A Squelch of Empires ch 4
‘Gentlemen, Ladies-‘ Admiral Lake called us all to order.
‘Dogfaces an’ vacheads.’ Ruaridh interjected, the Admiral wisely ignored him and kept going.
‘We have an urgent call for support from a system that feels the hive mind approach. As we are a special purpose formation detached to independent, and might I add classified, duty, normally I would ignore this.’
I tried not to sigh with relief, partly because it would be indiscreet but also because that ‘normally’ made my skin crawl.
I was right. ‘Unfortunately, in this case the system happens to be Port Alcaris, the home base of most of the naval contingent and our prime repair and logistics support. I believe we can make one objective serve another.’ He looked across the assembly, particularly the volunteers for suicide who had answered back to the Inquisition.
Oh, frak, I thought. Typical. Get out from a diplomatic bunfight with overtones of negociating with menaces, by being offered up as a snack to something with more claws and tentacles than a Catachan petting zoo.
The alternative- well, if I was going on it, this raid down the plughole of the cosmos would undoubtedly turn into a blood- soaked disaster. Maybe this was better for the Imperium. Perhaps the worst might not happen. With my luck, it would be a ten thousand ship hive fleet. It was either that or the Inquisition.
‘Wave One will move back to Alcaris to aid in the defence. Wave Two will become initial attack element, Wave Three will become holding and follow up. On the basis of unit readiness.’ He said, and fooled nobody. Wave One included the Cursoris, XIV coy Lions of Caledon, and us.
‘Units of Wave One will board their assigned transport, take on stores and depart by 1000 tomorrow. Contact station control for loading and shuttle coordination.’
That was us with our marching orders; I left the chamber hoping two things, that we weren’t going to be in for another passage with the Astartes- presumably, we couldn’t, it would take forever to get us deployed- and that I would get to spend some time with Amberley. Or that if we were taking passage on a marine ship, she would be going with us. No, cancel that, the cameras.
Chance would be a fine thing; apparently speed was of the essence, so we were going to be shoehorned into various navy warships, ideally those with hangar bays big enough to launch shuttles from.
Some of them exceptionally strange, and I managed to catch a glimpse of one of the Malleus, the one with all the purity seals, looking out at the Grey Runners’ transport and making gestures at it which were either runic or highly obscene.
I was on my way back down from station command to the bay holding the regiment- letting Kasteen go direct and taking the scenic route myself, when I came across this tableau in one of the observation bays; deciding not to get involved, I backed away quietly- and literally bumped into Amberley coming the other way.
‘Is that a meltagun in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?’ she quipped.
I glanced over my shoulder, hoping she hadn’t been overheard, but evidently we had.
‘This is an extremely delicate ritual- I cannot counterbalance for your presence unless I am fully aware of you. Come or go.’ A shout came from the malleus, an angry bellow that in itself made a mockery of the concept of delicacy.
I looked at Amberley, perfectly willing to slide off into a quiet corner with her, but she had other ideas. Of course, she was on a level with him, she didn’t need to be nervous.
She walked calmly into the unlit bay, looking innocent and utterly unlike an inquisitor- rosette hidden. I was far from certain about the wisdom of that- or any of it.
‘Ah, commissar. Who the krutz are you?’ he added looking at Amberley. ‘Never mind, soon find out.’ He gestured with some sort of rod into the middle of the pattern he had laid out, a circle of light flared on the deck, and somewhere out of sight- probably just round the corner out of reality- a choir started to sing.
Entirely within this reality and lounging against the walls of the bay, the flash revealed several figures, all well armed and one with something that looked worryingly like a man portable multimelta.
I was certainly not in favour of what was going on, whatever it was, but sudden moves were equally unlikely to be healthy. ‘I’m moderately certain that this is one of those things where you’re really supposed to ask.’
‘The pure have nothing to fear.’ He said, and there was a flare of light in the circle- it was that fast. I could have drawn fast enough to shoot him, but nothing less, it was too abrupt for talking. ‘Ah, I see that you have been repeatedly tempted by Chaos and resisted more by inner strength than by devotion- the phrase “Frak off, my soul’s my own, and I’m keeping it” could hardly be considered to be theologically sound, but I will leave that to your confessor… and is that a colleague I see trying to eclipse herself behind you?’
My jaw was open; I glanced round to see that Amberley was only slightly less perplexed. Saying something like ‘Who are you?’ would only get the extremely obvious response.
Apparently, he had just given my soul the once over, although how and how fast I couldn’t comprehend. Accurately, too, damn him.
‘I really hope I don’t have to ask you for an explanation.’ Amberley said. ‘Vail, Xenos. More than guesswork?’
