Aliestra hung like a rusted sphere against the lightless backdrop of space. She was told that it used to be an Imperial world once home to over three billion human citizens and yet the sight of the orb before her through the landers’ starboard porthole stirred within her a notion of doubt in what she was told.
The planet had been reclassified some three hundred years ago to a dead world; that much was on record, but the nature of what cataclysm had caused such a mass extinction of almost all life on the surface had not been included. The only organisms left were the simplistic algae that maintained a thin but breathable atmosphere. However, for all intents and purposes, Aliestra could never become habitable by human life again. Another Imperial world lost, like so many others: to the tyranids’ insatiable hunger, to the dynastic dominance of the necrons, to the malign expansion of the Eye and like a decaying shroud with its edges being devoured by maggots, the Imperium was falling into darkness. Now, petty fiefdoms from other alien species such as the charon, the cohesive legion of the naar and the zbor of zabami spread like patches of mould upon the fabric of the Imperium of Man. The future was dimming and the lesser alsorans were now hearkening to the final dying flame of the guttering candle; the eldar now little more than dispersed vagrants and the dynamic tau empire, once thought a considerable threat, crippled before the weight of a greater enemy. Aliestra was a stark testament that even nature, with her vindictive whimsy and disasters, seemed adamant to included humanity in that list of species due for extinction.
Jezebel was worried; what if all her struggles culminated into naught but a futile rage against the dying of the light? What if their planning was too little too late? Was the Imperium truly doomed if it fails to wake whilst its extremities are ravaged as it slumbers in near-death? It wouldn’t be too long before a major organ is consumed, the loss of Cadia, subsumed into the Eye, had been a devastating blow that forced our retreat to the new gate-worlds of Hydraphur, Stygies and Mordia, but it had almost lost the Imperium the Segmentum Obscurus.
The lander shuddered as it yawed to starboard following the curvature of Alietra’s thermosphere and prepared for its positive entry angle; portside the Shadow over Aberystwyth
became a shrinking city floating in the void. The striated plasteel decking beneath her feet suddenly dropped away as a cogitator error in course plotting suddenly altered the crafts’ alignment; Jezebel was suspended for a slow-motion moment until the meager grav-counters rectified this unexpected change of state and she was propelled gracelessly to the ground, forcing her to grapple hold of the overhanging clutch bars lest she be thrown face-forward into adjacent bulkhead.
“Beggin’ your pardon, Lady de la Vega, better take a seat and strap in before we hit atmo,” came a gruff voice behind her, “the turbulence of entry will buffet you about something dangerous.”
Jezebel nodded, found herself an empty chair and buckled herself into the safety harness. She closed her eyes and listen to the chatter of the armed and armoured men-, and women-, at-arms surrounding her. She’d been travelling under an alias as a noble woman from Estalia, and whilst the vessels’ seneschals had been originally perplexed when they realised that her destination was a dead world, they had come to their own conclusions that she was some kind of amateur in search of buried archeotech and saw fit that she’d be provided an escort to the surface despite her charter with the Shadow
being only one-way. Perhaps they were worried she might attempt to steal the lander, she mused amused, as the craft began to sway, a hurtling comet trailing fire across the mesosphere of Aliestra.
The ground was soft, like freshly tilled earth, beneath her booted feet. It was colder than she expected and she huddled tightly in her brocaded bolero to fight off the unconscious paroxysms of chill. The landing party had dropped her about half a kilometer from the rendezvous site and she could spy her compatriots awaiting her in the near distance. She had dismissed her chaperones almost immediately upon planetfall, but not before purloining a munitorum issue rebreather to help combat the potential onset of hypoxia. The roar of the landers’ plasma-cycling jets faded, leaving Jezebel in absolute silence and it was the most remarkable thing she had ever experienced. There was no sound beyond her own bodily rhythms. Aliestra no longer harboured any life, no flora or fauna, or man-made machines; its barometric pressure was practically zero resulting in no tidal winds to howl across the absent landscape. She was sure that few in the Imperium ever got to experience absolute silence, for where there was life there was noise; and this truly was a dead world. She shuddered at an encroaching loneliness that seemed to echo of mankind’s future should she fail and started walking.
