an old tradition in 3 Company,’ he said, as if he’d been waiting for the question, ‘where no man will talk to a new Captain until they’ve been in combat with him. A silly outdated old thing now, but a lot of the men, as you have found out, still keep at it. Me, I think it’s impractical.’ August felt a flood of relief flow through him despite his bad mood. So it was some stupid ritual that was stopping the men from talking to him. ‘Don’t worry – they won’t do it when the fighting starts,’ Janus continued, allaying August’s immediate concerns, ‘they’re not stupid. Just old-fashioned.’ ‘Where does this tradition come from?’ ‘Oh, it’s a long story to do with Orks, and I’m not a good storyteller,’ the Lieutenant continued. August decided not to press him – he had more important things on his mind. They walked in silence for a few minutes, before ducking under a line of red cord that separated the vehicle repair depot from the surrounding base, and quickened their pace towards the Gort line, where August could already see the plumes of exhaust from the waiting Chimeras. He was tempted to run, but he forced himself to feel a calm that wasn’t forthcoming. ‘I tell you what though,’ Janus said suddenly, breaking the long silence, ‘building clearance against the Tyranids certainly doesn’t take my fancy.’

August said nothing, but nodded, wiping his sweaty palms on his fatigues. It certainly didn’t take his either.

Chapter 10
‘Better a dagger in the dark, than a thousand swords at dawn.’ - Assassin’s proverb INS Black Manticore Ultima Segmentum 11:16 (ship time) 63.982.M41 ~Your quarters, sir~ They sat briefly in silence as the Fleet Admiral left. Across the table, Hyrgen, and their as of yet un-introduced companion – a red-headed Hussar – drummed fingers and tapped feet, waiting for either of the investigators to speak. ‘Let’s not waste any time then,’ Vandemarr eventually said, leaning forward. ‘I suggest you show me and the Commodore where we’ll be working and sleeping, eating etc., and then to the rooms of the missing men.’ He turned to their companion. ‘I’m Commissar – ’ ‘Vandemarr,’ the Hussar liaison stood, offering his hand across the table. The Commissar took it. ‘Gygory Màhlav, 141st Imperial Hussars. Greenjackets,’ he said, indicating the stiff, darkgreen jacket over his fatigues. At his waist was an ornate sabre, and his epaulettes boasted a Major’s slides. ‘Ah, light infantry,’ Hechter said, standing and shaking the still proffered hand. ‘Kurt Hechter.’ ‘Pleased to meet you both. I’m acting as a liaison for the Hussars, although the Fleet Admiral seems to have overlooked me in his introductions. Probably for the same reasons he’s more concerned with two dead ship hands than nine of the Emperor’s finest Guardsmen,’ he concluded sourly, snatching a sidelong glance at the First Officer next to him. Hyrgen bridled. ‘You’ll all be sleeping and eating on the Officer’s deck, you’ll be pleased to hear,’ he interrupted. ‘The Fleet Admiral has organised it so that your quarters are next to the Vallen suite. It’s away from the bridge, and the engines, so there won’t be much noise to disturb you.’ It was obvious that the First Officer took little pleasure in the announcement, and Vandemarr, ever the politician, accommodated it. ‘Our regards to the Fleet Admiral,’ he said. Hyrgen offered another sour smile, and headed for the exit behind them – a large set of heavy wooden doors with the handles fashioned into a pair of bronze Aquillas. Vandemarr, Hechter and Màhlav dutifully followed, though the Commodore was walking faster than the others – evidently wanting to press Hyrgen with more questions. ‘First Officer,’ he called as they entered into a wide passageway of white marble flooring, with a strip of luxurious red carpeting marking the walkway. The walls either side were painted green, with a banner of gold Aquillas midway up and were set with gilt-framed portraits. ‘Yes?’ Hyrgen called back, as if it were the hundredth question he’d been asked. If he thought he was going to get away with less, Vandemarr thought, he was in for a rude awakening. ‘Your Fleet Admiral said that the men had been murdered, but how do you know that if you’ve never recovered the bodies?’

Hyrgen straightened up, but didn’t turn around. Vandemarr himself had wanted to ask the question, but had restrained in the presence of the foul-tempered Fleet Admiral – who, from the look of him, wouldn’t think twice about firing their whole contingent into space. ‘This ship is no stranger to death, Commodore Hechter,’ Hyrgen said, choosing his words carefully, ‘especially amongst the garrison. We have had men murdered before.’ ‘Then how do you know that these men aren’t just missing?’ Hechter pressed, obviously unlearned in the ways of patience and subtlety. ‘Why is it murder?’ ‘Because if the men are just “missing”, they or their bodies always turn up somewhere,’ Hyrgen snapped, this time turning around. ‘When they’re murdered, they don’t. People seem to at least have the good sense to throw away the corpses.’ They carried on. ‘They always turn up?’ Vandemarr asked after a short while. ‘Always,’ Hyrgen said firmly, having expected the question. ‘Either they “got lost”, or they tried to avoid disembarkation – in which case they get shot; or they’ve gotten themselves killed somehow. It’s easier than you think; the ship’s not a particularly safe place.’ ‘And how long is it before someone goes from “missing” to “murdered”?’ Màhlav asked with a grin on his face. Like most of the Guard, they had a healthy contempt for what the Navy called ‘dangerous’. ‘It depends,’ Hyrgen shrugged, not rising to the bait. ‘Usually if they’re missing they get reported in a day or so, and found within the week. There’s no access for the garrison to most of the ship. They haven’t even got clearance to the disembarkation levels.’ He held up his hand to indicate a signet ring. ‘So that’s where you look for them is it? Only the places they can access?’ Hechter asked. ‘If anyone can be bothered. Like I said, they all turn up sooner or later. It was only when one of the ratings was killed that Kursk started caring.’ Vandemarr noticed that Hyrgen took particular pleasure in saying ‘Kursk’ rather than ‘the Fleet Admiral’; no doubt some kind of insubordinate fantasy. He made a mental note of it, adding it to the already complex character map he had of the First Officer. ‘Where can that signet ring gain you access?’ Vandemarr asked, with practiced nonchalance only a lifetime in the Commissariat could get you. ‘Everywhere,’ Hyrgen said. ‘It’s a big ship,’ ‘And I’m the First Officer.’ Vandemarr let it go. In a different setting, their exchange would be an interrogation, albeit in the early stages. He would wait a while before he began pulling teeth. They carried on in silence for another five minutes, walking through the labyrinthine yet exquisite corridors. ‘These are your quarters,’ Hyrgen said eventually, pulling up short of another pair of heavy wooden doors. He pulled a small leather pouch from his pocket and produced three signet

rings. ‘These should give you access to all the public areas in the Officer decks – mess halls, kitchens, suites and so on. They’ll also let you down to the barracks decks. Should you want to go anywhere else, you must go accompanied by either myself or another man approved by myself.’ He paused, as if deciding whether to continue what was obviously a planned dialogue. A smirk flashed across his features. ‘As I said, this is a ship, and it has plenty of dark corners,’ he continued. ‘As a Commissar, I’m sure you’ll know of the stigma your rank bears with the Guardsmen. Be careful around the garrison - it’ll be crawling with deserters.’ He glanced at Màhlav, before tossing the pouch to Vandemarr. He snatched it out of the air. ‘What an arse,’ Màhlav said as Hyrgen turned the next corner. Vandemarr nodded and slid on the signet ring over his leather glove, feeling the metal adjust to his finger. He passed out the other two. ‘Right,’ he said, pressing the seal against the data panel next to the door. It opened with a throaty click. And then exploded.

PART 2 Chapter 11
‘In an Imperium of a million worlds, what is the death of one world in the cause of purity?’ - Inquisitor Credo Illythia Ultima Segmentum 18:29 (local) 62.982.M41 ~Ghost Town~ ‘There’s nobody here,’ August concluded grimly, stepping out into the fading evening sunlight. Behind him, the tall grey concrete block constituting Habcentre 31/v stood, being thoroughly ransacked by six platoons of bewildered men. All around the compound, Hussars moved in fire teams, destroying doors with explosives or vicious kicks and threading inside like a cerebral worm into an eye socket. The sounds of their frustration were clearly audible through the many open windows of the surrounding buildings. A clatter of furniture followed by a curse became so regular August could have tuned his watch with it. ‘You’re sure?’ Udray said beside him. They were flushed and sweating from the building clearance, and the Vox Officer was still panting after lugging the heavy comms unit through the corridors of the habcentre. August kept his eyes on the horizon, towards the Tyranid position. ‘There’s meant to be a whole regiment of light infantry here,’ he said, a little harsher than he’d intended. He scanned the compound again and spat. ‘Not so much as a single Throne-damned dog.’ Behind him, the vox unit bleeped, and Udray snatched the handset from the side and pressed it to his ear. ‘Three Company, zero, go ahead…it’s for you.’ August took the handset. ‘This is one,’ he said. ‘What’s going on there Captain?’ came Colonel Taschen’s voice, strained with anticipation. ‘There’s no on here,’ August said, almost as if he were disappointed. ‘There’s plenty of signs of a fight, but as far as people...’ There was a pause, whilst Taschen undoubtedly relayed the information to the occupants of the tent. The link fuzzed back on. ‘I’m not sure I understand,’ the Colonel said eventually. August took a deep breath. ‘Like I said sir,’ he replied, watching as the last of the western buildings were cleared, ‘it’s empty. Everything’s here except the Bavarians.’

Another pause. It was surreal. There should have been over a thousand men in the compound, yet all that remained was a line of ATVs and a couple of sandbagged emplacements. Across the walls, a ragged line of sunflower-shaped chunks of masonry were missing where someone had gone to town with a stubber, and there were scorch marks from las fire everywhere; but not a single corpse, either outside or in the buildings. It was a ghost town. ‘Hold your position,’ Taschen eventually said, his voice marred with the alien emotion of shock, ‘and await further orders.’ To lose a thousand fighting men without so much as whisper was bad – very bad. August handed the handset back to Udray. ‘Tell the men to set up a perimeter, in platoons. Send scouts out to the north and east, and have these buildings turned upside down. I want to know what the hell happened here.’ ‘Yes s…’ Udray tailed off, then cocked his head. ‘Did you just hear that?’ ‘Hear what?’ ‘That – sh! Listen…’ Both men stood in silence, whilst August closed his eyes and pretended to listen. He gave up after a short while. ‘I can’t hear anything,’ he said. Udray shook his head. ‘I’m sure I heard –’ He never finished the sentence, as two fleshborer rounds hit him squarely in the stomach and sent him cartwheeling backwards. It happened so quickly that for a few seconds, August didn’t realise what had happened; and then the air was suddenly filled with the loud crackling of las weapons and the shouts of Guardsmen. Gaunts and genestealers burst into the compound from all directions, shrieking terrible battle cries as they tore into the defenders. ‘No!’ he shouted, oblivious to the sudden and lethal influx of aliens, and dropped to his knees, watching impotently as Udray writhed and screamed whilst the fleshborers wriggled through his guts. ‘K-kill me!’ he rasped, as blood guttered from the gaping wounds in his abdomen and dribbled from his mouth. He let out another shriek as his stomach was punctured, and the hydrochloric acid inside seeped through his innards. ‘No, no no no, you’re going to be fine,’ August stammered, unsure of what to do with his hands, as if touching the bloody carters would make any difference. The keening of gaunts filled the air, and the las fire intensified. He reached for his field dressing, but there was no hope for the Vox Officer. They both knew it. ‘For the love – grrrraaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! Kill…m-me! Oh Throne DAMMIT!’ Udray screamed. The borer beetles were scurrying over the top of his ribs, and August could see the bulges through his fatigues. With a surge of horror and anguish, he lifted his lasgun. ‘Emperor forgive me,’ he whispered, and fired a shot straight through the Vox Officer’s forehead. The man jerked to a stop. And then August snapped. ‘NO!’ he roared, standing up and searching for the nearest Tyranid, drunk on rage. Thirty metres away, he watched as a genestealer leapt two metres in the air, and landed

squarely on the back of a man desperately firing in the opposite direction. With one quick movement, it twisted his head off and threw it across the compound. He’d found his target. ‘You!’ he snarled, breaking into a reckless sprint towards it. It hadn’t heard him, and was facing the other direction when his bayonet sliced its spine into two unequal lengths. He fired a long burst on full auto for good measure, and the creature thrashed and screamed whilst its digestive organs were quickly and explosively removed from its abdomen. Then something crashed into the side of him. He twisted his body round to stab whatever it was, only to see Lieutenant Janus on top of him, blood streaked across his face. ‘Fragging idiot!’ he shouted, grabbing August by the chest plate and hauling him to his feet. ‘We’ve got no use for another dead Captain!’ August found himself dragged by the Lieutenant to the nearest habcentre, crossing a fifty metre gauntlet through the ambushed compound. Behind him, a stubber opened up, chopping through the air with its heavy calibre shot. Something heavy and dead thumped into the ground at his heels. ‘Throne,’ he grimaced, adrenaline churning his stomach. They reached the wall and slammed into it, next to a trio of reloading Hussars. ‘What’s going on?’ one of them shouted above the din. Across the other side of the compound, one of the Chimeras that had transported them there burst open like a tin can, and it, along with its crew, was eviscerated with frightening speed. ‘Ambush!’ August shouted, checking his magazine. He snapped off a few hastily aimed shots, which, to his surprise, took the hind legs off a gaunt. One of the troopers next to him saw it, and scrabbled to finish it off. ‘What do we do?’ another of the troopers asked, his face screwed up in fear. August realised the long range vox unit was still strapped to Udray’s back, a hundred metres away by the next habcentre; and with it, their means of reinforcement. ‘Stay with the Lieutenant,’ August shouted, ‘and hold this position! I’ll be back in thirty seconds!’ He brought his lasgun up prone and pushed himself away from the wall, but he’d barely run twenty metres when the wall behind him exploded outwards in a shower of dust and rubble. A chunk of masonry hit him in the small of his back, and he yelped as he fell forward, feeling the hard dirt graze his face. ‘Wha…,’ he murmured, feeling blood drool from a split lip. Behind him, a terrifying roar threatened the tear the sky apart, and he felt his eardrums rattle painfully. He rolled onto his back, a light concussion making his movements slow and heavy. What he saw next, however, soon stripped him of his lethargy.

Chapter 12
‘Know thine enemy; you are known to him already.’ - Sermon Primaris, Ordo Xenos INS Black Manticore Ultima Segmentum 11:19 (ship time) 63.982.M41 ~A minor altercation~ Slowly, Vandemarr returned to consciousness like a man drifting up from the bottom of some murky sea. His vision was a milky blur, the air stank of cordite, his ears rang painfully and the sound of his own laboured breathing was startlingly loud; but he was alive, and thankful for that much. He twitched his toes and fingers, and tried to blink away the hazy film from his eyes. Eventually, he heard a gruff voice with a thick accent, and felt his cheek being lightly slapped. ‘…emarr? Commissar Vandemarr? Oh God Emperor, Commissar!’ ‘Yes, I’m fine,’ he finally mumbled, dearly hoping he was. Luckily, it had only been a small blast, but the possibility that it had merely been a failed detonation was already racing through his mind, and far too great a risk to ignore. The chance of a secondary explosion was all the incentive he needed to stagger to his feet. ‘Get back!’ he half-shouted, still drowsy from the concussion. ‘Get away from the door!’ There was the sound of panicked scrabbling, and dull shouting as he assumed Hechter and Màhlav were moving away from the door; but then the sound of alarms slowly filtered through his ears, followed by the bellowing of another familiar voice – First Officer Hyrgen. ‘You!’ Vandemarr snarled, as his vision slowly returned, like a pict hardcopy swimming into focus. The ruins of the heavy wooden doors, splintered and charred on their twisted hinges, confronted him, haloed by a sun-shaped scorch mark sending jagged lines of carbon in all directions. Surrounding Hyrgen was a squad of naval armsmen, clad in grey and black form-moulded body armour, with mirrored visors, each with Navy-issue las carbines prone. They moved round Hechter and Màhlav, dragging them to their feet, but as they approached the Commissar, he shrugged them off angrily. ‘You son of a bitch!’ he snarled, still staring at Hyrgen, trying to shake off the concussion. Politics were out the window now, Vandemarr was angry and someone had to pay. The First Officer fixed him with a sneer, though he was rattled. ‘Please,’ he said, unsure of how to take the enraged Commissar. ‘If I wanted you dead, I’d at least have the good sense to do it properly.’ As far as excuses went, it was old and unconvincing, and in a flash, Vandemarr was in front of the First Officer, sending him flat on his arse with a bloody nose. Armsmen made for him, but

Hyrgen called them off with a bark. ‘Enough!’ he snapped, wiping the blood away from under his nose. He stood up, shaking off the proffered hands, and squared up to Vandemarr. ‘Listen to me you damned cretin, and listen good,’ he hissed. ‘I don’t care if you’re a Commissar, I couldn’t give a flying frag if your under orders from the Fleet Admiral – if you ever, ever strike a superior officer again, by the God Emperor I’ll have you strung up by your balls and bled to death. Is that clear?’ Vandemarr fixed him a long hard glare, though secretly he already regretted punching the man. It was reckless in the extreme, and would have no favourable long-term outcome for him or the case. Hyrgen could make life very hard for him and Hechter – too hard. ‘Watch your back,’ he growled eventually, and turned away, awaiting the inevitable reprisal. He did not expect a full physical retaliation, however, and he was quickly floored after Hyrgen’s boot cap caught him on the back of the knee. ‘Damn you man!’ Hyrgen roared, throwing off his navy blue trench coat and removing his gloves with equal ferocity. ‘You want a dog-dirt brawl, is that it? Who’s the bigger man? Insubordinate whelp!’ He kicked Vandemarr again, but the Commissar rolled out the way of a third, and threw his own coat off. Hechter and Màhlav had been forcefully dragged from the area and were being detained some twenty metres down the corridor, whilst a pair of armsmen were keeping watch at the end of the corridors. The rest had formed a motley circle, jeering. Vandemarr was unwilling to fight, but brought his fists up anyway, struggling to remember his unarmed combat drills through layers of concussion-soaked grey matter. Before he knew it, Hyrgen had weltered a fist towards his face, and he clumsily ducked to the left, swinging in a right hook. It caught the First Officer in the ribs, though if it had any effect, he hid it well. Instead, he threw a feint to the torso and then swept to the floor to take Vandemarr off his feet once more. He landed hard, winded, sending pain spiralling through his torso where shock-bruising from the explosion had softened his innards. He gasped for breath, furious in his helplessness. ‘Know when you’re beaten,’ Hyrgen said, sweat beading his forehead. He took his proffered coat, and turned to the sergeant standing beside him. ‘I want whoever did this in shackles by the next day cycle, or it’ll be your head,’ he snarled, indicating the door. ‘Sir, yes sir!’ the sergeant barked, his voice distorted and amplified by the vox speaker. With another look at Vandemarr, Hyrgen turned on his heel and strode back down the corridor. ‘I know it was you, Hyrgen!’ Vandemarr shouted impotently after him, but his attempts to provoke a reaction failed. He propped himself up against the corridor wall, and grimaced, massaging his chest as the last armsmen walked past, casually offering insults. ‘I suggest you leave, and quickly,’ he said, angry beyond measure. The man shrugged, but jogged down the corridor all the same. The Navy just didn’t fear Commissars the way the Guard did. ‘Commissar! Are you alright?’ Hechter asked as he limped to a stop in front of him, clutching the base of his ribcage. Màhlav wasn’t far behind, drowsy and sullen. Both were bloodied, to a degree.

‘I want this place ripped apart,’ Vandemarr growled, looking between the two of them. ‘Now.’

