Has it really been this long?
from Caiaphas' diaries;
Storming into the engine room was an education in itself. Mirannon led from the front, and although he didn't have a single bit of robottery embedded in him, he had that much in common with the explorator magi of the Mechanicus; vastly more dangerous in a close quarters brawl than a sensible person would think he had any remotely credible reason to be.
How often do these people's household appliances try to kill them, anyway? Are they routinely plagued by atomic toast-murderers and laser-lightbulbs of searing death, do armchairs turn into cultist doom-recliners at any moment?
I crossed blades- and anything else that came to hand, ideally somebody else entirely- with some of the nastiest, most horrifically bloody- minded entities available in this or apparently several other universes, and two augmetic fingers were all I ended up with, the rest of me being still mostly original.
The Mechanicus, on the other hand, face rogue screwdrivers, vicious dust bunnies and possibly the dread rampaging snapping toolbox, and they frequently end up coated, embedded with and built on to with enough tin bits to make most of them look like the result of a mating accident between a robot octopus and a milling router.
Sense of proportion failure is the only reasonable explanation. Although even that still leaves the Imperium- and me- plagued by people who are ridiculously overarmed and who have no sense of proportion.
Mirannon was almost entirely flesh and blood, and he was still spectacularly dangerous. Armed with two forcefield blades that could apparently change shape at a thought, and did- forming a shield when he needed to- and apparently enjoying himself.
For a big man, he moved incredibly quickly, and worse, continuously, as if he was thinking fifteen or twenty moves ahead and never needed to pause to worry about what to do next.
Following along and tearing at the flanks of the hole he left made it relatively easy to keep up, and gave me a second or two to think- here and there.
There are dangerous opponents that you look at and think fine, we're dangerous too, they'll do their thing, we'll do ours and we'll win in the end. Most of the people we face in the field, for one thing.
Then there are dangerous opponents you evaluate and come to the conclusion that ordinary methods won't work, it's time for the bizarre, dangerous, and possibly insane- the number of fights I've come to that weren't on an open field, oh yes, I know this bit very well indeed, far better than I had ever intended to.
Then, and very rarely, there are people- like Lennart, Mirannon, their crew- that you have no idea what will work against them and
what you can do. Victory was swift and brutal.
'Right, secure the zone- crew served weapons at major companionways, you know the drill; if there are any left over hold them close in for terminal defence and reserve-'
Mirannon started to give orders for the defence of the complex, while I decided it was too complex to actually make much sense of at first glance, and just look around and take in what I could.
Not much, to be honest. I thought it was all just control room till I walked through one large hatch expecting to find an access corridor, and nearly fell of the edge of the platform on to a gantry round the upper half of a huge dome.
That would be the reactor, then.
Structural members surrounded it and supported it in every direction, busbars and cables ran through the bulkheads; it actually seemed strangely simple, as if someone had started with an enginarium and stripped it of all but the barest physical essentials.
In it's simplicity it was outright oppressive, though. I found myself looking it over and positively longing for a little runic inscription or a candlestick or an incense burner here or there. A votive tablet. Something, anything.
Frighteningly, brutalistically perfect in it's directness and functionality; safety and warning notices, access point markers and hatch rims, everything that needed to be matt anodised and everything else polished, and all for a purpose that you could feel looming like a juggernaut behind you.
At least with the Eldar, you could look upon their works and declare they were incomprehensible alien technology, it couldn't really be understood. Necron stuff, not many people have ever got close enough to have an opinion really. I found it- what of it I couldn't run away from fast enough to avoid having to look at- just as mad.
This was more straightforward and comprehensible, and I found that much worse- I could see a straight line from this, through Mirannon and his men, far out into the terrifying cold clarity of an understandable universe. A universe in which it may not be possible to be human or to have a soul any more.
I actually started to feel nostalgic for the cogboys' incomprehensible devotions; even if I sometimes got the idea that they were just going through the motions and hoping it worked, that was still a much more human thing to do, metal bits or not, than actually knowing how and why it did.
The truly dangerous ones among them were the ones who did have some grasp of what they were doing, and that was a large part of the problem- working with and understanding something that existed on the inhuman scale of the energies inside that dome, it made them greater beings and much, much less human.
If you told Mirannon that, he'd say 'Less of the mystic gibberish, I'm an engineer.' He wouldn't understand that was precisely what the problem was.
Alternatively, I had been standing too close to too many strange things for too long and was seriously in need of a long rest and a nice cup of tanna. I was unlikely to get either staring at that damn' globe.
I wandered back into the main control temple- no, control room- to find that he had stopped playing general for the time being and was deep inside some kind of control unit, dismantling it and putting it back together again to suit himself.
