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post #1 of 6 (permalink) Old 08-05-12, 04:27 PM Thread Starter
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Default [20K] Ghostwalkers: 2012 Re-write

Hi everyone, I originally wrote this story a couple of years ago for Halowe'en. It's one of the first completed stories in my Warhammer 40,000 prequel series, 20K. Please excuse any formatting errors which have occurred due to the miracle of copy and paste; I'll revise this post when I post the second part of the story.


To those who've read the original version, this version is significantly rewritten in places and has a large amount of new content. This story has the largest cast I've ever used so I welcome feedback about the characters and how I've handled a large number of them.



Before the Imperium; before the Strife; before the Eldar fell to darkness.

20K: before there was war.

Ghostwalkers: 2012 Update

PART ONE


“Mission log, XMS Ontario, triple-zero-double-oh-six, M21. We have reached the hyper-gate and are preparing for translation. While our Mechanica contingent are excited about the upcoming journey, I can’t help but wonder whether the Ontario will make the translation intact. This is the first time a manned Navy ship will travel through the hyper-gate and there is no way to know for sure what will happen while we’re under way.”


Captain Thorpe sat back in her command chair, looking around the familiar space of her bridge. Grey-uniformed Navy officers talked and laughed as they busied themselves preparing the Ontario for its journey through the hyper-realm. Thorpe smiled, reassured by the confidence of her crew. She buttoned the terminal set into the arm of her leather chair.


A picter projected the Ontario’s internal sensor data into the air before her, the steady gold image showing more information than a normal person would know what to do with. Thorpe swept through various screens of information with deft movements, not missing anything about the ship’s readiness. There seemed to be a problem with the Gellar shield.



A clang, followed by a curse, heralded the arrival of their Mechanica liaison. Thorpe looked round to see a woman holding her head and glaring at one of the ceiling stanchions.


“Why do these new cruisers have to be so cramped?” the woman complained.


“That’s the concession we had to make,” Thorpe said. “We needed a lot of ships in a short space of time, so they made the ships small.”


This had been said half in jest but it did not assuage the woman’s temper; she went about her business muttering with annoyance.


Thorpe dismissed the data readouts and watched her crew. She’d been waiting for her own ship for two years and now that she had finally received one – now the shipbuilding project was supplying vessels for all Navy captains – she wished she’d been assigned one of the older types, perhaps the legendary Canyon class.


“That’s progress,” she sighed.


“Captain?” a crewman said; Ensign Calloway. He was relatively new to the Navy and she had specifically requested him for his confidence, high intelligence and his already-renowned ability to cope with the stresses of hyper-travel. They’d called him the King of the Warp back at the Academy, according to a wry note submitted by his training officer.


“I was talking to myself, Ensign. Captain’s prerogative.”


“I thought most captains talked to their ships?”


Thorpe warmed to the young man’s charming smile.


“Call me old-fashioned. I remember when ships didn’t talk back.”


Calloway excused himself and left the bridge. Thorpe pushed a comm-switch on her chair’s arm.


“Engineering, this is the Captain. What’s the progress with our Gellar shield?”


“This is Lieutenant Thade,” a female voice came back. “We’re working with the Mechanica team to upgrade our shield. We can’t match the required calibrations at present. It’s looking like another couple of hours.”
Fantastic, Thorpe said to herself. She looked at the viewscreen’s display of the starfield outside. Ontario’s sister ship, the Lexington, was barely visible as an absence framed by starlight.


“Captain, this is Higgins from the Mechanica,” a male voice added. “I’m working with Lieutenant Thade. The systems on board this vessel are not fully compatible with Martian technology. Looks like the Terran Navy is still a couple of years ahead of us, I’m afraid. I’m having to modify the alignment boards to compensate for a difference in functional wavelengths –”


“I’m sure you’re doing everything you can, Mark. Let me know when you’re done. Thorpe out.”


Not for the first time, Thorpe cursed the schism that had separated Earth from Mars. Maybe Mars would catch up one day, though even with Earth’s assistance that day would not come soon enough. The Blackout might be over but its legacy remained to punish the fledgling Empire.


Thorpe rose to join the helm team. The bridge was barely spacious enough under normal circumstances. Navy and Mechanica tech teams were replacing computer panels, upgrading systems and generally getting in the bridge crew’s way. It said a lot for Earth-Mars relations that the atmosphere remained cordial despite the stress everyone was under.


Somehow most of the grey-uniformed Navy people found time to salute her. She returned the gesture, looking for her second in command.


“Dammit!” Depp’s voice came from beneath the navigation console. There was an electric sound, then Depp gave a more colourful curse. Smoke drifted around her protruding legs and backside.


“Trouble, Commander?” Thorpe smiled.


Depp crawled out from under the console, clutching a small techno-driver. Her blonde hair was tied back, revealing an attractive but slightly overweight face. She looked ready to explode with frustration.


“I’ll say, Captain,” the Commander replied. Her accent was strong East Merican. “I can’t get the nav relays into alignment. It’s this new system we’re using. I don’t see why Solar Command had to make so many changes with these new ships. Everything worked perfectly for the Canyon class.”
“Maybe you should have a rest,” said Thorpe. “I can see you’re about to go nova. You’ve been on the bridge for so long even I’m sick of seeing you.”


Commander Depp looked ready to protest, then her expression transformed into one of weary humour.


“I guess I could use some R&R. Permission to sleep like a baby… so long as you call me before we translate.”


“I swear on my life,” Thorpe grinned. “Sweet dreams.”


Depp wove her way across the cramped bridge. Usually there were eight crew members sitting around the numerous stations. Today twenty-four people were crammed in here. There were half a dozen conversations happening at once.



The Mechanica had sent a number of its white-coated personnel to help refit the Ontario. They looked like mad scientists from some primitive fiction. All of them were sweating as they worked, aware they were representing Mars itself. The techs were integrating well with Thorpe’s crew and the Captain was toying with asking Mars to provide a couple of permanent staff.


“Captain,” Lieutenant Paul Edwards said as Thorpe joined him at the helm. “We’re approaching the hyper-gate. I thought you’d want to see this with your own eyes. The reports don’t do it justice.”


The image on their main viewer changed to a shot of the warp gate. It was slightly fuzzy – yet another teething problem faced by this new ship design – but clear enough for Thorpe to be chilled by what she saw.


The hyper-gate, one of two which created the only stable warp tunnel known to exist, was made up of four separate sections. Each section hung an exact distance from the others with gaps wide enough to fly a shuttle through. Together they resembled a broken stone wheel of awesome size. Carvings decorated each section. Thorpe went cold just looking at them.


Strange creatures, almost daemonic in appearance, leered at the approaching human starships. On one side were large, brutish-looking aliens with oversized jaws which sprouted teeth that could probably bite through Cogent armour. On the other were even more frightening beings, creatures that wore a mockery of the human form. Single cyclops eyes stared from rotten faces. Each of the cyclops aliens wore what might have been a horned helmet, unless the horns were growing directly from their skulls. The imagery appeared to be somewhat degraded, possibly by stellar radiation, so it was difficult to make out exact details.


It looked to Thorpe as though the two alien factions were engaged in some kind of war, or maybe – abominably – a psychotic dance.
“Gets you right here, doesn’t it,” a voice said at Thorpe’s ear. She turned to see Daniel May, the Mechanica supervisor, staring at the hyper-gate in fascination. He had one hand over his heart.


“I’m not known for my appreciation of alien art,” Thorpe replied. “Though I wonder who made this structure. Its function is thousands of years ahead of Imperial technology, yet the gate itself looks like it was carved from stone.”


“It is stone,” Edwards advised. “Our drones took enough scans to keep Terran scientists busy until the Rhana Dandra. We don’t recognise many of the elements used in its construction. My guess is it was carved from an asteroid and enhanced with technology so advanced we can’t recognise or detect it.”


“Imagine,” May breathed. “Before humanity sent its first rocket into orbit, someone was out here putting this thing together. We’ve got no idea how it works. All we know is it can send a vessel fifty light years in the space of seven minutes. The Mechanica will be studying this gate for years and I’ll be the project leader.”


“Lucky break for you,” Thorpe said, grinning at the man’s dreamy expression.


