• Published 4th Aug 2019
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Rep'talal - SFaccountant



An Age of Iron short story about a little derelict and unrelenting horrors

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Rep'talal

Rep’talal
An Age of Iron story
by SFaccountant

Chapter 1
Rep’talal

****

Ferrous Dominus – sector 22 guard barracks
Twilight Sparkle’s room


“Captain Herate was master of the Heart of Vengeance. An Imperial Lunar-class war cruiser. A monstrous weapon of destruction commissioned over one thousand, two hundred, and thirty standard solar years ago. A leviathan containing thousands of crew and weapons capable of stripping entire planets of life.”

A gilded nameplate, fashioned in the shape of the Imperial Aquila, was propped up on a shelf at the end of the room. The name “Herate” was acid-etched into the plate in blocky serif font.

“Records stripped from her databanks reveal a machine that had seen the deaths of hundreds of enemy warships. Orks primarily, but it also recorded confirmed kills on Eldar raiders and Necron assault craft. So many enemies took their last breath before their vessels were pierced by the purifying energies of her lances.”

An augmetic hand reached up and drew a slithering mechadendrite under the nameplate.

“All of it undone by the machinations of the Dark Mechanicus, Warsmith Solon, and a pony.”


Dark Techpriest Gaela took a step back from the shelf. “You have come so far, Sparkle. It was not so long ago that you quailed at the thought of slaying another and shouted pleas for mercy and peace at your foes. No longer. Tau, Ork, daemon, and now even man and Astartes have fallen before you. I could not have imagined such an outcome when I first encountered you and your entourage, but I find this progression… optimal.”

Twilight Sparkle sat on the floor behind Gaela, trying her best not to blush. “Well, I can’t really say I’m happy to be a Chaos Lord’s weapon, but I owe Warsmith Solon a debt. We all do. I… wish that didn’t involve so much fighting and killing, obviously, but if that’s what it takes to protect Equestria, then I won’t back down!” Then she grinned, looking up at the Dark Techpriest. “Are you proud of me?”

Gaela said nothing at first, turning her head back to stare at the alicorn. The glare from her augmetic eye met with Twilight’s.

“Pride, like all other emotions, is an expression of weakness and a failure,” Gaela explained tightly. “However, your current level of performance has far exceeded expectations. We are satisfied.”

Twilight smiled and stepped closer, placing a hoof on the plating of Gaela’s leg.

“I’m not going to hug you,” Gaela said firmly.

“Come onnnnnnn,” the mare goaded, fluttering her eyelashes.

A servo arm twisted around and pushed Twilight’s hoof away. She pouted and backed off.

“So… that covers the nameplate. We all know about the nameplate. Cool. That’s very neat.” Spike was standing behind Twilight, looking mildly confused. “Are we going to cover the power sword at any point? Because I’m still not clear on where that came from.”

Said power sword was mounted on the wall above the shelf. It was larger than the average weapons of such design, and had a half Chaos Star at the guard. That embellishment, plus the curved serration of the blade and the ghoulish face carved into the pommel made the allegiance of its previous owner perfectly clear. It was a Chaos weapon. Specifically an Iron Warrior’s, judging by its colors.

“… Guys?” Spike asked after several seconds of silence. “Seriously, what even happened? I just know that we suddenly had some new Warsmith and because of that me and Gaela were locked up and then a day later they announced that Solon was back and Kaelith let us go without saying why and then everyone’s just acting like nothing even happened? And Twilight has a power sword now? A used power sword?”

“I told you what happened, Spike. Solon was deposed by Kataris, who shot me. Then Solon gave me a new eye and he sent me back to the ship. Along the way I found that power sword. And now Solon is in charge again,” Twilight explained in a tense monotone. She and Gaela were still facing away from him, staring at the trophies on the wall.

“But that… I mean… what happened to Kataris?” Spike asked, touching the tips of his claws together anxiously.

“Who cares?” Twilight asked, unable to keep her face from twisting into an annoyed sneer.

“Any number of things can happen to an individual in the Eye of Terror. It is a place where reality falters before the violence and insanity of the Immaterium. Such sudden losses and upheavals are tragic, but inevitable,” Gaela said calmly. “Besides, nobody liked Kataris anyway.”


Spike looked like he wanted to ask further questions, but an alert turned on the cogitator built into the wall. Twilight glanced over to check who it was, and then pushed the button to connect the speaker with a flicker of magic.

“Hi Rarity!” she chirped, trotting over to the device. “What can I help you with?”

“Good morning Twilight, darling… or so I would say, but it’s hardly very good. Such a dreary day out today, isn’t it?” bemoaned Rarity’s voice.

“The weather report says to expect acid rain for the next three days, unfortunately. I feel kind of bad for the new mercenaries; they finally get to see our world after living in the Eye of Terror and the whole city is being drenched with poison.”

“Ugh! Say no more! And we’re no better off for being cooped up with them. The ‘new guys’ have a great deal to learn about friendship if they’re going to work for this fleet!” Rarity sniffed. “But anyway, I was hoping you could do me a favor, darling. Your power armor is still freshly repaired, while we had to dump all of ours onto the Warsmith as soon as he came back.”

“Right, I heard,” Twilight nodded. “You girls really had a rough time while I was gone! I still can’t believe Chrysalis assembled an uprising that managed to actually break into the fortress!”

“Oh, yes, it was terrible. I’ll sleep better at night knowing that Voidsong’s sentence was more permanent this time around.” A sniff came from the vox. “But as I was saying, we dropped off our armor suits four days ago and still haven’t received any word on their status! It normally takes him less than twenty-four hours to fix and polish them!”

Gaela turned toward the cogitator, her eye narrowed to a slit. “Do you think the Warsmith has no priorities greater than servicing your personal wargear?” she asked, her voice icy.

“Oh. Gaela, you’re there too. Good. I’ve been trying to contact Solon directly to ask about this, but it hasn’t worked. I think there may be something wrong with my vox system,” Rarity explained.

“There’s nothing wrong with it. Warsmith Solon clearly does not want to hear your demands,” Gaela countered. “This is unsurprising. The Warsmith has been working on some special project in the heart of the manufactorum since our return. All exterior contact has been limited. Your vox logs would not be granted any priority.”

“Can you fix that for me?” Rarity asked.

Spotting the signs of rising irritation in the Dark Techpriest, Twilight quickly interjected. “Rarity, you want me to stop by the forge and check up on your armor, right? I can do that.”

“Thank you, darling!” Rarity said, sounding extremely relieved. “I would have gone myself, but you know I have a hard enough time with this city’s air when it isn’t raining toxic sludge. I really don’t want to go outside today until I have my armor back.”

“I understand. Goodbye, Rarity.” Twilight’s horn flickered, and the button to end the call depressed.


“Spike, wait here. I can get some servitors to carry the armor back in the rain.” Twilight started walking toward the door, and her armor appeared in a flash of blazing purple. “Gaela, do you want to come?”

The Dark Techpriest nodded mutely and followed, her helmet sliding up over her head and locking into place with a thought. Soon they had left for the hall, and the security door slid closed behind them.


“She destroyed a CRUISER? Like, an actual giant enemy space ship?!”

Spike jumped in surprise, and then whirled around toward the unexpected voice.

Dusk Blade rolled out from under Twilight’s bunk and then hopped up into a standing position. He spent a moment to stretch out his legs and wings, and then glanced over at the new trophy rack that was bolted onto Twilight’s wall.

“I can’t believe they actually sent her to do something so dangerous! I can’t believe it WORKED!” marveled the thestral. “How did she do it? How big a ship was it?”

“What the hay are you doing here?!” Spike snapped, ignoring the stallion’s questions. “How long were you hiding under Twi’s bed?! How did you do that?!”

“Trade secret,” Dusk assured the young dragon, raising the claw tip of one wing up to his lips in a shushing gesture. “For real though, did she just teleport onto the bridge and magic the crew to death? I’m guessing not, but I dunno how she would really do something like that.”

“Dude. Listen. You have to stop doing this. Popping into our room all the time like this is really creepy, and it scares Twilight,” Spike warned.

“Pff! Twilight Sparkle has all sorts of unfortunate feelings about me, but I’m pretty sure FEAR isn’t one of them,” Dusk scoffed. “Even if I were some kind of threat to a cruiser-vanquishing Element of Magic in hyper-advanced space armor, she’s the one pony I could never bring myself to hurt. I’m pretty sure she knows that much.”

“But you can’t just-“ Spike paused mid-retort. “Wait, the ONLY pony you wouldn’t hurt? Really? What about Princess Luna?”

“HA!” Dusk barked. “If I had a reason I’d put her down before she knew what was happening! You remember that she used to be an omnicidal maniac, right? I don’t owe her squat!”

He chuckled lightly, and then suddenly sobered. “I mean, it would have to be a really good reason, though. Like, her turning back into Nightmare Moon or something.”

“Uh huh…” mumbled Spike, slowly stepping further away.

Dusk turned his head up, scratching at his chin with a wing tip. “Then again, I suppose it would depend on what she actually wanted to do as Nightmare Moon. Like, eternal night would be really cool for a week before the entire planet started dying. But if she just wanted to overthrow Celestia, I could get behind that.”

“Seriously?!” Spike asked, visibly shocked.

“Well, sure. I mean, I have no particular loyalty to sunhorse either aaaaaaand I probably shouldn’t be telling anyone this.” He coughed and started walking toward the exit. “Anyway, good talk Spack. Don’t tell anyone about this, okay? Remember, I know where you sleep!”

“My name is SPIKE,” the dragon retorted with a glare.

“Okay, yes, fine. See you later! Whether you like it or not!”

****

Ferrous Dominus – Manufactorum complex


“Interesting. According to the forge datastacks, there’s been a gamma-level quarantine in effect on all sub-levels below the munitoriums. Most relevant data is restricted, but the quarantine was engaged the very day we arrived back in Ferrous Dominus.”

Gaela tapped several icons on a hololith display, and then a socket opened up next to the access cogitator.

“A quarantine? Why? Did a Nurgle infection get out of control?” Twilight asked, double-checking her pressure seals.

“Negative. Gamma-level quarantine is precautionary lockdown, not a reactionary measure. It’s most often used to protect the facility from dangerous experiments and secret projects. It ensures that any failures are quickly contained or purged before the subjects – and ideally, any knowledge of the experiments – leave the manufactorum’s sub-chambers.”

Gaela moved a servo arm in front of the socket, and then plugged a metal probe inside. A humming databurst passed through the servo limb, and several lights on the cogitator turned green.

Gaela took a step back as the massive security doors of the inner chamber started to rumble open. “It seems I am still allowed access into the quarantine zone. Keep alert and switch to your armor’s air supply.”

Twilight seemed alarmed. “Do you expect we could be attacked? Even down here?!”

“I do not,” the Dark Techpriest answered. “But any time data is withheld, danger should be presumed. Surely I don’t need to tell you of the potential threats lurking even within places we consider ‘safe.’”


Entering the quarantine zone revealed little. The machinery was largely silent in the alcoves and specialized facilities that lined the halls. Autoturrets swiveled back and forth in a tireless vigil, searching for potential targets. Shrines to the Machine God, corrupted and twisted with icons of Chaos and daemonic fetishes, sat quietly in the gloom.

Only the central laboratorium was obviously active. Power regulators and diagnostic screens hummed and flickered along the wall that separated Gaela and Twilight from whatever grand experiment was being conducted within these great metal walls. The screens offered slightly more data than the barren halls; at a glance Gaela was able to determine that some of them were measuring a flow of chemicals to the laboratorium necessary to mix oxygenated stasis gel. Not an important solution for mechanical work or containing daemons, but extremely useful for working on living organisms.


“Fascinating…” the cyborg mumbled.