They had been waiting for her for a few days, but with warp-space as agitated as it was these past decades; it was a small miracle they hadn’t arrived several centuries apart. The suited Montague stood with his ever-present aide and personal telepath: Mister Riegert, looking bored but on edge. The skull-masked Klondike mingled with his mute ‘stage hands’ garbed in kaleidoscopic unitards and mirror masks and the robed Shoaibhim, Absalom, perched his crooked countenance in attendance, leaning over the back of an antiquated chair of fathomless mechanical construct which held, bound and hooded, the Messenger, ensconced within a cocoon of wires and cables.
Her short trek had left her breathless and periodically drawing fresh oxygen through the vulcanized rubber mask clipped to the collar of her jacket. The gazes of the gathering swiveled in her direction as she approached. She felt the eyes of Mister Riegert linger at length upon her and the greasy sensation of psychic pseudopodia beginning to stroke the very personal space of her own mind. He suddenly winced in pain; the ciphers of the Administratum are not so easily invaded by mind-rapists and she still had the redundancy loops and countermeasures installed since novicehood, designed to emit a painful feedback of white static to any psyker stupid enough to attempt a reading.
“Report,” she instructed, her voice muffled through the cup.
“I have received word that the angel has returned to Tellurus; the Lighthouse still awaits the testing phase,” spoke the melodic voice of Klondike.
“Can he handle that?” She enquired incredulously.
“Unknown. The angel doubts that his strength will be sufficient. We need the prodigal son,” he replied, turning his deathmask towards Montague.
“Yeah, about that,” he drawled, his ebony skin beaded with perspiration, “we lost him.”
” spat Jezebel in her native tongue, ripping off her oxygen mask “You lost him!? How?”
“He developed consciousness faster than we imagined…” began Mister Riegert
“He woke up,” interrupted Montague, dabbing his shaven scalp with a linen handkerchief, “what did you expect? You tried to cage a god in a laboratory.”
“What happened?” she sighed, rubbing the bridge of her nose, eyes closed in irritation, “how did he escape?”
Montague looked pensively towards his aide who busied himself cycling though data on a stylish, silvered plasteel slate.
“That’s currently unclear,” droned Riegert, “at oh-four-twenty-seven lab security was breached. The guards’ response was immediate, but they found chamber eight empty. They searched the grounds, but owing to the darkness and the storm they found nothing. Survey teams are currently canvassing the local cities…”
“Could he have been taken?” asked Klondike.
“Doubtful,” answered Jezebel, “no one beyond those involved in the project knew of him, and no one beyond us know his true origins or purpose.”
“One of your brothers or sisters?” Montague leveled at her accusingly, “the Inquisition could have pieced it together.”
“Again, doubtful,” she shook her head, “all records are physical and stored in the vaults, nothing is kept electronically. The Inquisition could not have retrieved any information short of walking into the vaults themselves.”
“A mole then?” enquired Klondike.
“That’s possible,” conceded Mister Riegert, “we can schedule interviews of all the staff once we get back to the installation.”
“With his predicted power,” interjected Absalom, speaking for the first time, “isn’t it possible that he could simply have vanished? He may not even be on the same world anymore.”
“Teleportation?” clarified Riegert raising a skeptical eyebrow.
“That’s unlikely,” refuted Jezebel, “given what we know about the father, it is improbable that the son would exhibit such capabilities. Regardless of how, do I need to remind you all that this project has been a hundred years in the making? One hundred years! One hundred years of research and several dead ends: several failures. He is our first viable success.”
“We’ll find him,” argued Montague.
“Yes you will,” warned Jezebel sharply, “and I’ll see to it personally. Once our business is concluded here, I will be joining you back at the installation.”
