Duran stood in the green glow of the main deck’s displays and situation readouts with the majority of the ship’s officers–every man afraid to the pit of his stomach in the shadow of the captain’s servo-cable throne. The command cathedral was as much glasspex as plasteel, allowing them all to watch as the squadron crumbled vessel by vessel in the haze of weapons and the deep black of the void.
‘Brace for impact,’ said Captain Ogarkov with a bitter calm, an order that every man knew was coming.
‘Brace for impact!’ Was echoed by junior officers and vox technicians across the deck and down the corridors throughout the entire world of the ship.
‘Sector Command, this is the Battlecruiser Reach of Hope. I regret to inform you that the Archenemy has breached our blockade and the squadron is lost. We are the last capital ship remaining, we are vastly outnumbered, crippled, and we expect immediate destruction.’ The captain raised his hands and removed the crown of neural implants and cranial uplinks. He stood solemnly as his tech monasts unplugged the heavier support cables from his back allowing him to step forward from the command throne and stand at the ornate pulpit that overlooked the entire deck.
‘Men and women of the Reach of Hope. It has been my honour to serve alongside you and command this great hand of the God-Emperor these many centuries among the stars. We have seen many battles together and untold wonders through the vastness of the galaxy. But our time is finally at an end. I commend you all to carry out your final duties with the repose and nobility of His Mighty Navy, as I know you all shall.’ The captain gripped the rail in his hands as the deathblows were incoming.
Duran locked his shotcannon across his armoured chest. He turned his head left and right to check that all officers and ratings remained at their battle positions. He was proud to see that they were. He took a deep breath as the glasspex of his visor lit up with the fiery flares of doomed allied ships and frenzied weapons fire outside.
Then came the boom. The terrible shudder. The alarms and sirens. The screams and fires. Electro sparks, fragments of shrapnel, showers of blood.
Duran’s magboots kicked into activity as the glass of the cathedral shattered above them snatching crewmen into the dark cold void.
The silhouette of the Captain above was visibly wounded but he stood firm. ‘Abandon ship. I repeat. Abandon ship.’ Again, the order was no more than a grim formality. The commtechs and officers had already initiated a full evacuation protocol as soon as the first blastwave shook the ship.
Duran grabbed the shoulder of his Master-at-Arms. ‘You know what to do,’ he snarled. ‘Maintain order. Prevent panic-‘
‘-and execute cowards, Chief.’ His armsmaster concluded the ancient mantra of Naval Security.
They nodded at each other sharply then moved swiftly in opposite directions. Duran took hold of the rail at the stairwell and climbed his way to the captain’s dais. The tech monasts were dead in their torn red robes, there was no gorey flesh only their nest of machine limbs, their maglocks held fast so that they floated upright like hanging puppets their blood dripping upwards. Duran raised his face to the Captain and saluted in the sign of the aquila.
‘The fight is never over, Chief-at-arms.’ The Captain’s voice rattled and gurgled, his throat filling with blood and black mech fluids.
‘Your grace, you should rest.’ Duran was amazed that the man still stood upright, his powerful torso was split from the shoulder through the rib cage, the medals at his breast covered in blood.
‘Listen to me, Chief Duran. I have one last mission for you.’ The captain clutched at Duran’s gorget to steady himself as another blastwave rippled through the battlecruiser’s millenia-old architecture.
‘Get to the surface with the others. See that the remaining officers lead the crew off to the Imperial Guard positions. There they must join the men in the trenches and bunkers for the final battle. But you…’ the Captain fought to breathe, ‘You must remain with the wounded. See to it that not one of my men are taken alive by the enemy. You know what will happen if they do. There are tens of thousands of human lives on this ship, I calculate that thousands may yet make it to the surface. Do not let them become fodder for the evil warmachine …. what indignation and dishonour that our lives should be used against us, that we should join the endless ranks of hell.’ The captain’s eyes rolled upwards as if to the heavens, his voice trailing off into poetic delirium. ‘The Emperor….’ the Captain’s grip on Duran’s armour slipped and his arm fell limp ‘…expects…’ The total loss of gravity and atmosphere silenced the final words of the captain. Duran’s voidhelm engaged and he heard only his own breath, ‘that every man shall do his duty’ Duran ended the captain’s sentence. He unlocked his magboots, jumped off the command pulpit and span weightlessly across the remains of the deck. Floating drops of blood and shards of metal and glass sparkled as they danced harmlessly across his voidsuit. His magboots locked down again as he reached the far bulkhead.
