“Into the tunnels!” Lokus commanded, taking a moment to address the room. “We retreat from the jaws of the enemy, but only to better strike at its heart!”
Eckhert Riggs rolled his eyes and looked to the other soldiers around him to share in his disdain. To his annoyance, the rank and file Guardsmen seemed bolstered by the seneschal’s words and readied their weapons with relish. General Vance nodded in approval. Riggs groaned.
The mercenary watched in envy as the rogue trader crew filed into the underground tunnel. It felt inviting to Riggs, and not just because it was an escape from the death swarm of hover drones surrounding the building. It reminded him of home, he realized. There wasn’t much about Necromunda that he missed, but he had grown up in an overpopulated hive city and being above ground on a world like Shinfuken always left him with a vague sense of agoraphobia.
Riggs had been with General Vance on a work for hire basis to help pacify Shinfuken for almost fifteen months. His contract term had been up for more than a month, but with nowhere to go, he had continued working on a rolling basis. His time on Shinfuken had not been as profitable as he had hoped and working for the Gamorans, even indirectly, had been unpleasant. He had eagerly been awaiting a chance to move on for months. When the Sinerians had first arrived, he had hoped they would bring new opportunities with them, but instead, he now found himself trapped in a crumbling building, surrounded by killer robots.
Lasgun fire from the top of the stairs grabbed Riggs’ attention.
“We’ll hold them for as long as we can,” he heard the general declare.
Riggs readied his hellgun, but moved slowly toward the stairs. He was more than willing to fight the machines, but he was not going to lay down his life to hold a meaningless position. If the Guardsmen broke, Eckhert would be the first into the tunnel.
To their credit, Vance’s men held the line. The personnel elsewhere in the building were sliced apart by the hover drones’ energy beams, but the stairs to the basement proved to be a robust choke point. Eckhert took turns rotating into and out of the front line, blasting apart a dozen drones at least with his hellgun, but there seemed to be no end to the enemy robots. Until they abruptly stopped shooting.
“Hold your fire!” Riggs shouted at the men around him when he was certain of what he was seeing. “General Vance!” he called down the stairs behind him. “Sir, you should see this.”
The troops made way and the general hurried to the front. He observed the drones as they slowly drifted to the ground. Casting an unreadable glance at Riggs, the general keyed his micro-bead communicator.
“Sinerian personnel,” he called.
“This is Lokus,” came the immediate reply.
“The hover drones have ceased aggression and appear to be offline,” the general related. “I’m guessing we have you to thank?”
“We’ve taken care of the AI, yes,” Lokus answered. “What’s your situation?”
Vance walked out of the stairwell. Riggs and a few bold Guardsmen followed.
“I’ve got about five hundred survivors,” Vance replied.
“And there isn’t much left of the capital building,” Riggs reported into his own communicator.
Vance scowled at him.
“Who is that?” Lokus demanded.
“This is Eckhert Riggs,” the mercenary replied, “Veteran gun-for-hire. Emphasis on ‘for hire’. I’ve been propping up our mutual friend here for seven months and with the crisis handled, I want off of this rock.”
“Is that so?” Lokus dead-panned.
“He can be a handful,” Vance commented, “but I have to admit that Riggs is one of the best I’ve seen. I hate to lose him, especially with the casualties I’ve taken, but he has fulfilled his contract.”
“In that case, welcome aboard Veteran Gun-for-hire Eckhert Riggs. We’re happy to have new talent,” Lokus announced. “General, I’ll find you five hundred recruits for your planetary defence force and another five hundred for your new civilian government, hand-picked from my crew.”
“That will be most appreciated,” Vance replied.
“That’s how we do things, now that this is a Sinerian world again,” Lokus explained. “Riggs, we’re arranging for a number of shuttles to come down from the Holy Enterprise to recover our dead for processing in the crew reclamation facility. You can hitch a ride to the ship with one of them. We’ll meet you up there, I’ve got some research to do to optimize the exploitation of this world.”
The mercenary said his goodbyes to Vance and a handful of surviving Guardsmen. It wasn’t long before the promised shuttle arrived. Riggs watched with curiosity as serfs emerged and began filling the shuttle with whatever bodies seemed whole enough to be repurposed into servitors. Their mood was noticeably grim.
