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Kryp (WH40k Translation FemProtagonist Isekai)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by RiP, Oct 30, 2021.

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  1. RiP

    RiP Seeker of Silence

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    Yep, that's definitely true. IoM is pure shit (90%) but enemies purification is much better. (like 99%)
     
    Winged One and ATP like this.
  2. Threadmarks: The Squad Chapter 5
    RiP

    RiP Seeker of Silence

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    Chapter 5
    * * *​
    Piranha thought Aurelius. A bloody Cappadorean piranha, that's what he reminds me of. Only the coloring is different.

    The Martian ship hovered in a stationary orbit one hundred and ten kilometers above the surface of Deimos. The craft seemed to be tied by an invisible thread to an ordinary, unremarkable rock that concealed many meters of docking mechanism flaps. The ship seemed almost invisible in the inky sky, the presence of the spacecraft given away only by the flicker of clearance lights on the many-meter-long stingers of the outpost antennas, and the occasional plasma emissions from the correction engines.​

    Perhaps the star wanderer did resemble Brother Aurelius' disgusting predatory fish, who knows? A qualified judgment required a visit to the colony at the very edge of the Solar segment. But the propulsion marching block aft could, with some convention, be considered a tail; the technical deck below the bridge would pass for a lower jaw. The cargo and living quarters would then be the upper jaw, and the throat would be the command post, hidden behind a several-meter-thick plasteel glass. The triple heat radiators, beveled back against the bow of the ship, with a little imagination would pass for shaped gills. The upper and lower fins were considered protruding guns.​

    A predatory creature whose hunger is unquenchable, attacking everything that moves. Though, of course, it was a play on the imagination. From Adeptus Mechanicum's point of view, the useless, atavistic parasite that evolution had 'rewarded' the pure mind with. Above the satellite hovered a Justificator-class ship, type 'K2', of Martian build. Two hundred and seventy meters long, one thousand six hundred tons at rest. The likes of this ship are used in the cover fleets of Astra's Basilicon squadrons. Also in demand among Adeptus Arbitres units in asteroid colonies or autonomous settlements on non-atmospheric worlds.​

    Memory, long ago enhanced both in the Sanctum Sanctorum chambers and by the Adeptus Mechanicus implants, reminded Brother Aurelius in detail, exhaustively, of the typical armament of the ship. Gun decks along the upper and lower ribs of the main hull. Eight thirty-centimeter electromagnetic cannons (the list of standard ammunition includes low-yield nuclear shells) with a launching speed of thirty-two kilometers per second. There are two suppressor field emitters and four units of twelve-centimeter dual-fire autocannon to counter enemy landing craft and anti-missile defenses.​

    An ordinary ship, one of those that bind together the giant body of the Empire, stitching together the glittering pearls of settlements scattered across the vast expanse of the galaxy. But Aurelius did not like 'Justificators'; the sight of them invariably evoked memories. Unpleasant, painful, even after a century and a half.​

    Yes, a hundred and forty-three years ago, Aurelius saw exactly the same ship. Only that one had been hijacked by demon-worshipping techno-heretics who had set out to sacrilegiously lay their hands on Imperial property and destroy the inhabited station. Only a few were able to come to the rescue, including the newly founded order of spacemarines, whose warriors were skilled in many things but untrained in space combat. But the Emperor's chosen children did not hesitate. Nor did they wait for the Grey Knights' strike cruiser Ordo Malleus to respond to the call.​

    Destroying the Justificator in combat with the available forces was impossible, the only option left was boarding. The Order's Thunderhawks and the requisitioned Starhawk assigned to the PDF, were forty kilometers away from the enemy ship when the possessed heretic servitors fired. Every four seconds a pair of cannons ejected two nuclear charges. Every four seconds a twin nuclear burst meant the destruction of another ship of His faithful servants, but none retreated. The Heretics had to fire sixty salvos, expending precious projectiles, skillfully maneuvering under the control of a mind that was neither human nor machine-made.​

    The last seven Starhawks had been shot by autocannons at practically point-blank range, six to nine kilometers. Not one made it to boarding. Some of the attackers escaped in lifeboats, intact bays, and suits, but very few.​

    From Navis Nobilite later came a report of the destruction of the rebel ship - from a safe distance, by the targeted fire of the 'Cobra'. It was especially noted that the rapid and clean elimination of the enemy was only possible because of the suicidal attack by the Space Marines.​

    '...Having taken the blow, your warriors left no weapon for the enemy to attack the station. Only through their sacrifice do three hundred thousand souls continue to serve the Golden Throne...'​

    After reading the message, looking into the face of the Grandmaster who had sent two-thirds of his men to their death, Aurelius was only by the grace of the Emperor to restrain himself from beheading him right on the bridge of the Grey Knights' strike cruiser. Even now the memory of that day disturbed his equilibrium, despite the clear awareness that his Captain Mentor had been quite right.​

    Aurelius sighed and turned his attention back to the screen. The annoying blue-yellow "Justificator" with marker PR-08E was holding steady over the formally non-existent docking points on Forge Deimos, not deviating from the perpendicular to the surface by more than half a meter. The same amazing precision with which one hundred and forty-three years ago...​

    With a familiar effort of will, the Grey Knight cast aside the sad memories of the painful past in the name of the cares of the future. The guest from Mars had arrived for a reason - his codes had been confirmed by the Inquisition, whose representatives were already waiting patiently on Titan. Three parties, three allies in the great service of Mankind, seldom gathered their representatives together. But now was precisely such a special occasion. A new, truly unique invention of the Mechanicus affected the interests of both the Inquisitors and the Order, capable of placing a new weapon in their hands to fight incalculable dangers. And therefore, according to the ancient treaty, it had to be approved by all three parties.​

    "Sidonius Gendarme, your authorization is confirmed, gate two. If active onboard weapons are detected below eighty kilometers, the ship will be destroyed without warning.​

    The sentinel auspex detected no nuclear munitions or typically depleted uranium rounds on board. And yet Aurelius' memory quietly but insistently kept whispering, "Type four munition. Titanium casing, crystalline stressed core of the 'built spiral' type. The projectile is characterized by an excellent penetration capability. After penetrating through the outer casing of the target, the core explodes, causing significant damage to weakly protected internal structures by flying projectiles..."

    "Roger that," a voice devoid of even a hint of emotion answered. "Additional information. The onboard weapons are physically de-energized and no ammunition is on board. Beginning descent. Relative vertical speed to the 10-kilometer mark - three hundred and forty meters per second."​

    The Martian ship was safely secured by the maintenance slipways. The Mechanicus representative waited nonchalantly in front of the monolithic slab of the transport tunnel gate while the two techno marines carefully studied the readings of the 'Justificator's onboard cogitators as well as their own auspex. The gate could withstand a megaton blast, and the holy symbols embedded in its structure by molecular assembly would prevent even a vanishingly small shadow of Warp sprouts from entering the Forge's sancta sanctorum.​

    The Martians' mechanical willingness to follow security protocols was commendable in itself, but it would make the welcoming Grey Knights captain feel a little better if that willingness stemmed from a sincere belief in the Emperor-God rather than a blind adoration of his strange hypostasis, called Omnissia.​

    "Something troubling you, Cantor?" Aurelius' companion, an unremarkable-looking man dressed in a simple gray cloak, was lost in the background of the armored giant. Only the insignia of Lord Inquisitor Ordo Malleus, dangling from his belt, indicated his status.​

    "I don't trust them," the captain said frankly and directly.​

    "You're biased."​

    "I believe that only those who believe in the Emperor with all their hearts are worthy of real trust. In the Emperor," the spacemarine repeated. "Not in his... dubious reflection."​

    "That's fair and reasonable," the inquisitor agreed, and he spoke quickly but clearly and so skillfully, without a hitch, as if he were reading from a sheet of scribbled text. "Though the followers of Mechanicus have been of great support to our cause, it would be folly to place our trust in those who have volunteered to limit the spread of His light upon their souls and worlds. But we must not forget the determination with which the children of God the Machine eradicate the slightest manifestation of the Ruinous Powers."​

    "And the outbreaks of techno-heresy do not diminish in number," the spacemarine mechanically ran his broad palm over the bald head with the protruding augmentation connectors. His fingers trembled for a moment, tracing a huge scar that stretched from the temple to the base of his skull like a flaming whip. "And these are just the one's rumors of which reach our ears..."​

    "As in the Ecclesiarchy," the inquisitor suddenly cut the captain short. "As among the orders of the Adeptus Astartes. As in the ranks of the Adeptus Astra Militarum. It is not for us to judge how effective the logis and mages are in shielding the Forges and the Knights' Worlds from the corrupting effects of the Warp. The Emperor's will was to rid the colonial empire of Mars of the oversight of the Inquisition!"​

    "I... I did not mean to question His will," Aurelius tried to express diplomatic modesty and already regretted that he had allowed himself inappropriate frankness."​

    "Of course. Hasty words are not heresy, but only a reminder of our imperfections. But spoken in the wrong place at the wrong time, they can plant the seed of heresy in unstable souls."​

    The Inquisitor's still smooth voice blossomed with a slight, barely perceptible note of warning.​

    "I will remember this truth and bring it to the brothers," the giant said quietly.​

    "Not the truth, just the maxima," the Lord Inquisitor's voice softened. - There is a spoken word..."​

    "And yet I don't fully understand what purpose He had in allowing such a... The existence of their strange faith."​

    "That's the right question."​

    The inquisitor was silent for a few minutes. The spacemarine waited patiently. Behind the gate continued the patient, unhurried examination, in fact, the strictest inspection of the ship and the Martian envoy.​

    "I wondered about it, too. For years, until I found an explanation that reconciled me with the fact under discussion. And understanding came to me in moments of reflection concerning the Age of Discord."​

    " Age of Discord," Aurelius asked a question in confusion.​

    "Yes. It was a difficult time when the Holy Synod was dissolved and the High Lords of Terra, shall we say, did not show unanimity in the face of the threat."​

    "A shadow of decay, a consequence of Heresy," the Knight cut off. "The wound the Archreaver inflicted on the Imperium was too deep."​

    "This is true. But Vandir's bloody reign was already the result of our mistakes."​

    "Didn't the Inquisition enthrone the insane Ecclesiarch? And what has Mars got to do with it?"​

    "Not directly erected, no. But after Drakan Vangorich killed all the High Lords of Terra, we shared the opinion that the power of the Church over the worlds of the Imperium is preferable to the clumsy bureaucracy of the Adminitum. Let decisions are made piously and immediately, as the moment and higher interests dictate, rather than drowning in mossy codes whose interpretation could take decades. Well, it is now clear that we were wrong. And our common mistake may well have ruined the Empire for good.:​

    "Vandir was overthrown by the Sisters. Not Martians," the spacemarine stood his ground​

    "Yes, at that time Brides of the Emperor. But by whose instigation did they see the truth? Who led them to the very Throne to depose the usurper, tyrant, and madman?"​

    "Legio Custodes..." Aurelius frowned. "It's common knowledge."​

    "Captain General Custodes contacted the masters of the Orders and the Logis of Mars only after the skitarians and space marines had entered the Ecclesiarch's Palace," the inquisitor said.​

    "Through gaps breached by the orbital salvos of the Martian fleet. The fall of the Mad King was brought about by the combined power of Astartes and Mechanicus, uncontrolled by any other, and thus beyond the depths of the filth that plagued the Imperium. The filth of our own making, not of the Ruinous Powers!"​

    "I didn't know that," the Knight shook his head.​

    "The Emperor, in his infinite wisdom, likened Terra and Mars to a right hand and a left hand, equally ready to smite the enemies. An eye to the right and a left that is always watching. And if one eye go blind and one hand go dry, it will not destroy the body of the Empire, and the festering flesh will be excised."​

    The Lord Inquisitor sighed.​

    "Truly, His plan was wise in saving humanity from itself. And so we will carefully study the proposal of our guest, the gift of the God-Machine that he brought. Whether we reject it or accept it, who knows, but we will study it anyway."​

    Flashes of yellow lights announced that the guest had been judged safe enough to be allowed into the Inquisitor's part of Deimos.​

    "Some believe that the greatest secret of Adeptus Mechanicus is that they have long since lost sight of their own technology," the Inquisitor spoke thoughtfully. "That their Search for Knowledge is merely a collection of technical documents and schematics, while the essence and principles of machinery are brushed aside. That the management of machines, from the Divine Titans and master Forge cogitators to the hydraulic presses in the workshops of agro-worlds is merely an empty ritual, a hollowed-out sequence of actions..."​

    "And your opinion?" the captain inquired. More out of politeness.​

    "A way to move Deimos from Mars orbit to Titan was not known before Heresy, although developments were certainly underway. And while it seems logical to assume that this is only a legacy from the time of the Great Crusade..." The Inquisitor pondered for a moment, "I know for a fact that a way to move all of Mars beyond the solar system was proposed to Parliament millennia later."​

    "Moving... of Mars?"​

    The Inquisitor sighed.​

    "Mars keeps many secrets. And personally, it seems to me that the greatest of them is hidden in plain sight. That among the higher Magos there are enough of those who are not only brilliantly versed in ancient technology, but also capable of inventing new ones. That the reputation of conservatives, living only with proven recipes, is a mask, a camouflage for the world. And this begs another question - what are the Martians trying to hide behind a chorus of blindly repeating litanies of techno visionaries and a demonstrative search for techno heresy? This is what is truly intriguing."​

    The armored flaps parted, revealing a view of the demonstration area.​

    "And now we'll see how close I am to the truth... probably close."​

    The demonstration hall was an oval area a little over a hundred meters long, on one half of which three sealed sarcophagi were already in place. Not simple sarcophagi, very, very not so simple. The number of silver protective glyphs, holy seals, and scrolls of parchment that the skin of volunteer righteous men covered them would otherwise have suggested a den of true heretics. Under the high ceiling was a system of pipes, ready to flood the room with antiseptic, napalm, or acid at a moment's notice. Under the armored floor was a thermonuclear charge, as a last resort.​
    The audience, however, saw far more frightening things in this same hall than the three locked tombs. Now, through the reinforced (and, again, consecrated) portholes, the representatives of the Inquisition and the Knights were preparing to study the Martian proposal. Calmly, unhurriedly, without anger or prejudice.​

    The second half of the room was in charge of the Logis. Directed by his commands, the four-legged servitor was finishing arranging the heavy crates that contained the 'Geller drones,' as these devices were called according to the ship's manifest. At the very wall, behind Logis' back, five brothers, armed to the teeth, tested in the worst battles against the enemies of mankind, stood still in niches covered by individual Geller generators. Again, just in case something went wrong.​

    "When the servitor had finished, the magos turned to the porthole, made a ceremonial bow, and spoke. Sensitive microphones transmitted his words without the slightest distortion. Hovering cameras were broadcasting, recording the details of what was happening in great detail."​

    "The 'Glass Cat' project is a technological solution for the local forced separation of Materium and Immaterium in physical space."​
    Logis's speech, delivered through the auspex, seemed impassive, but the captain's experienced ears picked up notes of contentment. Or a skillful imitation of it. With those `irons' augmented up to their ears, you couldn't be sure of anything.​

    The creation of Geller's mobile transmitter carrier faced some technical difficulties, but all the problems were solved, and the result is acceptable. The task of the presented sample is the operational leveling of the impact of conventionally structured entities-fluctuations of the Immaterial, defined by the Inquisition as 'demons'.​

    The inquisitor pressed his lips together but remained silent.​

    "Request for the first demonstration by protocol," said the Martian.​

    The locks clicked loudly, the metal tinkled. The four 'petals' of the ancient sarcophagus parted, the protective glyphs crumbling with silver dust. Now only the ancient arcane shackles held the white-purple, spiky Spawn of Slaanesh inside. The creature squeaked, snapping its bones with its chews, showing an obvious desire to get its hands on the red-robed logis so close.​
    One of the four containers next to the Martian suddenly moved, as if it had been shaken by a powerful blow from inside. Just a moment later it was already unfolding into a relatively small four-legged automaton. A bundle of thin antennas shot out from the top of the hull, complex 'eyes' that looked like faceted spheres stretched out on flexible stalks. It took the machine a few more seconds to detect its adversary, to turn the hull toward the warp spawn, and then...​

    The acoustics worked perfectly, reducing the volume of the demonic creature's howl to acceptable levels, but a dozen layers of hallowed armored glass shuddered faintly. What the twisted humanoid parody spawned was no scream, it was an Empyrean howl that penetrated even through the Geller field that covered the site. Moments later, the shackles tumbled to the stone, as empty as the day they'd left the forge. The creature vanished without a trace.​

    "Impressive," said the inquisitor.​

    "A good servitor with a bolter or melt gun would do the same, only a few times cheaper," the Knight grumbled, covering the microphone with an armored glove.​

    "The uninitiated might think that the demon has been banished back to the Immaterium, and the effects of the emitter are similar to the methods of experienced psykers of the Ecclesiarchy, Navis Nobilite, the Inquisition, and so on," Magos said, as if he heard the caustic remark.​

    "However, such an approach was found to be counterproductive, as the exorcised entity, although it leaves our reality, keeps all the information, as well as the algorithms of behavior, fixed in the conditional analogs of neural networks. That is, each defeat is not final and only hardens the opponent. Sooner or later the entity returns, becoming more experienced, smarter, more dangerous. In addition, as was rightly noted above, the destruction of the material part of the demon may well be achieved by more traditional means. For example, by a sufficiently high density of fire of the standard Adeptus Astra Militarum weaponry."​

    So he heard it after all.

    Aurelius moved his jaw but remained silent. The automaton, which had fired on the monster, did not move, only the antennae spikes occasionally flickered with short-lived whitish lightning.​
    "Here a completely different effect applies. The demon is not exposed to Immaterium at one time. In fact, it is squeezed out of real space in parts, with the diameter of each part not exceeding seven nanometers, which completely precludes its recovery in its original pseudo-structured form."​

    "You mean... It's like you're squeezing it through a blender, isn't it?" said the inquisitor.​

    "Yes. It is not the demon itself that returns to the Immaterium, but a set of raw substances, in which no structured processes, including informational ones, are possible. Also, the process takes some, albeit very short, time, and the volumes of the Immaterium are shifting chaotically relative to the real space, so the above-mentioned substance turns out to be smeared over a significant pseudo-volume of the Empyrean."​

    "In other words, now you can destroy demons... We can destroy demons."​

    "Technically it would be more correct to say "irreversibly modify their essence and structure". But in fact, yes, it is destruction."​

    "What is the zone of impact?" The Inquisitor knew that the station's cogitators not only transmit any word of the observers to the logis, but also reliably preserve them. Only the Emperor knows what the investigators might need, in the highly unlikely event that further demonstration goes wrong.​

    "This model has an impact zone that is a sphere nine and thirty-two hundredths of a meter in diameter, which forms at a distance of up to one kilometer. Depending on a set of conditions, such as the level of ionization of the atmosphere, the degree of wear of the emitters, and so on. Destroying larger demons may require the coordinated action of several automatons. I think it is best to discuss the details after the demonstration part is completed. Request for the second demonstration by protocol."​

    The second sarcophagus opened, revealing, like in a fairy tale, even more disgusting contents. The captain grimaced. He had personally supervised the operation when this twisted counterpart of the Imperial Knight-Questor had been captured. The immobilized - or rather, simply stripped of limbs - stump of the once glorious hero was now nothing but an unnatural combination of steel, ceramic, and flesh soaked in the unholy essence of black sorcery.​

    The second container obediently turned the automaton and repeated the actions of its now motionless counterpart. Except that this time in the mental scream of the 'target' the Grey Knight heard a note of... gratitude. Or at least a fading shadow of relief. Without a shadow of pretense, the Inquisitor and the Captain both cast an aquila. The once-righteous pilot's suffering soul, suffering for more than a century, had been freed from the bonds of the Ruinous Powers, though not granted a posthumous blessing in the light of the Emperor's mercy.​

    Steel, titanium, ceramite, and other material barriers are not an obstacle to the effects of the emitters," commented the Martian. - Neither are known psychic fields. Note - it has been established that the holoarmor of the Aeldari can present a noticeable resistance, leading to an incomplete exposure of the target. Thus, on the battlefield, the use of Geller emitters developed during the project can reduce the cost of destroying enemy combat equipment, defined by the Inquisition as 'possessed'. Including the cost of personnel. Requesting the third demonstration.​

    This time the demonhost was to be put to the test.​

    "Is that necessary?" Aurelius asked grimly, pointing to the motionless figure of a fellow who had taken up a position between the emitter and the target, next to the magos.​

    The possessed creature still retained enough resemblance to a human. The more monstrous the changes that desecrated the original form seemed. Compared to the host, the Grey Knight in armor and the logis, augmented into a living statue, seemed like paragons of humanity. The thick bars of the cylindrical cage, held up against the might of a Nob Orc, were visibly corroded, furrowed, and blistered as if they were aging a thousand times faster than they should have. The possessed creature gnawed at the metal, crumbling its teeth, and, worst of all, the sturdiest alloy began to yield to weak flesh. The chewed lips of the host mumbled menacing curses, which were dissipated by the narrowly focused noise generators.​

    "Highly desirable," said Martian strictly. "It should be noted that an important aspect of the use of Geller-emitters is their effect on living, highly organized sentient organisms that have a mental reflection in the Immaterium.:​

    The holo-screen showing Brother Salazar's condition showed the moment the emitter struck, but ten seconds later the readings were back to normal. Unless now, judging by the battle gear, the knight was in need of rest, as if he hadn't finished his morning prayers just half an hour ago.​

    The demonhost's body twitched convulsively as if it had been hit by a weakened Voltaic blaster. Deprived of demonic energy support, it was, as you must expect, unlivable. Its organs, mutilated by the touch of the forbidden, were still trying to function, but it was obviously in death's agony.​

    "Bearers of the paria gene will not notice the effects of the radiation. Normal people, as well as Astartes without psionic activation, will experience some depression of mental activity on a physiological level, but even in the worst case will recover from normal sleep within a day or two. Astartes with psionic activation, civilian licensed Munistorum psykers may occasionally lose consciousness, but will fully recover within fifteen-hundredths of a standard year if they can be brought promptly to a medical unit similar to the standard Sisters Hospitaller field unit. The effects on astropaths and particularly strong psykers can be fatal if they are markedly mentally exhausted. Or it would have irreversible consequences on their abilities - in the direction of decreasing the level of mental potential. Nevertheless, the ability to fire practically without fear for the effect of 'friendly fire' is tentatively regarded as very useful."​

    The fourth automaton moved its articulated legs, joining its frozen brethren. But unlike the others, it had a heavy stabber on top.​

    "Unfortunately, the energy capacity of automatons does not allow them to activate their emitters more than once without recharging or replacing the batteries. Since the possibility of encountering not only demons and possessed objects, but also more traditional targets is always implied, Adeptus Mechanicus has developed standard weapon units to cover the so-called Geller Drones. They include flamethrower, stabber, and missile variants. Separately, it should be noted that although it takes eighteen hours to fully charge the helper drone battery pack, the design provides for rapid battery replacement in the field."​

    In the meantime, the servitor, kindly provided by the Deimos questors, was trying to install a replacement battery. On the fourth attempt, he succeeded.​

    "Replacements can be made after minimal instruction," the logis technodendrites quickly removed the four locking screws covered by the armor plates on the second drone and deftly snapped on the connectors as if the battery didn't weigh nearly two hundred kilograms. Trained personnel could effectively maintain the helper drones even on the battlefield.​

    "Fine," the inquisitor remained completely serious. "I suppose we should now hand over the documentation and test results to our magicians for verification and coordination."​

    "Field testing," the spacemarine muttered, crossing his arms over his broad chest. "I've seen a lot of 'absolute weapons' that have done wonders in the ranges and the labs. But in practice, in the mud of field battles, in the slums of beehives, they proved worse than rusty scrap. Until I see what your... 'Cats' in the real business, to me they are nothing but expensive iron junk."​

    "Yes, I tend to agree," the inquisitor supported his colleague.​

    "Your expectations are fair and obvious," Magos was cooperative. "And we are ready to discuss the issue of full-fledged tests. Against the real enemy under combat conditions. Especially since the operation will require extensive preparations and deployment of auxiliary forces. In the first stage, to avoid obvious problems, Adeptus Mechanicus suggest limiting themselves to supporting the actions of the Ecclesiarchy and Munistorum forces. The Grey Knights' mental capacity will obviously make them more vulnerable when things go wrong."​

    "When?" The inquisitor raised an eyebrow.​

    "In any complex action, there is always a deviation from the original plan. Especially when it comes to the practical application under unpredictable conditions of such complex mechanisms," replied the Martian. "And we are prepared for that."​
    * * *​
     
  3. Threadmarks: The Squad Chapter 6
    RiP

    RiP Seeker of Silence

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    Chapter 6
    * * *​
    After twenty-four hours of downtime, filled with the hustle and bustle of the traffic, Radial-12 moved on, slowly at first, giving modulated signals, like a huge whale scaring away small fish. Then the atomic snake accelerated, and the narrow window was filled with dull steppe scenery again, interspersed with a smattering of civilization. After some more time, the pace slowed again, and the armored train rolled on at a speed slightly faster than a good pedestrian, hour after hour, day after day.​

    There was no time for boredom, Berta keep riding them all the time and the training took place, among other things, on the wide roof of the car, under the icy wind. Olga already more or less learned how to roll the cart with the cylinders and quickly replace the used tank behind the operator's back. If necessary, if every second counted, the hose could be inserted directly into the 'spare', although it constrained the flamethrower.​

    Olga became better acquainted with her new colleagues. Although it could not be said that everyone became friends and the girl was welcomed into her new family. There was more of a pause, an understatement... The girl decided that most likely the squadmates were waiting for the test in the real case, which kept getting postponed and postponed.​
    Things were not easy, either. Although the Priest visited the new sheep every night and preached (or rather, told her how the Imperium was organized). Some things Olga did not understand or understood with difficulty, and she was wary of asking too much detail, despite the monk's peaceful and enlightening attitude.​

    The Squad was a clerical unit, but it had a paramilitary structure. It was supposed to work hand in hand with the local army and the FBI (which they called 'arbiters'), but at the same time was grounded for independent operations, and the soldiers firmly enshrined the imperative of 'no one but you, only the Emperor behind! Service in the Order was considered extremely honorable, but the staff was completed, for the most part, by force, with a mandatory period of four years of service. The company lived under barracks rule, the unauthorized absence was considered equal to desertion, and mentors and shepherds had the right to kill subordinates on the spot. That is, of course, honor and respect, but the company was more like a penal unit than anything else.​

    Back on the church ship, Olga had heard some fearful stories about the monstrous, prohibitive mortality rate in the Squad, reaching almost ninety percent. But in all the time the new novice had been here, the company had only gone out on false calls, and no one had died, not even maimed. Though it could not be said that this was particularly burdensome to the girl. However, getting to know the last member of the wagon squad sobered her up a bit.​

    The middle-aged man, who looked like a wildly bearded Luke Skywalker with rolled-up eyes, was called Madman. He was really a man gone mad, living somewhere in the mechanical jungle of the intermediate floor, next to a washing machine that ran without water. The unfortunate man looked like a victim of the worst kind of post-traumatic stress disorder; the squad seemed to ignore him on the one hand, while on the other they unobtrusively cherished and cared for him. It seems that the Madman was considered a blessed man and the mascot of the wagon. The question of how the poor fellow came to be in such a sad state was studiously ignored by the inmates, even the monk was silent. Olga rather quickly got used to waking up once or twice a night from wild cries of "The walls! They're coming out of the walls! The creatures on the ceiling!!.." and stopped asking unnecessary questions.​

    Thus, life in the Squad managed to combine an abundance of new experiences with boredom. Frequent training, infrequent trips on false calls, monastic sermons... and that was it. Olga even tried to get unobtrusively acquainted with Demetrius, but the guy shunned her. Or rather, he shunned everyone in general, immersed in prayer or unspoken thoughts.​
    Four years... Two hundred weeks, one is over, one hundred and ninety-nine more to go. Soon you'll be free with a clear conscience.​

    Olga was resting after a tedious training session that had begun early in the morning and ended near noon when the 'Radial' slowed down even more and began to chime. It was a chime the girl had already learned. It meant that the armored train would now begin to maneuver through the web of rails and stop for refueling, loading, and God knows what else.​

    Her legs and shoulders ached from the heavy 'IIFS'. Crybaby made his assistant carry the flamethrower as a skill development exercise. The device was so bulky and heavy that it was not easy even for a man to carry it, so the whole set of flamethrowers or chemical sprayers included a rather complicated system of suspension and stabilization. If everything was properly put on and fitted, it wasn't so difficult to use the weapon. It was still hard, though.​

    The armored train stopped. Olga kneaded her aching right calf and thought that the amazing thing was that, although it was not forbidden, no one went to visit each other. Each wagon lives its own life, not communicating with the people around it.​

    And why? It was unclear. However, she was already used to the fact that many things in the Empire have no logical explanation. They simply are what they are, and there is no use discussing or criticizing them. Why, for example, is crappy coffee called 'rekaf', there is no vodka, and tea is considered a barbaric drink akin to moonshine? And because. It just is.​
    The girl opened the flap on the window to look out at the sun. The local star was dim. At its brightest noon it seemed like dusk outside, but still some variety.​

    Oh, interesting... it seems to be a station or some kind of terminal. The 'Radial' moved again and slowly drove into some kind of metal forest, where iron trusses, concrete columns, and chaotically designed crosswalks were abundant. All very utilitarian, not at all passenger-friendly. The armored train rolled along a wide, curving semicircle track toward a huge structure that looked like a control tower in the form of a wide tablet with two 'legs' on either side of the railroad track. The train had to pass under it, moving into the mouth of the concrete complex, which looked like a scattering of huge cubes.​

    "The Emperor protects," the girl muttered, watching the orange and yellow display of dispatchers (or whatever it was) approaching. Above the 'tablet' loomed a gun turret with a machine gun twin and something suspiciously resembling a giant flamethrower's nozzle. She wondered what would happen next, but the lamps under the ceiling blinked three times. This was the sign Olga had already learned - the demand to wall up tightly in the train, to cover all the windows, and not to stick her head out. The girl shrugged her shoulders, slid the armored plate, and conscientiously screwed all the locking screws. Then she went to the galley for lunch.​

    The cook was usually Crybaby, about whom they joked, without malice, that he didn't even need to salt his food, just needed to sob a little over the pots. Indeed, the elf-like flamethrower never took off his long scarf and almost always either cried openly or wrinkled in readiness to burst into tears. Olga decided that it was most likely a consequence of many generations of adaptation to some planetary conditions - increased tear production and flushing of the ocular apparatus.​

    "Here," Crybaby sniffed his nose and poured into Olga's bowl a ladleful of what looked like cooked pea concentrate. There was meat in the mixture that looked like a stew. The girl already knew that it was a kind of 'groks,' but prudently did not ask what it was, reasoning that what the eyes do not see, the stomach is not afraid.​

    From the dark corner of the common compartment Savlar angrily flashed his eyes, Olga pretended not to notice. The girl generally concluded that the noseless man was an impostor and just a chatterbox. There was no real 'imprisonment' about him, no sense of the leaky attic of a real prisoner from a real infernal penal colony.​

    The train shuddered and stopped. The jolt almost made Olga drop her bowl. Steam hissed and something rattled on the armor plating. Devouring a hot lunch, the novice sadly remembered that today it was her turn to wash dishes. There was no breakfast due to the training, but now there would be something to do.​

    "I will help."​

    The Holy Man spoke infrequently, but always in a serious and relevant way.​

    "Thank you," Olga thanked, picking up the empty bowls. One good thing was that all the squaddies clearly had a hungry past, so the used dishes always shone like licked, not a crumb on the bottom. Less work for the dutyman. It's a pity that washing is not mechanized, although there is a cleaning robot, for example, here, that rolls around and cleans as it should, even knows how to clean the bathroom.​

    Savlar neglectfully tossed her a bowl with the words:​

    "Take it."​

    Olga leaned toward him, pretending to grab a stack of dishes more comfortably, and quietly promised:​

    "If you bark again, I'll put a pot over your ears."​

    The convict wrinkled his already ugly face into a very unimaginative face and remained silent. The pseudo-criminal's face still hadn't healed from the encounter with the regicide board and fingernails, which pleased Olga. It's good when bad people suffer.​

    Not too deftly, but diligently acting with a hose with a weak stream of warm water, the washerwoman as if casually, in passing, asked the volunteer helper:​

    "And where are we?"​

    "On radial line number twelve," replied the Holy Man, wiping another bowl with a towel."​

    Olga was quiet, trying to think up the next question. Well, yes... It makes sense - the train with the name 'Radial-12' runs on the appropriate line.​

    "We're refueling today," the Holy One looked critically at the pot. Crybaby as the cook was pretty good, but every time he got something burned. The long-haired trooper waved his head, brushed aside the annoying strand of liquid gray hair, and reached for the brush.​

    "Don't go to bed tonight. Go over to Sinner's, he'll give you a thermos of recaf. He knows how to brew it so that you can't sleep a wink. And close to sunset, say your prayers properly. Better go to your shepherd, see if he'll prescribe flagellation. Of course, the Madman will recite for us all night, and the Sinner will whip. But anyway. It'll be easier."​

    It took the girl half a minute to remember the meaning of the word 'flagellation,' then she stared into the sink full of slushy foam so as not to reveal herself with a mournful grimace. It seemed to fail, but the Holy One mistook the expression of disgust for fear and explained:​

    "We'll drive by the edge of the coast where it all happened "then."​

    "I don't know what happened," Olga reported quietly, mechanically watering the plate. "I wasn't there."​

    The Holy One was supposed to give some kind of clarification, but he only scraped the bottom of the pot with a stiff brush, limiting himself to a short one:​

    "It's for the best."​

    Fuck you, offended Olga, feeling a slight prick of conscience for swearing at an assistant, and a voluntary one at that. As the minutes passed, curiosity overcame her. Finally, the girl mustered her courage and decided to ask what the misfortune that happened and why it is better not to sleep during the day. But she didn't make it in time.​

    First, the speaker of the intra-train communication shrieked. It wheezed a little, warming up, and then the voice of the train commander, aka the company commander, a heavenly man whom Olga had never seen before, sounded all over 'Radial'. The Commandant, in the voice of a not too malicious but grouchy old man, announced that the day's training was canceled and that everyone should fortify their spirits, prepare for vigils and pray in anticipation of known events. For, as we know, the Emperor protects. Aquila portrayed Olga already mechanically, with the experience of a seasoned cultist, without retreating from her comrades-in-arms. Only the dropped bowl rattled in the iron sink.​

    Next, the commandant announced the cancellation of dinner, an all-train prayer at nine o'clock in the evening, and an all-night candlelight vigil for the chosen intercessors. He finished with a not quite clear, but ominous clause about the necessary readiness of mentors to be at arms, to reinforce discipline and 'interrupt excesses,' and then his speech was drowned in the growing rustle of static.​

    "There, you see," said the Holy One, as if the conversion had cleared everything up. "Everything is clear."​

    "Well, yeah," Olga thought it best to agree. "It couldn't be clearer..."​

    A quarter of an hour later, all the dishes were shining in the lattice racks, and towels were drying on the radiators. And Olga thought that thank the Emperor, she had some breadcrumbs stashed away for a rainy day, so that the nullification of dinner would not be so sad. And, again, no dishes to wash. The main thing was not to be written up as a "chosen protector".​

    Meanwhile, the thunder and clattering outside continued. The sinner, silent as ever, took his customary place in the corner, under the image of the Emperor. With touching care and concern he refilled the oil in the lamps and lit a new candle, complete with the symbols of faith. Taking a special brush, he brushed the non-existent dust from the parchment scrolls around the luminous image of the lord of the universe. He knelt down, threw a thick knitted shawl over his head like a penitent sinner. And again, as always, he began to bang his forehead against the wall. Olga once again caught herself thinking that it must look very comical... but it didn't. It was the utter seriousness with which the Sinner performed the rituals. And the seriousness with which the others took his regular exercises.​

    Another day... not the best day of her life, but, let's face it, not the worst. Feeling a pleasant heaviness in her belly and a tolerable pain in her legs, she remembered to check the cart and the hose, just in case. So she turned around and went to the ladder and then to the lower level, to the garage and workshop.​

    On the garage level, as usual, there was activity going on. The Priest intended to dilute the acid with reagent before all the usefulness was lost in the sludge. The driver demanded, in a loud and very high voice, that the Chimera should be sent to some clerics, because the machine spirit had not received proper care for a long time, was withering and sad. And in general, the promethium from the 'black-north-twenty' is not promethium, but urine, which makes the spirit even sadder. The girl did not immediately react to the approaching sound of heavy leisurely footsteps. Perhaps because the other squad members continued to quietly go about their current affairs, as if nothing had happened. Only when two grotesque figures entered through the vestibule with heavy armored flaps, Olga realized that something amazing was to come.​

    Servitors. In her long months of living in a crazy world, Olga had rarely encountered anything more disgusting. And her companions on their hard work still smiled, regularly recalling the scream of "zombie!!!" that the girl let out the moment she realized that the servitor was not a robot decorated as a dead man, but rather the opposite - a dead man made to look like a robot.​
    The first was a human torso in a muddy red semblance of a jumpsuit with a telescopic hoist on a crawler. The dead man's arms were container grippers, a plastic hump protruded behind his back, and a riveted, bluish-pink head encased in a spherical cage of steel rods. The other, dressed in a short, dark-red hood with oil stains, seemed more human, except that his legs and arms and even the part of his head visible from under the hood glowed with polished iron and flecks of dull plastic patches.​

    Olga shuddered as the two buzzing corpses passed her, heading for the Chimera. The driver hurriedly climbed out of the iron womb, clearly happy in anticipation of the dead guests. The girl's reaction did not go unnoticed.​

    "Is something bothering you?" Demetrius asked carefully.​

    "I am... It makes me nervous... This," Olga hesitated, trying to find the words, her gothic skill still was not so fluent. "That kind of attitude toward the man. Even after the death."​

    "Many worthy men consider it their duty to continue to serve the Imperium," the Priest said admonishingly. "Even after death, if even a fraction of their bodies can benefit His work. It's an honorable and worthy destiny."​

    The couple who arrived were witching something by the engine compartment. It was like they were praying. The least of their actions looked like repairs. And the one on the cart was humming musically, like a small and silent instrument.​

    "What I definitely don't want to do is continue... being... like this," something that had been building up in the girl's soul finally erupted. "Even though my life before the Squad had sucked... shitty even... and people were almost all fucking assholes... but I'd rather stay the way I am. And if I die, I'd rather burn the fuck out than be... like this... brainless monster. Frankenstein!"​
    Olga's hand was pointing at the metal head. The girl did not immediately realize that hardly anyone knew the word "Frankenstein". But the reaction of the others to her outburst was... unexpected. The Savlar grinned vilely and grunted, dropping drops through the gap above his lips. The Holy Man and Crybaby sobbed in surprise, laughing, and Smoker laughed.​

    "What are you doing?" Big Bertha appeared from the opposite end of the wagon.​

    "Olla mistook a pinion for a servitor!" Still sobbing, Crybaby answered her. This time his tears seemed very appropriate and therefore frustrating.​

    "Tech-priest?" There was an unexpected reverence in the mentor's voice, even a kind of politeness. It's very strange. "I don't see you here very often. You're very welcome."​

    "A routine check of the speakerphone, the propulsion unit, and the sacred promethium system," the 'killer cyborg' said in an unexpectedly lucid and intelligent voice. His iron finger, more like a segmented tentacle, poked into the bowels of the 'Chimera' under the removed sheet of cladding, which hung from the crane-beam chains.​
    "Оh!" - Bertha was clearly delighted. "Thank you for your timely concern. The Emperor protects."​

    "Of course."​

    In the lifeless voice of the 'cyborg' not an ounce of deference to the Emperor could be heard, but everyone pretended not to notice it. After some intricate manipulation of the tank's engine, the iron couple moved along the side, to where Driver had already pulled out the radio box. Accompanied by a musical buzzing sound, two tentacles with large screwdrivers on their ends and two more with pincers, like round pliers, protruded from the back of the human cart. The artificial 'hands' quickly removed the worn casing, revealing a surprisingly crudely assembled board on a piece of brown textolite, from Olga's point of view. 'Cyborg' spread his fingers and enchanted the board with surprising dexterity. Something hissed, sparks sprinkled, the instrument in the womb of the cart changed tones and seemed to play some kind of hymn through electronic filters.​

    "Done," the 'cyborg' reported. "The preliminary service is complete. May the grace of Omnissiah be with the machines around you and with you."​

    The entire repair took a few seconds. The cart-man waved majestically with all his limbs, his musical apparatus emitting a cheerful chime of timpani. The Driver smiled in genuine happiness. The girl involuntarily marveled-the the first time she'd seen something worthy of the term 'effective' since the ballistic station.​

    Having finished his work, the 'cyborg', accompanied by the servitor, went further, apparently about to move on to the next wagon. As he passed the girl, he suddenly raised his hand, and the iron finger of the 'cog' - whatever that nickname meant - almost touched Olga's nose.​

    "Victor Frankenstein's creation had no name of its own. Besides, the cadaver was made entirely of meat," Olga was ready to swear that there was a clear mockery in the artificial voice. "So calling me 'Frankenstein' is unreasonable."​

    "I'm sure this child meant no disrespect," the Priest diplomatically remarked, pulling on his thick gloves for working with acid containers.​

    "There's not much imperfect flesh left in me. But my life is much more interesting than yours," the tech-priest informed her before he left.​

    Stunned by the kaleidoscope of events, the girl ignored her colleagues' spiteless taunts, checked the tires on the cart, made sure the patch on the hose held together as a matter of course. Finally, she wandered back to her room, wishing she had never seen or heard of anyone else.​

    What Olga lacked was an ordinary door behind which she could hide from the world. No matter how you look at it, a tarpaulin curtain - just a cloth, though dense - does not give real privacy. But this point, as she had already realized, was crucial here. For some reason, any squadmate had to be within earshot and reach at all times.​

    In her compartment, Olga carefully draped the doorway with a curtain, trying not to leave the slightest slit. Behind the thin bulkhead, Wretched Man was listening to a pocket radio, apparently something sports.​

    "Burn them, burn them!" The Madman shouted wildly from below so that the girl flinched. "More fire! We're running out of fuel!!!"​

    The wretched man's voice was answered by Smoker, who loudly promised to the whole wagon:​

    "There's enough fire for everyone, brother!"​

    The Madman was suddenly silent, his comrade's voice apparently calming the sufferer's inner demons. I wonder what he saw... ...and who was to be burned? Xenos, was it? Or witches? In any case, Olga hoped she would find out as late as possible. Ideally, she would not have to until after her redemptive obedience was over. It would be too good, but she could dream, couldn't she?​

    The girl took a critical look at her new home. It looked more or less habitable, but empty, without all the little things that people accumulate to fill their environment. Hygiene kit, government towels, clothes, overalls with a gas mask in a special box under the bottom shelf. An official bible with frayed pages and plenty of faded stamps of a train captain. A board, cracked after a meeting with Savlar's face. That was all.​

    But Olga, as a novice and a staff member of the flamethrower unit, must be entitled to some money, even with extra pay for her harmful work, right? It can't be like that, with no salary at all. The cellmates buy various knickknacks for something, such as a radio or new crimson-colored pants. I'll have to check. Manicure, of course, is now a luxury, but somewhere to get at least the nail polish. And some other little things. And also...​

    Heavy footsteps were heard in the corridor. Servitor again? Or that... 'cog'? Back? What for?​

    Someone strode mightily toward Olga's very shelter, stopping beside her. Bertha said something softly, and after a short pause, the unknown male voice agreed. Strangely enough, the Mentor changed again to her usual tone of stern, angry demandingness. Now the bodybuilder spoke almost friendly, with undisguised respect.​

    "That's it," Big Bertha said. "From now on, you're a member of the Squad and a novice of the Order..." She was silent for a moment or two, and then she finished. "May the Emperor have mercy on your soul, silly boy."​

    "Born to serve, in life and death, with Him and Mankind," the man said in a resounding and beautiful voice as if repeating a motto he had learned by heart.​

    "That's right!" Bertha agreed and left.​

    Olga sat down on the bench, straightening and biting her lip. She took hold of the little eagle - this gesture had already become customary, it seemed that the crude self-made thing calmed her down. She wanted to pray to God the Emperor, for real, as the Priest had taught her so that the dead man on the golden throne would guide and strengthen her and all that.​

    One of the invisible men behind the tarpaulin curtain stomped around, sniffing like a little steamer or a big kettle. The other rustled like a man taking off a thick outer garment. Then there was silence, interrupted only by the usual background of the armored train, the soft chants of the pious Demetrius, and the same cryptic whistling. So a minute or two passed. Then there was a soft but steady knock on the edge of the doorway.​

    "Olga," said the invisible man behind the curtain. "May I come in?"​

    There was no light in the corridor through the thick curtain, but she thought she could clearly see the shadow of a tall man about two meters tall behind the tarpaulin.​

    "You did learn to pronounce my name right," she said, her voice carefully controlled.​

    "Yes."​

    There were flamboyant and pathos-laden phrases like: "it's been a long road". But the girl kept it short and succinct:​

    "No. You are not welcome here."​

    And then she couldn't restrain herself, snorting angrily:​

    "Go to ass, Fidus."​
    * * *​
     
  4. Threadmarks: The Squad Chapter 7
    RiP

    RiP Seeker of Silence

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    Part 2
    Quarantine measures
    Chapter 7

    * * *
    What do you want? - Fidus asked, not even trying to hide his tired irritation. He was going to spend his last hours before the trip down in silence and reflection. Not conversations with his worst foe and most loyal unfriend.

    "Where is the deference to age and position, my boy?" Inquisitor Schmettau responded with caustic politeness and fake participation. For his part, he made no effort to disguise his jubilation.

    "The Inquisitor should be addressed as 'You,'" Essen Pale, Kalkroit Schmettau's apprentice, and protégé, towering over the patron's shoulder, remarked in a bored tone. "This is obvious if only from the difference in years."

    "Yeah," said Kryptman with a smirk. "So what do you want?"

    Normally, the Squad was recruited from the convict holds and the ships of the Ecclesiarchy (and evil tongues said that there was little difference), but for Kryptman, because of his unique situation, an exception was made. He arrived in the Ice Port system as an ordinary passenger, on a passenger liner with certain comforts. Which, however, he would soon have to lose.

    "Wine, sir," the servitor in his carefully tailored livery handed a small tray, topped with a single glass, with unusual elegance for a machine.

    Fidus took his glass and took a big sip, looking through the uninvited guests.

    The cabin was rather compact, but cleverly furnished and decorated, so that it seemed much larger than it was. There was a lot of red, velvet, and a mirrored wall that doubled the visible volume. Kryptman Jr. sat in a spectacular armchair with his leg over his head and seemed out of place in such surroundings. His stiff, stern face, his simple novice robe, and his freshly shaved head did not harmonize well with the graceful lines of the decor, implying decadence and gloss.

    The guests did not see fit to sit down, or rather, the inquisitor preferred to stand, and so his protégé stood on his feet. Schmettau, as usual, looked the least like a man who had devoted more than a hundred years to the Inquisition, and about a third of his own body. Not fat, however, he was stout, with a noticeable paunch and slightly disheveled hair, looking out at the world with a kind, slightly helpless gaze behind the lenses of his most ordinary spectacles. Kalkroit could have been mistaken for a writer of children's stories about the lives and good deeds of His faithful servants. Such men are much loved by women of age and by children, feeling in them faithfulness, sincere kindness, and thoroughness.

    He was handsome and stern, except that his face was a little too wide and his eyes were too close together. This gave him the uncomfortable feeling that he was always squinting at his companion. He wore a long dandy cloak of elaborately tanned leather, without a flap of concealed armor, almost to his heels. Dressed like that, Essen Palais looked more like a ceremonial commissar, lacking only a scarlet sash and a cap on the bend of the hand. Evil tongues said that Pale was not clever, and, to call things by their proper names, a little stupid. However, all - and critics, and well-wishers - converged on the fact that Essen is very performant, efficient, and meticulous, the main thing is to let him off the chain in the right direction. And Schmettau's intellect was enough for both.

    Master and apprentice were as different as heaven and earth, as the slums of Necromunda and the shining spires of Ultramar, but they had one thing in common: looks. Kalkroit's slightly blinded eyes and Essen's deep-set pupils looked at Fidus with the same expression of mild contempt and confident triumph.
    "What do I want..." Schmettau looked up as if expecting to find the answer in the pink-red orchid ceiling. He ran his fingers over his chin with a look of deep thought. "Ah, that's what!"
    He raised his index finger considerably, calling for attention and concentration.

    "I want to enjoy every second of it. I want to gloat and rejoice in your misfortunes. I want to revel in every minute of my triumph. Simple and understandable human desires."

    "Good," Fidus shook his head as he took another sip. "You'll have to do without the wine, then."

    The servitor froze by the chair, deaf and indifferent to anything but his master's orders. He trembled a little at the word "wine" and a moment later reverted to a half-living statue.

    "Nice, nice, nice," Kalkroit clapped his hands in time with the "nice". "No, I'd like some wine, too, but it's better this way. Seeing you try to bark back pathetically and ridiculously is much nicer."

    "Still settling scores with a dead man," Fidus shook his shaved head again. "I'd say that's silly. But such a remark implies some sort of morality, the ability to distinguish between what's decent and what's inferior. It's not about you."

    "Oh, yes, that's right, my boy. I am, I am settling an old score."

    Schmettau drew a rectangle with his fingers as if he were alluding to a check or other debt obligation.

    The kind writer of children's tales hid for a moment, like a folding toy in a magician's sleeve. In his place, with a heavy-handed grin, a completely different man, a werewolf, who had shed his mask of the do-gooder, grinned grimly. A few seconds and the kindly bespectacled man was back, spreading his arms with disarming good-naturedness.

    "Your father was a very bad man."

    The new leather on Essen's cloak creaked. The Inquisitor's apprentice was smiling, too, but without much emotion, like a mannequin or a very well-made servitor. He was bored; the commander's old scores were of no interest to Pale, but position obliged.

    "Don't speak ill of my father," Fidus clenched his glass tighter, feeling the stabbing pain building in his long-healed and repaired ribs. Emotions brought the mortal flesh to mind the wounds of the past.

    "What will you do?" Kalkroit asked sympathetically. "Will you throw me out? Or will you call me to order? Me, the inquisitor? You, who are now just a minor purificator?"

    "No. I will confine myself to stating the obvious fact," Fidus, with a careless (at least he hoped so) movement of his hand, ordered the servitor to approach and placed a glass with a couple of drops of unfinished wine on the tray.

    "Kalkroit Schmettau, you are pathetic and miserable. You couldn't get back at father, and now you're trying to take pity out on son. That only humiliates you, not me. For as low as you have thrown me down, we both know..."

    Fidus leaned forward slightly, locking his fingers together.

    "...That all this is a convulsion of powerlessness. You will never match the true servant of God the Emperor Kryptman, inquisitor, thinker, and hero. You know it, I know it. Live with this knowledge from now on."

    "Babble, Fidus, babble," Essen entered the conversation, tilting his head back with his short and carefully arranged hair. Apparently, to look at Kryptmann a little more from above, with even more superiority. But then Schmettau indicated sparing applause. Essen stopped smiling and fell silent as if in an instant he became speechless.

    "That was good," Schmettau said seriously, clapping his chubby hands one last time. "Really good. No matter how I felt about him, I have to admit, Kryptman Sr. had undeniable virtues. And among other things, he knew how to hold a punch. Even when all seemed lost... or was actually lost. At times like that, boy, you are like your father."

    "Always at your service," Fidus indicated a buffoonish half bow.

    "But I don't care what you think about it or what verbal ostracism you subject me to," the inquisitor continued as evenly, with benevolent irony. "It's a pity, of course, that my colleague and comrade-in-arms have long been scattered in ashes and become part of the universal carbon exchange. But I will still rejoice to see his son suffer."

    "What's the point? - Fidus asked sardonically.

    "In satisfaction," said Schmettau very seriously. "In compensation. In balancing the scales. He and I were companions, brothers. Each of the two of us had to stand more than once between a comrade and death, but we did not hesitate. Schmettau and Kryptman, it sounded proud and frightening. Frightening to heretics, of course."

    "Kryptman and Schmettau, that's more accurate," Fidus quipped, leaning back.

    "As you wish," the inquisitor brushed it aside. "We knew how little empty queueing meant in our brotherhood. Until your father betrayed me."

    "Father didn't betray anyone," Fidus cut him off.

    "He betrayed me," Schmettau repeated, stressing the word "me," his eyes clouded and the corners of his lips lowered as if he were plunged back into old memories, unpleasant and extremely painful.

    "I devoted everything to our work, even a part of myself."

    Kalkroit extended his palms forward, quite lifelike in appearance, imperfect as the hands of a man of age should be. Only completely devoid of the hairs and spots natural to naturally born flesh.

    "And he betrayed everything that bound us together. He denied all our duties. He abandoned me at the most important moment, on the threshold of my greatest triumph."

    "Father had obligations," Fidus honestly tried to be cool and dispassionate, but it was not going well. The Kalkroit apprentice watched Kryptman silently, and in Essen's narrow-set eyes one could see a sincere, malicious superiority.

    "He appreciated you and your friendship," Fidus continued. "I know that all too well. Because..." the young man's voice trembled a little. "Even family was a step below for him. Schmettau, you've been my curse, in a way, all my life. A paragon and a standard against which my father compared me daily, hourly. But his duty to the Emperor and Humanity he considered above your ambition. So you may as well give the dead man and me, as well as the Golden Throne."

    "Oh, no, kiddo," Kalkroit snapped his jaws like a real mutant ogre, stepping out of his well-fed goody-goody persona again. "Not my ambition!"

    The Inquisitor's face twisted into an angry grimace. He stepped forward quickly - too quickly for the average man of years and a couple of dozen extra pounds - and loomed over the seated Kryptman. Fidus seemed to have succeeded, after all, in uncovering old sores. Essen Palais tensed slightly, ready to defend his patron if necessary.

    "A Case!" Schmettau growled, shaking his weighty, not at all elderly fist at Kryptman's nose. "We had a Case that Ordo had been working on for almost a quarter of a century. A cult that had its tentacles in two Sectors. Billions in wasted thrones. Dozens of agents are dead. A quarter-century of painstaking, deadly work! Twice as much as you, unworthy, carry the inquisitor's badge! And all this he abandoned! Left me behind, taking with him the entire technical team and the strike force! No explanation, no warning, because he has once again seen horrible, deadly xenos! What is this if not betrayal? Our friendship, our duty, our Orde, our God?!"

    Kalkroit had calmed down as suddenly as he had flamed with rage. But it was clear that the deeds of bygone years were not forgotten, had been numbered, and were like embers that were carefully stoked and fueled, not allowed to subside. Fidus put his hands on the armrests, squeezing the warm wood.

    "It's sad."

    "What?" Kalkroit pulled back the flaps of his uniform, adjusted the cuffs of his white shirt. Now only the crimson stains on his cheeks testified to the recent fit of anger.

    "I'm sorry," Fidus repeated. "Schmettau, you're taking revenge on a ghost in your imagination. You won't hurt him, you won't make him suffer. And you won't be able to admit his mistakes... that didn't happen."

    "No, kid, you're not sorry," said Kalkroit grimly, whose voice had no irony or good-natured superiority in it, only malicious triumph. "You have no idea what a successful case is. Accordingly, you have no idea what it means to be betrayed on the doorstep of triumph."

    Kryptman shuddered, gripping the armrests tighter.

