Agravaine Melligore Koza, Imperial Governor of Draggath V, rumbled into his elaborate suites aboard the Raivas like an industrial locomotive. Behind him, thundering along like so many railcars, his entourage cast menacing looks around at the various impromptu work stations rigged up on couches or atop mini-bars. The people manning these stations-thin, pale, low-born drudges whom Koza did not choose to remember-looked up in alarm as he entered. Most of them, upon realizing it was their dread lord and his lackeys, made an extra effort to look extremely busy at whatever they were doing. Though he did not give any outward sign of noticing, Koza smiled inwardly as he sensed their terror.
"It is always better to be feared then loved, don't you think?" He asked one of his retainers. The man responded in the excessively positive, expounding upon the various virtues of fear at great length. Koza did not listen to a word of it.
Koza's interest was upon the one man in the room he knew wasn't afraid of him. Gravius Heckta was standing at the center of the Governor's vast suite, surveying the various underlings as the went about their tasks. He was a tall, gaunt man in a black body suit of reactive polymer armor that clung to his long, corded muscles like it was fused directly to his skin. As Koza approached, it occurred to him that he had never seen Heckta out of his armor and that it may have been fused to him, after all. When the governor arrived next to his former bodyguard, Heckta looked up at him, his twin augmetic eyes whirring in their brass sockets. "Everything is on schedule, Lord Koza."
"It had better be." Koza snorted, "I would hate to have spent my evening watching that pig of an Admiral get drunk for nothing."
Heckta smiled, revealing an array of gold-plated teeth. "The party was a success, then?"
"Most of the command staff is drunk, yes, though I don't see why it was necessary. We could have just drugged their food."
Heckta extended a warning finger. "And aroused their suspicions. I''m afraid not, my Lord. Our enterprise is risky enough, there is no need to extend that risk towards any area of our plan that does not warrant it."
Koza frowned. "I don't think I like your tone, Heckta. Are you lecturing me?" Two of Koza's burlier lackeys moved to flank their leader, glowering at the leering ex-bodyguard.
Heckta rolled his shoulders in a non-committal shrug, and turned his back to the goons. "My Lord does not trust me, and I am wounded. You act as though I have never done this before."
Koza's breath caught in his throat. "You've... you've done this before?"
Heckta cast a furtive glance over his shoulder at the fat governor. "You are not the first Governor to lust for more power than is his due, my Lord. It you wish this ship to be yours, you need to trust my instructions."
Just then, one of the underlings seated at one of the various computer screens around the makeshift command center bolted out of his chair and ran up to Heckta. 'sir! Sir!"
"What is it?"
The pale man kept his eyes on the floor as he spoke. "I have been monitoring the bridge communications, sir, and there's an... there's something unusual."
"Well, out with it!" Heckta growled.
"Shuttle #12 launched from Bay #2 without authorization."
Koza's bushy eyebrows shot up in alarm. "What? Heckta, are we discovered?"
Heckta ignored the governor and seized the underling by the collar. "When did it launch?"
The underling's thin lips quivered in terror. "Only a few minutes ago! Not even the bridge has determined why it's gone!"
Heckta threw the man back to the ground and turned to Koza. "If you will excuse me, my liege, there is something I must investigate."
"What? Is there something wrong?"
"Not yet-nothing certain anyway. I need to check on something. Continue the plan as stated. Your men are on the way to the bridge even as we speak, and, with your operatives intercepting all the communications traffic, there is nothing this potential breach can do to stop us at this point." Heckta picked up his needle pistol and harness from an end-table. 'still, it always pays to be thorough."
Without so much as a bow to his ""liege lord", Heckta slipped from the suite.
* * * * * * * *
By the time the girl, who called herself Sariah, reached the crater where the object had fallen, the heat from the impact had set much of the forest ablaze. Wrapping her shawl around her face to block out the smoke, she fought her way closer to whatever it was that had hit the earth. Squinting through the stinging ash and blistering heat, she made out the squared metal bulkhead of a ship, emblazoned with the Imperial Aquilla-a shuttle!
Crouching low to keep her head out of the poisonous fumes, Sariah yelled at the vessel. "Hello! Hello! Can anyone hear me? Is there anyone in there?"
There was a loud pop, and a small hatch blew off the side of the ship. Black smoke poured out of the hole for a moment before, finally, a human figured tumbled weakly out of the hatch and onto the ground. Sariah lost no time grabbing the injured survivor by the wrists and dragging him away from the burning remnants of his vessel. It was tough going, and by the time she had gotten the two of them clear of the blaze, she was exhausted. She let the man lie in the grass-he had been unconscious since he had fallen out of the ship-and took a brief inventory of his person.
His flight uniform was clearly Imperial, judging from the Aquilla above his name-Dremmen, Adrian-but it was not cut in a style she was familiar with. The only Imperial personnel she ever saw were the PDF patrols that came through the village once a month. While she supposed this man might have crash landed in a shuttle designed for intra-planetary transport, she guessed it was more likely that he was an off-worlder. Beyond his uniform and the fact that he fell from the sky, the only really interesting thing about the man was the small back he had clutched in his left hand. Whatever was in there had been so important he had held onto it even after crashing in a shuttle and crawling out of a burning deathtrap.
Curiosity getting the better of her, she pried open the man's hands and rifled through the unremarkable sack. She pulled out a small, cylindrical tube with a hook-up that looked as if it could be plugged into a computer of some sort. Turning it over in her hands, she came across some curious markings along one side. Written in a heady gothic script, they read: "The Emperor's Angels of Death Await the Call of His Hammer, to Bring Justice to All Foes." And, next to these words, was a gothic cross.
She thought the phrase over a few times, and came up with only one explanation. "This is turning into a really weird day."