The great fleet of Black Ships belongs to the Adeptus Astra Telepathica but are often administered by the personnel of the Inquisition and the Sisters of Silence. Independent of the Imperial Navy, they represent the second largest human fleet in the galaxy.
There are many thousands of Black Ships but only the highest-ranking Adepts in the Adeptus Astra Telepathica know the true scale of the fleet and the vast scope of its operations. New vessels are constantly commissioned to replace the inevitable losses and to further increase the fleet's size.
Thus it is that each standard year, more and more planets of the Imperium are visited and stripped of their psykers for transportation to Terra, where they will be either trained to become Sanctioned Psykers who can serve the Imperium in a number of important roles or their lives will be sacrificed to the Emperor of Mankind so that He will have the psychic energy necessary to maintain the crucial telepathic navigational beacon of the Astronomican.
Black Ships are typically incredibly ancient vessels, and it is a rare sight to see one of these foreboding starships enter a planetary system. Even rarer is to have one of these built to replace inevitable losses incurred by the very nature of their mission, as vital to the Imperium as it is fraught with danger.
Due to the exacting standards and particular specifications required to construct a Blackship, usually this is undertaken nowhere else but at the orbital shipyards of Mars itself, though records indicate a small number were constructed at Kar Durniash and Cypra Mundi.
For all its imposing bulk and the abject fear mere mention of this ship brings, each one is little more than a gigantic transport vessel and high-security prison, albeit fitted with a heavily augmented and carefully-tuned Gellar Field to shroud the beacon-bright imprint so many pykers in such close vicinity would have upon the Warp during a Black Ship's transit.
Additionally, such vessels always embark a large contingent of Untouchables, those cursed with the Pariah Gene that appear as psychic Nulls to the Warp, along with a mission of Adepta Sororitas to keep order aboard the ship and to serve as a final line of defence against enemy boarders.
Because of the enormous bounty such a cargo would represent to Chaos or the Drukhari, Black Ships mount weapons comparable to front-line warships, and it is rare that a Black Ship ever plies the void without being under heavy escort.
During the Great Crusade and Horus Heresy eras in the late 30th and early 31st Millennia, the ancient Astra Telepathica possessed a militant arm which was referred to internally within the records of the Adeptus Terra as the Departmento Investigates.
But they were known throughout the galaxy as the Sisters of Silence, the Silent Sisterhood and the Witchseekers. The Silent Sisterhood was an all-female Imperial order of Witch Hunters dedicated to the elimination of psychic threats to Mankind.
Their primary base of operations was the Somnus Citadel on Luna, the moon of Terra. Their purpose was to hunt and kill rogue human psykers whose activities presented a terrible danger to the people of the newborn Imperium of Man.
The Sisters of Silence were well-trained warriors, and with the added benefit of their natural and innate anti-psyker abilities they were dangerous opponents to the psychic enemies of Mankind. Unlike other living beings, these women sworn to silence possessed no presence in the Warp and were therefore unaffected by all forms of psychic power.
There were many names for them in the multitude of human cultures to be found across the galaxy: Untouchables, Nulls, Pariahs, Blanks. All of the members of their order were non-psychic, for they bore the Pariah Gene which made them immune to all forms of psychic assault and rendered their minds unreadable by telepathy.
The Sisters operated the Astra Telepathica's infamous League of Black Ships, which ranged across the galaxy following behind the Great Crusade's Expeditionary Fleets in search of rogue psykers to capture or expunge, seeking to collect and carry them back to Terra where they would be tested and their eventual fate decided.
Though few in number, the Sisters of Silence commanded great respect within the Imperium and most servants of the Emperor regarded them with some awe. Few would willingly stand in their way or interfere with their activities and few indeed were those who were comfortable in their presence. The ultimate fate of the Sisters of Silence is not found in Imperial records, and remained unknown until the late 41st Millennium.
It was believed for a long time that they were either destroyed long ago or were ultimately folded into the organisation of the Imperial Inquisition following the Horus Heresy, which now administers the League of Black Ships.
However, in the wake of the Great Rift's birth, the Sisters of Silence have been restored to a prominent place among the Imperium's defenders by the command of the resurrected Primarch Roboute Guilliman.
Though still small in number it is now possible once again to see one or more of the Sisters of Silence accompanying the Black Ships on their vital duties.
With the opening of the Great Rift it became nigh-impossible for the Black Ships to continue operating as they once had.
To say nothing of those that had been lost beyond the rift, the remaining craft found themselves forced to dare roiling war zones wherever they travelled, delving into planet-wide battles in order to extract their tithe.
