I shuffle my feet, trying to keep my balance as the Valkyrie lifts off the ground and hurls itself towards the light cruiser in low orbit.
Those first few moments leaving Castobel, leaving Sergeant Albani on the surface against the swarm… I can never forget that feeling. It was a guilt-ridden relief.
The first days aboard the In Nobis light cruiser are as expected. My squad hands over the artefact we recovered to storage, and we get checked over by a medical officer.
The stocky man with close-cropped hair takes my measurements, draws blood. In a few days we’ll get the report, and if we’re healthy enough we’ll get re-assigned.
This never happens. Instead, things aboard the cruiser get strange. Given what I’d seen planet-side recently, I would’ve thought that I’d witnessed enough strangeness not to be as susceptible to it. Seems I am mistaken. First, the medical officer goes missing, and then a handful of other officers too.
After that, I notice one or two guardsmen I had spoken with are no longer taking meals with the rest of us.
I ask my squadmates about it over dinner in the canteen. Acting sergeant Marco De Zarate seems surprised when I tell him. He suggests keeping an eye open, but doing nothing more.
After the fifth day, all Vox communication goes down.
A skeleton navy crew and our squad are all that now remain aboard, owing to our medical reports being inconclusive, and incomplete. One of the last navigators makes mention of multiple squads being deployed to a nearby world to aid with planetary defence.
Those that are left aboard are unable to get communications working again.
The cruiser is quiet for a day or two more.
We start closing off sections of the ship for safety. Or to just keep better eyes on the people around us. Tensions start rising. Arguments break out in the canteen more frequently.
And then I find one of the missing bodies.
It was stuffed behind a console in one of the medical inspection rooms.
Soldiers aren’t missing, or hiding. They’ve been murdered.
We are down to four soldiers now, and we’re just regular guardsmen. Without an actual sergeant we’ve got no direction. De Zarate is no better at leading than any of us. We’re guardsmen. No psyker abilities, no enhanced physiology. Just regular troopers. And we’re being picked off one by one.
It’s day nine since we boarded the In Nobis. I feel like pointing out that the only remaining survivors are all from Albani’s squad, but I never mention it. It can’t have anything to do with the artifact we brought aboard, surely?
The acting sergeant calls us to the helm. Me, Endal, Khumalleus and De Zarate himself.
There are no more navigators aboard, so the helm is empty. No more bodies have been discovered since the first, a couple of days ago… So whatever is doing the killing has gotten smarter.
De Zarate gathers us round a central table. Glowing lights from the autopilot monitors and various dials and switches in the control panels cast a hue on the man’s face.
‘There isn’t much time,’ Marco De Zarate announces to us, ‘We’ve gathered at this emergency meeting to ensure we survive. Plain and simple.’
‘There’s only three of us left!’ I burst out, ‘I’m not counting Henil, in the state he’s in.’
I get the acting sergeant to pay Endal attention. He has not taken the time aboard well, turning into a dithering husk of the man he was before we landed on Cartobel. Even when he speaks now it’s a jumble of non-committance.
‘H-how, did it get like this?’ the bedraggled Endal stammers, as if in reply.
‘I know, I know…’ Marco responds.
He’s taking this acting sergeant charade far too seriously.
I had to lay the facts straight for him.
‘Even if we manage to keep this junker sailing on to the next blockade,’ I sit up as straight as my facts, ‘We’d have minimal air supply and food. And I’m counting Henil in that.’
I didn’t care about what Marco believed the late Sergeant Albani’s final directives were, with regards to the artifact.
With the state of things as they were right now, we’d never make it to a Watch Station in one piece.
‘Right,’ Marco continued, ‘We have to focus. I’ll check on environment controls. Renate can help me. Henil can keep an eye on the navigation cogitators. Can’t you, Henil?’
I couldn’t fault his suggestion. But as he leaned over to place a hand on Henil’s shoulder the lumens went out.
I state the obvious to the remaining souls, ‘Lights are out.’