“Gaela, do you think maybe we shouldn’t be here?” Twilight asked, suddenly sounding anxious. “I know that I sort of have a reputation for barging in on the Warsmith whenever I want, but if he’s doing something really… wait, what was that?”

The purple mare twitched toward a sound from deeper in the hall. It sounded like someone talking, but there was another blast door in the way and she couldn’t identify the voice or make out the words.

“It’s to your credit that you begin to understand the importance of the Warsmith’s affairs relative to your own petty desires,” Gaela said. “It would seem we’re not the first to intrude upon his labors, however.”

She stepped up to the next door and plugged in a metal spike just as before. A heavy clunking noise came from within the barrier, and then the armored metal slats cracked open.


“’Tis entirely necessary! We shalt be thy sword; this We hast agreed upon, and We shalt uphold our sacred bargain. We merely desire a proper chariot with which to execute thine orders.”

Princess Luna stood in front of a particularly heavy gate, speaking into an access cogitator. She was wearing her daemon armor, still slick with the poisonous liquids from the storm outside, but her helmet had withdrawn for the moment. Her expression was slightly distressed and impatient; whatever the conversation was about, it wasn’t going her way.

“I shaid no, Princessh.” Solon’s voice poured from the console vox with a distinctly disapproving tone. “Thish ish no shimple requesht. I have granted you shufficient weaponsh to enforce my will, which you have deployed to my shatishfaction. That ish enough.”

“Nay!” Luna retorted, her expression heated. “This armor hath proven sufficient to slay the troublesome Orks and various scoundrels of this world, but greater dangers await us, do they not? Shouldst We take to the stars to do battle under thy banner, We require a worthy vessel!”


Twilight tilted her head to the side, uncomprehending. She and Gaela were approaching, and making enough noise that Luna couldn’t have missed them, but the Princess of the Night paid them no attention.

“You may have a tank or a gunship,” Solon said, clearly exasperated. “I can even deshign a shuperior transhport for you if you wish. But you’re not getting a void ship.”

Twilight and Gaela immediately stopped, their eyebrows rising over their respective organic eyes.

“Wherefore NOT?” Luna huffed, banging a boot onto the floor.

“Shipsh are not the shame ash armor shuitsh!” Solon replied. “We do not have the reshourcesh or infrashtructure for building entire void shipsh! And I’m not giving you one of the shipsh asshigned to my other captainsh! Could you imagine the humiliation of loshing shuch a posht to be replaced by a pony?”

“Then may We acquire such a vessel after having aided in seizing the required constituents?” Luna asked.

“No! That’sh far too much raw material to shpend on shomething like thish! Do you have any idea how mad Shliver would be?!”

“Sliver?! Thou fears the protests of thy second?!” Luna shouted, her voice rising.

“Well, I mean, it’sh more that I dishlike publicly dishagreeing with hish… ah…” Suddenly Solon seemed to realize that he was flailing, and his voice rose in equal measure to Luna’s. “I don’t owe you further explanationsh, Princessh! The anshwer ish no!”

“Unacceptable!” Luna shouted angrily. “Thou hast not seriously considered our petition!”

“I’ve had enough of thish! Return to Nightwatch immediately!” Solon demanded.

“Thou canst tell us what to do!” Luna complained, stamping her hooves some more. “Thou art not our REAL father!”

“What doesh that have to do with anything?”


Before the argument could continue, Luna suddenly felt several of the neural links in her power armor turn inert. The mini-servos became unresponsive, and the armor’s weight seemed to multiply instantly.

“What? How? Wherefore-“

Gaela planted a boot onto Luna’s flank, and then kicked the immortal mare over. Luna squeaked and fell onto the floor into a heap of metal and distressed pony.

Staring down at the Princess with an icy glare, Gaela tapped a button on the console. “Warsmith Solon, this is Techpriest Gaela. I humbly apologize for the interruption, my Lord. Twilight Sparkle and I have come to retrieve Equinought Squadron’s battle armor."

“What? Oh! That! Yesh, that’sh done. I shupposhe I forgot to shend them. Here.”

With a loud whir and clunking noise, a gate along the wall shifted open. The five suits of Centaur pattern armor – those belonging to Rarity, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, and Big Mac – were scattered among several discarded tools and pieces of scrap plating. Several of them were still plugged into wires and hoses at points and the suits, though clearly repaired, lacked the usual layer of reactive polish Solon normally added after fixing them. The wargear gave a strong impression of having been worked on and then immediately abandoned once the job was basically complete.

“Shervitorsh are reshtricted due to lockdown; you’ll have to move the armor via mag-lev,” Solon explained. “Wash there anything elshe?”

“May I ask what you’re doing down here?” Twilight replied before Gaela could end the conversation. “I think we were expecting to begin operations again, but the moment we arrived back on-world you locked yourself in the manufactorum. We don’t have any new orders, do we?”

A laugh came from the console. It was a hearty, pleasant chuckle – though still hard on the ears due to the vox distortion – but Twilight still felt a slight chill at the answer that followed.

“We’ll be on our way shoon enough, Princessh,” Solon replied. “But there wash shomething… shomeone, rather, that shimply couldn’t wait. Farewell.”

“Hold! Warsmith!” Luna barked, standing herself up with some difficulty. “We art not done with-“

Gaela tapped a button and slid a hand across the input screen, and the entire console went dark in an instant.


“Sparkle, there’s a mag-lev cart in the alcove across the hall. Use that to carry the armor and we’ll get it to the rest of your squad,” Gaela commanded.

“Techpriest! We demand thee restore function to our armor postehaste!” Luna shouted, her horn starting to glow.

The engineer-cultist turned her head slightly, as if only just remembering the alicorn was still in the room. She said nothing. Luna squinted against the glare of Gaela’s optical sight, and her horn quickly dimmed.

“P-Please,” the lunar Princess stuttered, suddenly feeling curiously cold and helpless under the Techpriest’s gaze.

“Hmph.” Gaela pointed at her, and then a soft whir came from the alicorn’s power armor as its systems booted up once more. “There. Now get out. This area is under quarantine and you are not authorized.”

Luna felt a great deal of relief once her armor plating again responded to every twitch of her muscles. The brief moments where the suit was disabled out of spite made it feel like a prison rather than protective wear. This might have invited some introspection or at least greater caution if inflicted upon a different pony, but Luna didn’t give it a second thought before rushing to Gaela’s side.

“Wherefore didst thou interrupt us? We were petitioning the Warsmith! Acquiring thy armor was not a matter of great urgency!” she protested.

“And yet, so much more important than your ridiculous request,” Gaela mumbled. A mag-lev cart, pushed by an aura of purple magic, floated into place next to her. “To think, after you’ve been gifted so much that you’d demand a void ship of the Warsmith. Absurd.”

“Absurd? Doth the fleet not expect us to take to battle on distant worlds?” Luna asked.

“Affirmative. And you’ll be given a metal closet on the Harvest of Steel to lay in until we get there, like everyone else.”

Luna grimaced at the Dark Techpriest. “Surely it wouldst aid the fleet greatly were We to possess our own vessel…”

“It would aid the fleet greatly to possess a score of battleships, too. But material constraints are what they are. We do not have the resources, and if we did we wouldn’t spend them on something so frivolous.” Gaela sneered. “I’m sure you can badger the Warsmith into granting you a larger room within the Harvest.”

Twilight finished stacking the armor on the cart, and then took hold of the cart with her magic to push it along toward the exit. Gaela followed her, and after a moment of frustrated pouting, so did Luna.

“What then of the fallen void ships on our world? One such vessel lay just outside the walls!” Luna pressed. “Might those husks provide the necessary components and material?”

“You’re not LISTENING,” Gaela said, causing Luna to flinch away at the acid in her voice. “We don’t have the means to make a void ship. Our Mechanicus contingent is already quite busy salvaging the wrecks for scrap. But even if we scraped up enough usable wreckage, the hull superstructures have been shattered quite beyond repair; if we COULD build you a ship – and I must reiterate again, WE CANNOT – then it would be faster and safer to construct a completely new frame than try to restore those. Our current facilities, mighty as they are, simply do not possess manufacturing capabilities of that scale. If you want a vessel built from garbage and hammered together with whatever tools are at hand, only the Orks can help you.”

Luna sighed, hanging her head. “So thou requires the seizure of a void ship intact before We might claim a vessel of our own?”

“This occurs with some regularity in this fleet, given our eternal task of piracy, but even after such a capture it is traditional for the Iron Warrior leading the boarding raid to claim ownership unless the Warsmith has other plans. I would not expect you’ll get the chance to take one for your own. And, of course, the craft must be usable,” Gaela explained. “Vessels of xeno design are often impossible for humans to pilot. Necron constructions, for example, frequently lack obvious interface mechanisms and basic life support.”

“You can pilot Tau ships, though,” Twilight interjected. “You didn’t have much trouble using them against the Lamman Sept when they arrived.

Gaela nodded. “True. Tau technology, while often lacking in durability and ease of maintenance, is relatively conventional in its functions and usage. The number of captured engineers is also helpful.”

“Right. Since the only intact, unclaimed ship in the system is a Tau ship, we could probably use it, then,” Twilight continued.

Gaela and Luna halted, staring at the smaller alicorn. Twilight’s pace faltered uncertainly at the sudden attention.

“Wh-What is it? Did you forget?” she asked.

“Of what dost thou speak?!” Luna shouted, her eyes lighting up. “An enemy warship? Unclaimed, you say?”

“Yes. So you did forget?” Twilight asked. “During the fleet battle against the Tau an enemy warship was… um… well I’m not sure what we did to it, actually,” she admitted, furrowing her brow. “But it wasn’t wrecked. I’ve checked the system hololiths and it’s still there, locked in an orbital sequence. I don’t think we’ve touched it since the battle.”

Luna’s eyes lit up further. Gaela’s expression soured.

“Ah. Right. That one,” the Dark Techpriest murmured. “That vessel is also non-viable.”

“What? How?” Luna demanded. “It meets thy requisites, doth it not?”


They passed through the gate at the edge of the quarantine zone, and a klaxon blared briefly before the armored doors slammed shut behind them. A moment later the area was flushed with a white mist, covering the armored figures with disinfectant.

“The Tau vessel in orbit does not meet all the technical requirements, as a matter of fact,” Gaela explained after an extended silence. “Calling it ‘unclaimed’ is… misleading. Chaos has claimed it.”

“Thou art Chaos,” Luna reminded her blithely.

“It shouldn’t come as any surprise to you by now, but some aspects of Chaos don’t get along with the rest of us.” Gaela took a moment to shake the disinfectant mist from her robes. “To reclaim the battlecruiser would likely require a horrific toll in lives, and our ultimate success is not guaranteed.”

Luna and Twilight shared a skeptical glance, and then turned to face the Dark Techpriest.

“Gaela, what exactly happened to the ship? I know it was subjected to some kind of weapon, but during that fight it was attacked once and then… nothing. It just stopped. All the pict-captures showed no hull breaches or obvious system failures. Which makes it ideal for capture and retrofitting, obviously, but…”

Gaela grunted in annoyance and leaned on her axe. “The secrets I am about to tell you are not particularly well-kept; it is widely understood that the Harvest of Steel possesses fearsome weapons an order of magnitude more dangerous than mere macrocannons. Still… it’s common practice to withhold these particular details, so I must insist that this information not leave these halls.”

The mares perked up, intensely interested.

“Yes, of course! My lips are sealed!”

“We shalt carry thy words in the deepest confidence, Techpriest!”

