Because you demanded it, and I was crazy enough to promise it....
Here's an exclusive chunk of the next Gaunt's Ghosts novel, out this Autumn. I hope it entertains. Pausing just long enough to remind you that I'm appearing at Alt-Fiction in Derby this coming weekend (details in the previous post), I'll leave you to get on with Salvation's Reach....
At midnight, local time, a new star woke in the skies above Anzimar. The city’s population was hurrying to attend the day’s Sabbat Libera Nos service, which had been held in the temples of the Beati every midnight since the Crusade began, in the hope of vouchsafing a brighter tomorrow. Some of the hundreds of thousands of citizens bustling from their homes, or even their beds, or suspending their labour, at that time may have turned their eyes skywards, for since the very origin of the species, mankind has entertained the notion that some ineffable source of providence may look down upon us. The upward glances were vain, involuntary wishes to glimpse the face of salvation.
No one saw the star light up. The smog that night was as thick as rockcrete.
Ship bells rang. At high anchor at the edge of the mesopause, the Imperial Tempest Class frigate Highness Ser Armaduke lit its plasma engines. The drives ignited with a pulsing fibrilation, and then calmed into a less intense, steady glow.
Below the ship lay the troposphere and the stratosphere. The shadow of the terminator lay heavily across Menazoid Sigma, and the smog atmospherics were so dense there were no visible light concentrations from the night-side hives. Part of the world was in sunlight. The fetid clouds, brown and cream, looked like infected brain tissue.
Small ships buzzed around the Armaduke, like flies around a carcass. Fleet tenders nestled in close to its flanks. Launches, lighters, cargo boats and shuttles zipped in and out. The Armaduke’s hatches were all wide open, like the beaks of impatient hatchlings. Entire sections of the frigate’s densely armoured hull plate had been peeled back or retracted to permit access. The old ship, ancient and weathered, looked undignified, like a grandam mamzel caught with her skirts hoisted.
Above the ship lay the exosphere. The vacuum was like a clear but imperfect crystal, a window onto the hard blackness of out-system space and the distant glimmer of tiny, malicious stars.
The Highness Ser Armaduke was an old ship. It was an artifact of considerable size. All ships of the fleet are large. The Armaduke measured a kilometre and a half from prow to stern, and a third of that dimension abeam across the fins. Its realspace displacement was six point two megatonnes, and it carried thirty-two thousand four hundred and eleven lives, including the entire Tanith First and its regimental retinue. It was like a slice cut from a hive, formed into a spear-head shape, and mounted on engines.
It was built for close war. Its hull armour was pitted and scorched, and triple-thickness along the flanks and the prow. The prow cone was rutted with deep scars and healed damage. The Armaduke was of a dogged breed of Imperial ship that liked to get in tight with its foe, and was prepared to get hurt while it hurt and killed an enemy.
To Ibram Gaunt, closing towards it about one of the last inbound launches, the ship had the character of a pit-fighter, or a fighting dog. Its scar-tissue was proud and deliberate.
Like the ritual marks of a bloody-pacted soldier, he reflected.
The plasma engines pulsed again. Hold doors began to seal, and cantilevered armour sections extended back into position. Gaunt’s craft was one of the last to enter the central landing bay before the main space doors shut. The swarm of small ships dispersed, either into the Armaduke to share its voyage, or away to planetside or the nearest orbital fortress. Formations of Fury and Faustus Class attack craft had been circling the ship at a radius of five hundred kilometres to provide protection while she was exposed and vulnerable. Now they formed up to provide escort. Buoy lights blinked. Lines detached. Fleet tenders disengaged and rolled lazily away, like spent suitors or weary concubines. The Armaduke began to move.
Initial acceleration was painfully slow, even at maximum plasma power. It was as though an attempt was being made to slide a building - a basilica, a temple hall - by getting an army of slaves to push it. The ship protested. Its hull plates groaned. Its decks settled and creaked. Its superstructure twitched under the application of vast motive power.
The other ships at high anchor unhooded their lamps to salute the departing ship. Some were true giants of the fleet, grand cruisers and battleships six or seven kilometres long. Their vast shadows fell across the Armaduke as it accelerated along the line of anchorage. To them, it was a battered old relic, an orphan of the fleet they would most likely never see again.
The Fury flight dropped in around the ship in escort formation. The plasma drives grew brighter, their flare reflecting off the noctilucent clouds below, creating a shimmering airglow. Mesospheric ionisation caused bowsprite lightning to dance and flicker along the Armaduke’s crenelated topside until the advancing ship passed into the exosphere and the wash of the magnetosphere’s currents swept the lightshow away.
