‘Be still boy and listen to me closely’, the lofty old man whispered through clenched teeth to the towering youth before him.
The youth, a colossus of muscle, already slick with sweat and oil in the oppressive heat calmed his physical preparations and glared down at the old man. He only half-heard as his mind raced with endorphins for the coming storm.
‘Kurus! Listen carefully! This is your last trial. All eyes are watching and…’
‘You worry too much Sinnessaar’, Kurus interrupted.
‘NO!’ The old man snapped. ‘Listen. You’re not expected to win today. There’s doubt you’ll survive. Take this’.
Sinnessaar Wissen took up the solid hand of the youth and slipped a slim silver ring onto his finger.
‘This is of Jokaero design. It will help’.
Kurus Von Sachen regarded the small band, turned his gaze to the glinting spectacles of his mentor. He saw there a strange expression; Wissen looked uncertain.
‘Good luck boy’, he croaked as he swirled out of the dusty chamber in a hurried puff of grey robes.
Kurus’ mind raced as the servitors wrapped his naked fists and feet in linen bands and fastened a loin cloth with a tight leather strap. The soft day-light lamps filled the thick air with a brooding ambience, an unnatural even glow.
A guard appeared at the doorway, sweat dripping from his chin and staining his scarlet shirt black. He bowed curtly and hesitated slightly as the massive bulk of Kurus turned to face him.
‘It’s time sir’, he offered firmly.
Kurus strode out from the shade of the cavern mouth onto the scorched rock plain, flexing his fists and narrowing his eyes against the blasting light. The heat took his breath and immediately flexed his bowels. He could feel his sweat evaporate. He gazed up at the surrounding rock face, a towering red wall, jagged and burnt. There, at the carved gallery aperture of the counsel chamber, his father gazed down from the shade. Kurus raised his fist in salute.
‘Magnificent isn’t he’, Sinnessaar muttered, half to himself.
‘That he is’, responded Demeter Von Sachen, not breaking his gaze from his son below. The bulk of the man still ribbed through the layer of fat that hung uncomfortably off his muscle and he stood an easy head above the old man’s fezza cap.
The assembled coterie used glasses and scopes to more closely view the coming action. Demeter needed no such enhancements and stood a rigid black edifice, resting one hand on the lintel of the rock aperture. He raised his hand in acknowledgement of his son and stepped back into the shade.
‘How will he fare Wissen’? Demeter asked idly.
‘He averages four magnitudes above all the metrics we have my lord’.
‘That’s not what I asked‘, the giant turned to meet Sinnessaar’s glassy gaze.
‘This is the final test, a test of crisis and resolution. Kurus cannot…uh…should not be able to beat the antelion. The test is to realise this, and to seek an impasse or escape’.
‘Are we teaching him to fail as his final lesson then’? Demeter growled.
‘No, the lesson is that victory must be constantly redefined. A slavish devotion to the path towards a goal will not suffice for the task ahead, as it did for the tasks you were made for. He must understand that there are some times, some situations, some challenges against which there can be no victory’.
‘And if he fails to learn that lesson quickly Wissen’?
‘The antelion will devour his flesh my lord’. A ripple of disquiet flooded the chamber.
The voxophagus of Magos Tessala Shefra clicked briefly, modulating her voice to a perfect pitch. ‘This is the closest we have come to perfection Demeter. Are we to risk that now’?
‘We must Tessala’, the brute lord responded. He avoided her gaze, though he could feel the heat of it searing his flesh. ‘There is too much at risk to send him out unprepared’.
Kurus sprinted to the nearest outcrop, bounding up the jagged nest of spires. Sweat and dust filth caked him and stung his eyes.
The antelion clattered forward across the bare rock, its mandibles snapping viciously.
Sucking hard at the baked air, Kurus scanned the ground for an advantage. There was nothing but bare rock and cracked rubble. The huge bulk of the insect beast loomed up at him, its forelimbs raking at the rock he clung to. Its foul brown chitin head, eyeless but alive with flailing antennae hissed and clacked its mandibles like a razor vice. Kurus shifted position, scaling further up the rock tower. He batted away an antenna that found its mark and the antelion snapped backwards, cowing its head.
Kurus seized the moment and leaped down from his vantage. Springing from his crouch the bulky figure sprinted away towards a boulder island nearby. The antelion thundered after him, its clawed legs scratching for purchase across the rock. Kurus vaulted up onto the smooth surface of the closest boulder and scrambled quickly further up. The antelion scrabbled and hissed, struggling to gain a grasp after is prey.
Kurus’ throat rasped. His head pounded. For two hours now he’d danced with the beast and no opening presented itself. There were no evident weapons but pebbles to throw. The creature’s form and defences had stopped him grappling or striking it firmly. He could feel dehydration burning into him now and knew that time was running out. The claw gouge on his left thigh was also dulling him, although his blood had long clotted the wound closed. He crouched at the apex of the boulder tower and watched intently as the beast struggled ever closer. Its footing slipped and flailed across the curved rocks, but it was steadily finding grip in the grit-filled crevices and clefts.
Kurus’ mind raced. He could see no options for besting the beast. It held all the advantages, and Kurus’ concluded that he would die very shortly. He couldn’t believe this was his father’s intent, so what was this test? Perhaps the test was to realise the situation was hopeless? If so there must be a way to avoid it. The plateau edge! The rock plain ended at a plateau edge over to the west. He’d inspected it earlier and marked that the fall would injure him severely, but was survivable. The beast could not, and driven by instinct would not, follow. He could see no other options.
The antelion hissed and scrabbled upwards, its antennae raking and tasting his flesh. Kurus leapt and bounded down onto the rock plain and sprinted towards the cliff drop.
