Sleep was sporadic at the best of times. An affliction that, Rouj de Hautevoyle concluded, was a consequence of prolonged interstellar travel. Whilst he had acclimatised to the boredom, the vita–D supplements and the ceaseless rumble of the enginarium, he simply could not adjust to the constant light in his hab-bunk, and had taken to throwing a heavy blanket over himself at the end of every cycle, shielding his eyes from the sterile glowstrip in the corner.
A vox-chime interrupted the prefect from a fitful slumber.
It was Shirakova, her voice distorted by the hab’s broken vox speaker. ‘We’ve just entered the outer system.’
De Hautevoyle stirred. ‘I’ll be on the bridge shortly’, he replied, tasting the rancid flavour of the previous cycle’s amasec lining his mouth.
The link cut out abruptly.
Pulling on a plasfibre robe, de Hautevoyle trudged over to the mirror underneath the glowstrip, combing over a mop of straggly blonde hair. A gaunt, but not unhandsome face reflected back at him. One could perhaps describe de Hautevoyle as distinguished, were it not for the jaundiced complexion and puffy bags around his eyes. Clearly, twenty weeks spent languishing in the cramped confines of the ship had taken its toll. Satisfied that he looked every inch the respected prefect he was, Rouj de Hautevoyle quickly stepped out of his quarters and into the access corridor, his relief and excitement growing.
Smiling, de Hautevoyle entered the Balaton’s bridge through a small entrance hatch. He looked to the control seat where Captain Shirakova busied herself monitoring the ship’s communications. Hem, her adjutant, was intently studying a hololithic display, showing the Balaton as a pulsing icon along a thin trajectory line, terminating at a marker that flashed ‘LADON-XB6’ in blinking, fuzzy letters. In one corner, Areldesen and Sperion were quietly engaged in conversation.
Clearing his throat, de Hautevoyle coughed politely.
Shirakova swivelled on her torn command seat. ‘You’re late,’ she said, her voice impassive.
Before de Hautevoyle could retort, the captain flipped a brass switch and engaged the ship’s viewport shields, slowly revealing the vast astronomic vista beyond.
The view was spectacular.
The local sun, a hundred million miles away, washed over the Balaton’s bridge with its warm, amber glow. An enormous gas giant dominated the arma-plex port, and de Hautevoyle could make out turbulent eddies and anticyclonic storms raging across its surface. On the planet’s near side, three orbs of verdant primordial jungle concealed by swirling cloud banks hung suspended in perfect tranquility, in marked contrast to the perpetual violence of the gas giant’s monumental currents.
Shirakova pointed towards one of the moons. ‘Ladon XB-6.’
De Hautevoyle squinted hard. A moment later he saw it: a small blemish on the perfectly off-white cloud cover of the nearest moon. Before long, the sun’s rays illuminated the crenellated edges of the station’s rad-resistant ablative panels as they drew closer. Ladon XB-6 was formed of sandwiched hexagonal decks, capped by a large blister of control rooms and sensor nodes. De Hautevoyle spied jutting docking platforms styled with slender gothic arches that characterised the Imperium’s ubiquitous architecture. Soon, the light was eclipsed by the yawning darkness of the station’s docking array. Running lights winked on the nearest platform.
The frigate began its final approach.
‘Strange,’ remarked Shirakova suddenly, her face creasing into a frown.
‘What’s the matter?’ asked Areldesen.
‘Well, it’s standard practice to broadcast the Balaton’s ident marker to any friendly ship or station upon entering a system’s edge,’ explained Shirakova.
‘So?’ said de Hautevoyle.
The captain sneered at him. ‘We still haven’t received any acknowledgement. They knew we were coming, and I’d expected some communication from the station by now.’
Shirakova fiddled with a nondescript dial on her command console. The automated telemetric chatter between the ship and the approaching station was gradually drowned out by static, punctuated by a curious, oscillating tone. The captain cycled through standard Imperial frequencies again and again, to no avail.
Areldesen and Sperion exchanged nervous looks.
‘Signal them,’ ordered de Hautevoyle.
Shirakova glared at him. ‘Are you not listen–’
‘Open a channel,’ commanded the prefect.
The captain sighed, before flipping a brass switch. She leaned forward in her command seat, gripping the armrests. ‘Ladon XB-6, this is Captain Phrati Shirakova of the merchant frigate Balaton. Come in, Ladon. Over.’
Shirakova shrugged, defeated.
De Hautevoyle cleared his throat. ‘Ladon XB-6, this is Prefect Rouj de Hautevoyle, Prefectus Third Grade aboard the frigate Balaton, requesting docking access.’
The static unwavered.
‘Switch channels,’ de Hautevoyle hissed. ‘Ladon XB-6, this is Rouj de Hautevoyle, Prefectus Third Grade aboard the Balaton, requesting docking access.’
The continuous white noise was unnerving. It wasn’t discordant, like it would be if the signal was being jammed, or otherwise interrupted. It was the soft, unrelenting fuzz of an open channel, where no one was on the other side.
‘They can’t all be on the surface,’ complained de Hautevoyle. ‘I mean, they knew we were coming!’
‘There should at least be the station’s transmechanic in attendance,’ agreed Shirakova.
‘Well, what do we do now?’ asked Areldesen.
‘As the Administratum’s appointed agent, the Department’s remit allows me to exercise reasonable means to enter a premises if I think the tithe audit is being stalled on purpose. Which I do,’ announced de Hautevoyle. ‘Clearly, the tech-priests think yet again they can get away from paying their fair share! I don’t care if we have to cut our way in with multi-lasers. This audit will happen whether they like it or not. Take us in!’
