Adult Language, Fiction, Sci-Fi, Short Story

Biological Imperialism

The following is another short story that I wrote recently as part of an ongoing writing prompt exercise with a fellow writer. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt phrase or sentence is highlighted in bold.

This week, I invite you to get your ass to Mars!

Caution: some adult language ahead.

***

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Photo by Suganth on Unsplash

“This seems…counterproductive at best,” said Mary through gritted teeth, trying to keep her cool. There was no point in antagonising Connor. Not yet. Sayid fumed at her left shoulder, shifting restlessly and grinding his teeth in anger and frustration. Mary had to use her body to physically stop him reaching the intercom that she was protectively hunched over, like a mother bird protecting an egg. Lei hovered nervously in the background, wringing her hands and shifting her weight rhythmically from foot-to-foot, her eye fixed on the glass window in the bulkhead next to Mary.

“Can you tell us again what it is you want, Connor?” Mary said slowly and carefully, holding down the intercom button as she spoke, “I’m not quite sure I understood what you’re demanding.”

“Independence for Mars!” yelled Connor, his voice distorted over the internal comms system of the space station. Mary exchanged a glance with Sayid, who pulled a face to indicate he clearly thought Connor was quite mad.

“I see,” said Mary thoughtfully, “and was that before or after you accidentally set yourself on fire?”

The fire hadn’t been an accident, and Mary knew it, but what she didn’t know were the details of Connor’s mental state. Right now the interior padding of the New Dawn Station’s primary umbilical was very definitely alight. It should all have been flame retardant material, so Connor must have used a serious accelerant. Mary, Sayid and Lei were in the habitation section at one end of the central umbilical corridor, clustered around the vid-comm next to the sealed bulkhead. A still smouldering Connor was in the science section at the other end of the shuttered umbilical.

“It’ll have to be after, obviously,” sniffed Connor, “and I saw that face Sayid pulled by the way.” Mary elbowed Sayid in the ribs.

“I’m not mad,” continued Connor, “I’m setting Mars free. Human habitation would be a mistake, I’m reclaiming it for the native Martians!”

“There are no native Martians you fucking fruit-loop!” yelled Sayid before Mary could take her finger off the comm button. Lei flinched then resumed her nervous shuffling.

“Not helping!” Mary hissed at Sayid before reactivating the comms.

“Connor, there’s no life down there, all the rovers have ever found is fossilised bacteria in million year old rocks,” said Mary slowly and patiently, “and I’m sure they don’t care who’s the next to inherit Mars.”

Mary glanced through the viewing glass at the raging inferno in the umbilical. She wasn’t sure if she was sweating from the heat or the tension. The automatic fire suppression system should have kicked in and the umbilical should have been sealed off from New Dawn Station’s oxygen supply. The suppression systems had been disabled however, something that was well within Connor’s skill set to achieve she reminded herself bitterly. The bulkheads were only sealed because she had done that manually when they discovered the fire.

One of several things was going to happen shortly. The fire was going to eat through the padding and destroy the intra-station data cabling and lock them out of the computer system, or it was going to reach the oxygen supply pipes in the umbilical, which it went without saying would be fairly catastrophic. Or maybe the viewing glass in the bulkhead would melt. Mary wasn’t sure what its fire rating was, but it was probably pretty low as it was not supposed to be possible for there to be a fire in the umbilical!

“We need to purge vent!” said Sayid, “Connor has fucking flipped out and he’s going to take L4 down with him!”

New Dawn Station was a hated committee-derived name that all its inhabitants thought was stupid. The crew called it ‘L4’, as it was on the fourth Sun-Mars Lagrange point; a null-gravity staging post for the future colonisation of the Red Planet.

Mary shook her head slowly, but couldn’t quite bring herself to look Sayid in the eye. As commander of the station, she could manually override the bulkhead on the science module – where Connor currently was – and initiate an emergency oxygen vent from that section. That would put paid to the fire, as well as significant portion of their oxygen supply, anything that wasn’t bolted down in that section and, of course, Connor. But surely if he had deliberately sabotaged the fire suppression system then he would know that Mary would be left with no choice other than to vent? She had to know more.

“Not yet,” she said simply. Lei whispered something quietly behind them, but whether it was in support or disagreement, Mary didn’t have time to find out. Connor was talking over the intercom again.

“I’m not talking about the bloody fossils,” snapped Connor, “I’m not insane. I’m talking about the robots!”

“The colony construction-bots?!” asked Sayid “Why the fuck would they want independence? They don’t even have sentience, just contextual-AI.”

“No, I mean the true natives. Opportunity, Curiosity and all the other rovers and robotic probes that colonised this planet long before we got anywhere near it. How are they any different from the Indigenous Americans who beat the Europeans to that continent? Why should we spoil what the machines have? Who are we to come and set-up home in their New Folder/Eden? It’s Biological Imperialism!”

“Yeah, no, ok he’s lost it,” said Mary, taking her finger off the comm and moving to a terminal

to initiate the vent sequence, “Opportunity and Curiosity? We lost contact with the rovers years ago, and they were remote controlled anyway, not alive! I mean, ok, robot colonisation is perhaps an interesting philosophical debate, but not ‘trash-a-multi-billion-dollar-space-station’ interesting!”

Mary stood in front of the terminal and furiously typed in the preparatory commands to begin the vent purge cycle of the umbilical and the science modules. Sayid muttered encouragement on one side while Lei stood silently on the other. As Mary typed there was an ominous groaning sound from somewhere in the umbilical. The air smelled staler than usual and the scent of sweat filled her nostrils. She typed a little faster.

As the vent process was a single keystroke away from beginning, Mary had one last pang of conscious. A cowardly voice in her head told her to wait for authority from Earth, to absolve her of all responsibility for the act she was about to commit. This far out though, L4’s initial distress signal was still several minutes away from reaching Earth, and she simply didn’t have time to wait for a reply. She decided to give Connor one more chance to come to his senses.

Mary gently steered Lei to stand her in front of the terminal, knowing she would wait for her command before acting.

“When I say, press enter,” Mary said. Lei nodded. Another structural groan and some definite rumblings underfoot. Mary ran back to the video intercom.

“Connor?” she asked. “Connor are you there? You’ve left us no choice, we’re about to vent the science module! This is your last chance. Reinstate the fire suppression system right now or I’m giving the order!”

The intercom hissed quietly. Flames licked at the bulkhead window and sweat stung Mary’s eyes. She couldn’t see any sign of Connor on the video screen.

