‘You’ll never get chosen if this is the best you can do!’ Shouted Chen as she vaulted another conduit.
Mariz clambered across behind her, red-faced and panting. Sweat sheened his round face and soaked his coveralls. He cursed under his breath as he watched Chen’s lithe form round the corner of the companionway ahead of him and picked up his pace to follow. As he turned into the passage, he saw Chen sat back against the wall, cradling her right leg.
‘You ok?’ Mariz asked as he approached.
‘Yeah,’ said Chen. ‘slipped on a patch of blessed oil just there and banged my knee. I swear the tech priests will be the death of me.’
‘Don’t let the Magos hear you say that,’ said Mariz offering a hand to help Chen to her feet.
‘The will of the Omnissiah shall not be impeded by the weakness of the flesh,’ said Chen in an impression of the Martian priest’s vox emitter.
‘Well quite,’ said Mariz with a smile, ‘Come on, let’s get back to The Drop, we’re gonna be late.’
Anterior vent canyon four was part of the passive cooling system for the Cetus Vindictas massive reactor. Warm air was pulled away by convection, passing into innumerable conduits to keep the occupied sections of the ship, if not comfortable, then at least survivable by unaugmented humans. The residents of the lower decks had first moved in centuries ago, and a shanty town of sorts had grown vertically from the depths. Once clean panels now sprouted habs, refectories, and even a scholam. Bridges and walkways weaved in and out of washing lines, clothes drying rapidly in the constant updraft. Children played games of daring as they jumped between precarious vantages of rope and cable, laughing as they sometimes fell only to be caught by the saviour nets strung at regular intervals for just such occasions. Neighbours shouted gossip across the gap while hawkers plied their wares from pulley fed baskets, expertly avoiding the strings of lumens that sketched a cobweb of light through the edifice. Whole lives played out, never once seeing the void in which they floated. If it wasn’t for the periodic nightmares that belied passage in the warp, it was possible to imagine the Drop was just a standard sector of a standard hive on an unimportant Imperial world.
Translation through the warp shattered this illusion. It was a perilous time, even deep within the bowels of the massive Grand Cruiser Cetus Vindicta the crush of psychic malice made itself felt. The strings of lumens burned brighter during the voyage in the sea of souls, the denizens of the Drop raising their voices and forcing brittle laughs at the slightest jest. Anything to hold off the darkness for a few moments more. Anything to avoid the insidious embrace of sleep. Nightmares were the cost of travel, the Call was the currency of passage.
‘You’re going too slow,’ said Chen.
‘I could just leave you here for a vent crawler,’ said Mariz, grinning. ‘I am carrying you after all.’
‘You wouldn’t dare! Hurry up, I don’t want to be late to the Call,’ said Chen. ‘This is our turn; I just know it.’
‘You say that every time, you’re gonna be disappointed again,’ said Mariz.
‘Not this time, Mariz,’ said Chen, ‘not this time.’
Mariz let go of Chen as they approached the amphitheatre, letting her walk unaided. It wouldn’t do to appear weak for the Call. They only ever took the strongest, and applicants had been turned away for much less than a sore knee. The wall seats were nearly full, keen faces all staring at the lectern on the other side of the Drop. Chen nodded at a few of the others she knew, several had been here many times like her, eyes still bright with ambition despite years of disappointment.
They found a gap on a bench near the back and sat in silence. They didn’t have to wait long before the great doors behind the lectern opened and Proctor Helinis made his way up the steps to the waiting vox thief clutching a dataslate in his wizened hands. He tapped the vox twice, eliciting echoes and feedback from the grills mounted on the front of the platform. He cleared his throat noisily then began to speak.
‘It is my honour to begin the four hundred and thirty seventh tithe of the Grand Cruiser Cetus Vindicta. Therefore, by the power vested in me by Captain Zelanar, Fleet Admiral Lanctanius, and the Almighty God Emperor of Mankind it is my solemn duty to call the following souls to service…’
Mariz felt a thrill as Chen reached out and gripped his hand, he glanced sidelong at her, but her attention was focussed solely on the Proctor.
