Chapter Three: III
- Five days prior to the present day
- Onboard the Iron Duke
Merrion Wellesly was frantic. His eyes darted, his tongue was drying faster than he could give orders. His heart was racing as he repeatedly checked his radar screens for signals. His navigator was groaning in her pit, holding her head in her hands and bobbing in a circular motion.
‘Nothing, I see nothing! Faint glimpses of ships, but,’ she exclaimed, ‘we were on a major trade route! They could be anyone!” she wailed as cables and other, more arcane devices, were pulled back and forth with her motions.
Captain Wellesly cursed out loud, losing his composure in front of his men and slamming his fist into a monitor stand on his right. The last thing he would have expected was for his ship, his ship
, to not only reach Golan first, but alone. He thought it would be an easy ride, an escort mission, simply there to float next to a ferocious display of Naval force. He thought he would do little more than add to the view, yet still attain whatever honours there were to be gained from this ordeal.
He could not overcome the idea that the Iron Duke
was the sole survivor of the fleet. A mere Light Cruiser, now sitting alone in an area of space that Ryza deemed potentially hostile enough to send an entire armada
to. They hadn’t received a single distress call, but the whole fleet being annihilated by the Warp was ludicrous, or so he kept saying to himself. He was having his crewmen send out every type of scan into space that he had available, of both the telepathic and technological.
Just a week ago, he had been aboard the Hyperion
, attending the Lord Militant’s banquet ceremony. There were several ships that had continued straight through the pass toward the Golan System, preferring not to stop. Being a full day ahead of him in that case, made it seem even less likely that he would arrive first. Or, maybe those ships had arrived first, which was even more horrifying. His mind spun with everything he had been taught about the Warp. He knew how unpredictable it was but this, well, this was just-
A short laugh burst from his mouth as his hand made an awning at his brow, shading his eyes. During the banquet, he had told his friends and allies that he believed Golan held no real threat. That it was simply Ryza’s Fabricator-General overreacting. Now that he was here alone, in the blank darkness of the void, he was too afraid to look out of the main view port in front of him. A luminescent blue and green gas giant in the distance was all he could see from here.
He felt shame, so much of it all at once. He was a Captain. He had years of training. He had years of experience. He had never been in this type of situation before, outside of simulations and descriptions from digital text. And now, now that it was actually happening, all of his years of training eluded him. He bent over in his chair, placing his face in his hands while his Bridge reported ‘still no signs of comrades’. It had been hours. Already, hours had bled by. His fingers pressed hard into his skin, forcing wrinkles.
Merrion’s head shot up out of his hands.
‘Coming at us from Golan Majoris. A Mechanicus Class Light Cruiser, reading as... the Perdurable Golem,
‘Are their weapon’s primed? Are they hot?
’ shot the Captain, hurried.
A different officer responded.
‘I can’t tell, Sir. Normally I’d say that means no, but it’s Mechanicus Class. Its capabilities are, It could- I don’t know, Sir.’
With his back still hunched, palms up in front of him, eyes wide, and mouth half open, Captain Wellesly said the calmest thing he had uttered since entering the Golan System.
‘Warm the lances, arm the torpedoes, engage the shields. We drive a Dauntless, so keep the engines ready. Our strength is our speed, not our armor. Whatever capabilities they may have, we’ll be ready to move. Hopefully we can keep them on their toes or at least outrun them, if we need to.’
- Present day: Five days into Golan
- Onboard the Hyperion
As the echoes of his footsteps followed him, Josif Brandt looked down at the hard-polished epidote floor with swirls of jade. The hall was so empty, it was unbearable to him. He wondered if a sea of people would make him more comfortable, or if stareing guards standing sentry would make him feel any better.
He highly doubted it.
There wasn’t just a war raging inside of him, there was a full-scale system invasion. The echoes of his boots may have sounded confident, but the feet inside were nothing short of trembling. His knees quivered, and his hands shook.
Why am I doing this?
He questioned. Have I not come far enough? Do I really need to add more to my life? What, what really, could I possibly have hoped to achieve here? I was a fool to ask this favor. When I walk this hallway back, I will be nothing more than embarrassed.
He suddenly became euphoric, his look of concern gone in an instant. Ever since he entered this long hallway, it was as if he carried with him a handful of theatre masks.
