“We should head back,” Hask urged, as the sickly yellow lights flickered around them. “The cultists are dead.”
“Do the dead frighten you, Corporal?” the Lieutenant replied in a gruff voice, the hint of a mocking smile creasing his lips.
Hask did not rise to the bait. He was an old man by Navy standards, past forty, and he had seen plenty of officers come and go. “Dead is dead,” he said. “We have no more business with them.”
“Are they dead?” the Lieutenant asked softly, his smile gone. “What proof do we have?”
“Pudge saw them,” Hask replied. “If he says they’re dead, that’s proof enough for me.”
Pudge knew they would drag him into the argument sooner or later. He turned and shrugged. “My father told me that dead men tell no tales,” he put in nervously.
“Ha! My nanny used to say the same crap, Pudge,” the Lieutenant sneered. “Never believe anything you hear from a woman. Or a man with a woman’s courage – like your father. There are things to be learned even from the dead.” His voice echoed, too loud, down the infinite expanse of the corridor lined with rusting vents, corroded panels and gaping holes where valuable systems and been unceremoniously plundered . The lights flickered lower, almost the black, before returning to a semblance of stability.
“We have a long haul back to the airlock, sir” Hask pointed out. “Eight hours, maybe nine. And the power matrix is failing.”
The Lieutenant glanced at the patchwork of broken light cells with disinterest. “It is always the way with these old hulks. Are you afraid of the dark, Corporal?”
Pudge could see the tightness around Hask’s stubble lined mouth, the barely suppressed fury in his dark eyes under the visor of his pitted guard’s helmet. Hask had spent twenty years in the Imperial Navy, fifteen of them in the Boarding Marines, and he was not accustomed to having the piss taken out of him.
But it was more than that, Pudge realised. Under the hurt pride, he could sense something else in the older guardsman. He could almost taste it; fear.
Pudge shared his unease. He had been three years in the Navy. The first time he had been deployed to the Desolation Zone, all the tales from his childhood had come rushing back – of crazed cultists, mutants, reavers and horrors unknown lurking in the shadows of that vast graveyard of ships, spilling forth to pillage and devour anything that was unfortunate to come too close. He had soiled himself in the breaching shuttle. It happened to all new recruits, and he had laughed about it afterward back in the barracks. He was a veteran of a hundred boarding actions by now, and the endless darkness of ‘the zone’ held no terrors for him.
Something was wrong.
Everybody new that orders coming down from the Adeptus Astartes meant trouble, especially from that old dog Brother Hemera. But there was an urgency to their deployment, and an edge to the icy stillness of this hulk that unnerved him.
Nine hours out, they had been probing deep, deeper then deeper again into the interior of the drifting wreck, hard on the trail of the cultists. Each hour had been more tense than the hour that had come before it. A cold, lifeless breeze was drifting steadily down the length of the corridor, stirring the dust along the floor into the shape of living things. All day, Pudge had had the feeling of being watched, something always lingering just out of sight and mind. Hask had felt it too. Pudge would have been glad to abandon the search and returned to the safety of the airlock, but that was not a feeling to share with your commanding officer.
Especially not an officer like him.
Lieutenant Maryn was the youngest son of one of the ancient houses of Cronos Prime. He was a striking man of twenty, blue-eyed and graceful, supple yet well-muscled where it counted. Fitted in his impeccable leather officer’s tunic and polished imperial officer’s breastplate, the Lieutenant towered above Pudge and Hask. He wore black leather boots, black combat fatigues and black leather gloves, all covered in a smattering of shinning steel armored plates and studs. Over his shoulders, a fine supple cloak of imperial green satin flowed, held in place by a gleaming metal clasp bearing the Navy insignia. His officer’s cap was immaculate, its black peak glistening with fresh polish. Lieutenant Maryn had been in the Navy for less than six months, but it could not be said that he had not prepared for his calling – at least as far as his wardrobe was concerned.
“Bet he handpicked it all himself, he did,” Hask would tell the boys in the Mess, “with his mother there holding his hand, our mighty leader!” They had all shared the laugh.
