‘Accursed Devil, thrice damned is all thy race’ – Johannes Miltonus, M2
The shuttle descends out of the sun, its slab sides resolving from dark shadow into the familiar blue and white heraldry as it prepares to land. It comes in across the lake, the down draft from its engines creating waves that dissipate into ripples by the time they reach the shore where I sit.
I pause and watch the craft approach, fascinated because I know this is the last time I will see it.
The stylus in my hand remains poised above the pages of my log until the shuttle passes over the shoreline and disappears into the low hills above the lake. I am not the only one watching the sky. Further along the shoreline, Lieutenant Ashkelton shields his eyes against the sun with a hand, his legion-issue greatcoat flapping in the shuttle’s backwash. As the roar of engines fades, he looks to the wide, empty expanse of sky for a moment, then notices me watching him. He nods a curt greeting, places his cap on his head, then walks up the shingle beach towards the main encampment.
I turn my attention back to the page; the words blur, swimming before me.
There was no longer any choice, and so when the time came, we ran.
I sit back and rub the back of my head with my free hand, the grey stubble scratching against the cracked skin of my fingers. The next line will not come. The rock I sit on is uncomfortable, and everything is a distraction. I breathe out and focus, but the words are like smoke, slipping away when I try to grasp them.
I can’t even say why I want to commit the words to vellum. A written justification for our actions, perhaps. A warning, certainly. Advance notice to future generations that their existence will be precarious because of the poisoned legacy we leave for them.
From behind me comes the sound of disturbed shingles and I place the stylus between the open pages of the log, my hand coming to rest beside the ornate laspistol lying on the small trestle table at my side.
‘Commander Gharr, the Captain requests your presence on the landing fields.’
An ensign whose name I can’t place moves into my sightline. His tone is familiar, and though our Legion was never one for the structured ceremony present in others, an impertinence has developed in the weeks since we landed. Discipline will fragment the further we follow this course until no central authority remains. Perhaps that is no bad thing; it will make it easier to forget what brought us here.
‘Thank you. Is there anything else?’
For a moment or two, he stays where he is. His eyes linger too long, and I find my fingers brushing against the cold metal of the gun. The movement draws his eye, flicking down then back up to meet mine as if to be sure he has interpreted the action properly. The set of my face leaves no room for doubt and he inclines his head before walking away. The crunch of disturbed pebbles signals his farewell.
This too, is no surprise. I see ghosts of mutiny in half the crew now; the stares that are likely nothing more than anxiety with no voice; the creeping insolence that is only a result of tasting freedom for the first time; the sloppiness of dress, even amongst the senior ratings, that is simply a natural consequence of events. No, none of this was unexpected.
After all, we are traitors twice over.
I stand, holstering the laspistol and retrieving the log from the table. The latter I fold up to tuck beneath my arm, but as I put the log into my ditty bag, a glint of silver catches my eye. At the bottom, half-hidden by the standard-issue Armada Imperialis blanket, lies a fine linked chain. I fish it out and bring a small pewter medallion up to eye level. Etched into the surface is the image of a hound rampant with the numerals XII stamped beneath it. An old, half-forgotten thing, given to me by a navy tutor too infirm to serve in the late stages of the Great Crusade.
Without thinking I place the chain around my neck, tucking the silver medal beneath my tunic. It is cold against my skin, and a chill runs through me, gooseflesh puckering across my arms.
If they ever find us, there will be no mercy.
The line comes to me like a lumen popping on. I dismiss it and reach for my cap, gathering my things together before scrunching up the beach.
The encampment is vast, already containing barracks, eating halls, kitchens, and workshops. It is a city in miniature; construction teams work on a perimeter wall while elsewhere, water flow is tested at a new washing block. Further in, another accommodation building is being fitted with doors fashioned from local flora. Yet the activity hides an uncomfortable truth. The encampment has shrunk by a noticeable amount already as groups have split away, wandering deeper and further into the hinterland in search of building materials and food.
The Captain hasn’t prevented any of it; his authority has been eroding since the first expedition team from the Malice landed. The lines on his skin grow deeper with every passing day as if he is withering from within. A broken man now, the act of betrayal we committed when the warp unexpectedly spewed us out into reality was his last true act as the ship’s commander.