The Sisters of Silence who often commanded the Black Ships after Guilliman's resurrection were formidable warriors, but they recognised that this situation could not continue forever.
The solution came in the form of the Indomitus Crusade fleets. While some Black Ships continued to ply the space lanes they always had, and to harvest in the conventional fashion, many more were deployed as so-called "Flights of Crows" that followed in the wake of the Indomitus battlegroups.
Like carrion birds picking over the trail of a campaigning army, the Black Ships fell upon recently reconquered Imperial systems and reaped a rich bounty from populations already battered into absolute compliance and so terrified that they would obey the Silent Sisters without question.
So did the Black Ships continue to function, throughout the reconquered systems of the Imperium Sanctus at least, and so did they keep the Golden Throne and the Astronomican from faltering in this desperate hour.
The League of Blackships
Constructed solely by the Adeptus Mechanicus of Mars and administered by the Inquisition, the so-called "Black Ships" are among the most secretive of warships currently in the service of the Imperium.
Sometime in the distant past the Grand Masters of the Inquisition viewed the reliance upon Imperial Navy or Space Marine forces for transport, support and protection as unacceptable and a new vessel capable of independent action was required.
Like their predecessors from ten millennia earlier, these Black Ships (so-called due to their somewhat sinister reputation) combine many features of a Space Marine Strike Cruiser with a full sized Battle Cruiser hull. These formidable vessels can deploy company-sized formations with orbital support.
Usually operating alone or in conjunction with Imperial Navy or Space Marine Escorts, these vessels can serve as the core of a formidable battle group for dealing with rebellions or Heretic incursions.
The Black Ships are feared transports filled with mournful, unsanctioned psykers held in cavernous, psi-shielded holds to be taken back to Terra to feed the voracious psychic appetite of the Emperor. Only those with the strength of mind to withstand the constant, soul-numbing despair projected telepathically and unwittingly by many of the captured psykers that permeates a Black Ship may crew it, so mentally traumatic is such duty.
These psykers will become either official Sanctioned Psykers trained to serve the Imperium in a variety of capacities or they will be bound and sacrificed to the Emperor, their lives snuffed out to maintain the power of the telepathic beacon of the Astronomican that the Emperor's mind directs in the Immaterium to guide all Imperial interstellar transport and commerce.
The Black Ship fleet travels constantly throughout the Imperium. Each Imperial world is visited every hundred standard years or so by a Black Ship. When a Black Ship nears a planet, its Imperial Planetary Governor is instructed to prepare the customary levy -- a tithe of unsanctioned psykers drawn from the world's population. Once the levy has been collected, the Black Ship's captain makes an initial evaluation of his cargo before proceeding to the next world in his circuit.
When the starships are full of psykers they return to Terra and the psykers are transferred to the Scholastica Psykana of the Adeptus Astra Telepathica for evaluation and training before the ship leaves again to continue its eternal search. It is common for Inquisitors of the Ordo Hereticus or Ordo Malleus to travel on board these ships, as this gives them a good opportunity to investigate a planet's potential for psychically-based corruption.
Black Ship Crews
The crews of the Black Ships come from both the Astra Telepathica and the Inquisition. The captains and other senior officers of the Black Ships are senior Adepts of the Adeptus Astra Telepathica. The ships' crews are indentured workers drafted from a number of Imperial worlds situated relatively close to Terra.
The Astra Telepathica has ancient contracts with these worlds, ensuring a steady flow of suitable recruits in return for exemption from Imperial Tithes. All crew are rigorously tested and scrutinised for any latent psychic abilities or sensitivities and are regularly mind-scrubbed to purge any taint or infection. Navigators for the fleet of Black Ships are all members of the Granicus, Ptolemy and MacPherson Navigator Houses who work exclusively for the Astra Telepathica.
Inquisitors, alone amongst Imperial officials, have secured Rights of Passage aboard the Black Ships and have leave to travel freely throughout the entire fleet. They are also wont to oversee the identification, capture and incarceration of particularly recalcitrant or rebellious psykers in whom they have a personal interest.
Generally, few other Imperial agents are permitted aboard these dread vessels but occasionally Space Marines, Sisters of Battle, Sisters of Silence or higher-ranking members of the Adeptus Terra may be accommodated at the captain's discretion.
A Black Ship is a dreadful environment for psykers. Psychically-sensitive crew spend most of their time in the shielded upper decks of the main bridge, as far removed from the containment holds as possible so as to avoid the unpleasant effects of the anti-psychic security measures in place.