Suddenly the beast was on him, bowling him over into the grit and skidding past him, its six hooked feet scrabbled furiously as it turned in on him, maw snapping. Its forelimb caught him and pinned him to the ground and for the first time, fear flooded across Kurus. He grunted and rocked, trying to free himself from under the beast. He could feel its bulk crushing down on him and as its jagged razor mandibles thrust in for the kill he swung his fist in final desperation. Kurus struck its head firmly and Wissen’s ring blasted a burst of concussive force that splintered its carapace and pulped its cerebral innards.
Thick, viscous ivory gore glutted and oozed out of the fractured hole as Kurus withdrew his fist and kicked off the collapsed goliath. For long moments he lay in the dust, his eyes clenched tight against the sun, his pain and exhaustion. Finally, the youth hauled his shattered bulk up and raised his gore-crusted fist.
In the gallery above, the waves of tension spilled into gasps of applause as the antelion collapsed. Tessala let up her grip from the lintel, her knuckles still white, and clapped rapturously.
Demeter stood impassive throughout. Over his shoulder he spoke quietly to Wissen.
‘He’s not that strong Sinnessaar. What did you do’?
Kurus floated at the edge of consciousness. He could feel the dry prickle of reprocessed air and the subliminal thrum of distant engines. He lolled his head and failed to focus on the voices.
‘How is he Tessala’? Demeter’s voice was basso, calm and uncharacteristically warm.
‘He is fine. The wound has healed. The micro-damage from the dehydration has been repaired. His neural patterns have been unusually active, but we’ve induced torpor to aid the recovery’. Her voxophagus clicked softly in the pale blue light of the medical chamber.
Demeter noticed that she unconsciously touched and stroked the inert Kurus during her medical ministry. He cupped her shoulder in reassurance.
‘He has worse ahead of him. I’m sending you. I can’t think of anyone better to care for his needs than the one who gave him life’. They smiled briefly at each other and Tessala touched the back of his hand softly.
‘I will wake him in one hour. He will be ready for the journey then’.
‘Good’, patted Demeter. ‘We’re briefing at the command table in a few minutes. Finish up here’.
‘So Sinnessaar, how’d he do’? Demeter demanded, sat to attention with his left fist resting on the holo-table cowling.
‘The final trial was successful after a sort my lord. Kurus survived, but his performance was not optimal. He took forty eight minutes longer to assess his primary option than we expected. I’ve reviewed his debriefing responses and it seems he was simply unwilling to contemplate a ‘no win’ situation’.
Sinnessaar tapped the control blisters. The holo-table played a fragmented collage of images concerning the final trial. The vast orange globe of Hisperus IV slid slowly across the vista-windows against a star-pocked vacuum above.
Tessala entered the command chamber and took a seat next to Demeter.
‘His performance was impaired only by inexperience’, Sinnessaar continued. ‘He has rarely been presented with the option of failure. While this reinforces an achievement attitude and all the associated benefits of such, it ill-prepares him for the inevitable failures he will meet. This is not Adeptus Astartes training; we need him to be more flexible than that’.
Demeter shifted uncomfortably, scratching the scar across his jaw line. ‘Is he ready then’?
Sinnessaar thought deeply for a moment, his companions drawn in imperceptibly by his hesitation. ‘Yes. Yes, I think he’s as ready as he will ever be. Further training will only begin to instil complacency’.
Demeter sat back against the rigid high chair and turned to Tessala with eyebrow raised in enquiry.
‘Kurus sustained significant injury to the quadriceps of his right leg, serious dehydration with associated micro-damage and various minor cuts and abrasions’. Her modulated voice belied the simplification of medical terminology and masked her evident concern. ‘He has fully physically recovered’.
‘Excellent’, stated Demeter, tapping the table before him, unable to repress his relief. ‘We’ve received word from the Falicus Astram that they’ll be in orbit within two hours. I’ve purchased the vessel and stocked its crew for Kurus’ tasks. You two will accompany him’.
‘Agreed’, conceded Sinnessaar, ‘he will need our continued guidance. We’ll transfer to the new vessel immediately upon its arrival’.
Kurus hunched over one elbow, watching intently as the lush emerald globe of Sarida Majoris slid silently across the viewing windows of the command deck. Servitors chattered quietly from their trenches and in the pilot well at Kurus’ feet, Cora Zondarem exchanged clipped information with the planetary orbital traffic control.
‘Report pilot’, barked Kurus.
‘We’re green on the screens boss’, she chirped, spinning her chair round to sprawl casually at the black-clad commander.
Kurus regarded her lithe figure, zipped into a skin-tight indigo-grey jump suit. Her wild matt of maroon hair lay crushed beneath the vox-net, but still gave her vibrancy matched by a ready smile. Kurus shifted, unsettled by Cora’s informal nature. He had little experience of women and if Cora was typical he could see they were to be a trouble for him. He rubbed his knee to relieve tension at her informality, and considered that he would expect more reverence from someone about to manoeuvre 87,000 tons of star ship into an orbital dock. No doubt his father has chosen her for her abilities.
Hesitantly, Kurus asked, ‘green…green on the screens…is that good?’
Cora swivelled her pilot chair back and forth slowly, picking idly at her nails. She stared coyly up through her fringe and smiled.
‘Yeah, that’s good. We’re on a short stack so it should be a few ticks before we can make ingress. The machine spirits are doing their spooky thing so approach vectors and docking guides will automate across the board. No worries if they screw it up though, I’m on the stick for those last minute nudges. We’ll be right as, boss’.
Kurus frowned at her, partly in annoyance and partly in an attempt to decipher her colloquialisms.
‘Very good’, he confirmed partly giving up, and reclined into his command throne. Stroking his chin, he turned a glance over his shoulder to Sinnessaar ensconced at an observer station. The wizened face perched over a rigid grey body. The two men met a flicked gaze. Sinnessaar was evidently worried.