It was surreal. He could not believe this was actually happening. The Lord Militant had pulled through on his promise. It meant more to Brandt than any proposal of fame and victory in war.
He still wasn’t sure what to say to her.
The Lady Arete.
How would he introduce himself properly; should he compliment her first? Should he play hardball? He smirked.
His heart sank. Who was he kidding? Five seconds in, after seeing his face, she would send him out, forever. Brandt had earned a great deal of respect from the Admiral, and from his Captains and colleagues. He had done so from the cockpit of a fighter craft. He could speak formally enough, or curtly enough, when it was required. But, flirtation was by no means his strong suit. Love?
He had no idea.
If he ever thought he had been in love before, it all seemed so stupid now. This was top tier, he was aiming as high as he possibly could. The finest woman in the fleet. A fleet, of over thirty vessels. A fleet that nearly half of which still hadn’t shown up yet, allowing the time for this little arrangement.
had broke entry twenty-nine hours ago, which currently made it the only one of Kassar’s battleships to do so. The other three, and therefore the Admiral himself, were still missing.
Less than six hours had gone by after the Illustrious
peeled into view, when Brandt received a message from Hektor Seleucus himself, asking about setting up a time to meet his sister within the next day. So now, here he was, on his way to see her. He had to take a shuttle over from the Illustrious
to the Hyperion
, after strapping into the same formal uniform he had worn at the banquet, with only a few adjustments in case she somehow noticed. He only had one formal attire, but he was sure she had countless. He had asked more than a dozen individuals for help with the directions of traversing the Corinthian, city-sized masterpiece.
Brandt thanked the Emperor for the circumstances, but felt shameful afterward. For all he knew, the Admiral hadn’t arrived yet because he was dead. He, and the rest of those missing crews, could now be nothing more than deformed bodies dripping from the wounds of their torn and rendered ships that floated like mutilated carcasses themselves in the unpredictable Warp. The ships would stay that way, at least. The people, their souls, would be stretched out and thinned; their durability tested far beyond their limits.
He took a deep breath. This particular train of thought wasn’t helping him prepare in the slightest. It had, however, gotten him to the door without once turning on his heels. His heart fluttered. The Emperor crossed his lips a few times in whisper as he imagined what she might be wearing. Travelling in the Warp for another week had surely only added to the majestic, alluring dreams of sleeping with her. The luxuriousness of it all. He had seen her, wrapped in sheen, almond colored sheets mixed with beige and gold. Her full figure, naked and perfect. Gold and bronze bed curtains, glossed and opaque, fluttered everywhere all around them while they- his knuckles knocked on the door, three times, equally measured.
A white-armored guard opened the door in front of him, while his chest grew warm. The guard’s backside was wrapped neatly in a scarlet cloak, and in his other hand he held a helmet, with a swooping crest sprouting from the top. The soldier allowed him through, and even bowed his head saying, ‘Lieutenant Commander.’
The room’s backdrop was an enormous glass pane that looked out into space, letting in the soft moonlight of Golan Quintus. Large, dense curtains used to cover the pane during Warp transit were roped off to the sides. Clear water flowed down a tower of rocks that became a steady stream coursing through the room, surrounded by violet-flowered plants that brushed his sense of smell. There were a few glistening fish floating in the water, big enough to have some character, living out their calm and idle lives. The floor was cobbled stone and his eyes followed the pathway that led to a quaint round table lit by candle. Brandt expected her to be looking anywhere else but where she was, the table in front of her, her hands, the void, the scenery but no, her eyes were deadlocked onto him the moment he stepped inside the room.
Here it was, he thought, she would lift her hand up any second now, and wave him away.
Then it started to happen, her right hand came up, and then it waved, but the wave bid him to her.
He walked. His brain kept sending signals to the muscles of his legs to perform this difficult task that normally came so naturally. He reached the table and looked at her hands, now resting on the edge, and remembered he had imagined taking one of them in his own and planting a kiss upon it soft as she had the Lord Militant’s cheek.
Instead, he merely bowed his head in respect, though in truth it was more in shame.
‘Sit down, Josif.’ She said, indicating the empty chair, ‘My dear brother would like us to meet.’
Her voice was even finer than he recalled, without all the cluttering background noise from the banquet getting in the way of it. Her tone was mostly neutral, rather matter-of-fact. He took in a deep breath and he looked at her, really looked at her, this time.