“Waste not, want not, right?” Riggs commented to one of the serfs as he climbed aboard the shuttle. The man dropped the corpse he had been carrying and was briefly sprayed with fluids as the body impacted the deck. The serf turned his gore-splattered face toward the mercenary and gave him a baleful stare before continuing his task.
It took an hour for the crew to recover the usable dead, including miscellaneous body parts that remained sufficiently intact for repurposing.
As the shuttle headed into orbit, Eckhert felt a sense of excitement that he had not known since he had first arrived on Shinfuken. As the Holy Enterprise came into view, he was sincerely impressed. It had been ages since he had set foot on anything as big as a light cruiser and he was surprised that this motley crew of rogue traders possessed their own.
Riggs had barely disembarked from his shuttle before he was greeted by a monotask servitor, apparently assigned to delivering messages. In its dry monotone, it relayed a channel frequency and encryption algorithm. He set his micro-bead communicator and immediately landed on a conversation in progress.
“When the Gamorans hear that we’ve taken back Shinfuken, they’re sure to retaliate.”
“Nero, stop worrying,” Riggs recognized Lokus’ voice. “Are you still walking around with a face like ground meat? Get to the apothecarion already!”
“I’m there now,” Nero replied. “Tygan is preparing his flesh grafts. Once those are done, he wants to stick me in a tank for a week…”
“Shit, what happened to you?” asked Riggs.
“Ah, our newest member has joined us,” Lokus commented.
“A bolt exploded in my face,” Nero answered. “I’ll show you what’s left of my helmet.”
“Life is never dull among the Sinerian dynasty!” Lokus laughed.
Alarak settled himself in his private chamber, eager to get under way after days spent waiting in orbit around Shinfuken, while administrative details were worked out with the new Sinerian colonial government. Soon, it would be time to peer into the warp once again.
“Discovery IFF installation complete,” Phi Rho 81 reported over the vox.
Alarak smiled. The identification-friend-or-foe device had been salvaged from the remains of the disabled Gamoran frigate, still orbiting the planet.
“That should give us an edge when we run into the Gamorans again,” said the navigator.
“Alright, we are off to Palados,” Lokus announced. “Alarak, do your thing.”
“Acknowledged,” the navigator replied.
Closing his eyes, Alarak took a deep, steadying breath. He opened his third eye and peered into the madness of the warp. A bright, pure light immediately caught his attention. There was the Astronomicon, finding it so easily was an encouraging sign.
“Conditions seem generally favorable,” Alarak reported. “Begin translation.”
Alarak felt familiar rumbling, as the Holy Enterprise left realspace. It felt good to be back in the warp. Despite its harrowing dangers, it was, in a way, where he felt most at home.
The first day passed without incident as they traversed the Empyrean. Rumours of warp wraiths began to circulate among the crew, as they did every time the Enterprise sailed through the Sea of Souls. As usual, Lokus reassured the crew that there was no truth to the stories. But Alarak remembered the words of Billy Bones, as he rambled at the Sinerians while aboard Port Wander. He knew there was at least one murderous ghost in their midst.
As he had tried during his previous journey through the Empyrean, he turned his warp eye toward the Enterprise, searching for a trace of her former captain. This time, he quickly sensed a presence, and a corresponding nausea.
“You seek me, mutant?” came an ethereal voice. “It will be the last thing you do, thief!”
Opening his human eyes, Alarak turned toward the sound. He saw a hazy, purple figure stalking toward him with outstretched hands like claws.
“Captain Bligh,” Alarak greeted the creature calmly. It stopped advancing.
“You know my name?” the Captain replied.
“I do,” said Alarak. “I’ve heard the tale of the mutiny against you. I want to help you find rest.”
“I’ll only rest once every last miserable traitor is dead!” the warp creature replied.
“That can be arranged,” said Alarak conversationally.
“Thirteen souls escaped from the warp with my ship. Thirteen escaped my righteous vengeance.”
“All we need is a list,” Alarak assured him.
The captain recited the names and vanished, leaving Alarak scrambling to record them. Setting the names aside with satisfaction, he turned his attention back to his duties.