Shirakova sighed, initiating the Balaton’s final approach sequence. Ladon XB-6 slowly blotted out the last of the sun’s light. Illumination now only came from the faint twinkle of instrumentation on the Balaton’s bridge. The hololithic trajectory unceremoniously fizzled out as the station slowly consumed the ship, like entering the gigantic maw of some great, cosmic beast.
In the darkness, the only sound on board the Balaton was the ceaseless fuzz of empty static.
Hiss. Deafening. Red.
A room. No, not a room. A corri—
Arterial red, darkening into shades of crimson.
White. Heat, like gazing directly into a sun for a moment too long. Splotchy after-images seared into Phrati Shirakova’s eyes, and she gasped, involuntarily.
‘Secondary pressurisation protocol complete,’ announced a pleasant, automated voice.
The hissing stopped abruptly, and the warning lights vanished. Immediately ahead, Areldesen and Sperion wordlessly strode forward into the corridor.
Shirakova looked around behind her, where Hem and de Hautevoyle stood a few feet away. They were accompanied by de Hautevoyle’s tracked servitor unit, Tullius.
The prefect raised an eyebrow. ‘Something wrong, captain?’
`I’m fine,’ she replied, turning back to the corridor. Shirakova blinked again, letting her eyes adjust to the uncomfortably bright light. After a moment, blurry details coalesced into focus. The corridor ended in a large junction, which split off into four longer processionals. What she had first mistaken for white paint was in fact repeating banks of lumen strips reflecting off the station’s brushed steel columns. Despite spending most of her life in the confines of void-faring ships, she had never seen anything that was so… new. Everything from the mirror-sheen columns to the decorative cog sigils of the Adeptus Mechanicus looked like it had just been cold-stamped straight out of the manufactorum, untainted by dust, grime and centuries of use.
Not for the first time in her life, Shirakova felt uncomfortable. There was something about the station’s homogenous and endlessly repeating architecture that confounded her.
‘Keep up,’ snapped de Hautevoyle as he overtook her, marching purposely towards Areldesen and Sperion, who were consulting a chart further ahead.
Hem stared at the captain with a concerned look on his face.
‘Really, I’m fine,’ she repeated, more to herself than to her adjutant. Blinking away the last vestiges of the blooming after-images, Shirakova followed her companions down the access corridor.
‘You cannot be serious?’ said Areldesen, aghast.
‘My dear, I am being perfectly serious,’ replied de Hautevoyle.
The group was gathered in a loose semi-circle around a large schematic of the station’s internal layout. Lumen strips inset into the schematic’s panels indicated each deck’s operational status across the entire facility. A white strip shone across the command deck, indicating primary systems were operating within normal parameters. Significant portions of the station, however, were awash with blinking red and amber strips on the decks below. Other areas, including the tech-priests’ inner sanctum and the astropathic chambers were indigo, showing critical failure.
Areldesen remained defiant. ‘This is highly irregular. We must discover the tech-priests’ whereabouts by accessing the Central Control Room. The Emergency Directive states we take whatever precautions are necessary for our own safety.’
‘Izabelle?’ began the prefect.
‘You are the head of security for this delegation, are you not?’
‘And your primary duties include liaising with the priesthood, in matters of safety and security, yes?’
‘That is also correct,’ replied Areldesen, a note of confusion in her voice.
‘Is this an emergency?’ asked de Hautevoyle.
‘I’m not sure yet.’
‘Who is the highest ranking member of the Department’s interests here?’
Areldesen sighed. ‘You, prefect.’
‘Indeed,’ agreed de Hautevoyle, smugly. ‘It is imperative that I inspect the latest core samples for audit. I have not journeyed for four and a half months in a pressurised tube masquerading as a ship, only to waste time dallying now we’re here!’ The prefect looked at Shirakova. ‘No offence.’
The captain raised an eyebrow.
‘Look,’ said de Hautevoyle, in a more conciliatory tone. ‘How about this: you follow whatever procedure you enforcer types do in situations like this, and I will take Tullius and head straight to the laboratories to collate the latest samples. Take the others with you. We’ll be done in a few hours, and you can begin your investigation immediately with my express backing.’ The prefect playfully slapped the servitor unit. ‘Tullius agrees!’ he added, with glib joviality.
The servitor made no response.
Areldesen turned and addressed Shirakova. ‘What say you, captain?’
Before she could reply, de Hautevoyle interjected. ‘Shirakova has no bargaining power in this situation.’
The captain turned to face the prefect. ‘Hang on a moment, how have you come to that con–‘
De Hautevoyle held up a spindly index finger. ‘Don’t be coy, captain. Your desperation for the Department’s fee is palpable. Four and a half months is a long time to spend on a ship. The Balaton is in dire need of repairs, and you don’t have the capital or the crew to undertake them. I have wondered these past few weeks how Hem over there is being compensated for his time. Certainly not in Imperial Credits, I wager.’
‘How friggin’ dare you, Rouj,’ hissed Shirakova, her face reddening.
‘As the Department’s appointed agent’, de Hautevoyle continued, oblivious to Shirakova’s anger, ‘it is entirely within my remit to authorise a bonus on top of your charter fee.’ He lowered his voice. ‘Or have your fee revoked altogether. What do you say?’
The captain glared at him.
‘Just as I thought,’ said de Hautevoyle, his attention now returning to the others.
‘On your head, prefect,’ threatened Areldesen. ‘The Auditor Prime will hear about your petty insubordination.’
‘Oh I’m quite sure she will,’ shot back de Hautevoyle, whistling tunelessly as he skipped towards the nearest processional. ‘Come Tullius, we have work to do.’