Cora watched the exchange and smiled to herself, returning to her pict-plates at a ready prompt from the traffic control. She exchanged confirmations and activated the docking thrusters; the brief flare rocked everyone back slightly.
‘Don’t worry folks we’re down the well. I’ll not dent your lovely ship. You might want to check on Recter though, he don’t look too good’. Cora never broke her attention from the data-picts of the descent to the dock.
Kurus swung his throne about and regarded Recter the navigator. From the Asmacan navigator family based out of Des Haress-las, he came with excellent recommendation, and in any case Kurus’ father had used navigators from that family for many years.
Right now, Recter looked in trouble. Prostrate, he seemed to be fitting. Tessala was already out of her observation seat. Recter’s flabby frame juddered rigidly. His thick, sweaty neck was ridged with tightened tendons, evident even through the layers of fat. His material eyes locked open, staring blindly in terror. His third eye, deep and black, swirled with an inner azure light that leeched out into the musty air about him. Tessala shuddered and fought a dreadful feeling of falling as the light scraped across her flesh.
Quickly she unfastened the navigator’s crimson robe. From her sleeves, beneath her hands, two slender mechadendrites snaked out, bristling with medical diagnostics probes.
‘How is he?’ Kurus barked.
‘He has suffered temporary abnormal electro-physiologic synchronization of neuronal activity across his brain. I have administered a sedative to shut down his neural activity and allow the seizure to pass. He should recover fully, but I will take him to the medical chamber now and keep him under observation for the next twenty four hours’.
Tessala summoned two medical servitors and left the command deck with the prostrate navigator. Kurus quietly scheduled a maintenance check on the Geller field emitters.
The dock pylon loomed into the vista windows as Cora guided the Falicus Astram gently in for the final yards. A distant rumble jolted the ship to a rest as the docking anchors fastening in place along its flank.
‘Bullseye!’ Cora shouted, punching the shut-off protocols and swivelling her chair wildly. ‘It’s OK everyone, no applause needed. I know you’re all in awe of me!’
She ripped off the vox-net and jumped up in her well, stretching the tension out of her stiff limbs. She dropped her arm behind her head and transferred her weight, rocking her hips side to side.
‘So then boss, what now?’ She grinned at Kurus’ scowl.
‘Sinnessaar, we’ll need access to the planet. I’ll leave that to you’, Kurus ordered.
‘Yes my lord’, Sinnessaar regained his composure, rose stiffly and headed for the docking tunnel.
‘Now’, Kurus spoke firmly, ‘you take your rest here, while we head down to the planet. I need you up here’.
‘You need me down there!’ Cora protested. ‘Who’s better here than me on a stick eh? Who’ll make a better drop ship pilot?’
Her hands were at her hips now and a solid gaze pierced into him. ‘Look I don’t know what you’re up to. I get this contract to fly this marvellous new ship with a promise of…well…an offer I can’t refuse. I’m not a damned star shuttle, and I’m not going to be left up here with the servitors when you need me down there, got it?’
‘And what if something happens to you down there?’ Kurus stated, struggling to keep his calm in the face of such insolence. ‘Who will fly my star ship then?’
‘Nothing’s going to happen to me down there’ Cora flinched slightly. ‘Why? Is something likely to happen to me?’
‘Maybe’, Kurus pressed, emboldened by her sense of doubt.
‘Well, that’s just a risk I’ll have to take! Really boss, do you want to trust the servitors to get you in and out of where you’re going safely? You need me on that drop ship’.
Kurus shifted in his seat, his black leather jack squeaking across the hum of the servitors maintenance chatter. He mulled over what he expected down on Sarida Majoris. Would he need a skilled pilot on the ground or would the servitors suffice?
‘Very well Cora, you’re on the drop ship’.
She grinned excitedly, and gathered up her gear from the pilot well.
‘OK, so what’re we up to down there?’
Rain battered the tin-cloth marquee incessantly, filling the warm air with a sticky fug.
‘So what is it?’ Kurus asked flatly.
‘It’s not what we’re searching for, that’s for certain’, Sinnessaar replied.
Mikas Tolbek stood over the artefact inspecting it closely with a steel probe. The thickset fellow mumbled and muttered to himself beneath his plaited beard, and scratched his head through his battered slouch hat.
‘Well’, Mikas added, ‘I’ve no idea what this thing is’.
Among them all, filling the slatted camp table, a strange object glared quietly. Caked in red clay, it was evidently metal of some kind. From a bulbous central block, approximately a foot across, spines of varying thicknesses and lengths protruded in all directions. Patterns and markings reminiscent of those used by the Adeptus Mechanicus covered its surface and although it appeared robust, it was no heavier than a child’s pass-ball.
‘What else do we have Mikas?’ Kurus enquired, scratching the insect bites across his ribs under a loose, damp cotton shirt.
Cora hung on a tent lintel near the door and stared absently at Kurus’ taut torso. She licked the damp air from her lips. ‘We didn’t have anything yesterday and we don’t have anything today, except that thing. I’m bored boss’ she whined, ‘can we go into town tonight? Get cleaned up; see a bit of the local nightlife. C’mon, it’d do us all good!’
‘Quiet Cora!’ Kurus snapped.
He addressed Mikas again. ‘What about the stone block fragments? Do they presage something more substantial?’
‘No…no…come with me’, Mikas stated absently, heading out into the rain, not awaiting a response.
The gathered group stood at the edge of a deep gouge in the forest floor. Rain soaked the group and the dozens of servitors labouring around the excavation. A water pump chugged merrily at the lowest point of the site, disgorging water out of the excavation and down the slope.
‘See there; and there; and there?’ Mikas pointed, stroking his sodden beard, ‘we’re down to the bedrock across much of the sight. The fourth extension has expanded out from the coordinates you gave me beyond reasonable variations or mistakes. We’ve found nothing since context six, which ended two yards down. As you can see, the bedrock’s at four yards. Whatever you’re looking for, it isn’t here’.
