A Last Blast From the Past: The Navis Nobilitae

Here is the last article I salvaged from the old Trollslayer.net site. It comes from the time when I was writing Wolfblade. As usual, it is not part of the official Warhammer 40,000 background save where parts of it have made their way into the book.

The Navigators

An extract from the basic training lectures of  Brother Guillame, Fabricator Scriptorum, Inquisition Library, Stalynheim.

Reference: Light of Knowledge

Clearance Level: Tertius

Unauthorised Viewing May Result In Termination of Library Privileges and Life.

Praise the Emperor.

Brothers, suffer not a mutant to live is one of the most ancient precepts of our order, but as we shall see it has not been applied in every case. Today we shall talk about another ancient institution of our Imperium, the Navigator Houses or Navis Nobilitae. They are one of the very few cases in which a mutation has been deemed so beneficial that it has not been stamped out.

Many claim, with some justification, that the Navigators are essential for our civilisation to survive. While it is true that some short-range interstellar travel would be possible without them, almost all long distance voyages would cease without their aid. To understand how the Navigator Houses got such a grip on the throat of our Imperium one must first understand something of how interstellar travel is accomplished.

All of our starships must pass through the Immaterium in order to make their journeys. This is an alternate dimension where time flows strangely. It is aligned contiguously with the fabric of our own space-time but within the Immaterium space is warped or curdled, so that a ship can enter it at one point in our universe, and emerge many hundreds of light years away. Passing through normal space, even at fractions of light speed such journeys would take centuries, if not millennia. Passing through the Immaterium journey times can normally be reduced to days or weeks.

Of course the Immaterium is not without its perils. In other areas of study, most notably daemonology, you will have heard it referred to as the Warp. Yes, brothers, the two are one and the same. The place through which our ships must pass is that same area from which our soul’s greatest perils emerge. This is not the time or the place to go into our understanding of why this is so. For the moment, take it on faith to be the truth.

Not only are daemons present within the Immaterium, but also there are other perils. Merely gazing upon it can, as you would expect, warp mind and soul and sometimes body. No normal man can look upon the Warp for an extended period of time and remain sane. Even to contemplate its structure upon navigational instruments can be injurious to spiritual and mental health.

It would appear that the mutation of Navigator’s makes them immune to these psychic perils. Moreover while normal souls, even shielded ones, are visible to daemons within the Immaterium, it seems that they cannot perceive Navigators- at least not with their psychic senses. (Presumably a manifest daemon with access to a normal range of senses would have no such problems but that is beyond the scope of this lecture.) It may also be that Navigators extend this protection at least in part to those ships under their care. Here, alas, we must plead ignorance.

Almost all Navigators bear the stigmata of the mutant, the third or pineal eye, which they claim lets them view the Immaterium. Why then do we take it on faith that the Navigators act in our best interests, and are not some foul pawn of the forces of Darkness? For the best of reasons- our Emperor believed this to be the case, and who are we to doubt his almighty word?

Indeed not only did he grant the charters of the Navigator Houses, he blessed them with a great boon. Of all humanity, and however reluctantly we do so, we must extend that description to the Navigators, they alone are capable of using the mighty psychic beacon of the Astronomicon to guide their vessels through the Warp. Yes, they have been granted the blessing of direct communion with the celestial choir that attends our Emperor in his throne. Does it not seem likely brothers that it is this that shields them from the perils of the void, the direct intercession of our lord on their behalf? So at least some of my colleagues believe.

Still let us not be deceived, the Navigator Houses, while they may enjoy the Emperor’s Blessing in this one thing, share all the common faults of humanity. The Navigator Houses are very old, very rich, very privileged, not a little decadent, and engaged in unending intrigue both against rival houses and within themselves, with all manner of cliques and factions struggling for power. Old hatreds and rivalries fester between the Navigator clans. These date back to before the Imperium and may have been deliberately fostered by the Emperor.