May tore his eyes from the screen long enough to glance at her. “The biggest project I’ve worked on so far is the targeting system for Saxon class fighters. I still can’t believe this incredible assignment came my way. To be part of something so special… I can’t sleep at night for wondering who or what built the hyper-gate. Maybe we’ll meet them some day.”



“Judging from the mug-shots they left behind, I hope not,” said Edwards.
Thorpe found herself assessing May. It wasn’t avarice in his eyes. Why would there be? The Terran Empire relied on trade instead of money, and you couldn’t very well trade a warp gate; it belonged to all species in the galaxy.


This was the excitement of a man staring into new horizons. For him, the galaxy was an enormous place filled with wonder. He’d make a good Navy officer, Thorpe found herself thinking. Exploration was what the Navy was all about. Maybe May could be the Ontario’s permanent attaché. He was easy enough on the eye, she thought slyly.


Her good mood slipped downwards when she looked back at the viewer. Those… things… in the carving were horrible on a primal level. There was a good chance their species were extinct by now. As she gazed into the single eye of a cyclops alien, Thorpe hoped they were long gone.


*


The next hour passed in a frenzy of activity. Everyone was smiling. The air practically thrummed with anticipation. Thorpe regretted that her friend and confidante Janice Depp could not be here to share it. Depp was still snoring her head off on deck four.


Thorpe and May were in the command cabin, examining the Ontario’s schematics, trying to track down a bug in the long-range communication system. Thorpe brought up a status display on her holographic desktop computer. It displayed a blueprint below the ship’s dedication.

STARSHIP ONTARIO, XMS 229389, CENTAUR CLASS LIGHT CRUISER
THIRD VESSEL IN HER CLASS, COMMISSIONED 005.M21, NEPTUNE SHIPYARD
“At the end of our exploring we will arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.”

“Nice,” said May.


“I think so too.” Thorpe paused for a moment. “Earlier, you made it sound like this project was a big leap for your career. What went right for you?”


“I assume you’re familiar with the Saxon F3A?”


“We’ve got twelve on board.”


“Then you’re aware of their electronic capabilities.”


Thorpe nodded. “They can engage forty targets in a 4D environment while compensating for stellar data. Pretty impressive.”


“Thank you. I suppose Solar Command thought so too. These Gellar shield modifications weren’t easy to make and they needed someone at the top of their game to work on them. They chose me because, well, at the moment I suppose I’m hot property.” He smiled at the idea. “I heard Doctor Gellar himself wanted this mission.”


“I fielded several requests from him. It seemed foregone, but there’s less than a year to the launch of the Fearless. His requests to leave the Endeavour Project were over-ruled by the Emperor. The requests kept coming, though. Doctor Gellar changes his mind for no-one.”


“A chance to work on the new flagship? Who else has a big enough ego to think he can turn that down?” The shared a laugh. “Seriously, the reality is the Endeavour Project is doomed without Gellar’s expertise. So the Mechanica looked to its B-team for this warp gate mission, and here I am.”


“Well, I for one am glad you’re on board.”


+Landing team to Captain Thorpe,+ a voice came across the vox.


“Thorpe here, Corporal Ventris.”


+Captain, we’ve finished our final preparations. My team just wanted to say one last thank you for this opportunity. Our friends from the Mechanica are climbing over themselves to be the first to set foot on Sarastus Prime.+



“You’re welcome,” Thorpe replied. “Tell them I share their enthusiasm. Have your team embark the landing craft and await my instructions. Thorpe out.”


Thorpe turned to May.


“Let’s get these last problems tracked down. I don’t want to send landing teams out without a guaranteed vox-link.”



Only a few minutes after they located the problem, engineering voxed the Captain directly.


“We’re all go with the Gellar field,” Thade reported, her voice alight with happiness. “Mr May’s program is running successfully.”


“Understood. Thorpe to Commander Depp: wake up, you Cetian sleeping-bug. You’re going to miss the fun.”


“Acknowledged,” a sleepy voice replied.


“All hands, this is the Captain,” Thorpe said. The Ontario caught her implied command and relayed the Captain’s voice throughout the ship. “Commence final preparations for hyper-realm translation. All non-essential personnel are to return to quarters and begin standard mind-blanking procedures. Senior staff to their posts. All stations go to blue alert. Good luck to you, and the One Christ bless us all. Thorpe out.”


May looked Thorpe in the eyes.


“This is it,” the Mechanica man said. “We’re writing a new chapter in human history. In a decade’s time, people will still be talking about what we did here.”


“Only a decade?” Thorpe replied. “I fully intend our mission to be remembered for the next ten thousand years!”


*


“Lexington to Ontario. Good hunting. We’ll see you in a few weeks.”
Captain Carlisle of the Starship Lexington was an older man, late eighties, who looked like a knight from some medieval fantasy. His face filled the entire viewscreen. The human lifespan was pretty long in the Terran Empire. In ages gone by, Carlisle would have passed for a man in his late forties were it not for his facial hair. The almost piteous jealousy written across his face could not be hidden by his impressive beard, which was the subject of good-natured humour within the Terran Navy.


“Don’t worry,” Thorpe said. “We’ll bring you a piece of the Atlantic Segment as a souvenir.”


“I look forward to it, Ellen. Lexington out.”


Carlisle’s bearded visage was replaced by an image of the hyper-gate. The stone structure hung in space, as inert as any lump of rock.


“All stations report readiness,” Thorpe ordered. The sections reported in one by one. Everything was green.


“Activate Gellar shield,” said the Captain. Moments later, the numbing headaches began, nature’s way of reminding the crew they were violating its laws.


“Status?” Thorpe said, looking askance at May. The Mechanica supervisor was hunched over a science console. He frowned for a moment, then smiled and nodded at the Captain.


“New Gellar frequencies are stable, Captain. We’re good to go.”


“Acknowledged. Engineering, activate the hyper-gate.”


“Understood,” Thade crackled across the vox. “Targeting the gate.



Charging empyrean pulse. Initiating pulse in three, two, one. Hit it.”
The Ontario seemed to tremble slightly, the motion almost beyond perception. Thorpe was becoming accustomed to her vessel’s behaviour. She had the impression the Ontario was in some kind of distress. The feeling passed after a moment.


“Hyper-gate is responding,” Thade said.


“Confirmed,” said May. “Sensors are reading a build-up of warp radiation. Gellar shield still holding.”


“Something’s happening to the gate,” Paul Edwards said. Everyone looked to the main viewer.


The horned figures carved into the stone seemed to be writhing. They weren’t actually moving – it looked as though their stone skin was melting, or wriggling, as if there was something alive beneath the surface.


“That doesn’t look good,” Depp said in Thorpe’s ear. “It never happened during unmanned probe trials.”


“Holy Christ,” Edwards said. “One of them just blinked!”


“It’s a visual disturbance caused by warp radiation,” said May. “Ignore it.”


“Gate is active,” Thade said over the vox. “Sensors indicate the presence of a wormhole.”


“Confirmed,” May said a moment later. He looked at Thorpe. “All indications show we’re safe to proceed.”


Thorpe tried to put the growing doubts from her mind.


“Take us in, Mr Edwards,” she said. “One hundred v.”


“Aye aye, Captain.” Edwards shunted power to the realdrive engines and the Ontario slid between the gate’s four sections. The Centaur class cruiser seemed to shimmer and vanish as it passed through an invisible event horizon.


Those monstrous one-eyed beings continued to writhe as though infested by flesh worms. Their movements did not show up on the Lexington’s sensors, which in any case had been focused on its departing sister ship.
Each of those stone figures was more than one hundred metres tall. The hyper-gate had been carved by unknown hands while Earth was fighting its first world war. Commander Depp had been right; the figures had never come to life in this way until now, the first manned flight through the hyper-gate. It was almost as though the stone figures were excited at the prospect of humans passing into their corridor through the hyper-realm… though such a thing could not be possible in any sane universe.


*


“Report,” Captain Ellen Thorpe said less than ten minutes later. “What the hell just happened?”


There was chaos on the bridge. Main power had failed in this area of the ship and the only light came from a number of holographic computer displays. People were still picking themselves up.


Casualty reports flowed in. Nobody had been killed or fatally injured, though several people were going to need more than vinegar and brown paper. The infirmary was receiving its first casualties.