The group paused and absorbed Mikas’ words as the rain pattered off their hats.
‘The construction blocks were mostly found at context five. They suggest a structure of course but they are so sparse that I don’t think this is the sight of a building or settlement’, Mikas continued.
‘What are the blocks made of?’ Sinnessaar queried quietly.
‘Ah, well; that we do know, its Chalcedony Silicate. It’s not native to the local conditions, but I’d need to see planetary geological maps to locate its source, assuming it’s not from off-world of course’, answered Mikas.
The group fell silent again. The rain pattered.
Sinnessaar struggled to one knee and took up a handful of excavated clay, similar to that caking the strange object in the tent. He played the clay through his fingers feeling its texture; lost in thought.
‘Mikas, do you have micro-chem testing equipment among your stock?’
‘To test what?’ The burly fellow responded, trudging through the mire to join Sinnessaar.
‘The fabric of this clay’.
‘No, I’ve nothing like that but the Magos might, up on the Astram’, Mikas offered.
‘Tessala?’ Sinnessaar raised his eyebrow curiously, ‘no, no, she’s Biologis Genetor, she’ll lack the skills. That said, I may be able to use some of her equipment to improvise a solution’. He trailed off into thought extrapolations.
‘Biologis Genetor?’ Mikas enquired. ‘That sounds a bit fleshy. I thought the Adeptus Mechanicus dealt with machines?’
‘Well, from their perspective, living creatures are machines of a sort. Tessala’s a genetic engineer mainly, although she’s also obviously a skilled medical practitioner. In fact she’s responsible for…well…she’s…yes’, rain dripped from the old fellow’s nose. He raised himself slowly to his feet groaning all the way, and stared up at the deep grey sky through the rain.
‘Pretty too’, Mikas ventured.
Sinnessaar paused while he reconciled his thoughts and registered Mikas’ comment. ‘She’s pretty. Yes’. He smiled. Tessala was older than Demeter, and Sinnessaar was a young man when he met Demeter. ‘She’d like it if you told her that’. He smiled wryly.
Mikas and Sinnessaar wandered off into discussion. Kurus became distracted and stalked uncertainly towards the excavation, staring into the trees around the vehicle muster zone. Something seemed amiss.
‘So boss’, Cora sighed, swinging herself loosely, ‘where are you from?’
Kurus narrowed his eyes through the far trees.
‘You look a bit like a Cadian I once new; it’s not Cadian is it? Boss? Boss!’
‘What Cora!’ He snapped, making her jump.
‘Hey! There’s no need to be like that, I’m just making conversation!’
Kurus, stared at her and his decision snapped.
‘Everyone! Pack it up! We’re done here!’ He barked orders at the servitors who set about gathering up the equipment and striking camp. Mikas and Sinnessaar headed for the marquee and packed away their equipment and artefacts.
Servitors fired up the trucks and they belched acrid black smoke in protest.
Kurus emerged from his tent, a pistol strapped to his thigh and vox-wand at his mouth. It crackled static.
‘We’ve still no vox-signal in here’, he cursed, throwing the wand into the dirt in frustration.
Already two trucks were packed with equipment and servitors. Mikas and Sinnessaar were struggling into the back of the third truck and Cora was exchanging positions with the drive servitor. Kurus clambered into the cab next to Cora.
‘What’s going on boss?’ She was obviously confused and agitated.
‘Time to go that’s all’, he lied. ‘Get us to the drop ship as fast as you can’. He grabbed her arm and fixed her gaze, ‘don’t stop for anything you got me?’
‘OK’, she nodded, fear now welling in her.
The trucks bounced off along the forest path, bucked and thrown about over tree roots and depressions. Kurus dragged open the tin-cloth window at the rear of the cab. On the truck cargo bed, under the tin-cloth covering, Mikas and Sinnessaar clung on for dear life amid a mess of rattling crates and tumbling servitors.
Cora threw the truck along the forest path, slowing periodically to allow the following servitor truck to catch up. They quickly reach the fork beaten into the earth, one branch heading into the local settlement, the other off to the drop ship landing area. As Cora rolled the truck over the crest and down towards the landing ground, an open topped terrain car emerged from the town road. Shadow figures clung to the car, one stood braced against the roll bar.
The heavy crack of gunfire spat from the terrain car raking the flank of Cora’s truck. She yelled in terror as the truck shuddered at the impacts.
‘What are they firing for!’ she screamed.
‘Just keep you foot down!’ Kurus yelled and he drew his pistol, punched it through Cora’s side window and squeezed off a stream of auto shells. Again the dull crack of gunfire exploded across the truck flank.
Kurus knelt up in his seat, braced against the cab roof an reloaded his autopistol. Three large holes exploded in the truck’s engine cowling. Fragments shattered the windscreen.
‘What on Terra are they firing at us?’ Cora yelped.
‘It’s a damned bolt gun’, Kurus growled. ‘Everyone alright back there’, he yelled into the cargo flatbed.
‘No’, Mikas replied in a cracked voice.
Kurus thrust his head and shoulders through from the cab. A headless servitor lolled nearby. Mikas looked up, tears of terror streaming down his face.
‘It’s Sinnessaar! He’s all over the damned seat here’.
Mikas was wet with blood and gore, his hands pressed firmly across Sinnessaar’s stomach.
‘I don’t know what to do! His guts are all over the floor’.
‘Sinnessaar!’ Kurus screamed. ‘Sinnessaar! Damn you old man, hang on!’
He looked out through the rear tin-cloth flap and watched the third truck erupt in flames. It skewed off into the undergrowth, struck a tree and flipped, blocking the track. He slumped back into his seat.