It has been speculated that one reason the Emperor in his wisdom granted charters with his seal to so many rival houses was to ensure that the Navigator’s virtual monopoly on starship transit did not become a real monopoly. With so many hereditary enemies involved, the system was designed to ensure that the Houses would always remain at each other’s throat and in competition with each other. Whatever the origins of these rivalries the Ecclesiarchy and various factions within the Imperium have done their best to maintain this situation to the present day.

In the past, there have been various attempts to unite the Navis Nobilitae or at least allow them to present a united front to the rest of the Universe. These cartels have often temporarily enjoyed a limited success, and during those periods the Navigators have enjoyed enormous influence in the Imperium, but, sooner or later, someone has always broken rank, and the endless intrigues and the endless cutthroat bidding for contracts has begun again. The Grand Conclave of the Houses, which acts as an arbitration centre and point of contact for the various Navis Nobilitae clans, while now virtually toothless, is a legacy of one of these intermittent periods of unity.

Sources within the Houses have told us that in private many Navigators see themselves as the secret masters of the Imperium-a view that some think has almost as much truth as hubris in it. Each of the Houses is ancient and enormously wealthy, and their very nature ensures that they have links with the greatest Merchant Trading Houses of the Imperium. Indeed many of these are fronts for the Navis Nobilitae, and used in their proxy wars and intrigues. Sadly the Navigators also wield a great deal of influence within the Ecclesiarchy, by virtue of their monopoly, and their enormous wealth, a damning testimony to how far our Imperium has fallen short of the Emperor’s original conception.

Each house maintains an enormous network of spies and intelligence gatherers that gives them a certain amount of leverage on the various potentates of the Imperial hierarchy. Were it not for the fact that most of the efforts of rival houses cancel each other out, they would be powers indeed within the Imperium.

Also many of Navigator Houses have links to specific Imperial Guard worlds, or Space Marine Chapters. House Belisarius for instance enjoys links with the Space Wolves, and the Lord Belisarius has his Fenrisian Guard, drawn from warriors said to be of Fenrisian stock, and captained by actual Space Wolves, under terms of an ancient pact between the House and the Chapter.

Enough of these matters let us consider the primary duty of a Navigator- guiding his ship through the warp. Bear in mind that some of this is highly speculative since our only sources are the Navigators themselves, and certain obscure mystical writings.

A Navigator is linked to his ship via command  neuro-links. It becomes an extension of his body when they fly. However once the ship is translated into the Immaterium this is a very minor consideration. The Navigator then spends most of his time seeking currents, flows, and pathways, and trying to avoid temporal whirlpools, stasis locks, and other hazards.

I must stress here that it seems every Navigator sees the Warp differently; a Navigator projects his own reference points and intellectual structures onto the Chaos of the Immaterium. Naturally this is shaped in part by his training, and how he is taught to visualise things. This means that Navigators from different houses may well see things very differently.

In most houses, it seems, Navigators begin their apprenticeship around the age of 3. Their basic training lasts 21 years.  This involved in its early stages seven years of training designed to discipline the mind through the medium of physical exercise and meditation rituals, and the study of basic martial arts for the same reason. Then comes seven years of mental training that involved the study of many disciplines including mathematics, hyper-spatial geometry, history, politics, economics. It also involves study of the design and construction of warp engines and starships in case the Navigator should be called on to supervise the repair of his vessel, and tactics of all sorts, for it is not uncommon for Navigators to become involved in battles, both in space and on the ground. Lastly there comes seven years of mystical training designed to stimulate the pineal eye, and open the mind to the paths of the Immaterium. In its last seven-year stage this apparently involves mysticism, drug use and study much like the forbidden arts of sorcery.

