Lokus contemplated the data slate in his hands. He had read the report it contained about what little the Holy Enterprise‘s auspex could reveal about the state of Palados. It was not encouraging.
A vast cloud of debris encircled the planet for thousands of kilometers. The fighting between the Gamorans and Sinerians had been intense. The sensorium officers had estimated that a dozen vessels had met their ultimate end in the battle, but it was impossible to know the exact figure. Virtually all of Palados’ artificial satellites had also been pulverized.
At least the surface seemed to have fared better. There had clearly been some orbital bombardment, but nothing extensive. Palados City’s shields and weapon defenses remained intact. The Gamorans had wanted to claim Palados, not erase it.
Lokus shook his head. Unbidden memories surfaced. He remembered watching the sun rise over the skyline of Palados City, from the balcony of his penthouse in a modest skyscraper. The city, really a backwater village by Imperium standards, was as close to a home as he had ever known, other than the void ships where he had spent so much of his life. As the capital of the Sinerian dynasty, he had returned to Palados City countless times. Often to meet with Tiberius Sinerian himself. Tiberius… Could he have survived the Gamoran invasion?
“Hundred Eyes,” Lokus called, looking over at the astropath.
The old woman still appeared remarkably resilient, despite her age and the long years of manipulating caustic warp energies. At Lokus’ call, she opened her eyes and shook her head.
“Still nothing,” she replied to the unspoken question. “If there are indeed loyal Sinerian forces that remain on the planet, they do not have an astropath with them.”
“We must delay no further,” Phi Rho 81 declared from across the bridge. “The Gamoran light cruiser is still out there. “Further idleness represents unacceptable risk.”
The door hissed open and all eyes turned watch Alarak waddle on to the bridge. Lokus tapped his foot impatiently as the navigator heaved his awkward bulk into a nearby seat.
“Well?” Lokus demanded.
“I have been able to detect a residual trace of the Starscraper’s warp trail,” Alarak replied calmly. “Their most recent trajectory sent them toward Palo II.”
“The gas giant,” Lokus mused aloud. “Could they be hiding from us among the planet’s ice rings? Lying in wait?”
“Not a bad strategy,” Eckhert Riggs commented, picking at his teeth with a toothpick. “Either we go after them and they catch us in an ambush, or we ignore them and they sneak up behind us while we’re busy on the planet.”
“You’re assuming they know we’re here,” Nero interjected.
“They may not have been warned through my signal jamming,” Phi Rho 81 added, “but they may have detected us with their own auspex by now.”
“I don’t like it,” Lokus declared, tossing his data slate into a junior officer’s hands. The young man scrambled to get a hold of it in a panic, unnoticed by the seneschal. “I say we take a few of our prisoners, put them back aboard the captured raider and send it to meet up with their friends. We rig the engines to overload and as soon as it is in range, BOOM! No more light cruiser breathing down our necks.”
“And our glorious Sinerian fleet is reduced to a lone ship once again,” Alarak noted. Lokus frowned.
“What about the Golden Destiny?” Hundred Eyes asked.
“Their distress call will have to wait,” Lokus replied with a dismissive wave of his hand. “We’re here now and I’m not leaving until we discover Tiberius’ fate, at least.”
“We should board the raider and use it to approach the planet without alerting the Gamorans,” Phi Rho 81 suggested.
“The ruse will be over as soon as they detect our unauthorized landing craft,” Riggs mused. “But it should buy us some time.”
The debate over how to deal with the lurking enemy ship–or not–continued for several minutes before Lokus tired of it.
“Forget the Starscraper,” he decided in exasperation. “Let’s get on the raider.” He keyed his micro-bead. “Nikita, Emulus, Tygan. Report to the captured Gamoran raider. You’re coming with us to Palados.”
Lokus walked off the bridge, heading to his quarters to retrieve his combat gear. He was sure a trip to the surface would be necessary. Maybe to find the surviving Sinerian loyalists. Or maybe just to kill Benjin Yurts.