In truth, none of us can be surprised by that, either. What we endured was enough to break even the most hardened of us. The Warmaster’s rebellion left us with fanatics on one side and savages on the other, spiralling ever down towards a singularity of insanity and destruction. Legion battleships swimming in tides of blood, as much of it ours as the enemies. Astartes casually butchering crew on whims we could not challenge, while on the Conqueror, the Primarch brooded and raged in his madness. Most of the human crews surrendered to the depravity in whatever form it came; there was no other choice. They couldn’t escape, nor could they resist.
Repulsed by our descent, we formulated an accord; the Captain, the officers, and the Navigator. It was better to die as humans than be slaughtered as beasts. We had joined a crusade for humanity’s place amongst the stars, one that turned into a rebellion against a tyrant. Yet we had been deceived, maybe even since the beginning, and amongst the lies fed to us by men intent on gathering power to themselves, one thing stood out as truth. What the Legion became, and what the Primarch became, was not natural. The renowned ruthlessness of the World Eaters became barbarism, their courage twisted and mutated into unending rage. Their brothers of the Urizen’s Legion were worse still, all their genetically enhanced abilities, all their promises, thrown aside in pursuit of zealotry.
I would never have said it out loud, for I used to value my life, but it was pathetic.
The plan, a desperate clutching of straws that it had been, was to wait for the right moment; whether that was a system-wide assault leaving the fleet stretched; a lone scouting mission; or a pursuit of fleeing loyalists, and then run. Into the warp, making short, random jumps for as long as it took to get away. The opportunity would come and if we were chased down then so be it. Desperation made us bold.
And then, catching us unawares as we doggedly followed Lorgar’s fanatics out of Ultramar, the inexplicable. The rumble felt in the bones of the ship became a screaming avalanche of sensation as the Malice was torn from the warp against her will, thrown back into reality in a tumbling mass of confusion. We counted the dead and the wounded in the strobing red of the stunned aftermath, slowly coming to the realisation we were alone.
The navigator we found dead in his stinking immersion pool, and the ship itself was wounded by the unexpected translation. Auspex scans revealed only the crushing silence of empty space. As one of the smaller ships in the fleet, we lacked a dedicated Astartes contingent and that made possibility as open an ocean as we could have hoped for.
Yet still there had been hesitation, a reluctance to let go.
The Captain had insisted on waiting for news that never came. We applauded his caution and drifted through the system for weeks, hearing only the cosmic noise of the solar wind, until I and some of the other officers pressured him into finally making planetfall.
That was months past, but while some things had changed, others had not.
I nod greetings to the men and women I pass them. My boots thump a steady rhythm against packed earth as I walk on through the encampment, the path a steady incline to the plateau above. It is not a long walk, though by the time I reach the landing field my breath has begun to labour and there is a tightness in my chest. Time in the void is poor preparation for living on a higher gravity world such as this.
The shuttle rests on the makeshift landing apron, looking lost in isolation amongst the vast field. Its sister craft are stowed aboard the empty halls of the Malice far above, relics already. The air still shimmers around its cooling engines. Its main ramp is down and grey-skinned servitors stack boxes from its hold in a pile beyond the span of its wings.
Captain Kistik greets the shuttle crew; congratulating them on successfully delivering the last of the supplies from the ship, all wide smiles and false bonhomie. The rest of us nod, participating in the fallacy as if we weren’t aware of his sidelong glances at the shuttle. We all know this ship is our last link with anything off-planet. The Malice now orbits an airless moon, its corridors empty but for hard-wired servitors, while we make a community of exiles on the planet below.
Everything is as we agreed. Tomorrow the shuttle will make its final journey back to the Malice, and the ship itself will be brought down to the surface, its carcass used to build our colony in exile.
Void ships are almost always constructed beyond the confines of planetary atmosphere. They are designed for the airless expanse between stars, and only the largest can resist the pressures and strains of atmospheric re-entry without sustaining catastrophic damage. The risks involved in landing the Malice planetside are great, and so we transferred the most vital supplies piecemeal; a long and laborious task, but safer. The crew had cheered when told of the plan, the Captain solemnly presenting it to them with their welfare in mind. They’d been appropriately sombre when he told them that he would personally lead the final party to bring the ship down to the planet, his duty as their leader to take the risk on their behalf.
