- "I see an angel in red, his eyes plucked from his skull and his wings torn from his shoulders. A hot wind blows from the north, bringing with it the scent of crushed lotus and rancid iron. I hear the drone of the blood wasp and the whisper of the third mad son. I see… I see...a warning!"
- — Auto-crytaesthesicon transcript of the last words of Astropath Xhora, slain in a Chaos reaver attack hours later
Astropaths are psykers who are responsible for carrying out all of the superluminal communications that tie the Imperium of Man together using their telepathic abilities. Chosen from the multitudes of psykers born across the vast breadth of the Imperium, these individuals are detected and incarcerated within one of the fearsome Black Ships of the Adeptus Astra Telepathica and brought to Terra due to their great power and their potential use to the Imperium. The fate of the vast majority of these psykers is to fuel the insatiable fires of the Astronomican so that the Imperium might be held together for another day. Of those allowed to live, a tiny fraction are judged strong enough to undergo training and go on to serve the Imperium in a staggering array of capacities as a Sanctioned Psyker, from Inquisitor to Imperial Guard Battle Psyker.
Those chosen to become Astropaths undergo the ritual of Soul Binding, in which the body and soul are scoured clean of the taint of the Warp by the searing purity of the Emperor of Mankind's beneficence. After months of preparation through fasting, prayer and ritual preparation, the chosen psykers are brought into the very depth of the Imperial Palace in procession of a hundred at a time, there to undergo a ritual that will either kill them, drive them insane, or bind them for all eternity to the Emperor. So intense is the ritual that the supplicants' sensory organs are almost totally overloaded - leaving them blinded by the experience - with many suffering further nerve damage, incurring loss of smell, touch, or hearing.
Being soul-bonded with the Emperor is necessary, however, as it greatly heightens an Astropath's already formidable psychic powers and gives them the ability for which they were chosen—to send telepathic messages through space instantaneously across large interstellar distances, thereby becoming the main network of interstellar communications in the Imperium. Most Imperial starships have an Astropath on board and most Imperial planetary governments have access to Astropaths. Without the Astropaths' unique ability, long-distance communication in the Imperium would be impossible. However, their powers are still susceptible to the local conditions of the Warp (such as Warp Storms) and as such, their messages can be greatly delayed or lost. Due to the strenuous nature of their job and the result of their soul-bonding with the Emperor, many Astropaths are physically frail and can die quite young through mental exhaustion or overexposure to the energies of the Warp.
Just as travel within the Imperium is a complicated and inexact science, so too is the business of exchanging messages between the many and varied planets that make up the Imperium. Planetary communications systems such as vox-casters, hardwired telegraph and telephony lines and the more advanced vox-communicators suffice to pass messages amongst the nations of a world, yet have almost no use beyond the bounds of the planet’s surface. Such devices require many Terran years for their signal to reach even the nearest planet of a star system and have no surety of even being detected when they arrive. The perils of travel ensure that human or Servitor messengers are just as unreliable and potentially as slow as radio or other energy wave communications.
The Imperium is forced to rely upon communication by psychic, or astropathic means. Astropaths communicate with symbols and iconic images, projecting these messages through vast distances of space by means of psychic power drawn from the Warp. This process is usually exhausting and requires ritual and focus in order to keep the psyker in the right frame of mind. These can take a wide variety of forms, such as use of the Emperor's Tarot, vision quests, automatic writing, trances, séances and the like. The Gaolist Astropaths of Hredin for example, spend many years etching their messages onto painstakingly illuminated sheets of iron and then destroy the work of art upon a massive grinding wheel when they are ready to transmit the information. The pain of annihilating a much-loved labour is said to produce psychic messages of unparalleled clarity.