When a Navigator progresses to the next level, he continues his studies on the previous levels so that by the time he comes of age at 24, when his house may apply on his behalf for his Master Navigator’s ticket. It is at this point that as an Inquisitor your career and his may well intersect. Wisely the Ecclesiarchy insists that all Navigators are subjected to the most stringent mental and physical testing when they first seek their master’s ticket and every 5 years thereafter when they come to renew that ticket. Any Navigator whose travels have taken them beyond the reach of an Inquisitor for more than 5 years is required by law to present himself to the Ecclesiarchy or the nearest Inquisitor when he returns, as is any Navigator who has been exposed to abnormal influences, travelled beyond the Imperium in the company of a Rogue Trader or made contact with Xenogens or heretics of any kind. Any Navigator remiss in this duty may find himself handed over by his own house, most likely because if they fail to do so, they can be subject to a full scale Inquisitorial investigation.

As ever, when dealing with Navigators, as with all other elites of our Imperium, you must be careful to show neither fear nor favour. Do not be intimidated by threats of potential bans on future travel or daunted by the fact that during interstellar travel a Navigator will very often have your life and the life of your ship in his hands. Remember, there is no limit to Imperial justice, and no one is beyond our reach.

All glory to the Emperor.

Revising Macharius

This is the part I always enjoy. The grunt work of writing the first draft is out of the way and I am now going through The Angel of Fire in Scrivener with an eye to improving it. I took a short break away from the book last week so I could come to it cold for the rewrite. In an ideal world this interval would be longer than a week, but even that small amount of time has given me some distance. Since it’s been several months since I wrote the earliest parts of the book, I have plenty of distance from them. Now its time to get down to revising.

What does this process actually involve? Pretty much what you would expect. I am going through the manuscript and re-reading it and making changes where needed. I will hopefully notice some of the sloppier bits of writing and have a chance to tidy them up. Of course, I won’t find all of my clunkers — no one ever does — but at least I get to weed out some of my more obviously bad sentences. I will also hopefully notice some of the structural glitches; the bits where scene transitions are very abrupt and jarring, where strange things have happened to the tension levels of the story while I have been dragging scenes around in the initial draft and so on.

This is the time for bringing things into focus. I try and tighten up the characterisation, sharpen up the dialogue and heighten any drama in an individual scene. Is Macharius commanding? How can I make him more commanding? Is our narrator frightened? How can I convey this feeling to the reader in the most effective fashion? Are people arguing? How does this advance the story? Are the characters really arguing about the thing under discussion or is this a manifestation of some deeper conflict between them? How do I make this clear?  I try to make sure each action, each bit of dialogue, each bit of description advances the story or conveys character or, ideally, both. (At some point I will need to do a blog post about how to do this stuff but not today.)

I try to cut out all the stuff that is not needed. I tend to put a lot into the first draft that let’s me get a handle on the story. Often I think it’s good stuff when I am writing it but revision reveals it’s not what the story needs. Then there is usually a lot of cutting of redundant dialogue and scenes that don’t actually add anything to the storyline. Sometimes these can be excellent scenes in and of themselves, they are just not relevant to the project in hand.

In my recent Tyrion and Teclis book I cut out entire swathes of narrative seen from the point of view of the Archmage Caledor. These were scenes which told you his life story and the theory behind the creation of the Vortex but they were not stuff that the reader desperately needed to know– so out they went. They did contribute interesting fragments of information to scenes in which Caledor’s ghost appears so I’m glad I wrote them. They were not a waste. A lot of writing consists of this sort of fumbling in the dark. It’s not pretty but it is necessary.

Sometimes I will notice that there really needs to be a scene where there isn’t one, to explain something or clarify something or to foreshadow some future event, so that will go in, but mostly this is a time for taking stuff out.

While I am taking all of this stuff out on the macro level, I am usually putting stuff in on the micro level. I try to make sure there are enough eyeball kicks. This was a term used by the early cyberpunks. It refers to the sort of small, telling detail that lets you know you’re somewhere else — in the far future of 40K, for instance. The most famous example is probably Heinlein’s the door dilated.