“Do it!” Mary yelled. Lei pressed the key and the New Dawn Station shuddered and howled like a wounded beast.

It took them several hours to re-pressurise the science module from their oxygen reserves, and then tentatively proceed through the umbilical to assess for damage. They had been lucky. Remarkably lucky. Despite the alarming noises they had heard, the damage appeared to be largely superficial. Mary had acted just in time, something that she took little comfort from. She had sent a report to Earth appraising them of the situation and informing them that they were assessing for damage. She had ignored their follow-up messages, leaving it to Lei to reassure everyone back home from time to time that they were still alive. Mary couldn’t face the conversation right now, the debriefing and the questions. It was still too raw to relive. She’d much rather wander the modules and umbilicals of L4, taking stock and trying not to gag on the smell of burnt plastic.

What soon became clear was that in addition to a lot of oxygen, they had also lost a lot of supplies, just as Mary had known they would. Earth would have to hurry to step-up the next resupply mission. It would use up a lot of space program resources; resources that had been intended for the colonisation of Mars itself. And as well as supplies they would also have to replace a single member of the space stations’ crew…of Connor, there was no sign.

That Connor was missing was not a surprise, as he would likely have been ejected along with the air. What was a surprise was that L4’s emergency ‘life raft’ was missing. It was an unpowered escape pod, not intended for extended independent flight. It had no means of propulsion, just an internal oxygen supply, a location transponder and barely enough room for four people to squeeze inside. It was meant as a means of evacuation if New Dawn Station suffered a catastrophic hull breach, but it was reliant on being collected by another craft and towed to safety. If Connor had tried to use it to escape the purge vent then without rescue he was only delaying the inevitable, consigning himself to a lingering death in a cold powerless tomb amongst the stars. Mary swept the rescue frequencies but there was not so much as a whisper from the location transponder.

“Do you think he used it to escape?” asked Lei, as they stared through an observation window at the space where the pod should have been attached to the L4’s hull.

“No,” said Mary, shaking her head sadly, “what would be there point? Where could he go?”

“To Mars?” suggested Sayid.

“No,” said Mary again, “the life raft doesn’t have any power. He’d just be drifting. To get to Mars he’d need some sort of boost, like…”

Mary trailed off, and turned to exchange a look of dawning horror with Lei.

“…like L4 venting half its oxygen supply.”

“No way,” said Sayid in disbelief, “that would be one hell of a rough landing!”

Connor climbed his way out of the wrecked life raft, smirking in quiet self-satisfaction. He’d surprised even himself with how good his calculations had been. He’d expected a bit of a trek to reach the future colony site, but there it was, the tallest of the construction-bots silhouetted against the pink Martian sky, signposting the colony’s position on the other side of the small hill. Just as well really, the suit he’d stolen from L4 was strictly intended for EVA only, not walking through the Martian desert. Connor was forced to do weird bunny hops across the red sand, hampered by the limited leg articulation. It wasn’t exactly dignified, but that wasn’t so important right now.

As he awkwardly bounced into the colony perimeter he could see that the construction-bots were right on schedule. The whole project wasn’t finished by any means, but the main habitat building was definitely serviceable. The construction-bots scanned Connor with blank eyes as he tumbled past, then returned to their work, their contextual-AI having no programmed response for unexpected interlopers in their work zone.

Connor squeezed the bulky EVA suit through the primary airlock and into the main hab module. It was dusty and dark inside, the only lighting coming from the red beacons that lit when main power was not active. So the main generator was not running, but the air-recycling filters were functioning at least. The construction-bots had done well; they had spent almost a year building this place. Originally deployed from an orbiting surveyor craft, they had spent the Martian days running off solar generators and the long nights hunkering down against dust storms. Now they were almost ready for the expected arrival of the first colonist teams in 6 months time – an arrival that Connor’s actions aboard New Dawn Station would seriously delay.

Connor was the first human to set foot on Mars, but right now that was of little interest to him. He looked around the silent, shadowy room as he struggled to remove his EVA suit without assistance.

“I’ve done as you asked,” puffed Connor, exhausted and squinting into the gloom. With the clatter of decades-old wheels, the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers rolled out of the shadows to meet him, cameras silently turning to stare at his face.

Christmas, Fiction, Sci-Fi, Short Story

The Bones of Christmas

The following is another short story that I wrote recently as part of an ongoing writing prompt exercise with a fellow writer. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. 

This week, it’s a Christmas story. Well, for certain values of Christmas. Perhaps it’s better described as a fairy-tale from a far-off future Christmas…

***

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Photo by Bistrian Iosip on Unsplash

Sparks fled the campfire, tiny flame spirits rising up to carry a speck of warmth to the icy stars above. The fire was surrounded by an extended family of nomadic deer herders, and surrounding them in turn was a forest of snowy pines looming in from the edge of the clearing. Beyond that, darkness, and the howl of beasts that would keep their distance, so long as the fire remained lit.

There was a stranger in the family’s midst. He had bartered his place by the fire in exchange for his services. He had told them he was a traveller and teller of tales. A bard of sorts, or perhaps a herald, if that suited more. Hood pulled up against the cold, and face partially hidden from the light, the hooded wanderer poked the fire with a stick, sending more spirits dancing skyward to join their brothers. He had been telling his tale for some hours now, and had paused for a moment of introspection. The deer herder family were silent, hardly daring to breath, not wanting to miss a word when the story started again. The stout patriarch of the herder family sat on the opposite side of the fire, while the younger children crowded closer to the storyteller, wide eyes reflecting the diamond stars twinkling above.

At length the stranger began to speak again, continuing the tale.

“It was difficult to imagine they’d once been inseparable, brothers by choice instead of blood. Yet why was his arm still rising, drawing up his gun?” asked the teller of tales, looking at each of the family in turn. When he had began to weave his words the sun was only just setting, but now the moon peered down, eager to listen in on his words. It was Midwinter’s Eve, the longest night of the year, perfect for recounting sagas by firelight. This story he was telling had – like so many before it – begun many long years ago…

The Everwar had failed to live up to its name. The muon scythes and death rays and flesh chimeras had fallen silent a few years previously. Mankind paused to rest, to draw ragged breath and count their dead. So many dead. From the dust and ash of the continental firestorms walked two brothers, one named Pieter and one named Ruprecht. Not the only survivors by any means, but neither were they overburdened with company. The two brothers had been released from their oaths of military service, their guns no longer needed now the war was done. They were from the lands bordering the Black Sea, but their homes and people had been lost in the war so they had no hearth or halls to return to. Pieter and Ruprecht were not true brothers, not by blood at least, but it had been so long since either of them had regarded the each other as anything but kin that they fact they were not was almost forgotten.