‘Compliance,’ it blurted, already following its master. Within moments, the prefect and his servitor had vanished out of sight.
Areldesen rounded on Shirakova. ‘Throne, captain. How easily did he play you?’
‘And you,’ replied Shirakova. ‘You should be taking point on whatever this is.’
‘You’re right,’ agreed Areldesen. ‘Which is why you‘re coming with us.’
Occupying the heart of Ladon XB-6, the Central Control Room radiated banks of codifiers and communication consoles in concentric circles, though it was immediately clear to Fortis Sperion that only a fraction of the space was being used. Large portions of the tiered rings were bare, their input nodules covered by brass plaques, waiting to be removed and replaced by more machines at some point in the future. Gripping both hands around the lip of a metriculator, de Hautevoyle’s assistant gazed at the jungle moons through a vast observation blister, imagining for a moment that he was a Lord Commander unleashing legions of Astra Militarum to conquer planets and systems in the God-Emperor’s name.
‘Once you’ve finished playing Warmaster, adept, perhaps you can get to work?’ said Areldesen.
‘I, ah…’ Sperion trailed off, stooping to pick up a small metallic cup he suddenly noticed next to his foot, avoiding eye contact with the enforcer. Whatever liquid had been in it had long since evaporated, leaving a crust of dried blackened rings.
‘Something’s definitely wrong,’ observed Areldesen, noticing the cup. She walked towards the nearest consoles, zeroing in on a mainframe codifier engine. ‘Enforcer Emergency Directive one-hundred-and-thirteen-point-four-(B): locate the last recorded locations of personnel’, she explained, looking at the codifier’s terminal screen. Producing a multi-key from an insulated pocket, she inserted it into a protruding access port. The screen flashed before displaying a blinking, rectangular box. Pulling off her glove, Areldesen keyed in a passcode, and a system directory materialised.
The party crowded around the display terminal. Areldesen spent several minutes inputting commands and navigating submenus. She selected one and pressed the initiation key. The codifier emitted a series of binharic blurts.
‘Shit,’ Areldesen breathed.
‘What’s going on?’ asked Shirakova.
Areldesen began cycling through the station’s deck plans, concern spreading across her wide face. ‘Well, captain’, she began, taking a moment to assess what she was seeing, ‘I don’t have clearance for the main system, but I’ve managed to access a general schematic of the base, and tried to locate any life signs. There’s nothing at all. I’ve even tried to access the station’s primary comms log, but I’m locked out.’
‘You’re telling us no one else is on board?’ said Shirakova, confused.
‘Not according to this. The inner sanctum and the astropathic chambers are completely sealed.’
‘Anything in the hab quarters?’ offered Sperion.
‘I’m unfamiliar with the station’s layout, so we’d have to nose around in person,’ replied Areldesen. ‘My guess is, the tech-priests for reasons unknown to us, are off-station. Or departed somewhere else entirely.’
‘Xenos raiders?’ ventured Shirakova.
‘Maybe,’ said Areldesen. ‘I haven’t seen any sign of fighting though, have you?’ And look at this’, she said, pointing a gloved finger at the screen. ‘Here. The prospecting pods. Count them.’
‘I’m not following,’ said Sperion.
‘According to this readout, this facility has a complement of five STS-992’s assigned for mining surveys. But three are missing.’
Sperion furrowed his brow. ‘So, what? You’re saying the tech-priests are on the moons?’
‘Well that’s the thing, Fortis,’ began Areldesen. ‘Each pod’s official stated capacity is for twelve, and, according to this manifest, there should be a lot more than thirty-six personnel present for a station of this size. At least eighty, or more, if you include servitors and private subcontractors.’
‘What if they took multiple trips down to the surface?’ asked Shirakova.
‘Possible,’ replied Areldesen. ‘But why leave two working pods behind? And why take all the servitors? That doesn’t make any sense. It’s almost as if everyone left in a hurry, but there’s no obvious signs of attack.’
Areldesen pressed a small control stud on her left cuff. ‘I’m initiating Close Protection Protocol,’ she announced, turning to the others. ‘For your safety, your subdermal trackers are now being recorded. You’ll all remain within eyeshot of myself at all times until we find a resolution, or safely off this facility. Failure to comply will result in breach of contract and loss of earnings. Understand?’
Shirakova, Sperion and Hem nodded dumbly, bewildered by the escalating turn of events.
Areldesen studied the small display on her cuff. As was to be expected, the Department had provided the enforcer with only the most rudimentary tracking systems, eschewing sophisticated auspex readouts, automated pict-capture and biosensors. It didn’t even show the bio-locators in relation to the station’s schematic, just abstract blips: a cluster of four, then one in isolation, floating on a dark screen.
And one more.
Blinking, moving directly towards them.
•••• • •
The station’s laboratory, just like everything else de Hautevoyle had encountered since his arrival, was conspicuously new. Walking past metal benches laden with spectrophotometers, oxidation-analysers and distillation units, the prefect noted a number of plant and indigenous wildlife specimens. There appeared to be little order in the arrangement of the samples: on one bench, gleaming shards of isozemtite were casually piled on the stainless steel surface. Under the sterile lights of another, an oversized creature that loosely resembled a leech laid pinned to a plastek cradle, surrounded by small mechadendrites awaiting dissection. Evidently, the tech-priests’ interests now extended to biochemistry, in addition to promethium extraction and mineral processing.
De Hautevoyle wasn’t surprised. It was the reason he was here, after all.
