…and his hunt for Isis Fulgore
Isis braced against the frame of a toppled cargo Sentinel, its legs splayed in the air like some steel animal frozen in rigor mortis. She opened her mouth slightly as her mental countdown approached zero.
Promethium tanks set against the landing-bay wall exploded in a ball of sooty flame. The pressure wave washed over her as shards of metal spanged off stanchions, cranes, and a broad cargo lighter squatting drunkenly on crumpled landing skids.
She sprinted from behind her makeshift cover into the still-expanding sphere of smoke and fire while bits of metal pattered down like rain all around her. Isis' high-collared storm coat streamed behind her as she disappeared into the eye-stinging blackness.
Twisted beams and panels suddenly loomed before her, glowing like embers in a forge. She vaulted over them, twisting in midair to rebound off the wall of the corridor appearing suddenly out of the thick smoke. She landed lightly on the balls of her feet, still moving fast, and quickly surveyed the passageway. Smoke clogged the empty corridor. Debris and tiny pools of burning promethium radiated from the ragged hole created by the explosion. The far wall smoldered, dented and blackened from the blast.
Two of her crew, Seth and Neftis, emerged from the roiling smoke moments later with their liberated lasguns at the ready. Neftis rubbed the smoke from his eyes, but only succeeded in smearing soot across his pale skin. In stark contrast, Seth barely stood out from the smoke with his dark complexion and coal-grey clothing. Other convicts started filtering through in ones and twos, eyes watering from the fumes. Isis could practically see the uncertainty and desperation flowing from them. She needed to put a stop to this before it became something worse.
She stepped into a gap in the dissipating smoke that let her address the entire group. Tendrils of smoke swirled about her as if she were the eye of a storm. "Freedom is almost within your grasp. We need this ship." She met each eye and saw purpose reasserting itself. "Seth, Holten, Volos, Morana, and Perun with me." The five stepped forward from the milling group.
"Neftis, take everyone else and secure the enginarium. Keep the cogboys alive. We'll need their good graces once the ship is ours." Neftis nodded, the gesture sharp and precise, his pale blue eyes set with resolute purpose as he turned to organize the others.
She took a knee and her crew gathered around her. Volos, a head taller and half again as broad as the rest squeezed in last, shrugging an unspoken apology as he jostled into the circle. Isis took a deep breath, "The Captain will already be fortifying the ship against us if he has any sense at all. He'll start with the approaches to the bridge and will blockade the central corridors if we give him time." Her finger traced the outline of the ship in the soot covering the deck as she spoke. "We're here." Her finger stabbed a point low on the aft of her soot ship, leaving a clean spot. "The Captain and the bridge will be here." Her finger left another silvered smudge directly above the first.
"These supply Isolde-pattern freighters are all laid out roughly the same. If we get separated, just keep climbing. The bridge is the top of this mountain of metal." That got a wry smile from Holten. He'd worked in a hive mine before his time at Forhith VI.
Nods all around greeted her expectant silence. "Walk the Emperor's Path" she intoned. Morana and Perun made the sign of the aquila in return. "The Emperor walks beside us." Volos said quietly in his barrel-chested rumble.
Isis spared a quick glance down the corridor where Neftis stood at the center of a much larger huddle. Twenty six convicts had made it off Forhith on the shuttle; nineteen. Neftis' short, near-white hair and pale, angular features distinguishing him from the crowd. He stood out as a leader as well. She didn't know or care what crime had landed him on that forsaken penal colony, but he could lead others as if born and bred to it. He'd clearly spent time in the Imperial Guard, and she sometimes wondered why he'd ended up there and not in a penal legion. There was no doubt in her mind that he would take the enginarium.
She stood and spun on the ball of her foot as she waved her team forward, leading them off at a trot. There would be a heavy cargo lift adjacent to the landing bay, but she needed to get to it quickly. The captain or his chief engineseer would shut the lifts down soon if they hadn't already.