It is hard to take orders from a man you laughed at in your beer, Pudge reflected as he rocked on his heels, crouched down in the doorway of some long abandoned instrument room. Hask must have felt the same way.
“Brother Hemera said as we should track them, and we did,” Hask said. “They’re dead. If the Titan’s Bastards want to go off hunting for more of them, they are welcome to do so. These ones won’t be raiding any more outposts though. It’s a long slog back to the shuttle, and I don’t like the look of this power matrix. If it fails, we could be days crawling back in the dark. Ever been caught in a blackout sir?”
The Lieutenant seemed not to hear him. He studied the length of the wretched corridor in a half-bored, half-distracted manner. Pudge had been deployed with the Lieutenant enough times to understand that it was best not to interrupt him when he looked like that. “Tell me again what you saw, Pudge. All the details. Leave nothing out.”
Pudge had been a Theif before he joined the navy. Well, a pick pocket in truth. Cronosian Arbiters had caught him red-handed in the capital Hive, Artemis, lifting wallets and purses from the rich citizens of one of the Privileged Sectors. It had been a straight choice – serve five years in the Emperors Navy, or lose a hand. No one could move as silently as Pudge, and it had not taken the Colour Sergeants of the Boarding Marines long to discover his talent.
“Their base is about a mile farther on down this access corridor sir, through the starboard engine room, and up a level, towards the main cargo hold” Pudge said. “I got to within a hundred yards. There are nine of them, I think. But I can’t be sure, on account of, well, you know.”
“Was there much blood?”
“Yes Sir. And the rest. “
“Did you see any weapons?”
“Some autoguns scattered around. A couple of las pistols. One had a power axe, heavy-looking double-bladed thing. It was on the ground beside what was left of him, still gripped by his hand.”
“Did you make note of the position of the bodies?”
Pudge shrugged. “Yeah, all over the place. As I said, bits and pieces everywhere”
Despite himself, he shivered.
“You have a chill?” the Lieutenant asked.
“No sir,” Pudge muttered. “Just not keen on the sight of blood.”
The young Lieutenant turned back to his grizzled Corporal. Clumps of snow-like dust whispered past them on the breeze, a distant groan reverberating through the broken vessel’s superstructure. “What do you think might have killed these men, Hask?” The Lieutenant asked casually. He adjusted the drape of his long satin cloak.
“It was decompression,” Hask said with iron certainty. “I’ve seen what happens to men when they are exposed to the vacuum of space. It turns them inside out. Everyone says they just explode like, but it’s not true. They writhe under the pressure for what seems like an eternity, tying themselves in gruesome bloody knots with their own guts, probably all too aware of what’s happening to them, before finally exploding like a ripe piece of fruit. The pain must be excruciating, before it finally ends”
“Such eloquence, Hask,” the Lieutenant observed, the mocking smile back. “I never suspected you had it in you.”
Hask glared at the officer, the scars on this nose and cheeks flushed red with anger. “I’ve lost enough good comrades to the void to know how it must feel.” He pulled up the collar on his fatigues and hunched over his las rifle, silent and sullen.
“If Hask said it was decompression…” Pudge began.
“Did you pass through any other parts of the ship before you found the base, Pudge?”
“Yes Sir. Some of the crew quarters I believe, and a few engineering workshops.” What was the man driving at?
“And how did you find them?”
“Dead sir. Still, and covered with this bloody iron dust.” Pudge said, frowning. He saw it clear enough, now that the Lieutenant had pointed it out. “They couldn’t have decompressed. Not if the dust wasn’t disturbed. It would have been blasted all over the place”
Maryn nodded. “Bright lad. Besides, if that part of the ship had decompressed, you would never have been able to get so close.” The officer’s smile was cocksure. “Pudge, lead us there. I would see these dead men for myself.”
And then there was nothing to be done for it. The order had been given, and pain of death bound them to obey.
