The war was going to be lost. Magos Srequi Lantrane knew that, rationally, the only chance to avoid Mars dropping into the Emperor’s hands was to free the Dragon of Mars, the being that still spoke to her in her dreams.
Only, from those dreams, she was increasingly feeling doubt that this hope was real, either.
For one, there was the betrayal of Kane. But the dash to Noctis Labyrinthus, while ill-advised and terribly planned, was the fault not of the Dragon, but of the Order’s leadership. It had led to the collapse of countless positions, and if they failed to free the Dragon, had lost the Order the war. And though they had overwhelming forces, there was no guarantee that anyone actually knew how to open the Dragon’s prison.
The rush was a disaster, and even the Order leadership was, Lantrane suspected, beginning to recognize that; but it was too late to retreat. Kane would die, she would die, all of Mars would die if the Dragon was not saved.
But the dreams were getting – frantic. She caught glimpses of the Dragon’s mind, in them, and devoted herself to trying to connect them. What she saw left no doubt in her mind that the dreams were sent by a powerful intelligence, but it was far from clear that this force would help the Martians in their struggle. It seemed hungry, and destructive, perhaps even insane. Its logic was many levels above Lantrane’s ability, but that did not stop the magos from feeling suspicious.
It was still worth the gamble, releasing it. But better gambles had been available, to be discarded by zealots.
She had refused to come along on the expedition. It had been out of frustration with the strategy, a momentary decision that was also informed by the fact that she would make no difference on the front. And her odds of survival were rather low either way, but in the unlikely case that the Dragon was released and friendly, being in Wrought Axis, safe in the Hellas basin, could be good enough.
Of course, the forge was nearly abandoned. Only skeletal forces had been left behind, as in most of Hellas, because it was Argyre that would be the critical battle in the struggle to last long enough to capture the Labyrinth. And now Argyre was lost, and Orth’s and Rochaar’s tanks were circling the Martian globe along a short southern latitude, and Noctis Labyrinthus was under siege, but the possibility was real that Srequi Lantrane would die before she saw the Dragon’s dawn. Though Hellas would still be a very winnable battle, and that would prolong things significantly.
And so she stood outside the pitted edifice of her forge, Wrought Axis, and stared out at the flats of Mars.
Hellas had always been the most temperate place on Mars. It was, the archives stated, a pleasant place to be in the edenic sense, a massive lake fringed by jungles. Now the lake had long since been drained, Mars’s water suffering the same fate as Terra’s. Real estate was too valuable to waste it on a barren expanse of fluids.
Such considerations did not apply to the giant planets, for some reason. The gods of the Golden Age of Technology had not drained Uranus and Neptune of their water, or Jupiter and Saturn of their hydrogen. Perhaps they could not. That was, in the end, a distinct possibility, even with those heroic times.
But Srequi Lantrane suspected it had been something else, a desire not to perturb the universe too much in ways whose consequences were unknown. The humans of the Golden Age had known and been capable of much more than the modern Mechanicum. Had they truly been any more active, though?
Well, that knowledge was lost, a tragedy within the greater tragedy of the fall. The first fall, as it seemed it was fated to be.
Lantrane looked at her forge, or the half of it that remained. It was a bluish-tinted building, originally approximately circular in shape. The Iron Hands’ attack had come in from the north and, effectively, taken a bite out of Wrought Axis, one that amounted to half its useful area. From here, a knob to the west side of the complex (though of course Lantrane was standing on metal that was also part of her forge, of a subsidiary area, below her – there was no empty space on Mars), the dome appeared to be nearly intact. Great columns around its perimeter processed ores and other chemicals, feeding into great conveyor belts that snaked around, both before and below her, ultimately being turned into food, weapons, and infrastructure. Each of Mars’s forges was nearly self-sufficient, which had been a massive benefit in this war.
And yet, to Lantrane’s gaze, the injuries Wrought Axis had sustained were evident. There was the dome, which had partially caved in, in a manner that from this point of view was difficult but possible to see. There were the impact craters that dotted the columns’ surface, not from meteorites but from low-powered ammunition. A few more minutes of shooting this inaccurate, and Wrought Axis would have been completely gone. But Lantrane didn’t care about hypotheticals.
The Iron Hands did want Mars intact, at least in theory. Losses such as these were regrettable for both sides. Materiel was, after all, still being sent out from Mars, at least the Astarte-controlled areas, to support the invasions of the Great Crusade. But Ferrus Manus cared about such things less and less as time went on, and at this rate, half of Mars would be a level plain by the end of the war.
And Lantrane clenched her fists, both her biological right hand’s and the mechatendrils that replaced her left. The Mechanicum’s lifetime was supposed to be geologic. It was supposed to be long enough that dunes would cover their towers, strange metallic trees would grow from sludge pools, and the great monuments of humanity would drown before the Quest for Knowledge, in its endless variety, ceased. It could not end like this.