‘Segovian Nkrumah, Malleus. You have the wrinkles in your soul that come from having to sit in judgement of others- a telltale giveaway of rank and status.’ The daemonhunter explained, and I stepped forwards, trying to get between him and Amberley.
I didn’t want him getting hurt- it would be far too much work to explain- and he had just insulted her. ‘If you really are a master seer of souls, then you should know better than to pass judgement on a lady’s complexion.’
He laughed. ‘You are bold. Telling an inquisitor what he is and isn’t supposed to do.’ His eyes narrowed at that, and I heard a click behind me that sounded like a safety being snapped off.
‘He’s with me.’ Amberley stepped forward. I hoped she realised I wasn’t wearing a displacer field. ‘I presume this isn’t just for our benefit?’
‘Oh, no. That ship out there- do you recognise it?’
The cloud grey paint job softened the outline a bit, but it was distinctive in it’s own way, broad, angular, spiky. Not in detail, and Amberley, if she knew anything, didn’t say.
‘No? A Devastation- class light fleet carrier, gifted to the Mechanicus and used as the Grey Runners’ prime transport. A logical-‘ he spat that word out- ‘choice, if not for the fact that those ships were removed from Imperial Navy service as being too likely to draw the attention of the Ruinous Powers.’
‘You suspect it might be tainted?’ I said, no longer worried about stating the obvious. It was likely to be less frightening than the non- obvious.
‘I am deeply suspicious of the methods used to maintain her purity- considering that she was recommissioned by the Caledonian space yards that are part of the fief of that chapter of deviants.’ Nkrumah growled. I was right.
‘Something that you would like to bring to the attention of your colleagues?’ Amberley asked him, deceptively lightly.
‘Do you know what an inverse ninja is?’ he asked. Which meant that he had heard Ruaridh’s last comment. ‘No? The ninja were a species of proto, or very early, Assassin, who relied very heavily on stealth, misdirection, mobility. They required the use of their environment- to the extent that two, or more, would limit each other’s options, close down possibilities. A group, together, would get so far in each other’s way they would reduce themselves to barely more than ordinary men.
It was far less dangerous to face eight, or seven, than it was to face one.’
Which was a clear threat, to someone if not directly to us, and I could see Amberley tense. I had just time to make a plan, and hope that it wouldn’t be necessary, when the malleus inquisitor’s face suddenly contorted, he screamed and clutched his head, the circle flared and faded out- and there was a smell I could have recognised anywhere.
The emergency lighting flickered on, and I could see Nkrumah’s men think that we had somehow done it. Which wasn’t that far from the truth, actually, if Jurgen had been responsible for breaking the circle.
The man with the multimelta started to point it towards Amberley; she dived out of the way, I drew my chainsword activating it as I did and lunged for the man next to him, who was levelling a weapon- probably a plasma gun from the glow.
Just my luck, I thought, picking the one most likely to explode; although it probably worked for me, as it doesn’t do to sling those things around too fast.
I hit him flat along the ribcage, coming up from under, and he screamed and thrashed- not enough to stop me following the blade up, putting my hand on his back and shoving him towards the man with the multimelta.
They collided before he could bring the heavy weapon to bear and went down in a tangled heap, the plasma flask mercifully not splitting. ‘Is this a brawl or a murder?’ I shouted across to Amberley, while turning to face a minion with a heavy lasgun who was pointing it at my head.
She had punched his techpriest in the jaw, not a winning strategy, and then tried to kick the cogboy in the groin; vicious, but the clang told me it hadn’t done much. Also, nothing compared to what she could have done.
‘It’s a mistake,’ she shouted back, and at the acolytes ‘stand down, we had nothing to do with this-‘ I ducked and darted forwards under the hellgun shot that split the air over me, Nkrumah’s acolytes weren’t listening.
The cogboy brought a mechadendrite round with some kind of gun on the end of it, blasted at her, I tried to face fifteen ways at once, there was a flash of light that told me her displacer field had worked- and a high rushing sound, like one second snatched out of the middle of a hurricane.
‘Ah think,’ Lachlan said from one of the accessways, shuriken cannon in hand and thickening his accent in some sort of private joke, ‘there’s been a murrdurr.’ Well, he should know considering what he had just done with it.
I had been about to hedge my bets by smashing the gunman in the gut with the back, casing edge of my chainsword, but that- and most of the rest of him- wasn’t there any more. The only one of Nkrumah’s acolytes still alive was the cogboy, thrashing, sparking and jetting fluids all over the place. There were shuriken and fragments of shuriken embedded in the walls.