These messages are received by fellow Astropaths in various ways. Some appear as vague and troubling dreams, whilst others appear as visions or mystic portents. Others appear within whatever ritual method or divination technique the receiving psyker happens to practise. Thus warning of an Ork invasion might appear as a glistening imperfection in fish entrails, a looming cloud of smoke, bleeding orifices or a worrying combination of runes or sigils within a holographic matrix. Astropathic messages must not only be transmitted from one Astropath to another but decoded at the other end. Each Astropath employs slightly different symbols and each has a preferred style or “flavour”. Some messages take weeks of poring over tomes of augurs and symbolism before they can be reconstructed, though the best Astropaths can do this word for word. Some remain a mystery forever. Some messages are received by Astropaths at entirely the wrong end of the galaxy and must be passed on to others who are nearer the place in question.
Some messages simply do not get to their intended recipient or are drastically misinterpreted along the way. In addition, there are too few Astropaths. Most worlds, especially those with small populations or on the fringes of the Imperium, have no Astropaths at all, and must rely on the infrequent visits of passing Chartist ships or Administratum census-takers to make contact with the outside galaxy at all. For this reason the Adeptus Terra cannot react quickly to every event in the Imperium, even when an event occurs that is great enough to attract the notice of the vast and ponderous bureaucracy. On most worlds, the Imperium feels very far away.
Choirs of the AstropathsEdit
Most Astropaths who survive their tenure in an Astropathic Choir go on to perform a more specialised role. Some ascend in the ranks and become masters at directing the mind-voices of their choirs. Others are scattered across the galaxy to serve as the personal Astropaths and advisors of powerful Adepts such as Inquisitors or Praefects, or are seconded to organisations such as the Administratum, the Adeptus Arbites, the Imperial Guard, or even the Adeptus Astartes. A very few return to Terra to take up a role in the Scholastica Psykana, mentoring other would-be Astropaths and teaching them the inner secrets of their order’s vocation.
Most Astropaths serving Rogue Traders in the Koronus Expanse come from amongst those serving in a Choir on the fringes of the Imperium. Such choirs are generally those found aboard Imperial Navy defence stations guarding the outer marches, or perhaps those sitting on the very fringes, in the anarchic grey area between the frontiers and the lawless wastes. Serving in Choirs in such places, Astropaths inevitably pick up on what is variably thought of as the psionic background field, the echoes of the death cries of long dead species or the resonant thoughts of slumbering things that bear no relation to humanity’s field of existence. Service in frontier Astropathic Choirs exposes the Astropath to numerous dangers, not least of which is constant low-level exposure to half-heard alien whispers that drive many to burn out or break down. Those able to survive, however, are considered ideal candidates to serve as Astropaths aboard Rogue Trader vessels.
A traveller passing out of the Calixis Sector towards the Maw would be wise to layover at the Imperial Navy void station of Port Wander, if only because it represents one final opportunity to turn back. Port Wander serves numerous functions, acting as a naval depot, a defence station, and a port, as well as a refuge for numerous individuals of distinctly low character. The decks heave with crowds of off-duty voidsmen and the crews of Rogue Trader vessels. Its decks and companionways are at once violent and lawless and also subject to the brutal justice of the Imperial Navy provosts who prowl its depths in search of fresh meat to be press-ganged.
Like any other Imperial Navy frontier station, Port Wander is served by a substantial Astropathic Choir. Those serving in the choir must contend with a vast range of unique trials. Most significantly, the proximity of the Calixis terminal of the Koronus Passage, as well as the Great Storms through which the Warp route plunges, places huge strain upon the psyches of any Astropaths using their powers here. In particular, the storm known as the Screaming Vortex is said to emit a shrill dirge that, when it reaches a periodic crescendo, can cause dozens of Port Wander’s Astropaths to fit and convulse, cutting off communications for days. To make things worse, the choir is subject to the capricious and tyrannical rule of a regent choir-master, as the Adept assigned that role has not been seen outside of his sanctum in living memory.
