"What the hell is going on up here?" Burnett thundered as the elevator doors opened onto the bridge. Haines was immediately struck by the sheer amount of bronze in the huge chamber, from railings to devotional icons to the fittings supporting yet more of those garish banners and Aquila pennants. Oddly, the crysteel dome in the ceiling was framed with what looked like polished silver.
"We've picked up a contact on the long-range augur arrays, my lord," answered a thin, bearded man in his mid-fifties that Haines took to be First Officer Macadie. "Unidentified vessel. Looks like a cruiser."
"Another one?" Burnett sighed, his frustration evident. "If this is another Inquisition vessel..."
"That's the problem, my lord. We can't tell."
Burnett paused, managing a flat "What?" as Macadie gestured towards a cogitator pit, its shaven-headed occupant tapping away furiously on the interface board.
"The fact that it's unidentified would rather suggest that it's either an Inquisition vessel, or not Imperial," Andreas speculated as he followed Haines and Burnett.
"Isn't it transmitting any sort of IFF at all?" Hallona queried, and Macadie turned around in surprise, as if only just becoming aware of three Inquisitors sharing the bridge.
"Therein lies the problem, my lady," Macadie managed at length. "The IFF is there, but it's completely blank. It's transmitting empty noise."
"Do we have any idea which way it's going?" Haines asked.
Macadie paused, turned to the cogitator, then went pale.
"It seems to be on an approach vector," the First Officer reported, his voice suddenly hoarse. "Your orders, Vice-Admiral?"
"Have you attempted to hail it? Inform its captain that this system is regio interdicta?"
"Lord Tiberius has been broadcasting such a message on repeat since the vessel appeared in-system," Macadie answered, some of his colour returning slowly. "Should we hail it directly?"
"Where is Lord Tiberius, in relation to both the unidentified ship and us?" Barkley inquired.
"Some five thousand kilometres astern of us, if it's still in formation," Burnett informed the Inquisitor. "Which would put Foehammer Squadron close to us as well."
"Are we expecting trouble?" Andreas interjected.
"The fleet's standing orders are to engage any non-compliant or hostile ship that enters the interdiction zone," Macadie answered. "I presume that the Vice-Admiral can explain the specifics better than I can."
"Hail Lord Tiberius and Foehammer Squadron," Hallona suggested to Burnett. "Have them form up and align towards the unknown ship."
"Understood, my lady," Burnett nodded, heading over to the command pulpit. "Mister Macadie, you heard the Inquisitor."
Macadie nodded and barked an order at another crewman. Presently, the tanned face of another, less senior Naval officer appeared on the bridge's main vid-screen.
"Ship's Captain Marwan al-Kalil reporting from Lord Tiberius," the officer stated. "What are your orders, Asculum?"
"Lord Tiberius, hail that unknown ship directly. If it is still unwilling to change course, then form up with Foehammer Squadron, align portside, and engage."
"Maintain an audio feed with us. I have a bad feeling about this."
"Understood. Lord Tiberius ending vid-feed."
The screen went blank, but in a matter of seconds the screen began to flicker with static, the vox-casters hissing angrily.
"That can't be normal," Andreas noted, somewhat unnecessarily.
Before Burnett or any of the Inquisitors could respond, the static faded and an image straight out of Mankind's worst nightmares resolved itself on the screen.
Standing in an oppressive, red-lit room filled with machinery, the floor strewn with cables and the ceiling shrouded in smoke, was a Space Marine...
"Identify yourself!" Burnett shouted, trying desperately not to show the horror that gripped every fibre of his being.
The Space Marine was hideous to behold. A crown of horns, eight in all, adorned his helmet, each one etched with blasphemous runes and capped with a spike of black iron. His massive shoulders were similarly defaced, each one decorated with a sigil that pained the eyes to look at. An Opus Machina icon sat on his breastplate, the circle of cog teeth replaced with a wheel of spikes, and the armour on his legs was banded with brass strips that terminated in broad arrowhead points. A massive servo-harness was mounted on his back, each of its six arms fitted with a different instrument that the Space Marine had no doubt put to use in combat as well as in his labours, be it the plasma cutter by his left knee, or the magna-clamp hovering over his shoulder, or the circular saw next to his elbow. He stood cruciform in the chamber, each of his hands grasping some sort of interface mechanism whose purpose Haines couldn't decipher.