After only two turns down the corridor, the crenelated teeth of the cargo lift greeted her. Streaks of oil stained its dull metallic surface, well worn with use. She slapped the activation rune to one side of the massive door and gave gave an internal sigh of relief as it started to rumble open.
Morana swept the muzzle of her weapon through the widening gap and then vaulted between the teeth while it still seemed impossibly narrow. By the time the door rumbled to a halt, she had already cleared the lift and gave the all clear signal in simple prisoner's hand cant. Morana was fast, one of the few members of her crew who could match Isis' speed.The tiny woman could leap like a Morituri cultist and was twice as quick.
The giant cargo lift's maw swallowed them like some sea creature of legend, its crenelated teeth sealing them off from the landing deck. The lumen strips set along the top of its aged frame barely illuminated the grated flooring. Isis and her crew all clustered in the pale yellow glow of the lift's controls at one edge of the platform. Isis pressed the topmost button on the lift's panel, its rune long since worn smooth from heavy use. It should take them to the lift's highest limit.
With a long-suffering groan, the lift began its ascent, rising smoothly despite its complaints. Isis watched the shadowed tangle of pipes and conduits beneath the floor grates recede into darkness. She turned her head in time to see a giant numeral marking the next level pass through the dim spotlight of the lift's illuminators.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Perun's lips silently mouthing a prayer, though his eyes continued to methodically scan the lift's interior. Neftis once told her that Perun preached for a proscribed Imperial cult. Only that fact that the forbidden sect still venerated the Emperor kept him from the wrong end of an Inquisitorial bolt gun. Though clearly pious, she'd yet to hear him say one word about his faith.
The lift moaned softly as it reached its upper limit. With a loud ka-chack and hiss, the lift doors rumbled apart, the bright beams of stab lights piercing the widening crack. The gap grew to reveal a barricade silhouetted by the harsh white lights.
"Lay down your arms or die!" The voice stabbed into the lift just like the lights, amplified through some vox horn. In the ensuing moment of silence, Isis and her crew melted out of the doorway, taking shelter to either side of the broad beam of light bisecting the lift's gloom.
Perun palmed a riot grenade, another gift liberated from the prison's armories, and silently counted down with the fingers of his other hand. He flung his arm wide and ricochetted the disc off the corridor wall without breaking cover.
Isis heard it clatter into the flakboard of the barricade. A sudden stream of curses and scrambling bodies told her that it had found its mark.
Perun's fingers folded down one by one. Two. One.
Suddenly, a flash brighter than the stab lights illuminated the lift. A concussive boom washed through the lift in its wake. At the same moment, Isis and Morana sprinted from either edge of the doorway. Isis' longer legs placed her a half-stride ahead as they zig-zagged down the corridor towards the smoke shrouded barricade.
The hazy muzzle flash and boom of a shotgun thundered from inside the smoke, and pellets whizzed past her head. She sprinted harder and hoped that no other armsmen would fire half blind. She could hear Morana's staccato footfalls half pace behind her as she bound into the air, barely clearing the stack of crates and flakboard making up the barricade.
Helmets and surprised faces flashed past as she hit the decking and rolled. She drew her boarding cutlass before she regained her feet, the steel rasping as it cleared the scabbard. She came face to face with a young officer in a stiff-collared black jacket reminiscent of a Battlefleet Solar uniform. His patrician facial features, straight nose, thin lips, and pointed chin, only reinforced what the jacket had already told her. Officer.
He struggled to bring his las pistol to bear from its muzzle-up position by his ear, eyes wide with surprise. Isis clubbed the weapon from his hand with the guard of her cutlass. He barely had time to register the pain from the blow before she punched the pommel of her cutlass into his ribs. He doubled over neatly and she spun behind him, bringing his head up sharply with the edge of her cutlass at his throat.
