First off, thanks for that. That's great, honestly a big help. I will hopefully be going through in the next few days making those changes. Some of them a duh obvious now I look - a lot were missed by the spell checker on account of being variant words, and some I skimmed over because any 40K story with made-up words generates a lot of red underlines. Some are just me being daft. Whatever the cause, much appreciated.
When read in isolation the Mea culpa line just seemed a bit flat compared to the remembered excitement of the previous chapters. Personally I think the chapter should start with Solomon demanding some action/explanation.
I agree and it is a point well made. I will work Solomon into the beginning when I edit it in a few days. I'll put a notice up when I've done it.
Where have I been for three and a half months? Basically, I finally secured meaningful employment. Unfortunately it was too meaningful, and after signing a EU Time-Directive opt-out, I've been doing 6-7 day weeks for up to 60 hours. Factor in housework, sleeping, and time traveling to work and I've had very little time to work on the story. I'd like to say I have more time now - as my seasonal work decreases at one of my three jobs, but unfortunately due to suspensions and sicknesses I've been bumped from part-time to full time to cover other staff absences, making the situation even worse. Christmas day has been my first full day off in about three weeks. Hopefully January should calm down as people are due to return and one of my jobs will come to an end for three months.
Anyway, I will make the changes, I promise. And I much appreciate your continued input. But until then, here is chapter 13. It posted as one, which is a happy change.
Thirteen – Rearguard
The sound of thudding followed them as they left the Cage. It was a dull, rhythmic beat that echoed down dark corridors and drifted through empty rooms. Crane chewed his bottom lip, caught himself, and straightened up from his protective hunch. His palms were sweating under his gloves. The crimson emergency lights flickered as they attempted to re-ignite. There was a dull bang and a motorized splutter.
“Tech Magi Tvastar is attempting to restore the power,” whispered the Magi to his two serfs. He was trying to reassure them. Drecker was accepting, phlegmatic. Lowell looked on the brink of breakdown.
Biologis Crane had always been better with people than other members of the Order. It was a matter of faith, or at least, of belief. They believed that the more augments undertaken, the closer they became to the Divine. When a person stops believing in their own mortality and associated weaknesses and flaws, and instead moves closer to perceived perfection, the temptation is to see themselves as more than human. Transhuman, even post-human. They made peace with sacrificing their flesh by believing it made them better than they were before. Biologis Crane hadn’t lost touch with his humanity. And that was why he was whispering.
He was terrified.
“We are egressing to the Generatorium where you will assist with the Litanies of Activation. Once we have primed the fuel pump, we will invoke the blessing of the Omnissiah and revive the primary generator. With power restored, Tech Magi Tvastar will be able to bring the situation under control.”
“It is not under control, honoured Lord?” asked Lowell fearfully. Drecker shot him a harsh look. Crane cursed to himself.
“It is fluid,” replied the Biologis, raising his voice slightly to demonstrate a confidence he did not feel. Fluid was a good word. Changing. Flux. Not dangerous. Although even that was a ecumenical issue, he mused. Some believed that any state of uncertainty was blasphemy. Did clockwork operate uncertainly? What glory was there in the cold precision of the Divine if it changed on a whim?
Barring a few notable incidents, contamination leaks, and at least one accidental core-destabilisation of an M-Class planet resulting in nine billion deaths, the potentially mutable nature of the Machine God seemed a lot safer than the multi-segmented limbs that had dismembered ten augmented soldiers. He wondered this would be his view in a little under ten hours, once the Emergency Protocol activated.
“Magos.” The robotic, deadpan voice of the Fire Team leader pulled him from his reverie. They had reached the first compartmentalised section, heavy blast doors denying access to the labs and the stairwell beyond. Torch beams and suitlamps illuminated biohazard signs. Crane wondered why everyone was staring at him, before realising he was ranking Techmagister. Only he could sanction the destruction of technology. There were rituals that must be observed.
”Blessed Omnissiah, we invoke thee,” he intoned, spreading his arms across the doors, “Technolord and Primeautomaton, God Within the Machine. Heed our prayers and search our souls for pure intention. Forgive our trespass and sacrilege, for the need is dire. We commend this machine’s spirit to your care and beg your clemency for our sin. In Nomine Machina Deus.”
He turned to the fire team.
“It is done. May He forgive us.”
The Skitari nodded gravely and turned to his second.
“Blow the door.”
* * *
“Lord Crane is at the first obstruction,” said Tvastar. “The Fire Team are preparing to initiate entry. The Machine’s Spirit will be injured.”