    "Yes," Kalkroit grinned coldly and cruelly. "A loser in his father's shadow. You're right, I can't get my hands on the ghost of Kryptman Sr. I can't make him suffer as I did. But I have you. The dead don't care, but justice is for the living, and I am alive. And I long for vengeance."

    "Go to your demons, you crazy old man," Fidus waved his hand wearily. "I have other things to worry about. You can feast on your poison somewhere else."

    "I am an inquisitor," Kalkroit grinned. "I can be wherever I see fit. You're just a novice of the Purificatum these days. And I have my doubts about your piety. After all, the main motive for a man to volunteer for the Order is to cleanse himself of sins. So in the meantime..." Schmettau paused dramatically. "I'll stay here. Look after you, so to speak. Support my fellow man in his difficult service. I thought you'd have to be cornered for years to come, but you've done it yourself. Truly, whoever the Emperor wishes to punish, he strips off his mind."
    He turned, preparing to leave. Essen took a precautionary step to the side, opening the way for his mentor. One step away from the hatch, steel, but lined with real wood and decorated like a normal door, Kalkroit froze and turned a half-turn.

    "You will die here, Kryptman," the old inquisitor said very quietly, with genuine hatred. "You will die in obscurity and misery. Along with the girl, you didn't help then and won't help now. And when that happens, then I will finally consider that Kryptman Sr. has paid me for everything. And the old debts will be closed."

    "You'll have to wait a long time, you old bastard," Fidus grinned, deciding to drop the politeness, too. "We survived on Ballistic, and we'll survive here."

    The servitor moved restlessly, sensing his master's unconventional behavior, but unable to determine his desires.

    "I am patient, I have waited a long time," returned the inquisitor's wicked grin. "And I'm willing to wait a little longer."

    Kalkroit inhaled, exhaled, and his face returned to its former mask of benevolence and light fatigue. The apprentice stood between his mentor and Kryptman, as if protecting him from a possible attack.

    "Cheers, young colleague," Schmettau indicated a short and shallow bow. "I will follow your career at Adepto Purificatum with great attention."
    * * *

    "Go to ass, Fidus." Olga repeat.

    "If you believe what they say about the Order, I'm already somewhere near there," answered a familiar voice. The girl did not recognize it at first, because the inquisitor spoke softly, and the tone had changed. After all, Olga hardly ever heard Fidus speak normally, only in agony or fits of pain.

    "Then go ahead."

    "I can't. My place is next to you. And I'm coming in," Fidus warned.

    Olga protested, but the tarpaulin curtain was already sliding aside, creaking with its brass rings.

    "Hey, don't mess around," The Wretched Man demanded without much pressure, but very firmly, turning down the volume of the radio. "There was one here, disturbing the peace and bothering our girl."

    "I won't," Kryp promised on the doorstep. "I'm quiet. It's just that we know each other. A reunion of old friends."

    "WoW!"The old man marveled. "I've never even heard of acquaintances being in the same company. Especially in the same vehicle. Tell me about it later!"

    "I will," Fidus promised neutrally. "And hello again."

    Olga looked at Kryp critically for a long time, assessing the changes. The shaved head grew short stubble, just like Olga's, only darker in color. The inquisitor wore the same overalls as the other inmates, with a winged white DNA spiral in a red diamond on the left side of his chest - the emblem of the Squad.

    Behind the inquisitor towered either a servitor or a mechanicum, Olga was already confused and did not know how to distinguish between them. Probably a servitor, not bad-looking, by the way. Almost like a human, only mummified, partially encased in an exoskeleton armor. Behind the living dead man's back, there were two heat pipes sticking out, and a shotgun with a short and thick barrel hung from his chest. No, with a whole bunch of barrels. It was a weapon she had never seen before.

    "Is that...?" Olga pointed her finger at the zombie, trying not to let it shake. "What?"

    "This is Luct," Fidus answered. "My father's companion. He served faithfully in life, and he wanted to remain faithful to the Emperor's work in death. He serves me now."

    "He wasn't with you," Olga frowned.

    "This is the household servant and librarian," Fidus explained patiently. He was still standing behind the low threshold, making no attempt to step further. "But he can fight well. I decided to take him with me."

    "A full complement of the crew!" exclaimed someone's voice in the cockpit, it seemed Smoker, "And with more than enough. When has it ever been?"

    "We're going to die," Savlar said more sullenly and more quietly. "It's no good... The damn chicken is bad luck for us..."

    He and Smoker started arguing about the nature of bad luck, but the girl was no longer listening.

    "What do you want?" she repeated, and after a second's pause, she couldn't resist another question, one that contained an ill-concealed, desperate hope. "Are you... after me?"

    Fidus stepped inside, pulled up the tarpaulin, warding off the rest of the carriage. He sat opposite Olga, folded his hands in his lap, emphasizing the friendliness of his intentions.

    "Partially."

    "How's that? - Olga was startled, then she correlated Fidus's presence here, his appearance as a recruit, and the meaning of the word 'partially'. "Yeah... It seems that you're not taking me away from here in a blue helicopter..."

    Kryp shook his head, seemingly saddened by the frustration in the girl's eyes and voice.

    "Whatever your 'heji-cop-tur' is, I don't have it. And I can't take you away."

    "So what the fuck are you doing here?"

    Olga strained all her gothic knowledge to make the question sound as harsh and insulting as possible. She seemed to hit the target.

    "Ol-ga," Kryp pronounced her name on the first try, but in two breaths. "What I want to tell you..."

    "Some bullshit, indeed," Olga stung again.

    "First of all, I'm sorry."

    Something like "Well, of course!" was begging on her tongue, but the girl just waved her hand with wistful hopelessness.

    "Listen, Kryp... why don't you fuck off? The vigil's about to start. And night terrors. I don't have time for you."

    "I'm sorry," Kryp repeated insistently. "I promised, and I didn't."

    In the Squad, swearing was strictly discouraged, but the girl thought the moment was worthy of a strong word. But she hesitated to translate the phrase '***** *****' adequately, and Kryp spoke again:

    "I can't go back in time. But I can try to fix what I've done. As much as I can."

    "And how do you intend to do that?"

    "In-person," Kryp said with morbid seriousness, looking intently at Olga.

    The servitor stood motionless and hummed a little with a motor in his belly under the armor.

    "What?"
    "I've talked to... different people. I was looking for an opportunity to dispute your enrollment here."

    "So?"

    "It's impossible. Unless one performs an incredible deed."

    "It's a Marvelous Deed. I know."

    "So you have to serve the whole ter... all the obedience. Or to do something meaningful, heroic."

    "Kryp, you fool, I'll die first," Olga said quietly and sadly. From the Priest's lectures she had already imagined what inquisitors did, and how dangerous even an ordinary dispute, let alone an insult, could become. But somehow it seemed to her that Crip wasn't really an inquisitor anymore. Or maybe not an inquisitor at all.

    "Yes," Fidus agreed simply and uncomplicatedly. "It's possible, too."

    "Damn it," Olga gritted her teeth.

    "And the smartest of the interlocutors then said - if you want her to survive, don't look for excuses and cunning ways, just go, guard her, be willing to trade your life and health for her safety."

    "And what did you do?" Olga stared at Fidus incomprehensibly.

    "Came to guard," Kryp shrugged his broad shoulders.

    "Came... to guard."

    Olga hunched over, bowing her head low, hiding her hands between her knees. Crip said something else, but the girl would not listen. Fidus finally realized that the words were going to waste and shut up. Olga, for her part, noticed that the flow of words had ended, and looked at the inquisitor again. She blinked frequently, but her remarkably bright cornflower-colored eyes remained dry. At least, they seemed that way.

    "Leave me alone," she said muffled, but quite distinctly.

    "Olga."

    "Kryp," the girl half-closed her eyes, clenched her knees even tighter as if trying to warm her frozen, twig-thin fingers. "Have you come to soothe a guilty conscience?"

    Fidus thought about it and answered honestly:
    Kryp you are so stupid.
    "Yes. I guess so."

    He thought about it some more and then added it:

    "And also to do a good, worthy thing."

    "So what's in it for me?"

    "I don't get it..."

    "And he warned, he said," Olga muttered under her breath.

    "What are you talking about?" Fidus got suspicious.

    "He said no one needed it, no one would appreciate it," the girl whispered. "No one would thank me. And punish me for things I don't even understand. He... was... right..."

    "What do you mean?" Fidus repeated harshly, demandingly.

    "I need to get out of here," Olga looked him in the eye. "Before all these witches and xenos kill me here. Somehow I have to make a new life for myself. Find myself... somehow. But you can't help me with that, can you? You got demoted?"

    "No!" Fidus straightened up sharply. "I am the Inquisitor! It's just that..."

    "Just you can do nothing for me."

    Her voice was no longer a question, but a statement, sad and desperate.

    "You can't do anything, Kryp. You can't do anything but join the Squad and make a nice speech about how pompous and brave you are."

    Fidus bit his lip and suddenly thought how much the thin yellow-headed girl looked like Schmettau now. Two completely different people, united by only one thing - they did not respect Inquisitor Kryptman for a penny. And they didn't believe in him, not even by a poppy seed. It was just that Kalkroit expressed it with pleasure, enjoying triumph, and Olga with quiet hopelessness.

    "Ol-ga."

    Kryp raised his hand timidly, but the girl was already standing up, wearing a mask of detached, indifferent restraint.

    "It was a pleasure to meet you again, Mr. Kryptman. Welcome to our glorious wagon. Now I have a business to attend to."

    Already from the corridor, glancing at the electronic zombie with a multi-barreled gun, Olga added with grim determination, already quite loudly:

    "If you ever come in here again without asking, you'll get punched in the face."

    "This one can!" confirmed one of the troopers, seemed Smoker, and laughed loudly.

    Olga threw her head back with haughty pride so that her nose was pointing almost to the ceiling, and went down to the tank and her cylinders. She really wanted to be alone with herself and away from Kryp.
    * * *​
    So, there are no signs of a relationship between Kryp and Olga. But my soul of shipper can't bear it. Also, I believe in Olga's badass moment in the future. So...​

     
    Dapperlurker, ATP, The_Bajar and 2 others like this.
  5. Threadmarks: The Squad Chapter 8
    RiP

    RiP Seeker of Silence

    Joined:
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    Chapter 8
    * * *​
    "Wait," Bertha intercepted the girl in the crew compartment. "Come on downstairs. There's a job to do."

    Olga stretched out and clapped her hand on her chest, which was analogous to a salute in the Order.

    "In short," the mentor went down to the hangar immediately after Olga, there were already waiting for Sinner, Smoker, and Driver. "There's an opinion that... we should get ready a little bit."

    "For it's coming," Smoker agreed immediately. The Sinner, as usual mute, nodded in agreement, twisting a thick lash in his hands for some reason. The Driver abstractly twisted his palm in the air and incomprehensibly clarified:

    "The most important thing is that it is not like that time."

    Bertha looked at the mechanic judgingly, and in the look of the broad-shouldered aunt, Olga noticed something similar to the echoes of the former fear. That's the look of people who would very much like to forget something but know very well that it is impossible.

    "And what was... then?" Olga took the risk of asking as an experienced member of the company.

    Smoker opened his mouth, but Bertha waved her fingers with her nails clipped almost to the root.

    "Don't mention it in vain," she ordered in a short and weighty voice so that the scout shut up as if he had swallowed his tongue. Bertha looked at Olga with a questioning look and said. "After.
    When we've spent the night."

    In the mouth of the Mentor, 'we will' sounded akin to 'we will survive' and this did not add to Olga's peace of mind. She had no idea what happened 'then', but apparently something very, very bad.

    "Right... Yes, the main thing is not to be like that. St. Clarence is ready to descend personally from the Emperor's Light to throw our bureaucrats out into the tundra..."

    "And only the hope that the followers will not disgrace his cause stops our patron..." The rest of the company, with the exception of Olga, proclaimed amicably. The girl realized that some ancient wisdom was being quoted here, but she did not know what it was, and it sounded rather meaningless.

    "Let me guess," smirked Smoker. "You made your own arrangements. With the auditor?"

    Olga scratched her nose in confusion. The fluid meaning of 'you' and 'You' in Gothic still puzzled her, the girl regularly did not understand why her companions were either fraternizing or addressing each other with an emphatic 'thou'.

    "The next time you interrupt an upper man, I'll punch you in the face," Bertha said coldly, but not angrily. "No, not with the auditor. We'll be supplied by Wakrufmann."

    "Holy shit!" The undisguised enthusiasm in Driver's voice was obvious. "Hail to the commander! But how?"

    Bertha hesitated, for the first time in Olga's memory.

    "It doesn't matter," the Mentor waved her hand again. "Let's just say we've come to some agreement... on the location of the cargo in Warehouse 8. Magnets, if you know what I mean. Two of them. From reserve."

    "Truly this cog has been blessed by the wisdom of the Emperor!" The Priest reported softly as he descended the stairs. The plastic chainmail tapped hundreds of rings with every step.

    "Would it be possible for us not to wait to be sent to maintenance in case of repair?"

    Oh-oh-oh, thought Olga, her inner voice whispering to her that the girl was a witness to some kind of collusion and reprehensible act, an obvious manipulation of the supply. And okay, but what did the rookie have to do with it? She had no idea what kind of 'magnets' she was talking about.

    "We can, we will, if St. Clarence extends his unfailing hand to us," Bertha hummed. "Little one, do you hear?"

    Olga nodded cautiously. The girl had already realized that the wagon was going to steal something from the warehouse, and she did not like the assigned and so far unknown role in advance.

    "We could have done it ourselves," Bertha turned directly to Olga. "But the Vigil is about to begin. We're all in it."

    The Sinner nodded silently, stretching the lash to the juicy crunch of well-crafted leather. The girl was reminded of the Holy One's comment about the Sinner 'whipping' for everyone at night. Flagellant, was it? Ugh!

    "And you don't deserve that honor, not yet," Bertha went on. "So you will contribute to the Squad's cause in other ways. Now you're going to Warehouse Eight," the mentor pulled out a scribbled piece of paper that looked more like a filthy rag. Thirteenth Building, Unit 3, Block 2. You'll pick up two magnets there. Tell the night watchman you're summoned by Mechanicus Wakrufmann. Don't say another word, got it?"

    Olga suddenly realized that Big Bertha was extremely serious when she said "contribute to the cause of the Squad".

    "Yeah," she nodded without any enthusiasm.

    What a day... The bastard Kryp showed up, the vigil and the whips, and now this...

    "Only I don't know what they look like," she said. "The magnets."'

    "It doesn't matter," Bertha grimaced. "Wakrufmann know."
    * * *​
    Well, who builds like that! - the words from an old comedy my mother used to love came to mind. What that movie was about, Olga did not remember, but the phrase was imprinted in her memory. Yes, and the suffering of a highlander in a mustard coat lost in the corridors reminded her of her current situation.
    The scheme looked clear, but in the rapidly dwindling twilight, all the buildings seemed to look alike - gray featureless boxes. In addition, the site, apparently, was old, repeatedly compacted, and completed. So the originally logical system of numbering came to the appearance of monstrous cadavres of numerology. The third warehouse was adjacent to the thirty-third, behind it began the mysterious MCMLXXXIV. And there was no one to even ask, it seemed as if everyone had conspired this evening not to stay out in the open.
    From the large building, decorated with the emblem of the Ecclesiarchy, came choral singing, heavily muffled by the walls. Male voices sang a solemn and surprisingly pleasant hymn. Apparently, the Vigil has begun, whatever that means. And she wanders alone in the dark and cold.

    Olga gloomily glanced at the large illuminated sign with the surprisingly normal and detailed inscription 'Warehouse 8, Building 13, Unit 6, Block 2. The block, the building, and the warehouse all matched-except that the embezzler of imperium property wanted the third building, not the sixth.

    Olga looked up into the dark sky and wanted to curse, but held back. It all looked like a dreary superstition, but on the other hand, the girl had already seen for herself that here you could meet a monster from a nightmare and a real demon. So she confined herself to an angry spit in the muddy snow.

    "Halt," came a harsh man's voice from somewhere in the twilight.

    There were three or four of them, who looked like some grimy mechanics in jackets, but the girl did not like their faces. The looks were overly sly, the smiles were sloppy... Wrong faces, dangerous. Olga only now remembered that she had not bothered to bring a knife or at least a screwdriver.

    It's funny, she suddenly had an unsolicited thought. In just a little over a week, she had grown accustomed to feeling completely safe. It was so peaceful among the purificators that even her long-standing habits had broken down. And it seemed it might end badly.

    "To the warehouse," Olga shook the paper, trying to make it look more impressive.

    "Why do you need to go there?"

    "What business is it of yours?" she scowled.

    "We're guards," the uninvited man said. He had only one ear and the most unpleasant look of the four of them.

    "I'm a purificator. To the pin... Mechanicum, on business," said the messenger coldly. She could tell she felt threatened with her entire buttock, and she used borrowed authority. The Squad and the Gearsmen here seemed to be respected by all. All but these four.

    "On call..." The tallest one, judging by the way he held himself, was in charge here. "Maybe we'd better call you in, huh? How can a cold iron be compared to a normal live... communication?"

    The other three cheekily laughed, commenting at various points:

    "Hey, don't be shy!"

    "You'll die soon anyway, so at least you'll have something to remember!"

    Olga bit her lip. Her instincts were already screaming to run, but turning back on the four of them was akin to suicide. They were much better oriented in the labyrinth of the warehouse complex and, it seems, were ready for the possible escape of the victim. And if so...

    When they attacked, she rushed forward, not away. Olga charged the first one who tried to grab her in the knee. And belatedly she realized that the baggy pants had kneepads.

    Nevertheless, the blow, though weakened, went through, causing her opponent to recoil. The cheeky black-haired, almost kid-like tried to grab her from behind. For the first time in her life, the girl felt a shadow of gratitude to the elderly cop from that, previous life, who 'brought good and eternal' to the accountable goons. 'Back of the nose, the heel on the toes, fist on the balls' - without thinking, at least somewhere to hit. The fist hit the groin shell, and the head only managed to smash the enemy's lip, but the heavy, metal-reinforced uniform boot of the squad was much stronger and tougher than an army boot. The black-haired man howled and fell backward, hopping on one leg.

    If there had been two opponents, it would have worked. Even with three, it would have been possible to escape, taking advantage of the daze when the cornered victim had so successfully flinched. But there were too many of them. They managed to grab her, put an oily mitten over her mouth, and then dragged her somewhere.

    From around the corner, a bright beam of light streaked in. The bandits trembled, tensing sensibly. Olga clenched her teeth, hoping for help and holding back the vomiting from the stinking oil. Alas, in vain, a flying skull, a mindless machine akin to a drone, appeared from around the corner instead of at least a crude guard. But maybe not in vain, maybe someone is watching through his camera. Apparently, the bastards came to the same conclusion, one aimed at the flying head with a short-barreled shotgun.

    "No," the long-legged chieftain commanded curtly. "Leave it."

    Olga managed to spit out the gag and yell 'Hel...!' before her mouth was clamped shut again.

    "Activated coherent emitter. Source of danger," the servo skull reported into the void. The artificial voice sounded muffled as if it came from a deep barrel or a wide pipe. "Decontaminate. Execute."

    "Gears..." The one-eared man gritted through his teeth. "Let's get out of here. Get her."

    Olga tried to pull to the side, but her hands were only allowed to follow the tall man.

    "Execute. Deactivation," the skull repeated monotonically, following the men at some distance.

    !Fuck you, we're on patrol," the brute chuckled softly.

    The small gang broke into the warehouse with the door unlocked for some reason. The skull remained outside, glinting furiously through the lenses of the eyepieces. Olga was dragged along long, massive racks filled with crates, jerrycans, and other items that were hidden under an oily tarpaulin. Ahead, under a dim light, she could see a wide shipping gate.

    "He won't let go," said the one with the gun. "I bet he's got the picts, too."

    "The hell with it. We'll be long gone by dawn. Let them look."

    "Unload the weapon. Surrender your weapon."

    That voice, equally deep and mechanical, came from the front.

    "Ah, damn you!" The fighters exhaled at the same time. Or at least three of them did.

    A figure in a black and brown cloak with a hood and white edging emerged from the half-darkness. It must have been the mechanicum with whom Bertha had negotiated the backup 'magnets'.

    "Hey, we're coming out, okay?" The one-eared man quickly oriented himself and stepped forward. "The guns are ours, we're the ones guarding your warehouse."

    "Active laser carbine indoors. With a high concentration of combustible materials. Threat source. Mechanicus property under threat. Probability of fire."

    The artificial voice enumerated the points with the regularity of clockwork and without a trace of emotion. In the darkness beneath the hood, where a man's eyes are located, two green stripes flashed.

    "Remove the batteries. Hand over the weapons. The carbine will be returned to the authorized representative of the unit. Immediately upon his appearance."

    Olga tried to scream, but to no avail, her mouth was clamped shut with all her might. The figure paid no attention to the stranger, who found himself among the 'guards' clearly against her own will.

    "Come on, it's not like we're part of the unit, right?" One-eared turned to his buddies, who nodded in agreement. "We'll go out and that's it, there's no threat. We were going out anyway, that's all."

    "The source of the threat," the mechanicus repeated. "Probability of fire."

    The green dashes finally turned to Olga.

    "Potential offense."

    The mechanicus began to move toward the fighters. In the light of the sparse lanterns under the high ceiling, it was noticeable that the cape swayed loosely, so that the owner of the warehouse, in fact, is only slightly taller than Olga and maybe even scrawnier.

    "Why don't we just turn them off?" One-eared suggested. "Like, no threat, no problem..."

    The mechanicus came even closer, stopping a couple of meters away. The green slits opened to form two round glowing 'eyes'.

    Behind, a servo skull snapped its jaws as if it were tattling. He must have come in through the other entrance.

    "Deactivated laser carbine. No threat. Probability of threat to Mechanicum property. None. There is still the question of probable offense."

    Hell yeah, me, it's about me!!!'

    Olga tried again to twist out of her grip. Her shoulder exploded in sharp pain, but she couldn't even scream.

    "Great," One-eared grinned tautly. "So that's the deal..."

    "Violent, unauthorized restriction of the freedom of an Ecclesiarchical novice is possible. Response protocol. Seize the batteries. Hand over weapons. Wait for a representative of the law."

    "Fuck."

    Time for Olga fell apart into several slow-motion fragments.

    A jet of black and gray smoke hit the one-eared man, knocking him to the ground. Not a spark, not a flame. Where did the smoke come from? Maybe it's not smoke at all.

    The broadest one, who was holding Olga, releases the victim, takes a step back, stumbles, and falls managing to grab the edge of the rack. But the badly worked metal split her palm, and heavy drops of blood slowly flew to the floor.

    Cheeky deftly picks up the carbine hanging on one shoulder, ducking and stepping aside.

    The tall man tosses Olga to the floor, pulling out a strangely backward-curved cleaver.

    The mechanicus takes a step forward, almost a throw with a big slant.

    A segmented tentacle with three claws, like in the"Catcher" arcade from a past life, flies out from under the cloak, grabs the insolent by the head, and pushes him against the wall. No, it pushes him into the wall.

    A sound, for some reason reminiscent of a dentist's office. The carbine falls to the concrete floor from the slumped hands.

    For some reason, the tall man does not run but tries to hit the figure in the head with a cleaver from a running start.

    Cold smoke enveloped them both.

    Rumble. Sizzle. Bitter smell.

    The double tapping of boots on concrete. The distant whimpering of the fat man.

    The doors are slamming.

    It took Olga a few moments to come to her senses and steady herself on her trembling legs. The skull, meanwhile, was circling the battlefield and shining a flashlight out of his eye socket, as if he were filming a report.

    Cheeky was irrevocably and irrevocably dead. There was a neat hole gaping in the center of his forehead, exuding a slight puff of smoke. It looked like a tool concealed in a tentacle with a claw had drilled the hole and cauterized it. The tall man was lying on the mechanicus, arms spread out, a finger-thick rod sticking out between his shoulder blades with his half-coat pulled down, and smoking, too, reeking of burnt kebab.

    "Hey, you alive, asshole?"

    Mechanicus say nothing.

    "Damn," the girl said, feeling a strong urge to run away. And preferably as soon as possible. An even greater desire than to kick the unsuccessful rapists. But...

    She wandered to the couple connected by a pin, tried to pull the dead man off the mechanic's lying upside down figure, but to no avail. Then Olga carefully pulled off the hood, revealing...

    "Ouch!" She exclaimed, recoiling.

    The figure had no 'face' as such, or rather a mask instead, whether glass or polished metal with several slits. And this mask was very, very similar to the blind face of a multi-armed creature that the girl had met at the Ballistic Station.

    Two lens circles about five centimeters in diameter lit up green again.

    "No fire?" the mechanic asked. This time the voice seemed ringing for some reason, though with slight hoarseness. Where the man's mouth would have been, there appeared a symmetrically jumping band, like on an oscilloscope, Olga had seen such in movies.

    The girl shook her head negatively, feeling her throat dry. So the three-armed creep on Ballistic, the one who sent the fantasy visions, was also one of the gears...? A sorcerer-mechanicus?

    "Can I help you?" She held out her trembling hand.

    The ironman's left eyepiece is half-hidden behind a small flap, giving the impression that the master is squinting.

    "My body weight at the moment is roundly zero-eighteen hundredths of a metric ton. You can't lift me."

    The mechanicus turned his head and stared at the corpse of the tall one.

    "We have to move it. Turn it over. Uranium cutter. It's stuck."

    "Uranium? Is it used to cut uranium?"

    "It is a hypersonic cutter with a working part made of magnetostrictive material, an iron alloy with depleted uranium. It is safe for humans. As long as safety standards are met. If the obstruction is not removed carefully, the cutter can break."

    Olga grasped the dead body a second time and pulled it to the side. A click, a short hiss, and the freed corpse rolled over with unexpected ease. There was a machine sticking out of the hapless criminal's chest.

    "Broken," the iron man stated. "That makes a problem. But fixable."

    "What are we going to do now?" Olga asked.

    The mechanicus got up surprisingly deftly, pulling a tentacle with claws and a drill somewhere under his hood. It sounded like a chain being pulled across a metal threshold.

    "I called the servitors. In twenty-six minutes, order will be restored."

    "And those two that got away? Did they... What do you mean, you called?"

    The eyepieces turned into two narrow strips of green light covered by curtains.

    "Vocs. Radio signal. Aether. A way of communicating Omnissia's will to subordinate machines. That's how they do what I want them to do. The fugitives can only leave the service station by transport. Transports will be inspected. Violators will be apprehended."

    "I know what a radio is," Olga brushed it aside, "It's just that you said it like you... you... female."

    There was silence in the warehouse. The green slits became even narrower.

    "Was that a question? - After a few long seconds, the interlocutor asked.

    "Well, yes."

    "At the moment, I am technically genderless. I serve the Omnissiah and am evolving along the path of acquiring a pure mind, free from the constraints of imperfect flesh."

    The mechanicus remained silent as if giving Olga a chance to absorb what she had heard.

    "However, before I joined the sacrament of serving God the Machine, I was a female. Therefore, from your point of view, I have the female gender. I am a tech-priest Jennifer Wackrufmann. Tech-priest is my rank," she added after a second pause. "Your turn."

    "I'm Olga, the novice in the Purification Service," the girl sniffed and wiped her nose. The stress of it all manifested itself in the urge to weep, even though it was over. - "But everyone calls me Olla... because one silly fool couldn't get the name right and write it down.:

    Two servitors were approaching the scene of the beating, one flashing two yellow lights, just like an ordinary utility vehicle, the other dragging a large circular saw. Why he needed the saw, Olga decided not to guess.

    "Personal contact with outsiders by novices in the Purification Service is not forbidden?" The tech-priest grasped the iron sticking out of the bristling thing and yanked sharply. It came loose with a disgusting 'squelch'. Judging by the gleam, the ex woman's hands were also solid metal.

    "You? What do you think I wanted? With four assholes?!" Olga shot up in a huff.

    "The Imperium includes more than a million worlds, perhaps several million. Each has its own culture and rituals associated with intersex communication. Many are quite original and exotic. Some are known to me. Most don't," Jennifer set the 'cutter' aside on the shelf and headed for the claw bar. As she picked it up, she turned around, and the slits of her eyepieces turned back into a pair of round lanterns. "But that was even a good thing."

    Olga did not have time to explode in a hail of accusations that would probably have turned into hysterics. A hand with an outstretched metal index finger almost jammed into the girl's nose, just like the mechanic who had recently lectured her about Frankenstein.

    "This means that you obviously will not falsely testify in defense of the intruders against me. And you will have no negative feelings about my fully justified actions to neutralize the threat in terms of supplying the units stationed in the area."

    Olga suddenly felt incredibly tired. The rescue from rape, if not something worse, instead of giving her strength, literally sucked them out. And her head was dizzy again, the clicks of the servoscull mechanisms echoed in her like the blows of a carpenter's hammer.

    "I'll sit down..." she muttered as firmly as possible, looking for a stool or a bench.

    "Adrenal fatigue," Jennifer reported nonchalantly. "Decreased pulse, difficulty breathing, arrhythmia. Are you experiencing headaches, visual disturbances?"

    "My head," after the mechanic's words, Olga suddenly realized that she was really having trouble breathing. There was no stool anywhere, and she decided that it was better to sit directly on the concrete. Or lie down.

    "Pain in the chest area?"

    "I don't know... I'm going to sit here, okay? Or lie down."

    "...glucose in the blood, the electrical conductivity of the skin, and intraocular pressure," Wackrufmann's voice came from somewhere far away. Olga realized with the edge of her
    consciousness that she was being lifted with ease. "A very inefficient body. No self-diagnosis. When, as a child..."

    The darkness was soft and warm. And the girl thought of nothing else, gratefully accepting oblivion.
    * * *

    "Time to get up!"

    It took Olga a few seconds to realize that she was not in her bunk. And not in her own wagon at all. She jumped up, bumped her head lightly on something heavy and moderately hard, owed, and looked around.

    It was a fairly clean room, filled with a lot of different equipment, very well maintained, even if not new, judging by the scuffs and chips in the paint. Olga thought it was the first time she saw so many technical things in one place. Even in the wagon garage, there were less of them. Light from a large, cloudy - not because of dirt, but by the nature of the plastic used - window fell on the clean floor tiled with smooth tiles. Opposite the folding cot, where Olga now sat, was a long, narrow workbench, surrounded by unchanging shelving, not unlike that in the warehouse. A mechanic in a red and brown hooded cloak, trimmed with light embroidery in the shape of large rectangular gears, stood at her side.

    In the daylight, it was clear that her face was a solid mask of many elements of brushed light metal, with two round eyepieces instead of eyes and a screen in place of her mouth. Her arms, at least from the elbow down, peeking out of the folded sleeves of her hoodie, were also entirely artificial.

    "Uh-oh," she murmured, feeling around herself. Everything seemed to be in place and order.

    "Sleeping in your clothes is not culturally and hygienically appropriate, but I didn't undress you," mechanic Jennifer reported. "There's no heating in here. It's bad for your health."

    "Thank... you," Olga squeezed out.

    "In forty minutes, the 'Radial-12' self-propelled purification center will begin its morning inspection."

    "Ouch!" The girl exclaimed at the top of her voice, correlating the light in the window with this morning's inspection. "They must be looking for me by now!"

    And immediately executed for desertion.

    "No, your immediate superiors have been warned about the incident. They have no interest in publicity. But the next chain of command will start investigating if you are absent from the inspection in thirty-nine minutes."

    "Oh, thanks..."

    Olga felt herself breaking into a sweat, despite the aforementioned lack of heating. It's strange and somewhat funny, there are all sorts of nightmarish horror stories about the Unit in whispers. But so far all the troubles the novice had encountered were purely mundane - supply scams and the ordinary criminality.

    "By the way, I don't have any food suitable for you as breakfast. Also, I haven't had time to find out why you came to the warehouse last night?"

    "Uh..." For Olga's still dazed mind, the mechanic was jumping from one thing to another too quickly in the conversation. "Bertha said I had to pick up two magnets."

    Didn't I say too much?

    "Vehicle fourteen to forty-two? Unforeseen circumstances. There won't be two, I'll only give you one, for now, a restored one. But it's almost as good as new, within three percent, so pass it on."

    Jennifer pulled a heavy, complexly shaped iron from a shelf, examined the girl carefully (it suddenly seemed so, despite the artificial nature of the mask), and then pulled a canvas bag with a strap from somewhere under the workbench and shoved the load inside.

    "The second will be in four days. If it's you, you can come anytime, I'll sign you in at the servitor's."

    "We're moving on today."

    "That complicates the issue. But I will think about how to solve it."

    "Uh-huh," Olga took the bag and put it on her back. "Shall I go then?"

    "Of course, the servo skull will escort you. At an average human pedestrian speed of five kilometers per hour, you'll be there in nineteen minutes."

    Jennifer nodded. She nodded, and there was something in that gesture that made her eyes tingle. Something human, simple, and seemingly natural, which was somehow so lacking in this strange, cruel world. Obeying an impulse, Olga came up and hugged her, resting her face on her shoulder.

    "Thank you."

    A moment later, the tech-priest Wakrufmann also gently wrapped her firm arms around the girl. The warmth rising from somewhere inside literally demanded to freeze, and not to move, to stretch the seconds of this feeling of absolute security...

    "Hugging," Jennifer reported. "The anti-stress influence."

    "Uh-huh," Olga muttered. She wanted to close her eyes and hang onto the iron woman. "Warm..."

    "Forty-one degrees. I use the output of the cooling system on the outside of the body."

    Her words were so out of place that the girl giggled. Pulling away, Olga picked up the slipped bag with the 'magnet' and headed for the exit. Despite the expected scolding from Bertha - a failed attempt at gang rape was hardly an excuse for a strict mentor - Olga's mood was surprisingly good. And she caught herself wanting to get back to the Squad as soon as possible. To strangers, companions on a surreal and meaningless trip on an atomic train through the snowy tundra. Because no matter how strange, little-understood her new colleagues were, they turned out to be the most decent people the girl had met in years, whether in the old universe or here in the immeasurably distant future.
    * * *​
     
    Last edited: Nov 15, 2021
  6. ATP

    ATP I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    Poor Kryptman.Well,Inquisitors could suffer,too.
    And Olga meet her future in Jennifer person.
     
    Nerve likes this.
  7. Threadmarks: The Squad Chapter 9
    RiP

    RiP Seeker of Silence

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    Chapter 9
    * * *​
    That's how Olga missed the Vigil. There were no particular consequences. Only the Priest read prayers with her in two voices for almost an hour, and Bertha forced her to undress and examined every inch of Olga's body. In other circumstances, this would have looked insulting, but both the counselor and the shepherd looked concerned, and they approached the matter with absolute seriousness. But eventually, things calmed down.​

    As the late dawn flooded the tundra and the warehouse complex with dim light, the train set off again, ringing the snow-covered landscape with siren cries and the hymn 'Rejoice in worship'. Nothing happened for a couple of hours. The only noteworthy events were the picturesque grimaces of Flagellant Sinner, who was visibly suffering after his vigil. Olga even plucked up courage by offering to help the sufferer. She did not count on consent, but Sinner suddenly nodded with gratitude, and Driver brought a jar of smelly ointment. Kryp looked at it all obliquely, but no one asked him.​

    Rubbing the white grease into Sinner's bruised back, Olga looked curiously around his compartment. The atmosphere here, like that of the other detachments, was strictly Spartan, with plenty of religious symbolism. It gave the impression that every square inch of it was devoted to the worship of a cult. Small engravings, figurines, aquiles, collected, it seemed, on a hundred planets, so different was their style. Sacred texts are printed on single sheets and simply torn from books. Where there was empty space, there were again the aquiles, but they were hand-drawn, inaccurately but painstakingly, with the traces of numerous erasures and corrections.​

    From the intermediate level came the Madman's loud prayers. He seemed to have been screaming all night and had lost his voice, so the words combined into an indistinct stream, with 'Emperor' and 'Evil' breaking through like stones in a stormy river. No one interrupted the poor man, and that was most distressing as if everyone in the carriage sincerely believed that the indecipherable grumbling was really helping.​

    Having finished the procedure, Olga covered the sick man with a towel similar to a bath towel. The decrepit fabric was hidden under a lot of awkwardly and crookedly embroidered words. Something like 'Empirator vin' and so on. Returning to her room, the girl reflected and took note - no one was chasing the squad away for another drill and chores. In other circumstances, the whole squad would have long ago been jumping on the icy wind-blown roof and scrubbing the tank for the thousandth time. But now every squadron member was left to their own devices.​

    The rings creaked and the tarp pulled aside.​

    "Don't close," the Holy Man sternly pointed out. "Open all the curtains! And so until morning."​

    Olga shrugged her shoulders perplexedly. At the same time, she glanced askance at Kryptman's place. Fidus furnished the compartment about the same as she did. That is, almost nothing, in the style of beggarly laconicism. The only thing that somehow diversified the meager furnishings was a portrait in a beautiful metal frame, either a black and white photograph or a good stylization of a photograph. It showed Fidus, only obviously older, with his military 'hedgehog' haircut, and the edges of his lips curled down in a grouchy and discontented manner. Probably his father. Or an older brother.​

    The servitor sat silently on a shelf, next to a large box of riveted strips of metal. It must have held the parts and other gear necessary to maintain a living machine. Hidden in the flesh were mechanisms that buzzed and clicked quietly and generally contrasted with the stillness of the living machine. Kryp shaved the mechanical dead man's head with the utmost care, and then, armed with a rag and a spray bottle like deodorant, began carefully cleaning and polishing the contacts that went straight into the grayish-yellow skin. Servitor was left without his monstrous shotgun. Bertha had taken it away and locked it in the armory - anything more dangerous than a knife on board was strictly forbidden.​

    Olga was tempted to ask if there was any semblance of intelligence left in the metal stuffed head, but after some deliberation, the girl changed her mind. The hell with it. Instead of asking, she unscrewed the thumbscrews of the locks and looked out the window again.​

    The clouds seemed very low, surprisingly heavy, it seemed - stand on the roof of the 'Radial' and you could touch it with outstretched fingers. It was strange that the flagpole with the Squad's banner did not scratch the sky. On the left hand, there was a view of the ocean, unremarkable except for its scale. Otherwise, the Arctic is the Arctic, everything is dull and cold, encased in a solid ice shell. Olga already knew that the surface of the ocean is hardly used, but underwater farms are well developed. As a result, despite the eternal winter and stunted agriculture, the Ice Port was self-sufficient in food, processing algae biomass into dozens of types of food concentrates.​

    To the right was a vast expanse of identical squat buildings, as if they had been buried deep, with only the roofs protruding above the frozen ground. Pillars of thick smoke rose from long chimneys, revealing strenuous underground activity. In the distance, near the horizon line, there was a dark strip of what looked like dense construction, probably a city, maybe a huge factory.​

    The train rolled leisurely past a large building that resembled a traffic guard's booth, only many times larger. On the second floor, there was a tram-like carriage, and behind the windows, you could see some kind of movement, as if the carriage were an observation booth. And behind the booth was a factory complex, but strange-looking, like some gray concrete boxes after the war. The windows scintillated with broken glass, a dark brick chimney sticking out like the stump of a broken pencil. Outside were thrown bridges, scaffolding, and metal ladders that looked temporary and unreliable as hell. Figures of workers scurried about like ants, seemingly clearing and repairing things.​

    The outside light changed, the dim afternoon light filled with pinkish-burgundy hues as if the clouds themselves glowed grimly and menacingly. Olga blinked and rubbed her eyes, but the illusion did not disappear. The world around her seemed like a photograph, taken through a pink filter. The train began to climb up, climbing a high embankment. Here 'Radial' passed a continuous series of low hills, and Olga could not refrain from a silent exclamation of surprise.​

    Everything the girl had seen before at the 'Beacon'. It seemed well-maintained. Not too friendly, but quite settled. And now the armored train was rolling amidst an area of immense destruction. It was as if the whole coast had been massively bombed. There was nothing left here above human height, and it seemed that some force was stubbornly trying to turn the landscape inside out, burying the high and vice versa. The already low trees were jutting out in broken stumps, and numerous buildings had only foundations left among the piles of rubble and debris. Farms, towers, power trunks, and all the metal elements had become jagged, twisted sculptures of a mad installer. The eye clung to a few flying machines that were lying around as if they had fallen to the ground in mid-flight and were rusted through.​

    'Radial' was moving in a wide arc, giving a good opportunity to see everything in detail. The only thing that looked relatively new and intact here was a large bridge, running on high pylons parallel to the railroad track. It looked like a temporary, erected structure and crossed a wide barrier that looked like the dried-up bed of a deep river. Looking closely and correlating the giant 'scour' with the destruction, Olga realized that it was not a riverbed. It was as if something gigantic had crawled out of the ocean and moved inland through the coastal development, accompanied by a brutal bombardment.​

    "Who did that...?" She asked quietly.​

    "This, my child, is the work of the Evil," said a deep, familiar voice behind me, clearly marking 'Evil' with a capital letter.​

    "Six months ago, when the Squad was downsized by almost half."​

    The Priest pushed back the tarpaulin barrier and, anticipating Olga, explained:​

    "It is true, in such places and at such times one cannot be alone, unattended. But pastoral communion requires solitude when the troubled soul is calmed by coming face to face with the light of truth"​

    The bulky man sat on a creaking shelf and opened a bible, which was a brief extract of the social and political structure of the Imperium mixed with excerpts from various saints. A very convenient tool for enlightenment, all the knowledge at one's fingertips.​

    "Let's pray."​

    It certainly didn't sound like a suggestion. With her head bowed and her thumbs crossed, Olga diligently repeated after the monk the words of the prayer on duty. She already understood the meaning, but her knowledge of Gothic did not allow her to pronounce it fluently yet.​

    "So, let's go on," the Priest said as they finished.​

    "Yeah," Olga agreed as if she had a choice. She sat down, straightening her back and folding her hands respectfully in her lap.​

    "Have you thought well about our last lesson?" the shepherd sternly questioned.​

    "Yes," said the girl in a disciplined manner.​

    "Great. Then a question."​

    The Priest was quiet, still looking sternly and attentively at Olga.​

    "What is the weirdest thing about the Imperium? The most wrong?"​

    "The Imperium is the abode of humanity!" the girl said at once and without a stammer. "A well-appointed house, guarded by gatekeepers with a number of..."​

    She lost her way and, embarrassed, began to count by curling her fingers.​

    The Emperor and His Light, that is, the soul and guiding beacon of humanity. Ecclesiarchy, the heart of humanity. Arbiters, the bone of humanity. The Inquisition, the conscience of humanity.​
    The Guard, the slashing hand.​

    "Smashing hand." The Priest, in whose eyes there were sparks of benevolent irony, hinted.​

    "Yes, yes, the smashing hand... and shield. The Munistorum, the mind of humanity. Together they form a harmonious, perfect body. There."​

    Olga looked at the Priest in triumph. He nodded, paying tribute to his student's memory.​

    "That's right," he said, squinting a little, like a well-fed but attentive cat. "That's the way it is. But... So, what's the weirdest, the wrongest thing about the Imperium?​

    "So it's perfect," the girl glanced suspiciously at the shepherd.​

    "The Imperium is perfect, as an extension of the Emperor, of course," Shepherd agreed. "But it exists in the senses and understanding of a multitude of people. Because if there were no people, there would be no Imperium, right?"​

    "Uh... Yes," the student agreed cautiously.​

    She was not afraid. In several very helpful lectures-sermons, she had already understood that the Priest was not going to throw her into the atomic furnace for a wrong answer. The servant of the Ecclesiarchy was quite genuinely concerned about the new novice's soul and faith, and he was doing what no one else in the world had bothered to do. Telling her how the gigantic empire of a million planets was organized, who the local god was, and so on. But the girl tried not to forget that she was dealing with religion, and she could get burned for it. Probably.​

    "You're human, aren't you?" The Priest looked sternly at Olga. She nodded quickly.​

    "And you have your own opinion about the Imperium!"​

    Olga looked longingly at the Priest's collar. She felt like a schoolgirl with an unlearned lesson when she could not dodge it and had to answer something.​

    "Don't try to guess what I want to hear. Tell me what you think."​

    "Well... so... you know," the girl mumbled.​

    "Yes?" the minister of the cult encouraged her.​

    "It's... wrong," she just whispered the last word.​

    "Great!" the monk raised his index finger.​

    "What?"​

    "I told you before, child," the Priest sternly reminded her. "You can't be faithless in our work. It's not just dangerous, it's a path to death, and it's a path to far worse things."​

    Olga wanted to ask what could be scarier than death, but she bit her tongue.​

    "But faith itself is only a shield," the Priest continued. "We must be able to repel the blows that the enemies of humanity inflict on us. You are in doubt, and that is good. It means that we see a weakness that must be strengthened with good reasoning. So what seems wrong to you?"​

    "Well... It's huge," Olga spread her hands as if to emphasize the immensity of the empire of all people. "And everyone gets burned. Everyone believes..."​

    She fell silent, feeling confused, unable to express in words the feeling of general impropriety, the inconsistency of the idea of a grand cosmic empire with the slumbering fanaticism.​

    "Spaceships fly, but the machinery is repairing with prayers... Damn!" she bumped her fist on her knee, angered by the realization of her limited vocabulary.​

    "Where are you from?" Shepherd asked very seriously. "What planet are you from?"​

    "From Earth," the girl answered honestly.​

    "It must be a very heretical planet," the Priest stretched out thoughtfully, and Olga felt herself grow cold.​

    "And, apparently, not badly developed. Enough to assemble household machines, cogitators, simple machines, voxes... You're not intimidated by technology, you might even have a general idea of what electricity or a nuclear reactor are, so you think theocracy is wrong. Right?"​

    Fuck.

    "Well, at least it's clear why you're here," said the Priest as if nothing had happened. "It makes the task all the more interesting."​

    Olga remained silent, looking at the chain the monk was girded with. She wanted to cry, to crawl under the bench, and for the damned lesson to be over as soon as possible.​

    "Let's pretend that you..." Shepherd thought about it. "Well, let's say, the Emperor's chosen daughter. In the spiritual sense, of course. And he has called you to order his legacy. Have you imagined it?"​

    Olga nodded silently and sniffled, trying not to drop a tear.​

    Shepherd looked thoughtfully at the metal wall, in which there was a viewing slit.​

    "And there's a million planets in front of you. In reality, of course, there are many more. No one really knows how many."​

    "Really?" Olga was amazed, even forgetting from surprise that she was almost ready to burst into tears.​

    "Yes," the Priest nodded. "Try to imagine a million of something. Grains of sand, coins, people. It's an unbelievable amount."​

    "Aha... Olga imagined a thousand of thousand buttons. Or rather, she tried to imagine it, and it turned out rather badly."​

    "But for simplicity's sake, let's assume that there are exactly a million of them and none more," the Priest returned to the introduction. "And all are different. Among that million, no two are the same. Somewhere after the Dark Ages, they still walk with clubs, and somewhere they build spaceships. On one planet, a man and a woman marry, on another, a person marries to all the members of the spouse's family, as in my homeland."​

    "How's that?" Olga's eyes widened like saucers.​

    "It's not easy," the Priest smiled faintly. "But I think you get the point. Well, you have a million planets in front of you, and they must all live as one organism. Otherwise, the Empire will collapse and the era of decay and death will come again, as it has already happened before. And what will you do?"​

    "Well..." Olga wrinkled her forehead. "We have to set the same rules for everyone."​

    "And which ones?" The monk immediately answered a question with a question. "Here are two planets, one has culture and civilization, and the other gets married by first breaking the skulls of all their rivals. How do you equalize them?"​

    "By force," said the girl firmly. "We need the less civilized to live by the rules. Good, cultural rules. Because cracking skulls isn't good."​

    "So you're going to impose laws on people that are foreign to them, right?" the monk clarified. "They have to forget all the traditions their fathers and grandmothers lived by for tens or hundreds of generations. And since resistance is inevitable, you have to force them, don't you?"​

    "Yes..." This time there was less confidence in Olga's voice. The Priest's description did not sound as correct as she would have liked, but she could not accuse the pastor of unfair interpretation either.​

    "Are you ready to ignite a war on a humanity-wide scale?" the monk raised an eyebrow. "For everyone to marry, be born, live, and die by the same rules? By the rules of just a few planets that you think are worthy of the standard?"​

    "I... probably... I'll have to think about it."​

    "Think about it. But I'll give you the answer right away if you can - contradict it."​

    The Priest placed his hands on the book and touched the cover with wide palms with reverence and without an inch of pretentiousness.​

    "It makes no sense to reshape everyone to a single standard because if people in some world live this way, it means that this charter is the best for them. There is no way to make everyone live according to the same canon without causing genocide on hundreds of thousands of worlds. But there is no need to. The greatness of the Emperor is that he gave us the Faith as a single core, a common beginning for all and everything. The measure of all things, good and evil. One who lives on top of the hive world and one who adorns himself with the teeth of slain enemies are infinitely distant, will never understand each other. But they are united by a Faith that is simple, clear, and just. In radioactive deserts and on dead snow-covered worlds, in cosmic settlements and deepest dungeons, the Emperor is one for all and unites all."​

    Shepherd sighed, took a breath.​

    "Theocracy is the only way to unite a million worlds. And when you worship the Emperor, you are not merely entrusting your soul to the best of the excellent, who is greater than any mortal. You are serving the greatest design and plan in the universe, you are laying a brick in the foundation of a common and safe home for all people in all worlds. Isn't that beautiful? Isn't this a destiny worthy of pride?"​

    "But... I haven't been very long... here... Well, in civilized places," Olga quickly clarified. "But I have already seen various... injustices. For example, I have been caught, judged, sentenced. Nothing was explained to me!"​

    She was slowly turning on the attentive Priest, taking out her long-cherished resentment.​

    "I saved him," the girl almost shouted. "Just because I felt sorry for him! There was so much going on, so..."​

    She sniffed again, experiencing a sharp attack of self-pity. Olga was no longer worried about what Kryp might hear.​

    "A lot was going on... and I risked everything, I almost got killed there... more than once. And they punished me! I didn't even know about the emperor, I didn't speak Gothic. And they beat me because I didn't pray right!"​

    She did cry, softly, hopelessly. And then the shepherd's broad palms rested on her shoulders. The monk pulled the girl strongly, but gently, and patted her back. And Olga finally burst into real tears on his broad chest, covered by the hard links of plastic chainmail. She mumbled something intermittently, confused words, pouring out long-accumulated anger and a sense of universal injustice.​

    "Here," the Priest handed her a wide handkerchief, or rather, judging by its appearance, a piece of an old sheet.​

    "Thank you," Olga muttered, wiping her swollen nose. She felt better, though she felt awkward and wary. Who the hell knew how this cultist would take her breakdown?​

    "As I said before, idiots are the greatest misfortune of a good shepherd of men," the monk said, as it seemed to the girl, with undisguised sadness. But, by the way...​
    He raised two fingers significantly to the ceiling again.​

    "This is just in line with what I was just saying. Humans are imperfect. Alas, even the best of us, those who are supposed to carry His word into the universe, are imperfect. How do we correct this imperfection without killing everyone?"​

    "Faith," Olga sighed.​

    "Yes," the Priest smiled. "Now you've made another step in understanding."​

    He sighed.​

    "Sometimes I think how lucky we are," the monk said softly. "How lucky all people are, former, living, and unborn. He came to us. He gave us the goal and the means to achieve it. Without Him, what would have become of humanity? Life without faith, without purpose, without a sense of unity in a world where enemies are innumerable, where hell can break loose at arm's length... Such a world is scary to even imagine, not to mention living in it. It is not without reason that many have tried to destroy the Emperor's house, but there have always been many more who have defended it."​

    "It's all complicated," Olga tried to blur the subject somehow. "I have to think about it."​

    "Think," the Priest approved very seriously. "If you have any doubts or misunderstandings, come to me. I don't want your prayers to be filled with fear, but with hope and gratitude to Him. And it's time for you to confess. And now..."​

    He clapped his hands softly.​

    "Now, I think it's time to talk about..."​

    The Priest was interrupted by Bertha's loud voice:​

    "Gathering! Gather round, everybody! Three minutes!"​

    Strangely, the siren did not sound before the alarm was always announced by a special signal.​

    "Three minutes to go!" shouted the Mentor. "Eat, drink, finish and go to the briefing! Real alarm, real alarm!!!"​

    The Priest shook his head, hung the book on his waist chain, stood up, and with a fatherly gesture ran his palm over Olga's head. The short lock of blond hair had grown back a little and was prickling funny.​

    "I thought we were going to talk about Hell today," the monk said. "And why our Faith isn't just a collection of rituals. But I guess you'll see before you hear."​
    * * *​
     
  8. Threadmarks: The Squad Chapter 10
    RiP

    RiP Seeker of Silence

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    Chapter 10
    * * *
    And again the tank bounced over the snow-covered tundra, creaking with shock absorbers, thoroughly shaking the contents of the iron womb. This time Olga quickly, properly equipped herself, plugged all the connectors in the proper places, and in general felt a little more confident. There was considerably less space in the vehicle. Kryp was skinny, but his dead servant, with his multi-barreled shotgun, took up as much space as an ordinary man and a half.

    "Why is there only one tank?" Olga asked, standing up and leaning toward the monk. She used the weighty cart with the tank as an anchor and an additional point of support.

    "What?" the Priest looked at her incomprehensively, adjusting the gas mask hanging around his neck.

    "Our train, it's big," Olga patiently explained. "But there's only one tank. Is it a tank for the whole armored train?"

    "Oh, I see," the Priest shook his bald head with huge bald spots. "Well, you picked a hell moment..."

    It sounded judgmental, but the shepherd's pale gray eyes were filled with wisps of cheerful and slightly sad irony.

    "There was more," said the monk briefly. "Did you see the trail?"

    "The trail?.." Olga thought to the accompaniment of the 'Chimera's' rumble. The engine itself worked quite quietly for such a huge machine, but the tank was full of things that could rattle, jingle, bang - and did not hesitate to do so.

    "The trail from the sea," the monk said patiently. "We just passed it."

    "Ah, yes."

    "That's where they all stayed," the monk finished exhaustively, and with a stern look made it clear that the conversation was over.

    The girl sank back down on the cold metal, feeling a bitter lump go up to her throat. The danger of serving in the Squad was turning from an abstraction to a pressing problem before her eyes. And Olga knew for a fact that she had enough of demons, monsters, and adventures of all kinds.

    She met her eyes with Kryp. Fidus seemed funny and ridiculous in the standard overalls that hung over the long inquisitor like an old cloak on a scarecrow. But Kryptman looked calm and confident. So that she wanted to snuggle up to him, wrap herself in the folds of a suit of tarpaulin impregnated with the anti-fire agent, and think about nothing else.

    Wonder she'd hugged Kryp before, and he was very warm, cozy, almost like an iron Jenni with a heat output to the surface of her body. Well, yes, Fidus was wounded and feverish.

    By the way...

    Olga suddenly thought of a simple and very interesting thought. Why isn't there a medic in the unit? Don't they get wounds here? Or does everyone know how to heal, only she, by a misunderstanding, has not yet been taught the basics of first aid? That's a lot of weird stuff, isn't it? But when you think about it... Forty thousand years! An unimaginable pile of centuries. It's more surprising that she understands anything at all. And then the familiar and already hated red lamp blinked, heralding the end of the trip, the disembarkation, and a lot of adventure. Or, with luck, a false alarm.

    God, let it be nothing again! The girl pleaded, and the 'Chimera' stopped, gnashing its iron guts, which the tech-priest had diligently serviced and blessed.