‘…Challen, D; Chen, R; Dorian, P…’
Chen’s grip tightened, and she let out a tiny squeal of excitement and squeezed Mariz’s hand even tighter.
The Proctor droned on for a couple more minutes, seemingly oblivious to the seismic changes he was making to the lives of those in front of him.
‘…Marcus, L; Mariz, T; Oquillis, R…’
‘It’s us, Mariz,’ hissed Chen. ‘It’s finally us!’
The list ended, and the Proctor cleared his throat once more.
‘All personnel are to be inducted into the Imperial Navy to serve at the pleasure of the Imperium. You will report to the muster hall in one hour. You may bring one small bag of possessions. Dismissed. Ave Imperator!’
The Proctor made a half-hearted aquilla across his chest, gathered his dataslate and shuffled off without another word. Chen turned to face Mariz and noticed she was still holding his hand, she released her grip with an embarrassed smile, and he flexed his fingers to try and ease some life back into them.
‘Isn’t this exciting? We’re finally getting out, we’re going to see the void. I can’t wait!’ said Chen.
‘It’s what you’ve always wanted,’ smiled Mariz. ‘Come on, let’s go get our stuff and say our goodbyes. Who knows when we’ll be coming back.’
The journey to their staging post took the best part of two days. Forty-eight hours to travel three kilometres. An initial stop in a medicae centre took up most of the first day, endless checks and fitness tests to confirm that they were good enough to put their lives on the line. After the discomfort of being poked and prodded, the recruits faced a different type of test as they were questioned about their faith and loyalty for another six hours by a review board of the ship’s commissariat. At each stage the group got smaller. Not by much as the need for able bodies outweighed the risk, but at least a handful of their influxes was found wanting. They were removed without ceremony or fan-fair. They weren’t seen again.
After the tests were complete, they were issued with their naval uniforms. Thermal body-gloves went on first, followed by pale grey jumpsuits. They each received a small pack and were told to carry it with them at all times. When Chen looked there was a gas hood, some thick mittens and a small vial of viscous liquid. They never got an explanation for the contents. They discarded their old clothes, everything was bundled together and thrown into an incinerator chute. Chen felt a pang of regret as she saw her old coverall disappear. Like most clothing in The Drop, it was a multi-generational, hand-me-down, lovingly patched and mended. Now it was gone and part of her history went with it.
Once their physical and psychological profiles had been thoroughly documented, they were split into smaller groups and began the arduous process of navigating the ships internal security. They gleaned snippets of information in passing. The crusade fleet at high alert following a run in with some xenos; the Admiral grieving over a personal loss; the Ark Mechanicus that had been destroyed in a freak accident and parts were running low; the ground forces suffered against Orks and Tyranids. The armsmen gossiped at each post they passed, but they never stayed long enough to get more details.
‘It’s exciting, isn’t it?’ said Chen as they passed yet another checkpoint. ‘Feels like we’re part of something, something bigger than us.’
‘It sounds terrifying,’ said Mariz, ‘At least we were safe in The Drop.’
‘Were we though?’ said Chen. ‘The ship’s big, but it sounds like we’ve lost bigger ones. At least this way we’ll get a chance to make a difference. If the ship goes, the Drop goes, and we’d never know what killed us.’
‘That’s not as comforting as you think,’ said Mariz.
Chen almost missed her first view of the void, distracted as she was by the huge cannon that dominated the space they entered at long last. The blast doors parted with a hiss of hydraulics and a scent of sacred oils, and they were finally at their destination. The chamber appeared vast after so long in the cramped confines of the ship’s corridors and a lifetime in The Drop. It was a square fifty metres to a side. A set of rails ran from a circular aperture on the back wall to the cannon breach that lay open to the elements. The cannon itself extended almost thirty metres and Chen’s gaze tracked its length as it pushed outwards into the vacuum. She gasped as she caught sight of the star scape, pinpoints of silver light hanging in the ink black night, only fuzzed slightly by the faint blue haze of the atmospheric shield. To the left and right, more cannon chambers spread out into the distance, separated by open bulkheads and hazard stripes denoting where blast shields would slam shut.
