“Navigation,” said Whyte, who'd banged his head and bitten his tongue, “what the hell are you doing?”
“Captain...” There was emotion in Googol's voice now. “Something's out there... we need to drop into realspace immediately.”
Whyte and Persuad exchanged glances, both knowing the amount of planning required for translation.
“Enginarium,” Whyte said. “How soon can you get us back into realspace?”
“Are you kidding?” Eiko Takayama replied. “We aren't prepared for translation – it could tear the ship apart.”
“It will take at least an hour to make the preparations,” her brother added more diplomatically. “We were expecting to spend a week in the hyper-realm. If we crash-dive now, I can't guarantee where we'll translate to.”
“Crucius,” Whyte said, “we're going to need at least an hour. Take us around -”
“It won't work, Captain!” Googol cried. “It's coming! Oh, God, it's hungry -”
They were rocked by an impact which sent standing crew members sprawling and threw people across their consoles. Yasir Matham cried out as his face smashed against his workstation, breaking his nose.
“What the hell was that?” said Whyte.
“Leviathan!” Googol all but screamed. “It hunts among immaterial tides, devouring the souls of great and majestic monsters, but oh, how it wants us! Captain, we must translate now or we'll die in ways you can't conceive!”
Matham held a face over his bleeding nose, checking his instrumentation. The holographic display was splashed with his blood.
“We've been knocked off-course, Captain,” he said. “This is based mostly on guesswork, but if we translate now, I think we'll end up in Sigmar's Reach.”
“We'll have to chance it,” Whyte said. “Enginarium, initiate emergency crash-dive.”
“Captain -” Eiko said.
“Now, damn it!” Whyte snapped.
“Aye, sir,” said Hiro Takayama. “Recommend all hands brace for impact. We'll divert emergency power to the hull armour, but the damage could be extreme.”
“Captain!” said Googol. “Please! It's coming around again! I can see into its heart! For God's sake, do it now!”
“Think good thoughts,” Whyte breathed as reality shattered around him like a broken mirror.
It is the dawn of legend.
The human race recovers from millennia of war and failed expansion. Solar Command oversees the fledgling Terran Empire, one hundred worlds led by a United Earth, defended by valiant soldiers of the Empire Guard and intrepid crews of the Terran Navy.
As Terran pioneers venture into the galaxy, carrying the human dream to the very stars that revile them, ancient powers watch with jealousy in their eyes and hatred in their hearts. Aliens stare at the glittering lights of human civilisation, knowing the emergent species will one day decide their fate. Alneran dog-soldiers test the Empire’s borders, challenging humanity’s growing might. Tusked warmongers seek the Terran homeworld, believing they have at last found a species as belligerent as their own. In the forgotten corners of the galaxy, the remnants of a warp-spawned species seek to enslave the hearts and souls of all living beings. Deep within the hyper-realm, three vast and terrible intellects stir to life, weak as yet, but growing in power as the Terran Empire grows.
Alone of all aliens, only the arrogant Eldar care nothing for the human resurgence, for they are masters of all they see; their fevered imaginings become reality and their whims shape the universe. What possible threat can the upstart mon-keigh be to them?
Forget the power of genhanced super-warriors, for the Empire’s defenders are merely human. Forget the burning light of a hundred thousand minds, for in the poisoned wilderness of the hyper-realm, there is nothing to guide you and no-one to save you.
The courageous few, and the intelligences they have created, carry the hopes and fears of humanity on eagle’s wings.
This is the 21st Millennium.
20K: before there was war.
ON EAGLE'S WINGS
The beginning of the 20K saga by NoPoet
Part 1: Last Days on Earth
Last Look at Eden
Meet The Crew
The sun was warm on his face, and bright, although his eyes were closed. He listened to the chirruping of birds, the distant hiss of traffic. Occasionally the light falling across him would blink out for a second as a skimmer zipped overhead. He listened to the bees, buzzing happily to themselves as they explored the garden he'd spent twenty years creating. He was really going to miss this place.
A door creaked. No high technology here. Just doors you had to open yourself; lights that operated on a switch; a garden where birds came for seeds, or to rest in the trees; where bees pollinated and made honey; where the occasional cat slunk in, trying to catch the birds.
He listened to human footsteps padding closer. They were slow, as though the visitor was taking time to appreciate the garden. It really was beautiful.