“Speaking of which,” rumbled Absalom, resting gnarled hands upon the shoulders of the hooded captive, “three more minor houses have joined the Shoaibhim, our ranks have swelled by another seventy-three members.”
“That makes more than five-hundred now,” exclaimed Jezebel in quiet surprise, “so who is this unfortunate bastard?”
“Are you truly shocked?” asked the elderly astropath rhetorically, “most can see by now the dying of the light, they are afraid of the coming darkness, and this ‘religion’ gives them comfort. This one, however, feigned his belief and would reveal us to the authorities. His house abandoned him to our judgment.”
The chair the unfortunate messenger was shackled to was an archaic piece of torturous technology was called a Utrecht’s Obsequiem, only thirteen were ever said to have been made and were designed to induce control and compliance in psykers. It was a priceless artefact and one that had a greater purpose ahead, but currently a mundane necessity to force the messenger to send an important message.
“Do you have the codes?” he continued.
“I have,” she affirmed, retrieving the small storage device from her jacket pocket.
“Are they genuine?” pressed Absalom, “Can you confirm their veracity?”
“I can, and they should be considering who I got them from”.
“How can you be sure?” interjected Montague.
Jezebel glanced back, frowning in irritation, “because he was personally responsible for the man’s death,” she sighed, exasperated, handing over the storage device to Absalom.
The decrepit astropath took the device without further questions and slotted it into one of the brass oblong ports with a hollow click. Arcane wiring and cathode tubes hummed and glowed as the chair awoke with a whine of increasing power. The hood was removed, revealing the battered, scowling face of the traitor, his milky orbs glaring blind hate and swollen bruises blossoming across his sunken features. He mumbled impotent rage through the leather gag tied tightly across his mouth as Absalom connected thin cables into his cranial-jacks and adjusted dials on the consol affixed to the chairs’ back.
With an almost perverse relish, the Shoaibhim plucked up the final neural-spike and inserted it roughly into the astropaths’ cerebellum port. The traitors’ eyes went wide as the compliance circuits of the Obsequiem sent crackling arcs of volition-altering algorithms directly into the deep centers of his brain, his body shook with violent paroxysms as grand mal seizures gripped him. Absalom’s fingers danced over the consols’ keypad, and with a final stroke, the message coupled with codes filtered into the traitors’ overridden mind and began uploading to astropathic channels.
Jezebel turned away as, having chewed through his gag in viciously wild spasms, the astropath shrieked which raised to oddly-modulated, synthesized screams: “Message sending,” informed Absalom, blind eyes reading the aura-trails, “verifying,” another pause, “Message received – confirmed.”
“Let us just hope the codes are valid,” quipped Montague sardonically.
“The codes haven’t changed since the Heresy,” snapped Jezebel, drawing a Lockyer .62 stub-handgun from a leather holster buckled to her hip, “and the authority is sound, even if it is, or rather was, three hundred years old.”
There was a split-second descending whine as the chair powered down, its occupant, head slumped onto his chest, unconscious from shock. Faint wisps of smoke curled from the ports studding his skull.
“Do we have any more need of him?” asked Jezebel. The Shoaibhim shook his head in reply. “Then release him,” she instructed.
Unplugged and disconnected, the clamps and bindings of the Obsequiem snapped open and, with help from Klondikes’ stagehands, the limp form of the stunned astropath was dragged from the chair and pitched face-first to the damp ground. No sooner had his head hit the earth, Jezebel fired a single shot. With a loud thundercrack, the traitors’ skull shattered, the impact of the round sending blood and gobbets of cerebral matter splattering across the mud and spraying onto a rock with the name ‘Eurydice’ etched into its surface like crude graffiti.
“Leave the body here,” she instructed, “Klondike, go with Absalom, take the Obsequiem back to Tellurus, have it reinstalled in the lighthouse and convene with the angel.”
Klondike nodded silently and joined the Shoaibhim, directing his stagehands with complex hand gestures. The temperature dropped sharply as they circled the Obsequiem, and within the blink of an eye, vanished from sight, leaving Jezebel alone with Montague and Mister Riegert. She regarded the cooling corpse of the traitor once more with distain.