“We’re restoring power to primary systems,” Thade reported from engineering. “Whatever that was, it did only minimal damage.”


May had a large bruise down the right side of his face from where he’d been thrown across the bridge, his flight terminating against the Captain’s chair. His weight had nearly broken Thorpe’s leg. He’d managed to drag himself back to his science station and was checking the sensor logs.


“Captain,” the Mechanica man reported, “I detected a large build-up of warp radiation outside our forward hull a moment before we hit the turbulence. It’s too soon to speculate, but my best guess is that our Gellar field amendments were somehow incompatible with the wormhole. We were creating a bow-wave of turbulence, like pushing snow with a bulldozer blade.”


“How is that possible?” Thorpe snapped. Her formerly tidy red hair hung down around her face. “Trials proved that travel through the hyper-gate was smoother and faster than a jump into the hyper-realm. Your modifications were supposed to improve things further.”


“I… I don’t know,” May admitted, scrolling through data on his portable terminal. “But it doesn’t seem to have caused too much damage, thank God. We should be able to correct this for our return journey.”


The bridge lights came back on. There was some muted cheering. Most of the crew looked bedraggled, like they’d been in a fight.


Thorpe limped to stand beside Paul Edwards at the helm.


“We made it through?”


“Affirmative, Captain,” Edwards replied, his fingers flying across the helm console. “We’re exactly where we wanted to… uh-oh.”


“What’s the problem, Lieutenant?”


“The stars,” Edwards said. “I don’t recognise the constellations, and this system only has six planetoids. There should be twelve.”


“Are the scanners working properly?”


“I’m running a diagnostic of sensors and all related sub-systems, Captain, but at first glance everything seems nominal. The ship is fine. It’s… well, it’s the galaxy that’s wrong.”


Ridiculous, Thorpe thought, though she didn’t say it.


“Check the gate. Make sure it’s still there.”


“Scanning. Yes, the gate is still there. I can’t explain this. The gate should have brought us into the Sarastus system. Instead, it’s brought us here… wherever here is.”


Thorpe looked to May. “This isn’t how I wanted to get things going.”
“Mr Edwards is right,” May replied. “We didn’t come out where we were supposed to. I can’t understand it! We made a number of test trips using unmanned drones. We should be approaching Sarastus by now, downloading telemetry from two drones, but Sarastus isn’t here and there are no drones in sensor range. Although… hold on, what’s this?”


“Report,” Depp said, an edge of frustration in the Commander’s voice.


“I’m reading something on long-ranged sensors. Maximantium construction. Four hundred metres in length.” May looked up. “It’s a ship.”


“Maximantium?” said Depp. “We’re the only ones who use that material.”


“Confirming May’s readings,” Edwards said. “I’ve found it. Definitely a starship. I’m also reading debris. Looks like they took some damage.”


“Identify that ship,” Thorpe said, “then hail them. Maybe they can tell us where the hell we are.”


“We need to get closer, Captain. They aren’t broadcasting transponder codes and they’ve suffered damage. Our sensors are not fully reliable at this range, given the stellar noise in this system.”


“Take us closer,” said Thorpe.


The Ontario shook itself and began to move forward. Planetoids danced around it, oblivious to the human drama unfolding before them.


The other vessel was a blackened lump of metal trailing a halo of shards. Ontario edged closer.


“No response to hails, Captain,” reported Ensign Singh from the comm station.


“Life signs?”


“None found,” said May. “Their power grid is down. All onboard systems are offline. We can’t restore them remotely.”


“Looks like a derelict, Captain.” Edwards turned in his chair to look at his superior. “Whatever happened, it’s long since over.”


“Astrometrics to the bridge,” a male voice said over the vox.


“Here,” said Thorpe.


“Captain, I thought we were supposed to be in the Atlantic Segment.”


“Aren’t we?”


“No, Captain. I don’t know what happened, but… we travelled further than expected. Captain, according to the star charts – and we had to check the deep space charts – we’ve jumped into the Naogeddon system.”


“Naogeddon?” Paul Edwards blurted out. “That’s impossible!”
May looked at Thorpe, not fully sure what was going on.


“Ontario, identify the Naogeddon system,” Thorpe said for the benefit of those who didn’t have galactic maps stored in their brain chips.


++Naogeddon is an uncharted solar system located within the Ghost Segment.++


“Oh Christ,” May said. “Ontario, where are we, and how far are we from Earth?”


++We are currently located within the Naogeddon system, Ghost Segment, co-ordinates 9992f3.2894e9.ef12399. Distance to Earth is approximately sixty-six thousand light years. Estimated travel time, assuming eight hundred hyper-jumps, is eleven hundred years sidereal.++


For a moment the bridge crew was silent. The only sound came from various consoles as they hummed happily to themselves, oblivious to the impossibility of what had happened.


“This is why I don’t take time off,” said Commander Janice Depp.


*


Further shocks were in store.


“The other vessel’s hull configuration matches a Terran Navy cruiser of the Centaur class,” Edwards said.


Several members of the bridge crew exchanged glances as curiosity overcame professionalism.


“At this point, nothing surprises me,” Thorpe said. “If someone got here before us, I want to know who they were and what happened to them. Deploy fighters, defensive spread. Keep scanning for any other vessels. Commander Depp, I want you to lead a boarding team. Take the Empire Guard; Jastrow and Ventris have alien combat experience.”


Depp nodded and began to head for the bridge exit, talking into her wrist vox as she went.


“I’d like to join the boarding team, Captain,” said May.


Thorpe nodded. May turned to follow the Commander from the bridge.


“Uh-oh,” Edwards said suddenly. “Captain, uh… I think we need to get out of here.”


“Really?” Thorpe said, unimpressed. She moved over to the helm. “Why would that be?”


“Because I’ve been running quantum-level hull scans, and they just identified that ship out there with a ninety-eight per cent probability. Captain, I don’t know how to explain this, but that ship… it’s ours. It’s the XMS Ontario.”


*


“Mission log, XMS Ontario, additional. Complications during our trip to a potential colony in the Atlantic Segment, two hundred light years from Earth, has seen my ship and its crew transported to the far side of the Milky Way. Repairs are underway but the crew is hurt and immensely shaken. Perhaps more distressingly, we have encountered a devastated ghost ship which is otherwise identical to the Ontario. I have sent a combined group of Navy officers, Empire Guard and Mechanica specialists to investigate. May the One Christ keep them safe.”


Flanked by Saxon class fighters, Depp’s transport shuttle made its approach to the stricken vessel. Up close, it did indeed appear to be a ruined Centaur. The vessel’s hull was blackened and corroded. It might have been drifting here for a thousand years. Some kind of rot had set in. What could do this to metres-thick power armour?


The Trojan was a small and bulky transport with barely enough room for its fourteen passengers. Everyone, Depp included, was clustered in the forward section, looking at the magnified image of their target through the forward viewer.


“Look at the damage,” May breathed. “Maximantium doesn’t rust and it’s resistant to all known forms of corrosion.”


“Damn thing looks sick if you ask me.” Jastrow was an Empire Guard specialist. His bulky armour only enhanced his muscular build.


“That really is our own ship?” Depp asked May. “How does that work?”


The Mechanica specialist was sweating in his space suit. It was a brilliant white, contrasting with the dour grey of the Navy and Guard armour. Nobody was wearing their helmets yet.


“According to quantum scans, that vessel has been here for four days. We measured the correct level of warp radiation given its expected decay rate over a four-day period. The ship matches our hull configuration and internal layout exactly. Our scans were quite conclusive.”


“Four days?” Depp mused. “Looks like it’s been rotting out here for centuries.”


“Yes,” Private Ventris said from where he’d pushed right to the front of the group. “It’s supposed to be our own ship, but we only arrived an hour ago, and we can’t be in two places at once. This is already the weirdest mission I’ve been on and I’ve been on quite a few.”


“I can’t explain any of it,” May sighed. “All I can offer is, strange things happen out here.”


“Strange,” echoed Jastrow. “Like crossing the galaxy in seven minutes? We’re in the Ghost Segment, man. Nobody’s ever been this far out. We were supposed to travel four goddamn sectors. We crossed three galactic Segments!”


“This is giving me a headache,” Master Engineer Thade said, pinching her temples. “Let’s just board that ship, retrieve the black box and get the hell out of here.”