    This time the squads arrived in an area built up with overgrown apartment buildings. If Olga had not known that she was separated from the Soviet Union by more than four hundred centuries, she might have thought that she was surrounded by an ordinary city with a non-standard layout and buildings adapted to the climate. The blocky high-rises on brick foundations seemed very familiar and homely. Just looking at them made her want to go up to the staircase, open the door to the apartment with the keys, boil cocoa water on the gas stove, and curl up in a warm blanket right under the central heating radiator. Better yet, with a cat. She remembered that in old Japan they used to sell special cats to take to bed in winter for warmth.

    Here, on the edge of the tundra town, a whole bouquet of local law enforcers gathered again. The cops, the Federals-arbitrators, the grim officers of the Inquisition. Olga slouched and lowered her gaze, trying to appear small and inconspicuous. Small helicopters, either single-seat or automatic, buzzed overhead. Not far away, a monstrous tank, twice the size of the squadron's Chimera, with a bulldozer blade and a real turret, was tossing and turning, mercilessly smoking its prometheum diesel and disfiguring the pavement. Only the cannon was strange as if it were not a cannon at all, but an inflated shower nozzle. Yeah, just like the nozzle of the acid sprayer the Priest have.

    It was cold, and it was getting dark-the sunset promised to be early and aggravated by the weather. Snowflakes fell sparsely from the gloomy sky. Bertha and the Priest exchanged a few words with the arbiter, wearing white armor that looked like antique armor. The arbiter was leaning on a shield, hand-painted with words of prayer, and seemed troubled. As the conversation progressed, the same expression flashed across the faces of the monk and the bodybuilder. The trio was joined by someone outfitted similarly to the troopers, only much better and more expensive. The conversation became heated, but apparently without mutual recriminations.

    "Don't be scared."

    Olga jerked in surprise, thinking that Fidus was a bastard and an asshole. Don't sneak up from behind like that. But it was Demetrius. He had a short-barreled rifle hanging behind him, and an elaborate medical-like backpack on his chest. Separate pouches were strapped to his thighs, went all the way around his waist, and even stuck out on his shoulders. The novice had the appearance of a man fully focused on a socially useful task.

    No, it seems there will be someone to put iodine on a cut finger after all.

    "I'm not afraid!" The girl turned her nose up, compensating for her fright with ostentatious bravado.

    "And that' right," the boy smiled softly, seemingly in no way deceived by his companion's demonstrative bravery. "Whatever happens to each of us has long since been accounted for in the Emperor's will, and will happen according to His providence."

    "That's reassuring," Olga gritted her teeth and once again thought that her tongue was her enemy. But Demetrius only nodded.

    In the meantime, the Mentor and the monk had finished talking to the arbiter and the 'chemist. Bertha spat greedily into the muddy snow, trampled by many boots, and readjusted her weapon and the respirator she wore instead of a gas mask. The Priest blessed himself with an aquila and placed his fists on his waist chain, gripping it like a handrail. Both returned to the small detachment that waited in silent patience, even Driver halfway out of the hatch and lifted one 'ear' of the tank helmet to hear better. With his reddish skin and silver beads, he looked like a mad Indian cosplaying a World War II tank man.

    "Turn around," Bertha traced an ellipse with her hand, making it clear that 'turn around' didn't mean 'go back' at all. Olga's heart thudded heavily in her ribs and seemed to fall somewhere in her pelvis. "Let's go inside. There's shit in the house. We'll have a look."

    "Whoever is weak in faith is a fool and a dead man himself," the Priest added. "Is that clear?"

    The team responded with a discordant murmur, spreading out in fighting order. Olga thought wistfully that the house was ladders, and dragging a cart up and down ladders was a total sh...

    "Let's go straight!' Bertha yelled angrily, knocking out all the outside thoughts. "Hurry up with your legs, you skinny!"

    "Well, here goes the work," Smoker said squeakily, running forward as a scout should.

    Savlar squelched disgustingly at the hole, drawing in the cold air. Olga remained silent, struggling to keep up with her flamethrower.

    The house was large and cordoned off on all sides. Olga saw the familiar symbols of the Ecclesiarchy, the Inquisition, and other badges. Instead of ribbons, they used real chains of light silver metal, maybe really silver. Priests in wide, richly embroidered gold coats were swinging their censers, chanting litanies. The police were beating someone with very long truncheons, clearing the area. The army brought up some real tanks, and the arbiters cordoned everything off with armored cars, with machine-gun turrets spinning menacingly on them. Along with the pillar supports for the barrier chain, the novices set up large roasting pits, pouring some pungent-smelling grass into the coals. All in all, it looked a lot like an advanced high-tech exorcism.
    A priest in the longest and most luxurious coat greeted the unit's Priest. The holy fathers exchanged a few words, then the unit was let through the fence. Everyone around, regardless of departmental affiliation, looked at the rather unrepresentative team with fearful reverence. Olga thought that she would look at a person in her right mind and mind sticking a hand into a terrarium full of poisonous spiders. The thought, of course, did not add to her calmness and optimism. The words to pray to the Emperor, which he had already learned, rolled on her tongue. On the other hand, it was even nice to be noticed and respected by serious people from imposing organizations, even if the deference was taken for hire, at the expense of the reputation of the Squad.

    They were taken not to the front entrance, but to the technical gate, through which the trucks were driven to the minus first floor. Olga was still waiting for some kind of briefing, but apparently, this empty formality was considered unnecessary here. Huge novices in chain mail similar to that worn by the Priest unlocked the rattling gate, padded with old zinc.

    "May the Emperor's mercy be with you," the coat-coated shepherd admonished in the well-pitched voice of a professional orator. "May He preserve your souls from filth, heresy, and faithlessness. May your spirit be stronger and harder than steel."

    "Verily, in Him we trust," replied the Priest.

    "Amen," the crew chattered, but sincerely, and Olga repeated after them:

    "Amen!"

    The girl had expected the squad team to go inside, accompanied by the reinforcements, thanks to so much and all piled up around the high-rise. However, the deed, by all appearances, was intended only for the 'purificators'. The girl felt herself getting into the spirit of service with every step.

    The sensation of attentive, pressing attention stabbed like the touch of a scalpel on a nerve. It wasn't painful, but rather unpleasant, alien. It was as if some entity had awakened from its slumber or deep reverie, opened its eyes, and glanced over to see who it was that had disturbed its tranquility. A quick, unfocused look from the basilisk. There was no malice, no human emotion of any kind, just a physical heaviness and tingling that made her want to tear her clothes and skin, to brush away her bare muscles and cure the nasty itch. This was how an animated trap, a living alarm system, might have looked. Olga furtively looked around, but either the sensation was only hers, or the others were used to it.

    "Masks," Bertha commanded softly, but impressively. "Lights. And forward, to the glory of St. Clarence."

    "The facility is sealed!" Someone behind the back yelled into a megaphone. "The maintenance company has started work! The area is closed until authorized by the Squad! For quarantine violations, burn on the spot! Watch the seals, the cordon shoots without warning!"

    God, be merciful, Olga pleaded to herself, pulling the gray muzzle of her gas mask that smelled like Chinese rubber with her trembling hands.

    The inside of the house was much larger. It also had a completely alien layout. Most of all it looked like the 'tower' from 'Judge Dredd', not the puppet menace with Stallone, but the real one, where the lower jaw of Karl Urban, who Olga had liked a lot in her time, played. A tough dude with a sad look... Anyway, back to the house.

    The building was built around a large atrium, which led in a blind well far up, to the gray roof. Olga shuddered, remembering that she had already seen a similar layout, and nothing good came out then. The impression was compounded by a large statue of some local saint in the center of the square. According to traces, earlier flowers and candles had been dragged to the statue, but now the flowers had been scattered and trampled, and the stone statue had been broken and stacked in a pyramid. Only the head with a mournful expression was placed separately.

    "Heretics," the shepherd condemned relishingly, and no one objected.

    Such a deliberate desecration of a shrine could only be conscious, and therefore heretical. The Holy Man quickly muttered into the tube of the radio that swung a folded antenna behind his back. Bertha silently waved her hand, Smoker understood correctly, and circled the perimeter of the atrium, shining a powerful flashlight.

    Olga noted that the three flamethrowers stood in such a way as to block any direction of attack without hitting each other. Crybaby was sobbing as usual, but the heavy flamethrower held firmly. She wonders how he manages to sob with his mask on...? The Priest was making some passes with one hand, not letting go of the handle of the acid cannon with the other.

    "No blood, no traces, no bodies," Smoker reported as he emerged from the side corridor.

    "Let's go," Bertha ordered. Olga sighed and wheeled the cart behind Crybaby.

    The building was a mishmash of corridors, some as if they existed by themselves, while others had rows of identical dark-brown plastic doors with stenciled numbers on either side. There was a system here, but to understand it you had to live here, or at least hang around. To an outsider like Olga, everything was the same and hopelessly confusing. At least the problem of carts was solved. All the stairs were accompanied by ramps, like wheelchairs. Instead of elevators, in some places, vertical wells were made right into the walls. These looked like one-person platforms, or a not-so-subtle load, like an escalator, used to roll up and down in them. Now everything was frozen in motionlessness.

    "Do you see it?" The Priest asked, pointing to the wall with the barrel of his weapon.

    "Yes," answered Bertha. The laryngophone transmitted the bodybuilder's grim tone almost without interference.

    I don't see' thought Olga.

    "Heretics," the Holy Man hissed with hatred, and then the girl realized.

    No symbols. Nothing at all, not even an image or a wax-stamped prayer sheet. A sterile, anti-religious emptiness.

    "Let's go higher," Bertha ordered and Smoker ran away again. The Holy Man kept muttering into his talker, seeming to be reporting live. It was a little reassuring, and there was a sense of attachment to the big world beyond the walls of the dingy and dreary building.

    In theory, they could do without lanterns, the lights under the high yellow ceilings were blinking properly. However, the squad was disciplined in shining headlights into all corners. Olga strained her skinny muscles, rolling the cart, which seemed to add a kilogram for every dozen meters of travel. The mask did not interfere with her breathing or visibility, but the noise of the valves when she exhaled was very annoying, soft but constant. Why not take off the stupid mask, if everything was still normal?

    The third floor, then the fourth. The troops wore underwear under their overalls and wool sweaters that looked like they were knitted from strings. It was supposed to absorb sweat well and generally dissipate excess heat. But the girl felt that soon the heavy boots would be bubbling with moisture, or maybe Olga would just run out of heatstroke. It was a good thing that Sinner - again, silently - had shown a trick a few days ago with a rag bandage on her forehead under her mask. Otherwise, the sweat would probably have puked out her eyes, or she would have had to pull down her gas mask to wipe her face and, accordingly, get the heat from Bertha.

    The Smoker ran in circles like a clockwork man, ducking into all the corridors, popping out of incomprehensible corners. The servitor stepped heavy and measured on the yellow-brown tiles, turning his bald head independently of the body's movements. A full turn to the left, to the stop of the vertebrae, then to the right, and again in the same cycle.

    "Not a soul," Smoker reported. "No one at all, as if they never lived there."

    The doors, Olga thought. All the doors were closed as if no one lived here. But some people had definitely been here, and not long ago. Along the way, the department came across signs of the building's inhabitants. An abandoned toy in the form of a peeling, yellow-painted Emperor. An ordinary mop with a wet rag was abandoned orphaned in the middle of the corridor as if it had been dropped in mid-movement. A book was left on a small chair next to a wheelchair cane. Olga immediately imagined some old man who used to pass the hours in the wide corridor, poisoning the lives of the neighbors. Or maybe the opposite, looking after children while their parents were busy. There seemed to be a lot of children here - toys were common, almost all old and very cheap-looking, many times mended. Apparently, they had served many generations.

    Olga did not care about the whole world of the theocratic future and its population, even if it lived on a billion planets.

    But kids...

    Looking at the painstakingly stitched balls with aquiles, the small tanks, the soldier figurines, frayed by many children's hands until the smallest details disappeared, the girl felt... not fear, but something else entirely. A feeling of the extreme importance of everything that was going on around her. And again her own importance, her involvement in a very serious and responsible matter.

    The adults might eat each other, but the children had to be found. The girls would once again have tea with bald dolls with shamrocks on their cheeks, and the boys would play with ugly figures of upright, fanged toads with truncheons.

    Then the squad met a fallen pot, from which spilled a brew of horrifying unappetizing quality. The squad made a stand, and the Priest studied the contents with such care and caution as if the crumpled tin contained a plague elixir.

    "Vegetables, not a scrap of meat," the monk finally reported, and everyone seemed relieved as they moved on. Only the shepherd lingered, turned the acid to the minimum, and poured a caustic mixture over someone's unfortunate dinner that seemed to melt even the tiles. Here was where the masks worked their magic; there was so much poisonous smoke that without gas masks my lungs would have escaped through my throat.

    "Shall we break down the door? - either ordered or suggested the Priest. After a short pause, Bertha nodded and pointed, seemingly at random, at one of the identical rectangles. The team immediately rearranged, it was up to Sinner to cover the assault on the apartment. Bertha moved her mighty shoulders under the shiny fabric of her overalls and with one kick took out the lock. And Olga leaned against the wall, letting the cart out for a moment. People very close by were bustling about, doing something important and useful, and the girl was again struck by the feeling of an outsider's gaze. Blinded attention and this time are much more intense. Last time, the blind eye had swept in, like a sauron's eye, in passing, only noting. But now it was aimed squarely at the group, like a searchlight finding a ship in a stormy ocean. It was as if the squad had been marked and tagged.

    And the most disgusting thing was that in this world you couldn't dismiss the sensation as an 'imagination...' First you're imagining things, and then a gut with tentacles comes out of nowhere.

    Bertha listened to the report, gave a brief order. Crybaby and Sinner, who came out of the apartment, took positions to cover the corridor with fire in both directions. The Priest raised the barrel of the acid cannon vertically and stood to spray anywhere if necessary. The mechanized suspension buzzed at increased speeds. The rest of the fighters took out three doors at once opposite the one already breached. The Holy Man spoke into the radio continuously, like a rapper at a battle, in a hard-to-understand shorthand. For a moment he stepped off the tube, said to Bertha:

    "The Madman is worried. Screaming, sobbing."

    The Mentor turned her attention to the girl, who clutched at the side of her cart, squirming as if in pain. Bertha put the combi-shotgun to the girl's forehead, leaned lower, peering into Olla's face through the large lenses of the gas mask.

    "What?" the Mentor asked in one word.

    "The b-baby..." squeezed out the blonde, biting her lip. She went pale as if she'd knocked over a powder puff.

    Oh, I had a powder puff at one time, Bertha thought to herself.
    I was once beautiful and kind and different...

    The Mentor shrugged the uninvited thoughts away, pressed the barrel of the combi-shotgun harder, pressed the stupid fool's head against the wall, pushing the trigger almost to the end. Now all she had to do was press no more than a hair's breadth to leave Olla headless and the Squad without a fighter.

    "Talk."

    Olga, who still didn't seem to realize how close she was to other world, squeezed through clenched teeth:

    "The baby... crying... footprints... on the walls!"

    She opened her eyes wide, blinked, and looked in horror at the big gun in Bertha's hands.

    "Are you recovered?" The Mentor asked gloomily.

    "Y-yes," Olga squeaked out, getting up and grasping the handrail of the cart as a saving point of support.

    "Hold steady," advised Bertha. "Everyone cracks at first. That side isn't kidding."

    "I-I got it," the girl said in a shaky, faltering voice. And she added more evenly, a little more confidently and firmly. "It will be done. Hold. Stand still."

    "Well done. Next time I'll blow your head off."

    Smoker came out of apartment three, holding in his outstretched hand a stick like a plunger, stained with something that looked like glowing ink. He held the stick out, and all the squadmates swung to their sides in unison.

    "In all the taps," the scout reported. "It drips if you open it."

    "People?" The monk asked curtly, gripping the grips of the acid cannon tighter.

    "Noone."

    "Are they left?" The Holy Man asked this time, seemingly not for himself, but by transmitting someone else's question over the walkie-talkie.

    "They're gone," Smoker shook his head. Even through the mask, you could see that the scout was perplexed. "No packing, no belongings, the locks closed. They just disappeared. That's all."

    Olga shook her humming head. She had told Bertha about the crying baby, but the feeling was much deeper and stranger. Yes, a clear cry, bitter, full of hopeless fear, more like unrelenting terror. Only it sounded... not in her ears. And the girl couldn't explain where the sound was coming from. Maybe it wasn't even a sound. It was as if Despair itself was knocking from the other side of reality, making the individual strings of the universe vibrate. Something about it was familiar... something tugged at the hidden corners of Olga's mind. It seemed to the girl that just a little more, listen even more closely to this crying, and it would become clear who was weeping and why. Who needs help, but dies without hope of support.

    "Well, everything seems to be clear here," suggested the Priest, with the silent agreement of the others.

    "Warp, heresy, machinations of hostile powers," said Bertha. "Most likely, unholy sorcery. But it could also be a spontaneous breakthrough."

    "Don't you talk stupidness," the Priest said quietly, pressing his head against his mentor's respirator. "Witchcraft is never pure," he added louder. "We have to go up to the end, let's see more selectively. Then it's up to the Inquisitors and the Ecclesiarchy.:

    "The plumbing system," Kryp put in, softly but confidently, turning to the Holy Man. "Have them pay special attention. If it's filled with this stuff, it might have acted as a volumetric antenna or a mirror. Or maybe a teleporter."

    "Copy that," said the radio operator.

    "The blockade will not be removed," Bertha affirmed, glancing at Fidus. "High danger, a complete cleanup with the elimination of all property. Let the Inquisition work first, then burn everything out so there's only a box left. Utilities to be completely replaced. Basements to be filled with caustic."

    "And a recitation by a team of Preachers, rededicate everything," the monk agreed, then added. "But let's check upstairs first."

    "Roger," the Holy Man reported, recounting the radio. "Waiting for the final decision and sanction."

    "Disco," Olga whispered, looking at the stick in the scout's hands. He just turned to the doorway and gently threw the filth back, trying not to shake off a drop inadvertently.

    "What?" asked Fidus quickly. Sensing the alarm in his master's voice, the servitor stepped from foot to foot, raised his shotgun, cocking his head.

    "Disco," Olga repeated. The crying melted into the void, leaving behind a feeling of hopeless emptiness and pangs of sadness.

    "And?" Fidus seemed determined to keep up. Bertha was about to slap her, but the Priest stopped her, silently placing a broad palm on her shoulder.

    "Well, disco..." Olga was still not thinking clearly and was confused about the words. "There's light and this kind of ink. It looks like very much. They use it for stamps... You can see everything in the blue lights."

    She fell silent, trying to describe the simple image of normal disco, glowing ink and stamps on the hands in words understandable to people of the future.

    Bertha understood first, seemingly even faster than Fidus, but it was the Priest who started the action. The big man in the chainmail released the spray gun, which the iron paw of the pendant automatically returned to its marching position with the barrel up. Then he tore the book from his belt and the mask from his face. The Priest raised the bible above his head and shouted in a completely inhuman voice so that Olga almost went deaf:

    "In His name, I reveal which is hidden!"

    The holy father was frightening to look at. He rolled his eyes so that only the whites were visible, pink with bursting vessels, his lips were quivering, the foam was forming at the corners of his mouth. The black-gloved fingers he had clenched on the book twisted like bird's claws, and the wooden binding cracked and cracked. It looked more like a momentary attack of madness than anything else, a real one that was ugly and very scary.

    "According to His will, let us see the unclean!" the monk bellowed. "Let us not fear evil, for He is watching with our eyes now!"

    "My God," someone whispered, maybe a Holy Man, maybe a Crybaby.

    "Run," Savlar muttered, gritting his teeth so that the laryngophone transmitted a sound like a frequent drum roll. "Let's get out of here..."

    The walkie-talkie behind the Holy Man's shoulders shrieked like a living thing, threw off a beam of bright blue sparks, and the receiver roared and squealed with interference. The ether seemed to die down quickly, drowning in an ocean of sudden interference.

    On the walls, on the ceiling, on the tiled floor, luminous symbols were slowly appearing, painted with the same paint that had stained Smoker's plunger. It was as if reality was melting away, revealing what was hidden in other layers of the universe. Very intricate patterns, woven from bizarre rune-like signs. They clung with angular little squiggles, twisted in spirals as if they were meant to catch any, even the most cursory glance, and not let it out, to confuse it and send it into an endless web.

    The whole house is painted, Olga realized, the whole fucking building is painted on the inside to look like a sorcerer's hohloma...
    [​IMG]
    "The labyrinth," whispered someone, maybe the Wretched Man.

    "No, it's the Gates of Empyrea," Fidus Kryptman said quickly and clearly, like a report. "They pulled out all the inhabitants at once. It's a ritual. A sacrifice. And the sorcery is still working."

    The priest collapsed to his knees, clinging to the bible as the greatest value in the world, as the only lifeline that could keep his soul safe. And Bertha snatched the walkie-talkie from the HolyMan's hands and shouted no more quietly than the monk, trying to break through the roar of interference:

    "Radial! Radial! Rocket Strike! Blast the whole block off!!!"

    The Savlar shrieked thinly, the Holy Man shouted 'fuck evil!', the Crybaby sobbed in his voice, gasping for breath. The Priest wheezed and sobbed like a man who had lost his voice. Olga sat upright on the cold floor, unable to feel her feet. Servitor Luct towered over her like a self-propelled combat tower, evidently, Kryp had made it a priority to protect the girl.

    Bertha looked around wildly and finished almost pleadingly:

    "Destroy it all!!!"
    * * *​
     
    Last edited: Nov 17, 2021
    Winged One, Bogdan, ATP and 1 other person like this.
  9. ATP

    ATP I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    Looking at picture - it is neither Nurgle or Khorne.
    So,what is it? Slaanesh or Tzaaneth? first is more nasty,but second more dangerous.In both cases,they are screwed.Maybe if Olga start calling calvary again,something would come fight it?
    If not - there is excellent pulpfiction trick.Just start next chapter with "thanks to herculean STRENGHT OF WILL,Olga win".
     
  10. RiP

    RiP Seeker of Silence

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    Hm, I thought you will write something about Priest's view of the IoM.
    Anyway, the Author is not so cheap.
     
  11. Threadmarks: The Squad Chapter 11
    RiP

    RiP Seeker of Silence

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    Chapter 11
    * * *​
    The legendary 'Kowalski' had recently come off the Iron Ring slipway, a mere two hundred and sixteen Martian years ago, and seemed juvenile compared to the elderly monsters that remembered the Olympic Treaty. But service in convoys ages prematurely.

    'Kowalski' was a heavy transport cruiser, so far the only one of its kind. 'Detect the enemy, engage, destroy'. This was the first and foremost task of a warship, and 'Kowalski' was well equipped to carry it out as quickly and efficiently as possible. And yet the main occupation of the ship remained the timely delivery of cargo with the ability to kick anyone who encroached on Mars property.
    With a displacement of just over thirty-six megatons, the 'Kowalski' was a deep modification of the famous 'Lunar' type, the predecessor of the 'Dictator' class cruisers. Five and a half kilometers long with a diameter of only seven hundred meters at the midship, with a rounded upper stem, a square cruising stern, and a ribbed, blind tank below the keel technical deck, 'Kowalski' seemed an amazingly fast, taut ship. It had a very menacing appearance.

    Since birth 'Kowalski' rarely sailed on traditional routes, and the crew knew no other life. Initially, the ship wandered mostly alone, carrying individual Collegium manipulas, sometimes escorting detachments of two or three heavy transports. Then it was switched to joint operations with frigates and buccaneer cruisers. Now, 'Kowalski' metaphorically speaking, didn't make a move without a squadron that belonged to the 14th Supplies Group of the Ships Forges. But in fact, 'Kowalski' had never been alone before. Entropy, the embodiment of destructive doom, was on its heels. As soon as it pointed the logarithm of the number of available microstates at Hive Tanker 'Goliath', the nearest star paled against the hellish explosion of solar plasma. Barely touched by the probability distribution of the 'Coffin', the latter, slashed in two by an enemy torpedo, entered the atmosphere in a swarm of debris of divine Titans in fiery swathes. Entropy enveloped the escort destroyer in thermodynamic dissipation, and it rushed into the lead-shining depths of the Immaterium, and the stunned, numb with terror crew begged only for a crack in the solid hull, bringing an instant merciful demise rather than an agonizing death from transformation into the Dark in a distorted metal coffin.

    Yes, everywhere 'Kowalski' appeared, Entropy appeared too - but it never touched him. It was a lucky ship, an invincible cruiser for whom Galactica was home.

    Invincibility was, of course, an illusion, but a carefully calculated one. The 'Kowalski' was designed for specific missions in specific environments, and the Iron Ring Forges knew their business. By the mere appearance of 'Kowalski', a knowledgeable Magos could tell that this ship was designed for the St. Evisser's Path.

    It was an unworthy name for half a dozen inhabited worlds (of which no more than two could be considered developed), scattered along an arm that could accommodate three or five sectors of the Ultima Segment. Too few even to declare the region a subsector. A single World Forge, far from the most advanced of the Adeptus Mechanicus strongholds, fully supplied all the Imperial Fleet, Guard, and Adeptus Arbitres forces stationed on the Path. And though the lifeless, barren star systems could not serve as a base for any serious xenos threat, prosperity had long since left the planets of Path. Once majestic temples that attracted pilgrims from all over Segment Solar now stood abandoned amidst dilapidated, half-empty metropolises.

    Through this void, however, was the shortest and most relatively stable route, the link between Sacred Terra and the Pacificus Segment. Fleet squadrons and Adeptus Astartes ships moved through the Gates of Fire to aid Maharia, Donian, and the Sabbat worlds.

    Navigational beacons, astropathic stations, supply bases. In general, the Imperium's infrastructure on the Path. Could not be protected by the usual methods, i.e. regiments of the Guard, orbital fortresses, and battleship squadrons. This would have required resources unimaginable and unaffordable for the feral worlds of the Path. So even a couple of old cruisers in the hands of renegades, or an Orc wanderer accidentally dropped out of warp, could threaten the Imperium's supply of troops. And they threatened with depressing regularity. In such a situation, only a fast-moving transport capable of promptly leaving a group of Titans or a legion of Skitarii on a besieged planet was a key element in the measured, stable operation of a transport artery. And 'Kowalski' had long ago become one of the key links in that system.

    Voidmancer-Captain Valler was experienced enough as a combat commander to know the value of the vigilance not only of the cogitators, but also of the techpriest at the detection posts, capable of calculating the best course for the combat mission. 'Kowalski' was the highest achievement of Adeptus Mechanicus since the Schism, the apotheosis of the desire to merge the gifts of Omnissiah, the God-Machine, and the Driving Force to create the ultimate instrument of destruction. A magnificent fighting machine. But only as long as it was under the control of a trusted cogitator, an experienced captain, and faithful techno-jerks who conjured up the binary code of the Spirit Machine. The cruiser, like any Bazilikon Astra ship, was only as good as the purity and loyalty of its senior Voidmancers to Omnissiah.

    And the 'Kowalski' Magosas were in a moment of collective bewilderment.

    Forty-six hours ago, one of the XJ-9 small escort ships came out of warp, hurrying to the rendezvous point, but received a directional transmission that came from a verified hexacode. The order to lower shields and stand by to receive cargo seemed to come from the void. The Auspexes registered along the direction of the beam an absolute void for millions of kilometers. The most careful analysis yielded no results. Among other things, the distortions typical of the Eldar holoshields were ruled out.

    However, an order is an order, and immediately after blocking the emitters of the void shields, several containers with Forges of Mars insignia teleported from nowhere to the receiving deck, along with a techpriest and three multifunctional servitors. The Adept of Mars then relayed an order, verified by the sigil of Parliament, to obey any orders from the messenger, and accordingly gave instructions to go immediately to meet the flagship of the squadron. That is, with the 'Kowalski'.

    The techpriest captain wisely decided it wasn't worth asking why his auspexes hadn't detected another ship. An anxious cargo couldn't just appear out of nowhere?! He even wanted to erase the log entry, just in case, which might directly or indirectly prove that the transfer or teleportation had taken place. But he thought better of it. To erase the information was heretical and immoral! He limited himself to multi-level encryption so that only Mars could unlock the recordings in a couple of hundred years.

    Magos was quite happy with his current position in the Basilicon Astra hierarchy, and he had forgotten about his career as a Voidmancer centuries ago. Considering that the Captain had outlived many of his comrades and colleagues who had attained command positions on the heavy cruisers and battleships of Adeptus Mechanicus, this approach was not unreasonable and wise.
    And now the Mars envoy appeared on the bridge of the 'Kowalski'. Theta's Perseus Monitor was a typical mechanicus that had gone quite far in perfecting the flesh, but not so far as to frighten the weak and uncommitted of Omnissiah. Too ordinary for an unconventional appearance.

    "The order is verified by the digital sigil of the Fabricator-General of Mars. Squadron XJ-Nine Basilicon Astra must change course. In twenty-six standard days, 'Kowalski' should move into high orbit 140101-55524-R54024-52928P10. The current operation is canceled, directives changed."

    "The verification of the sigil is complete," one of the servitors said indifferently. "Successful. Confirmed."

    Voidmancer of the cyber visionary sector immediately summoned a laser-beam woven fragment of the St. Evisser's Path star map. Not that it was necessary. The bluish light and whimsical shadows of holographic multi-tables had illuminated the command posts of Imperium starships for millennia, but the tactical displays seemed out of place, alien on the bridge of the Adeptus Mechanicus ship. The servants of the Omnissiah, who were allowed to control and make decisions, as well as the brainless automaton servants who maintained the machinery, had no need for lighting or visual displays, much less voice communication. Nevertheless, traditions were strictly observed, perhaps in view of infrequent visits from ordinary people. And on Martian ships, the screens often flickered as they did in the olden days when only the imperfect eyes of ordinary people could see the splendor of space.

    According to the visualized calculations of the cogitators, the prescribed task could well be accomplished in the prescribed time frame.

    The silence of the bridge - or rather, the natural acoustic background of the rustling fans and the hum of the thermal control systems - was broken only by the measured, pounding of the metronome. Perseus Theta's Monitor wonders as to why the Voidemancers needed such an anachronism. The dark wooden case and shiny nickel-plated arrow looked utterly alien amid the dim light and peculiar shadows of the holographic multitables. A fragment of an infinitely distant past, an antique piece, whose sole purpose was, to all appearances, to throw any visitor off-balance.
    Monitor Malevolis stood upright, remaining silent, trapped in his own body like a random guest. He was used to waiting. Besides, six months ago, the curious logis had endured a far more difficult and terrifying ordeal than the ticking metronome on the bridge of a warship. When his actions, dictated only by natural curiosity and his search for new information, drew the attention of Doturov himself. Alas, the attention remained, and the monitor became the executor of the Martian technocrat's will. And sometimes - literally, turning into a live puppet. As, for example, now.

    The bridge master, the squadron commander, finally stepped away from the holographic visuals and tilted his metal head toward Malevolis, with a necklace of red lenses running the entire circumference. Above the pale yellow schematic ball of some planet, blue half-orbits of ships circled. Judging by the parameters, they belonged to the Mechanicus. The captain's metallic, synthesized voice rang out, so unusual in the realm of numbers, mechanics, and radio waves:

    The goal of the squadron's current operation is to supply Farfallen, which, as I'm sure you know, is resisting the attacks of traitors. Sixteen transport 'Coffins' are currently being loaded on the eighth Forge of Magnos Omicron. Adeptus Mechanicus' actions in this project are seventy-six percent complete. Discontinuing them would be a waste of the Forge's resources. The diversion of the cargo would cause massive military losses and could ensure the triumph of the traitors.

    Voidmanсer-Captain Valler and his crew were clearly demonstrating their displeasure. So much so that the captain preferred to communicate with his guests by sound. For a man, this would have been tantamount to a dialogue with an exchange of notes through a messenger running between floors.

    "Voyd-man-cer-ca-pi-tan," Doturov pronounced in the rhythm of the ticking antiquity through the mouth of Monitor Malevolis. "Are you doubting Mars' competence?"
    Vallier shook his head, the closed circle of lenses impassively reflecting the light of the holoprojection. The translucent ships continued to move along trajectories determined by the laws of celestial mechanics.

    "No. Actions agreed to by Quaestor have a lower priority," Valier finally muttered. "We are obliged to comply. However, any decision is a compromise between the input conditions and the desired outcome. I do not know the changed plans for the transport ships and the expected benefits. But I am qualified to conclude that without the 'Coffins,' and any delay in supply, the Arbiters cannot effectively perform their duty. The consequences will be complex and negative and will unfold over many standard years, leading to unpredictable ramifications. Is this condition taken into account?"

    "Yes. This situation represents a failure of the Administratum and will indeed have devastating consequences," Doturov said dryly, dispassionately. "But it is not a Mechanicus duty to maintain the planet's level of development and security. We are allies, not subordinates of the Administratum, and we are not obligated to solve its problems at any price. Especially problems created by inadequate risk assessment and refusal to follow the plan. The strategy for securing the Farfallen polis is left to the Adeptus Arbitres and the planetary defense forces."

    The guest, whose real status remained a mystery, multiplied the captain's displeasure. Vallier did not like useless information exchange, with duplication of knowledge. However, he had to do the unloved thing, to ensure that there was no chance of error. So the captain continued communicating using acoustic vibrations, emphasizing the extent of his criticality. Logis, meanwhile, suddenly gained back control of his own body. The formidable patron and puppeteer at the same time retreated into the shadows, leaving the puppet to conduct further dialogue on its own. It was strange and like a difficult test, one had only to understand its purpose. But Perseus Theta decided to think it over later, for the moment the conversation and responsibility demanded all his intellectual resources.

    "The strategic situation on the planet poses a threat to the Imperium's supply lines and, in general, may be dangerous to Human settlements on the Path as a whole," Vallier showed stubborn opposition, albeit within acceptable limits. The mechanical voice was measured and dry, but the captain managed to add a palpable amount of displeasure to it.

    "The strategy to protect Farfallen accepted by the Department Munitorum is a failure," Theta said cautiously. "We have assessed its long-term effects and prospects. Mars no longer sees the need to actively continue to support it."

    "Even if we exclude loaded transporters from consideration, the Titans already on 'Kowalski' as well as their future crews could turn the tide on the rebellious planet. Perhaps with that in mind, the transport plans should be revised and at least some of the cargo should be delivered according to the original request."

    Vallier, to use the terminology of 'meat' people, looked sternly inward. The captain felt in his own soul the shadows of emotion, the harmful parasitic distortions of the mathematically precise and rigorous thought process blessed by Omnissiah. He felt them and could not overcome them, because unconditional acceptance of the visitor's logic meant...

    It meant that the best ship that ever came off the Martian shipyards had been doing nonsense for a year and a half, decomposing resources into non-recyclable and useless elements. The realization of this hurt the captain almost physically. A feeling is forgotten, alien, and therefore doubly painful.

    "Negative."

    At Theta's silent command, the modified visor of the logis went into holo-projection mode.

    "Let us recall that according to the results of the analysis of Estat Imperium, the use of a single corps of arbitrators was deemed acceptable for the success of the operation. The decision was witnessed by the governor's personal key and the Planetaris quaestor's DNA. They considered the reasoning of the expert panel, which recommended the use of at least three corps, insufficient. It is now clear that this was a mistake."

    "The First Expeditionary is the elite of the Marshal of the Path," the captain did not give up. He knew that, in human terminology, he was 'losing face,' and yet he could not admit the ruthless obviousness of the decision.

    "Quite right," agreed Theta, growing in confidence with every word. "And so the lack of a contingent of three hundred thousand was supposed to be compensated for by an elaborate plan."
    Logis was well aware of the Captain's motives and, having no instructions from Doturov, decided to be as merciful as possible in communicating with mechanics who deny ancient, evolutionarily imperfect mechanisms of emotion. In this case, the merciful thing to do was to provide the captain with more information (within his competence, of course) in order to reduce the degree of stochastic fluctuations in his assessment.

    "The troops were delivered to Farfallen in the holds of the 'Kowalski' one and sixty-four hundredths of a standard year ago. The Arbitrators were required to wait for the arrival of the XJ Nine ships to organize orbital support and deploy a satellite surface monitoring network. As you know, these conditions were not met either."

    "Lord Marshal preferred to use the surprise factor."

    "The First Corps landed two hundred and forty-seven days before the Adeptus Mechanicus cruiser group arrived. Engaged in active combat before the deployment of a satellite cover formation. Without guaranteed infiltration of native communication channels. At the same time, intelligence provided exhaustive data on the insurgents' possession of atomic munitions of the third and fourth classes..."

    "Primitive cruise missiles, unguided, at subsonic speed..."

    Now Valliere blessed the slow, unhelpful human speech. The sound gave a special weight, a meaning to the words.

    Theta ignored Vallières' remark, "The first massive use of which resulted in nine successful detonations out of one hundred and seventy-three. More than five percent, which is categorically unacceptable. With the deployment of the ship's constellation in orbit, as well as the reconnaissance satellites, all the missiles would have been destroyed before launch. Breaking the controlled perimeter of the bridgehead necessitated regrouping the arbitrator forces and reorganizing the planetary defense force with a halt to the offensive."

    The absence of lungs removed the natural constraints so that Theta's speech continued without pauses for breath.

    "The lack of accurate data on enemy operational plans, coupled with an inability to track the movements of radiation sources, resulted in eleven subsequent detonations at expeditionary corps positions in the north-northeastern sector. Losses amounted to seventy-four percent of the regular number of attached PDF divisions, with twelve percent of the arbitrator's personnel losses. Contrary to the recommended protocols, these numbers were not accepted as the basis for reducing the controlled perimeter and compacting the defense sphere."

    Logis shut off the projection.

    "The attempt to use transport ships as orbital weapons should be qualified solely as a ridiculous misunderstanding. Ridiculous and very expensive, given the losses of two pennants from airborne atomic detonations by manned suicide sub-carriers."

    By and large, Logis did not need to state the obvious, but the Martian noted the captain's high level of emotional involvement in his work. This, of course, should have been reported to the appropriate authorities. But Theta never missed an opportunity to give the errant a second chance. An opportunity to impartially assess and then correct the deviation. At this moment he imagined himself as a mirror, in which Valier should see an undistorted image of his imperfection.

    One could only hope that Logis's aspirations were somehow consistent with Doturov's values and principles.

    "The transporters of the Administratum are not optimized for thermoregulation at high energy inputs," the captain insisted. "Full impulse required increased dissipation surfaces, and deployed radiators..."

    "... increase atmospheric deceleration and, consequently, working substance consumption to maintain orbit. In other words, low-power laser armament required a descent into the mesosphere. Due to the natural atmospheric braking, the heat dissipation radiators could not be fully deployed. Because of the limited heat sink, the ships had to descend even lower and reduce their firepower. Maybe that's why the relevant Arbitrator protocols prescribe combat operations in the mesosphere by warships staffed by squadrons assigned to Adeptus Arbitres corps?"
    Vallier was silent. As far as Perseus Theta understood he was feeling real anger.

    Further testing of the controlled perimeter continued after the rebel naval strike near mark K-14, where, due to depletion and mass desertion of PDF regiments, most of the defense was supported by Arbitres. The Emperor's warriors traded their own lives for territory, with insufficient reasoning to hold the positions they occupied.

    "A retreat would have boosted enemy morale."

    Now Perseus Theta felt rather sad. The captain demonstrated deplorably human errors, senseless attachment to the results of his labor without regard to objective benefit. Apparently, this could no longer be corrected...On the other hand, though, the Voidmancer very accurately emulated the logic of the Administratum officials, which was a valuable quality when dealing with the disfavored of the Omnissiah. This situation should have been carefully analyzed, but later.

    "The morale of the rebellious natives was already exceptionally high," Theta stated. "And it was due, first, to the stopping of the offensive of the loyal Imperium forces, second, to the successful use of atomic weapons, which proved the very possibility of the destruction of Arbitres. And thirdly, the two ships that were shot down," Theta's voice was momentarily filled with anger.
    "At the same time, consolidated rebel ground troops, supported by the forces of three treasonous regiments, launched an all-out assault, causing a perimeter breach in six sectors to the south and northwest of the bridgehead. Within forty-eight standard days, the area held by Governor Farfallen was reduced to twenty thousand square kilometers. And that's for the entire planet. The number of Arbitrators in the formation has dropped to eighty-three thousand, which, according to protocol, is not enough to maintain the combat effectiveness of the corps. At the moment, the rebel counteroffensive can only be stopped by the use of sixth-class kinetic warheads by Adeptus Mechanicus cruisers that have entered high orbits. And I stress that the arrival of the cruisers to Farfallen according to the original order of 'Kowalski' is now seventy-six standard days away. Upon arrival, you will only be able to record the defeat of the Loyalists."

    "But the planned landing of the Titans will turn the tide of the campaign," the captain objected. "And destroy the rebels' ability to resist."

    "This is irrational," Theta ruthlessly cut them off. "There's no way the Titans group can be sustained by enough Arbitrators and loyal PDF troops to secure a ground bridgehead and establish a permanent base. We are sympathetic to the uncompromising position of the Arbitrators, but the Mars Fabricator General has assessed the situation comprehensively and assumes no further implementation of the operation is possible. It will be terminated, at least as far as we are concerned."

    "What is the position of Factory General Magnos Omicron?" The captain grasped the last opportunity.

    "The loading of the 'Coffins' is currently underway, based already on the new task. Although it is strange, I have to remind you that in the 'Worlds Sabbath' sector there is a multi-level and extraordinarily fierce battle for nine hundred and thirty-seven inhabited planets. Therefore, the transportation component of the St. Evisser Path is very important to Imperium and Mars. Protecting the beacon systems that point the way through the Warp Storm of the Gates of Fire in the current circumstances is far more important than helping inadequate planetary governors."

    Vallier froze for a second. Theta could guess how the 'Kowalski' Voidmancer felt right now. Through the fault of the Administratum, their ship had been wasting the resources of the only Fprgeworld on the St. Evisser Path for almost a year. It is hard to imagine a greater disgrace to the ship's Spirit Machine and the sacred aspects of the Driving Force.

    "Set a new course. Target 140101-55524-R54024-52928P10," Valier's code blared over the radio. "May I know the contents of the new squadron objectives?"

    To the captain's credit, he still managed to stop at the edge and accept the inevitable. This filled Theta's soul with restrained jubilation. From humility and acknowledgment to machine perfection, this path was not yet closed to the wayward one. The time used for the unfolding and primitive info-exchange was not wasted. Will Doturov appreciate it? It does not matter, because the main thing is that, to use the terminology of the Imperium, one of the lambs has lost its way, but returns to the shepherd.

    "Defending navigation in Magnos Omicron's area of responsibility. Countering the enemies of Humanity. Testing a new kind of tools to counteract the Dark Ones and their Imperium technoheresy," Doturov answered in the hexacode. Moving to normal communication, he felt like a weary wanderer dipping into a warm spring. May the Omnissiah that opened to mankind the golden path of perfection be eternally triumphant!"

    "What to tell the Titans crews?"

    For a moment Theta thought that Doturov, lurking like a digital ghost at the edge of the information array - logis consciousness - smiled. But Perseus Theta immediately erased the silly thought that the Martian Parliament's Lexic Arcanus might not be perfect enough on the way to the God-Machine.

    "Orders to crews: second degree of readiness for landing. Protocol 'Cortez'."
    * * *​
     
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  12. Threadmarks: The Squad Chapter 12
    RiP

    RiP Seeker of Silence

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    Chapter 12
    * * *​
    "Well..."​

    Inquisitor Schmettau pursed his lips, pulled a folding comb from his pocket, and carefully combed his hair. Not for the sake of improving his hair, but rather to take a short pause, to occupy himself with some fleeting duty. The artificial hair rustled faintly under the plastic teeth.​

    "Unexpectedly," said Schmettau quietly, folding up the simple instrument with a neatness (perhaps the least bit deliberate).​

    Essen Pale stood at attention in silence, looking now at the inquisitor, at the big screen, where a short satellite recording was repeated over and over again. First, a general plan, covering a couple of thousand square kilometers. Part of the industrial area and a section of the railroad tracks, where the armored train was parked. Houses and industrial complexes were decked out in lights, work continued around the clock, despite the threat of heretical invasion. Astropathic towers on the asteroids required a constant supply, especially now, with the steadily increasing traffic that fed equipment, equipment, and troops to the distant battle for the Sabbat worlds. The atomic train, on the other hand, was lurking in the darkness.​

    Almost a minute of recording, where the movements of individuals are indistinguishable, but one can see the blocking of all civilian vehicles and the pulling down of armored vehicles. Kalkroit did not need to listen to the radio conversations, he already remembered every last note. A rank-and-file report from the 'convicts', then the radio operator switches to a quick, hurried speech, and then... Yes, then things began to develop very quickly. Too fast and unexpected, given the drop in warp-storm activity and the long string of false alarms with the seers' mistakes.​

    Schmettau rubbed the hump of his nose with two fingers, just like a bespectacled man who had removed his spectacles, though the inquisitor never wore spectacles or pince-nez. His assistant sighed softly, shifting from foot to foot. It was pitch black in the corner of the screen, and all of a sudden it exploded in a shower of flames. "Radial-12," using a battery of guided missiles, exactly as per protocol and the summons from the mentor. A dense beam of orange trails crossed the darkened tundra with deliberate slowness and struck the suburbs, covering an entire block. A few minutes later, a second strike followed. It was help from 'Radial-64', giving a volley at the limit of missile range.​

    One wonders how many guards in the cordon were killed...? Technically, the referees and police had five or seven minutes between the request and the attack. Enough to save not everyone, but many. If the proper orders had been given, and Schmettau suspected that they had not bothered to do so in time. The long months of peace and near-zero warp disturbances had relaxed the local services considerably.​

    'The Emperor will protect,' Kalkroit said to himself, conjuring up an aquila in his mind as well. God is omniscient, he does not need pompous and public gestures, the main thing is faith in the soul. He created in His wisdom the Inquisition, giving it a perfect organization, which, among other advantages, helps to avoid the bureaucratic cumbersomeness of traditional agencies.​
    "Is there an estimate of casualties?" The inquisitor asked the assistant.​

    "No, sir," said Pale cheerfully and without pause, knowing full well what the patron was primarily interested in. "Presumably the whole squad is dead. At any rate, they are presumed dead.​
    Planetary rescue services are waiting for the fires to die down so they can start searching for bodies and evidence."​

    Schmettau once again scrolled through the passage with the direct hit. Sixty missiles... Yeah, there wouldn't even be ash left after that. Still, several square kilometers are blazing, as if a promethum pipeline had been brought to them. However...​

    "Check the armory," Schmettau ordered curtly. "Request information directly from battalion command. I want to know what the launchers were loaded with."​

    "Sir?"​

    "If the volley was a combination of volumetric and penetrating projectiles, there's nothing more for us to do here. The kill zone is plowed and burned to the rock bottom," Schmettau explained patiently. "But deliveries of large-caliber armor-piercing missiles are now irregular. It's possible the strike was a superficial one. And in this area, the catacombs are buried."​

    "They couldn't have come down that fast, I'll find out and report back."​

    What the inquisitor valued in his right hand especially was the rare ability to object, but at the same time meticulously execute the order. Alas, Essen had great problems with imagination and flexibility of thought, or rather these properties were completely absent in his assistant. And with diligence and for the benefit of Kalkroit himself. However, Pale's virtues more than compensated for some defects in his thinking process.​

    "The captain recommends we move to a higher orbit," Essen reported in the meantime. "Such proximity to the surface forces us to perform complicated maneuvers, we are consuming fuel, and the crew is fatigued."​

    Schmettau pondered the suggestion.​

    "No," he said. "First I intend to make sure that Kryptman is no longer among the living. Right after that, we'll leave the system. The team will receive a bonus for responsible service."​

    "As you command," Pale lowered and lifted his chin with machine-like clarity, turned on the spot, and then walked out, literally stamping his steps.​

    Schmettau sighed, shrugged his shoulders as if his jacket had become too tight for him. He relaxed perceptibly. He played the tape twice more, although he had already learned and memorized it to the last frame. Wandered around the office, hidden near the heart of the Inquisitor's ship. The place held many secrets and was a History in itself. How many secrets were revealed to the fastidious investigator among the white walls, how many hardened heretics confessed their terrible transgressions, weeping from the happy opportunity to repent...​

    Schmettau pressed a hidden lever, or rather a section of wall, unremarkable in appearance. Obeying unseen sensors, a secret hatch opened, and behind it a special vault, the existence of which even Essen, privy to all the secrets of the master, did not know. Here Schmettau erected an altar of hatred to his best friend and loyal comrade-in-arms, who turned out to be an enemy and traitor.​
    Kalkroit walked along the wall, barely visible beneath the drawings and picts, most of which were many decades old. The Inquisitor paced slowly, touching the yellowed picts with moments of former triumphs frozen forever with his fingers.​

    Here are two young referees who have just emerged from the walls of the Progenium Hall, they smile into the camera, not yet knowing that a few minutes later a discreet gray man will approach their friends and make them an offer they can refuse. But what kind of servant of the Emperor are you, then?​

    Here they are, but a couple of years older, at the first fire. A small, inconspicuous case, after which only a long code and a thin folder in the archive of Ordo Hereticus were left. Just a petty sorcerer, capable only of smothering old men and infants with sweat. He burned in the cleansing flames, long forgotten by all, most of all by the wicked lords he had served so poorly. But Kalkroit remembered.​

    Schmettau and Kryptman. Kryptman and Schmettau. Fear and Terror for any and all who have rejected the gifts and sacrifice of God the Emperor. Together they began, and together they walked the path of His service.​

    Their duo proved strong and effective because the inquisitors combined each other's strengths in the best way possible, compensating for their weaknesses. Kryptman was the epitome of fierce pressure, of brilliant improvisation. He was always pushing forward and only forwards. And Schmettau was someone who was inconspicuous and not famous, always in the second role, always behind the leader. But without number two, the leader is helpless and blind. Unlike his friend, Kalkroit always thought about 'what happens if...'. Always ready for any counterattack and invariably disappointed enemies, ready to escape from under the crushing blow Kryptman to strike from behind.​

    Kalkroit paused for a moment at the next pictograph. The yellow rectangle was a reminder of the deadly Heresy that sought to penetrate the soul of the Imperium. Yes, it was a grievous affair in the Schola Progenium on Hagia, where traitors had defied the very essence of His holy cause.​

    The Throne of Correction must suppress the misguided thoughts of the progenitors, not even heretical ones, but the simplest ones common to adolescents. If these thoughts introduce excessive deviations into the student's behavior. Enemies, on the other hand, have created imperceptible 'improvements,' turned the noble machine into a perverse mechanism that poisons the hearts of future commissioners, naval officers, priests, sororities, administrators. Drop by drop the invisible poison oozed into the souls of young people, the future backbone and core of the Empire. Changing students, already deprived of parental care; perverting the precepts of the abbots in the heads of children orphaned by the actions of the eternal enemy.​

    'Kryptman! Schmettau exclaimed mutely, addressing the ghost. 'You believed an under-educated Sororite who fled from Schola. You dismissed my objections. You convinced me to suspend the exploitation of an unregistered psyker in Sanyera and to send all the acolytes of our groups to Schola.

    Kalkroit clenched his teeth that could bite through a steel wire.​

    'You weren't wrong. And after that, I believed you without a doubt.

    With the tips of his fingers, as if a pict could burn artificial flesh and nerves, Schmettau touched the penultimate image. It was taken just after a meeting at which two of the inquisitors, no so young, were deciding how to play out the final notes of a composition that had lasted twenty-seven years. They had both long since given up their youth, but on that day each had to restrain with an iron will the feverish readiness and impatience. The moment of the greatest triumph was approaching, a victory that would rattle through the millennia and engrave two names on the tablets listing the Inquisition's greatest victories.​

    But this never happened.​

    In the moment that preceded the great triumph, the most faithful betrayed a friend, abandoned a colleague. Destroyed everything for which so much had been sacrificed. But most importantly, he did not admit a mistake. If Kryptman realized that he was chasing a mirage, say it out loud, and Schmettau would forgive him, and then help with all available resources and connections. All stumble, for only He, is blameless, and man is weak and imperfect, even the best of the best. And an inquisitor as great as Kryptman would have been able to level the damage done.​
    But the old friend did not admit the error. And though no one believed the tales of the terrible enemies of Mankind that lurked in obscurity. But after much deliberation, weighing Kryptman's explanations on the impartial scales of logic, the brethren decided that at that time the inquisitor's actions could be considered justified. When this happened, Schmettau nearly became a renegade because his world was turned upside down twice. Betrayal was not only accomplished but justified. The inquisitor kept from falling into heresy, but he did not forget or forgive anything.​
    The traitor had cheated for the last time by going to the other world, depriving Calcroyd of the sweet triumph of vengeance. But Schmettau knew that his thirst could be quenched in another way. Not all the way, not even half of the desired satisfaction, but at least a small fraction. After all, not only honors are inherited, but debts as well. Such was the case on his home planet of Schmettau, and he believed it was fair.​

    The last pict. A stern, sullen father whose lips have long since forgotten a smile, burdened with much knowledge of human weakness, of enemy treachery, of the unseen horrors that accompany everyone and are ready to enslave forever, if you let them slacken. And the son, a boy of about five or six, a child who already knows about the coming and inevitable destiny. The future apprentice, the inevitable heir to the deeds and glory of his famous father.​

    "Are you still alive?" Schmettau asked softly into the emptiness and silence. And he answered himself:​

    "I think so. You didn't take over your father's mind and will, but you inherited his survivability. You can't be killed that easily."​

    There was a long pause, during which the inquisitor froze like a statue. Only after many minutes did Kalkroit whisper:​

    "I believe in you, boy. Don't disappoint me. Don't deny me the pleasure of scattering your ashes with my own hands."​
    * * *​

    "Oh, God..."​

    Whose voice? Probably Savlar's, only he's the one who makes such a disgusting snarl. Or maybe not... Anyone with a broken nose.​

    Broken...​

    Nose...​

    What's broken on me this time?

    The girl moved her fingers and toes. Her body obeyed, though it protested. But her eyesight was worse; it was either blindness or complete darkness all around her.​

    "The Emperor is with us, my brothers and sisters."​

    A Priest, who else. Well, at least two companions are alive. That's three people so far. Progress, with Kryp on Ballistic there were two. That was enough to survive.​

    Someday I will be in the good universe, Olga thought, and it will be bright, warm, and safe around me. The next thought was sobering. Yes, someday, just not in this life, not in this future.​
    Olga stretched out her invisible fingers and raised them to her face, afraid to touch it. Her face was smeared sticky and warm, her forehead was sore, her right cheekbone was numb. She seemed to have been punched in the face again... Or she'd been hit herself.​

    Okay, the face. It's unmasked. The girl let out a sigh, remembering the dire warnings to never, under any circumstances, remove her gas mask at work. Bertha's and Priest's spells were reinforced by an impressive set of 'picts', that is, ordinary photographs, which should be used to illustrate the work of the mentally ill. Who was the 'lord of decay' Olga did not really understand, but judging by the pictures, he could do many things and all of them were amazingly disgusting.​

    But now, never mind... If she had inhaled a batch of evil germs, it was too late to be sad.​

    The flash of greenish light was objectively dim. It was physically impossible for a chemical lantern to burn brightly. But in the darkness it lit up like a little sun, hurting the eyes.​

    "Let us praise Him," the Priest cried, raising the source of light high above his head.​

    Hurrah, hurrah, eyes intact, thought Olga, trying to get up on all fours at least. A strong hand picked her up under her belly like a kitten and pulled her to her feet.​

    "Ouch," the girl exhaled, barely able to stay on her feet.​

    The Sinner, who came to her aid, looked at her very angrily, as if he were preparing to strike. But then he turned away, his lips pressed together angrily.​

    And when did I ever hurt him?