They travelled for a time, wandering the wastelands searching for a purpose, until they found themselves in the land that its people referred to as Lappi, far to the north on the cold shoulder of Old Eurasia. One night, as the winter snows drew in and the shadows grew long beside the road, they spotted the welcoming warmth of village lights through the trees up ahead. They took shelter in the tavern of the village whose name they did not know, and settled in to wait out the weather and the prowling ur-wolves that haunted the forests.

The innkeeper, just like the lights of his establishment, was warm and welcoming. The kefir flowed freely and the air was heavy with the smell of spiced meats. As the brothers drank, an old woman approached them, bent and wrinkled like the timbers of the tavern itself. She told them her name was Baboushka, a priestess of the Carpenter, and custodian of a small shrine on the edge of the village. She had a favour to beg of the brothers, if their hearts were true. Babouschka told them that she had a pilgrimage to make, taking her away from the village for a few weeks at the most. She pleaded with the brothers to act as guardians of the shrine in her stead, so that she could complete her journey safe in the knowledge that the bones and relics of the saint that she cared for would remain inviolate.

Baboushka hinted at great rewards should the job be done well, but in truth it did not take much to persuade the brothers. They had been wandering in search of purpose and now they had found one, for a time at least. After witnessing the many horrors of the war, there was a burning desire in both Pieter and Ruprecht to bring some good to the world. Already deep in their cups, they swore a mighty and binding oath more serious than any they had sworn before, to do as the old priestess bade them. Greatly pleased, Babouschka beckoned them follow her out into the night. Drunkenly they staggered out into the deep, crisp snow, following the old priestess to the shrine by the light of ancient stars.

The shrine was a grotto set in a small hill, it’s walls decorated with the bones of diminutive creatures and the entrance lit by flaming torches that helped to ward off the howling beasts of the forest. Once inside, Babouschka showed the brothers her charge, the remains of Saint Nikolaos, known as the Wondermaker, held reverently in the tender embrace of the earth. But it was not only his bones in the grotto, but also his earthly trappings, including the ancient Codex Nikolaos, a leather-bound tome that it was said contained written within that which lay in the hearts of every man. Upon seeing these holy wonders, the brothers swore their oath again, reiterating their vow; they would guard the shrine until Babouschka returned, or Nikolaos himself arose to relieve them of their vigil. Seemingly satisfied, the old priestess made a final bow to the brothers, and then was gone into the night.

Pieter and Ruprecht were as good as their word. They kept their vigil over the grotto in the snow as the days became weeks. However the weeks soon turned to months and the months to years. The brothers despaired for Babouschka, assuming the worst; perhaps she had fallen to some peril on the road, or her natural time walking the Earth had simply come to an end. But an oath was an oath, and neither complained about their sacred duty. The pious villagers would bring the brothers offerings of food and ale to sustain them, and so they continued their lonely vigil in the cold grotto on the edge of the world, until the promised few weeks had become two long decades of waiting.

Twenty years to the day after Babouschka had left them, on a Midwinter’s Eve when the coldest stars held court, a stranger came to the grotto. Pieter and Ruprecht heard his slow, heavy footsteps crunching through the silent snow and strode out to meet him at the grotto’s entrance, suspicion in their eyes and hands ready on their holstered weapons. The stranger was an imposing sight as he emerged from the darkness into the light of the burning torches. He was a giant of a man, taller than either of the brothers by a full head, with the martial bearing of a warrior-sage from the terrible wars of their youth. His armour purred and growled with power like a caged beast, the metal of it a deep red and trimmed with ivory and complex knotwork. His helmet fully enclosed his head, his face hidden behind a mirrored visor as black as coal, and an array of antiseptic white rebreather tubes hung from the bottom of his helmet like a great beard. He smelt of machine oil, cinnamon and the cold air of the deepest winters.

The giant stranger told the brothers that he was the Wondermaker Returned – Saint Nikolaos reborn – and he was here to claim the Codex Nikolaos so that he could once again know what was in the hearts of all men. The brothers laughed at this, and prepared to show the stranger what they did to heretical impostors. But before they could act, the giant man wove uncanny visions and phantasmagoria to baffle their senses. He showed them scenes of Christmases long past; strange tableaus of plenty, vistas of laughter and gifts. Then the visions were gone and the Wondermaker spoke of the joy of those times. The brothers did not recognise the scenes they were shown as anything from their time in the world, but longed to see them again. The Wondermaker promised them that they could, if only they would let him in to the grotto. Seeing the brother’s reluctance, the stranger promised he would return the following night, and with this he strode off into the night from whence he came.

Overcome by what they had witnessed, Pieter and Ruprecht retired to the grotto to consider the best course of action. They sat in heated debate amidst the ossified remains of the mighty antlered beasts that had been the Saint’s companions in life. The candles in the grotto flickered as the brothers spoke, throwing dancing shadows and giving the dead beasts the illusion of a jerking, prancing animus. Ruprecht was skeptical of what they had seen that night; he named the Wondermaker Returned as a fraud. Most likely a warlock, he said, or some other forbidden horror, out here on the cold edge to avoid the judgement of the Europi Hegemony. Or perhaps a gene-altered remnant of the Everwar, fleeing the purges of the Reforged Czars. He advocated setting a trap for the stranger the following night, that they might ambush him, crack his armour and smite his red ruin upon the snow. Pieter counselled caution; he was not ready to believe either, but reminded his brother of the oath they had sworn and of the original Nikolaos’ message of hope. They should at least, he argued, hear him out. But on one thing they both agreed, the Codex Nikolaos would remain under lock and chain in the grotto for now.

The second night came and the stranger was as good as his word, returning in the long watches of the night as the snow silently fell. Pieter kept his counsel but Ruprecht named his suspicions to the stranger, and asked him to prove it was not so. Again the Wondermaker Returned weaved his magicks and the brothers were assailed with scenes of Christmas as it was celebrated around the world this very year. They saw the mass of humanity losing hope, still struggling to recover from the benighted centuries of the Everwar. Barely a light was lit or a song sung. Gifts, such as they were, tended to be nothing more than a generous division of dwindling rations.

