Cadmus Qevpilum pounded on the metallic tendril that had grown out of his own bionic arm with his biological one, even as the bionic hand continued to choke his neck, which was fortunately somewhat protected by his armor. “Retreat!” he ordered. “Pyrrhian Task Force, retreat!”
This place was hell. And it would get worse, he knew, before Pyrrhia, until every last one of the ships’ crew was dead.
Zerondem had successfully led them through the maze, with its singularities and caged suns, and had reluctantly agreed to be disconnected from the Grand Cogitator, though only on the promise to be reconnected on the path back. They had left the Cogitator on afterwards. Then there had been a set of gun-filled asteroids which had bombarded his ships with weaponry that seemed to eat them away like acid. But the Pyrrhian Task Force’s firepower had been enough, though barely, to crush the asteroids into nothingness. The task force had passed into a seemingly empty region of space.
And then the Grand Cogitator had rebelled, in a fashion that Qevpilum doubted he would ever be able to speak of, and then machine-spirit after machine-spirit, across the fleet, seemed to be gaining a malevolent sentience and attacking the humans and Astartes throughout it. They had turned off what they could, but the machines were resisting that, as well. Even a number of the ships had risen up, speeding themselves straight into the second spacetime maze that loomed ahead, to be torn apart by the vast forces contained within.
“We cannot retreat!” Bylomic replied by one of the few communication channels still functioning, reminding Qevpilum that the captain was still there. “No retreat! Qevpilum, we are almost there!”
“And by the time we are completely there, we will be completely dead,” Qevpilum said.
“There is no battle that we cannot win, with sufficient will!” Bylomic, whose bionics were not yet attacking him but whose armor was, exclaimed, quoting the Primarch.
“And that,” Qevpilum answered, “is why this is not a battle. We retreat now.”
“By my rank as commander of the Pyrrhian Task Force fleet,” Qevpilum repeated, now voxing the whole fleet (or the portion of it reachable by vox, at least), “I order a full retreat. Follow the Ironsoul
And then he felt the battle-barge jerk severely, sending him flying into a wall, and for a moment he feared that its machine-spirit had also risen up; but that was, fortunately, not the case. Instead, the pilot had pressed full power backwards, to the point where it could have killed some of the human crew. Bylomic roared, but did not disobey Qevpilum’s technically superior rank. The captain, Qevpilum suspected, would never forgive him for this; but even he would ultimately see it was necessary.
The Pyrrhian Task Force, at less than half-strength in ships, pulled back from the site of doom. Qevpilum’s bionic arm relaxed and, a moment later, he found himself once more able to remove it from his throat and safely hold it at his side. The fleet zipped past the ruins of the defense asteroids, Qevpilum remembering his triumph at that victory, which seemed so empty now, and towards the first labyrinth.
“I should have retreated earlier,” he told Hemcasi and Zerondem. “We lost so many, for no reason at all.”
“We are Iron Hands,” Zerondem replied. “Retreat is foreign to us.”
“Not entirely,” Qevpilum said, “and this was common sense.”
“None of us suggested it,” Hemcasi said. “Centurion, you cannot blame yourself.”
“And yet I must,” Qevpilum observed. This had been an unmitigated disaster. Reaching Pyrrhia would have made it mitigated; retreating at a sensible time would have made it not a disaster. “The mortal auxiliaries suffered even worse than we did. I will need to talk to their commanders when we exit the system.”
Here Zerondem and Hemcasi were both silent. The Pyrrhian system had been terrible for the Iron Hands; it would have been worse for their human allies, many of whom were extensively augmented.
“Come, Zerondem,” Qevpilum said. “Into the Cogitator, one last time.”
“I am not certain,” Zerondem observed warily, “that I will be able to let it go so easily again.”
“Think of what it became,” the centurion replied. “Think of what it did to Urabrat.”
Zerondem nodded, and the Iron Hands walked once more down from the bridge, through staircase after staircase, as the Ironsoul slowed down before the labyrinth. He looked around, seeing countless signs of battle. The machines had not been sentient, he recognized now. They had merely been controlled by a malevolent and vast sentience that had desired to deny the Iron Hands entrance onto Pyrrhia.
In that, it had succeeded.
Then Qevpilum, with Zerondem at his side, was back in the Grand Cogitator’s chamber, and there was no more time to brood. There would be other wars, ones that deserved the name. This was a probing expedition that had failed, though in truth Qevpilum was already calculating the sort of task force that could pass these defenses.
The Tenth, he supposed, would have had to enlist some other Legion, perhaps the Emperor’s Children, that had little reliance on bionics. Zerondem or someone like him could calculate the path through the first maze, and then the cogitator in question would be turned off and transferred to the Third’s fleet. Assuming the second maze was less complex than the first, the cogitator could be reactivated after the Emperor’s Children had passed the ring of machine revolt, and if the son of Fulgrim chosen to host the Cogitator stayed sane, they could then get through to Pyrrhia. Try as he might, Qevpilum could not come up with a path for an entirely Iron Hand fleet to get through the traps, for their mechanical augmentation was too severe. Worse, any fleet would inevitably lose a significant fraction of their ships to the vessels’ machine-spirits rebelling.
One way or another, the Ironsoul
’s spirit was now stable, and so he plugged himself in as Zerondem did likewise. They connected, and the centurion felt the tremor of titanic data pass through his mind, boggling him with the sheer scale of knowledge contained within. For a second, again, he lost himself; and then the second stretched on, and he was drowning in the force of the ship, and –
And he woke up, in an Apothecarion bed, staring at the ceiling.
“Centurion,” Apothecary Antur Runnabik observed, “in your state of mind that was extremely ill-advised.”
“What happened?” Qevpilum leapt up from the bed. “Where are we?”