In the case of 40K, putting in eyeball kicks consists of using a sufficiency of the background material in an interesting way. Courtesy of the artists and miniature sculptors, we all know what a las-gun looks like but what does it feel like to use? What does it sound like? Does it get warm in your hand? Does it crackle when it’s overloaded? Does the barrel burn you when you accidentally touch it after you’ve been firing it for a long time?

I go through the sections where people are actually doing stuff with 40K artefacts and I try and make sure that the reader gets some sense of their reality. My goal, in an ideal world, is to sneak an eyeball kick on to every 250 word page. (Scrivener makes this very easy to do by allowing you to view custom page setups.) I don’t do this mechanically though. One eyeball kick per page is a rule of thumb (which, incidentally, are the only rules you can ever apply to writing). Sometimes there may be many eyeball kicks, sometimes none. You get a feel for this sort of thing in the end. At least I hope you do or I’ve been doing it wrong all these years.

This is a time for a certain amount of wariness. Scrivener makes it very easy to write in a mosaic fashion. You can write scenes in almost any order and move them around to suit yourself. There are some dangers to this. It’s very easy to keep chopping and changing and moving things around till you lose sight of things, and you get jarring transitions between scenes or even scenes that are just drifted out of place in the narrative. It’s something you need to watch for. Hopefully there won’t be too much of this with Angel because I wrote the narrative in the first person singular and in chronological order. Of course, the time when you think you don’t need to bother is usually the time it’s easiest to trip yourself up.

Anyway, I think that’s enough talking about revision. It’s time to go and actually do some.




One For the Titan Fans

I’ve a lot of work to do this half week before we head off to Berlin so here’s a very brief extract from the Imperial Guard book I am currently writing. The usual disclaimers apply— this is a work in progress, subject to change and editing, no Titans were hurt in the making of this extract, etc.

An enormous shadow fell on our position. The gigantic humanoid shape of a Titan loomed over us. I looked up, an insect confronting an angry god.  The Warlord’s monstrous head scanned from side to side like a predator looking for prey. I sensed the ancient, terrible spirit within it. This was not some inanimate unthinking engine. It was a living thing, bred to war, intended to kill and full of dreadful fury. Just the sight of it made me want to throw myself back into the wreckage and hide.

Massive pistons hissed in the Titan’s limbs as it moved. The God Machine’s huge Volcano Cannon swung around. The rush of the air it displaced ruffled my hair.  The vibrations of the metal giant’s stride passed from the earth through the shattered hull and echoed through my body. My skin tingled from the halo effect of its void shields.

The Titan fired.

The smell of ozone and alchemicals filled the air. The high-pitched whine of the weapon’s capacitors hurt my ears. I ground my teeth in pain. A heretic Shadowsword went up in flames. There is ancient hatred between the God Machines and those tanks. It is said that the Shadowswords were built to kill Titans and the Titans return the favour any chance they get.

Ivan braced himself on a maintenance node in the shattered fuselage, pulled out his magnoculars and studied the destroyed vehicle, a thin line of drool dribbling down the rusted metal of his prosthetic jaw.

“See anything interesting,” Anton asked.

“There’s an idiot standing beside me,” Ivan said.

Building a Hive

What does the future smell like?

I spend a significant chunk of my working life thinking about this. To write fiction set in the 40K universe (or any other) you need to know how things look, sound, feel and smell. You need to convince your readers of the reality of the world your characters are moving through. You need to stimulate their imaginations with small, telling details that help them to believe in the place. You need to be able to describe how things feel, how they smell, how they sound if you are going to conjure up vivid images in their minds.

Games Workshop’s artists and sculptors have given us a very good idea of what the 41st Millennium looks like, but for the rest of it, you have some work to do.

Right now I am writing a story set in the Hive city of Irongrad; a vast, multi-layered urban mountain with the population of a modern country. I need, at least in my imagination, to walk its streets, and come back with a description that convinces. It’s a form of intellectual time and space travel. Once that’s done I need to be able to relate what I find to physical stimuli that readers can grasp.