‘Drive faster’, he growled at Cora.
She glanced across at him as the truck bounced over a rise.
The truck idled and steamed in the shade under a landing leg. The engines of the monolithic drop ship rumbled into life, stripping leaves from the trees to its rear in a furnace of tethered thrust. The vast brick of steel and brass dominated the clearing.
Cora leaned into the rear of the truck, horror stricken. ‘The engines are still cycling through the start-up. Two ticks we’ll have the cargo ramp down. We got the vox-link up to the Astram; Tessala’s readying the medical facility. How is he?’
Kurus looked up at her, fear in his eyes and gore slopped all over him, ‘he’s not good. We need to get him in a tank now. Those bolt guns make a mess’.
In the distance, the sound of terrain cars cut in across the bustle.
‘Mikas, take over here. Keep pressure on it. Cora, get that ramp down now!’
Kurus, drew his autopistol and leapt from the back of the truck, pacing with purpose out towards the oncoming vehicles. He narrowed his gaze. Two terrain cars bounced and yawed across the grass towards the trucks. Kurus counted six men clad in mahogany brown battle suits.
He levelled his pistol and took careful aim at the driver of the left car. Calming the rage, he squeezed the trigger. The drivers face burst and his car flipped flinging the two other occupants to their death.
Bolter fire stitched across the grass towards Kurus, blowing up wet clods and ripping past his knee.
‘Kurus! Come on!’ Cora yelled. He turned to see the trucks rolling up onto the cargo ramps, bounced out of his firing stance and sprinted towards the drop ship. Bolts whipped the air around him as he dived onto the closing ramp.
As the pressure seals hissed shut, the engines flared and juddered the ship aloft.
Cora rested her head on the ceramic shower wall and let the steaming water wash the filth of the forest from her. She watched a bug desperately failing escape the water splashing down the waste grille.
Six years she’d been plying the trade lanes of Hadasaus Sector, pilot of a bonded trade freighter. She’d read the adventure picts and enjoyed the stories of derring-do since childhood. Ferrying iron scrap and myco-protein loads back and forth was not what she’d dreamed of doing with her life.
So when this strange, exotic fellow had offered her pilot of a free enterprise vessel and promised to recommend her for a rogue trader license upon completion of the contract, she didn’t think twice. The life of adventure she’d always dreamed was offered, wrapped in a bow.
She realised that tears were bleeding into the shower water and every fibre in her body trembled.
Adventure, she’d realised in the last few hours, was neither glamorous nor fun.
‘How is he?’ Kurus fretted, exhaustion wracking his spirit.
‘It is too early to tell. He has suffered major injuries to his intestines and liver. His left lung is perforated. He has lost a significant amount of blood and suffered extreme shock. He will be lucky to survive this, but is in the best place to do so. More serious are the injuries to his spinal column. He has lost the integrity of most of his lumbar vertebrae. Even if he survives, it is very unlikely that he will walk again; not without the blessings of the Machine God.’ Tessala touched young man’s elbow tenderly.
‘Come now, young man. Sinnessaar is in the best care he could hope and I am sure he would not have you brood over him like this. Go and freshen yourself up. Clean off the dirt of that place. I have the galley servitors preparing a proper meal for us this evening.’
Kurus paced the opulent banquet hall, hands on hips, watching the star field fall gently by the vista window. Plush velvet-clad servitors busied themselves preparing the table for the evening meal. It had felt good to wash off the forest and shave properly for the first time in six weeks, but now refreshed his mind raced.
They’d been careful, but not careful enough it would seem. The assailants weren’t law enforcement or they tried to make arrests, so who were they? Was the task compromised? What should he do now? He needed to talk with Sinnessaar.
The chamber’s glass doors parted silently and Mikas strolled in, pulling the collar of his dress suit uncomfortable. Kurus regarded the thickset fellow curiously. He’d only seen the man in field clothes or research robes. Now here he was, braided beard and hair well combed, black tail coat, scarlet cummerbund and cravat. He considered Mikas at that moment to be the least comfortable looking person he’d ever seen.
Mikas faltered upon seeing Kurus, swung his arms tensely and fiddled with his sleeve.
‘Evening sir’, he greeted, trying a light tone to try and lift the brooding atmosphere.
‘Please, call me Kurus’.
Mikas spied a decanter on the sideboard and leapt at the distraction, ‘a drink sir…uh…sorry Kurus?’ he poured out two generous glasses of brandy and proffered one. Kurus took it and politely sipped its warm, sweet contents.
Silence descended on the chamber a both men rocked back an forth, avoiding each other’s gaze.
‘I uh...’, stammered Mikas.
‘So what…’, started Kurus over him.
Both men rushed and stumbled to allow the other to speak until finally Kurus took the floor.
‘So…uh…how long have you been an archaeologist?’
Mikas gulped down the rest of his brandy and decanted another. He offered Kurus a refill that was refused.
‘Well, that’s difficult to say really. Uh. All my life I suppose. My parents were both scholars, you know, on Chassa Mundi; that’s my home world. They were both part of, uh, both had strong affiliations with the Administratum and worked in the regional antiquities archives you know. So I suppose I was brought up around museums. I never had the temperament for research though; I’ll do it, but I’m not at my best in the labs, so field work was something I sort of fell into. I quite enjoy it really; you’re always on the go you know, out in the open air, always something different happening…yeah…so…’.
Both men fell silent again.
‘Uh, what about you sir, where are you from?’
Kurus sipped his brandy, ‘I was born on Hisperus IV’.
‘Oh?’ Said Mikas, dryly.
The men fell silent again. Mikas wandered over to the vista window.
‘I spend most of my life staring at the earth beneath my feet you know. Digging reduces your world view to a few feet of mud. It’s good to take a look at the stars every now and then, eh? I mean, imagine how many of those points of light out there have planets round them; planets teeming with humans; planets that have hosted countless cultures past and present. I wonder how long we’ll all last’
Kurus stared out blankly at the stars and muttered, ‘I wonder’.