The seneschal thought back to the journey through the Empyrean that had brought him to the Palo system. Alarak had managed to retrieve a list of names from Captain Bligh, the murderous warp ghost that haunted the Holy Enterprise. Killing those marked men might be enough to put an end to Bligh stalking the ship, if the word of a warp creature actually meant anything.
“Worth a try,” Lokus muttered to himself. What was a few more deaths on his hands?
His complete and efficient research had shown that six of the thirteen men on the list were confirmed dead on distant worlds. Benjin Yurts was one of the remaining survivors and he had signed on with the Sinerians as a void master. His last known location was Palados City.
The Sinerian senior staff gathered on the bridge of the captured Gamoran raider and Lokus gave the order to undock it from the Holy Enterprise. They manoeuvred the small vessel into low orbit around the planet, being careful to keep out of reach of the capital city’s devastating defenses, just in case. The Enterprise held back, remaining well away from the planet to reduce the risk of detection.
The Sinerian staff began monitoring any and all signal traffic, looking for any sign of the Sinerian resistance their Gamoran prisoners had revealed.
“I’ve got something!” Alarak declared excitedly. As Lokus and the others clustered around the vox station he was using, he switched the audio to the bridge address system for all to hear.
“… journey through moonless night,” spoke a voice Lokus did not recognize.
“Only seekers of the red dawn,” Alarak answered with the familiar Sinerian code phrase.
“Standby. Eagle ascendant,” the voice replied.
Lokus held his breath. Had he heard that correctly? That was the codename for Tiberius himself. A moment later, the familiar voice rang out over the vox.
“I cannot sufficiently express my joy at the arrival of reinforcements!” he said. “We’ve been entirely cut off since the Gamorans first attacked. How much of the fleet have you brought?”
Lokus hesitated and exchanged looks of concern with his comrades.
“I’m sorry to say… there is no fleet anymore,” he answered at length. “From what we’ve been able to gather, the Gamorans struck at nearly all of our assets simultaneously… and won.”
“Impossible!” the shock was unmistakable in Tiberius’ tone. “What treachery is this? How could they have achieved that? There must be something left!”
“We do still have the Holy Enterprise,” Lokus hastened to answer, “and we have succeeded in retaking Shinfuken.”
“Well, that’s something,” Tiberius replied.
“We also received word from the Golden Destiny in the Jerazol system,” Nero added. “Although it was an astropathic distress message…”
The vox was silent for several moments before Tiberius’ voice could be heard again.
“My legacy… in ruins…” he muttered in despair. “What about my nephew? Is Mazer with you?”
“He’s been wounded,” Lokus replied. “He is alive, but in stasis for now, back aboard the Enterprise. What is your situation on Palados?” Lokus hastily changed the subject. “Can you tell us what has happened here?”
“A fleet of Gamoran vessels emerged from the warp and attacked us without warning,” Tiberius explained. “We made them pay a heavy price, but our vessels were all destroyed. Then they invaded the city. I can’t believe the number of soldiers they brought… They must have been mustering their army for years. But even worse, there was an uprising. I still can’t believe it, but traitorous citizens rose up to aid the Gamorans against me. I barely escaped the magisterial palace alive. We managed to find refuge in a cave system, about a hundred kilometers outside Palados City’s weapons range. We have a small guerilla force, twenty-two of us. We’ve been reconnoitering Gamoran troop movements and are trying to find a way to infiltrate the palace. I believe they have Caruso Fex, my primary astropath, captive and in stasis. I had hoped to send word to my other forces to call for help, but if what you say is true…”
“There is no other help coming,” Riggs concluded.
“Right. You need to get us off world,” Tiberius ordered, seeming to regain his usual commanding demeanor. “I’ll return to Terra and lodge an official complaint against the Gamoran dynasty with the Administratum. It will take time, but this cannot be allowed to stand.”
“Understood,” Lokus declared.