Chapter 13
‘There is nothing in the arcane and blasphemous arsenal of the forces of Chaos that can compare to faith. With the power of faith, our weapons become shining instruments of deliverance that can cleave the mightiest daemon in twain. I could meet my enemies unarmed without a shred of fear in my chest, for I know that the Emperor watches over me and guides my hand. So let them come. We shall show them what the power of faith can do.’ - Brother-Captain Stern of the Grey Knights Illythia Ultima Segmentum 18:49 (local) 62.982.M41 ~Carnifex~ Twenty metres away from him, his death waited. But there were no choirs of Imperial angels, or golden-haloed saints floating down on rays of holy light to carry away his beleaguered soul. There was no fanfare of trumpets. The Emperor and his loyal servants, martyrs of a hundred centuries, were absent. He could not see the Golden Halls, where the feasting and merriment was everlasting, nor his departed family or comrades-in-arms waiting to welcome him into the blissful afterlife. All he could see were the squat barrels of a twin-linked Devourer cannon levelled squarely at his face. ‘Oh, feth,’ he groaned through bloody teeth. The carnifex stood there, four metres tall, decked out with an array of two-metre long, scythe-like talons, armour plates of maroon chitin, and a mouth of needle-sharp teeth; and with a second earth-shaking roar, it fired. Time slowed down, and August watched as the malformed ripper embryos exploded from the barrels. He watched them tear towards him in a toxic envelope of bile, itching to scuttle into his flesh and devour his grey matter. He watched as adrenaline screamed through his body, and his heart was beating so hard it felt as though it would punch through his sternum at any second. And then he closed his eyes, awaiting the inevitable explosion of pain and the longest ten-seconds of his life – But it never came. He reopened his eyes to the sound of thundering feet, and saw that a fleeting gaunt had run directly in front of the projectile and taken it squarely in the thorax. The carnifex crushed the writhing beast’s head under its foot. ‘Captain!’ came a shout, followed by a loud bang and a hissing shriek. A rocket hit the carnifex under its right arms and exploded in a blinding flash and streamers of smoke; but as soon as the smoke cleared, August could see that only a small, ragged hole had been punched in the thing’s exoskeleton. It was still far too alive. He scrambled to his feet whilst all around him gaunts and Guardsmen engaged in bloody close assault. Phosphorescent las shot flickered across the compound, leaving hazy blue afterimages on his retinas in the failing light, and he realised, as he started running, that nightfall was less than an hour away and closing fast. Without reinforcements, or sufficient equipment, there was no way they could hold off the assault in the dark. The thought, coupled with the thundering footsteps of the chasing carnifex, send a painful stab

of adrenaline through his guts. ‘Janus,’ he shouted over his comlink, unsure of where he was heading. He picked the habcentre on the other side of the compound, and started sprinting. ‘Yes captain?’ came the grim response. The link was cluttered with hard gunfire and shouts, and he could barely hear the lieutenant above the din. ‘I want –’ ‘Look out!’ The Devourers fired again, and their rabid payload screeched over his head and punched straight through the wall a hundred metres in front of him. He turned around and let off a short burst of las fire on full auto, and blew the head off a genestealer about to pounce on his back. ‘Feth!’ he gasped, realising how close he’d come to death; but he didn’t dwell on it for long. The carnifex was still bearing down on him, roaring in frustration as its quarry continued to elude it. ‘Get this thing off my tail!’ he shouted over the link, as he turned round to run again. A sudden string of las shots whispered past his ear, and struck the carnifex on its armoured thorax with all the strength of a peashooter. ‘Watch where you’re firing!’ he yelled, peering through the twilight to see a huddle of troopers by the door of the habcentre firing wildly at the carnifex. More shots flashed past him, blinding him with their harsh blue strobe effect, and he realised that the troopers were trying to kill him. ‘You dogs!’ he snarled. Another shot took three inches off his shoulder pad. They didn’t want him to lead the carnifex to them. ‘Cease fire Emperor-damn you!’ He lifted his las gun to put them down, when a school of gaunts dug into their flank and ripped them apart, spilling guts and limbs onto the compacted earth. August snatched a tube charge from his webbing, ripped the det-tape off the side and threw it into the middle of them. They, along with the remains of the Guardsmen, a huge chunk of earth and a section of the habcentre wall, disappeared in a ball of flame. ‘Hurry up!’ he shouted into the comlink as the carnifex fired again. The shot barely grazed his leg, but the air cushion sent him off his feet and face-first into the ground once more. He groaned as he pressed himself up, scrambling forward through the pain. The carnifex was still hot on his heels, and he hadn’t got time to sit down and rub his head. His las gun’s barrel had wedged into the earth and clogged with mud, and he tossed the impotent weapon away, thankful they hadn’t a Commissar with them. He was about to shout at Janus again when another rocket whooshed from its firing tube and struck the carnifex on its back. Like the first one, it had miserably little effect, but it bought him enough time to get through the hole in the wall of the habcentre and turn left down the darkened corridor. ‘The legs!’ August said into the comlink as he found a set of rockcrete stairs and clambered up them. ‘Get its legs!’ ‘What do you think we’re trying to get?’ Janus shouted back. His voice sounded distant, crackled from static. There was interference with the link.

‘Find the long range vox!’ August said, before the link cut out altogether, ‘and call in our air support!’ ‘Where is it?’ August drew a blank. ‘It’s outside habcentre…oh frag, habcentre…31/v!’ ‘31/b?’ ‘V! Victor!’ ’31 Victor, copy! Keep the ‘fex busy! Five minutes!’ August cut the link and reached the top of the stairs, turning right down the hundred-metre corridor. It was even darker up here, though there was a faint glow from the rising moons outside, provided by a large square window at the end of the passageway. With a plan already forming in his mind, he renewed his sprint, his breath rasping in his lungs and the sounds of the carnifex tearing up the stairs behind him filling his ears; But then something quite unexpected happened, and the situation went from bad to a lot worse.

Chapter 14
‘Mechanism, I restore thy spirit. Let the God-Machine breathe half-life unto thy veins and render thee functional.’ - Lakius Danzager INS Black Manticore Ultima Segmentum 11:27 (ship time) 63.982.M41 ~Integration~ Hyrgen strode through the exquisite corridors in a black mood, blood thumping through his veins and thoughts crashing round his head. What had just happened? How had he let the situation get out of hand so quickly? He tried to think clearly, through the sweat and adrenaline and the breath rasping in his lungs, and pieced together the whole ugly mess. He, the First Officer of the ship, had started a fight with an Imperial Commissar – something which, by rights, could have him killed – and was now walking away from the scene of another murder attempt, all because his pride dictated that he couldn’t turn back. It was madness! With a snarl, he pushed past a cluster of officers, all standing in the corridor talking and laughing, and marched on towards the bridge. It had felt so good to beat Vandemarr, yet now he found himself already regretting it. Not because of any injury the Commissar may have sustained; the insufferable dog could burn in hell for all he cared. It was the compromise of his personal standards. Striking a fellow officer just wasn’t the way things were done in the Navy. Brawls were ten a penny in the Guard, but he liked to think he was better than that. The damnable man just had no respect! Shaking his head, he stopped just short of the bridge entrance – and the two armsmen flanking it – and smoothed his thinning hair back across his scalp. The guards snapped smartly to attention. ‘Sir, the Fleet Admiral requests an immediate audience with you in the Calixis suite, post haste,’ one of them said across his vox speaker. Hyrgen looked up, forcefully slowing his breathing. ‘Did he say what it was about?’ he asked, in as calm a voice as he could muster. He could not be bothered with this. Not now. ‘No, sir,’ the armsman said again, then leant forward slightly. ‘But when he put the memorandum out, sir, he looked…well, worried.’ A pause. ‘Worried?’ ‘Yes sir, worried.’

Hyrgen, more intrigued than he’d have liked to admit, looked between them both. They were right to be concerned. The Fleet Admiral never showed much emotion save contempt and anger. Yet in the last day there had been more worry creasing the old man’s brown than any of them would care to remember. ‘The Calixis suite, you say?’ he asked. ‘Aye sir,’ Hyrgen, his anger forgotten, turned on his heel and quickly strode back down the corridor. *** Kursk was in the Calixis suite, as promised, though his face betrayed far more anxiety than the First Officer had expected. He sat on the far side of the wide oak table, a decanter of half-full amber ethanec next to him and a tumbler in his hand, staring into middle distance. He didn’t look up as Hyrgen entered, nor acknowledge him as he walked across the plush green carpeting and down the short, wide staircase that led into the central dais. The Calixis suite was the garrison officer’s mess – and since they were all planetside, they would not be disturbed. No doubt a good thing, Hyrgen thought to himself as he pulled out a chair opposite the Fleet Admiral and sat down. There was a long, silence. ‘Sir?’ Hyrgen said, clearing his throat after a minute of unbearable still. The Fleet Admiral looked up at him, his eyes heavy and plaintive – a lifetime of tight-lipped brevity and casual rage forgotten. Now all Hyrgen could see was an apprehensive old man, and he didn’t like it. ‘Is there something…I should know?’ Another interminable silence. The First Officer restrained himself from checking his watch and played the concerned colleague; though in truth, his intrigue was too great to fully empathise with what was clearly a dire thing indeed. ‘They want me to…’ Kursk began, his dialogue rising like an ocean swell. He trailed off in a dejected exhalation. ‘They want you to what, sir?’ Hyrgen asked. He was now truly uncomfortable. He’d never much been one for tender or emotional moments. ‘The Lord Admiral has decreed,’ he continued, spitting out the last word with pure venom, ‘that I am to be ship integrated.’ Hyrgen actually flinched with shock. ‘I…I beg your pardon?’ he asked, though he already knew that such a thing was bound to have been ordered sooner or later. That Kursk was so frail and yet such an excellent commander could have only one result. Given his track record, he never would have been allowed to retire. They had both known it. It was merely a confirmation of a long-standing apprehension. A formality. Hyrgen tried his best to put a positive spin on it.

‘Why sir, an honour, surely!’ he said, though it was so completely without conviction that the Fleet Admiral sneered. ‘They’re going to turn me into a machine, Aleksi,’ he said, ‘a…damned machine!’ He thumped the table, brought a hand to his brow, and then put it back on the table again, agitated in the extreme. ‘This is no honourable retirement,’ he hissed. ‘A lifetime of service I have given the Navy, and what do I get in return? Another? Ten? Twenty? A hundred? How many lifetimes will I have to spend rusting aboard this ship before they let me die?’ He stood up and threw the tumbler across the room. ‘Throne dammit!’ he roared. Hyrgen sat in his seat, utterly immobile. He had never seen the Fleet Admiral like this; so angry, so full of hate for what Hyrgen had assumed the man had loved. The Black Manticore was Kursk’s life. He’d never shown anything other than love and affection for his ship. Perhaps that was the problem. ‘Sir –’ he said eventually, but faltered. ‘When is it?’ ‘Today.’ Hyrgen stared in disbelief. ‘What?’ ‘It’s today!’ the Fleet Admiral snapped. ‘Sir, forgive me but that simply cannot be,’ Hyrgen said, on the verge of spluttering. ‘It must take weeks for the necessary personnel to arrive – for the bridge to be readied, for the necessary modifications – for your own implants! Surely –’ ‘Enough!’ Kursk barked, waving him quiet. ‘The necessary techpriests, members of the Ecclesiarchy, and Naval personnel were dispatched two weeks ago.’ There was another uncomfortable pause. Hyrgen opened and closed his mouth a few times. ‘What you must understand, Aleksi, is that this ship was never meant to be commanded by a non-integrated captain,’ he said, slowly. His voice had taken on an odd, haunted quality, as he obviously began to repeat what he’d already been told mere minutes before. ‘As such, the necessary modifications to the command dock are few. The equipment is there, and it is undergoing the necessary rituals as we speak. Our own Techpriests are beseeching the Machine Spirit. It will be ready to accept me by the commencement of the next night cycle; at which point, my ritual of integration shall begin. In between now and that time, I am to report to the infirmary, where a team of techpriests and apothecaries will graft the necessary equipment to my brain and central nervous system. I am also to pray to the Emperor – though they weren’t very forthcoming about what.’ The monologue ended. Hyrgen looked up at his commanding officer – perhaps even friend, should he dare to even think such a thing – and felt sorrow. The Fleet Admiral would change, undoubtedly; and there would be a sense of detachment about him, a sense of inaccessibility. ‘How has this been organised so quickly?’ he asked, as if the depression was contagious.

Kursk shrugged. ‘I don’t know,’ he said, not taking his eyes off the far wall. ‘Why has this been organised so quickly?’

Chapter 15
‘It is well known that destroying the more intelligent creatures in the swarm is essential to stop a Tyranid advance. Training in recognition and fire discipline is of some help in identifying the best targets, but the chaos and confusion of the battlefield make it difficult for troops to pick them out amidst the swarming mass of creatures. Ultimately it has proven best to direct fire at the largest Tyranid in sight and pray to the Emperor that some of them are leaders.’ - Inquisitor Angmar: Halting the Abomination Illythia Ultima Segmentum 19:00 (local) 62.982.M41 ~The Imperial Navy~ August found himself completely unable to move. His brain throbbed painfully, and his mind was screaming. His vision distorted into a hazy blur. Warm blood ran from his nose and dribbled down his chin, and each drop on the dusty rockcrete floor sounded like an orbital bombardment. He wanted to scream and cry, to stop the terrible buzzing in his haemorrhaging ears, to pick up a rifle and shoot the thing; but he was locked in position, and he’d tossed his rifle away outside. The zoanthrope, with its massive zygotic head and atrophied body, slowly glided towards him on a bed of pure psychic energy, whilst behind him the carnifex tore through the building, eager for his flesh. Both would kill him in an instant. The ‘thrope would vaporise him in a blast of searing energy; the carnifex would tear him limb from limb and devour him. Yet still he couldn’t move! The zoanthrope was less than twenty metres away now, its tiny, malformed limbs wriggling in anticipation. Why hadn’t it killed him yet? He had seen the things lance a tank from half a kilometre away. Was it leaving him for the ‘fex? As if to answer his question, at the top of the stairwell behind him, he heard the furious alien smash its way into the corridor, and let out a bowel-loosening roar that reverberated down the rockcrete like an entity in its own right. He tried to close his eyes, to await the inevitable scythe in the back of the head; but suddenly, he felt the psychic link break, and he collapsed to the floor, exhausted and sweating. He looked up to see the ‘thrope gesturing wildly with its tiny limbs, and followed what he presumed to be its line of sight, to see the carnifex rooted to the spot…listening. The two massive creatures were communicating through psychic energy – and he was lying in the middle of them. ‘Janus,’ he whispered into his comlink, extremely unwilling to draw attention to himself. ‘Sit tigh…aptain,’ came the very faint reply, ‘we’ve got…e voxcaster.’ ‘No, listen to me,’ he whispered again, but the poor signal had already cut out. ‘Feth,’ he breathed, looking to the end of the corridor. He wondered how far he would get if he simply got up and sprinted – bearing in mind he only had a pistol and a knife should things not

go his way. He looked across to the carnifex again after it began making agitated noises. He assumed the zoanthrope was stopping it killing him, and that it, understandably, didn’t like the idea; but why? Why was he being spared? After another ten seconds, he decided to run. Any longer and he would be facing something potentially worse than death. He would have felt less uncomfortable if at least one of the things had made to kill him outright. With a surge of resolve, he pressed himself up from the floor – And then immediately hit the rockcrete again as the wall exploded outwards in a long ragged streak and the screaming whine of Imperial jet engines tore past the habcentre. ‘Feth!’ he shouted, bringing his hands over his head as another explosion ripped the outer wall down and left the entire length of corridor exposed to the compound outside. A trio of Thunderbolt fast attack craft ripped across the skyline, rocket pods chattering and autocanons sending lines of tracer into the remaining Tyranids below. The carnifex roared as it rose up from the ground, hurling chunks of rubble in all directions, and August instinctively stumbled to his feet and began running down the corridor once more, past the stunned zoanthrope and towards the window at the end. In the compound outside, fresh Imperial reinforcements ran into the square, and the sound of hundreds of crackling lasguns discharging filled the air. ‘Janus!’ he shouted, ‘it’s still on my tail!’ ‘Throne man, are you still in there? Get out for the love of the Emperor!’ came the lieutenant’s panicked reply. August didn’t need to be told twice. Behind him, the zoanthrope was sliced in half by the carnifex as it tried to stop it once more, and the monstrous creature renewed its pursuit of him with merciless hate. He knew that it was the last thing the carnifex wanted to do before it was inevitably killed – and it would murder its own kind to achieve it. But it hadn’t counted on the Imperial Navy. As August reached the end of the corridor, he leapt as hard and far as he could out the window at the end, across the drop between the habcentre and the adjacent grain refinery, and landed with a bone-shaking crunch on top of the corrugated metal roof. He rolled several times to avoid breaking his ankles, felt the roof give way from underneath him, fell onto the machinery below, and finally hit the ground amidst a hail of iron sheeting and crumbling masonry. *** ‘Do you think he’s made it?’ the trooper next to Janus asked, as they watched the sky above the habcentre darken into a huge static vortex. Seconds later, the clouds bloated outwards in a huge surge of pressure, and an unbearably bright lance of energy stabbed down from the heavens, striking the habcentre dead on. It, along with the screaming carnifex, was utterly destroyed, and the compound was suddenly filled with hundreds of shards of glass and rockcrete missiles that fired across the covering Guardsmen. Huge rolling sheets of flame and greasy smoke billowed into the air, and the heat was so intense that many of the Guardsmen suffered burns from the subsequent wind. And then the blast was gone, burned out in the oxygen rich air, and all that was left was a rubble-filled crater and a few sections of plumbing jutting into the air like metal trees.

‘I don’t know lad,’ Janus said as he let go of his ears. ‘I don’t know.’

Chapter 16
The nature of Chaos is deceit - unless one looks past surface impressions, one can never hope to divine the purpose of the enemy.’ - Inquisitor Silas Hand INS Black Manticore Ultima Segmentum 13:22 (ship time) 63.982.M41

~Ours is not to question why~ ‘Commissar? I think you should see this,’ Hechter said. He was crouched by the corner of the nearest bed – a polished wooden frame with a plush cream mattress and duvet – examining something that neither Vandemarr nor Màhlav could make out from the other side of the room. They had been searching the quarters for two hours, refusing entrance to adepts, techpriests and crewmen, whilst combing every surface for clues as to their would-be murderer. So far, their search had been fruitless and painful, as each of them struggled through the after-effects of the blast – ringing ears, nosebleeds, mild concussion; but now, from the tone of the Commodore’s voice, Vandemarr could tell they were on to something. ‘What is it?’ he said, crossing the blast-wrecked doorway to where Hechter was now sitting. He squatted down on his thighs, and squinted at the item pinched between the man’s index finger and thumb. ‘Is that what I think it is?’ he asked, massaging his stubbled chin. Hechter nodded. ‘Yeah.’ ‘What?’ Màhlav asked, crossing the floor to join them. He squatted down next to Vandemarr. ‘It’s a fibre,’ the Commissar remarked grimly, 'from a green jacket,’ ‘God-Emperor,’ Màhlav breathed. ‘But no-one from the Hussars has been up here…are you sure?’ ‘Mm-hm,’ Hechter said, ‘there’s no mistaking it.’ He held it up next to Màhlav’s jacket. ‘Same colour, same texture.’ ‘Impossible,’ Màhlav whispered, ‘I won’t believe it.’ Vandemarr and Hechter exchanged a glance. ‘I’m sorry, Gygory,’ the Commissar said, standing up and placing a hand on his shoulder. ‘To be honest, you shouldn’t be surprised. There are a lot worse Guard regiments.’ Màhlav shook his head. ‘But…to try and kill – murder a Commissar, a-a Commodore and a Major! It’s absurd! The Hussars are a proud regiment, not honourless dogs!’ ‘Yes,’ Hechter said with a sneer, ‘but that’s what they all say, isn’t it?’