How courageous, Captain. How selfless.
And so, we stand silent as Kistik delivers his speech, praising our fortitude in his cracked voice. We listen and make the toast he offers with bottles from one of the last crates of amasec, and we laugh when he notes how we’ll have to learn how to make it ourselves now, perhaps creating something entirely unique on this new world of ours. I ignore the barely concealed sneer on Ashkelton’s face, keeping my eyes fixed on the Captain, all the while listening to the lies until we are dismissed.
I wake to imagined sounds of alarm following me up from the depths of sleep. I lie on the narrow cot for long minutes until my breathing slows, finding a normal rhythm. The dreams recede grudgingly; tattered remnants washed with blood and the phantom roar of chainaxes becoming scattered memories that fade, but do not vanish.
I dress quickly and emerge from my quarters. Outside, the lights of the encampment are fewer and lower, the daytime hustle absent. I shiver in the night air and retrieve my coat from beside my cot, shrugging into it before finding my boots and slipping them on. As I lean back the medallion settles against my skin, its touch a cold burn of reproach.
Skirting the edges of the encampment, I follow the line of the half-finished walls, plasteel on one side and the inky black of the forest on the other. The native fauna has shown little interest in our new home, but the planet is unexplored and the carnosaurs we have come across would pose a serious threat if a large enough herd were to descend upon us. They are not the only things we would protect ourselves against.
As I crest the hill to the landing zone, a low glow of lumens greets me. The ground crew is beginning preparations for launch, slow work involving refuelling and appeasement of the machine spirits within the shuttle. There is nothing in the way of security and, as I mount the ramp, I have ample time to find a suitable place for the journey.
I make myself comfortable and settle down to wait, hoping when I close my eyes that the dreams do not return.
I need not have worried. I am awake through most of the journey up to the Malice; the clangs, shakes, and roar of engines make it impossible to sleep. Silence comes only as the shuttle breaks free of the atmosphere and the void takes us into its velvet embrace. The sounds then are small and familiar: the mutterings of the small crew complement and the officers with them, the binharic chatter of communicating machines, the push and wheeze of recycling air. The low thrum of anti-grav units is a soft lullaby.
The flight is short, no more than a few hours, and the noises as the shuttle begins its approach to the hangar bring me to full alert. The sounds of lift-off repeat in reverse until the final metallic crunch of landing signals our arrival.
I wait until silence follows the emptying of the shuttle, then wait for ten minutes more, counting through the slow seconds in my head until I judge it is safe to emerge from hiding. The cargo compartments are not large and I quickly stretch feeling back into my cramped limbs before descending the ramp into the hangar bay.
The vast hall is empty, but for a few gaunt-faced servitors, and I make my way quickly away from the shuttle. Faint glowing energy fields rebuff the star scattered darkness at the far end of the hangar, but my attention is focussed on getting to the service corridors and, from there, up to the bridge.
The Malice echoes to the empty sounds of ghosts. She has served since the earliest days of the Great Crusade, launched among thousands of others from Mechanicum Forge Worlds, assigned to the XIIth even before the Legion was united with its Primarch. Now, her lumens light quiet corridors, gutted armouries, and bare halls. Where once the full spectrum of human emotion played out across decades and eventually centuries of toil and reconquest, now silence crowds the corners. She will perhaps be glad of her ending. Those she served are no more; changed, regressed into the worst excesses of themselves. Her death will be another sad note in the annals of a lamented Legion, perhaps even the last before their name is consigned to history.
When I reach them, the bridge doors cycle open unnoticed by anyone within. I slide in quietly and hug the shadows along the periphery of the room, my laspistol held close by my side.
A wave of familiarity breaks over me. The old metallic smell, the sight of Legion sigils bolted to the walls, the victory banners on their iron chains hanging from the ceiling far above; for a moment I pause, the ghost of a smile creeping across my face.
In the centre of the room a small group stands beside the command throne. The voices of the officers reach me as I creep closer, using cogitator banks and servitor bays as cover.
