The vessel had translated from the cold depths of the empyrean with absolutely no warning; a highly unorthodox manoeuvre, but one that Captain Ferdinand von Beck was not entirely unfamiliar with. However, this was something of a role-reversal, as it was usually his ship that was taking other vessels unawares. The fact it had now happened to the White Rose was most troublesome, and he would be raising the issue with his navigator. But not right now. Right now he was compelled to entertain an uninvited guest.
There had been instant panic amongst the crew of the White Rose when a huge strike cruiser bearing the livery of the Thousand Sons materialised with unsettling precision less than a kilometre starboard of their vessel, broadside batteries already brought to bear. Von Beck was sat in his command throne when proximity alarms began to chime stridently.
Remaining in his chair despite his surprise, he called to his first mate.
A female officer turned from her data terminal, and the colour ran from her face as she replied.
“A vessel has dropped out of the warp just off our starboard side, captain,” she swallowed before continuing. “It’s an astartes strike cruiser.”
Von Beck was momentarily stunned. What in Hades were they doing out here? The White Rose was in high anchor above a cold, dead world; one that von Beck had scoured for some real or imagined treasure, but without success. There was no life in this star system and it lay on the fringes of the scarcely-travelled Vorlan Gulf, a place of dim and ancient stars and very little in the way of life-supporting worlds. Quite what an astartes strike cruiser would be doing out here was beyond him; there were certainly no worlds to be brought to compliance. It had obviously been following them for some time, he thought.
Before any evasive action could be taken, the air in front of his command throne shimmered, bringing with it the unmistakable tang of ozone. In one fluid movement, von Beck was on his feet, antique pistol in hand, in time to see the towering form of an astartes commander in full battle plate materialise before his eyes. The massive astartes wore a long cloak and carried a rune-encrusted staff in his right hand and an ornate jackal-faced helmet in his left. He was smiling.
The crew on the bridge fell back; some went for their weapons whilst others made for the door. A junior officer quite shamefully soiled his undergarments. The giant in their midst raised an eyebrow, just as von Beck held up his arms.
“Stay your weapons!” he said, as he at first lowered, and then holstered, his pistol. Von Beck was no fool; he knew that it would be suicide to attack the space marine. In the unlikely event that they did manage to kill him – a feat von Beck thought highly improbable – the White Rose would be vaporised under a hail of fire from the strike cruiser.
Some cast disbelieving looks at their captain, but nevertheless they all reluctantly obeyed.
Von Beck looked up at the mighty warrior before him and, with a flourish, bowed theatrically.
“Welcome aboard the White Rose, my lord. I am Captain Ferdinand Amadeus von Beck.” As he rose to meet the other’s gaze, he gave his own self-assured grin. “But I suspect you already knew that.”
The astartes was still smiling. “Indeed, Captain,” he said, with a distinct Anubian accent, von Beck noted. “My name is Isson Kotep of the 9th fellowship, legio Thousand Sons. I must apologize for arriving uninvited onto your bridge, but I have matters of great import to discuss with you. I do hope you can forgive me?”
“Of course,” Von Beck replied as he studied the warrior. Isson Kotep was a head taller than he and had a clean shaven scalp and jaw. His tanned features were almost without lines and he looked no older than thirty, although von Beck suspected that he was probably well into his second century. The astartes had blazing emerald eyes that glistened with good humour, whilst at the same time containing considerable power and authority.
“I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Lord Kotep. May I enquire as to the nature of these important matters?” Captain von Beck held the space marine’s gaze. He could feel the intense sensation of unease from his crew which, given the circumstances, could rightly be forgiven. He had been caught totally unawares by this champion of the Emperor, but he was determined to give no further ground.
The astartes glanced briefly at the crew to either side. “You may, captain. But perhaps we should talk somewhere private.” It was not a question, but von Beck was inclined to agree anyway. His crew were spooked enough as it was. The White Rose was a wanted ship in more than one system in this sector, and many of the crew probably imagined that this was their end. He just hoped none of them wanted to go out in a blaze of dubious glory.
“Very well, my lord; we can continue our conversation in my quarters. Just one moment, if you will?” von Beck indicated the ship’s comms unit. The astartes nodded.
Von Beck picked up the vox piece and put it to his mouth. “Attention crew. This is your captain. Be aware that we have an honoured guest onboard and that we are in no ways threatened by the rather grand vessel you may have noticed to starboard. All non-essential crew are to stand down and return to their quarters immediately.” He replaced the unit in its cradle and turned to Kotep.
“If you’d care to follow me, Lord Kotep?”
Kotep looked amused. “Lead the way, Captain von Beck.”
As they made to leave the bridge, von Beck turned to his bewildered crew with a stern look upon his face. Raising his right index finger in the air, he gave them one simple order.
“Don’t do anything stupid.”
Kotep smiled knowingly and followed von Beck through the blast door.
Von Beck’s private chambers were large and opulently furnished. As they stepped across the threshold, Kotep inhaled the pleasant aromas of exotic spices, many of which were familiar to him, but some that were not. Before him was a wide, circular chamber with a concave ceiling. Curving buttresses like living tree trunks ran up the walls, their pale, leafless branches spreading out across the domed upper limits into thousands of intricately-woven strands that formed an exquisite yet all-too alien pattern. Book shelves, cabinets, display cases and all manner of strange and wonderful sculptures lined the walls. Kotep could see several artefacts that were obviously xenos in origin and considered contraband by Imperial authorities. It was quite a sight and Kotep could not deny its beauty.