"Captain?" said the visitor. It was a male voice, with the Panpac-Merican accent he'd come to know so well.
"We don't leave until oh seven hundred tomorrow, Lieutenant," the Captain said.
"This sure is some place you got here, sir."
The Captain opened his eyes to see Bruce O'Malley, his Lieutenant Primus, looking smart in his grey, uncreasable Navy uniform. The Merican inclined his head in that special way and grinned that winning smile, the one many women, and not a few men, had fallen for.
"If you'd taken some time off and come to visit me here, as I repeatedly asked," the Captain said, his voice gruff with sleep, "you'd have seen this place years ago."
"Sorry, sir." O'Malley scratched the back of his head. "Guess I got caught up in things. Can't believe tomorrow's the day."
The Captain sat up. His face stung with sunburn. Who knew how long it would be before he next felt the sun’s touch? This sun, the sun. Sol, parent star of Earth, birthplace of Humanity. This might be his last day with Sol's warmth on his face, Earth's breeze in his hair, familiar birds singing around him. The next time he felt these things would be an alien sun, surrounded by unknown xenotypes, on some distant world.
"Doc Reeves wants us to head on over to Solar Command,” O'Malley said. “Says she's got a few new shots for us."
"I've had them," the Captain said. He stood and stretched.
"Not these, sir," said O'Malley. "She's finished that new anti-cancer vaccine. Says our butt cheeks have never experienced a needle like it. My ass is already tingling."
"Was that a joke, Lieutenant?" the Captain asked, surprised. "Are you finally off-duty?" He ran a hand through his hair. It was thinning a bit, turning a distinguished grey, but he was a long way from losing it.
"Won't happen again, sir,” O'Malley grinned. “The doc's also been working on some kind of panacea. Figures it should act like a decontaminant, no more spend weeks in quarantine every time we meet a new species."
The Captain took one last look around his garden. This was Britannia; this was home. Soon his house and garden would belong to someone else. He didn't think of them as his any more. This was just a launchpad towards the future. That didn't make it any less painful. He looked around, trying to fix the sights and sounds in his memory. He retrieved an empty pint glass and fallen data-slate from beside his chair.
"I'm going to miss this place," said Captain Whyte.
“For my own part, I declare I know nothing whatever about it, but looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map. Why, I ask myself, shouldn't the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France?”
Vinzento Vongogh, M2.
Whyte changed into his uniform while O'Malley waited downstairs, looking around the Captain's quaint living-room. There was no sign of the advanced technology found in most Terran homes. No service bots. Plenty of antiques representing twenty thousand years of human history. An old brass telescope; a CD player; duelling pistols dating from the 4th Millennium; a dewclaw belonging to one of the long-vanished Yhetees of Mournhold; a portrait of Admiral Keller, an 11th Millennium hero who'd turned apparent defeat into a stunning victory over that era's most terrifying foes, resulting in the extermination of the Palatyl Warrior-Priests. All of these were objects of antiquity, relics of vanished cultures, preserved in a functional state.
“Nice collection,” O'Malley said as Whyte joined him.
“Help yourself to anything you want,” said Whyte. O'Malley looked shocked and on the verge of refusing when his eyes were drawn again to the duelling pistols.
“They're still functional,” Whyte said. “Although you'll need to find a Synthetic Template Constructor programmed with pulse-rad technology. The guns belonged to Sir Horesby-Durane the Third, the notorious rake and gambler. He reportedly killed three people with them.”
The Lieutenant Primus took the weapons from their mounts slowly, reverentially. They were outdated and hugely ostentatious in design, being of gold and silver construction with fluted barrels that seemed ridiculously aggressive. One gun had LUCKY engraved on it, the other LUCAN.
“I'll take good care of them,” he told the Captain.
A grav-shuttle waited for them on the road outside. Holo-emitters projected Navy logos onto its flanks. The sun reflected blindingly from its armour. Some of Whyte's neighbours were staring. Not all of them were human: there were plenty of bots of various designs walking dogs, washing cars or scuttling about on other business, none of them used to seeing ostentatious displays of Whyte's status. The Captain and his Lieutenant Primus stepped out, O'Malley cheerfully waving, Whyte embarrassed and silent. Ridiculous that such a private man should undertake the biggest and most famous mission in human history, but Jack Whyte was a man of contrasts.