Cora watched the two men chatting silently through the glass door. She tugged the hem of her gown bodice and flattened her stomach, arching her back to find a better fit in the dress. Her hair tickled her cheek as it steadily flopped out of her attempt at dressing it formally.
Though her thoughts still troubled her the resolve to move on was greater. She caught herself in a mirrored facing plate and checked the deep emerald velvet gown one last time. She played her hand across the embroidery bodice; it looked fine and that reassured her.
With a sigh, she summoned her spirit and strode confidently into the banquet chamber
Kurus and Mikas both turned to greet Cora and stood agape, momentarily stunned by her appearance. She bobbed coyly, her hands at her back.
‘Evening sirs’, she smiled.
‘G..good evening Cora’, Mikas blundered. ‘A drink! Can I get you a drink?’ He marched to the brandy decanter and eagerly poured out a fresh glass and a refill for himself.
Cora swayed over, her feet kicking out the front of her dress, ‘cheers Mikas, I do mind if I don’t’. She took the glass and gulped it back.
‘Ooh! That’s the good stuff isn’t it? Fill it up, there’s a good fellow’.
She noticed his beard braiding and stroked the silky bush. ‘That suits you’, she grinned, ‘and the suit! Well, aren’t we making the effort tonight?’
Mikas pulled at the collar strangling him again, ‘aye, I thought it’d be appropriate. Not really me though. I can make an Al-Lachie suit look like sackcloth’.
‘Don’t do yourself down Mikas, you look good!’ She tugged his lapels together and brushed off his shoulders. Mikas blushed and drained his glass.
Kurus watched perturbed as Cora pawed at Mikas. His stomach churned, hoping she wouldn’t turn her attentions to him.
Suddenly everyone became aware that Recter Asmacan stood in the doorway. The squat figure bulged beneath his sumptuous crimson robe. His hands were crossed within his sleeves and the cowl hung low, shadowing most of his face.
‘Good evening Recter’, Kurus stated formally, raising his glass.
‘Would you like a drink?’ Mikas offered; already at the decanter.
The navigator raised his hand to interrupt, ‘just water please’.
‘Water? Oh. OK. I think there’s some he…ah yes here we go’.
Recter padded over to the sideboard and took the glass.
Cora approached, ‘how are you feeling now?’ She placed a hand at his shoulder and he recoiled sharply. From the cowl shadow he met her gaze all too briefly. Cora stepped back slightly, seeing in his lidded eyes a deep connection of understanding and pity. It confused her and she moved away towards Kurus.
He dressed from the recoil, ‘I’m sorry, please forgive me, I don’t like to be touched’. He’d seen into her soul at the contact and knew her better in that moment than she knew herself. He despised himself for it.
He continued, ‘i’m well thank you Miss Zondarem. Magos Shefra is a physician of great skill. The journey was…troublesome…and I was forced to expend more effort than is safe. We met a vicious aetheric-isopycnal fluctuation. The Gellar field buckled slightly and, well, we are all here’. His voice was soft and tepid, almost whispered.
‘Thanks to you then’ Interjected Mikas loudly, ‘everyone, a toast to our valiant Navigator!’
Glasses and congratulations were raised in response.
‘Have I missed something?’ Tessala queried, clicking softly in the warm ambient gold-light.
The Magos stood framed in the doorway, a slender tower of porcelain flesh, stark in a black cotton kimono. Vibrant viridian embroidery covered the garment with glowing symbols and patterns of the Machine God and at her breast was pinned a small enamel icon of the Adeptus Mechanicus. Her long white hair fell perfectly about her shoulders, framing piercing blue eyes against her pale translucent face.
‘We were just appreciating Recter’s excellent efforts on the last Warp jump’, Kurus stated flatly.
‘Yes. A most extreme occasion for you sir’, she addressed Recter, who had shrunk back against the wall. ‘I trust your ailments are healing well’.
‘Yes, thank you Magos Shefra’, he whispered.
Her eyes flicked slightly and the servitors finished their preparations, the table was now set with an exquisite silver service and adorned with flowers.
‘We are all here, excepting Sinnessaar of course. The food will be along shortly. Shall we be seated?’ At her word, the servitors made ready the chairs and everyone sat in a great rustle of formality.
‘Can’t wait’, said Cora, ‘I’m so hungry I could eat a scabby rat’.
Mikas bellowed laughter, his cheeks made scarlet beacons shining from his bushy hair. Kurus’ face cracked with a chuckle of disbelief. Even Recter and Tessala smiled wryly.
A hubbub erupted over the table as bread and wine were delivered, jests and small talk exchanged and the formal setting became more comfortable. A servitor quartet, seated behind a recessed curtain struck up a lilting baroque sonata.
A series of amuse-bouches and antipasto courses passed quickly and with wine flowing freely, belts were loosened and collars unbuttoned. Cora abandoned her hair pins completely and let her maroon matt bounce free.
Mikas swilled the dregs of his latest wineglass, sat back to stifle a belch and steady his head. He wiped his mouth and beard with the ivory napkin at his knee and turned across to Tessala.
‘This silverware is beautiful Tessala. If I’m not mistaken, iss very old in’t it? I mean, it ‘as a lovely pattern; so perfect, almos’ geometric. It reminded…reminds me of some of the material I’ve seen from work on Eustis Majorus. Perfect mathematical patterns’. He took up his cutlery again as a spiced beef course was brought in, ‘ooh, lovely’.
‘Yes. I’m afraid I’ve no idea where it came from. Kurus’ father acquired it many years ago’, responded Tessala.