“What do you think this means?” asked Montague, gesturing to the makeshift headstone with an inclination of his head.
“It means nothing,” she replied after a moment’s pause, “Let’s go and find the prodigal son.”
=][=Rigel Sector, Segmentum Solar. Galactic North of Terra, Stellar Ref: 335φ.4322λ.ξ
From a distance it appeared like a needle, a thin sliver of silver upon an endless ocean of invisible black satin. In this place directions were mere concepts without bearings or reference, but closer still, and the needle became a fletched javelin, irregularly striated with crenellations and ramparts. Indra’s Arrow
, a single seemingly insignificant naval battlecruiser alone to patrol the void in fact held a deceptive secret: a stockpile of exterminatus armaments.
Within, a solitary figure marched down the length of a steam filled corridor, jack boots rang off the burnished mesh grating beneath his feet, a steady staccato with every footfall. It was unusual for Captain Oppenheimer to be called to the bridge outside the watch schedule unless there was an all quarters call to arms. Instead, the intraship communiqué to his cabin mentioned a message had been received, something of Omega-Red urgency that require a shipmasters authority to open.
The pneumatics of the final bulkhead hissed and pealed open, anticipating the captains’ stride, and within moments, Oppenheimer walked into the tense atmosphere of the Arrow
’s primary bridge.
“Captain on the bridge!” someone cried as he tried in vain to rub the fatigue from his eyes.
“As you were,” he mumbled and waved a hand dismissively. First officer Romuska rose from the command throne and saluted smartly. His commander had the pallid complexion of a void-born youth, but at least it was free from the stigmata of tiredness that currently marred the features of Oppenheimer. He returned the salute and stifled an irresistible yawn.
“Okay, Commander, what do we have?” he sighed.
“At oh-three-fifty-three shiptime astropath Creighton received a transmitted message listed as Omega-Red, its encoded, but I recognise an Inquisition cipher when I see one,” reported Romuska, proffering a brass framed dataslate.
The Inquisition. Oppenheimer was suddenly awake; the only reason why the Inquisition would contact the Arrow
would be to issue the ultimate sanction. He placed a thumb onto the gene-reader interface pad and entered his personal code when prompted. Digits cycled as the message decoded and his blood went cold.
“Signalman! I want this authority verified!” he barked, copying the relevant data to a separate slate. A uniformed officer collected the slate and returned to his workstation, experienced fingers working smoothly and swiftly over the consols’ keyboard.
“What’s wrong, Captain?” asked Romuska in a circumspect whisper.
Oppenheimer raised a hand in silent belay, watching intently as glowing vert symbols scrolled and cascaded down the signalmans’ monitor display. Moments passed breathlessly for Oppenheimer, until the officers’ furious typing ceased and he turned back to his waiting captain: “Authority verified, sir, its genuine.”
His legs lost solidarity and he stumbled forward, leaden hands groping for the command throne. Romuska was suddenly by his side in assistance, guiding him to sit down.
“Captain?” he enquired with a voice full of concern.
Oppenheimer slumped in the seat, closed his eyes, took a deep breath and buried his face in the faux-solitude of his hands. His throat became too dry to utter anything beyond a hoarse croaking: “We have been given orders to deliver a final sanction.”
Romuska blinked dumbstruck. Few men in the whole eleven-thousand years of the Imperium have ever witnessed the death of a world – the annihilation of all life upon the surface of a planet. Exterminatus, the final sanction. By now, all activity on the bridge has ceased and all eyes were turned expectantly towards Oppenheimer.
The commander gulped half-formed words, before settling on: “What is our target, Captain?”
“Lord Inquisitor K. Ishigiru, Lord of Ordos Terran has issued the command phrase: Mons Olympus Has Fallen
,” Oppenheimer turned his face to Romuska, wide eyes haunted by the very future they were about to make, “Our target is Mars.”