Pudge went in front, picking his way carefully through the detritus of collapsed ceiling panels and breached walls. A thicker covering of iron dust had fallen here, and there were cables and hidden sinks lying just under its crust, waiting for the careless and the unwary. Lieutenant Maryn came next, his billowing cloak sending the dust up in great swirls around him. The attire was unsuitable for boarding actions, but try telling that to the young officer. Hask brought up the rear. The old man muttered to himself as he followed, his las rifle slung over his shoulder.
The lights dimmed again. The flickering yellow turned a deep orange, the color of a fresh bruise, before stabilising. Pudge was grateful the light had not failed.
“We can make a better pace than this, surely,” Maryn said, the amber light bleaching the green of his cloak to shades of brown.
“Not with your cloak kicking up so much dust we can’t,” Pudge said. Fear had made him insolent. “Perhaps you would care to take the lead, sir?”
Lieutenant Maryn did not deign to reply.
Somewhere in vast depths of the lifeless hulk, metal screeched as part of it succumbed to the fatigue of time.
Pudge stopped next to a battered hatchway, lifted his las rifle and checked the cartridge.
“Why are you stopping?” Maryn asked.
“This is the engine room. Not much cover between here and the base, so get your weapons ready. Er, sir”
Maryn paused a moment, staring off into the distance, his face reflective. The cold breeze whispered through his cloak, stirring it behind him like something half-alive.
Then it dropped, suddenly, blanketing them in an overpowering silence.
“There’s something wrong here,” Hask muttered.
The young officer gave him a disdainful smile. “Is there?”
“Can’t you feel it?” Hask asked. “Listen to the void.”
Pudge could feel it. Three years in the Navy, and he had never been so afraid. What was it lingering on the edge of his vision, of his mind?
“A stagnant breeze. Dust motes. The sounds of a decaying ship. Which is it that unmans you so, Corporal?” When Hask did not answer, Maryn turned and drew his las pistol from its holster. Finely carved metal glittered on its hilt, and the flickering light ran down the shining steel of the barrel. It was a splendid weapon, Forgeworld born, but with new-made decoration added by the look of it. Pudge doubted it had ever been fired in anger.
“The debris is thick in there, sir” Pudge warned. “That cape will tangle you up. Better take it off.”
“It is a cloak, not a cape. And if I need instruction, I will ask for it,” the young officer replied sternly. “Hask, stay here. Guard our exit.”
Hask nodded. “We need to signal the shuttle. I’ll see to it.”
“Don’t be a damned fool. If there are enemies in this hulk, a signal might give us away. Besides, we don’t know what we are going to signal yet, do we?”
“We could give them our position sir, and update them to our pro…”
Maryns mouth became a hard line. “No signal.”
Haks’s helmet shadowed his face, but Pudge could see the hard glitter in his eyes as he stared at the Lieutenant. For a moment he was afraid the grizzled veteran would go for his knife. It was a short, ugly thing, its grip discolored by sweat, its edge nicked from hard use, but Pudge would not have given an imperial cent for the officer’s life if Hask drawn it.
Finally Hask looked down. “No signal,” he muttered, low under his breath.
Maryn took it for acquiescence and turned away. “Move,” he said to Pudge.
Pudge shoved hard on the hatch, which opened in screeching protest, just wide enough for them to slide though. The room beyond was vast, over five stories high, and filled with all manner of collapsed metal beams and walkways, burnt out machinery, exposed circuitry hanging from cobweb like cables. And dust. Everywhere the ubiquitous dusk, hiding pitfalls and snares below its brown red crust.
Pudge threaded his way through the metal mélange, navigating them to a small open hatch that lead to another, smaller loading area beyond, before heading up the gentle slope of the garbage festooned metal ramp to where he had found his vantage point. Under the thin layer of dust the deck was cold and dry, the rusting metal providing slick footing. Pudge made no sound as he climbed. Behind him, he heard the soft metallic slither of the lieutenant’s cloak, the clinking of disturbed junk, and muttered curses as the young officer disentangled himself.