‘Engines are approaching operational norms, Captain. Auspex arrays show nothing in the immediate vicinity. Your orders?’
I am close enough to see Kistik’s face, the waxy pallor of his creased skin lit by the light of display screens. He is hunched over, gripping the sides of a station as if the weight of the decision is slowly baring him down into the floor. One of his fingers taps against the metal, rhythmic, constant. The seconds stretch out until he raises his head and the tapping stops.
‘All ahead full. Make for the Mandeville Point.’
I watch the officers exchange glances before setting to work. At least one of them shakes his head as he begins pushing buttons on a console.
‘Belay that command.’
Every head turns. I watch from concealment as a solitary figure walks toward the command throne. Ashkelton has a laspistol trained on the Captain as he approaches. In the other dangles a bandolier of grenades, the red light of a timer blinking balefully amongst them.
‘I said, belay that command.’ Ashkelton barks at the man beside the navigation station, shaking the bandolier in his direction. The man looks to the captain for confirmation and Kistik nods, raising his hands in appeasement as he backs away to the steps of the command throne.
‘Lieutenant Ashkelton,’ he says, ‘what in the name of Terra are you doing?’
‘What is needed, Captain. This ship is ours, and you have no right to take it. No right to abandon the rest of us.’
‘I am your commanding officer. You will put down your weapons immediately.’
Ashkelton laughs. He tosses the bandolier beside the enginarium control stations, prompting the man beside it to scuttle backwards to a safe distance.
‘The ship will land as planned,’ Ashkelton says, ‘and you, Captain, will stand trial for desertion.’
‘Damn you Lieutenant. This is mutiny.’ Kistik’s face is flushed, his eyes wide with rage and his jaw set hard.
‘Against whom?’ Ashkelton’s face is twisted with anger. ‘A captain abandoning his crew. We’ve betrayed both the Emperor and our Legion. Accusations of mutiny are the least of our worries, now.’
‘I will have your head for this.’ Kistik hisses the words. His eyes are dark hollows carved in his face. He carries authority still, even with his reduced state and diminished physicality. ‘Lieutenant Tirshev, take this traitor to the brig. We will deal with him later.’
Tirshev doesn’t move. He is stood beside the navigation station, his face pale.
‘Stay where you are, Tirshev,’ I say, standing up and levelling my pistol at the Captain.
Heads swivel again, shock registering on every face in the room except for Ashkelton’s. On some, relief comes fast on its heels. Muttering begins amongst the small crowd. Naval coats sway open as hands drop to grip weapons and angry murmurs come from the junior officers as my sudden appearance gives them a voice. No one has drawn a gun or blade yet, but they are halfway there, the blood of the World Eaters surging hot in their veins. The twelfth legion was never known for overly long contemplation before resorting to violence.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘Tell me, Captain, when did you decide to leave us all to die?’
‘You will face the same punishment as this other traitor, Commander Gharr.’
‘Was it when we landed? When we found ourselves alone in the heavens? We were supposed to stand by each other,’ I say, my voice quiet. ‘That was what we agreed when the warp spat us out. We made an oath on it. So where were you going to go, back to the Legion? The Imperium we betrayed?’
Kistik hesitates. I can see the words racing across those dark eyes of his, though he can’t get them out in a way that explains his actions. Another voice speaks up from among the men, repeating my questions and, like a spark igniting kindling, the air changes.
He clears his throat. ‘I am a decorated officer of the Great Crusade. I am Captain of a ship that has spilt the blood of millions, and I will not spend the remainder of my days scraping in the dirt of a backwater world like this one, waiting for the day the Legion finds us.’
‘Nobody knows where we are.’ My voice is still quiet, but the insistence in my tone carries them all to silence. ‘Nobody. We took the choice of abandoning the Legion together. Remember why. They have descended into savagery. The Primarch as we knew him is dead. If the Emperor wins this war, he will scour the stars of those who betrayed him. If the Warmaster wins, we have simply replaced a distant tyrant with a mad one. Here, we are safe. Here, we have a chance to build something of our own. And yet you would have condemned thousands of lives through selfishness and cowardice because you couldn’t live with the betrayals you instigated.’
The nods from among the junior officers have become voices of agreement.
