"You were not born on one of the Emperor's worlds, but instead on a vast ship in the depths of space -- perhaps even in the Warp itself. Why this sets you apart from your fellow man is unknown, but the way you look, act and think is somehow different. You have been raised in the company of psykers, and what other men fear or loathe is commonplace to you."
- — Anonymous Void Settler
Not merely star travellers but the products of many generations passed in the darkness between worlds, the Void Born are relatively few among the teeming multitudes of Humanity, but singular, and form a disparate and odd collection of misfits, strangers, and other ill-omened folk, perhaps birthed in the belly of a vessel that has spent standard centuries charting its course through the stars or aboard an ancient orbital void station.
The Void Born are often considered to be somehow touched by the taint of the Warp, or at least associated with the many and unfathomable dangers of the outer darkness by the common well of the Imperium of Man. Most consider them bringers of bad fortune and ill-tidings, secretive, and untrustworthy.
Life as a Void Born
The vast Imperial Fleet is a vital factor in the maintenance of the Imperium; without it, human worlds would be isolated from each other and left unprotected. Without it, interstellar trade could not exist, weapons could not reach the Emperor's armies, and world after world would fall into the darkness.
Space travel throughout the Imperium is dangerous and arduous. Most interstellar travel is undertaken using powerful, ancient engines that push a vessel into the Immaterium, also known as the Empyrean or "the Warp." Within the Warp, a starship can cover many thousands of light years within a relatively short time, dropping back into the Materium far beyond the ship's starting point.
Some parts of the Warp, however, act as powerful vortices that drag helpless vessels to their doom. There is also a constant danger of turbulence, Warp Storms, and temporal loops: starships can be thrown thousands of light years off course or trapped in stasis forever.
In the Warp there is neither time nor distance -- only the constantly-flowing streams of psychic energy that comprise the Immaterium. On board a voidship in the Warp, a single solar month of time may pass, yet in the material realm anything from six solar months to several standard years may elapse. Fleets responding to distress calls and supply vessels on long voyages have been known to arrive solar months or even years too late.
Those who live their lives on voidships become inured to some extent to the reality-altering process of Warp travel, and to living in low or zero-gravity environments and never knowing the feel of solid ground beneath their feet. Some vessels never make berth, their crews instead raising generations of families in the cold depths of space where gravitational variance, radiation exposure, genetic distortion, and Warp anomalies slowly take their toll.
What true effect these taints have on individual Void Born Humans is both uncertain and varied, but there is quite evidently something strange about most of them. In many cases, their features are drawn and their skin pallid, and they may have minor deformities, or an oddness of speech, gait, or general appearance that sets them apart from others. Some, although outwardly normal, carry a strange air about them, a perceptible something "not quite right" about them that makes others uneasy.
Some Void Born are raised on huge void station-asteroid mining installations, Battlefleet Calixis refit stations, or Machine Cult research platforms -- but the majority come from a variety of backgrounds aboard an active star vessel, be they the issue of the crew of merchant vessels or warships, miners, scavengers, prison guards (or prisoners), and even the servants of a Rogue Trader.
The largest Imperial voidships are vast, city-sized spacecraft, many of which are thousands of standard years old. On such huge star vessels, lobotomised servitors and Tech-adepts move about their mysterious business, whilst menial crew, passengers, and merchant guilders coexist in crowded vaults, lonely corridors, and cramped quarters.
At the right hand of the ship's lord-captain sits the Navigator, one of a strange and select breed of psykers who expertly guide vessels through the Immaterium following the psychic beacon of the Astronomican.
Worst of all are the Black Ships of the Inquisition. These vessels are part of a large fleet travelling the Imperium in a huge circuit, visiting each Imperial world on their route once every hundred standard years or so. Their mission is to collect the psychic levy from each world -- hundreds of psykers rounded up and handed over to the authorities for some unknown fate on Terra. Only when the vast holds of these ships are full of psykers do they return to Terra.
Some may display the strength and potential to serve the Imperium, however most are sacrificed to the God-Emperor, their gruesome deaths ensuring the survival of the Imperium and the light of the Astronomican. Life aboard these vessels is particularly harsh, for the psykers themselves are packed into huge holding cells, treated little better than cattle.
Those Void Born raised in the service of the Imperial Navy or amongst the crew of a Rogue Trader know firsthand the horrors of space and the sheer multitude of the Emperor's enemies. This knowledge often forces voidfarers of the lowdecks into insular crew brotherhoods, afraid to look outward from their duties or small societies for fear of what might be lurking in the void beyond the hull.