“Safely stationary near the Warp-jump point from Pyrrhia, and ready to return to Mars,” Runnabik answered. “Zerondem voxed Hemcasi, and the lieutenants managed the situation perfectly well. Sergeant Nusaamnius steered the Ironsoul
from Zerondem’s data.”
“I assume I experienced sensory overload?”
“Indeed,” Runnabik said. “The failure at Pyrrhia clearly affected you in a way that made directly steering a ship, which is difficult under the best circumstances, a recipe for disaster. Truth be told, I’m surprised Nusaamnius managed as well as he did, but he has always been exceedingly strong-willed.”
“And Zerondem?” If he had lost control when only dealing with the Ironsoul
, what could have happened to the impressionable lieutenant against a far more powerful machine-spirit did not bear thinking about.
“He refuses to speak in Gothic,” Runnabik relayed, “except to prove to us he still knows it. We have to communicate in Medusan or binary. His reasoning abilities, however, are unaffected; and he voluntarily disconnected himself from the Grand Cogitator, though not immediately.”
Qevpilum nodded. That was better than he had expected, and certainly better than his own initial reaction after being disconnected; he had, reliable sources informed him, ranted for days about entropy, darkness, and infinity. The centurion remembered none of his ravings, only the terrible experience that had filled his consciousness during those days – sensations of vertigo before, indeed, entropy, darkness, and infinity. Yet even Zerondem had not been entirely unaffected.
“A single serf casualty,” Runnabik noted. “Or, rather, three, but two of them are alive with only minor mental damage, and will likely recover in time. Over the whole trip, a time span about half of that which you used to defeat the Hrud.”
“Zerondem was better-suited,” Qevpilum simply replied, because that was all there was to it.
It took several more hours for him to be discharged, Runnabik trying his best to find some sort of damage to Qevpilum’s reasoning ability. It was entirely absent. His willpower, by contrast, had probably weakened; but with a rattling sigh, Runnabik admitted that Qevpilum was still fit for command, and at most shaken by the events on Pyrrhia.
“You may forget them,” Runnabik said, “in time.”
“I cannot allow myself to,” Qevpilum answered as he climbed out of the bunk and walked across the ceramite floor, towards the wall where his armor hung. “I must talk to the auxiliaries. All of this will have affected them much worse than it hurt us.”
Runnabik muttered something about that certainly being true, but having no logical connection to anything; but he let the centurion leave. Qevpilum opened a vox channel to Hemcasi, who had been managing the Ironsoul
in his absence, and informed him of his intent.
“Which of the Army units will be first?” Hemcasi inquired as Qevpilum entered the first shuttle.
“Regiment Asheja Seven Twelve,” Qevpilum answered. “The Ziz Team.”
“So be it,” Hemcasi said. “Do convey my apologies as well. Some of the Army commanders were, I think, begging me to go back almost immediately when we crossed into the anti-metal zone.”
“And you didn’t inform me?”
“You know how communications were there, Centurion. I’m still uncertain as to what they were saying, and I was less sure at the time.”
Qevpilum conveyed affirmation and closed the channel, even as his shuttle docked at the Asheja Seventy-Seven Twelve’s flagship, the Great Ziz
. The Asheja were from atmospheric colonies on a gas giant in the Medusan system, and were known both as expert pilots and as relentless warriors. They were also unerringly polite, and had uniformly good relations with their Space Marine allies, which was why Qevpilum was quite puzzled by the lack of hails.
As he entered the ship, he immediately understood why.
Colonel Cylalgdu stood before Qevpilum, saluting the centurion with his left arm, which was the only one he had left. His ceremonial clothes were torn in places, and not accidentally. His impeccably clean face had the expression that a commanding officer often wore after a battle that had ended in a devastating defeat.
But Cylalgdu’s appearance was the least concerning thing about what Qevpilum saw. The bulkheads, floor, and ceiling were torn apart, as if by a massive steel-clawed beast. There were blood stains on the floor, though the bodies had been removed. Nevertheless, a smashed bionic eye was clearly visible.
“Throne,” Qevpilum said. “My… my most sincere apologies, Colonel. How many of your men died?”
“A third, Centurion,” Cylalgdu observed.
A third, in one of the least augmented regiments. Though even the Iron Hands had lost several Astartes. “Throne,” he said again, unable to keep himself from coming up with any cleverer comment. “How are you keeping yourself from punching me in the face right now?”
“By reminding myself you won’t feel it, Centurion,” the colonel said.
Qevpilum allowed a tiny smile, but no more. The thing was that, as he looked around, he reconstructed the battle against the machines in his mind, and he recognized that the Great Ziz
had been designed in an absolutely terrible fashion for boarding actions. Not that it was the designers’ fault, either – merely a matter of price.
No expense was ever spared on Astartes vessels; but Qevpilum suspected they needed that money less. “When we finish,” he said, “remind me to never doubt the will of humans again. Your ship followed us into that nightmare. I am not sure I would have, with your level of losses.”
“We were dead if we failed to follow you, in any case,” Cylalgdu said. “But thank you.”
Qevpilum said nothing as he looked around at the devastation, and considered that other ships, statistically, would have done even worse. This was not a result of war – merely an outcome of miscalculation and a worthy, but underprepared, mission. And, of course, of a failure of knowledge.
“We should speak about this in my office,” Cylalgdu observed. “If you made some sort of speech to the men – we will still follow you anywhere, you know. Your record of victories speaks for itself.”
Qevpilum nodded, distantly, and followed the colonel to his office, contemplating the fact that technology which had been meant to save lives had worked, in the anti-metal zone, far worse than that designed for taking them. Yet both, he recognized now more than ever, were crucial in the ascendancy of man. Life, just as much as death, took wisdom.
Life, just as much as death, took strength.