‘I have no intention of returning to the Legion, nor to the Imperium. The galaxy is more than large enough to hide in.’
‘One side or the other will find you. Whose mercy will you throw yourself on before you tell them where we are? You have a history of betrayals, Captain.’ A smothering blanket of silence descends.
‘I am not the only one, it appears,’ Kistik says at last, the fire in his voice now only embers. ‘The Legion could well have been destroyed. Something happened to the fleet. Something terrible enough to throw us out of the warp.’
‘We know nothing about what happened, only the consequences of it,’ I say. ‘But you were willing to gamble with our lives and risk our discovery, in the middle of a galaxy-wide war where both sides would kill us on sight.’
‘I ensured every crate of supplies was taken to the planet below. I would not betray the crew.’
‘You already did!’
The voice is Ashkelton’s, but others nod in agreement.
Kistik is becoming isolated, though some will stand with him regardless. He opens his mouth, but the ship yaws without warning and we are all thrown from our feet. Sirens wail and lumens glow sudden scarlet. As we struggle up the deck pitches forward and we all grasp at whatever is closest.
‘What have you done?’ Kistik’s shock mutes his rage.
‘Those are not the only explosives still aboard,’ Ashkelton says with a sick kind of grim satisfaction. Any other words he wants to speak are drowned out by the sound of the grenades detonating. The explosion tears the navigation console asunder. Fragments of metal and plastek pepper the bridge, collapsing men as shrapnel flenses them. Tirshev topples, his uniform suddenly crimson.
Lasbeams illuminate the bridge in staccato ruby as weapons are drawn and sides are chosen. I duck behind a console as the crackle of gunfire fills the bridge. The ship lurches, skewing to starboard, prompting curses and shouts. A man lurches for me when I peer out and I shoot him twice, the air around me filling with the sharp tang of ozone. Somewhere, Kistik is croaking orders over the sounds of screams. Fire suppression systems activate, spraying everywhere with intermittent bursts of powder. The acrid stink of plastek on fire wafts across the bridge, backed by the spark of frying circuitry and secondary explosions as the flames spread between cogitator stations.
The ship has tilted towards the planet, its engines firing without countermand. There won’t be enough time for it to reach any real velocity, but it will be enough for the planet’s gravity well to take it and then the argument will be settled.
I look out again, aiming shots at men and women I know are loyal to the Captain. A screaming lieutenant runs past, her uniform aflame and her skin blackening. I give her the Emperor’s peace before turning back to the chaos around the command throne.
Smoke obscures the view, but Kistik is slumped against the Captain’s throne, his hand pressed against his side. Ashkelton lies propped up against a burnt-out console, las burns decorating his uniform. His eyes are glazed, and he blinks slowly as the bridge is destroyed around him.
I move, crouch walking towards the command throne. The las fire is already intermittent, but when someone half hidden in the smoke turns towards me, I shoot them before they can draw a bead. A sort of quiet descends as I move to Ashkelton. His breath rattles, but when he sees me, his mouth twists in an approximation of a smile.
‘We played that well, ma’am. I should have ducked when the shooting started though.’
He laughs a little, doubling over in a coughing fit. His eyes are wet when he stretches back.
I reach for his face and wipe the tears away with my thumbs.
‘You did well, Ashkelton. Exactly as I asked.’
He nods weakly. ‘He’d have damned us all. Only you saw it though, I have to give you credit for that, Commander. He’d have been gone before any of us noticed.’
I smile at him. ‘The lives of the many.’
He opens his mouth to speak again, but the light in his eyes is gone, and he slumps forward.
The ship lurches again, and console indicators blink from orange to red. A klaxon sounds somewhere, blaring warnings no one will heed. Behind me, a groan comes from the command throne. I take my hands away from Ashkelton’s head, strangely mindful that he doesn’t fall on his face. I stand and walk over to the command throne.
Kistik is pale, his skin sunken against the bones beneath his face, as if his skull is trying to push through his flesh. Blood and lasburns stain his uniform red and black, a final mockery of the station he once held.
‘It won’t last.’ The words wheeze from straining lungs.
‘This…’ He waves a hand. ‘This…society you want to create… The crew…You know what they have seen. You know what they have done.’
‘We will make ourselves better.’