‘Are you a’ right?’ the Astartes said.
‘Probably not. Was that really necessary?’ I said, pulling myself together and checking for damage. I still couldn’t quite believe what had happened.
‘I met yer aide the next deck doon, wandering along lookin’ for you. He was about tae walk right under that damn’ impertinence there,’ he said meaning the fading circle, ‘and I guessed somethin’ was aboot to go hideously wrong.’
I looked around at the mess of dead acolytes, sawn apart by the blizzard of shuriken- and realised there was actually a lot less collateral damage than I had thought.
It definitely fitted the description of something going wrong. The shattered men on the deck hadn’t exactly been friends of mine, but I did not relish the job of explaining this to anyone. I wasn’t certain how to explain it to myself.
What was worth the murder, Throne, the murder of an Ordo Malleus inquisitor? And if anything was, did I want to know it? Well, it had happened now, and what was the way out? They had been killed by shuriken- that could be a plan.
Amberley came back at that moment, jogging in to the chamber, bolt pistol ready, and after she took in the scene not sure whether to thank Lachlan or shoot him.
I was ready to back her up no matter what- but it wasn’t necessary. She holstered the bolt pistol.
‘You ken, I have a radical idea for how tae explain away this mess.’ Lachlan said. ‘We could aalways resort tae’ the truth.’
Amberley shook her head, with a perplexed grin. ‘Well, it has the virtue of originality. Start by explaining it to me.’
‘Your man there-‘ he gestured with the eldar cannon’s barrel in the direction of Nkrumah’s twitching body- ‘was tryin’ an enormously complex rite stupidly fast, and you happened tae be standin’ next to him at the time.
‘Why ye didnae’ try to stop him baffles the shite out of me, could ye no’ tell that he was making a fankle out o’ it? It takes days for a team to dae a loyalty assessment, no’ wan man wan minute.’ The more excited he got, the thicker his accent got.
‘And you know this how?’ I asked, knowing that Amberley would want to know.
‘Let me see…Ah command a warp capable starship. I reckon I picked up a few clues daein’ that.’ He said, voice dripping sarcasm. ‘That and I’ve been part o’ the team standin’ behind our own librarians an’ chaplains when they did it. Properly.’
He was positively angry with the brain- toasted inquisitor; I know the Reclaimers spent most of their time in prayer and training, but what the Lions of Caledon did in their spare time, I couldn’t tell. Maybe they put on the devotions and mystery plays, and Lachlan had hidden depths as a master performer- he was a passable comedian at least- but I doubted it. That was real enough.
Amberley looked sceptical. He wasn’t a psyker, and she would want a second opinion from somebody who was.
‘Onyway,’ Lachlan went on, ‘he screwed it up, an’ the rite backfired, rolled back intae’ his head and took half his brain out. I didnae’ actually shoot him; that twitchin’ there is all self inflicted.’
‘It was working earlier.’ I pointed out, remembering his scan of Amberley- and myself. Suddenly I wasn’t too unhappy that he was dead. Although I was soon about to wish that he was deader.
‘Really? So he had more warpcraft than Ah gave him credit for, but that’s likely what went wrong. Ye have tae focus broad, no’ narrow- it would hae been like looking through a microscope at a flash grenade as it went off.’
It was the old intel dance; I know that he knows, but I don’t want him to know that I know- he knew Nkrumah had been trying something stupidly delicate that the presence of Jurgen even a deck away could implode, but was carefully not saying so, hiding it from Amberley- who had been the first to notice his abilities anyway.
‘He opened himsel’ up to the perils of the warp, and his retinue thought you had somethin’ tae do with the inevitable, and…ah, shite.’
He heard it first, a sort of faint hum on the edge of hearing coming from the direction of Nkrumah’s body- which was now hovering just above the deck.
‘Naming calls.’ I chided the Marine. ‘You shouldn’t have said that.’ Wondering if I could afford to run for my life now. Amberley looked as if she was considering it herself.
‘Ah know. Never a Grey Knight around when ye need one, is there…whate’er it is will most likely focus on me onyway, so Ah’ll try to get it’s attention, distract it while you shoot it.’
‘Do purity seals mean nothing?’ I asked.
‘The mannie was walkin’ around with three dozen signs that, what’eer their effect, advertised “I’m afraid of the warp”- some things oot there just cannae’ resist that kind of challenge.’
Never, ever play poker with the Adeptus Astartes. Their rebuilt, hyper-acute senses can spot signals you’d never in a million years suspect you were giving out.