“We pray forgiveness for his blasphemy,” replied Solomon, not taking his eyes off the laboratory. He had been looking directly ahead for the past twenty-seven minutes, engaged in a bizarre staring contest with an invisible predator. He had not moved, nor blinked. When the creature broke – as it would certainly do so – he would see it.
“The door is breached.” Continued the Techpriest. “They are moving to the stairwell.”
* * *
Crane ducked through the gap and stepped over the molten ruins of the blast doors, feeling the heat of the still flowing ferro-concrete on his robes. He waved away an arm of assistance from one of the Skitari pointmen and gripped his adopted pistol in both hands. Behind him, there was a glowing circle five feet in diameter where the melta charge had done its work.
Wordlessly, they set off into the half-light of the laboratories, passing sealed rooms and observation platforms. Where previously there had been the hum of dozens of terminals and brilliant quartz lighting, now was just silence and darkness. Workstations glittered dimly in the crimson glow and a low mist from the incense burners covered the floor below the knees. Not one axial cycle earlier, he had stood with the delegation in this very room, receiving the praise of his superior and basking in the awe of the uninitiated. Two of those men – Centurion Markus and Confessor Delaine were now dead.
He passed the gaping hole that previously housed the anatomic chamber for Specimen Three. The giant tank had been removed to transport the specimen to the core labs, leaving behind a mess of pipes and wires where the wall had birthed a monster. Crane shivered.
They reached the other side of the laboratory before Crane realised something was wrong. He upped his audio-implant to full, hearing the surruss of augmented lungs and the whine of tiny servo motors beneath the Skitari’s leather gloves as they adjusted their grip on gently humming rifles.
“Hold,” he whispered in sotto.
“Lord Crane,” mouthed Drecker, “What is the problem?”
Her voice was barely above a whisper, but still the words were like a gunshot. In the stillness, Crane listened.
He heard the hum of active consoles in the distance, the hiss of gently cooling blast doors. He heard the groans of the wind rattling at the shutters, and listened to the thousand tiny noises that were constantly in the background of Forlorn. He even fancied he heard the whispers of the scientists that had gone before him, residual conversations echoing back and forth down the ages. The click of ancient keys, and the clacking grind of retired machines. Beyond that, at the very edge of his imagination, he heard the beating heart of the God Within the Machine.
Even silence had a quality, a texture – restful and constant. What Crane was searching for was not silence. It was the absence of sound.
The thudding had stopped. Satisfied, he turned the audio-sensitivity back down.
“The Specimen’s are no longer attacking the Cage.” He summarized. To confirm, the audio implant in his ear tickled. Ice ran down his spine.
“Techpriest,” he sub-vocalised.
“Magos Biologis,” replied Tvastar, “You must make haste. Operational containment systems are registering a catastrophic breakdown in the Cage.”
“There is a breach.” Replied the Tech Magi, then the link went dead.
Crane shot a glance at the Fire Team Leader, who inclined his head in acknowledgement. He spoke quickly in binary, rattling off orders. A Skitari broke from the group and took cover behind a clinical table covered in scalpels. Another moved to the front, switching his augmented weapon to secondary fire mode. An ignition torch glowed blue.
“We move.” He said in Gothic. Crane nodded.
* * *
“The armourglass is three inches thick,” said Quail defensively. He was waving his hands in front of him, as if hoping to ward off the stare of Prime Magos Solomon. “There is a reinforced ceramite blast shutter in place. There must be some mistake!”
Tvastar stared mutely at one of the few active control lecterns. The red light blinked incessantly, refusing to go away no matter how hard he wished it.
“There is no mistake,” replied Solomon. “The Machine is infallible. Systems fail, people fail, faith fails. The Omnissiah does not.”
“Perhaps the Machine’s Spirit has sustained some residual damage from the overload?” the Biologis continued valiantly. “There is no way those creatures could escape the Cage under their own power.”
”The system is fine.” Said the Techmagi, still looking at the little light. “It was created for such a purpose.”
“Prime Magos,” implored the embattled scientist, “They couldn’t have breached the Cage. The Specimens have tried to escape in the past. They failed. We ran diagnostics, various scenarios. Unaided they could not exert the force necessary to…”
He stopped dead.
First Quail, then Solomon, and then finally Tvastar turned to face the ruined examination lab. Somewhere inside, Specimen Three was hiding.
At least that was one hypothesis. Solomon grunted.
