The outer reaches of the Galactic Rim. Young, bright stars bursting to life in the cold, dark void. Myriads of blazing suns, forming the broad arms of the galaxy reach around to form a disk on which’ edge an inconspicuous star follows its endless orbit. Well within its reach, a small number of tiny objects slowly tumble through space, irrevocably dragged into the gravity well of a ringed gas giant circling the yellow sun.
Nearing the path of one of its many moons, the objects light up for a moment and continue on their path, their trajectories altered by a couple of degrees, now heading towards the emerald green orb that is the third moon circling the gas giant.
Sergeant Landwijck of the second company of the Fiery Lions Chapter checked his helmet display for the twentieth time this hour to see if his squad was still with him after the last course correction. Their power-armor had been set to the lowest possible energy level to emit the smallest amount of energy possible, so if one of his marines drifted only a hundred meters off, connection would be lost and with it the marine. There would be no radio communication during ingress, no exemptions; so if any of the five marines under his command would stray out of range, they would be unable to regain contact and would be lost forever. The display still showed 6 green triangles.
He sighed his relief and wished again he would be able to see outside of his helmet. Because of the strict emissions allowances, the heat signature of their armor needed to be near the temperature of space itself, nearing absolute zero. Inside the armor, temperatures had dropped to below freezing almost 20 hours ago. A minor discomfort, which his enhanced body could easily cope with but it also meant that water vapor had condensed and then frozen on the inside of his helmet visor, making it impossible to see outside.
The only way to navigate was by the armor’s machine spirit, faith in the Emperor and hope that the calculation servitors had been correct. Landwijck found this to be the most nerve-wracking phase in any deep space mission; the unassisted ingress. He could cope with the mission, the sabotage and the fighting. He could handle the killing and even the loss of long time comrades in arms but this waiting without actually seeing they were even on course was almost unbearable.
A tiny alarm that chimed in his left ear heralded the next phase of the mission and Landwijck welcomed it wholeheartedly. They had cleared the range of the sensor arrays in higher orbit and the hard part was over. He switched his armor’s systems to full operation again, seeing bright runes flicker to life one by one on his display. Inside temperature was slowly rising and it wouldn’t be long before the armor’s environment controls would free his visor of the obscuring water crystals once again. Setting his armor’s transmitter to absolute minimum he started a sound off, to check whether all of his men were still alive, in range and their equipment in working order.
With all of his five men checked in and in the green, he focused his attention on the rapidly clearing vision he had of the space before him. Slowly rotating in and out of view was the huge sphere that was the third moon of the fifth planet of this system. The moon was numerous shades of green, all swirling and streaking across its surface in violent storms into which he would hopefully never stray. Focusing on the moon every time it came into view, he could barely make out a tiny black dot, back lighted by the bright green hues of the cloudy maelstrom behind it.
With his suit operating at full capacity again and his vision restored, Landwijck once again ordered his squad to correct their course, heading towards the rapidly growing dot, which had now become a black, protrusion riddled, needle shape, orbiting the emerald moon. Shortly after, he gave another order and one of his marines started to activate the device that would allow them to begin their mission undetected. Veteran Marine Verhoeven delicately fingered the controls on the ancient apparatus, careful to not anger its spirit. Although a veteran of many such missions, this was the first time he was entrusted with one of the chapters’ few scramble emitters.
The device would mask their life signs and energy signatures and more importantly, would scramble any ships’ close proximity shields, to such a degree, they would be able to penetrate it without harm. These low powered shields were to be found on every starship, to ward off any meteorites and debris too small to be targeted by the ship’s flak batteries. The device activated and Verhoeven felt it hum through his armor, to which it was clamped. He gave the okay signal to Landwijck and started to prepare for the upcoming action by citing the Rites of Battle to himself. No doubt his brethren descending with him were doing the same.
