tagCelebrities & Fan FictionTake as Prize Ch. 06

Take as Prize Ch. 06

byDragonCobolt©

Vynn was in the midst of shaving her legs, a most odious and irritating chore that she preferred never be imagined by her crew, her confessor, her companions, even the Emperor himself she'd prefer not think too much on how her legs remained smooth. While an Aquiosian had little body hair, thanks to years of harsh selection favoring those who were the best at swimming and evading the numerous horrors of the oceanic xenofauna that made her homeworld a Death World and not merely a garden paradise for fops and nobles and other useless people...she still needed to shave. And she still found it irritating every time, with leg propped up and razor rasping along her calf, her eyes narrowed to slits.

The sudden rapping at the door almost caused her to cut deeper than she wished, and she wicked off some of the cream, yanked her leggings on, and came to the door with a furious face and a crackling intensity to her eyes. "What!?"

The man at the door was the Hegemony's cartho-artifex, a weedy little man with a mustache that almost reached his shoulders and an ethnotype that was neither Vedic, Cadic, nor any of the other Imperial mongrels on the ship. His name, Sheng, and his papery skin made her think of reliefs of the White Scars, but she had never thought of asking anything more than: Where the bloody hell is that chart, Sheng? - for that was what a cartho-artifex was for, to bring out the bloody charts so that a ship could get to where it was going. The less they bothered Vynn with their other arcane duties, the happier she was.

Though, this attitude may have been an atemporal reflection of her current mood and not her actual beliefs. Either way, she waited for him to respond. Sheng looked paler than usual, as if he had dusted his face with white powder, but he managed to speak through the crippling fear that smote him every time he saw his captain: "Ma-...sir...found this. In the mechanicarum observio dagonosphere." He proffered her a data-slate. Vynn took it, turned it right way around, and found that it contained a grainy, greenish view of a corridor. The view crackled and sparked and flashed, and she could see nothing save for a shape...no...two...

One shape was indistinct. The other was close enough that the grainy pict-captor footage showed a face and hair: Saffron Mayes. Vynn opened her mouth, but then the unmistakable streak of a lasbolt impacted the back of the noble passenger's head. As she toppled out of the view, the pict-captor's camera remained a blurry ruin, the receptors clearly ruined by the las-flash. Vynn looked up at the cartho-artifex, her face set.

The data-slate made an audible crack as she threw it down on the table before Ship's Master Khan, Lt. Desna and Lt. Janus. Each had been ushered by her into a side conference room built off the port side of the bridge - a room filled with dust and age, a long forgotten wine cabinet reeking somewhat of vinegar and preserves.

"Murder," Vynn said, without preamble. "Murder most foul."

Mr. Khan shook his head. "This is bad. How did the good doctor miss this?"

"That's what concerns me," Vynn said.

"You don't think-" Janus started.

"Good Emperor, Nestor! I should have you flogged for even thinking such a thing!" Vynn exclaimed. "Doctor Balthezar harming an innocent woman? It's hard enough to believe him capable of shooting quite so well while he's going on about his critters and beasties and plants, but to believe him capable of this? No." She shook her head. "But Mayes was some noble or another - and noble games are deep, subtle, and dangerous. This is why I would prefer we keep this among those who can defend themselves and are defended by his Majesty's Laws. Whilest the Doctor may be a dab hand with a las pistol, he doesn't have ten thousand years of naval history to stiffen his spine. Now, I don't rightly know how one could make a lasgun look like an imbalance of the humors or whatever it was he said killed her, but nobles aren't about to skip using gene-grafts or maybe even psyker's..."

The mention of such a possibility provoked a shudder among the whole of the room.

"We have the date of the murder," Desna said, nodding. "I can begin my investigations immediately."

Vynn looked at her newest officer. Desna looked back without confidence or arrogance or fear or assurance. Indeed, Desna looked more like a statue than a woman, her hands clasped on the table. The only part of her that showed motion at all was the small shudder of breath that ran through her as she made the machine of her body tick forward. Finely tuned as a clock, she made Vynn think of a pocket watch - not merely in the mechanical perfection, but in the cold beauty as well. It was this aesthetic sense - a synthesis of weeks of subconscious cues and mental notations of skill and talent - that decided Vynn. She nodded slowly, and said: "Make it so, Lieutenant."