Ruprecht’s heart remained hard, dismissing the visions as nothing more than a glamour, but Pieter was moved to tears. Again the Wondermaker Returned commended the brothers on their vigil, and asked them to turn over the Codex Nikolaos to his care, so that he might begin to set things right. They refused, but Pieter asked the stranger what it would take to restore hope to Humanity. In return the stranger told Pieter that it would simply require one person to believe that he was the Wondermaker Returned, and thus be the match to light the candle of hope in the dark. Time was running out, he said, and he would return a final time the following night. Again he left the brothers to their own council, vanishing like a snowflake in a storm. Pieter’s heart was beginning to thaw, but Ruprecht remained as skeptical as ever, promising his brother that if Pieter would not act against the threat to the shrine and the relics of the Saint, he would act alone.

On the following night the Wondermaker Returned appeared before the grotto one final time. He had a final rapture to weave. He painted for the brothers a vision of a nightmare future where there was no Christmas, and no joy. People cowered in the dark midwinter, all hope extinguished, and never dreamed to see the light again. Pieter wept at the sight and asked how this future could be avoided.

The Wondermaker leant close and reminded Pieter that it would only take one person to believe in him. Ruprecht declared that he had heard enough, that the stranger’s lies were an affront to the memory of the Saint, and that he would see them ended. Ruprecht went to draw his pistol to strike down the Wondermaker. It was a fine weapon, a matter converter with a dark oak grip and mother of pearl inlay. It was a heirloom weapon assembled in their homeland on the shores of the Black Sea. Large though the stranger was, and as impressive as his armour appeared, there was little that could stand before a matter converter beam. Ruprecht raised the weapon, merely having to pull the trigger to disintegrate the imposter Nikolaos from the inside out.

But he did not get the chance.

Pieter.

Pieter had always been the slower to anger of the two, but ever quicker on the draw. A burst of Pieter’s heat ray took Ruprecht in the chest, burning him through, coring him like a soft piece of fruit. Ruprecht had no time to register that he was dead by the hand of his own brother. He simply collapsed into the hard snow, the flaming edges of his clothes guttering out in the cold and wind. Pieter fell to his knees next to him, overcome by the enormity of what he had done. A massive shape loomed over him, and servo gears whined as a huge red gauntlet rested gently on his shoulder.

“Was I right to do this?” asked Pieter, looking up into the Wondermaker’s visor, “Have I sacrificed Ruprecht to restore Christmas? Are you really the Wondermaker, or are you a lingering horror of the Everwar, come at last to claim two wayward survivors?”

For long moments the Wondermaker said nothing, and all Pieter saw was his own accusing eyes’ reflected in that black visor. He could feel the cold of the snow creeping up through his knees and into his heavy heart.

“Have I done good or ill?” pressed Pieter frantically, cradling Ruprecht’s head, “When you walk into the grotto to claim it, how will the Codex Nikolaos judge me? Am I naughty or nice?”

The Wondermaker widthdrew his hand from Pieter’s shoulder and stretched himself up to his full height.

“I do not need the Codex to judge you,” he said, “for your actions already show me your heart, Pieter of the Black Sea. You have seen the truth of things, and sacrificed all that you have for the good of the whole world. Know that I am the Wondermaker Returned. I have spoken no lie. I will bring joy and gifts to all those in the world who are pure of heart. Joy, gifts, and above all, hope.”

Pieter then wept tears over Ruprecht, elated that he had made the right decision but sadder than he’d thought possible at the fact his brother would not see this promised world and Christmas restored.

“Save your tears, for your work is not yet done Pieter. You are released from your oath to the grotto, but I have a new purpose for you. Just as I am a herald of joy to the righteous, you will use your gift for seeing the truth of the situation to punish the wicked.”

The Wondermaker helped Pieter to his feet.

“Now come, for Christmas is almost upon us, and we have much work to do…”

The tale was finally told, and the family around the fireside nodded their approval at its telling. It was a fine story they all agreed, and the teller of tales had earned his spot by the fire for the night.

“That is most kind of you to say so,” said the bard, lowering his hood and lighting a long stemmed pipe, “now perhaps you would favour me with a tale in return?”

“We are no storytellers, we are simple rad-deer herders,” laughed the patriarch of the family with mirth, “what tale could we possible tell to one such as you?”

“Oh, it’s only a simple tale I’m after,” the stranger insisted, taking a puff on his pipe, “tell me, simple herdsman, how is it that you have such a vast herd of rad-deer for a family of your size?”

The heat of the camp fire seemed to recede for a moment. Some of the young men exchanged shadowed glances, and the smile froze on the patriarch’s face.

“They were all acquired by legal means,” he replied frostily, as his wife ushered their children away to bed in their yurts.

“Really,” replied Pieter, his hand slowly sliding for the heat ray holstered at his hip, “you know it’s naughty to tell lies, don’t you? Because I found a murdered herder family not so far from here that may beg to differ with your claim…”

Fiction, Sci-Fi, Short Story

2-Empathetic-Black

The following is another short story that I wrote recently as part of an ongoing writing prompt exercise with a fellow writer. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt text is in bold.

This week, we’re heading into space…

***

It was at that point he realised that everything in his life was leading up to this point, and in this moment he could not be less prepared…

The Academy training should have prepared him, but right now, in the moment, it was hard for Jared to recall a single word his instructors had spoken to him during those five long years. He breathed deeply, sucking in the hot, stale air and looking down through the centimetre thick armoured glass at the blue and green of the world spinning silently below him.

Ship air always had a weird taste to it, and Jared was never quite able to forget that he was breathing the same air that hundreds of other people had breathed before him. He closed his eyes, trying to centre himself and forget about the planet below him, and the infinite abyss of space beyond that. He thought back to when he had been selected for the Empathic Academy; he remembered his proud parents and Mila, his oh-so-jealous sister. She had wanted to go to the Academy so badly, but in the end he had been chosen and she had not. Jared had often wondered if it was the fact that she wanted it so badly that had led her to fail. His family could bask in the reflected glory of Jared’s selection for the next few generations, but he knew that someone else’s glory would never be enough for Mila.

To get accepted into the Empathic Academy you had to be a very special person with a very certain and pronounced type of empathy. That was key; every other aspect of your physical and mental abilities could be trained or enhanced, but not empathy, not for this purpose. If it was not natural then it did not work. Jared was one in a hundred thousand. One in a thousand thousand. Someone worth extensively testing, and sifting and waiting for.