Gunnery Lieutenant Vartoq yawned again. When he had signed up for the Imperial Navy, two years ago, he could not have guessed his service to the Emperor would turn out to be one of complete boredom and inactivity. Although his initial zeal en his family’s patronage had quickly propelled him up the ranks, his ascent had quite abruptly been halted by the branch he had been forced into; Close Defense Artillery. He had wanted the big guns, just like his father had operated; the lance batteries that could cripple a capital ship and were invaluable to any captain. In time he would have made name, he would have been noticed by the captain himself maybe and might even have become a bridge officer. But barely failing a few miserable tests had been enough to prevent his ascension to greatness. He had been stuck here, in command of a battery of flak guns and been bored to death with endless drills and no action.
‘…And 3, 2, 1, off!’ Landwijck cut off the engines of his modified jump-pack and knew his well disciplined squad would be doing exactly the same. They had slowed their descent by firing their jump-packs several times during the approach and they were now closing in on the thirty-kilometer long battleship at slightly over one thousand kilometers per hour. Only two more long burns would slow them down to 50 kilometers and allow them to safely land on the side of the gargantuan vessel. Landwijck could by now discern individual features of the spaceship and calculated they would be landing about one kilometer to the fore of the ship’s superstructure, about five hundred meters above the keel. They would be landing almost on top of their intended target, deep inside the ship.
On a couple of occasions now, he had heard the big guns fire, once having to hear in the hallways that the Intolerable Justice had obliterated a pirate ship. There had been a festive mood all over the ship and rumors circulated for days of gunnery crews being commended and promoted while he was still stuck down here. It had infuriated him; how could the captain ever take notice of him when he was in command of one battery out of hundreds? One, which had only been fired three times in the past two years? Two of those had been training exercises too. He didn’t even want to think about the third time, which he still claimed was a mechanical failure but had actually been a result of less than correct firing rites when he was pretending to fire at an imaginary battleship. It hadn’t been his fault the unexploded shells had detonated on the surface of the airless planet they had been orbiting. And who could have known tech-priests had been conducting delicate seismic experiments in that area? Nobody ever told him anything.
Vartoq looked out of the view port of one of the three gun batteries he commanded. He liked sitting here; it made him feel powerful and his men didn’t seem to mind either. Vartoq actually suspected they wanted him up here, so none of them would have to interrupt their dice games in the guard station. To check on the equipment was much encouraged in his ancient gunnery manuals that had at one time belonged to his father. Vartoq liked regulations and when he did it all himself, he could be alone with the guns and think about his career. Peering from between the, in his opinion, way too small barrels, he could almost imagine an enemy ship powering into range while his fingers flexed impatiently over the activation runes, No. He couldn’t afford another slip up, Commander DuSailles was watching him too close for comfort already as it was and he didn’t know his crew of ten would keep their mouths shut a second time. The first time had already cost him almost a year’s wages to secure their silence; he couldn’t afford another one of those.
All of a sudden, Vartoq leaned forward and squinted his eyes to see better. For a moment there, he thought he had seen flashes. Flashes, like from a muzzle. Gunfire! He peered intently through the thick crystal too see if there were more but he didn’t see anything anymore. He sat back and contemplated on what to do. He was pretty sure he had seen something but was in doubt whether or not to report it. Commander DuSailles had already reprimanded him twice about sounding the alarm unwarranted. He was pretty sure a third time would not be tolerated though and to avoid any unnecessary disciplinary actions, he decided it would probably be wisest not to mention the flashes to anybody for now and he resumed his musing about chances he was certain would come his way soon.
Brother Marine Verhoeven suddenly felt the ancient device strapped to the armour of his left thigh violently intensify its vibrations and then resume normal operations. They had passed the ship’s close proximity shields, which could easily disintegrate a Spacemarine unprotected by such a scrambler.
Four kilometers to the aft of the ship, Flag-Lieutenant LesMontes looked over the shoulder of the Close Proximity Shield operator at the man’s vidscreen. ‘I’m certain there was an anomaly sir’, the operator said, ‘it was there for just a moment but now it’s gone’.
‘Are you sure it wasn’t another meteorite? We’ve passed through several debris fields in this system already’ asked LesMontes.
‘Pretty certain Sir’, answered the crewman, ‘it didn’t look like anything I’ve seen before’.
LesMontes had handpicked his crew himself and knew the operator to be experienced in his field and trusted the man’s word on this. ‘Right; increase power to the shields by ten percent and keep a lookout for anything else out of the ordinary. I’ll go and report this and ask for a diagnostics team to check the sensors to be certain.’