I’m sure I didn’t do anything that an ordinary man could have spotted, but to him the mixed signals of the relief and indignation I was feeling must have been plain as day. That was what I usually ended up having to do; take centre stage, play hero, draw attention- and fire- while somebody else did the grunt work.
‘Oh, a’right then.’ Lachlan said, choosing to grievously misinterpret my expression of reluctance, sidestepping behind me, picking me up and putting me down where he had been, right in the path of the coalescing thing.
I didn’t have time to shout at him before the noise and curdling in the air took form; above and astride the body, huge, feather-winged, an eye-agonising riot of colour screaming into existence.
Where the frak did I start, I thought crazily. Drumstick, wing, giblets? It really did look like a titanic multicoloured omnifowl, beak and all. It was difficult to look at- the blur, the colours- typical chaos daemon, it was posing, flaunting itself.
I bounced on to the balls of my feet, charged forwards at it aiming to slice it’s head off the end of that ridiculous long neck- not really expecting it to be that easy.
I was right. It wasn’t. The thing looped it’s neck round, actually phasing through itself at one point, as my chainsword followed a moving target.
I realised I was overextended, brought my trusty blade back to low guard position- just in time to take a few feathers off the wing the thing batted me with. Not enough; the blunt impact tumbled me back against the observation chamber wall, slamming me against it. I pulled myself to my feet as the thing began to speak.
‘Why do you force me to give you death? I should reward you, for opening the door to this paradise of change.’ It went through about fifteen different voices- each syllable in a different accent, different tone.
Lachlan wasted no words, just filled the air with a blizzard of shuriken that shredded feathers off the thing, which drifted through the air- then some of them started to animate. Little birds, with blue and pink fire around their talons.
Amberley tried to shoot it, but she made the same mistake as I did- aiming for the head; it ducked and bobbed- and sent some of it’s birds after her.
I shrugged off my long coat and waved it through the air like a matador’s cape, swiping half a dozen of them out of the air; stood on one of them- it crunched.
Using my coat, trying to ignore the ichor burns and fumes coming off it, I cleared some space for myself and went after it. I had no idea what the thing had between it’s legs, but gave it a chainsword exploratory anyway.
Sweeping up from low, I sliced into it- the smell was incredible, but years of dealing with Jurgen had hardened me. I rolled out of the way of a back kick, and ducked as it’s head looped round- but it went for Lachlan.
The thing looked at him and spat out a billow of blue eldritch flame, licking through the air at him, looking somehow alive; he dropped his gun and grabbed Nkrumah’s body, using it as a shield.
The purity seals on the inquisitor’s armour each flared into a little magnesium bright blaze, burning out but protecting the marine. Amberley shot at it off hand with the bolt pistol, moving for- and looking at- the dropped hellgun; weirdly, her rounds seemed to connect more accurately and do more damage when she was spraying blindly at the thing.
I tried to get round in front of it, draw the birds on to me away from Amberley- screaming at myself in the process; it tried to rip my coat away with one claw, I stared to duck then leapt over it’s claw- it had guessed that I was going to go low- found myself almost nose to beak with it; it looked into my eyes.
I’d been given the evil eye by daemons before, but this one was actively trying to force my way into it’s head; I could feel it’s intricacies worming away at me, trying to open me up to the wonders of probability, read my memories, my fears and hopes, every little wish-
‘The frak you will.’ I snarled, swinging up at it with the chainsword connecting in the side of it’s impossible neck.
Not cutting all the way through- that would have been too much to ask- but enough to shake it’s concentration; it let me go- it was only then I realised it had been levitating me- and I rolled backwards out of the line of fire, and drew my laspistol.
It shrieked- in the warp, not just in voice- and blasted us all back, numbing and shaking.
‘Such a mastery of appearances,’ it said to me, ‘you cannot conceive of power without masks,’ to Amberley, ‘you are already far from what you are supposed to be,’ to Lachlan- and to all of us, ‘Tomorrow is mine, you were born to join me.’
Amberley was spraying bolter shells and hellgun blasts at it, Lachlan drew his blade- a long basket- hilted backsword, outshouted the daemon- screamed ‘Albannach’, his chapter’s battle cry, charged at it.
What else could I do? He went for one wing, I went for the other.
It tried to bite him- he flashed his bright-edged blade at it, a circular parry that it looped round and darted forwards; the mad Caledonian bastard headbutted it. Grabbed it by the neck and planted his forehead on it, apparently breaking the tip of it’s beak, it shrieked and clutched it’s nose with one claw.
Well, there was no way I was letting myself be outdone. I sliced a gash in one of it’s drumsticks with the chainsword- sidestepped out of the gush of ichor, ducked a claw, palmed one of the spare power packs for my laspistol into the gash, stepped back and shot it.