Two Navy armsmen in full Storm armour waited at the end of Whyte's driveway. They saluted, and their officers returned those saluted before climbing into the Navy bus. It was cool and fresh inside. Someone was waiting for them there. Whyte was shaken to see her.
"Hi, Jack," said Shugufta Ani. She looked amazing in her pin-sharp suit, and she wore a blue headscarf as tribute to her faith. Ani, like Whyte, preferred the old-school approach to life; she held her clipboard, that damnable thing which seemed permanently glued to her hands, in preference to a data-slate. When people asked Whyte how he managed without technology, he said that if he allowed bots to do as much for him as they did for everyone else, he might as well wear a bib and a nappy and drink milk from a bottle all day. Ani was one of the few people who didn't think Whyte was crazy.
"How good to see you again, Administrator," the Captain said, tugging his right ear lobe.
"I see I still make you nervous," Ani grinned.
O'Malley looked out of the window, trying to hide his grin. I'll get you for this, Whyte thought, scowling at him.
“Don't blame Bruce,” Ani said. “I didn't want to miss this.”
The cab became crowded when the armsmen piled in. The bus jolted as it rose from the ground and sped towards the Command district. Their driver, an artificial intelligence, was taking the scenic route, following land-roads in hover mode instead of zooming across the skyway. The bot was giving Whyte one last tour of his home country. Whyte had been so focused on getting the Fearless ready for launch that he'd forgotten to visit his old haunts. Today was the first time the Captain truly realised what he was leaving behind.
"Let me guess, Administrator," he said to Ani. "The Ministry of Disbursement have once again branded my supply requests 'dodgy', and we're going to spend the next six hours justifying every bolt and spanner."
"Don't be so formal, Jack," Ani said. "This might be the last time we see each other."
The Captain looked Ani in the eyes and knew she was still in love with him. Emotion flared in the air between them. Whyte had expected many things of these last days before launch. He hadn't anticipated the agony of saying goodbye.
"Okay," Whyte said after a moment. "Let's talk." He glanced at O'Malley again, uncomfortably aware that his officer and the blank-visored armsmen would be listening to everything that was said.
"Leave him alone," Ani laughed. "If it wasn't for him, your ship would have been halfway to Tau Proxima before I knew you were gone."
Whyte looked into Ani's dark and familiar eyes. Her skin, so soft, that went into goosebumps whenever he touched her. Whyte felt the old thrill building, embers of a faded love glowing to life from beneath the resentment and duty.
"Shu, you know I requested you on my crew."
"I'm sorry, Jack. My home is here... my family. I could never leave them."
"I know, but I had to try. Guess who they sent in your place?”
“The best man for the job.”
“Wrong,” said Whyte. “Don Rockford. The grizzled old devil is so tight, he won't give bullets to the Empire Guard so long as bayonets exist."
"Stop being mean, and stop pretending you aren't thrilled to be king of the castle. The Terran flagship, Jack! It's what you always dreamed of. It's happening tomorrow."
That created more of a thrill than his remembered love for Ani. The realisation of this made Jack Whyte feel like less of a man. He was a Captain first and foremost, married to his starship, a vessel he'd never even sailed in. It was a cliche to be sure, but didn't all men of destiny put duty before love? He didn't know any other way to be. Ani understood this – at least he hoped she did. They might have had something special if the Navy didn't already own Whyte's heart and soul. It was regrettable, maybe even terrible, but that was the way it was. Why did it hurt so much?
A gentle tone sounded.
"We are nearly there," an artificial voice said across the internal vox. "It appears that someone is waiting for you, Captain Whyte."
“The Art of Flying is but newly invented, 'twill improve by degrees, and in time grow perfect; then we may fly as far as the Moon.”
Author unrecorded, M2
They coasted to a halt outside the Atlantic Building, the Eurasian headquarters of Solar Command. This had originally been a NATO building, then Euro-Pact, then the Northern Defence League, then at least thirteen other treaty organisations which had formed and collapsed across the fullness of time: a string of near-forgotten names and acronyms which no longer stood for anything. It looked modern from the outside. Inside, it crushed you beneath the weight of ages. A huge crowd of humans and bots had gathered outside.
"Oh, God," O'Malley said. "The media."
Hundreds of journalists crowded round every Empire official who tried to get in or out of the building. “Ministry of Remembrance!” they yelled at anyone of note. “A few moments of your time!”