‘Fine,’ Marco appears to keep his cool, ‘That’s for Katia to do then.’
I hear him rise from his seat.
‘Katia…’ he huffs. The rest of what he tells her is a muffled whisper I can’t quite make out.
I switch my laspistol lumen on, ‘Let’s move out before there are any more complications.’
De Zerate leads me to environment controls, our lumens creating two stark beams of light as we progress through the hull.
We have to unlock a previously-closed-off section of the ship to reach the control area. The locks hiss as the automatic door shifts open in the dark.
‘See to it,’ the acting sergeant commands, ‘I’ll keep watch.’
I’m only slightly annoyed at the tone. He can call the shots now just because our sergeant gave her life in battle? I don’t think it’s right, without the proper ceremony from superiors to dub him leader.
Even so, I plod through the room to a wall-panel of dials and valves.
‘Not good,’ I point to a gauge flickering with red bars. ‘Water and nutrition tanks are low, but salvageable with our low numbers if we ration hard. It’s oxygen and temperature that are worrying, offline for some reason. Energy has been emptying out into space for a day or so. Looks like an automated venting of life-support. Definitely not good. If we turn that automation off though, we can probably restore enough power to survive. But we should do so immediately. Otherwise…’
I become cognizant of the silence.
More annoyance. I would’ve expected some sort of acknowledgement by now. An actual, qualified sergeant would at least pass comment on my analysis and solution thus far.
I push back from the wall to admonish De Zarate for his poor leadership, ‘You got rockcrete in your ears? Hear what I s-‘. He’s gone.
The open door is like a maw into the dark belly of a beast.
‘Marco…?’ I mumble.
I’m annoyed at myself, that my voice gets caught in my throat as I call out.
‘Sergeant?’ I try again, ‘Did you hear me? Controls had some sort of bypass system in place. We can fix it. Yes?’
I approach the door where he last was, pistol-lumen fending off the darkness.
I’m irritated that my heart is pounding so loudly in my chest. Stop it.
I walk along the corridor we came down, looking for movement, or signs of life, or a struggle. My lumen beam pivots left to right.
I step slowly, as carefully as I can. My ankles twist awkwardly, trying to keep my balance. It’s like I’m in the Valkyrie again.
Sergeant Albani’s face flashes in my memory.
‘De Zarate…’ I call again.
My mind starts wondering who gets to be acting sergeant when the acting sergeant is gone, but that train of thought is halted by a searing pain that pulses up from the middle of my stomach.
I shudder, and look down to see the end of a bloodied blade protruding from my torso.
I feel the grip of my laspistol weaken, slip, and hear the sound of the weapon hit the metal flooring.
In the darkness that floods my world I am hit with another wave of pain as the blade is pulled back and out.
My knees crash to the floor as all strength leaves me. Sound drips away, as if down a universal drain. The cold of the darkness wraps me in an embrace that seems ever more welcoming. I’m annoyed at it.
Just before my last breath, my eyes take in a figure stepping over me, illuminated by sharp, red alarm light that has suddenly started cycling.
‘Get a-board!’ I yell. ‘Now!’
I am the sergeant.
My throat hates me as I command again, ‘I want everyone on the ship immediately!’
Two days of incessant battle. Locked in a tug of war with the xenos for this Emperor-forsaken hive world. It is time to leave.
The last members of my garrison pile into the Valkyrie. Its twin engines on top roaring in defiance against the din of battle around it.
Seven guardsmen left. That’s an excellent tally, under the circumstances. We lost our two-man heavy weapons team among the narrow streets, a few hours ago.
The now-familiar sound of the Tyranids’ living ammunition, hissing against buildings and streets, serenades our exit from the urban outskirts of Hive City Trimalov.
I watch Glasermann, the dark skin of her face marked with soot and ash, pitch a frag grenade at a group of termagants like an athlete. It detonates almost upon impact and our flank is cleared.
The last three guardsman stragglers reach the lowered hatch of the Valkyrie.
The smell of charred flesh, blood and dust nearly chokes me.