The Explorator Fleets of Mars occasionally maintained a network of frontier stations like Ladon XB-6 throughout the segmentum, assessing any astronomical bodies within range in order to later exploit their natural wealth. Sources of ultra-rare mineral crystallines like isozemtite, pyraline and iridescent chrysoprase were all greatly desired by the Martian Priesthood, who selfishly concealed their mining activities from the Administratum’s Department of Tithe. Whilst Martian controlled forgeworlds were exempt from taxation, commodities acquired outside their planetary jurisdiction were legally subject to the Tithe Imperialis, and rightfully, belonged to Holy Terra.
Commodities hidden on Ladon XB-6, for example.
De Hautevoyle was studying the isozemtite samples when his vox-bead bleeped. ‘Yes?’
‘Are you in the lab?’ asked Areldesen.
The prefect stood up straight, irritated. ‘Where else would I be, Izabelle?’
‘And your servitor?’
‘I sent Tullius to the hangar deck to retrieve the most recent core samples for a detailed audit.’
‘Your servitor isn’t there’, said Areldesen, bluntly.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Whatever you’re doing can wait, prefect. You better come and see this.’
Tullius was a mangled ruin.
Sperion was still inspecting the damage when de Hautevoyle finally joined the group at the bottom of a stairwell intersecting the lower decks. Unlike the over-bright command deck above, this processional was dark, up-lit by recessed lumen strips which radiated a weak, sour glow. Some of the strips flickered, as if the power cabling had somehow been damaged, although there was no small arms fire marking the corridor. Occasionally, the entire passageway was plunged into darkness, before the station’s warning lights activated, showering the entire processional in strobing flashes of red.
In the blackness, the prefect’s junior played the highly focused beam from his stablight across de Hautevoyle’s servitor.
Deep gouges in its grey flesh revealed atrophied muscle and clusters of augmetic implants, leaking synthetic haemoglobin and other, unidentifiable fluids all over the deck. Someone, or something, had ripped off Tullius’ advanced sensor array from its shoulder mounting, before cleanly shearing through the servitor’s manipulator arm, which now lay uselessly a few feet away from the group.
De Hautevoyle was incredulous. ‘What on Terra’s name is responsible for this… vandalism?’ he screeched.
Areldesen drew a compact laspistol, and expertly checked the cell charge. ‘Unknown, but we need to find the tech-priests and get off this facility. Now. Adept Sperion, take point. We’re going back to the command deck.’
Sperion headed towards the stairwell. Shirakova and Hem needed little encouragement, and followed de Hautevoyle’s deputy closely.
The prefect, uncharacteristically quiet for once, followed. He glanced back at the enforcer.
‘Go!’ she barked, now holding the laspistol in a two-handed grip.
De Hautevoyle suddenly yelped.
Sperion turned, aiming his stablight at his superior, only for the beam to settle on Areldesen instead. Her face was frozen in a rictus of pain, eyes bloodshot and bulging as she was hauled head first into the labyrinthine ventilation ducts above.
Within seconds, she was gone.
The adept glimpsed something shiny and black that suggested an arm, perhaps.
But that was impossible. What could effortlessly snatch a fully armoured adult away in the blink of an eye? Fear gripped Fortis Sperion, and all he could do was scream.
‘Move! Move!’ squawked de Hautevoyle, shoving Shirakova and Hem aside. The prefect scuttled up the metal stairs as fast as his scrawny legs would allow him.
Shirakova looked behind her, trying to catch sight of de Hautevoyle. Above, the command deck was a thin blade of light in the gloomy pall.
Sperion was still screaming.
‘Come on!’ yelled the captain, grabbing the adept by the arm before lunging up the steps three at a time, dragging Sperion along with her.
Near the top of the stairway, Sperion stumbled on his robe, causing Hem who was in the rear to collide into him. The adept landed awkwardly, clutching his right ankle with both hands. He wailed.
‘What did you see, Fortis?’ wheezed Shirakova, through pained breaths.
Sperion rocked gently, wet tears rolling down his pale, pudgy face.
Shirakova couldn’t tell if he was crying because of his fall, or from the shock of finally registering what he had seen. She awkwardly massaged a gloved palm over his back, trying to soothe him. Shirakova glanced up at her adjutant, who was clearly spooked. ‘I couldn’t see anything in the dark,’ the captain admitted, still heaving lungfuls of recycled air. ‘She was taken, I think.’
Hem looked down at Sperion, who had curled into a tight ball, quietly sobbing. ‘What do we do now?’
‘We’re going back to the ship,’ decided Shirakova. She was trying to coax the injured adept to stand up on his good ankle. ‘We’re leaving. I didn’t sign up for this.’
They each wrapped an arm around Sperion to support his weight. The adept audibly winced when he gingerly placed his right foot onto the deck.
‘Which way?’ asked Hem.
They were in the middle of the processional. No matter which way they turned, the station’s long access corridors looked exactly the same.
Shirakova realised with rising alarm that she had forgotten which docking bay she’d berthed the ship, a careless oversight that was fast becoming a potentially fatal error. ‘That way, Beta-Epsilon-Nineteen,’ she said with forced confidence, pointing towards a large stencilled sign. She dimly recalled seeing it on the way to the Central Control Room earlier with Areldesen.
‘Are you sure?’ asked Hem.
‘No I’m not bloody sure!’ snapped Shirakova, angrily.
Sperion suddenly squeaked, pointing. ‘God-Emperor, it’s there!’
Something emerged from the far junction, over half a kilometre distant. The captain had never seen its like before, even from afar. It was gloss black and resembled a humongous insect, or lizard of some kind. When it moved, it slithered with a disturbing, wriggling gait that reminded Shirakova of a deathworld predator she had once seen, long ago at the Imperial Zoo on Methalor. From a distance, she would’ve missed it, but for the dazzling brightness that had plagued her since their arrival. Perhaps, Shirakova reflected, it was why the lumens were cranked up to their maximum setting. When the ugly thing began to casually scale the junction’s wall, the captain decided it was time to move.