Stepping out of the launch into the excursion hold as the ship ran out, Gaunt sampled the odour of the vessel’s atmosphere. Every ship had its own flavour. He’d traveled on enough of them to know that. Hundreds or sometimes thousands of years of recirculation and atmospheric processing had allowed things to accumulate in a ship’s lungs. Some smelled oddly sweet, others metallic, others rancid. You always got used to it. A ten or twelve week haul on a shiftship could get you used to anything. The Armaduke smelled of scorched fat, like grease in a kitchen’s chimney.
He would get used to that. You could get used to the smell, the chemical tang of the recycled water, the oddly bland taste of shipboard food. You got used to the constant background grumble of the drives, to the odd noises from a vast superstructure constantly in tension. Once the drives were lit, the hull flexed; once the Gellar Field was up and the ship had translated into the Warp, the hull locked tight, like a well-muscled arm pumped and tensed. You got used to the acceleration sickness, the pervading cold, the odd, slippery displacement where the artificial gravity fields fluctuated and settled.
Once translation had been achieved, you got used to the ports being shuttered. You got used to ignoring whatever was outside. You got used to the baleful screams of the Empyrean, the sounds of hail on the hull, or burning firestorms, or typhoon winds, of fingernails scratching at the port shutters. You got used to the whispers, the shudders and rattles, the inexplicable periods of half-power lighting, the distant subterranean banging, the dreams, the footsteps in empty corridors, the sense that you were plunging further and further into your own subconscious and burning up your sanity to fuel the trip.
The one thing you never got used to was the scale. At high orbit, even with the vast extent of a planet close by for contrast, a starship seemed big. But as the planet dropped away to stern, first the size of an office globe, then a ball, until even the local star was just a fleck of light no bigger than any other star, the embrace of the void became total. The void was endless and eternal, and the few suns no bigger than grains of salt. Alone in the bewildering emptiness, a starship was dwarfed, diminished until it was just a fragile metal casket alone in the monstrous prospect of night.
The Armaduke was accelerating so robustly now, the fighter escort was struggling to match it. Course was locked for the system’s mandeville point, where the warp engines would be started up to make an incision in the the interstitial fabric of space. The Warp awaited them.
The crew and control spaces of a starship tended to be kept separate from the areas used for transported material and passengers, even on a military operation. The transporters and those they were transporting needed very little contact during a voyage.
But the Armaduke was still twenty-six minutes from the translation point when Gaunt presented himself at the shipmaster’s quarters. He did not come alone.
“No entry at this time,” said the midshipman manning the valve hatch. He had six armsmen with him, all with combat shotweapons for shipboard use.
Gaunt showed the midshipman his documentation, documentation that clearly showed he was the commanding officer of the troop units under conveyance.
“That’s all very well,” said the midshipman, displaying that unerring knack of Navy types to avoid using Guard rank formalities, “but the shipmaster is preparing for commitment to translation. He can’t be interrupted. Perhaps in a week or so, he might find some time to–”
“Perhaps he’s done it a thousand times before,” said Gaunt’s companion, stepping out of the bulkhead shadows, “and doesn’t need to do more than authorize the bridge crew to execute. Perhaps he ought to bear in mind that his ship is a vital component of this action and not just a means of transportation. Perhaps you should open this hatch.”
The midshipman went pale.
“Yes, sir,” he said, his voice as small as a shiftship in the open void.
“I hate that,” said Larkin. He froze and refused to continue walking until the ship lights returned to their original brilliance. There was an underdeck tremor. A distant exhalation.
“Worst part of any trip,” he added. The lights came back up, a frosty glare in the low deck companionway. He started walking again.
“The worst?” asked Domor.
“Yeah,” said Larkin. “Apart from getting there.”
“All true,” said Domor.
They had reached the armoured hatchway of a hold space originally designed as a magazine for explosive ordnance. Rawne and Brostin were waiting for them.
“I want a badge like that,” said Larkin.
“Well, you can’t have one,” said Brostin. “It’s only for the kings.”
“The kings can actually kiss my arse,” said Larkin.
Domor looked at Rawne.
“This could continue all day, major,” he said.
“And it still wouldn’t become amusing,” Rawne agreed.
“Gaunt wants us to see him,” said Domor. “Is that all right?”
“Yes,” said Rawne. “Provided you’re who you say you are.”
Larkin winked at Rawne.