“I like that plan,” said Jastrow. “Especially the last part. The goddamn Ghost segment, man! We’re gonna be famous.”


“We’ll compose memoires later,” Ventris said. “There’s work to do.”


The Trojan closed with its target, rotating to match the destroyed vessel’s attitude. Their fighter escort peeled off.


“Found an intact landing bay,” the shuttle pilot reported. “We’re going to have to blast our way in. Suit up and hold on. Charging plasma blaster.”
May took a breath and pulled his helmet down over his head, sealing himself into a claustrophobic, artificial world.


*


“We’ve scanned every planet in this system,” Edwards told his Captain. “Our sensors don’t have the resolution for full sweeps of the furthest worlds, but we have been able to determine that none of the planets are currently inhabited. No plasma trails in space, no artificial debris, no power signatures, no other vessels or orbital platforms.”


“We’ve drawn a blank.”


“Not quite, Captain. One of the worlds appears to have been home to intelligent life at some point in the distant past. There are metallic signatures, all inert, and several large structures on the surface. No water, no life traces. It’s one hundred per cent desert – one hundred per cent dead.”


“A pity we didn’t bring an archaeology team with us. Think of the archaeotech lying down there, the things we could learn about that civilisation.”


“Right. But I’m still no closer to any answers about what, er, what we were doing in this system, or how we came to be here.”


“Keep searching. I’m going to see if we can send a message back through the gate. There are people who need to know about this.”


“Understood. Tell them we send cuddles.”


Thorpe laughed as she headed for her cabin, but the gesture was forced. She felt sick from everything that had happened so far. Hopefully none of the other crew members had been affected in this way.


It was more than the unconscious migraine of the Gellar field. Sometimes crash-dives to and from the hyper-realm affected humans in strange ways. At least no-one had reported hallucinations; there were ghoulish stories kept secret from the lower ranks, told only during meetings between Captains and Admirals – and even then spoken quietly, in haunted tones, with alcohol drawing a wavering line between excitement and fear.


*


Their drop-ramp hit the deck with a clang that might have sounded like the end of the world, had the vacuum not swallowed all sound.


Fourteen light-beams – six Empire Guard gun lamps, eight Terran Navy torches – played across the decrepit walls of landing bay one. The walls were encrusted with burn marks and what looked very much like mottles of rust… or blood.


Corporal Ventris took point as an arrowhead of Empire Guard veterans moved into the twisted mockery of a landing bay. The Navy and Mechanica people were not far behind, carrying lights and sensor equipment. Little balls of light, lumen-globes, drifted ahead of the teams as they spread out. The lumen glows revealed more devastation.


“I love what we did with the place,” Depp said as she glanced at what might have been a blood stain splashed up one wall.


“It looks like something out of a nightmare.” Thade played her torch beam across a console. The screen was absent without backup power or even an in-built energy cell to keep the holographic projection alive. The tactile interface built into the console was smeared with some kind of gunk. “I glad we aren’t heading for engineering. If I saw it like this, I’d get panic attacks every time I turned up for my shift.”


“Provided we don’t let this happen again,” said Ventris. The remark ended any attempts at conversation.


Equipment hung in the air. A caffeine mug turned slowly. This ruined version of the Ontario had already been depressurised, so nothing further had been vented into space when the Trojan pilot burned his way through the bay doors.


“We head for the bridge,” Depp said. “We locate the black box then return to the landing bay. Let’s move.”


Fourteen humans lumbered through the darkened ship. All anyone could hear was their own breathing. Not only were their space suits cumbersome, their grav-boots clamped hard every time their feet touched deck plating. Only the Empire Guard were able to move freely. Their Cogent armour offered total mobility. All of the soldiers had fought either Alnerans or Croatalid and were not quite so daunted by ghoulish appearance of “their” ship. The Empire Guard had seen some pretty scary stuff in their time and this situation, while shocking and intimidating, was another day’s work to most of them.


“Anyone else feel like they’re inside the belly of the beast?” said Jastrow.


“Shut up,” Ventris shot back.


“Come on, man! This place is so goddamn creepy it’s perfect. I got plenty of ideas for my new novel.”


“I hope this one is better than the last few, which were basically crap.”


“Harsh, man,” Jastrow grinned. “You have no poetry in your soul.”


“Is that what I needed? I tried alcohol. It didn’t work.”


Jastrow chuckled. A few soldiers smiled at the familiar banter.
May and his subordinate, Lucy Dale, stood out a light-year in their white suits. They were poring over May’s terminal, a computer the size of a piece of A4 paper, which displayed details of the Ontario they were exploring. A terminal of that size had serious computing power. It was currently mapping their progress and comparing their sensor readings with the original Ontario’s schematics. There were some variations.


“See,” May said, “this section here was decompressed in an explosion. Looks like a plasma conduit burst.”


Dale nodded as May pointed various items out to her.


“Could it have been caused by weapons fire?” Depp asked, putting a hand onto her holstered pistol.


“I’m not reading energy weapon discharges on any frequency known to the Terran Empire. If it was battle-damaged, whoever pulled the trigger was using a kind of technology we aren’t familiar with. It’s more likely to be due to a lack of maintenance.”


“That’s weird for a start,” said May. “I can’t imagine Lieutenant Thade leaving anything alone long enough for it to blow up.”


Thade started to reply but was interrupted.


“Did you hear something?” asked Ensign Bonjani, the boarding team’s medic.
Everyone paused.


“No. What was it, ma’am?” Private Stenton of the Empire Guard asked politely.


“I don’t know. It sounded like… well, like a voice.”


“Scanning again for life readings,” May said. People clustered around his terminal until he shooed them away. “Nobody aboard but us.”


“Maybe structural fatigue caused the sound,” Ventris offered. “Metal shifting can sometimes sound like a human voice.” Everyone looked at him. “Well, it can from a distance… through a lot of bulkheads.”


“Maybe,” said Bonjani. “I could have sworn I heard someone crying out.”


“Shit, man, that’s just weird,” said Jastrow.


“Checking,” May said. He pressed some buttons on his terminal and the display changed to a map of the ruined Ontario. “That’s odd. There’s a section two decks down that seems to be somehow different, like it’s bulging outwards. I thought I just saw a movement trace there.”


“It’s probably just a piece of equipment that got jarred when we blasted our way aboard,” Dale commented.


“Want us to go check it out?” Jastrow asked Depp. “I ain’t standing around if someone needs help.”


Depp and Bonjani exchanged a long look.


“Yes,” said Depp. “Jastrow, Ventris, Bonjani, take Dale with you.”


“Me?” said Lucy Dale, her face going as white as her space suit. “What am I gonna do?”


“You’ve got a terminal. You can scan the vessel’s structure and locate the source of that noise.”


“We’ll look after you,” said Ventris.


Dale looked ready to protest. Then, taking in Ventris’ reassuring smile, she visibly relaxed.


“Okay, but if some weird Ghost Segment alien attacks us, everybody present owes me a drink.”


Although that broke the tension for a moment, as Depp watched the four team members make their way off into the darkness, the claustrophobia seemed to close in again.


“Let’s go,” she told her remaining team.


*


“Shit shit shit,” Dale kept saying. Ventris thought he’d never seen anyone so scared. To be honest, he couldn’t blame the Mechanica woman. It was eerie as hell here. The team could feel the ruined Ontario shivering as though the metal of its hull was undergoing some kind of stress… or torment. He couldn’t shake the idea that the ship was suffering. Its rudimentary intelligence wasn’t capable of such a thing, it was designed to process instructions with minimal social interaction. Ventris shook himself. Travelling through the hyper-realm did strange things to your perception.


They were entering the crew quarters. Most of the doors were open and as the lumen-globes drifted by their lights revealed wrecked rooms whose interiors were smeared with gunk and corruption.


“If this is our ship, where the hell are… we?” Ventris wondered, prodding a half-open door with his assault carbine.


“I can’t believe all this happened in the space of four days,” said Jastrow. He clutched his webber like it was some kind of lifeline. “This whole ship has been turned upside down. What the hell is that stuff growing over everything?”



Dale was so scared she kept forgetting to check her terminal. It was an exact duplicate of May’s, except Dale’s was a lovely shade of pink. Ventris nudged her, making her jump, and nodded at her terminal.


