Heat bloomed in the core of the blast doors, a swell of actinic light in a tomb of darkness. Sparks pinwheeled like drunken fireflies as metal that had stood in place for centuries, perhaps millennia, dissolved into bubbling rivulets of dirty sludge.
The breaching charges completed their work. Three void-suited figures lurched through the caustic smoke rising from the rend’s glowing circumference and into the chamber. Torchlight and targeting beams mounted upon modified lasrifles scanned the space. Even on a derelict, this ancient, auto-turrets and other hibernating defence systems could easily take intruders unawares.
‘Slowly,’ wheezed Captain Rarnolt Vhelm into his vox transmitter. ‘Go very slowly.’
The warning was unnecessary. His companions had aided him on similar salvage expeditions in the past and knew their business. Rith aimed her weapon into the oppressive gloom, her entire body as tense and as trained as her trigger finger. Aevery was flightier and more neurotic with his sweeps, but Vhelm had kept the ex-ganger within his entourage for that very streak of caution.
In their pale, skin-tight suits, the three voidsmen were wraiths in the shadow of a long-dead empire. Frost-edged machinery, unfamiliar yet potentially worth riches, loomed in every corner. Above them, through a great tear in the dead cruiser’s hull, the diaphanous curtain of space twinkled.
‘Nothing on sensors,’ reported Rith. ‘This husk is as dead as the long-range scans suggest.’ Her helm turned in Vhelm’s direction. ‘An easy win, Captain.’
He huffed, spluttering on artificial air. ‘No such thing. There’s always a catch. We just haven’t found it yet.’
Aevery’s yelp of alarm seemed to confirm the Captain’s truism. The wiry shock trooper stumbled with uncharacteristic sloppiness into a stack of crates. Vhelm and Rith rounded on the commotion, scanning for hostiles.
‘What do you see?’ Vhelm barked.
Aevery signalled to stand down. ‘I-I am sorry, Captain. This place, it unnerves me.’
Vhelm pushed past to see a human figure, most likely a menial, crushed between the vice grip of a loading machine. Frozen in a vacuum, the poor wretch had been spared the ravages of decomposition, but there was no doubting that his death had been gruesome. It was almost as if he had been executed in this bizarre fashion and left there as a warning, like a criminal dangling from a gibbet.
‘I don’t know what came over me,’ admitted the ex-ganger. ‘It’s not like I haven’t seen a floating corpse before.’
‘Get it together,’ Vhelm warned. ‘Remember who this vessel belonged to.’
They moved on, Rith taking point. Vhelm would never usually attempt to salvage an Astartes vessel, not for any prize. He was no fool. Though his life had taken him all over the Segmentum Pacificus, he had never actually seen the Emperor’s Angels in the flesh. The closest he had come was during a foolish smuggling venture where he had dared to fly in the lethal shadow of a Dark Angels battle barge. A feat he had sworn never to repeat.
But this derelict was old. Older than any he had come across in his career. It had never expected to be discovered. He could feel it in the old girl’s bones. That they had stumbled across it in the deepness of space had been a mathematically-impossible occurrence. One that had invited his incorrigible curiosity.
They arrived at another set of doors that had been splintered apart by overwhelming ordnance. It was not the first time they had seen evidence of a titanic battle aboard the ship. A conflict the defenders had evidently lost. Rith enacted her usual clearing pattern, but stopped short.
‘Emperor’s…’ she began, but trailed off, too shocked to complete her blasphemy.
‘What is it with you two?’ Vhelm spat, crossing the threshold into the airless dark. And then he saw. This indeed was something far more disquieting than a menial pinned like an entomologist’s treasure.
The smaller room was choked with dead Astartes. For what else could they be? Giants in ceramite, torn asunder in bitter conflict with one another at the closest quarters imaginable. Caught in a timeless pastiche of betrayal and hatred by the uncaring influence of space. Massive shells littered the ground, combat knives the size of an unmodified man’s arm stuck out from ruined bellies, and entire limbs and helmeted heads floated aimlessly like macabre pollen.
His torch swept the walls. They were coated with blood.
Rith knelt beside an eviscerated corpse. ‘Some are unmistakably Ultramarines, though I do not recognise their armour variant. This craft must be older than we imagined. The others? The ones in dark blue?’ She looked up at him. ‘I do not know them.’
Aevery tapped the helm lens of another, stooped in final repose. ‘I’d never thought to see anything like this. This’ll be a story to tell—
The Space Marine’s fist punched up without a sound through the ganger’s skull. Vhelm could only gape in horror as his subordinate’s brain matter and bone fragments floated away from his neck stump like a strange, gore-soaked supernova.
Rith reacted first. Lasfire lit up the dark with pulsating red streaks that mirrored the awakened visor of the armoured monster. Vhelm fired too. But it was a febrile response. All his discipline, his poise, had vanished. He could only watch as Rith’s arms were wrenched off with superhuman ease. He could hear her disbelieving screams.
Then a ceramite gauntlet grasped him by the throat. All he could see was the searing red of the creature’s visor.
‘I dreamed I was dead,’ it roared. ‘You revealed this to be a lie.’ The fingers squeezed, and Vhelm twitched. ‘Hibernating! Locked in the stillness of undeath! For how long?’ The Captain was being shaken like a rag doll. ‘Why? Why would you return me to my Father’s insane war? Tell me!’
But the Captain could tell the Marine nothing. Cadavers could not tell their stories. Even in life, Vhelm would have had no answer.
The unknown Marine let out a lamenting cry. The universe swallowed it whole.
About the Author
Sam Kearns writes from a maisonette in Oxford alongside his talking cat. He dreams of writing for the Black Library, as all good servants of the Emperor do. His sci-fi novel, The Darkness under the Rainbow, exists. You can find him on the front lines or at @samkearns1 on Twitter.