First and only

PART ONE

NUBILA REACH

THE TWO FAUSTUS-CLASS Interceptors swept in low over a thousand slowly spinning tonnes of jade asteroid and decelerated to coasting velocity. Striated blurs of shift-speed light flickered off their gunmetal hulls. The saffron haze of the nebula called the Nubila Reach hung as a spread backdrop for them, a thousand light years wide, a hazy curtain which enfolded the edges of the Sabbat Worlds.

Each of these patrol Interceptors was an elegant barb about one hundred paces from jutting nose to raked tail. The Faustus were lean, powerful warships that looked like serrated cathedral spires with splayed flying buttresses at the rear to house the main thrusters. Their armoured flanks bore the Imperial eagle, together with the green markings and insignia of the Segmentum Pacificus Fleet.

Locked in the hydraulic arrestor struts of the command seat in the lead ship, Wing Captain Torten LaHain forced down his heart rate as the ship decelerated. Synchronous mind-impulse links bequeathed by the Adeptus Mechanicus hooked his metabolism to the ship’s ancient systems, and he lived and breathed every nuance of its motion, power-output and response.

LaHain was a twenty-year veteran. He’d piloted Faustus Interceptors for so long, they seemed an extension of his body. He glanced down into the flight annex directly below and behind the command seat, where his observation officer was at work at the navigation station.

‘Well?’ he asked over the intercom.

The observer checked off his calculations against several glowing runes on the board. ‘Steer five points starboard. The astropath’s instructions are to sweep down the edge of the gas clouds for a final look, and then it’s back to the fleet.’

Behind him, there was a murmur. The astropath, hunched in his small throne-cradle, stirred. Hundreds of filament leads linked the astropath’s socket-encrusted skull to the massive sensory apparatus in the Faustus’s belly. Each one was marked with a small, yellowing parchment label, inscribed with words LaHain didn’t want to have to read. There was the cloying smell of incense and unguents.

‘What did he say?’ LaHain asked.

The observer shrugged. ‘Who knows? Who wants to?’ he said.

The astropath’s brain was constantly surveying and processing the vast wave of astronomical data which the ship’s sensors pumped into it, and psychically probing the warp beyond. Small patrol ships like this, with their astropathic cargo, were the early warning arm of the fleet. The work was hard on the psyker’s mind, and the odd moan or grimace was commonplace. There had been worse. They’d gone through a nickel-rich asteroid field the previous week and the psyker had gone into spasms.

‘Flight check,’ LaHain said into the intercom.

‘Tail turret, aye!’ crackled back the servitor at the rear of the ship.

‘Flight engineer ready, by the Emperor!’ fuzzed the voice of the engine chamber.

LaHain signalled his wingman. ‘Moselle… you run forward and begin the sweep. We’ll lag a way behind you as a double-check. Then we’ll pull for home.’

‘Mark that,’ the pilot of the other ship replied and his craft gunned forward, a sudden blur that left twinkling pearls in its wake.

LaHain was about to kick in behind when the voice of the astropath came over the link. It was rare for the man to speak to the rest of the crew.

‘Captain… move to the following co-ordinates and hold. I am receiving a signal. A message… source unknown.’

LaHain did as he was instructed and the ship banked around, motors flaring in quick, white bursts. The observer swung all the sensor arrays to bear.

‘What is this?’ LaHain asked, impatient. Unscheduled manoeuvres off a carefully set patrol sweep did not sit comfortably with him.

The astropath took a moment to respond, clearing his throat.