The translation to realspace was difficult and Alarak realized with alarm that the Holy Enterprise had arrived a mere seventy void units from Palados, much too close for the stealthy insertion the crew had planned.
“Two vessels detected, a raider and a frigate,” Phi Rho 81 announced over the vox. “Verifying–confirmed, they are Gamoran.”
“Activate the Discovery’s IFF!” Alarak called, making his way hurriedly to the bridge.
“Activated,” Phi Rho replied. “The enemy ships have confirmed that we are friendly.”
“Perfect!” Lokus chimed in excitedly, “open fire!”
Alarak reached the bridge and quickly assessed the situation. Eckhert Riggs had taken over the helm controls to pilot the ship. Lokus was spouting propaganda into the ship-wide address system. Phi Rho 81 was adjusting the targeting systems, while Nero seized control of the primary weapon arrays. Alarak glanced up at the holographic display just in time to watch a spear of energy from the Titanforge lance skewer the surprised Gamoran frigate. A deadly dance through the void had begun.
The enemy vessels performed evasive maneuvers, but the Enterprise crew pressed their advantage. The macrocannons and lance battered the frigate, disabling its weapon systems and triggering a massive hull breach. Phi Rho wasted no time in jamming the enemy’s communications.
Bleeding atmosphere, unable to fight or communicate, the Gamoran frigate attempted a desperate escape toward Palados. After an hour of maneuvering, the raider finally managed to get the Sinerians in its sights. Blasting macrocannons and a laser battery, the enemy overloaded the Enterprise’s shields and cut into the hull, rocking the ship and sending hundreds of crew to die in vacuum. Lokus’ efforts to motivate the crew did not seem to be working, but he continued his steady stream of misinformation.
“Don’t let that frigate reach Palados!” Lokus shouted to his comrades.
Plugged into his enginaerium console, Phi Rho communed with the Enterprise’s machine spirit to boost the ship’s maneuvering and speed, allowing Eckhert to put the enemy frigate back into Nero’s sights. Alarak took over at the targeting station and locked on the retreating vessel. Nero fired again.
Looking up at the holographic display, Alarak smiled as he observed explosions tearing apart the enemy vessel.
The raider responded with a blazing laser battery, rocking the ship once again.
“Direct hit,” Phi Rho reported. “Main engines damaged.”
“We have the enemy right where we want them!” Lokus’ voice blared across the ship.
The Sinerians continued to maneuver the Enterprise over the course of an hour, cutting off the raider from the nearby planet. Finally in position to shoot at the smaller craft, Nero unleashed a punishing macrocannon broadsides. The enormous shells blasted open the Gamorans’ hull and destroyed their primary weapon systems. Riggs let out a wordless cheer in triumph.
“Hail them,” Lokus ordered, a sneer audible in his voice.
“Channel open,” intoned a servitor.
“Gamoran ship,” Lokus began, “the Sinerian retribution fleet will be here shortly. Your only chance of survival is to come about and dock, offering unconditional surrender.”
His announcement was met with silence.
“You have one hour to comply or we will destroy you,” the seneschal concluded.
“This is Captain Barnet,” came a voice over the vox. “I concede to your demands. We surrender.”
The enemy captain did as he was told. Once the raider had docked with the Enterprise, Talon Karrde greeted the Gamoran survivors with a battalion of armed crew serfs. Four hundred prisoners were taken to the spacious brig.
The Sinerian senior staff split up to perform interrogations. Their questioning revealed that the Gamorans had taken control of Palados within two days of their coordinated attack against the Sinerian dynasty. But the Sinerian forces had not been completely subdued and were even now fighting a guerrilla war on the planet’s surface. They also learned that their battle for the star system had not yet been won. A light cruiser was on patrol somewhere nearby and the Gamorans had attempted to alert it to the Enterprise’s presence. No one was certain whether their ship had received the message through the jamming.
Satisfied with their information, the Sinerian senior staff gathered to share their intelligence. But before anyone had time to speak, Hundred Eyes burst into the war room.
“What’s wrong?” Alarak asked.
“A message…” began the old woman. “I have received an astropathic distress call originating in the Jerazol system.”
“And why should we care?” Lokus asked impatiently.
“It was sent from the Golden Destiny!” the blind woman exclaimed. “A Sinerian vessel!”