Heresy Online Expeditious Stories 13-10: Relaxation
Ash and Iron
“To relax,” Ra’kanusk had said, “is human. The end of inaction is the beginning of transcendence.”
He had not needed to say how deep a sin transcendence was; all Salamanders knew that.
Even Nocturne herself relaxed, Emet Iosh’mir considered. Not all of time was a Time of Trial, after all. Periods of relative inactivity, punctuated by great shifts; that was the way of worlds, as it was the way of mortals.
It was not the way of daemons. And it was not the way of machines.
“What did the tech-priests do to unleash these, anyway?” Avium bellowed as he prepared the grav-charges.
“Dug too deep,” Iosh’mir replied. “As Mechanicum engines are want to do, when left unsupervised.”
“Those aren’t Necrons, though,” Ugosol noted, repeating the obvious.
Necrons was what the governor and an Inquisitor had called them, the reason why the Salamanders had been called to the planet of Ovehf in the first place. It had been a sparsely inhabited Agri-World with a single Hive, but a forgotten Mechanicum project from M36 had been left to excavate and sample the world until, a year ago, it had reached the lower mantle and discovered a series of iron pillars. Within them, a strange web of life dwelled. The engines, unguided, had not done a good job of either ensuring peace or waging war.
So the xenos did what xenos did, emerging from their deep lair and beginning to lay waste to the surface.
“Iron-based life,” Iosh’mir remarked, “is rare, but I’m sure the Necrons aren’t the only instance. How are the charges, Avium?”
“Ready,” the hulking Devastator responded. “This should deter them.” For long enough, hopefully, that the three Salamanders could escape Hive Ftaest. Fortunately, almost all of the civilians had made it out; but the evacuation had cost Gatar’gos and Ctyri their lives, and left the remnants of the squad stranded.
The Salamanders retreated, firing plasma weapons as they did; neither was a common occupation for Iosh’mir, but circumstances reigned supreme, here. Neither fire nor bolter shells seemed to have any impact on these aliens. Avium led them across a narrow bridge between two towering sections of the Hive, then up a staircase; and then the countdown finished, and Iosh’mir’s eyes were pinned to the alien horde, running over the charges –
Dozens were crushed in an instant, and yet the assault continued, as if the enemy didn’t even notice the devastation in their number.
“Come on, brother,” Avium called. “We might still make it out.”
And then, in an instant, Iosh’mir recognized where he had seen the “xenos” before.
* * *
“They’re not alive,” Iosh’mir told Magos Anktos. “The actual xenos – they’re probably silicon-based, based on what you’ve told me, not iron – created them as machines to level the surface. It’s similar to what we do with magmabots – almost identical, really, but in reverse. Close enough that the resemblance can be recognized.”
He was still battle-ready. The escape from Ftaest had not incurred any further casualties, except the atmospheric shuttle, which was unlikely to ever fly again. But now the remaining Imperial presence on Ovehf had been reduced to the Mechanicum research station which had begun the whole incident, the human population almost all moved into orbit.
The Mechanicum research station, which was under siege.
Seventeen Salamanders were fighting for Ovehf; those, and a large force of Skitarii, were the only humanoids left on the world. The Mechanicum had sent massive forces with the intent to clean up its mess, though until now that had seemed an impossible goal.
“Of course! That would explain how they survived the pressure differential, too – they were designed for the surface! As for the war…. Some sort of disruptor,” Anktos said, sinking into thought. “We could probably construct that within days, with a bit more observations on what wavelengths they’re using. Thank you, Iosh’mir.”
“We still have to retreat,” Avium – newly promoted to Sergeant after Gatar’gos’ death – opined. “Send out the pulse from orbit, or send a team down when it’s ready. We cannot hold this station, not even for days, not against these numbers.”
The Magos let out a buzzing sigh. “True. I will send out evacuation orders.”
Avium nodded, as unperturbed as ever. “Come on, brother,” he told Iosh’mir. “The fires of battle call.”
They walked through metallic corridors, surrounded by whirring gauges and rushing servitors. And then the yellow sun of Ovehf was in zenith, and the smell of plasma discharge excited the air about them, and inexorable steps sounded out the enemy advance. Ranks of machines advanced, firing into the Mechanicum perimeter and being fired on by turrets, skitarii, and servitors. Raising his plasma pistol, Iosh’mir fired –
And then, as the bolt zoomed towards the subterranean invaders, their steps ended, and every gray engine flopped to ground.
The bolt flew over it, bursting a fireball in the distance; and then the hammering of gunfire was halved, as the machines were ground into dust by impact upon electric impact.
Avium and Iosh’mir stared at a vista of iron ruins, and tried to comprehend.
* * *
“They were always meant to do this,” Magos Anktos confirmed. “They were designed to cause an amount of destruction proportionate to that we did, and then shut off. There was even a message, in binary, that said as much. Only we weren’t listening.”
The farms of Ovehf were even now being repopulated, agriculture beginning again on a scorched earth. Hive Ftaest was a ruin, though; refugee fleets were leaving the system, under an unclear repopulation program.
“We expect no repeat,” the magos concluded.
“So,” Avium suggested, “we are no longer needed.”
Anktos twitched. “We are already planning to return into the deep mantle, to exterminate the xenos once and for all. We would be honored if you were to join us in this endeavor.”
Avium chuckled. “How?”
The pause was deep.
“We cannot do it,” the Magos finally admitted. “Not in the nearest decade, at least. But Magos Kestrenni is obsessed with achieving vengeance, and it is true – vengeance would be the proper response.”
“It would,” Avium concluded; Iosh’mir felt his smoking fury at the casualties, though in truth his own was weak. “And we would fight, if it were possible. But if Kestrenni has lost his mind and desires the impossible, the proper response is not to humor him. Get him back to his senses; we, for our part, will depart. Frankly, I need to rest from this planet anyway.”