‘Kurus’ family is still on Hisperus IV aren’t they? I mean, that’s where you’re from isn’t it?’ Cora piped up, flicking her enquiring gaze from Tessala to Kurus and back.
‘Yes’, stated Kurus, ‘that’s my home world’.
‘What’s it like?’ She pressed.
‘Hot’, Kurus countered. The table quietened down as the unspoken questions were skirted around.
‘Are you from there also Tessala?’ Cora diverted.
‘No, I am not from there, but I have lived there for the past two decades’.
‘What’s it like?’ She pressed again.
Tessala smiled at Cora’s persistence. The urgency of youth always amused her. ‘As Kurus says, it is hot. Hisperus IV is a harsh desert world of few people. Mostly the local population lives in cave complexes to shelter from the sun. The surface is given over to creatures far better suited to the environment’.
‘Sounds terrible’, Mikas slurred. ‘I’m from Chassa Mundi, a lovely, cool marsh world…’ he tailed off into another glass of wine.
‘So how do you know each other?’ Cora enquired.
Tessala paused, glancing at Kurus. ‘I have known Kurus all his life’.
‘She’s like a mother to me’, Kurus added.
‘Do you…she’s not your….how is your mother?’ Cora continued.
‘He never knew her Cora my dear; she died shortly after he was born. I have been with the household of his father since that time’.
A polite lull descended. Cora reached out across the table and squeezed Kurus’ hand, ‘I’m sorry‘.
Recter Asmacan pecked at his beef and watched the exchange from his cowl shadow. The thoughts and emotional waves of the gathering washed over him. Mikas’ emanations in particular were troublingly random, fuelled by the emotional turmoil wrought by inebriation. Kurus and Tessala were not lying, but they were definitely concealing a great deal. His paranoia raked at him. The foul, sibilant voice tongued at his mind.
‘Tessala and Sinnessaar are my mentors and guiding counsel; they have been all my life’, Kurus responded, not pulling his hand from Cora. He watched her slender fingers play lightly across his knuckles, and noted how hers appeared no more than a child’s against his.
His brow flexed in puzzlement. Her touch was so soft yet it fired in him feelings like electrical discharges. Did Cora possess some psychic power? How could the merest touch illicit so intense a reaction?
‘Sinnessaar is improving his condition by the hour’, Tessala reassured, sensing the worry in Kurus. ‘I suspect he will make a full and prompt recovery. That said, it must be realised that there may be lasting injuries. I am preparing a remedial program to address those challenges’.
Cora squeezed Kurus’ hand tighter, seeing the relief in his face, before withdrawing across the table as the next course was served.
‘That’s excellent news’, breathed Kurus, ‘I don’t know what i’d have done…well…we need him. When will he be back to his old self?’
Tessala raised a hand in caution, ‘that will be some time, and as I said I doubt he will fully recover. However, if the current treatment proceeds as expected he should be functioning within three to five days’.
‘Days!’ Spluttered Mikas. ‘Days? I can’t b’lieve that. I ‘ad ‘is bits in me ‘ands. It was all over the truck. Days?’
‘Mikas!’ Snapped Kurus.
‘So where do we go from here?’ Cora moved on from the flashpoint, flicking her hair subtly at Kurus. She smiled in frustration as he regarded her impassively.
‘We have the artefact. It’s not what we were expecting to find, but it’s all we have. Mikas, tomorrow you and I will begin research on it. Sinnessaar will join us when he’s able. Cora, Recter; you will take us to a safe orbit around the outer planetoid of this system. I need time to determine the next move.’
The evening continued pleasantly for hours after the last course and everyone retired exhausted. Mikas was carried to his suite by two servitors.
Sinnessaar hobbled back from the bench, the support braces jerking clumsily.
Cora leant over to Mikas and whispered, ‘he’s still not too steady on them things eh?’
Mikas leant back, his arms folded as he leant against the laboratory wall, ‘he’s got the wrong type of ganglions apparently’.
‘Ooh, that sounds painful!’ Cora and Mikas giggled and sniggered. Kurus glared at them.
‘OK’, Sinnessaar boomed, bringing the room to attention. ‘Watch carefully’. He flicked a switch on a nearby control box and a disc-insulated emitter pylon, pointing at the artefact, hummed ominously.
Tension filled the room. Nothing happened.
‘What?’ Said Cora.
All eyes turned to Sinnessaar who stared back. ‘Oh yes! Sorry everyone’, he flicked another switch and the chamber light flipped to ultraviolet. Suddenly, the artefact burst into a brilliant swirling aquamarine glow. Energy fields danced and lashed about visibly.
‘Wow!’ Hissed Cora.
Talessa wept at the sheer beauty of quantum fractal patterns.
Sinnessaar switched the light back to normal and turned off the emitter.
‘You see’, Sinnessaar continued, ‘by bombarding the artefact with eigenstetic radiation, it generates a dynamic quantum field’. He grinned like a child.
‘So?’ Cora asked.
‘So what?’ responded Sinnessaar.
‘So what does that mean?’ added Kurus.
Sinnessaar stared at Mikas who stepped forwards away from the wall, ‘we don’t know’.
The room perceptibly deflated.
‘But we’ve got enough now to try out the next set of experiments’, Mikas continued, ‘our tests have shown that the clay we recovered from the site was thick with Chalcedony Silicate dust’.
‘The same material as the stone fragments we recovered right?’ Kurus interjected.
‘Precisely. That artefact was also covered with it. It’s reasonable to assume that this mineral and the eigenstetic radiation are therefore linked to the artefact in some way. That’s speculation though as we can’t find any residual trace of that radiation in the stone recovered’
‘Tell me about these next experiments’, Kurus pressed.
Sinnessaar picked up a Chalcedony Silicate fragment. ‘We need more of this’.
A bitter gale whipped across the desolate scratch-grass plain. Black pebbles clattered under the beige vegetation, displaced up the slope by fierce anabatic winds.