To ascend from service in the Port Wander Astropathic Choir, an Astropath must have proven himself able to survive the ebb and flow of tumultuous energies that are the result of the Great Storms raging nearby, as well as the incessant politicking of the choir’s own masters. Such individuals are often held to be somewhat cold and jaded, as if inured to human suffering and able to shut out the feelings of others on a whim. They are valued by those willing to risk the outer edges of the Great Storms, as well as the numerous other raging ætheric tempests to be found within the depths of the Koronus Expanse, for such places appear to hold less fear for them as they do others of their calling. Oddly, this state of mind does not extend to the Rifts of Hecaton, a region that veterans of the Port Wander Astropathic Choir hold in the greatest of dread.
The Pits of VoicesEdit
At the other end of the Maw from Port Wander can be found the void settlement known as Footfall. Unlike its opposite number, Footfall lies outside of the domains of the Emperor, and the laws of the Imperium hold no more sway there than the rule of the despots, recidivists, and assorted scum who call it their home. Without an official Adeptus presence, there can be no conventional Astropathic Choir in Footfall. Despite, and perhaps because of its outland status, Footfall is host to a group of Astropaths, though one quite unlike any within the Imperium’s borders. The so-called Pit of Voices is a tragic, ramshackle imitation of a true Astropathic Choir, one served entirely by outcast or masterless Astropaths. While few are actual renegades, the majority of Astropaths serving the Pit of Voices are broken in some manner. Some have been judged wanting in their abilities, or perhaps unsuitable in some other way, and somehow escaped being shipped to Terra to fuel the Astronomican. Travelling incognito beyond the reach (or so they hope) of their erstwhile masters, these outcasts come to such places as Footfall in the hope of fulfilling their destiny. Like many psykers, Astropaths who do not exercise their abilities grow afflicted by a cruel malaise known as “psisickness,” and so a position in the Pit of Voices is to them a blessed release. Even if they court madness and worse under the direction of the Pit’s mistress—the soothsayer Attar Soloket—the Astropaths are content to be plugged into the rusty, blood encrusted psi-caskets and to add their voices to the atonal dirge of Footfall’s Astropathic Choir.
On several occasions, the choir’s Astropaths and their leader have come under attack or been subjected to brutal assassination attempts. Most are carried out by bounty hunter scum, while others are the work of highly proficient assassins. On at least three separate occasions, a force of highly professional warriors clad in black carapace armour and bearing no insignia have infiltrated the void settlement and assaulted the Pit of Voices. In each case, it was only the mobilisation of the various underworld organisations that rely on the outcast Astropaths that fought them off.
Very occasionally, Mistress Soloket recognises in one of her reject Astropaths a talent that, in her belief, should not have been rejected by the Scholastica Psykana. Though it is not actually within her power to do so, she lifts the choirmember from his station and declares him a “true” Astropath, perhaps using her celebrated powers to discern something in his future that may yet serve Humanity. How many Dynasties have unknowingly taken on an Astropath formerly rejected by the Imperium cannot be known, and most Rogue Traders who might have done so know better than to ask too many questions when taking on crew at Footfall.
Most examples of Humanity to be found beyond the borders of the Imperium exist there because they shun the light of the Emperor—pirates, rebels, heretics, and worse. Others are there because they know no other existence, including lost human worlds that have every reason to believe themselves the sole survivors of the wars that shattered the galaxy during the distant Age of Strife. Only a small number go beyond the Imperium’s frontiers with the blessing of the High Lords of Terra, and these include the Rogue Traders, far-ranging Space Marines, and the Explorator Fleets of the Adeptus Mechanicus.
When the Adeptus Mechanicus travels into the outer void, they often leave behind them a trail of way stations. Staffed almost entirely by mono-tasked servitors overseen under the care of aged Explorators approaching the end of their service to the Machine God, these way stations act as storage depots, repair facilities, data depositories, and often as Astropathic relays.