How do I do that? By relating my descriptions to things that already work for me.

Let’s think about a Hive – what is it? Irongrad is a huge multi-level urban sprawl, a skyscraper the size of London that has grown organically over thousands of years. So there we have our first image; London but a London with another London stacked on top of it, and then another and then another and so on.

What does that suggest to you?

To me, it suggests something overpopulated and claustrophobic. The rich live literally on the top, in the spires. The class structure is reflected by the structure of the Hive itself. At the top, things are newer, there is more space, more light, more freedom.

Outside the world is a deadly volcanic hell. Inside there are hundreds of millions of people packed too close together. The life-support systems are over-loaded. Many of the people are armed and desperate. Most of them are over-worked and downtrodden. It’s the Middle Ages meets the Industrial Revolution — both very useful things to keep in mind when describing the 41st Millennium.

Think of being on the bottom of that Hive and feeling all of that weight pressing down on you. What if the ceiling collapses? Given what we know about the rickety systems of the 40K universe, it almost certainly happens.

Actually, in a horrible way, for a writer’s purposes, that’s kind of cool. There’s a unique sort of natural disaster implied there – a sort of Hive quake, where things collapse and whole sectors of the city are destroyed. That’s something for our characters to witness.  Morbid I know—but, hey, we’re talking about writing Science Fantasy set in one of the darkest universes ever created here.

It also gives some interesting imagery. Think of areas which have already collapsed or are under repair, or are full of warning signs, and support trestles and huge hydraulic presses that hold up overloaded ceilings. Think of areas with broken treatment pipes in the roofs where sewage falls on those below like rain, literal shitstorms. Let’s make that sound a bit more 40K, let’s call them cloacal tempests. OK—I think we have seen too much evidence of my fetid imagination in action here. Let’s move on.

So we have a huge city with a lot of people. It is a controlled environment. The vast majority live in tiny apartments, stacked one on top of each other. Many don’t have kitchens. (This was the case in Victorian London. It is the case in many densely populated cities now.) People eat out in massive communal kitchens at their work-places or at vast open air food courts as people do in the tropics.

The air smells of too many people and too many overloaded systems, of sewage and trash and cooking food. What do people eat? We need to know that so we can describe how it smells. Mostly synthetic foods, I think, so there is a chemical tang.

How about fresh meat? What sort of meat are you likely to get in a Hive? Let’s leave aside the obvious answer. No. Wait a minute. Let’s not! The rich eat fresh meat. They can afford it after all. That makes meat a status symbol of sorts. There are those who might acquire a taste for human flesh. There are those in the lower hive, who, Sweeney Todd like, acquire meat for their luxury pies in nasty ways. At very least there will be urban myths about this stuff. At worst, our heroes will be encountering cannibal cultists soon.

Let’s file this stuff away for future use. Back to meat—how about rats or other vermin? This is 40K so these can be big. Maybe they are kept like pigs in pens in the streets. Maybe they are left to shuffle through the streets eating garbage as once they did in cities like London and New York. Why not? It’s an interesting detail. We have skewers of rat-meat barbecued in the street. It’s a luxury because it’s fresh meat. There is a telling detail. Eating rat is a luxury. A bit of cliché but what of it. I can spice it up by describing various dishes involving tails and paws and choice cuts of prime Grubb Street rat.

In Bangkok once I saw a cockroach that looked almost the size of my foot, scuttling up a dark alley. Maybe my imagination made it bigger than it was, it was dark and I was drunk,  but hey, not here. In the 41st Millennium cockroaches are whatever size I want them to be. In goes cockroach stew. What does it taste like? I am guessing crunchy. (Before you go ew gross, there are apparently condiments that use extracts from roach glands—who said reading about Warhammer could not be educational?) Anyway, there’s a couple of smells to describe as our heroes move through those giant street markets.

There’s an implied ecology here —scavengers that live on refuse and which in turn are eaten themselves. They might even have been engineered for such things in the Dark Age of Technology. And all of this implies an ecology of trash.