The last of the living crewmen from the command quarters were filing into the long cramped corridors. He waited until the very last man was clear, he took a final look at the command stations, his visor awash with colours from streams of plasma-fire and bright electrostatic. The pale planet above came into view as the ship rolled powerlessly towards its inexorable gravitational pull. ‘This is it. The end.’ He said and then ran, the metallic clangs of his boots sounding through the enclosure of his suit.
The occasional voice crackled and fizzed through the vox in his helm, so many voices screaming their last. A few solitary transmissions were the calm commands of officers and ratings to the crew.
‘Lifeboat 733-alpha disengaging, please proceed to docks 735 through to 745.’
‘Negative. Docks 735 to… indeterminate position… are… no longer there.’
‘The Emperor protects. May He have mercy on your souls.’
Other voices were less stoic. ‘Please don’t leave us!’ and ‘Help me, I can’t get out!’
Duran saw one bulkhead blocked by the maniacal panic of ship’s thralls scrambling at an armsman who defended a lifeboat. ‘These are only for crew proper, you must turn back!’ Shouted the armsman.
Duran did not hesitate, his shotcannon lit up the dark corridor with a blaze of slugs and advanced. The gunfire shredded the emaciated bodies of the pale thralls. The armsman himself was wounded by the shots. Duran grabbed the armsman’s bolt pistol sidearm and pushed it into the woman’s chest. ‘Let that be a lesson to you. Use it!’
The armsman nervously slapped emergency patches on the wounds that had torn her suit between the armour plates. Meanwhile Duran turned the wheel at the hatch and swung open the bulkhead. The lifeboats here were close to the command deck for a reason, they were for officers and ratings only. He inspected the armsman’s left shoulder, looking for her chevrons of rank insignia, there were none.
‘Remain at your station.’ Duran commanded her, and locked the pressure door behind him.
The corridor continued for several hundred metres towards the lifeboats 230 to 250, but there were probably three or four junctions between. He ran onwards, his shotcannon at the hip prepared for more cowards.
At the first junction there was an adjoining section missing entirely, the twisted insides of the ship open to the void. Black space seemed to be spinning around as the bright desert planet approached, it was of course the ship and not the galaxy that was crashing towards him, but it felt like death.
He shook his head back from fear and ran onwards to the next junction. Here there was a fight between an armsman and some bloody bodies, possibly officers. Duran saw only disorderly conduct, punishable by death, and stepped in to aid the armsman who had his shotcannon raised like a bar pressing back the clawing tide of panic.
Duran shoved his shotcannon into the mass of bodies and opened fire. Slugs ripped into them, vaporising the first and decapitating the last. Their lifeless remains, all meat and tatters of uniform floated backwards into the black. ‘Good work!’ He said, ‘Hold your position.’ The armsman voxed back breathlessly. ‘Aye aye, Chief.’
Finally at the lifeboat docks, crewmen were calmly entering each one. He made it to section 248 Ceta just as it was filling to the last landing harness. He locked the bulkhead behind him and fired close the escape hatch. He slammed his fist down on the ignition panel before he had even strapped in. His magboots held him in his position, but the sudden gravity of the rockets firing the lifeboat away from the ship knocked his body backwards to the bulkhead. He felt himself greying out, sound droning down, he looked into the voidhelms of the other evacuees and saw their petrified faces as the lifeboat shivered. There was relief at surviving the destruction of the Reach of Hope, but the orbital drop onto the planet was yet another gauntlet to be run. The vibrations of orbital entry shook him into unconsciousness.
Sand was seeping into the cracks of his voidhelm and filling his mouth. He was suffocating. He scrambled at the pauldrons which held his oxygen tank to his back. With a gush of hot desert air, it fell off and took the voidhelm with it. He still choked and twisted to his side to get to his feet, but his legs were pinned. He at least found strength in his arm to get himself up out of the sand. The world was full of smoke and fire. Thunder unlike anything imaginable wracked the dawn sky and a shape eclipsed the sun. The hulk of the Reach of Hope broke through the atmosphere. More than half of the sky was filled with its titanic black shape. It loomed for a moment as its edges caught fire, then it collapsed into continent sized breaks beyond the horizon, and the day returned.
Voices of the crew strewn across the desert changed from moans of pain to wails of hopelessness at seeing their home, their very world, the great battlecruiser simply die. What hope was there for themselves, their little lives?
