Bait

5/5 (2)

Now:

Hyades! Hyades! Hyades!’ howls the monster in the void. 

The voice of the Daemonship – hot with fury, rank with spite – screams across every spectrum, defying the silence of the hard vacuum. Its name echoes in an endless, maddening refrain. 

You don’t want to hear it. 

You don’t want to acknowledge it. 

But your auspex, dispassionate, shows that the Daemonship – Hyades! Hyades! Hyades! – is your manifest doom, a predator of void combat: too swift to outrun, too vast for anything less than a Navy frigate to handle.

‘Dump plasma!’ you bark. ‘Overheat the engines and make ready for a course correction!’

The bridge crew jump to action in a sudden flurry around you. 

They know you – old Shipmaster Zunz – from many years rogue trading on the Imperium’s farthest reaches. And they know that old man Zunz never barks like that without good reason.

Deckplates shudder beneath your feet from the radical manoeuvring. Stanchions thrill with static energy, sparking at every touch. The air grows taut with human stress and machine tension. 

Astrogation screams protest: your new heading takes you away from the system’s Mandeville Point – the safest coordinates in local realspace for an escape into the warp. But you ignore the outcry. 

Jumping from the Mandeville Point would first mean running toward the monster – and suicide is not in the cards today. 

So instead, you flee for the nearest planetoid, and the shelter – however temporary – of its far side. 

Meanwhile, you ask yourself: since the monster has you cornered, why has it not already killed you?

A sinking feeling tells you that the Daemonship knows what you have onboard.

That it, too, wants what you had been sent searching for.

Your instructions had brought you to one of this system’s barren planetoids, where infinite deserts of silver sand were burning beneath a dying red sun. In the desert, the item awaited you. 

A casket of sorts, Xenos-made, hewn of jet-black obsidian, as lonely and heavy as a broken heart. 

You stowed it two decks below, port-side, where it weighed like the guilt on your conscience – and there was plenty of guilt to be found there. 

For what you did, back at Teodelina; for leaving her

You pinch yourself, forcing your mind back on task. How did the Daemonship know it was onboard? 

‘Single ships, now on auspex!’ bellows someone. 

There! 

Archenemy fighters raced ahead of the monster Hyades, like hounds scrambling and snatching at the heels of their helpless prey. 

‘Missile launch detected!’ cries another member of the bridge crew. ‘Estimate… two minutes out!’ 

Fear grips your throat, clenching tighter than a vice, choking prayers to the God-Emperor. 

But old instinct boils through the terror – you don’t get to be your age in this trade without instinct – and a plan forms from the chaos. 

‘Evacuate all starboard-side cargo bays!’ you snap. ‘Check pressurisation and brace all hands!’

A moment’s incomprehension, and then a frantic relay across the ship intercom. Even if they don’t yet grasp it, the bridge team knows good old Zunz has something up his sleeve, like back at Teodelina. 

You wish that you shared their confidence in you.

One minute to impact, now.

‘Starboard cargo bay compartments confirmed evacuated! All reading pressurised, aye!’ 

Thirty seconds.

You watch the auspex, and the ghostly green shade advancing towards you like the hands of a clock. 

Your thumb hovers above the red decompression rune; the seconds passing are a lifetime’s torture. 

Time enough to realise that your blood is up in a rage so wordless, so profound, that it shocks you.

Rage at the Archenemy – at the monstrous beast out there in the void. 

Rage at Abir, for sending you on this fool’s errand. 

And rage at yourself, for ignoring her.

+++

Then: 

The sweat and smoke of the place caught in the back of your throat. The high spirits of the drinkers and the higher wagers of the gamblers had all dissolved together, like flesh in acid, until your nose wrinkled at the stink of fresh adrenaline and old vomit. 

But still, you came. 

‘I was worrying I’d not see you,’ Abir lied, and flashed pearly teeth from under his hard brown eyes. He glanced up and down, spying your belly. ‘You got fat since we last met – but I like the beard.’ 

‘Interrogator,’ you said, ignoring the jibes as you took your seat. 

‘I’m glad you took my call, Zunz. I need my favourite rogue trader for this task.’ 

A waitress swung by your table, bored and tired and jaded – only to depart as quickly as she arrived. You had seen her eyes as she swung back around: welled with tears, as sudden as spring rain. 

Everyone was the same when meeting Abir for the first time – you included. 

But even for you, even now, it never got easier to sit with a man touched by the warp. 

A psyker, Abir’s dark skin pulsed and wavered, like the heat-shimmer of an overworked engine coil. His voice was too deep for a man with so slight a frame, like you heard him from a far, distant place. 

You’d have hated him, but didn’t dare let the thought cross your mind for the fact he could read it – and kill you for it. 