One of my newest recruits, Henil Endal, a young man with a head too small for his large brown eyes, stumbles and loses his lasgun in the dirt. In an instant, the hunched form of a genestealer rises from within a nearby crumbled building.
I watch the young soldier roll over to see the xenos register its target. Him.
My laspistol fire does little to the killer. It prepares to pounce.
I suppose six guardsmen is also a good tally.
Before I can process the loss, the broken building is reduced to further rubble as a heavy bolter blast from a Wyvern tank removes it, and the genestealer, from Endal’s vicinity.
I go to pick up the young lad and he’s wiping ichor from his eyes and mouth. Tyranid organs steam as they cling to his jacket.
‘Let’s go soldier,’ I wheeze.
Not but a few hours ago my voice was less hoarse. It didn’t rumble out of my body as if it belonged to someone else. This final night of combat has been tough on the soldiers.
I push Endal past the last of the squad, De Zarate, who is laying down cover fire on a teething mass of hormagaunts.
‘Get up, move. Everyone a-board!’ I yell.
An explosion from far behind me punctuates my shout like an exclamation mark that’s far too large for the tiny order.
I turn to see the Wyvern land on its head, treads to the sky.
Nearby conscripts are falling from the air now too, their bodies crippled or severed by the explosion.
As the other sounds of battle return to a less-invasive clangour, I grab De Zarate’s arm and hoist him to his stunned feet, ‘Don’t make me say it again, soldier!’
He slings his lasgun over his shoulder and starts running to the Valkyrie.
The pilot’s vox rattles in my ear, ‘We’ve got to go, Sergeant.’
This brief window of a reprieve we have between the fighting is almost closed. I can feel it.
I grab De Zarate’s arm just before he reaches the Valkyrie hatch. And I pull him close.
‘Many lives have been sacrificed to get this cargo to us.’ I wish it were for effect that my voice cracks as I push it past my lips, ‘It has been salvaged from the cursed forge world of Samech, and entrusted to us. We do not know how it is ordained to spread the light and will of the Emperor. But we know that plans have been set in motion. Make sure this gets to the nearest Watch Station. They will know what to make of it, I pray.’
There’s a flash of something I don’t recognise in his eyes. Is it fear? Excitement?
Another vox, ‘Sergeant. Swarm incoming.’
To drive home the significance of what I’m saying, I add, ‘The fate of this whole sector is on that ship.’
‘As you say, Sergeant.’ De Zarate replies, ‘What about the City?’
I turn away from him.
The bleeding sky weeps xenos fliers that scream and twirl through the air above. Across a lake of genestealers, their arms and claws raised in the air as if sniffing out prey, a Tyranid warrior positions itself atop the destroyed Wyvern.
The Valkyrie’s hatch starts lifting as the pilot begins their takeoff.
I clutch my laspistol to my chest. I am the sergeant.
‘As much as it pains me to say it,’ I hear my gravelled voice in my own ears, ‘The outcome of this battle is no longer your concern…’
I leap from the hatch and land to face the oncoming swarm, ‘But it is mine.’
The passageway glistens from my laspistol light as I venture deeper into the light cruiser. My footsteps ring in my ears.
I’m en route to restore the lights. I’m without vox. There are only four of us now.
My heartbeat strains in my chest as I try to soften my breathing.
I recall the strange tattoo on my acting sergeant’s wrist, seen moments earlier.
‘There isn’t much time,’ Marco De Zarate announced to us, ‘We’ve gathered at this emergency meeting to ensure we survive. Plain and simple.’
‘There’s only three of us left!’ Renate blurted out, ‘I’m not counting Henil, in the state he’s in.’
‘H-how, did it get like this?’ Henil looked down at his frail hands on the table.
‘I know, I know…’ Marco gestured with odd precision.
I’d never noticed the circular tattoo on his wrist, a wyrm, coiling back on itself. Perhaps a nostalgic memoir of his life before service to the Emperor.