‘It’s beautiful’, said Chen.
‘You get used to it,’ said a gruff voice behind her. ‘It kinda loses its lustre once you realise how quickly it can kill you.’
A woman pushed past Chen and Mariz and faced them. She was short but muscular, her jumpsuit clean but showing signs of wear. She brushed a shock of auburn hair out of her eyes and gave them an appraising look.
‘So you’re the new blood, eh? Not much to you,’ she said. ‘I’m Allys, Petty Officer, Blue 15, let me show you around.’
She waved the escort away and led them into the chamber.
‘The cog-boy over by the cogitator is Theta-Rho-19, our enginseer,’ she said, pointing at a mechanicus adept. ‘Don’t abbreviate their name, they hate that.’
‘The big fella at the breach is Lug, he’s an Ogryn, not too smart but helpful in his own way,’ she continued, ‘Now, let me introduce you to the boss.’
They walked over to the gun where the last member of the crew was wiping down the edge of the massive barrel. As they approached, Chen saw that the cannon wasn’t a uniform steel but had a slight golden sheen to it. As they got closer, it resolved into a tight spiral of brass that wound around nearly the entire length.
‘Hey boss!’ shouted Allys. ‘The new blood is here.’
The man looked up, and removed the loose cap he was wearing and wiped his face with the cloth he was holding. Scar tissue ran up the left side of his face, angry pink against the dark brown of his skin. He walked to meet them, his gait stiff where he favoured his right leg.
‘Gun Captain Ganges, Blue 15,’ he said as they got closer. ‘and you are?’
‘Sir, Gunners Mate Third Class Chen!’ said Chen, saluting sharply.
‘Sir, Gunner’s Mate Third Class Mariz!’ said Mariz, a half second later.
‘They’re not much to look at,’ said Ganges to Allys.
‘We’ll soon change that boss,’ said Allys with a grin.
‘I’m sure we will. Welcome to Macro Cannon Dorsal 15,’ Said Ganges, ‘Petty Officer Allys here will get you both bunk assignments and then show you the ropes.’
As they approached the billet door, an alarm sounded and Allys hurried them along. She grabbed two pairs of vox sets from a rack by the door and handed one each to Chen and Mariz before pulling hers up from where they had rested on her neck. Chen and Mariz put them on and were plunged into the team vox network. Chen noticed a large group of dishevelled people piling in from a wide hole in the chamber in the far corner, the newcomers began making their way quickly to position themselves by the massive iris on the back wall.
“Well this is good timing,’ said Allys, ‘time for a fire drill. Throw your bags into the billet, and we’ll get started. Chen, you come with me, Mariz head over to Lug.’
‘Live fire exercise. Null targets. Load armour piercing,’ said Ganges over the vox.
‘AP, aye,’ replied Allys.
‘Armour Piercing request inloaded. Delivery in sixty-five seconds,’ droned Theta-Rho-19.
‘You come with me,’ said Lug, ‘get gang on trolley.’
Mariz gave a little shrug in Chen’s direction, and she smiled back at him and shrugged too.
‘Ordinance delivery commencing,’ said Theta-Rho-19.
The massive circular portal at the back of the gun hall ground open to reveal an enormous shell. Lug moved forwards and hooked up the trolley with practised ease.
‘You do same,’ said Lug.
Mariz heaved on the heavy cable and struggled to get the line engaged.
‘Pull harder,’ said Lug.
‘Yeah, come on Mariz,’ said Chen. ‘Put your back into it.’
‘I wouldn’t laugh just yet, rookie,’ said Allys.
Finally, the cable connected and Lug kicked the trolley, which rang like a gong. Immediately the gang of serfs began to heave on the trolley, pulling the shell into the hall and towards the open breach of the gun. When it reached the gun, the serfs moved to the back of the trolley and pushed until the shell was chambered. A group of them then peeled off and swung the huge breach shut.
‘Come on, kid,’ said Allys. ‘We’re up.’