The wrecked loading crane was right there at the top of the ramp, where Pudge had known it would be, its arms collapsed around it in a pile of knotted steel. Pudge slid in underneath, flat on his belly in the dust, and looked down on the cluster of crates and transport modules below.
His heart stopped in his chest. For a moment he dared not breathe. Ochre light flickered down on the clearing, the collection of ill-gotten wares, the scattered weapons, and the power axe. Everything was just as it had been a few hours ago.
But they were gone. All the bodies were gone.
“Damn it!” he heard behind him. A gloved hand grabbed at a cable as the Lieutenant came to the top of the slope. He stood there, pistol in hand, his cloak billowing behind him as the breeze retuned, outlined nobly against the failing lights for all to see.
“Get down!” Pudge whispered urgently. “Something’s wrong.”
Maryn did not move. He strode boldly over to the edge of the collapsed crane, looked down at the empty clearing and laughed. “Your dead men seem to have moved, Pudge.”
Pudge’s voice abandoned him. He groped for words that did not come. It was not possible. His eyes swept back and forth over the abandoned clearing, the disturbed but bloodless dust, stopped on the axe. A huge double-bladed power-axe, still lying where he had seen it last, untouched. A valuable weapon…
“On your feet, Pudge,” Maryn commanded. “There’s no one here. I won’t have you hiding under there.”
Reluctantly, Pudge obeyed.
Maryn looked him over with open disapproval. “I am not returning to the fleet a failure on my first boarding command. We will find these cultists.” He glanced around. “Up onto that gantry, quickly. See if any of the other access hatches for this bay have been opened.”
Pudge turned away, wordless. It was no use to argue. The breeze was moving again, but much colder now. It cut right through him. He went to the ladder, and began to climb. Soon his hands were covered in dust, and he was lost among the cables and darkness. Fear filled his stomach. He whispered a prayer to the Emperor, and slipped his knife free of its sheath. He held it between his teeth to keep both hands free for climbing. The taste of cold metal in his mouth gave him comfort.
Down below, the officer called out suddenly, “Halt! Who’s there?” Pudge heard uncertainty in the challenge. He stopped climbing; he listened; he watched.
The ruined ship gave its answer: the rustle of dust, the flickering of the light, a distant hollow boom.
The Shadows made no sound.
Pudge saw movement from the corner of his eye. Pale shapes gliding through the decrepit jumble of cargo. He turned his head, glimpsed a white shadow in the darkness. Then it was gone. Cables stirred gently in the breeze, scratching at one another and shedding yet more dust. Pudge opened his mouth to call down a warning, but the words froze in his throat. Perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps it had only been a dust eddy, some trick of the flickering light. What had he seen, after all?
“Pudge, where are you?” Maryn called up. “Can you see anything?” He was turning in a slow circle, suddenly wary, his pistol and sword in hand, officer’s cap lying on the floor. He must have felt them, as Pudge felt them. There was nothing to see. “Answer me! Why is it so cold?”
It was cold. But not the cold of the void, something else. The biting cold of terror.
Shivering, Pudge clung more tightly to the rungs. His face pressed hard against the cold metal of the ladder. He could feel the acrid, choking dust on his cheek.
A shadow emerged from the dark of a gutted transport module. It stood in front of Maryn, twice as tall, towering over the young Lieutenant. The creature was lean and chinitous, layers of exposed bone pale as milk on the surface, with muscles like writhing iron the colour of an old bruise beneath. Its carapace surface seemed to change color as it moved; here it was white as snow, there black as shadow, everywhere edged with the deep orange of the trembling lights. The patterns ran like oil on water with every silent step it took.
Pudge heard the breath go out of Lieutenant Maryn in a long hiss. “C-c-c-come no farther,” the officer warned. His voice cracked like a boy’s. He threw the long satin cloak back over his shoulders, to free his arms for battle, taking his pistol in one hand, sword in the other. The breeze had stopped. It was very cold.