‘Even if we manage to keep this junker sailing on to the next blockade,’ Renate drew herself up against the back of her chair, ‘We’d have minimal air supply and food. And I’m counting Henil in that.’
‘Right,’ Marco continued, ‘We have to focus. I’ll check on environment controls. Renate can help me. Henil can keep an eye on the navigation cogitators. Can’t you Henil?’
Sudden blackness engulfed us. It sucked the air out of my lungs.
‘Lights are out,’ Renate said.
‘Fine,’ Marco kept calm, ‘That’s for Katia to do then.’
I assumed he was looking at me based on the sound of his voice.
‘Katia,’ he huffed, ‘You’re not so green that you can’t do this. I have faith in you, as I do in the Emperor. You are a guardsman.’
And that is why I’m here in this dark room, with only my laspistol light illuminating the panel before me. I ignore the fact that the pistol’s power pack is long dead.
Just complete the task. There’s nothing behind you. Nothing in the darkness.
Last wire connected. The lights blaze on.
But a klaxon blares and the lights flash red. Oxygen alert.
Red light. Then Darkness. Red light.
I dash out towards the environmental control room to help.
I take a couple of turns, trusting in instinct to guide me through the In Nobis rather than the sliver of light from my pistol. Next doorway, then another corridor, and I trip.
My reflexes train my laspistol on the shape in the shadows.
Outside of my cone of light, the warning lumens flash in the hallway.
Red. Black. Red.
I see the lifeless body of Renate. Her mouth agape as if screaming into the silence of space itself.
Red lights flash. The klaxon wines.
I must check on the oxygen.
As I spin around to my feet I bump into another figure in the darkness.
It’s acting sergeant De Zarate.
‘Renate…’ I stammer in response.
‘We must fix the oxygen,’ he replies sternly, stepping aside, ‘Lead on.’
After a few brisk steps I ask, ‘Mar- Sir, weren’t you fixing the oxygen with Renate?’
Behind me, silence. Red light. Black. Red.
Then a muffled scrape, barely perceptible in the blare of klaxon alarm.
I turn to look. Red, black.
A silver flash reflecting the red warning lights.
And the last thing I hear between the red flashes and crying klaxons is, ‘For the Four-armed Emperor!’
The ground of the hull shines red, then black. It’s cold against my cheek.
I see De Zarate wipe the blood from a blade with his sleeve, the movement pulling it up slightly. He smiles.
The circular tattoo is revealed in full. I don’t recognise it.
My last sight is of that sigil. A wyrm.
‘H-how, did it get like this?’
I look down at my hands, frail digits that look utterly alien to me right now.
I can hear voices playing above my head, but I cannot understand them. Where am I?
A voice, Marco’s.
But it’s not him, it’s one of the xenos. A termagant, one that screeches as it swirls into one of their Tyranid warriors. In a terrifying twist of organs it fuses into a bestial Carnifex and swallows me whole.
The table my body was sitting at drifts away in total darkness.
I’m alone, swimming in the void.
Just my hands, these hands. What can they do?
My cheek feels cold suddenly. My vision clears. I’m on the floor. I blink into the unbroken darkness.
A disembodied pauldron, Astartes. It’s a divine answer. Another vision that swells before me.
‘Sergeant Albani died for the Emperor…’ I push myself up off the floor, ‘Something is killing guardsmen on this cruiser. Something. Someone.’
I drift over to the cogitators, giving off enough glow to light a clear path to them.
As if submerged beneath a meniscus of unreadable data, the image of a Death Watch station comes into view on screen.
Not far, but we are slightly off-course.
I can correct us.
I look down at my hands as they move to lock navigation to Station Erioch.
Then I wait.
‘Henil can keep an eye on the navigation cogitators. Can’t you Henil?’
Darkness engulfs the room. Perfect.
‘Lights are out,’ Renate says.
I curb the excitement that stirs in my gut.
‘Fine,’ I need to keep them calm, unassuming, ‘That’s for Katia to do then.’