‘Come on!’ she whispered, as loudly as she dared. Hem was too dumbstruck by fear to argue, and Sperion bit his lip, terror momentarily eclipsing the pain in his ankle.
Further down the processional, the insect-daemon began to crawl in their direction.
A sharp, stabbing sensation shot through Fortis Sperion every time he put his foot down. After a while, the pain merged into a dull, throbbing ache. There wasn’t an obvious break, but his ankle had begun to swell. He felt dizzy and claustrophobic, wedged between Shirakova and Hem, trying to get away from the Thing that had so easily overpowered Areldesen. The adept silently prayed to the God-Emperor for deliverance. Perhaps the tech-priests would return and shoot the Thing dead with their arcane weapons. Perhaps, a passing warship with a battalion of Space Marines would suddenly blast their way through and hunt the Thing down.
What does a Space Marine even look like? thought Sperion, bitterly. Reality reared its ugly head and he knew deep down, help wasn’t coming at all. The Thing would take them all, just like it did with Areldesen. Conversation stalled as the group stumbled through the command deck. No one dared look back to see if the Thing had followed them.
‘Aha!’ exclaimed Shirakova with breathless triumph. She pointed at the approaching junction. ‘Take the next left, and the ship should be right in front of us!’
They lurched around the corner. Ahead, the familiar sight of the Balaton’s starboard primary accessway loomed, clamped onto the station’s jutting docking platform like a limpet.
There was no sign of de Hautevoyle.
Leaving Hem to hold up the injured adept, Shirakova raced ahead to engage the outer hatch. ‘No! No!’ she bleated, pounding a gloved fist against the brushed steel. ‘Let us in, Rouj. Please!’
‘Why can’t we get in?’ asked Sperion.
Hem trembled with rage. ‘The prefect must have locked the hatch manually from the inside of the ship.’
‘Let us in’, pleaded Sperion through the intervox. Static greeted them, though the adept was convinced he could hear someone breathing on the other end of the line.
The captain threw herself at the hatch, before sliding down to the deck, defeated. Her fear and frustration roiled to the surface, transmuting to despair at not being able to get into her own ship. A ship that represented their only safe exit away from the insect-daemon.
‘We can’t stay here,’ moaned Hem.
He had a point.
‘Help her up,’ said Sperion, hopping awkwardly. ‘We need to hide.’
The intervox was ominously silent as the trio slowly, painfully, fled away from safety and back into the station.
The Badge of Merit was beautiful. AUDITOR EXACTO SECUNDUS, it read, engraved in High Gothic script on a small bar of silver from the steppe-mines of Mundus Planus. The Auditor Prime herself pinned it carefully onto de Hautevoyle’s robe.
‘Your perseverance does the Department credit,’ she remarked, after the presentation ceremony. ‘It takes a singular will to successfully prosecute a case against the Adeptus Mechanicus. What made you think to leverage Ladon XB-6?’
Recognition, at long last. De Hautevoyle deserved it, of course. His reputation, he liked to think, was hard earned with a nose for detail, coupled with an unwavering adherence to the regulations enshrined in the Codex Exacto. The prefect blushed. ‘Common sense, I suppose? It was nothing, really.’ he murmured.
The Auditor Prime raised a painted eyebrow. ‘Come now Rouj, don’t be modest.’ She clasped her hands around his.
‘Well, I, uhm…’ de Hautevoyle glanced down, staring with mounting horror at the glossy, gnarled claws where the Auditor Prime’s hands should have been. He screamed.
By de Hautevoyle’s estimation, fourteen hours had passed since he’d locked himself inside Shirakova’s ship. Fourteen hours that had felt like a lifetime. In the absence of the enginarium’s constant hum, the Balaton had taken on the quality of a mausoleum, or one of Administratum’s deeper archival understacks. Somewhere, the drip, drip, drip of something leaking refused to go away.
None of it happened, surely? It was nonsense. The missing crew, Areldesen, that hideous creature… It was just a bad dream, hallucinations triggered by an endless routine of recycled air and not enough sleep. Or, he conjectured, an elaborate scheme devised by the tech-priests to scare off the Department from probing too closely.
Yes, that was it.
De Hautevoyle vaguely remembered some noise and commotion outside the ship. He hadn’t responded, of course. It was a trap. They were all in on it: Areldesen, that worm Sperion, the insufferable captain and her pet simian. They all hated him and wanted to maroon him on the derelict base. That much was obvious. Perhaps, de Hautevoyle speculated with relish, one of his rivals in the Department had paid them to do the deed. He wouldn’t be missed. The Frontier was a convenient place to dispose of an up-and-comer like him, once and for all.
Maybe that was it.
He even suspected the captain had loosed a feral crotalid into the base to serve as a distraction so she could reap the spoils for herself. De Hautevoyle had half a mind to report her to the Department for improper quarantine and carrying unlicensed cargo, once he’d found where she kept it hidden within the bowels of the ship.
Yes. He was certain now.
The only thing he wasn’t certain of, was what he saw. He hadn’t really seen anything at all in the darkness, had he? He felt nauseous. There was precious little in the mess cabin, and he didn’t know where the captain kept the freeze-dried perishables. It didn’t matter for now. He would find them later. The prefect had a sudden urge to retch, and stumbled to a corner, placing his hands on the cold steel bulkhead. The vomit was clear and reeked of cheap amasec. Wiping the excess away around his thin mouth, Rouj caught sight of himself, smeared on the convex reflection of an unpowered cogitator screen. In the sepulchral twilight, he looked terrible, he smelled terrible. The greasy stink of unwashed clothes and stale sweat clung to him like a shroud.