It squealed, but it wasn’t willing to give up and die just yet. It unleashed a circle of pink fire, expanding outwards, the billow of searing air and warp force rushing us all off our feet, tumbling us back. Buying time to heal itself, and to try to confuse us; it’s head started to bob and weave, hypnotising, the coloured patterns on it’s skin changing.
‘We have tae finish it afore it regenerates-‘ Lachlan said, trying to force his way through the wall of flame- it concentrated on him, ignoring me; and the kaleidoscopic scent it was giving off wafted away to be replaced by a foul miasma.
The flame batted Lachlan back, Amberley shot it in one of it’s eyeballs- it sprouted four more. I blew two of them off, but there was no way I was getting too close to it- and I was right.
The air in the chamber seemed to catch fire and I lost visual track of everything in the actinic flare.
When that cleared, there was one giant chicken claw sitting there, slowly evaporating into the warp, and my aide, as animated as I had ever seen him, clutching the fallen acolyte’s multi- melta to his chest. He looked as if he had just found his new devotion in life.
‘Well done, Jurgen. And if you can manage to carry that thing round the obstacle course, I’ll let you keep it.’ I said, pointing out the obvious flaw in toting a support weapon that weighed almost as much as he did. He looked severely disappointed- as much as anyone as misshapen as he was could be said to have a definite look. He obviously intended to smuggle it along with us, but if he could manage that he was a better scrounger than even I gave him credit for.
‘Are you all right?’ I added to Amberley.
‘I can still see coloured spots in front of my eyes.’ She said.
‘So can I.’ I admitted. ‘It’s afterimages from the melta. I hope.’
‘Ah’ve changed mah mind about purity seals.’ Lachlan groaned. ‘They have their uses efter a’. Cavalry’s comin’.’
Then, at least five minutes late, on a station with a hundred regiments of imperial guard, then and only then reinforcements arrived. The astartes were there first, and to give them their due looked disappointed to have missed the fight.
More people crowded in, all pushing and shoving and trying to figure out what all the fuss was about; good, stand on the evidence, I thought. I was sure I heard Ruiaridh mutter to Lachlan ‘Wan doon, six tae go’, but I wouldn’t swear to it. I was too busy trying not to shake.
‘I’ll do the explanations.’ Amberley said, looking at Lachlan and Jurgen. She didn’t want them being questioned, and with good reason. ‘You’re required, you had better go. Actually, Ciaphas, a word.’ She led me- and Jurgen- out of earshot.
‘Break the habit of a lifetime. Tell me something.’ I said, trying to sound lighthearted, relieve some stress after that, and she rolled her eyes- both of us feeling it was much safer to take that kind of comment as a joke.
‘I had intended to tag along with you in the initial wave; see how the other half lives.’ she admitted, knowing that I would make the obvious inference- that she wanted to hide behind a unit that knew her, more or less, and would be more likely to be of some use in protecting her from her colleagues.
‘Aren’t there cults to root out on Port Alcaris?’ I asked, trying not to sound too serious about it.
From her momentary look of utter deviousness- the wheels were clearly turning- I knew I had hit a nerve. She was wondering how much to tell me.
‘There are none.’ She said, quietly. For a moment, I thought good, no internal security threat, then it occurred to me how little sense that made. Either they had all been wiped out, or something very wierd was going on.
‘The hunting call?’ I asked. ‘Wait a moment. If there was no brood, then the only people capable of broadcasting a signal-‘ Chaos? No, the tyranids would just eat them too. Although to take out a navy base, it would be worth it. Eldar- they were coldhearted enough, but they would be just a shade obvious.
Actually- how the frak could anyone, no matter how sneaky, broadcast a signal that was by definition supposed to be noticed, without setting off a major panic? The navy could be a bit louche at times, but they weren’t that sloppy. There should have been enough astropaths around to set off every alarm in the system.
It had to have been an inside job. Only high authority could sanction something like that.
‘A trap. Fake a ‘nid homing signal, lure them to where we can fight them on our terms.’ Except it had gone hideously wrong, the left hand not telling the right hand what it was doing. One secret project had tripped over the other and the sector fleet were now required to be in two places- at least- at once.
‘It was a good idea.’ Amberley admitted, acknowledging that I had worked it out. ‘Unfortunately, nobody knew about both plans in time, not enough to realise that we were going to end up wide open somewhere.’
Suddenly, I was very angry about that. Doing the Emperor’s work is one thing, and often damn’ risky, but those were the chances I took in the imperial guard (and as few of them as possible). A cockup of this magnitude wasn’t a legitimate chance of war, it was close kin to treason- at the very least, criminal incompetence.