Her earrings were a Corinthian take on benitoite that waltzed with ultraviolet light, bobbing delicately from her earlobes by short strands of silver and pearl. A subtle prismatic performance played out over her smooth temples and polished cheekbones from their reflected light. Her lips were a dark red that matched her dress with perfection. She had already devoured her appetizer. A few dark crumbs were all that was left to decorate her plate.
She was not shy, nor was she coy.
‘How shall I address you?’ He asked.
‘Arete, is fine.’
‘Do you always come with your brother to war?’
‘I don’t really wish to talk about Hektor right now, but I have, yes. Our parents had already cast me off in any case. He needs me more than anyone, yet he is always trying to set me up with men he meets. I am not entirely sure why, but I do know that he is a fool more than he is anything else.’
Brandt laughed quietly. ‘I would ask why you think that, but, you said you don’t wish to speak of him?’ he asked, with a genuine smile.
He wasn’t sure if she didn’t hear the question or just didn’t care to answer. She seemed to notice something, and his smile faded with the silence.
She scooped up his hands into hers and held them firmly. He looked at her again, and could feel his face filling with heat, and a tightness around his lungs.
‘Nothing is going to happen. Just eat with me, please. Relax.’
‘I’m not sure I can, if I’m honest.’
‘Stop trying to predict the future. Just breathe. Just talk to me, about anything.’
So, he sputtered the first thing that came to mind.
She didn’t catch on right away.
‘The Iron Duke
,’ he said, shaking his head a bit, ‘the cruiser that arrived early. Have you heard about it?’
‘Oh,’ she said, ‘Yes, Hektor told me, but I haven’t given it much thought really.’
‘What do you think it was like being the first ship of the fleet out of the warp, all alone like that, not knowing what was coming?’
‘I’m sure it was dreadful,’ she replied, ‘I am certainly glad the Hyperion
is more capable of defending itself. Hektor has spoken with the Duke’s
Captain at least a few times now. It would have been easy for him to make a mistake, or open fire right away, but he did not. I am not convinced that his resolve was the reason for that, though.’
‘More emissaries have come. It looks like Golan is rather peaceful then, doesn’t it?’
She nodded her head slowly, looking down at the table now. The other reports of ship translations were coming back to him as waiters brought out the main course. It had been established that the Iron Duke
had arrived roughly two days ahead of the Hyperion
and Purifying Flame.
When the Illustrious
arrived, Commodore Nymeros and most of his group were already there as well.
Looking out of the giant window pane in the background, he could see several ships from Ryza’s fleet now. With nothing else to do, some of them were halfway concealed inside bays along the length of dockyard that orbited Golan Quintus, resupplying since they were here, or repairing minor damages from Warp transit. He quickly spotted the Cobra-class Destroyer Shikra
, among them, having heard about its violent re-entry alongside the Hyperion
The massive Omnissiah’s Glory
was impossible to miss- a giant block of a ship that sat in the middle of the slowly turning view. The Princeps Majoris had just arrived early this morning, bringing his Skitarii, and his Titan engines, with him.
Further out, the other two Fire Lords vessels were also now in-system, sitting silently near their mother. Though distant, their bright oranges and yellows could not be mistaken.
‘What do you think about our Fire Lord companions?’ he asked, nodding toward their ships. ‘The banquet was the first time I have ever seen Astartes in person.’
Arete put the first bite of food into her mouth and began chewing, looking at him again rather than the window-wall. In that moment, as he stared curiously and intently out into the void, she decided that if nothing else, Brandt was at least someone she could trust.
‘I don’t like them.’
Brandt smiled, surprised.
‘Any particular reason?’
‘My opinion of them doesn’t really matter, they just make me uncomfortable, and it doesn't help that I am to receive some kind of tutelage from two of their worst
Brandt was taken aback.
What do you mean?’
‘They think that I’m a psyker.’ and Brandt clearly did not know what to say next, so she continued.
‘And, their ships sit so far off because Hektor had to get into a petty argument with their Chieftain. They no longer want anything to do with us, though they never truly did, anyway.’ The way she said this was almost pouty. ‘My brother’s potential war meant nothing to them, yet for some reason, they refuse to leave me be.’
‘I imagine that’s the case with most men, isn’t it?’
She smiled, and almost laughed, even.
‘Don’t worry yourself with that. Men don’t distract me, my handmaidens have seen to that. They are certainly talented enough. Besides, the only man I can afford to dedicate myself to right now is my brother, now more than ever.’