Màhlav fixed him with a glare. ‘How dare you!’ he snarled, anger flashing across his eyes. ‘Don’t even begin to doubt the honour of my regiment, you…Navy coward!’ Hechter launched to his feet. ‘You son of a bitch!’ he growled, balling his hands into fists. ‘That’s enough!’ Vandemarr snapped, commanding instant obedience the way only a Commissar could. ‘Commodore, get a hold of yourself. And Major, start acting like one. No regiment is perfect, we all know that. I’m not sure what these dramatics are about, but keep them to yourself. I still have jurisdiction on this ship, and insulting a senior officer is tantamount to insubordination. And I’m sure I don’t need to remind you what the punishment for that is.’ A deadly silence descended, whilst Hechter unclenched his hands. He and Màhlav continued to stare at each other. ‘Throne,’ Vandemarr said, shaking his head. ‘It’s just a fibre. It could mean anything.’ ‘Or it could mean everything,’ Hechter muttered, straightening his jacket out. ‘There were no Hussars were in this room prior to disembarkation?’ Vandemarr asked Màhlav. He nodded. ‘So it has to have been done from the outside, and recently. And it also has to be someone with access to the officer’s decks. Which narrows it down to the Hussar’s brass.’ There was a pause. Hechter and Màhlav were still raw, and uncooperative. ‘And they’re all planetside,’ Vandemarr finished off irritably. *** It didn’t take long to get permission from Hyrgen for Vandemarr to head to the surface of Illythia. He got the distinct feeling that the First Officer was preoccupied and glad to be shot of him, with his intolerable snobbery and contempt for anything Guard. It also didn’t take much persuasion to get him to assign to them a squad of armsmen to help search the barracks decks for deserters and leads. No doubt another opportunity to have the last two thirds of the investigatory team dispatched by knife-wielding bandits in the dark corridors of the ship. *** They stood in the cold hanger of the disembarkation level, next to the heavy rust-red bulk of a Navy Aquilla lander, hydraulics steaming in preparation for takeoff. Vandemarr had donned his black leather trench coat and peaked cap, and stood on the landing ramp, silhouetted by the red light emanating from the hold. ‘It’ll be good to see a sun again,’ he said, checking his bolt pistol. ‘Don’t get yourself killed,’ Hechter said, and meant it. ‘There was an action last night. Flattened a hab block from orbit just to kill a carnifex. They mean it when they say they don’t care about the Guard, Albrecht.’ Vandemarr nodded.

‘Ours is not to question why,’ he said. The Commodore grinned. ‘Ours is but to do and die. You don’t believe that, do you?’ ‘I used to. Now it’s my job to question why, I think I’d prefer to be a line Commissar again.’ ‘Ha! You wouldn’t catch me down there for love nor money. Naval combat is good enough for me.’ Vandemarr shook his head good naturedly. ‘Try and find out as much as you can. Hopefully I won’t be gone for more than a week. I’ll be on the vox when we make planetfall.’ Hechter nodded. ‘What about the boy?’ he asked. Behind him, Màhlav appeared, cap in hands. Hechter ignored him. ‘Fleet Admiral’s got him now,’ Vandemarr said, shrugging. ‘Keep your ears to the ground. Ask Hyrgen, he’ll know.’ ‘Hn,’ the Commodore grunted, half-satisfied. ‘Take care. See you in a week.’ Vandemarr nodded, and turned up the ramp.

Chapter 17
‘The Tyranids are the most horrifying for their thoroughness. They do not defeat you. They devour you and strip you of everything. Even your soul is just fodder to these beasts...’ - Inquisitor Carrax, ‘A treatise on the Kraken’ Illythia Ultima Segmentum 03:02 (local) 63.982.M41 ~ Nikolai Rëchivik ~ August groaned as he rolled onto his back, every joint in his body aching painfully with the movement. A lethal headache was pounding through his brain – probably the after effects of his confrontation with the zoanthrope – and he unstrapped his helmet in a fruitless effort to relieve some of the pressure. It took him a few minutes of painful thought to piece together what had happened; he had jumped from a second storey window onto the roof of a grain refinery, fallen through it, and knocked himself out. What had happened to the carnifex, he didn’t know. He checked he still had his snub-nosed autopistol and knife, before sliding the knife back into its sheath. Then he stood up, and fell over again as waves of concussion and nausea hit him, and he retched his freeze-dried rations onto the floor in a chunky yellow mess. ‘Buhhh,’ he groaned, wiping the biley mess from his mouth and chin. He checked his chronometer, and gasped. It was just after three in the morning – almost nine hours since they’d made contact with the Tyranids, and at a guess, eight hours since he’d started running from the carnifex. He rolled back onto the floor again, drowsy. A combination of a lack of sleep and a good blow to the head had meant he’d been out cold for a lot longer than usual – and he was sure the zoanthrope wasn’t blameless either. He tried to shake it off and sit up, but that only made the nausea worse. And then he heard a noise. He turned round quickly, and immediately wished he hadn’t. His head was swimming, and there was an annoying buzzing noise in his ears – probably an after effect of his fall. There was the noise again! It sounded like someone dragging something across the floor, a wide, hissing sound one would associate with a wood-brush broom. Except he doubted someone was sweeping up. ‘He-’ he began, but stopped himself. He didn’t want to attract attention in his state. Who knew what insanity awaited him, when considering his experience with the zoanthrope? His heart was thumping against his sternum now. He desperately wanted to be free of his concussion – and then he realised his stimshot pack was still in his thigh pouch. With sore, bloodied fingers, he fumbled the button open and delved inside the deep pocket, to fish out a collection of curettes held together by an elastic band. He freed one and removed its rubber cap, before stabbing it into his leg and depressing the plunger.

It wasn’t perfect, but it would do. Stuffing the scrounged collection back into his pocket, he picked up his pistol again, and stood up. The refinery floor was large – a long, rectangular room filled with tangles of pipes and flues and coils of wire, and large threshers and mixers and bagging mechanisms. The large, ugly blocks of machinery – all a dark, looming grey – resembled a steel jungle, and it was hard to see how anyone could find their way through it during the day. But August didn’t have the luxury of waiting for the day. With his pistol outstretched, he made his way forward across the dusty concrete, with only the slanted moonlight to see by, heading to the source of the noise. After five minutes more of moving through the refinery, he came to a wide corridor that lead to a junction of staircases twenty metres further down. With the pistol prone, he realised that the noise was coming through an ajar door ten metres on his right. And with a cold, pricking sensation across the back of his neck, he realised that there was a large pool of dark fluid seeping from the doorway and into the hall. Feeling his palms sweating over the grip of the pistol, he crept forward, until he was right outside. He could hear noises coming from the room beyond – noises that he was sure weren’t natural. Summoning all his courage, he lifted his leg, and placed a well-aimed kick on the far edge of the door. ‘Throne!’ he yelped, letting off a long burst of shots on full auto. The pistol clicked empty in seconds, but the…thing that had been in the room seconds before had already smashed through the window with an ear-splitting shriek and a hail of smashed glass. All that was left in the room behind it was a large, rapidly-deflating biosac, and a bloodied, unconscious Bavarian. *** ‘I’ve told you already! Twice!’ ‘So tell me again, for the benefit of the Colonel.’ August sighed angrily. In front of him was a collection of the Hussar’s pensive high command, and a red-faced Major Johannes prompting him to recall what he had seen for the third time in an hour. ‘I can’t tell you what it was, because I’ve never seen anything like it before,’ the Captain said, massaging the side of his head. ‘It was big, it had wings –’ ‘A gargoyle?’ Colonel Taschen asked hopefully. ‘No sir, I’ve seen plenty of those before.’ ‘What then?’ August nearly passed a kidney. With controlled rage, he said, ‘I’m not sure, Colonel; as I said, I’ve never seen one before.’ ‘Have you looked at an identity slate? There are a lot of Tyranid strains – perhaps it’s just one you’ve never seen in combat before.’ ‘No sir, I’ve reviewed the slate a hundred times, it’s not on there.’ He felt like he was talking to the tent flap.

‘Tell him about what was in the room. The ‘biosac’.’ Johannes said, twirling a finger through his moustache. ‘When I entered the room, there was a biosac on the floor – like a big organic sac filled with fluid,’ he explained before someone asked, ‘and I shot it accidentally. I was trying to hit the thing.’ ‘Is this a term…you’ve come up with yourself?’ Taschen asked. ‘No, sir!’ August replied, incredulous as to the irrelevance of the question. ‘And tell him about the man,’ Johannes prompted, like a child trying to impress his father. August sighed again. ‘There was a Bavarian on the floor, unconscious. He’s in the medical tent now, medics say he’s in some kind of coma and won’t pull through.’ He said it quickly, and without emotion. One thing about the stimshots was that they were highly addictive. He’d already used another three in the ten or so hours he’d spent getting from Galensbad back to GHQ – quelling the last of the Tyranid ambush, directing the new reinforcements and armour to defensive positions, and sorting out the other myriad of tasks inherent in his Captaincy. Now he was sitting still, explaining his story to a string of successively senior commanders, he was itching for another one. The withdrawal was making him jumpy and irritable. One more and he’d stop, he promised himself. ‘Did you get a name?’ Taschen asked. ‘Yes, his tags said Nikolai Rëchivik,’ August said. There was a brief pause whilst the members of high command talked amongst themselves, before Taschen turned back to him. ‘Thank you, Captain,’ he said, ‘you’ve been very patient. You did absolutely the right thing in trying to kill…whatever it was that was in the room. I’m sorry this has taken so long, but you know what these things are like. There’s one more thing we’d like you to do – consider it a break, if you like.’ August looked up. ‘Yes?’ he asked, unenthusiastically. ‘About…half an hour ago, the Black Manticore told us that a Commissar would be arriving on the planet to ask a few questions. We would be grateful if you could keep him busy for the next couple of hours, while we sort this out. You know, answer his questions, give him a tour of the base or whatever.’ ‘But sir,’ August said quickly, feeling adrenaline pulse through his system. He needed another stimshot, badly. ‘Wouldn’t someone else be better suited?’ He felt his forehead break out in sweat, and his hand subconsciously crept towards his thigh pouch. ‘No Captain,’ Taschen said, checking his watch, ‘we think you deserve a break. He’ll be here in a few minutes or so, drop zone P. And once again, thank you. I don’t think you need to be reminded not to tell anyone about this?’ ‘No sir,’ August said, instantly recalling all the people he’d already told.

‘Good. Well done today Captain.’ ‘Thank you, sir,’ As soon as they were gone, he jabbed another curette into his thigh, got up, and headed for the Commissar.

Chapter 18

‘Treachery can be likened to a cancerous growth; first it goes unnoticed, then it goes ignored. Then it kills you.’ - Commissar Davian Yllack, addressing the Schola Progenium INS Black Manticore Ultima Segmentum 15:04 (ship time) 63.982.M41 ~Deserter~ The immensity of the barracks deck had turned out to be every bit as eerie as Hyrgen had promised it would be that very morning – though it now felt like weeks ago. It made both Hechter and Màhlav thankful for the presence of the naval armsmen, who, in their grey formmoulded body armour and mirror-visored helmets, were more than imposing as they moved through the wide gangways and dark corners of the deck. Their boots made the only sound in the wide walkway as they thumped against the metal grilling, swinging their medium-powered las carbines back and forth, checking for anything and everything. Màhlav was the first to break the long silence. There had been a mutual dislike between them, exacerbated by the absence of the ever-diplomatic Vandemarr. ‘We’re not going to find anything here,’ he said. Hechter jumped, and then angrily regained his composure. He had not forgotten Màhlav’s calling him a coward, and would not do so for some time yet. ‘That’s not the point. We’re eliminating possibilities. If we don’t find anything here then it’s one more place we don’t need to look,’ he snapped. They continued on down the grilling, childish in their ignorance of each other, deliberately finding things of little interest to concentrate on; their signet rings, a leather wallet, rank tabs that weren’t quite straight. Though Hechter had snapped at Màhlav, he secretly didn’t hold much hope of finding anything either. If there were any deserters, they certainly would not be persuaded to surrender themselves at the sight of a Major, Commodore and six naval armsmen. He sighed, and made a cursory check of the gangway to his right. From where they were walking, the catwalk branched off in both directions that led to separate gangways running parallel to the main. They themselves were hidden under thick piping, service gantries and the shadows of both, and segregated by adamantium bulkheads which also sported blast doors leading to further walkways and shafts. In short, there were hundreds – thousands of places for deserters to hide; and given the very nature of the passages, they would invariably lead to food and supplies from the kitchens and quartermaster’s store. It was not unheard of for small colonies to form on the larger ships, like townships concealed in the hundreds of kilometres of rarely-used or decommissioned walkways. Hechter shuddered at the thought, grateful that he had never encountered such cowardice. And then his musings were suddenly cut short as he caught a flurry of movement from the corner of his eye. ‘There!’ one of the armsmen shouted, pointing and letting off a staccato burst of las fire. Shots

pinged and smacked off the adamantium hull where the figure ran in the shadows, and seconds later a return burst of fire came and tore a fistful of flesh from the armsman’s chests. He collapsed backwards, dead. ‘Throne!’ Hechter shouted, pulling his compact autopistol from his holster. Màhlav did the same, and together they ran for cover. ‘He’s there, over there!’ another vox speaker crackled. More las fire flickered across the deck, holing lockers and cot frames and scorching metal. A second wet thump and another of the armsmen was sprawled out on the deck, bleeding from a large neck wound. ‘Emperor, call in support!’ Hechter shouted, squeezing off two hastily aimed shots before ducking back behind a brace of coolant piping. No-one seemed to hear him above the din, as shots ricocheted off every surface, turning individual shouts into smears of frantic noise. Next to him, Màhlav remained in cover, either unable or unwilling to take part in the exchange. Another armsman took a round in the knee, explosively inverting his leg and sending blood and hard rounds hammering into the hull next to Hechter. ‘He’s using a stubber – a proper stubber!’ he shouted to Màhlav, who simply nodded grimly. He supposed the Major had seen and been in much worse planetside. For him, this was the closest he’d ever come to a fire fight; and his inexpert shots and clumsy covering were all too obvious. But he was too concerned with their assailant putting a bullet in the hull and killing them all. ‘Where is he?’ one of the armsmen shouted. A frantic exchange occurred whilst they tried to discern, in the silence, where the attacker had gone. ‘There! Down that access shaft!’ another shouted – the sergeant, guessing from the insignia stencilled onto the breast of his body armour. ‘MkDrake, stay with Hallen! Argan, with me!’ ‘Wait!’ Hechter shouted, breaking cover. He stumbled to his feet and ran after the two armsmen, whilst the casualties were seen to by ‘MkDrake’. He heard Màhlav get up and start running behind him. They carried on towards the starboard hull of the ship, cutting a path through ever-narrowing corridors. Access shafts were crawled through, ladders and stairwells descended; they were travelling into the bowels of the ship, towards the cramped maintenance decks and the engines rooms. It was getting hotter, and Hechter dismissed a buzzing in his ears as the pressure from the void shield generators. He’d been running for fifteen minutes, pistol in hand, convincing himself he’d only been twenty metres behind the two armsmen at any one time. But as he turned another unfamiliar corner into the hundredth tiny accessway, drenched in sweat and thoroughly out of breath, he realised that he had lost them a long time beforehand. ‘Damn,’ he panted, shedding his midnight blue jacket and wiping a handkerchief across his forehead. Moisture was collecting on the concrete ceiling, dribbling down the pipes and cables lining the walls. It was as if everything was sweating in the stuffy heat. He leant back against the wall uneasily, listening to the throb of the engines and tasting the tang of shield static in the air, whilst he caught his breath. Then, over the buzzing, he heard a voice, along with quick footsteps. ‘…odore? Hechter?’ ‘I’m here!’ he shouted. A minute later, Gygory Màhlav appeared round the corner, his red hair a sweaty mop and his tunic, like Hechter’s, soaked. ‘This way!’ the Major shouted, jerking a thumb over his shoulder, ‘they’ve got him! Where the

hell have you been?’ ‘Oh Throne,’ Hechter sighed, pushing himself away from the wall. ‘Where abouts?’ ‘Follow me.’ They moved at as brisk a pace as the cramped corridors allowed, for another five minutes, this time towards the port side of the ship – towards the power core. Hechter’s uneasiness grew as they squeezed through another crawlway, sceptical as to how the armsmen managed to successfully pursue their fugitive through such speed-restricting passageways; and his doubts were not unfounded as they finally reached a dank old maintenance elevator that led directly to the power core level. ‘Down here,’ Màhlav said. Hechter looked at him, then to the elevator. ‘Down there?’ ‘Yeah,’ the Major nodded emphatically, wiping his lip, ‘that’s where the armsmen are. That’s where we think the deserters are hiding.’ Hechter remained sceptical. ‘They chased him down an elevator?’ ‘Dammit Commodore we don’t have time for this!’ A few seconds of silence passed. ‘Alright,’ Hechter relented eventually, stepping into the lift. He didn’t have enough of a reason not to, and lives were at stake. ‘Are you com –’ But it was too late. The metal gate slammed shut after him, and Màhlav had already activated the external winch lever. ‘What the – you son of a bitch!’ Hechter roared, lurching for the control panel. It had been destroyed. ‘Stop this, now! Damn you man, what are you doing?’ The elevator squealed and ground inexorably down its un-oiled atrium, towards whatever lay at the bottom. Hechter threw the pistol on the floor and pried at the gate with his fingers until they bled, but to no avail. ‘Màhlav, Throne dammit!’ he shouted, hammering his fists against the gate. ‘Bring it back up now! That’s an order!’ But Màhlav did not bring it back up. Hechter cursed under his breath, and snatched the pistol back from off the floor, training it on the gate in front of him and waiting for the elevator to reach the bottom. More sweat dribbled from his brow, and he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck and arms stand on end – a combination of plasma static and fear. After another interminable minute, the elevator reached the bottom of the shaft, and shuddered to a halt. The gate automatically ground open, revealing to him the power core beyond. ‘Sweet…Emperor,’ Hechter breathed, as the pistol tumbled from his hands. The Source.

PART 3 Chapter 19
‘A mind without purpose will wander in dark places.’ - Imperial idiom Illythia Ultima Segmentum 16:00 (local) 63.982.M41 ~More Questions~ The Aquilla lander’s engines protested loudly as the pilot eased the old, battered craft onto drop zone P, and Vandemarr briefly wondered whether the whole thing would fall apart as the landing gear recoiled violently into its hydraulic recesses. With a tired sigh, he affixed his cap to his head, shed the harness straps holding him into the bucket seat, and headed down the landing ramp. Like most agri worlds, Illythia was extremely hot, and the verdant plant life that had smothered many of the farm’s now unattended fields was steaming in the early evening air. The atmosphere towards the planet’s equator was warm and clammy, almost unbearably humid, and as soon as Vandemarr’s boots settled on the compacted dirt that made up the drop site, he was sweating heavily in his full gear and trench coat. What had been a necessity on a cold warship was now a stifling burden, and Vandemarr removed the coat and handed it, along with his duffel bag, to a ground crewman, who was stripped down to a pair of khaki trousers and boots. ‘Thanks,’ he muttered, taking a pair of sunshades from his pocket and putting them on. Although it was four o’clock, the sun was still high in the sky, and its brightness was intolerable. Had the crops here not been heavily engineered, and the ground pumped full of fertilisers and nutrients, Vandemarr had no doubt that it would have been a desert. He looked around him at what constituted a standard Guard base, like the many hundreds he’d seen before on as many front lines. Olive green tents and prefab buildings, picket lines and makeshift roads, brass speakers on tall poles and overhead communications receivers; sandbagged emplacements marked every corner, there motor pools containing lines of ATVs and Imperial tanks, ammunition dumps full of shells and lines of artillery pieces glinting in the sunlight. It was like he had come home again, after spending too long solving mysteries and punishing crimes. After he had found out exactly what was going on with the Hussars’ murders, he would return to active duty. The thought had a certain catharsis to it, and instantly lightened his mood. He made for the nearest tent to make some enquiries, when he was suddenly accosted by a man who almost unhealthily alert. Great swathes of sweat marked his armpits and chest, and although Vandemarr himself was breaking out in quite a comprehensive sweat, he was sure that not all of this man’s fluid excess was due to the heat. ‘Commissar Vandemarr?’ the man asked – a Captain by his slides – in a dejected and bored exhalation. ‘The very same,’ Vandemarr said, returning the salute. He eyed the man suspiciously, but kept his preconceptions at bay. On an extremely uncomfortable and Tyranid-infested world, he was

willing to forgive a vast majority of infractions that would have other Commissars howling at the moon. Including relaxation of kit regulations. ‘I’m here to show you around, answer your questions, et cetera,’ the Captain continued in the same tired monologue. Although his voice was weary, his pupils were dilated and his eyes alert. Artificial stimulants. God-Emperor knew when the last time the man had slept was. Vandemarr almost felt sorry for him, and would have done if it wasn’t the man’s sole duty to brave the enemies of the Imperium. He’d seen other soldiers go through a lot worse. He’d been through a lot worse. ‘That’s good, because I have many and require comprehensive answers,’ Vandemarr replied in a clipped tone, unbuttoning the top of his jacket. With so many Guardsman committing kit infractions surrounding him, it would do to relax his own, thus keeping their minds on the Tyranids and not on a bolt from his pistol. ‘I’m August, by the way, sir,’ the Captain said. ‘Karl August.’ ‘Vandemarr,’ he replied, taking the proffered hand. *** They continued through the camp for a short while in silence, whilst Vandemarr took out a notepad and pencil. On it had been quickly scrawled some questions and references, and he spent some time deciphering and cursing his own scrappy handwriting. When he had organised them into coherent form, he struck up a basic conversation to get August talking. ‘How’s it been down here so far?’ he asked, watching as the artillery crewmen performed their rigorous drills to his left. ‘Hell,’ August replied, fumbling for a lho stick. ‘They attack twice a day, every day. Sometimes more. Every time we lose men. The fething weather certainly doesn’t help.’ Vandemarr nodded. ‘It’s hot,’ he agreed, ‘very hot. I can imagine how bad it must be.’ ‘You’ll get eaten to schtan by the insects,’ the Captain continued grimly. We’ll need to get you some repellent pretty soon. It’s definitely not an option.’ ‘Duly noted,’ Vandemarr smiled. ‘It’s good to have the local knowledge. Anything else I should know?’ August paused for a while. ‘You ever fought the Tyranids before, sir?’ ‘Indeed I have,’ the Commissar replied, ‘a long time ago.’ ‘Hm. Then you already know everything.’ Vandemarr didn’t reply, but he knew what the Captain meant. Once you fought the Tyranids, you never forgot. ‘Do you know why I am here?’ he asked after a short silence, already tired with August’s jerky, restless responses. There was only so much he was willing to forgive. August shrugged. ‘No.’ ‘Nine Hussars were murdered on board the Manticore. I’m here to investigate their deaths. Fleet Admiral Kursk believes it to be fouler play than usual.’ August’s attention was caught.