“Sorry,” she said. “I keep thinking I see things.”


“It’s just the shadows as we move our lights around.”


“No, it’s more than that. I keep thinking I see people in the rooms.”


“People?” Jastrow said, halting his advance. He looked around. “There’s nobody on board. Nobody alive.”


“I mean silhouettes. Shadow-people. It isn’t just the usual flickering shadowplay. They seem solid. Real. They rise up and seem to fall back into the darkness before they can reach out to us.”


“Goddamn,” Jastrow breathed. “Okay, no more looking in darkened rooms for you. Keep your eyes on the damn scanner and spare me a heart attack.”


“Okay,” said Dale.


“Oh, Christ,” Ventris said, “what’s this?”


He was looking into one of the crew quarters. The filth in here was inches deep. Something rose out of the murk. It seemed to writhe in Ventris’ torch beam as though trying to escape from the light.
Jastrow and Dale joined him – and they both flinched back.


“Holy Cross,” Jastrow said. “What is that? What the drok is that? Some kind of drokking shrine?”


“I don’t know. Hey, over here.” Ventris motioned to one of the lumen-globes, which banked around as if curious, then flitted across to the soldier.

"In there.”


The globe moved slowly into the room.


“God!” said Dale. “Those are skulls!”


The pile of gunk they were looking at surrounded three circular objects, one on top, two below. Empty eye sockets stared out at the humans. Strange runes were branded into the foreheads: two of them looked like crudely carved eight-pointed stars, while the rune on the top skull repeated the three-circle symbol. A candle of sickening hue rose from the top of the pile but it wasn’t lit, there being no oxygen in the vacuum.


Dale retched suddenly. The Guardsmen whirled, weapons ready.


“I’m okay,” Dale said, waving the data-slate at them. “I’m just… the readings say that candle is made from human ear wax.”


“Come back,” Ventris told the lumen-globe. It obediently zipped out of the room and hovered behind them. Ventris clamped his rifle to the mag-holster on his thigh and dragged the cabin door shut, sealing the filthy altar within.


“Jastrow to Ontario. You guys getting this?”


+Yes,+ Captain Thorpe’s voice came back. The sound quality was not good. +I’ll alert the other team.+


Ventris turned to see the fourth member of his team standing halfway back along the corridor. Bonjani was carrying a medical case in one hand and had the other arm protectively across her chest. She peered fearfully into one of the rooms. The Guardsman jogged easily over to her, dodging floating debris and a data-slate displaying the latest edition of a Navy magazine.


“Everything all right?” he said. Bonjani flinched at his voice.


“This is it,” she said. “This is where the noise came from.”


Ventris peered into the room and played his gun-lamp around its interior. These were the quarters assigned to Daniel May of the Mechanica. It was as much of a mess as the other rooms but Ventris saw no-one and nothing that would make any kind of noise. There was no power running to this section and independent items such as May’s small music player, squatting atop a desk that seemed brown with age, appeared to be switched off. The cabin window had been frosted over by that greenish-coloured shit.



Whatever that stuff was, it was everywhere.


“Ventris to Ontario. Are you still reading us, over?”


+Corporal, this is Lieutenant Singh,+ the vox officer’s voice came back. Static literally howled, almost drowning the man’s voice. It was an eerie sound, as if Ventris had established vox-link to a man in Hell. +There’s… image and… sound. Some… interference. Over.+


“Are you reading any kind of movement apart from our teams, over?”
Static swirled along the vox-channel.


+…no non-human …signs. Everything… normal, just floating debris…+


“I thought there was no such thing as static using our super new vox technology?” Jastrow said. “That didn’t sound like anything I’ve heard before. Sounded like the howling of the damned. Aw, drok this.”
Nobody said anything for a moment.


“How can you be sure the voice came from this room?” Ventris asked the medic.


“Because it just told me so,” said Bonjani.

End of Part One
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post #2 of 6 (permalink) Old 08-05-12, 08:43 PM Thread Starter
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NOTE: A 20K Timeline is available on my website Imperial Literature:

IMPERIAL LITERATURE 20K TIMELINE.

WARNING - There are spoilers ahoy in the timeline, albeit in a trimmed down form, and my current, extensive overhaul of the existing 20K stories now contradicts some events in the timeline. The most obvious change is going from "M20" on the timeline to "M21" in the stories. The timeline will be updated at some point in the future.

Please stop by and look at some of the fiction on Imp Lit. The site is almost dead while I work on getting a new version set up, and we need any comments and new stories we can get.

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post #3 of 6 (permalink) Old 08-12-12, 02:25 PM
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Good handling of the possible temporal loop so far.

I am looking forward to the next part.
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post #4 of 6 (permalink) Old 09-01-12, 04:53 PM Thread Starter
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Hi mate, thank you for the feedback. Here is part two.

PART TWO

“Mission log, XMS Ontario, additional. We have lost contact with our boarding teams due to interference on all vox channels. Our new technology is supposed to be proof against all known forms of jamming; the engineering and communication departments are unable to provide an explanation at this time. We also have a new problem preventing us from sending a second boarding team: members of my crew are coming down with some form of sickness which our chirurgeon cannot identify.”


Thorpe strode onto the bridge from her planning room. Haggard faces returned her look.

“Any good news?” the Captain said as she returned to the command throne.

“Some,” Paul Edwards said. He was too busy entering calculations into his console to look back. “We’ll have empyrean pulse capability within two hours and the engineering teams have already completed May’s Gellar shield modifications. We’ll be able to activate the warp gate and pedal ourselves home.”

“None of that matters if we’re quarantined here,” Thorpe said. That got Edwards’ attention. He swivelled in his seat.

“Quarantined –? We’re beyond the reach of help out here, Ma’am. We need to get back to the Empire.”

Others were pausing in their work to watch the debate.

“I respect your position, Lieutenant, but we don’t know the characteristics of this infection. Our boarding teams reported some form of corruption had infected the other ship. That ship is ours, Mr Edwards. We don’t know how the infection started in the first place; we don’t know how it spreads. Until we do, I am not willing to bring some alien plague back to the Terran Empire.”

Edwards looked at her for a moment then turned back to his console. The remaining bridge crew went about their tasks, not certain whether their best interests were being served but too well-trained to dispute the word of their captain.

Thorpe hit the vox button on her armrest.

“Medical bay, this is the Captain. How are your patients?”

“Uh, not good, Captain,” came the voice of a male orderly.

“Where’s Doctor Laintz?”

“He fell ill about thirty minutes ago. You’re speaking to Hepworth.”

Hepworth was one of the crew’s newest members. If he was in charge, they were in trouble.

“I have full confidence in you, Mr Hepworth. You’ll work this out.”

“I… thank you, Captain.”

“I need a preliminary report in thirty minutes. Have a data-scribe -”

“Begging your pardon, ma’am, I can give you something now.”

Thorpe looked around for Depp, the gesture unconscious and ingrained.

“All right, let’s hear it.”

“I’ve had a chance to review some of the medical data sold to Solar Command by scouts from Alaitoc. I was going to dismiss the data at first: when you read it, you get the impression their record keepers were more interested in telling a good story than providing facts… but something stuck in my mind that helped me out just now. There are references hidden in the narrative to a disease which transmutes the patient into… er, into some kind of monster.”

“A monster?” Thorpe growled. She could tell that the bridge crew were listening, despite the workload they were struggling with. “You’re telling me we’re under the influence of an Eldar myth?”

“The Eldar database doesn’t make for light reading, Captain. It’s couched in metaphor, kind of like ancient Tokyan. Even the Ontario is confused. I’m having to take my best guess.”

“You have my authority to pull personnel from the science departments. Whoever you need. Keep me updated. Thorpe out.”

Thorpe thumbed a display button. Images of the sick crew members displayed in the air before her. Lines of text scrolled beside the images as the medical computer pointed out relevant and not so relevant data, none of which was useful to the Captain. Then something caught her eye.

Common symptoms include indications of high fever, dizziness, malaise, auditory and visual hallucinations, confusion and convulsions. All subjects so far become comatose within two to three hours of displaying their first symptoms. There are indications some of the comatose patients are dreaming heavily. These dreams do not seem to be pleasant. Symptoms are proving treatment-resistant and we have been unable to wake a single patient from their comas.