“Come on, Eli, these’d be pretty shit disguises, wouldn’t they?”
“What are you suggesting?” asked Domor, a smile forming. “We forced our own faces to change shape?”
“I’ve seen more fethed up things,” said Rawne.
“Nobody here is surprised,” said Larkin.
Rawne nodded to Brostin. The big man banged on the door, and then opened the outer hatch.
“Coming in, two visitors,” said Rawne over his microbead.
A peephole slot in the inner door opened, and Rawne stood where the viewer could see his face.
The inner hatch opened. Rawne took Domor and Larkin through.
“Got anything he could use as a weapon?” asked Rawne.
“My fething rapier wit?” suggested Larkin.
Mabbon Etogaur was sitting on a folding bunk in one corner of the dank magazine compartment. The walls, deck and ceiling were reinforced ceramite, and the slot hatch for the loader mechanism had been welded shut. The prisoner was reading a trancemissionary pamphlet, one of a stack on his mattress. His right wrist was cuffed to a chain that was bolted to a floor pin.
Varl was sitting on a stool in the opposite corner, his las rifle across his knees. Cant was standing in another corner, nibbling at the quick of his thumbnail.
Larkin and Domor came in and approached the Etogaur.
He looked up.
“I don’t know you,” he said.
“No, but I had you in my crosshairs once,” said Larkin.
“Why didn’t you take the shot?” asked Mabbon.
“And miss a touching moment like this?”
“That’s Domor, that’s Larkin,” said Rawne, pointing.
“Don’t tell him our fething names!” Larkin hissed. “He might do all sorts of fethed-up magic shit with them!”
“I won’t,” said Mabbon.
“He won’t,” Rawne agreed.
“He can’t,” said Varl.
“Why not?” asked Larkin.
“Because how else would I be the punchline for another of Varl’s jokes?” asked Cant wearily.
“He won’t because he’s cooperating,” said Rawne, ignoring the others.
“And if I did,” said Mabbon, “Rawne would gut me.”
“He does do that,” Larkin nodded.
“What did you need from me?” asked Mabbon.
“A consult,” said Domor. He had a sheaf of rolled papers under his arm, and a dataslate in his hand.
“Go on,” said Mabbon.
Larkin took the pamphlet out of Mabbon’s hand and glanced at it.
“Good read?” he asked.
“I enjoy the subject matter,” said Mabbon.
“A doctrine of conversion to the Imperial Creed?” asked Larkin.
“Fantasy,” replied Mabbon.
“He’d be a fething funny man if he didn’t scare the shit out of me,” Larkin said to Rawne.
“We’re leading the insertion effort,” said Domor. “There’s training to be done, planning. We want to use transit time to get as ready as possible.”
“Are you combat engineering?” asked Mabbon.
“Yes,” said Domor. “Larks... Larkin, he’s marksman squad.”
“I saw the lanyard.”
“We want to go over the deck plans and schematics you’ve supplied so far. It may mean several hours work over a period of days.”
“I’ll try to build time into my schedule.”
“Some of the plans are vague,” said Larkin.
“So are some of my memories. It’s all from memory.”
“If you go through them a few times,” said Rawne, “maybe you can firm things up.”
The Etogaur nodded.
“If you go through them so many times you’re sick of them, maybe we’ll actually do this right,” Rawne added.
“I’ve no problem with that,” said Mabbon. “I offered this to you. I want it to happen.”
Domor showed him the dataslate.
“We want to talk about this too,” he said. “This firing mechanism. We need to mock some up for practice purposes. You say this is fairly standard?”
“It’s representative of the sort of firing mechanisms and trigger systems you’re going to find,” said Mabbon, studying the slate image.
“It’s just mechanical,” said Larkin.
“It has to be. They can’t risk anything more... more complicated. They can’t risk using anything that might interfere with, or be interfered with by, the devices under development at the target location. It’s delicate. Any conflict in arcane processes or conjurations could be disastrous.”
“So just mechanical?” said Larkin.
“Complex and very delicate. Very sensitive. But, yes. Just mechanical.”
Larkin took the slate back.
“It looks very... It looks very much like the sort of thing we use,” he said. “It looks pretty standard.”
“It’s the sort of trigger mech I would rig,” Domor said.
“Of course,” said Mabbon. “Tried and tested Guard practice. This is the sort of thing I taught them how to do. And I learned it the same place you did.”
Larkin looked at Domor. There was distaste on his face.
“Go get the folding table,” Rawne said to Varl. “Let’s look over these plans.”