Gaela looked doubtful, but she continued anyway. “The weapon used on the Tau battlecruiser is a Warp rift. The weapon causes a string of dimensional fissures along a controlled corridor when it interacts with matter, exposing an affected ship interior to Warp space without the ‘clean’ breach generated by Warp engines.” She paused to consider her next words. “The effect, as I understand it, is… subtle, at first. Much like within the Eye of Terror, the reality bleed first manifests in non-obvious ways. Then the daemons arrive.”

Twilight flinched, and Luna quirked an eyebrow.

“The most obvious and consistent result of the rift, of course, is the proliferation of daemons within the vessel and the subsequent slaughter of the crew. To that end, the weapon is best understood as a sort of boarding mechanism. Any vessel without sufficient defenders to stave off the incursion will inevitably be butchered to the man, and the void ship left empty and adrift… aside from the boarders, of course.”

“So the ship is infested with daemons! That’s why we’re not salvaging it?” Twilight asked.

“That’s the simplest understanding,” Gaela said evasively.

“So it is a mere contingent of fell monsters that lay between us and our void-borne chariot?” Luna asked with a grin. The Iron Gauge lifted off her shoulder pads, and one gauntlet slammed into the palm of the other. “If it is but strength of arms that is required to seize the vessel, then We shalt cleanse the beasts ourselves!”

Gaela shook her head. “It is likely that is not all that will be required.”

“What do you mean?” Twilight asked. “I’ve fought daemons before, and while they’re… disturbing enemies, they’re not that difficult to overcome.”

“As I said, the eventual convergence of daemonic intruders is merely the most direct tactical application of such a weapon. There are often… other effects,” Gaela warned. “As the crew’s final moments of terror echo through the Warp and the denizens of the Immaterium stalk the halls, the very bulkheads start to change. The craft may not be viable for long.”

“What do you mean? What happens to the ship, exactly?” Twilight asked, tilting her head to the side.

“Warp corruption inflicts all manner of bizarre conditions, so it’s difficult to say,” the cyborg continued. “I have never witnessed such conditions myself, as the 38th Company long ago stopped trying to board and seize ships targeted by the rift. If I recall the records correctly, conditions upon the inflicted vessels were often so inimical to life that the ships had to be scuttled after being taken at a great cost in lives. That Space Marines devoted to Chaos had such difficulty in securing voidcraft from daemonic elements should provide some estimate as to the sheer degree of danger involved.”

The mares looked at each other, weighing the Techpriest’s words carefully.

“With such danger, t’would be unwise to go alone,” Luna decided. “We shalt require a boarding party.”

“Well, the other girls have their armor now, so we should be able to help,” Twilight said with a nod.

“Are you being serious?” Gaela sighed.

“We shalt not let this opportunity pass,” Luna said decisively. “The craft abides the prerequisites thou listed.”

“Probably,” Gaela corrected.

“And it’s been months since the ship was attacked with the rift! The daemonic infestation is probably much weaker by now, if they’re still there at all!” Twilight added.

“There’s absolutely no data relevant to past uses of the rift that suggest that’s true,” Gaela pointed out.

“We shalt require transit. The Iron Warrior known as Dest can pilot yonder gunships, correct?”

“Since it’s a Tau ship, we should bring along some Xenis troops. Like that one Tau lady that’s scared of Applejack. And maybe an engineer? Oh! Did that one alien that Rainbow Dash yells at survive the last attack? We should bring him along!”

Gaela groaned and pinched the bridge of her nose with a servo claw. “You’re going to get all of us killed.”

Luna and Twilight paused in their conspiring, turning toward the Dark Techpriest.

“Us? As in, the Company back here on-planet?” Twilight asked in concern.

“No. Us, as in the boarding party,” Gaela clarified. Twilight seemed surprised at this, for reasons she couldn’t imagine. “I’m coming with you, of course. I should be able to determine if the void ship is still suitable for refit before you’re hopelessly overrun and there’s still opportunity for retreat. It would be embarrassing to perish for the sake of a mission objective that was never possible.”

“Really? That’s why you’re coming along?” Twilight asked, arching her eyebrow. She seemed unconvinced, and her mouth twitched into a smirk.

“What are you insinuating?” Gaela demanded, glaring icily at the purple pony.

Before Twilight could answer, a large black gauntlet clapped onto Gaela’s shoulder.

“Well met, Techpriest!” Luna said gleefully. “Thy wisdom in navigating the perturbations of the darker powers shalt be of considerable aid! As well as thy zeal in battle!”

“I can’t believe we’re really going to risk near-certain death so that you can have your own void ship,” Gaela grumbled.

“Ha! Surely thou hast wagered thy life for more feeble reward in the past. ‘Tis something of a habit amongst the thralls of Chaos,” Luna noted. Then she galloped ahead, racing toward the exit. “Sparkle! We go now to our daily rest, so that We may take to battle refreshed after raising the moon! We leave the preparations to thee!”

“You’re demanding our aid so that you can claim your own ship and you’re not even going to take the time to…”


Gaela trailed off as the door creaked shut behind the Lunar Princess, who had ignored her entirely. Soon the sound of ceramite-clad hooves faded into the distance, leaving Gaela and Twilight truly alone.

“I am beginning to dislike that one,” the Dark Techpriest grumbled.

Twilight chuckled and started pushing the cart of armor forward again. “Don’t let her bother you. Luna is… self-absorbed, certainly, but she means well. So far giving her the weapons she’s wanted has definitely worked in the Company’s favor!”

“I hope you, at least, appreciate how tenuous this mission is. The Iron Warriors will not provide additional support. If the daemonic corruption is particularly bad, we may have to transmit a request for them to bombard and destroy the ship. We are outnumbered by an unknown factor, and have no reports on a combat environment likely to be extremely hazardous.”

Twilight’s expression sobered. “That’s true. I’m sure it won’t be easy, and as always we’ll be at serious risk.” Then she brightened again. “That’s why I’m really glad you’re coming with us! With you along we can handle anything!”

“Your faith is…” Gaela paused to sort through the various adjectives that jumped to mind. “Warranted,” she eventually decided, “but it is still my professional opinion that this is a stupid mission and we’re all going to perish.”

“Okay, I’ll let the girls know!” Twilight chirped, heading for the exit lift. “Thank you, Gaela! I’ll send you a vox when we’re ready to deploy!”

****

Ferrous Dominus – sector 24 landing platforms


“Okay, y’all gonna have to explain this t’me again. We’re goin’ where to do what, exactly? The message just said ‘Rep’talal Recovery’ and Ah don’ really know what that is.”

Equinought Squadron had assembled in the lander lots, all of them armed and armored in their repaired suits. Pinkie Pie was in attendance, deep within the heavy shell of her Contemptor Dreadnought with Rainbow Dash perched on her shoulder. The acid rain from earlier had lightened to a drizzle, although the hours of exposure left an oily tarnish over the already none-too-clean structures.

Twilight craned her head up, staring into the slowly darkening sky. “We’re going to be boarding and securing a Tau battlecruiser so that Luna can claim it as her personal void ship.”

“Ooh, neat!” Pinkie said brightly.

“Um… a void ship? For Princess Luna?” Rarity was more circumspect. “I’m confused. There’s a space vessel lying around within reach that the Iron Warriors haven’t seized already?”

“Yes! Remember the orbital battle against the Tau when their main fleet arrived?” Twilight asked.

“Of course! A falling space ship nearly crashed through Cloudsdale, a transport rig smashed into Applejack’s orchard, and Tellis spent DAYS hunting down the savior pods for laughs!” Rainbow Dash flew in a circle over the group as she recounted the incident, giggling, and then landed on Pinkie’s walker once more.

Twilight coughed. “Ah… yes. I suppose a lot happened during that battle after all, so it would make sense if you forgot some of the details. It’s kind of complicated, and a full explanation would involve divulging information that’s kinda-maybe secret, but basically the crew of this ship was killed during the battle without harming the ship itself. That makes it perfect for clearing and refitting!”

“Ah have several additional questions,” Applejack said bluntly. “If’n this empty hunk o’ space goodies has been floatin’ around the planet ever since that battle, why didn’t the Company ever take it themselves?”

“That’s a good question!” Twilight said brightly. “The Iron Warriors generally don’t salvage ships under these specific conditions because it’s so dangerous as to be unproductive!”

“Dangerous? For Space Marines?” Rarity asked, alarmed. “How? What exactly are we securing this ship from?”

“Daemons. Presumably,” Twilight answered after a moment of hesitation. “Remember those monsters that came out of the Dark Portal? It’s them. Probably.”

“What, those guys?” Rainbow scoffed. “They’re no big deal! This’ll be a breeze!”

“What do you mean ‘probably?’” Rarity pressed. “For that matter, how did this ship come to be infested by daemons?”

“They have a means to… well… I guess you’d consider it a curse,” Twilight said hesitantly. “They, uh, curse the ship, and then it fills up with Warp monsters. Or at least, that’s Gaela’s best guess as to what we’re heading into.”

“But it’s been months since that battle, right?” asked Fluttershy timidly. “You don’t think they’re still up there, do you?”

“Well…” Twilight tilted her head to the side. “I have some personal experience with daemons, and my understanding is that they don’t operate under ordinary biological restrictions such as needing food, water, or respiration. They do have their own, mostly theoretical, restrictions when they manifest a physical combat form in the Materium, but…”

She trailed off for several seconds. “I don’t really know what to tell you girls. I don’t know what we’re going to find up there. But whatever it is, the Iron Warriors don’t think it’s worth the risk to face it.” She straightened. “But this is hardly the only mission we’ve taken on that an Iron Warrior wouldn’t. We’ve faced KNOWN dangers greater than a bunch of stranded Warp spawn, and with Princess Luna and Gaela by our side, NOTHING the daemons can throw at us can stop us!”

“Yeah! Ha ha! Let’s get ‘em!” Pinkie Pie whooped and swung her power fist in the air, while Rainbow Dash did an aerial backflip.

The other ponies seemed less enthusiastic.

“Okay, Ah hear ya, but… y’know, those other missions were IMPORTANT. We didn’t have a choice,” Applejack explained. “This time we’re goin’ to face certain doom so Princess Luna can have her own space buggy?”

“Yeah, but so what?” Rainbow retorted. “Did you forget that we’re PIRATES now? Fighting for space booty is our job!”

Rarity produced a resigned sigh. “I suppose you have a point. And it IS rather nice to embark on a mission where failure and retreat are an option, for once. It’s rather tiresome to always have the future of the world resting on our shoulders.”

“Don’t take this mission lightly, girls. But trust me when I say that daemons CAN be beaten. They’re an… unconventional enemy, even more so than Orks. But they have their own weaknesses. Keep your focus and stay together, and everything should be fine!” Twilight said.

“Ooh! Ooh! I see Desty!” Pinkie’s Dreadnought jumped up and then landed with a teeth-rattling crash against the ferrocrete while she pointed toward an entry gantry.


Princess Luna marched toward the others with her head held high and four bipedal figures behind her.

Dest and Gaela were geared for combat, with the Possessed warrior carrying a boltgun and an ammo belt slung over his shoulder. Gaela had her normal power axe – as well as her integrated ion cannon in her arm – but also carried a grenade launcher attached to her gun arm by a heavy external clamp.

Behind them were two smaller figures wearing boarding armor: environmental suits fitted with numerous ceramic plates for deflecting incoming fire while being completely sealed and pressurized in case of hazardous environments. Each of them carried pulse carbines, although one was clearly more familiar with the weapon and carried a grenade bandoleer as well. The other was weighed down by a backpack and additional small tools on his belt.

“Hey, Fennin!” Rainbow Dash barked suddenly. “YOU SUCK!!”

The boarding suit with the backpack stopped, looking up at the pegasus. “Really? Are we still doing this? I feel like we can retire this act.”

“I’ll stop shouting it when you stop doing it,” the mare retorted.

“I saved Ferrous Dominus just a week ago!” Fennin complained.

