(Again, characters from Spyderweb. Some things have happened in the mean time, though... (and you might just see them if I manage to sell the story to BL in their open submissions window))
Interrogator Kellius was waiting at the ship's bridge. His back was to them, but Temils could clearly tell that he was a large and intimidating man. His fur-lined robes were heavily gilt, and a row of metal studs ran across the back of his bald pate.
Out the viewing shutters through which he gazed, Carcosair burned beneath them. Not all of it—the devastation spanned only one subcontinent—but strongly enough that the crisscrossing networks of flame which glowed across the planet’s dark side were clearly visible. Starlight was the only illumination, and it cast the bridge into bitter, blue-tinged relief. Down there, everything with which Temils had grown and known, everything he had worked for and spat upon, burned.
Perhaps not everything. Kay still stood by his side. After Shem's death, Temils's twin sister was the only soul from Hive Colocanis for whom he truly cared. The others? Dead and recently buried. Explicator Corlain had spared him and Kay, the absolute lowest dregs of the hive, while aristocrats and nobles were roasted in its uppermost spires.
Rising from the planet’s surface, Temils had seen the sun for the first time in his life. He knew something of orbits and star-systems, had heard rumors of starry night skies and the brilliance of day, and so had expected—something more powerful. All that he'd seen of Carcosair's sun was a faint, guttering ball of light, mostly shrouded from sight by the wispy atmosphere surrounding the shuttle's ascent. He had expected something awe-inspiring, not a celestial glow-bulb.
Kellius turned to face them. The studs continued across his brow, giving the appearance of a flesh-fused crown. His beard was trimmed short but stretched to his ears, and was dyed with solid, alternating bands of gray and black.
Meters-thick blast plates of adamantium slid noiselessly over the viewing apertures. Temils's shattered hive and home slid away, with no promise of return. He was not sorry to see it go.
“So,” Interrogator Kellius said, his voice harsh and grating. “The prodigal servant returns.”
“Yes my lord,” breathed Corlain d'Jeres, his eyes averted.
Kellius stared flatly down at him. After several seconds, his gaze flicked over Corlain's companions.
“Temils and Kay Vutch,” he said. “Your service, however ineffectual, has not gone unnoticed. You have been spared the immolation of the unworthy, in the hive below. Now, however, a choice presents itself.”
“A choice?” spat Kay, her tone hostile. “I wasn't aware that the Inquisition gave those to us mere citizens.”
“You are not an Imperial citizen, Vutch,” said Kellius dispassionately. “Did you exist on any census form in Colocanis? In any notarization of the Administratum, however briefly? You are illiterate underhive scum, nothing more. Do not speak again until I order you to, on pain of death.”
Kay bit back a snarl.
“A choice, underhivers. A choice which is only rarely offered. On one hand, you may enter the service of the Inquisition, striving for the rest of your days to prevent another such...failure as occurred today. Your work may even bear fruit.
“On the other, you will volunteer your mind to be flensed of what happened here, and be given to the Schola Progenium. As much older and more poorly educated than the rest of your class as you would be, there are many ways you could find fulfillment in supplication to the Emperor: the Commissariat, the Ecclesiarchy, and the officer corps of the Imperial Guard amongst them.
“Know, however, that unless you both decide to serve the Inquisition, it is likely that neither of you shall ever see the other again. Now, I will have your choices.”
Temils stiffened at the ultimatum, but Corlain had warned him as much on the ride up. There was no way that he and Kay would remain together, what with Kay's new-found venom for the Inquisition.
“You khelking tekkos can eat grox dung for all that I care,” she spat. “Shem's blood is on your hands. I'll take my chances in the Guard.”
“Understood,” said Kellius, and turned his gaze to Kay's surviving brother. Temils stiffened at Kellius's apathetic derision. “And your choice, Temils Vutch?”
“I will remain in the service of the Inquisition,” he said, glaring back levelly. Kellius let several seconds pass, in which Temils didn't flinch, and gave a small nod.