I wanted to see someone strangled with his own intestines for that, for the blind arrogance that tossed men- me!- impossibly far in harm’s way – and then I took a deep breath, and forced myself to calm down.
That, after all, is how radicals begin, and how renegades- and traitors- are made. I forced myself to say, in tones of brutal cheerfulness- that I had heard Amberley use often enough, now I think back to it- ‘Ah, well, it’s only men’s lives at stake.’
‘You’re taking this very calmly.’ She said, knowing that I wasn’t but recognising- with relief?- the effort.
‘Nothing else to do but shut up and soldier, is there?’ I said, knowing that she knew I was wishing I could do anything but. ‘You’re the one going off into unknown danger.’
‘And you’re the one having to hold this end of the passage against chaos, tyranids, and any and every thing that has an interest in what’s happening here.’ She said, and started to say more- but stopped herself before she could get it out.
‘Yes, well, story of my life.’ I said.
‘Well, that was an interestingly noneventful experience.’ Brenn said. ‘Primarily because, as far as I understand this transfinite voodoo, there’s not that much of a distinction between ‘fine’ and ‘boom’. Cap- Commodore, recommend we move clear of the mouth of the wormhole to long range scan distance.’
He didn’t have to spell out why, it was a sound idea and one they they had discussed. Breaking datum, essentially. Moving far enough out into wide open space that it was unlikely anyone without highly advanced sensor capabilities could find them.
There were conceivable opponents against which such a move would be useless- themselves, for a start- but against someone with poor or nonexistent transluminal sensor capability, it would be a viable option. Provided they could spot something moving up to the wormhole in time to intercept.
Well, easy enough with time to precalculate a return course. Baring all the possibilities of invisible ships, wormhole hijackers, sentient curdles in the fabric of spacetime, civilisations capable of fitting on a pinhead, the fun stuff they were here to investigate.
‘In for a penny, in for plutonium. Bring, no, wait.’ What the hell was that? A flash of crimson and bronze at the edge of vision. No possible excuse for it on the bridge module. And his head hurt when he tried to turn to follow it.
Still hurt when he stopped it moving. As if thousands of people were shouting at him. Forty-seven thousand? At least there would be an explanation for that. No, more than that, faint echoes of…millions, maybe billions? As if it was possible to tell. Like a crowd of sports fans, except plumbed directly into the back of his head. And a growing, throbbing swelling.
Galactic Spirit, is this what a stroke feels like? He wondered. Multiplying, racing, fissioning pain- no, that would be more confusing, more depriving, more numbing. In theory, and may it be a long time, if ever, before I ever actually find out.
Almost certainly something to do with the force, or whatever it was that filled the same place here, no, crowbarred it open.
‘Does anyone else feel as if they have millions of little tiny people with blunt objects setting out to demolish their hippocampus?’
Some of the newer members of the crew looked at him very strangely, but most of them could feel the fringes of it too.
‘Thick, gungy feeling.’ Rythanor reported.
‘I get ozone.’ Brenn said, after sniffing the air. ‘Mind-fogging clammy tension, pre-thunderstorm.’
‘Well, I’m getting it a lot worse than that, and I doubt it’s down to natural animal magnetism. What’s the sensor picture look like?’ Lennart asked Rythanor.
‘Everything that ought to be there is, we’re predicting together a starmap now- that cosmological probe was near useless, focusing way out in the ultra-deep field, no tactical, navigational use at all. What else is also there’s the scary part.’
‘I think you just made my headache worse.’ Lennart said; Rythanor bent down into the pit, had a rushed, whispered conversation with one of the techs, then turned back to his commanding officer.
‘The LFIs are spasming, giving flashes of contact; self test circuits are all good, so either the malfunction detector’s, well, you know, or space here literally is alive or glowing with the reflection of life. I have no clue how that could be, but that’s the data.’ Rythanor reported, sounding as if he didn’t believe himself. No, that wasn’t fair. ‘I’ll break the signal down for a closer analysis.’ He added.
Life Form Indicators were hopelessly ambitiously named; they were dedicated packages that picked up on several different kinds of signal, which hopefully had something to do with a living creature.
Neural electrical activity was one of those phenomena, and the life form indicators were picking up on it, from empty barren space. Extremely faint but it was there.
‘If this is true, it makes no sense.’ Rythanor said.
‘It’s accurate enough, I can feel it looking at me.’ Lennart said.
On intraship, he added, ‘Gethrim, want to refine that estimate of yours?’