“We ALL saved Ferry D a week ago!”

“I fixed the entire defense network! You killed a handful of griffons!”

The other figure in a boarding suit suddenly turned and shoved Fennin in the shoulder. “Would you stop letting the horses bait you? It’s a long trip and a small compartment.”

“I concur. You’re not too important to eject into hard void on the way if you get too loud,” Gaela grunted. “Fennin, Jerriha, prepare to board. You will act as the team rearguard.”

Dest stopped in front of the ponies and crossed his arms over his chest. “It seems you’re ready. We can depart immediately.”

“Yer flyin’?” Applejack asked.

“Yes. No other pilot would accept such a mission. I have clocked additional simulation hours with the Stormraven, so I will be able to dock properly with the target vessel. Probably,” Dest confirmed.

“Hold,” Luna ordered, one of her gauntlets flying up and holding its palm flat. “Be this the entirety of our party? A mere ten warriors?”

“Affirmative. For a given definition of ‘warrior,’ of course,” Gaela said, casting a glance at Fluttershy. “Additionally, while Pie will be of considerable assistance when establishing a beachhead within the hangar of the target vessel, she will be unable to aid us further. Tau Voidcraft interiors are frustratingly compact and movement within the crew compartments will be heavily restricted for a Contemptor-class Dreadnought.”

“Our ships aren’t compact, YOUR ships are absurdly inefficient in design! Who needs empty halls large enough to march an assault walker through?!” Fennin groused.

“We do right now,” Dest said.

“It’s hardly a design flaw that our vessels are inconvenient to Chaos boarding parties!” the engineer retorted.

“Enough of thy prattling,” Luna announced with a snort. “Although We hast the utmost faith in the courage of the Elements of Harmony and the efficacy of the Warsmith’s weapons, We wouldst be well-served with another few companions.”

“Well, Ah invited Daniels to come with us like Twi asked, but when Ah said the word ‘Rep’ta-somethin’ he just laughed and walked away,” Applejack said. “He mentioned that ship before, Ah think. Ah reckon he has some idea what’s up there, and he don’t like it.”

“Should I go invite Tellis?” Rainbow Dash asked, jumping up in the air.

“NO!!” shouted multiple ponies in response.

“Oh, c’mon! Tellis would be great at this!” the pegasus pressed.

“We’re not inviting Tellis!” Twilight hissed. “I’m not going on another mission with Tellis! This is a serious endeavor and we don’t need him hurling us at enemies and setting things to explode or uploading Chaos cogitator viruses for fun!”

Luna tilted her head to the side, and one the black gauntlets came around to rub her chin. “Thou sayeth the mercenary Daniels knows something of this quest, but hath refused to aid us?”

“Yeah. There’re lots of other mercs, o’course, but Ah don’t trust none of ‘em like Ah trust Daniels,” Applejack affirmed. She heard a sniggering noise from above, and shot a glare up at Rainbow Dash.

“Indeed! It hath been decided, then!” Luna declared. Her horn started to glow, although there was no immediate magic effect that anyone noticed.

“What’s been decided, now?” Pinkie asked, swiveling from side to side.


Rather than answering, Luna teleported away in a flash of brilliant blue magic.

“… Oh, my. I have a bad feeling about this,” Rarity mumbled.

“I’m telling you guys, when we’re up in the space ship and surrounded by angry daemons, you’re going to wish I’d brought Tellis along,” Rainbow Dash warned.

“It’s going to take a lot more than angry daemons before I’m willing to bring that fanatic along again,” Twilight grumbled.

“My personal assessment is in agreement. We will be venturing into an area with a great deal of sensitive and important objects. While Lord Tellis would excel in slaying our opposition, I do not trust his restraint around so many buttons,” Gaela muttered.

Another pulse of blue energy came from the spot where Luna had vanished. After a few seconds and another flare of light, Luna reappeared. Daniels flashed into the air at the same time, yelping angrily before dropping onto the ground.

Wyatt Daniels, who was wearing pants and a tank top and little else, scrambled to stand up and shield himself from the rain. “BLOODY HELL!! I TOLD YOU, I’M NOT-“

A patch of blue magic briefly covered his mouth, muffling him. Luna cleared her throat, and then addressed the others. “One more, then.” Without another word, she vanished again.


“Daniels! Here, allow me.” Twilight quickly generated an energy bubble over the man’s head to protect him from the rain. “Yeesh, did Luna find you in the barracks? She didn’t even let you get completely dressed, did she?”

“There’s a boarding suit and weapons in the transport,” Gaela said blandly. “He will be able to fight.”

“Now you listen here, you…” the mercenary took several deep breaths, calming down. “No. This is not happening. I’m not going up there.”

“Daniels, now, Ah know the Princess was, uh, a little rough witcha, but-“

“No, AJ,” Daniels said, cutting off the farmer. “I’m not going. You know that I’m not above taking on suicide missions with you girls, but this is something else entirely. You all can do what you’d like, but you won’t be dragging me into it!”

“I am unsure as to why you think you have a choice,” Gaela mused. “You work for the 38th Company, mercenary. You do not choose your missions.”

“Yeah. Yeah, that’s true,” Daniels admitted, pointing to the Dark Techpriest. “But you don’t choose my missions either, and neither do the pones.” He shook his head. “Sorry ladies. I’m staying home for this one.”

Then a large gauntlet bearing pointed claws and numerous small, irregular spikes clapped onto his shoulder, nearly staggering him.

“I believe I am authorized to choose your missions, Wyatt Daniels,” Dest rumbled. “You will not be staying home for this one.”

A strange noise, like a cross between a cough and a whimper, came from the mercenary’s throat. Daniels hung his head.

“Is anybody else the slightest bit curious as to why a soldier who snuck into an enemy base with only a handful of equines for support is so reluctant to board a particular derelict?” Fennin asked, raising a hand. “An aversion to void combat? A disproportionate fear of daemonic enemies?”

“I too am slightly curious,” Gaela admitted. “The 38th Company stopped running reclamation missions on rift targets ages ago. Your fear is… rational, to say the least, and suggests personal experience. Have you boarded such a vessel before?”


Before he could answer, another blue flash came from behind the group. Luna appeared in the air, her wings spread grandly, and another armored pony materialized beneath her.

“Huzzah! Our strike force hath grown!” the Lunar Princess shouted happily.

“Big Mac?! Ya went and dragged Big Mac into this?!” Applejack asked, suddenly incensed.

“Aye! What better soldier to aid our incursion than the mighty Ironside?!” Luna said cheerfully, swinging a gauntlet up above her. “No other ponies boast the requisite weapons and armor for such a task!”

“What about those Nurgle mares? You know, the ones that used a zombie plague around Ponyville? They seem quite capable,” Rarity reasoned. “Trixie, too.”

“We meant aside from them,” Luna said dismissively. “’Tis no matter. Macintosh has agreed and we art ready to depart to the merciless void!”

“Erm…” Big Mac raised a hoof, as if considering an objection. Luna raced by before he could, though, and then Dest barked a command that spurred the others into action.

“Board the Stormraven at once. We make for the battlecruiser Rep’talal immediately,” the pilot snapped, pointing to the gunship in question. “May the Chaos Gods bless our ascent, and deliver victory to their chosen servants. Iron within! Iron without!”

****

High orbit over Centaur III – Stormraven gunship
Approach vector: Tau derelict Rep’talal


“It’s a fascinating construct, isn’t it? I don’t believe I’ve ever seen this particular pattern before. You can see the deployment hangars, and the upgraded turrets look to be a design built for speed as much as firepower. Not a specialty of Tau naval engineering.”

Gaela’s smaller hand was held over a briefing hololith in the middle of the passenger compartment. The Rep’talal was a squat, triangle-shaped ship with an oversized engine block and a body that tapered to a saucer-shaped prow. Super-heavy railguns ran through the length of half the ship, and other cannon turrets were scattered on the top and bottom. The hololith locked on to several points of interest and drew little blocks of text next to them to highlight areas of damage, important systems, and possible breach points.

“It’s a prototype vessel. Part of our… I’m sorry, part of Lamman Sept’s shifting military focus to mainly fighting the Orks and Tyranids.” Fennin leaned over closer to the image. “Some of our newer battleship designs possess this saucer section in the front, but they’re typically connected to an elongated superstructure that presents most of the vessel mass and boasts enhanced broadsides.” He snorted. “Unfortunately, the wide, flat length of exposed hull, combined with an unimpressive sub-light speed, seems to invite CERTAIN opponents to ram into it. A slightly smaller main warship, with bigger engines and more flexible fire points, was deemed necessary. This design has the firepower to shred large vessels at long range, and the speed to STAY at long range against dedicated pursuit.”

He sighed, slumping back in his seat. “It shouldn’t have been deployed so early, of course, but Voidsong was quite insistent on getting every available asset combat-ready for the Emerald Dawn project. This was hardly the most dangerous experiment she took to the field.”

“A glorious craft! It shalt serve its new mistress well!” Luna proclaimed, leering over the hololith with her helmet retracted.

“What are those things on the hull? They look like… burs, almost. But made of metal.” Rainbow Dash squinted at the hololith.

“Those are boarding pods. Ork design, it looks like,” Jerriha answered. “Makes sense; when the Orks arrived there was a battlecruiser in passive orbit and perfect condition that didn’t engage them. Naturally they sent a boarding crew to seize the ship before they engaged the Company.”

“And they’re not the only ones. I found the cargo lander that fled Ferrous Dominus during the changeling assault. It docked without apparent difficulty,” Gaela explained.

“So… there are Orks and Tau on the ship, as well as daemons?” Fluttershy asked nervously.

“It is most logical to conclude, given that the Rep’talal has not altered its orbit since it was boarded, that there are no longer Orks or Tau on the ship,” Gaela said blandly.

Fluttershy gulped loudly enough for it to resonate from her vox grille.

“I don’t suppose we can finally get an explanation of what we’re heading into from the only person here who’s actually been on one of these incursions, can we?” Jerriha asked, nudging her head toward the front of the compartment.

Daniels had put on his boarding suit and was slouching in his seat while silently clutching a boarding shotgun. His personal weapons, stolen from the very Fireblade sitting next to him, had been left in Ferrous Dominus when he had been suddenly seized and teleported away, so he’d been equipped with the guns on hand.

“I haven’t seen any records of a rift derelict reclamation in over sixty standard Solar years,” Gaela said, eyeing the mercenary suspiciously. “Occasionally the Company uses such vessels as target practice and salvages the wreckage, but that obviously wouldn’t involve a boarding crew. Are the records incomplete, soldier?”

Daniels stared at her tightly for several seconds, and then stared at the floor between his boots. “… I don’t know anything about the records, or how the Iron Warriors normally handle these things. I was assigned to a boarding party some three years ago, but it wasn’t a reclamation effort. It was a snatch job.”

“Ah. That might be in a more obscure operation database, then,” Gaela mused.

“No doubt,” Daniels grumbled. “It wasn’t supposed to be a major deployment. Some Techpriest wanted some trinket on an Imperial escort that had been shot with the… whatever-it-is during a fleet engagement. I don’t know who the Techpriest was or even what he was after. It was supposed to be quick, easy, and on the sly; we cut into the ship just a few rooms away from where our objective was supposed to be. We had an Iron Warrior for leadership, and twenty men besides. It should have been a breeze, even with daemonic resistance.”

There was a loud creaking noise from the shift in weight as every power-armored figure leaned forward curiously.

Daniels fell silent for several seconds, wetting his lips before he continued. “So… it went like this. We landed our assault boat and cut our way through the bulkhead and emptied into our beachhead room. The place was slick with blood and bodies, but there was only one daemon. We gunned it down before it could so much as snarl at us and took firing positions. The Iron Warrior came in after the room was secure and scorched a hole in the blast door with a combi-melta.”