‘I’d heard something like that,’ he admitted, ‘though I didn’t know anyone who had been killed.’ ‘You seem unsurprised,’ Vandemarr observed. August shrugged again. ‘Guardsmen die. It’s what we’re good at. It’s not the first time I’ve been on a ship where someone has been killed.’ ‘Do you not think nine is excessive? Eleven, if you count the missing ship hands.’ ‘It’s a lot,’ August conceded, ‘but then we were on the ship for a long time. I wouldn’t be surprised if we were a company’s worth of men down from desertion.’ Vandemarr pursed his lips. The man’s lack of emotion – both sorrow for his dead comrades and contempt for the deserters – was interesting. He was obviously learned in the ways of the Imperial Guard. A useful man to have around. ‘I have several theories as to why they have been ‘killed’, although an insider’s viewpoint would be invaluable. Tell me, do you know of any gangs inside your regiment, and reasons why they would be fighting?’ ‘Yeah there’s gangs,’ August said, ‘though I don’t know of anything ongoing.’ ‘Any known hideouts on the ship, anywhere well known for deserters, any secret groups or anything like that?’ ‘Nothing I know of.’ Vandemarr paused, checking his notepad. ‘Tell me about Oberon Minor,’ he said as they passed another motor pool. ‘Oberon Minor?’ August said, genuinely surprised. ‘What do you want to know?’ ‘I’m interested in the Hussar’s senior officer cadre, specifically. Anything odd about them? Anything unusual or strange happen there?’ August thought for a moment. ‘Well we were under Lord Marshall Tartovski at Oberon. He was personally overseeing the defence.’ ‘Hold on, Tartovski was overseeing the defence?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Who else?’ ‘Uh, Colonel Taschen? Major Johannes? Another Major, I think, though he may have been court martialled. I can’t really remember, I was only a trooper back then.’ ‘Are they here now?’ ‘Yeah, the Colonel and Johannes are here. They’re the ones who sent me to find you.’ ‘But not Tartovski?’ ‘No, he stayed back at Oberon when the Marines arrived.’

Vandemarr paused, frustrated. He was definitely on to something, but the fact that it was eluding him was infuriating. There was something about this Marshall Tartovski that he didn’t like, ever since Kursk had told them about his leaving Illythia for a month before the Hussars arrived. ‘Did you know that there was another Guard regiment that could have reached Illythia a month sooner than you?’ he asked. It was a long shot, but it was all he had. ‘No, I didn’t,’ August said, pulling out another lho stick. It must have been the fourth in ten minutes. ‘That seems…odd.’ ‘It smacks of something rotten,’ Vandemarr said, clenching his fists as his answers evaded him once more. ‘I should like to speak to Colonel Taschen, soon.’ ‘Hn,’ August grunted, ‘it probably won’t do you much good. He’s looking at the camp’s latest celebrity coma patient in the medical tent.’ ‘What?’ ‘Last night. I found some Tyranid, like one I’d never seen before. It was about to stuff the guy into a biosac and take him Emperor-knows where.’ ‘What did it look like?’ Vandemarr asked, his brow creasing in worry. ‘Like…big, almost like a big gargoyle but with these like…I don’t know, like bulges on its back, kind of like gun barrels. I didn’t get a good look at it, but it was strange, like nothing I’ve ever seen before.’ Vandemarr quickened his pace as August led them back around towards the medical tent. He jotted more scrawled notes down as he moved, too many thoughts rushing through his head. ‘What’s the rush?’ August asked, massaging his temple. Then he brought his other hand to his head. ‘What’s wrong?’ Vandemarr asked, feeling a dull ache spread through his own head. A buzzing filled his ears, like demented vox chatter, almost inaudible yet at the same time unbearably loud. ‘You feel that?’ August asked, and Vandemarr noticed a trickle of blood running from the Captain’s nose. ‘Throne,’ Vandemarr said, pulling his bolt pistol from his chest holster. August pulled his lasrifle prone, and together they ran towards the medical tent. Outside, Guardsmen were massaging their temples and conversing in bewildered tones. ‘You men! Open the tent!’ Vandemarr shouted. The troopers, startled at the sight, quickly obeyed, pulling the tent flaps back – And then cartwheeled backwards in a hail of blood and las fire that punched through the canvas. Vandemarr and August went to ground, metres from the entrance, whilst troopers ran for cover in all directions. ‘What the hell is going on?’ August shouted as more blasts whickered above their heads. But Vandemarr was counting shots, and paid no attention to the Captain’s questions. When the number reached forty, he stood up, dragging August with him, and barrelled through the entrance flap. ‘Emperor!’ he shouted, fumbling his bolt pistol at the psychic assault. In front of them, the ‘comatose’ Rëchivik had embedded his hand in the back of Johannes’ head, and the Major, his

eyes rolled back in their sockets, was slackly reloading the lasrifle like some diseased marionette. ‘Ah…dammit I can’t…’ August squirmed as he tried to pull the trigger spool on his own lasgun. The psychic attack increased in intensity, immobilising both men, whilst Johannes rammed the fresh power cell home and lifted the lasrifle. ‘Grrrraaargh!’ Vandemarr gnashed, and with all his strength lifted his bolt pistol and put a round through Johannes’ knee, taking his leg off and blowing a chunk out of Rëchivik’s calf. The psychic link broke, and Johannes’ spasming cadaver sent a full magazine of las shots into the ground, before the barrel dug into the flooring and clogged, exploding the weapon and disintegrating his arm and chest. Rëchivik’s hand sucked free from the Major’s skull, and he made a mad dash for the unconscious Colonel Taschen, grabbing the man by his fatigues; but August had already lined up the possessed Guardsman with his lasrifle, and a quick double tap saw his brains decorating the inside of the tent. And then, all was quiet.

Chapter 20

‘Faith is the sturdiest armour. Hatred the surest weapon.’ - Imperial idiom INS Black Manticore Ultima Segmentum 17:03 (ship time) 63.982.M41 ~Something’s wrong…~ It had been organised much more quickly than expected. Kursk’s operations in the medical bay had taken but a few hours, and the members of the Ecclesiarchy and Navy and other dignitaries had arrived just before noon, adding their own horde of techpriests to the preparations on the bridge. Hyrgen had been sent on pointless and time consuming errands whilst the bridge was effectively decommissioned, and Kai Bastian, the boy given to the Fleet Admiral in the hope that one day, he might to become one himself, had been signed away to the gun decks. Now, as the First Officer strode across another of the ship’s myriad corridors, he wished he had Vandemarr and Hechter with him. The Commodore, as another man of the Navy, could at least share his concerns with how unnecessarily quickly this whole thing was being organised, and Vandemarr was as sharp as a knife when it came to intelligent conversation. He was already regretting showing them both the cold shoulder during their short time aboard the ship. But as for Màhlav, well. He’d never clicked with the Guard Major, despite the amount of time the man spent with the upper echelons of the Navy. In fact, Hyrgen had never seen him with and of the Guard’s brass. It was the first time he’d known such a devoted liaison officer. He rounded another bulkhead, his thoughts returning to the Fleet Admiral. Of course, such things as ship integration were rumoured about months, even years before they actually happened, so it hadn’t been totally unexpected. Even the Guard on the barracks levels knew something about it. But what got to him was how quickly it had been done. He laboured the point over and over in his head, trying to think of possible reasons. He’d never witnessed one before, or spoken to integrated Captains about their own integration; but from what he’d gathered generally over the years, it was a much rejoiced in ceremony, often taking days for all the correct rituals and procedures to occur. This one was taking place in the space of a couple of hours, crammed into an insignificant evening in what seemed to be the fastest integration ever. He shook his head angrily. Even Lord Marshall Tartovski had arrived, who he was sure had once been a stickler for ceremony. On Oberon Minor, he had always been slightly eccentric. Hyrgen had never really had a decent conversation with the man, but he had heard all about him, and understood that his presence here was something of an occasion. He’d heard that there was also quite the collection of brass with him – Guard Generals, Navy Admirals – an almost unprecedented turnout considering how short the ceremony was going to be. He reached the wide staircase that lead down from the embarkation level to the officer’s deck, and at the base of the red-carpeted stairs, he pulled the receiver from a bulky metal commcaster bolted to the wall and tuned it to Hechter and Màhlav’s frequency. They were somewhere on the barracks decks, he recalled, since he had assigned them a squad of armsmen.

As soon as it tuned in, a terrible screeching filled the earpiece, like some hysterical dialling tone, and Hyrgen recoiled violently, dropping the receiver. He could still hear the horrible static emanating from it on the floor, and he rubbed his ear, temporarily deafened by the unexpected auditory assault. ‘Throne,’ he breathed incredulously. It was the worst signal he’d ever received. Where the hell was Hechter? He grabbed the tuning dial and turned it an indeterminate cycle right, to stop the screaming receiver, and reluctantly tried to raise Màhlav. This time, however, the steady, rhythmic beeping of an unreachable comlink filled the earpiece. He’d turned it off. ‘First Officer?’ came a voice from behind him. Hyrgen yelped as he span round, to see Màhlav standing not ten metres away. How in the name of Terra had he crept up behind him like that? ‘It’s alright, I’m not going to hurt you,’ he said, grinning as he nodded towards Hyrgen’s hand. The First Officer looked down to find that he had subconsciously grabbed the handle of his autopistol. He smirked uncomfortably, but didn’t release it for a couple of seconds. ‘Of course. I was just trying to raise you,’ he said, wholly uncomfortable with the Major’s presence. There was something…odd about him. ‘Ah, yes,’ Màhlav said, looking at his comms receiver as if it were some kind of alien artefact. ‘I fear I’ve accidentally turned it off. I could never really work these Navy models.’ Hyrgen doubted that Màhlav, as a Major, would be unable to operate a simple piece of communications equipment. But he said nothing. ‘Where’s Commodore Hechter?’ ‘He’s gone back to our room,’ Màhlav said quickly. ‘We searched the barracks but couldn’t find anything. The armsmen have also returned to their quarters.’ Hyrgen regarded the man for a second. Was it his imagination, or could he still hear the screeching sound of the commcaster? ‘What are you doing here?’ he asked, almost wincing at how stupidly obvious the question was, but at the same time desperate to find out just what exactly was going on. ‘Actually I came to speak to you. Since the Fleet Admiral’s being ship integrated, I thought I would show you something interesting we’ve found that might help explain the murders.’ Adrenaline shot through Hyrgen’s stomach. ‘How do you know about the Fleet Admiral’s ship integration?’ he asked sharply. For the first time in the surreal conversation, Màhlav faltered – almost imperceptibly. His left eye twitched slightly, and Hyrgen could tell the man was inwardly cursing. ‘You know the power of rumours,’ the Major said after a second, laughing uncomfortably. ‘I’ve been speaking to a few other officers. The news is all over the ship.’ Hyrgen was tempted to pull his pistol on the man and kill him where he stood – such was his suspicion. He was never one to take chances. ‘I should like to speak to Hechter,’ he said, ‘now.’ ‘That’s fine. I’ll take you to him.’ Màhlav said, almost relived. ‘And hand me your commcaster. I need to speak to Vandemarr.’

‘Of course, First Officer,’ the Major said as he handed over the small green comms device. Hyrgen noticed that it was working perfectly.

Chapter 21
‘The Known is but a shadow of the Knowable.’ - Brother Chaplain Marcus Dovanian, ‘Maxims’ Illythia Ultima Segmentum 17:07 (local) 63.982.M41 ~A coincidence too far ~ Crunch. Vandemarr’s fist slammed into Taschen’s jaw again. ‘What happened on Oberon?’ he roared, grabbing the man by the front of his fatigues and pulling his face closer. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Taschen said with a bloody grin. Crunch. Another punch to the abdomen sent the Colonel reeling. ‘I can keep this up all night Taschen,’ Vandemarr said, pulling the man back onto the stool. ‘I want to know about Tartovski. I want to know what happened on Oberon. I want to know why this…thing just tried to take you out of this tent. And I want to know in the next ten seconds.’ He indicated to Rëchivik’s brainless cadaver lying in a pool of stinking blood, before turning back to Taschen and grabbing him by his hair. ‘Alright!’ Taschen screamed. In the corner, August observed grimly, whilst outside a guard detail was watching the entrance. Vandemarr waited. ‘Go on,’ he said. Taschen motioned him to bring his head forward, as if to whisper in his ear. ‘In your dreams, Colonel,’ he said, straightening back up and bringing his bolt pistol from its holster. He put it against the Colonel’s forehead. ‘Last chance. Be under no illusions, Taschen. I am a man of my word.’ Taschen, his face a mask of blood, seemed to comply, and opened his mouth. But what came out was not a confession to the murders; it was neither the sordid information Vandemarr wanted to hear on the Hussar’s brass, nor the dealings with Tartovski on Oberon. It was an inhuman shriek that penetrated both the ears and the mind, reverberating around the entire camp and beyond; a terrible wail that smashed ampoules of fluid and send voxcasters haywire, had Guardsmen clawing at their heads and the local entire battlenet in disarray. Vandemarr had had enough. ‘Emperor what’s wrong with these people?’ he shouted, sending a bolt into Taschen’s head. It detonated like a ripe watermelon, explosively showering The Commissar with detritus and decorating the inside of the tent with brains and blood. The shriek was silenced as abruptly as it started. Vandemarr pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped away the worst of the cranial matter from his face, before turning on his heel and walking out the flap. ‘Captain August!’ he shouted from over his shoulder. ‘A word.’

*** They were attracting a lot of attention as they walked through the camp, though Vandemarr was in no mood to pay it any heed. August moved slightly more timidly next to him, waiting for the Commissar to speak. ‘What else happened here? Anything strange? Absolutely anything you can think of?’ he asked. August looked up, as if consulting his mind. ‘Well, actually, yeah,’ the Captain said, snorting lethargically as the obviousness of the situation hit him. ‘One hundred and fifty Rangers went missing last night – in Galensbad, where I found Rëchivik.’ ‘One hundred and fifty?’ Vandemarr said, stopping and whirling on the Captain. August nodded. ‘Yeah, I…can’t believe I haven’t mentioned it, actually.’ ‘Emperor, neither can I!’ Vandemarr said. ‘All these men are missing, you found this new breed of Tyranid and ‘biosac’ with Rëchivik – did it not occur to you, man, that the two might be linked?’ August seemed to struggle collecting his thoughts. Vandemarr sighed, grabbed him by both shoulders, then roughly pulled open one of his eyelids. ‘How long have you been using?’ he growled. ‘Only since last night,’ August said, drowsily. The come-down from his stimshots was starting to take hold. ‘How many? Honestly?’ ‘Five, maybe six,’ ‘Oh Throne,’ Vandemarr said. He was hooked. What was worse, that many in such a short amount of time had almost lethal consequences. ‘You fool,’ the Commissar continued, pulling out the Captain’s collection of shots from his thigh pouch. ‘One every twelve hours!’ he snapped, thrusting the collection into his face. ‘It says that for a reason! Emperor knows you’ll go into a coma if you stop now! You’re accustomed! These things feth up your head!’ ‘I’m sorry,’ August said, his head lolling back. Vandemarr snarled as he stabbed another curette into his bicep. The Captain instantly perked up. 'You’ll never be able to stop taking these,’ Vandemarr said, his sympathy gone. ‘You fething idiot.’ ‘Commissar Vandemarr!’ came a voice from behind them. Both men whirled around to see a Guardsman holding a voxcaster in his hands. ‘It’s First Officer Hyrgen. He says it’s urgent.’ He grabbed the receiver. ‘Vandemarr,’ he snapped. ‘Vandemarr it’s Hyrgen,’ came the First Officer’s voice. It sounded worryingly panicked. ‘What is it?’ Vandemarr replied, instantly on edge.

‘There’s something going on with Màhlav. He’s acting strangely. Every time he’s near the vox starts making these weird…screeching noises. And I can’t find Hechter anywhere. We’re at your quarters now, where Màhlav said he was, and he’s not here.’ Vandemarr’s skin broke out in gooseflesh. ‘When was the last time you heard this noise?’ he asked quickly. The line was already starting to break up. ‘That’s the thing – something happened a couple of minutes ago, like…omething was screaming over the vox…idn’t sound human…oon as it happened, Màhlav left…reports that it’s happened all over the ship, vox equipment…ailing…battlenet’s in chaos.’ Vandemarr felt a lump develop in his throat. ‘Have you noticed anything else strange? Is there anything happening there now? Anything important?’ he asked quickly. There was a fuzz of static as the link temporarily cut out. ‘…funny you should say that…t Admiral is being integrated into the ship…e speak. They’ve got a whole load of…watching it…Marshal Tartovski…rushing it through like it’s going...I…Emperor… only told about…orning.’ Vandemarr’s heart was racing as he strained to hear over the infinitely useless line. It was all becoming too much of a coincidence. ‘Hyrgen, you need to stop the ceremony,’ he said quickly, his skin breaking out in a sweat, ‘you need to stop it now. Get as many men as you can and stop it. Something’s going on and it’s going to happen soon.’ ‘…op the ceremony? I can’t…underst…ou…line is….Mahlav’s just come…ack…’ Vandemarr looked around desperately, pressing the receiver to his ear. ‘Stay away from him, Hyrgen! Stay away from Màhlav!’ ‘Màhlav?’ August asked next to him. ‘That was the name! Major Màhlav! He was the one who was court martialled after Oberon Minor! What’s he doing on the ship?’ ‘Tell me you’re joking,’ Vandemarr said. ‘No!’ August replied, ‘the man shouldn’t even be alive!’ ‘Hyrgen, get off the ship. Get off the ship now!’ Vandemarr yelled into the receiver. But the line was already dead. ‘What the hell is going on?’ August asked, as Vandemarr looked around him. ‘Dammit, dammit dammit dammit!’ the Commissar said, taking off his cap and running a hand through his hair. ‘Sir?’ the Guardsman next to them said, looking thoroughly worried. ‘We’re going back to the Manticore,’ Vandemarr said to August. ‘Now!’ ‘What are you talking about?’ the Captain asked, involuntarily breaking into a jog after the Commissar.