That wouldn’t do at all.
De Hautevoyle spent an indeterminate period inspecting the bridge’s instrumentation, trying to make sense of the frigate’s communication and navigation consoles. The captain had even run through the controls with him during the sixth week to pass the time. If a simpleton like Hem could pilot the Balaton, then the prefect could certainly do it too. He simply needed to undock the ship, turn it around and head back the way they came. Easy. He could worry about the rest later, once he was safely away from Ladon XB-6.
After what seemed like an eternity, the prefect deduced the half-remembered initiation protocols of the Balaton’s glide path sequence through trial and error. De Hautevoyle was rewarded when the ship’s systems whirred into life, the funereal gloom replaced by the incandescent glow of ancient valve lumens. Somewhere below him, the enginarium slowly stirred, eventually drowning out the infernal dripping that accompanied the prefect’s enforced convalescence.
There was just one, trivial problem.
De Hautevoyle would need proof of the tech-priests’ illicit operation to present to the Department’s investigation committee: the isozemtite samples certainly, a core or two from the hangars, perhaps, and as many spectroscopic readouts as he could carry. He would simply tell the committee the rest of the party had been captured by the tech-priests, and he had been forced to fight his way out. Areldesen’s laspistol would lend credence to the narrative. The prefect slowly wrapped his fingers around the enforcer’s recovered gun in his robe pocket. It was good to have security. Maybe he would be forced to shoot in self defence. Maybe the others were gone, and he would have a clear run to the laboratory and the core samples. Fifteen, twenty minutes tops, and he would be away. Away from the schemes, the expectation and the responsibility. Away from the crotalid.
Definitely a crotalid, he decided.
Rouj De Hautevoyle, Prefectus Third Grade, armed and fortified by a heady mix of amasec and desperation, made his way toward the Balaton’s primary accessway.
The ecclesiarchy chapel on Ladon XB-6 was a small interstitial space, squeezed between two larger holding bays on the lower deck. Sperion remembered passing it by shortly before encountering poor Tullius. Whether its diminutive size was a practical consideration, or a deliberate slight towards the Ministorum by the Martian Priesthood, Sperion couldn’t tell. The young adept had scant knowledge of the divide between the tech-priests’ machine god and the God-Emperor. He’d been told they were one and the same, though it seemed to him that the tech-priests worshipped another god entirely: a heathen machine idol, venerated by heretics who were more metal than flesh.
The thought made him shudder. Sperion had thought a great deal in the hours since they sought refuge inside the tiny chapel. Thinking helped him manage the pain, which ebbed and flowed like the tide. Sometimes, the pain was almost intolerable. The adrenaline had finally worn off, and only fear of the Thing had kept him from crying out. Later, the pain receded entirely, replaced by mild nausea and a warmth that Sperion thought was a good sign.
Shirakova didn’t agree. The captain and her adjutant slept, despite the over-bright lumen strips illuminating the chamber.
After spending weeks aboard the Balaton, Sperion was convinced those two could sleep through anything. The adept doubted he would get any rest at all because of his ankle, so he had reluctantly volunteered to keep watch, staring intently at the chapel’s ornate brass door. In fact, the door’s filigree was the chapel’s only decorative feature. Much else was bare, although the altar was accompanied by an icon standard. The knurled metal pole was about as tall as the captain, set into a stand, and topped with the distinctive double-headed eagle profile of a steel aquila. Below it, several rows of utilitarian wooden pews occupied the space, incongruous against the machined backdrop of the chapel.
Shirakova’s attendant had laid down on one of the pews, pilfering the plasfibre altar cloth to use as a blanket. No doubt such desecration would outrage the preachers, but they weren’t here.
Only they were. With the Thing.
The captain slept on her side with her back to Sperion, who casually leaned against the altar, his legs splayed out. When the pain returned, Sperion recited the Prayer of Adulation through gritted teeth, over and over again until it subsided. Thirst plagued him, but he didn’t dare move. He wondered how long it would be before dehydration would set in. Sperion wanted nothing more than a hot meal and something to drink, as far away from the Thing as possible. He quelled the thought. Was this some test of faith? Didn’t the Lectitio Divinitatus admonish selfish desire? Was this some form of punishment then, perhaps, from skipping templum service of late? Sperion’s thoughts overwhelmed him, before sleep finally, inevitably, crept and coddled him in its embrace. Despite his best efforts, he found his eyes closing, and his head lolling onto his shoulder.
Something woke him with a start.
He sat up suddenly, alert. What was that? At first, Sperion nearly jumped involuntarily from terror, thinking that the Thing had finally found their bolthole. It took him a few moments to realise something else was happening instead.
‘Did you hear that?’
Shirakova didn’t move. Sperion painfully ambled over, putting a hand on her shoulder, and rocked the captain gently.
‘Did you hear that?’ he repeated through parched lips.
‘What?’ replied the captain quietly, looking up at him with bleary-eyes.
‘That sound! Can’t you hear it? It’s like the base is coming back to life. The tech-priests have returned!’
Shirakova put her ear to the floor. She could hear something, and feel something too. ‘That bastard’, said the captain, slowly.
‘He’s jump-started my ship! Can you not feel the enginarium’s vibration?’
The adept’s eyes widened. ‘The prefect? How by the God-Emperor has he managed that?’