    Yes, something happened... But what exactly?​

    Apparently, her consciousness, overloaded with acute impressions, simply cut off some of the functions, because only now Olga began to remember - what actually happened? There were two reference points in the memory - the wild scream of Bertha, summoning fire upon herself just like in a Soviet movie. And... now. Darkness, drying blood on her face, the absolute uncertainty. And what lay between 'then' and 'now'?​

    She had to pull the scraps of memory out of her mind like small fish on a troll. Yes... Somebody was screaming to get out. Someone ran away. Or just ran away. Someone was hysterical, screaming that he didn't want to die. Surely Savlar, some jackal, not a convict. But on the whole, there was very little panic in the squad. Maybe just a little. But then, what happened then? And what made the Sinner angry? Olga looked for the cart with the cylinder and could not find it, though the cylinder with the fire mixture itself was found nearby. The memories continued to form a fragmented, but more or less coherent picture.​

    Yes, someone was surprisingly quick and clear in giving an estimate - there's about a minute or so to spare. It's no use running out of the house, so we have to go downstairs. And... they ran.Olga threw, her cargo and immediately got a strong smack from Bertha, accompanied by a gun at the very nose, so that the cylinder had to quickly throw over the cart on her own back. Good thing there was a suspension system like backpack straps special for such an occasion. Good thing the servitor helped, the Kryp's servant had the might of a robot.​

    The cylinder seemed insanely heavy, but death, which was already flying on the wings of launched rockets, drove forward better than a whip. They ran... and ran, someone leading them all onward and down a series of staircases and shabby corridors, where stale dust accumulated in the corners like a terrible cobweb and it seemed that no man had set foot in years. The balloon had a life of its own as it ran, skidding the runner around corners and bouncing against walls. The short but surprisingly fast legs of the flamethrower elf flashed ahead, and behind her someone was painfully pushing at her back. And Kryp was there all the time as if he decided to serve as a human shield, catching threats to his ward.​

    Yes, after all, this Fidus is not a bad man, even though he is a jerk. And while fleeing, Olga ripped off her gas mask and immediately lost it.​

    While the girl collected herself, Bertha and the Priest restored some semblance of order. Bertha walked in a circle and scattered glowing sticks that flickered with inanimate green fire, like radiation in cartoons. The monk, who had come out of his trance, raised the squadmates, sometimes with a kind word, sometimes with a simple clap of the palm, and once or twice with kicks. Olga saw almost everyone except Smoker. Was he dead?!​

    The compartment seemed to be tucked away in a basement or garage. At any rate, the layout was like that of an underground parking lot. The junk in the corners and some boxes with plywood doors made it look like a warehouse. Very old, with mold and puddles of condensation. It smelled musty and damp... but... The girl took a deep breath, cringing at the stench of laundry soaked for a week.​

    Fire. There was a palpable smell of burning, not like burnt wood, but more like charcoal and chemistry. And the smell was intensifying.​

    "Stand straight, stand proud! Don't drop your gear!" The Priest clapped his hands resoundingly, rolling his bloodshot eyes. "The enemy does not slumber, in line, all in line!!!"​

    Olga looked at the Sinner, who was standing half-turned toward her, crouched over, arched on one side. Judging by the movements of his shoulders, he was either flossing or pulling his nose. Olga remembered that it was the Sinner who had saved her... only it was unclear how. Yes, that's right! The girl missed the turn, accelerated with the cylinder so that she skipped past the jamb with the door knocked out. Kryp didn't notice, distracted by something, but Sinner did the opposite - and yelled loudly 'Olla, over here!!!'. Well, at least he can talk. But the girl's conscience still gnawed a little bit, after all, it was her fault (albeit a weak one) that the silent man had opened his mouth. Or whatever it was supposed to be called nicely for breaking vows.​

    Olga walked unabashedly around the Sinner, raising her hand to touch his shoulder and thank him. But he glanced at her himself, and the gesture was cut short at takeoff. The girl jerked her fingers away, pressing her palm against her chest as if afraid of getting burned. The Sinner did not brush his teeth. He had pierced his lips with a short awl or screwdriver and was now sewing his mouth shut with stitches of ordinary twine.​

    "God... Jesus... God damn it, God..." the girl whispered, feeling the tears flowing profusely down her cheeks.​

    Is it because of me?

    Olga vomited, unexpectedly and with one sudden, sane and sober thought - it was good that there was no mask, or she would have choked to death. The girl spat, wiped her mouth with her sleeve, and cursed quietly but fiercely. She felt no guilt, but rather an anger, a lot of anger at everything. From the uncomfortable, stuffy overalls to the stupid man who was doing unhealthy shit because of his stupid superstitions.​

    "So, work and work on discipline," the Priest concluded, looking around at the despondent troops. "The Emperor's chosen warrior even retreats with dignity, guided only by contempt for the enemy!" and added more quietly. I see no Smoker. Is he gone? How?"​

    "He didn't," Berta said briefly, but exhaustively. "He took a wrong turn. When it started pounding on the brain. Or maybe..."​

    She wasn't finished. The monk inhaled a whistling breath and shook his head bitterly.​

    "It's sad," he said sincerely. "It's so sad."​

    That seemed to be the end of the question of the missing squad scout.​

    The Sinner finished his hard work, cut the twine's protruding tail, and crossed himself with an aquila. Blood trickled profusely down his face and neck, making him look like a vampire. The Priest who passed by squinted and said nothing, trying to organize a semblance of a fighting formation.​

    "Old foundations," said Fidus, and turned on a powerful flashlight that shone like a small searchlight. The bright yellow-and-white beam circled the garage, picking out old junk from the dark corners.​

    "The house was built on something else," the Holy Man caught his thought. "It looks like an old workshop. So there must have been a way into the transportation network from the time of the first development. Even before the astropaths took over the Ice Port."​

    "It was buried so nothing goes out... all sorts of things," Crybaby doubted and was sad. He clearly did not want to go any deeper. Neither did Olga, especially after the remark about all kinds of things climbing to the surface.​

    "Not all of it," the radio operator said encouragingly. "There's a chance. We should go down," said the Holy Man, almost simultaneously with Crybaby, who, on the contrary, suggested. "We should wait here."​

    The small and weeping flamethrower spoke very seldom, and his voice was as frail and silent as his build so that in the green half-light of the catacombs the words sounded sorrowful and wistful.​
    Bertha and the Priest looked at each other.​

    "We can't," the monk shook his head, sniffing the air noisily again. "There's a big fire above us now. They won't smother it, the fire will go down..."​

    It was difficult for the monk to speak; he must have broken his voice in a fit of holy madness. The Priest was now and then breaking into an incoherent wheeze. Coughing, he added:​

    "And it will burn out the oxygen. If we don't burn, we will suffocate."​

    Bertha looked doubtfully toward the large double-wing hatch that closed the prospective escape route.​

    "We're going to need a miracle," said the Wretched Man.​

    "The Emperor is gracious," the monk said sternly, jumping up so that he could better 'fit' the mechanized suspension of the sprayer on his body. "But he only bestows miracles on those who try.​
    For it is said, 'Fight and shells will be given to you'. Besides, we are still breathing, so there is a supply of air. And definitely not from above."​

    The smell of burning intensified. It seemed to Olga that a wave of warm air came out of the ducts under the low vault, and it became harder to breathe. Apparently, the fire raging upstairs was getting closer.​

    "Let's pack up and go," the bodybuilder said very calmly, softly. "We can't stay here."​

    "Those without masks, go away and breathe through the rags," the monk commanded, lifting the sprayer and turning the regulator. At first, the girl did not understand what the militant priest was going to do, but then she realized that the priest would melt with acid the lock on the hatch. Apparently for the lack of explosives and cutting torch. The procedure, however, was far less toxic than destroying a pot of soup upstairs. The metal, unlike the tiles, melted and flowed under a faint trickle of acid, like wax in boiling water, almost without effect or smoke.​

    The Priest seemed to be saving his ammunition. He had no spare cylinder, so Bertha and Luсt finished the job with heavy boots. At last, the old metal gave way with a heartbreaking creak. The hinges were rusted, but not too badly. Kryptman shined the flashlight further.​

    Behind the broken hatch was a fairly wide passageway, running down a pronounced slope. There had once been a mechanized delivery tunnel, where wagons or small trucks rode. Unusual for a residential house, albeit a large one, but logical if there had been some kind of shop here before, on whose foundations the house had been built.​

    "All right, it's going down," the Priest thought aloud. "I'm sure it's not a one-way trip. We'll get somewhere," he looked back at the Holy One and asked for sure. "Anything?"​

    The man shook his head in silence, fluffing out the rocker's uncombed mane. The radio was alive, but picking up static and nothing else.​

    Olga really wanted to clutch in her fist the homemade eagle left behind by an unknown predecessor. But the aquila was hiding on her chest under several layers of clothing. Kryp silently pointed to the servitor on the girl's cylinder, the mechanical man extended a broad palm, but he was stopped by Bertha.​

    "No. He's a self-propelled turret now," the Mentor ordered briefly, angrily. And she muttered to herself under her breath. "Oh, I wish he had a heavy stabber with a box and a 'sleeve,' it would be just right on his arm..."​

    Kryp looked at Olga guiltily, the girl turned away and tried to pull the cylinder from the concrete floor. The iron cylinder was heavy, and the handler was tired, but Kryp still helped her silently.​

    "Line up, I'll go first, Sinner behind me, Crybaby closes in," Bertha continued to give instructions. "The Tower in the middle, he's the tallest, he can shoot over the heads."​

    The Tower, and who is it, thought Olga, and immediately guessed that it was the servitor's name. The flamethrower one goes behind, most likely because of her. The most unreliable link in the group... And to hell with it, after all, the girl didn't ask anyone about the Squad.​

    "A long way to the house!" Savlar shrieked, like a hungry cat in front of an empty bowl, in a searing and disgusting way. The shriek was cut short by the sound of a good slap. Bertha cut off the non-musical accompaniment in the simplest way possible.​

    Olga thought that there would be some more admonition or at least a collective 'Emperor protects', maybe a word in memory of Smoker, but everyone went without further words. They must have prayed and asked for protection for themselves.​

    And they moved down into the damp darkness, away from the approaching fire.​
    * * *​
    So, the rest of the story is in premium access yet. It will be translated later.​
     
    Winged One, Bogdan, ATP and 1 other person like this.
  13. ATP

    ATP I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    Priest is deluding himself.Yes,theocracy could be stable system/or not/ - if it was real theocracy.I.o.M is patchwork of many systems,which worked till Emprah was alive.With him as zombie,it must slowly fall down.Only reason,why it not fall yet,are enemies - there is nobody to whom IoM citizen could safely surrender.So,they must fight.

    Like soviet who fought for genocider Sralin not becouse he loved monster,but becouse germans wonted then dead.Unfortunatelly for IoM - they do not have space USA to supply them with stuff and technologies.

    Arbiters managed to pull defeat from jaws of victory,and Mechanicum did well not supporting fiasco.Even Earth,what i say - only USA,Russia or China alone could repell such attack.Maybe even India.
    Your Smkettau is great - i meet petty men,but his pettiness is truly glorious.

    What to do now...they need great act to be free,right? what about finding uncorupted STC,or few there? and Olga making conversation with it,so it would listen only to her ?
    Even better - entire hidden starship,who like her.She could go whenever she want then.
     
    Last edited: Nov 18, 2021
  14. Threadmarks: The Squad Chapter 13
    RiP

    RiP Seeker of Silence

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    Part 3
    Purifying fire
    Chapter 13
    * * *​
    The march into the darkness of the deep dungeons was not so terrifying as it was dreary and boring. Of course, it is scary to walk on the concrete, slippery with mold, on paths that have not been walked for decades. But the fear does not last long, because if there is no obvious threat, hunger, fatigue and heavy ammunition for the flamethrower on the back quickly come to the fore. At least the flasks with water were hanging on their belts. At the very least, as Olga estimated, she could lick the damp walls, where condensation gathered in large drops.​

    They were saving batteries. They walked by the light of one lantern and two chemistry sticks. Despite the narrowness of the tunnel, every sound echoed muffled, rolling far ahead. The servitor was especially loud, stomping his feet in knee-high lace-up boots, but there was no way to get the mechanized corpse to no so noisy.​

    Every twenty minutes they took a break, and Olga felt sorry for the Holy Man. After all, while the others were at least symbolically 'resting,' the radio operator tried to establish communication. To a reasonable objection about an obstacle, he answered something about metal structures and old relay outputs. However, it was impossible to communicate all the same.​

    "Wires are important," the Holy One muttered, twisting the cogs of the settings. "You can make the Gretchin work at a remote location, but in the central hubs, where several relay lines converge. People refuse. Come to think of it, you're sitting at a location where you have several points reaching you, and five or six stations on the same frequency are coming out. Somewhere they broadcast 'unit destroyed,' and when the message reached the receiver in the node, he from several sides synchronously so 'UNIT DESTROYED! And due to the craftiness of the stations, they croak and speak differently, so that the whole chorus is screaming directly into the ears. It's unpleasant in and of itself, and if it's an otherworldly whisper, you might as well put a diaper in your pants."​

    Olga didn't understand anything, and the radio operator didn't need to. He just needed a silent listener.​

    "Nothing, silence," muttered the Holy Man. The five minutes of rest were over, and the squad moved on in another march.​

    The strange journey seemed endless. Olga quickly fell into a heavy, agonizing trance, filled with pain in her back and strained legs. All the time she wished that the straps of the cylinder would finally rip, relieving her of her burden. On the other hand, Bertha could be expected to haul the ammunition by hand anyway. The extreme monotony all around made the sense of time as well as space confused. At times it seemed that many kilometers were left behind and salvation awaited literally in a couple of steps. Then, on the contrary, when we thought that we had probably covered a hundred or two meters, no more.​

    "And on machinery, it's mandatory to wire communication, like in tanks, when you don't know how to get on the radio. It works, it's proven," the Holy Man kept muttering.​

    The tunnel went down a slight but noticeable slope the whole time. In the middle, there was a chute with a single rusty rail. Olga walked and remembered the terrifying roar with which the volley of 'Radial' hit the house. Fortunately, at that moment the purifiers had already descended quite deeply. They had only gotten away with ringing in their ears, fear, and a feeling of staggering helplessness. Above, fiery arrows scorched everything, crushing the concrete slabs, and below ground, a handful of deathly frightened people fled from imminent death.​

    Olga felt very cold, the girl shook her skinny shoulders, despite the weight of the straps.​

    Fuck the adventures.​

    Bertha, the Priest, and Kryp were talking about what might have happened in the house, despite the weight. They had to speak in time with their steps, with pauses for breathing in and out. In addition, everyone listened regularly to the underground noise, so the conversation didn't go fast. Fidus quite authoritatively repeated and supplemented the earlier version. Olga did not understand much, because the inquisitor spoke in some professional jargon, well understood by his companions. But the basis was more or less understood.​

    According to Kryp, some cultists had decided to set up an astral gateway to Immaterialium. Here Bertha argued; in her opinion, it was a teleport to some point on the planet. But Fidus was quick to refute the opinion, referring to some very confusing precedents and nuances, so the mentor agreed, albeit with obvious reluctance.​

    In order to make it work, the villains organized something like a Faraday cage in reverse. They treated the entire house from bottom to top with unholy spells, 'weakening' its anchoring in Materium. And then they used a three-dimensional antenna, filling the plumbing of the house with some kind of substance. It was essentially the same teleport, only it threw everyone in the house not to some other place, but straight into the local hell, beyond reality.​

    Oh, my God, thought Olga, in the rhythm of her steps and the bouts of pain in the muscles of her thighs. How do they even have the strength and desire to talk about anything... It would be better if they dragged the heavy burden for the poor weak girl, chatterboxes, and lazy people. The servitor stomped behind her, turning his head as usual with the mechanical precision of a radar.​

    "All right, the fire won't follow us," said the Wretched Man. "There's nothing to burn here. And the tunnel is long, a draught to the other side."​

    The disputants, meanwhile, were again polarized. This time the Priest was Fidus' opponent. The monk believed that the purpose of the ritual was to release some kind of energy, some kind of compensation in the style of 'abyss take, abyss give in return. Crip, on the other hand, insisted that it was a sacrifice. The difference Olga did not understand. To her mind, it was all the same whether it was a shovel of coal or an offering. The result was the same - some useful (for the cultists) output. But the inquisitor and the monk saw the difference, so they argued heatedly. The argument, protracted, interrupted by heavy breathing and sniffling, looked rather pathetic, like a duel of the crippled. But the disputants were adamant, each on his own opinion.​

    "And everyone also asks why I have knitted doormats with Saint Sororitas on them." The Holy Man muttered softly to himself. "And I said to them, 'hang around the walls'. And they said, 'What for?' And I say to them, 'Echo, you fools, in an empty room or vehicle - an echo'. And imagine three radios for three voices, with echo and fading. The Larsen effect, fuck it. You can't tell who's whispering in your ears, if it's alive or if it's not... That's why I've been doing vox alone for the third year. The replacements don't fit in... Do you want to try?"​

    Olga did not immediately realize that the radio operator had spoken to her. And when she did, she twisted her head in mute denial. On the one hand, the radio was lighter than the cylinder. On the other hand, she was sure that at the critical moment she would be sure to mistake the levers so that later she would certainly be shot for sabotage. And there was not enough voice to shout into the talker constantly and intelligibly in the course of the operation.​

    "No one wants to," the Holy Man sighed dejectedly. "Well, if you change your mind, just ask."​

    Here Olga thought that if Kryp was right, and all the inhabitants of the house had passed into the other world, then the toys would no longer find their old masters. How bad! And sad... The unknown, incomprehensible evil in the form of cultists who revere the non-Emperor suddenly became very apparent, took on a real incarnation. A cultist is not an abstraction, but one who drags children to hell. Accordingly, a cultist is very, very bad!​

    "Someone walked here," Crybaby suddenly interrupted the debate and Olga's sadness. He took a few more steps, then added. "And dragged."​

    "Take a break," Bertha announced, a minute and a half ahead of schedule. "Show me what you've spotted."​

    "Here," the flamethrower pointed with his hand in a black, darned glove. "Scratches. And marks."​

    Indeed, if you looked closely, you could see faint traces on the time-darkened floor. It was as if something heavy had been dragged over the edge, or even angled. And if you looked even more closely, which Berta immediately did by turning on her strongest flashlight. A certain irregularity was apparent. Over the years of desertion, water and mold had left a distinctive film on the floor, but in some places, it seemed smudged, scuffed.​

    Bertha stepped back ten meters, just in case, to look over the untouched area and compare. The group somehow picked up at once, shrugging off the tired relaxation that had clouded their minds.​

    "Yes, they did," Berta summarized as she rose from her squat. "Not often, but pretty regularly. A whole trail of footsteps. Or the opposite, a big group of them walked at once."​

    She turned off the lantern and with a long, wicked look looked on, to where everything lurked in the inky darkness.​

    "At first they tried to use..." Fidus pointed to the rail. A close look made it clear that a section three meters long had rusted off and exposed dull metal.​

    "But something must have gone wrong," Kryp stretched thoughtfully, looking up for a change as if he were trying to find a clue there. "Then they dragged it by hand, dropping it occasionally."​

    "Well, it looks like we know how the heretics break-in," the Priest thought aloud, rubbing his throat.​

    "They didn't break into it," said Fidus, and then, upon coming to his senses, added more executive deference to his voice. As befits an ordinary novice. "It would take months of work to paint the floors like that. So heretics lived in the house, and the other inhabitants apparently averted their eyes. But all sorts of unseemly things seemed to be delivered to them that way, yes. That's why we opened the hatch easily enough."​

    "Well, let's go," said Bertha.​

    And everyone moved on, silently, pulling up. Trying to make less noise and listen very carefully. Olga stared at the cylinder of the Plax flamethrower looming ahead. And, to somehow concentrate, began to imagine in her mind how the ammunition should be changed, step by step. First with a complete change, then a simplified version, when there was no time, with a flip of the hose to a spare cylinder.​

    Step-by-step. And a little bit more.​

    The tunnel began to expand noticeably. The ceiling rose to five meters, and then even higher. From time to time there were branches along the sides, fringed by old rusted shoals of brown rust. All of them were carefully piled so that the stones and rubble formed long 'tongues' crawling out of the empty doors.​

    "Exploded," Kryp reported confidently as he surveyed several such rubbles.​

    "Obviously," the monk agreed. He wasn't treading as lightly as before. Apparently, the heavy chemical cannon was wearing out even the square and strong man.​

    "Halt," Bertha ordered again.​

    Crybaby again emerged as the herald of the new. He slobbered his finger and raised it above his head, then twirled his head, closing his eyes and exposing his face to the intangible streams of air.​

    "The draft. There's water ahead," he said. "Salt."​

    "Interesting," muttered the Priest. "A way out to the sea?"​

    "No," Bertha shook her head. "It's too far. More like an exit to some deep caves that communicate with the ocean. Or even."​

    She didn't finish, and no one asked. Olga felt sad. She wondered what it could be, if not a cave. But asking directly was somehow... a rather scary thing to ask directly. What if everyone here was supposed to know it? And the hell with it, in any case, she'd have to see it anyway.​

    "Let's eat," Bertha ordered. "Plus two minutes to break for a snack. And everyone shut up."​

    An eloquent glance in the direction of the Holy Man clearly showed whom the order referred to.​

    Everyone hurriedly occupied themselves with the food concentrate - the already familiar to Olga cubes, similar to pressed sugar with the taste of glucose pills. As she finished chewing the solid mass, she noticed that the wind, cold and damp, seemed to have caught her breath. Barely noticeable, but still... Some variety was both intriguing and unsettling.​

    Time expired, and everyone moved on. The group was exhausted, only the servitor continued to measure his steps with the rhythm of a robot. Olga wanted to ask if the mechanical man was aware of anything. Whether he had any crumbs of memory left, any emotion at all. Is this a Luct, partially transformed into a machine, or is it still a machine, which is traditionally called by a human name?​

    Another question she put off until better times. Too bad Jennifer the Pinion isn't here to ask her.​

    The sweet rations had refreshed our energies a bit. A slight draft turned into a breeze that cooled the sweaty faces pleasantly. Everybody became alert at the same time. A presentiment of the end of the journey. Even Olga felt that the cylinder became a little lighter, though it was more likely the sugar in her blood.​

    "I don't like it," muttered Savlar, barely audible so that Berta wouldn't hear him. The convict's voice squeaked like wet concrete chips under the boots, sounded like a funeral whisper. "We're all going to end up here..."​

    Steps, endless, perpetual steps... The indiscriminate stride of the small detachment was gradually reduced to a single rhythm, like that of marching soldiers.​

    "Light," someone suddenly said behind Olga's back, so that the girl crouched in surprise, not even having time to be frightened.​

    A moment later she realized that it was Fidus's servitor speaking. The servant, neither living nor dead, was speaking for the first time in a voice that sounded almost like a normal person. A solid bass, pleasant enough, but too smooth, without a hint of emotion.​

    "Hold it right there!" Bertha ordered and asked Kryp half-turned. "What's your tin is talking about?"​

    Fidus grumbled at such an insult to an almost member of the family, but said aloud:​

    "He has enhanced optics. He can see the light ahead."​

    " Got it."​

    Bertha counted the supply of chemical candles and raised her fist above her head. Everyone armed silently rattled their weapons, checking readiness. Olga pulled her head into her shoulders.​

    Again she experienced a sharp - and already familiar - a desire to become very, very small.​

    They had walked thirty yards, maybe more, when the servitor stopped and said again:​

    "Crying."​

    "He has microphones," Fidus explained again. "Someone is crying in front."​

    Hearing about the crying, Olga immediately remembered the moaning in the house, the quiet, bitter wailing coming from some forbidden place. Now, however, she heard nothing of the sort.​

    "It's a useful tin," remarked Bertha. "We walk quietly, we walk carefully."​

    The unit moved forward cautiously and slowly. On the one hand, Olga liked it - it was easier to carry the cylinder. On the other hand, no, because every step, no matter how small, brought her closer to the unknown.​

    "Water," now it was Crybaby's turn to predict. "There's saltwater up ahead. Lots of it."​

    "Well, fuck," hissed Savlar, who seemed to be exhausted as much as Olga. Despite the extreme aversion harbored towards the noseless man, the girl felt a little pity for the misfit. The convict carried a spare chemical cylinder, which was considered more dangerous than a flamethrower because the infernal mixture ate everything. Including - sometimes - the walls of the vessel and the taps with couplings. To expect a cheerful outlook on the world at such a job would have been strange.​

    Now even ordinary eyes without any optics could see the light ahead. A regular light, like a standard lamp. A small white dot, getting a little bigger with each step​

    "The Emperor will not abandon us," Demetrius said, seemingly for the first time during the entire tunnel journey. "Whether it's the light of hope or the final path, it's all in His hand."​

    The fucking optimist, she thought angrily, shuffling on her tired legs. In the meantime, the pain spread from her lower back to her back, lodged prickly along her spine. Only now Olga notice that Demetrius was also armed. In his hands, the medic was clutching some sort of submachine gun with a long, thick clip.​

    The light was getting closer, and now everyone could hear... a cry indeed. It was soft and pitiful and very human. Luke clanked his shotgun loudly. He must have taken the safety off, or maybe cocked it. Olga mechanically slowed her steps to get the turreted servitor closer. His multi-barreled mortar gave at least some sense of reassurance, of security.​

    The crying continued, and Olga felt the barely grown hairs on her head stand on end. No one had walked in this tunnel for years, and if anyone had, it was probably those evil cultists. Where did the usual sobbing man come from? The girl slouched down to take full cover behind the stunted Crybaby, feeling at least a little protected from the rear and the front.​

    The tunnel ended abruptly, one might say 'suddenly,' and a vast hall opened up ahead. It looked more like a bathhouse with a square pool. The floor was lined with large tiled (or maybe ceramic) slabs, badly beaten and cracked. Similar tiles, only smaller in size, covered the walls, as well as the six rectangular columns that supported the vaulted ceiling. Two mighty vents, which must have been operated by a strongman like Luct, stood at the edge of a knee-high basin. A chain and hook hovered over the standing water, and a little higher was a structure apparently used to lift something heavy and voluminous out of the water.​

    Olga's consciousness did not want to perceive bad things, so first she looked around the bathing room. As far as she could do it from behind the backs of her colleagues. Then she thought that it looked more like a parking lot for a small submarine. And only after that she did not see, but rather realized, the presence of a man in the hall.​

    There was a girl of about twelve or fifteen, very thin and dirty, wearing a dirt-gray nightgown, chained to one of the valves - rusty like everything else here. She sat on her knees with her head down, sobbing on the same note, pausing only to breathe.​

    Olga's first instinctive urge was to rush to the aid. She probably would have done so, but then Luсt's broad, rake-like palm came down on her shoulder.​

    "Dangerous," the servitor muttered.​

    Most likely, it would not have stopped the girl, but the interference made it possible to realize that...​

    Olga wondered what she didn't like about it, what scratched her eye and mind like a small, barely perceptible, but pesky splinter. Well, apart from the fact that no one from the team is in a hurry to help the unfortunate. And she remembered. 'The Call.' That seemed to be the name of that movie. Olga watched it inattentively, on black-and-white TV and with the sound turned down to a minimum so her brother wouldn't hear it. She did not understand the plot well, but she remembered the image of the ghostly drowned woman well. The girl by the pool reminded her of a TV creeper. The same shirt, grayed with water and mud, the same long tangled hair covering her face.​

    Olga crouched lower so that she was now literally looking out from under Crybaby's arm.​

    The girl raised her head as if only now she noticed the unexpected guests. No, her face was very ordinary, with slightly distorted proportions. But Olga was already used to that; every planet in the Empire had its own original faces. Around her eyes were darkening in wide circles, her eyelids were red, and so was her nose. The girl sobbed, choking back tears.​

    "Help," she whispered, and her voice echoed, reflecting off the water and the high ceiling. The water in the pool was slightly illuminated as if lanterns were burning below.​

    "Help me, please," the girl repeated. "They'll be back soon... They..."​

    She lowered her head, clearly in hopeless terror of the Cultists' imminent visit, her dark hair pulled back like a curtain, hiding her face again.​

    "And we know this trick," said Fidus suddenly, almost merrily, like a man who has unraveled an evil prank.​

    "A trap," stated the Priest.​

    You're all crazy! Olga wanted to wail, and suddenly it occurred to her. How long has this poor child been sitting here? Judging by the general filthiness, quite a while. Long hours, perhaps days. And all that time she wept? As someone who had repeatedly cried bitterly and hopelessly, Olga knew that the voice was not long enough. A person fairly quickly begins to either howl or wail quietly.​

    "Help me, please. They'll be back soon... They..."​

    It was like deja vu, the same tone, the same words, the same sequence of movements. Olga was ready to swear that the girl on the chain was a living person, but she acted like a puppet, programmed to a clear sequence of actions.​

    "For us?" Bertha quietly clarified, she seemed to acknowledge that in some aspects Fidus knew much more than any other novice in the unit.​

    "Perhaps," Kryp said just as quietly. "But most likely on anyone who happens to be here. It's not really a trap, more of a watchman. Come on. It might be booby-trapped."​

    The sobbing stopped, like the flick of a switch. The girl lifted her head again and looked - looked very carefully! - at the company. Her eyes were now a glossy black, with iridescent sparkles in the depths, just like the glowing liquid in the faucets of a burned-down house.​

    For some reason Olga expected the chain girl to say something, but she was silent. For a few moments, she stared unblinking at the squad. The Priest lowered his chemical cannon with a rustling drive, aiming from behind the Sinner's shoulder.​

    The sufferer's face blurred, like a plasticine mask under a blast of air from a hairdryer. The lower eyelids drooped, twisting outward, and the corners of her mouth crept upward and to the side, turning her mouth into a frog's mouth, grinning in a parody of a smile. The nose slanted to the side as if it were pulling into the face. The white skin was rapidly expanding with boils and sores, and pus dripped onto the tiles.​

    "Get back," commanded Bertha. "Sinner, get ready!"​

    Everything happened very quickly, in a matter of seconds, and yet Olga perceived the picture clearly, in all the details, as if she were watching a video in slow motion.​
    The dark hair partly fell out, falling to the tiles as a dirty washcloth, partly pulled back into the balding head. The trap girl's forehead stretched forward, and her eyes grew following its movement, turning into enormous faceted burls. The lower jaw snapped off easily, hung on shreds of melting skin, then dropped with a chuckle. Articulated tentacles as long as a finger crawled out of the upper jaw, each ending in a sharp claw.​

    The creature, it could no longer be called human. It dropped to all fours, its arms moved lower, shifting to the middle of its ribcage, and two thin Tyrannosaur-like paws ripped into its shirt and skin beneath its collarbones. The palms and feet lengthened, and the toes fused together to form insect-like paws. In a few moments, the unfortunate child was transformed into something that looked more like a giant fly without wings than anything else.​

    "Burn!" commanded Bertha, and Sinner pulled the trigger.​
    * * *​
     
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  15. ATP

    ATP I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    That kind of trap would not work on average IoM dude.They should use,i do not knew, fake injured priest/noble/sororitas or something like that.
     
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  16. Threadmarks: The Squad Chapter 14
    RiP

    RiP Seeker of Silence

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    Chapter 14​
    * * *​
    Three days before X day...​
    * * *​
    'Kowalski' proved to be an extremely fast ship. Leaving Immaterium forty-three point and eighty-one hundredths of a standard hour later than the main convoy, the heavy transport cruiser, however, arrived first in high orbit of 140101-55524-R54024-52928P10.​

    "Nice ship, captain," Doturov said in a low voice of praise. "However, according to the maneuver decision, 'Kowalski' has yet to correct the gravity maneuver at the planet's smaller satellite."​

    "According to the official tactical sheet, our four plasma engines develop an acceleration of 3.35 g. However, in a test near Uranus, I passed the Jupiter with 3.92 g afterburner, two-hundredths of a second faster than the 'Secutor' light cruiser that accompanied us."​

    As requested, a recording appeared on the main holo-screen, judging by the metadata, made by the Imperial Fleet's 'Sekutor' itself. The auspices nonchalantly recorded the 'Kowalski,' lowering her bow relative to her acceleration vector and lifting her stern like an Eldar 'Sigil'. Trembling with every rivet and fluttering about thirty meters against the aft deck, she went farther and farther away until she was lost in the Milky Way.​

    "Your capabilities definitely inspire the crew and glorify Omnissiah not by word, but by deed."​

    "Our cruiser is the best ship to have come off the slipway of the Ring in the past five centuries. We are all proud to serve on it, and we praise Omnissiah and Mars tirelessly for this honor."​
    In many aspects, Doturov agreed with the Voidmancer. However... Imperial Fleet data regarding 'Kowalski' for some reason was missing in the data bank of the current operation Lexik Arcanus. In the part about the cruiser's testing, the only audiovisual files were present. A recording of the protocols. On it, the tech-priest Captain Vallièr, flashing a necklace of red lenses, told Navis Nobilite representative Alejandro Dodson that the test of the Kowalski had not even shown half its capabilities. Moreover, the captain boasted humanly that had the fast destroyers escorted 'Kowalski' the transport cruiser would have shown what she was really capable of, outrunning 'Hunter' or even 'Cobra'. But since it was common knowledge that their propulsion groups provided acceleration over 7 g, the Logis of Parliament labeled the captain's statement as blatant bragging and atavistic tribute to 'meat' origins.​

    However, judging by the remarks in the tactical form and the condescension of Vallier, the Logises was no less proud of the transport cruiser's marvelous machines - visible embodiments of the Gifts of Omnissia.​

    In the metadata of the Doturov files immediately appeared a code flag marker, which would have required the computing power of an entire hive city to decipher.​

    Active ed0c3fa - suspicious.

    "Incomplete selectively entered data. The information is corrected to demonstrate Vallier's incompetence. How could something like this happen?' Monitor Malevolis was supremely intrigued, the good news is that the internal dialogue between him and Doturov could not even be recorded, much less intercepted. "Data compromised in the Ring's data banks is considered impossible."​

    "Apparently, the records were distorted during the tests, before the cruiser returned to Mars. But we'll find out, for sure."​

    "Not an easy task."​

    "Omnissiah is the Truth, and all information is a particle and reflection of Him. Information can be distorted, but it cannot be destroyed. Even single bits, collected at random, retain information about the source of origin. This means that parliament, one way or another, will gather comprehensive data on the asset that made the substitution."​

    "Techno-heretic? Sabotage?"​

    "Unlikely. It is more likely that the asset belongs to Temple of Vanos."​

    "In that case..."​

    "At this point, we will not waste resources on processing an identified incident. We will lose the necessary accuracy of the cognitive models if we consider, among other things, the possible costs of countering unlikely actions of the Officio Assassinorum. This task will be prioritized at the end of the current operation."​

    Perseus Theta refrained from a further argument, not because he was suppressed by the authority of the superior logis, but because Doturov was right.​

    I'll think about this [cruiser test mishap/causes/consequences] tomorrow, Doturov noted in his private log.​

    "I should check the readiness for the landing of Adeptus Mechanicus forces, required on 140101-55524-R54024-52928P10 Voidmancer-Captain Valler," he reported upon completion of this operation.​

    "Are you leaving 'Kowalski' already?" the captain asked.​

    "Unfortunately for the Ain Legion, no. There is an authorization from Fabricator-General Magnos Omicron to place twelve 'Dogs of War' of the Legion under my command."​
    The captain's optical sensors gleamed coldly in the shifting light of the holograms.​

    "Magos Militar Divisio will be furious," said Valier as a matter of fact.​

    "More than that," Doturov agreed.​



    "No," Magos Militar Fromm was adamant.​

    The other four senior officers of the legion remained silent.​

    "Under the circumstances, the Fabricator-General and the Mars Parliament made a timely and justified decision," Malevolis reported. "Your unwillingness to accept it is regrettable."​

    "I cannot allow the Militaris Ain Division to lose a third of its reconnaissance vehicles at a time. The Legion is heading for Sabbat Worlds, where it will operate independently and without regular support from the Forge. That is, any damage of any kind will prove critical and put the titan out of action for a long time. Actions in the highly urbanized industrial areas of the suburban Dworkin hive zone are themselves extremely difficult. The effectiveness of orbital surveillance is below acceptable limits and without reconnaissance vehicles adequate control of tactical units is impossible."​

    "Fabricator-General Magnos Omicron does not share such fears."​

    "The Fabricator-General is not in command of my Militar Division!" Fromm barked. "He supplies it and nothing more! I can't take orders like that as anything other than a betrayal. Or worse, a mistake."​

    "When I left Mars to carry out my tasks," said Monitor Malevolis after a lingering pause, "I was annoyed. The Fabricator General, I thought, was just taking up my time. And not only from me but also from himself. And the wasted time is an irrational waste of a scarce resource. Information that is not processed. Orders that are not given. Tasks that are not completed. After all, any Mechanicus will unquestioningly carry out the Omnissiah's instructions, isn't that obvious? I will now be forced to apologize to the Fabricator General for my faulty judgment."​

    "You don't share my belief, Logis." Fromm continued to stand his ground. "Do you find my choice of epithets too harsh?'​

    "I'm afraid, Magos Militar, you have a somewhat distorted view of the situation. Your legion has been in battle too long, and isolation affects the flow of information and the adequacy of assessment. Need I remind you, a senior officer of the Collegium Titanic, that the interests, trials, and tribulations of a single Militar Division are infinitesimal in the real threat of supply cuts to hundreds of besieged planets in the Sabbat Worlds?"​

    "When was the last time you were in combat, Logis?" Fromm answered question after question.​

    "What does this have to do with you not obeying Mars' orders?"​

    "The very direct. Please, Logis, answer me."​

    "I suppose you are well aware that I am a member of the Lexicon Arcanus of the Parliament. We don't usually get directly involved in combat."​

    "I am Magos Militar Divisio of the Legion of the Collegium Titanica Ain," the war machine lord listed with dignity. "It's been three hundred years. Perhaps I am not the best at the logistics part. I may not have studied the latest advances in global strategy well. But I am well versed in the nature of war, the doctrines of warfare, and the delicate relationship between the actions of the Venator and Myrmidon manipuli that determine the legion's effectiveness. Your order deprives me of three full-fledged Venato manipuli This is unacceptable!"​

    "Re-staff the Legion. Disband two Ferrox Manipuli, reduce four Venator units by one machine."​

    "Have you ever heard of the combat coherence of manipuli, Logis? I quote: 'Isolation distorts perception". Isolation means seclusion, detachment from the outside world, and you are partly right. But - and this is the most important thing - you have to keep in mind that there are several worlds, each subject to its own laws and conditions."​

    "Explain."​

    "Mars and the cares of Parliament are one world. The convoys of the St. Evisser Path, the battlefields of the Sabbat Worlds are another world, quite unlike Mars. In essence, you are completely isolated from the universe where the Legion of Ain exists. We are not adapted to operate effectively in the conditions that your order creates. This is an objective fact."​

    "Adeptus Mechanicus can and does adapt to any conditions. Humanity has had to adapt throughout our history to survive. And we, though the best part of the race, leading the others to future greatness, are still only a part."​

    "It takes time! A great deal of time. With the cost of our equipment, the goodness of the spirits of the machines, and the importance on the battlefield, the cost of making a mistake and losing every titan is absolutely unacceptable! Combat cohesion of groups can take years, decades, a process impossible to squeeze into the six months remaining before landing on Dvorkin. Neither the mind of the crews nor the Spirits of the Godlike Titans Machines can withstand it!"​

    "You grievously underestimate the flexibility and incredible strength of the Mechanicus armies. They can certainly withstand such tests with honor. Millennia of victorious campaigns against hordes of all kinds of opponents is a testament to that."​

    "As an occasional decision in the face of overwhelming influences, yes, perhaps. But I do not consider your whim to be the factor for which the rules and foundations consecrated over the centuries must be broken. The answer has been given, Monitor Malevolis, and that answer is no."​

    "Response recorded," the signal went off the air at the same time as the confirmation. "Magos Militar Divisio Fromm is suspended from command."​

    "Techno-heretic on deck!" cried Fromm. "Arrest!"​

    The five secutarii guarding the legion's command instantly raised their arc pistols as a unit. However, the barrels were pointed in the direction of the commander of the legion, now former.​

    "My orders have been coordinated with Adeptus Terra and confirmed by the Fabricator-General of Mars," Malevolis stated. "You forget yourself, Magos Fromm. The command of the Ain Legion rests with Grandmaster Stark. Magos Fromm will be landed on the planet. His actions will be reviewed by the Mechanicus tribunal within a reasonable time."​

    Grandmaster Stark exchanged short encrypted messages with the rest of the Legion officers and reported:​

    "We will coordinate a list of allocated under the command of Monitor Mallevolis 'Dogs of War' within three standard hours and submit it for approval. Nevertheless, I want to point out that for me, as commander of the Collegium Titanic compound, the most important thing is its maximum combat effectiveness. Some Magos are truly indispensable away from the worlds of Adeptus Mechanicus. The knowledge and experience of the Magos Militar Divisio in a future campaign is an indispensable resource."​

    Perseus Theta pondered. To cancel his own order was to show the haste in the decisions of the authorized representative of Mars. On the other hand, efficiency is paramount. Humans can put personal ambition above expediency, but the servants of Omnissiah never do.​

    "I would agree that the return of the Ain Legion to its permanent base should be considered a reasonable deadline," Theta said. "Upon completion of the campaign in the Sabbat Worlds. The tribunal will be organized by the Fabricator-General Magnos Omicron. The possible future merits of Magos Fromm shall be taken into account as mitigating circumstances in determining his guilt and degree of responsibility. In the name of Omnissiah!"​

    "In the name of God Machine!"​


    Eighteen hours later, Perseus Theta stood in the huge hangar of the planet's central port, dedicated to the needs of Mechanicus. The unloading of the twelve titans was nearing completion.​
    The dismissal of the crew of one of the combat vehicles caused the princepses to react similarly to Fromm's behavior, but this time it was Doturov who led the conversation. Perhaps that's why the result was less confrontational. The princeps and moderator eventually found humility and also agreed to go to the reserve, in case one of the crews might be lost while keeping the titan repairable - unfortunately, not a very rare situation for scouts.​

    The machine Doturov needed was in a separate section. Apart from the servitors, the only person on board was the tech-priest, who was bringing the machine's energy heart out of sleep mode.​
    "Lexik Arcanus, I don't understand - what is the point of landing a Titan that is devoid of the crew and cannot act? A Machine Spirit can't operate a Titan on its own."​
    Doturov, who shifted his personality back to the databank, responded not even technolinguistically, but through a primitive pictograph:​

    Watch.

    In the next moment, the Litany of the God-Machine filled the space.​

    Very, very few people could sense - not even understand, but simply notice - the divine code, and Perseus Theta was one of them. Lines of ancient hexacode, sometimes almost in natural languages, filled the hangar space, penetrated to the very core of consciousness, filling the machine memory. Logis even attempted to comprehend the chanted algorithm, but could not get beyond the approximations of the distributed loads of the Holy Cyber Prophecies of Kleinrock. His mind was vainly picking up individual self-similar rivers of numbers, M/M/V time exponents, but the Truth was no longer whole. It fractured and eluded the imperfect mind of Perseus Thet, whose sub-processors choked, unable to process even a thousandth of the data that was thrust upon them.​

    It was some time before Logis Theta realized he had fallen to the steel floor, like a mechanical puppet, devastated, without power. Around him, the servitors whose primitive circuits simply failed to notice the digital Revelation that Doturov had seemingly bestowed upon all who were nearby, scurried obediently about.​

    The weight of his imperfection made Perseus want to cry out like Terran dogs for a moment. The ensuing realization of such a primitive impulse that desecrated the very essence of Adeptus Mechanicus put Logis in a long stupor. A less organized thinking apparatus would likely have been permanently incapacitated, but the Mars School of Logis taught its adepts the mysteries of an adequate description of states through tensor analysis under subliminal stresses. It took the mechanic a few minutes to break down the established topology of his mind and, with the aid of the blessed mechanisms of fuzzy logic, examine in isolation each node of the 'Perseus Theta' consciousness model in operation, bringing back clarity of thought. Simplifying the operation to an insulting primitive, we can say that Theta has 'come to his senses'.​

    And then he felt real, genuine terror.​

    The Titan standing before him was dead. Outwardly the divine machine, the physical embodiment of Omnissia's will - a small, insignificant part of His will - was the same as before, aboard the 'Kowalski. But. A particle of the Divine Will, a blessed gift of the Forge, embodied by hundreds of tons of sacred metal. A will that glides through the onboard cogitators and systems, from the reactor logic controllers to the combat auspices sensors. The very essence of a battle Titan, so powerful that few can match and cooperate with it. It's all gone.​

    The Spirit Machine of the 'Dog of War', the thing that turned dead iron into a child of Omnissiah, no longer existed.​

    Logis wouldn't be able to explain at this point how he realized it. He couldn't articulate what had changed in the info field. The onboard servitors were still plugged into their sockets, performing the proper rituals to bring the plasma reactor back to normal. The infodiodes at the princeps' throne signaled that the auspices had successfully passed the basic tests. The maintenance tech-priest - not the former crew, of course - was doing routine work on the turbo laser. But in a split second, the Titan was no longer the visible embodiment of God. He turned into an enormous walker, a senselessly overcomplicated wrench. A posthumous shadow of what he had been twelve minutes and forty-three seconds before.​

    Malevolis froze, unable to fully comprehend and perceive the monstrous sacrilege committed before his eyes. The infinite betrayal of the lamb, which is the machine spirit in front of Omnissiah.​

    "Connect the databank to the moderators consoles."​

    The instruction was repeated several times before the devastated logis realized that Doturov was speaking to him through a closed encryption channel. And a few more incredibly long seconds to understand the meaning of the message.​

    "Why?"​

    Lexicus Arcanus was patient because he understood well the suffering that filled Theta's soul. To realize that what had happened was not a sacrilege, a trampling on the foundations of the Mechanicus cult, but an act of true faith required flexibility of thought not constrained by the dogmatism of outdated interpretations or the emptiness of tradition. And, admittedly, the young Logis was still doing quite well.​

    "The universe does not tolerate emptiness, and the incarnation of God-Machine must not remain deprived of a spark of His will. Watch. Learn. Think. Execute."​

    The Martian servitors that had arrived with 'Kowalski' were fine-tuned, and their firmware interpreted even complex commands adequately. Two hundred and eighty-three seconds later a logis-operated forklift carefully placed the metal and plastic cube of the databank on the frontal slope of the Titan and secured it with electromagnetic clamps.​
    Logis Theta was so immersed in the Fuzzy Sets Litaire that he did not immediately notice the new request he received from Doturov.​

    "Do you understand what happened?"​

    "The Spirit of the Divine Titan 'Dog of War' scheme Mars Type Four, code XVII-1441, name 'Kronover' was destroyed by the will of the Mars Parliament."​

    It took a few seconds for Perseus Theta's answer to contain not even a shadow of his worry and horror.​

    "How exactly?"​

    "Litany of God."​

    "Explain."​

    Logis had to spend another minute to reconstruct at least fragments of the algorithms picked up by his sensors overloaded Omnissiah code.​

    "Fractal method. Self-similarity of induced traffic in the data stream. Inconsistency of Titan's network elements with the generated model led to chaos in dynamic control systems."​

    "And?" Doturov's hexacode looked... approvingly?​

    "Application of the fractal theory instead of graph theory led to unjustified overloading of the model, and as a consequence, inconsistency of the results of the Spirit of the Machine representation with the real behavior of the network of onboard cogitators. Unsteady data flow with significant fluctuations in time... I have to do the math. I do not have enough capacity of my own to respond in a reasonable time."​

    "This is generally true. The necessary calculations were done before the Great Schism. I used the standard annihilation pattern."​

    The standard pattern of machine spirit destruction... It was so monstrous that Theta almost went into a new cycle of deep introspection and recovery.​

    "But why?!" Malevolis understood that it was not the cold logic of the Omnissiah way that ruled him now, but the animal nature of the human basis. And yet he could not contain his emotions.​

    "Why the need for such... destruction schemes?!"​

    "There are millions of Forges in the galaxy. Millions of worlds, day and night with signal, genome, and steel, praising the Trinity. Tens of thousands of Fabricator Generals lead their flock on the path of Omnissiah. But only one speaks for all Adeptus Mechanicus. One world. One path. One Fabricator General."​

    "One world..." Theta repeated.​

    "This is the real power of Mars. The unquestionable, unconditional, true power of the Temple of All Knowledge. We can crush any threat, destroy any techno-heresies, win any dispute. For we know their nature, their structure, their methods. Any, the most elaborate scheme of the enemies of Omnissiah will be but a travesty of its gifts. Everything that the distorted mind of heretics can create is already predetermined and counted, and therefore can be destroyed by the will of Omnissiah."​

    "I... I should think about it..."​

    "For a better understanding, familiarize yourself with the concept of the 'simia Dei' from Ancient Terra history."​

    "Yes, I'll do it... But why?!" Theta couldn't stand it anymore. "Why was the Spirit of the Titan killed?"​

    "Only one consciousness should exist in one body. Any semblance of 'reflexes' would create unnecessary risks."​

    Around the Throne of the Princeps and the cockpits of the moderator scattered lights of the control panels and holographic monitors. The reactor was successfully launched.​

    "But for the tasks to come, this is the incarnation I need now. If it endures the trials, the Spirit of the Machine will be restored in it."​

    The electromagnets shut down at the same time as the moderator cables slipped out of the cantilever connectors. The cockpit covers fell with a rumble, covering the empty cockpit with hundreds of kilograms of flawless armor born in the smelters of Magnos Omicron. The databank cube collapsed with a rumble onto the concrete slabs of the hangar, empty and useless, stripped of its precious contents.​

    In the semi-darkness of the hangar, the greenish glow of the Kranover's eyes slowly flared.​

    "IN THE NAME OF ADEPTUS MECHANICUS AND TO THE GLORY OF THE GOD MACHINE!!!" Titan's binary roar echoed through the infofield.​

    "In his name," Theta exhaled reverently, falling to his knees, realizing that he was now admitted to something beautiful, delightful in the perfection of truth.​
    * * *​
     
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  17. Threadmarks: The Squad Chapter 15
    RiP

    RiP Seeker of Silence

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    Chapter 15
    Now...

    * * *​
    Everything happened quickly, and at the same time, Olga again saw what was happening as if perception accelerated many times. The blue glow of the fuse, the soft click of the flamethrower's trigger opening the valve. The sharp smell of acetone hits the nose, misting the head - no gas mask.

    The clap of the ignited oxygen-enriched promethium-based fire mixture slammed in the ears, sounding like a stretched 'v-v-v-voo-uuuuuuuuuuu!!!'. Even from the wagon briefing, Olga remembered that this was the most dangerous moment in flamethrowing - the first ejection from the 'cold' barrel. The propellant may not ignite immediately, and when it does ignite, due to evaporation it will be analogous to a small thermobaric charge. Not much, but enough for the operator and everyone who will be nearby. It is a design flaw, deliberately made to pay for the non-fixed ejection (i.e. it pours as long as you pull the lever) and the ability to keep the gun at ready for hours.

    This time it worked properly. A jet of a whitish liquid, hitting under the blue tongue of the igniter, instantly flashed orange-yellow. The fiery flash dazzled for a moment so that Olga squeezed her eyes shut and did not see how the exhaust covered the sentinel insectoid. When the girl opened her eyes, the creature had already rushed forward silently and with terrifying force. The still-transforming flesh caught fire, dropping hot droplets like plastic on fire or a candle over a fire. The remnants of her hair turned to ash, her skin dripping in sizzling streams, revealing gray muscles.
    The human fly had turned into a veritable torch in a couple of moments, but it didn't seem to hurt its fighting ability.

    The chain broke at once. Or maybe that's what it was intended for - to hold the weak human form of the guardian, but in case of an emergency allow the fighting incarnation to break free. The six-legged blob of fire hovered in a mighty leap. And Olga caught a powerful flashback. Almost, in the same way, the monster from the 'Ballistic' jumped on the three-meter 'astartes'. That one was stronger than the entire squad combined, but it lost the fight. So now it's all clever, too.

    Olga staggered backward and hit her back painfully - the gas cylinder hit Luct, hard and unmovable like a stone rolled in concrete. The flaming creature leaped in one leap - just like an insect - to cover most of the distance from the vent to the group. It crouched on its supporting paws, ready to burst into formation.

    The mighty servitor extended his arm forward as if pointing at the beast, and the ugly head with its faceted eyes exploded. At first, Olga saw a tear and a fountain of dark slime, which instantly caught fire. It was as if gasoline was flowing through the monster's veins instead of blood. And then the sound of a shotgun blast slammed into her ears and stunned her completely.

    The many-legged figure was still moving, even trying to move, but aimlessly, apparently on reflexes. Only now did the monster make some sort of sound, the first since the transformation. It was more like a loud whistling exhale, bursting through the flames. And, as if to answer the call, the water in the pool boomed. Dark splashes came over the high rims, splashing against the tiles.

    "Back off!" The Mentor tossed, and there was no need to explain. It was clear to everyone that holding the defense in the tunnel was much easier, with one flamethrower for each side and order. Olga did not hear the command but moved with the others.

    The Priest snorted as if to clear his throat, but perhaps in contempt of the enemy. Retreating, he quickly twisted the valve on the cannon, adjusted the pressure, and raised the barrel. Olga did not see the look of anguish on Savlarz's face and the pained anticipation of something extremely bad. What happened next was something that might have seemed amusing, if not for the circumstances. The Priest shot a thin stream of acid in a steep arc, just like a naughty boy pissing over a fence. And it hit, and on the first try, causing an immediate effect.

    The water hit a real fountain, with such force that it tore some parts from the crane structure above the pool. From beneath the black and bubbling surface came a terrible sound, low and lurid. It was as if an infrasound generator had been turned on somewhere in the depths. A growl broke through even Olga's temporary deafness, resonating with every bone in her skull. The Priest yelled something and kept pouring acid into the pool. Apparently, whoever (or whatever) was trying to get out of there didn't like it at all.

    "The Emperor," said Fidus quietly and clearly, who was the first to notice how the fat-smelling carcass of the insectoid was engulfed in a bluish-green flame, like the firing of a wire. Then strange symbols exploded in the smoky, foul-smelling air. They flashed for literally a split second, dancing like mischievous flames of acid colors. The next moment, it was as if the lights had been turned off for the entire squad.

    And then turned it back on.

    Olga fell to her knees, stunned and blinded. A cramp tied her esophagus in a knot, but there was nothing left for nausea, not even stomach acid. There was only a wheezing exhalation as if the soul was tearing itself out, no longer willing to endure the ordeal of the body.

    "The Emperor is with us, the Emperor is with us, the Emperor is with us," the monk muttered like a frenzied. Bertha simply yelled, restoring at least some semblance of discipline and order.

    "Get up..."

    Kryp's voice came very muffled, from a distance but still, it penetrated Olga's clouded consciousness. And it seemed to her that everything around had become too bright and radiant. Is
    everything on fire already?

    "Get up!!!"

    She was yanked to her feet like a feather. Maybe Luct, maybe Fidus, who was no weakling. He was two meters tall, the big guy should have been given a cylinder. Fucking bastards, they found a weak girl to load with heavy iron...

    A firm hand prevented Olga from falling, acting as a desirable and precious fulcrum.

    "Stand still, take a breath."