Thorpe highlighted some text with a wave of her hand. The text enlarged and more information appeared.

The patient reported hearing voices as if from a great distance. He wasn’t sure if the voices were speaking Chinasian English, some other Terran language or something alien. The patient reported the sounds of the words seemed somehow familiar, perhaps even comforting, without the patient understanding why. When asked why he had attacked his crewmates, the patient claimed that their eyes were “blanked out”; he later seemed to contradict this by stating that those same individuals appeared to have only one eye, leering from the centres of their faces as if looking “directly into [his] soul”. The subject lapsed into a coma several minutes after making this statement and has not currently regained consciousness.

She read through more reports.

“How come the medicae team can’t wake them from their comas?” the Captain murmured. Something seemed familiar about the reports.

One eye…

Edwards came to the same conclusion as the Captain at the same time.

“Captain, the carvings on the warp gate…”

“Put it on the viewer.”

They looked at a staticky image of the warp-gate. Monsters loomed, their appearance blurred by the sensor resolution.

“Clarify the image.”

“I can’t Captain. Something’s… uh, something’s wrong with the sensors.”

“Ontario,” said Thorpe. “Status report, external aft sensors.”

+ Sensors are functioning normally functioning normally. Sensors are. +

“Sounds like the ship caught a virus too,” the vox officer said.

Ellen Thorpe looked at the bulkheads around her. As the officer’s flippant words echoed in her mind, she found herself wondering whether there was any truth to them.

After all, something had happened to the other ship…

*

“I was walking through a graveyard one time,” Lieutenant Thade told her team as they navigated through the gloom of an equipment-choked corridor, “when I came across a man squatting by a grave. ‘Morning,’ I said to him. ‘Nope, just taking a dump,’ the man replied.”

There was no laughter in the haunted corridors of the second Ontario.

“Thade, people have been telling that one since the Big Bang.”

“Keep it down, guys.” Janice Depp had unholstered her pistol by this point, a standard-issue Breta 12mm. A twenty-five round magazine might have seemed like a lot of shots under ordinary circumstances. Out here, Depp would have preferred an assault cannon.

The lights were playing havoc with her peripheral vision. She kept seeing figures rising in the gloom, only for them to retreat before her torchlight. Even the steady glow of the lumen-globes was creating phantoms, something they have been specifically designed not to do. It gave the weird impression that if the boarding team switched their lights off, the darkness would close in and crush them.

The team made their way along empty, silent walkways. Cables and ceiling panels hung loose. Some kind of disgusting crud – which was now registering as toxic if ingested, as if that was supposed to be a surprise – covered every surface.

“Wow,” one of the Guard soldiers said. Depp turned to see Private Thames training his gun-lamp on one of the walls. “Looks like we had a poet in our midst. Or have.”

Depp moved forward join the people clustering be the wall.

There was a patch of metal free of scum. Something was scratched into the bulkhead. It was difficult to read in the shifting light.

As I walked towards the fortress that wasn’t there

Smiling at the skulls as they smiled back

The flies were eating my tongue and mouth

The fortress was in front of me wherever I turned

I wish I was back in the Garden

My prison where I am free


“It’s a poem,” Depp said, surprised and chilled in equal measure. “Looks like someone was suffering from CO2 poisoning.”

“Why is that the only place where this shit isn’t growing?” said Private Thames.

Nobody had an answer for that.

Depp glanced both ways down the corridor. Everything was still and dark.

“I must have got turned around,” she said. “Every damn corridor looks the same with this crap growing in it. May, where are we?”

“We’re on Deck B. One more level and we’re on the bridge.” May couldn’t take his eyes off the scanner. Depp wondered if he was merely clinging to the light, or trying to drown himself in a world of digital logic to keep the fear at bay.

“Still no lifesigns?” asked Private Thames. He was clutching his gun to his chest and looking around with wide eyes.

“No. I can’t identify the residue on the walls and floor either. All I can say is, we should be glad we’re wearing environment suits.”

They turned a corner.

“Access point four,” Depp and May said at the same time. They looked at one another.

“Bugger me!” Thames cried out, startling his colleagues. “Come and look at this bloody thing!”

“Stop drokking looking for things,” Depp said.

The team gathered round. A cable had been severed from the ceiling and had been formed into a small noose. A little doll was hanging by its neck. Something dark stained the front of the doll’s dress.

“Our welcoming committee,” May said dryly.

“If your scanner says that’s blood,” Thade told him, “I’m jumping out of the nearest airlock and swimming home.”

“Stay cool, guys,” said Depp. “We only have one more deck to go. Then we’re out of here.”

“What did you say?” Thames said to the Navy woman standing next to him – a technician called Lisa Trinian.

“Nothing. I just swore under my breath.”

“I thought you told me to count something. Count what?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Trinian protested.

“Count the seven?”

Everyone turned to look at Robert Nixon. The scrawny young crewman rarely spoke, more down to a lack of confidence than anything else, but he could disassemble a black box in thirty seconds flat so he’d made the team.

“That’s it,” said Thames. “Was it you mucking around? It can’t have been you. It sounded like a woman’s voice.”

“I thought it was a man,” Nixon replied. “Really deep, throaty voice. More of a gurgle.”

“That’s not how I heard it.”

“I didn’t hear anything,” said Depp. “Bridge. Now. Double-time it, people.”

The Navy team tried to waddle faster; their Empire Guard escorts had to slow down for them to catch up.

“Can we restore artificial gravity?” asked Depp. “This is starting to piss me off.”

“From the bridge, yes,” said Thade. “Provided the systems haven’t degraded in the… uh, the next four days.”

“This is insane,” Thames muttered. “It’s my first gig with the Navy. Is this the kind of thing you do every day?”

“If it’s frightening and bizarre, it’s another day in the Terran Navy,” Depp said with a tired smile.

*
Private Ventris was in a devastated version of May’s quarters with Bonjani. Under normal circumstances his playful humour at being alone with a woman would have prompted some of his usual charming banter. There was no boorish behaviour in him at all, which meant he might have seduced Bonjani without actually meaning to.

It was an age of sexual freedom, had been for hundreds of years, and that freedom had led to the casting off of sexist or sex-obsessional behaviour. Unfortunately for Bonjani and Ventris, circumstances weren’t normal. No element of sexual desire came into it. There was a time and a place for that stuff. Humanity had quite simply grown up.

Bonjani was supposed to be the medic but her mind was in another star system. Ventris had her sitting down on a table in the centre of May’s quarters. He’d opened her equipment case and was looking for something that might help, or at least something that his gloves could work with. To be honest, he didn’t have a clue about injuries to the mind. The Empire Guard spent much of their training building themselves up mentally. It was the only way to keep your sanity from blasting away in this galaxy of terrors. How could he impart that to a Navy crewman in the space of only a few minutes?

“These gloves are doing my head in,” Ventris said as he fumbled yet another diffuser. He dearly wanted to take his armour off. If he’d done that, he would have died in the vacuum of space. Depp’s team hadn’t yet restored the ship’s environment systems, if such a thing was still possible.

Jastrow stuck his head around the doorframe.

“You guys ok?”

“We’ll be a few minutes.”

“Christ,” Jastrow said and disappeared. Ventris heard him arguing with Dale less than a minute later. The pair sounded like a married couple. The subject of their argument was not the point; it was simply a way of venting aggression, of allowing adrenaline to replace fear. Humanity might have evolved in the twenty thousand years since the One Christ had lived and died for the first time, but some elements of human psychology remained the same.

“Tell me again what the voice said,” Ventris said.

“He told me to count to seven… something like that. I can’t quite hear them yet.” Bonjani was like a zombie. Ventris didn’t know her very well but he had heard people talking about her. She was a well-liked, lively member of the Ontario’s crew. There had been no prior displays of psychotic behaviour. Psychosis could be cured by neural realignment. It wasn’t painful or difficult and the medical procedure was only supposed to take half an hour. There was clearly no way to deliver such treatment to her now, which meant they had to babysit her until they got back to the Empire.

“Them? I thought you said it was one voice.”

Silence.

“Bonjani? Can you hear me?”

“The Garden…”

“The what? I’m trying to help you, Ensign.”