He grins, a rictus stretched thin across his face. His eyes are clear even though he struggles to speak. A chill runs through me.
‘They are of the Legion. The bloody XIIth… They will turn on each other, eventually. They will turn…on you.’
He spits the words, then slumps back against the command throne. He fixes his eyes on the main viewing oculus, watching our unnamed world growing larger. I glance at it, and though I see its patterns of blue and green and white, as pristine a planet as any of us have ever seen, the sight of it is sour. My shoulders slump, a weight I can’t explain settling across me.
The bridge is bathed in strobing crimson now, the alarms clamouring metallic warnings that increase in volume so they saturate the senses. Creaks and groans from the Malice’s superstructure are felt rather than heard, a final tensing in the bones of the ship.
I shoot Kistik through his left eye, the lasbeam an instant rod of light between the pistol muzzle and his transfixed face. I don’t look at him, or anything else as I make my hurried way off the bridge and race towards the hanger bay.
Dawn has broken as I emerge from the cave mouth, the cold, blue light of the first sun picking out the branches and leaves of the forest. Frost holds the foliage tight; its remnants will still be there when the second, warming sun rises in a few hours.
For a few moments, I stop and listen to the creak of the branches and the whistle of the wind. In the quiet solace I close my eyes and reach for the medallion around my neck, forgetting that it is no longer there.
The ship crashed hundreds of kilometres away from the encampment, though tremors still shook the ground and clouds of dust obscured the light of the suns for days afterwards. I sent teams out the next day, but the salvage operation will be long and some things are beyond our means to transport. A new encampment is already beginning to grow around the crash site, and in time, that will create as many problems as it solves.
The shuttle is hidden deep in the forest, its location known only to me. The trembling speck I travelled in was obscured by the flaming comet of the Malice’s last journey, and the ship’s impact hid the lies I concocted to explain what
happened. Ashkelton’s betrayal, his murder of the Captain, me being the only survivor, all the lies that came so easily when the others found me near the wreckage. They are believable, I think. Kistik died a hero, his reputation amongst the crew preserved.
The lives of the many.
This morning, the officers will gather in the central compound, and they will wait for me to arrive. If they think about it at all, they will consider it a bit of theatre on my part, a new leader making a late entrance.
Let them, it will suffice for my purposes, and I am too weary to give it more thought. I have not rested. In the lightless hours, I walked the camp, speaking with those I knew would support me, trying to persuade others who I felt were indecisive. My favour in the Captain’s eyes was stressed time and again, as was his wish for us to establish a thriving colony and not fall into the internecine butchery we fled from.
In each of them, I saw different reasons for standing behind me. Fear, because of suspecting the truth; pragmatic acceptance of the situation as it is; some simply biding their time until they see which way the cards fall. In others, I even saw hope and belief in something better.
I open my eyes to find nothing has changed. Moisture begins to rise from the trees, turning slowly to mist in response to the sun.
I glance behind me at the cave. As with the shuttle, only I know of its existence. Inside, Ashkelton’s name is carved into the rock above a short epitaph, my secret, guilty tribute to the truth. Beside it I laid the silver medallion; if any of us deserve the honour of being the last War Hound, it is him.
They will turn on you.
Kistik’s last words haunt me like untethered ghosts. His last victory was to sour mine, though perhaps he was right, and our fate was preordained. Perhaps each betrayal will build upon the last until perdition itself has had enough and reaches out to take us into its clawed embrace. Maybe the truth is that there was never any chance of escape, and we are damned through action, association, and belief.
I begin to walk, though as the glade before the cave grows smaller behind me it is not the crew I think of, waiting for me to speak to them about loyalty and the future. It is Ashkelton, martyr for a cause that will never recognise his sacrifice but will instead vilify him in ignorance.
There is no kindness in the hand fate dealt, no justice beneath these suns or any others. He does not deserve to be remembered as he will, but as with the Captain’s final, bitter prophecy, the truth is something I must bear alone.
It is perhaps all I deserve.
About the Author
Darren Davies is a professional engineer living in Ireland with his family, and far too many animals. A long-time admirer of all things science fiction, he fills his spare time by looking for a quiet place to write about the strange things that come into his head.