Brandt furrowed his brow, spinning his fork.
There was a pause. The air between them thickened.
‘Do not tell anyone that I might be a psyker,’ she said, serious. Her eyes pinned him to his seat. They were so beautiful, so powerful
. He felt pleasure looking into them, even though he was sure what she was saying is that she would have him killed if he did.
‘When you die, do you hope it happens in one of your fighter-craft, someday, going down in a blaze of glory?’ she asked, changing the subject, and her tone. He hesitated for a moment, giving the question some thought.
‘I suppose,’ he began, ‘that I should hope it happens that way. It does seem the most likely, doesn’t it?’ he replied, but everything about him proved he wasn’t convinced.
‘Arete, most of the people I see, especially people who have been ship-bound their entire lives, they only seem skin deep, nothing to them, so shallow minded. They go about their tasks with such lifelessness. Sometimes, I almost mistake civilian crew for servitors.’
She giggled, which made him chuckle.
‘But, when I look at you, when I hear your voice, when I look into your eyes... it’s as if there’s an entire world inside of you, waiting to be discovered. I’ve never met anyone that truly made me believe that life is a miracle, until now.’
She smiled at him. ‘Seeing as I’m a psyker, I suppose it must the Warp you're seeing.’ She said, teasing, but she could tell this response disappointed him.
She rose from her seat, with a cascade of scarlet flowing down her form as her phenomenal dress realigned with her incredible figure. Her fingertips landed on his cheek, and sailed down to his chin, tilting it. Before he could come to terms with what was happening, her lips were there, meeting his for the briefest of moments. His overloaded senses thought of fluffed red roses, with beads of water still dozing on the petals, and a welcoming fire that only warmed and never harmed.
‘I wouldn’t want you to die in your fighter, Josif.’ she said in a half-whisper, and left.
The Perdurable Golem
now sat physically linked with the Iron Duke
, and Captain Wellesly waited with his hands clasped behind his lower back at his end of the catwalk. The walkway between the ships was simply an extended bridge with a Voidshield around it. Wellesly had faith in the Mechanicus’ upkeep of their technology. He wasn’t worried about the shield failing and getting sucked out into the Void. That actually sounded quite refreshing to him. He was much, much more concerned about how he was going to handle this situation.
An immeasurable amount of weight had suddenly and unexpectedly fallen upon his shoulders. It was up to him and him alone to secure the fleet’s mission to Golan. If he messed this up, and the Golaners felt the need to defend themselves, more ships could arrive one by one just as the Iron Duke
had, and be shot to pieces by the waiting Golan Defense Fleet.
hadn’t attacked right away, at least. It held two of Golan’s emissaries among its crew, and he spoke to one of them over the comms briefly. Archameus Rothesay was his name. Wellesly was hardly in a position to deny them entry to his ship. It would only make it seem as if he were hiding something. The past hour was consumed by a brainstorm, which led him to the story he would use.
Without pretense, a figure, like Death robed in red, turned the dimly lit corner inside of the Golem
. Eerily, it began crossing the flooring at a heart wrenching pace towards Wellesly, as if it were a ghost, sliding effortlessly over the bridge. Its face was a shadow. Fear gripped him, and he almost slammed the controls to seal the hatch but saw who must have been Rothesay appear next.
Wellesly turned his body a bit, only to discover that his second and third in command had already darted away silently. The hooded, ghost-like figure stopped before him. Again, there was no effort in this, it simply glided onto his ship and stopped, no moving knee joints or feet that he could discern. Then it turned its head left, and then right, and then forward again as if looking for something specific. It had a full servo-harness on its back, with four limbs folded inward, and mechadendrites that were, currently, peacefully at rest. Despite this, Wellesly felt the need to hold his stomach down with the weak muscles of his throat, certain he was now living his last moment.
Rothesay walked with a haughtiness that Wellesly was not used to seeing from adepts of the Mechanicus. His face was not immortalized as so many of them were. Wires snaked beneath the pale flesh of his face. His teeth were metal, and when he talked, clattered against one another. His eyes were dark round ellipses with thin, bright-orange horizontal slits. In front of the left one was a silver-rimmed monocle with lines of neon turquoise scrolling over the lens, casting a blue glare over that side of his face as data was uploaded to it somehow, from somewhere. Attached to his cranium, was a large headpiece shaped like the Papal Mitre, the symbol of the Mechanicus at its front, with wires and gadgets plunging into his temples from the sides. In his right hand was a walking staff made of a dark metal, and its top was an old cog speckled with rust spots. In the center of the cog was a hololithic, slowly spinning image of Golan. The bright blue and green gas giant hung there, lonely, as a sign of what system Archameus Rothesay represented.