Terran Empire flags fluttered above the scene, casting rippling, blade-like shadows across the throng. The crowd erupted when Whyte's grav-shuttle landed and its occupants clambered out. Whyte almost tripped over a seat arm. That would be all over the Empire within five minutes, he thought sourly. Captain's Voyage Stumbles At The First Gate.
"Captain! Captain!" a hundred voices shouted at once. "Are you looking forward to your voyage? Do you feel your crew are competent? How do you feel knowing you might never see Earth again? Will the Fearless mission stir up trouble? What if the Fearless is attacked by xenotypes? Can your ship survive such a voyage without refit or resupply? Why is the Terran Navy putting all its resources into colonisation when it should be fighting the Alnerans? What about the Eldar? Will you be taking remembrancers with you?"
The bot journalists had other questions. Some were to be expected, while others were jarringly strange: "Captain Whyte. Will you be advocating equal rights for non-biological entities? Do you believe the intelligence controlling Fearless is a slave? Does Fearless breach the supposed Wu-Wu Limit? Can you calculate digit x to the power of thirty-nine?"
Whyte feigned humble grace as O'Malley pulled him through the crowd. The Captain grabbed Ani's arm to make sure they didn't lose her. One brave female journalist lunged in front of them. Half of her head was cybernetically altered with a bionic eye and a vox-amplifier in her mouth. She asked the most provocative questions.
“Captain Whyte, Angelicka Summerspring, Ministry of Remembrance. It's come to our attention that the Fearless will be heading into to Eldar space. Are you planning an alliance with them? Have they sanctioned the Terran Empire's expansion?”
“We don't need xenotypes telling us our business,” Whyte said, waving a dismissive had towards her.
“Uh, we have no argument with the Eldar,” O'Malley said quickly. “We won't be going anywhere near their territory and we aren't expecting our mission to have diplomatic consequences. Now come on guys, we're on a clock here.”
“Very tactful, boys,” Ani said as they entered the Atlantic Building. “I especially liked the way you blew them off Jack, I'm sure that went down well.”
It was cool and dark in contrast to the bright, cloudless heat outside. Their shoes clacked. Sound echoed. Such a difference to the deck plating on board a Navy ship. They passed people wearing suits or Navy uniforms, as well as black-armoured bots hurrying about some task or other. Everyone, human and bot - those bots that had arms - saluted Whyte as they passed. He returned them all.
Flags hung from the walls, representing a variety of vanished nation-states. All of them were old. Most were ancient. Here was the red and white cross of Ancient Briton, with its characteristic red dragon in the top left corner. There, the stars and stripes representing the fifty-six States of Merica, prior to the collision between the landmasses of Asia and Merica, when territory wars had created the long-vanished Chinasian Bloc. No Chinasian banners hung in this building; they had built their arks and sailed into the eternal night, refusing all contact with Earth and its territories, until eventually they seemed to disappear altogether. Maybe they were out there still. Maybe the Fearless would find them.
Wall murals featured the words of leaders both ancient and modern. From the seventh millennium, the words of Madame Blackblade, a former space pirate who had renounced her criminal career and died protecting a vulnerable colony; from the twelfth, the famed tyrant Dannerdan Gasban, whose rule over Ursh - at that time still known as the Ruskian Plateau – remained notorious, despite his last-minute change of heart as he personally led his slaves to vanquish the invading Herkni xenotypes. Unusually there was also a 15th Millennium quote from an Eldar general who had led the defence of a human colony against green-skinned monsters.
They passed twenty-millennia old statues that shone like new: Gregarski, the first human in space; Kenneth Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon; Delaney, the first woman on Titan. Bannerjee had been the first human to walk on a world outside the Sol system; she'd planted Earth's flag and said a prayer in Hindi, the first time a human religion had been practiced in the outer dark.
Whyte led his group along a wood-panelled corridor hung with portraits, most holographic, some painted at the dawn of recorded history. The eyes of famous Terrans watched him with gravity in their gaze. Did they look gently upon the man would would to take humanity into a glorious new age, or did they scowl at an unworthy fool?
The medical wing was as expansive and sterile as any hospital throughout human history. Doctor Reeves was in the middle of a passionate debate with several of her orderlies and a brown-haired woman wearing the uniform of a Navy Admiral.
“Admiral,” Whyte said as he and O'Malley saluted.
“Captain,” replied Admiral North, returning the gesture. “I can't get used to my own title.”