    No, it seems to be Fidus. Luct mechanically reloaded the barrel with precise movements.

    The girl breathed and blinked as commanded. Then she looked around and gasped.

    "Kryptman!" yelled Bertha. "What demons?!"

    "Teleportation..." Cripe said clearly, military-style. "Part of the guard system, I think."

    "I don't get this shit!"

    In a few chopped phrases, Kryp explained that in the pool hall the uninvited guests were waited for by a combined guard system, powered by some 'well into warp. If the mutating beast failed, it triggered a teleport that tossed the intruders out to who knows where. Probably along with the rest of the inhabitants of the house. But something went wrong. Or right.
    In sum, so far everyone is alive, but it's not clear and probably not for long.

    While Fidus was spouting off a quick sentence, Olga looked around frantically, trying to understand why everything had changed so drastically. Someone's dramatic voice overrode Fidus' report with a shriek:

    "This is not the Ice Port!"

    And then Olga realized - yes, it's anything but a snowy planet of eternal winter.

    Most of all the new landscape reminded one of American movies from the eighties about the apocalypse and life in the ruins of civilization. Not total destruction, but a kind of natural decay like Escape from New York. That is, the city itself seems to be intact, but it has fallen into decay, depopulated and is rapidly being destroyed by its natural course.

    The squad was thrown into an alley between two brick houses, each ten stories high. The lower levels are boarded up with planks of real wood. Another indication that this is not Ice Harbor. The wood is musty, rotten, and moldy, which means it was nailed up a long time ago. Next to the squadron is a rusted boxcar with a streamlined shape, coming from the fifties, when everyone tried to show it like a rocket. All that was left of the car was metal and remnants of synthetics, and the rest had turned into a crumbly mass. Frames of what looked like advertising signs or screens hung from rusty brackets on the grimy walls. They were scratched with shards of murky brown glass, like the ones in the blind windows.

    The alley was very dirty, most of the garbage, from paper to torn bags, piled up in clumps like cowslips. And Olga didn't notice anything that looked like vegetation. No fallen leaves, no grass, not even moss. The only slimy mold that looked like snot. And if it's been abandoned for a long time, there should be a lot of flora around... But there isn't any, though the humidity is so damp that if you hang out wet laundry, it will rot before it dries.

    A flash of rage lit up Olga's brain - when will it all end!!! Again the witchcraft, again the incomprehension all around! It shouldn't be like this! It's all tiresome!

    "Fuck the evil!" The girl growled muffled into the high collar of her jumpsuit, just to express her attitude to everything that was going on. By 'evil' Olga meant the Squad too, thanks to which she was once again unknowingly and definitely in danger.

    "You are pious, sister," the Holy Man appeared to hear and approve. "Keep this way!."

    Olga pressed her lips into a string, holding back the bursting out of a precise, exhaustive, and very colorful definition of exactly where the girl saw Witchcraft, the Squad, the Imperium, the Emperor, and piety at the same time.

    "We came into the house in the evening," thought aloud the Wretched Man. "So it must be night now. Maybe it's early morning. And here it looks like evening. But we haven't walked all that much..."

    Fidus looked at his watch and remained silent.

    "It's not our planet," Savlar squeaked out in a droopy voice, sniffing loudly with a nose hole.

    'Maybe just a different time zone," Kryp encouraged.

    "There's no landscape like that on the Port!" Savlar cried out in despair.

    "So the 'pocket' is local, inconspicuous. I don't think it's another planet. The teleport worked too quickly and carefully."

    "If you wet your pants again, I'll shoot you, panic-stricken," Bertha promised as she shoved her mega-gun under the convict's absent nose. He shut up.

    "It's not Warp, that's good," the monk said, spinning on the spot with the chemical cannon at the ready. Demetrius, showing 'his fiercest grin,' jerked the slide of the submachine gun, sending the unused round flying in a long flight. The brass cylinder jingled, rolling over the dirty asphalt until it stopped in a puddle of some kind of yellow-pink splotches. In time with the tinkling of the metal, soft laughter rang out high above our heads and farther away, like crystal bells.

    The group closed in, barrels bristling in every direction. The smell of toxic chemicals from the recent volleys of flamethrower and chemical cannon was literally suffocating, tearing at my nasopharynx. Luke panted as if he were preparing for a brisk run, oxygenating his tissues beforehand. Olga, as the shortest and most non-combatant, found herself in the middle of the formation. In addition, frightened crouched down, so that for a few moments could not see anything because of the wide backs and heads. And someone continued to chuckle merrily high up.

    "Sorcery," Demetrius whispered, and the Wretched Man cursed softly but floridly.

    "Definitely," Kryp said, as if someone was asking him.

    " Oh, what cute boys visited me," the invisible one reported cheerfully. The voice sounded strange as if it were double - first, it appeared in my mind, by itself, and then, with a tiny delay, it manifested itself more traditionally.

    "Oh, and there are girls among you too! What a nice and pleasant company!"

    Olga finally straightened up more or less. She lifted her head, stood up on tiptoe to look over her colleagues' shoulders... And she saw that one of the old, long blackened panels had sparkled with lights. As if someone's magic hand had carved a beautiful portrait and placed it in a squalid frame. Beautiful, but most importantly, alive.

    Olga had never seen anything like this before. At least here, in the future. Televisions were plentiful here, but very primitive, like the Soviet classics. Only worse in every way. There was also holographic projection, many times better, but it was very rare. To all appearances, it cost some unrealistic amount of money, and in addition, it could only be operated by 'cogs'. Here in the old frame shone and shimmered amazingly clear, three-dimensional picture, which seemed to be three-dimensional, despite the apparent 2D. Moreover, with each second of viewing the image was getting closer, becoming deeper, more three-dimensional, literally drawing the attention and gaze of the observer.

    It was portrayed there... Olga had never been a prude and the situation and the preceding events did not dispose to embarrassment. But looking at the bright rectangle, the girl felt that the heat rolled from her toes and higher, up to the tips of her ears, which were about to burn through the orange plastic helmet.

    It was some kind of crazy collage, a string of images that couldn't even be called hard porn. A merry-go-round of static images and short clips, literally four or five seconds long, flowed into each other with a smooth rhythm that was surprisingly in harmony with the heartbeat and the natural movements of the eyes. The images seemed surprising, prohibitively vile, the brutal violence was the mildest form, flowing into overt snuff and interspecies bonding. But...

    Olga had never practiced photography, so she could not express in words that the categorical abomination was created with a prohibitive, inhuman skill. The light, the foreshortening, the camera movement, the movements of the models, the people themselves, not quite people and categorically not people who were captured by the dispassionate gaze of the lens... She could only feel herself being drawn in by a video extravaganza that went as far beyond pornography as the sea surpassed a puddle. It had gone out in every sense, from the ingenious editing to the utter gloom of the 'plots'.

    She wanted, at last, to throw off the burden, sit down on the hood of the rusty car, and take a closer look, to understand how it was done. How did the sketchy scenes of unbelievable perversion and savage sadism look like a divine revelation, images of the high painting? Why the grimaces of horrifying pain on the faces of delightful 'models' border on smiles of incredible pleasure, succeeding each other in harmonious perfection.

    First, the world cracked and exploded, then came the pain, not lovely and decadent as in the mystical video, but down-to-earth, real, and very nasty.

    "Wake up!" Kryp commanded, rubbing the palm with which he had slapped the girl. The Inquisitor looked very pale, just as he had when he was dying of terrible injuries.

    "It's an illusion!" Fidus shouted, giving generous kicks mixed with slaps. Olga shook her head and saw that she was not the only one caught in the illusionary net by the attractive disgust. The other squads, just like Olga, flinched at Kryp's blows, twirled their heads, and generally looked like people who had awakened from a dream, but their minds were still in the bonds of a nightmare.
    "Wake up! Wake up!" yelled the inquisitor, slapping at Savlar's noseless face, who rolled his eyes and settled down on his knees, folding his hands like a penitent sinner. The convict waved absurdly away, muttering something like a somnambulist.

    Fuck, thought Olga, rubbing her throbbing temples. He reads poetry! A convict face, all masquerading as an experienced prisoner, who stay strict on prison ways and had not escaped except the Alcatraz. Yes, he was reciting poems of great and bright love in an almost prayerful ecstasy. And he was good at it, damn it! Like a man who has been polishing his pronunciation and syllable for years. I guess he was not deceived by the first impression that Savlar was not really a seasoned up convict, not at all...

    "Break it! Smash it!" Kryp yelled at the top of his voice.

    Bertha's cannon shot hurt her ears almost as much as Kryp's palm. The live screen failed after the third shot, showering a rainbow of splinters. Each one fell slowly, like fluff, and each one became a different picture, defiantly hideous and delightfully beautiful. Each beckoned and promised and showed...

    The Priest spun the valve, switching the gun to a wide spray. He praised the Emperor and pulled the lever, spraying the mirage with a fountain of smoke like a shower nozzle. The sorcerer's shards died slowly, blurring in blotches of every color of the rainbow, falling to the dirty pavement, glowing like little drops of sunshine. And yet it died.

    "Oh, our God the Emperor," someone murmured in shock, seemingly a Holy Man.

    But the Sinner did something quite simple. He took a knife and poked out his left eye, which had seduced his master with demonic temptations. He would have gladly got rid of the right one as well, but his duty demanded that he remain combat-ready, and a blind man is not a warrior. Olga, however, did not see the penitential self-torture, for she was looking at the figure that lurked behind the mirage.

    She had been here from the beginning, but she was lost in the glitter of high-fashion pornography. A thin female figure, as if carved out of crystal, dressed in something weightless and as crystal-sparkling. A silhouette that makes you think of Disney fairies, it seems that now the dragonfly wings will open and carry the enchanting creature away.

    "Well, the mirror is broken. You are so boring..."

    The glow obscured her facial features, but her tone left no doubt - the 'fairy' pouted capriciously.

    "Go away," the Priest demanded sternly but did not hurry to spray acid.

    " Ay-yi-yi-yi, a corpse servant," the 'fairy' reproached, and her voice rang even more invitingly, even more charmingly. Olga had never felt a predilection for her own gender, but at that moment she wanted to embrace and kiss the crystal enchantress with a, not at all sisterly kiss. Judging by the companions' needy breathing, the sorcery had got everyone hooked. She wanted to fall to her knees and start worshipping the 'fairy'.

    "You came into my house and started breaking my toys roughly. That's not nice.

    Now there was a clear menace in the sparkling figure's words, and the voice itself had changed, with a growling, bassy tone, as if the human voice had been brilliantly, but not perfectly, imitated by a wolf's mouth.

    "Let's shoot?" Demetrius asked softly, gripping the hilt of his weapon until his fingers ached.

    "Wait," Kryp said just as quietly. Then he turned to the 'fairy,' with some degree of bowing. "To entertain a host you must know his name. Or at least his kind. And we're not."

    "Enough talking," whispered Crybaby, who had even stopped sniffing his nose. "We must burn."

    His harness, which looked like an armored vest with a mechanical paw made of old plastic and hydraulic rods, buzzed loudly as if to emphasize his master's impatience.

    "Quiet," hissed Bertha, who must have thought of something. Behind her, the radio operator put on black ebonite headphones, twisting the controls on the radio. He seemed to be getting somewhere, or at least his teeth were chattering a little brisker.

    "I have many names, courteous young man," sang the 'fairy. "Guess it, you'll be rewarded!"

    The crystal figure shimmered especially brightly, beguilingly, and rested on the top rung of the empty frame. It was already barely hanging on by its rusted uprights, and now, after being shot by buckshot, it was a miracle it wasn't going to fall. Only a weightless creature could hold onto it. The creature assumed a graceful pose, full of frank appeal, so much so that Olga was tempted to change her orientation again.

    "I think you should be called by your master's name," Kryp reasoned aloud. "Who is your father? The Many-Faced Knower of All Ways? Or the Insatiable Longing for Perfection?"

    "Oh, what a virtuous young man," the figure laughed again. "You know the old names, it sounds like music! Inquisitor, isn't it?"

    "I had some relation," Fidus bowed again. "In the past."

    "What shall I say to you," the glittering maiden said thoughtfully. "My patron knows many ways, has many faces, is perfect himself, and therefore expects perfection from others, endowing them with the will to strive tirelessly for perfection! Does this answer your question?"

    "More than enough," Fidus grinned wryly. "Too direct for a follower of the Lord of Changes. A servant of the Tzinch would play with words more subtly. And too much about perfection, a worshipper of the Six."

    "Unless I'm deliberately misleading you, oh, my little connoisseur of harmless puns," the demonic creature clapped its little hands." What an interesting story you could probably tell, inquisitor boy..." With a slight sadness stretched the 'fairy' and flopped down on the pavement, hanging over the dirt at a height of a few millimeters, just enough not to touch it with the tips of crystal slippers. Behind the crystal maiden's back, the transparent wings did indeed unfurl, fluttering finely. Only not dragonfly-like, but more like a fly. This immediately brought Olga back from her fantasies to earth, making her remember the other 'girl' who was now burning away with the scraps of flesh that no one knew where.

    "About yourself..." The crystal mask turned as if looking for something among the tightly packed group. "And about her..."

    Olga swallowed, but her mouth was instantly dry so that her esophagus only went into a prickly spasm.

    "But, unfortunately, you don't belong here," the 'fairy' said with genuine sadness, and the charming voice again exploded with beast notes. "And you shouldn't be here."

    "Fire," Bertha ordered, and Luct, as if just waiting for that, fired.

    The servitor fired all eight barrels at once, so that the muzzle flames struck a meter ahead, scattering sparks. The crystal figure turned into a cloud of glass spray and vanished into the twilight air, leaving behind a shadow of whispers in their heads:

    Die.

    "Slaanesh, definitely," Kryp sighed, then added incomprehensibly. "Tzinchit wouldn't be able to resist."

    "What is there?" Bertha barked, turning to the radio operator.

    "We seem to be somewhere in this world," the Holy Man reported hastily. "There's a signal, but not enough range. Or the signal is too weak to penetrate. I turned the beacon on full, so hopefully, someone will hear it."

    "If they hear it, if they quickly pass it on to the authorities, if they fly in," the Priest enumerated. "It's hours. At the very least."

    "We're not at the Beacon," Savlar sobbed mournfully, losing his prisoner arrogance. "No one can hear us!"

    Bertha immediately gave him another slap, shouting 'Don't be a coward, you jailbird!

    "So it's probably a pocket," Fidus muttered. "And we're redundant in it... That means..."

    Olga gulped again and groaned softly in horror. An unhealthy atmosphere was concentrated over the dusky city, woven of dying light, hopelessness, and a distant but approaching sound.

    Unpleasant, very disturbing, promising much unpleasantness. It was as if a pack of wolves had surrounded its prey and was tightening its grip, only it wasn't the living things howling.

    "We can't get out by ourselves," said Fidus. "We have to retreat to a place where we can defend ourselves. If I'm right, all we have to do is hold out for a while, then the 'pocket' will collapse."

    "So now the long fun begins," the Priest concluded. "To battle, so help us the Emperor!"
    * * *​
     
  18. Threadmarks: The Squad Chapter 16
    RiP

    RiP Seeker of Silence

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    Chapter 16
    * * *
    No, they were not wolves. The throat of a living creature of flesh and blood could hardly make such a sound. It sounded more like a long musical note that hung in the heavy, musty air, unwilling to stop. It was an unpleasant, ominous note, most suitable for accompanying a horror movie. This kind of 'music' made her want to drop everything, to hide under a rusty car, to pull her hood up. And clasping her eyes shut, not thinking about anything, just praying that the Emperor would protect her because there was no one else. Olga felt her hands trembling, not with a nasty little shiver, but for real, with her hands dancing like a guitarist with an invisible instrument.

    "Don't be afraid," the servitor said. "I will protect."

    The cybernetic man himself inspired some confidence because of his ample size, but even more so because of his rugged multi-barrelled weapon. Fear of Bertha, as well as the thoroughness of Luct, made Olga twitch between the flamethrower and the servitor - more toward duty or safety.

    "Over there!" Bertha pointed to a doorway with the only hinge knocked out and sagging. "Take up defensive positions!"

    "No!" exclaimed Fidus. It was as if he had concluded something important that could not be delayed.

    "Betrayer?" The Mentor's gawked, and the shotgun aimed right at the Inquisitor's nose. "You don't follow orders."

    "It's a 'pocket'!" Fidus repeated the same incomprehensible and inappropriate word again. But now he explained. "Encapsulated area of space. A hiding place. A room to hide out in. Where you can't get in unless you have the right keys."

    "So what?!" Bertha yelled, turning her head around in an attempt to calculate the exact direction of the future and inevitable attack. In vain.
    The sound was getting closer. The musical howl now reminded Olga of the zombie chorus from Dawn of the Dead. A single thousand-voiced shriek seemed to come from everywhere, closing in on the surroundings. In any case, the small squad was too exhausted to escape. Unless they abandoned all their equipment...

    "You can't just get out of the 'pocket,'" Fidus chose his words hastily. "But it can be 'poisoned'."

    "What?!"

    "This capsule is not only a space capsule but also a time capsule!" Kryp began to wave his hands tragically with an expression of despair on his dirty face. Apparently so he tried to convey the idea to his interlocutors in the most expressive and understandable way. "That's why it's so safe! But if you stick something unfamiliar into it, it will work like a metaphysical poison! The 'pocket' will begin to be poisoned!"

    "I don't understand shit," the mentor said almost calmly as if to draw a line. "It's bullshit."

    "What would it take to do that?" The Priest suddenly intervened in the hurried conversation.

    "Destroy," Kryp breathed out. "We'd be strangers here, and that's why the demonic thing wouldn't mess with us. We have to make ourselves even more unwanted. And pray that it works. If we hold our ground inside the house, we can hold out until we run out of ammo. And then that's it."

    "Bullshit," the monk echoed Bertha's opinion, then thought a moment more and added. "But there's still no better plan."

    The Priest exchanged a glance with Bertha, and they both nodded at each other.

    "Brothers and sisters!" the monk cried out. His throat sobbed and wheezed like a ruined speaker, making the preacher's cry sound particularly terrifying, like a trumpet voice coming from beyond. Perhaps from that very 'warp'.

    "It's bad enough that we're in deep shit! And even worse!"

    Optimistic, thought Olga, surprisingly sensible and calm. - 'Father knows how to inspire.

    But the monk's words sounded somehow... blunt. And honest.

    And still no chicken out, my friends!" In some alien argo the Priest continued his mini-sermon. "Because if it's too bad it doesn't end there."

    He thought for a moment and then repeated with unwavering confidence:

    "No, it doesn't."

    Olga, with the same detached calmness, realized that if now the pastor began to promise imminent salvation or bullshit about the mercy of the Emperor - that would be scary and helpless. But as it was, the Priest did not promise the impossible and was honest with his flock. Perhaps because he respected his colleagues too much in their difficult occupation and did not pour sweet water into their ears about obligatory salvation. And that was worth the price.

    The twilight was thickening, but the air itself exuded a putrid glow, replacing the light of the moon (which the Beacon didn't have anyway). In the unsteady, dancing shadows emerged hunched over figures, as if woven from little ashy whirlwinds. They howled in unison, in the same tone, but as if transmitting directly to their brains a boundless sadness and wicked sadness. Not like the house. The disembodied voice there was sad, too. Rather, it was like an angry, disembodied soul that had long since been disembodied and had been collecting hatred for the living for centuries. Hatred and thirst for warm blood.

    "Maybe we should go inside after all?" the monk asked curtly.

    "We'd rather burn ourselves there," said Bertрa reasonably, as she got into Kryp's idea. "And we need a big fire."

    "Well... then... BURN!!!" the Priest roared like an atomic train siren.

    And they burn.

    A long tongue of bright yellow flame swept over our heads as Crybaby cranked the spray to full blast and pulled the trigger nonstop. The whirring of the mechanized suspension was lost against the almost animal roar with which the fire burst from the nozzle. As it hit the wet walls, the holy promethium hissed loudly, evaporating moisture and slippery mold. A moment later, the Sinner joined the Crybaby, and the two-barreled squad attempted to light the whole city on fire. Or part of it, hidden in a mysterious 'pocket'.

    The ghostly shadow lunged at the squad, barely touching the pavement with its feet as if the otherworldly creature weighted a feather. The creature made a strange hissing sound, but perhaps it was the humming sound of hot steam refracting between the walls. Olga was deafened again by the thunder of the Luct shotgun, and the charge turned the attacker into a jagged blotch, like a drop of ink in a glass of water. The 'blob' hung in the smoky air for a few moments, then melted into nothingness. It was replaced by more and more.

    "Ring! The ring of fire!" Bertha screamed. The flamethrowers roared, spewing flames.

    Olga did not look around, did not look up, and was afraid to look down, under her feet. She stared into the window of the pressure gauge on the cylinder behind Crybaby's back, shuddering at the shots from Luke's shotgun, which struck her ears with the evenness of a metronome and the force of a sledgehammer. Servitor, like a real combat robot, sprayed one by one the creatures that tried to break up the squad's formation. Very quickly the turret-shaped shotgunner was joined by Demetrius and Crip, who got a Mauser-like long-barreled pistol from somewhere. The good thing was that the gray ghosts would dissolve with just one bullet, so Demetrius put the submachine gun into single-shot mode and handled the weapon surprisingly deftly. The enemies, however, were not ending. They were pouring into the street from windows and alleys as if the cursed place itself were relentlessly generating them.

    Almost everyone except the flamethrowers, the Priest, and Olga had some other pistols, so the team shot back vigorously. The balloonist had already partially lost her hearing and paid no attention to the servitor's shots. The black arrow on the white dial of the pressure gauge was creeping toward the end of the scale, marked by a strip of scarlet.

    "Where's the acid?!" Bertha yelled. Her voice was so high-pitched that even Olga, who was half deaf, sat down, wrinkling painfully.

    "It won't help!" The monk yelled, straining at his torn throat. "We'll die from the fumes! The masks are all gone!"

    The Mentor growled unintelligibly as she reloaded the combi-shotgun. Bertha had just kept her respirator.

    "Execute!" the Mentor promised. "Every other one! Loss of government property, violation of regulations and Statutes! I'll burn them in front of the ranks, you bastards!"

    "The threat multiplies," the servitor repeated monotonously. "The threat is multiplying, it can't be counted."

    Another shadow hovered in a long, slow leap, aiming again somewhere in the middle of the group. Crip took down his adversary with one shot and blew the blob apart with a second bullet, just in case, before the ghostly jets descended on Crybaby's head. Smoke and fire kept increasing, so the enemies couldn't break through the curtain of fire, and so they changed tactics. Now they attacked from the upper floors and rooftops, planning like flying squirrels.

    "More fire! More!" Bertha commanded, and in her voice, perhaps for the first time, there was a note of underlying fear and hopelessness.

    Walls, rusty car wrecks, benches that had fallen into themselves, caught fire badly - a lot of water, a lot of molds. But the infernal mixture of promethium and reagents stuck to everything like syrup, first the fire evaporated the water, and then cheerfully devoured the dried fuel. Even the peeling paint caught fire, spewing streams of black smoke and flakes of soot. Gray-white clouds of steam rose to the dead, motionless sky. It must have been beautiful from the outside-the brightest torch, shimmering red and yellow and orange, the only spot of light in the eternal twilight. The hot flames seemed to be beating the sullen gloom to death, and the desperate battle was at an unsteady point of equilibrium where neither side could prevail.

    The arrow on the pressure gauge hit the limiter pin, and Crybaby's flamethrower hissed and emitted a couple of drops of flame retardant for good measure. All that was left was the bluish glow of the ignition torch. Olga only now thought that it would be better to remove the spare cylinder in advance, and her hands were already performing a memorized and repeatedly practiced sequence of actions. Open the spring locks-holders in the machine behind the flamethrower's back, yank the empty cylinder, allowing gravity to drop it. In time to get her foot out from under the heavy metal. Then the bearer got tangled up in the harness and couldn't move the spare tank quickly from behind her back.

    Everyone seemed to be yelling, and personally at her. If the girl had had a pair of spare hands, she would have clamped her ears shut, because the savage screams penetrated even through the absorbent cotton of partial deafness. But as it was, Olga only clenched her teeth and twisted inhumanly, tearing either the tarpaulin straps or the overalls, or her skin and all together. At any rate, there was a crunch and a stab of pain under her ribs, closer to her back, as if some ligament had been torn. A stuck 'cradle' with a cylinder, which looked like a frame backpack, moved to my shoulder, and then broke off completely. It turned out that the carrier had broken not a rib, but a clasp that looked like a fastener.

    Olga lifted the bulky cylinder with the flammability badge in her arms so easily, as if she were carrying not nearly thirty kilograms, but a light cushion. Slide it in, secure it with the hook, click the locks. Crybaby stood all the while, crouching a little for the comfort of her short helper. And was silent, perhaps the only one in the squad. Either he believed in Olga, or on the contrary, did not expect anything from her. The girl felt herself in tears - it was very, very scary, and the acrid smoke burned her unprotected eyes.

    Connect the hose, turn the coupling five turns, no more and no less, or the connection will be loose or the worn thread will break. Fuel can go out, leaking in droplets before the first spark. And there were enough sparks. The squad surrounded itself in a ring of fire, becoming the center of a man-made fire. It was getting hard to breathe, even harder than before, to be exact. The dead air tasted like lead and settled in my lungs, like volcanic ash, cementing the alveoli.

    "Fire! Fire!"

    Someone yelled in a deaf ear and seemed to be punching the girl on the shoulder. Olga bit her lip until it bled and lost count of how many clutches turns there were. According to the instructions in such cases, it was required to immediately unscrew everything to zero and repeat according to the instructions, strictly on five, regardless of the circumstances and conditions. Because the explosion of the cylinder could easily kill everyone. Olga bit her lip even harder and decided that the Emperor was with her, and if not, let the team have some luck. And she did not change anything.

    A valve hissed, a whistle, fortunately far from the piercing sound of a loose connection. The arrow on the machine gauge behind Plaksa's back jerked to the beginning of the yellow bar.

    "Done!" In turn, the loader shrieked and slammed her fist into the flamethrower's shoulder. Crybaby squeezed the trigger, and the girl wiped an equally dirty, soot-covered face with the sleeve of her overalls. Waves of heat streamed in from everywhere except, perhaps, the gloomy sky. It was about time the troopers burned before they could get the 'pocket' to spit out the loot.

    Let them execute, thought the girl with weary hopelessness, and took off her helmet, cocking her head to catch at least a drop of coolness or the shadow of a draught.

    The Emperor's grace must have been with Olga because Demetrius shot another shadow before it swooped down on the humans. But most likely, the God of Mankind judged that the little handler was still laden with considerable sins, so He measured His mercy rather sparingly. A 'drop' that had almost dissolved at the last moment of existence touched Olga's face at the moment when she took off her helmet and raised her face upward.
    At first, nothing happened, and then, as if a red-hot needle had been poked into her pupil. And Olga was instantly blind in her right eye. She shrieked shrilly and, grabbing her face, rushed out without knowing where. To get away from the utter terror around her and the terrifying pain that ricocheted around the back of her skull and into the back of her head. The servitor did not fail here either. At the second step, he caught the girl and hit her in the back of the head with the barrel of his shotgun, then literally tossed her flaccid body into Demetrius' arms.

    "Closer ranks, friends," the Priest said almost calmly. He raised the barrel of the chemical cannon vertically and turned the regulator wheel with his thumb. "This is going to hurt. But it will be over quickly."

    The monk was clearly going to cover all his colleagues with an acid fountain. The Savlar wailed hopelessly, cooler and more bitter than Crybaby, squelching his nosehole. Sinner lowered his empty flamethrower and folded his arms across his chest, head bowed, clearly awaiting a glorious doom. Olga moaned in unconsciousness, beating like a caught sparrow in Demetrius' arms, who poured the contents of some medical bottle into her eye socket.

    "It's work!" Kryp screamed. "Look, it's work!!!"

    Around here, there was really... something going on. The city had looked like a set, built specifically for some mystical act, inanimate from the start, empty. Now it looked as if some force had drained the life and dull colors from the houses and streets around it. The three-dimensional picture had become flat, and it seemed that it was enough to take a couple of steps to get out of the frame, leaving the squalid image. To top it all off, the walls trembled.

    "His Grace is with us," the Priest wheezed, lowering the sprayer. The black chainmail creaked loudly with every movement.

    Grace or no grace, the 'pocket town' faltered, like a disturbing image on bad television. Bertha, holding the shotgun with one hand, stretched out the other and looked at the fingers peeking through the gaps in the torn glove. The jumpsuit had turned from yellow-green to brown, covered in soot and dirt. The fingers ached from the cuts, and blood droplets stained thickly on the rubberized leather of the gloves. But the hand was tangible, real, unlike the asphalt and sidewalk that served as its backdrop.

    Mentor clenched and unclenched her fist, feeling the pain of a torn fingernail. The grating of the spillway, on which Bertha stepped with her mighty boot - trembled, vibrating and blurring into a single gray smear. The sounds of the long-dead neighborhood faded, disintegrating into individual notes, which in turn faded like sparks in the darkness. Another shadow lunged at Savlar and passed through the convict without consequence. The noseless man shrieked in fear and was silent almost immediately, realizing that he was alive and in moderate health.

    "It worked," someone whispered almost reverently. "It worked..."

    In the statement lurked the question - had it really worked? Would the change that had begun not spill over to the guests who had uninvited them into a folded part of the world that had kept the frozen past frozen for God knows how many centuries? But then creation itself answered the fearful plea.

    The 'pocket' did indeed collapse. Very quickly, very rapidly, on a large scale - the edges of the visible world wrapped up against the starless sky like a tablecloth being removed from a holiday table with all its contents. A few moments and the city curled into a sphere, like a planet turned inside out, with life on the inside. A few more seconds and the sphere began to shrink toward the center, where a scarlet dot erupted, literally burning through the retina. It was completely silent, so the grandiose effect seemed chamber-like, completely unimpressive, not even scary.

    Bertha inhaled...
    ... and exhaled a cloud of steam into the snowflakes dancing in front of her nose.

    A jubilant shriek burst into my ears. First, a one-voice shriek - the Savlarr cried out over emotion and general happiness - and then a chorus, as the others became more aware of what had happened.

    "Saved, saved, saved," the Holy Man repeated monotonously, kneeling, raking the freshly fallen and dry snow.

    Crybaby clicked the lock slowly, tiredly, and let the flamethrower itself fall. The useless weapon slammed its metal against the frozen ground, hard as a rock. Though no... not the ground. Solid ice. The company seemed to be in an endless field of ice, jagged, with humps of hummocks and crevasses of cracks.

    Luct nonchalantly cracked his shotgun and loaded the only barrel with the last round. Then reported:

    "Threats are not observed. Negative temperature. Negative temperature. Negative..."

    Kryp did the odd thing; he walked over to the half-dead servant and leaned his forehead against the servitor's shoulder for a moment, clapping Luke on the back. The gesture would have been appropriate as a token of gratitude to an alive companion, but it seemed silly in the case of a half-robot. But Bertha found it touching and fitting in its own way. Without the iron-head and his precise firing, they probably wouldn't have died in full, but they would surely have lost someone.

    "Communication," the Mentor, as usual, went back to her pressing concerns before anyone else.

    "Yes, I am," replied the radio operator, rising from his knees and rubbing his frozen hands together.

    "Is it as you expected?" the monk asked Kryp. The inquisitor was torn between the call of duty and concern for the fate of Olga, whom Demetrius was dealing with.

    "Well... Not really," Fidus admitted honestly. "I was expecting it to collapse with us. And then..." he looked around.

    The scenery was dreary and joyful. Dreary, for it was a typical picture of the Ice Beacon. It looked like the company had been thrown out in the middle of a frozen ocean, on an ice shell that hid a dark abyss up to fifteen kilometers deep. Joyful for the same reason.

    "It's a kind of miracle," Kryp shook his head with a look of endless surprise on his face. "It's like we're not just strangers, but total strangers."

    The young inquisitor twiddled his thumbs as if he couldn't find the right words.

    "So 'poisonous' that... that this... 'pocket' didn't grind us into mush, but threw us through itself?" The Priest suddenly came to the rescue, and Fidus nodded appreciatively.

    "Yeah, that's about right. And I don't understand how it could have happened. What could have made us so..."

    He was silent and threw a quick glance at Olga, but immediately turned away, as if he wanted to hide his outburst of interest.

    "No, I don't understand," the inquisitor finished his thought firmly.

    "Well, well," the Priest said profoundly, clapped his mighty hands together, and jumped up, warming to the movement. The minister now looked like a
    dwarf - broad, stocky, and obviously flightless.

    "What about communications!" He asked the Holy Man.

    "I do, I do," muttered the radio operator. "Everybody's in a rush, everybody's in a hurry... And how to give it properly, if there's no tracking, no triangulation..."

    After a bit of fiddling with the transmitter, the Holy One lifted his head and reported:

    "We're at the Beacon. But it looks like we're on the other side of the planet. We don't have enough range. If a satellite passes over us if it picks up our beacon signal..."

    "I see," Bertha smiled with the sour expression of someone who'd filled her mouth with vitamin pills. "We have nothing to burn, so we have to dig ourselves in. The snow is a good insulator. We'll make a group and warm ourselves like polar Grocs with shared warmth. If the wind doesn't increase, we'll last about twenty hours."

    "How is she," asked Fidus quietly.

    "The eye seems to be gone," Demetrius said just as softly. "Completely dead flesh."

    "The touch of another side," the inquisitor said with restrained pain in his voice.

    "Yes. Lucky."

    Olga was still faint, lucky for her. The pain from the single touch of the transcendent entity was such that it pierced even her clouded consciousness.

    And the painkillers in Demetrius's medicine cabinet were very nominal. The skinny girl moaned and convulsed.

    "Let me hold her back..." Fidus suggested.

    "Yes, I'm going to give her a double dose of tranquilizer," the orderly continued.

    "What about the heart?" The inquisitor questioned, taking Olga's hands gently, with great care, but firmly.

    "It might not endure," Demetrius squinted, trying not to drop the ampoule with his frozen fingers. He couldn't work with gloves on, so he had to take them off. "But it's still better than..."

    He didn't finish, and Fidus just nodded silently in agreement.

    "Pull up the sleeve," Demetrius tore open the sealed bag of alcohol wipes with his teeth. His frozen lips moved with difficulty, his words muffled and slurred.

    The sky was already gloomy, but the storm front stood out against it as a coal-black streak and promised a storm within just a couple of hours. In such weather, no one would even take the planes up to search, and the machines that had already taken off would be turned back. A strong wind multiplies the cold by one and a half, and no one would make it to dawn. Then the wind and ice crumbs will sweep the dead to the bone, abandoned as a monument to human failures, which no one can find anyway.

    Luct silently and measuredly fumbled with the metal butt of his shotgun. The Wretch and the Sinner stacked the rubble into something like a low wall on either side of the big snowdrift so that it would provide some sort of shield against the brutal wind.

    The Savlar, scooping snow with his helmet, lamented another mournful song about the hard fate of an honest prisoner, who will first endure the guards, then be cremated. Mother would receive an envelope with ashes, a glazed finger, and a lower jaw (for identification and fingerprint confirmation), after which, of course, the old lady's heart would burst with grief. The noseless freak took advantage of everyone's fatigue and whimpered without fear of a beating. The anti-wind protection was worthless, the snow was dry and not sticky, but crumbled like glass chips. But better than nothing, maybe a few more hours of life.

    Luct finally broke the buttstock, even the steel frame failed and cracked at the weld. The Sinner silently handed the servitor a small hatchet converted from a Guardsman's hatchet. The blood that slowly oozed from his pierced lips dried, mingled with the dirt, then froze and turned his face into a horrifying mask. Demetrius wanted to help, but the Sinner refused the bandage, shaking his head silently.

    A cold wind peppered the handfuls of snowflakes that looked more like razor-edged ice crystals. The crew built shelter with the tenacity of doomed men clutching at the last straw. Until the moment when the silhouette of a winged machine flashed in the thundering twilight and the searchlight beam scrambled blindly, targeting the small group of men who had gone to hell and come back.
    * * *​
     
    Last edited: Nov 27, 2021
    Winged One, Xpsi, ATP and 2 others like this.
  19. Threadmarks: The Squad Chapter 17
    RiP

    RiP Seeker of Silence

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    Chapter 17

    * * *

    "He's alive," Essen Pale thought for a moment and clarified just in case. "They are alive."

    "Yes," agreed Schmettau. "But, to tell you the truth, that's the second thing I'm worried about right now. Or even third..."

    Such thinking aloud had become habitual for an inquisitor many years ago. To speak out a question, to deconstruct and dissect a problem or a difficult subject. Moreover, be sure that what was said would never, under any circumstances, escape to the side, not even a half-word.

    "I had planned to celebrate the end of Kryptman's life... But the Emperor," Shmettau raised his index finger meaningfully. "The Emperor."

    Pale, as usual, stood at attention with his hands at his seams. Now that the inquisitor had removed his wig, the patchwork of scars covering his perfectly bald head became visible. Essen listened intently, knowing precisely his primary duty - to be a mute witness to the great man's great thoughts. To make pertinent remarks from time to time. And, in exceptional cases, to act as an opponent.
    Kalkroit sat up, literally sprawled out in a chair perfectly suited to the anatomy of an old and sick man. He exhaled heavily, relaxing. It was not often that he could find time to rest his worn, but still native spine in peace, without unnecessary haste. And to think a little about a curious mishap.

    The white tones of the small cabin were peaceful, the porthole overhead offered a view of the immensity of the universe and helped broaden the inner horizons.

    "So what do we see..." The inquisitor continued to reason, both for himself and for the patient Essen. The apprentice listened patiently, understanding that the question was purely rhetorical.

    "We see a planet without a name, but with the nickname Ice Port. Or the Beacon."

    Schmettau raised a second finger.

    "The dying sun, the only planet. Cold. Nothing useful. However..."

    Third finger.

    "The system is a navigational center of sectoral magnitude. Beacons, as well as astropathic towers, are placed on artificial satellites and asteroids. But the control center and all the accompanying structures are planetary. So this squalor is more populated than it justifiably deserves. And...

    Schmettau paused for what looked like a theatrical pause but was not. The inquisitor was just thinking.

    "And we see the clearest example of duality. One could even say the dialectical opposite. Why the beacon? Because here, due to the well-known events, the Materium's substance has thinned. Is it a good thing? Undoubtedly. Navigators, Imperial Tarot operators, and astropaths will cling to the Ice Port with their hands, teeth, and other parts of their bodies that suddenly grow occasionally. But is there a downside?"

    Schmettau looked at Essen, who correctly interpreted the patron's gaze and said:

    "Yes, it is."

    "Exactly!" Kalkroit raised another finger. "Where Materium diminishes, increases accordingly... the other side. This means there's a lot of hostile forces, and the local services are working very hard. They've even tried to recruit me, and they're sure to try again. The cultists, the hosts, the rituals, the experiments of self-taught sorcerers... All are two or three or five times more frequent than the standard manifestations for planets of this class and level of population. But that's the price you have to pay for transport connectivity. Especially now, when the Sabbath grinder is just gaining momentum. Everything seems to be as it should be."

    The Inquisitor pressed a lever, and with a quiet whirring sound, the chair turned into a couch. Now Kalkroit was almost lying there, staring up at the transparent ceiling.

    "What do you think, my friend, is troubling me?" The inquisitor inquired, enjoying some peace for his worn backbone.

    If he wished, Schmettau could have replaced the spine long ago, either partially or entirely. As time passed, however, Kalkroit shrugged off the euphoria afforded by highly advanced medicine.

    Yes, it is possible to live long, it is possible to recover from such wounds as were fatal to the primitive people of antiquity. But by virtue of the same dialectic, when you acquire something, you inevitably give something in return. And already not young inquisitor began to appreciate humanity, expressed in quite real kilograms of living flesh. Too many prostheses, too much alien matter in his body... So much so that at times the Inquisitor wondered if he would ever cross the line that separates humans and 'cogs'.

    "I think it's a haphazard fluctuation in the manifestations of the Immaterium," Essen allowed himself to speculate.

    "Exactly, exactly," Schmettau nodded in time with the words. "Everything in the world develops in a sine wave, with ups and downs. But when we see an anomalous pattern..."

    The Inquisitor looked in the direction of the only table piled with printouts and individual picts. All of them displayed intricate graphs of varying degrees of detail. All of them repeated in various variations the same picture - a jagged line like a curved saw, then a sharp drop with a flat plateau and an equally sharp rise, much higher than the previous peak.

    Everything in the world has a cause. If you know the cause, you know the consequence. If you understand the consequences, you will prevent trouble," Schmettau freely quoted the 'admonition of the young inquisitor'. "And, I must say, I have a certain uneasiness..."

    The Pale made the appropriate expression of concern, coupled with the utmost attention.

    "... Because I see an anomaly that does not fit the statistics. First, a stable period of typical chaotic presence with ups and downs," Schmettau marked the movement with his palm, as if he were smoothing out invisible small waves. "Then the climax, when the Squad lost two-thirds of its manpower so that there is now one squad per radial and even less on the second category lines. The crap crawls out of the ocean, which ended up being disembodied, mobilizing almost half the planet, as well as the Fleet's forces. And then total silence. A drop-in activity to zero. In fact, remission."

    Shmettau sharply held up the fingers of his left hand with a closed 'plank,' as if he had cut invisible threads.

    "And now a new burst beyond statistical projections. How could it be?"

    "The first option is obvious," Essen had studied his commander well, so he knew exactly when to push Schmettau's thinking in the right direction. "This is part of an even longer cycle that goes beyond observable and reliable statistics."

    "And it's obvious, really!" agreed the inquisitor, staring out the window. "It makes sense. First a very long, well, by human standards, of course, a long band of ordinary disturbances, then a flash, and then a depletion reaction. Then now we are likely to see a long band of fading oscillations. And the beginning of a new cycle."

    He sighed.

    "It's a pity that there is little, too little, reliable data... And in their absence, once bitten, twice shy."

    The inquisitor was eloquently silent, again giving his student and assistant the opportunity to speak.

    "The second option," Essen said. "The unexpected factor."

    "Which one?"

    Essen spread his hands faintly, showing his empty palms.

    "I don't know."

    "Exactly," said the inquisitor thoughtfully. "As the ancients used to say, 'Ignoramus et ignorabimus,' that is, 'we do not know and will not know'... But we, like the guards of a besieged house, can only afford the luxury of not knowing, and that's only temporary."

    Schmettau folded the chair back into its traditional position. He slapped his broad palms on the soft leather of the armrests, beating out a simple rhythm.

    "And I don't like it," the inquisitor said into the white space. "I don't like it at all. The last time I saw something like this, there was a bloody pact on three sides. I don't think it's the same here, of course..."

    Schmettau dragged himself out of the comfortable embrace of his favorite chair. The waist immediately responded with a prick of insistent pain. The Inquisitor mentally showed the weak flesh a fuck, recalling where the compensatory belt had gone.

    "It seems to me that the Ordos forces in the Beacon system are quite professional and numerous," Essen suggested. "There's no point in doing their work for them.:

    "Your problem, my friend," muttered Schmettau, rubbing his kidney area. - Lack of fantasy. And a narrow imagination. Why should we care about any of that?"

    The apprentice could hardly suppress a smile. It was very amusing to see the great and terrible Schmettau grunting and massaging his sore back in an old man's way.

    "Maybe it doesn't. Maybe none of this means anything," Kalkroit elaborated. - Or maybe it's the other way around. The latter is evidenced by the disturbing movement of the Martians. The pot-heads are up to something, and their activity coincides so well with this... ...fluctuation... How bizarrely and strangely intertwined. The Beacon problem, Kryptman, the Martians. That girl, finally, for whom our conscientious hero has gone for the noose."

    "Sounds like the actions of a lovesick man," Essen allowed himself to surmise.

    "Oh, don't be silly," said the master. "Fidus had only one love, and we know her name. No. It was his conscience that drove him here. It was a sense of indebtedness. And whatever feelings I had for him, you must admit it was a worthy deed. A very decent thing to do. Though infinitely stupid."

    Essen pursed his lips, making a grimace of disagreement and even a slight confrontation. But he remained silent.

    "Maybe we were too hasty then?" Schmettau asked himself, walking around the chair as if kneading his joints, bent almost in half. "Maybe he shouldn't have gotten rid of the girl so rashly. Of course, she wasn't a heretic, but there was something about her... Something... ...about her. Strange. Unusual. And everything revolves around this... Olga-Olla. Kryptman is almost ready to perish, but then this little thing appears out of nowhere and saves him. And escapes from the Keymaster and his Soulseeker. If the interrogation sheets are to be believed, and I quite believe them. I also see the Beacon going into remission after a severe outbreak, but a new novice appears in the Squad, and almost immediately the planet is once again plagued by a series of unconventional manifestations. And it's clearly linked by the same network of perpetrators... And no one can tell what they want, throwing ordinary people to Warp without any system."

    Schmettau gritted his teeth and straightened, straining his back muscles like a corset around his worn vertebrae.

    "I don't believe in coincidences, Essen," the inquisitor chided, once again straight, hard, and looking like himself as the rest of the world knew him.

    "I. Not. Believe," he repeated as if to make the student understand even better.

    "As you wish," Pale agreed. "My tasks?"

    "Here's what we'll do," Kalkroit said. "First, try to pull old records from the local archives. The ones that have not been processed and summarized in the general statistics of abnormal occurrences. You might be able to pull something. I need a summary. Let's try to figure out if it's a 'long' cycle."

    Essen nodded, envisioning a long day of work using stims

    "Then we should talk to the potheads, but I don't want to, because it is pointless. Finding out the truth from these idolaters is like looking for brains in a servitor and soft-heartedness in a "host". Considering how many ironclads have piled their troops here, they are stubbornly waiting for something. And since they haven't shared their knowledge with the local Ordos, they're not likely to make an exception for me."

    Schmettau inhaled deeply and exhaled long as if clearing his lungs of perfectly conditioned and purified air.

    "We'll wait, too," the inquisitor finished firmly. "Patience is the lot of the strong and faithful. We'll wait and see how it ends."

    "And then? If something does happen."

    "Then?" Schmettau looked at the faithful Essen with mild surprise. "Then it's as usual. We'll improvise according to the moment."

    * * *

    Olga sat and looked sadly in the mirror, which reflected the haggard face of a blond girl with a very short haircut and a deeply sunken eye. The eye was red with tears and surrounded by a thick bruise. In the second eye socket was a black lens with a red dot, just like a terminator. A thin, ringed cable ran from the machine toward the temple and hid beneath the skin like an ominous drip. The temple itched and hurt, the prosthesis pressed against the orbit and hurt, too, and the optics didn't work. Service in the Squad was turning a new side of an asshole on a universal scale.
    As the medics in the next carriage the grim 'hospitalers' ladies explained to the girl sparingly, in fact, she was fabulously lucky. Contact with the otherworldly essence instantly stopped all life processes in the affected area, so that if that thing had touched, say, her forehead, she would have been taken to the working chamber of an atomic locomotive, used as a crematorium. To lose just an eye is downright lucky and a clear indication of His mercy. Olga nodded, folded her hands aquiline, and only clenched her lips tighter, remembering that the heretic's tongue was his enemy. Her eye still ached, the camera remained a dead piece of iron. The pills that were supposed to be taken to block the rejection were terribly bitter and caused bouts of vomiting.

    "Take it."

    With a loud clatter, the Savlar slammed a mug of water on the table. Olga looked at the convict in silence.

    "Drink," said the noseless man, and left, hurriedly, as if he feared he might be suspected of something good.

    After the maimed girl returned from the hospital infirmary, she was visited by almost all of her comrades-in-arms. Without further ado, with small gifts or just stingy approval. Only Madman and Mentor Bertha avoided the girl, and the monk looked at her strangely. But Olga was used to it.

    With a heavy sigh, the girl dissolved a glucose tablet given by Sinner in Savlar's glass. Sinner returned to his home wagon, put on a black pirate bandage, and left his mouth stitched shut, but replaced the unsanitary twine with disinfected fishing line. He took his food through a tube, driving Olga crazy with an ominous squelching sound that was all too reminiscent of the last days of her mother's life when the woman had already lost her mind and her ability to chew.

    Olga added a couple of vitamins to the cup, sour but invigorating, a gift from the Holy Man. She drank, thinking of sad things and remembering how the squad had returned 'home' - without honor or ceremony, like obviously suspicious individuals who might have sworn to all the evil of the world wholesale by kissing the devils of warp under their tails. Otherwise, it was as if nothing had happened. The train was stuck for a long time in some complex, very similar to the previous station - solid shops, towers, and towers - officially for the scheduled maintenance of the reactor. The giant steam locomotive was unhitched and moved to a hangar so that the train stood motionless on the spare track as a monument to itself. A dozen more wagons were hitched to the train as if they were preparing multiple increases in personnel, but as a result, not a single man was added.

    Even Smoker was said to have been found. By some miracle, he survived and, after wandering in the catacombs for a day or two, came out far beyond the district line, surrendering to the first patrol. However, the scout had not yet returned, apparently was under suspicion of unreliability.

    The pain was annoying. It was just strong enough to keep the person from climbing the wall on the one hand, but on the other, not to forget the sad fate of a cripple for a single moment. And it constantly itched where the metal went into the flesh.

    "Turn around."

    It was Demetrius who came in. Armed with the gifts of the 'Hospitallers' the ward attendant rubbed and smeared some ointment on the affected eye socket every three or four hours. This brought some relief, but little and only for a short time. Behind Demetrius loomed tall Kryp, but did not interfere in the communication, for which the girl was a little grateful inquisitor. She did not feel like talking. Not with anyone.

    Demetrius finished, collected the used tampons in a bag, and looked intently at the patient. The girl looked away. The orderly sighed and went to his room, not trying to reassure the cripple, for which she was also grateful. She had learned all the comforters on duty by heart from the hospital attendants. To hear once again that just an eye was a small price to pay for serving God the Emperor and other 'once is not a heretic' things would be unbearable.

    "Inexpensive to pay for life."

    "Fuck off, Fidus," said the girl, staring into the riveted steel where a window would have been in a normal wagon.

    Kryp went in anyway and sat down on the creaking couch against Olga.

    Don't you know what the "Fuck off" means?" Still not turning around, the girl clarified.

    "I know. I'm also an inquisitor. And I know how people pay for such... ...contacts," Kryp said very seriously. "Believe me, you got off very cheaply."

    "I'm so happy."

    "Not at the moment. But you will when you get more experience."

    "Maybe."

    Olga did not want to quarrel or argue, she hoped that Kryp would get tired of one-sided communication and disappear somewhere himself.

    "Believe me, it's really not so bad."

    This time she said nothing at all, stubbornly staring into the wall below the embrasure with the screws screwed on tightly. Fidus seemed to want to say something else, but then the siren howled. Olga had never heard such a sound before, though she seemed to have learned by heart all the signals of an armored train, from the emergency readiness to the command to stand down. The sound was not as loud as the battle commands, but as dull and ominous as a Chopin march.

    "Wow," said the Wretched Man in the hallway.

    Olga wanted to ask what it was all about and then decided to let it be another surprise. One more, one less, nothing good will happen anyway...

    "Put on your parade suit!" Berta commanded, as usual in a raised tone, with a solemn gloominess. "Everyone to the parade ground, five minutes to gather!"

    Olga had not yet been issued a parade uniform, so the handler limited herself to a cleaned jumpsuit with taped rips. Crip and Demetrius dressed in the same way. The others wore uniforms, something they seldom wore. They wore leather boots, gaiters, a sort of uniform without shoulder straps, of coarse cloth, with a canvas belt, a stand-up collar, and very wide breast pockets. Adepto Purificatum death row prisoners were not allowed to wear headwear.

    As she was descending the spiral staircase, an incident occurred - a crazed member of the crew, whom she had already begun to forget, suddenly rushed at Olga. The madman rushed at her out of the darkness, groped her, and screamed:

    "The baby. baby!

    Olga, in turn, squealed in fear, fighting back.

    "Back off, you freak!"

    It took a few moments to realize that the madman didn't want to hurt her. The maddened poor man clung to the girl and literally sobbed, repeating a single word. He seemed to want to break through some wall, to deliver a very important message, a matter of life and death.

    "A baby... A baby!" persistently, over and over again the Madman repeated, grasping Olga's clothes with his bony and surprisingly tenacious fingers, tearing at the thick fabric. "A baby!"
    He cried and screamed right in the girl's face. Through the combined efforts of Savlar and Driver, the unfortunate man has finally torn away and shoved back into the dark space between the levels of the wagon, where the Madman usually hid.

    "Oh, my God..." Olga whispered, leaning against the wall. She almost crossed herself and held her hand up just in time.

    "He's worried," Driver said, adjusting his hat. "He's been acting all weird since you fell in. But he was quiet before. Eh... I don't want to have to put him in a hospital."

    Only now, when all the personnel of 'Radial-12' gathered on the parade ground, Olga fully appreciated how small the team really rode on the atomic train. The girl thought that each wagon is at least one tank and a compartment of 'infantry' plus the crew of the actual armored train. The impression was reinforced by the carefully cultivated insularity of the carriages. And only now Olga realize that Bertha's crew was essentially the only combat unit of the 'Radial'. Well, another wagon of 'hospitaliers', whatever that means. Another dozen people of purely administrative apparatus, headed by the commandant, a band, a train crew with stripes in the form of a split atom.

    That's it.

    Immersed in unhappy thoughts, Olga did not immediately notice that an ugly structure, similar to a gallows cart, was being rolled from the far side of the hangar. Especially since it was being rolled from the side of the blind eye. When she noticed it, she hastily pulled her stomach in, trying to be completely invisible, thanks to the fact that her place was at the end of the line.

    Behind the structure, accompanied by guards from the 'arbitres', a man in a prison jumpsuit, badly beaten, was pacing dejectedly. It took Olga a few moments, and a murmur slipped through the formation, to recognize Smoker. The scout - presumably already former - could barely move his legs, and at times he hung on the guards.

    Silence reigned over the parade ground. A faint wind chased the snow, freezing her open cheeks. Olga could feel the growing hair on the top of her head. Beside her, a short Crybaby sniffled. A horn in the hands of a train trumpeter sounded soft, and a second musician banged on the drum. Bertha came out in front of the formation with a flamethrower in her hands.

    Oh, my God, thought the girl, feeling the shivers spreading through her body. Olga had to imperceptibly - at least, she hoped imperceptibly - lean on the shoulder of 'her' flamethrower. Crybaby squeezed her fingers softly as if urging caution and silence.

    The commandant, a tall old man with a wispy beard and lopsided sideburns, commanded something indistinctly. The formation tightened even more and stretched their chins forward in unison. Someone two or three men away from Olga was whispering a prayer. In the meantime, Smoker was dragged onto a wagon and chained to a pole resembling a miniature power pole. The scout moved his lips in silence, looking around as if he could not believe it was really happening.

    Bertha turned the regulator and lit the burner. In the silence, the fuse hissed loud and clear, like an angry viper. The commandant still slurred a short speech. Olga did not understand a word of it, concentrating on not falling on wobbly, trembling legs. She kept waiting for them to finally announce that it was all a harsh and fair demonstration, and now everybody disperses, unshackle Smoker, and go to the barracks, to probation. You can't kill a man - burn him to death!!! - just because he took a wrong turn when everyone was running panic-stricken?!

    Or it's possible?..

    A Priest came forward, holding a bible in his hand. The monk raised the holy book above his head and proclaimed:

    "His chosen servants! Praise our Lord!"

    "Praise Him!" The formation responded, folding their hands piously.