‘They’re going to take over the ship!’ Vandemarr shouted. ‘Who are?’ Both men were sprinting now. 'I'll explain on the way!'

Chapter 22
‘Which man is to judge what is right and what is wrong? Great and terrible foes surround us; uncountable heretics and traitors gnaw at us from within. We are threatened with total annihilation at every passing moment. In days such as these we can afford no luxury of morality.’
- Inquisitor Brochs, ‘Reflections’
INS Volpone Ultima Segmentum 17:34 (local) 63.982.M41

~The beginning of the end~

Captain John Vornn sat on the bridge of the Volpone with a mug of steaming recaff, and sipped it quietly. Across the amphitheatre of consoles and cogitator banks, the crew worked with little enthusiasm. As the beginning of the evening cycle was setting in, they grew weary and eager to get back to their quarters, only half an hour remaining of a twelve hour shift. Vornn sighed as he readjusted his sitting position. They had received word of the Fleet Admiral’s integration, and would receive confirmation pending success. He himself, much younger than the Admiral and much less experienced, would probably not be integrated for some time yet, and the thought soured him. To be melded in mind and body to the ship – his ship – and serve for an eternity whilst garnering an immense respect from his crew, would be a dream come true. He could only imagine how ecstatic the Fleet Admiral was now. ‘Vox, any news on the battlenet?’ he asked tiredly. Like the other ships in the battlegroup, they had been hit by some kind of long-wave interference from Illythia – most likely a UHF vox malfunction from the base – and it had sent the net crazy. His crew had been working furiously to sort it out, though judging from their renewed lethargy, the problem had been solved some time ago. ‘All sorted, sir,’ his SVO shouted back. ‘We’ve had signal for the last half hour.’ ‘Hm. Good.’ Vornn replied. Another silence passed whilst Vornn reviewed the last of the day’s dossiers before he retired for dinner and a quick sleep. But as he pressed himself out of the command dock, the dualtone bleep indicative of an incoming transmission sounded over the address system. ‘Municipal, please,’ he said to his SVO. The man nodded, and with the flick of a switch, the crackling transmission filled the bridge. ‘There’s some residual interference,’ he explained as Vornn looked at him in disbelief. The same, faint screeching sounded in the background of the link. ‘This is Captain Vornn of the INS Volpone, go ahead,’ he said loudly. ‘Captain? This is Fleet Admiral Kursk. I have been successfully integrated.’ There were cheers around the bridge, though Vornn barely managed to suppress a jealous scowl. ‘Congratulations, sir,’ he said tightly, ‘we’re all pleased for you.’

‘I thought we might try a docking manoeuvre,’ Kursk continued, if not oblivious to Vornn’s animosity then certainly ignoring it. ‘Try my new position out. It’s quite thrilling, being able to feel every part of the ship as if it were my own body.’ ‘Uh…yes of course, sir,’ Vornn said, not wanting to perform a docking manoeuvre at all. ‘Excellent. You can hold anchor, we’ll come to you.’ Vornn terminated the feed. ‘Vox, send a message fleetwide, just to let them know.’ ‘Already done sir.’ ‘Very good.’ He watched on the auspex as the Manticore began its manoeuvres, almost admirable in their execution. It was going to be a perfect dock. ‘Five hundred kilometres, approach speed…four hundred kilometres approach speed…three hundred kilometres…two hundred…and, they’re stopping,’ his Senior Auspex Officer said, surprising even himself. ‘Why are they stopping?’ Vornn asked. ‘Vox, get me a channel open to the Manticore.’ ‘Aye sir, very good sir.’ There was a pause, whilst he watched his SAO. ‘Is everything all right, Cox?’ ‘Sir, the Manticore is…oh Emperor we’re being painted!’ ‘What?’ Alarms exploded on in the bridge, bathing the crew in blood red light and assaulting their ears with yammering klaxons. ‘They’ve got us locked down, two hundred broadsides!’ Vornn couldn’t believe his ears. Was this Kursk’s idea of a joke? ‘Helms hard down!’ he bellowed. ‘Get us the hell out of here, now!’ The rhythmic blaring of an acceleration alarm roared on, as his helmsman rammed the pitch lever forward and sent the bow lurching down; but it was already too late. As they began their painfully slow descent, the first of the Manticore’s broadsides hit the void, and the megaton blasts of searing energy hit the Volpone’s void shields with all the fury of a righteous god, listing the ship wildly to starboard. ‘HARD DOWN!’ Vornn bellowed to his helmsman. Blood ran down a gash on his forehead where it had connected with the side of the command dock. ‘ENGINES FULL POWER!’ He already knew it was too late. Now all he awaited was the latter half of the standard Naval double tap; one volley to soften the shields, another to destroy the ship. By his reckoning, they had six seconds. ‘It’s been an honour, gentlemen.’ He said as the same terrible screeching, a thousand times louder than any alarm, exploded over the failing address system. Four seconds later, the Volpone was obliterated.

*** Hyrgen’s head snapped upwards. ‘What the hell was that?’ he asked no-one, standing alone in the corridor outside Màhlav, Hechter and Vandemarr’s quarters. The deep, vibrating rumble of two hundred broadsides roaring from their cradles shook the ship to its adamantium bones, though he knew from the absence of alarms that there were no enemies in orbit. As for any firing exercises, he, as the First Officer, would definitely have been notified. He stiffened as he saw Màhlav striding round the corner. ‘What’s the –’ he began, but stopped as he realised the Major was intent on taking him down. He quickly adopted a guard. ‘What the hell is going on?’ he demanded through his fists as Màhlav stopped short of him, a smile spreading across his face. ‘It’s beginning.’ He replied simply. Had Vandemarr warned against Màhlav in his message on the vox earlier? The line had been so bad he hadn’t been able to decipher much of what had been said, but the Commissar had definitely been worried about something. He himself was wary of the man, and the current situation only exacerbated this suspicion. ‘What’s beginning?’ Hyrgen asked, quickly realising that he had an autopistol strapped to his thigh. He dropped his hands and pulled it out. Màhlav started to laugh. ‘It’s empty, First Officer,’ he said, remaining stock still. ‘I took out the magazine twenty minutes ago.’ Hyrgen glanced down, and as soon as he did so Màhlav was on him, knocking the pistol from his hands. It banged loudly as it hit the ground, sending two shots thumping into the bulkhead. ‘Son of a bitch!’ Hyrgen shouted, furious with himself for having fallen for such an easy ploy. He grabbed Màhlav by his long red hair and yanked, hoping to detach the man’s scalp; when unexpectedly, that was exactly what happened. With a peeling sound, the hair came away as easily as a bandage. ‘Wha-’ he began, but Màhlav thumped him in the face. The force of the blow was immense, and for a second Hyrgen’s stunned vision turned completely white, with rainbows of colour blossoming across his pupils. The lethargic tendrils of concussion immediately clutched his brain, and he tried to push the Major off fruitlessly. ‘It is inevitable,’ he heard Màhlav say, a thousand miles away. A kick to the ribs send him reeling, and he rolled into a foetal position, utterly helpless. Màhlav’s turn of strength was… inhuman. ‘You’ll…never…’ Hyrgen tried, but found several of his ribs were broken, making talking akin to being stabbed repeatedly in the diaphragm. Màhlav laughed again, though Hyrgen could only just make him out through his ruined vision. The silhouette of the Major towered above him, hairless. Another tearing sound and a red handlebar moustache landed on his face. ‘All hands to stations,’ an automated alarm sounded over the ship’s municipal address system, ‘enemy incoming.’ It repeated whilst both of them listened.

‘Right on time,’ Màhlav said. Hyrgen turned his head slightly, and could just make out the Major tearing his green jacket off with a single flick of his wrist. What he saw beneath confirmed his worst fears. ‘No…’ he gasped. ‘Yes,’ Màhlav replied, and kicked him in the head.

Chapter 23
‘A good general does not lead an army to destruction just because he knows it will follow.’ - Inquisitor Brochs, ‘Reflections’ Illythia Ultima Segmentum 17:17 (local) 63.982.M41 ~ Revelations ~ Vandemarr was doing nowhere near enough explaining. Although this was the first time August had really heard of, or for that matter cared about the murders on the Manticore, he had been sufficiently horrified by the business with Rëchivik and Taschen to have developed a healthy fear of what was happening to his regiment, and a deep-rooted suspicion for anyone other than the madly animated Commissar. But if he was to allow his fear and suspicion to flow over into any kind of violent resolve, then he was going to need to know more. ‘You men, with me, now!’ Vandemarr roared ten metres ahead of him. A group of ten Hussars looked startled for a brief second, and then jogged over. ‘Pilot, get us back to the Manticore!’ the Commissar continued, reaching the landing ramp. The man, quickly digesting the scene as something which looked to be important, emptied his recaff onto the ground and hastily climbed the latter leading to the Aquilla’s cockpit. ‘Come on, come on!’ Vandemarr shouted. The engines whined into life, the Guardsmen blindly ran up the ramp, trying to talk amongst themselves. August followed, and quickly took a seat next to the Commissar, pulling the harness around him. Seconds before the ramp closed, he could see more Guardsmen running for cover as the engines roared to full power in seconds, gusting some of them over with its potent downwash. ‘What the hell is going on?’ August shouted above the noise, watching the ten men around them trying to work out how the harness rigs strapped around their bodies. Vandemarr pointed to the roof of the hold, and then his ear, and August had to wait another agonising ten seconds to let the noise die down before the Commissar would explain. ‘Sir?’ one of the Hussars shouted from the other end of the hold. ‘Shut up!’ Vandemarr snapped, turning to August. ‘Listen to me, and listen very carefully,’ he said darkly, ‘because I only have time to explain this once.’ August nodded, looking almost comically apprehensive. Vandemarr checked his watch, and then talked quickly. ‘Your command is rotten. Taschen, Màhlav – the lot of them. As is Marshall Tartovski. Which also leads me to believe that a number of individuals on the Manticore are as well.’ August looked at him with a semi-disbelief, although he’d come to expect as much over the course of the last twenty minutes. ‘Are you familiar with the idea of a genestealer cult?’ Vandemarr continued, shouting over another whine of the engines, drawing some worried glances from the Guardsmen closest to him. ‘No,’ August admitted after a few seconds of nodding. ‘People,’ Vandemarr scowled, unwilling to get bogged down in the intricacies of cult hierarchy,

‘who are mutant genestealers, basically.’ August stared at him, agape. Vandemarr rolled his eyes, and checked his watch again. ‘Right, they implant their genetic material into humans, and reproduce, and you get about four generations of mutants out of them before they start turning back into pure strain genestealers or proper humans again,’ he said, ignoring the Captain’s various expressions of revulsion at his gesticulations. ‘At the top, you have a leader, called a patriarch. You also have a magus, like a psyker. Think of them like a colonel and a major.’ ‘And you think Tartovski is one?’ ‘I think Tartovski is the patriarch, yes.’ ‘If that was true, wouldn’t he be a…Tyranid?’ Vandemarr smiled triumphantly. ‘Not if he was a fourth generation human,’ he said, ‘because then, he could have started his own cult. Which he duly did, on Oberon Minor.’ August stared at him in disbelief. ‘A Lord Marshall?’ How?’ ‘Well, think about it. Under another patriarch, they give birth to him, raise him as a model Imperial citizen, enlist him in the Guard, and…’ ‘What?’ ‘Oh Emperor,’ ‘What?’ August said, his skin breaking out in gooseflesh at the sight of the Commissar’s face. ‘Oh feth!’ ‘What?’ ‘What’s the average life expectancy of someone in the Guard?’ Vandemarr suddenly asked him. August faltered. ‘I-I don’t know, a couple of days?’ Vandemarr looked as if he was about to kill himself. ‘For Throne’s sake tell me!’ ‘If you were infiltrating someone into the Guard, from the lowest rank, to even get anywhere near odds of successfully reaching Lord Marshall you would need –’ ‘Hundreds of them.’ Cold, horrible realisation hit August like a sledgehammer. ‘Maybe even thousands!’ Vandemarr exploded, ‘It’s pretty high-risk! Emperor knows how long this has been going on for!’ ‘You’re telling me there could be thousands of these fourth generation humans posing as Guardsmen? Out there? Starting their own cults?’ Vandemarr’s face screwed up in agonising frustration, trying desperately to link everything together. He hadn’t expected to be explaining it to himself as well, and the sudden realisation of just how large the infection was had almost erased his ability to form a rational thought. ‘Listen to me, because we’ve not got much time left,’ Vandemarr said, the terrible epiphany slowly taking its toll on him. Now he needed to concentrate on explaining to August what he had already worked out. ‘This new Tyranid you saw, the one with the ‘gun barrels’ on its back.

What if they were engines? Like ‘bio’ engines?’ ‘You mean so it could fly really –’ ‘I mean so it could travel in space,’ Vandemarr interjected, unwilling to let the Captain break his chain of thought. ‘One hundred and fifty men went missing last night. Would you have said that those biosacs were vacuum proof?’ August’s eyes locked with his. ‘No,’ he said in disbelief. ‘I’ll bet you five cards a las they’ve been taken to the Manticore. That’s the source. That’d explain the ‘murders’ as well. They were never murdered, they were kidnapped,’ ‘You mean there’s a colony of these things on the ship?’ August shouted. The Guardsmen they’d brought were looking positively worried now. Vandemarr waved him quiet, his eyes screwed up with intense concentration. He needed to keep talking, before new theories picked apart and destroyed the ones he was sure about. ‘What if what’s happening here is happening right now across the galaxy a hundred times over?’ he asked feverishly. ‘They’re integrating the Fleet Admiral, yes? You heard Hyrgen on the vox?’ ‘Ye-’ ‘What if they’ve already tainted the ship? Then surely plugging the Fleet Admiral in is going to let them directly into his mind?’ ‘They’re going to take it over,’ August concluded, ‘at the source.’ ‘You heard Taschen screaming. They heard it on the ship. Now can you imagine the Fleet Admiral doing the same thing?’ August felt himself begin to sweat. ‘They’re going to kill everyone else on board. Eight months, August. That’s two hundred and fifty days. Eleven hosts, each breeding four generations – each generation breeding four generations…’ There was a terrible silence. ‘And all under the watchful eye of Tartovski,’ Vandemarr concluded grimly. He let go of the bridge of his nose and opened his eyes, as if now it didn’t matter whether he forgot everything or not. August was like an information bank, to withdraw his own theories back on demand. Now he could let the enormity of the situation seep in. ‘But Tartovski was back on Oberon…’ August trailed off. Vandemarr nodded as realisation seeped across the Captain’s face. ‘Màhlav.’ ‘Major Màhlav was executed on Oberon.’ Vandemarr said. ‘Lord Marshall Tartovski, on the other hand…’ ‘The Fleet Admiral would never have known,’ ‘And now the Fleet Admiral’s about to become a two million ton psychic beacon at a staging ground for a Tyranid-infested Imperial Fleet. That was why he waited the extra month instead of allowing the nearest Guard regiment to arrive. He doesn’t want anyone else here, even the ships in his own battlegroup. It’s the result of a century’s planning.’

August felt like balling his hands into fists and beating his own head in. ‘So where’s it going?’ he asked, helplessly. ‘Where else?’ Vandemarr asked. ‘Terra.’

Chapter 24
‘The road to purity is drenched in the blood of the martyred.’ - Imperial Idiom Ultima Segmentum 17:39 63.982.M41 ~A close run thing ~ ‘There’s a lot of traffic out here,’ the pilot’s voice sounded over the intercom. ‘The fleet must have called for reinforcements – by the looks of things the Volpone’s been destroyed.’ August and Vandemarr looked at each other. ‘Destroyed?’ August said, feeling his heart rate increase. Vandemarr felt adrenaline churn his guts. He depressed the small button on the hull next to him, and spoke into the small intercom grilling that accompanied it. ‘What by?’ he asked, clearing his throat. ‘Hard to say,’ the pilot’s reply crackled, ‘The Manticore’s blocking the view. I’m reading it off the auspex.’ Vandemarr sat back into his harness heavily, and let out a long sigh. It was hard to see how they would come out of this one alive. ‘Well that’s that then,’ the Captain said helplessly. ‘You were right.’ Vandemarr nodded grimly, almost unable to believe it himself. In the last two minutes of silence, he had run through a hundred event scenarios in his mind. What if the fleet was able to escape Illythia’s voidspace? What if they actually headed for Terra? Were they even right, or had they completely missed the mark? Much of what had been concluded between the two of them had been speculation, but it was speculation that slotted together all too neatly. The recent influx of ships around Illythia was testament to that. But were these ships really all commanded by Tyranid infected humans? It was difficult to believe that they had attained such a level of coherence, unless most of them were either third generation hybrids or pure strain humans. He sighed again, shed his harness and stood in the middle of the deck, so all the Guardsmen in the hold could see and hear him. ‘Listen in,’ he said. The dull murmur of conversation ceased. ‘For those of you who have no idea what’s going on…this is the plan.’ The Guardsmen looked at him; ten in all, perfectly unremarkable. At least half had the red hair and handlebar moustaches which he had come to associate with the Hussars. They were tired, grubby, and they stank – but Vandemarr bet they were first class fighters. ‘There is good reason to believe that the Black Manticore has been taken over by a genestealer cult…completely, taken over. By that I mean that the Fleet Admiral himself may well be under the influence of the Hive Mind.’

The men stared at him. Those furthest away, who hadn’t had the benefit of overhearing his and August’s conversation, were truly shocked. Several muttered expletives filled the hold. Vandemarr thought how to approach the situation. ‘But that does not mean that we are under any less of a duty to reverse it.’ He finally decided. ‘Your duty ends only in death, no matter the odds, and no matter the cost. As soldiers of the Emperor – all of us – I’m sure we all know that this is the case.’ There were some nods. He was beginning to like the Hussars already – easily whipped into a fervour. Although he liked to think the main reason was his skill as a Commissar rather than a propensity for good morale. ‘The plan is as follows.’ He stopped as his personal commcaster bleeped on in his pocket. And then his world exploded. *** Hyrgen’s return to consciousness was akin to rising to the surface of a deep black sea. Flickering illumination panels stabbed his eyes like needles, the slightest sound was agonisingly loud, and his mind swam and blurred like someone trying to develop an un-developable pictograph. ‘Uh,’ he managed, slowly pressing himself off the ground. Where was he? He could feel carpet below his fingers. The corridor – he was still in the corridor. Màhlav – Emperor, Màhlav! The man was…not a man. His skin had been pallid and veined, and his bones protruded from them like…like chitin. And then his face! Hyrgen didn’t want to recall it. The transformation had been as terrifying as it had been total. He swung his head round dumbly, to see that the Major had gone, and his guts surged with relief. He was alone. He waited a few minutes for his vision to return completely, and in that time he probed the parts of his body that were the most painful – namely his head and ribs. Some of his ribs were broken, that much was obvious, and his skull had caved in on one side. In fact, it was a miracle he was even alive, let alone conscious. He began to push himself up, when he realised that he had lost the control of his left arm. On further inspection of the damage to his head, he found that prodding it caused a dull ache at the top of his left shoulder, and concluded that it was permanently paralysed and would have to be replaced. And so he tried again, this time using his legs and right arm. As soon as he was upright, he vomited and slumped against the wall. His head felt like it was on fire, and his world began spinning again. And then there was that noise! That constant, unending screeching, that mind bending shriek poised to tear his brain in half. He had to tell someone what had happened. Màhlav was…a Tyranid. That much had been obvious, though how he had concealed it Emperor only knew. Who to tell? Vandemarr was the obvious choice, though without his vox operator, finding him on the net would be like trying to find a needle in a hay barn. Who else could he tell? He groaned and slumped to the floor. The ship’s heating had been turned to the maximum, and he was already feeling dehydrated. Sweat soaked his uniform, and he shed the jacket. He pulled out his personal commcaster and tuned it to the neutral frequency.