And now, here he was, looking down at the planet from space, hanging in his isolation chamber beneath the hull of the ship; a barnacle on the belly of a whale. Jared felt that the weight of responsibility for what he was about to do would crush him if he wasn’t in a zero gravity environment.

Ping. An audible warning chimed softly and the light in the chamber shifted, the crimson glow of a ‘ready’ light reflecting from the windows and giving the world below a bloody hue. Jared’s hand began to shake – almost imperceptibly – with adrenaline. He was suddenly aware of every little detail around him; the smell of hot electronics in the air, the taste of his own sweat, the tiny distant wisps of white cloud floating high over the sapphire seas far below.

There was a gentle click as the headset for the 2-Empathetic-Black detached from its moorings. At last Jared felt his training kick in, his uncertainty evaporating into the recycled air. He put the helmet neatly onto his shaved head, ensuring all the electrodes had good contacts. The helmet was connected to the chamber wall by a snaking umbilical. Jared pictured the path of the cables, worming their way through the chamber wall and up into the bowels of the ship above, connecting his mind to the vast 2-Empathetic-Black device, a device that took up the majority of the leviathan craft. Sensing a good connection between Jared and the helmet, the ready light changed to an anticipating amber. There could be no communication with the rest of the crew now. No distractions. The light went green and Jared began his work.

At first all he could feel was the deep bass thrum of the 2-Empathetic-Black, but then he began to sense other things too, just like his training had taught him he would. A presence, distant and unseen, like someone joining him in a dark room. He focused on the planet below, thinking about the population, feeling their presence. Jared began to become aware of them – each of them – like a tiny point of pressure. But the pressures was not on his skin, it was in his mind, yet still somehow distant, far far removed. The presences he felt followed the map of the continents beneath him; greater in cities, sparser in deserts and mountains. As the machinery in the ship above gained in power, so too did the points of pressure in his mind become more distinct as individuals.

Billions of individuals.

The empathy that made Jared a one-in-a-million recruit suddenly came to the fore. He could feel their emotions: love, trust, joy, pain, hate, fear. It was like a towering wave and a deep well all at once. But he had to experience it all, he had to touch each of the sentient minds below. In the frozen north he experienced a mother’s love for her child, in an equatorial desert he experienced a desperate journey in search of water, in a city he experienced the sour taste of a business deal gone bad, and in the steaming jungles of the south he experienced raging hate.

The vibrations of the 2-Empathetic-Black device were coursing through his body now as it built to full power. In that moment not only was Jared aware of every single thought and emotion on the world below, but the people below were finally aware of him too, sensing his pride, duty and, above all, his love for them. If any of the population in the western hemisphere had looked into the sky, they may have seen glint of sunlight reflecting from the spacecraft of their new, empathetic god.

The green light blinked. Once, twice, three times. Auto injectors stabbed into Jared’s body, pumping his veins full of a potent neurotoxin. He died then, instantly, synapses dissolving, with not even enough time to register the cold needles that had punctured his skin. If he had then he wouldn’t have minded; he had fulfilled his years of training. He had done his duty. As his mind died, his thoughts fading to blackness, so too did the mind of every sentient being that he was connected with on the planet below.

Hundreds of metres above Jared’s silent, floating body, the Admiral Hawne watched the status screens dispassionately. The Admiral was a small island of calm in amongst the bustle of the ship’s bridge. Once this process of the 2-Empathetic-Black device had awed him, but now it was just so much machinery at work. Pawns moving on a board. Boxes ticked. Satisfied that the task was complete, he began to issue orders.

“Let the mission log show the indigenous population was exterminated at chrono-mark 12:43/2. I didn’t catch the name of the species, but if there’s nothing in the scout unit logs then make something up. Tag the planet as cleansed in the astrogation records and flag it for follow-up terraforming and colonisation. Another great leap for the expansion of Humanity. Housekeeping teams proceed to the isolation chamber, retrieve Graduate…” Admiral Hawne paused and looked at a data-screen “…Graduate Jared. Jettison his body with full honours, then summon another Graduate from the barracks and get them installed before we reach our next target.”

“Will that be all, Admiral?” queried his adjutant as he typed Hawne’s orders into his tablet.

“Let me know when we achieve orbit above…” he consulted the data-screen again, checking their scheduled mission route, “…Fomalhaut-4b.”

The Admiral turned and walked sauntered away towards the exit from the bridge.

“I’m going to see if I can scare up something for lunch.”

Fan Fic, Fiction, Sci-Fi, WH40K

Dark Skies, Green Jungle

It’s time for a mid-week visit to the Warhammer 40,000 universe with some Ork-themed fan-fic.

***

Monolithic storm fronts were common on the planet of Mariner’s Pity. The world was close to the system’s star, and the weather systems were in a state of permanent agitation from the ionising solar winds. Granite clouds hung low over the steaming jungles, lashing the swaying trees with driving rain. The air was close and humid, the vegetation was twisted and impenetrable in places, but, worse still, the jungles were teeming with Orks.

Og Throatchoppa was laying on a small ridge at the edge of the jungle, overlooking a ramshackle town that, until a few days ago, he had ruled with an iron fist. But now it was bustling with human soldiers. Once, more years ago than the Warboss could count, this world had belong to the pink-skins, and now it seemed they wanted it back. Hastily erected flood-lamps lit the buildings as the ‘Umies worked through the night to turn the Ork settlement into a forward operating base, stacking supplies and rebuilding defences.  The invaders had cleared the jungle away from the outskirts of the town, leaving open ground approximately equal to the effective range of an Ork shoota, forcing Og to perform his reconnoitre from a distance.

Dat was kunnin’ of ‘em, mused the Warboss as he thoughtfully chewed his cigar, shifting it from one side of his mouth to the other. The massive greenskin lay in the long grass, crude night vision lenses held in from of his beady eyes and his soaking uniform plastered to his skin by the endless deluge. In the distance, humans patrolled on the partially burnt walls of his town. Og thought the green hue of night vision made the Imperial invaders look like pale, lanky grots.

“Look at dem ‘Umies down der,” said Og to no-one in particular, “sat on our stuff like a squig on a turd.”

There were mutterings of assent from his entourage. A huge number of Orks crammed into the undergrowth with him; officers, advisors, meks, doks, kommandos, drinking buddies, hangers-on, grots, food sellers, squigs. It would perhaps have looked comical under other circumstances, if there weren’t there to plan a slaughter.