Once the highly wrought doors to his private quarters closed behind them, von Beck gestured towards a large wooden table the colour of bleached bone, surrounded by eight high-backed chairs made from the same wood. Before they had even sat down, von Beck began the questioning.
“I must confess, Lord Kotep, to being most intrigued by those tricks you pulled back there. Drink?” He quite casually walked up to a corner bar and took out two glasses.
The astartes was walking around the circular chamber, his metal boots sinking several centimetres into the soft floor covering that, by all appearances, possessed the properties of both grass and fur. He seemed to be admiring some of the many antiques and artefacts on display.
“No, thank you,” Kotep replied. He had stopped in front of a large portrait.
“Ah, that’s my great uncle Ludwig,” von Beck explained as he replaced one of the glasses and began pouring himself a generous measure of Venusian port. “He was a bit of a scallywag, that one. Rather fond of his wine and women.” Picking up his glass, he walked across the centre of the chamber and sat down at the head of the intricately-carved table.
The astartes continued moving around the room, picking up the odd curio that might, however momentarily, have caught his attention. Eventually he walked over, placing his helmet on the ashen surface of the table, leaning his staff against it, before sitting down opposite von Beck. The big chair creaked beneath his armoured bulk.
“So, captain,” he said, the amused look he’d worn so easily before now replaced with an unyielding frown. “What are these tricks you speak of?”
Von Beck was not easily awed, even by such a mighty being as an astartes commander. Where lesser men would have buckled under that gaze, the captain merely raised his glass and took a sip.
“Come now, my Lord Kotep. You know very well to what I am referring to. But the very nature of your tricks suggests strongly to me that you rather enjoy playing games, so I will humour you.”
“Humour me, indeed?” Kotep’s expression reverted to one of amusement.
“Well, from my somewhat limited knowledge of your legion, I can deduce that you are a seer of no small talent. A man of your position would certainly hold arcane knowledge in excess of anything a mere mortal could possess, let alone comprehend. I would hazard an admittedly educated guess and say that you have seen something regarding the future.” He looked into Kotep’s intense green eyes. “Regarding my future?” he corrected, seeing the other’s expression.
“Regarding a family member,” was Kotep’s simple response.
“Interesting…” von Beck was curious, but did not want to sound eager, and so deigned to continue playing the game. “But before we go any further, I am keen to know how you managed to catch my astropaths unawares with your drop out of warp space, not to mention your teleporting directly onto my bridge. I have more than one arcane device that is supposed to prevent such an unsolicited incident from occurring; your arrival would suggest that they don't work particularly well.”
The Son of Magnus watched as the man opposite him took another sip of his drink. Von Beck was a most intriguing character, and despite the fact he had scryed much of the rogue’s future, Kotep actually knew very little of his past. In appearance, the captain of the White Rose was of indeterminate middle age; tall and slim, with a head of finely woven dreadlocks that were currently tied in a topknot. He wore a smart if somewhat flamboyant costume that looked like it belonged on some 27th century Kariban buccaneer (an image he strongly suspected von Beck was going for). His features were handsome with high cheek bones and a straight nose, and his unblemished skin was the colour of bronze. But von Beck’s bright green eyes told a story; they told of a man of considerable humour, wit and intelligence, yet with an undeniable penchant for trickery; they also spoke of a man who had seen far more than any mortal possibly should, for there was also sadness, regret and a barely concealed measure of despair in them.
“A man in your position would no doubt benefit greatly from such knowledge,” Kotep smiled, making a deferential gesture with his hand, “but my primarch would not be amused to discover I had divulged any of the tactical secrets of his legion. You understand, of course.”
“Perfectly. Still, it would have been nice to know, so that I might prevent any similar surprises in future. My crew tend to get a bit skittish when an astartes strike cruiser drops out of the warp unannounced.”
“I’m sure they do, captain,” said Kotep. “Unfortunately I cannot guarantee that such an incident will not occur again in the future.”
Von Beck considered this for a moment. “I do rather hope not. I’m not sure I could be held accountable if any of my more excitable crew members were to make any rash decisions.” His voice trailed off.
Kotep raised a thin eyebrow. “It would perhaps be wise for you to countermand any such rash decisions before they are made, captain. But let us not talk of such conjectured scenarios. I have come to ask for your help.”
It was von Beck’s turn to raise an eyebrow, and Kotep could see that he looked genuinely surprised. “My help, you say?” He rubbed his chin as he pondered this. “Now that is a most intriguing notion. I wonder, Lord Kotep; what kind of impossible mission must this be if it cannot be performed by the vaunted Thousand Sons legion?”
The Thousand Son refused to take offence at this slight and instead leant back in his chair, placing two mailed palms on the heavy table in front of him. His mouth had curled into a rather crafty grin.
“One where your involvement has been foreseen.”
“Foreseen.” Von Beck rolled the word around his mouth as if considering whether he liked the taste of it. “I must confess, Lord Kotep, that I do not like the sound of that. It rather implies that I do not have any choice in the matter.”
Kotep inclined his head slightly. “That is true to some extent, Captain. But I am not forcing you to take this mission, although I know that you will accept it. I need your help in finding a girl. Her name is Jaya von Beck.”