Think about all those people, all consuming stuff, all tossing it out. The systems cannot deal with it. It builds up. There’s a smell for you. There’s also another implied economy—in Victorian London there were people who made a living picking through the trash. In modern Cairo they are still there. In this world, this is why they call some skavvies skavvies. Again, it’s 40K and everything is on a huge scale. Let’s have mountains of trash, piling up along the sides of buildings. More rich, pungent aromas to be described.

What about diseases? Surely this must be very unsanitary. Indeed. This fits right in with the medieval, plague-ridden feel of the 41st Millennium. We can make these diseases spectacular and horrible. Our beggars might look like mutants, their diseases look so bad. And there will be beggars, it’s the Middle Ages meets the Industrial Revolution, remember. Ramp this up to eleven, armies of beggars, swarming outside the temples, hobbling through the streets in endless processions.

Anyway, you can see the sort of thought experiment that gets us to the smell of the future.

So far we’ve been talking about a sort of generic Hive. I need a specific one, the one in my story. This is a city that has been under the control of a nasty heretical cult for thousands of years. The 41st Millennium is a religious age and the heretics are a very religious people. There is sacred imagery everywhere. The heretics worship the Angel of Fire. There are images of it all over the place —on public buildings, in public places. These statues are very striking. They have wings of fire—literally. Flaming gas jets emerge from the statues in the shape of wings. Is this technically possible? I have no idea. It is in the 41st Millennium.  The people all wear holy symbols depicting the Angel. They have little statues of it in their homes. Somewhere in almost every work of art, there is a picture of the Angel. Wherever you go, it is there. There is no escape. It is as omnipresent as Big Brother.

I want another image—something bad is happening is this city. An evil is about to erupt. The shape of a generic Hive has always reminded me of a volcano. I want this Hive to suggest that specifically. How to do it? Well the core of the Hive is hollow, it has a caldera, a huge gaping mouth at the peak. Seen from above, from a distance this suggests a volcano about to erupt.

Why is the core hollow?  The empty space is for an enormous Cathedral dedicated to the Angel of Fire. Symbolically the Cathedral rises from the very base of the Hive and emerges from the mouth of the volcano. The Cathedral is tipped by a statue of the fire-winged Angel the size of the Empire State Building. Seen from the distance it looks like a fire-winged god is emerging from the mouth of a volcano. It’s an image I like.

Back to the smell, to something specific. There is a gassy smell everywhere, small leaks bring it. This is something I remember very vividly from the gas cookers of my childhood and from living in bedsits with gas-fires in my youth. I remember the way it used to make the back of my throat tighten and dry out my sinuses. There’s a couple of physical symptoms right there I can describe. They happen when our heroes take off their rebreather masks. It’s a small but telling piece of physical description to tantalise the reader with.

This also gives me another detail of the architecture. There are huge gas-pipes everywhere. This is 40K, so they have to be on a monstrous scale and they have to a gothic religious feel to them. Lets have monster pipes climbing up the sides of buildings like metal ivy clinging to the sides of an ancient church. Lets have huge pipeways running between buildings. Hell, let’s put some buildings on top of them like there used to be on London Bridge and there still are on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. We can have technical adepts crawling along their underside doing repairs with sacred power-mallets. And there’s another thing from my youth, gasometers, the tanks that held reservoirs of gas. They were huge metal things and looked as if they would be right at home in the 41st Millennium. They also occasionally exploded—the sort of disaster that fits right into a 40K story. Let’s dot them about the city. Gasometers and high powered military weapons will make for some interesting explosions at some point, I am sure.

This leads us to other stuff—giant pipes that run to the Cathedral and power the huge wings of the main statue and the literally tens of thousands of statues that perch on its side like an army of fallen angels.

Anyway, I think you get the picture. Good question to ask at the start of a new project; what does the future smell like? What are the telling details? Back to the 41st Millennium for me now.