Daniels sighed deeply. “He kicked the pile of dust that used to be the daemon on the way to the breach, laughing. ‘Useless beasts. There’s a reason Chaos has chosen man as its heirs to this galaxy,’ he said, before waving us forward. The next room was another grisly mess, but what was more interesting was a huge, fleshy tube that ran across the ceiling. It looked like a stretch of intestines used as a fuel line, and it pulsed and wriggled like a living thing.”

“Oh, gross!” Rainbow Dash interjected, sounding excited. “Then what happened?”

“We didn’t pay the creepy tube much mind, being used to weird, semi-organic Warpstuff in our ship. That was our mistake. This wasn’t our ship, and whatever it had become, it objected to our presence. As we passed through the room, the tube twisted and swelled, and then breaches opened up suddenly under it, aimed at us. Jets of searing plasma blasted into our unit, killing most of us instantly. The Iron Warrior was hit directly, his armor and resilience giving him enough time to snarl some kind of curse before he died.”

Luna winced. “’Tis an unfortunate tale, but it shalt be a warning to us all. We can take nothing for granted within the confines of the derelict!”

Daniels continued; evidently his story wasn’t over. “The survivors turned away from the heat and bolted for the exit. The mission was over; there was no way we were continuing with just a few men and anyway, no one who survived knew exactly what we were here to find.” He paused, turning his head to face the others. “But when we turned around, the blast door was whole again. There was no breach.”

“Oof. I know that feeling,” Twilight mumbled. “How did you get out?”

“The Iron Warrior blasted a hole in the door with a combi-melta. He kicked a pile of dust that used to be the daemon on the way to the breach, laughing.”

“Er, Wyatt, Ah think ya covered this part already,” Applejack interrupted.

“I know. I knew it back then, too,” Daniels said grimly. “My thoughts were fuzzy at the time and I was coming down from a panic, but as the Iron Warrior beckoned us forward I followed. Looking around, the squad was all here, obviously unburnt and alive. Some seemed hesitant, as I was, but our training took over and we moved in to position. Into the room with the strange tube along the ceiling.”

“Temporal distortion,” Gaela hissed.

“As we passed through the room, the tube twisted and swelled, and then breaches opened up under it, aimed at us. Once again I watched most of the squad die, and once again I and the other survivors bolted away. Once again we found ourselves staring at an undamaged blast door. Once again the Iron Warrior stepped forward, kicking aside the dusted remnants of the daemon.” His hands tightened around the shotgun. “Again I followed the Chaos Space Marine into the breach, scared and confused. I could feel myself losing my mind. Every time I turned my gaze elsewhere something would shift and change. Sometimes in major, obvious ways, like the time looping, and sometimes in other ways. Faces in walls that would recede and vanish. Blood splashes changing on a second glance. Corpses turning their heads to stare at us while we rushed past. I don’t know if any of it was real. I don’t know if even matters what was real or not, under those conditions.”

“How’d ya get out?” Applejack asked, gaping.

Daniels pursed his lips. “I don’t know how many times I followed that Chaos Marine into the breach, but eventually one of the other survivors started screaming and turned away after the Iron Warrior breached the door. The Marine stared at him, surprised to see a man that had just gunned down a daemon suddenly cowering for no obvious reason. I spoke up after that, stuttering and sweating about having already breached the door and the jets of fire beyond.”

“Couldn’t you have gone along with him but done something to avoid the fiery tube thingy?” Rainbow Dash asked.

“Unlikely. Iron Warriors typically do not accept tactical advice from cannon fodder,” Gaela grunted. “In addition, time loops tend to create their own sort of bizarre inertia, sweeping victims along the same path until they show sufficient resistance.” She shrugged. “The phenomenon is poorly understood, of course. It’s nigh impossible to replicate for experimental purposes, and many victims don’t escape the experience to provide data. This is my first time hearing a first-hand account.”

Daniels shook his head. “The Iron Warrior hesitated after seeing several men start begging him to flee, thinking there might be something to our cowardice. He warned us that if we didn’t explain ourselves he’d shove us out into the adjacent halls to distract any daemonic enemies. We weren’t doing a very good job convincing him, but he wasn’t killing us and he wasn’t burning to death.” Daniels paused. “Then, after a few seconds, he DID start to burn to death.”

“What?! Unfair!” Rainbow Dash shouted.

“The squadmates that had already died started writhing and screaming, their bodies slowly burning away for no reason. Patches of the Iron Warrior’s armor started to glow and disintegrate, and he howled angrily and began thrashing about. Me and the other survivors watched, horrified, as they simply died the same death as before at perhaps a tenth of the speed, screaming in agony the entire time.”

“Bizarre inertia,” Gaela mumbled.

Daniels took a deep breath. “Then we turned away to run. But rather than seeing the breach from assault boat we saw an undamaged blast door. The Iron Warrior stepped forward and burned a hole in it with his combi-melta.”

Gasps came from the ponies, and Fluttershy whimpered fearfully.

“I’d had enough. I turned on my heel and saw the exit back to the assault boat, rather than another barrier waiting to be breached. I ran. The others that had survived the loop joined me. The Iron Warrior noticed, and without any explanation as to why his troops were abandoning him he reacted as angry Chaos Marines are wont to do. We were chased by bolter fire back to the landing craft, the living cut down by a man who was dead but didn’t yet realize it.”

“Savages,” Jerriha spat.

“Only two of us managed to get into the assault boat alive. The pilot was reluctant to leave, since as far as he knew we had just breached the hull and then tried to run, so we forced him to take off at gunpoint. We left the ship, and the rest of the boarding party, behind and never went back for them. For all I know they’re still there, obliviously marching to their deaths over and over again. Hell, the men that died trying to escape might have joined them. I could barely imagine a worse Hell.”

Daniels leaned forward, staring more closely at the hololith in the compartment. “So if you’re wondering why I’m a not thrilled about heading into a rift derelict, it’s because the last time I did the bloodthirsty daemons were by far the least terrifying hazard.”


Silence dominated the compartment after he finished speaking. Fluttershy was quivering visibly in her seat, while Luna’s earlier enthusiasm and eager confidence was gone now. Only Twilight and Gaela didn’t seem overly disturbed by the tale, as they were both more fascinated by the concepts behind Daniels’ story than concerned with the potential dangers.

The compartment’s vox caster turned on.

“We are making our approach vector into the Rep’talal docking bay. There’s a great deal of Orkish junk, but I think I see a path. We’ll dock next to the mass lander. Prepare for deployment,” said Dest from the cockpit.

“So… we’re really doing this? After listening to all that, we’re really going to try to clear out a monster-infested battlecruiser with a dozen soldiers?” Fennin asked with a groan.

“We hast come this far. We shalt not retreat before so much as glimpsing a foe,” Luna declared firmly. “The hazards of the derelict may not be surmountable with mere fury and iron, but we possess other means. If the challenges prove insuperable, or we suffer losses, then we shalt withdraw with haste!”

“It will likely be too late by then, but establishing retreat conditions are a good idea,” Gaela mused, pulling back her hood. Her helmet whirred into place, the plates shifting and locking around her head. A hiss issued from within as it pressurized, and then she pulled her hood up again. “Prepare for deployment. We proceed to the Rep’talal.”

“Dark Gods save us,” Daniels grumbled, cocking his shotgun.

“Your ‘Dark Gods’ are the ones that turned it into a twisted charnel house to begin with,” Jerriha retorted.

“Trust not in thy fell gods nor the fickle entreaties of fate, compatriots!” Luna’s helmet engaged, the dozens of tiny metal plates sliding up from her gorget and clicking into place to rapidly enclose her head. “’Tis valor and friendship that will win the day and see us home safely!”

The other ponies engaged or put on their helmets, sealing their armor as the gunship started to shake.

“Stick together and take it slow!” Twilight said, jumping slightly when the crew compartment jostled. “If you see something unusual, don’t-“

The gunship suddenly jerked to the side, and Twilight yelped as her head was flung into Applejack’s shoulder plate. “Ow! What’s going on?!”

Then the entire vehicle flipped onto its side, and the shrieking of scraping metal and frightened mares filled the compartment.

****

Rep’talal – launch bay


The Stormraven gunship groaned, its frame straining against the cargo container propping it up on one wing. A massive pink Dreadnought hung from its magnetic winch, awkwardly flailing against the flight harness sitting on its side.

After a few seconds, the embarkation ramp cracked open. It didn’t get very far before it bumped against a fueling pylon and ground to a stop, leaving an opening of barely four feet between the ramp and the gunship’s hull.

Several heavy clunking noises came from within the crew compartment, as well as some muffled cursing. Finally, Gaela poked her head out of the opening, looking over the hangar interior.

“… The area is secure. Probably. There are some questionable objects in here, but they appear non-responsive.” She kicked the embarkation ramp to get a few more inches of clearance, and then hopped out onto the floor.

Rainbow Dash came next, squeezing the metal wings of her flight pack through the opening before landing next to the Dark Techpriest. One by one the pirates emerged, settling in the embarkation bay of the battlecruiser. They had landed at the far side of the hangars, the interior of which remained separated from hard void by a humming atmospheric shield. Several Tau shuttles were parked in the bay, as well as the mooring clamps and loading bridge of the mass lander, which was too large to fit inside. Several Ork boarding shuttles were also parked in the bay, having landed as part of the greenskin reclamation efforts.

Dried bloodstains decorated many surfaces, and Ork weapons and gear were scattered around the floor. No bodies were among them, however. Instead, many large green blobs, like diseased blisters, were clustered in various spots around the hangar bay.


“What… happened…” Fennin groaned painfully as he reached the embarkation ramp, holding a hand to his stomach. “I… I think I need to vomit.”

“Do it in the crew compartment,” Gaela demanded while she wedged her power axe into the magnetic winch still attached to Pinkie’s Dreadnought. “This area may yet have airborne contaminants. Don’t exit with your armor unsealed.”

Fennin quickly ducked back into the Stormraven, and soon the sounds of violent retching came from the hold.

“Ugh! Really? We have to fly back in there, you know!” Rarity complained.

“It’s extremely unlikely that regurgitated nutrient gruel is the most unsanitary fluid we’ll contend with on this mission.”

Gaela succeeded in detaching the winch, and Pinkie dropped onto the deck with a crash that caused the nearby Stormraven to shake. A moment later Fennin staggered out of the crew compartment.

“So does anyone know what happened?” Pinkie asked, standing her walker upright. “Everything was going fine, and then suddenly BAM! WHAM!”

“No doubt some debris was clustered too tightly for a safe approach,” Gaela explained. “Between the cargo lander and the boarding pods, there were several obstructions complicating the flight path.”

A ceramite boot crashed into the embarkation ramp, forcing it open further. Then Dest squeezed out onto the deck, his armor squealing against the gunship’s frame.

“There was no debris in our path,” the Possessed Astartes admitted. “I just hit the ceiling on the way in. I’m still not very good at this.” He dropped down onto the floor, and then quickly snapped up his boltgun. “Is the area secure?”

“Affirmative. Kind of.” Gaela turned back to the room, and her optics whirred. “It appears the airlock to the mass lander has been breached. There are clear signs of combat, and yet no corpses. I wish to inload the lander’s flight logs before we proceed.”

“Very well! We shalt hold the area whilst thou studies the remnants of those unfortunates who came before us!” Luna declared dramatically.

“So is no one else going to ask about the big green things in here?” Rainbow Dash mumbled, pointing a leg at one of the bizarre, boulder-shaped objects.

“One hazard at a time,” Gaela said while she crossed the landing bay toward the lander.