Desna stood, bowed her head. "I suggest Ensign Bowler to cover my duties whilst I am investigating this murder."

Vynn nodded again. Bowler bleated like a grox when given the extra duties.

Vynn cared not a jot.

###

The Hegemony slipped through the Warp and things went well. Until, quite suddenly, they did not. The plasma engines were useless in the Warp, save for adjusting lateral motion and providing heat and power. Forward motion came entirely on the empyrial winds of that hellish plane of reality - and when those winds faded, there was naught that a master and commander could do save for sturdy their crew and glare at the covered windows of her ship. But while Vynn stewed and the crew gambled and played dice and ate curried meats and worshiped the Emperor with song and martial art and other curious practices, Lieutenant Desna drew a chart.

On that chart, she affixed the name Saffron Mayes and a date - 5.237.614.M41, the date she had been slain. She nodded and then strode from her room. It took three days of walking from seal-lock to seal-lock to seal-lock to check their latest use-by dates. The techno-arcanic phrase that she had learned from a somewhat befuddled Turantawix brought forth dates, though they were coded in the time-stamp and date system of four millenium past, which was a more obtuse, arcane device that was based on counting from the moment humanity had first landed on ancient Luna. As that number had become unreasonably large - not to mention impossible to verify due to the chronological discontinuity of the Warp - it seemed Desna had her first problem.

Converting one time-stamp to another.

By the time she had started to wrestle with the problem, the doldrums had entered into their fourth day and Vynn was beginning to draw up a chart of her own. But rather than the perfect, almost printed text of Desna's hand, her chart was a few jotted notes and her own prodigious memory and a conference with Jon. Jon himself was looking better rested and happier still, and that made Vynn quite happy, though her own calculations were growing somewhat grave. She rubbed at her chin as Jon waited for her to speak.

"We have victuals and water enough," she said. "For months. Five, at least."

"The issue, then?" Jon asked.

"Morale, and the latest reports from the astro," Vynn said, tapping a rolled up scroll of parchment on her desk. "The cipher's high enough I shouldn't say, but who are you going to talk to?" she chuckled. "The fighting in the system we're heading for has hotted up - and likely, we're going to arrive without a single thing to get done at this rate!" She scowled.

"This is bad, yes?" Jon raised his eyebrows.

"Well..." Vynn grumbled, her fingers pressing against one another, her brow furrowing slightly. "It means less prize money."

Jon chuckled. "So, I've noticed that strange lieutenant of yours wandering about my offices."

"I don't have a lieutenant named Strange," Vynn grumbled, leaning forward to adjust her legging with one hand. This hid her face when Jon mentioned the name Desna, fortunate, as she had a terrible poker face. She made as if she was now entirely occupied in getting her legging to lay properly. That gave her time to marshal her face and when she sat up, she saw Jon looking unconcernedly at charts that she had laid out. "Desna's just investigating, ah, some things, you know."

Jon frowned. "Things?"

Vynn looked desperately for some way to evade this conversation - and found it when a vox call squaked through her wall mounted intercom, the voice overjoyed. The feeling that thrummed through her feet made the words unneeded. The ship was sailing again. The doldrums had passed. Vynn capered and left Jon with his questions unanswered, rushing for the bridge. She came just as the message from their navigator came through on chattering scrolls, scribbed by skull-faced cogitation units.

"Ah," Janus said, reading from the charts.

"What is it, Nestor?" Vynn asked, adjusting her hat as she walked past him to the auspex pit. Desna was there, looking into the middle distance, a note pad in her lap.

"This is the beginning of a Beta Four," Janus said, his voice utterly causal. He kept his voice casual with an iron control that Vynn rather admired. She nodded slightly and responded with a non-committal 'ah'. But she felt a cold chill gathering in her gut. She had been through squalls and doldrums and even stasis reefs, but Beta Fours were the last thing she wanted to put her small sloop through. For the term Beta Four...was not a term. It was a cipher, one that shifted. Sometimes, in decades past, it had been Alpha One, or merely a Echaton Event. The name changed every time the rank and file and non-commissioned officers learned what the code meant. In fact, Vynn was rather glad that only she and Janus and the Navigator knew what a Beta Four meant, as the last thing she needed was a bridge in bedlam.