"Surrender and your men live to see tomorrow." she whispered fiercely into his ear. He reeked of some particularly "manly" cologne and sweat. His eyes shifted wildly from side to side, seeking some means of escape.
Grunts, curses, and the flash-booms of shotgun blasts told Isis that the rest of her crew were already amongst the barricade's defenders. Volos' massive form towered above the rest in the dissipating smoke, his balled fist rising and falling like a piston.
The officer sensed her moment of split attention and tensed for a misguided act of bravery. "Don't." she hissed while pressing the edge of the blade against his throat hard enough to draw a thin line of crimson. "Stand them down, now." He raised to the tips of his toes in an effort to relieve the pressure of the blade at his neck.
"Stand..." he croaked in a choked voice that barely carried to her ears, much less the tumultuous fight at the barricade.
"Stop!" She put the full force of her will into the command, and for a moment they all did. The rapidly clearing smoke from the riot grenade revealed an almost comical tableau of combatants frozen mid-strike while craning their necks to see who had given the command.
Volos had an armsman by the neck in one broad hand, his other fist raised for another crushing blow. Seth's blade was notched into the stock of a shotgun that had just blocked it. Holten and another armsman wrestled for control of the shotgun between them. Morana clung to the back of a defender twice her size, arm locked around his neck in an artery-closing choke. Perun stood above an unconscious foe, still silently mouthing devotions, his hands held before him in the relaxed curl of a natural pugilist.
"Stand down." the officer gasped into the silence, still striving to separate his neck from Isis' blade. His strained tone brought all eyes to his plight. The armsmen's shotgun barrels descended grudgingly towards the deck.
Isis plucked the vox-bead from the officer's ear, "Thank-you." and replaced it in her own ear. "Volos and Perun, gather their weapons."
The huge armsman in Morana's choke hold chose that moment to pass out and collapse to the deck in a clatter of armor and gear. Morana, still clamped to his back, shrugged apologetically and released her hold. Volos and Perun glanced at each other and then moved to collect shotguns from the sullen armsmen.
"Holten and Morana, find a place we can lock them up."
Morana sprang to her feet and punched Holten in the shoulder. He jabbed back, but she nimbly danced beyond his reach. Holten made a sour face as he followed her up the corridor, rubbing his arm.
The collected Vox Legi pattern shotguns clacked and chattered together as Volos slung each additional weapon over his broad back. Perun, with number of shotguns slung across his shoulders as well, covered the crewmen with a captured weapon as Volos collected the last few. Volos shrugged to settle the weapons more comfortably, the slings straining across his chest and causing another clatter. Nodding, he grabbed the back of the officer's collar, nearly lifting him from the decking. This earned him a choked indignation as the officer struggled to walk on tiptoe. Volos escorted him to the others.
Seth looked at Isis with a wide grin on his face, white teeth standing out against his dark skin. He had the mind of a savant, with perfect recall and an uncanny ability to deduce future events based upon past observations. She wondered how many traps he'd evaded before his arrest. Once she'd released him from his cell, he'd made short work of any technical barriers between them and their freedom. She had enjoyed working with him during their escape, and he likely suspected what she would say next.
Isis nodded. His smile broadened. "Seth, with me."
The vox-bead crackled in her ear. "Lieutenant Locke, report." The voice was strong, accustomed to command, but with some paternal warmth.
"Locke is indisposed, Captain..." She let her voice trail off in question.
A short pause. "Morgrus" the voice said curtly, "not that it's any business of yours." He'd clearly ascertained the situation. "And I have the pleasure of speaking to..." his voice trailed off in the same manner.
"I'd much rather make your acquaintance in person, Captain Morgrus.
"Given that you seem intent on relieving me of my command," the lexicon of Battlefleet Solar had clearly sunk deep, "I don't see that you'll ever have the opportunity."
Isis could hear the wry smile in the Captain's voice. He was confident that he'd already won. She found the same expression had crept onto her own features.