The team marched along the edge of the loading bay, giving the strange blobs a considerable berth. The room echoed with the heavy footfalls of power armor and the pounding gait of a Dreadnought, but after several minutes they reached the lander’s docking bridge without incident.

“Mercenary, escort me. The rest of you, hold perimeter,” Gaela ordered while walking up to the airlock.

The door had been torn open, obviously from the inside, and the gaping hole was just big enough for something human-sized to push its way through. The sharp edges of the sundered metal had some sort of film on them, but Gaela barely gave it a glance before she stepped through.

“There are many harmful contaminants here. Ensure your armor remains sealed,” the Dark Techpriest warned before she disappeared into the vessel.


“Well, this’s goin’ okay so far… ain’t it?” Applejack asked hesitantly.

“Eeyup.”

“I was rather expecting to be mobbed by bloodthirsty monsters as soon as we landed. Would any such creatures even know we’re here right now?” Rarity asked.

“Doubtful. Daemons probably can’t operate our internal surveillance systems,” Jerriha said. “Orks probably could, though. So that’s more evidence they didn’t manage to clear out the infestation, if you needed any.”

“Daemons detect prey primarily through proximity, with their extra-dimensional awareness. Their conventional senses are poor,” Dest rumbled. “However, in an enclosed space such as this, it is likely they will sense us before we sense them.”

“On the topic of surveillance systems,” Fennin interjected as he tapped rapidly against his engineering tablet, “I’ve looked over the Rep’talal’s flight logs.”

“Yes? Did you learn anything interesting?” Jerriha asked.

“Not really, no. Nothing that we couldn’t have already guessed. The Rep’talal engaged the Harvest of Steel, was subject to a heavy bombardment, and then there’s just a lot of screaming.” Fennin sighed. “I did get an accounting of the ship subsystems though, and they’re in excellent condition. The security systems have been damaged, unsurprisingly, but power, life support, engines, robotics, and nearly everything else is in working order. With no crew to direct it the battlecruiser is just holding orbit and trying to maintain function with minimal energy drain. It even has enough fuel left to make it back to the core systems if we wanted.”

“Delightful!” Luna barked. “Then this endeavor may yet bear fruit!”

“Sure. Anyway, I’m not sure if there’s any useful information gathered by the cores since they took over operation of the Rep’talal, but I can open or close any doors you wish with remote access, at least. Or vent particular sections of ship.” Then Fennin’s eyes narrowed. “Oh? This is odd…”

“What? You catch sight of some bad guys?” Applejack asked.

“No. I just saw that this battlecruiser has a containment flag. Zeln-6.”

That made no sense to the ponies or Iron Warrior, but Jerriha immediately rounded on the engineer. “What? A psyker? Here?”

“Yes. A powerful one, probably. There are some codices I’d need to override to learn more. That could take a while.” Fennin shrugged.

“I was under the impression your people don’t keep psykers,” Dest said. “Why was this one on board?”

“I can’t say for certain without breaking into the classified files, but probably research. The Lamman Sept keeps a number of psychic labs in operation. It’s how we pulled off that little stunt in Canterlot.”

“Do it,” Dest commanded. “If there are psykant artifacts aboard this craft, I want to be forewarned.”

Fennin nodded, and then sat down on a stray crate. “Okay, fine. The slice will take a-“

Jerriha suddenly leaned closer and slapped the engineer on the shoulder, almost knocking him over. Fennin shouted in alarm, raising his tablet like a shield.

“Hey, c’mon Jerri. I hate him too but you can’t just hit Fennin for no reason,” Rainbow Dash chided.

“I wasn’t hitting him, I was hitting THIS.” Jerriha scuffed her foot along the floor, knocking something under Fennin into better light.

It was the body of a dead wasp. A large, twisted wasp smeared with dried gore and bearing a trio of spots on its abdomen, arranged in a triangle.

“Oh dear,” Rarity said. Her plasma gun and power sword practically jumped into the air, humming with energy.

“Nurgle wasps,” Applejack hissed. “Dagnabbit!”

“M-Maybe if we don’t bother them, they’ll leave us alone?” Fluttershy asked nervously.

“Perhaps, but that is not the norm with daemonic beasts,” Dest admitted. Then he touched a claw to his helmet. “Techpriest, are you almost finished? We may have contacts.”

“Would the possible contacts have to do with plague insects?” Gaela asked. “The lander is full of wasps and parasitic grubs. No combat threats as of yet. I’ve just begun the data exload.”

“Good. See if you can seal the-“

A sudden, ear-piercing shriek rolled through the launch bay.

The scream had no clear origin, and seemed to bypass the helmet and sonic dampers to stagger every one of the ponies and Tau holding position outside the lander. Rarity, who was still levitating her weapons, briefly lost her concentration and let her sword and gun clatter onto the deck while her vision went hazy.

Only Dest didn’t flinch, being quite used to sudden, obnoxious noises from within his mind. “That was psychic transmission. Prepare to engage!”

A burst of static came from the vox as Gaela cursed in Binaric Cant. “Engage? Have you confirmed the presence of… Oh.” The sound of a shotgun blast bled through the transmission. “Apologies, my Lord, but we have incoming. I’ll need to concentrate.”

“Do you require our assistance?” Dest asked.

“Negative. The mercenary is making plenty of noise, I’m sure they’ll attack him first. I can escape if I need to.” Another shotgun blast was heard, and then the transmission ended.

“G-Guys? Guys! I think I know what that weird scream did!” Rainbow Dash said, pointing a leg at the large green sacks. They were pulsing and twitching now, like eggs on the verge of hatching.

“Steel thyselves! Applejack, to the fore! Miss Pie, protect our line of retreat! Ironside, elevate thyself and find a clear attack path!” Luna’s Iron Gage jumped off her shoulders, and the gauntlets crashed into each other with a great burst of sparks. “Face us, daemon! Face oblivion as the Tau, Ork, and changelings before thee!”

“This is going to be DISGUSTING,” Rarity moaned.


A scythe-tipped limb ripped free of one pod, punching through the thick, rubbery surface in a burst of foul goo. Then it sliced down, cutting a wide gouge. Wriggling grubs spilled onto the deck in a pool of filthy slime, while wasps clumsily emerged from a higher point of the breach.

Lumbering from the vile cocoon came a twisted, diseased monstrosity swollen with growths, seeping wounds, pulsating tumors, and sharpened spikes and blades of bone. It was an Ork, or at least it had been some time ago, but its current form was so badly misshapen that it would have been nigh impossible to tell without the scraps of torn cloth that bore the distinctive clan symbol of the Bad Moons. Taking an awkward step forward into the widening pool of offal around its pod, the infested creature turned its sunken, milky eyes to the invaders.

A single round from a butcher cannon ended the thing, blasting apart its torso. Blackened gore splashed across the filth puddle, and the explosive shock wave instantly flattened the nearby grubs and wasps.

“They’re coming! Shoot the pods while they’re still emerging!” Twilight shouted, charging her force harmonizer. “Applejack! Torch the ones nearby, before they break free! Pinkie, take out the furthest ones near the blast doors!”

The blaze of gunfire was immediate, with bolter, plasma, cannon, and pulse fire raking the mysterious, disgusting sacs. A wash of flame swallowed the nearest pods, causing them to shrink and wither into a dead, blackened husk. Heavy slugs pounded the sacs further away, punching through the glistening skin before gutting the interior with hot shrapnel. Luna and Twilight attacked as soon as their own weapons were charged, briefly overwhelming the sound of the others with the fierce shriek of psionic weapons. Beams of purple and blue cut across the bay and punched into the pulsating cocoons, and they burst apart in great splashes of brackish fluids and pulverized parasites.

The rate of gunfire could hardly up with the sheer number of pods, and before the glimmering light from the magic beams had faded several infected erupted from their resting places. With tortured moans and gasps, the creatures lumbered through the pools of filth and larvae toward the boarding party, claws and spines outstretched.

“C-Can we r-retreat yet?” Fluttershy yelped, invisibly.

“Retreat? Because of some second-rate Orks with the space flu?” Rainbow Dash scoffed, firing a burst of shuriken into an infected alien. It promptly crumpled in on itself, falling apart into a pile of wet, squirming flesh. “I know it’s gross, but we can handle this! These things are nothing!”

“I concur,” Dest growled, detonating another infected with a bolt round to the head. “The enemy is a minor threat. We have sufficient means. Hold position! Kill them all!” He let the spent magazine of his boltgun fall to the deck, and then hurled a fireball at the closest target. The diseased greenskin was consumed by flame in seconds, and it quivered violently before issuing a short screech and falling over.

A horrified shriek again filled the launch bay. This time, however, the sound was far more corporeal, and had a distinctly feminine tinge.

Dest whirled on his heel to see Rarity rearing up and kicking in a panic. “Are you damaged? Calm yourself!”

Rarity fell back to all fours. There was a streak of dark fluid splashed over her visor, and she started scraping her front legs against her helmet to try to brush it off. “It’s on me! They got the cocoon slime on me!” she wailed.

“It’s not on ya, it’s on yer helmet! Wouldja cool yer apples?” Applejack shouted. Her gravity lash snapped onto one of the infected and then hurled him toward the edge of the bay, throwing him out into hard void.

“What if it's corrosive, Applejack?! Somepony get it off!”

Dest started to turn away, but he hesitated when he saw a second splash of brackish slime on Rarity’s back. The unicorn surely hadn’t noticed; despite her protests, power armor was very effective at shielding against chemical hazards, and the slime didn’t register as a threat to his scans. It did make him wonder where the slime came from, though.

Dest looked up.


“ABOVE!” he barked, swinging his boltgun up and releasing a burst into the cocoon on the ceiling. The mass-reactive shells ripped the pod apart, and Rarity released an even louder shriek as a torrent of putrid ooze, writhing maggots, and pulped bio-mass fell on her.

“OF ALL THE WORST THINGS THAT COULD HAPPEN!!” the unicorn lamented loudly, thrashing about in a panic.

A particularly large lump of rotting flesh landed next to her, and then it started to move.

“THIS IS!!” Rarity continued, plunging her power sword into the infected monster.

“THE VERY!!” The crackling blade twisted, and then cut away sharply, slicing off what was probably the creature’s head.

“WORST!!” Rarity’s plasma gun fired a single shot into the wobbling mess that remained, cooking its swollen organs from within.

“THIIIIIING!!!” Her weapon swung around, and a spread of plasma bolts cored two more infected. It lurched to the side, snapping a shot at another monster that had been mostly dismembered by Rainbow’s shurikens and burning a blackened hole in it. Then it flipped to the other side to take out a pair of infected staggering out from behind an Ork assault boat.

The gun whistled and crackled, and vapor started blasting from its flex sheathing as the weapon’s heat buildup became too much for the coolant to suppress. The plasma gun started to glow brightly, and in an instant it was sent flying toward yet another lumbering monstrosity.

It exploded on contact with the creature, generating a sphere of white-hot fire around the weapon’s fusion core. The infected was vaporized, and the slime trail oozing behind it was baked to a crisp.


“… Is that it?” Pinkie Pie’s voice was the first thing to break the silence that followed Rarity’s destructive fit of horror. Her Dreadnought swiveled back and forth, and then tilted back so that she could get a good scan of the ceiling for any more pods they might have missed. “I think that’s it! No more contacts! We’re done!”

“You can’t be serious,” Jerriha muttered, still looking back and forth between the various corpses in the launch bay. “That was way too easy.”

“EASY?!” Rarity shrieked, rounding on the Fireblade. “Look at what they did to me!” Her armor was, by now, extensively smeared with the unspeakable fluids from the bizarre cocoons. “This armor was just repaired! I can’t even take the helmet off now!” she wailed.

