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«BLOOD PACT Gaunt’s Ghosts - 12 (The Lost - 05) Dan Abnett (An Undead Scan v1.1) For Dave Taylor It is the 41st millennium. For more than a hundred ...»

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Gaunt’s Ghosts - 12

(The Lost - 05)

Dan Abnett

(An Undead Scan v1.1)

For Dave Taylor

It is the 41st millennium. For more than a hundred centuries the Emperor has sat immobile on

the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the master of mankind by the will of the gods, and master of a

million worlds by the might of his inexhaustible armies. He is a rotting carcass writhing invisibly

with power from the Dark Age of Technology. He is the Carrion Lord of the Imperium for whom a thousand souls are sacrificed every day so that he may never truly die.

Yet even in his deathless state, the Emperor continues his eternal vigilance. Mighty battlefleets cross the daemon-infested miasma of the warp, the only route between distant stars, their way lit by the Astronomican the psychic manifestation of the Emperor’s will Vast armies give battle in his name on uncounted worlds. Greatest amongst his soldiers are the Adeptus Astartes the Space Marines, bio-engineered super-warriors. Their comrades in arms are legion: the Imperial Guard and countless planetary defence forces, the ever-vigilant Inquisition and the tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus to name only a few. But for all their multitudes, they are barely enough to hold off the ever-present threat from aliens, heretics, mutants — and worse.

To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruellest and most bloody regime imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be relearned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.

“At length, the beast fell upon a hunter and devoured him too. But the hunter had an open knife in his pocket, and the knife slit the beast’s belly open from inside, and all of the villagers were spilled out and saved.” —from the Nihtgane legend of the hunter and the beast “After a promising period of advance, Warmaster Macaroth’s main battle groups were brought to an unexpected and complete standstill at the frontiers of the Erinyes Group.

Archon Gaur, the Archenemy overlord, managed to withdraw his forces from the Carcaradon Cluster with sufficient alacrity to construct a robust position of resistance along the Erinyes border.

For the Warmaster, no help was to be had from the Crusade’s secondary front Comprising as it now did the Fifth, Seventh, Ninth and Twelfth Armies, the second battle group was operating trailwards of Macaroth’s principal strengths. Despite years of grinding struggle, the second battle group remained unable to dislodge the legions of Magister Anakwanar Sek, Gaur’s most capable lieutenant, from the Cabal Systems.

Between them, the Archon and his magister had created a line of defiance that was entirely frustrating both prongs of Macaroth’s crusade. An attempt to break the deadlock through the establishment of a third front ended in miserable disaster with the loss of the Second Army, under Marshal Aldo, at Helice.

However, far behind the front line, on Sabbat Worlds long pacified by the Imperial crusade, events were taking place that would have, though few recognised it at the time, fundamental consequences for the future of the campaign.

It was 780.M41, the twenty-fifth year of the Sabbat Worlds Crusade.

” —from A History of the Later Imperial Crusades ONE The Solace The dead seemed to have a knack of finding their way back to Balhaut.

Such had been the opinion of E. F. Montvelt’s uncle, soon after the Famous Victory, and such was the opinion of E. F. Montvelt himself, some fifteen years later. E. F. Montvelt had inherited the opinion from his late uncle, just as he had inherited his uncle’s post as wharfinger of Pier ThirtyOne, a large and florid nose, and a carton of personal effects which included a medal from the days of the Khulan Wars, a pot of hair tincture and a pornographic chapbook featuring the celebrated musical theatre performer Adele Coro.

The dead found their way back, in almost unimaginable numbers. It was as if the blood that had soaked into Balhaut’s soil during the accomplishment of the Famous Victory had, by some alchemical reaction, become a lure for the dead: a temptation, a siren song that called them back across space from the far-flung places where they had fallen. E. F. Montvelt had once read, in one of the cyclopedias packed into the bottom of his uncle’s carton of effects, of predatory fish with nostrils so acute that they could detect a drop of blood in an ocean of water, and seek it out. So it was with Balhaut and the dead. Balhaut was the drop of blood, and space the ocean. The dead could smell the place, and the smell drew them back. They had made a pact in blood, after all.