LesMontes walked purposefully down the isle to the Section Operations Command Chamber’s Inner Sanctum, where his superior officer passed much of his time conversing with the resident Tech-Adepts.
‘Sorry to interrupt sir but I’ve got something that might require your attention…’
200 meters remaining till touchdown. Sergeant Landwijck ordered the last burn, well inside the ship’s short range shield umbrella.
Vartoq still stared out of the battery’s view port, not daring to even blink, might he miss anything outside. He now knew for certain there was something out there. He had seen the bright green flare-up of the shields but couldn’t see anything after that. He started to wonder whether the shields had evaporated whatever had been heading for the ship.
Flaring their Jump packs, the marines of squad Landwijck prepared for touchdown, having discarded the extra fuel tanks on top of their Jump packs only seconds before, which now zoomed by them as the marines’ speed rapidly decreased. Following their sergeant’s example, the marines prepared for impact.
Vartoq now saw there was something headed his way. It looked like some stars blinked out for a second at first, but when he concentrated he could distinguish a small number of small objects heading directly for him against the slightly lighter background of a distant nebula. The Gunnery Lieutenant now started to feel particularly uneasy about this and it dawned on him that in his vigilance, he still hadn’t sounded the alarm. ‘Sod regulations now’, Vartoq though, ‘there is something there, so by all rights it be should reported, reprimands or not!’
Vartoq made to rise but found himself restrained by the gunner’s harness he had dutifully strapped himself into when he came up there. He fumbled with the releases, when he glimpsed outside again and started to feel real fear for the first time in his short naval career as something cylindrical and metallic streaked towards his window and bounced off it with a loud clang, leaving a large crack in the ten centimeter thick glass.
Landwijck saw his empty Promethium tank impact right on top of a Flak battery’s view port, acknowledged the potentially easier ingress route and adjusted his descent accordingly. The sergeant could see the light shine out of the view port in the center of the battery and he now saw the man inside too, frantically trying to free himself of the restraining straps holding him in his gunner’s chair. With a last burst of his jump Pack, he landed right on the edge of the window, his armor’s machine spirit automatically activating his magnetic boots, while his squad landed close by around him. He unholstered his Bolt pistol and hit the rune to release its safety.
Vartoq had never felt numbing terror like this before. He looked up through the window when he heard another impact and looked right into the face of death. A huge man-shape in black armor stood on the edge of the view port looking down at him. The blue helmet had leering predatory jaws painted on them and the gemlike eyes were blood red. Emotionless, the black giant aimed a huge pistol at him and Vartoq knew he was going to die. He frantically pulled a last time at the harness and finally it gave way. He stumbled forward out of his chair, looking straight into the enormous barrel pointing at him. Panting and staggering he made his way to the door of the compartment, again struggling to get free, this time with the thick metal wheel in the middle of the airlock, turning it as fast as he could, to unlock it.
Landwijck patiently waited until the hapless man inside had opened the door of the compartment and fired a single bolt at the already cracked view port. The bolt did not have the time to activate its explosive core at this range but nevertheless, the impact of the projectile on the damaged glass made it break. For a fraction of a second, the thousands of glass splinters shattered inwards. Then the pressure of the air inside forced the remains of the thick view port outwards in a shower of glittering shards through the meter wide hole left behind by the window, propelled by the pressure of the escaping air. Another fraction of a second later, the interior of the compartment followed the glass, blasting past the Fiery Lions sergeant standing unmoving on the edge of the jagged circle.
A decompression alarm sounded in the Section Operations Command Chamber, kilometers away as heavy blast doors closed around the compromised deck and Gunnery-Lieutenant Jean Vartoq finally made his reach for the stars.
All air on the compromised deck having vented out, sergeant Landwijck willed his comlink open on the specified frequency and the directional emission enhancer carried by brother DeBruyn tuned in and relayed his message to the strike cruiser in the outer reaches of the system. As he jumped through the jagged remains of the view port, the assault marine sergeant’s report was burst transmitted back into space: ‘The Hunt is on’.