So, calmly, she called out: "Beat to quarters! Set the anchor teams to the spars!"

"Ma'am?" one of the ensigns asked.

"That was an order, Mr. Rikash," Vynn snapped.

The crew got to work - confusion rather than fear guiding them.

Deep in the belly of the ship, men and women were roused from their games of chance and their drinking by boatswains with hard whips and starting sticks. The bellowed orders were familiar, but took on a strange cast at this time. The older hands immediately grasped what was needed. A heavily scarred Vedic with a bushy beard and wild tattoos hauled a complaining Cadic woman from her berth, cuffed her in the back of the head, and said only: "Hold fast, lassie."

Such words were needed as crews were forced to the edges of the Hegemony's skin, to where the whispering voices of the Warp grew louder and more insistent. They were made to work faster and faster - the older hands tended to become boatswains and other such non-commissioned offices, and they knew what that feeling was. They knew what this order meant. And so, women and men alike hauled on cables, broke clamps that had rusted together out of disuse. Groaning, several smaller Geller Field emitters were freed from dark berths, connecting to chains that were strung to the very spine of the Hegemony. With heaves and bellows and work chants, the voidsmen got those anchors out into the Warp - seal-lock doors keeping them from witnessing the swirling chaos itself.

Plunging into the warp, two of the anchors kicked on simple plasma engines, drawing the chains outwards until they stretched taut. The others were dragged out behind by the ship's resurgent motion. Once each chain had signaled that it had become taut on the bridge, Mr. Khan bellowed the order.

"Engage fields!"

In a rare case of synthesis - rare in the greater Navy at least - everything had gone right in the most dire of situations. Crew had gotten to their work quickly, officers had remained calmed. Geller Fields, dependably serviced by the ever attentive Turantawix, crackled onwards, and four bastions of reality formed to the fore and aft of the ship. The reality crackled along kilometers of chains, solidifying them in the madness and scattering some psychic sprites that had started to gather on the chains like barnacles.

Vynn felt the solidity thrum through her feet. The deck didn't list or tilt. She nodded. "Mark time, Nestor," she muttered.

He called out to the chron - but the exact time and watch was lost in the sudden shriek of the warp storm, the warp storm that their navigator had spied rushing towards them at a thousand Strelovs a minute, a warp storm that would have smashed them onto their keel and broken their ship into a thousand pieces. It broke against the reinforced Geller Field and the anchors groaned and shuddered, the chains creaking audibly through the hull. The screaming howling sound seemed to fill every part of the bridge, causing every single piece of metal that stuck into open air, from ink-pens to scribe tines to the noses of gargoyles to buzz and quiver and finally spark with electricity. Cries of surprise and pain came from several crew too near to the sparking.

"All hands, brace!" Vynn bellowed into the vox before it shattered.

And the second wave of the storm smashed into them. The Hegemony groaned and shuddered with the stresses and Vynn had to grab onto the edge of her command plinth to not be pitched over it. She ducked her head forward and sighed softly.

It was going to be a long wait.

The Hegemony was not merely pounded. She was ground against, in the way a stone might be pressed to a wheel to make it into a sharpened tip for a spear. The howling aetheric winds screeched through every baffle the crew put up, from cloth to plugs made of compacted wax to the hymns led by the increasingly harried confessor. Those who could not sleep through it were soon driven mad, confined to Jon's hastily erected sanitarium in one of the emptied cisterns. There, they were restrained and watched as Jon took notes on their mental state. They tore at the chains, howling, begging to the Emperor for an end to the infernal, continual sound. But the sound was merely one facet of the storm. There was a constant straining pressure that came from the starboard side of the ship, where the winds were stronger. When the winds lessened, every man jack aboard would stumble in the starboard direction, their unconscious lean no longer necessary. Worse were those working on high gantries, such as in the engineerium. After the first few menials plunged to the hideous injury of a three story drop and stop, Turantawix required that all wear safety lines.