Families And Dynasties
That is not to say, however, that every crew-member aboard a starship -- save perhaps the captain -- is doomed to a slow death through privation and servitude (possibly interrupted by a very quick death through combat or fatal accident).
Many crew, especially amongst those who are skilled enough to make themselves vital to the ship's smooth operations, adapt to their life amongst the stars, and even thrive. These Void Born learn to love the countless corridors and passageways of a starship, from Plasma Drive to pointed prow.
It helps that most captains afford their trained crew a certain latitude not granted to the masses of ratings. In exchange for their specialised skills they are given larger quarters, better meals, the opportunity for shore leave at friendly ports, and even the dispensation to form relationships and raise families. Often, these families pass down duties -- and the knowledge to perform them -- from parent to child.
On the Rogue Trader vessel Starweaver, for example, all of the launch bay door operators on the ship's starboard side belong to the Orell clan, a situation that has remained unchanged for three standard centuries. On a starship's gundecks, each Macrocannon may be crewed by a different family, who might all be embroiled in a complex web of feuds, alliances, and unpleasant little wars with the other Macroweapon clans. Often, a good crew chief or bosun is indispensable precisely because they can navigate the labyrinthine political webs woven amongst the thousands of ship's crew.
The primary advantage to these dynasties, of course, is that the ship's crew essentially trains itself in many matters. Invaluable knowledge is passed down through generations, carefully preserved so that the families in turn may preserve their privileges and pride amongst the crew.
That being said, there are certain risks as well. To protect their valued positions, these crew dynasties often make sure that their knowledge of how to operate their systems or perform their duties remains a secret known only within their clan. So long as they remain aboard their ship and at their posts, this is not a problem. However, should the status quo change, a ship could find itself in a precarious position.
During one of its battles with a dangerous Yu'Vath remnant, the raider Cerberus lost nearly an entire crew family to a catastrophic decompression in the aft decks. This family had been responsible for regulating coolant lines to the ship's secondary Plasma Drives.
Had the ship's Seneschal not called for the clan's twelve-year-old son to serve as a message runner, not a living soul aboard the Cerberus would have known where the emergency purge valves were located, and the entire ship would likely have suffered catastrophic drive failure.
"Have you ever seen blood in zero-gravity my friend? It lives, it is a serpent, glorious and delightful, and how it twists and coils like a lover around your blade. It is the only thing hot enough to quench the cold, and I'm so very, very cold now my friend, so very cold..."
- — Ezra Morbius, Void Reclaimator
Just as with some worlds, there are certain spacefaring vessels both great and small with a dark reputation. Although all starships have their own histories, not all of them pleasant, and many have dark secrets and half-abandoned depths where things best left unseen sometimes crawl, certain vessels hold an infamy all their own.
These ships, some of them ancient and legendary in their own right, ply the dark void between the stars but often hold a deeper darkness within, couched in stories of dire curses, ill-omens, bleak fortunes, baleful massacres, cannibalism, hauntings and worse. The Void Born call such ships "darkholds," and those that hail from them or can find a berth nowhere else have an equally shadowed reputation, shunned and considered to be unlucky and ill-fated by their eccentric kind.
Although such distinctions are often lost on those outsiders who cannot tell the difference from one "spook" Void Born and another, those that spend much of their lives sealed between the hulls of a great ship fear the darkholds, mistrust those that call them home, and hold their protective talismans tight when they draw close. The Darkholders are a breed apart to those with the wisdom to see it, lean and hungry, with the cold black dancing in their eyes.
The Calixis Sector has several notorious darkholds of its own, from the gargantuan and blood-drenched Bountiful Beast, to the blackly-storied far trader Blinded Saint whose seven-year course takes it out into the reaches of the Hazeroth Abyss sub-sector, to the sinister grand mausoleum barge Pale Sepulchre and the infamous naval battlecruiser Chalice of Fire, recovered empty and adrift centuries ago and taken back into service by the Imperial Navy, said still to be haunted by the thousands of souls of her former crew, disappeared without trace.
- Dark Heresy: Core Rulebook (RPG), pp. 20-21
- Dark Heresy: The Radical's Handbook (RPG), pg. 30
- Rogue Trader: Core Rulebook (RPG), pp. 18-19
- Rogue Trader: Into the Storm (RPG), pp. 149-150