“Perhaps you have made other – more grievous - incorrect assumptions, Biologis Quail. It is becoming a theme, I fear. Let us hope your faith is more plentiful than your competence.”
* * *
Skitari Two Four Six remained frozen in a hunter’s crouch behind the surgical table. Beyond it, the laboratory stretched off into darkness, lit by intermittent emergency lighting. The backup generator was already struggling to cope with the demands that were placed upon it. Lord Crane must progress with due swiftness, before the Machine God’s insatiable hunger consumed the remaining energy reserves.
His vision was overlaid with multiple read-outs. His bio-signs, personal locator and ammunition counter filled the left of his vision. Along the bottom ran his comm. channels, combat orientation pointer, and internal processing capacity. An auto-targetting system floated lazily across the centre of his vision. It was translucent now, and years of acclimatisation had all but erased it from his vision. In an engagement it would flare solid white, assess threats, track targets and align his rifle faster than his hated flesh. He was not a solider. Men were soldiers.
Two Four Six was a weapon.
His audio implant detected the chittering and clicking long before the Guants came into view. His bio-booster pumped combat stimulants and adrenaline into his weak husk, fortifying it for the coming fight. Muscles tensed, ready to react with whiplike speed.
The first Gaunt emerged through the blast door, hopping nimbly over the ring of scorched ceramite. The auto-targetter shone white.
* * *
Gunfire echoed down the corridor. Lowell cried out and froze in terror, and Drecker grabbed him solidly on the upper arm, bundling him onward, in her other hand she held the shock-prod. Before her went the pointman and his assist, blasting bursts of fire into the darkness, sending the shadows dancing crazily. The Fire Team Leader was clicking in binary, and receiving a neural response from his subordinates mind-link
The combi-flamer spat another lance of flame before them. There was another burst of gunfire. Crane gripped the pistol and tried to shove Lowell from behind, pushing him forward. Bringing up the rear, the two remaining Skitari backed after them.
Illuminated briefly, the signage on the wall indicated they were approaching the stairwell. The Biologis pushed forward.
* * *
His vision was awash with data.“Contact: Six
Range: Twenty-Five Metres. Closing.
Operationals Remaining: Four.
Two Four Six’s auto-targetter swung as the remaining Gaunts piled into the laboratory, crushing their dead underfoot. They immediately spread out and sought cover. His arms moved to compensate, before the screen flashed red.“Hazard: Operational Machinary // Violation: Directive Four.”
Directive Four!No Damage May Be Inflicted On the Realm of the Omnissiah Without Due Authorization From Constituted Member of the Priesthood of Mars
The Hellgun jammed. It would not fire so long as he risked hitting the terminals and processors that littered the laboratory. He unplugged it from his suit and laid it on the surgical table before rising to his full height.
The Gaunts moved like wraiths through the rolling clouds of incense. Even without their scything talons, they were dangerous. The claws and spurs on their feet clicked across the glass, echoing round the room. One uttered a low, sibilant hiss as it darted between machinery. Saliva drooled from yellowing teeth, besmirching the floor of His most Hallowed Shirne. Their mere presence in this sanctum was a foul violation of his sacred duty.Range: Fourteen Metres – Closing.
They swam like alligators through the mist, heads bobbing and tails swinging behind them. Two Four Six boosted his combat drugs. A blade slid from his left wrist, while the fingers of his right hand spread impossibly wide, turning it into a great augmetic shovel. He was not unarmed.
He was Skitari.Range: Eight Metres – Closing.
He was a weapon.
The first leapt with a screech and was impaled on the mono-serrated combat blade. The force of the creature’s impact almost bowled him over, but servo motors in his legs compensated. The second was knocked flying by an augmented blow from his right hand, scattering the table and falling into a stunned heap.
The third landed on his back.
The fourth knocked him to the floor.
* * *
They reached the stairwell when the mind impulse link cut out. The remaining Skitari said nothing. A trooper wordlessly moved to rearguard and they descended into darkness.
No sooner had boots rang on the steel steps and the light faded almost from view did an inhuman scream echo through the empty passages. The party froze, the soldiers uncertain and the civilians huddled in primordial terror.
“Quail… Magos Biologis…” Whispered Crane. “Specimen Three is confirmed in the Control Labs, copy?”
The silence endured for torturous heartbeats. Then there was another scream.
It was closer. It drowned out the first part of Biologis Quail’s response.
“… attempting to ascertain.”
“Say again?” said Crane, shifting his grip on the pistol.
The link went dead.