‘I showed him the basics weeks ago to pass the time,’ Shirakova admitted. ‘Throne, I didn’t think he’d remember it all!’ She got up, shuffling towards her sleeping comrade, and whipped off his makeshift blanket. ‘Come on Wilhem, we’re going.’
Hem woke, and seeing his master’s determined look, stood to attention almost immediately, folding the altar cloth with surprising reverence.
‘The Thing’s out there’, warned Sperion, heaving himself onto the altar.
‘I’ll take my chances, Fortis’, replied the captain. ‘But we don’t have much time. I refuse to be stranded here by my own bloody ship.’
‘Here, help me with this, then,’ said Sperion. Hem aided the adept, uncoupling the aquila-icon from its stand. Sperion leaned on it, testing his weight on the pole, before hobbling towards the chapel’s door.
Leaving their hiding nest, the trio staggered into the dark. As before, the lower decks were awash in flickering warning lights, and it took Sperion a moment to orientate himself. Outside the chapel, they could all hear the Balaton’s distinct rumble, which meant their estranged companion had yet to disengage the ship from the docking platform. If they were going to succeed, they would have to be quick.
‘This way’, Sperion croaked. God-Emperor, he was really thirsty now. If his memory served correctly, they would need to pass through several corridors near the prospecting hangar, head towards the remains of the servitor, and then back up to the command level.
The group moved at pace through the maze of the lower deck. Sperion quickly got the knack of leaning on his improvised crutch in a way that afforded him a small measure of stealth, whilst maintaining a constant gait. Predictably, the pain in his ankle returned, but adrenaline blunted the worst of it.
Turning into yet another corridor, Hem held up a hand. ‘Hide!’ he hissed.
Except there was nowhere to hide.
Ahead, Sperion could hear the Thing rushing towards him, chittering and shrieking in the blackness. He was blind. He couldn’t run. He would not run. A sudden assuredness descended on the adept, filling him with a conviction that quite overcame his fear. Instinctively, Sperion swung the icon, youthful vitality lending him strength. For a fleeting instant, Fortis Sperion felt a holy fervour course through him, granted by the God-Emperor of Mankind. The aquila standard smote the Thing with a satisfying thump, and its ungainly, silhouetted form crumpled to the steel decking. Sperion raised his arms, and turned around to address the others. ‘See? I did it!’ he exclaimed, triumphant.
The other two backed away from the adept slowly, their mouths agape.
Sperion didn’t understand. He had just vanquished the Thing! They should be thanking him. They should b—
Sperion looked down.
No. No, no, no, no, no.
Rouj de Hautevoyle twitched spasmodically as the last vestige of life abandoned him. In the strobing red light, the prefect’s blood appeared black, spurting out of a long gash beginning just below the eye socket, or what was left of it, anyway. The impact had burst de Hautevoyle’s eye before demolishing the entire top half of his head. Small lumps of brain tissue glistened dully in the prefect’s straggly hair. Grotesquely, Sperion could even see a shard of bone jutting out from a flap of loose flesh, where the machined edge of the aquila cut as deeply as any blade. The adept twisted around just in time to see Shirakova give him one last, haunted look.
She mouthed something at him, before turning to run.
Tears of anguish spilling down Sperion’s face. ‘What do you mean, you’re sorry?’ he sobbed.
When the Thing dropped onto him from the ceiling, the overwhelming guilt of murdering his superior, coupled with his companions’ abandonment, was all Adept Fortis Sperion could think about as he died.
They set course for Goodenough, which, according to the Balaton’s hololithic display, was thirteen ship cycles distant. The waystation was the only inhabited body within range, a backwater rarely frequented by honest merchants along the Frontier. Talk was that Goodenough’s promethium tariffs were extortionate, even compared to the guild-controlled refuelling outfits that lined the popular trade routes. The aptly named waystation, so Shirakova had heard, welcomed the desperate.
And Phrati Shirakova was desperate.
The frigate simply didn’t have enough fuel or funds to make the nineteen-week voyage back the way they came. De Hautevoyle’s charter deposit on the outrun covered expenses, liabilities, and little else. The captain had no idea what to do next after they reached the waystation, but it seemed a better prospect than being stranded in the back-end of nowhere, hoping someone would respond to a call for help.
No one ever helped in the Frontier.
Shirakova would take her chances at Goodenough. At the very least, she would send a missive via astropath to the Administratum enclave on Hydraphur. She would do it for Areldesen and Sperion. They deserved that much, if anything. None of it seemed real. Shirakova had spent days thinking about what she was going to say about what she had seen. More to the point, she had spent days trying not to think about what she’d seen. She tried not to think about the abomination stalking the corridors of Ladon XB-6.
Not thinking was impossible. Despite her increasingly prolonged exhaustion, sleep remained elusive. Every time Phrati closed her eyes, it all came rushing back, like a corrupt pict-feed set on repeat. Red became black. Black became red. Over and over it went, those last few desperate hours, tainting her memory forever.
They ran through unfamiliar corridors, away from Sperion’s anguished screams and the alien chitter-shriek of the insect-demon. In the darkness, Shirakova tripped over a blackened, misshapen lump. It took her a moment to recognise the crumpled form of a tech-priest. Within its shredded robe, she saw mutilated augmetic limbs, twisted and shorn off with inhuman force. With terrified reverence, the captain slowly parted the priest’s hood, revealing a shrivelled, desiccated face, discoloured and distorted beyond all recognition. Stifling a scream, Shirakova registered an unsettling, musty scent that reminded her of the time she encountered a nest of cannibalised rats in the lower holds of the Balaton. Except, this was far worse. Scrabbling away from the tech-priest, Shirakova looked around her, paralysed by the sight of dozens more bodies strewn carelessly across the corridor, their crumpled silhouettes illuminated by the pulsating warning lights.