“The Emperor protects!” Duran called out, rallying the survivors far and near.
An officer recognised his voice and stepped through the smouldering wreckage and kicked-up dust. Duran could only make out the uniform as the officer lifted the sheet of metal that had pinned his legs.
“Thank you, sir.”
“That’s ma’am to you, Duran.” The officer responded reaching out her hand.
Duran scrambled to his feet, the skin of one leg sliced open from the knee along the calf, and a bicep badly but superficially burned.
“Lieutenant Commander Pen-Zans. It’s good to see you. Ma’am.”
“You’ve been unconscious?” She asked, her eyes bloodshot and face white with dust.
“I -I must have been.” He said looking around for the lifeboat, but seeing only dead bodies.
“I’ve been collecting survivors about a mile away for an hour or so now, it’s not much of a medical station but it’s a start.”
“Final orders.” He groaned, the sand in his throat clearing and the pain in his head and body finally kicking in.
“What?” Pen-Zans reached out and steadied him-
“The captain gave me final orders.”
“Be that as it may, first things first, let’s get your wounds seen to.”
“Negative.” Snapped Duran. “I’m alright. I’m alright.” He breathed and then nodded. “I’m alright. Mission active. Secure the wounded and terminate the invalid. All remaining personnel who can walk are to evacuate to Imperial lines and join the planetary defence.” His voice was cold and mechanical as a mindless servitor.
“I see,” Pen-Zans sighed. “Well, it makes more sense to gather all survivors and then move out from there.”
“I can terminate the incapicitated in the field. Perhaps you can just focus on the walking wounded, ma’am.”
She raised her eyebrows, and the dust cracked on her face. “The field? This isn’t much of a battlefield, Duran.” She sneered with hands on hips.
“Be that as it may, ma’am. I have my orders.”
“And I suppose now I have mine.” She sighed again and shook her head. “Very well, Security Officer Duran, carry on.”
“Aye aye, ma’am.”
She watched him limp off through the sand and smoke, until all he could see and hear was the wounded.
The majority of survivors had their voidhelms intact, and was probably what had saved them. He stopped a voidsman who was helping a comrade to walk. “You. I need you.”
“Yes, Chief?” His voice distorted by the helm’s static.
“Is your vox working, shipman?”
“Aye, Chief, it is. All I can hear are people screaming and crying for help.”
“Irrelevant.” Said Duran. “Tune into the following voxchannel.”
The voidsman nodded and raised his forearm and began to type after Duran’s dictation.
“Command override: alpha zero zero three, security clearance: naval security, echelon: central, activation code: zero nova zero. Message as follows…”
Duran allowed the voidsman a moment. “Aye, Chief. I’m keyed in and awaiting your instructions.”
“Very well. Message as follows: To all crew of the Reach of Hope. Your captain is dead. These are his final orders. All officers and crew are to immediately continue evacuation protocol. Gather at rally points designated by your commanding officers. All personnel are to then proceed by any means necessary to Imperial Guard controlled areas. Planetary combat situation will then be in operation. All personnel who hinder immediate convoy to safe areas are to be left behind. Message concludes.” Duran spat out sand and then gestured the two voidsmen onwards.
“Wait!” He said suddenly to the wounded voidsman, his arm over his comrade’s shoulder. “Stand to, shipman.”
“Aye, Chief?” Responded the shipman groggily.
Duran looked him in the face. “Can you walk?”
“With help, Chief.”
“I see.” Affirmed Duran. He saw the rivet wrench hanging from the shipman’s belt, above where his thigh had been burnt down to the muscle.
“You want this, Chief?” The shipman tapped the pistol tool.
“Hand it to me, shipman.”
The two voidsman went tense and silent.
The rivet wrench was able to fire small spinning bolts into a ship’s bulkhead at point blank range.
“That’s as good as a sidearm to me.” Duran said, handling the hefty weight of it. It’s barrel was nested in a vented carriage with a detachable cylinder of bolts, the magazine was full. “Good.” He said. “Carry on.”
The two men hobbled away in relief.
Duran stared at the rivet gun.
In a clearing between the smoke and dust off in the distance, a gathering of men sat on debris. As he got closer he saw the clear signs of shellshock: silent with vacant eyes, some shaking and shivering. There was at least one armsman amongst them, he recognised Duran and shuffled forwards, his shotcannon slung over his shoulder.
“What are you doing, armsman?”