Those Astropaths seconded to service in choirs operating under the Adeptus Mechanicus are often left aboard the way stations seeded the Explorator Fleets seeded across the empty void as they plunge ever further into the darkness. They exist and operate in a very different way to their compatriots serving in more conventional Astropathic Choirs elsewhere in the Imperium. The way stations are almost exclusively served by mind-scrubbed menials and those few Tech-Priests attending them have often undergone the Rite of Pure Thought or are otherwise so advanced in their service to the Machine God they are incapable of interacting with those outside of their order. It is a lonely existence indeed and, to make matters worse, when the Choir does receive a message to relay back to the Imperium, it is inevitably formed according to the unique frame of reference of the Adeptus Mechanicus. Many of these Astropaths go mad through a combination of exposure to the soulless grating machine code of the Adeptus Mechanicus that drowns out all other sensory inputs and the sheer isolation of their existence. Those few that survive their service are changed forever, but are invariably stronger for their ordeal.
The task of an Astropathic Relay is to serve as a conduit through which the astrotelepathic traffic of entire sectors is sent and received across the vast, trackless depths of the void between each sector. The psychic interchange is relentless and constant, and the burn out rate phenomenal. At times of all-out war or other calamity, dozens, even hundreds of Astropaths might be sacrificed each day, simply to keep the relay open and communication flowing to and from the affected region. Were the relay to fall silent for even the blink of an eye, untold thousands of lives might be lost and entire worlds could fall. Needless to say, such relays are vital to the continued existence of the Imperium and the members of the Astropathic Choirs are fortunate indeed to survive them.
An Astropath who has served, and indeed survived, in an Astropathic Relay is a rare individual indeed. He is able to withstand the raging torrent of the Warp, to shape it to his will, and send it onwards towards its ultimate destination. His mind-voice is strong and clear and other Astropaths find his messages much easier to rapidly comprehend than those of others with different histories.
The Koronus Expanse is scattered with the ruins of colonies established as some grand endeavour and laid low by the countless perils that haunt the outer voids. Most of these settlements were built according to some Rogue Trader’s vision of building a new society, even the foundation of a new empire, with himself as the sole ruling authority. Almost all colonies founded in this manner fail within a generation, most within a decade and a significant number within a single season. No planet is without some danger to Mankind. Hostile fauna and flora can wipe out a colony overnight, especially if the initial survey overlooked it due to some unusual migration or breeding cycle, but numerous other threats exist. Aggressive bacteriological factors can destroy even the most well prepared colony, as can environmental ones. Needless to say, the deathblow is often delivered by the hand of marauding xenos, in particular the Rak’Gol, but even more common are attacks by other human factions, from brutal slavers to bitter isolationists. Most of these colonies are little more than a few thousand “volunteers” desperately trying to survive in a hostile environment. A smaller number are provided with some basic resources, such as a light defence force, sub-stellar fleet assets, and, in some cases, a small Astropathic Choir. To acquire such a choir, a Rogue Trader dynasty must be exceptionally rich, influential, or just plain lucky, for the masters of the Adeptus Astra Telepathica are none too keen to risk their valuable Astropaths in such a way.
Astropaths who have served in the lonely Choirs beyond the frontier have lived a life of extraordinary privation and danger that few others of their order could imagine. Cut off from the greater Imperium by the Great Storms, they have led an existence finely balanced between survival and extinction. Tasked with communicating with their masters, they have had to learn when to send their mind-voice singing out across the void and when to fall silent lest reavers and xenos be drawn to them. These individuals are blessed of a taciturn self-reliance rarely seen amongst others of the Adeptus Astra Telepathica, and, as such, are highly prized by ambitious Rogue Traders.
- Codex Imperialis (1st Edition), by Rick Priestley, pp. 36–37
- Dark Heresy: Core Rulebook (RPG), pp. 246–264
- Rogue Trader: Core Rulebook (RPG), pp. 48, 154, 158, 162-167, 168-170, 171-172
- Rogue Trader: Navis Primer (RPG), pp. 22-24
- Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader (1st Edition), pp. 133, 147-148
- Warhammer 40,000: Rulebook (5th Edition), pp. 104, 124
- Warhammer 40,000: Rulebook (4th Edition), pp. 94, 123