The medic was as close to being draped over him as she could get without getting in the way of his hands, which were moving faster than I could follow. I don't see how he knew I was there, but he did.
'Ah, Commissar, I don't want you out on the firing line-' he said, and I refused to feel even a little bit uplifted by that, guessing something hideous was coming next. '-that's not going to be the decisive bit.
That's going to be right here when a small horde of gribblies materialises and tries to stop us.'
That was much more like what I was expecting. I tried to put my usual mask of grim and stoic determination on it, but they- she at least- must have known. 'Only a small horde? Good.'
I turned to the assembled horde, or such of it as could fit, picked the white- suited trooper who looked like the most senior; 'Right, I need two squads of your best. Pick the ones who lasted the longest, who held off the powers of darkness for longer than seemed possible, then send to me the first twenty of those to volunteer.'
'Sir.' the stormtrooper acknowledged- what rank did I hold in his head, I wondered, how much could I really tell them to do? There was a pause while they did that, and I tried to think happy thoughts without much expectation of success.
What I couldn't help thinking about was the agents of the powers of darkness that were about to attack us, and the ones I had come across so far- there are vastly pleasanter subjects, but that was the business of the day.
I had been lucky, and had backup, dealing with the two representatives of this dark power; they were probably lethal enough given half a chance- assuming the two I'd met so far weren't actually the same one, in which case it would be lethal and extremely annoyed.
They hadn't done too well trying to kill me so far, but they could come back, they only needed to be lucky once; through the help I had had and what must have been the grace of the Emperor, I had survived this far.
That, determination, speed with a chainsword and the odorous but indispensable presence of my aide, Jurgen. He was looking much as he usually did, totally perplexed but determined to meet whatever came with his trusty lasgun and his unshakeable faith in the God- Emperor of All Mankind.
I'm still not sure if he ever realised that he was as near as anything can be warp- proof, or even that there was anything that he actually ought to be worried about.
The white- helmeted ones seemed to accept him as a fact of the realm of creation they were in; no doubt some of them were making plans to trap him and have him forcibly laundered, but the majority seemed to shrug and say, what can you expect from a hole in the universe?
We'd worked with worse- which is saying a lot; the white- carapaced troopers seemed to have as little sense of self preservation as Khornate loonies, but they followed orders, did what they were sent to do or died trying.
I think I had cracked it; they were exactly the sort of soldiers that a high command composed of people who weren't soldiers would want to have, and would set out to make- who didn't understand what military culture really was, and wanted ideal little tin troopies.
They could do, should be useful, but I was already starting to get homesick for the Regiment and wish for the sight of a few squads of Valhallans tramping down the corridor.
Well, the point of the exercise was that I would get them; disable this ship's ability to defend herself long enough for loyalist troops- and sailors- to get on board, take her and fight the other two with.
My voxlink beeped, and I knew it was going to be a message of doom. I was right. 'Commissar? Problem. Your stripy nutters are heading for main reactor control, and if reports of their intentions are accurate they probably want to blow us all up.'
At this point it was no longer even worth taking the time to ask "why me?"- or rather it was far too late. 'You want me to try to stop them?' I said, trying to sound more confident than I felt. 'With twenty stormtroopers?'
'Talk them down; stall them, keep them from trying too hard.' I could tell that wasn't the whole story, the hairs on the back of my hands were now trying to flee independently- and he probably expected that, because he added 'Until the situation reaches critical mass, anyway. It's the MCR, so naturally anything with a flair for the melodramatic is going to head there.'
I knew what that meant. 'Explosion- minded Astartes and a horde of gribblies for good measure?' I said, managing to sound only dully horrified. 'Wonderful.'
'Don't worry,' he said, and his tone told me he realised how silly that was as it was leaving his mouth, 'you only have to stall the marines until the daemon gets there.'
'I'm not convinced that this is a plan a loyal servant of the God- Emperor of Mankind could really put his full conscience behind...' I said, and I don't know why because it was far too late to play for time;
he fired back 'Got a better one?'
I ran through the possibilities in my gut- this was too visceral for thinking about. Wait for the 597th was my favourite option, but delay long enough, one or other party succeeds, the boarders don't take the ship, the other two escape and Holy Terra- it didn't bear contemplating.
'We had a perfectly good slow rolling apocalypse going on before you decided to get involved, you know.' I said, after a long pause.
'Now you have a fast apocalypse. Rejoice; progress has come to you.' he said, and damn all military comedians. 'While you're doing that I'll be gimmicking the control links, trying to stop them from actually detonating the reactor.'
'They have a good chance of succeeding?'