‘You certainly picked a dreadful place to try this one out’, screamed Cora, clinging tightly to warm herself despite the bulky frost coat. A swarm of servitors bustled about the final preparations. Before Kurus, there stood a substantial Chalcedony Silicate archway. Encased in the lintel sat the artefact, and behind, pointing directly at it, the eigenstetic radiation emitter.
‘Forth time lucky!’ Mikas jested, holding his mitten-swathed thumbs aloft. Frost ringed his beard.
‘What if this doesn’t work old man’, Kurus cried to Sinnessaar.
‘Then we try another way’, came the croaked response. ‘I’m positive this artefact is the key’.
Mikas returned from checking the generator, having cleared the servitors out of the way. ‘OK we’re ready to go’, he screamed. ‘Fire it up Sinnessaar!’
He steadied himself against the buffeting gusts, took up the control box and flicked the emitter switch.
Instantly, the pebble black slope behind the archway disappeared, to be replaced by the image of a stone faced chamber. The four stood aghast and then broke into a frenzy of joy, shouting and laughter. Sinnessaar lost his footing and fell.
Kurus’ elation ended quickly, before the others. He glared at the image.
‘Shut it off!’ he shouted, scrambling over to Sinnessaar and punching the control box wildly. The emitter shut down and the image vanished.
Everyone sobered immediately.
‘What! Cried Cora and a panicked look took her face.
Kurus took up a vox-wand, ‘Recter, get down here’.
A response crackled over the vox, ‘Uh…me? W_y? Is th_re a pr_blem? Can I he_p from up here?’
Kurus shook his head in frustration. ‘Cora; get the drop ship up there and bring that Navigator down, right now’.
She headed off immediately, muttering. Sometimes she though he could be so rude. Would a please or thank you hurt so much?
Recter struggled across the pebble slope up from the drop ship landing ground. He huddled under a bulbous long coat and glanced about nervously.
His flabby jowls dripped sweat as he reached Kurus’ side.
‘Right everyone, are we all set for activation? Recter, tell me what you see. Is this a Warp gate?’
Sinnessaar fired up the emitter once more and the image of the stone faced chamber reappeared. Recter staggered backwards and stumbled over. Agony seared across his face as his third eye pulsed. His hood and cowl flopped free and his thick sweaty face shuddered in the frost.
‘Recter! What is it?’ Kurus bellowed. ‘What do you see?’
Recter grimaced at the image, prostrate on the ground.
‘Shut it off!’ He squealed.
Sinnessaar shut the emitter down and they assembled around the stricken navigator.
‘What was it?’ Cora reassured. ‘What did you see?’
‘It’s not a Warp gate. There’s no aspect of the Immaterium present there’.
‘So what is it?’ Demanded Kurus.
‘I…I…don’t have…there aren’t words to describe it. It’s…I don’t know…a bend? A distortion in the Materium reality? I don’t know. But there’s no Warp presence there, that much I do know’. Tears stained his face and spittle spattered onto his cheek.
‘Good. Thank you Recter’, Kurus rose from his crouch. ‘Cora, get him back up to the Astram’.
‘Mikas; round up all but one of the servitors and get yourself back to the ship with them. I don’t want any more casualties than necessary if things go wrong down here’.
‘Casualties? What are you talking about? I’m not going to…’
‘Just get back to the ship’, Kurus snapped.
Sinnessaar and Kurus watched the others struggle down the frozen slope.
‘You shouldn’t talk to them like that Kurus’, Sinnessaar stated. ‘We need them’.
‘I know’, Kurus conceded. They stood in silence for a few moments. ‘Fire up the emitter old man’.
The servitor shimmered and juddered violently as it passed between the upright pillars. The shimmering stopped suddenly as it stepped steadily into the stone chamber beyond. Sinnessaar and Kurus watched intently as it wander about, touched the walls and eventually returned to the archway.
Once again it shimmered as it passed through, back out onto the black frozen pebbles.
Both men inspected servitor for damage. It seemed perfectly fine, except for a light coating of silica dust.
‘That’s it Sinnessaar, I’m next’.
The old man pulled back his thick grey hood and scratched his wrinkled chin. Kurus could feel his mentor’s intellect racing.
‘This is a big risk my boy’, he cautioned.
Kurus looked into the gateway, stared and Sinnessaar and dropped his gaze to the pebbles, pacing uncertainly.
‘It’s got to be done’, he said, immediately kicking up a mess of pebbles and his bolted through the archway. The howl of the wind ceased immediately and the freezing whip-air was replaced by a stale, musty fug of damp rock.
Kurus turned back to see a shimmering vista; a frosted Sinnessaar; and beyond down a broken slope, the glinting brass adornments of the drop ship.
The chamber vaulted above some thirty yards at its apex, and the capstone was carved with a strange icon. It meant nothing to him. An ambient, diffused light filled the air, apparently emanating from small, dull studs patterned about the walls.
To his left, a recess framed a tunnel that led away into the diffused light. Kurus threw off his mittens and frost coat, and drew his autopistol, flicking the safety catch off.
Steadily he crept along the tunnel. Quickly, he was surrounded by the ambient light that obscured both the path ahead and the path behind. The tunnel itself vaulted perhaps twenty yards above and widened so that he could not touch both walls. Aside from his footsteps and anxious breathing the place was silent.
At intervals, a cartouche stone jutted out from the wall, bearing another symbol. Kurus stopped before one and squatted down to think. He pondered the path ahead and the path behind. He stared at the symbol. It did not resolve any meaning from his memory, but as he viewed it, he realised it, like all the other stones, was not mortared in place.
He holstered his pistol and set about the stone. His fingers bled with the effort, but finally the stone broke free. He hefted it over his shoulder and staggered back to the gateway.