Balhaut, so steeped in blood, had become the place of pilgrimage for the dead, and for many, many living souls too; souls whose lives were tied to the fallen. Balhaut was where people came to be buried, if they were dead, or to mourn, if they were not. This was because of the Famous Victory.

Even after fifteen years, one was obliged to pronounce the words with emphatic capital letters, or else refer to it as Slaydo’s Glory or the Intrepid Action or the Turning Point, or some equally leatherbound phrase. Balhaut was still counted as the most considerable victory of the crusade so far, and was therefore a touchstone of success, emblematic of all Imperial aspirations and, by extension, a place where the dead could be interred and mourned in the uplifting glow of triumph.

The caskets of the officer classes were carried back to Balhaut to be shut in the mausoleums and crypts of the new regimental chapels. The tagged bones of common soldiers were shipped back to fill the ever-increasing plots in the endlessly expanding cemetery fields. The ashes of the nameless dead, the faceless and unidentified, were freighted in kegs like gunpowder to be scattered into the wind at the mass public services held five times a day, every day.

The bereaved came too. Some brought their dead with them, in honour or agony, to see them laid to rest in Balhaut’s groaning soil. Others came to pay their respects to the tombs and marble markers of loved ones that had already found their way to Balhaut.

Others, the greatest number of all, came to Balhaut because they did not know the fate or final resting place of the sons and fathers, and brothers and husbands they’d lost, and thus chose Balhaut, with its symbolic value, as a site of memorial. In a decade and a half, Balhaut’s chief imports had become corpses and mourners, and its chief businesses, sericulture and monumental masonry.

E. F. Montvelt’s business was import and export, and the supervision thereof. He oversaw Pier Thirty-One, a radial spar of the giant orbital platform called Highstation, with a diligence and precision that he hoped would have made his uncle proud.

From his glass-floored office, he could look down on the ships moored in the pier’s slipways, and keep track of their comings and goings on a vast hololithic display, projected above him like a canopy of light. His rubricators, at their separate cogitators around the rim of the office, managed the inventories and duties, while vittaling clerks negotiated supply contracts, and fuelling burdens and laytimes were calculated.

All data was routed to him through plugs, but, like his uncle before him, he liked to use his eyes.

He liked to watch a vessel in berth, and fret that it was taking too long to unload and clear so that another could take its position and pay a tariff of its own, just as he liked to complain when a slipway remained vacant for more than a day or two. He knew the tugs and lighters by sight, and the flitting cargo-servitors by their paint jobs and codes, and he could identify a pilot boat simply by the style and accomplishment of its attitude manoeuvres.

Above all, he enjoyed the view: from the office, straight down through the glass floor, through the thicket of girderwork and fuelling lines, through the scudding dots that were tugs and handlers, through the open structures and hard shadows of the giant slipways, and the radiation-scorched hulls of the vast ships that sat in them, down through it all into the brilliance of sunlight on slowlytracking clouds, and the pinsharp clarity of the bright air, and the one hundred and forty-kilometre drop to the blue and grey and brown of Balhaut turning slowly below.

That particular day, the Gemminger Beroff Wakeshift was occupying the fourth slip, the Superluminal Grandee Ulysses the fifth, and the Pride of Tarnagua was beginning its pilot sequence to enter the eighth. The Relativistic Iterations of Hans Feingolt, line-lashed into slip seven, had developed an ignition fault that E. F. Montvelt had been told would delay its departure for a minimum of a week. He had already calculated the penalty tariff. The Eleksander Great Soljor was due to make shift in less than an hour, provided the charter agents could agree on the demurrage. In slip two, the Solace, just arrived, was beginning to discharge its cargo.

E. F. Montvelt hadn’t seen the Solace for two years. It was Plackett’s boat, and Plackett was known for long trailward runs down through Khulan and the Bethan Halo. However, the docket passed to him by the assistant rubricator told E. F. Montvelt that the Solace was eight months out of San Velabo, and had come to them from spinward. Plackett had changed his habits. E. F. Montvelt decided he would ask the shipmaster about it when he came on shore. E. F. Montvelt made a point of greeting each master in person. It was an old-fashioned courtesy that his uncle had taught him.