‘Your boss still better pay well.’ 

Abir shot another of his unsettling smiles. 

‘Since we last worked together I left Inquisitor Balshin’s service. Rest assured: my new master pays even better.’ 

You jerked your chin towards the credit wand, resting on the table by Abir’s elbow. 

‘Down payment?’

‘Twenty-Eighty. More than generous.’ 

He scribbled a number on a tattered napkin. And it caught your heart like lightning. 

A future spiralled out before you. A thread of golden hope, rich and promising, heavy with the old temptations that you’d known since your days as an Ensign in the fleet. 

But that was then, when all that life had asked of you was valour and desire. 

Now – since your years had crumbled and flattened together like so much rubble – life demanded a greater caution. 

Especially since you started taking jobs from the Holy Ordos. 

‘Why did you leave Balshin?’ you asked. ‘I didn’t know you could quit working for an Inquisitor.’ 

‘No more than you can quit the Imperial Navy – but your last job for me was a career apex.’ 

‘We don’t need to talk about Teodelina.’ 

‘Let’s not be modest. Diverting that Drukhari raider onto your decoy was a masterstroke.’ 

Another pang of guilt, as sharp as a reopened wound.

‘Teodelina was a close call. One that my decoy crew paid for.’ 

‘Zunz,’ said Abir pointedly, ‘so long as I get what I want, there are no reasons to feel guilty.’

You had to change track and stop playing Abir’s games. 

‘Who else knows?’ you asked, and leaned back in the cheap plastic chair, the signature Zunz facade: casually composed. 

‘About this job? You, me. My master.’ 

‘Three’s a crowd.’

‘It takes three.’

‘Why do you need me? Why pay when you could do it yourself?’ 

‘That’s my business.’

‘It’s my neck.’ 

The air grew thick, as if the combination of smoke, fear, and ambition had taken physical weight.

‘My master desires an item, but will not make collection without confirmation it is safe and intact. Your Astropath will need to message me as soon as you have it in hand.’ Abir jabbed a finger at you. ‘Zunz, you know I can read your thoughts. So don’t go thinking this is easy. This demands discretion, not just someone who knows how to fly a ship. You talk, you die.’ 

You nodded. One last question. For luck. 

‘Who are you working for?’ 

Abir’s tone was sharper and deeper than a dagger in the guts. 

‘Do you want the damn money, or not?’

+++

You went back to her, straight after your meeting with Abir. 

You were cautious – but heady with hope, buoyant and giddy at prospects you had already weighed up in the scales of your mind. 

But the scales weighed differently for her. 

‘Don’t trust that psyker bastard,’ she had said, with a voice like granite and cheeks wet with tears. 

‘You remember how you were after that last run for him?’ she snapped, her teeth bared. ‘Do you?’

Her rage had grown like a sunrise, a mounting intensity that washed over you like waves on a beach, and you realised you were impervious to her fury, self-assured in a choice you had already made. 

‘Not now,’ she had said, with one hand on her belly, ‘of all the bloody times. Not now.’ 

You smoothed things over. Placated and lied, as easy as an addict finds fresh ways for another hit. 

With a private kind of shame, the kind you daren’t admit to yourself, you had always known that money had been your life’s passion. Though you were better at keeping it than you were at making it— 

But now? 

This job would let you afford another kind of passion. Another kind of life. 

You slipped away that next morning; left her a note to be patient. 

To wait. 

+++

Now:

Five seconds to impact. 

The thought of her flushes your veins with a singular, senseless desire: return, and make things right. No matter what. 

With one hand, you brace the deckhead above. With the other, you hit the red decompression rune.

The whole ship jolts with seismic fury—bulkheads screech, as if in living agony. 

Servitors and crewmen flash past in screaming, compact bundles, each backlit by spluttering lumens. 

An instant later – a second shockwave. You grasp for a handhold, tendons tearing at the effort. 

‘Damage to ventral compartments,’ intones a nearby servitor, deadpan. ‘Fire reported.’ 

Even so, you smile. 

The simultaneous explosive decompression of every starboard-side cargo-bay had flung your ship aside at the last possible moment – and the sudden vent of air, thickly strewn with any loose debris, had triggered the Archenemy missile into a premature detonation. 

What might have been a crippling blow had instead merely scratched the skin.

‘On your feet, for Throne’s sakes!’ you cry, kicking and slapping any too slow or too dazed to reply. 

‘Man your stations if you want to live!’ 

Hyades! Hyades! Hyades!’ howls the Daemonship into the aether, now manic with bloodlust. 

‘Astrogation, report!’ you snap, over the monster’s voice. 

‘Forty seconds to the orbit of the planetoid,’ comes the frantic reply. 