The creature slid forward on silent claws, unfurling its many talon-like hands. In one it held a long sword like none that Pudge had ever seen. No Imperial metal had gone into the forging of that blade. It was alive in the wavering light, semi-translucent, but with a bone like quality that belied its menace. Pudge knew it was far sharper than any blade he or the Lieutenant might be carrying.
Maryn met him bravely. “come on then.” He levelled his sword at the creature, defiant. His hand trembled from the weight of it, or perhaps from the cold. Yet in that moment, Pudge thought, he was a boy no longer, but a man of the Imperial Navy.
The creature halted. Pudge saw its eyes; red, deeper and redder than any natural eyes, a red that burned like a forge. They fixed on the sword trembling on high, watched the flickering amber running along its metal surface. The dust fell around them like snow, gentle and lifeless. For a heartbeat Pudge dared to hope.
They emerged silently from the shadows, twins to the first. Three of them… four… five… Maryn may have felt the cold that came with them, but he never saw them, never heard them. Pudge had to call out. It was his duty. And his death, if he did. He shivered, and hugged the ladder, keeping his silence.
The bone sword came scything through the dust filled air.
Maryn met it with his steel. When the blades met, there was no ring of metal on metal; only a dull, thick sound at the edge of hearing, like the shattering of bones.
All around him, the watchers stood patient, emotionless, silent, the shifting patterns of their chitinous surfaces making them all but invisible in the failing light. Yet they made no move to interfere.
Again the swords met, the Lieutenant struggling under the blow. Maryn was straining from the effort already, the sweat glistening on his brow. His blade was heavily nicked and discoloured from the impact; the creature’s was untouched.
Again the creature swung and changed direction, but Maryn’s parry came a beat too late. The bone sword bit through the breastplate beneath his arm. The young officer cried out in pain, as his pistol slipped from his hands. Blood welled between the folds of metal and bone. It steamed in the cold, and the droplets seemed black as night where they touched the rusting dust. Maryns fingers brushed his side, his gloves coming away soaked with red.
The creature let out a low, steady hiss, both impatient and mocking in a language that Pudge did not know.
Maryn found his fury. “For the Emperor!” he came up roaring, lifting the battered sword with both hands and swinging it around in a flat sidearm slash with all his weight behind it. The creatures parry was almost lazy.
When the blades touched, the steel shattered.
A scream echoed through the cargo bay, as the sword splintered into a hundred pieces. Maryn went to his knees, shrieking, and covered his eyes. Blood welled between his fingers.
On some silent signal, the creatures moved forward together. Claw hands rose and fell, to the symphony of hisses and shrieks. The pale talons sliced through the plating as if it were silk. Pudge closed his eyes. Far beneath him, the sounds of butchery descended into silence.
When he found the courage to look again, hours had passed, and the bay below was empty.
He stayed up the ladder, scarce daring to breathe, while the light continued to fail more gradually to black. He could tell there was not long left in the power matrix, and hour if he was lucky. Finally, his muscles cramping and his fingers numb with cold, he slid down.
The scattered parts of Maryns body lay in the dust, an arm here, a fragment of skull and brain there. The delicate satin cloak lay in raged blood soaked ribbons. Pudge could feel the bile rising in his throat.
He found what was left of the sword a few feet away, the end cracked and splintered like a wooden toy. Pudge knelt, looked around warily, and snatched it up. The broken sword would be his proof. Hask would know what to do, and if not him, then surely that old Space Marine Brother Hemera would believe him about what he saw. Would Hask still be waiting? He had to hurry.
Pudge rose. The creature stood over him.
Its face was clutter of oozing orifices, bone and teeth. The deep purple flesh pulsed as it breathed gently, glistening with moisture. A shard from Maryns sword protruded from the ruin of its left eye.
The right eye was open. The pupil burned red. It saw.
The shattered sword hilt fell from resigned fingers. Pudge closed his eyes to pray. A Long, boney claw brushed his cheek, then tightened around his throat. The bone sword rose and fell, splitting the silence in two.
The lights flickered and finally died, plunging the ship into darkness.