“Very well,” he said. “He'll be put into your keeping, d'Jeres.”
Corlain flicked his hand, motioning Temils and Kay back toward the wall. They were dismissed.
Standing at the side of the chamber, they could look around somewhat more freely. Beyond the command deck where they stood, the bridge was filled with busy, scribbling officers of the Imperial Navy, necrotized servitors, and hunched adepts of the Adeptus Mechanicus. The distant drone of chanting could be heard.
On the deck itself, a pair of crusaders in mirrored, powered plate stood on both sides of the Interrogator, and a cherub-scribe babbled to itself in the corner. Further to Kellius's right stood the ship's captain and a dark-haired man in a brocaded vest.
This was Temils' first true confrontation with Imperial wealth and power. Now that he had moved from the center of everybody's attention, he realized that nothing in the underhive had prepared him for this. He would have been loath to admit it aloud, but the efficient, palpable sense of control exuded left him awed and overwhelmed.
“Explicator Corlain d'Jeres,” said Kellius languidly. “Do you understand the magnitude of your failure?”
Corlain swallowed. Something raw glittered in his eyes. “I do, sir,” he said bitterly.
“Truly?” inquired Kellius. “How many lives were lost, then? How many innocents slain, for so few heretics? Oh yes, our superiors and holy texts lay forth that it is better to slay a hundred innocents than to allow a single heretic to escape—but what of a thousand loyalists? Ten thousand?”
He paused, his face impassive, to let the words sink in.
“And yet,” he continued, “every citizen of Hive Colocanis was tainted by such a proportion of their number, and had to be destroyed. Four thousand heretical hive-scum forced us to exterminate forty million. Had you but prevented them from spreading the taint, we could have slain those four thousand and have had done with it.
“The only way your failure could have been greater, d'Jeres, is had you not tried at all.
“How do you suppose I must punish you? Forty million lost—would it matter were but one more body lain atop the heaps of corpses? The mountains of the dead?”
Corlain croaked the only answer permissible. Kellius nodded.
“However,” he continued, his abrasive voice softening marginally, “our Lord is merciful. Inquisitor Thresh would have me weigh your uses and triumphs against this failure. Bellancore, Mraxis Epsilon, the Athrael Reach—in these places, you proved your worth and halted the works of the Archenemy. You are bright, intelligent, and capable.”
Kellius paused, then began again, his tone hardening and crushing the fragile hope that had been allowed grow. “Two million nobles, bureaucrats, or merchants. Six million middle class citizens. Approximately seven and a half million agricultural workers or wasteland scavengers. Ten million low-value citizens. Twelve and a half million able-bodied manufactoria laborers. Two million infants and children. Do your values excuse their loss?"
Temils swallowed. A number was a number to him, and a million was merely a statistic. Twenty million was even more unimaginable. But—everybody he knew and had ever met, less Kay and Corlain. All of the prostitutes, junkies and scum. All of the devoted parents, the lonely people just trying to make their way in the insanity of the underhive and the Imperium. All gone, and barely a fraction of the whole.
Aggravations, annoying little things that people did to each other out of sheer spite. Vigils whose purpose had been long forgotten by the vigilants. Endless interactions, schemes and collaborations between millions of citizens—all wiped away. Systems of society, empty and worthless to all but those who enacted them—all obliterated. Dead.
Temils had known these facts. He understood the things that had happened. But they had hit him again as the interrogator spoke, and apparently, Corlain too. The explicator's face was deathly pale.
“No," concluded Kellius after he was sure his words had sunk in, "they do not. Not without castigation. You shall meditate upon loss and pain, serving penance duties on the altar of flagellation for as long as I deem necessary. Additionally, explicator, you shall pay a price that was taken from myself, too, by His Lordship in the distant past.”
The Interrogator raised his right hand, showing it to be an ornate bionic replacement.
“You shall pay in flesh.”
What sphinx of plascrete and adamantium bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination? Imperator! Imperator!
Last edited by Mossy Toes; 03-27-11 at 03:56 AM.