The Space Marine was staring straight at the camera, and although Haines couldn't see his face -- nobody could -- he couldn't shake the thought that the Space Marine was looking directly at him, staring through his visor and the screen directly into his soul.
"LOST CHILDREN OF THE CARRION LORD," the Space Marine addressed the bridge, his words completely devoid of emotion, his voice a menacing monotone. "YOU REACH OUT TO ME, FUMBLING IN IGNORANCE, INCAPABLE OF UNDERSTANDING."
"What are you?" Burnett hissed, slowly losing his grip on his emotions. It was a wonder that he hadn't already soiled himself.
"A SURVIVOR OF AN ERA SO FAR BEYOND YOUR UNDERSTANDING THAT YOU CANNOT IMAGINE IT. I AM BEYOND YOUR COMPREHENSION. I AM ZAGAN AND YOU ARE MY ENEMY."
"You... Emperor's oath, a Traitor Marine!" Macadie screamed, drawing a laspistol.
"YOUR WORDS ARE MEANINGLESS. YOU EXIST BECAUSE WE ALLOW IT."
Macadie raised his pistol to his head.
"AND YOU WILL END BECAUSE WE DEMAND IT."
The pistol fired and Macadie fell to the floor, the side of his skull missing, the contents of his brain pan splattered across the floor.
"YOU CANNOT ESCAPE YOUR DOOM."
"Close the channel!" Haines called to the man he hoped was the comms operator.
"It won't close!" the comms operator shouted back from the other side of the bridge.
"Lord Tiberius reports comms shutdown failure--"
"Foehammer Alpha reporting, we can't block it out--"
"YOUR FIRST MISTAKE WAS UNDERESTIMATING YOUR PERIL," Zagan continued. "YOUR SECOND MISTAKE WAS ALLOWING THIS VESSEL TO APPROACH YOU."
"Shut it down, shut it down!" Burnett screamed.
"YOUR THIRD MISTAKE WAS HAILING ME DIRECTLY."
The consoles beneath Zagan's hands lit up with a harsh scarlet light.
"BEAR WITNESS TO YOUR DESTRUCTION."
The audio feed suddenly erupted with the noise of a massive explosion, then static, then silence.
"What the hell was that?" Hallona snapped.
"This is Lord Tiberius!" screamed Captain al-Kalil from the other side of the connection. "We've lost control of our weapons, I repeat, we have lost control of our guns!"
"Foehammer Beta is gone--"
"What manner of sorcery is this?" Burnett whimpered.
"FOR TEN THOUSAND YEARS I HAVE UNRAVELLED THE SECRETS OF THE MACHINE, UNRESTRICTED BY THE CLOCKWORK GOD OF MARS."
"Target identified!" shouted the first bridge crewman. "Grand cruiser, Exorcist class!"
"I AM SUPERIOR. A GOD OF MACHINES."
"Emperor protect us, he's got control of our engines!" al-Kalil shouted, panicking. "Asculum, the enemy has aligned us towards you and--"
"Your orders, Vice-Admiral?" a bridge crewman called over, but Burnett wasn't listening.
"SUBMIT NOW," Zagan rumbled.
"Asculum, brace for impact, he's launching our torpedoes! I repeat, he is--"
Another violent blast of static signalled the demise of Foehammer Alpha as Zagan's grand cruiser drifted ever onwards, the Traitor Marine content to pit one Imperial vessel against the other.
"Orchomenus, Resaena, Archduke Gordian, this is Asculum, requesting immediate assistance!"
"Void shields at 60%!"
"Starboard guns, target Lord Tiberius and fire at will!" Hallona ordered into the vox, pushing past the catatonic Burnett. "Ordnance, lock onto the enemy ship and launch torpedoes when ready!"
"Andreas, which way are the life pods?" Haines asked, his tone desperate.