“All are welcome in the Grandfather’s Garden,” Bonjani whispered.

Ventris sat back on his haunches.

“What did you say?”

“I said the voice was faint… like it was coming from underground.”

“That’s not what you said.”

Bonjani seemed to come alive somewhat.

“Corporal Ventris, as the owner of my own lips, I can assure you which words came from between them.”

“All right. But we’re aboard a starship, Ensign. How could the words be coming from underground?”

“Then it came from the walls! I don’t know, Ventris, it sounded distant somehow, muffled!”

“Whose voice was it? Did you recognise it?”

“It might have been May’s. What’s with the questions? I want to get out of here.”

“I think that’s a good idea. Don’t worry, Ensign, we’ll get you back to the shuttle.” Ventris hit the vox button on his left wrist. “Jastrow, Dale, get back here ASAFP. Screw the movement readings. It’s clocking out time.”

“Acknowledged,” the others crackled back, sounding immensely relieved.

“Commander Depp, this is Private Ventris. We’re heading back to the shuttle. Bonjani needs medical attention. Over.”

Silence.

“Commander Depp, please come in. This is Ventris. Over.”

Silence.

“He offers you fruit from his Garden of Delights,” Bonjani said to herself. “Bite deep to the rotten core.”

“Landing team to the Starship Ontario. We have a medical emergency. Please respond. Over.”

There was no reply from the ship.

“Damn it,” the young soldier growled.

“Try the recorder,” Bonjani said. “You’ll find your answers there.”

“What recorder? Oh, I remember.” Ventris strode across to May’s vox recorder to humour Bonjani and give the Ontario time to fix whatever communication problems they were having. He pushed the playback button. To his surprise, the device hooked up to the wireless receiver built into Ventris’ vox unit, even though the vox recorder wasn’t registering as powered on.

“…observations of their movements indicate they writhe like maggots,” May’s voice slithered in Ventris’ ears. There was something slobbery, like he was working his mouth around some kind of obstruction. “I didn’t know human biology could be so entertaining… oi! Oi! I’ve got a knife for you, Janice. A knife. You like my knife? I can put it in you again and again… oh, see his little children crawling in your wounds -”

“Holy drok,” Ventris said, punching the recorder’s cancel button. “Ventris to Commander Depp. Over.”

Silence.

“Drok! Wait here, Bonjani.”

He strode over to the doorway. Raised voices were coming from the end of the corridor but not across the vox. How could he hear them? They were in a vacuum. Suddenly the readouts on his suit’s HUD indicated that the ship’s environment was being restored. A breathable atmosphere! Depp’s team must have reached the bridge and worked their magic. Thank Christ for the Martian Mechanica.

Ventris uncoupled his helmet. The air stank so bad it almost made him gag. He could hear Dale shouting, her voice muffled by her helmet. She sounded hysterical. Something crashed to the ground. Ventris quickly replaced his helmet, which was made of maximantium armour, and moved into the corridor.

“Why don’t you two just get married and be –”

The Empire Guard stopped short.

“Oh God,” he said at the sight before him. “Oh my God.”

*

The bridge slurped and lurched its way to life. The lights rose, enabling all of the boarding team to see the shocking condition of the room. As the wall-mounted lumen strips were caked in muck, the light had a ruddy cast to it which was not quite countered by the five globes accompanying the landing party. It was like being trapped within a rotten bowel. Everything stank. It wasn’t so much a smell as an unexpected and unprecedented assault on their senses. The boarding team had initially removed their helmets and they all hastened to put them back on.

None of the holo-screens came on but some of the fixed display panels did. Those which were not cracked or completely covered in filth began to display obscenities. Every member of the landing team flinched away from them.

“This is it,” said Nixon, moving over to the engineering console. “In order to access the ship’s black box, we need to input a code using this terminal. Oh God, there’s a pict of a rotting corpse on the screen.”

Depp gently moved him aside. “It’s only a dead body, for – oh Christ, that’s nasty. Who would take a pict like that… and how do we get rid of it so we can input the command?”

“I can hear something,” said Thade.

They all heard it. A buzz, numbing in its scale and intensity, arose around them. It penetrated their helmets and even the vox channel began to vibrate in sympathy.

“Hurry up, you two!” Depp screamed to the Nixon and May, who were physically trying to dismantle the black box console.
Flies were emerging from cracks and crevices in the hull. They came from between consoles, from the rips in leather chairs, from the floors. More seemed to hatch from the gore on the walls and ceiling. Within moments the bridge was a mad whirlwind of flying bodies.

“They’re big bastards!” a male voice shouted.

Depp could hardly hear him, the buzzing was so loud. The force of tiny bodies hitting her was like a hailstorm. The Commander overbalanced and landed on her arse.

“Shit!”

The Ontario crew flailed around the bridge, swiping at clouds of flies.

“They’re gonna breach my suit!” May shouted. “Come on, Rich, get the synchroniser unit out of my way!”

“I can’t! I can’t bloody see!”

Depp tried to claw her way over to him but her visor was blacked out with crawling flies. She wiped them away, smearing their innards across her helmet.

One of the Empire Guard opened fire with his assault rifle. The sound was amazingly loud; these guns were built to kill armoured, hulking aliens, and the manufacturers didn’t mess about.

Bullets thundered across the bridge, hitting the ceiling and a few consoles. Several rounds punched through the suit of Ensign Clay. Depp heard the young woman scream for one short moment, then the flies were buzzing louder than ever as if excited by the Ensign’s pointless death.

“Someone’s down!” a Guardsman shouted and the vox came alive with cries, orders and curses.

“Hold your fire!” Depp yelled. “Clay’s down, friendly fire! Fingers off triggers!”

“She said hold your fire!” Private Thames roared. “You just webbed me, you thick twat!”

Commander Depp was too exhausted to move. Fighting the flies was like wrestling in treacle – at least, she guessed so, having never tried it. Her suit’s cooling system was working hard to keep her temperature down. As soon as she stopped moving the flies crawling across her became more restful, less agitated. She felt them stop burrowing into the weak points of her armoured space suit.

“Everyone relax!” she yelled. “Stop resisting! I think they just want our attention!”

“What the fong?” someone snapped back.

“Do it! All of you! Stop resisting them!”

Cursing, panting, some in tears, the boarding team lay where they had fallen. At first Depp thought she’d made a horrible mistake. Then, after about half a minute, the flies were definitely calming down. They started to retreat from the prone humans and form a swarm in the air. It felt like Depp was being unwrapped from a hot and hateful blanket. The Commander got to her feet and the others followed; all except Thames, who had indeed taken a direct hit from a webber. His arms were glued to his side and the glue had fixed him to the ground where he’d fallen. It was barely possible to see the glue for the hundreds of writhing flies that were stuck in it.

Private Dawkins dropped his webber and knelt beside Thames, unhooking a can of solvent from his belt. Dawkins was mumbling apologies.

“Twat,” Thames said again.

May and Nixon rushed back to their work, taking full advantage of the lull. Whatever else could be said of those two, they got the job done.

Flies swarmed overhead. There must have been thousands of them. The sight reminded Depp of clouds of fish swimming through the Caribbean, trying to avoid predators. She couldn’t believe she had nearly been killed by alien flies. That kind of death wouldn’t make it onto the Roll of Honour.

“What do you want?” she asked the cloud. People looked at her as if she was mad.

“You’re trying to communicate with us, aren’t you?” Depp said to the flies. “We are not your enemies. Where are the crew of this ship? What happened here?”

“I must be suffering from oxygen starvation,” Thames said as Dawkins helped him up. “I thought I saw her talking to the bloody flies!”

A lone, wounded fly crawled across Depp’s faceplate. She snatched it in one hand and held it up. It was a horrible mixture of green and cyan. Gore mottled its hair. There was some kind of marking on its back. Three circles, forming a triangle. It was almost possible to see skulls inside the circular markings. It was pretty shocking; she let it go and it zagged across the room to join its kin.

The flies formed themselves into four columns, reminiscent of whirlwinds. Something began to happen. The flies were clustering themselves into humanoid shapes, creating mocking silhouettes of the human form.

“Just another day in the Navy?” Thames said to Depp.

*

Whatever it was, the creature was as hostile to humans as hell to an iceberg.

