She wouldn't stop screaming. A part of me understood that she had only started, my laspistol was still rising to her head, but it had felt like ages had past. The ancient weapon was always cool to the touch, even through my gloves, and its trigger action was smooth. I had made the decision to kill Trelany the moment I felt her scream, maybe a second after I heard her.
The weapon rose, settled, and I began to pull the trigger. Then silence.
Our Astropath rose and dusted herself off. She looked at me in the eyes and nodded and I realized that my finger had not responded to the commands I sent it. I holstered it quickly. She understood, I hope.
Behind us, a desecrated human hung, suspended by organ machines and supplied by vein-pumps. It smelled of horror.
The red priests seemed to be worshipping it.
I forced myself to stare at the parts and not the whole, recognizing implants and replacement organs. Like everything on Naduesh it spoke of a human hand, a human understanding of technology, but not quite Imperial.
Binar would later explain to my why: Imperial technology is rudely based on Standard Template Constructs. We derive and improvise as best we can, usually basing "new" designs on several other templates. The massive macrocannon had all of the same fundamentals as the Navy-standard Mars-pattern macrocannon batteries. It worked on the same principles. But it used no STC guidelines.
As if it had been created by those who knew of STCs, understood the underlying concepts, and chose to use something else. Something better.
That was as horrifying a thought as the image of the poor thing in front of me.
At the time, all I noticed and focused on, was the pulsing tube rising from its neck. It looked like a metal claw had grabbed the man from behind the neck and wrung it as other appendages ripped into his body.
"He's alive," Astropath Trelany whispered. "And awake."
"Call off the armsmen," I spat out.
It was a tense few seconds but finally the armsmen were called off. I had to verify it myself, lest the very dedicated Stromgard charge in anyway to rescue me. Yes, just me. I know the way the Stromgard think.
Was it a servitor? A cogitator-servitor? Binar seemed to think so and scooped up some of the thing's waste. Or was it skin? Or blood? It looked like all three. The plasma pistol tucked into my back holster felt heavy. I should put an end to this thing, for mercy's sake, yet it was quite possibly controlling a pair of macrocannon that would render us deaf if not dead if it discharged and most likely hull the Blessed Enterprise in its initial salvo. If not this pair then another pair in a nearby tower, and a dozen more like it.
"There is no centre."
Bain was hardly a philosopher, and it took me a moment to grasp the young flight marshal's meaning. I agreed. Opening that alcove had most likely lowered whatever wards there were.
I asked the priests to check this theory and they, unhurriedly, complied. It took a few more moments but they confirmed it--they initiated a maintenance routine to get at the controls, apparently, and this required shutting down several layers of protection.
I was more than a little surprised they managed to do so, and so quickly. Most Tech-Priests seem more charlatan than enginseer at times. I have, perhaps not for the first time, underestimated the quality of these priests.
"The orders must still come from somewhere," volunteered our Navigator.
She had made the intuitive leap others hadn't. It made sense to me. Tyrants all Navy captains must be, but decentralization is key to successful operations where communication is unreliable. Ship patrols that last decades is one example. But perhaps more applicable is the Blessed Enterprise herself and her layers of defensive turrets. No centralized turret control is present anywhere on the ship, each turret is commanded by a gun captain who answers to a deck officer. Eliminate a turret and there are dozens more--even if the deck officer is removed there's only a small drop in efficiency unless all communications are blocked.
A planetwide psychic communications network would be very difficult to block. Not even the Great Enemy has the Warp truly on its side.
There was something else odd about the violated being hanging in front of us. The replacement parts were too... long. Out of proportion.
We resealed the poor thing and Trelany assured us that it had gone back to numbed sleep.
THE THIRD DAY
Retreating to the trade post was an unpopular order. I did not care. It was an excuse to ride the combat bike again, but that paled to the relief of being surrounded by dozens of combat servitors and a thousand or so armsmen.
Two tribes had relocated nearby and wanted to speak with me. The Seneschal had apparently been caught up in an orbital drama than warranted by attention as well, but speaking to feral chiefs are usually amusing and I could have done with some.
They warned me instead of the folly of building a permanent dwelling. I listened, eating food automatically. These Nadueshi had engaged in trade for generations, knowing enough low gothic to get their message across.
Stealers, they called them. I nearly choked on my food when they said that. Genestealers? I described them and they look horrified and waved that away. Stealers came to steal you. It didn't matter where on the surface, but in the cities they got you even faster. They burrowed from below, taking entire families away beneath the sands.
If you stayed too long. Most Nadueshi did not stay for more than three days time in one camp. They would relocate a kilometre or so away and stay in the same area if it proved beneficial to do so. Most followed animal herds and stayed only in a single place for a night's rest.
I thanked them, granted them gifts of weapons and armour, and wished them well.
Tonight would be our second night.