Allys grabbed the wheel mounted on the back of the breach door and began to turn it, Chen tried to help, but it felt as if she barely made an impact.
‘Come on, Chen,’ said Mariz. ‘Put your back into it.’
‘Very. Funny. Mariz,’ grunted Chen as the wheel finally locked in position.
After that, the process was a blur. Theta-Rho-19 calling out confirmations. Ganges in quiet command, ordering elevation then traversal to get the barrel of the giant cannon into position to fire on a target that didn’t exist.
‘Hey kid,’ said Allys. ‘you may want to duck down here for this next bit.’
Allys indicated a small depression behind a low wall. Chen hunkered down next to her.
‘Mouth open,’ said Allys. ‘Trust me.’
‘Fire,’ said Ganges, almost casually.
Chen felt rather than heard the noise as incredible forces forced the shell out of the cannon. The wall of sound hit her like a full-grown bilgebull, and the air was knocked out of her lungs.
‘Fun, huh?’ said Allys, ‘get up, we’ve got four more to get through.’
Load, Elevate, Traverse, Fire, Clear.
The rush of excitement died away as days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months. Their duties were hard and repetitive. As third-class gunners, Chen and Mariz did the jobs no one else wanted. Cleaning machine parts, initially under the watchful gaze of Theta-Rho-19; helping Lug direct the shell train; Loading; Sighting; Unloading; Fire drills; Battle readiness drills; on and on and on.
Load, Elevate, Traverse, Fire, Clear.
Chen noticed her body changing; the navy rations, while not as tasty as a home cooked meal on the Drop, were consistent and more nutritious. Combined with the strenuous exercise ,her lithe frame became harder, muscles more defined. She watched Mariz change too. Always a little overweight, he now grew into himself, his shoulders broadened, his jawline became more pronounced.
Load, Elevate, Traverse, Fire, Clear.
Chen ran her fingers through Mariz’s chest hair as they lay together in the dark.
‘So you got what you always wanted,’ said Mariz. ‘How’s it holding up?’
‘It’s not quite what I expected,’ said Chen, looking up to kiss him, ‘but it has its advantages. Go fetch us some recaff will you?’
Load, Elevate, Traverse, Fire, Clear.
‘What in the hells do you think you’re doing?’ shouted Allys.
‘Clearing the spoil boss,’ said Chen. ‘As ordered.’
‘And what are you doing with it?’ said Allys.
‘Sweeping it into recyc like everything else?’ asked Mariz.
‘No,’ said Allys. ‘Case spoil is separate. Take the brass and put it in the case by Ganges fire control station. Everything else can go.’
Chen carried the small pile of brass shavings in the pan over to Ganges’ station and located the case by the base of the command throne. She opened it carefully and poured the golden fragments into the largest chamber. The rest of the case held a small lascutter, a crucible, and a cloth.
Chen shrugged, closed the case and returned to sweeping.
Load, Elevate, Traverse, Fire, Clear.
‘Hit me,’ said Chen.
Allys dealt another card from the stack in front of her. Chen examined her hand, then counted out a handful of ration chits.
‘Raise ten,’ she said.
‘Too rich for me,’ said Mariz tossing his cards down.
‘I think you’re bluffing,’ said Allys counting her own pile of chits.
‘The odds do not favour a successful wager,’ said Theta-Rho-19.
‘What have I told you about cogitating at the card table?’ said Chen, ‘Shhh. If you think I’m bluffing Allys, call me.’
‘I think I will,’ said Allys smiling as she tossed her chits onto the pile, ‘let’s see ‘em.’
Chen turned over her cards.
‘Two pairs, Thrones and Primarchs,’ she said triumphantly, and reached for the pot.
‘Not so fast,’ said Allys dropping her own cards on the table, ‘Emperors court.’
‘Ha! She played you there, Chen,’ said Mariz.
‘I concur. As previously recorded, the variables did not favour a profitable outcome Gunner’s Mate Third Class Chen,’ said Theta-Rho-19.
‘Shut up, both of you,’ said Chen. `Well played Allys.”
‘Can’t bluff a bluffer, kid,’ said Allys. ‘Again?’
