‘Damn it girl, don’t be so stingy with the port thrusters,’ an annoyed voice uttered, ‘They are there for a reason.’ Chaia Wisona heard the irate tone and her nose crinkled in resentment at being told what to do, but she obeyed anyway and corrected her course. Around her the tiny bridge compartment whirred, the cramped consoles beeping and humming as they operated the boat’s systems. It was a hot and confined space, filled with equipment and the smell of unwashed bodies who had sat for too long peering at controls.
Chaia kept her head low over the helm, trying not to let her resentment show but failing. She was a young woman, thin and marked by a lean childhood. She had thin lips and sullen eyes, with a hard face that wouldn’t turn any boy’s head in a crowd. Like most people her age Chaia wanted to be treated like an adult, but she wasn’t old enough to act like one, unfortunately she was in the age where she couldn’t understand why adults treated her like a child and resented them for it.
‘Bring the bow up two degrees,’ the voice said.
‘I know what I’m doing,’ Chaia snapped.
‘Don’t cheek me girl,’ the voice said, ‘I brought you into this galaxy and I can take you out.’
That was the voice of the boat’s Captain, Bertu Wisona who also happened to be her mother. Chaia glanced backwards and saw her mother sitting in her command chair at the centre of the small bridge. Bertu was a lean woman; in dirty overalls which suited her boat perfectly. The Wisona’s had operated this patrol boat for five generations, working the orbit of Greater Tectum, sweeping the vectors for strays and waifs. Technically she was designated System Boat G423-77-91-Q but informally the crew called her the ‘Nymph’.
The Nymph was a tiny minnow in void terms, not warp-capable or suited for long voyages. She was not intended to wage war or sail the Immaterium, she was a short-ranged patrol boat with a crew of a hundred, intended only for spotting smugglers and guiding weary transports to dock. One amongst hundreds of similar craft, eternally orbiting Greater Tectum and even the smallest cargo vessel dwarfed her. The Wisona’s operated her under a lease from the Navy, which meant the Imperium could pay them a fraction of what they would a proper Naval crew. Chaia had grown up on this boat, playing with the few children dwelling in the dirty decks. She didn’t know who her father was, he certainly wasn’t one of the crew, but she largely didn’t care. She had no intention of wasting her life on this scow, she wanted to live, to explore the wonders of space and see sights that would amaze her.
‘Damnation, keep us steady,’ Bertu snapped angrily, ‘We’re drifting way off course.’
‘I’m trying,’ Chaia muttered as she wrestled with the recalcitrant helm.
Suddenly another voice interjected, ‘I don’t think it’s her fault, something’s mucking up the Astrogation cogitator.’
That was Emmel, the Astrogator of the Nymph. He was an older man, by Chaia’s youthful reckoning. She also thought him stupid, ugly and lazy, an opinion she had formed after catching his avaricious looks in her direction. Of course he would never try anything, partly because they were cousins but mostly because her mother made sure to be on the bridge whenever Chaia had her shift.
Emmel continued, ‘I recommend cutting power to the drives so I can root out the problem.’
‘Very well,’ Bertu sighed wearily, ‘Cut the drive.’
Chaia complied, letting the Nymph drift on inertia as a gruff voice spat, ‘I said it was a mistake to come this far out.’
That was Hernun, a new crewman who had signed on with the boat as a fixer. Chaia didn’t like him; he had hard eyes and a cruel smile. She wished he would stay below decks with the other crew, half of whom she was related to, but he kept coming up here. Hernun liked to hang about the bridge, toying with the tightly packed consoles and the cast of his flinty eyes turned her cold. To distract herself she turned her eyes to the display screen, no fancy Hololiths on-board the Nymph, and checked their position. The boat was cruising the outmost orbits of the gas giant, skirting the very fringes of deep space. Few boats liked to come out this far, if anything went wrong help was over an hour away, but sometimes it was worth it, if they found a ship in distress the Imperial Navy would pay them a hefty bonus.
Chaia was pulled from her thoughts as Bertu leaned forward and said, ‘Chaia, have you submitted your application to the Salamis academy yet?’
‘Mother!’ Chaia whined in that tone youths use, little realising it makes them sound like infants, ‘I told you I’m not going to any academy.’