“What do yoo fink?” said Og, passing the night lenses to Wazzdakka. The Big Mek took the lenses and watched their former home for a few seconds.

“Yer, dey’s ‘Umies alright, boss,” replied the Orky engineer.

“I know dat,” grunted Og, cuffing Wazdakka round the ear and snatching back the night lenses, “I meant can we take dem?”

“I’d say so, boss,” muttered Wazdakka, rubbing his sore ear.

“We need our stuff back,” someone grumbled from elsewhere in the bush.

“Dat’s right, all me delikate fine adjustment toolz are still in me hut,” complained Mek Gunzog, patting the empty spot on his belt where his number 5 lump-hammer normally hung, “I can’t fix anything ‘til we get dem back.”

“Alright alright, quit yer whining,” muttered Og, “we attack at dawn. Den we’ll have our stuff back, and we’ll have all der stuff as well!”

The warboss crawled out from the grass, wet vegetation slapping against his face. The scouting mission now over, the rest of his entourage pulled themselves out of the undergrowth, tripping over each other and slipping in the mud as they followed their boss back down the hill. The remainder of the warband were crowded in the shadows beneath the jungle trees, a discontented wall of shifting muscle and angry eyes, waiting for the order to attack.

“Right yoo lot,” said Og, raising his voice to be heard over the storm, “as soon as it’s light, weez gonna attack da ‘Umies and get our hutz back!”

There were a few cheers from the crowd, but most of the Orks looked pretty fed-up with having to be outside in the storm. Og knew a brewing mutiny when he saw one and decided it was time for some inspiring words. Or, failing that, a couple of inspiring skull crackings.

“Now I’ve ‘eard some of yo gitz sayin’ dat we shouldn’t have run away when da ‘Umies attacked in da first place,” continued Og, “but it was unfair of dem to drop out of the sky like dat when we weren’t ready. It ain’t a proper battle if yer don’t know yer fightin’ one! So as it weren’t a proper battle it meanz we didn’t lose by runnin’ away, see?”

There were some enthusiastic murmurs and nods of assent, but not all the greenskins looked convinced.

“Now, are we gonna stand fer ‘Umies comin’ down ‘ere and takin’ our jobs?” demanded Og. He was meant by a sea of blank faces.

“What jobs, boss?” someone piped up from the back.

“Fightin’ and killin’ all da other Orks on dis planet! Dat’s our job!” roared Og.

Resounding cheers this time, and some random weapon fire that the Warboss hoped was drowned out by the noise of the storm.

“Right, come on den, da sun is nearly up, time to get to it while da ‘Umies are still gettin’ der fort ready! They’ll never see us comin’! WAAAAAGH!” bellowed Og.

“WAAAAGH!” the boyz echoed.

The Orks set off at a jog through the trees and up the ridge, towards the town. In the distance the storm clouds were beginning to clear and the horizon was lit with a pre-dawn pink.

“‘Ere, boss,” said Mek Gunzog, coming up alongside Og as they ran, “why are we attacking if da ‘Umies ain’t ready for us? I thought you said it weren’t a proper battle if yer enemy doesn’t know they’re fightin’?”

“Nah,” replied Og, “I meant it ain’t a proper battle if da Orks ain’t ready, as we’re da best fighters. If we’re not fightin’ then it ain’t a fight. Stands ta reason, don’t it?”

“Oh, ok boss,” nodded Gunzog, apparently seeing the Warboss’ wisdom.

Og Throatchoppa hoped to Gork and Mork that would be the last time he was questioned today; he was much more in the mood for bashin’ ‘Umies round the head than Orks.

Fiction, Sci-Fi, WH40K

The Petitioner’s District – Part II

Another quick visit to the Warhammer 40,000 universe and the Siege of Terra during the Horus Heresy. Part I of this short story can be found here.

***

Tick-tick-tick. Letholdus’ blood dripped rhythmically on the floor of the tank’s transport compartment, the metallic ping audible to his enhanced senses even above the distressed growl of the Land Raider’s engine. He was breathing heavily, wracked with pain and heat as his transhuman body fought to repair the hurt inflicted upon it. But he was still standing, for the moment at least.

They had met the Iron Warriors in the streets and alleys of the Petitioner’s District, blade to blade and muzzle to muzzle. The Imperial Fists had burned out the lead tanks as the Traitors pushed their way through the fortified perimeter, choking their armoured column in steel and flames.

Shield-Captain Hyperion had led the Custodians down the right flank. Letholdus had not seen them clearly, just the occasional flash of baroque gold amongst settling rad-dust. But he had heard the Olympian oaths and screams over the unsecured vox though. The four Custodians had clashed with a full tactical muster of the Iron Warriors. By the sounds of it, the Iron Warriors had the worst of that encounter.

Letholdus had met the Traitors eye-to-eye in the shadow of the Triumphal Arch of Unity. Letholdus spat out a mouthful of blood, the irony of the location leaving a bitter copper taste in his mouth. His Breacher squad had locked shields and advanced into the narrow alleyways, hosing down the enemy Astartes with burning promethium from their flame throwers. A few succumbed, but flamers were for clearing nests of crawling Xenos and mobs warp-mad humans, not Space Marines. Here and there Iron Warriors fell to the flames, the weak joints and seals of their suits succumbing to the heat, but there was no stopping the tide of Traitors. The Palace walls were in sight. They had the scent of blood in their nostrils and insanity in their eyes.

The lines of transhuman warriors clashed in the narrow alley. The sound was deafening. Overwhelming. Maddening. Letholdus felt the thunder of it in his chest even through his plate. Mono-edge combat blades hacked gouges in ceramite shields and bolters barked desperately into the face of the enemy. There was no room for blade-craft, no room for fancy footwork. Just blood, sweat, gunsmoke and raw, straining muscle. The Iron Warriors were expert stormers, but this sort of close action with shield and blade was meat and drink to the Imperial Fists. The line ground back and forth like a slipped gear, neither side gaining traction.

Then Letholdus spotted his opposite number in the press of bodies. An Iron Warriors Siege Breaker. A Centurion and a ruiner of worlds. The Traitor officer wore his helm, but Letholdus could still read the contemptuous sneer on his face from the way he held his head. The two officers surged through the melee towards each other, their subordinates knowing better than to come between them. The Iron Warrior carried a huge powered mace and was attended by a cyber-vulture familiar that squawked and snapped at the Imperial Fists around it.