"My gang has taken your Enginarium." she said matter-of-factly. She couldn't know for sure, but was confident that Neftis had succeeded. She cocked her head to one side and continued, "So I already have the ship in all the ways that matter."
Isis nodded to Volos, who glowered down at their prisoners, massive arms crossed over his chest. Perun still covered the group with the unwavering barrel of his newly acquired shotgun. She signalled to them in prisoner's hand cant that she was on the move. Seth picked up on the signal and set off up the hallway with her. Isis maintained her conversation with Morgrus all the while. "We can do this the easy way or the hard way, Captain, and I'd much prefer the easy way."
"I'm sure that the easy way involves my surrender. Perhaps you can help me understand how that provides for the life and liberty of me and my crew." He paused and she could practically see the cynical expression on his face. "Like I'm sure you've provided for Lieutenant Inix and his armsmen."
She let instinct and half remembered deck plans guide her steps as she continued to run, Seth hard at her heels. Her speech betrayed none of it. "Take us where we desire, then you and your noble crew will be at your liberty. I don't want your ship, Captain." Her path continued ever upwards.
"Why should I believe you?"
Direct and to the point, she liked this Captain Morgrus more and more.
"Because you have no choice." The corridor ended in a nondescript blast door, its teeth set sideways in a clenched grin. A few steps behind, Seth caught up, chest heaving with exertion. Isis pointed to the brass controls set into the door's steel frame. "And because I honor your past." Seth prised the streaked yellow panel from the frame and went to work on the tangle inside.
"What do you know of my past?" An anger and bitterness lay beneath an otherwise civil tone.
Just like the path to the door, Isis let intuition guide her. "You were a Battlefleet Solar officer - a Lieutenant." The silence from the other side of the connection told her she was right. "You were well liked by your crew. Your captain operated by the book." She closed her eyes, seeing it, "Good people died." Isis opened her eyes again, breathing in deeply, "That won't happen here."
Seth nodded up to her, a rainbow of wires sorted between his fingers, but two held ready. The vessel's Engineseers would not be pleased at the desecration of their holy works.
Isis readied her blade, its tip leveled at the center of the blast doors, and nodded back. Seth brought the wires together and the ship's machine spirit spat an irritated flurry of sparks at the desecration. She'd apologize to the engineseers later.
The blast doors grumbled apart, as if opening under duress.
Isis faced the humming tip of an energized power sword. The expression behind it was resolute as stone. "No." said Captain Morgrus, "You're right. It won't."
The captain stood in the deceptively casual stance of a natural swordsman. The high collar of his black jacket, styled just like the Lieutenant's after the fashion of Battlefleet Solar, doubled as a gorget. She could see the protective reinforcement stiffening the wrist cuffs as well. Grey peppered his wavy black hair, and crows feet wrinkled the corners of his dark eyes, but he had the build of an athlete. Juvenat treatments could make his age anywhere from forty to over a hundred.
Isis lowered the tip of her blade, till it rested lightly on the deck plating. "Touché, Captain, but other than this last redoubt, this vessel is under my control." The faint look of irritation crossing Morgrus' face was all the confirmation she needed of the fact. "I'll honor my word, just as you'll honor yours. Transport only. After that..." She waved her free hand, encompassing the possibilities.
Neither the tip of his power sword nor his eyes ever wavered. "My crew - total freedom - no hostages, no restrictions?"
Isis smiled. "On your honor that my crew journeys and arrives the same way."
The hum went silent as Morgrus deactivated the power field on his blade and lowered it, mirroring Isis' stance. "On my honor and that of Battlefleet Solar, it will be as you say."
Isis' smile broadened, "On my honor and by the Emperor's Path." She sheathed her cutlass and held out a hand.
A wry grimace crossed his features, "Why do I have the feeling that I'm going to regret this?" He took her proffered hand. His grip was firm and warm.
He raised an eyebrow in question, "And where exactly am I transporting you?"
Chapter 3 Under Construction…