Just as you planned, the sprint away from the Mandeville point has you entering the orbit of the nearest planetoid. The nimble fighters are still on your tail, still able to fire another missile after you. But the orbital manoeuvre will hide you from their auspex-locks, however briefly. 

Hyades! Hya-’ the Daemonship’s raving voice is abruptly cut off. 

Astrogation fills the sudden silence, ‘We’re on the dark side of the planetoid.’ 

‘Make a new bearing, southern polar orbit. Fast.’ 

The engines, already straining like a race-horse, foaming at the bit, make the rapid correction burn. 

Astrogation again, ‘New bearing, aye, achieving zenith in thirty seconds!’ 

You see the bridge crew trading uneasy glances. You can read their postures like an open book: this is not the Zunz that got them through Teodelina alive, even if it cost ten of their own on that decoy barge. 

In truth, they are right. You have no fresh ideas, no sudden inspirations, bar one last, wild hope to sprint back towards the Mandeville Point. 

You once had read of the ancient knights of antiquity, back on Holy Terra, who wore suits of steel and rode in headlong charges across the plains of Yurop. 

There’s no armour here, no steel beyond the few centimetres’ pressurised hull-skin. 

But you will make your own charge, here, now. 

‘Get the docking cameras up on my display,’ you snap, and the screen before you winks to life. 

You see the black mass of the planetoid’s night-time side, swiftly receding into the brilliant white corona of its polar orbit. The feed is grainy, the magnification dismal. 

‘New contacts on auspex!’ 

‘The fighters?’ you bark in irritation. ‘Tell me now!’ 

‘Two new major units. Estimate tonnage equal to the first Archenemy contact. The fighters… I don’t see them, perhaps still following our orbit around the planetoid.’ 

With three enemy fleet units ahead, your charge is doomed from the off; the pursuing fighters are suddenly irrelevant.

There! A flash in your camera screen, like some distant, lonely spark. 

Weapons discharge, you recognise. Main lance batteries. 

Hyades!’ screams the Daemonship, in impossible eloquence, howling its pain, its despair, its wrathful hate for a hunt spoiled and opportunity stolen. Another flash, there and gone. A third. 

Hyadeshyadeshyadeshy—’ the monster’s voice degrades with every passing second, still raging, still defiant, but bleeding in the airwaves. Its cunning lost to animalistic thrashing, like a lobotomised body, dancing to the last impulse shot through dying synapses. 

A fourth flash – brighter, sharper, than any before. 

Silence. 

‘One of the auspex profiles has… vanished!’ declares a crewman. ‘The Archenemy contact is dead!’

‘The Emperor Protects,’ you mutter in shameless disbelief. 

Where had these two new units appeared from? Were they Imperial Navy? 

That instant, as if in sympathy for the fallen foe, your ship shudders. 

And like a heart beating its last, the deck ceases its tremor beneath your feet. Mechanical silence engulfs your ship.

A servitor confirms what you had already guessed, ‘Engine overload noted. Emergency shutdown.’

Your momentum, that irresistible force of the void, has you racing towards the two unknown ships; the last, wild charge you committed to is inescapable now. 

You feel a sudden peacefulness in that. A certainty that come what may, nothing more can be done.

Only then does another voice reach you. Not on the radio, but deep within your heart of hearts. More personal than a lover’s touch, more private than a confession – and more sickening than any violation. You recoil from it, this other inside your psyche, from the thoughts that are not your own touching your mind in an unwanted caress. 

++ You served our trap perfectly. The Emperor’s Holy Ordos commends your survival. ++

Abir, you bastard. 

++ Now, prepare to be boarded. You possess contraband that I will be taking. ++

With that comes a creeping realisation. Abir has already had his prize: the Daemonship, destroyed. Against that goal, you – trusty old Zunz, the favoured lackey – had only ever been bait. 

Abir had never planned to pay out that fantastic fee he promised, and now your survival, along with the question of the relic in your port-side cargo bay, is an inconvenience. 

The Emperor Protects, yes. But he does not protect you from the attentions of His Holy Ordos: once Abir boards you to take the relic, there will be no loose ends. 

Your thoughts drift, as they often do, to her – and to the child you one day hope to hold.

There was only one thing left to do, as you bark orders to confirm the functions of your ship’s warp drive and its Geller field. If you can’t flee from Abir in realspace… 

‘Geller field readiness optimal,’ answers an engineering servitor.

‘Warp drive chambers declare ready, aye!’ shouts a rating. 

‘New Orders!’

About the Author

Hal Wilson is a member of the Military Writers’ Guild and specializes in using fiction to explore future conflict. His published stories include finalist contest entries with the U.S. Naval Institute, West Point’s Modern War Institute, and War on the Rocks. He lives in the United Kingdom, where he works in defence.

Contact