    "This man shows a cowardice," the Priest went on, shoving his bible at Blunt. "He had been entrusted with an honorable duty, and he betrayed the trust!"

    Olga wanted to scream at the top of her voice that the priest was crazy, just like everyone else here who was aligned in a single line on the frozen concrete. That anyone could have been in the poor scout's shoes, standing now in chains, licking the blood from his broken lips, under Bertha's gunpoint.

    She wanted...

    Crybaby, as if reading her thoughts, squeezed the girl's cold fingers tighter. Olga swayed and caught Creep's gaze, piercing, preemptive. The Inquisitor shook his head faintly. The girl bit her tongue for real, to the copper taste in her mouth. The bearer distinctly realized that now - and in the future in general - a couple of unfortunate words were enough to make her lean against the lattice pyramid of burnt metal.

    "But his sin will be atoned for in the purging fire! The body will disintegrate into ashes, but the soul will ascend to the Emperor if it is the mercy of the Sovereign!"

    "G-g-go..." Olga gritted her teeth, realizing that she could not even utter the word 'God'. And the Lord, whom she prayed for a miracle, had nothing to do with the evil deity of this world and these people.

    "Repent, coward!" the monk called, and Smoker finally managed to squeeze out a few words.

    "Forgive me," he mumbled softly, his lips struggling to move. "I'm sorry... I... didn't mean to..."

    "Die with honor," the Priest urged sternly. "Die with dignity! Die with humility and prayer on your lips!"

    He went to the pole and handed the book to Smoker. The condemned man kissed the edge of the bible with genuine reverence. He kept muttering something, the wind whispering isolated words:

    "Forgive... mercy... I repent..."

    The monk stepped back and nodded at Bertha, signaling. The guards also parted ways.

    "Emperor!" Smoker cried at the top of his lungs, his chains clanking as if he could only stand on his feet because of his bonds. "My God, forgive me!"

    Without further ado, the Mentor pressed the lever, and a bright jet of red flame pelted the executioner. The liquid promethium immediately turned the executed man into a living torch, and the heart-rending cry of the person being burned alive reverberated over the square.

    Here Olga decided she'd had enough and fainted. Right in the arms of Fidus, who managed to notice how the girl's legs were buckling and ran out of the line.

    * * *​
     
    Last edited: Nov 27, 2021
    ATP, Bogdan and Nerve like this.
  20. ATP

    ATP I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    Mechanicum want Olga.Problem is - Chaos,too.Poor girl.
     
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  21. Sleepwalker

    Sleepwalker Getting sticky.

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    In this separate chapter, I see black text on a black background in the night theme.

    Untranslated text.

    I think chapter 16 is missing.
     
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  22. Threadmarks: The Squad Chapter 18
    RiP

    RiP Seeker of Silence

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    Chapter 18

    * * *​

    The twelve-story white and gray building was a little apart from the main complex of the planetary spaceport. The building was typical of Beacon and stood out only for its restrained decor, laconic even by the standards of the poor world. No sacred symbols were adorning the walls, nor was the building itself a visible embodiment of the Faith in the ascetic style of some Forges who extolled the Omnissia revelations through geometry and proportions of linear size. Just a box of frost-whitened concrete, brick, and glass, only the many antennas of every caliber on the roof indicated that it was not a warehouse or an ordinary official's office building.​

    It was here that the headquarters of the Adeptus Mechanicus Expeditionary Corps was located. Magos, of course, approved of the visible images of the pillars of the God-Machine doctrines. But in this case, they decidedly chose practicality and inconspicuousness. A brick hangar with a corrugated metal roof and faded-painted gates safely sheltered the 'Dog of War' that had become the receptacle of Doturov's consciousness. Simple automatons - essentially just autonomous tech-priests manipulators - ran communications and power cables through the ventilation ducts, placing controllers as well as primitive communicators where no human engineer could reach if they wanted to. The servitors, combining the two floors, assembled the core of a field cogitator whose operator terminals sprawled across the building like zygotes of orc mushrooms. Doturov needed neither holographic projectors nor even simple monitors to perceive the information received from the entire planet. The data was directly downloaded to the titan's onboard data banks, from where it was read by the Martian's virtual connectors. The image of the frozen planet in Lexik Arcanus' mind was surrounded by many branching graphs. Sliding through them, one could learn literally everything that had been recorded in one way or another by at least one sensor or controller. From the trajectories of any of the eight thousand two hundred and seventy satellites to the weekly fluctuations in the price of wild muffalo wool from the northern continent's PDF expeditionaries.​

    Such information was overwhelmingly ignored by Administratum officials, perceived as useless. The imperfection of the human brain, even enhanced with Mechanicus implants, did not allow for the evaluation and processing of such volumes of data. Many radicals saw this limitation as a symptom of a severe malady, a sign of the inherent flaw of the Imperium and its control mechanisms. Others pointed out that reasonable approximation of parameters coupled with the use of probabilistic models made it possible to manage enormous social structures quite effectively. Where the Mechanicus deliberately went for fragmentation and reduction in the size of its administrative units, the Administratum managed sectors of hundreds of thousands of star systems, with the ability to concentrate truly grandiose forces when necessary.​

    It was no mistake or miscalculation that this power might now be useless. Every tool has its limits of effectiveness and its applications. The truth about the hydraulic press and the quantum flaw detector, coming from the depths of millennia, was only proof of this. The strength of Mankind lay in its variability, in having the tools to solve any possible problem.​

    That was the true meaning of the Olympic Treaty.​

    Doturov's attention was divided into thousands of parallel processes, which in turn branched off - unpredictably and chaotically from the perspective of an outside observer. Not a single bit of useful data could slip past the Martian's keen attention. It occurred to Doturov that such efficiency, now available only to a few in the highest hierarchy of Mars, had once been commonplace for A.I. during the Dark Age of Technology. A major evolutionary advantage and, at the same time, a major vulnerability.​

    Those who strive only for machine perfection ignore the undeniable fact that artificial intelligence has lost in the global contest, despite its apparent superiority, noted Martian. The desire to become completely similar to the losing side leads to inevitable defeat. For a mind without a soul is absolute heresy.

    "The princepses are requesting schemes of moving," came a message from Logis Theta.​

    Doturov's consciousness slid up the logical chains, bringing the processed data into a coherent picture. The image of the planet was covered with additional markings, like the bloodsucking little insects that swarm around northern muffaloes in search of areas not covered by thick wool.​

    Certainly, additional analysis would have yielded even greater accuracy, and ultimately indicated unmistakably the single point in space where the Immaterial would (perhaps) merge with real space, but time... Decision time has always been as important a constraint as the resources available.​

    "The first maniple - 'Arbogast', 'Dughem', 'Conn', 'Lissajous' and 'Potenot' - remain to cover the spaceport. The reserve of maniple is 'Killing'. The second maniple - 'Bessel', 'Dirichle', 'Krell', 'Runge' and 'Zermelo' - move out to the Lerke district. The reserve of the second maniple is 'Kronover'. Legion 'Etwesh' is deployed to the supply bases along the specified perimeter. Geller drones are distributed to the centurions of the legion, in the operational subordination of the tribunes. The full readiness for the blockade of the capital and the port should be achieved within forty hours from the moment the signal is received."​

    "Is a riot expected in the city?"​

    Doturov sent Logis an encrypted infodump with an extract of the transgressions of planetary governance. Illegal financial transactions, advertisements on closed channels, pornography, drugs, forbidden services - all the things that inevitably germinate in the shadows of any human community from its inception.​

    "This is the standard background of highly organized crime in a segmentary society with elements of polycracy," Logis allowed himself to object after reading the data. "However, there is not the slightest reason to believe that there is any meaningful opposition here, ready to challenge the legitimate authorities of the Imperium. Are you suggesting that the analytical systems of the Administratum have missed something significant?"​

    Forming his answer to the Logis, Doturov concurrently thought about the philosophical aspect of the problem of data analysis.​

    Cogitators of Abominable Intelligence was the unattainable pinnacle of computational development, but even then the intuition of people of a certain kind and the decisions they made often surpassed the capabilities of machine worlds. For in a crisis there is always a 'jumping off point' into a dark future that even artificial intelligence cannot adequately predict. Yes, based on past and present data, the cogitator models the future with a more or less acceptable probability. By making a decision based on the data presented by the cogitator, the operator changes the process of development of the situation and, consequently, the distribution of probabilities. A new calculation is made, a new forecast is made, which prompts a direction of a different choice. It is possible to determine this direction by the method of successive approximation in a zigzag manner, by the type of 'Brownian' motion​

    But in some cases, what people call 'intuition' detects the 'shortest path' more quickly and accurately. In this case, losses are usually minimized. Reality consists of countless large and small, different in amplitude and speed phenomena, which, mutually influencing each other, form a giant system of unimaginable complexity. No calculator will ever be able to contain all the possible and accounted for components of reality. And if it does happen, there will still be unpredictable dark regions of unaccountable excesses, as the 'Laplace demon' points out.​

    But not today.​

    Doturov sent Perseus the following infodump. Astropath data, paired with Arbitrator reports, reports from Inquisition investigators who have visited the system six times in the last two centuries, visual images of Navis Nobilite, and threat models of Adeptus Astra Telepathy.​

    "Pairing of Immaterium?"​

    "Correct."​

    "Unpredictable consequences?"​

    Predictable with the appropriate array of inputs, which at the moment we do not have. So we will limit ourselves to stating 'inevitably destructive'.​

    "Will the metropolis be evacuated?" Theta asked persistently.​

    "Only after the commencement of conjugation. There is ample reason to believe that the specific parameters of the event in question may have noticeable deviations due to the deliberate actions of the renegades. And, since the renegades can adapt their strategy based on anticipated opposition - the Mechanicus forces will be waiting. Invisible to possible infiltrators in the structures of the Administratum."​

    "Do we need to be prepared to confront the Dark Ones?"​

    "I have not met any techno-heretics capable of avoiding my attention. And I don't see them now."​

    "I'll give this task a medium priority," noted Perseus Theta. "Within one hundred and forty minutes the Kronover will be ready to move out."​

    Doturov was pleased. His protégé did not dismiss the unlikely danger on the basis of a high-ranking magos's assertion, but he did not devote too many resources to countering it, diverting them at the expense of the main tasks. Perhaps the results of the operation would show Theta to be effective enough that the benefits of his existence would outweigh the possible costs.​

    Magnos Omicron's majestic titans lined the main highway in a single wall. No war flags were hanging from the gun drives of the 'Dogs of War,' as they were accustomed to from official Picts and ceremonial releases of the allowed imperial news. There was no symbolism to indicate the types of godlike machines, their arms, the triumphant banners of victorious campaigns, or the number of victories. The titans who landed on 140101-55524-R54024-52928P10 had not yet experienced the fury of battle and the thrill of battle. And what's more, they weren't even formally part of any Legio. The twelve 'Dogs of War' requisitioned by Doturov remained a nameless operational unit of the Collegium Titanica.​

    From a certain point of view, the decision of the Lexic Arcanus was defined as a blatant violation of protocols. The deployment of Collegiate manipuli without secturian foot cover was not allowed in peacetime and was categorically forbidden in war. Just as a giant beast can be stung by a swarm of individually insignificant insects, so sudden attacks by heavily-armed infantry at close range pose no small threat to titans. However, the formal nine-hundred-kilometer march of the second manipula to Lerke was declared a 'cycle of field trials' in a neutral environment, and there was no one in the entire sector who could challenge Doturov's decision.​

    The cannon limbs of every second ''Dog'' lowered in synchrony. A long siren sounded over the frost-covered steppe, and the stunted shrubs seemed to tremble in terror, shaking their thorns. Six machines resembling wingless birds lifted on bending backward legs and stepped forward in unison, shaking the frozen ground, kicking up clouds of snow. The roar of the rapturous crowd from the city and port side seemed to fill the entire space. The divine machines of Mars were treading on the ground of Beacon, and that meant that the planet was safe.​

    The 'Dogs' stepped forward, looking like ravenous lizards searching for their prey's trail, and then moved forward in giant strides, incredibly agile and fast for a machine of this size.​

    The six titans were rushing across the snow-covered steppe at about forty to fifty kilometers per hour. Of course, the word 'rushed' might seem inappropriate to describe the machines, each of which rises to a height of fifteen meters and weighs nearly five hundred tons. The power and majesty of Mars are undeniable, but the laws of physics rule even over its creations. And yet... From the outside, it seemed that the titans were not subject to the constraints of mass and inertia. The 'Dogs' movements were characterized by a perfect precision, a smooth slowness that turned the movement into a dance, a rapturous hymn to dynamics and coordination.​

    The route was far from the main traffic arteries and settlements. It was here, on the empty plains, away from the eyes of outsiders and cameras, from the eyes of servitors and securities, that another miracle of the God-Machine was to take place.​

    The 'Krell' ahead, which kicked out tons of frozen dust with every step, suddenly turned its hull, aiming for the 'Kronover' chosen by Doturov. At the same time, the turbolaser barrel assembly turned, indicating readiness for an attack. The movements of the hull and undercarriage did not match, confusing the opponent.​

    However, Doturov, foreseeing this maneuver, reacted already at the moment when 'Krell' began an unmotivated U-turn. Continuing his stride, the 'Kronover' crouched deeply, bending his legs backward with his joints, and took a powerful leap to the side. Already in heavy flight, Doturov's megabolter found the enemy and struck it with thirty-eight projectiles in a vulnerable spot where the fields of the two void generators overlapped, forming an unstable overlapping zone.​

    Conditionally struck.​

    The Titans moved slowly from a human perspective, and incredibly precisely, gracefully for giants of their size and weight. The earth trembled under their iron gait. And even the air seemed to ring with the intensity of the radio exchange of the training battle. Doturov enjoyed every millisecond and was only saddened by the fact that hardly any of the crews were aware of the truth. The true birth of their titans was not in the shops and smelters of Magnos Omicron, but here and now.​

    The newborn Spirits of the 'Dogs,' who realized themselves incarnated in metal, ceramics, and the flames of material bodies, finally received the bits of real experience, the first at the beginning of a glorious life. The very one that would multiply with every battle, so that centuries later princeps and moderati would call it Shadow, an echo of its own desires of a godlike machine. Lexicus Arcanus perceived the body of 'Kronover' with crystal clarity, in fact, Doturov was now a titan. He could feel the weight of the ammunition in the megabolter's charging machines, the rustle of snow and sand on the hull inaudible to the human ear, even the pulse of Perseus Theta sitting in the cockpit of the moderati.​

    Doturov heard the mindless recitation of the gun servitors wired to the titan's 'arms' and the endless meditative vigil of the trusted tech-priest in the armored reactor control room. He felt the rhythmic pulsation of the power plant and the icy flow of the turbolaser cooling system. A running beam of the auspice illuminated the five other 'Dogs of War', and his own databank calculated their most likely maneuvers.​

    Somewhat like young predators, the divine machines were learning, learning what biological organisms call 'instincts. They emulated surprise attacks on each other, ambushes, solo and paired hunts, recording their own and others' successes as well as failures without the risk of permanently losing all recorded information. Doturov hadn't driven a combat vehicle in years, but his unattainable fusion with a titan for other crews, and most importantly - experience! - allowed him to win one-on-one or two-on-one battles with ease. There was no narcissism or petty assertion in this; on the contrary, Lexic Arcanus generously shared information, demonstrating tactical schemes of high complexity.​

    The princepses of 'Bessel', 'Dirichlet', 'Krell', 'Runge' and 'Zermelo' quickly moved on to practice corralling the enemy with the entire manipuli, coordinating intense movement and mutual cover fire. The only great experience allowed Doturov to prevail over the combined enemy twice in twenty-one attempts. The unknown princeps, who supposedly was now controlling the Kronover, commanded the deepest respect of the other crews and the respectful attention of the spirits of the machines.​

    It was eight hundred and thirty kilometers to Lerke's district, and the manipula had finished the first act of combat training and regrouped in marching formation, in two columns with the guards moved forward. Doturov thought that technical stagnation had its own beauty and undeniable benefit - the skills acquired thousands of years ago do not become obsolete, but only get better, like well-seasoned alcohol. After a hundred kilometers of rapid marching, the drill resumed, simulating a surprise attack. The Kronover again 'attacked', shooting the enemy literally at point-blank range.​

    "There is one aspect of the plan in progress, the available justification for which, in my opinion, is insufficient," Logis Theta reported. "In order to perform the tasks assigned to me more effectively, I would like to obtain additional information."​

    "Accepted."​

    "My confusion concerns the removal of the novice of the Purification Service known as 'Olga'."​

    Had Doturov now had a body and a face with the ability to display facial expressions, he would have smiled at Theta's subtlety. Logis used wording that formally displayed incomprehension and doubt, but elegantly emphasized the priority of the lack of information. A sort of 'I could have done better if you had...' but without even a hint of reproach.​

    "Certainly she has shown the highest efficiency with the cogitator," Theta continued. "But everything she did was recorded and thoroughly researched. Isn't it enough to translate the data into communication patterns and improve overall efficiency?"​

    "Enough."​

    Doturov paused for nearly five seconds - very, very long for the information exchange through which the 'conversation' was conducted. If this were ordinary human communication, the analogy would be something like `keep silence, stand up, walk around the table, pour a glass, and look thoughtfully out the window'. But Theta stoically withstood the pause, showing commendable patience, and Doturov continued:​

    "Parliament is inclined to believe that Olga's value lies not only and not so much in her demonstrated skills. With a very high level of cognitive ability and flexible thinking, she is capable of giving Mars new aspects of understanding the Omnissiah."​

    "I'm afraid this kind of reasoning... is, in my opinion, not sustainable enough."​

    "I have come to the conclusion that for a true understanding of my motives, as accepted and approved by Parliament, you must learn a few facts from the past. To gain indirect experience, which for the last thousand years many, in their pride, have chosen to ignore."​

    "I will do my best not to repeat their mistakes," Theta's Perseus was absolutely serious.​

    "I did not witness the time of the Heresy of Horus, which destroyed the Imperium, nor the birth of the Great Schism," Doturov said. "But I saw the Schism itself. I saw the light of my home star eighty years after the Legions of the Apostates were expelled from the Solar System. I was born among those whose Forge had been razed to the ground and whose good name had been turned to ash. By and large, we had become a feral tribe that had forgotten the past and had no aspirations for the future."​

    "Did you live in the ruins of Forge? But if the reactors were destroyed, how did the hydroponic complexes, desalination plants, and thermal control systems work?"​

    "Isn't the Path of the Machine binary?" Doturov's counter-question was riddled with benevolent irony. "Doesn't the Omnissiah teach us that without destruction there is no perfection and that everything destroyed can be restored and improved for His glory?"​

    Theta was ashamedly silent, listening.​

    "Our stronghold was an old shelter," explained Lexic Arcanus. "It was more like a small warehouse, once built to supply reconnaissance parties. To reach it from the ruins of the Forge, you had to follow the stream bed that wound its way through the mountain."​

    Consciousness, which existed only in the form of quantum entanglements that filled the titanium's calculators, allowed conversations to take place in parallel with the solution of the main tasks. Just now 'Krell' and 'Zermelo' were trying to conditionally disable the undercarriage of 'Kronover'.​

    "My main task was to deliver construction materials. Three hundred and sixteen meters from the tunnel entrance were the ruins of the Magos Biologis research block. The equipment had long since been looted or destroyed, but the walls, composed of chemogenic limestone, lent themselves well to ultrasonic cutting. The servitors sliced the blocks, which were loaded onto pallets, and I guided them down the creek. Monotonous and monotonous labor that left a lot of marks. But these blocks went to repair, insulate, and reinforce the walls so that the shelter could be kept at an acceptable temperature and survive a serious bombardment if necessary. Sometimes we found large metal structures in the ruins and had to dismantle them with plasma torches, but as a result, we had enough metal."​

    "At some moment the raiders tracked us down. Of course, the crawler couldn't make it across the creek, so the renegades walked light. They appeared extremely confident, believing that combat implants, built-in auspices, and long-range weapons would ensure victory. But in narrow, icy passageways, a simple vibro cutter becomes just as dangerous as a bio-coded stabber. In addition, when we managed to get some batteries from the sand crawler renegade, we placed two blocks of self-contained bolters in the tunnel."​

    "The dangers that can come from complex biological organisms should not be neglected," Perseus agreed. "Katachan's bioforms are a vivid proof of that."​

    "That's right. Thus, having a formal superiority, the renegades lost their advantage, and then their lives. Our group received nuclear batteries, cogitators, some serviceable servos, and spare parts. It was these that enabled us, six years later, to locate and reactivate the cryo-lab, the last that remained functional in the ruins of the destroyed Forge. One of the magos we retrieved from the sarcophagi was frozen before the Olympic Treaty. His knowledge proved truly invaluable and allowed us to be restored. And for me, to see the true path. For the human mind, though formed outside the confines of the Cult of the Machine, is capable of great exploits in the search for Knowledge."​

    Theta pondered the phrase 'allowed us to be restored'. It was very complicated and allowed for many interpretations.​

    "But weren't you already privy to the Omnissiah cause?" he asked, after all.​

    "I am referring to the career of Biologis. For many centuries I specialized in the study of higher nervous activity."​

    It took Logis a long time to comprehend the information he received.​

    "I assumed that your path began differently. The infosmith-programmer... It seems more natural for someone who has ascended to existence as pure consciousness."​

    "And, accordingly, did my attitude toward the citizens of the Imperium deprived of the blessing of God-Machine appear to you to be a mistake, a deviation in the formation of consciousness?"​

    "The unconventional way of deep behavioral analysis," Theta replied diplomatically.​

    "Binarity," Doturov repeated admonishingly. "What people call the 'unity of opposites,' the union of darkness and light that exists only in a relationship, giving rise to one another. It was my deep understanding of humans, the processes of biological constructs, this rather crude but incredibly effective self-adapting and self-adjusting structures that allowed me to lead the project that resulted in the technology of full transfer of consciousness to machine carriers. That is, to take another step in the service of the Omnissiah."​

    "In essence, you are both the service of Mechanicus and the embodiment of it," Theta stated. "This is also an interesting aspect of binarity."​

    "Right. Mathematics was once thought to negate philosophy, but that was a mistake. From the height of my ministry, I see that the Truths' prescribed tendency to simplify, to segment the constituent structures of knowledge, leads many of us down the erroneous path of primitivization, to ignore whole areas of knowledge!"​

    "And as a result, to techno-heresy?" Theta dared to guess.​

    "Exactly. When magos begins to discard those facts that do not fit his convenient theory, he distorts the teachings of Omnissiah. Distortion leads to deviation, deviation pushes to heresy. This is the fundamental difference between the Omnissiah way and the primitive religions. They are forced to appeal to mystical entities, deny logic and demand blind acceptance of dogmas. We, on the other hand, deny unexamined knowledge; only strict and balanced truth brings us closer to God-Machine."​

    Perseus thought about it. The knowledge he gained should be analyzed in detail and taken into account for further work.​

    "Am I right in assuming we're talking about what people would call an 'influx of fresh blood?" Theta asked cautiously. "The multiplication of genetic diversity to avoid stagnation and degeneration in closed biosystems? Olga's value is not only that she is favored by the sacred cogitator, but that she is different? Her way of knowing the world and analyzing it, for all its apparent naivety, is shaped in other conditions, it goes beyond our patterns of information processing. By scrutinizing her pattern of behavior and thinking, will we thereby discover a new aspect of knowing the world and serving the Omnissiah?"​

    "I'll leave it to you to find the answer yourself," Doturov said with the same irony, at the same time performing a tricky maneuver with a sideways step, a forty-five-degree turn, and a crouch. The Kronover missed a conditional burst of bolter shells over its flattened hull like a turtle shell and simultaneously stood up so that the nearest 'enemy' titan was now blocking its line of fire. Simultaneously with the action, Doturov sent a data packet to the general manipuli network, which deciphered as a predatory admonition 'always pick and hit a straggler from the main group, cover by his hull' plus a set of instructions on how to do it in the best way.​

    "And, getting back to the original question," Lexic continued. "Give an assessment of the fact that selected techno-adept Jennifer Wackrufmann is currently reviewing episodes of 'Knights of the Zuen world'?"​

    "I suppose general familiarity with entertainment content would be a better subject for conversation with Olga than discussing aspects of tensor analysis," Theta gave his verdict almost without hesitation.​

    Doturov thought again that sometimes pure consciousness still lacks a face. Alas, no digital emulation can capture the richness of such a seemingly primitive act as a human smile.​

    * * *​
     
    Winged One, Bogdan and Nerve like this.
  23. Threadmarks: The Squad Chapter 19
    RiP

    RiP Seeker of Silence

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    Part 4
    Sacred duty
    Chapter 19
    * * *​
    "Hey, get up."​

    Olga crawled out of her half-slumber like an insect after a molt, that is, slowly, heavily, and sadly. Now she wanted to sleep all the time, chronic fatigue firmly entrenched in her muscles. The girl glanced apathetically at Savlar from under a blanket that looked like a fleece blanket that had thinned into a handkerchief. Many generations of purificators must have slept under it...​

    "Get ready," he muttered. "They're calling for you."​

    To be more convincing, the noseless man kicked the leg of the shelf where the girl lay down. Olga looked critically at the old coat of brutally murdered young fabrikoid, then asked:​

    "Look, aren't you tired of it?"​

    "What?" Savlar was confused.​

    "Well, that, making an experienced 'convict' of yourself? You're not a convict," Olga suggested honestly. She was already in a bad mood, and her new eye was weighing heavily on her orbit, her body did not want to get used to the new part.​

    "I am!" He was about to cry out Savlarets, but under the calm indifferent gaze of the girl, he stifled.​

    "I stomped out all the Moons," he muttered without much enthusiasm.​

    "Come on," she smiled crookedly, without anger or criticism, maybe that slowed down Savlar, preventing him from exploding into another scandal.​

    "I've seen prisoners. If they were in jail on a case, they had... ...bad things in their eyes. They're bad people. You're not."​

    "Am I the good guy?" The noseless man asked in a puzzled manner, and all his patterns broke at once; even his speech changed, and the shrill tones of a hysteric with a soul in squares disappeared from it.​

    "Yes. You're mean and scandalous. But you're good in your way. I guess so. And you know poetry. Real convicts don't read poetry, they have other things."​

    The Savlar twitched his cheeks, his lips twitching like those of a hurt child about to cry.​

    "But I won't tell anyone," Olga promised confidentially and quietly.​

    The noseless man raised his fist and waved it in sad despair.​

    "The hell with you!" he blurted out with unconcealed resentment. "And that's just the way you are!"​

    "Yes," the girl agreed. "I'm a good one."​

    The seasoned jailer only waved both hands, flapping his rust-colored sleeves, and jumped out like a klutz and cackled one last time:​

    "Third wagon! Now! They're waiting!"​

    And almost ran down the corridor.​

    Olga sat on the shelf for a while, like a schoolgirl with a toothbrush in front of the sink, realizing that the backpack and the school bell are inevitable. After the burning of Smoker, the girl was not​
    only tired but was freezing all the time. The girl had just enough energy to work off the assigned workouts, ensure minimal functionality, and listen to the Priest's lessons (which had become very rare). In her free time, Olga preferred to wrap up in a blanket, pull on a sweater beforehand, and sleep. Well, or at least doze off. Waking life was too frightening, and in her sleep, the panic was gone, the permanently stuck expectation that now she would be dragged to the bonfire. But the nightmares came, in which the unhappy scout stretched his burnt arms with grown claws, trying to drag Olga into the awful warp. Often the Madman was nearby as well. The quiet madman died the same day as the burned Smoker, passed away quietly and unnoticed, from a heart attack.​
    However, everyone had nightmares now, even the God-fearing Sinner, mute and demented for the sake of his emperor. A couple of times, too, Kryptman woke up screaming to save some Tanzin, after which Fidus looked at the girl confused and askew.​

    Third wagon...​

    The girl finally slid off the shelf and staggered off to wash, dragging her legs, feeling her joints ache as if she had a fever. After a symbolic splash of cold water on her face, she changed into her work overalls and put on a pirate-like blindfold, made from a long handkerchief to cover her artificial eye. The prosthesis, though it formally produced an image, in practice hindered more than it helped. The combined image was poorly colored and blurred, and I could distinguish light and darkness with it, but at the very most I could orient myself in space. In addition, I quickly became dizzy with all the effects of spinning on the Ferris wheel. So, as the girl bitterly thought, she was still disabled in the end, only with an extra handicap that hurt and itched and left her with the ever-present feeling that her face was a quarter full of lead.​

    As she pulled herself together, Olga staggered downstairs just as leisurely. The Wretched man was listening to the radio with music and hymns, and the others were draped in their closets, even Kryp. As she descended the stairs, Olga saw the tank, in which Driver was again rummaging, hanging his hat on the antenna. Some complicated operations with the machinery were supposed to be carried out strictly by 'cogs', but the old machine often needed minor repairs, and he always invented a technical activity for himself. The mechanic looked at the sprayer from under the tank helmet, hatched up to his eyebrows, nodded, and remained silent, returning to the interrupted activity. Olga pulled up higher the collar of her sweater, pulled on her fingerless mittens with flap pouches, then went into the small vestibule.​

    For three days after the burning of Smoker, there was a severe snowstorm as if nature was angry at human injustice. But then the weather cleared, and now it was moderately sunny, for a change, as if in feeble compensation for the past. Servitor Luct was leisurely and measured. He did everything just so, without haste, thoroughly - he swept the parade ground. The zombie robot saw Olga off and remained silent, like Driver, though he usually greeted the girl.​

    The world around was almost unchanged, only a little brighter and homeopathically cheerful under the yellow sun. The wind died down, and the temperature felt like five or six degrees, hardly more. Olga breathed a little fresh air, lifted her blindfold, and was saddened. The prosthetic eye worked even worse outdoors than indoors. The picture became completely blurred like a black and white watercolor in which a cup of water had been knocked over.​

    Olga put on her blindfold, slouched down, shoved her hands in her pockets, and walked to the third wagon, dragging her feet so that her feet scraped against the concrete. The train - after several wagons had been unhooked and the locomotive had been driven away for maintenance - seemed very short and disproportionately tall. Like a strange toy. The girl paced without haste, wondering what had gone wrong. Why hadn't she asked Savlar where to go and why? Who had told her to go through the masquerading poet? And what would some psychologists say about it. She remembered the test to determine personal freedom and autonomy, the one where a non-smoker was offered a cigarette. Having realized that it was as if she had no will at all, Olga felt even more bitter. At a certain point, she began to feel that her legs were dragging her very heavily, with a loud scraping sound.​

    The girl stopped and realized that it was not her making noise, but something approaching from the side, weighty and noisy. It was coming pretty fast. Olga looked around, just in case, and found no sign of panic. No one had sounded the alarm, no one was running with guns, so everything was going as it should. Still, what was buzzing like Godzilla? Just to be on the safe side, the shepherdess moved closer to the wagon, so she could duck behind the wheel, which was a meter and a half in diameter, just in case. Godzilla drew nearer, panting and making noise, until, at last, something large, grayish-black-and-white, of distinct geometric outline, flashed over the roof of the distant warehouse.​

    "Wow," she exhaled, not surprised, though. She was used to the fact that 'here' regularly happens something amazing and unseen. For example, a walking machine the height of a five-story building. Why not, after all?​

    The machine was bipedal, like a hybrid of a chicken and a tortoise. Its mighty 'legs,' which seemed to have a lot of joints, carried a wide, flattened body like a hypertrophied body of a bodybuilder. A cockpit protruded from the hull, making it look like a lizard with its muzzle down before lunging at its prey. The powerful 'arms' had no fingers or anything like that, but rather manipulators to hold the gun barrels.​

    The artificial beast seemed both slow and dangerous. There was a predatory fluidity to its movements, like that of the Tyrannosaurus from the Spielberg movie, where someone else was eaten right on the toilet. The car thundered with its iron shoes leaving deep indentations in the concrete with a fine network of cracks; jets of steam or some gas spurted from its joints; lights on its shoulders swirled like parking lights. Each part of the amazing mechanism sounded different, and together they created a bass-like melody, like a rhythmic breath. Above and behind the car, the air was shaking, probably the exhaust from the engines.​

    The giant was walking quite purposefully toward the train, and for a moment Olga thought that the machine was about to step over the wagon... No, the legs were too short after all. Mecha-Godzilla, as if listening to her thoughts, crouched down a little, so Olga thought: now it will jump over! And again she was wrong - the machine was just changing course. The girl looked after the terrible monster, made sure that indeed, on the iron ass blowing heat bars of the giant radiators. It must be really hot in there...​

    Olga hunched over as if that could save joules of her heat. She wanted to run next to the walker, climb on it and warm herself against the warm, probably even hot metal. Olga sighed and went to the third wagon, where she had never been before.​

    The third wagon was no different from the first, second, and others, the same two-and-a-half stories, the hinged ramp for machinery, the narrow slots of windows with flaps. Olga climbed the gangway with a thin railing and knocked on the door. Nothing happened. She knocked again, with the same result. When she brought her hand up a third time, curving her lips in displeasure, suddenly something clicked, and the door said:​

    "Come in."​

    In surprise, Olga swayed and almost fell from a height of two meters.​

    "Come in." With the same mechanical intonation repeated the hidden speaker.​

    The girl shook her head and turned the lever with effort.​

    The third wagon, judging by its decoration, was for maintenance. There were no vehicles and no fire-chemical supplies, but the instruments were piled up like archaeological layers, literally one on top of another, all different, and each as if it had been assembled by hand, from whatever was available, without a blueprint or template. It was so much like Jennifer Wackrufmann's workshop that Olga was not even surprised at first to find Jennifer herself.​

    "Hello," said the 'cog'.​

    "Hi," the girl replied, thinking about her own thing. "And who here is... Oh!"​

    For the first time in the three days since Smoker's execution, Olga felt alive. She was genuine - just like a close friend - pleased with the metal woman who did not consider herself a woman.​
    "Hello!" Olga wanted to jump on Jennifer and hug her tightly out of sheer emotion (and the mechanicum were warm), but she held back. A needle of suspicious mistrust pricked her heart - the purificators seemed like decent people, too, until it turned out that they really had a habit of burning living people. Who knows what the 'cogs' will do?​

    "Praise to Omnissiah, we meet again," Wakrufmann indicated a ceremonial bow, and then the sine line on the screen that replaced the mechanicum's mouth folded into a smile. "I'm glad."​
    After the Priest's lessons, Olga already knew that Omnissiah, aka God-Machine, is one of the hypostases of the Emperor. He is worshipped by a caste of special technical priests who - and no one else - are allowed to work professionally with machinery more complex than a tractor. Wackruffmann was one of them.​

    "But how... what are you... here...?" The girl fluttered her arms, unable to find the right words.​

    "Your train is in an undignified state," the priestess explained. "Lots of work, increased wear and tear, sparse staff. The spirits of the machines are sad and weak. I will shine a brighter light of Omnissia."​

    That's a good thing!" The girl decided it was rather good news after all. "I'm glad!"​

    "Me too."​

    Now Olga could finally examine the priestess of the mechanical god carefully and without haste. The mechanicum was slightly taller than the earth girl. The details of her build (or should she say construction) could not be discerned because of the simple red robe that fell to her heels. On the one hand, the look of the priestess caused a smile and strong associations with children's movies - the metal arms and head seemed deliberately simple, no markings, no complicated connections and details, like, for example, in the terminator. Smooth metal and glass, polished seams, corrugated rubber in the joints, just some kind of Tin Man, only small and very neatly made. On the other hand... Jennifer's plasticity, the barely noticeable inertia of her movements, the slight creak of metal under her feet, indicative of solid weight, were all extremely far from toys and movie props.​

    Also, as far as the girl remembered, somewhere under the cloak lurks a tentacle with claws, which is very usefull at burning brains.​

    "Did you fix that... What's its name..." Olga wrinkled her nose, trying to remember.​

    "A hypersonic torch with a magnetostrictive material working part," Jennifer clarified. "No, I disassembled the base and replaced it with an acoustic screwdriver. And I also brought a magnet."​
    "Yes, that's right, the second magnet," Olga smiled.​

    "Sit down," Jennifer pointed to a ball of wire with sticks sticking out. Olga didn't understand at first, but then she tilted her head and realized that, at a certain angle, the bundle looked like a chair.​
    "So it was you who called me? - the girl asked, cautiously sitting down. The 'chair' looked suspicious and dangerous as if a sharp end of the wire would stick into her skinny ass at any moment.​
    "Yes. I perform an inventory. I'm evaluating the effectiveness of the prayers and the sequence of rituals. I found a surgical entry in the logs. Basic novice augmentations are not of outstanding quality. Your functionality is probably partially restored, but accompanied by discomfort and side effects. Is this true?"​

    "Yes," Olga wanted to sob in a self-pity fit, but she held back. "It hurts. It hurts all the time. And it presses on the eye socket. And it itches."​

    "I thought so."​

    Jennifer hovered over the seated patient and suddenly froze, emitting a modulated buzzing sound. The line of her 'mouth' bounced in sharp peaks. Olga cringed, looking suspiciously at the priestess.​

    "What are you doing?" The girl cautiously asked after a minute or two.​

    Jennifer hummed some more and then suddenly answered:​

    "I pray."​

    "I thought you were checking the eye," the patient said disappointed.​

    "It's the same thing," the priestess said briskly and touched Olga's temples with her warm, hard fingers. "Keep still. You may speak."​

    "The same thing?"​

    "Yes. We serve the Omnissiah, and our service is work. All that is done with reverence and respect is a service to the Machine, all prayer to Him is an act for His glory."​
    Olga did not really understand this tirade, but risked to clarify:​

    "And when I turn on the light, I pray too... To the Machine?"​

    "No. You just turn on the lights. But when you need to fix a rheostat, it's prayer embodied in action. Or an action that is itself a prayer. It's hard to explain," Wackrufmann suddenly complained.​
    "Human language is very poor. A scarce set of symbols, a limited conceptual apparatus."​

    Olga thought that there was nothing complicated about it, it sounded logical and in line with everyone's religious craziness. But she decided to keep it to herself and clarified:​

    "I don't feel anything. Is it supposed to be like this?"​

    "Yes."​

    "What about it?"​

    "Rough work. Painstaking, but unsophisticated. The lowest level of worship, functionality without grace or beauty."​

    "The beauties..." repeated the girl. "And I thought you were not about beautiful things..."​

    "Who do you mean by 'you'?" Wakrufmann was still touching Olga's head.​

    "Well... you, those who serve the Omnissiah."​

    "We love beauty. We appreciate beauty," Olga thought the priestess's synthetic voice became a little harsher and sterner. "But this is a different beauty. It largely coincides with the understanding of ordinary people who are not blessed by Omnissiah, but it goes far beyond that understanding."​

    Again Olga wanted to object, but the girl literally caught her tongue.​

    Jennifer withdrew her hands and straightened up, looking at the girl with green eyepieces.​

    "The micro-movements of your face and neck muscles are indicative of the words being spoken. You want to say something, but you are silent. From this, I deduce that you think words are inappropriate. Usually, people are silent for reasons of tact or fear. The emotional connection between us defines a lower threshold for communicative assumptions. Thus, I assume you want to say something, but are afraid. Does this have to do with the public execution of the deserter three days ago?"​

    Olga stubbornly pressed her lips together, deciding for herself that a fly would not fly into a covered mouth.​

    Jennifer let out a strange high-pitched squeak, a little like the modem sounds from the movie 'Hackers'.(*) From somewhere above, two servo sculls came down at once. One was quite traditional, with a red lens and funny handles. The other was more serious, with a long cable and a battery of instruments that looked suspiciously like surgical instruments. From behind the priestess, clanking metallic horseshoes, a dubious robot emerged, looking as if it were a coat rack. It was a robot, not a servitor, which was unusual.​

    "I'll help you now. It gets better," Jennifer promised.​

    "Will I be able to see normally?" the girl asked hopefully.​

    "If you mean 'as before' - no."​

    Olga exhaled disappointed.​

    "Functionality will be brought up to eighty-six percent relative to the original state of the eye. Some special features will also become available. I will tell you about them later."​

    The robot-hanger stepped closer and suddenly gripped the patient's head firmly in its grip, securing it for surgery. The skulls moved lower, snapping and twitching their claws bloodily. Well, at any​
    rate, Olga sensed the bloodthirstiness, the flying heads seemed very sinister.​

    "Don't be afraid," Wakrufmann advised.​

    "How about a shot?" the patient timidly suggested.​

    "It will," the priestess promised firmly. "By the way, this 'don't be afraid' was not just about expecting physical pain."​

    The girl was silent, not knowing what to say here. The hanger intensified its metallic grip, but without stiffness. Then followed a sudden pinch under her sore eye. Olga twitched and cried out.​

    "Anesthesia," reported Wackrufmann. "It takes the pain away."​

    "Thank you," the patient grumbled. The pain didn't disappear, but rather became more distant, farther away than it had ever been before. Now it felt like an ongoing mosquito bite, not painful, but very unpleasant.​

    "I'll say it again, don't be afraid."​

    "With these words Jennifer began humming again, this time fading quietly, somehow soothingly and softly. Olga remembered (and immediately forgot) the word 'infrasound' she had heard a long time ago."​

    "What are you talking about," the girl muttered, listening to her condition. The sting of the mosquito seemed to melt away, dissolved by the gentle pressure of the drug and the humming of the priestess. Warmth poured around the damaged eye socket and went further under the skull as if enveloping the brain. Her thoughts cleared, becoming surprisingly clear.​

    "Assessing your behavioral pattern and reactions, I come to the conclusion that your homeland belongs to the medium-developed worlds, where reverence for the Emperor is weak and Omnissiah is not revered at all."​

    "The Emperor protects!" Olga reacted in a rote manner, imitating an aquila. "I love him with all my heart! He is the father of all men, the giver of blessings, and the merciful protector!"​

    And the bloodthirsty dead man, may he go to hell with all his admirers.

    But as if Jennifer didn't hear the energetic declaration of love for the Imperium deity.​

    "For people of this kind, the encounter with the more energetic forms of worship of the God-Emperor of Mankind has a demoralizing effect," the priestess paused and added, apparently in clarification, "Depressing."​

    "I know what 'demoralized' means," the new, enlightened Olga easily recalled words long forgotten. She wanted to talk to an intelligent man, even if she was made of steel and weighed two kilograms. But it was still a little scary.​

    "I honor the Emperor!" she repeated, just in case. "And probably Omnissia, too, for he is one of the faces... or guises... He is part of the Emperor. Or a side of the Emperor."​
    Olga was completely confused and embarrassed, but the priestess did not seem offended or angry.​

    "That's normal," Wakrufmann reassured her. "The concept of several hypostases of a whole and incomprehensible force is not easy to understand. I understand what you mean, and I appreciate the respect you've shown Omnissiah. But back to the old question. I repeat: don't be afraid. I am not going to do anything to harm you, much less to punish or kill you."​

    Only now Olga suddenly realize that she could not feel half of her face, and strictly along the midline, passing through her nose. No feeling at all, and it happened quietly, unnoticed. The girl leaned back comfortably on the wire seat, letting out a sigh of relief. She felt decidedly good and relaxed, as well as warm and safe. Olga glanced suspiciously at her companion, just in case.​

    "Are you sure you're not going to?" the patient sternly clarified.​

    "Exactly," Jennifer promised.​

    "Well, okay," Olga agreed, and exhaled once more, enjoying the feeling of warm air washing over her palate and tongue. It felt good to inhale, even better to exhale. Each gulp of air felt like it was clearing her lungs, drawing pain and fatigue from her body. And if she concentrated on the process, she could feel the breath rushing further, almost to the heels, widening the tiny capillaries on its way.​

    "Will you give me a tooth?" The suspicion almost melted away, but still remained somewhere on the edge of consciousness.​
    It's a kind of idiom. When 100% sure in something you put your tooth as a bet. But proper translation spoils next frases.
    " I have no teeth," Jennifer admitted honestly. "I don't have a vocal apparatus at all. I got rid of it a long time ago. It's inconvenient and impractical."​

    "But how do you eat?" the girl is amazed.​

    "I don't eat. My biological part needs nutrients, but I get them in a concentrated form and optimized for my metabolism."​

    "Oh, poor..." the patient was upset. "You can't even munch properly."​

    Then she thought that 'munch' was not a word that should be used in decent society, giggled, and covered her mouth with her palm. "I'm sorry."​

    "It's okay," Jennifer reassured her. "The advantages of diffusion nutrition may not be obvious to the average outsider."​

    Olga was quiet for a while, concentrating on the sensations, trying to understand what was happening to her eye, but no avail. However, there was no blood (at least in plain sight), already good. As if reading her mind, Jennifer commented on the operation:​

    "Removing the prosthetic."​

    One of the skulls swayed. It looked as if the flying head nodded in agreement. It was very funny, and the girl smiled with one side of her mouth; she couldn't feel the other. Meanwhile the second servo skull handed the priestess something that looked like a drill, the machine looked ominous, the end of the 'drill' was flashing multicolored sparks that looked like electrical sparks.​

    "I'm scared," she suddenly admitted.​

    "It's safe," Jennifer reassured her. "It's necessary to disconnect the contacts without traumatizing the nerve tissue."​

    "No... I'm really scared. Well, not right now... in general. Very, very."​

    "This is the natural state of man, programmed by evolution. A living subject must strive to survive. Survival must be motivated. Feeling fear and wanting to get rid of it are good motivators."​
    Jennifer was silent for a moment as if to make sure that her interlocutor had understood what was being said.​

    "When I was human, I was often afraid too," the priestess said confidentially.​

    "And then you became a machine and stopped?"​

    "This is a simplified view. But it is generally correct. As mentioned above, fear is an element of a complex mechanism that ensures the survival of the population. Fear gives life. And it also poisons it."​

    "Some kind of ambivalence," Olga remarked. She felt warm and very good. The barely perceptible humming of the Wakrufmann was soothing, as if in a cradle. There was an unfamiliar but pleasant feeling of calm vigor, a peacefulness that energized her.​

    "It's called 'dialectics,'" Jennifer said. "And when one becomes a servant of God, one throws off many shackles of the flesh. Fear is one of them."​

    "All religions promise salvation and goodness," Olga herself was surprised at how cleverly and beautifully she could articulate it. "Serve and you will be saved!"​

    "That's true," the priestess agreed. "But they all promise salvation someday. Later. In some indefinite future, usually beyond the boundaries of physical existence."​

    "And... the Emperor?"​

    "And so is he," Jennifer confirmed without hesitation, in a way that made Olga's jaw drop. "Belief in God the Emperor is constructive and effective. It serves the interests of the whole, that is, humanity as a multiracial and multicultural community. However, it is dialectically ruthless to the fate of the basic elements of unity."​

    "Wait... I'm confused..."​

    Olga tried to somehow organize Jennifer's words and fit them into her mind. The state of intellectual euphoria expanded into a stage of burning desire to think, to search for truth, to argue. Wakrufmann waited patiently, the medical skulls continuing their work, chirping softly, apparently conversing in their machine language.​

    "Are you saying that the emperor's church supports the existence of people as a whole, but easily tramples on people individually?"​

    "Exactly."​

    Olga recalled that the Priest had said similar things before, only in different words. A million worlds, perhaps billions. Infinite thousands of cultures, traditions, and customs. And a faith as the only standard in which to fit this unimaginable multitude. The girl shared these insights with Jennifer, referring honestly to the author. And ended with a critique:​

    "But it's still wrong... Here's the Smoker, for example... he didn't do anything! He was good and honest. Anybody could have been in his place! Anyone, even our commander. And he got burned."​
    It became so sad that the girl sniffed her nose and an unwanted tear rolled down her cheek. One of the skulls immediately wiped the tear away with a piece of gauze. The flying head's concern reminded her of its counterpart, who had been swept away into space, and of the Machine. Not the Omnissiah one, but the ancient cogitator computer. She wanted to talk about it too, but she intended to discuss the organization of the Imperium first.​

    "This is a characteristic of large systems," Wackrufmann mentored. "Managing them requires impersonality, protocol, to reduce the level of entropy, energy losses in large-scale communications. A side effect is statistical neglect of the fate of those who fall out of protocol and pattern."​

    "I understand," Olga agreed, after thinking for a while. "And I don't agree with it."​

    "So are we," Wackruffmann said briefly.​

    "Am... what?"​

    "We'll talk about that another time."​

    "The other one? Will you be here for a long?"​

    "For a while. That's it, it's over."​

    The "hanger" opened its strong embrace and obligingly handed her a mirror. Olga quickly looked into it, biting her tongue with impatience and expectation of a miracle... and could not refrain from a sigh of disappointment. Wakrufmann did not even remove the prosthesis, only placed it somehow more accurately, removed the protruding parts, treated the edges of the inflamed eye socket with some ointment, taking away the pain. The cable was no longer sticking out of the temple, but went under the skin and was hardly felt. And that was it.​

    "Thank you," the girl said sadly, struggling to keep from crying.​

    Now I'm a total freak...​

    She wanted to hurry away, to crawl under the wagon, behind the huge wheel, and cry there, so no one would see. It would probably hurt again, though, and even worse.​

    "I detect a change in an emotional state, which can very likely qualify as resentment and frustration."​

    As usual, when Wackrufmann switched to high-sounding machine slang, it was unclear whether she was being serious or mildly ironic. A skull with arms flew somewhere in the depths of the workshop. The other moved over to the nickel-plated cauldron with a lid and began busily dropping tools inside, probably for sterilization.​

    "Olga," the priestess seemed to call her for the first time by name, with perfect accuracy, no 'olla,' and the right accent. "Are you in a hurry?"​

    "Really," the girl slouched down again, as good spirits and feeling of warmth and security melt away irreversibly.​

    "I'm a Martian," this time the artificial voice had something like pride with the slightest hint of arrogance. Not an overt superiority, but rather a sense of objective superiority, like a person with a passport of a real country among the Papuans.​

    "I am Mechanicus. The Machine God does not approve of silly jokes, deceived hopes, and senseless cruelty. Unlike others."​
    It seemed to Olga that Wakrufmann had put special emphasis on 'others', but she had no time to think it over. The first skull was already returning, the dead head dragging a kind of box, strangely similar to... yes, a gift wrapper.​

    "Surprise," Jennifer again painted a smile that surprisingly enlivened her glassy-metal face.​

    "What is it?" asked the patient as the skull put the box down on the palms of her hands.​

    Olga felt feverish and excited impatience. She had not been given any gifts for a very, very long time. I mean, gifts and favors had happened, for example, from associates in their hard work, but a special present for her... Mars doesn't cheat and doesn't joke, I think that's what the priestess said. Could there be a real new eye inside?​

    "Open it. I think you'll like it. By the way..." suddenly asked Wakrufmann, while the girl hurriedly rustled the wrapper. "Do you understand how visual prostheses work?"​

    "No."​

    In the box, on a rolled-up handkerchief, there was a strange thing that looked like glasses with one eyepiece. Like in 'Universal Soldier' with the handsome Belgian guy whose name Olga had completely forgotten.​

    "What is it?" The girl asked with curiosity, carefully taking out the object.​

    Jennifer took the glasses from her hands and put the device on the girl's head.​

    "A personal calibration needed. It will take six minutes and fifteen seconds. In your case, the main factor in the blindness was the cessation of retinal function. The retina is an organic sensory photomatrix that forms signals and transmits them to the brain. The sensory diameter of a single monochrome photoreceptor is averagely two-thousandths of a millimeter. Thus, approximately one hundred million matrix elements are involved in the active human visual field."​

    Jennifer tilted her head and looked at a confused Olga.​

    "Pixels. Got it?"​

    "Nope," the novice answered honestly.​

    "In the basic implant that you had, the active matrix consists of four million single elements."​

    "Four is less than a hundred," the girl suggested.​

    "Yes. Also, because of the higher response threshold, these elements need about one thousand one hundred and eighty times the amount of light for the organic optic nerve to perceive it as a signal. In other words, this matrix is practically useless in normal light. There is a solution, of course, and it consists in combining the elements in clusters of two thousand units, which bring the received signals to one nerve, connecting the matrix with the brain. This is analogous to five thousand single elements working instead of the average hundred million. In other words, the quality of the implant was twenty thousand times worse than before the injury."​

    Olga nodded in agreement. The mysterious 'pixels' and 'sensory matrices' were still incomprehensible entities, but the numbers were quite clear. So her living eye saw a hundred million dots, but the prosthetic eye saw five thousand. That difference explained the disgusting quality of the artificial vision and the headaches.​

    "For you, I developed a different solution, optimized for your problem and needs, taking into account the interfacing of the already installed element base. In fact, I used myself as the basis, but in your case, there is no possibility to place the computing units and energy cells inside your body, so I improvised. The part of the glasses that are placed in front of the damaged eye is essentially a light amplifier. It is controlled by a miniature cogitator, so as not to cause coagulation of nerve tissue proteins from overheating."​

    Very primitively, the device does not transmit the light flux to the matrix but forms such an image at the input that when it is perceived it will transmit the desired picture to the brain. The built-in battery is enough for eighteen standard hours of continuous work, but there are also adapters for typical power sources, including batteries of handheld laser weapons. And by pre-calculating, the light flux, the quality of your eye, in general, will only be reduced by a factor of three, and only twenty-three percent in the center of the field of view.​

    "And I will be able to see normally?"​

    Only in monochrome, but yes. Somewhat later, we will remove the prosthesis and replace it with a better model, which will be quite consistent with the original. But not all at once. I've also added datablock slots so that you can record an image and view the recordings. Just in case, let's set the ability to quickly lock the playback mode, so as not to be distracted unnecessarily while working. I set them for myself all the time.​

    "I don't think I want to review my... life..." Olga did not understand much from the priestess's detailed explanation, but the main thing she understood was that the amazing glasses would not replace her lost eye, but they would be better than a prosthesis, and they also had a recording function.​

    "Especially during work."​

    The shifting safety shutters on Jennifer's eyepieces gave a strange impression that the mechanicus was squinting.​

    "Who said anything about reviewing? Have you heard about "The Knights of Zuen World"?"​

    Here came Olga's familiar tentacle. It slipped out of the folds of the cloak, a harmless segmented arm clutching something rectangular, matt and translucent in its claws. The thing looked like a small keychain made of hardened resin, only instead of the usual insect, there were sparks of electronic parts frozen there.​

    "This is my favorite ark!" This time Jennifer spoke with genuine enthusiasm. If you closed your eyes and didn't see the mask that replaced the priestess' face, it was easy to imagine she was just a young woman with a strong accent.​

    "I recorded for you the first one hundred and thirty episodes!"​

    "Knights... Zuen?"​

    "It's a story about the Questors and the conflict with the Forge, located on a satellite of their planet. In the end, it ended in a war, and they sort of destroyed the Forge, but then when the techno-heretics came, the Questors' powers weren't enough, and it turned out that the Forge was actually... But you'd better see for yourself, it's very interesting!"​

    "Wait, wait!" Olga put her palm forward like a player taking a time-out. "What is this, a TV show?"​

    She was used to the fact that in a world of a bleak and brutal future, the pinnacle of public entertainment was radio plays like 'The Emperor's Chosen Warriors', 'The Commissioner's Life', 'Die or Fight', interspersed with production novels about melting a billion tons of steel and a "burning" plan to produce armored vehicles. All the conflicts were built around the confrontation between two specialists, one of whom just wanted good things and the other wanted even better things. In the finale, the conservative and the radical invariably united, smelted the metal, tightened the last nut themselves at the last minute, and solemnly escorted a batch of laser rifles, tanks, and so on to the abstract front.​

    And now Jennifer just hands her a gizmo that would pass for high-tech even by the standards of her native twenty-first century. And it comes with a flash drive with a real soap opera on it! A soap opera, damn it! This Mars is a sanctuary of progress and culture.​