They were all there. The massacred inhabitants of Ladon XB-6.
Shirakova began to cry. A hand reached out to her in the darkness. Wilhem, of course. Her loyal friend looked serene, which she realised much later was the glazed, vacant expression of someone so distressed that every sensory faculty had shut down, except the primordial instinct to survive. Shirakova lost Hem in the darkness more than once. Only the sound of Hem’s laboured breathing, as he tried to force oxygen into his lungs saved her, anchoring Shirakova’s mind and body to the task ahead.
Onward they went, black blurred into white, and they eventually emerged onto the command deck, confronted once more with the over-bright lumen arrays, and the endlessly repeating corridors of Ladon XB-6.
‘That way,’ she pointed.
‘Really?’ said Hem.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Shirakova panted, sucking in the station’s frigid, recycled air. ‘Ladon’s a loop. We’ll get to the Balaton eventually, no matter which way we go.’
They maintained a brisk pace, pausing every six or seven minutes to catch their breath, until Hem sighted a familiar junction. To their surprise, the prefect had left the ship’s primary accessway wide open. In hindsight, it was perhaps because he’d forgotten something important, and not because the prefect had any intention of taking them with him. De Hautevoyle was an odious wretch, but for his wholly unintended act of salvation, they would never have made it out alive. A mysterious, divine intervention from the God-Emperor, so Shirakova wanted to believe. She had to believe.
With her last reserves of will, Shirakova sprinted the last two dozen metres to the bridge, and quickly disengaged the Balaton from its docking bay, whilst Hem busied himself sealing the access hatches. He joined her on the bridge shortly after, and they watched in silence as the gas giant and its jungle moons slowly shrank away into the void.
The first few cycles thereafter were tumultuous.
One moment, Hem would go about his usual maintenance duties, before breaking down in tears, and Shirakova would console him with a hug and soothing words.
Other times, Hem would hear the tortured screams of the captain in her hab-cabin as she relived the nightmare of Ladon XB-6 again and again.
They over-talked, interrupting each other’s sentences as they planned and plotted their future. They would say nothing, for hours sometimes, instead staring vacantly at the empty vastness of space beyond the viewport. They drank and feasted, indulging in rehydrated food from the cold stores and draining the Balaton’s last plastek pouches of amasec, before doing it all over again in the next cycle.
For all the horror, Shirakova and her adjutant bonded from their shared experience, with the unconditional support only the traumatised could ever understand. They were grateful to be alive, despite whatever the galaxy could throw at them, and they would get through it, one way or another.
With that uplifting thought, Phrati Shirkova allowed sleep to finally take her in its warm embrace.
Below decks, the Balaton rattled and thumped, even over the loud hum of the enginarium. After the unnerving silence of Ladon XB-6, the constant din was comforting. Hem liked the disorganised chorus, the result of his repair work over the years, patching up the frigate using scavenged or improvised parts. After the first few cycles, Hem finally settled into his usual routine, affecting minor repairs and cataloguing components he would need for more substantial work, once they reached Goodenough.
The captain had been asleep for two whole cycles now. She certainly needed the rest. He would check in on her at the end of his shift to see what she wanted to eat. Wilhem had enjoyed their meals of late, very much so, in fact. No, Hem decided, he would check in and ask now instead, so he could rifle through the cold store later.
Meandering through the centuries-old decks of the frigate, the adjutant arrived presently at the captain’s hab-cabin. Hem timidly knocked on the ancient, panelled nalwood door, taking a moment to appreciate the warm, hollow sound it made.
There was no answer. Hem leaned in, placing an ear against the door.
‘Captain?’ he said, softly. ‘Are you awake?’ The adjutant knocked again, louder this time. He waited for a minute, then two, unable to make his mind up on what to do next. Wilhem did not presume to walk into the captain’s private chambers without permission. Three more minutes passed, and his anxiety blossomed. With nervous trepidation, Hem placed a hand on a wooden panel, and gently pushed.
He sighed with relief. The hab-cabin wasn’t even locked.
Pushing the door ajar, the adjutant kept his head down as he entered. ‘Sorry for the intrusion, I just wanted t–’ Hem began.
He stopped abruptly, staring with mute terror at the desiccated, naked husk of Chartist-Captain Phrati Shirakova.
Scrabbling around the bridge’s command seat, Hem clawed at random switches in a frenzy, trying to locate the Emergency Broadcast Emitter. The hammering thump, thump, thump of his heart pounding against his chest almost overwhelmed him. When the emitter finally powered up, through blind luck more than anything else, Hem couldn’t force the words out.
Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump.
Somewhere below him, Hem heard a sharp, clattering gait, followed by a long, piercing scream. ‘T-t-this is the merchant frigate Balaton!’ Hem shut his eyes, trying to block out the hammer blows of his heart, trying to ignore the noise and the fact that he’d wet himself. He just needed to speak. Speak, damn it. Hem!
‘It’s on board, oh God-Emperor, it’s followed us! Send help! Ladon, L-A-D-O-N-X-B-6, Ymgarl system! It’s killed them all, every single last one of them, and now it’s here!’
The sound moved.
‘Emperor protect me!’ squealed Hem, setting his distress call to Repeat Broadcast with considerable effort. He looked at the hololithic display, showing the Balaton as a pulsing icon along a thin trajectory line, terminating at a marker that flashed GOODENOUGH in blinking letters, and underneath it: SIX CYCLES REMAINING.
The only sound on board the bridge was the ceaseless fuzz of empty static.
Below, something shrieked.