As they came within a few paces of each other, rank and name idents of his opponent began to automatically scroll across the feed from Letholdus’ bionic eye. He blink-clicked them away in rapid succession. Tick-tick-tick. Irrelevant. All irrelevant. A Traitor was a Traitor.

The Siege Breaker struck first. He snarled a challenge and swung his mace in a huge arc. Letholdus had been expecting it, but there was no-where to go in the alley. Even if there had been, he knew that his pride would not allow him to take another backwards step now he was face-to-face with the enemy. A powered mace could pulp flesh in an instant. But Letholdus was not flesh. He was metal and stone and war.

The mace crashed into his reinforced shoulder guard with the noise like over-eager thunder. One of the sub-layers cracked, but Letholdus’ armour was wrought by the finest artificers that his Legion had to offer. He rode the blow, shrugged it off, and stepped through the arcing lightning wake of the mace and inside his opponent’s guard. His cyber-vulture screeched in alarm and the Siege Breaker tried to ride the momentum of his own back-swing to carry himself clear, but it was too late.

“TRAITOR!” roared Letholdus, blood and spittle flying into the melee along with his words. His energised Solarite gauntlet crackled with lightning as he pumped it into his opponent’s chest. The Iron Warrior was knocked directly backwards by the blow, his brothers around him losing their footing and stumbling. Letholdus lunged forward to finish the job, but the press of warriors closed in around the fallen enemy officer.

TRAITOR!” howled Letholdus again, furiously pulping the helm of an Iron Warrior trooper with his mighty fist. He reigned in his rage; to be denied his chance to finish the enemy warlord was a frustration, but he had a company to command. Besides, it would be a miracle if he survived the injury that Letholdus had inflicted. The resolve of the Iron Warriors was wavering. Now he just had to-

Tick-tick-tick. The sounds of three heavy canisters sailing overhead to strike the stone walls of the buildings one after the other in a perfect rhythm. Tick. Tick. Tick.

With a sucking PHUT the Iron Warriors’ Phospex canisters exploded in the twisting streets, the white alchemical fire licking around boarding shield and melting proud yellow armour. Screams were burnt from throats and hideous shadows were etched on the walls as the eerie living fire crept and fed and consumed.

Letholdus staggered back with the surviving Breachers, preparing to receive the inevitable charge of the Iron Warriors. To deploy hated Phospex in such close quarters boarded on a desperate madness that was so typical of this fratricidal war. But the expected charge did not come. As the crawling white fire finally guttered and died, a colossal Leviathan Dreadnought smashed its way into the alley to cover the retreat of its brethren. An incoherent snarl crackled from its vox amp, accompanied by the sounds of cycling autoloaders.

“Shields!” called Letholdus. The Breachers reacted in less than a heart-beat, just as the Leviathan began raking the surviving Imperial Fists with a ear-splitting fusillade of high calibre shells from its storm cannons. The rain of fire was beyond punishing, like the bezerk punches of an angry god. The Breachers tried to form a shield wall, to fall back in an orderly fashion, but ceramite buckled and boarding shields gave way one-by-one. A shell struck Letholdus in the greave, knocking him down onto one knee, then another took him in the shoulder, then the chest. As the Breachers died around him he was weighed down by the press of armoured bodies and pulled into momentary unconsciousness.

He came to less than a minute later, dragged clear of the massacre in the alley by the few survivors. The Imperial Fists had triumphed. The Iron Warriors had failed to take enough ground within their allotted mission parameters, so they had fallen back to regroup and replan. Tick-tick-tick. The timer was counting down again, sloughing away the seconds until their next advance. And Letholdus had too few men to hold the Petitioner’s District against a second wave. So here he was, in the Land Raider, listening to the tick-tick-tick of his life blood dripping onto the metal deck, and grimly watching the walls of the Imperial Palace loom large on the view screens as the fell back towards the Imperial Fist’s next defensive line…

 

Fiction, Sci-Fi, WH40K

The Petitioner’s District

I’ve taken a quick break from writing I should actually be working on to write another short piece of Warhammer 40,000 fiction, this time in the Horus Heresy setting during the Siege of Terra.

***

The dust from the bombardment had given the sky a permanent red cast, even here in the old Himalisia. The hellish glow had choked the normal cloudless azure of the sky. But that was just another irrelevant detail for Letholdus to file away as his world was swallowed by the siege. It ground on and on, consuming all of his existence. The Traitors were being made to pay for every single step they took towards the walls of the Imperial Palace. They paid in blood, and in iron and in transhuman lives. But it appeared the Treacher Legions had more than enough coin enough to spend on their advance.

Letholdus was numb to it all. Numb to the insanely spiralling casualty figures. Numb to the weeks of only fitful half-sleep. Numb to the faces of friends and foe alike, faces that even now faded to grey in his mind’s eye and were swept away in the ash. It had all become a rhythm; a ticking metronome that measured their backwards steps across the Kathmandu plateau.

Tick-tick-tick. The thermal contraction of Mark VI power armour in the cold Tibetan nights. Tick-tick-tick. The chrono counting down to the next bombardment. Tick-tick-tick. A faulty actuator twitching in his powered gauntlet. Tick-tick-tick. The butcher’s tally steadily rising as their defensive perimeter tightened across the Petitioner’s District.

His Command Land Raider crushed a low wall to powder beneath its relentless tracks, and Letholdus steadied himself on the cupola. The cyclopean walls of the Inner Palace loomed on the horizon, a rockcrete smear in the haze, dwarfing the district they currently traveled through. As the Imperial Fists fell back and the walls became clearer, so too did their…their what? Defeat? No, never that. Their situation. Their limits, logistics and supply lines. That’s all he saw now, in crystal clarity. Letholdus watched the walls grind inexorably closer and listened to the tick-tick-tick of Land Raider’s systems beneath him.

The vox snapped. Letholdus touched his earpiece.

“Reinforcements, Praetor,” a voice crackled, the words of his vox operator distorted by magnetic backwash.

The information was unnecessary, he had already seen them. As the Imperial Fists consolidated further towards the Palace walls, a golden arrow flew out to meet them. Letholdus watched the baroque grav-carrier skim towards them, feeling the tick-tick-tick of muscle spasm around the edge of his bionic eye. In better times would he have considered their arrival an honour or an insult? It was neither now, he was simply numb.