He already suspected the answer Plackett would give him. War changes fortunes and the contours of trade. The crusade had reopened much of the Khan Group and other spinward territories.

Plackett had gone where the business was.

Except it wasn’t Plackett. E. F. Montvelt looked at the docket again. The Solace had changed hands. The name of her new owner was written up as Jonas.

“Jonas,” he read. Several of his clerks raised their heads from their work.

“You spoke, sir?” one called out.

E. K Montvelt looked up at the junior man.

“Jonas,” he repeated. “Docket gives the name of the Solace’s master as Jonas.” “Which matters because?” “Jonas!” snapped E. F. Montvelt. “You know? As in Jonas?” “I don’t catch the significance, sir,” admitted the clerk.

They were all young idiots these days, E. F. Montvelt often reminded himself, too young. None of them knew the traditions. In his uncle’s day, everybody had known the name Jonas. It was a joke name, a makeweight. You wrote it on the docket as a placeholder when you didn’t know the master’s actual name. Sometimes rogue traders would even run under the name to conceal their identity or divert attention away from an affreightment scam.

“Jonas!” E. F. Montvelt repeated. “As in, Devil Jonas!” “Oh,” nodded the junior, “like in the children’s story? What was it he had again? A box, was it?” “A locker,” E. F. Montvelt sighed.

“That’s it, a locker,” the junior laughed, “far away in the depths of space, where he kept the souls of poor, shipwrecked wayfarers.” The junior chuckled at the notion, and shook his head.

E. F. Montvelt went down to slipway two himself.

He made his way through the crowds thronging the quay. Crew and passengers were flooding off the ship, and all kinds of humanity had come to greet it. There were the slipway crews, the excise men in their bicorn hats, the inspectors from the Interior Guard, vittalers, itinerant peddlers, porters, hucksters; grifters offering guided tours of the battlefields, luxurious accommodations or surface transfers; scalpers selling permits and ask-no-questions paperwork; and commercial men and private citizens, who had come up to Highstation to greet the ship. E. F. Montvelt shoved his way through the bustle. He could smell armpits and foul breath, the garlic sweat of meat patties on a stove cart, the burnt sugar of a candy vendor, the ozone coming in off the pier’s atmospheric pressure fields and, behind all other odours, the oddly soapy, rancid fug that hung upon a slipway when a ship exhaled the recycled air that had been wheezing through its oxygen scrubbers for eight months.

Servitors chugged past him, hauling trains of crates. A tug boat whickered by overhead, its running lights flashing. The Solace, a juggernaut of pitted rust and seared void plating, sat up tall in the slip. Service crews were already at work, scaling her carbonised flanks like mountaineers on a rockface. E. F. Montvelt heard the tunk-tunk of magnetised footsteps as servitors crossed the hull perpendicular to him. He leaned over the rail, down into the shadow of the slipway drop. He saw the airgates extended and connected, and the firework sputter of welding teams. Below the gloom of the slip’s shadow, the dazzling white clouds of Balhaut crawled past.

E. F. Montvelt opened his data-slate and took another look at the ship’s paperwork. The Solace, it came as no surprise, was bearing the dead. Amongst the goods on its bill of lading were “Fifty mortuary containers, fully certificated, transported for the purpose of internment at Balhaut”.

Further fine print revealed that each container held twenty human cadavers or partial cadavers, individually secured in closed caskets. They were men of the 250th Boruna Rifles, a native Balhaut regiment, and casualties of Aldo’s tragic failure on Helice. They were Balhaut lads, coming home.

Accompanying parties of mourners from San Velabo were listed on the passenger manifest.

High-borns, some of them, by the look of the titles and honorifics, making the grand tour to Balhaut in a formal display of duty and respect. E. F. Montvelt straightened his collar, and brushed the sleeves of his coat. Courtesy, always courtesy.

The great hold jaws of the Solace were beginning to gape. Cantilevered metal tongues, cargo ramps and hinged bridgeways were extending to link the lamp-lit caverns of the hold spaces with the slipway dock. Bulk servitors were hoisting down the first of the containers. E. F. Montvelt saw more passengers and members of the crew coming down the nearest gangway bridge.

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