And it would not. No matter how difficult the battle might be, and how many blunders the Order’s Inner Circle made, Mars would endure, and the gambit with the Dragon would work. Because the alternative was unthinkable, and irrelevant.
“Excuse me?” a voice asked behind her, in Gothic.
It was a grating voice, metallic and clearly made by a machine, but also completely otherworldly. It spoke, in its intonation, of things Srequi Lantrane had no correlation for. Most strikingly of all, this information was picked up by her noocables (if only Zeth had finished that noospheric project!) despite them not being plugged in, and despite them not being calibrated to pick up information. Confused, but intrigued, Magos Srequi Lantrane turned around, to come face-to-face with a silver skeleton.
It stood, its eyes giving no sign of what, if anything, it was thinking. Its metallic skin slightly shimmered; its lower part was covered by four strips of what seemed like copper. Blue globules of power shone at bright points in its body, and a mysterious symbol inside what looked like a coffin shone in the middle of its ribcage. Its head was topped with a golden ‘headdress’, and its eyes glowed a piercing blue. Its right hand held a halberd twice its height, whose blade looked like a force weapon, though its hilt was downright bizarre, unlike any melee weapon Lantrane had seen and likewise carved with unknown symbols.
“What are you?” Lantrane asked, as respectfully as she could, keeping in mind that she was unarmed. Was this some Iron Hand invention?
“I am Anrakyr,” he said, and Lantrane’s noocables picked up unfamiliarity with the language. “I am merely… a traveler.”
Lantrane paused. “You are not here to kill me, are you?”
“I do not know who you are,” Anrakyr stated. “I only want... assistance in a task of mine.”
It was then that Lantrane’s mind registered the reality of the situation. Anrakyr was not being controlled by a human, she could tell that much. She was facing –
“Are you an… artificial intelligence?” she asked.
“Not precisely,” he answered. “Not one constructed by your species, certainly.”
So this thing was not just an abominable intelligence, but a xeno
abominable intelligence. It was, in every sense and fashion, opposed to every piece of the Mechanicum’s principles. “How did you get here?” she asked.
“My ship was shot down,” he explained. “That will make it more difficult, though not overly so, to… complete my mission. I have no interest in the battle for this world, but it was an unexpected distraction.”
“I see,” Lantrane said, trying to inconspicuously back away.
“You may leave if you desire,” Anrakyr said, “as you are obviously a human of some importance here; but I would ask that you send a servant to accompany me.”
Anrakyr was in every sense opposed to her creed, and had just stated that he had no interest in aiding the war effort. He was nothing more than a random, and very dangerous, distraction. But at the same time, he probably possessed untold technological marvels; and beyond that, Lantrane was just curious. That was the whole point of the Martian Mechanicum, was it not? Curiosity, even when it went beyond what most humans would consider acceptable. And it wasn’t as if there was anything to truly be gained by staying behind.
“That will not be necessary,” Lantrane said. “I will accompany you.”
Anrakyr’s eyes twinkled, though Lantrane wasn’t sure what emotion that indicated. “You need not do so if you do not desire to; and I am giving you fair warning that it will be dangerous.”
“It is dangerous,” Lantrane reasoned, “but I presume it is also interesting, at least for me, and important. After all, I deduce you are no servitor yourself.”
“That I am not,” Anrakyr accepted. “I am, to be clear, the Overlord of the planet Pyrrhia; though I have always desired to wander, more than most. And this is a rather important task, though one whose details I cannot yet reveal to you.”
Lantrane nodded, sending a few last orders to automate Wrought Axis’s defenses until her possible return. “You ruled a world?”
“I still rule Pyrrhia, in absentia. Though it may be some time before I return.” Anrakyr swept his gaze across the industrial landscape. “This planet…. Someone moved its position in the galactic plane since I have been here last.”
“The humans of the Golden Age of Technology moved Terra to a more central position in the galaxy, as befits the homeworld of humanity.”
“Terra – is it the third world from your star?”
Anrakyr’s head vibrated. “Of course,” he said, and Lantrane supposed he was laughing. “Of course it all comes back here.” He looked around, taking in the landscape, and hurled his gaze at Terra itself, invisible in the gray sky – invisible to human eyes, that is. “Come with me, then. I assume you have the access codes to the tunnels under the surface.”
“I do,” Lantrane said, “but in some areas of Mars, the ongoing war may have destroyed them. Where are we going?” She was nearly running; her bionically enhanced limbs were barely able to keep up with Anrakyr’s pace.
Anrakyr gave her the coordinates.
“Noctis Labyrinthus,” she said, and suddenly her world expanded. The Dragon was real – there was no other reasonable explanation. And freeing it was critical, even for one such as Anrakyr. “Wait,” she said. “We are there to free the Dragon?”
Anrakyr froze and whipped his head around in an instant. “Free the Dragon? Do you know what the Dragon is –”
“Srequi Lantrane. No, I do not know what it is exactly, but I do know it is our god.”