‘Not this time, not if I want to eat in any case,’ said Chen standing and stretching.
The door slid back and Ganges entered.
‘Sir!’ called Allys, standing and saluting.
‘At ease all of you,’ said Ganges. ‘There’s a bit of trouble down below. I need a volunteer.’
‘Chen’ll do it sir,’ said Mariz.
‘Very good Mariz,’ said Ganges as Chen glared at her friend. ‘Chen, get a sidearm. We’re off to the serf hall.’
‘You gonna be ok down there?’ said Mariz. ‘I can go instead if you want.’
‘I’ll be fine Mariz,’ said Chen as she buckled on the holster, ‘This was your idea anyway.’
‘I was only kidding,’ said Mariz, ‘and you love showing off to the boss.’
‘It’s not showing off. It’s “demonstrating leadership qualities”,’ said Chen, doing a decent impression of Proctor Helinis.
‘But the serf halls are wild. I’d rather drop into a vent crawler nest,’ said Mariz.
‘They’re people just like you or me, Mariz’ said Chen. ‘It’s nothing to worry about.’
‘You say that, but I see how they act on the gang. They’d kill us all given half the chance,’ said Mariz.
“’You’ve been spending too much time with Allys,’ said Chen, fastening the flack plate across her chest. ‘How do I look?’
‘Very scary,’ said Mariz, and pulled her into a hug. ‘Come back safe, you hear me?’
‘Loud and clear Gunner’s Mate Mariz,’ said Chen with a smile. ‘loud and clear.’
The first thing Chen noticed was the smell. Where their bunks had the musty aroma of bedding that was never allowed to cool, these chambers smelled like a sump rat midden. Poor ventilation and worse rationing combined with the dregs of humanity to fill the air with a miasma she could taste. Ganges noticed her disgust and reached into a pocket of his coveralls.
‘Here,’ he said, handing her a small tin. ‘put some of this in each nostril. A gift from the Omnissiah by way of our enginseer.’
Chen opened the tin and dabbed a little of the thick grease into her nose with her pinkie finger. Instantly, the odour of the great unwashed was replaced with the sterile, oily scent she realised she associated with Theta-Rho-19.
‘What is this stuff?’ she asked.
‘Throne only knows,’ said Ganges. ‘certainly cuts through the fug down here, and I don’t think 19 minds that I borrow some from time to time.’
‘What’re we doing here, sir?’ asked Chen.
‘Dealing with a problem,’ said Ganges.
‘A problem that needs lasguns?’ said Chen. ‘shouldn’t there be more of us?’
‘Kid, if the two of us can’t deal with this, more lasguns won’t help,’ said Ganges. ‘here we are.’
They stepped through a doorway into a large hall. Chen thought it must’ve been a refectory from all the tables. Most had been pushed towards the walls to make space for the crowd that had gathered there. A man stood upon a table in the middle of the room. His filthy coveralls hanging from his spare frame. His hair was lank and tied back from his face with a rag. His eyes burned with an almost religious fervour. The serfs stood rapt as he proclaimed his vision.
‘…More will we be kept like animals in cages, released to slave away at their bidding then herded back into the dark. No more will we be used as grist for the mill of war. We are strong together, stronger than they believe, stronger than they can handle. Together we will be heard!’ he shouted.
The crowd roared and applauded. Feet stamped on the deck and the noise was deafening until the ringleader raised his hand for silence.
‘Now is the time for us to…’ He fell back. A neat hole drilled through his forehead by the lasround. The crown wheeled round in shock to stare at where Ganges and Chen stood in the doorway. Chen was stunned and stood motionless, while Ganges calmly holstered his sidearm.
One of the larger men nearest to them went to move, but Ganges held up his hand, palm out, to stop him.
‘Do not do something we will all regret,’ said Ganges. ‘no more souls need to perish here today.’
‘Why did you do that?’ asked a woman, her left arm in a sling.
‘I did that to save your lives. All of your lives,’ said Ganges.
‘He was going to save us!’ Came the sound of another voice, a man this time, thought Chen.