‘Gortlémund Administratum sector 797/2G,’ came the tinny, nasal voice. ‘I…need Commissar…Albrecht Vandemarr’s…personal commcaster frequency,’ Hyrgen said in short gasps. The pain grasping his diaphragm was immense. ‘What’s his number?’ the disinterested voice continued. ‘His…what?’ ‘His personal number, there are…over a million Albrecht Vandemarrs in the Eastern Fringe.’ ‘He’s a…Commissar, he worked…on Gortlémund…some weeks ago…check Commissariat…Office files…’ There was a tired sigh. ‘Hold on please sir,’ ‘Gnnnn!’ Hyrgen said through clenched teeth as spasms crippled his ruined intercostals. ‘Commissar Albrecht Vandemarr, born 941, last registered three weeks ago at Farrax-Carthage Naval port?’ ‘Yesth,’ Hyrgen gasped. ‘012-449-7885-44424.’ Hyrgen terminated the link and thumbed the number in as quickly as he could. ‘Vandemarr?’ he asked when the line clicked open. And then stopped as he saw Màhlav striding round the corner. *** There was blood running down a superficial scalp wound, and Vandemarr tasted it on his tongue, bitter. ‘August!’ he shouted amidst the frighteningly loud thuds smashing against the hull. They were being savaged by the gun turrets studding the side of the Manticore, now a colossal bulk filling the majority of the pilot’s view, and it was only by the that same pilot’s skill that they were not asphyxiating in the cold depths of space. ‘What?’ the Captain cried back, wrapping a strip of ripped shirt around a mid-calf gash. ‘Find my commcaster! I’ve dropped it!’ ‘Why on Terra do you want…’ thump, ‘…that?’ ‘Because Hyrgen’s on the line!’ August immediately dropped the bandage and thumped onto his hands and knees, then lifted off the grilling a metre before crashing back down on it. Pain lanced up his wrist. ‘Is it really that important?’ he asked, wishing he’d never taken his harness off. The other Guardsmen were clinging desperately to their poorly tied rigs, some praying. ‘If you want to make it into the ship alive!’

Something small and black rattled down the grilling next to his head. ‘Is this it?’ he asked as a series of rattling shots threatened to perforate the hold. Vandemarr reached across and snatched it out of his hand. ‘Hyrgen get us a docking gate open!’ he yelled. ‘I’ll…do…my…best,’ came the almost inaudible reply, ‘I’ve got…some…bad...company,’ ‘We’ve got about one minute!’ Vandemarr shouted in response. The link went dead. ‘Is he going to open one?’ August shouted. ‘I’ll tell you in one minute.’ *** Hyrgen was in pure, unbridled agony as he sprinted through the corridors, the deranged Màhlav hot on his heels. Adrenaline crashed through his body, numbing most of the pain, but his ribs felt as though they would break through his chest at any second. Only the thought of death kept him from slowing. He was running on pure survival instinct – nothing else mattered. He could die later. Màhlav, on the other hand, despite his superhuman strength lacked one thing; co-ordination. Hyrgen had quickly concluded that his transformation to a Tyranid had been fairly recent, since he was obviously having difficulty adjusting to the excess of limbs and organs. He fell continuously, hit walls and bulkheads, and moved generally clumsily. But it wouldn’t be long before he accustomed. Hyrgen shoved the commcaster into his pocket and turned left, then right, then left again, belting through the corridors he knew better than anyone save perhaps the Fleet Admiral, until he finally reached the stairway which led to the embarkation level. Without a second’s hesitation, he launched up them, paying the slime dripping down the walls no heed, and when he reached the top he slammed his signet ring into the data panel, darted through the door, and let it close behind him. Màhlav hit the door behind him with such force that the tip of a claw punctured the adamantium. ‘Feth you!’ Hyrgen roared triumphantly, before turning round into the embarkation deck. He limped to the nearest docking bay and hit the outer airlock release clamp, before pulling the commcaster back out of his pocket. He didn’t even manage to open his mouth before he realised he’d given Màhlav a signet ring earlier that day. *** ‘There’s an opening!’ the pilot’s voice came over the intercom, ‘on the upper embarkation deck – right up the stern! Ten seconds!’ August dove for his harness in anticipation of the huge shift in direction, and strapped himself in opposite Vandemarr who was nursing a bloody head wound.

‘By the Emperor, I’m going to kiss that man!’ the Commissar shouted, a grin spreading across his face. ‘Feth! BRACE BR-’ the pilot roared as a parting shot by the aft-most turret put a hole in the cockpit. There was the sound of shattering glass over the intercom, followed by a cry of pain, and then the link shut off. ‘Oh schtan,’ August said. Seconds later, the Aquilla slammed into the docking cradle, tore it from the ceiling, and smashed into the airlock floor.

Chapter 25
‘The Daemonic leads two crimes. You can turn away from the path of righteousness and abandon the Emperor as the object of your devotion. For this, death is merely retribution. The second is a Heresy so terrible that no punishment can be sufficient. Yet the search for an appropriate penalty continues, and it shall be found.’ - Ecclesiarch Issus INS Black Manticore 17:44 (Ship) 63.982.M41 ~Màhlav~ It was the sound of the inner airlock grinding open that snapped Vandemarr from his lethargic daze. He shook his head as the colossal adamantium doors whirred open on massive banks of cogs and chains, and the ship’s atmosphere cycled into the hanger. It stank worse than anything the Commissar had ever smelt. In fact it was so pungent that it worked as a powerful restorative, and he was already completely awake within seconds of coming into contact with it. August seemed to be unhurt, as were the eight men immediately near him. The last two, however, hadn’t been so lucky. ‘Emperor,’ one of the Hussars muttered, wrinkling his nose up at the foul stench issuing from the embarkation level. He brought his hand up to his ear and removed half a jellied eyeball – one of the eight littering the hold. ‘Everyone all right?’ Vandemarr asked, tenderly exploring the gash across the top of his head. He drew some sour looks from the Hussars. ‘Everyone alive I mean,’ he said. There were some grunts. ‘What’s the plan?’ August whispered next to him. ‘Find Hyrgen. That’s our priority.’ Vandemarr replied. ‘Hm.’ A creaking sound filled the hold, and the landing ramp and a good deal of the surrounding hull detached from the craft and smashed down onto the grilling below. It echoed through the eerily quiet deck. ‘Weapons ready,’ Vandemarr said to the Hussars. They checked magazines, and toggled safety catches off. August brought his lasgun up prone and checked the sights. Vandemarr reloaded his bolt pistol. ‘Alright,’ he said, taking a deep breath. ‘Let’s get this done.’ *** The embarkation deck was roasting hot, the air reeked and the bulkheads were all glistening with a stinking ichor. Already Vandemarr was down to his smock. He had no need for a Commissar’s jacket on a ship that had long since turned its back on Imperial justice. In his

eyes, even a surrender from these whoresons didn’t merit clemency. ‘After we find Hyrgen, I want all of you to assume that everyone and everything is an enemy,’ he said, his voice echoing unnervingly throughout the nine kilometre deck. Surrounding him in an advance pattern were the Hussars, and they each nodded, not taking their eyes off the shadows. The illumination panels were flickering on and off intermittently, and one blink out of turn could lead to the squad’s massacre. Genestealer claws could penetrate power armour; if it came to close combat, they were as good as dead. ‘Hyrgen?’ Vandemarr called out sharply. It repeated several times down the length of the deck; but only distant metallic reverberations answered. The profound silence and lack of human presence was deeply unsettling, even to experienced veterans like Vandemarr. ‘What was that?’ August asked. Vandemarr brought out his commcaster. ‘Hold on,’ he said, thumbing in Hyrgen’s frequency. Everyone jumped as the dual tone bleep signalling an incoming transmission pierced the air, in the shadows ahead. The miniscule flashing of a blue LED rhythmically pricked the darkness. ‘Hyrgen?’ Vandemarr called again. ‘C-commissar?’ came a gasped reply. ‘Wait!’ Vandemarr shouted as the group moved towards the source of the noise. Everyone stopped. ‘Come out of the shadows, Hyrgen.’ There was a shuffling ahead, and Hyrgen’s bruised face did indeed protrude from the shadow. But over his shoulder, the distorted and horrifying features of a ghastly mutant appeared, leering manically. ‘Lord Marshall,’ Vandemarr said grimly, levelling his bolt pistol. The Hussars kept their weapons trained steadily. Màhlav stepped forward, holding Hyrgen by the back of the collar. There was no way of telling the extent of the First Officer’s injuries; a few broken ribs immediately presented themselves, but the patches of blood marking the man’s jacket could be superficial. What was far more startling was Màhlav’s two and a half metre, four-armed bulk. Stripped to the waist, his pallid, muscle-knotted skin confronted them, bulging with exoskeleton in some places, shrunken and veined in others. His mouth was filled with needle sharp teeth, and his nose had been replaced with two vertical slits. His eyes were completely black, and narrowed at Vandemarr, scornfully aware of the host of high-power lasguns levelled at his head. ‘Lord Marshall?’ he said, his voice overlapped with a cacophony of screeching. Although he was hard to understand, his voice conveyed confusion well enough. Vandemarr faltered. ‘Tartovski,’ he continued, unsure of himself. He rarely felt so, and it was an uncomfortable feeling. ‘It’s Màhlav…Albrecht,’ Hyrgen gasped, ‘what’re…you…on about?’ ‘Yes Albrecht, what are you ‘on about’?’ Màhlav asked. Some of the Hussars tensed – it was a truly repugnant voice. ‘I don’t think its Tartovski,’ August whispered out of the corner of his mouth. ‘Neither do I,’ replied Vandemarr. He re-addressed Màhlav. ‘An assumption on my part. An

incorrect one, it would seem.’ ‘You thought I was father?’ Màhlav asked, along with a noise that could only constitute laughter. ‘Oh no, you will never have the pleasure. You see, I’m afraid your journey ends here. A valiant attempt, perhaps, but ultimately an unsuccessful one.’ ‘What’s to stop us laying you out right now?’ Vandemarr said, not wanting to hear any more of the…thing’s voice. ‘Why, the fact that I’m the only one stopping a hundred of my brothers coming through the door behind me. Oh, and your friend here of course.’ Vandemarr knew they probably couldn’t stop a hundred genestealers; and Hyrgen had saved their lives. He owed the man for that at least. Annihilating him along with Màhlav seemed like the most attractive option, but honour demanded that they either all die or find another way out. ‘Give us Hyrgen,’ Vandemarr said, ‘or you’re both dead. Give us Hyrgen and we’ll give you ten seconds to run.’ Again that disgusting noise! ‘No, Albrecht. You drop all your weapons and surrender.’ This was ludicrous. They had the upper hand. Màhlav had nothing. If he let the genestealers through – assuming there even were any – they would shoot him. If he gave them Hyrgen, they would shoot him. If he didn’t give them Hyrgen, they would shoot him. In fact, he wasn’t even using Hyrgen as a shield. He could quite comfortably put a bolt through Màhlav’s head there and then. So he did.

Chapter 26
‘It is best know what enemies are around you in your own camp, before you step out to face the foe and wonder why you do so alone.’ - Warmaster Slaydo INS Black Manticore 17:59 (Ship) 63.982.M41 ~The Plan~ Màhlav’s head exploded like a balloon filled with tar. Black, stinking ichor burst out from his shattered skull in all directions, soaking Hyrgen and making everyone flinch violently. No-one had been expecting it. Vandemarr almost surprised himself with how rashly he had come to the decision. Still, it was a bloody good shot. Hyrgen’s eyes bulged as the hybrid Màhlav’s corpse collapsed and spasmed, dragging him down with it and scratching the flesh of his neck; but in seconds he was grabbed roughly by Hussars and pulled free of the headless cadaver. All weapons were trained on the adamantium bulkhead behind him. ‘You think he was bluffing?’ August asked, his voice echoing off the all too silent embarkation level. ‘I certainly hope so,’ Vandemarr replied. They should probably have been moving anyway, bluff or no bluff. Time was not on their side. ‘You alright Hyrgen?’ ‘Broken…ribs, can’t move my…left arm,’ Hyrgen gasped. Vandemarr cursed. He would slow them down too much. ‘Anyone got any painkillers?’ he asked. A couple of curettes were produced from various pockets. He took them all in one hand, and pulled off their stoppers. ‘I’m going to give you all of these,’ he said to Hyrgen, squatting down on his quads, ‘which will make you drowsy, and probably nearly kill you. Which is why I’m also going to give you a single,’ he turned briefly to August, ‘stimshot. That should counter most of the effects – keep your heart rate up and your metabolism going, and stop your organs shutting down. It’s not perfect, but it’s either that or we leave you here with a gun.’ Hyrgen motioned with his hand, his spasming muscles to painful to allow speech anymore, and Vandemarr nodded, jabbing all three curettes into the First Officer’s thigh. He then half snatched a stimshot from August’s illegally large bundle and stabbed that in as well. ‘Breathe,’ he said as the cocktail of drugs worked its way into Hyrgen’s system. The man was clearly in some panic, as his whole body was numbed; but Vandemarr could see the man’s chest rising with greater volume and strength. ‘Emperor,’ one of the Hussars whispered, amazed at the effects. ‘Anternis Septimus,’ Vandemarr nodded grimly, ‘ten years ago. We had so many injured we were going to get slaughtered at the next assault. Colonel Davian saved the entire company. Although there were some side effects…’ ‘Like what?’ the now animated Hyrgen asked, eyes wide.

‘Nothing that can’t be cured. Where’s the nearest long range vox?’ Vandemarr replied, now impatient to get moving. ‘There’s one…just down here,’ Hyrgen said, getting his bearings. He pulled aside his jacket and poked the bruised and torn flesh over his ribs. ‘Leave it,’ Vandemarr snapped, and to his own amazement, Hyrgen did. ‘I need to use the vox ASAP.’ ‘Why?’ August asked as they started walking. ‘Contingency plan,’ he replied. They reached the vox – a large green hulk bolted to the bulkhead – and Vandemarr grabbed the receiver and tuned the dials with a practised ease. There was a hiss of static, whilst around him the Hussars, August and Hyrgen waited. ‘Is this line secure?’ Vandemarr suddenly asked. Hyrgen nodded. ‘Highest level encryption.’ That was good. Vandemarr couldn’t be bothered with, nor remember the code he and Inquisitor Brochs had agreed. The link crackled. ‘Who is this?’ came a voice. ‘Commissar Vandemarr,’ he replied. An exasperated sigh filtered across the link. ‘A secure line, I presume?’ ‘Naval encryption.’ ‘Very well. What seems to be the problem, Commissar Vandemarr?’ *** ‘What was that about?’ August asked him as he clicked the receiver back into place. ‘The Inquisitor and I have met before, during the trial of a Tau auxiliary,’ Vandemarr replied, checking his bolt pistol. ‘The Garrick trial?’ Hyrgen asked. Vandemarr looked at him quizzically. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘What was the Garrick trial?’ August quickly interjected, ‘and why don’t I know about it?’ ‘It’s not important,’ Vandemarr said, ‘the point is that he told me I was to contact him if I ever needed assistance.’ ‘He’s going to bring ships?’ Hyrgen asked, hopeful. Vandemarr shrugged. ‘I certainly hope so. It might be difficult to organise a strike force in such a short amount of time. But he’s an invaluable asset. It was worth bringing it to his attention.’ There was a succession of grinding sounds from below them, followed by a deep, steady rumble.

‘What was that?’ one of the Hussars asked, fear creeping into his voice. ‘Bombardment cradles,’ Hyrgen replied. His eyes locked with Vandemarr’s. ‘So what do we do know?’ another Hussar asked. ‘Shut them down,’ Vandemarr replied, looking round the embarkation level. ‘What’s the fastest way to the gun decks?’ he asked Hyrgen. ‘I’ll show you,’ the First Officer replied, making to move, but Vandemarr caught his arm. ‘No,’ he said, ‘tell me. August and I and half these men will go. I need you and the other half to head to the barracks decks.’ ‘Why?’ ‘To see if there are any armsmen left. They may have barricaded themselves in. We’re going to need all the men we can get if we’re going to get to the bridge.’ ‘The bridge? Are you insane?’ one of the Hussars asked. ‘We’ll be killed!’ Vandemarr ignored him, feeling his trigger finger itch, and re-accosted Hyrgen. ‘You need to find one of the central freight and access elevators,’ he started, ‘near the centre of the embarkation level. They run straight down the middle of the ship. You want to go all the way to the lowest deck. Once you’re there, you need to head towards the stern. There are four cradles, and you’ll need to shut down each one manually.’ ‘How do I shut them down?’ Vandemarr said, memorizing the information. ‘Each cradle has an emergency terminator, in case there’s a misfire. They basically stop the guns exploding back up into the ship. You’ll need to turn them all on.’ ‘What do they look like?’ ‘Like levers. They’ve got ‘breaker alpha’ to ‘breaker delta’ written above them. Do not touch anything that says ‘vent’.’ ‘Right,’ Vandemarr said. ‘You three, with me.’ He indicated the nearest Hussars. ‘The rest of you, with the First Officer. As many as you can, Hyrgen.’ Hyrgen nodded. ‘We’ll meet at the top of the stairs that lead down from the embarkation level into the officer’s quarters towards the bow, in…fifteen minutes. If either team isn’t there, then try and get to the bridge anyway. You need to kill the Fleet Admiral, understand?’ Everyone nodded. ‘Right. Let’s get it done.’

Chapter 27
‘Competence on the battlefield is a myth. The side which screws up next to last wins, it's as simple as that.’ - Lord General Zyvan INS Black Manticore 18:15 (Ship) 63.982.M41 ~Hyrgen~ They moved through the corridors quickly and stealthily, weapons prone and sweeping back and forth in short, sharp arcs. Hyrgen led the way, followed by three Guardsmen covering the front. The last two formed a rearguard, watching their backs though the labyrinthine passages. The whole ship stank, a pungent odour that they all failed to accustom to. The walls were intermittently dripping with slimy ichor, and everywhere they looked, strange growths, like tumours, were blistering the adamantium. ‘What’s your name, Corporal?’ Hyrgen asked the man behind him, a middle aged man with close cropped brown hair and a violent purple scar marring his left cheek. ‘Balázs, sir,’ the man replied, not taking his eyes off the corridor. Hyrgen nodded, impressed with the man’s determination. ‘And you, troopers?’ ‘Pál, sir.’ ‘Miklós, sir.’ Again, Hyrgen nodded, briefly turning completely around to check on their rearguard. They were ten metres behind, one watching the direction of the main party, the other watching their backs. ‘It’s not much further,’ he said, ‘just up this accessway.’ They passed another bulkhead and moved onto a suspended gangway, held on adamantium cables between the inner hull and the vehicle entrance to the embarkation level. Either side of them, the deck dropped away sharply like some dark metal ravine, and flashes of static played across the crevasse, crackling fitfully. The sound of gushing water, magnified a hundred times, roared all around them. ‘Where are we?’ Balázs shouted, his voice echoing down the steep drop. Instantly the group began to sweat with the rise in temperature. ‘The shield vents,’ Hyrgen replied, gripping the laspistol the Corporal had lent him tighter. ‘Excess heat is passed up these flues, and cooled by the water. It also channels the static, and stops the shield generators electrifying the hull.’ ‘Oh,’ Balázs replied, feigning interest. ‘Contact!’ one of their rearguard shouted. Hyrgen spun around, feeling adrenaline stab his guts; and felt his heart sink at the sight that confronted them.