‘It’s towards the upper end, at least.’ The heavyweight engineer- although not at the moment, because he was hovering four metres off the deck- admitted. ‘The wibbly-wobbly Force is an interaction effect between the electromagnetic and nonlocal forces- the interaction’s open to question, the phenomena that drive it are more powerful. I need to test this more thoroughly, set up some experiments to establish a general rule.’
‘First, you need to imagine the experiments. Frankly, lead element and all that, I’m not sure how much more of this I actually want to know.’ Lennart said, at the same time recognising that it was futile. They had to find out.
‘Even if we go back and indent for a dungeon ship, the escort are still going to have to do this. And the next lot might not be any better- I can come up with a few nightmare scenarios straight off the bat, the worst of them being ruled out by the fact that we’re still here and recognisably ourselves.’ The big engineer said.
‘I don’t know about that, my fourth arm seems to be missing…’ Lennart joked, and felt the fog in his head recoil slightly. ‘Actually, I have an empirical measure that we might want to try out. What’s the worst case that’s consistent with our having survived this far?’
‘That nothing really hideous has noticed us yet, basically.’ Mirannon said. ‘If the nonlocal force locally is about a hundred times more powerful, then why isn’t a midichlorian count of ten going to be a problem?’
‘That’s, let me see, everybody. You’re saying I’m now running a ship crewed by forty-seven thousand potential human bombs, including you and me?’ Lennart said.
‘Actually, I think that may be ruled out by the ‘still here’ clause. Although there may be a latency issue. The other thing I’m trying to disprove is that the significance of the interaction may be exponential.’ Mirannon said, sounding obscenely cheerful for someone who had just laid out that nightmare of an option.
‘Are you just trying to remain positive by looking on the bright side until all the facts are in?’ Lennart asked.
‘What, you mean that we may now have enough psimen to outnumber the old jedi order five to one, and outgun them maybe fifty to one? You’re going to have to tell me what the locals are capable of before I call that a bright side.’
‘Anyway,’ Mirannon went on, ‘it’s a function of the universe, not of ourselves. The real bright side is that all of this ceases to happen as soon as we transit the wormhole again.’
‘Right, you’ve told me about your worries, now let me tell you about mine. Strange attractors.’ Lennart said. ‘Like calling out to like if you want to be fuzzy about it, the power and nonlocality forming stable patterns having a characteristic effect on anything that passes too close to them. Like the light side, and the dark side.’
‘We’re talking close in terms of pattern here, yes?’ Mirannon theorised. ‘Obviously more to it than frequency and spin, otherwise sheer statistics would result in there being electrons with psychic powers. And the sort of universe in which that statement actually makes sense, I’m not sure I want to live there.
Not that we’re likely to find it; this is close to the extreme stable solution, about as nonlocal and magic prone as a universe can get. In human terms, though- I wonder how many fuzzy-goodness-and-pink-unicorns types we could manage to export? Hardest part would probably be finding somewhere that actually wanted them.’
‘Well, I doubt this is going to be the place- and don’t interrupt, I haven’t finished terrifying you yet. What do you think pattern means?’ Lennart asked.
‘Ah…kriff. Brainwave patterns, yes? I could make a noise about unproven, worst case, jumping to conclusions, but it’s bad enough to be true- hold on a moment. The very existence of those pirates limits the scenario.’ Mirannon objected.
‘They were operating in our territory with a weak, unfamiliar Force, they were much closer to what we would call normal.’ Lennart said.
‘No, I can’t buy into the biological side of that argument. I can’t imagine how a recognisable lifeform that could pass for one of us in all but culture would evolve under those conditions.’ Mirannon pointed out.
‘Which means the conditions aren’t that extreme, or they’re less normal than they seem, or more likely both. Makes it all the more important that we get on with the plan as fast as feasible, before we spend too long in this place. But not at the expense of hurrying so fast we blunder into something. I don’t think we have enough information for that, we go with the slow plan. Proceed.’
The plan that the engineer had just been told to proceed with was a simple tactical probe- first a probe droid would be launched on a short, measured microjump, and it’s behaviour plotted and monitored. Then a pod with an experimental animal- an ensign, they had joked, but in fact a dwarf nerf- to test the effects on a living creature.
Then whichever fighter pilot had drawn the short straw would go out to retrieve them. Complexity, life, sentience, in that order- and assuming that a fighter pilot counted.
The probe droid- no problem. The long range escape pod- the creature came out the other end gibbering, howling in fear. The random number generator had fingered Eta One; in the revised-and-uprated wing they had been re-equipped with, a bomber winged early Avenger.