He immediately began issuing orders to the skeleton crew aboard the raider. In no time, three shuttles were carrying the Sinerian staff toward the surface. They encountered no resistance on the way down, but Lokus knew the Gamorans would respond quickly to the unauthorized landing.
The shuttles touched down in a rocky field just outside the caves. As the Sinerian away team reached the entrance to the cave system on foot, they were greeted by a handful of soldiers in camouflage fatigues.
“Are we ever happy to see some friendly faces,” said one man.
Lokus quickly introduced himself and his companions.
“I’m Benjin,” the lead soldier replied.
“Benjin Yurts?” Alarak asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Yes,” the man answered, taken aback. “Have we met before?”
“No time for chit chat,” Lokus barked. “Take us to Tiberius.”
Benjin nodded and the expanded group headed inside. They passed a lascannon and a heavy bolter emplacement as they moved along the passageways. All around them, they saw personnel packing equipment in a hurry.
“There you are!” Tiberius cheerfully greeted the Enterprise personnel by name. The venerable rogue trader stood in a naturally formed alcove, flanked by soldiers Lokus did not recognize as well as Regula, the highest ranking seneschal in the dynasty. She gave Lokus a wide smile that amplified the innumerable wrinkles across her face.
“The Gamorans may have done lasting damage to my dynasty, but mark my words!” Tiberius declared. “They have not won! We survive and we will prosper once again. Today, with this very reunion, we begin our return to glory!”
“A Sinerian renaissance,” Lokus agreed emphatically.
“Precisely! Well said, Lokus,” Tiberius exclaimed.
A young Sinerian soldier suddenly came running over to the group.
“My lord,” he began breathlessly, “enemy aircraft are closing on our position!”
“The Gamorans have tracked our shuttles,” Nero declared.
“Unsurprising, but that was faster than expected…” Tiberius remarked. “How long until they reach us?”
“As little as five minutes, lord!” the soldier replied.
“Right,” Riggs interjected. “Leave your equipment, we need everyone on our shuttles immediately!”
“Wait,” Tiberius countered. “I have one more ace up my sleeve. A gun-cutter, hidden just outside.”
“What?” Lokus asked in surprise. “Why didn’t you use it to escape as soon as we made contact?”
“Because its machine spirit has proven uncooperative,” Tiberius explained. “But now that Phi Rho 81 and Emulus are here, we can get it working again.”
“Right, let’s move!” Riggs interjected.
A mass exodus of the caves had begun. As the Sinerians ran toward the exit, they heard the heavy weapon emplacements begin to fire. Moments later, the entire mountain shook under explosive impacts.
Benjin Yurts joined Tiberius as he ran. “Two Thunderbolts are bombing our position,” he reported breathlessly. “And a Valkyrie is landing outside.”
“We’ll have to fight our way out,” Tiberius replied.
“I’ll get you to the gun-cutter safely, my lord,” Benjin replied with determination.
“No!” Alarak objected from the rear. Benjin and Tiberius fixed him with looks of confusion. “We need experienced soldiers to fight through to the shuttles,” Alarak shouted as he struggled to keep up.
“We need to give those Thunderbolts more targets,” Lokus agreed.
“Our vehicles have to scatter as soon as they lift off,” Nero added, “and head to orbit separately.”
“I understand,” Benjin replied and veered off.
Explosions erupted again, echoing deafeningly in the rocky confines. Dust and rocks broke from the ceiling and walls. Eckhert and Phi Rho nimbly bolted out of the way, while most of the others were struck by falling debris, causing varying levels of injury.
As the group approached the cave entrance, they could hear the scream of aircraft engines passing overhead. A moment later, Gamoran ground troops came into view.
Nero immediately fired into the oncoming enemy with his bolt pistol, wounding and stunning an enemy officer before he could get a shot off. Phi Rho dodged a lasgun burst, but his augmented body was seared by a hellpistol blast from a second Gamoran officer. Lokus gunned down two Gamoran soldiers in quick succession with his hellgun. Alarak killed another soldier with his hellpistol. Eckhert burned down the second Gamoran officer with his hellgun.