"The nearest life pods are two decks down from the officers' dining hall," Andreas answered. "Should I assume--"
Haines didn't wait for Andreas to finish, already on his way out of the bridge. Ignoring the elevator, he went into the stairwell, leaping down each set of eight steps at a run, with Andreas and Barkley close behind. Hallona was last out, descending more carefully but somehow catching up with Andreas three floors down.
"Through that door," Andreas advised, and Haines barged through the doorway not a moment too soon as the entire ship shook. Andreas fell face-first into Haines' elbow, and Barkley and Hallona found themselves piling up on top of Haines' aide.
"Direct hit?" Barkley wondered, peeling himself away from the arms coffer on Andreas' back.
"Hull breach on starboard side decks 11 through 18," declared an automated voice -- a servitor, Haines assumed, or an unfortunate Enginseer. "Prepare for retaliation and pray for deliverance."
Slowly, Haines became aware of the alarms blaring away somewhere towards the front of the ship, and wondered whether the enemy ship or Lord Tiberius might target the bridge next.
"We need to get the hell off this ship right now," Hallona grunted as she picked herself up.
"Agreed," Barkley nodded. "If we tarry, then--"
Another rumble cut Barkley off in mid-flow, and then they were running, down stairwells and along corridors, barging their way through a maddened, panicking crowd of Naval soldiers and crewmen, as the emergency lighting fizzed into existence with a brilliant red glow.
"Multiple hull breaches on all starboard side gun decks," the servitor droned. "The Emperor protects."
"That grand cruiser must've decided to wade in," Barkley commented. "Throne knows how much firepower that thing must have behind it."
"This way!" Andreas prompted them, cutting down a side tunnel, but a sudden surge of bodies pushed Haines in the opposite direction and he found himself herded by the mass of the crowd down a central corridor. In the confusion he lost sight of Andreas, Barkley and Hallona entirely.
Another tremor pitched him off his feet, and thinking quickly, he rolled through a doorway to avoid a crush of bodies piling up against each other, and made a run for it while he could.
"Prow existence failure detected. Hull breaches on all levels."
"Oh, shut up already!" Haines shouted, knowing perfectly well that it would do him no good.
Fires were already breaking out across the Asculum as the damage took its toll. Twice, Haines came close to being set on fire as something across the way from him exploded -- a fuse box the first time, Emperor only knew what the second one was -- and with the blood-red emergency lighting, it looked to Haines like the whole ship was going straight to hell. He passed a few corpses, either trampled by their more desperate crewmates, or killed by the ship's death throes.
Most of the life pods in the bay that Andreas had indicated had already jettisoned by the time Haines found his way to them, and any crew members that weren't already on one of them were either on other levels, or dead. Some of the life pods had never launched; a fraction were intact, but most of the remaining pods were on fire or blocked off by wreckage.
The shot that destroyed the prow must have caused more structural damage than Haines had realised, and he reasoned that something must have fused shut, else there wouldn't have been any air in the life pod bay.
"Get in, get in!" a voice shouted, and he raced towards its owner, leaning out of one of the last life pods as the Asculum continued to fall apart. Somewhere behind him, a man screamed as an explosion blasted him out of the corridor and face-first into the floor; Haines suspected that he was dead before he cleared the doorway, but the Inquisitor was almost at the life pod, and there was no way that he was going back to check now.
"Come on!" the voice encouraged me as he sprinted towards the life pod, hurtling through the door at full tilt before misjudging a step and crashing into the voice's owner.
"He's in," coughed Riley Hallona.
"Emperor protect us," muttered Andreas, sealing the door and hitting the release rune. Haines was about to protest, but as he looked back out into the bay and saw a pile of flaming wreckage barring the entrance, he decided that three Inquisitors plus Andreas making themselves scarce was probably for the best, even though they were sharing a life pod designed for a full platoon.
The pod launched cleanly, and the last Haines saw of the Asculum was a chain of explosions running all along the hull, as Zagan's ship squatted thousands of kilometres away and took the ship apart with contemptuous ease.