“Oh, hush. We’ll hose you off in the hangar embarkation airlock. There’s a sanitation chamber for cleaning questionable cargo,” Fennin assured her. He spotted Gaela walking out of the cargo lander and raised a hand to greet her. “Techpriest, did you get the data?”


“Affirmative,” Gaela replied, walking down the embarkation ramp at an unhurried pace. Daniels was behind her, with a few streaks of dark gore splashed across his legs. “It seems our local Nurgle ponies are responsible for this infection, if I’m parsing the data right.”

“What? You mean Phage Squadron?” Twilight asked with a gasp.

Gaela’s servo arm snapped forward, grabbing a nearby wasp out of the air and crushing it within the metal pincers. “Affirmative. They infested the lander before it escaped Ferrous Dominus. The Tau thieves managed to vent most of the resulting parasites at an altitude they couldn’t survive, but several bodies had already been infected and abandoned within. When they abandoned the lander, the insects eventually escaped and, apparently, found several Ork corpses within the launch bay.”

“Okay, I’m ready to go home now,” Fluttershy squeaked, quivering on the floor. There were still several wasps buzzing about the launch bay, although they gave the intruders a wide berth. Large as they were, the infected insects were little threat against the pressurized armor suits.

Dest snorted. “So then the lumbering meat sacks were little more than breeding grounds for these vermin. What a tiresome obstacle.” He turned to Fennin. “When we proceed within the ship, run an atmospheric venting cycle for the launch bay. A few minutes of hard void should dispose of the rest of these parasites.”

“We’re still going?!” Rarity gasped.

“But of course!” Luna proclaimed. “Such paltry opposition shalt not stay our hoof! Wouldst that all our enemies were so feeble!”

“It is highly unlikely that these parasites are the most dangerous things in the ship,” Gaela mused. “For starters, they’re mostly our fault. I concur that we haven’t encountered sufficient opposition to justify retreat, though.”

“Then we march onward!” Luna proclaimed. “Engineer! Lead us to thy decontamination chamber! We too hath some filth to be cleansed.” She shook one of her gauntlets, which had a crust of dried gore on it.

“Okay, fine.” Fennin led the way toward the exit, stepping gingerly around the splattered and scorched bodies that used to be infected enemies. “As we discussed earlier, the interior space isn’t large enough for a Dreadnought to navigate. The insane pink horse has to stay here.”

“Aww, but I wanna come!” Pinkie said. “I don’t have to stay in the Dreadnought, you know!”

“Yes, you do,” Dest said firmly, stopping and turning toward the assault walker. “This is our only line of retreat if we must fall back, and it must remain secure. Under NO circumstances are you to depressurize your walker’s environmental seals.”

“AWWWWW,” Pinkie complained, stamping a foot on the deck. Daniels nearly fell over from the impact, and the other ponies quickly edged away to give the massive walker more space. “FINE. But you’d better stay in vox contact the whole time!”

“I will endeavor to do so, but can guarantee nothing,” Dest assured her, walking up to the Contemptor. “Daemonic trickery and Warp interference often disrupt communications. But we will return.”

The power fist on the Dreadnought suddenly scooped up the Iron Warrior, practically mashing him against the walker’s torso. “Okay, Desty! Wuv yoo!”

The Possessed Marine reached up to pat the Dreadnought’s helmet. Then Pinkie released him, and Dest turned on his heel to march back to the others.


“We advance,” Dest said firmly, pointing a razor-edged claw at the exit. “Apple, you’re spearhead. Shy one, ready a stun grenade in case of ambush. Engineer, you may proceed when ready.”

Fennin looked over at the door. Then he stared at his tablet. Then he turned to Jerriha. “So we’re all just going to pretend that didn’t just happen.”

“Yes. Shut up and open the door,” Gaela said coldly. Fennin immediately went to work, linking his engineering tablet with the access console.

Dest seemed unbothered. “Perhaps your pony would be more obedient if you displayed more affection, Techpriest,” the driver said.

“Yes! You’re right!” Twilight said excitedly. “… Although I’m pretty obedient already.” She paused. “Also, obedience isn’t necessarily a virtue that we should strive toward as friends and warriors-in-arms.” Another pause. “And I wouldn’t really say I’m ‘her pony,’ even if-“

“Got it!” Fennin announced, speaking much more loudly than necessary as the hangar airlock opened. “Hurry now! Into the chamber for a sanitation cycle! The hangar will be depressurizing momentarily!”

Daniels cocked his head. “Shouldn’t you just run it after we’re through the-“

Jerriha suddenly shoved him forward into the sanitation chamber, nearly causing him to trip over Fluttershy. The boarding party quickly scurried into the next room, and the blast doors slammed shut behind them with a sharp hiss.


“Goodbyyyyye! Try not to get stuck in any mind-destroying evil traps!” Pinkie Pie shouted, waving the hand of her power fist.

A moment later a giant wasp landed on her visor, filling the viewscreen with its pulsating underside.

“Eugh. Rot Blossom really needs to get these things under control.” Pinkie gagged briefly before flicking the wasp off her helmet with a giant metal finger.

Two more insects immediately landed on her visor to replace the one that had just been removed. With an annoyed sound, Pinkie raised the Dreadnought’s hand to remove them again.

She stopped short. It was hard to see past the bugs on her helmet, but it looked like there were several of the wasps on her power fist now. They were crawling over the knuckles and up the heavily armored sleeves, nibbling on the armor edges and poking at the joints.

“Uh… h-hey, guys?” Pinkie said, a nervous squeak entering her voice. “Can you come back real quick and run the flamer over my mech? I think the bugs found out I have candy in here.”

Static sputtered from the vox system.

“Hello? Twilight? Desty?!”

Scraping sounds came from behind her as wasps crawled into the space between the Dreadnought hull and its engine block. Buzzing noises started becoming audible within the cockpit of the assault walker, and Pinkie’s fur stood on end.

“Dest! Luna! Gaela! Tau people! Can anyone hear me?!” Pinkie shouted, banging a hoof against the cockpit. “The bugs! They’re trying to-“

*Warning! Depressurization sequence activated. Warning! Void exposure imminent,* droned an alien voice from above.

The atmospheric shield flickered and then vanished.

Air rushed out of the hangar bay and into the void, sucking along the lighter objects and blasting them off the deck. Within seconds a cloud of hundreds of swollen wasps tumbled through empty space, their frozen bodies glittering in the light of Centaur’s star.

****

Rep’talal interior


Rarity yelped as she was flung into the hall, her greaves scraping wildly on the deck to keep her upright. A sheen of moisture covered her power armor, and a cloak of steam curled around her.

“What are you doing? We’re still in hostile territory!” the unicorn complained, whipping her head back and forth.

Gaela stomped out of the adjacent room, her power axe in one hand and Rarity’s power sword in the other. “You’ve been cooking yourself in the sanitation cycler for twenty-four-point-seven-one minutes,” she spat. “Stop complaining and get on with the mission.” She stabbed the sword into the floor plating in front of its owner, causing a sharp cracking noise as the disruption field broke through the bulkhead.

“Careful with that!” Rarity yelped, tugging the blade free with her magic. “You’d think a Techpriest would be a little more gentle with a weapon like this!”

“I don’t want to hear that from you after you destroyed your plasma gun like it was a common munition. Do you think such devices are expendable?” Gaela loomed over the mare, causing her to flinch back. “If your wargear fails, you perish. Your feeble sorceries and asinine commitment to social affection will not save you from the dangers of the void, equine.”

“Well, it can fer a little while. Twi saved us more’n once when the armor wasn’t good enough,” Applejack corrected. “But Ah think we get yer point, Gaela.”

A great metal hand clapped onto Gaela’s shoulder pad. “We understand thy grievance, noble Techpriest, but We ask thee restrain thine ire,” Luna stepped past the cyborg into the hall, peering at the bulkheads. “We art not safe here.”


The walls and floor were well-lit by track lighting along the walls and ceiling, so the Rep’talal possessed none of the gloom that seemed to be integral to human ship design. The interior was compact and comfortable, with noticeably lighter gravity settings and an aesthetic more akin to an office than a warship.

That interior was painted liberally with dried gore. Tau blood, which emerged blue but dried to a crusty dark gray, stained the floor in a manner that suggested bodies had been dragged through the vessel. The walls had slashes of brown over it, suggesting a more traditional blood hue; Ork fluids, most likely. Dents and nicks could be seen on the walls, and bullets and casings were scattered about the floor.

This made it all the more interesting that there were no bodies.

Fennin made a disgusted grunt while he worked on his tablet. “This place desperately needs a maintenance cycle. I’m surprised the Fio’o didn’t run one as soon as he got inside. He’s a complete and utter germaphobe.”

“He was probably distracted by… other matters,” Jerriha mumbled, glancing at a number of pulse burns on the wall.

Gaela pushed Luna’s Iron Gage off her shoulder and then kneeled down next to a bulkhead. “These blood patterns and burn marks suggest both groups of boarders were subjected to a furious assault the moment they cleared the hangar. Quite odd that we are not.”

“What do you mean? We were attacked before we even got this far!” Rarity retorted.

“Not by daemons. The infestation was a hazard of our own making, and the insects were given time and bodies to incubate only after the turncoat Tau abandoned the lander,” Gaela explained, standing up again. “I’m reading no aural or visual disturbances. Energy readings are within ordinary thresholds. Zero potential contacts. Engineer?”

“Well, I don’t like the way the ventilation shafts have their coverings torn open like something clawed its way out of them, but I am likewise reading zero contacts within the vicinity,” Fennin admitted, shifting a few steps further away from the vent in question. “There’s definitely movement within the ship, though. We aren’t alone in here, as expected.”

“Pinpoint the nearest daemon,” Dest commanded. “If their packs will not hunt us, then we will hunt them.”

“Lovely. Let’s see…”


The rest of the boarders waited on alert as Fennin mumbled to himself and tapped away on his personal device.

While he waited, Dest walked up to a vent and stared at it, trying to imagine the size and relative power of something that could navigate the space and still tear through the metal covering.

Yeesh… do you smell that? Gnarly, Vel asked suddenly.

“Hmm?” Dest turned his head left and right, seeing nothing except for his allies and the gore-streaked bulkheads.

Huh. I guess you don’t really smell the way I do. Anyway, I’m picking up some SERIOUS fear reek. I’ve been getting some of it ever since that scream in the hangar bay, but now it’s gotten way worse.

“That’s just Fluttershy,” Dest said, surprising the others by talking to nobody at all. “I imagine she always smells like that to you.”

Nah bro, it’s not her. I’m talking daemon-stink. Real thick.

Dest recoiled slightly in surprise. “Daemons? Daemons feel fear?”

No. Vel paused. Well, I mean, yes, but really no. Kind of.

“Elaborate,” Dest said flatly, turning his gaze to the ceiling.


“What… What is he talking to?” Jerriha whispered, slowly creeping away. “Is he-“

“Be silent,” Gaela interrupted. “Continue your work. Stay on your guard.” She waited patiently for the Iron Warrior to finish.


Okay, it’s like this: we don’t really have emotions. It’s more like we ARE emotions. Right?

“Which emotion are you?” Dest asked curiously.

That’s… rrrrgh. After a moment, the voice continued. It’s not always a clear-cut thing, dude. Not all of us are just a big ball of anger or lust or whatever. I’m complex, you know?

“But currently you’re sensing the presence of many fear-daemons?”

Uh… maybe? Like, I don’t know what I’m sensing. Never smelled anything like it. I don’t think fear-daemons are really a thing. What would you call them, Pissletters?

Dest grunted, lowering his gaze again to stare down the hall. “Does this information have any clear tactical application? Will the daemons flee in terror once we are set upon them?”

Oh, no, nothing like that. We don’t really have what you guys call the “flight” part of the fight or flight response. They’ll definitely try to kill you, but they’ll be more desperate than angry while doing it.