'Unless stopped, yes. If all it took to absorb knowledge was to eat other people's brains, then I dread to think what finals year would have been like.' A joke that made more sense to his people than to me. 'Got the deck layout?'
'Yes,' I said, waving the datapad I had been given, and added 'moving now.'
I could have got the stormtroopers to lead off, Emperor knows it wasn't as if I actually wanted them behind me, and they had all the fancy technosorcery in their helmets that told them where they were and where they were going.
I still didn't entirely trust them- quite wisely as it turned out- and also, if I had the map, I had options, alternatives, exits. Which was a powerful temptation, but one I knew I couldn't afford to give in to. Into the fire, again.
I've never been sure whether it's easier to throw oneself at the jaws of death with an audience, or without; on one hand I have a reputation to maintain and having people with me means I can't actually avoid being the official hero, (as if officialdom ever, ever, in it's entire millennia- long existence did anything heroic),
or if being almost completely alone, just myself and Jurgen, meant that I had no-one's eyes on me (except Him on Earth, of course) and could just be myself. Which considering the frequency with which I find myself facing doom anyway, is a truly worrying thought.
The ship was huge, and we had minutes, maybe. Would the mass transit system be safe to use? Probably necessary- it would mean hours of chasing through corridors otherwise, time we didn't have, but that didn't make it good.
Drop pods are bad enough, I've had more bad experiences with drop ships than I care to count, although obviously not that bad or I wouldn't be still here to count them, teleporters are definitely best avoided, and on one occasion I infiltrated ahead of the main assault in a parade float in the shape of Leman Russ' codpiece (an incident that I refuse to describe, even for my own benefit.)
Staging an assault by train has to be one of the worst ideas I'd ever come across, though. The fact that it was better than the alternative of being too late to matter was just adding insult to injury.
It was simple, clean and oppressively stark to the point of sterility, and I did not want to die in it. Or anywhere else, truth be told.
'Can we stop this thing now, dismount, set demo charges to detonate as it reaches the halt?' I suggested.
'Of course.' the storm trooper officer said as if he should have thought of it himself- I was happy to be first to the idea, but if he hadn't been going to think of it at all- were they that obedient they would have been willing to march into certain death?
'Fusing code 25102.' he said as he pulled a white cylinder off his belt. Pressed what seemed to be invisible buttons on the side of it, two others did the same, placed them, then he pulled a lever and the thing started to slow; fired a short burst at the rear of the carriage, dived out through the smoke and glowing edges.
I was their leader, so I had to follow them. Last out, though, so I was first in line as the thing started to accelerate away again back up the tube.
Like an idiot, or a man who didn't know how powerful their demo charges were, I set off after it shouting 'Follow Me'- a man with a reputation to uphold, that I didn't even have with these people, and who took a second too long to think "why are the troops I'm with ducking and covering?"
The white cylinders turned out to be a powerful melta- bomb or something equivalent, and being in a tube inevitably directed a lot of the blast towards us.
This was obvious; the catch comes when you realise that for maximum shock effect, it is necessary to arrive as close to the actual bang as you can, while the enemy are still reeling- you have to follow the blast in, and how close you get to it is always, always a calculated risk.
I thought I had done the numbers and left a good distance, but I was underestimating their demo charges. I figured this out as the shock wave was in the process of hitting me and setting me on fire.
Dropping and rolling, I saw my aide doing the same- wierdly, the entire front of his flak jacket had boiled off and I had to rip it off him, trying not to think about the smells of burning bits of incomprehensible staining and hair.
It overpowered his natural scent, but only for a moment. We both stood up and started moving forwards again- everything seemed to work, but it didn't hurt only because the ouch hadn't sunk in yet. The hairs on the back of my hands were still there, if a little singed.
The stormtroopers were all looking absolutely blankly at me- even in full face helmets the body language was unmistakable.
'What's the problem, haven't you seen a man shrug off a nuclear blast to the face before? Come on.' I stood up and waved them forward- in actual fact there was a slight curve in the tunnel that reflected the worst of it around us.
They still looked dumbfounded, but they moved off after us. The fusing of the bombs had been well timed- blown the halting point and the ambush there waiting for us apart, reducing the area to a mass of tangled wreckage.
The solution to this seemed to be another meltabomb, thrown carefully and blasting a hole through the wreckage down into the usable decks. They had carapace armour; so did I, but clambering down the searingly hot wreckage was still not fun.
Better than getting into a gunfight in a crowded corridor, but looking around the chambers we ended up in I knew I wouldn't have to wait long for that.
I should stop making predictions like that; they always come true. The first actual opposition we came up against was a gaggle of crewmen, in their by now usual shambles of wrecked uniforms, and a band of droids.