The winds, though, were not all. The ship was also smote by lightning boils, raw crackling surges of energies that traveled along the anchor chains to the primary Geller Field. Here, crew could hear the warp growing closer and closer with every moment, only to recede as the Geller Field snapped back to full length. Mary warned Vynn that if such a distortion went too far, the skin of the ship could be within the Geller Field distortion, leaving corridors, maybe whole compartments, open to the taint of the Warp.

Three days after the pounding, a combination of harsh wind and lightning boil caused just such an event. Fifty men and women performing required supplications to the machine spirits on the starboard point defense cannons were caught by a distorted waver of the Geller Field. The machine spirits, heroic and stalwart in the face of the contradictory and impossible readouts provided by the sensors that were left within the exposed area, managed to engage a total lockdown, slamming down bulkheads and sealing hatches with the assistance of nearby crew. When the Geller Field rebounded back to its normal shape, all they could hear within the impacted area was a single voice sobbing.

Vynn forbade any from entering. The sobbing persisted and crew avoided the area with perfectly logical dread.

The fields remained sturdy. Morale did not. Dozens of fights had to be broken apart. A spree murder slew twelve in the cistern-pump station, their corpses left where they had fallen. He was caught by two local armsmen, found in a locked and unused storage chamber, laughing as he held his own gouged out eyes on his palms, blood dripping between his fingers. Riddled with lasbolts, he was later burned, along with the arcane sigils he had drawn on the wall in the blood of his last victim, his own wife.

And, as if that last horror had been the exclimation point, the storm eased.

Faded.

And just before it died, Vynn had her crews retracting the still crackling anchor chains. As the secondary field emitters locked home, the whole ship surged, and with maneuvering thrusters burning, the Hegemony righted course and shot onwards, riding the last swell towards Karacalia, the crew cheering the whole way.

###

"Well, well, well, it seems you did have an exciting cruise - two new worlds, both life bearing, pirates, two ships taken, one burnt? Hah! And a proper name for a proper Captain, mark my words, Vynn..." Admiral Rynoldes said, looking to have aged a year and a day from the last time Vynn had laid eyes on her. Her jowls, which had already been impressive, had added an extra chin, and in an unfortunate turn for a woman, her hair had begun to recede. To make up for the lack, she had grown it longer and added a feather behind one ear, giving her the unfortunate look of an overstuffed peacock. Her beaked nose did nothing to assist it. Her uniform remained as mussed and ill kempt as ever, though, something Vynn was glad to see had not changed.

The Victory was stationed in high orbit above the gas giant that had been named TFO-098. Every officer that Vyn had spoken too had said it was a technographic lexonomic, but she had heard one of the servants at the gala mutter: "Oh, that fucking one..." and so she had her doubts. Her doubts were visualized by the number of wrecks and hulks that that she could spot between the vast windows of the Victory's ballroom and the gas giant's stridated rings themselves. She could pick out orkish ships, Naval ships, civilian ones. Several still burned, fitful fires fed by their slowly escaping atmospheres. Others were already being swarmed over by civilian salvagers. But in formation around the Victory was a sight to bring pride to the breast of any Imperial citizen.

The Victory in the place of pride in the highest orbit, where she had the prime well gauge. But there was also the Tempest and the Indolant's Castigation - a pair of fine cut above the norm Dauntless cruisers. Their wings of patrolling strike craft cut streaks between the formations, their tiny plumes drawn as if by rulers on the night sky. There was the Hegemony, given pride of place at the central section of a four frigate wolfpack - the Yondo's Arrow, the Regice, and the Hammer of the Emperor Triumphant. While the Hegemony seemed a tad small next to two Swords and a single peppy Firestorm - oh, oh, how she longed to pick up the nearby candelabra and brain the Hammer's captain, then take his ship from his cold dead fingers. He was a mere five meters away, loudly boasting to the interim civilian Governor about how: "oh, those Ork ships, yes, well, you can go right at them and cut them out, there's nothing to it, why, an ork's easier to take the faster at them you get!"

"The Emperor's sense of humor is wicked," Vynn muttered under her breath.

"Sorry, speak up, my ears are still ringing from that last rout," Rynoldes lied, as her ears had been ringing for at least four years, ever since Vynn had met her.

"I said please, do, tell me how you pulled it off, Admiral," Vynn said.

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