[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
“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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.
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