When the chiefs stood up I was struck by their physicality. They did not need to stretch after more than an hour of sitting still. They drank no water, ate none of the food. And they were tall. Long limbed.
I stopped them and asked a question that may have damned my soul.
"Do you have any enemies?"
It's surprising just how lethal most weapons are to an unarmoured human. Even a lowly laspistol will carve chunks of flesh off. So it was quite a challenge to secure non-lethal implements.
Both chiefs indicated that a small tribe had been raiding them, stealing their weapons and other tools traded with the "Sky People" like us. It was a simple matter for the Stormgarde to locate the tribe and douse their camp with gas. Their young I offered to the chiefs who swore they would be raised as their own, so I suppose there's solace in that.
We evacuated on the third day. A thousand armsmen and a few hundred clerks and traders, all their equipment, and all the combat servitors, we lifted the all up before nightfall.
Behind, the drugged savages remained behind, with servo-skulls and picters their only company. Both of the friendly tribes had already moved off.
The situation above had, predictably, strained.
Drea Wren had increasingly become fixated on the Boro ship and had been sending envoys in diplomatic shuttles. Each had been politely turned away.
One had drifted too close to the Sollux Incarna and had been seized. It was released quickly, but that didn't matter. Archeotech plasma batteries or not, the Sollux Incarna cannot stand up to a Wren attack.
We were being comfortably ignored. I had broadcast that the Blessed Enterprise would be maintaining a geo-stationary orbit and the other vessels responded courteously and remained a respectful distance.
In turn, I had extended the courtesy of sharing our various navigational and weather information as we were closer to the planet and were thanked again.
The arrival of the freighter Fair Trade should not have altered matters. It was the Aesperanza's unexpected debut that proved devastating to the status quo. The Fair Trade was enough to raise suspicions due to its... non-standard equipment. Escorted by a Sword class frigate, it greatly tipped the balance of power in my dynasty's favour.
Lyza Strom, my cousin, had engineered for the Aesperanza's quick recovery as well as certain modifications to the hull that I was not present to authorize. The Damarans complied, of course, indebted as they were to the dynasty. She had then seen fit to oversee the frigate's maiden voyage to escort the Fair Trade's valuable cargoes.
It took all the restraint I had and my Seneschal's pleas to not order the ship destroyed. Lyza Strom is... a classic Strom. Emperor have mercy on us, either she'll help secure the dynasty or turn us renegade.
Goddard has overseen the transfer of personnel and supplies, and the Fair Trade's own lighters will fill it to the brim with all the goods we negotiated for.
I cannot deny Lyza for long, she is a scion with ancient rights afforded to her by my dynasty's own laws. She wants the Aesperanza and I'm happy to let her have it. But not too quickly, lest she ask for more. But the longer she stays here the more paranoid the others will be.
A formal dinner is a stuffy and dull affair. A formal Strom dinner is a circus and riot by comparison and Lyza brought the entertainment. It did little to salve my mind. I ate while some savages fed through tubes, kept in stupors below on the planet.
A messenger came just as the grav dancers began their routine. I didn't bother with making apologies and left, Lyza in tow.
Binar looked flabbergasted. All the servo-skulls reported failures at the same moment. All broadcasting picters died soon after. Two well hidden combat servitors reported combat just before their destruction.
Everything that had been transmitting had been destroyed.
Lyza has brought gifts as well, for my senior staff and myself. I never understood the allure of power armour myself, but the suit was well tailored (machined?) to my form. I offended Lyza by turning it down, putting it on and familiarizing myself with it might prove deadly. I will not embarrass myself or encumber myself needlessly.
We found the equipment we left behind crushed. No weapons fire, just physical trauma. All the tribals we left behind were taken.
Each room had two picters. Only one set had been discovered, the hidden set recorded but did not transmit. They were easy to miss.
These Stealers were human. Nadueshi, in fact, though altered. I thought them to be mutated at first, but they were merely modified with bionics. They seemed just like the Nadueshi I had dined with so recently, yet there was no complacency in their eyes and they wielded their tools efficiently. They arrived and quickly took the tribals away.
Weather and topographical sensors marked disturbances nearby. These "Stealers" had burst from below the sand and emerged near the site. If we had stayed...
Magos Binar then activated the homing beacons I had ordered implanted in the tribals. They remained broadcasting, already hundreds of kilometres away in a hive city. One by one the signals stopped. Binar assured me the implants were removed first before being deactivated.
The Fair Trade and Blessed Enterprise each carried several thousand soldiers. Half of whom were Stromgard, the other half demobilized Damaris PDF troopers. I had the equivalent of two Imperial Guard regiments, with several void attack craft squadrons in support, as well as armour and a few dozen specialists. Not to mention three voidships that could flatten any city.
All I could think about was that I should've worn the power armour.