The violent exchange had taken mere seconds. The Sinerian forces were through the enemy. While the crew of the Enterprise followed Tiberius, the guerilla fighters piled into the three shuttles. The Thunderbolts screeched past again, pulverizing the ground with their autocannons. One of the shuttles detonated under the barrage. The other two lifted off and immediately headed in different directions. The Thunderbolts circled back and divided, each chasing a fleeing shuttle.
Unopposed for the moment, the remaining Sinerians dashed across the clearing toward a tiny hill. Tiberius’ three surviving bodyguards pulled away a concealing chameleoline cover to reveal the gun-cutter. Regula suddenly cursed as she was struck in the leg by las-fire. More Gamoran foot soldiers were rushing the Sinerians, clearly determined to prevent them from getting their vehicle off the ground.
“Go go go!” Lokus called to the others, as he took cover behind the rear of the craft. He snapped a quick shot at the oncoming enemy. Alarak took up a firing position on the other side of the extended ramp, taking aim with his hellpistol. The others rushed aboard.
“There’s a multilaser in the nose,” Tiberius called.
“On it,” Nero replied, a note of relish unmistakable in his voice.
“I’m on the port side heavy bolter,” Eckhert announced.
“Phi Rho…” Lokus called into his micro-bead as las fire burned through his armored left shoulder. “We need this thing airborne!”
“Affirmative,” Phi Rho 81 replied tonelessly. “Running diagnostics.”
Lokus smirked as one of the Gamorans evaporated under sustained fire from the cutter’s multilaser. A moment later, sudden, deafening chatter heralded the heavy bolter coming to life. The Gamorans scattered under the assault and scrambled into cover.
“Elementary,” Phi Rho commented. “Systems coming online now.”
“Yes!” Lokus cheered.
“I’ll grab the stick,” Nero announced.
Alarak left his position and climbed aboard the gun-cutter. Lokus leaned out from his cover to fire a parting blast from his hellpistol. Searing pain punched the air out of his lungs and he looked down to find a charred hole through his breastplate. A Gamoran officer was barreling toward him and Lokus felt momentarily paralyzed.
The heavy bolter chattered again and the Gamoran was splattered across the grass in a heartbeat. Lokus managed to suck air into his lungs and stumbled on to the gun-cutter’s ramp.
“Go!” he gasped as the ramp closed behind him.
“Lift off,” came Nero’s voice.
“There is a Valkyrie on auspex,” Phi Rho warned.
“It’s not going to catch us,” Nero answered confidently.
Lokus managed to reach the cockpit and collapsed into a seat. He watched as the gun-cutter climbed and escaped into orbit, where the enemy aircraft could not follow.
“Welcome back,” Shen Tygan’s voice came over the vox, from the captured Gamoran raider. “You’d better dock in a hurry.”
“Why? What’s happened?” Lokus responded.
“I just received a warning from the Holy Enterprise,” Tygan explained. “Remember that light cruiser? It’s coming after us.”
“Rendez-vous for docking in ninety seconds,” Nero announced.
“What about our shuttles?” Riggs asked.
“They didn’t make it,” Tygan replied grimly. “I saw those Thunderbolts shoot them down on the auspex.”
“No!” Tiberius slammed his fist into his chair’s armrest. “After all those months of fighting, only five of us escaped…”
“But we got you out, my lord,” Lokus replied proudly. “That’s what matters.”
An expression of firm determination froze over Tiberius’ features. “And I swear, by the God-Emperor, that I will see the Gamoran dynasty in ashes for all of the lives they have taken from us.”
“Including Benjin Yurts,” Alarak added slyly.
“But let’s start by getting aboard our raider,” said Nero.
“And dealing with the Gamoran warship…” Phi Rho reminded them.