‘Why did you run from us?’ he asked without hesitation.
Wellesly did not know what to say, to this.
‘I’m sorry? I-’
‘Do not play the fool with me, Captain. Before our initial communications, your ship began to turn. You even primed your weapon systems! You were going to flee from our approach. Why? What business do you attend to?’
Wellesly had to get a different matter out of the way, first.
‘May I ask who this is?’ he said with a hand up, trembling, towards the hooded figure.
‘This is my fellow emissary, Tensor Covariance RGR0. Please, remove your hood, Tensor.’ which this Tensor then did.
The face that sprouted into being was something beautiful, but handsome, its gender neutral, or rather male at some angles and more female at others. Wellesly couldn’t decide. It was pale, hairless, and had no eyebrows. It had eyes that were milky, but flickered with colour. Vat-grown. There was a vapor rising from its surface. It was slightly nauseating, and yet upon smelling it Wellesly felt the most relaxed he had been since arriving in the Golan system.
‘A pleasure to meet you, Tensor Covariance,’ Wellesly said carefully, making sure to get it right, ‘and you as well Archameus Rothesay. Forgive my lack of polite formality by turning away, as it was a bit of a shock for me to enter real-space a lone vessel.
The two emissaries did not seem to respond to his word choice of ‘shock’ like he would have expected a normal man of flesh and blood to. As always, it was next to impossible to accurately read them, anyway. They had no body language, their faces were distorted, and they probably communicated in numbers more than words.
‘You seem hesitant to speak, Captain. We were never notified of you or any other ships on their way to this system. Are you hiding something? Speak now. Speak!’ Rothesay pressed.
Tensor moved away to the side, looking down the corridor again, as if scanning it.
Wellesly threw his hands up in frustration.
‘Just… give me a minute! By the Emperor’s name-’ he trailed off, regathering himself. ‘My ship and crew are part of a much larger fleet sent from Ryza on our way to another system beyond this one. Since Golan was on the same route, Ryza’s Fabricator General instructed us to stop here along the way and check up on the mining operation here. Ryza’s command stated they have not received any communication from this system for months. However, I seem to either be the first ship to arrive, or the only one to make it out of the Warp intact and as planned. I have not yet figured out what has happened to them.’
The two emissaries looked at each other for a moment, Rothesay groaning in thought.
‘How many ships were in this fleet?’
‘Dozens, I cannot remember the exact number.’
‘I would advise you to seek memory bank enhancement. You will not have such issues, then.’ spoke Tensor Covariance RGR0 with a voice that slipped unnervingly between masculine ruggedness and silken femininity. ‘The Mechanicus knows the procedures required, bless the Omnissiah.’
‘What system was the fleet heading toward, after this one?’ asked Rothesay, further.
Wellesly knew it did not matter if he lied, so long as it kept him out of conflict, at least until more of his fleet arrived. He wondered if he was a prisoner here now; if these people would allow him to jump back into the Warp, back to Ryza.
‘Our business is in the Calixis sector, but the specifics do not concern you. I myself am privy to little of it, in fact. I am certainly not one of the fleet’s highest ranking officers.’
‘No, certainly not. You are a little man, Captain Wellesly.’
The Captain cocked his eyebrow at this.
‘Your facial movements and hormone fluctuations indicate that you are lying to me. I am an Emissary of the Mechanicus, Captain. I told you not to play fool with me. Protocol states that we must keep you here for the time being. The Golan Defense Fleet must be mustered. While speaking, our crew has detected a large incoming presence in the Warp. You have my word that we will not fire first if more of your supposed ships show up, but we will be as prepared as possible for the worst.’
Tensor Covariance RGR0 lifted the hood back over its head, concealing its face in shadow once more, before turning towards the catwalk that led back into the Golem
‘Who leads this fleet?’ asked Rothesay, tapping his staff into the floor with finality.
‘Lord Militant Hektor Seleucus, and the ship you are waiting for, is the Hyperion