    "Yes, the work is divided into separate series. There are several main plot lines, and there are love lines too, although they are not the main ones, and a lot of gene ones," Wackrufmann answered.​

    Olga laughed heartily and sincerely.​

    "Jennifer, how old are you?"​

    "In ninety-eight standard twenty-four hours it will be fifteen," replied the 'cog'. "Does the age of your interlocutor matter to you in any way?"​

    "No," Olga clutched tightly at the 'flash drive' with one hundred and thirty episodes of knights, adventures, love lines, and the mysterious 'jen'.​

    "Not at all..."​
    * * *​
    1. There is an Authors note that Wakrifmann forgot to mention that 15 years is Martian years. But I think the cunning "cog" did it for a purpose. To establish more close connection to Olga. ​
    2. Olga is quite too young to watch that films. I think there is an Author and MC a bit mixed.​
    Anyway​
    [​IMG]
     
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  24. Threadmarks: The Squad Chapter 20
    RiP

    RiP Seeker of Silence

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    Chapter 20
    * * *​
    Close people are the most annoying. A stranger can be unpleasant, harmful, dangerous - anything. However, it is only those who are near, at arm's length, and closer that truly infuriates. Inquisitor Schmettau had pondered this paradox on more than one occasion, having been forced to tolerate the Pale's company. Yes, Essen was useful, efficient, comfortable, after all. And yet...​
    Annoying! Especially since the inquisitor's back hurt again, so much so that mild anesthetics did not help, and strong drugs Schmettau postponed for the time being, intending to maintain a crystal clear view of the situation. Kalkroit habitually put on a mask of bored indifference and prepared to listen to another batch of 'nothing' from the executive, though not shining with imagination assistant. And then asked him caustically what vicious demon had possessed Essen to waste time and resources on a voyage from planet to ship (and with a view to his imminent return) without newsworthy of attention. He must say, at first the faithful confidant went strictly in line with expectations, but then he twisted the report in an unexpected direction.​

    "So... and what is it?" The inquisitor asked. He already had a rough idea of what it was about, but now he was waiting for a detailed explanation.​

    "The expenses of the extensive and complex bureaucratic paperwork," Essen explained pompously. "The fact is that the manifestations of... uh... hostile manifestations are recorded by several departments at once. And they have reflected in the reports accordingly."​

    "Manifestations are manifesting," muttered Schmettau. - Of course, they are. And?.."​

    "I started checking all the planetary reporting forms."​

    "So-o-o-o," stretched out Schmettau. "Next."​

    Now the inquisitor was interested. Yes, Pale's imagination was very, very poor, but his inhuman stubbornness and head-on pressure often yielded results, as if no more effective than cunning analytical combinations.​

    "Law enforcement officers tend to keep their documents secret, to withhold information for reasons of investigative secrecy and inter-corporate rivalry. But I discovered that there is an agency that also reports regularly on matters of interest to us, and its reports are the most comprehensive and up-to-date."​

    "The power supply system," Schmettau thought aloud, looking at the thick folder Essen had delivered from Beacon. A poor, hastily made copy, printed on old hardware and recycled paper. But a lot and fast. Looks like Essen managed to pull quarterly, annual and special reports for a hundred years or so.​

    "Yes, sir. Since Beacon is a planet of strategic importance, its power supply is managed centralized, and planned. All sources, transmission lines, and reserve capacities are inventoried, accounted for, and written into mobilization plans. If an insidious enemy were to strike..."​
    "...planetary defense will wipe their asses with these plans and begin heroically overcoming. As usual," Kalkroit continued for him. "Next."​

    Even the inquisitor's back stopped hurting, the inquisitor had already understood in general terms, where the assistant was leading, and a predatory flame of excitement lit up in his soul.​
    "Accordingly, any unscheduled outages, accidents, and other malfunctions are always investigated and summarized in regular reporting forms. However, since electricity is hardly relevant to departmental struggles and investigations by authorized agencies, the usual rules of secrecy apply to the document flow."​

    "So minimal censorship?" The inquisitor straightened up, disregarding the prick of pain. Kalkroit was too curious.​

    "That's right," Essen showed appropriate deference and admiration for his patron's intelligence.​

    "And as a result?"​

    Essen unfolded the very first sheet in the monumental folder with a majestic look. It was of very thick paper, more like thin cardboard, and folded several times. Essen unfolded the very first sheet in the monumental folder with a majestic look. It was of very thick paper, more like thin cardboard, and folded several times.​

    "Well, well," muttered Schmettau with an uncertain intonation, squinting myopically.​

    From an outsider's point of view, the text was unreadable, representing something like a summary metric, some were printed by a portable typewriter-stamp, some were handwritten (although quite legible), the illustrating diagrams were also mostly drawn. However, Schmettau had worked with documents for many, many years, and was used to analyzing, 'covering' the text with his eyes, immediately picking out the key points.​

    "So," said the Inquisitor softly. "So... Is this as of...?"​

    "Three o'clock in the morning, today's twenty-four hours. I went to you, sir, as soon as I received it. The report is traditionally made at the moment of minimum load on the planetary system.​
    Although this is rather arbitrary, the power is mostly consumed by the factories, the spaceport, and the astropaths, and their rate fluctuates only slightly."​

    "Interesting," summed up the inquisitor. "Very interesting. So we can safely add new data to our graph. And, from what I see, the attenuation of chaotic disturbances does not correlate with the energy problems of the Ice Port."​

    "The lines are roughly the same..." the assistant pointed out. "Up to this point."​

    "Yes, and then they diverge... Chaotic manifestation drops to insignificant values, but the problems of energy networks, on the contrary, multiply with clearly visible progression... And now suddenly there is a spurt in both directions. Very interesting! Do you know what it's like?"​

    "No," Essen said. In fact, he had a hunch, but that's not what was required of the assistant at the moment.​

    "It was as if someone was stealing energy for something..." thoughtfully, with long pauses, the inquisitor pondered aloud. "Or they were performing some... action, the side effect of which was the problem of energy. After all, as my teacher used to say, in every socket there is a demon. And then, for some reason, we stopped seeing the process... perhaps it was well camouflaged, or perhaps it had entered a stage of concentration, like a fighter's before a decisive blow."​

    "The drop of chaotic perversions?"​

    "Exactly. But it was not possible to disguise the theft of energy. Or, if the second version is true, it failed to isolate the side effects... Although we now miraculously saw some connection. Maybe the mysterious 'they' didn't notice it either, that's why they didn't hide it."​

    "Perhaps the processes are not related," Essen suggested honestly. "You can always find some kind of correlation in a multitude of variables."​

    "Yes," Kalkroit agreed. "We can. But it's a string. It's like a string from a bell that invites us to pull it."​

    "We can pull it," Essen suggested. "Parallel investigations are neither encouraged nor forbidden. It's a question of the outcome."​

    "Yes, we can," agreed Schmettau. "The question is, do we need it? More specifically, do we need it now?"​

    "Before, you didn't reject this kind of..." Essen hesitated, unable to find the right word.​

    "My friend," Schmettau tapped his fingers on a large sheet of paper. "Before, we were investigating, and, accordingly, we were either hindered or assisted. Both directions implied active assistance. In the first case, it was necessary to cooperate, in the second to help the opponents stumble. But now the situation is different, we stand apart from other people's operations, in which we are interested solely on general grounds, as the Emperor's faithful guards. As inquisitors, we must intervene and help. On the one hand. As inquisitors, on the other hand, we must weigh the consequences of such an intervention. On the other hand. To publicize the fact that the energy map of the planet in dynamics gives an accurate reflection of all accounted manifestations of hostile forces? And no one even thought that it lies practically in the public domain, among the typical reports of the Beacon's utilities? That is, while Inquisition investigators and Arbitrators were scheming, hiding information, and vying for influence, the average energy clerk could know more than the elected guards of the Imperium put together. And with whom would he share this information? Were you the first person to get into this archive? And who, personally, was responsible for it?"​

    Essen smoothed the hair on his carefully brushed wig. He nodded silently, admitting that he hadn't thought about the obvious things and questions. The Inquisitor, weary from his unusually long monologue, leaned back again, relieving his aching lower back, and finished his thought:​

    "That is why it is worthwhile to deal with the problem. But what to do and how to do it, so as to serve the common good and not to multiply the ranks of ill-wishers... That's the question. Eh..."​
    Schmettau sighed sincerely and heavily.​

    "Eh, if service to the Emperor and to humanity could be purged of the imperfections of human nature. Without intrigue, without struggle. A pure, distilled consequence, where only truth and just retribution matter..."​

    Pale sighed, too, just in case, showing the solidarity of grief.​

    "By the way, it occurred to me," Schmettau finished a moment of sadness about human imperfection and went back to work. "Surely there must be some kind of geological exploration here?"​

    "Yes, I think so," answered a slightly confused Essen, but immediately picked up the thread of thought. "Seismic sensors?"​

    "Yes. There probably aren't many, the Port is very old and stopped shaking a long time ago. But there must be. If the reports of the power engineers lie so freely here, maybe the geologists will share something interesting, too...?"​

    Schmettau's gaze suddenly trembled and faded into a haze. The Inquisitor bowed his head and brought his fingers to his ear in an unconscious motion that gave off a hidden speaker. For a quarter of a minute Calcroyd listened in silence, then just as silently flicked the lever on the cabin's control panel. The white curtain covering the porthole thinned lost color, then disappeared altogether. In the huge circle, the Beacon was visible. The planet occupied three-quarters of the view, shifting quietly in step with the ship's rotation. Night reigned below so that one could see the extent of the Ice Port's power. The yellowish-orange lights scattered in thin strings, forming a sparse web with occasional nodes of more or less large centers. The picture demonstrated that the Lighthouse was quite developed and civilized, but it did not stand up to any comparison with the Forges or the big beehives, where night and day sides were almost indistinguishable.​

    "What's going on?" Essen looked at the master's slumped shoulders, appreciated the attentive tilt of his head, and realized that now the inquisitor had better ask a leading question.​
    Schmettau raised two fingers in a gesture of silence and said:​

    "Something incomprehensible is going on..."​
    * * *​
    While Olga was chatting with Wakrufmann, a new locomotive was brought up to the 'Radial', apparently for maneuvering while the regular one was undergoing routine maintenance. The locomotive looked more like a railroad car, only very large - a wide platform, on which a similarly giant cylinder with rivets, valves, dials, and other machinery was suspended. It had no walls or roof, only a tarpaulin to protect it from wind and snow. The structure was asymmetrical, with a cylinder taking up the entire left side of the train, and a smoky chimney sticking out from the top. A locomotive seemed to be a steam locomotive; at any rate, there was a wagon or carriage, filled to the top with black gravel. Gray-white smoke billowed from the chimney, and several scrawny servitors wandered along with the cylinder with shovels and wrenches.​

    As evening approached, life on the train, and in the whole neighborhood, faltered by itself, as if it were stuck in syrup. A wistful apathy seemed to bend even the unyielding, the mentor and the monk. The afternoon's training had gone so well that they might as well have been wandering around the parade ground, and the strange thing was that no one got punched in the face for it. Bertha only waved her hand sorrowfully, ran everybody in circles, and promised a full marathon across the tundra tomorrow in full gear, and without transport, those who lagged froze. In general, there was no comparison with the hellish exercises of the recent past, when we exercised on the roof, and on the move. At the same time, the sluggish and general laziness seemed hardly more excruciating than the brutal training. There everything was simple and clear: the pain in the muscles, frostbitten face, stone fatigue, an honest, well-deserved rest with plenty of food. And now... not life, not death, but some viscous purgatory.​

    However, one could not say that life was so hopeless for Olga. There were two bright moments in it. The first, of course, was the new glasses. The field of view was strange - black and white, with three distinguishable zones, a circle in the center gave an almost undistorted picture, then there was a wide band of gray, and finally, almost black periphery, where only the contours of objects were distinguished. But still, the glasses worked, and worked well, at least, much better than the prosthesis. The Driver attached a wide band to the temples so that the frames would be secured to the back of her head without the risk of falling off her nose.​

    Bertha, Driver, and Kryp were very interested in the new thing, or rather more interested than the others. Bertha and Driver were clearly delighted, asking Olga at length about the techno-girl. Judging by their tone, 'Radial' was very lucky to get a real mechanikum (or mechanikus, the girl did not understand) at least for a while.​

    At first, Olga thought that serving the Machine was a figure of speech, but now she realized that no, it was real faith. It is amazing, however, that seemingly grown-up people sincerely believed that in every mechanism there is a real spirit, which actually drives the machine. Therefore it is not enough just to screw in the necessary and unscrew the superfluous, it is necessary to do it correctly, with a proper ritual and obligatory prayer. And reassembly of the engine was not an end in itself for the Driver, but a way to cheer up the machine spirit, to make it happier and, as a consequence, more capable of working.​

    What savages...​

    Or is it? The glasses are there, they work. And Olga had already seen for herself that demons existed. After the conversation with Berta and Driver, the girl began to look suspiciously at any mechanism, trying to understand if there really was a house spirit inside.​

    Maybe leave a cube of saccharin next to the glasses at night?​

    Fidus's interest in the priestess was also very practical. Though the Luct was solidly built, with a good margin, it still, like any machine, required regular maintenance. Naturally, the demoted inquisitor wanted to maintain the servitor in a good repair shop but assumed that the priestess could easily refuse. Still, the half-robot was not a train property. Olga thought Wakrufmann could handle it but vindictively suggested that Fidus go make the arrangements himself.​

    The pre-dinner prayer was also uneventful, and the priest, who usually lights hearts, muttered mumbled mundane stamps and seemed to be very nervous about not being able to get anything more energetic out of himself. Instead of munching on their usual fast and plentiful, purificators sluggishly mashed the rich porridge onto iron plates.​

    Savlar and Demetrius got into a small fight. Neither of them could explain later what had caused it. Bertha gave each of them a bruise, symmetrically, to the orderly under the left eye, to the noseless one under the right eye, and the incident was over. Olga waited for the Priest to drop by again with a new lecture on the world order, but he did not show up. The Sinner banged his head against the wall in the red corner for a long time, and then simply cried; there was no point in asking him about the reasons for such sorrow, for obvious reasons.​

    Fidus wandered in for a while and tried to make the neighbor talk, approving the new eye, but it looked forced and stilted, like a useless chore. It was like the whole of the past day. Olga and Kryp sat for a while, suffering from mutual awkwardness, then Fidus muttered something about taking care of Luct and went back to his room, curtaining the compartment tightly.​

    Here the novice Olga had a great time with culture, having been hooked on 'Knights' almost till late dawn, having slept for a couple of hours at most before her morning wake-up. To Olga's good fortune, the next day almost minutely repeated the previous one, only passed even more sluggish and dull. As darkness fell, the symptoms that had previously been banished-unaccountable fear and constant chills crept up. In the shadows, the burning grin of Smoker seemed to appear. Olga was afraid to even cough, any sudden movement sent cold claws through her joints. Anxiety gathered little by little, like thickened syrup in a pot, reminiscent of Satan's house, painted with ultraviolet ink. A distant, hopeless wailing sounded in my ears and it seemed that somewhere in the distance an unhappy and mad novice was crying out, 'Baby! Baby!!!!​

    Going to the infirmary for some pills made no sense; all train medicine was designed for rough and functional surgery. Nonsense like anxious moods and headaches amounted to attempted desertion, and insomnia would surely be considered a symptom of laziness, a sign of bad training of the purificator. Olga scrolled through a few more episodes of 'Zuen' and then decided that she needed to repeat the already proven remedy. Besides, the girl had accumulated questions about the series.​

    Before she knocked on Bertha's door, Olga wanted to cross herself discreetly, but her hands folded themselves into an aquila, so affected by the hundreds, maybe thousands of mechanical repetitions that quickly form a habit.​

    "What?" Bertha barked unfriendly, and the girl thought she saw her mentor quickly hide something small and rectangular in her pocket, like a photo card or, in local parlance, a 'piсt'. The menacing growl made the girl feel like a little dog who was about to puddle in a pool."​

    Despite the harsh start, the negotiations took a few minutes and ended surprisingly easily. Olga modestly asked permission to go to the third wagon again to put in a good word with the tech-priestess about the servitor and the tank. Bertha agreed at once, however, sternly warning her to return before the siren. That was all, really.​

    Quickly putting on her sweater, Olga tormented herself with the question - what was the picture of her mentor? Clearly personal and important. Picts with the divine face of the Emperor don't hide like that. Maybe, the angry woman has some family or even a comrade? Or maybe someone more intimate...?​

    The enthusiasm and slight shaking as she talked to the commander even made her forget about the voices in her head for a while. Those, however, did not wait long and returned under the open sky, in the cold breeze. Olga noticed that the lamps and lanterns were blinking strangely as if there were power outages in the neighborhood, weak but noticeable.​
    * * *​

    "There!" The inquisitor's short thick finger pointed to a certain point where, from Essen's point of view, nothing was happening. And... nothing again. The assistant was about to ask a leading question, but then it began.​

    In the scattering of yellowish lights, one flickered, so faintly that Essen thought, no, it was an illusion. Too much work and not enough sleep. For a moment the thought flashed through the assistant's unimaginative head that the elderly inquisitor had entered that age when honored grandfathers begin to go crazy, their eccentricity turning into foolishness and crankiness.​
    But then the orange-red dot flashed again. And went out.​

    "The Emperor's Wrath," Kalkroit whispered, clenching his fists.​

    And another dot blinked, flickered like a candle flickering in the wind, then disappeared. Then a third. A fourth. The black spot slowly and inexorably spread away from the center of the capital, like a grave blot.​

    "What is this..." whispered Essen. He had already served his patron for many years and had seen a lot, but this was the first time the picture of the disaster was so large, so rapidly evolving.​

    "I think the process has entered a stage where it needs more energy," the Inquisitor suggested with murderous equanimity. "Or there's been a blow up in the center of the capital, a reaction that's been going around in circles."​

    'A blow up' Kalkroit said with such an expression that it was immediately clear the inquisitor was not referring to an explosion.​

    "Sir!" Essen exclaimed. "We must...!"​

    "Don't," Kalkroit raised his hand imperiously and held his palm out against the edge of his hand. "Once again the Emperor calls us to service and exploit, and we will, of course, obey the call. But let us hasten slowly."​

    "But..." Pale hesitated, remembering his place and his duties. The master is intelligent and experienced, he knows better than to say that if he says not to rush into something, then there is no need to rush into it.​

    "Now our intervention will multiply the confusion without demonstrable benefit," Kalkroit explained nonetheless. The Inquisitor spoke smoothly, very calmly as if he were watching a tape recording rather than witnessing a picture of some terrible calamity. "And it will harm."​

    "...?"​

    "Sabotage, or a side effect of the ritual, or something else, either way, we are not facing the improvisation of a lone sorcerer or a subversive group of xenos. The Guardians of the Beacon have missed a well-organized cult, perhaps a community of cults or a powerful Tau network, or maybe even the Eldar. The local Inquisition is now plunged into a puddle of epic proportions. No need to rush to jump in with them for company. Not to mention that victory comes from acting wisely in the execution of a good plan. And a good plan requires an understanding of what is going on. So let's be quiet and observe to get to the bottom of things. Let's wait to be asked for help. And then we'll show up fully armed to save the day. So first, bring up the entire radio intercept team. Also... yes, tell the captain to adjust the orbit. I want us to get as close to 'Radial' number twelve as possible."​

    "But, sir..." took the risk of noticing Essen. "Can we expect Kriptman to be so quickly involved in the investigation...?"​

    "Eh, my friend..." the old inquisitor sighed heavily. "It's hard to communicate with you sometimes... You are like a tank, you break everything strictly on the way and are blind to what is not visible in the triplex. Naturally, Fidus will not be involved, most likely he will not be remembered, at least at first, and then it will be too late and useless. The question is..."​

    The Inquisitor's finger pointed at the ink stain, which continued to expand, slowly and unstoppable.​

    "As I told you not so long ago, Kryptman Jr. has a unique ability to get into trouble. And with him that strange girl... Two people attracting trouble like a good fight attracts orcs. Let's watch from around the corner to see what Tarot cards come out for this amazing couple today. Maybe we'll find something of interest. In the meantime, wok and vox and only vox. Right now, there's an ocean of panic, terror, and confusion down there. We have to filter out this cacophony and draw, as much as possible, an objective picture of the disaster. We must do this very quickly. Let's do it!"​
    * * *​
     
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  25. Winged One

    Winged One Not the Simurgh

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    What a strange interpretation of the Mechanicus this author has.
     
  26. Threadmarks: The Squad Chapter 21
    RiP

    RiP Seeker of Silence

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    Chapter 21
    * * *​
    Wakrufmann was definitely not expecting the girl, but she welcomed her with quiet cordiality. Although 'cordiality', apparently, was not the right word. Sitting down next to the heater (she wonders who it was on for, were other guests here, or did the priestess and her appliances also need outside heating?) Olga thought that Jennifer's attitude should be called polite benevolence. And that was probably the best thing right now. The girl was already used to the fact that personal attention to her brought only trouble, so it was better this way.

    "I have... questions!" Stated a newly minted content consumer. "Lots of questions!"

    "That's interesting," Jennifer remarked. "Are they conceptual or detailing?"

    "What?" Olga was confused.

    "Do you not understand anything? Or is the overall plot clear, but you need to clarify certain aspects?"

    "Well... more like the second... I guess. Yeah. I've only watched part of the first season, of course, and maybe it all reveals afterward, but..."

    Olga was embarrassed.

    "Ask," Jennifer interrupted her rant.

    The girl sighed as if she were gaining air before jumping into the deep sea.

    "Why did Hold continue her research on the Eldar ark ship? Didn't the Lords of Zuen expressly forbid such work? Wasn't she in charge... what's-his-name... magician..."

    "Magos," Jennifer corrected.

    "Yes, the chief magos of the Forge! And acted like an ordinary technician."

    Jennifer wanted to smile again, both in the encouragement of Olga's mental exercise and for her satisfaction. The choice of educational content was the right one, one could say - a perfect hit.

    "Because the quest for Knowledge is the highest form of service to Omnissiah," Jennifer said ceremoniously.

    "But Lord Xillag referred to some 'ninth truth' when he approved the edict!" Olga wrinkled her forehead, remembering. "Something along the lines of 'The Xenos Technique is inherently heretical,' right? If it's heretical, then you definitely can't research it, or they'll burn everyone? Isn't that right?"

    Jennifer made a strange sound. If Wakrufmann were an ordinary person, Olga would have thought she was just snorting. Although... The girl could not get out of her mind the fact that her companion was in fact under fifteen, which means that technically the Martian was younger than the Earth girl. She wonders if everyone here grows up so quickly, or is it purely a Martian acceleration?

    "Xillag misunderstood the wording of the ninth universal law," Jennifer began her elaborate explanation. "And there's a small digression to be made here. As I'm sure you know, all the Imperium and Mechanicus worlds use the same standard language, Gothic, to communicate with each other. Why? Because adverbs are formed based on the specific conditions of a particular world. For example, the language of the world Valhalla has seventy-six words to describe the various variations of white, and red and green are designated as shades of blue, 'siny'. That is, literally, red is 'hel'siny' and green is 'tumf'siny. Bright blue and dull blue. Any translation will carry inaccuracies and errors, and the more translation cycles the message goes through, the more errors will accumulate. Understand?"

    "In general... What does this mean for the lord?"

    "All of the above also applies to the universal laws of Adeptus Mechanicus. They were formed, stated, and continue to exist in binary form as a mathematical formula. In their original form, they cannot be distorted, just as you cannot tamper with zero or one just a little. A symbol is a symbol; when changed, it either changes its meaning or loses its meaning entirely. Do you understand?"

    "I think so," Olga scratched her nose and ear, frowning in intense thought.

    "However, what is obvious and understandable to Adeptus Mechanicus in its original form must be translated into Classical Gothic. This is an arduous task, and here a problem arises which has, at least for now, no correct solution. The translation largely becomes a retelling using understandable analogies. One can interpret the content as carefully as one wants, but it will still not be a law, but a story about a law. Understand?"

    "Well... it kind of makes sense... It's like a poem, right?"

    "Nice analogy," Jennifer approved. "So, in all human-populated worlds, including Questor Mechanicus, our laws are carefully interpreted in Gothic and local languages to avoid misunderstandings. However, locals often forget that their dialects change over time. And instead of revising the interpretation according to the changed conditions, these people prefer to memorize the wording by heart. This is how the trouble happens--the meaning of the action gets lost behind the ritual. Is it clear yet?"

    Olga scratched her other ear as if wanting to warm it and increase the efficiency of sound transmission. The girl looked at Jennifer warily, squinting, rubbing her palms, or rather her fingertips, sticking out of the long sleeves of her sweater.

    "Clarify the obscure," Jennifer recommended again. "It's not dangerous."

    "But..." Olga shook her head. "Everything is ritual... Everything is as the ancestors ordered. Thousands of years and all that. And now you say..."

    The girl gulped.

    "Go on," Wakrufmann tried to put a maximum of benevolent encouragement into her artificial voice.

    "Well, I mean, I don't want to teach you your faith, but, you know..."

    "Yes?"

    "And you say the ritual may not be useful. Is Lord Xillag a fool, then?"

    "Look!" Wakrufmann turned her whole body toward Olga so that her fluttering robe filled almost the entire room for a moment. The metal arm pulled from somewhere in the depths of the red robe a sheet of paper with typewritten lines. The girl would not have been surprised to find that the fifteen-year-old 'cog' was printing them out right now, somewhere in a mechanical body crammed with amazing gadgets.

    "Here are the universal laws of Adeptus Mechanicus, canonically translated into Gothic. Read them carefully."

    Olga looked at the lines, which, unlike the Priest's folio and the Squad's pamphlets, were in a very simple, chopped font. The style was reminiscent of the Machine cards at the Ballistic Station.

    00. Life is Directed Motion.
    01. The Spirit is the Spark of Life.
    02. Sentience is the ability to learn the Value of Knowledge.
    03. Intellect is the Understanding of Knowledge.
    04. Sentience is the Basest Form of Intellect.
    05. Understanding is the True Path to Comprehension.
    06. Comprehension is the Key to all Things.
    07. The Omnissiah knows All, comprehends All.


    08. The Alien Mechanism is a Perversion of the True Path.
    09. The Soul is the Conscience of Sentience.
    0A. A Soul can be bestowed only by the Omnissiah.
    0B. The Soulless Sentience is the Enemy of All.
    0C. The Knowledge of the Ancients stands Beyond Question.
    0D. The Machine Spirit guards the Knowledge of the Ancients
    0E. Flesh is Fallible, but Ritual Honors the Machine Spirit.
    0F. To Break with Ritual is to Break with Faith.


    "Why are they divided into two parts? Is it done that way on purpose?"

    "Good for you! It took me seven years of education to get to this point. The universal laws are divided into two parts. The first eight are Revelations. The second is Warnings. Once again, Warnings. Not prohibitions."

    "But it says here that the mechanisms of other races are a perversion of your True Path, right?" The girl didn't understand. "So the Eldarian mechanisms that Magos Hold studied are a perversion?"

    "Exactly."

    There was silence, interrupted only by the background sound of all the devices that were stuffed into the tech-priestess's dwelling. Olga felt as if her brain was about to boil. The girl felt like she was taking an exam.

    "I don't get it," she finally admitted. "Ok, it's not a ban, but a warning. There's no word 'heresy,' and it's not written explicitly that 'you can't". But it's still canonical to say that xeno machines are 'bad'. So what's the difference?"

    "It's very simple. In the same Valhalla there is a proverb 'Shtudirat an meian oshibkritt'."

    The words sounded familiar, but it was too hard to try to make them out. She needed to switch her mind from the previous task to the new one. In general, Olga often caught herself that, despite the obvious 'Franco-Germanic' nature of Gothic and its offshoots, something Slavic often slipped into the words and phrases. Perhaps Russian was also one of the progenitors of the modern languages of the Imperium.

    "Hold did not study Eldar technology to reproduce it. And not to satisfy her curiosity. But to understand their deviations from the True Path. In order not to create perverted machines while creating mechanisms of similar functionality. One cannot adhere to a benchmark without understanding the concept of error. To resort to a simple analogy, this is how a child learns to write. Literacy and blunders follow hand in hand. And spelling is learned only with the development of skill, with the understanding and comprehension of errors."

    "A smart man learns from other people's mistakes, a fool from his own," Olga quoted without hesitation.

    "That's right! And Hold, as you note, is shown to be a very clever magos, isn't she?"

    "Wait, but then why didn't she explain all this to the Lord Knights of Zuen?"

    "Because she was proud, stubborn, and arrogant. This is the tragedy of Magos Hold and the whole Zuen system. And the basis of the cross-cutting plot. 'Knights' is not a story of pathos overpowering, though there is plenty of that there, too. It is a tale of the tragic mistake of mutual misunderstanding when Ritual was uncritically opposed to Knowledge, and Knowledge proved too arrogant to condescend to communication."

    "So Zuen's misfortune came about because the two forces simply refused to listen to each other?"

    It took Olga some time to realize the fact that in 'Knights of the Zuen World' the characters are not as black and white as in the Beacon Imperial entertainment shows available to her.

    "It's a fictional story, by the way" Jennifer reminded her, just in case. "However, the tale is enlightening and instructive for the young inhabitants of worlds under the hand of Mars. It teaches us that when our superiority turns into arrogance, the consequences can be varied. They may not even lead to disaster. But they can never be good."

    Olga thought deeply again. Jennifer waited patiently. The servo scull hovering over her left shoulder was laboriously weaving the wire 'pigtail' of the future cable, the metal fingers moving with incredible speed and precision. A large machine in the corner, looking like a gutted refrigerator that had a washing-machine drum with vertical slots hammered into it, buzzed

    "I have one more question," Olga finally made up her mind. "About Mars..."

    "You can ask it, but I don't think I'll have time to answer it before you have to go back," Wakrufmann remarked. And she added encouragingly. "Your questions are interesting, they require extensive, complex answers."

    "How are you different from the Empire?"

    Jennifer was quiet for a moment, covering her optical lenses. Then she clarified:

    "You want to know the difference between Imperium and Mars?"

    "Well... Yes," Olga bowed her head and gave out in a hasty, stifled voice. "You look more decent somehow, though you also have snakes in your heads... You seem to be for progress and knowledge, but it is strange, unusual. Knowledge with prayers. Communication with ritual. And Machine complained that he is not communicated with, but prayed to, and he does not like it. Here..."

    "It's not a question," Jennifer stated. "Rather, it's a request for a series of educational lectures that should talk about the history, the culture of Mars. About the fundamental differences in the approach to collecting and structuring knowledge. About the concept of divided humanity that holds adaptability and conservatism in different hands. And much more. I'll think about how to enlighten you in the best way possible, but it won't happen today. Ask a different question. A shorter one."

    "Well... ok.

    Olga cheered up. Jennifer took her completely seriously and seemed to really want to share her knowledge. Like the Priest, but better. By combining the lectures of the monk and the pinions, it would probably be possible to compose in her head as soon as possible a complete image of the dual Empire of humans and mechanicus. And then, perhaps, find a better place for herself in it.

    "I wanted to ask you something else," Olga began. "So, about Omnissiah... He, the Machine, the Machine God, are all the same?"

    "Yes and no," Wakrufmann's mouth smiled sinuously. "They are hypostases of the Demiurge. But at the same time, they are different cycles that we are aware of. I'll explain with the simplest example. You imagine... for example, a machine to toast slices of bread?"

    "Toaster? Of course!" The question couldn't have been that simple, and there must have been a catch somewhere, but...

    "The first cycle, the first hypostasis of the Demiurge, is the Driving Force. The aspect of the will of the Universe is embodied in the law of physics. In its most simplified form, it's like this."

    Another card flew out from under the red robe right into Olga's lap with a rustling sound.

    I=U/R

    "The current in a circuit section is directly proportional to the voltage and inversely proportional to the electrical resistance of that circuit section. Is that clear? Not a formula, but the fact that there is a law?"

    "Well... The fact that there's even such a law of physics? I see."

    "This is the will of the Driving Force. The existence of a phenomenon that can be realized."

    The next card showed a dissected toaster - separately the body, heating spirals, all sorts of electrical parts, screws, nuts, washers, and some other insides and wiring, surrounded by incomprehensible abbreviations and symbols.

    "General blueprint. How an objective phenomenon can be used to produce another phenomenon. Transformation of electromotive force into directional thermal radiation."

    "How do you make a toaster based on the law of amperage?"

    Physics has never been Olga's strong point, nor has any of the exact sciences, but in Jennifer's interpretation so far it has been relatively clear.

    "Right. And this is the will of the Omnissiah. The next cycle is a phenomenon materialized in Knowledge."

    "First the law of physics, and then the knowledge of how to use it? And the third step, which is Machine God?"

    The Tech-priestess bent incredibly, seemingly even lengthening in size, and... She pulled out the most ordinary toaster from the shelf and solemnly handed it to the girl with the words: "And here you have Knowledge materialized in a mechanism. The embodied will of the Machine God of the Cult of Mechanicus."

    'Cult' didn't sound good. Olga was used to the fact that 'cultists' were very, very bad, but she decided to leave the clarification of the slippery subject for later.

    "I'll write that down... Later," she said, twisting the 'bread crisping machine' in her hands and wondering what the toaster was for. After all, a tech-priestess doesn't eat human food.

    "I'll write it down and think about it. I have to figure it out... Carefully."

    "Reasonable intention," approved Wackrufmann. "Let me take the device."

    "And I knew one comp... cogi... coggi..." Olga decided to flaunt her knowledge and involvement in important matters one last time.

    "Cogitator?" Jennifer came to the aid.

    "Yes! The Cogtitator. He called himself the Machine, too. But it must have been a different Machine, just a consonance..."

    Olga became confused and silent, putting her thoughts in order. She felt hot as if a jug of warm lard had frozen in her stomach - heavy, unpleasant, rising with a greasy taste to her tongue. The blood pounded heavily, almost to the point of pain in her temples, and the otherworldly, grave wailing wouldn't stop, drilled into her ears.

    Wakrufmann looked intently at her companion. Olga was sitting on the edge of a chair, bent and hunched over, like a little animal, hiding the last crumbs of warmth in the fur on her belly. A quick diagnosis showed a rapid increase in heartbeat and a simultaneous drop in her outer coat temperature. Increased sweating and five other abnormal imbalances of the fragile body.

    From the medical point of view, Olga was in a deep fainting state with massive blood loss, while being conscious, at least conditionally. And she went into this state in less than a minute. While Jennifer was calculating her options, from paramedical measures to an emergency evacuation signal, the girl woke up as if at once. She jerked her head so sharply that her marvelous glasses flew off, despite the safety strap, the priestess managed to pick them up with her mechanodendrite.

    "Baby," the girl whispered so softly that a human could not hear her; only the priestess' sensitive microphones could do that.

    "They did it," Olga blurted out even more quietly. Almost immediately the girl said something to the contrary. "They didn't make it."

    And she lost consciousness for real. Jennifer managed to pick up the girl as well, like the glasses before. The urgent request was already gliding through the electronic networks, transforming into radio signals, bypassing the encryption blocks to reach one single recipient.

    As Wakrufmann carefully placed the precious burden on the warm floor, the alarm siren howled. Not a train siren, but a stationary one, five times louder than the locomotive siren. A general alarm, at least on a city scale. Or perhaps even continental.
    * * *​
    "Mr. Commandant," said Bertha Konvasquez softly, respectfully, and at the same time harshly.

    The train commander leaned back in his austere chair, upholstered in real leather, and looked at the troopers standing in front of him. Though the commandant was seated, he seemed to be looking down from a very high spire. But the Priest and Bertha were not shy, though perhaps they should have been.

    "W-w-well...?" The skinny, bald man with a wide scar across his jaw, a reminder of the too-short visor of the helmet that didn't cover his whole face, gritted through his teeth.

    Because of the peculiar organization of the Earth Regiment - the part of the Sanitary Epidemiological Squad that was based directly on the planet, unlike the spatial cleansing services - the main tactical leaders combined several hypostases and positions at once. Baldy was both company commander and commandant of the train, and also had a rank in the system of Ecclesiarchy, although he wore a cassock in exceptional cases. That is, whichever way you look at it - the king and god of everything on 'Radial-12'. However, the monk and mentor were determined to ask certain questions and get answers. Though the two men stood erect, as they were supposed to, there was a sullen determination in their postures.

    "Are we being disbanded?" Bertha asked straightforwardly. "The locomotive is gone. The train is almost disarmed, the section with the rocket battery is disconnected. The hospitalers left yesterday. My squad is the only one left with a full combat unit. Anything happens, we can't even call fire on ourselves now."

    The Priest was silent but gave a comprehensive demonstration that he shared his colleague's thoughts. Instead of answering, the commandant interlocked his fingers in an unconscious gesture of protection. The Mentor and the monk didn't need to look at each other to think the same thing. The commander was not at his ease, though he successfully concealed it. He looked at his subordinates, almost forcefully, with a long stare that suggested an unmistakable desire to dismiss them all with disciplinary consequences.

    "Yes," the commandant finally reported forcefully. "The system of radial and concentric armored trains has been rendered ineffective. The railroad materials is likely to be removed to Sabbat worlds. Personnel will be dismounted and withdrawn to resupply the Second Regiment, to orbital facilities and astropathic stations."

    "And who will remain to serve and protect here on the surface?" Bertha asked perplexedly.

    "Another service would be created, under the aegis of the Arbitrators and without armored trains. Special Response Teams, organized like the airborne units of the Guard. With air transport."

    "But that's...!" Bertha was almost indignant, but the Priest quickly and firmly grasped her hand and squeezed her fingers.

    "We get it," the priest briefly summarized.

    "The planetary part of the Squad has suffered too many losses and is costing too much... from the point of view of the Administratum. Self-propelled sanitation centers are not mobile, and in order for them to intervene promptly, dozens of trains have to be kept on the move at all times. With the appropriate service structure."

    "But..."

    Bertha faltered. What the Commandant had said was impossible, unrealistic. Armored trains under red and white flags were a given, as much a symbol of the Ice Port as the icons of the Emperor, as the images of Astra Telepathic and the rituals of the Ecclesiarchy. They have always been and should continue to be, as long as the system exists and people live in it. Everything that was going on had the shadow of a joke, too silly and deliberate to be funny. Something akin to farting in the middle of a dinner party. But the commander was not joking.

    "The High Command plans to organize no more than ten bases to cover the entire continent," continued the commandant. "Now the tasks of purification will be performed by compact, small forces, which can be quickly transferred by air transport, and in special cases landed directly from orbit."

    "Does the High Command have any idea how much it would cost to build and maintain at least two or three operational military airfields?" Monk asked sarcastically, and it was obvious that the question was clearly rhetorical. "Not refueling and hopping sites, but real ones, with all the services and personnel? Not to mention geostationary orbital stations? А!"

    The priest grinned bitterly.

    "I think I understand. The bureaucrats have made beautiful plans about how to optimize unused space? Old runways mothballed orbital points on asteroids. And equipment reclaimed, from scrap that's been written off after all the storage and repair regulations are worked out. Right?"

    "Is this new to you?" The commandant grumbled. "All the Squad's equipment has been in service for centuries."

    "Yes, 'armor' that is on the move only by the grace of Omnissia. But not planes, which should be ready at any moment, in any weather, to drop a landing force hundreds of kilometers away. Or thousands."

    "Enough arguments, my friend," the commander said in an unusually soft, almost friendly voice. "It's already been decided. The Sanitary Epidemiological Squad... is obsolete. And no longer needed."

    "It's a mistake," Bertha squeezed out, aware that she was close to heresy but unable to remain silent. Now her life, her faith, and her principles, long and carefully constructed in the struggle against doubt and hesitation, were crumbling. Gone was the purpose of life that had allowed the mentor to survive several terms of obedience as a volunteer.

    "I know all the things you can object to," said the commandant with a weary doom. "About the armored vehicles, the heavy weapons, and so on. I was against disbanding, but it doesn't matter anymore."

    "A hundred years of vigil and watchfulness..." said the Priest sadly. "Thousands of victories. We shouldn't..."

    A lamp with a glass lampshade in the shape of an exotic flower, the only decoration of the austere office, flickered. Bertha inadvertently thought that from here, from the third floor of the staff wagon, there must be a beautiful view. If, of course, the steel shutters were pulled down. The yellow light flickered like a fly in a spider's web, chirping the incandescent bulb like a dragonfly under a hood, then everything settled down.

    "Of course we should," replied the commandant bitterly. "The great accomplishments of the Squad will continue to inspire great feats, to fill hearts with the fire of sacred duty and fury. It's just..."

    He sank and lowered his eyes.

    "It's just that it will be a different squad," the monk finished.

    The commandant was silent, still looking away.

    So a quarter of a minute, maybe a little more, passed while three people of very different backgrounds and positions were silent, thinking about their things, united by a common sadness.
    "May I ask you two questions?" sullenly, with an unconventional, but restrained, yet unemotional attitude, Bertha asked.

    "Permission granted. And then, if you would be so kind as to remember that you are respectful servants of the Ecclesiarchy. Behave yourselves appropriately and do not think of forgetting that again. Consider this hour as a mercy for your long and blameless service. It is unlikely that the new leadership will be as patient and tolerant."

    The Priest nodded silently. He thought for a while and then saw fit to add:

    "We sincerely apologize. We apologize for... loss of the chain of command. It's just that the news has been... a little out of character."

    "It won't happen again," added the mentor grimly.

    The commandant shook his head, and moved an eyebrow, suggesting that questions be asked at last.

    "First," Bertha began. "Can we find out who this girl is who's been transferred to us for reinforcement? She's not a prisoner or a volunteer. She can't do anything. Why is she here?"

    "Just to die," the commandant said indifferently.

    "But she's just an uneducated savage from a relatively developed world," the Priest remarked. "She's only to blame for the bad mentors on her planet who didn't bring the Emperor's light to the flock."

    "Isn't that enough?" the commandant grimaced. "Since when does sinfulness necessarily require intent and meaningful action?"

    The Priest and Bertha looked at each other understandingly and silently.

    "The second question," the commandant reminded me with obvious irritation, indicating that the moment of unity between superiors and subordinates was coming to an end.

    "I'd like to..." Bertha hesitated, stumbling, seeing the light flicker again. This time the yellow light was deadly pale, almost white, like a lamp in a morgue, where the light reflected off the white tiles.
    "Something's wrong," the monk muttered. "There's something strange going on with the light... Since this morning..."

    For a moment the light shone so brightly, it was as if a tiny sun was shining in the office. The blinding white light stung the eyes ahead of the reflex, and the mentor felt as if she'd missed a stiletto to the head before she could defend herself. She staggered back and covered her face, hissing through her teeth in surprise. She glanced cautiously through her fingers, noting that the lamp hadn't even burned out, though it should have with all the surge. Surprisingly, her eyes didn't hurt at all. Berta felt no discomfort at all.

    Alarm bells rang distinctly in the head. The Ice Port was a strange place, it was whispered that long ago there had been a terrible battle in a nearby star system, where unholy sorcery on a vast scale was used, so that the planets crumbled into dust and the star from which the enemies drew their energy had aged millions of years into a red giant. Reality thinned for many parsecs around, making the Port system so convenient for astropaths. A side effect has been the frequent breakthroughs of the Other, which is what the Squad was created for. The nearby Immaterium often manifested itself quite harmlessly, with these effects. But...

    The Priest was right, something wasn't right.

    The commandant bowed his head and mumbled something, then slammed his hands sharply on the glass plate on the metal table.

    "Yes, I would like to," Bertha began again, and suddenly the Priest sharply grabbed Bertha by the sleeve and yanked her back a step.

    The Mentor unwillingly took a step after her massive companion and then wanted to be indignant, but did not. There was something wrong with the commander of the 'Radial', something very strange. The Commandant had his head low so that he couldn't see his eyes, and he was pounding the table with his hands, one hand outstretched, the other clenched into a fist with his forefinger outstretched. And so on and on, changing hands. The muttering intensified, something scarlet dripped on the edge of the glass

    "I think we're in trouble," the Priest whispered.

    The commandant raised his head sharply and chuckled, pursing his biting lips.

    "Six wagons, six trains, six stations, six cities," he hissed. "Six planets and a total of six! Armored train number twelve, that's two whole sixes! We are doubly happy, doubly blessed. And who is against us? Who doesn't understand the meaning of Six? Who can't add up one and five, two and four, three and three?!"

    There was a loud sound from below, piercing and inappropriate in this setting. Someone struck the kettledrums, the ringing had not yet subsided when the dying note was supported by the howl of the trumpet. A third invisible man played the bassoon, bringing out a pure saxophone tune, cheerful as a holiday evening diner, nothing like the stern and solemn marches that the company band played.

    "Six!" shouted the commandant. "There should be six of us too, Three is not symmetrical, not harmonious, not aesthetic!"

    Bertha carefully, trying to be inconspicuous, put her hand behind her back. The commandant fell silent, his head tilted strangely, and continued to move his bloody lips, dropping flakes of pink foam onto his chest.

    "Baby," he whispered. "Baby..."

    Bertha pulled a small six-shot pistol from a concealed holster behind her waist, almost a toy, indispensable, however, for finishing off the wounded. Also, in such force majeure circumstances. Many people have made the mistake of believing that a possessed man's strength could be determined by his build and muscles, a misconception that usually proved to be the last. So Bertha, despite her strength as a native of a planet with one and a half times the force of gravity, was not about to wrestle with the insane commander on her fists.

    But the Priest was ahead of her.

    The monk had no pistol. But he did have a long, narrow knife without a guard. Pastor drew it from a pocket disguised by the stitching on his uniform pants and stepped toward the commandant, drawing the blade. The movement came out smooth and cohesive, giving off a good experience, and the knife entered the commander's neck all the way through. The Priest swung back at once, jerking the blade toward him, turning the stab into a terrible wound, part cut, part lacerated. The blood poured out in a steady stream, and Bertha thought for a moment that the mortally wounded commander's eyes made sense, reflecting endless wonder and incomprehension. A second later the commander rolled his eyes and collapsed on the table, snorting blood and collapsing further, knocking over the lamp.

    The monk wiped his splattered face, the assassin's hands trembling slightly. Bertha clutched the hilt of her pistol, watching her companion anxiously. The Priest answered her with an equally attentive, wary gaze, and said firmly: "Fuck the six!"

    The Mentor took a breath. The monk seemed fine.

    "We were attacked," she quickly surmised.

    "Not the train," the monk answered just as emphatically, listening. "The range is wider."

    Bertha cursed, saving time, making up for the brief words with energy and hatred. Behind the walls of the staff wagon, there was indeed a sound. The sirens of the various services, giving off the onset of all possible disasters at once, the rumble of machinery and engines of heavy vehicles, the firing squad, seemingly several in different directions at once. And the screams. Heart-rending screams, almost indistinguishable because of the thick armor, but seasoning the general noise with a note of insane terror, like a few peppercorns - a ready meal.

    "And we don't even have missiles," whispered Bertha, feeling a treacherous shiver in her knees and fingers.

    "Pull yourself together!" the Priest barked at her. "The Emperor will protect! The Emperor will direct! Command for His sake! For His glory!"

    The monk smacked the mentor across the face with his free palm, knocking out the creeping panic. Bertha shook her head and looked at the shepherd almost sanely.

    "Yes, of course," the woman murmured, clinging to the monk's words as if they were the only solid support in a universe gone mad. "For His sake, for the sake of the Emperor... one must be strong. Strong!"

    "Special circumstances," the priest thought aloud, nodding approvingly, fumbling in his pockets for a handkerchief. Bertha held out hers, and the monk wiped the knife. A premonitory convulsion twisted the dying commandant's body, his heels clattering on the thin mat covering the metal. But the dying man was no longer of interest to the living; it was only an empty shell, temporarily in the service of evil, now useless and harmless. And the commandant's soul would still have time to mourn. But afterward.

    "Yes," Bertha agreed, regaining her determination. "I'll take command, and you'll be the commissioner."

    "Don't disappoint me," the Priest grinned. "If anything, my hand won't flinch."

    "Already flinching," returned the crooked grin of the mentor, the self-appointed commandant of the 'Radial'. "So... An announcement first, or into our wagon?"

    "A wagon, I think," suggested the monk, curtly, "if it's the same there..."

    Both thought the same thing at the same time - why had they not been touched by the hostile influence? Bertha decided that she must have been protected by the proximity of the holy father, and the commandant was not so firm in his faith. The Priest was left puzzled, for he did not consider himself so blameless that he would not even get a headache where people went mad and turned to filth in a matter of seconds. But he decided to think about it later - all in the Emperor's hand, and if He had kept his servant sane, there must be a reason for it.

    Meanwhile, the cacophony of atonal music on the first floor was gaining power. It was as if each musician was making his or her own torn, meaningless melody that couldn't even be called music. It seemed as if a herd of gretchins had gotten their hands on the instruments. Together, however, these squeaks and howls formed a bizarre rhythm, surprisingly cheerful, penetrating to the deepest and most secret parts of human consciousness, inherited from reptiloid ancestors. The music of exhilaration, triumph, and happiness stirred the thoughts, demanded surrender to the frenzied feelings. The monk furtively poked himself in the thigh with the tip of his knife to clear his mind. The prick of pain really distracted him, allowed his mind to regain control of his desires.

    "Let's split up," Bertha decided. "Speed is everything. I'll go to ours, you go to the microphone. And make sure no one breaks into the command center."

    The Priest grimaced and made a dissatisfied face. He didn't think it was the best, or even the most damaging, but since Bertha was in command, she had the tactical upper hand.

    The monk began to quickly search the study in search of more serious weapons. "First let's deal with the orchestra. This is the music of heresy, and it must stop."
    * * *​
     
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  27. Threadmarks: The Squad Chapter 22
    RiP

    RiP Seeker of Silence

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    Chapter 22
    * * *​
    Olga was drowning in the lilac fog, dissolving like a sugar cube in warm water - slowly and inevitably at the same time. The brain seemed to work like a broken computer with a shrunken memory. The consciousness was enough to understand fragmentary moments, but when one tried to put the mosaic together into a coherent memory, there was invariably a glitch. Even an attempt to pull oneself together, to clench one's will into a fist, and to concentrate was beyond, beyond the hardware capabilities of one's mind.​

    There was something... something bad... Or not bad, just unusual. Yes, something happened. Something was... It turned out that if you didn't try to comprehend, fragments of memory were easier to catch. They melted, disintegrated into fragments, like decayed leaves, but still...​

    A bright, dark purple flash. Or not purple, the color was more complex, more interesting. As a former beauty salon worker, Olga was more or less familiar with the color scheme, and she hesitated, choosing between dark purple and Persian blue. No, dark indigo was more likely.​

    So there was an explosion. There was a flash.​

    The girl did not see it, but rather felt it, saw it, but not with her eyes, but as if the image itself appeared on the retina, maybe born in the optic nerves, or perhaps...​

    No, too many thoughts at once, everything swam, the rate of decay increased.​

    The Flash. Purple... Indigo...​

    It was like a special effect from a movie when you have to show a shockwave beautifully and spectacularly, whether it was nuclear or magical or something else. The hemisphere expanded rapidly, leaving only fire behind it. Or rather, light, an indomitable, divinely beautiful glow that united all the colors of the rainbow in a harmony beyond words.​

    Olga saw it through the metal of the wagon armor, through the concrete of the heavy, sullen buildings of the railroad terminal. The light was both an energy and a gateway, a pathway open to one and everyone to some wondrous place. And this delightful essence was expanding, consuming the world. The girl wanted to raise her hand and point out to Jennifer the infinite beauty of what was happening, to warn the priestess to be ready and not miss a second to enjoy a moment of perfection. She didn't have time, however.​

    Light engulfed the world, and the world became the light of dark indigo. It warmed like a living fire enclosed in an exquisite fireplace. It brought a welcome coolness, like a light breeze at a hot hour. Filled the crippled soul with peace. Made Olga happy, just like that, without any conditions. Because happiness is what lilac light was ready to bestow without counting, just like that. Because he could and wanted to.​

    Foolish people think that happiness is like an ordinary resource. It must be mined through hard work, and it certainly is limited. Happiness can be traded, given away gratuitously or for a fee, shared with someone, or taken for sole possession. But this is not true at all, for happiness is infinite. All you have to do is stand up, roll your shoulders, and realize that you have lived as a gravely ill person - in pointless suffering, in excruciating hopelessness. And then you have to start living differently, that's all.​

    Happiness overwhelmed the girl, permeated every cell of her body, warmed every thought with sunlight. It was amazing, and it didn't end. After all, happiness...​

    No, Olga said.​

    The dark indigo turned to wisteria with a dash of gray, like clouds on the horizon ready to bring a storm. A refreshing chill sparkled with the sharp blades of snowflakes, and warmth thickened like red-hot desert air. The world around Olga froze in a mute question, and the question concealed something sinister, hidden for the time being, like a sharpened nail in a sleeve or a hammer in a bag.​

    Olga collected, restored her soul from the shards, dispersed the fog, concentrated, and snatched pieces of her former self out of the dreamlessness. It wasn't easy, but the main thing was to begin, to concentrate consistently on thoughts and feelings, attaching them to the backbone of consciousness. To the point where you can finally ask yourself a direct question, and then the next:​

    "What's wrong with this?"​

    "Where have I seen this before?"​

    Too much, you scum of a thistle! thought the girl to the light. I've been caught on that before.

    Yes, what was going on had nothing to do with the three-armed monster that nearly caught the girl at the Ballistic Station. Everything is better, brighter, more honest. But the essence - if you peel the phenomenon, like a cabbage head, leaf by leaf, down to the core - the essence is the same.​

    The promise of everything for nothing. No obligations, no conditions, no labor, no effort. Happiness for everyone, and no one leaves offended.​
    Happines for everyone. For free. And no one escape offended. And if someone doesn't want to, we'll line them up against the wall. (Execute!)
    But it doesn't work that way, and Olga knew that better than anyone.​

    It doesn't happen that way.​

    Never.​

    Happiness for free costs the most in the end, and when it comes time to pay, the price is not asked but taken.​

    The memory of the great Russian language came back instantly, the whole pseudo-Latin 'Gothic', which looked like a wild mixture of French and German, jump out of her head at once. Olga did not say, but thought, distinctly, hoping that lilac understood everything:​

    Fuck you, asshole.

    The girl had the strange feeling that in front of her, around her, and in herself was not a living being, but some kind of element. It was like an ocean that moved, obeyed some rules, existed in an infinite number of interconnected elements but had no independent mind. And she feared that what she was thinking would be unheard. Or misunderstood. Or misunderstood, which would be a shame, considering how much emotion Olga put into three short words. But she was well understood, and her understanding was followed by surprise, which was followed by inevitability. And there followed an answer that was inexpressible in words, but as clear and understandable as Olga's message.​

    Whoever doesn't want happiness seeks its opposite.

    The one who rejects heaven longs to be cast into hell.

    The one who doesn't want peace welcomes pain.

    The lilacs darkened, even more, icy needles pierced the body, the heat scorched the nerves, barely at first, as if preparing for further torment. The breath of decay and death drank precious drops of will and energy from the soul. And then Olga heard something that was not and could not be here. The most terrible sounds in the world, which were repeated enough to be permanently imprinted in her memory for the rest of her life.​

    Door creaking.​

    The clatter of a bottle was placed on a crooked, rusty table. Regular, zero-five liter, priced at forty-seven rubles. Always filled to exactly a quarter to polish up afterward. A very distinctive clatter, it is quite different from that of a bottle, empty or full of, say, half.​

    The long grinding of the lock being locked, very diligent. The creak of the door boards, pressed by a strong hand, checking to see if it was secure if it wouldn't open at the most inopportune moment.​

    Olga cringed, whimpering softly in horror. The memory, like a digitized photograph, was rapidly becoming reality, gaining color, volume, and smell. The smell of damp dust - it had rained too much that fall - of street dirt on badly wiped boots. Very bad vodka, so cheap that they don't even dilute it with water to make it bulkier because water would cost more.​

    It can't be, it can't be, it can't be!!!