Chaos iron men? That should have been a terrifying prospect, but they were all sorts, most of them so very like walking bins that it was hard to take them entirely seriously.
They used those things instead of servitors, which was a more worrying thought. One of the worst bleeding hearts on this subject I ever met was an Astartes, of all things, who considered them a crime against humanity; considering he was a notable maniac, it was safest to nod, smile and pretend to agree.
I'd long since stopped noticing them in any meaningful sense, but they are quite disturbing if you think too much. It's a rough universe; the idea of traitors, malcontents and assorted criminal scum being rebuilt into loyal, useful servants of the Imperium wasn't a bad one, on the face of it.
On the other hand I've bailed enough troopers out of enough local lockups to know that the quality of arbitrators across the Imperium varies enormously, even more than the somewhat erratic supply of readily available scum. Were they all guilty men?
The small metal men weren't that, although they did remind me a little of the much larger and more devastating metal men I had been unfortunate enough to come up against; they might look like the comedy version, but they didn't have me chuckling- although they still might leave me in stitches if I wasn't careful.
The stormtroopers' reaction was exactly what I should have expected from people who called themselves storm troopers; push forwards. Being in front of them, that was the direction I was going too.
Not that there was anything to be gained by standing still, anyway- there weren't many ways out of this other than to win. I was still trying to think of them, for that matter.
As much as I could really say for the fight is that it was a fight. I still wished I had a couple of squads of Valhallans with me, but the stormtroopers weren't too pathetic, and they did manage not to shoot me.
Considering what a mess hacking into alien robots with a chainsword makes, that was more of a feat than it sounds- showers of metal sparks everywhere, the thing beeping frantically as it shorted, twitching it's last, then burning, clouds of smoke everywhere.
The robots were mostly armed with tools, and the men with sidearms, but small-c chaos and confusion worked for us, most of their shots went wild or hit each other.
It wasn't until Jurgen and I had hacked, shot and bayoneted our way through them that I realised how few of them there had actually been; the stormtroopers managed to catch up, and the leader said 'Just a suggestion, Sir- but perhaps you should let us lead in and do the shock attack part.'
'That may be the nicest thing anyone from this universe has said to me so far,' I said, and it was probably true, 'but we have to keep moving, we're almost out of time.'
I should know better than to say things like that. That was when Mirannon found the right switch, decided to throw it early, and all the lights and artificial gravity went out.
Black Prince was never slow to spot an opportunity, especially not one she had arranged and been waiting for. As soon as the electromagnetic storm broke out of the battle cruiser, the great ship lost primary power and started drifting, they moved.
Two things had to happen, and this was the first of them- Lennart nodded to Brenn, not needing words, and they jumped to the assembly point.
most of the troops they would need to be going in with them were, inevitably, local- they were what, and all, there was available. Their shuttles could not move around the battle area in anything like time or with safety- such of it as there was to be had anyway.
This was the clumsy step, the shouldering of the pack, the part of the move where an alert and adroit enemy could destroy them for a small and simple investment of force- but how many of their enemies fitted that description? besides, it had been true every step of the way so far...
The transports that had towed the IoM cruisers here were not capable of this, combat microjumps under fire were not part of their duties and training, and tactical FTL was a closed, sealed, anathematised and forbidden book to the Imperium, and from what Lennart had heard and found out of the Warp that was probably just as well.
Black Prince could do it, easily enough, but she had enough redundancy and flexibility in her trans-symmetric fields and motivators to tow another ship roughly her own size, or at least mass-energy, through hyperspace; not something the size and mass of an Imperium warship.
The only way it could be done was, fortunately, the best way to do it anyway; tow a flotilla of shuttles and transports in, and release them as close as the exit could be cut to a paralysed target.
That part was essential; none of them were fast enough to catch a Bellator, one second full thrust would put the Imperium shuttles hopelessly far behind, five would leave them roasting in the wake.
It had been arranged, and so now was the time. Space was crowded, a small dense patch of transports, practically within touching distance; as it had to be. They had about a third of all the available Imperium troops, were streaming in troop shuttles form all the Galactic Empire ships.
Fantastically, for once in this lunatic battle of leviathans, the actual numerical military odds were with them. That probably meant something was about to go hideously wrong.
Disengagement successful, lost faces on the bridge snatched out of the fire, and all the commanding officer wanted to do was to go to a dark and silent room and lie down and quiver.
There was no way, no way this side of hell, that they should still be alive after that. Oh, actually surviving was a fact and a factor, but good judgement- that he had called on every shred of to get this far- said they should be resting in the arms of the Galactic Spirit by now.