“It's been a long time coming, Karen.” They shook hands warmly. “I hear they gave you the Shamshu?”
“It's been my privilege to knock the heads of its crew together. You know it's a sister ship of the Fearless, right? Assuming we ever get it spaceworthy.”
“Yes, and I was sorry to hear about Admiral Khatri. You served with her for a long time.”
“Thank you.” North's face darkened for a moment, then her smile returned. “I don't have to introduce you to your chief medical officer.”
Reeves stepped forward. She was tall, almost statuesque, with a dazzling smile. She'd decided to age naturally rather than submit herself to juvenant treatment. White hair cascaded over her shoulders.
"How are you, Anna?" said Whyte. The doctor gave him her most soulbinding grin.
"I did it, Jack," she said. "I told you I'd do it."
"Less than twenty-four hours before we set off," Whyte laughed. "You do love to cut things close."
"I know cancer treatments are old hat," Reeves said, "but we discovered a couple of new variants on the Golnar colony. It's caused by exposure to upsilon radiation over – "
"I'm sure it's another brilliant piece of work, Doctor," said Whyte.
Reeves started to say something but stopped short when she got a second look at Lieutenant O'Malley.
"Now, who is this fine gentleman? Your first officer?"
“Lieutenant Primus,” O'Malley said. “I'm third-in-command.”
“I see,” said Reeves. “Well I'll need you to report for a physical before we leave orbit.”
"Annabeth," Whyte said.
"Don't mind me," Reeves said to the Lieutenant Primus. She leaned in, as if imparting a wise secret. "I'm just the crazy sawbones." She stepped back and laughed.
“Um, okay,” O'Malley said.
Whyte spent a few minutes greeting his medical staff and reviewing Dr Reeves's work. There had been precious little time to do this before now; Whyte had spent almost every minute of the preceding months aboard the Fearless, trying to get the ship into shape for its launch date, and new crew members arrived every day.
There was a clamour at the door as Lieutenant Secundus Daniel Tarrant arrived. He walked straight into the medical bay, still criticising the remembrancers to the harried Ordnance staff following him.
"Everyone," Whyte said, "this is Mister Tarrant, my new Master of Ordnance. Hopefully he came to report that our torpedo launchers are upgraded and ready to use."
"What?” Tarrant said as he looked at each of the medical staff in turn. “Oh, yes sir, we've updated the targeting matrix. I could shoot the fleas off an Alneran's head if we were here and he were swimming on Neptune."
Tarrant was tall, burly, and when he looked at you he seemed extremely focused. At other times his attention shot around, taking in the room's occupants, the exits, information scrolling across medical display panels. The Ordnance officer remembered some of his manners and held out a hand; Whyte shook it, finding that Daniel Tarrant was strong as a grox. Tarrant let go and continued his
analysis of the room while Whyte flexed his crushed fingers.
Admiral North gave the Captain an amused look that said Good luck with him.
“So, Lieutenant,” Whyte said in an attempt to get something more from Tarrant, “I chose you because your record says you're the best. God only knows what's waiting for us out there. Think you're up to the challenge?”
"Don't worry, sir," Tarrant said without looking at him. "We're loaded for bear. Any xenotypes giving you grief, you give the order. There'll be some sad pandas on the receiving end of me."
O'Malley, turned away, shoulders shaking.
"I'm told you needed me," Tarrant said, focusing suddenly on Doctor Reeves. "Let me guess, it's been more than two weeks since you stuck something sharp in my backside."
O'Malley pactically exploded, covering it by pretending to cough.
"We'll leave you to the, er, yes," said Whyte, leading North, O'Malley and Ani back out.
"I love that guy," O'Malley said when they were out of earshot.
“Where are you going?” Dr Reeves called after them. “This well-built young Ordnance officer isn't the only one I need bending over.”
“Well,” Admiral North said, “my time is non-existent these days, but I came to wish you all luck. The Mars teams should have finished outfitting Fearless with a tactical hololith. I'm looking forward to being part of the action, even if only as an eerie glowing figure from the other side of the galaxy.” She shook hands with Whyte and O'Malley, nodded to Ani, then headed off. She paused and turned back. “By the way, where are you going? I thought you had an appointment with Doc Reeves.” She winked and walked away.
“Lovely,” said Whyte. "Shu, care for a tour of the Fearless?"