‘Emperor,’ he breathed, watching as hundreds of genestealers burst through the door behind them, spreading out across the walls and screeching like some demented chorus. The chittering was unbearable, loud even above the roaring of the water and the loud crackling of excess static build up. ‘Move!’ Hyrgen shouted. The first shots were fired, phosphorescent blue blasts of las slamming into the bulkhead behind them and into the first casualties of the engagement – deformed, slavering hybrids. There was no time to stand and fight; they were outnumbered. From then on in, it was a running game. They had barely got a hundred metres before their rearguard was set upon and torn apart. Rags of flesh slapped against the grilling of the gangway, and the hybrids began taunting them by hurling the indiscernible chunks of flesh at their heels. ‘Son of a bitch!’ Balázs shouted as one such chunk splattered against the back of his head. He turned to let off a stream of shots, but Hyrgen caught his arm and yanked him onwards. ‘Leave it!’ he shouted, ‘Or we’re all dead!’ His breath rasped in his lungs as he pistoned his legs, feeling the gangway groan and creak under the strain of hundreds of hybrids, insane with blood lust, clamouring over each other to get to the Hussars. Some were tearing across the ceiling, some across the hull, and even more across the bulkhead separating them from the embarkation level. They were gaining on them with a horrifying turn of speed. ‘Feth,’ Hyrgen snarled in frustration and anger, feeling his thighs call out for respite. They charged over the last stretch of gangway and through the door into the barracks, where Pál was torn to shreds trying to close it; and then, down to three men, turned down a quick succession of corridors until they reached the billet section. ‘Emperor, cover!’ he heard an unfamiliar voice roar across a vox speaker, and before he had registered anything near half of what was unfolding in front of him, trooper Miklós slammed into his side and brought him clattering down next to a cot and metal locker. ‘What the fu-’ Hyrgen snarled, ready to kill the Hussar for stopping them; when he realised that the sudden and unbearably loud roaring he could hear was in fact a hail of las shots so thick, it formed an impenetrable wall of blue fire moving down the deck behind them. He turned and watched as their pursuers were massacred in droves, scrabbling over the corpses of the freshly slain to try and escape the lethal blizzard of fire; but it was futile, as the ventilated cadavers blocked any effective escape. Utterly trapped, the last of the genestealers and hybrids were shredded, their combined bodies spilling rivers of purple blood onto the grilling. And then all was quiet, save the frantic gasping of Hyrgen, Miklós and Balázs as they tried to inhale as much air as humanly possible. ‘First Officer?’ came the same voice over the helmet speaker. Hyrgen propped himself up on his elbows, finding that he had gashed his head further open on the corner of the locker Miklós had thrown him into, and turned to see what had saved them. In a way almost laughably similar to what Vandemarr had predicted, the Manticore’s armsmen had indeed barricaded themselves in the barracks, with overturned cots and lockers forming a barrier and firing shelf, and a makeshift medical area in the corner where several armsmen were receiving attention from the unit’s corpsmen. All in all, there must have been thirty fully armed and armoured men, standing in the grey and black form-moulded body armour and mirror-visored helmets of the Imperial Navy’s anti-boarding and operations wing, lasguns and lho sticks smoking.

‘God Emperor, am I glad to see you,’ Hyrgen breathed as he stood up. ‘Sir –’ one of the armsmen next to the Captain began; but he was cut short. ‘They’re not infected, Tym,’ the Captain said, pulling off his helmet. Underneath was an armsman veteran, unkempt greying hair on a wrinkled and scarred face. ‘MkDrake,’ Hyrgen said, instantly recognising and walking forward to greet the Captain. ‘Hyrgen,’ the man replied, clasping the First Officer’s hand. Behind him, Miklós and Balázs moved forward, sweat streaking their brows and their chests heaving up and down. ‘So, are you going to tell me what the hell’s going on?’ Hyrgen nodded. ‘On the way.’

Chapter 28
‘For those that defy the Imperium, only the Emperor can judge your crimes. Only in death can you receive the Emperor's Judgement.’ - Motto of the Officio Assassinorum INS Black Manticore 18:15 (Ship) 63.982.M41 ~Vandemarr and August ~ The trip to the gun decks was fast-paced and uneventful. Still, Vandemarr, August and the three Hussars with them kept weapons prone the whole time, safety catches off and fingers on triggers. They all knew from experience how lightning fast the Tyranids were. The access elevator they were on bleeped twice as they reached the bottom deck, and the long vertical stack of green runes running down the side of the door turned red. Vandemarr checked his watch. ‘Let’s do this quickly,’ he said, punching the door release. They ground open, though what lay beyond none of them had been expecting to see. The gun deck was a series of vast, cavernous chambers separated by cliff-like bulkheads, and it was not a deck at all. Instead, a massive cross-grid of suspended walkways greeted them, hanging two hundred metres over the ship’s lower hull. The guns themselves were unfathomably gigantic, huge barrels sprouting cables and hoses and sporting cogs and mechanisms to rival those of a Space Marine citadel’s main gate, plunging straight down from their yawning recesses in the vaulted ceiling and through the thick adamantium armour plating. ‘Emperor,’ Vandemarr breathed. Crawling over the wide gangways were hundreds of deck slaves, malnourished, wretched things performing hour upon hour of hard labour to keep the titanic weapons maintained. And there, not fifty metres from them, was Kai Bastian. ‘I know that boy,’ Vandemarr said disbelievingly, looking at the filthy, dishevelled child. ‘I promised his father I would watch out for him!’ ‘Let me be the first to congratulate you on a fine job,’ August said. ‘Shut up,’ Vandemarr snarled, ‘it’s that damnable Fleet Admiral!’ He turned to the Hussars. ‘Do you know what you’re looking for?’ he asked them. All three nodded. ‘Find the terminators for those two guns!’ he barked, signalling towards the ship’s stern. They obeyed, and Vandemarr turned back to August. ‘We’re taking him with us.’ He said simply. ‘He’ll slow us down!’ August replied.

Vandemarr ignored him, and made towards the child; but as soon as he got within twenty metres of him, their presence, which seemed to have gone thus far unnoticed, was suddenly acknowledged by the hundreds of slaves surrounding them. Slaves which, on closer inspection, were not entirely human. ‘Oh feth!’ Vandemarr cried, and without thinking opened up with his bolt pistol. A score of the snarling hybrids went down instantly, some dead, others explosively incapacitated. August’s lasgun was quick to add to the slaughter, and Vandemarr charged back up the walkway as fast as he could, heavy footsteps echoing loudly off the adamantium chasm below. ‘To the breakers! Quick!’ he shouted, hearing their accompanying Hussars’ lasguns discharging from across the bulkhead. They sprinted, chased by the snarls and roars of angry hybrids, and turned only to let off controlled bursts at the closest of their pursuers. ‘There!’ Vandemarr shouted, pointing at one of the vast cogitator banks grafted onto the side of the nearest cradle. On it was a line of brass levers, each with a glowing green rune above it, and a small labelled plate, too distant to make out. ‘If we head for it they’ll catch us,’ August shouted in between gasps. ‘Then run faster!’ Vandemarr shouted. They reached the junction and tore down it, stopping short of the colossal weapon. August turned and began picking off the hybrids chasing them, trying to score as many headshots as he could, whilst Vandemarr quickly searched the cogitator bank. ‘Breakers!’ August said, ‘not vents!’ Vandemarr nodded and grabbed two of the handles at once, heaving downwards. There was a deep rumble that resonated through the ship, and was only exacerbated when Vandemarr grabbed the second two handles and pulled them down. The runes above them turned crimson. ‘That’s it!’ he shouted, ‘its offline!’ He turned back round to see a pile of hybrids draped over the gangway, skulls burst and torso’s bleeding, and August standing grimly in the centre of the walkway with his smoking lasgun still prone. ‘What do you want me to do about him?’ he asked, nodding slowly towards the demented Bastian. A leg shot had seen him grounded, but he still crawled towards them, bleeding ichor from a severed femoral artery, snarling and snapping his jaws. ‘Oh no,’ Vandemarr said, wanting nothing more than to save the boy. He’d given his word to protect him, sworn to his father to be his guardian. Now he was fast becoming his executioner. ‘Sir?’ August said, all too aware that they were running out of time. ‘Dammit!’ Vandemarr hissed, unfamiliar melancholy clouding his rational thought. He quickly fought back the unruly emotion and let his Commissar’s logic takeover. The boy was now a xenos. He had to die. ‘We’re going to avenge him,’ he said sadly, lifting his bolt pistol. ‘I know,’ August replied. The single shot echoed loudly through the chamber.

*** They deactivated the last gun with a now practised ease, and after a brief fire fight rendezvoused with the Hussars outside the access elevator, who had miraculously survived a much greater and sustained assault with only superficial wounds. Still, hybrids tore across the lattice of gangways, and none of them was inclined to stay and take them on. The thought that the Manticore was not the only ship capable of bombardment made finding and killing the Fleet Admiral, before the word could get out, an even more pressing priority. And so they headed back to the agreed rally point, silently anxious, each man contemplating his fate. The bridge would be heavily defended, not by hybrids but by pure strain genestealers, the cream of the insurgency. Vandemarr hoped that Hyrgen had found some armsmen, for everyone’s sake. The very idea that a fleet could head for Terra unchallenged riled him beyond measure. It would be the end of the Imperium as they knew it. The elevator ground up the last metres of its atrium with an un-oiled cacophony of rusty shrieks, and the doors slid open once more, this time to the familiar embarkation level – still silent and empty. They headed across the grilling at a quick pace, grimly resolved, passing ranks of auxiliary vehicles, atmospheric fighters and bombers and training their weapons on the deep shadows the lack of adequate lighting produced. After three minutes, they had reached the stairs leading towards the officer’s quarters. Covering the door, the three Hussars and August stepped back, whilst Vandemarr reached forward and, with the signet ring given to him by Hyrgen that morning, pulled it open. ‘Commissar,’ the First Officer nodded as he, August and the Hussars stepped through onto the red-carpeted, marble stairs. There, twenty naval armsmen, organised into three fire teams and armed to the teeth, greeted them. ‘Right on time.’ Vandemarr clasped the man’s extended hand warmly, and couldn’t help but grin as he saw the assembled armsmen. ‘Ready to kill a Fleet Admiral?’

Chapter 29
‘No man that died in the Emperor’s service died in vain.’ - Imperial Idiom INS Black Manticore 18:26 (Ship) 63.982.M41 ~The Emperor Protects~ They ran in breach formation, with a strong fore guard to smash anything that stood in their way, and spaced through the middle and the rear to quickly manoeuvre should they be engaged from behind. Vandemarr was at the front, bolt pistol outstretched, with Hyrgen and August and the five remaining Hussars behind, and then supported by a fist of closely packed armsmen to provide a wall of firepower. ‘Left at this bulkhead,’ Hyrgen said, indicating with a Navy issue shotgun, ‘and then we’re there.’ Vandemarr gripped the handle of his bolt pistol tighter, until it felt as if is fingers would burst, and fruitlessly tried to banish the hundreds of thoughts whirling round his head. Would they prevail? They had to, for the sake of the Emperor, even if the odds were vastly against their favour. This abominable fleet – if that’s what it was – could never be allowed near Terra’s holy ground. Thus, it was the fact that it was their duty, as was entrenched in them from birth, to safeguard the Emperor and the Imperium with their lives that drove him on. The Schola Progenium had taught him it, and countless battlefields had shown him it. Now they would die for it. He felt adrenaline churn his guts as they reached the bulkhead which would, in turn, lead to the last stretch of corridor before the bridge. Yet he was comforted and resolved that his faith was so pronounced, so steadfast. Even into the jaws of certain death, it spurred him on. And so they reached the corner, keeping formation admirably, and barrelled around it with weapons prone and determination intact. And came face to face with their worst fears. ‘The Emperor protects!’ Vandemarr bellowed as the anticipated horde of xenos guarding the bridge burst into view. Scores of genestealers and hybrids, suddenly animated at this new and unwelcome assault, shrieked and clamoured to meet them head on with talons and teeth that could rip through power-armour. ‘Fire at will!’ came MkDrake’s vox-enhanced roar, as strobing flashes of blue las ignited the air. Lasguns on full auto chattered into life, stubbers exploded with their characteristic chopping shot, shotguns blossomed with clouds of expanding slugs. The noise was deafening, as genestealers screeched their terrible battle cry and weapons and men roared their defiance, all in the cramped confines of a ship’s corridor. ‘We are the will of the Emperor!’ Vandemarr snarled through a shower of purple ichor as his bolt pistol tore the nearest genestealer in half. ‘He is our shield and protector!’ He dropped the heavy weapon as it clicked empty and pulled his sword from its sheath.

‘WE FIGHT IN HIS NAME!’ All around him, the armsmen roared their defiance, stirred by Vandemarr’s words and splattered with gore. Three already lay dead on the floor; another was desperately clutching the pile of intestines gathered around his groin. But the rest fought on, blasting down the corridor at the swarms of genestealers and hybrids blocking the way with renewed zeal and vigour. ‘About! About!’ came the frantic shouts from one of the armsmen near the rear of the column. Vandemarr turned, after finishing hacking through the thick neck of another genestealer, and felt his heart thump painfully with adrenaline as he saw another string of xenos plough into their rear, cutting down four more armsmen in welters of blood and chunks of armour and bone meal. Even the constant and solid firing of weapons was not enough to stem the flow of blood-crazed aliens, and now they were stretched to fighting two fronts with even fewer men. ‘We can’t hold them!’ August roared, furiously kicking back a hybrid and vaporising its head and chest with a shotgun blast. Vandemarr desperately parried the four clawing arms of a screeching genestealer, before driving the blade deep into the base of its neck and out the top of its skull. He took a step back to snatch an appraisal of their situation. He wasn’t given long as he was set upon by two more hybrids, but enough to see that August was half right. They couldn’t hold the rear, but they could, with tenacity and luck, punch through the front. ‘Grenade the front!’ he shouted, cutting through the stomach of the first of his attackers, then ducking under the counter of the second and cleaving it in two from groin to skull. ‘What?’ several of the armsmen, Miklós, Balázs, Hyrgen and August all managed to say, in between fighting for their lives. Seconds later, four powerful arms gripped Balázs and ripped his spine from his back. ‘Dammit we can’t hold the rear, grenade them at the front! It’s adamantium, it’ll hold!’ Vandemarr replied, angry that his orders hadn’t been obeyed immediately. More xenos were ploughing into their rear, only the corpses of their brethren and the wall of fire blocking them from overrunning the column. The situation was fast becoming desperate, as ammunition ran low and courage began to wane. They needed one push now, or they would all be killed. ‘Now dammit, now!’ he roared, pulling his sword from the chest of another hybrid and turning to assault its companion. Grenades were pulled from the belts of August, Miklós and the other three remaining Hussars, primed, and thrown in the midst of shouted prayers and alien blood. They had three seconds. ‘The Emperor protects!’ Vandemarr roared above the indignant shrieks of the genestealers. Then the grenades detonated it searing hot blasts of fire and smoke. Everyone was thrown off their feet by the amassed concussive shockwaves, though those nearest the wall of pressure and heat were saved by the thick piles of genestealer corpses blocking the way. Doors branching off the corridors buckled inwards, the lights died, and the enemy was explosively incinerated in the most brutal and punishing seconds of their short lives. Vandemarr gritted his teeth as the intense heat washed over him, then quickly scrambled to his feet once the explosions had passed, ignoring the pain gnawing at his freshly burned skin. They had mere moments to get to the bridge.

‘Onwards, now!’ he yelled. The lights were out and the fires were rapidly extinguishing, and not all of their enemy had been killed ahead. Around him, those alive got to their feet and began running. He was pleased to note August and Hyrgen amongst them, though two Hussars – men he’d never learnt the names of, were dead. Miklós and the other were still alive, as was MkDrake and twelve armsmen. They would be mourned later. Now, it was a case of crossing the last fifty metres of the gauntlet. Sections of the decking were red hot, instantly melting into the soles of boots, and the near darkness meant that surviving genestealers – of which there were mercifully few – were harder to spot, though easier to kill. Vandemarr’s sword sliced through the charred and blackened flesh on the torso of one as easily as if it were butter. Through hails of sparks from flickering illumination panels and the smoking corpses of the dead, through the hull-scorching fires and surprise attacks, they sprinted towards their quarry, now more resolved than ever to take out the Fleet Admiral and end the Hive Mind’s grip on the Manticore. In thirty seconds the blood-soaked, burnt, fatigued group had reached the main doors to the bridge. In thirty two they had them open. *** They burst into the dimly-lit amphitheatre of controls, weapons up and searching for targets. Instantly they destroyed two fourth generation humans with healthy bursts of fire, and formed a line of cover whilst the rest of the group entered. ‘What IS thIs?’ came an unbearable voice from over the vox amplifiers. Behind them, a pair of armsmen locked the doors. ‘Fleet Admiral?’ Vandemarr said, stepping forward cautiously into the shadows. The bridge was large, and spanned many levels. Only the one they were one contained the recently-integrated Admiral; the rest, seen through the grilling they stood on, contained automated cogitator banks and ranks of servitors. ‘Who’s there?’ came the voice again. It was not the voice of the Fleet Admiral, but distorted, mind-encompassing. Vandemarr noticed a trickle of blood running from his nose. ‘Fleet Admiral this is Commissar Albrecht Vandemarr,’ he said confidently. ‘I have come to dispense the Emperor’s justice in this place. Show yourself, and your death may be quick.’ The illumination panels increased in intensity only slightly. However, it was enough to see the Fleet Admiral’s bloated body, packed densely with cables and dozens of augmetic limbs, held from the ceiling and walls by vast swathes of mechanisms. It was like looking at a disgustingly obese mechanical arachnid, splayed across the bridge with an air of malevolence that would rival Abaddon. Around him, similarly integrated hybrids, humans with pale skin and skulls sprouting thick trunks of neuromech wiring, were draped like lifeless marionettes, drawling is a dull monotone. Ichor drooled from the mechanisms, and the whole hideous contraption stank of foul xenos effluents. ‘Emperor,’ Vandemarr breathed. The only recognisable feature of the former Fleet Admiral was his face, seemingly thrust onto a plate of augmetics that encompassed his swollen brain. Similar expletives sounded from the group behind him. ‘Traitors!’ the thing raged when it saw them. ‘Traitors and mURderEs and thIEves! Gah would I HAVE THE GREatest power in the gaLAxy aT MY FINGERS I WOuld were it not for TRAITORS!’

Vandemarr stared. ‘Fleet Admiral Kursk, your time –’ ‘I WILL NOT be the deAth oF YOU whY ARE YOU BEcoming the slayer of ME? HERETics and blasphemers AND MURDERS OF MY life!’ ‘He’s insane,’ August remarked. ‘Thank you, Captain,’ Vandemarr said over his shoulder. ‘Kill it,’ one of the armsmen hissed. ‘YOU CANNOT KILL me I am the MInd of the HIVE ON THIS MAnticore! I WILL BOIL your MINDS FRom thEir sockets!’ The screechings of un-oiled mechanisms reverberated around the amphitheatre as the former Fleet Admiral waved its augmetic limbs furiously, decapitating one of its own hybrids. Metal talons slammed into the decking around Vandemarr, and he dived back, scrabbling away from the mechanical onslaught. ‘Shoot it!’ he cried, clumsily dodging the relentless attack, still unable to comprehend just what exactly was going on. Ichor spurted from gaps in the cogitators and its monstrously bloated body, and the illumination panels began strobing on and off, making everyone’s movements akin to slow motion. ‘Shoot it!’ Vandemarr cried again, before one of the limbs wrapped around him and pulled him off the ground. ‘Emperor dammit!’ Hyrgen cried, lifting his lasgun and sending a spray of shots towards the thing. The armsmen and Hussars followed suit, perforating its belly with solid and energy shot whilst trying to avoid Vandemarr. They continued in the chaos until they all ran empty, and the warped creature in front was flayed of blackened flesh and several augmetic limbs. Then, in the silence that followed, the illumination panels flickered back to their dejected halflight. Vandemarr was still being held by the Fleet Admiral, but not in any hostile way. He was suspended mere centimetres from Kursk’s face, sword drawn and poised, streaked with sweat and blood. ‘Find…the power…core,’ Kursk’s familiar and broken voice sounded over the vox, ‘and you’ll find…the source. M-m-make sure…you…stop them, A-Albrecht…’ ‘Sir?’ Hyrgen said, stepping forward, tears marking his cheeks. ‘I’m…I’m…I’m so sorry,’ Kursk barely whispered through a half smile. ‘The Emperor protects,’ Vandemarr soothed. And then he was gone.