How long had they been in action? It was easier to call up the ship status monitor sheet and look at the fuel state figures than it was to glance at the chrono- he never wanted to count milliseconds again.
Shade under thirty percent burnt off, although some had been lost to battle damage; twenty- six hundred seconds' worth more or less, and each one had been a separate and specific opportunity to end it all. If it really was true that cowards die a thousand times before the real thing, then he was a hundred and sixty percent over quota.
In the face of that kind of firepower, cowardice was almost respectable- it offered significantly greater life prospects than bravery. Dammit, he yelled at himself, you knew it was going to be this going in, it was your bloody plan; no reason, no excuse, no right and most importantly no opportunity to feel sorry for myself.
I am in charge, they're all looking to me to- actually, for their lives, to the captain for their saving and the meaning of their existences.
I could not have done better than that in my dreams, and it wasn't enough, we're going to have to go in again. Me, myself, I and every other poor bugger depending on my judgement to see them through.
And to be honest, would I really trust anyone else to do that? Well, actually, yes and I'm going to have to, anyway- already split off the nucleus of a crew, for one of the destroyers; Brenn's going to have to take over here while I shuttle across to Blistmok- once she's taken.
breaking up the team, taking charge of what's left of that ship, and using her to attack two of the same class, which would be of superior physical state and crew cohesion by that point, and that was looking like the easy bit.
If there was ever going to be a day that lasted forever, this bid fair to be it. Already seemed to have gone on for a million years.
No alternative though, with the sabotage party away and the fighters committed, it was no longer possible to simply cut and run, if it ever had been a practical way of dealing with the problem.
Four battle cruisers left in the hands of the dark gods, and there really is something desperately wrong with a universe where that statement doesn't register as instantly insane. (Although, Palpatine...no, wrong moment for that thought. We are here, it is now, have to get on with it.)
The damage they could do, far from in-, would be all too easily calculable; the destruction of the heart, and the collapse as an organised state, of the Imperium.
As botched first contacts went, that would be a record- setter. Not that that was the prime motive by any means- having been tempted by the powers of the Warp, and having looked upon their works, leaving four of the Empire's newest and shiniest battlewagons in their hands was clearly wrong. Entirely apart from the value of- and the men on- the ships.
Deep breath. Remember that at this moment, at this precise moment, I am not dead.
Who was? 'Damage control- was there anything I was too busy to notice? what have we lost?'
The engineer officer seconded to the job took a deep breath of his own before reporting. Wondering whether he had any right to put spin on it, and in the end deciding not to. 'Secondary reactor shocked out of its' cradle, two hits in hangar bay storage forward of the main reactor, one under the bow;
two upper surface port, one starboard side of the superstructure, one starboard bow, one midships port. Starboard tubes were shut down and deep-inerted, bringing them back now. One tertiary gone entirely, ball imploded, no fix. Secondary manipulated back in, but only at fifty percent confidence.
Two radiator grids slagged down, no fix. Bow motivator failed, repairable but in hours, out of circuit. Ground force maintenance complex, mostly wrecked- less than fifty percent capacity. Four small craft bays destroyed.'
'We can still move and fight, but the margin of error's gone.' Lennart boiled it down to the barest essential. 'Tell that shower,' to Rythanor, 'anyone who isn't within the limits of the hyperfield in thirty seconds gets left behind.
I wish I had more breathing time to offer, but there is no more time, this is the problem that was handed to us and the only solution it was right to take.' he added to everyone on the bridge, it would spread to everyone on the ship.
'Now, back into the fire- the effort you've all been putting in is fantastic, against a softer opponent we would have more to show for it, but you have been ahead of them every step of the way; if superior human quality is what we need to carry us through, we have it. We'll see what else I can think of after we've saved the universe.
Right, towing to combat drop, zone up and countdown from five.'
Had to go and support the boarding party if nothing else. The time for counting people lost is going to be long after everything is done. A few shuttles left behind, but in the loose confines of the hyperdrive cone, there were some sixty thousand Imperium warriors, and the elements of the loyalist-Imperial forces that could actually fit on shuttles and make their own way added to another thirty thousand.
The run- vidscreens were not the clear blue-white of normality, but smeared and tainted with flashes of grey, red, yellow. Didn't seem to affect performance; perhaps all in the mind's eye?
Emergence, bumpy, immediately four moves; shut down, purge and safe the hyperdrives, shields back on full, ion cannon volley into the belly of the target to cover the landing this time, Ithorian-army gravitic projectors to interdictor mode and cover the other two battlecruisers.
Hardly a word needed. Hardly time for any if there had been. Only one thing. 'Boarders away.'