I turn to Katia, I doubt she can see the grand gesture of leadership and encouragement I’m going for. But it helps me to keep up the pretence, down to the letter, as I have for all these months.
‘Katia,’ I try to sound exasperated but hopeful, ‘You’re not so green that you can’t do this. I have faith in you, as I do in the Emperor. You are a guardsman.’
I turn on the lumen of my laspistol and wave Glasermann to follow.
I lead her down to the environment control room.
She would never know how much easier these sealed passages have made things.
I take in the rippling silence of the room with each slow breath.
‘See to it,’ I tell her, keeping by the entrance, ‘I’ll keep watch.’
Knowing how easily bothered Glasermann is, I grin in the dark.
I slip behind cover and turn off my pistol-lumen. No need, with the gifts of darksight from the Patriarch. I serve them, always.
I hear Glasermann speak, and call for me. I hear it in her voice already. Confusion, the beginnings of fear. I taste it on my lips.
She steps by me, and out into the hull corridor. Perfect.
I draw my hidden blade.
Fulfilling my duty, my purpose, with such magnificence, after so much time, incites a rush of adrenaline that I cannot restrain.
I stab through the back of my unsuspecting victim with a vigour, as the Creed has taught me.
The satisfaction of betraying those guardsmen most close to me, my very own squad, fills me with joy and pride.
Glasermann drops to the ground and I leave her to die. No need to clean up. This is the final gambit. I step over her body, in the direction of electrical controls.
Khumalleus spins around suddenly and bumps into me. Her eyes shiver, bulge with fear. It is a welcome sight.
‘Renate…’ she stammers.
‘We must fix the oxygen,’ I reply in as steady a voice as I can muster, ‘Lead on.’
She walks out in front of me.
After a few brisk steps, she foolishly speaks again, ‘Mar- Sir, weren’t you fixing the oxygen with Renate?’
I had hoped she wouldn’t think about that. I suppose this one might be a bit messier than the rest. No matter.
I pull the hidden blade from my sleeve.
She turns to face me. The red light dipping into darkness every other second.
In the gap between red I strike, plunging the pointed metal into her neck.
‘For the Four-armed Emperor!’
I wipe the blood from my blade, feeling a smile creep onto my face.
So close now. Just one more to go.
I find Henil slumped up against the navigation console. Perfect.
Leaving the easiest for last. A fool-proof plan.
I don’t even hide the blade anymore.
My footsteps fall heavily on the floor. I relish in the sound as it echoes around me. The last death knell.
Henil is staring off and up into the ceiling, like a useless fish.
I take my time, allowing the ceremony to take hold. I have done well, the magus will say so.
I squat down in front of Henil. It’s evident that his mind is gone. Such an easy target.
Then the chamber rocks, as something thuds heavily into the hull.
Not part of the plan.
I notice a smile on Henil’s drooling face. A light flashes in the console panel above his head, as it signifies a docking door being unlatched and opened.
The familiar hiss of the airlock crashes through my joyous silence.
Irritated at the disruption, I don’t even think to hide. I turn to face the intruders.
Whatever Astra Militarum soldiers have returned to the In Nobis will only find their doom, and the death-dealing hand of the Genestealer Cult.
A blinking light flickers on the console, with the words ‘destination reached’.
I hear footsteps, heavy, ungraceful. The opposite of stealth, as if announcing their arrival without a care.
I wait, irritation curling my fingers round my blade.
The figures that round the corner to the navigation chamber are huge, easily twice as tall as a human, and nearly as wide.
Their armour jet black. Their helmets an emotionless visage of death incarnate.
The death knell in my mind spins on its axis, swinging back towards me.
It seems an imperfect end to my perfect plan.
A voice from the inky-black Astartes leader rumbles, slow and calm, cradled in enthusiasm, ‘Suffer not the alien to live…’
About the Author
Tristan Jacobs is a game designer from South Africa, living in the UK. Previously an actor, writer and academic, he enjoys a regular bout of tabletop roleplaying as well as fielding his Necron army whenever possible.