The humanoid thing was in the process of attacking Lucy Dale. It hit her with a lazy, back-handed swipe, throwing her across the corridor. Dale screamed as she hit the wall so hard her suit cracked.

Meanwhile, Jastrow was on his knees, surrounded by a morass of flies. They actually seemed to be attacking him. The drone of their wings was so loud it seemed to core Ventris’ head through his ears.

“For all mankind!” the Private roared as he brought his rifle up to fire.

Then the humanoid moved closer so he could see it properly. Ventris was so scared he almost dropped his gun.
It was taller than a man and its flesh was the colour of a dead man’s rotting teeth. Its mouth opened wider than a human’s to reveal a dried-up, blackened tongue, and fangs that looked more like unevenly-planted tombstones.

“Holy shit!” said Ventris.

The alien let loose a cry that almost tore the Empire Guard’s soul from his body. The young man whirled to one side, barely side-stepping a stream of green vomit that projected from the creature’s throat and disappeared into the darkness. More flies rose up from around the alien and began to swarm towards Ventris. They hit him hard.

Ventris fell backwards, screaming, and pulled the trigger.

The four-pointed star of fire that burst from Ventris’ gun seemed to fill up half the corridor. Rounds rattled through the cloud of flies and into the humanoid creature beyond. It was shockingly loud, far more so than the buzz of the flies, which were scattering away to reform for another attack.

“Ventris to Depp! Ventris to Depp! Hostiles encountered, I repeat, it’s one of those things from the warp gate –”

The flies were upon him again.

Ventris rolled, yelling, frantic, slamming his visor closed. Little bodies broke beneath him. He got to his knees and the flies knocked him back down, their buffeting as effective as a high wind.

“Little bastards! Have some of this!”

He switched the rifle to shotgun mode. Twenty miniature scatter shells were loaded into the underslung shotgun barrel. Ventris pumped the barrel and let rip. The shells were intended to rend flesh and batter light armour. They ripped swathes of flies from the air. Within moments the soldier had torn enough of a hole through them to see the alien monstrosity lumbering towards him.

“Jesus Hogarth Christ on a flying cloud!”

Ventris switched back to armour piercing mode and punched a stream of bullets into the alien. It roared as AP rounds thunked into its flesh. Flies swarmed helplessly. Ventris watched in disgust as the alien’s skin began to stretch and tear beneath bullet impacts. Organs poked out. More flies came out too. So did some organs and something that looked like excrement, slopping to the corridor floor with a sound Ventris would probably never forget.

The Private got to his feet and backed up, still firing.

“Jastrow! Jastrow! Get Dale and let’s haul arse!”

The humanoid alien didn’t seem to give a toss about the bullets smacking into it. Shots bounced off its eye and barely scratched the horn growing from its head.

It kept coming. The remaining flies fled from Ventris and retreated towards their master.

“Drokking die, you ugly sod!”

The alien roared. There was something wrong with it… it was like it wasn’t connected to the reality around it. The alien shimmered like a mirage in a heatwave. It lowered its head, horn pointing towards the Empire Guard. Ventris got the impression the alien would like nothing more than to stick that horn in his guts.

“Die! Die!” Ventris hammered the alien with bullets. It reached him and snatched the AP-12 rifle from him. It snapped the gun in two, then hurled both parts at him. The soldier avoided them by millimetres, his amazing reactions once again saving his life. The creature possessed such strength it could have tried out for the Titan Olympic shot-putting team.

Ventris rolled, sprang to his feet, combat blade in hand, and swiped at the creature, catching its arm. A man would have lost the use of that limb. The alien roared and then started chanting. No, counting. It flung its injured arm in a backswing. Again, the Guardsman dodged the attack by a centimetre or so. He was tiring fast. The alien was still counting. Ventris stepped in and punched it twice in the jaw. Teeth broke with a loud crack. Black poison spilled from the alien’s mouth.

“Nice,” said Ventris, dancing back in a kickboxer’s stance.

The alien reared up to attack. Ventris heard the sick globbing sound of a web rifle discharging. Suddenly the alien’s head vanished, replaced by a blob of extra-strength restraining glue.

“And the marksmanship award goes to…” an exhausted Jastrow panted, struggling to his feet.

The creature ripped the glue from its head and cast it to the ground. Apparently it had no-stick skin.

“Look out, mate!” Ventris said as the alien turned towards Jastrow. “It pukes!”

Finally free of his little tormentors, Jastrow aimed the webber and blasted a second shot straight through the largest concentration of flies, plastering a few hundred of the annoying bastards to the wall and clearing a path to the alien. Suddenly the air seemed a little clearer.

He expertly wrapped another blast of glue around the humanoid’s face, once again covering its eye and mouth.

Ventris dodged around the flailing monster. One hand was trying to tear the glue away from its head, the other was reaching out to grab Ventris. Jastrow fired blast after blast at the alien, wrapping its arms to its sides like an Exodite caught in a lasso. The Guardsman ran out of glue before the alien ran out of endurance, and it struggled against its bond despite looking like grey candy floss with mucky feet sticking out.

The two Empire Guard soldiers dragged Dale to her feet. She was woozy from the impact but still alive. They got her arms across their shoulders and gave her the chair.

“Bonjani! This is Ventris! Get your arse in gear, we’re out of it!”

“No,” the Navy woman voxed back. “We’re staying here. The Grandfather insists.”

END OF PART TWO

The sledge looked sized for one of Santa's elves. It was made of shiny red plastic. There were no engines or weapons.
"Perfect?" Calgar snorted. "You couldn't fit Kevin McCallister in that! How are four of us going to get in?"
"You didn't give me enough points to buy anything proper. I had to get what I could afford."
"You fething wally, it isn't even blue." Calgar inspected the tag which was still attached. "Fun for children aged two to six."
"Milo does have a point, my Lord," said Dick. "When I suggested that we're meant to be the most balanced Chapter and should allocate our spending for all contingencies, you said – and I quote – 'If I want to hear the raving of a leftist commie, I'll watch BBC News'."
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post #5 of 6 (permalink) Old 11-03-12, 04:46 PM
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Default Argggh!

Okay, where's the rest of the story? Can't wait for more. My one complaint; Not much of a fan of Christ being used as a curse word, but I got past it and have enjoyed the story. Good job overall.

We move slowly through the shrouds of fog sending pestilence before us. There is no hope! We are the Death Guard. Fear us for we are coming for you!
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post #6 of 6 (permalink) Old 12-19-12, 07:40 PM Thread Starter
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Hi, my apologies for the long neglect of this story.

It was not my intention at all to use Christ's name in a disparaging way. In fact, I actually make a point about something like this in the Marneus Calgar's Barmy Army story I posted recently.

Yet more ret-cons are coming as the 20K universe is hammered into shape. Currently this story is taking place in the Ghost Segment. Unfortunately, this clashes with a series of 20K stories I am writing, which feature a lone Navy vessel far from home. This series will draw inevitable comparisons with Star Trek: Voyager, Stargate Universe and probably even Battlestar Galactica.

Naogeddon, the star system where this story takes place, is situated to the galactic north I believe. If I made this area the Ghost Segment and wrote stories about a lost ship out there, this would place events within 5,000 light years from Voyager's starting location in the Delta Quadrant. Therefore, Naogeddon is now located in the Starlight Segment (cheers Muse ;)) and the Ghost Segment has been moved closer to Earth.

Props to those here and on other websites who conjectured that aliens from 40K might be involved - in this case, Naogeddon is a Necron world, but Necrons only appear in a handful of 20K stories and are not involved in Ghostwalkers. They and their C'Tan are in the middle of a long snooze.


The sledge looked sized for one of Santa's elves. It was made of shiny red plastic. There were no engines or weapons.
"Perfect?" Calgar snorted. "You couldn't fit Kevin McCallister in that! How are four of us going to get in?"
"You didn't give me enough points to buy anything proper. I had to get what I could afford."
"You fething wally, it isn't even blue." Calgar inspected the tag which was still attached. "Fun for children aged two to six."
"Milo does have a point, my Lord," said Dick. "When I suggested that we're meant to be the most balanced Chapter and should allocate our spending for all contingencies, you said – and I quote – 'If I want to hear the raving of a leftist commie, I'll watch BBC News'."
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