The NavSec trooper looked confused.
“Are you operational?” Asked Duran.
“Yes. Yes, sir, I mean Chief. I am operational.” The armsman lowered his weapon into both hands and his eyes seemed to regain their light.
“Where’s your unit? Nevermind. Seen anyone else from NavSec?”
“No, Chief. Just you.”
“I see. Name?”
“And these crewmen, anyone invalid?” They both turned and looked at the huddled herd of survivors.
“I don’t know, sir. I mean, Chief.”
“Wake up, Bortell. Right. Come on.” Duran stepped in front of them, the armsman followed.
“Haven’t you heard the orders? Gather into rally points and evacuate the crash site.”
One man stood, an NCO like himself, perhaps an engineer. “We haven’t heard anything. Who told you that?”
“I said, get moving, warrant officer.” Growled Duran, his fingers tightening on the rivet pistol.
“Chief,” Bortell whispered. “We can’t…”
“I don’t want to spend my last hours in the Emperor’s service as an executioner, either. So help me get these men moving.”
Bortell sprang into action, drawing out his shock-baton from his belt. “Move out, shipmen.”
The NCO looked at Duran with disgust. The ship-world, as voidsmen called their vessel, was gone. Dead. The children of the ship-world broken and in flames. And here stood a brute threatening them.
Duran hesitated. Perhaps it was the lack of a good gun.
Shrill voices cut through the dirty air.
“Oh, by the Emperor!”
“Throne save us!”
The survivors began to run without any more coercion.
Bortell raised his shotcannon to the dark sandstone hills on the horizon, the gun scope showed aircraft dancing like swallows and hovering like falcons, the buzz of gunfire ripping from their angular forms out across the sand.
“They’re here.” Bortell said.
“Our duty is to clear the area. Anyone who cannot walk is to be terminated. Leave no survivors for the Archenemy.”
Bortell frowned. “Chief. We are to be executioners then.”
Duran sighed. “For the greater good. You know what will happen if they catch any man alive. It will be worse than any mercy killing we can give them.”
Bortell nodded slowly. “I suppose so. How long do you think we have?”
“Before the enemy gets here?” Duran tilted his head watching the Hell Blades and Heldrakes.
“Assuming they are just the vanguard. Maybe a few hours before the ground forces arrive and overwhelm us.”
“Those things look pretty far off.” Bortell wondered.
“Maybe for now. Depends how long it takes to swipe the field and kill whoever is out there.”
“Come on, armsman. We’ve got work to do.”
Duran refused any help in walking, but by the God-Emperor his leg hurt. He allowed Bortell to put a battle dressing on him as survivors trudged by jealously.
“Do you know where we’re going?” Bortell asked him.
“I guess that the Imperial Guard are dug in with anti-aircraft guns, so the Hell Blades are probably coming from the opposite air space.”
“So we should be sending officers southwest.”
“That’s my best guess.”
“By the Emperor, this is a mess.” Bortell got to his feet and looked down at the dressing, already starting to seep blood. “It’s the best I can do, Chief.”
“And that’s all any of us can do.”
Duran zigzagged through the smoking wreckage and bodies, every time they met someone they’d pass on the message: Keep moving away from the enemy fighters.
They met a long line of men heading north west, they corrected those they could but the head of their column was already too far away. The line was slow, many were in very bad shape.
“Leave those that can’t walk.” Duran told them, and forced four men to put down a makeshift stretcher whose occupant had no arms and half of one leg. As the column continued, they told more men to stop, such as those that carried men in a fireman’s lift over the shoulder.
They waited until all the men were passed, and two dozen wounded lay on the sand around them.
“Use your knife. Keep it quiet and quick.” Duran told Bortell. “The last thing we want is panic.”
Bortell kneeled by his first victim and hesitated, but Duran held his pistol to the head of a man who was blinded by an electrical fire and pulled the trigger. A gust of air and a reciprocal jet of a piston reloaded the rivets. Men began to beg weakly, hardly able to speak. One man was already screaming for his mother in pain anyway, the others seemed relieved when Bortell slipped his knife into the man’s spinal cord.
It took only a few minutes to cull over twenty men.
In the following hour they found stragglers moaning, crawling, one or two looked dead but were paralysed; they too were made short work of.
Bortell’s hands were wet with blood and caked in the sand that stuck to them. His face had changed, Duran wondered if he too looked any different, if his eyes told the tale of their butchers’ work.