“Sub-optimal,” Dest grumbled. “Yet this may mean they are more reluctant to engage.”

He turned to face the others, and most of the boarding party backed up a step. “Our enemies seem to be the manifestation of terror itself.”

“… Like, meaning they’re super scary?” Rainbow asked after a pause.

“Possibly. My personal daemon expert isn’t especially helpful,” Dest said, tapping his helmet with a claw.

Heh heh heh… Pissletters.

“Shut up, Vel,” Dest growled. “We should proceed. Engineer?”

“Yeah, okay. I’ve got a bead on a pack of… things to the aft near the cargo stores. They’re the closest targets. After that there’s-“

A crackling noise came from the track lighting above, and it flickered briefly before turning off entirely. In an instant the hall was plunged into total darkness, broken only by the many glowing visor lenses of the boarding team’s helmets.

“Power failure,” Gaela mumbled. “Engineer, is the main reactor still functional? Or perhaps the enemy is setting up ambush, thinking us frightened of the dark?”

Fluttershy made a terrified squeaking noise.

Fennin grunted in frustration, quickly swiping away what he had been working on. “No. This is definitely a main reactor failure. If it were a local grid problem the circuit re-route would have happened fast enough to keep the lights on.”

“We ain’t gonna really have to fight monsters in the dark, are we?” Applejack groaned.

“We hast no qualms,” Luna said, sounding quite chipper about the prospect.

“Ah don’t mind it as much as y’all will if’n Ah start blastin’ fire everywhere without seein’ what Ah’m shootin’ at,” Applejack snorted. “But Ah hate the low-light vision on this thang. Everythin’ just turns into reddish blobs blurrin’ together.”

A gentle hum came from above, and then the lighting came back on. It was noticeably dimmer than before, and Gaela immediately noticed that the access panel for the room they had just left was still unpowered.

“Backup generator has kicked in. We’ll still have basic lighting and life support, but most other systems will require a directed power link or secondary energy source,” Jerriha said. “If anyone else is having second thoughts about this mission, now would be the best time to turn around.”

“No.” Dest started walking toward the aft, his boltgun held loosely in his hand. “We have our first target. Search and destroy. Then we will determine how to find our next target.”

“Huzzah!” Luna cheered, prancing ahead of the other ponies. “With flame and iron, We shalt cleanse the foul daemon from our vessel!”

“That’s easier said than done. Particularly if we’re on backup power,” Fennin griped. “The Rep’talal isn’t as uselessly huge as human ships, but there’s still a lot of room in here for hostiles to hide. If I can’t connect to the sensor network, rooting them all out will take days.”

Luna’s Iron Gage shifted, and one of the gauntlets placed itself around her helmet with its thumb under her chin and the index finger across her vox grille, in imitation of a human’s thinking pose.

“Rep’talal ‘tis a poor name,” Luna decided while she plodded down the hall. “If this vessel shalt serve us, then it requires a title of great prominence and nobility.”

“The name means ‘Swift Certainty’ in your language,” Jerriha interjected. “Or at least, that’s as close as I think you’ll get. It’s not a perfect translation.”

“If we had another pony ship we could call one of them ‘Love’ and the other ‘Tolerance’,” Daniels said with a chuckle. “But we only have the one, so how about ‘Friendship Express’?”

Luna grimaced. “We desire a name with greater… how doth the youth put it… ‘edge’ to it.”

“A typical designation would best reflect the fleet origin,” Gaela said. “Secondary and tertiary references would favor the shipyard or its system of intended operation, respectively.”

“Somethin’ like ‘Sword o’ Centaur,’ maybe?” Applejack asked.

“Eeyup,” Big Mac agreed, startling several people who had forgotten he was there.

“Oh! I have an idea! Call it ‘Rainbow Cruiser’!” Rainbow Dash said, nodding her head eagerly.

“I rather like the translated name. ‘Swift Certainty’ has a sort of understated dignity to it, don’t you think?” Rarity asked.

Dest was still taking point as they advanced, but he briefly raised a claw before interrupting. “I like the name ‘Friendship Express’.”

“How about ‘Moonship’?” Twilight asked.

The boarding party stopped moving, and several people groaned.

“What? What’s wrong with ‘Moonship’?” the young Princess asked, sounding slightly hurt. The others started moving again, several of them shaking their heads.

“I guess we should be glad it’s not gonna be your ship,” Rainbow snickered. “What would you call it then? Twiboat?”

“No!” Twilight protested. “… I mean, that wouldn’t be my first choice, at least. I think I’d go with ‘StarSparkle’!”

“Please, stop,” Gaela implored the mare.

Fennin shook his head and finally put away his engineering tablet, concluding it was useless to him at the moment. “You’re all rather relaxed considering our current situation.”

“Our situation is near-optimal,” Gaela retorted. “We’ve encountered only weak resistance and inconveniences, and suffered no casualties.”

“We were attacked by infectious monsters, we’ve lost power for no apparent reason, and you all seem to have forgotten that inexplicable psychic scream that alerted the infected to our presence,” Fennin complained. “If nothing else, it’s a bleak omen.”

“’Tis it!” Luna suddenly said brightly, snapping the fingers of one gauntlet. “Omen! This vessel shalt be henceforth referred to as the Omen!”

“Huh. That ain’t bad, Princess!”

“Eh, I still like Rainbow Cruiser better, but okay.”

Fennin made a frustrated noise and was about to complain further, but he suddenly found himself staring at Dest’s upraised, open palm.

“Be silent,” the Iron Warrior hissed, “we approach our prey.”


The pirates slowed to a crawl, and Applejack shouldered her way to the front of the group. The hallways were narrow, making it difficult to form a firing line with a larger squad, but the ponies being considerably shorter than the various bipeds allowed the latter a clear line of fire over the party’s vanguard.

“Ah’ll blast the floor at their feet when Ah see ‘im, and then y’all blast the varmint,” the farmer said grimly, a puff of flame spurting from her weapon.

“Could we actually NOT start any fires inside the ship, please?” Fennin asked with a groan. “Particularly when we’re on emergency power? I don’t remember if fire suppression is a system-critical function, and I’d really rather not find out the hard way!”

“Fair point. Applejack, restrict your flamer usage until we’ve confirmed tactical necessity,” Gaela whispered, taking up a stance with her axe. “Stand by for target verification.”

Luna almost shivered with excitement, her gauntlets squeezing into fists and sparking with magic.


The sound of footsteps was audible as soon as the party stopped to listen. Not the awkward tread of misshapen daemons, however, or even the gentle plodding of infantry across deck plating. These were heavy, sluggish steps, not much different from those of Dest or Gaela.

“That… That sounds almost like…” Jerriha mumbled to herself under her breath, and her heart raced.

Ahead of the boarding party, at the next intersection in the hall, a Tau XV88 Broadside battlesuit staggered into view.

No one fired, surprised as they were to see a Tau weapon still walking these halls. In addition, the battlesuit didn’t take notice of the pirates, lurching forward with its heavy, broken gait.

The suit was badly damaged. One leg sparked and sputtered with every step, and much of the armor on the front of the torso had been stripped away. A deep cleave bisected much of the suit’s head, rendering that component useless, and the massive railgun – the signature weapon of this battlesuit class – had its barrel torn open.

“Contact, Tau battlesuit. Pattern XV88,” Gaela murmured, speaking for the purpose of recording the encounter. “Extensive damage to exosuit systems evident. Hostility unclear. Orders?”

Dest glanced over at her, and then back at the battlesuit.

It lurched from side to side, as if looking around. But the light in its sensor head remained dark, and its dead gaze passed over the boarding party without obviously noticing them. Its gun bounced loosely in its grip, as its elbow joints had been damaged, but the deadly weapon never turned to aim at the pirates.

Sounds came from within the battlesuit: something between a moan and a mumble, and unintelligible to most of the boarders. But not all of them.

“He… He said ‘area secure, moving to next checkpoint,’” Fennin explained, his voice shaking slightly.

*Shas’ui! Report!* Jerriha barked, her pulse carbine trained on the battlesuit. *Are you part of Voidsong’s contingent? What happened to the others?*

The battlesuit turned toward the boarding party. Weapons hummed and fingers tightened around triggers, but none fired.

With a clear view of the front of the suit, they could see that a hole had been punched into one side, through the main armor layers and down into the suit’s substructure. A four-fingered hand, sheathed in the common materials of Tau flight suits, hung out of the hole limply.

*Soldier! Identify yourself and power down your battlesuit or we WILL open fire!* Jerriha commanded in her native language.

The battlesuit turned away started walking down the hall. *It’s quiet. Where did they all go?* the pilot murmured, his voice barely escaping from the ruptured armor. *Comms are still damaged…*


“Uh, okay…” Daniels lowered his shotgun, shaking his head. “Are we really going to gun him down? Poor sod doesn’t have a clue what’s happening, but I don’t think this one is infested.”

“Can’t we just walk past ‘im?” Applejack asked. “He ain’t botherin’ us none.”

“Unwise. We don’t know what happened to the pilot or if it may become hostile under different tactical conditions,” Gaela noted. “In addition, we are here to clear this vessel of obstruction. You don’t want something like this stalking the decks when you’re trying to work.”

“Apple. Seize it by the foot, then pull its legs out from under it,” Dest commanded. “Sparkle, help me cut the battlesuit open when it falls. We’ll remove the pilot directly, with minimal harm.” He mag-locked his boltgun onto his hip.

“Ready!” Twilight said, her harmonizer flipping around and extending an energy blade.

“May We be of aid?” Luna asked anxiously, the fingers of the Iron Gage wiggling.

“Just keep your guard up and your sorcery ready,” the Iron Warrior growled. “This stinks of a trap. Apple! NOW!”


Applejack’s gravity lash whipped forward, latching onto the right leg of the XV88 battlesuit. It promptly blasted sparks from every joint, and a loud squeal came from the knee. A sharp tug pulled the leg back, and the battlesuit wobbled comically before teetering forward and crashing face-first onto the deck.

Dest was on top of the battlesuit in an instant, pinning down its arm under a knee before stabbing his talons into the body. The force harmonizer stabbed into the suit’s back, loosening it enough that Dest could pry the entire ventilation unit off the rear of the armor.

The rest of the boarding party watched in grim silence as the pair performed their strange surgery, blades crackling with power and shrieking against the damaged armor of the battlesuit. The mumbling of the pilot didn’t stop; if anything, it became louder and more agitated. But with the suit on its face and the noise of Dest’s work, Fennin and Jerriha couldn’t make out what was being said.

Dest’s shoulder-mounted blades punched downward, and then he ripped away a piece of the battlesuit’s internal frame. Reaching in, he seized the soft, quivering body within and yanked it out. It was attached to the suit interior by several cables, and Twilight gingerly slipped her energy blade in from the side to cut them loose.

Dest held up the battlesuit pilot in front of the speechless pirates, staring at the trembling body in his claws. “I think I see the problem,” he said dryly.

The pilot’s eyes were gone. His face had been cut up badly, as if from a series of razors, and the sockets where his eyes had been were reduced to empty holes ringed with dried gore. The process had clearly not been done gently, yet the alien’s body seemed largely unharmed otherwise.

“We… We should leave,” Jerriha said, swallowing the bile rising in her throat.

“Why?” Gaela asked, pointing her axe at the pilot. “This soldier is clearly damaged beyond recovery. Let us destroy it and move on.”

“What do you mean ‘why?!’ Look at him!” Fennin shouted, already backing away.

“I see it,” Gaela said, sounding annoyed and somewhat perplexed. “I don’t see a threat worthy of-“

The blinded pilot screamed.

Author's Note:

This has been a while in coming.
Second chapter up tomorrow!