There was a long pause, Lantrane walking up to Anrakyr as her companion seemed frozen in thought, or perhaps memory. “They were our gods too,” he said eventually, resuming his walk. “Until we learned better. The thing you call the Dragon, Srequi – it is merely a shard of a greater being, or more accurately a greater monster. It possesses significant intellect, albeit tainted by madness, but its goal is exclusively destruction. It thirsts for energy, and has no sense of morality or honor. It might try to trick those unaware of its true nature into releasing it, but afterwards, it will act as a demon of death, leaving nothing living on this planet save those temporarily useful to it. With sufficient weaponry, of course, it can be fought. With specific equipment, it can be captured. But this shard, which you call the Dragon, is particularly strong, and will be difficult to deal with, though not impossible.”
“Is this why you seek it out? To destroy it?”
“No,” Anrakyr said. “My need is informational.”
And then, suddenly, everything settled into Magos Srequi Lantrane’s mind; and Omnissiah, but it made sense, perfect sense!
Perfect, magnificent, and terrible sense. The Dragon was a god, but not a god worthy of worship. The Order was going to destroy Mars, just as much as the Iron Hands – more than the Iron Hands. She wanted to deny it, to complain at the utterly untrustworthy sources, but it fit together too well. The truth was horrid, but clear.
“I need to contact the Order,” Lantrane said, her synapses firing at extra speed from the chemicals automatically being injected into her brain. “They actually want to release the Dragon. And if they do….”
“And they will listen to you?”
“…No. But at least warning them would be worthwhile.”
“No,” Anrakyr said, “warning them that they have a new foe is not worthwhile. The Dragon will not be released, no matter the price that must be paid.”
Lantrane grudgingly nodded. She had betrayed the Imperium (well, more the converse), betrayed Zeth and Kane, and ultimately betrayed the Order of the Dragon. But each individual decision had been logical, and if she was to betray everything in the name of knowledge, then she supposed she ought to be willing to do anything for an ideal she was willing to die for.
They walked, and then Lantrane saw a foreign object, a black skimmer glowing with blue runes, in the shape of two intersecting crescents. There was a standing platform at their intersection. And Lantrane’s noocables screamed in joy at the vast quantities of untranslatable information that swirled everywhere around the barge. Separately, Anrakyr and Lantrane climbed onto the barge.
“You have placed a lot of trust for me in a short amount of time,” Anrakyr observed.
“Curiosity,” Lantrane answered, “more than trust.” And then the skimmer took off, flying toward a tunnel entrance. “Actually, could we converse in binary?”
“Our binary,” Anrakyr said, “is different from yours. And when you are a machine, you savor the imprecisions of biological language more than you hate them, like some paradoxical delicacy, or art in general.”
Lantrane nodded, though privately she wondered if Anrakyr was understanding what she meant by these gestures. “The closest entrance to the tunnel networks is below us.” She leaned out, dropping a mechatendril to the metallic ground and snapping it open.
Then, she was nearly thrown out of the skimmer by its sudden drop, as it rotated in gyroscopic fashion before it slammed through the tunnel. Barely holding on, Lantrane noted that they were no longer hovering, but rather outright flying.
“How does this even work?” she asked, having to adjust her voice to the barge’s total silence.
“Vault anti-gravity,” Anrakyr said, “engineered to perfection. Getting the eddies right nearly drove the crypteks that designed the Annihilation Barge insane. But the result is nearly perfect control of three-dimensional motion, and simultaneously extremely efficient energy management.” Anrakyr then swerved the barge millimeters under a particularly low bar, rather proving his point.
“It will still take us some time to reach the Labyrinth,” Lantrane observed. “But we should be there much faster than the Order’s army.”
“That is fast enough,” Anrakyr said, his headdress suddenly releasing streamers that billowed in the wind the skimmer was generating, and his head slightly vibrating. “What is the current disposition?”
He was quieter, and the skimmer slowed down somewhat, as Lantrane gave him the overall summary of the War for Mars. “The Emperor is now a psychic tyrant,” she said. “So we turned to the Dragon, but our hopes were, it seemed, unwise. I had my suspicions about this god long before I met you.”
“Of course,” Anrakyr said, “of course this is how it would begin. As the homeworld foretold. The Emperor has made deals with Warp entities, you say?”
“Yes,” Lantrane noted.
“But it appears that the galaxywide rebellion is only beginning. Well, not an exact mirror, and it never would have been. But that confirms my worst fears, Srequi, in accordance with the divinations.”
Lantrane looked at Anrakyr’s skeletal form. It seemed difficult to believe the living machine had any fears; he seemed more like fear incarnate. “What were they?”
“That my mission is necessary. That this, Srequi Lantrane, is the final crimson dawn of the End Times, and the potential of all things in this universe. And that fear is why I journeyed, to ensure that hope remained, driven – for once – by my people. To ensure that this is not, after all, the end. An iron dawn, to avoid final dusk.”