‘No,’ said Ganges, ‘he was killing you. You may be dissatisfied with your lot, but you must understand that your suffering is for the good of all. We suffer and work so the Emperor and the Imperium persist. So that humanity may persist. A rebellion, no matter how small, no matter how just you feel the cause, is a rebellion against the Throne and cannot be tolerated. I understand your privations. If you will permit me I shall hear them and we shall do what we can to remedy those that can be.’
To Chen’s surprise they didn’t die. For the next three hours they stood and listened as serfs came forth to tell them tales of woe. Ganges was sympathetic and made notes of a number of things that would be done. Mostly small things, but small things soothed great wounds.
‘What was that about?’ asked Chen as they made their way back towards the gun deck.
‘It was a mission of mercy. The commissariat takes a dim view of rebellion. Any sign of insurrection and they purge the whole gang. This way we cut it off at the source, and we get to keep our serfs. Maybe save a few lives that otherwise would be wasted. The Emperor protects, after all,’ said Ganges.
‘Won’t it happen again?’ asked Chen.
‘Oh undoubtedly,’ said Ganges, ‘and when it does, we’ll go down and fix it again. It’s not the first time I’ve killed to save lives. Sometimes they even deserve it.’
They walked in silence the rest of the way. The laspistol felt heavy on Chen’s hip.
Load, Elevate, Traverse, Fire, Clear.
‘What’s going on?’ Yelled Chen above the noise of the screaming tocsin.
Allys looked at her and pointedly indicated her vox set. Chen and Mariz grabbed sets from the rack by the billet door and put them on. They were immediately thrown into the team vox feed. Frantic messages flew back and forth.
‘Confirming enemy action,’ said Ganges. ‘stand ready.’
‘Confirmed,’ echoed Theta-Rho-19 and Allys.
‘Firm,’ said Lug slowly.
Chen and Mariz added their confirmations and hurried to their station. They’d drilled for this time and time again. Chen rushed over to join Allys at breach control, Mariz went to help Lug with the loader gang.
‘Contact confirmed. Macro cannon arrays to load and prepare to fire. Armour Piercing,’ said Ganges.
‘AP, aye,’ said Allys.
‘Munition request inloaded,’ said Theta-Rho-19. ‘standby for delivery.’
Mariz stood to one side of the massive autoloader hatch. Lug stood opposite, idly flexing his enormous arms.
‘You could look like that if you tried,’ teased Chen over the vox.
‘He’s three metres tall!’ said Mariz.
‘No chatter on an open channel,’ said Allys.
‘Mariz strong like Lug,’ said Lug slowly.
‘Thank you, Lug,’ said Mariz.
‘But Chen stronger. Huh-huh-huh,’ laughed Lug.
‘Why, thank, you for noticing Lug,’ said Chen.
‘I said no chatter!’ said Allys.
The red light above the hatch began to flash and the portal irised open. Lug and Mariz quickly hooked up the trolley chains, and the serf gang began to pull. Lug grabbed hold of a bar and added his muscle to the crew, Mariz joined him moments later.
‘AP shell loading,’ said Chen into the vox.
‘AP shell load confirmed,’ replied Allys. ‘close breach and cover.’
The breach swung shut, and the team ran to their cover positions, ducking down behind the blast shields ready for the cannon to fire.
‘Coordinates resolved,’ said Theta-Rho-19. ‘targeting position confirmed.’
‘Elevate barrel fourteen degrees,’ said Ganges.
‘Fourteen degrees, aye,’ replied Allys and directed the gang of serfs to haul on the elevation wheel until the position matched.
‘Traverse barrel six degrees starboard,’ said Ganges.
‘Six degrees starboard, aye,’ replied Allys again. This time the team pushed on a massive capstan to the left of the breach.
‘Positioning complete,’ called Allys.
‘Fire!’ said Ganges, and the world filled with noise.
Load, Elevate, Traverse, Fire, Clear.