Bertu sounded annoyed as she growled, ‘Yes you are, if you want to get your officer’s certificate. You’ll never inherit the Nymph without the right qualifications. Even the civilian fleet needs trained officers.’
Chaia turned her chair and groaned, ‘I don’t want to inherit this rust bucket, I want to see the stars up close.’
‘You stop that talk child,’ Bertu snapped testily, ‘Your grandfather would turn in his grave to hear you speak so. The Nymph has been in our family for generations and you’ll be glad of a steady income when you’re older.’
Chaia was about to retort but suddenly Emmel jerked upright in his chair and exclaimed, ‘What the Frak!’
Bertu spun about and snapped, ‘What is it?’
Emmel was staring at a console and uttered incredulously, ‘That interference, it’s not interference. There’s a message buried in the pattern, on a low-frequency channel. It’s marked with a Naval stamp, highest priority, but it’s not encoded, it was transmitted in the clear.’
Bertu sounded surprised as she said, ‘In the clear? That’s not right, what does it say?’
Emmel read aloud in disbelief, ‘Cruiser Averof to all imperial units. Massive Traitor attack is underway. Lesser Tectum has fallen. Enemy fleet is advancing upon Greater Tectum. This is no drill.’
Chaia’s jaw dropped as the words hit her and she said, ‘What does that…’
Suddenly there was a sharp crack and a flash of light as something flew across the bridge and struck Emmel in the chest. It was a las-shot and it sent him flying from his seat, crumpling into a heap as his heart was cauterised into a charred lump. Chaia eyes saw the shot, she saw it come from Hernun’s pistol but she couldn’t believe it, the man had pulled his weapon and fired without hesitation. Bertu gasped aloud and rose to her feet but as she did so Hernun turned his pistol upon her and shot her in the back.
Chaia’s jaw dropped as her mother collapsed but her feet reacted faster than her mind did. Even as Hernun rose and turned the pistol upon her she was jumping out of her seat, moving back to roll over the helm console and drop behind it. A las-shot slammed into the console, sending sparks flying as the panels exploded. Another shot slammed home and another, blowing the console to bits as Chaia rolled over and drew her pistol from her hip. The girl fumbled with it, trying to remember how to switch the safety off and cursing that she had spent her shooting lessons daydreaming about distant stars.
To buy time Chaia called, ‘Hernun! What are you doing?!’
The man merely let off another shot as he yelled, ‘The Pantheon demands silence: no alerts, no warnings. For Lorgar and the Word!’
Chaia finally found the safety and held the pistol tightly; she lifted her head a fraction and peeked over the helm looking for a target. Unfortunately thick smoke was pouring out of the helm, making her eyes sting and she couldn’t see anything. Desperately she let off a shot but was almost killed as a return blast flew past her eyes.
Frantically Chaia dropped back, fumbling with the grip of the laspistol as she tried to steady her arm. The smoke coming from the helm was making her eyes sting and clawing at the back of her throat but she could hear booted feet closing on her position. She blinked away tears as she tried to guess which direction Hernun would come from and ended up going left. She chose wrong. A scuffle behind her announced the Traitor stepping around the helm to her right, his own pistol held out ready. Chaia spun about, trying to bring her gun to bear but she was too slow, the man was already lining up his shot and his eyes glinted with the madness of murder. His lips drew back over his teeth and he hissed, ‘For the Dark…’
Suddenly there was a flash of light and another shot came out of nowhere, angling from the side. The shot clipped Hernun’s shoulder, spinning him half-about with a cry of pain. The Traitor was wounded but not seriously, he snarled as he lifted his pistol to fire back into the bridge but in that instant of distraction Chaia acted. Moving on instinct her hands lifted her pistol, aiming for the centre of his chest and she squeezed the trigger, sending forth a brilliant bolt of las-fire. In her inexperience the shot went high and caught Hernun in the neck, sending him sprawling to the deck. There was no last defiant cry, no hateful cursing or vengeful tirade, one second Hernun was a living man, the next he was a limp corpse, his spinal column fused by the shot.
Chaia was stunned, she had killed a man, with her own hands she had taken a life. Her hands lowered slowly and her jaw fell as she gazed upon the corpse, her mind frozen by the enormity of the moment. Long seconds crept by at a glacial pace as her soul churned but then her reverie was broken by a pained voice calling, ‘Chaia…’ The girl blinked and lifted her head over the ruin of the helm console to spy Bertu, leaning against her command chair, with one hand clasped to her side and the other holding a laspistol.