“Those planes are close now.” Bortell shielded his brow with a hand as if in salute, he scanned the ridgeline avoiding the two desert suns burning above. “Maybe we should head off to the lines ourselves.”
“Negative.” Duran groaned, his leg red again since the dressing burst. “Our orders. Every man unable to evacuate must be terminated.”
“Right, Chief. But what do you want to do with all of them?”
Bortell was pointing to a makeshift structure in the distance. It was mainly made from a large flat stretch of hull pinned up by pillars of bulkhead, sheltering hundreds of men from the sun.
As the pair of armsmen got closer, a figure came forward to meet them. It was Lieutenant Commander Pen-Zans, a strip of cloth had been tied around her waist like an apron, she had clearly been performing surgery and medical procedures, she held a knife in her hand.
“I see you’ve been carrying out your orders, Chief-at-arms.” She said with a glare.
“I see you have not, ma’am.”
Bortell’s shotcannon began to rattle, his hands were shaking, making the buckles at the strap tap on the gunmetal. “I can’t do this, Chief.” Bortell said in a low sad voice.
Pen-Zans took another few steps closer, but still out of range of Duran’s rivet gun.
“You don’t have to do this, Chief. These men need help.”
“Ma’am, they can’t be helped. And we can’t help the enemy by letting them live any longer.” Duran wobbled, the sun beating him down, his leg muscles breaking beneath him. He hit the sand with a thud and his head hit the metal of wreckage. The two suns swirled just as the planet had done when the Reach of Hope hurtled towards it.
Pen-Zans jumped at him, spreading her legs over him and leaning in with her knife. “I can’t let you do this.” She spat.
Suddenly, thunder arose, and a great vast hiss. It was louder than any weapons fire they had heard that day, louder than any vector engine. It was almost as loud as the Reach of Hope breaking into the atmosphere.
“Shock wave.” Mumbled Pen-Zans, the wrist of her knife-hand clutched in Duran’s fist.
“It’s from when the ship hit the surface.” Her eyes were wide with terror.
“Oh God-Emperor! Run!” Bortell dropped his weapon and ran in the opposite direction from a massive dust storm that rapidly closed in from the horizon like a gigantic wall.
“No!” Scream Pen-Zans. “You’ll never outrun it!” But it was too late, Bortell had disappeared into the streaming smoke.
“Get to your feet, Chief!” Pen-Zans dropped her knife and dragged Duran as best she could towards the wounded shelter. He got up on his good knee and Pen-Zans pulled him up until he had his arm across her shoulder. Holding his belt in one grip she managed to keep him by her side as she ran towards the storm. They made the shelter moments before the sand-tsunami hit. The debris of the ship’s hull faced the shockwave at a 45 degree angle and the winds bounced off it, a slipstream of debris and dust jetted overhead with deafening noise, part howl part roar.
Duran saw some of the wounded lay just beyond the cover of the shelter and the wind quickly snatched them away like a daemon of chaos reaching out of the sky.
He found himself hugging Pen-Zans and two paraplegic voidsmen on the ground. The rumble of the storm rose louder and louder even though that seemed impossible, until finally the wreckage that held up the shelter could no longer bear it. The bulkhead wall collapsed with hundreds of voidsmen beneath it.
It had perhaps been hours. The little light that shone in the darkness was now large enough to crawl through, with only one free hand she had dug like a desperate dog. Her hand felt the hot sunlight, she could breathe better. It took a few minutes to drag herself out of the crawlspace and into the desert once again. She got up on her knees and saw how the sand half-covered the top of the shelter, itself once the hull of the Reach of Hope. There were no bodies, just a single dark shape of a man in the distant murmur of desert heat.
Pen-Zans got to her feet, held her crushed hand to her chest and held out the other grasping the air for help. She stumbled, rushing towards the figure, her sand-filled mouth unable to call out. The figure turned to face her, it had once been the face of Duran. His features were those of the Archenemy, and his smile was that of death. Behind him, through the dust, slowly emerged an army of dead flesh, fallen comrades brought to life by the laughter of thirsting gods. She dropped to her knees and prayed.
Nam classem navis
Est scutul stralucitor
Lumina victoriei omenirii.
For the navy is His shining shield
The light of mankind’s victory.
About the Author
Ross Downing is a 41-year-old British male living in Scandinavia who has been collecting Warhammer 40,000 since First Edition in 1991. He has previously worked as a content writer and holds two Masters degrees in the Humanities.