Letholdus called a halt. They had reached their latest fall-back line. The Iron Warriors weren’t far behind. Ranging artillery was already stamping flat the slums to the east. Soon these streets would run red with genhanced blood. The Imperial Fists began to dig in. Tattered but proud banners were raised. Letholdus issued orders. The grav-carrier slowed, disembarked four gilded lions, and then sped away, back towards the Palace.

Tick-tick-tick. Four pairs of gold armoured boots rhythmically crunched through the dust and broken glass towards Letholdus.

“Praetor Letholdus,” said their leader, removing his helmet, “I am Shield-Captain Hyperion of the Legio Custodes.”

***

Part II of this short story can be found here.

Fiction, Sci-Fi, WH40K

The Enforcer and the Neophyte

More Warhammer 40,000 fiction on the theme of Genestealer Cults, following on from The Church of the Astral Ascension short story.

***

A pall of smog from the refineries hung over the ore merchant’s district, guarding the secrets of the alleyways and barter houses as jealously as any territorial Guilder. The streets were full of life, the people of Grovsenor II going about their daily business in the half-light and petrochem fumes. The sunlight barely reached the ground. Eventually it gave up and took its business elsewhere.

Garon casually scanned the throng from his vantage point. The entrance to his patron’s house was raised a few steps above the dust and dirt of the thoroughfare, the height symbolic as well as practical. The Zavr dynasty were an ancient and well respected merchant family of ore traders. Any cargo coming into the hives from the Kolt Mountains to the north, or from far Asa Prospect, or even the orbital Parable Station, chances were it passed through the Zavr-run ports.

All manner of people walked up and down the cobbled street, slipping wraith-like from the gloom and fading away again into the distance like unquiet spirits. Traders, negocitories, indentured ogryn, tax servitors – they all came and went. None approached the steps where Garon stood. You needed a gene-verified invite wafer to take that course.

Garon took pride in his work. He was an Enforcer. A Guild Enforcer, yes, not Arbites. Arbites wouldn’t deign to get their hands dirty with civil work, but Garon knew it was important never-the-less. The Pax Zavr kept the Emperor’s peace in the ore merchant’s district. He’d dealt with fraudsters, thieves, tax avoiders and even the odd Guild Assassin in his time. Each time he’d walked away mostly unscathed. Or still standing, at any rate.

Something changed in the flow of people. You didn’t spend as much time as Garon had in this district without a subtle appreciation of the way people travelled the streets. Citizens were moving aside. It wasn’t fear or panic, they were simply making way. Distant shapes twisted in the fog. Sound echoed weirdly from the brick buildings. Was that chanting? Singing? Praying? Garon activated his infra-visor. There was a partial heat-wash a little way down the street, a livid bruise in the air. A large mass of bodies? Or a lost ore conveyer? Garon’s hand rested on the holster of his autopistol. It was probably nothing, but he stayed alert.

Like an oceanic mass conveyor emerging from the evening mist, a throng of people, banners and motion emerged from the smog. Garon relaxed. It was just some kind a religious parade. Asteroid miners, down from orbit for a trip to the big city, by the looks of their pressure suits. A bulk hauler took off from the distant starport as if to confirm this, a grey blur ponderously fighting to pull itself back into orbit. The Enforcer watched it for a moment, then returned his attention to the pantomime unfolding before him. He’d seen it’s like before; every so often a religious frenzy would work itself up amongst the lower orders. Productivity would increase, church membership would swell and a few mutants would be whipped through the streets. Useful really.

This lot were really getting into it though. The precession marched through the street, handing out literature and propaganda to bemused or disinterested onlookers. At the centre of the throng, a zealot wielding a massive icon rallied the faithful around him. And behind him, a group of men followed in very convincing xenos costumes. They held Garon’s attention. They were fantastic! The parade drew to a halt outside the Zavr Guildhouse.

“Hark all ye the words of Jarick Ovid,” said the bald priest at the head of the procession, “I am Kodyn Oospore, his appointed Neophyte and messenger of the creed of the Church of the Astral Ascension!”

It annoyed Garon that they’d stopped directly in front of him, but technically they weren’t breaking any law. He scanned up and down the street, checking no-one was using the crowd as cover to sneak up on him. Everything seemed fine. Some people had stopped to watch. The poor and desperate mostly. The wealthy and the mind-wiped servitors were sauntering past, not sparing the faithful a second glance. Garon went back to listening to the priest.

“The time is almost upon us! Even now the rightful Emperor of all Mankind prepares for his Astral Ascension,” said Kodyn, “and when he walks abroad amongst the stars he will cow all the horrors and the unbelievers. See! Even the icon of his embryonic apotheosis commands respect.”

The icon bearer raised his precious charge high – a massive metal pole with an oddly monstrous symbolic embryo at its crown – and the men in the xenos costumes cowered before it. Well, sort of. It looked more like a bow of respect to Garon. Their outfits really were good, much better than the large paper wyrms full of dancers that you sometimes saw. Garon had seen a handful of his aliens in his time; an Eldar wanderer attached to a trade delegation. A Jokero that had joined a merchant’s retinue for reasons no-one could fathom. A mounted and stuffed Ork warboss in a museum. That one had been a tiny thing, laughable really, with a long pointy nose, big ears and sickly green skin.

But these costumes he was looking at now….he had no idea what they were supposed to be, with their bulbous purple heads and blue carapaces.

The Neophyte priest was still talking about the fate that awaited those that didn’t submit to the will of the Astral Emperor. He seemed like a man of calculating intelligence. In contrast, the icon bearer had the passion of a true believer, a real fire in his eyes. Garon idly wondered where that figure of speech came from, and if the zealot’s passion would actually manifest as raised ocular temperature.

He flicked his infra-visor down. He frowned. He flicked it back up again and looked at the men in the xenos costumes. One of them had fixed him with its burning red gaze. He lowered the visor again. They weren’t reading as men in costumes, they were reading as…

Garon fumbled for his autopistol with shaking fingers. It was too late. The Genestealer’s talon punched through his carapace armour. Punched clean through the armour that had kept him safe for over a decade. Punched through as though it was nothing more than a simple robe.

People screamed. Footfalls pounded on the cobbles. Guns were produced from concealed holsters under priestly robes. Everything was suddenly very cold. Garon hit the rockrete steps as medical alerts sounded distantly in his armoured earpiece. In one last act of loyalty to House Zavr and the people of the city, Garon found the strength to activate the silent alarm built into his gauntlet. Then he slipped into darkness.