‘Mother!’ Chaia yelled in desperate relief as she practically leapt over the helm, ‘How are you alive?!’
Bertu grimaced in pain as she replied, ‘That grox-frakker was a lousy shot… ow… Damn it… not that lousy, but I’m alive.’
Chaia pressed her hands to her mother’s heart, her youthful resentment washing away in the sheer relief of the moment as she confessed, ‘I’m sorry I was mad at you.’
‘Doesn’t matter child,’ Bertu said as she gripped her arm and said, ‘I’m glad you’re alive too. Now help me to my chair.’
Chaia obeyed, lifting the Captain into her chair, where she slumped down and said, ‘What’s working?’
Chaia turned to take in the bridge and said, ‘Emmel… he’s, he’s dead. Helm’s gone, weapon controls too but we’ve still got comms and Auspex.’
‘Wretched filth,’ Bertu spat, ‘This will take days to fix… wait, what’s that light?’
Chaia saw a blinking alert on the auspex console and rushed over, pushing the image onto the big display. She turned to look at the screen and her eyes went wide in horror. The Nymph’s auspex arrays were detecting a huge wave of contacts, a hurricane of icons barrelling into range. Vast warships and sleek frigates, doughty assault barques and vicious cruisers, all headed their way. Waves upon waves of hostile craft, all armed to the teeth and eager for bloodshed.
Chaia had never seen the like and she gasped, ‘The message was right. Traitors, headed for our home.’
Bertu sounded equally aghast as she exclaimed, ‘They’ll be there within the hour, the fleet will never see them coming. The attack will shatter the defences and roll over everything like an avalanche.’
‘What do we do?’ Chaia gulped.
Bertu stated firmly, ‘We couldn’t outrun that lot, even if we had a working helm. There’s only one option, we have to warn the base.’
Chaia spluttered, ‘But I don’t know how.’
‘I know you’re scared child,’ Bertu said, ‘But I need you to be brave for another minute. Go to the vox station and do exactly what I tell you.’
Chaia swallowed her fear and did as she was told, making the adjustments to the vox as her mother told her. Swiftly the vox was tied into a looped signal, continually retransmitting the message they had received on a wider frequency that anybody could detect. Bertu said, ‘Good; now the red button will tie in the emergency batteries to boost the signal. Focus the beam by turning the big dial three notches, no jamming will stop it now. Well done, lastly say the Chant of Awakening and turn it on.’
Chaia obeyed and the vox station began to purr, indicating it was working. The girl turned about and asked, ‘What now?’
Bertu lowered her head and murmured, ‘We’ve done all we can, there’s nothing else to do.’
Chaia’s stomach dropped and she glanced at the display, seeing the Traitor fleet bearing down upon them. Even the smallest vessel eclipsed the system boat and they would blow the Nymph away without pausing. Chaia’s lip trembled and she whispered, ‘But… but does that mean we’re done for?’
Bertu’s eyes filled with the sorrow of a parent who knows there is nothing they can do to save their child. Instead she opened her arms and said, ‘Come here.’
Chaia rushed over, all thoughts of adulthood swept away as fear filled her. She was once more a little girl, clinging to her mother in the infantile belief that a parent’s arms can hold all bad things at bay. Tears rolled down her cheeks as the fact that her life was over welled up within her. She hadn’t yet begun to live but her story was already done and she sobbed, ‘I don’t want to die, please, I don’t want to die.’
Bertu could only hold her daughter tight and close her eyes as she whispered, ‘Take heart my baby, the God-Emperor saw us doing our duty. He will welcome our souls to his side. Wherever we go, we’ll go together.’
In the smoke-filled bridge the pair clung to each other, taking what little comfort they could in their last moments. As the vox wailed its alarm into the night they closed their eyes and waited for death to come. They would be the first to die in the coming attack, but far from the last.
About the Author
Matthew Stuart is an aspiring author living and working in Oxford. When not writing, his hobbies include reading everything within reach, cycling, shovelling enough food to feed a platoon into his three kids, fielding questions as to what his third favourite dinosaur is and wondering why adults never discuss their favourite dinosaurs.