They kept firing for the next three hours, AP, High-Ex, even the occasional flak round was loaded and fired. A shot every six minutes blasted into the void. None of them knew if they hit, they received no confirmations and saw no distant explosions; but still they fired. Chen was drenched in sweat after half an hour, blisters building on her feet and hands from the constant pushing of the controls around the breach. Mariz was fairing no better, his coveralls were drenched and clung to his body like a damp sheet. Chen found herself admiring him in the spare moments between fire and reload.
Load, Elevate, Traverse, Fire, Clear.
‘Fire!’ shouted Ganges, his voice hoarse.
Nothing happened. No wall of sound, no rush of overpressure.
‘Reset. Fire!’ yelled Ganges again.
‘19! Report! What’s wrong with my damned gun?’ he said.
‘Analysing,’ said Theta-Rho-19, ‘the firing pin has sheered. It will need to be replaced.’
‘Allys, Chen. Get the pin swapped out!’ shouted Ganges.
Chen and Allys span the wheel to release the breach. It swung open and Chen scrambled to free the broken adamantium pin. It came loose in two pieces, and she threw them to one side.
‘Mariz, grab a new pin from the spares,’ said Chen.
Mariz ran over to the rack at the back of the chamber and looked.
‘We’re out. I’ll go grab one from 14,’ said Mariz.
‘Don’t bother,’ said Allys, ‘I’ll get it. You and Lug work the gang to get some of the empties cleared.’
Allys ran towards cannon 14, switching channels on her vox as she went to talk to 14’s Petty Officer and request the part. Chen looked down the barrel of the cannon, the rifling twisted off out of the light of the chamber, plunging into darkness before re-emerging in the starlight at the cannons mouth. Chen stared at the circle of void and blinked as something flashed past.
‘What the hell was that?’ she cried.
‘What was what?’ asked Ganges.
‘Something just flew past us fast,’ said Chen.
‘19, query contact,’ said Ganges.
‘Querying,’ said Theta-Rho-19, ‘contact confirmed. Enemy fighter/bomber designates within void envelope.
Point defence batteries opened up. Multi-lasers and heavy stubbers firing wildly at the swift moving targets that seemed to evade effortlessly.
‘Type?’ yelled Ganges.
‘Xenos designate Aeladari, subtype Drukhari. Craft designate Voidraven,’ said Theta-Rho-19.
‘Throne help us, it’s the knife ears!’ said Ganges, ‘Allys, where’s my new pin?’
‘Returning now, boss,’ said Allys.
Chen turned towards bay 14 in anticipation and saw Allys heading back at a run, the new pin tucked under one arm. Chen saw movement flicker over Allys’s shoulder and watched in horror as a sleek xenos craft made an impossible turn. A wave of lethal looking barbs was released from its underbelly and seemed to drop in slow motion towards the line of cannon bays.
‘Allys! Run!’ yelled Chen.
The first barb hit back along the line, Chen thought it might have been 8 or 9. There was an explosion, and she saw the first blast door slam down, cutting off the bay. Then the next hit, and the next. A chain of destruction that marched inexorably down the macro cannon array. The final barb hit cannon 14, glanced off and careened into the waiting shell. Chen had just enough time to see Allys’ look of shock as chamber 14 filled with fire and the blast doors slammed down. Moments later the atmospheric shield released, and the compartment vented. Chen thought she caught sight of Allys as she tumbled into the dark, still clutching the pin.
‘Allys is gone,’ cried Chen into the vox. Stifling a sob.
‘Grieve later,’ said Ganges softly, ‘we’ve still got a job to do. Run and get a pin from 16, I’ll vox ahead.’
Chen nodded and ran towards 16 where gunner’s mate third class, Tauren she thought she was called, met her with a new pin. She ran back with it, flinching involuntarily as she passed beneath the blast shield. Mariz helped her fit it, and together they closed the breach back up.
‘Load confirmed,’ Chen said.
‘Confirmed,’ said Ganges, ‘19, run diagnostics and get me a new firing solution. Chen you’re the breach control now, Mariz keep the gang moving with Lug.’
Mariz nodded once at Chen and gave a simple sympathetic smile, then ran back to his station. She loved him for that, words would’ve broken her.