Chapter 30

‘Fear not. The Emperor will provide.’ - Commissar’s maxim INS Black Manticore 18:44 (Ship) 63.982.M41 ~The Source~ They ran through the ship faster than any sane man would have judged possible, if their injuries were anything to go by. Low on ammunition, low on time, but drunk on adrenalinefuelled resolve, the group sprinted through the twisting corridors of the Black Manticore like men possessed. Gone was the stealth and secrecy, the quiet manoeuvring and surprise attacks. With the Fleet Admiral dead, and the psychic beacon destroyed, every cult member on the ship was after them. Worse, they knew where to look. As they ran hell-for-leather back across the gangway suspended above the shield vents and up into the embarkation level, dismayingly large numbers of hybrids were pouring out the cracks behind them, deranged and confused by the abrupt termination of the beacon, but just as dangerous in their numbers. Shrieks and calls permeated the ship’s atmosphere throughout its nine kilometre bulk, as dormant genestealers and cultists headed for the small group of intruders. Those responsible for the termination of the psychic host would pay. The patriarch was displeased. They tore across the now familiar embarkation deck, past the ranks of gunships and fighter bombers, and Vandemarr knew that killing Tartovski, presumably in the power core, would be their greatest challenge so far. If they ever reached him, that was. If the core was the source of the infection, as Kursk had said, it would be guarded with as much, if not more ferocity than the bridge had. The Emperor only knew what lay in wait for them. ‘Faster!’ Hyrgen said, now freshly dosed up, along with August, on stimshots. Behind them, the horde of pursuers was growing with every passing second. ‘Can we use the elevators?’ Vandemarr shouted above the shrieking din. Since the Fleet

Admiral’s demise, the power had been intermittent. Illumination panels flickered on and off, and the doors were jamming alarmingly. Only some serious luck had allowed them thus far – twinned with Hyrgen’s now unparalleled knowledge of the ship and its myriad access ways. ‘Oh schtan,’ August gasped, ‘probably not!’ Vandemarr snarled his frustration. Even if the power was working, it could shut off at ay second, leaving them stranded halfway down the ship. What was worse, the hybrids might cut the winch completely, sending them plummeting down a kilometre of atrium to a messy death. ‘How the hell do we – feth!’ MkDrake cried as a length of coolant piping span past his head. A snatched glance behind told Vandemarr the enemy was gaining on them, horribly quickly. ‘We’ve got to get…off this deck…it’s too big!’ he shouted to the sprinting group. ‘Make for the corridors!’ ‘We can’t…it’ll slow us down…too much!’ Miklós shouted back. ‘It’ll slow them down… more!’ Stitches gnawed at his guts as he spoke, and his legs were burning painfully from the sprint. Breathing became a ragged, laboured task. He didn’t know how much longer he could keep running. ‘What if…we….rappel the winches?’ Hyrgen gasped through breaths. It was good enough for Vandemarr. The constant sprinting and fighting was telling on the group. If they didn’t find a way to get off the embarkation deck soon, they would all die. ‘Delayed…fuse grenades…in elevator…cut…winch…wrap hands in clothes…slide down!’ he shouted in reply. There were grunts of assent. One of the armsmen fell from the unbearable fatigue, and was bloodily devoured. ‘SchtanMOVE!’ Vandemarr snarled in a single exclamation he immediately wished he hadn’t made. One of the Hussars began vomiting, then collapsed, taking another with him. Hyrgen had to vault the tumbling men to save himself being knocked down, though the jump nearly killed him. Their screams echoed throughout the deck as they were torn limb from limb. ‘I can’t…I can’t,’ Miklós began, vomit exploding from his mouth. He tossed his lasgun forwards, before collapsing to his knees. Vandemarr caught it with burning forearms, then pumped his failing legs even harder until they screamed out for respite. ‘The EMPEROR PRO-’ Miklós managed, before being pounced upon. With the extra weight of the lasgun, Vandemarr could only guess what the remaining Hussar and August and the armsmen were going through. They were running in full body armour as well. Vandemarr was down to his trousers and greasy, blood-streaked smock. Two more armsmen slowed fatally, their bodies unable to take the punishing flight. They had to move, or there wouldn’t be a party left to assault the core. ‘Scrap…the….plan…just…get…on…elevator!’ Vandemarr cried out. ‘There!’ Hyrgen shouted, his limp arm flailing wildly with his pistoning legs. Ahead, the main freight elevators leading to the power core stood, their metal gates already open. ‘IN!’ Vandemarr shouted as more debris flew past their heads. The group barrelled into the

five-metre wide hold and then began firing desperately out the gates whilst Vandemarr repeatedly punched the lowest red rune. ‘Throne!’ MkDrake shouted as genestealers slammed into them, punished by the withering fire but carried through by the sheer momentum of the horde. ‘BACK YOU DOGS!’ Vandemarr roared, pushing through the armsmen and slashing at the hybrids with his sword. His arms were burning and weak, but still he hacked on whilst the gates refused to close, jammed open by the mass of bodies crammed into the aperture. The last remaining Hussar next to him, save August, was pulled through the doors and eviscerated. They had failed. There was no way out now. They were trapped, crammed into this tiny space in the nowhere of the galaxy, whilst the largest threat to the future of the Imperium clogged the gateway with bodies and snarled and raged in the power core below. With unbearably fatigued muscles and minds, the remaining thirteen men of the group prepared to sell their lives as dearly as they could. Until Vandemarr was pushed back from the maw by MkDrake, lasgun in hand. He crashed into the impotent Hyrgen, his pistol out of ammunition, and August, who had been shouldered out the way along with him. ‘Get to the core!’ MkDrake shouted through his vox-amplified helmet. ‘We’ll buy you as much time as you can!’ He tossed some power cells on the grilling behind him, and then pulled his laspistol out and dropped it next to them. ‘I’ll never forget this!’ Vandemarr shouted. MkDrake nodded. ‘GO!’ *** They slid down the winch cables at frightening speeds, the torn up clothing they had wrapped around their hands smoking violently. With a kilometre of cable to slide down, and very little time in which to do it, it was not long before the thick bundles were frayed to the last threads, and hands began to chafe and bleed with the friction. Between them they had two lasguns, one fresh power cell each, one laspistol and one sword. August had a single frag grenade left. All to assault the largest cult stronghold they had yet encountered. Above, the last of the firing died away as the armsmen were overrun and slaughtered. But they could barely hear it over the whickering of cables resonating against the dark, dank atrium. ‘We go for Tartovski,’ Vandemarr shouted. The others, though he couldn’t see, nodded, barely feeling the pain of the cable against bare bone. They were so dosed up on stimshots it would be hours before the searing agony hit them. By which time, Vandemarr was sure they’d all be dead. Seconds later, and they reached the bottom. *** ‘Hurry Emperor damn it, hurry!’ Inquisitor Enrich Brochs shouted into the minds of the Captain and his navigators on board the Dauntless-class cruiser Pride of Gortlémund. The crew watched him nervously, unsettled by his presence both physical and psychic. He stood next to the command pulpit, clad in a heavy brown robe bearing the Inquisitorial seal down the front

parting, and a triangular rebreather concealing his mouth. His eyes were deep purple, fading to white in the centre, and his hair was long and lank, dark and tangled around the machinery holding his skull together. Arresting, to say the least. ‘I can assure you, Lord Inquisitor the fleet is moving as quickly as possible,’ Captain Nuln said from his massively armoured bulk, directly hardwired into the ship through a thick trunk of cables and hoses. Though centuries old, and in command of twelve ships, even his voice wavered in the presence of the Inquisitor. Brochs smiled to himself under the rebreather. ‘Thank you, Captain,’ he said. ‘Your unquestioning compliance does not go unnoticed.’ If Nuln was pleased at the commendation, he hid it well. ‘Captain, Illythia’s translation point is five minutes away,’ Nuln’s SAO shouted from his console, his augmetic eyes flickering across the pict readouts. ‘Noted,’ Nuln grunted. ‘Prepare for immediate attack. Inform the fleet.’ ‘Aye sir. Very good sir.’ *** Vandemarr, August and Hyrgen slammed into the deck in quick succession, and instinctively brought their weapons prone. Immediately they were set on by two hybrids, though they were dispatched with annoyingly loud ease. In front of them, a suspended walkway led to the power core, over another impossibly large vent chasm. It was dark, though there was light coming from the doors thirty metres away – blue, from the plasma powerstats beyond. The air was thick with the stinging reek of Tyranid filth, and the strong static currents made their hair stand on end. It was not a place they wanted to be fighting in. ‘Let’s move,’ Vandemarr whispered, already drenched in sweat and in agony as the raw flesh of his hands wept and bled. They crossed the walkway quickly and quietly, and reached the doors on the other side. There was a yellow and black warning sign across it, but it had long since faded. To the right of the door was a data panel, and Vandemarr was thankful he still had his signet ring. ‘We go for Tartovski,’ he repeated quietly. ‘Once the patriarch is dead, the cult will fall into disarray. It’s out only hope of stemming their advance until Brochs arrives with the fleet.’ The other two nodded, their faces a ghostly blue in the dark. ‘The Emperor protects,’ Vandemarr said. ‘The Emperor protects,’ the other two echoed. Vandemarr jabbed the signed ring against the data panel, and the doors slid open. What lay beyond was the most horrifying thing any of them had ever seen. ‘Mother of mercy,’ August breathed, ‘it’s…alive...’ With weapons hanging slackly at their sides, they digested the horrible view with wide eyes

and sinking guts. The core level should have been a large sphere, ranked with plasma stats around the walls which converged into a thick trunk of cables in the centre, channelling the power through a billion kilometres of wiring throughout the ship. Instead it looked something like the inside of an abattoir. The floor was awash with stinking pools of slime and ichor, and all around, gestation sacs sat, watched over by hundreds of hybrid slaves. The ceiling drooled hundreds more, like bats in a cave, siphoned off when they were ready by mucus lined tubes into the spawning pools below. The plasma stats themselves were smothered in tumour like growths, each sprouting hundreds of ribbed hoses that plugged directly into the sacs, keeping them warm and moist. And there, in the centre, watching it all was former Lord Marshall and cult patriarch, Orlov Tartovski. Mutated beyond measure, Tartovski looked like a cross between a daemon prince and a carnifex; knotted with muscle, his extra arms boasted a pair of huge scythed talons and his feet bore claws six inches long. On his back, a pair of leathery wings was furled, sprouting from two hooked, bony appendages, and his face wasn’t dissimilar to Màhlav’s, although bearing some telltale features of the former Lord Marshall. Vandemarr took one look at him, lifted his lasgun and aimed it at his head. ‘What is this?’ Tartovski said, his attentions turning to them so suddenly that it was like a physical blow. Vandemarr’s aim didn’t waver. ‘We are the Emperor’s soldiers,’ Vandemarr said from behind the sight of the lasgun. ‘And your blasphemies end here.’ August took a step back as the hybrids stopped tending to the sacs and turned their attentions to them, along with several larger, winged creatures that August instantly recognised from the Rëchivik incident. Tartovski laughed, and much like the Fleet Admiral’s voice, it was unbearable. ‘The three of you? Don’t make me laugh! Even if you could make such a shot from that distance, my children would tear you apart!’ Vandemarr’s eyes shifted quickly to the multitude of hybrids amongst the sacs, and realised that Tartovski was somehow – probably psychically – stopping them from attacking. As soon as he fired, if he missed, they would murder him. If he didn’t miss, the psychic devastation on them dealt by his death would send them insane, and they would probably be killed anyway. It mattered not; he was prepared for death. ‘Why are you doing this?’ he called across the deck. ‘What possible purpose can you achieve?’ Tartovski sneered. ‘With your corpse god dead, mortal, the Hive Mind will control this galaxy whilst your ‘Imperium’ razes before the might of the Tyranids. We will have a million worlds of matter to sate our hunger, ripe for the taking.’ ‘The God-Emperor, filth, shall never be touched by this fleet. You overestimate yourself.’ Tartovski laughed again. ‘Your devotion to your corpse god amuses me, mortal,’ he said, ‘I shall enjoy flaying you alive. On the way to Terra, of course.’

All three men stirred, angered by the blasphemy. ‘He’s kept traitors like you at bay for millennia,’ Vandemarr shouted, ‘you’re nothing! This isn’t new! You’ll be torn apart in Illythia’s orbit! You won’t even be remembered! The Imperium will never know you even existed!’ Tartovski’s mocking smile disappeared. ‘Look what I have done here, mortal!’ he roared. ‘Feasted on the flesh of your brethren! I have taken hundreds of your soldiers and transformed them, bred them into my children! Your own kind is here, hating you, hating your corpse god! I have bred my own strain, melded Tyranid with machine, to fly to the planet and abduct fresh men! I have ordered my ground forces to waste their lives in pointless wave attacks to keep you from the truth! I have tunnels that lead from this place to open space, sealed and secret, whilst your Naval brethren were in the dark! Do not mock me with your sureties, mortal, for I am the greatest patriarch that ever lived! All will know my name! Your faith is worthless under the Hive Mind!’ A dull explosion rocked the ship, throwing several hybrids off their feet and causing Tartovski to stumble from his vantage point. Another hammered the shields, and then another, and then a third rocked the hull. Staccato blasts of fire thumped and chattered into the Manticore, and the whooshing hiss of laser turrets and lances filtered through the thick adamantium armour plating and to their ears. Captain Nuln, Inquisitor Brochs and the 114th Ultima Segmentum Pride of the Gortlémund fleet had arrived. Vandemarr smiled, and re-sighted his aim. Next to him, August and Hyrgen lifted their weapons. ‘Give me as much time as you can,’ Vandemarr said quietly. They both nodded. ‘Kill them!’ Tartovski shouted, angry and confused. The Hybrids ran forward, and August and Hyrgen opened up with quick, professional bursts, taking them down with expert head shots. Vandemarr began to pray. ‘Immortal Emperor, guide my shot with your holy light,’ he began, breathing out slowly. ‘For I fear no evil, I fear not death.’ He lined up the sights on Tartovski’s forehead. ‘I know that you are with me,’ He squeezed the trigger slightly. ‘All else is nothing,’ The lasgun and the air around him began to glow. ‘For my faith is strong.’ He fired. *** ‘What the hell is that?’ Captain Nuln said as a blinding flash of light erupted from the Manticore, searing the pict links leading to the bridge. Brochs grabbed the nearest feed and

stared at it, mesmerised. ‘Look away man, you’ll be blinded!’ Nuln shouted. The light was fantastically bright, like a thousand suns condensed into a singularity. ‘No, I won’t’, Brochs whispered. ‘It’s a miracle.’ *** Vandemarr gasped as, instead of a single blue las bolt, a stream of flame erupted from the barrel of the lasgun and struck Tartovski, still two hundred metres away, head on. He was wreathed in the blinding light, flayed of his flesh in the holy fire and torched to nothingness in a tenth of a millisecond. To Vandemarr, August and Hyrgen, it felt like a thousand years. ‘THE EMPEROR PROTECTS!’ he roared in exultation as the flames ravaged the hybrids and breeding sacs, feeling the Emperor’s holy light penetrate his soul. All around him, he could see choirs of Imperial saints stabbing down beams of flame, eradicating the taint from the power core in incandescent blasts. August and Hyrgen dropped their weapons, tears streaming down their faces, and collapsed to their knees, prostrating themselves in the face of the vision. Everything was light, unbearably and yet beautifully, as the angels wrought their terrible vengeance against the foes of the Emperor. And then, as quickly as the miracle had started, it stopped, and dull blue light once again filled the silent power core. Vandemarr collapsed, his body exhausted by the ordeal. August and Hyrgen picked him up, and ran back towards the elevator.

EPILOGUE
‘There are those amongst our Ordo who say that I seek advancement for my own purposes, and they are correct. My purpose is to destroy the daemonic and if I must rise to command an entire sector to do so, then so be it. I am a servant of the Emperor; only those who consort with Warp-spawn need fear my ambition.’ - Lord Torquemada Coteaz Department of Imperial Justice Kalen Primo, Gortlémund 67.982.M41

~The Spoils of War~ ‘The apothecaries tell me you’ll make a full recovery. This certainly is good news.’ Vandemarr sat in the permanent, though seldom occupied office of Inquisitor MkCormack, worrying at a scar that ran across his left eye. Behind the desk where the Inquisitor now stood, the huge glass windows that overlooked Kalen Primo were streaked with rain – a weather trait that never seemed to be in short supply in the decidedly dreary capital. His previous stay here, during the Garrick trial, had certainly shown him that. It had been four days since his escape from, and subsequent destruction of, the INS Black Manticore. In that time he had spend most of it unconscious in the Pride of Gortlémund’s apothecarium, although the previous evening he had been awake enough to enjoy a wellearned drink in the officer’s mess. Men were congratulating and venerating him like some kind of Space Marine hero, desperate to hear the story. Vandemarr, never one to disappoint, had recounted it whilst everyone commented and drank, though in truth all he wanted to do was sleep, and he still mourned those who had fallen. Now, back on solid ground again, all he wanted to do was get back into action. ‘Yes sir,’ he replied, smiling. ‘Thank you, sir.’ ‘I also hear Mister Hyrgen is now a Fleet Admiral himself, yes?’ ‘Yes sir, as soon as he is able to take the post.’ ‘Excellent. ‘You have done the Imperium a very great service, Albrecht, you all have. As it has been seen, the Emperor is quick to reward the faithful. As are we.’ MkCormack turned away from the window and sat down. He wore a simple green tunic with the Inquisitorial seal on the breast, a pair of black trousers and shin high boots. Over the back of the chair, a brown leather storm coat was flung, along with a wide brimmed hat. Though less imposing than the eccentric and dangerous Inquisitor Brochs, Vandemarr knew from their previous dealings that MkCormack was an excellent man, and one he fully trusted. ‘Sir?’ Vandemarr said. ‘You have saved the Emperor of mankind, no less, Albrecht. Yours, Mister Hyrgen’s and Mister August’s separate accounts are testament to this. Only He knows what madness and terror could have befallen the Imperium had this treacherous fleet not been utterly extinguished. We have Captain Nuln to thank for that as well, of course, but the credit lies with you for uncovering this terrible conspiracy at its source. You shall be rewarded accordingly. Of course,

your reputation is assured, and you will forever be remembered as a hero of the Imperium. But is there anything else, of perhaps more material worth, which would please you? I am under instruction from Lord Inquisitor Brochs to furnish you with whatever you desire. Retirement, perhaps? An estate, on a world of your choosing? A regiment, or maybe a ship? A statue, even?’ Vandemarr smiled, and coughed politely. ‘Your kindness is noted, sir, and greatly appreciated. But I think I’ll return to the front lines, at least for a little while. An honest fight, sir, and a company of men, is all I ask for.’ MkCormack smiled, and leant back. ‘With the stimshot-addicted Captain August, I presume?’ ‘The very same, sir.’ Vandemarr grinned. There was a short, comfortable silence. ‘You are one of a kind, Albrecht.’ MkCormack said. ‘Truly a soldier of the Emperor. Your skills will be missed in your absence on the front lines. I feel compelled to offer you a place in my retinue, as an acolyte. The Ordo Militum could put a man like you to good use.’ Vandemarr’s eyes opened slightly wider. ‘Me, lord? An Inquisitor?’ he asked, genuinely taken aback. The thought had never occurred to him, though it carried with it a certain appeal. MkCormack shrugged. ‘Should you so wish. Think about it. Spend a few months on the front lines, and contact me if you’re still alive. You’d start off as my junior, of course, and learn everything you’d need to know through me.’ ‘Sir, I…I don’t know how to thank you –’ ‘Then don’t. I shall organise you a company, with Captain August. And a statue or two,’ he added with a smile. ‘You know where to contact me.’ Vandemarr nodded. ‘One more thing, before you leave,’ MkCormack said. ‘Sir?’ ‘Your reputation will certainly procure the deepest and most deserved adulations from those loyal to the Imperium, and word does spread quickly. But know that the agents of the enemy, the traitor and the heretic, are equally likely to hear of it. Your very name will make you a target. Be warned, Albrecht, for in every dark corner there is an assassin waiting to happen. You are a wise man, certainly beyond your years. I do hope that what has earned you such reverence does not play a part in your downfall.’ ‘Thank you, sir.’ Vandemarr said. They shook hands. ‘I shall contact you soon.’ MkCormack finished. Vandemarr nodded, and then was gone.

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