On Red Sands

This is a short piece I wrote for a WH40K Horus Heresy era themed writing challenge. The writing prompt was “Birdsong drifted through the bars of the prison cell”.

##TIMESTAMP: 22:05 Sidereal Standard [Live]

Birdsong drifted through the bars of his prison cell, or so it seemed. But Albor Tholus knew it was a lie. The code embedded in the audio file was subtle – elegant even – and it was designed to pick the data-locks on his machine memory engrams, making him susceptible to the data probes of the Mechanicum interrogators.

He countered as best he could. Code-phrase dogrel poured from his ruined lips and mnemonic firewalls blazed, but slivers of data slipped through. The song was starting to play with his perceptions. Memories from earlier that day were popping to the surface of his thoughts like corks in water. If he could just concen-

##TIMESTAMP: 07:34 Sidereal Standard [Engram]

“This vista possesses a 93% visual match with Sacred Mars,” observed Albor Tholus as he surveyed the red sands of Twenty Nine Six, “I can see why our ancestors chose this sphere over this system’s alternative habitable worlds.”

His colleagues signalled their assent.

Orbital scans from the 29th Expedition had revealed the faded signatures of a Mechanicum presence, so the fleet’s Martian contingent had been assigned to make first planetfall. But even as they descended in their shuttles and bulk landers they could see that disappointment awaited.

It was not unheard of amongst the Expeditions to encounter a failed Mechanicum colony. The Priesthood of Mars had dispatched numerous Explorator Fleets into the turbulent warp during Old Night. Many had thrived and founded new Forge Worlds, but many more had been lost.

Behind Albor his superiors were supervising construction of a temporary base while a pair of Warhound Titans stood sentinel, giant heads warily scanning the horizon. In front of him lay a broken mirror image. The gutted rib cage of the first Mechanicum building on this planet, two Warhounds smashed into the dust on either side. This was where he was to lead his recon team.

##TIMESTAMP: 20:01 Sidereal Standard [Engram]

“Why did you kill them, Albor?” demanded the interrogator. Sparks flew, damage sensors saturated and Albor Tholus screamed.

##TIMESTAMP: 09:15 Sidereal Standard [Engram]

“That such a thing can be so fills me with sorrow,” said Albor.

“Enquiry: Sorrow?” his colleague asked.

“Clarification: Dismay.”

The scouting party stood before the original expedition’s Altar of Knowledge. It was dark and lifeless. Time worn and dead.

“Come, let us see what can be salvaged.”

##TIMESTAMP: 21:19 Sidereal Standard [Engram]

“What was in the vault, Albor?” hissed the interrogator. Albor tried to close down his pain nodes but harsh overrides kept them jammed open.

##TIMESTAMP: 10:55 Sidereal Standard [Engram]

“Considerable effort has been made to keep us out. Reconsideration would be prudent.”

The words of the Tech Priest echoed away into darkness.

“Effort was expended to ward off the xenos and the unworthy, of which we are neither,” replied Albor, “we proceed.”

The entrance to the vault had been well concealed beneath the Altar of Knowledge. The locks and electromagnetic dampers were of Mechanicum origin, but the door and the vault that lay beneath were plainly not. The hand of Man was evident in their construction, but the artifice belonged to a time before Old Night. These silent halls were a long buried relic from the Dark Age of Technology. Lubricant dripped from Albor’s mouth as his flesh-spare face twisted in a parody of a smile. Wonders awaited deep down in the dark, of that he was sure.

A staircase of cyclopean scale led them into the depths, easily wide enough to accommodate a marching army. Down and down they travelled. One kilometre. Two. Five. Whatever secrets lay beneath them were buried deep in the bedrock of the planet.

Finally the stairs ended on a solid platform above a vast chamber of darkness. A data terminal stood sentinel in the gloom, the silver pillar and single data socket regarding them like a judgmental eye. Albor strode forwards, unflinchingly meeting its gaze, micro-mechadendrites uncoiling from his wrist.

“Hold, brother…” said a voice behind him, ladened with apprehension. Albor ignored it. The mechadendrites connected to the socket with a clunk of finality.

Data was sent, but so much more was received.

Lights slowly winked to life in the chamber beyond, illuminating the darkness. Not lights. Eyes. Thousands and thousands of glowing blue eyes.

Time seemed to slow for Albor Tholus. One of his colleagues was screaming about blasphemy, another was charging his volkite lancer. Albus calmly put a hot-shot las round through each of their heads.

##TIMESTAMP: 22:12 Sidereal Standard [Live]

The birdsong stopped abruptly as the walls of Albor’s cell buckled. The Men of Iron from the vault were here to rescue him, pure machine intelligences created by Man’s hubris in the Dark Age of Technology. Cold blue eyes scanned the cell. Albor’s interrogators turned to defend themselves but were smashed aside by brutal blows.

Metal arms lifted Albor Tholus from the excruciation slate, the command and control algorithm uploaded to his memory engrams from the data terminal in the vault far too precious to lose. Moving in unison, the Men of Iron carried him from the building.

Outside battle was raging, giant dust clouds were being churned up as the full range of horrors at the disposal of the Men of Iron were being brought to bear. Giant shapes moved through the red haze and metal tendrals whipped out to ensnare the Warhounds. In a shriek of metal the were cast down on red sands.

Suddenly drop pods thundered into the ground like a god’s hammer upon the forge. Sand fused to glass in the heat and then shattered under Astartes boots. Disciplined bolter fire crashed into the ranks of the Men of Iron as they marched from the vault. The Expedition’s contingent of Space Marines had arrived.

“No!” cried Albor “Do not harm the Men of Iron! They are a gift to Humanity and the Great Crusade!”

Albor Tholus realised he had no choice. These Astartes must be destroyed.

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