There are numerous devices and routines directed at the great holds to confuse and confound psychic abilities. Each ship has a troop of specially-trained Adepts whose sole function is to focus their own psychic energies into an Occluding Sphere –- this strange metaphysical device broadcasts an invasive signal into the mind of any nearby psyker, severely disrupting their ability to concentrate or reason and therefore largely curtailing their ability to utilise their talents.
In addition to this, oppressively loud and discordant noise is pumped into the holds to disrupt any attempts at concentration or rest. The holds are dimly illuminated for the most part but frequent bursts of strobing light shatter the twilight. Food and drink for the captives is laced with sedatives. The captive population is regularly moved from one hold to another. All of this serves to keep the psykers in a helpless, confused and compliant state. The most dangerous psykers (as identified by Inquisitorial scrutiny) are kept in separate isolation cells deep within the bowels of the containment holds.
Adepts of the Telepathica test the psykers being transported, selecting those who are strong enough to shield themselves from possession by Warp entities to begin their training.
The Inquisition's role is to scrutinise the tithe gathered from each world to make sure that there is no shortfall in the number of psykers given up, monitor the psykers being transported in case they pose a threat while in transit and (though not their official duty) pick the best psykers for training and use by the Inquisition itself. Indeed, many Inquisition Acolytes with psychic powers themselves began their careers as unwilling passengers on a Black Ship, where their talents were first recognised.
The Black Ships themselves are dark places of despair, for they are little more than spacefaring high-security prisons and many of the psykers being transported know full well that they will meet a grim fate at their journey's end. Every solar day, dozens of Black Ships complete their epic journey and arrive at Terra, whereupon they disgorge their cargoes of human psykers.
Each voidship can hold many thousands of psykers within their vast holds. So each and every day, tens of thousands of psykers are sent to the processing halls, graded and passed on through the myriad departments and institutions responsible for ensuring that the Tithe is put to its allotted use.
These rarely-seen vessels usually operate only on Inquisition business but occasionally, when the interests of both the Inquisition and the Imperial Navy coincide, a Black Ship will join with an Imperial Navy battle group.
While it is a rare Admiral who welcomes an Inquisitor to his counsels, these vessels are highly capable additions to any Imperial force. The Black Ships are described as like a void that blocks out the light of the stars visually as they pass. The captains of Black Ships are often senior Inquisitorial agents with a ship-based defence force of Inquisitorial Storm Troopers or Sisters of Battle.
Notable Black Ships
- Aeria Gloris - This notable vessel was operated by the Silent Sisterhood during the Great Crusade era of the late 30th Millennium. Whereas conventional vessels of an Imperial Expeditionary Fleet ran with pennants and signal lamps to illuminate the lengths of their hulls, the Aeria Gloris came in darkness, arriving out of the interstellar deeps as an ocean predator might slip to the surface of a night time sea. It was difficult to make out anything more than the most basic details of this formidable warship, as it blended with the void.
- Ecclesiarch Nevsky - Such is the secretive nature of their work few of the exploits of the Black Ships are known. However, the destruction of the Ecclesiarch Nevsky while destroying the Tyranid incursion on Horatia III stands out. The Nevsky and her Escorts managed to destroy three Hive Ships of the invasion fleet before succumbing. The destruction of the hive vessels prevented any Tyranid reinforcement reaching the embattled planet and the Astra Militarum, coupled with a Deathwatch Kill-team from the Nevsky, helped with the extermination of the Tyranid horde.
- Validus - A notable vessel that was operated by the Silent Sisterhood during the Great Crusade and early Horus Heresy era, the Validus became stranded within the Warp. Further details in regards to this vessel and its ultimate fate remain classified, even ten millennia later.
- Irkalla - This vessel was in service to the Imperium of Man during the Horus Heresy era. It was boarded by Astartes of the Word Bearers Traitor Legion who took its human cargo away for their own unholy purposes.
- Battlefleet Gothic Magazine 9, "Inquisition Black Ship," by Bob Henderson, pp. 16-17
- Codex Imperialis (1st Edition), pg. 36
- Dark Heresy: Core Rulebook (RPG), pg. 273
- Warhammer 40,000: Rulebook (Digital Edition) (7th Edition), pp. 279, 300, 320, 328, 386, 532, 543-544
- White Dwarf 140 (UK), "Space Fleet"
- The Flight of the Eisenstein (Novel) by James Swallow
- Tales of Heresy (Anthology), "The Voice" by James Swallow
- Abyssal (Short Story) by David Annandale
- White Dwarf 35 (July 2019), "Indomitus Crusade Fleets," pg. 43