‘Diagnostic complete,’ said Theta-Rho-19, ‘warning. Blockage in barrel. Danger of Catastrophic failure. Do not fire.’
‘Throne! What now?’ said Ganges, ‘Mariz, Lug, get the gang to unload and stand ready. Chen, get your void suit on, we’re going up the pipe.’
Chen climbed into her void suit with practised ease. The thermal layer engaging as she snapped the helm in place. She jogged over to the now open breach and joined Ganges, who handed her a pry bar.
‘Ready?’ he asked.
‘Ready,’ said Chen.
They climbed into the cannon, stepping carefully between the ridges of the rifling, and started making their way forwards.
‘Keep your eye out for anything out of place. Should be pretty easy to spot,’ said Ganges.
They walked on slowly, panning wide beamed lumens over the interior, carefully checking for the blockage. At the mouth they found it, a piece of metal had speared into the rim and stuck out like a hook. Ganges stepped forward to get a closer look and beckoned Chen to follow. Chen stood on the edge, one step away from the void, and stared out. The battle was close in and the shields flared as they shunted energy and mass into the warp. Chen flinched as a xenos craft swooped past, fast as lightning, and cheered as she saw the pair of Furies in pursuit.
‘Chen!’ said Ganges, ‘get over here and help me with this.’
Chen turned to see Ganges with his pry bar wedged in a gap, straining to shift the shrapnel. She hefted her own bar and then found another point to push. They strained together for a moment, but it wouldn’t move.
‘Cutter,’ said Ganges, reaching out a hand.
Chen passed it over, and Ganges began to pan the tight melta-beam over the join, where the shrapnel met the barrel. Chen leaned on her pry bar, putting all her weight onto it, and slowly it began to move. With a lurch it came free, spinning up in a tight curve and hit Ganges in the chest, knocking him back. For a heartbeat Ganges stepped on nothing then began to tilt back towards the barrel. Chen reached out desperately but as their fingers touched, the ship took a hit, and their grip failed. Ganges was loose, drifting away into the dark.
‘Ganges!’ shouted Chen, ‘hold on, I’ll get a retrieval crew!’
‘Don’t bother Chen,’ said Ganges, holding her gaze with those cool brown eyes of his. ‘you know they won’t fly in a battle. Command is yours, keep them alive and keep firing, for the Throne, keep firing.’
A point defence laser fired, its simple cogitator mistaking Ganges for a threat. A flash of red light and there was nothing left but mist.
Chen leapt out of the breach and pulled off her void helm.
‘Reload and prepare firing solution,’ she said.
‘The boss is gone,’ said Chen. ‘I’m in command. Mariz take breach control. Lug I need you to lead the gang alone. We good?’
‘We’re good,’ said Mariz.
‘Good,’ said Lug.
‘Crew configuration change confirmed,’ said Theta-Rho-19. ‘firing solution confirmed. Coordinates confirmed.’
Chen took up the gunners position and picked up the trigger.
‘Take cover!’ she shouted, ‘Fire.’
Load, Elevate, Traverse, Fire, Clear.
‘Don’t you think it’s exciting?’ said Pallon, with a grin.
‘Not as much as you, obviously,’ said Havar.
‘We’re finally part of something bigger, though. Something that matters,’ said Pallon.
The doors opened, and they got their first look at the chamber. A massive cannon jutted out into the void, it’s breach open, a faint golden sheen to its barrel.
‘Hey new blood,’ said a voice. ‘let me show you around.’
‘Hey boss!’ called Mariz. ‘the new ratings are here.’
Chen breathed onto the barrel, the condensation settled over the brass inscriptions, and she polished quickly with the cloth. She’d just finished the inlay. Carving the names with care, then filling with melted brass from the spoil. Allys. Ganges. She looked down the length of the barrel at the tight spiral of names that curved towards the void. So many names. So many more to come.
About the Author
Andy Clark is an avid reader of all things Warhammer having rediscovered the setting with the Horus Heresy series. He’s recently got back into painting models after a two-decade gap and wonders why he ever stopped.