Out, and pull the lever- and slide at transluminal speed across the surface of a tortured reality, experiencing the universe of the Imperium from the dubious safety of hyperspace.
Ten minutes later, they had an answer.
‘As I thought.’ Mirannon reported. ‘The slightly different nature of the underlying universe means that when we experience it from a tachyonic perspective, there are differences- but nothing remotely critical. A five percent power increase to the lateral lobes of the hyperfield and a shorter alluvial purge cycle should be enough to overcome the minor stability problem.
Eta One did report transient hallucinations of sight and smell, two minutes into the hop. One of your attractors, maybe?’
‘I think we would do well to avoid it, anything with a brainstate inductive effect is likely to be more trouble than it’s worth until we figure out how to deal with them.’ Lennart said. ‘I doubt that these people have mapped out their galaxy in any way that is likely to be navigationally useful for us; our definition of the shape of the universe may be different from theirs. We worry about mass, they worry about mind.
Detection; until we start talking to them- which may be at gunpoint- I really can’t estimate how visible we are to them, how far away and how accurately they can tell what we’re doing.
If it is essentially force-powered, then it’s going to be very long ranged but unpredictable, with wild variations in clarity. How well can we detect them, and at tactical distances? Rythanor?’
‘Large metal objects.’ The com-scan chief reported. ‘EW upper potential completely unknown, the trader had little to none- simple electromagnetic noise jammers. Lots of raw energy, poor baffling.
If this really is all they have, then combat detection is going to be trivial; and if their own tactical sensors are geared to this easy a target, we can run silent enough to be near as dammit invisible.
If. We almost certainly haven’t come up against their best, and interpretation’s a whole separate complex of issues. I’m trying not to get overconfident, but we haven’t seen anything to worry about yet.’
‘Any sign of engine flares in the nearby systems?’ Lennart said.
‘Yes. The light is years old of course, using that to cue in long range scans- hm.’ Rythanor glanced over the data. ‘Most barren, activity in about one in a hundred, and we have drastic change in two systems. Far more traffic in that- G3 type, fifty-four light years distant, at that time than there is now. Many, high intensity. The exact opposite there, K8, hundred and ten years distant. Nothing then, heavy traffic now.
Skipper, request permission for mass probe droid launch? If we can get interferometry going-‘
‘We can start to piece together a map of the local civilisation, at least what of it that it’s starships give away. It’ll serve for our definition of navigation and we might even be able to chart expansion and economic trends from the density of space traffic.
We’re hoping to learn that from them anyway- but having our own take on it will help when they start lying to us, which if they’ve any brains they will.
Benefit outweighs cost- that’s what the probes’re for-go with it.’ Lennart ordered.
‘A distinct thought, actually; suppose we encounter an “inferior” civilisation- what can they do to us?’ Lennart asked, tone making it clear it as a rhetorical question.
‘When shooting people’s out of the question-‘ Wathavrah said, sounding like he hated the idea- ‘Don’t we usually resort to bullshit?’
‘Misdirection, terrorist tactics- personal combat.’ Ntevi decided.
‘Bio’s out of the question, chemical might be almost as dubious. The one thing all sentiences have to have in common is information, so that’s the universal medium; signals and lies.’ Rythanor suggested.
‘Complicated locally by psionics, of course…and if what we come up against is a superior civilisation? Those traders could have been the equivalent of backwater hillbillies, their core worlds might be far more advanced.’ Lennart suggested.
‘Obviously then we’re in the position of the inferior, so we cheat and lie to them.’ Wathavrah recognised.
‘Good, I just wanted to make sure no-one had any hang-ups about the process, no standing on the dignity of the empire. I’m not happy about being here and my head still hurts, but we might as well get on with the mission.
We’re not here to conquer worlds, plant flags and preach the glory of the Galactic Empire; we’re here to scout, to gather information. Information that might make it possible for a larger force to come and do that at a later date. I reckon one of the systems with change; a society in motion’s likely to reveal more than one in a steady state.
Opinions, people; do we move to the system with a growing density of space travel, or do we make contact in the system in decline?’ Lennart asked.
‘Decline.’ Brenn said. ‘More likely to get a better look at the ugly side, the bits of their culture they don’t want to admit to.’
‘You’re implicitly assuming quite a lot there, such as the existence of a sense of shame.’ Lennart said, ‘but the principle is sound. Assent, dissent?’
‘The looting and pillaging probabilities are better in a system in decline.’ Wathavrah agreed; most of the command team concurred.
‘Start launching the probe droids.’ Lennart ordered. ‘When the last is away, move out for target designate one.’ Highlighting the type G3 star.