    And then a familiar and infinitely hateful voice said somewhere over the head:​

    "Who's the best today? Who was waiting for her beloved brother?"​

    A firm palm came down on her neck, and Olga screamed, realizing that she was in hell after all.​

    * * *​

    Bertha had expected anything from slaughter to a bloody orgy, but her squad was quiet, disciplined, and ready for action. The flamethrowers were ready, the equipment on the move and checked, the personal weapons issued from the safe on the Holy Man's personal initiative. Strictly speaking, the fireproof cabinet was simply broken into, but the mentor decided to leave the decision for later. And so was her reflection on exactly why her team was beyond the reach of the rapidly spreading madness.​

    "What orders?" The Holy Man asked cheerfully, and the question stunned the mentor.​

    Indeed, what now? But the Emperor is always on the side of the righteous, and then the Priest came to the rescue. The speaker of general communication turned on, emitting a series of wheezes, hinting at the need to update the equipment. And then it cleared its throat and reported:​

    "My brothers and sisters. We are under attack. Let us be firm in our faith and...'​

    The Priest described the situation briefly and quite exhaustively. Berta, meanwhile, was thinking intensely. At the same time, the new commandant tried to stifle the sprouts of schadenfreude. 'That's for you, not disbanding! The armored train will show itself yet!'​

    By the time the Priest encouraged everyone to be strong and brave, and to strike the wicked with both hands, the Mentor already had a rough idea of what to do next. She quickly assigned the duties, ordered the mechanic to sit in the tank, keep the hatches open in readiness to receive the entire crew, and, if necessary, ram the wagon from the inside.​

    "We'll roll over," Driver remarked melancholically. "Too high. Then we'll have to keep the ramp extended."​

    "The Emperor will help," said Bertha significantly. "Now, where's the brat...?"​

    A sharp knock was her answer. The pounding came from outside, and with such force, it looked as if there was at least a servitor on the other side of the door. Without a command, Luke and Kryptman raised their weapons simultaneously; the flamethrowers regrouped, aiming at the doorway. It smelled of gun oil and flamethrower chemicals. To complete the composition of 'the Emperor's servants holding up a heroic defense,' the turret drives hummed. The small-caliber cannon turned, and the bolt clanked loudly, so audible even behind the armor.​

    Well done, Driver, thought Bertha, taking her own shotgun off her shoulder. She noted that Kryptman had made sure of the density of possible fire and turned in the opposite direction, taking aim at the spiral staircase. Smart guy, really, we should be prepared for an attack from the rear.​

    The knocking was repeated, demanding, and loud.​

    "Open up," commanded Bertha to Wretches Man.​

    Wretches Man licked his parched lips and stood at the side of the armored door, crossed by steel strips with round rivet hats. He licked his lips once more and twisted the locking wheel with one hand. The hinges, well lubricated with frost-proof grease, barely squeaked when the door opened.​

    "Ah, a hundred thousand fucked-up Warp demons," Bertha squealed as she lowered her shotgun.​

    "Where's the medic?" the tech-priestess asked as she stepped inside.​

    Above Wakrufmann's left shoulder hovered a servo skull, glistening with a red lens and waving its three-toed limbs. A long antenna protruded from the yellow and white parietal bone, almost touching the metal ceiling.​

    "This is becoming a tradition," remarked the Holy Man, looking at the limp body of the blonde, who was being held tightly by the mechanic. The little one won't get out of her hospital bed. That'll make her the most veteran we've ever had."​

    Demetrius didn't say anything, he silently flipped open the medical shelf aboard the 'Chimera,' designed to transport the wounded. The accessory had not been used for a long time (most likely never), but should have been present by regulation, just in case. And, finally, it came in handy, once again confirming the wisdom of the statute.​

    "What's wrong with her? - The young man asked curtly, sliding a large bag of medical supplies over his chest.​

    Jennifer gave out a quick succession of some medical terms, which Demetrius, judging by his reaction, understood perfectly and darkened with each word.​

    "I'll try to stabilize her," he promised grimly. "But there needs to be help from a good hospital. And... " Demetrius looked up as if he could pierce several levels of solid metal with his eyes. "And probably a good psyker, too."​

    The Sinner recoiled, making a gesture to ward off the evil force, and the rest of the squadron swayed involuntarily to and fro, like the grass in a mighty wind.​

    "Move apart," Kriptman ordered with unexpected authority.​

    The Inquisitor quickly stepped toward Olga and placed both hands on her forehead. Fidus frowned and silently moved his lips for a couple of minutes, while Demetrius put the girl on glucose and physiological saline drips.​

    "You got it," Kryptman finally said quietly, turning to the orderly. It sounded like a question and a statement at the same time. Demetrius nodded slightly and answered just as quietly:​

    "Yes. Can we help here?"​

    Fidus bit his lip and furrowed his forehead, shifting his eyebrows. Then he said:​

    "Probably. But it would be dangerous. We need someone to go after her. I'm not a psyker or a psychonaut, I can only help and hold her."​

    "I..." Demetrius hesitated but continued with apparent reluctance as if recalling something he wanted to forget forever. "Sometimes the Emperor's light shines on me. Sometimes... and in strange ways. That's why I'm here."​

    "Are you ready or not?" Fidus said curtly, still with his hands on the girl's head. "There's no time to lose, she's getting deeper with each passing minute. If you can't do it, I'll try."​

    Now Demetrius bit his lip and lowered his eyes without stopping his medical manipulations. He adjusted the dispenser wheel on the antihypoxant packet, and then said a single word with discreet determination:​

    "I will."​

    "A psychonautics session organized not by a conditioned psyker, but by a person with a weak gift tag, would require special equipment," Jennifer spoke with her usual boredom of mechanicus, and the squad had already forgotten about her. "The equipment is in the process of being assembled. I had to improvise from what was available, but there's a good chance it might help."​

    "You'd better mind your own business," Bertha looked at the tech-priestess critically, without a trace of deference. "You're chatting..."​

    "I don't need to look at the mechanical servants to operate them," Wakrufmann replied haughtily. "The instruments will be delivered in fourteen minutes and forty-nine seconds via the internal pneumatic transmission network."​

    "I'm afraid we don't have fifteen minutes," Kryptman shook his head. "If we delay, she'll go mad, get lost forever in the maze of the distorted subconscious. We'll have to take a risk."​

    In contrast to the mentor, the inquisitor treated Jennifer with respect. Demetrius was silent and clenched his fingers nervously, like a swimmer about to dive into murky water with rebar sticking out of the bottom. Whatever the novice was about to do, it scared the hell out of him. The mechanicus turned the mask that replaced her face toward Fidus.​

    "Trying to use a bit of his gift under the circumstances will probably kill him," Jennifer stated with the straightforwardness of a real machine, pointing to Demetrius. "At best, we'll get two irreversibly insane people. At worst, we'll be left with two shells filled with an alien and utterly hostile consciousness. Better to lose some time, but go on the journey armed. I intend to help according to protocol A-nineteen-eighty-three, you should be familiar with it."​

    "Eight hundred and three..." muttered the inquisitor. "Electroshock..."​

    Fidus rubbed his neck and said with evident reluctance:​

    "Yes, that might help. We'll wait."​

    Demetrius looked at Fidus with painfully dilated pupils, pale as death, but he kept silent and refrained from arguing, apparently deciding that his more experienced colleague understood the situation better.​

    "Hey, pinion," Bertha called out. "Don't even think about it! A full-fledged fighter and a whole orderly, I won't give them up. And you have something to do, too!"​

    "I'm on it," Jennifer turned her whole body toward her mentor. "The dignity and good of the children of Omnissiah is in multitasking. And now I'm going to try to get the locomotive up and running so Radial-12 can get going. It's best for all of us to get as far away from any populated areas or human gatherings as possible."​

    "There were... yours." Came to the voice of the Wretched Man. "I saw it."​

    "Not anymore," Jennifer retorted. "My fellow has been irreversibly disabled and has effectively ceased to exist."​

    "Let it be." Berta summed it up. "Go about your business and these..." She nodded toward the inquisitor and Demetrius. "They will do their duty."​

    The tech-priestess took a step toward the mentor, and Bertha shuddered. Like most ordinary people, Bertha was used to the stately slowness of Omnissian servants, but Wakrufmann moved with frightening speed and looked more like a servant of the Officio Assassinorum.​

    "Who are you? - Bertha asked, hovering over the tech-priestess as if she were preparing to smash her iron head with the handle of a shotgun. She might as well have been scaring a rock or a statue. "Why do you want this girl?"​

    "Correction," Wakrufmann added nonchalantly. "We all need the girl. I will draw your attention to an important aspect. This event has the hallmarks of a large-scale psyker attack, either deliberate or spontaneous, acting as a side effect of some kind of action. Both humans and Adeptus Mechanicus are equally affected. But you have kept your sanity and are immune to the hostile influence. Only your department, no one else, including the commandant and staff personnel. They are God-fearing people and objectively far from unbelief. Why do you think that is? What factor protected you and only you?"​

    "Well..." Bertha looked at Olga in confusion. "Oh, that's nonsense! You're not wrong in the head, are you? Even though you have an iron head."​

    "This is a fact, and I was in direct contact with your subordinate at the time of the attack. The exposure overloaded my circuits and heuristic systems but was generally tolerable. At the same time, my fellow of the locomotive brigade dismembered himself, broadcasting heretically distorted prayers on all frequencies, as well as a code of awareness of the meaninglessness of existence in a modified body that cannot indulge in the usual human hedonistic vices."​

    "Nonsense," Bertha repeated, shaking her head. - "Nonsense! We can't take that risk. A soldier has to be on guard duty. A medic has to be on standby to cure. And the girl will lie there until she regains consciousness or until the fight is over."​

    "Following such a course of action will cause you to lose face and some credibility with your subordinates," Jennifer warned. "If you don't want to voluntarily coordinate your actions with me and take into account my recommendations, I'll force you."​

    "Yes, I don't want to. Or what?" Bertha grinned angrily, gripping the hilt of the combi-shotgun tighter.​

    "I had already asked the spirit in 'Chimera' to ignore the commands of the driver, and the request was met with understanding. Spirits don't like those who disregard the advice of the Mechanicus. Now you won't even start this vehicle, let alone do anything more complicated."​

    "You..." Bertha gasped.​

    "Besides, an armored train needs a locomotive to move," Jennifer continued with firmness. "One hundred and thirty-seven technical operations must be performed in strict sequence and perfect adherence to the canon of service to get it running and achieve stable traction. It is also necessary to say litanies in praise of the boiler and the steam distribution mechanism. It may not stop there, the spirits of steam-powered machines are conservative and distrustful of new users. The steam engine may not accept machinists without proper recommendations, and a call to the Omnissiha will be necessary. If you can do that, it's time to get started."​

    Bertha was ready to swear that the thin iron arm of the servo skull folded into a fuck you gesture for a moment.​

    "If you can't, your train is not functional," Wakrufmann stated ruthlessly. "And you are useless and the antithesis of the ideals of the Communist Sanitary-Epidemiological Squad under the patronage of St. Clarence, may he rest in glory at the foot of the Golden Throne."​

    Jennifer folded her metallic hands in the sign of an aquila, like a true and faithful servant of the Imperium - a human servant of flesh and blood. The sinusoid on the 'mouth' screen folded into a line, very expressively conveying the sardonic curve of the thin lips. Bertha clenched her teeth, an incredible effort to suppress the outburst of anger and the desire to shoot the pot-head that stood between the Squad and its mission.​

    No one knows how this nervous dialogue would have ended, in which a bone found its place if at that moment there was not a loudspeaker of the intercom.​

    "Commandant!" called out in the distorted voice of the Priest.​

    Bertha hesitated for a few seconds, then pulled the intercom box off the bracket on a long wire and flicked a button.​

    "I'm listening!"​

    While the purificators and the mechanicus were figuring out who was in charge, the Priest was wiping away the knife. There was more blood on the clergyman's clothes. More specifically, the red liquid soaked the monk from head to toe, soaking every thread down to his socks and underwear. The orchestra and the staff showed remarkable resilience, resisting to the end the unyielding will of the Emperor, carried out by the hands of His servant. But the Priest managed, though it was not easy.​

    Cleaning his blade, the monk looked at the large, massive thing that stood in the corner of the command post. The structure had the appearance of a column on massive support made of the mortarboard. The column was converted into an intricate structure of several dozen concentric rings, marked with risks, colored symbols, or even just hand-drawn notches. All of this was in constant motion, with whirring electric drives and squeaking gears.​

    The thing was an analog model that allowed the tracking of armored train movements within an area. A very old thing that worked crudely and inaccurately, but would always work if there was electricity in the batteries and a radio signal. Useless for many decades and irreplaceable now that one by one the surveillance satellites were failing, the staff servitors had become useless stuffed animals, and the regimental command was either dead or had disappeared somewhere in its entirety.​

    The Priest angrily slipped the knife into its sheath and took a long-stemmed intercom from the Commandant's table.​

    "Have you seen a tin can?" The commissar of the armored train asked curtly, without giving any foreplay.​

    "We saw," answered Bertha, glancing at Wakrufmann.​

    "We need a move," said the monk, his voice muffled and interrupted by the wheezing of the old, worn-out system. "And it's urgent."​

    "Trouble?"​

    "Here comes the 'sixty-fourth' at full speed."​

    "Radial-64?" Bertha couldn't help smiling, rejoicing in her soul. Here it is, backup!​

    "Yes. Only they don't respond to inquiries and have disabled the tracking system. They shut it down themselves. The last message on the net was a report. More like a cry for help. 'Someone is breaking the seals and breaking in the doors of the arsenal wagon at the missile battery'."​

    "So this isn't the help?" The commandant gritted her teeth​

    "It doesn't look like it. I think they're coming to intercept. Find an iron head and have him start a steam train."​

    "Gotcha."​

    Bertha flicked a tangent and looked at Jennifer, then mouthed angrily:​

    "It looks like you'll have to light the furnace after all. Or we'll all die. Along with the little brat."​

    "If Radial-64 comes to intercept us, we will die. If a wave of chaos reaches us we will die. If 'Radial-12' leaves the danger zone, but novice Olga stops acting as a possible stabilization agent, we die. In different ways, we arrive at the same ending, which to me is unacceptable. Therefore I see no reason to renegotiate the terms. The train will move on my terms or not move at all."​

    Wakrufmann waited a few moments, carefully monitoring Bertha's condition, calculating to a hundredth of a second the time for the mentor to realize the point, but not in time to explode with spontaneous, impulsive action.​

    "Are we going to haggle further, or are we going to do business for the glory of the Emperor and the duty of the Squad?" Jennifer asked. "I would prefer the second option. If we accept it, novices Kryptman and Demetrius will take care of novice Olga, and I will go to the locomotive, giving you tactical control of the situation beyond these inputs."​

    "You will answer for this," Bertha promised very firmly.​

    "I am not encroaching on your credentials and prerogatives," Wakrufmann said. "I need to keep the girl alive and sane. To achieve this in the circumstances can only be achieved with the help of your fighting squad. Our goals are the same."​

    "All right. Let's get down to business," the mentor gritted her teeth.​

    Bertha may have lacked the experience of real, big command, but the mentor was no fool. 'Radial' needed technique, the technique could only be provided by a mechanicus, and pushing the pedal to the end in a 'who's the most principled here' clash was fraught, because the cog could win, and time was disappearing minute by minute.​

    We'll settle up later, Bertha mentally promised, and for a moment she imagined what a luxurious report she would create, and Savlar would write it out in his perfectly calligraphic handwriting. Not a word of lies that would be displeasing to the Emperor and offensive to the purificator. Only the pure truth about how the cog has actively interfered with his work, turned her duty into a blackmail tool, and dared with blatant impudence to dictate his will to the Ecclesiarchy in the person of Adepto Purificatum.​

    "Communication will be through my assistant," Jennifer announced and pointed to the skull with the antenna, then turned again to Fidus. "I recommend that you perform the operation in the 'Chimera' or an isolated compartment. Possible..." Here, perhaps for the first time, the tech-priestess modulated voice trembled slightly. "Excesses."​

    "I understand," the inquisitor touched the hilt of his pistol in his holster.​

    "Hey!" Bertha shook her barrel. "Will yours help us? Maybe they could at least drop a gun on us?"​

    "'Mine,' Wakrufmann smiled unpleasantly again. "Those who escaped the psyker strike are now fighting a battle and have no extra artillery. They will help but under the circumstances."​

    "We don't have shit," someone from the squad said quietly.​

    "Doesn't the Emperor protect? - Jennifer queried and moved toward the exit, looking like an angry mannequin in her red robe. Finally, she tossed over her shoulder:​

    "Prepare for battle."​
    * * *​
     
    ATP, Bogdan, Nerve and 1 other person like this.
  28. Nihil Asara

    Nihil Asara Getting some practice in, huh?

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    pretty daemon eyes replaced by ugly mech. dunno that I like the way this is going.
     
  29. Threadmarks: The Squad Chapter 23
    RiP

    RiP Seeker of Silence

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    Chapter 23
    * * *​
    Inside the 'Chimera' was unexpectedly spacious. In a compartment designed for a dozen soldiers with ammunition, there were only three people, of which only one - Kryptman - was big. Olga was placed on three blankets stacked on top of one another. Kriftman silently wrapped duct tape around her wrists.​

    "Is that really necessary?" Demetrius asked.​

    "Yes," the inquisitor said briefly. "We don't know..."​

    He hesitated, glancing sideways at the orderly. Demetrius couldn't help but smile crookedly, thinking what he hadn't said: No one knows who or what will wake up in the girl's body.​

    "So..." Fidus laid out on the metal seat the equipment sent by Wakrufmann. "So," he repeated.​

    "Need any help?" The Driver looked through the hatch from the control compartment.​

    "No," said Fidus, then added more politely. "You'd better go... outside. Anything can happen here."​

    Demetrius grimaced in anguish at this but said nothing. The Driver only smirked.​

    "Well, that's up to you," said Fidus, taking a screwdriver from the pocket of his baggy overalls.​

    "You can die anywhere and any way you," Driver remarked with an unusual verbosity for himself. "And you have a circus for free. So I'm both on duty and entertained."​

    "Aren't you afraid of being defiled?"​

    "My friendly pie," said the Driver with good-natured patronage. "I'm the longest-serving man here, I've got indefinite exile. Even our mutterer hasn't dragged it out as long as I have."​
    For a 3% chance of surviving docility in this unit too many veterans. Bertha - 3 terms, Holy Man more than one, and now Driver.
    Fidus frowned but immediately realized that it was about a radio operator.​

    "If heresy could penetrate my eyes, I'd be tapping my mutant hooves," Driver continued. "So you do your work, and I'll take a peek, for fun. I'll never see such a thing again"​

    "Yeah," Fidus agreed, rattling the complicated hardware that Jennifer's new servo skull had brought. "That's how it starts. First, it's 'I only got one look'. And then 'what's this fire for, where are you taking me?"​

    The Driver grinned even wider, which looked comical with his red-skinned face, and put his famous hat on top of his tank helmet.​

    "For luck," explained the Driver, intercepting the inquisitor's surprised look, and added, returning to the original theme. "You're not used to it yet, and we're very boring."​

    "Boring?" Fidus caught himself that the conversation was quite appropriate. His hands were familiarly connecting contacts in a familiar pattern, and his head was distracted from his gloomy thoughts by an unnecessary conversation.​

    "Sure," Driver shook his head, and the silver beads tinkled softly in his long strands. "It's scary to the point of yellow underpants at first, but it's curious, too. Horrors and variety! And then just horrors, the same thing, day after day, year after year. Mutants, cultists, festering, scorching. Give them an acid tank, measure the level of pollution, organize mass incineration. And they have all this," Driver waved his thumb, obviously symbolizing the other squads. "I'm sitting in a tin can all the time. Ugh. Only fun if I have to shoot with a cannon. Or talk to the machine spirit."​

    "And he answers?" Kryptman became interested.​

    "No, of course not," smirked Driver. "I'm not a cog. Spirit only listens. And rumbles like a diesel. But it rumbles in different ways, like a cat. I've learned to tell when he's happy and when he's about to burn the pistons out of spite."​

    "You've got the wrong job," Fidus commented inaudibly, his teeth clamping down on a thin wire, his tongue tingling with the faint electric shocks. "You should have put a pot on your head, too."​

    "Maybe... You do it, do it, I'll be quiet, I won't interfere. And if we get out, there will be something to remember." He paused for a moment and then added philosophically: "If you don't survive, I'll remember you and speak well of you. Or you of me, as the case may be."​

    "You're a goddamn optimist," Fidus muttered as he tightened the last nut.​

    "What are you in for indefinitely?" Demetrius suddenly asked, rubbing his wrists quickly and nervously, as if he wanted to get the blood flowing in his frozen palms.​

    I got into an argument with a factory priest when I was young and foolish," remembered the mechanic good-naturedly. "The Emperor is God or a superhuman of divine power."​

    "It was unwise," commented Fidus.​

    "Yeah. We went together under the church investigation. He went straight to the bonfire, because he was a religious person, and I went to jail and then came here. That's how I settled in."​

    "Here is the place that waits for the man, and the man that has taken his place," Fidus quoted. "That's it, now stay out of the way."​

    "I got it," the Driver spread his palms black with oil and grease. "I'll shut up."​

    * * *​

    The sounds of gunfire were getting closer. Jennifer wasn't a skitari and didn't know much about tactics, but ordinary logic was enough to understand this wasn't a fight in which the opponents were at least conventionally divided and organized. This is chaos and senseless violence. The problem was that the chaotic violence was coming, and fast, and the hulk of the techno-priest in charge of the steam engine was swinging on a metal cable in the sharp gusts of the night wind. The mechanic's brain was dead, but the electronic circuits were still drawing power from the built-in batteries, crying out sadly to the ether. The servitors, who had destroyed the operator on his own orders, lined up in a circle and went into power-saving modes, like immovable statues. They appeared to be very old specimens, capable only of the simplest of operations, the remnants of consciousness in their brain matter insufficient for a crushing psyker attack to get a grip on anything.​

    Wakrufmann turned on the backlight, making the optics glow bright yellow, like little spotlights. The priestess could see in infrared as well, but she preferred the ancient, conservative style. The work was not easy, and the first thing the techno-priestess did was to bring the servitors back to wakefulness.​

    Of course, Jennifer did not believe in spirits sitting inside machinery, cheering prayers, and drinking machine oil out of saucers. As the popular and ancient saying of Mechanicum put it, 'it doesn't work that way'. Machine spirits- as propaganda interpreted and described them - are just a useful superstition. The truth was much simpler - there are no spirits. And at the same time much more complicated - there are Entities.​

    Any mechanism more complex than a stick with a wheel is a Construct. It is built, it exists, it serves, it is repaired and upgraded. Every minute of operation, every manipulation of the operator adds a little bit of Influence to the machine. And each machine thus acquires an Individuality, a unique imprint, comparable to life experience and even character. In a world where devices serve for centuries, even machines have a soul. It has no self-consciousness but can display character and personal habits, i.e. programmed reactions to external actions. A machine that has served in harsh conditions will be harsh and demanding, the operator will first have to prove that it is worthy to be a companion and master. A machine that has been mistreated by denying it decent care will acquire the stamp of defectiveness, even vindictiveness, which is difficult, often impossible to remove. And so on...​

    Jennifer knew at a glance what was in front of her, so referring to the form only confirmed the knowledge. An ancient steam locomotive that once hauled heavy rockets and trusses to mount launch pads very, very far from here. Then transferred to a more peaceful service due to the specific design of the undercarriage - the axles could be adjusted to the width of non-standard tracks. Distinctive characteristics - excessive even for military vehicles safety margin (and therefore weight), especially for operation in wittingly destructive conditions. Primitive boiler, especially simplified to be able to feed on solid fuel of any composition, including wood and peat. The old, very reliable design, for which a good look after. And... it's a problem. Or maybe it's a virtue, as you can see.​

    Military equipment was difficult to work with, it was notoriously bilious, prone to petty regulation. It was doubly difficult with conversion equipment, the machine aura was 'accustomed' to a certain reverence. Accustomed to the fact that the thoughts of the crews were full of hope and gratitude for the loyal iron. Deprived of this, moving to a more peaceful service, the machinery was like a resentful veteran, whose services are consigned to oblivion. The old steam locomotive remembered the fire raging in the combustion chambers of giant missiles, the sizzling flashes of atomic explosions, the deadly raids through wastelands poisoned by radiation. The present labor of the shunting cart was insulting to him. The machinery did not trust the new operator.​

    Unless...​

    If Jennifer could, she would have smiled. Book experience threw up a comparison of a steamroller to an old, mighty dog. A hunting dog, more like a fighting dog, accustomed to walking side by side with man against the fiercest foes, now living out his days in a warm kennel, munching bones with toothless gums, occasionally letting himself be ridden by the grandchildren of the same old master.​

    Well, why not?​

    Wakrufmann walked along the wheels, quickly checking the condition of the water pipes and the quality of the felt covers on the oil pipes. At the same time, Jennifer addressed the machine 'spirit,' carefully, with due deference, so that the complex aura woven around the mechanism would not bristle in denial, sensing the pressure. Wakrufmann did a very simple thing - she invoked the huge machine's glorious past. She promised to quench a long-standing longing for deeds of which legends and army reports are written. She showed images of the war and destruction through which they would have to walk. The tech priestess promised the machine a return to the hour of glory and the real work for which it had been created. Such work, after which death is no longer a tragedy, but a dignified and welcome end to a very long existence. Or perhaps an excuse to return to military service. The machine 'thought'.​

    Jennifer still didn't understand why the steam locomotive didn't get a normal cabin on the Beacon, with insulated walls, solid glass, and furs connecting the main platform and the tender. The open design would have been logical in hot climates, but not in the tundra with constant cold winds. Losses on insulation must have been enormous, but there must have been some reason for that. However, they did not help to warm up the steam locomotive.​

    Drain the condensate from the grease nipple until the oil comes out instead of water.​

    Check the condition of the mineral wool around the cylinder block.​

    The servitors, awakened by their new master's will, moved in silent shadows, like fingers on a hand, performing thousand-fold repetitive actions. Judging by the design and degree of wear and tear, at least five of the seven were the same age as the steam engine, most likely having come with the machinery from its homeworld. The Psyker attack had affected them as well, the machine men could now function normally only with constant monitoring by the operator. Still, the servitors worked.​

    Open the cylinder valves, pull the handle all the way to the stop.​

    The protocol was helpful in indicating that the spool rod should be locked in the middle position. Wakrufmann racked her brain for the best way to do this. After that, she had to tear off the arm of one of the servicemen, using the limb as a block to hold it in place. The original was lost; there was no time to look for a replacement. The action was met with an understanding of the machine 'spirit', he was convinced that the new operator is similar to the commanders of the distant past - decisive, stern, ready to do anything to fulfill the order. It was not yet a collaboration, a symbiosis of the priest and the invisible substance that penetrated every cog of the complex machine. But, at any rate, the locomotive did not resist, showing something like interest, and a couple of times even suggested the best way to do it.​

    Reverse to center and lock, check the regulator, it should be in the 'closed' position. Jennifer had no idea what that meant, but she knew which levers to turn. Then there was a hitch - there was no coal-polishing hose of at least ten meters in length. Jennifer thought conscientiously about how this could be fixed but concluded that there was no way, so if the coal on the way ignited, so be it. She looked at the dead Martian and decided that this fellow was not worthy of remembrance and kindly admonition, for he had clearly kept the machinery in improper conditions. The mighty locomotive deserved more and better.​

    The sensors replacing Jennifer's vestibular apparatus noted a distant concussion. Something rumbled toward the sea, heavy and very massive. Apparently, some sort of thing was coming up out of the ocean again. The Ice Beacon was definitely going through a bad time. The servitors, meanwhile, continued their work. Most of the crew was now pouring distilled heated water into the boiler. One, the toughest and most sturdy, was preparing to fire up the furnace. With jerky movements, he connected the pneumatic line to the compressor. Here the steam engine had already openly suggested that the hose was very similar to the brake line; the two should not be confused. Jennifer checked the connection, corrected the fault of the servitor, whose optics were too old and muddy. Another failure of the late fellow who didn't keep the locomotive crew in proper condition...​

    The compressed air hissed, accompanying the approaching shots. A machine gun dragged out on top of one of the wagons, rattled off a short burst. Wackruffmann moved across the platform along the huge cylinder with its hinged shroud panels. The wind was increasing, promising a midnight storm.​

    When it was time to light the holy fire, one servitor hauled a wagon of coal along tracks buried in the platform and began to load the firebox, scattering black crumbs over the grate. The other went to get a bucket of firewood chips. Jennifer quickly offered a prayer to Omnissia, who, seeing her follower's weakness and little experience, eased her way, bringing together the tech-priestess and the honored, venerable machine. At the end of her prayer, Wakrufmann remembered to thank the machine 'spirit' and felt the memory imprinted in the metal of many generations of operators, as well as incredible events, echo with a satisfying vibration.​

    The stoker picked up a shovel with shreds of mineral wool soaked in used oil, turned the dead gaze of old lenses on his mistress. Jennifer lit a light on one of her fingers and allowed herself a full three seconds to admire the red tongue that danced in the wind. At moments like this, Wakrufmann imagined herself as the man who had gotten fire hundreds of thousands of years ago and, unknowingly, had become the first servant of the Omnissiah, because the Way of the Machine had begun with the wheel and the fire.​

    The fire began to burn almost immediately, oozing white smoke without soot, a good sign. Jennifer put her hand on the thick metal, feeling the fire rouse the mighty body of the self-propelled machine to action. And as usual, on such occasions, she sincerely pitied ordinary people, so miserable in their ignorance, deprived of the opportunity simply to see the beauty and harmony of the Machine, let alone to understand the Forma Divina Apparatus.​

    * * *​

    Now the head of the unconscious girl was encased in a crafty construction that resembled a cage, a sports mask, and a cyber muzzle of a cyber mastiff at the same time. A bundle of different-colored and different-caliber wires ran from the muzzle to a box-like battery. The box often blinked red and blue lights, and there was a green one, but that one was still dark.​

    "And now what?" Demetrius was already gnashing his teeth in a nervous chill, but for now, he held on.​

    "Now," echoed Fidus. "Add some heat," he said to Driver.​

    "One moment," he nodded and disappeared from view.​

    Something rattled outside, but familiarly, technically. It looked like colleagues were dragging something massive across the carriage. The train jerked through the train with a chain of knocks and the repetitive clanking of wagon couplings. The 'Chimera' swayed on its shock absorbers. Fidus remembered that this model had leaf springs - a bit heavy, but firm and reliable classic tried and tested for thousands of years.​

    "What now?" Demetrius repeated with trembling lips.​

    "Now we should pray," said Fidus, businesslike. "But we don't have time, so I'll pray for all three of us later. For now, you must be undressed and have this stuck in your skull..." The inquisitor showed a vanishingly thin needle on a long wire.​

    This time the orderly couldn't refrain from swearing.​

    "It's necessary," Kryptman repeated sternly. "It's for better synchronization of the delta waves and so I can, in case of need, disconnect you."​

    "Disconnect?" Demetrius didn't understand. "What would that be? What do you mean... will be? What do I have to be ready for?"​

    The train jerked again and moved forward ten meters and stopped.​

    Kryptman was about to angrily reproach the young man that he should better understand the nature of his gift, but he looked at the trembling lips and fingers of the orderly, sighed heavily, and changed his tone.​

    "How does it manifest itself to you?" asked the inquisitor, attaching a cobweb made of wire and foil with rubber bands to Demetrius' head to fasten it behind his ears.​

    "I... people like me. It's hard to control. And it's hard to describe. When I find someone... attractive, I feel as if a golden light comes from me, a ray of goodness that warms... the person I'm interested in. And they... well, I mean, people... respond. with attention, sympathy..." Demetrius spoke slowly, stammering, and at the last phrase, the young man's voice wilted like a leaf in the blazing sun: "With eagerness... Or even lust."​

    "I see," nodded Fidus, not stopping his confident manipulations. From time to time Kryptman thought briefly as if remembering something, and quickly reworked what seemed wrong.​

    "Look. You have to take your clothes off first."​

    "No!"​

    "Yes," the inquisitor repeated ruthlessly. "You need as much body contact as possible."​

    Demetrius was silent, but the young orderly's ears glowed enough to light a lcho. A muffled chuckle came through the hatch.​

    "Then I'll put you into a trance."​

    "Hypnosis?"​

    "Sort of, but easier and faster. There's no time for hypnotic immersion. And then I'll give you an electric shock. If it works, the concussion will allow you to cross the barrier entirely, and your minds will... you know... ...connect, or something. Anyway, it's very complicated."​

    Demetrius twitched and disturbed the harmony of the foil cap, Kryptman shook his head annoyingly and fixed it. Then he lifted the needle and looked questioningly at the orderly. The young man cast an oblique glance at the patient, who lay in complete immobility, only the rapid movements of the eyeball under the closed eyelids showed some sign of life. Olga looked miserable, very pale, like a real dead man, an empty shell of a person. A single tear rolled down her cheek, gleaming in the dim light of the barred lamp like a tiny diamond. Demetrius bit his lip and looked into Kryptman's eyes.​

    "Yes. Go ahead."​

    "Great," Kryptman looked at the orderly with a questioning glance and reminded him. "Tight body contact."​

    The manipulation ended unexpectedly quickly and almost painlessly, only a few drops of blood came out, and that was it. A green light flashed on Wakrufmann's box.​

    "What is there to be prepared for?" Demetrius reminded, pulling down the shirt, which was once sewn from an old monk's robe. Or rather, the orderly tried to pull it off, and then both psychonauts realized that the cap and needle were in the way. Driver silently threw Demetrius an army knife, the orderly just as silently began to shred the clothes right on himself, writhing against the needle in his temple. It didn't hurt, but it was unpleasant, like a splinter.​

    Kryptmann checked the condition of Wakrufmann's machinery once more and began carefully but quickly undressing Olga.​

    "You can't be prepared for that," he instructed Demetrius in passing. "There's absolute evil waiting for you, and it has only one goal: to get your soul. Hers and yours. It's not even evil as we understand it, just utterly, completely alien to everything that makes up our lives. Like darkness to light. Or fire to water. Anything can be waiting for you, so don't hold yourself back by waiting in advance. Just prepare for the worst."​

    "I got it," Demetrius gritted his teeth. Even Driver had indeed added heat by turning on the seldom-used heaters, the orderly was shivering. "What am I supposed to do?"​

    "Her mind is in a labyrinth right now, tangled with fears of the past and the future," Kryptman explained. "She can't escape on her own, she needs a map, a light to go to. But if you fail, it's not her who will come out to your signal, but you will be drawn to her, into the darkness, where there is no God. So..."​

    The inquisitor exhaled, swallowing nervously. Demetrius, without waiting for a command, cautiously hugged the girl and lay back comfortably, trying not to disturb the cobwebs of wires and the stupid hat. The driver again proved himself to be a generous giver; this time he handed over a thin but warm blanket, part of the military medic's kit. The inquisitor covered the lying couple with it.​

    "Remember the main thing. Only one 'there' is unchangeable. Only one thing will hold you, like an anchor in the sea," Fidus said curtly. "And light the way."​

    "Our God," Demetrius whispered.​

    "That's right. An abyss full of lies awaits you. Creatures that feed on lies and deceit await you. The only thing constant in the ocean of forbidden Evil is faith in the Emperor. No matter what happens, believe, that is your only salvation."​

    The clanging thunder rolled through the armored train again, and finally 'Radial-12' moved. Very slowly but surely, picking up speed a bit at a time. Behind several layers of armor, the locomotive whistle blew.​

    "The light that shines on you," the inquisitor said very seriously, looking into the psychonaut's eyes. "If it is indeed a divine spark, light it as brightly as you can. Be like a mirror, reflect the light and love of the Emperor, dispelling the darkness. Do it not to please yourself, not for pleasure, but to save an innocent soul."​

    "Wait," Demetrius grabbed the Inquisitor's arm sharply. "Another question!"​

    "Go ahead."​

    Kryptman took Driver's knife, with which the orderly had cut his clothes, and checked the blade. It was clean, well polished, and reflected the light. Fidus caught the faint ray from the lamp, threw it on the wall of the Chimera landing bay, and nodded to himself - that's it.​

    "Is it love?" Demetrius asked, squeezing the inquisitor's fingers with unexpected force. The answer seemed to be of utmost importance to the young man, almost a matter of life and death. "Or the duty of His servant?"​

    Fidus wanted to get off with a cliché, appropriate to the moment and, most importantly, short. But the memorized words stuck in his throat, seeming unspeakably false in the here and now, in the face of the great risk and the great sacrifice the young man with the barely visible shadow of a psyker gift was about to make.​

    "No. It is not love. It is duty and gratitude," answered the inquisitor. "Once she came between me and death. I survived. And then it was my turn."​

    "And...?"​

    "I didn't come between her and... the squad."​

    "The Emperor is with us," Demetrius whispered, resting his head on the makeshift pillow, clutching poor Olga's skinny body tighter in his arms. "We may forget Him, but He always remembers us. And where He is, there is always His Light."​

    "And hope," Fidus continued quietly, directing a dim spot of reflected light into the psychonaut's eyes. The Inquisitor put his free hand on the lever, preparing to send an electric current that would either stop Demetrius's heart or send his consciousness to a place where the laws and rules of Materium do not exist.​

    "And hope..."​

    * * *​

    Starting a 'cold' steam boiler without external heating was a difficult procedure even for experienced operators. And, according to Wakrufmann's data banks, could easily take up to two or three hours. The techno-priestess managed it in twenty minutes, and at times she was a little intimidated by the enthusiasm of the locomotive. The machine spirit seemed to be eager for battle, like a berserker impatiently gnawing at a shield. So far, though, it was doing the trick.​

    Chaos was approaching, and the squad spread out across the rooftops, shooting off the madmen who had begun to appear as a vanguard of a rabid mob. If the 'spirit' of 'Chimera' was to be believed, Demetrius was currently preparing to wander through Olga's clouded mind. The Priest methodically shoveled the dead right onto the concrete, read a short prayer for the repose of the souls, then made a vigorous speech on the intercom about the defeat of heretics. And went to the locomotive, offering Wakrufmann assistance. Jennifer did not refuse.​

    "What's going on?" The monk asked, pulling his coat tightly over his usual chain mail. Considering the nature of the possible fight, this time the Priest did not arm himself with a chemical cannon and took a laser pistol from the commandant's safe, and a shortened sapper axe stuck behind his belt made of tarpaulin tape. Shepherd was freezing just looking at the techno-priestess with beams of bright light shooting out of her eyes, but the monk was bracing himself.​

    "According to the scraps of information, something extraordinary has happened in the area of the city center," Jennifer reported honestly. "Something that shook the veil that separates Materium from Empyrea. A wave of reaction spread out in concentric circles, bringing pure evil to the souls."​

    "Is it as if a rag had been torn? "​

    "It goes something like this. Now there are influences seeping through the veil that are driving people crazy and also changing them. Other manifestations are possible."​

    The monk opened his mouth to ask what the chances of a self-tightening ripped reality were, and what to do in such cases, but just clicked his jaw, remembering that he actually represents the Ecclesiarchy here and is supposed to give answers to such questions.​

    "Let's go," Jennifer said. "If you would be so kind as to watch these gauges. All arrows should fluctuate within the yellow range. It's all right to go into the red area, but if any arrow stays there longer than three seconds, let me know right away."​

    "Got it."​

    The priest stared conscientiously at the gauges, which looked more like huge alarm clocks with the same caps on top of their shabby housings. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught the image of the silent dance performed by the techno priestess and the servitors. The monk understood that the 'cogs' were controlling the servants by vox, but that did not make the picture any less eerie.​

    Damn mechanics. Without them, as well as without psykers, the Imperium's gigantic body would be without energy, without any binding threads, but with them, it's always... uncomfortable. They are too far away from humans, too much non-human allowed in themselves. And the otherwise is always a step closer to heresy.​

    The whistling of steam and pressurized air became deafening, the furnace spewed torrents of heat, the shovel of the stoker's servitor rattled. The Priestess quickly flipped the levers, which seemed too massive even for the Priest's powerful arms. The armored train moved slowly, heavily, like an overloaded wagon pulled by an old donkey. It was hard for the donkey, but it tried, and the 'Radial' rolled forward - jerking, clanking loudly with its huge wheels on the joints of the rails, but it rolled, gaining speed little by little.​

    "Where to?" The Priest only now realized that he hadn't asked himself that question before, and he should have.​

    "Straight," Wackrufmann reported with disarming simplicity and directness. "Along the line."​

    "That is, to the city," muttered the Priest.​

    The monk simply did not know what to do next. Before everything was simple and clear - here was his flock, here was the task, everything was written down and regulated. In the centuries of Purificators' existence any unplanned situations had already happened, had been described in reports and provided with exact recipes - how to act. And now the monk suddenly found himself out of his place, several levels above the usual and understandable competence. One could only hope that Bertha understood what to do.​

    "The Five Hundred and Sixty-seventh Maintenance Company and the Radial-12 self-propelled sanitation center are currently of limited and conditional combat effectiveness," the techno-priestess muttered in a nerdy voice. The Priest looked at her suspiciously, trying to figure out whether the iron doll was being ironic, speaking seriously, or prompting?​

    "Also on board is an object of extreme value and probably protecting the entire crew in an obscure but effective way from hostile influence. Finally, our armored train is probably in pursuit of 'Radial-64'. Considering all the above, now we should depart as far as possible, moving away from both the pursuers and from the settlements. Then assess the situation, re-establish contact with the command, wait for help or at least instructions."​

    Judging by the fact that the servitors did not cease their rather complicated operations, Wakrufmann continued to control the servants even as they communicated. The Priest cursed, trying to make sense of the tirade the priestess uttered in one sitting, and without changing her tone, one might have said 'in one breath' if the mechanic had been breathing with her lungs. And then he thought that even if the god-awful 'cog' had been making fun of His servant, her words made perfect sense. Indeed, how else should a servant of the Church and a purificator, who is important not just to smite the enemy, but to do so wisely and effectively, act?​

    While the Priest was reflecting, Jennifer quickly climbed up the coal tender and onto the roof of the first car, clinging to the ledges and faceted rivet hats. The robe was in the way, but Jennifer was in no hurry to get rid of it, given the psychological aspect. The purificators, steeped in superstition, should not have seen the priestess in her true form; it might have caused an unnecessary and harmful phobia in the circumstances.​

    Wakrufmann needed to assess the situation from a high vantage point, and what she saw did not make her happy. But a new factor caught Jennifer's attention almost immediately. Sensitive microphones picked up the piercing whistles and roars far sooner than the average person could hear them. It took Jennifer a few moments to reach her mentor Bertha via the 'Radial' intercom and outline the situation. Then Bertha grabbed the Commandant's microphone and yelled at the whole train, turning the volume of the speakers up to maximum. Her shrill roar was poorly translatable, but briefly and comprehensively conveyed the simple meaning: 'Alarm! Take cover!'​

    There was just enough time for the purificators, who had converted to infantry, to leave the rooftops. Some managed to lock the hatch, some didn't, but all were under armor protection when the barrage of fire struck the railroad station. The missile battery from the 'Radial-64' was perfectly accurate, but only minutes too late. A series of murderous shells rained down on the terminal, turning concrete boxes and metal trusses into flaming ruins, mowing down hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unfortunate victims of madness. But the 'Radial-12' had already crawled out onto the main thoroughfare and was gaining ground, and the enemy had no ammunition left to fire again.​

    Strictly speaking, there was no need for an order to shelter, but Wakrufmann found it useful to strengthen her credibility with the purifiers a little more. Jennifer made only one mistake, forgivable under the circumstances, but no less fatal. The techno-priestess did not consider the factor of ordinary chance, she could not foresee that the explosion of the fuel tank and the destruction of the mooring mast would produce a particularly heavy and long-range fragment.​

    "Emperor's blood! Goddamn it!" The Priest shouted as the decapitated body of the Mechanist fell before him with a thunderous crash. The head fell with a huge dent in it, rolling, rattling, on the corrugated iron of the platform. The spotlight eyes flashed and went out, the servitors of the locomotive crew simultaneously lowered their arms, frozen motionless in the icy wind.​
    * * *​
    They killed Jennifer, those assholes.​
     
    Winged One, ATP and Bogdan like this.
  30. Threadmarks: The Squad Chapter 24
    RiP

    RiP Seeker of Silence

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    Chapter 24
    * * *​
    Kryptman sat motionlessly and looked at the pale faces of the psychonauts. Olga seemed to have calmed down a little, at least she was no longer crying in unconsciousness, and Demetrius, on the contrary, was shivering like a freezing man. The novice's face twitched frequently as if every facial muscle had been electrified.​

    Fidus aimed at Demetrius's forehead with his pistol, then put the weapon away, but not too far away, so that it was close at hand. The sounds of gunfire and explosions had died down, and the train was rolling forward, which was more or less reassuring. He was very thirsty, the thirst was drying out his throat. Fidus only now remembered that he had taken his last sip barely in the morning, and now the time must be nearing midnight. He should ask Driver for some...​

    As if in response to the inquisitor's thoughts, the disheveled driver stuck his red face into the hatch again.​

    "Hey, Bertha is calling for you," he said curtly, and his silver dangles rattled against the metal frame.​

    "I'm busy," snapped Fidus, not taking his eyes off the psychonauts.​

    "Very much so!" Driver clarified.​

    "I'm busy," Kryptman repeated.​

    "Ah," the redskin mumbled in a single syllable. "Well, Ok."​

    He disappeared, fiddled noisily in his compartment, then slid back in, holding out a speaker on a long leg with a triple wire, apparently part of a plug-in headset for intra-train communication. Kryptman bit his lip, silently cursing the idiots who can't do anything themselves. The speaker yelled in a distinctive and perfectly recognizable voice:​

    "Aren't you crazy, you convict face?! Should I kill you for sabotage or put you in the furnace for heat?!"​

    "Do you know what would happen if Brother Demetrius came back a converted man?" The inquisitor gritted his teeth.​

    "Do you know what would happen if a train full of heretics caught up with us?" The Mentor shouted back and finished in an almost calm voice. "We're being chased by the '64'. So feet in the ass and run to the staff wagon!"​

    "Got it." the inquisitor gritted his teeth again. "I will."​

    "And take those glasses that the pinion gave the little one. We need them badly."​

    The driver nodded, signaling "My task is done," and hid back. Fidus bit the knuckles of his left hand painfully, trying to put his thoughts together and improvise some kind of strategy. The strategy refused to be improvised.​

    "Hey," Kryptman pounded on the iron bulkhead with the hilt of his gun.​

    "What?"​

    "What's the biggest gun you have?" Fidus asked.​

    "Uh... What?" The tank driver didn't understand.​

    "I'm going out. Someone has to keep watch," Kryptman clarified. "If they come back as human beings, you can comfort and encourage them. And if they don't..."​

    The Driver gulped and shook his head.​

    "Gotcha. Both of them?"​

    "Yes."​

    "I'm not going to shoot them," said the Driver. "I'll use a frag grenade. It'll work reliably in this cramped space. And there's not much damage to the vehicle."​

    "At your discretion," muttered the Inquisitor, pulling himself up to the turret hatch. He didn't want to fiddle with the sliding panel.​

    "So, what's wrong there," the inquisitor wasted no time in foreplay when he went up to the command post. The blood on his boots and the sight of the dead on the first floor of the staff wagon did not add to his eloquence or friendliness.​

    "The Emperor's shit...!" he let out at the sight of the headless iron figure seated in the commandant's chair. He hesitated, remembering to whom he was speaking.​

    "That's what I said," the Priest confirmed. "And then the severed head spoke."​

    "Mechanicums," summed up the inquisitor, looking at the wrinkled head of Wakrufmann, which lay in the middle of the lightmap.​

    "Humans," the head said. The synthesizer malfunctioned, and the priestess's voice was drowned in hoarse and grinding noises, but it was relatively audible.​

    "Is it so hard to accept the fact that we are evolutionarily more advanced?" asked the metal head of the techno-priestess.​

    "Well, it's hard to accept that you can stick your brains in your belly," the Priest muttered, doing an aquila. "It's all wrong..."​

    "Well," the inquisitor clapped his hands together. "Let's get to the point. Because we have a psychonaut in the difficult dive. And I have no idea what could appear with him or instead of him."​

    "Glasses for starters," the headless figure held out her hand, without the former grace, apparently guided by sound.​

    "Take it."​

    "Thanks."​

    From behind Jennifer's shoulder rose a servo skull, which took the glasses with its little paws, put them on its own 'face,' wrapped the handles back and tied the temples together with thin wire. Then flew up to Wakrufmann and grasped the segmented fragment of the neck tightly. A second skull with a toolbox flew up, a sparkle of micro-welding flashed, a rustle of sticky tape.​

    "Is this some kind of ritual?" Fidus asked.​

    "This is technology. My optical devices don't work. I use Olga's glasses instead, they will give me back my sight."​

    "I thought you could see through your technique."​

    "Yes, but the damage is quite significant. I have to create a palliative."​

    Skull finished the job. Jennifer got out of her chair and took a few steps, turning her whole body around at the same time. The iron body combined with the real skull over her shoulders looked surreal.​

    "Nekron is a bit like that," Fidus muttered.​

    "Who?" Bertha didn't understand.​

    "Well, it's just a fairy tale," Kriptman came to his senses. "It's old and it's scary."​

    Jennifer took hold of the skull and shook it, apparently checking to see if it was attached. From the outside, it looked as if the hero of a scary fairy tale was pulling his own head off. The Priest crossed his fingers in the aquila again.​

    "I'm on the locomotive," Jennifer reported, making sure the scheme was working. "The stoker servitors have stopped, and the furnace should be running. Listen to the head."​

    The techno-priestess went downstairs, treading a little unsteadily, from metal toe to heel, as if she were unsure of the support under her feet.​

    "What's the problem?" Kryptman asked, turning, this time, to the battered head. The metal skull was cracked, and through the hole, they could see tiny parts, wires, and something flashing like LEDs.​

    Answering the inquisitor's question, Wakrufmann remotely turned on a lightmap, a large table in the middle of the headquarters. The white tabletop lit up like a television screen, with ripples of interference, and schematic maps of the region flashed on the rectangle, one after the other.​

    "I have updated data from the closed and protected network," the dead head rumbled. "They're not complete, but they'll be useful anyway."​

    The Priest and Bertha looked at each other.​

    "Radial-64 has nothing to fire on us anymore," Wakrufmann continued. "The train was also under decommissioning, and they used the missiles. But that's not much consolation, because..."​

    Fidus raised a puzzled eyebrow at the word 'decommissioning' but decided not to waste the time.​

    A second skull hovered over the map, gingerly moving the talking head to the edge of the table, the metal creaking against the glass. Jennifer seemed to find what she was looking for; the flipping of the maps slowed, then stopped. The scale jumped.​

    "Route."​

    Illustrating Jennifer's words, the skull poked his iron paw at the map.​

    "The terminal we left. At the moment it has been destroyed."​

    A metal finger squeaked across the glass, drawing a line.​

    "The next settlement and train station, the terminus on this route. It coincides with the epicenter of the malicious influence."​

    "So now we're rushing into the jaws of the demon," Kryptman said.​

    "Technically, yes, we are. If we maintain the same speed, we will arrive there in fifty-seven minutes. At the moment, Radial-12 is here."​

    Another tap of the paw on the map.​

    "And here is our persecutor."​

    "Well..." Kryptman leaned over the lightmap, adjusting to the unfamiliar format. However, everything turned out to be quite clear. "Some sort of abnormal network. Two parallel tracks, half a kilometer apart, instead of the usual double track?"​

    "Part of the experimental network," Jennifer replied. "This used to be a testing ground for super-heavy vehicles and armored trains. Very good ground, low seasonal temperature fluctuations, minimal displacement of the bed, and track substructure."​

    "I see," Kryptman leaned even lower, placing his palms on the wooden rim of the lightmap. "And this, respectively, is a branch and a lever?"​

    "Yes."​

    "Then we do have a problem," Fidus agreed softly. "What's the speed?"​

    "The 'Sixty-four' does a hundred and eighty-five kilometers per hour," the priestess reported. "We're no more than a hundred and twenty. He'll overtake us and turn at the arrow, taking our track. We're outnumbered three to one there. And it's probably not people anymore."​

    "I guess there's no point in braking," said Fidus, wrinkling his high forehead. "Then he'll go over the branch and block us in. And you can't outrun him in turn?"​

    "If we unhook some of the wagons. If I blow all the fuses and block lines six-fifteen, six-twenty, and five-third. Then we might be able to get up to two hundred and five kilometers per hour and maintain that speed for about nine minutes."​

    "And then?"​

    "Burnout of the firebox. Or a boiler explosion."​

    "Is that enough to get through first?"​

    "Possibly. The shape of this propulsor is not optimal, there is no fairing, the frontal air resistance is difficult to predict. I have no way to calculate it accurately."​

    "So do it!" Bertha exclaimed.​

    "I'm not asking your permission," Jennifer's head informed me. "I'm calculating. When I'm done, we'll get started. Send your big servitor to me; it will take all his strength here to load the furnace with the right amount of coal."​

    "But it's not enough," Fidus said, turning more to himself than to his companions. "Not enough..."​

    He tapped his fingernail on the glass, illuminated from below by the projector lamps.​

    "Even if we succeed, the 'Radial-64' will be behind us, but it will catch up anyway. And we'll lose the locomotive anyway. So boarding is inevitable... The only question is which side it will come from."​

    Fidus drummed his palms on the edge. "Or maybe to hell the train?" he asked. "Let's stop the train and go to the tundra. We'll fill the Chimera up to the brim with promethium, enough to keep the engine warm for twenty-four hours. We'll also take the battery stoves. It'll be crowded, but we'll sit in the distance until it's over."​

    Kryptman looked at the commandant and the commissioner, who in turn looked at the novice inquisitor. While Fidus looked puzzled, Bertha and the Priest's eyes were clearly pity mixed with a touch of contempt.​

    "Wipe your piss, you fucking volunteer," Bertha grumbled through her lip. "Pissing puppy."​

    "Even if we were planning something like that," the monk said a little softer. "It's impossible. The wagon is too high, 'Chimera' can't be unloaded without a special ramp, and it was taken from us along with the arsenal wagon."​

    "Even if we were planning ..." echoed Fidus. "What are you planning?"​

    "What do you mean?" With the same sincere incomprehension, the monk responded. "By the Emperor's grace we have escaped the blows of the ungodly, our train is running and headed in the right direction. His goodness has kept us sane, kept us safe from the temptations and madness of heresy. What more do you want, fiery writings on the wall - 'go and do your duty, my children'? Sure, we'll go to town and tear the ass of evil there."​

    The Priest was silent for a second and then added with a sigh: "As it comes out."​

    Kryptman had many clever words to say about the fact that service to the Emperor requires thoroughness and prudence. That the best servant of His is not the one who tears up his 'polundru' and throws himself to certain death (although no one knows exactly what the legendary garment actually looked like), but the one who gets results.​

    But...​

    But Kryptman looked into the equally glassy pupils of the Commissar and the Commandant of 'Radial-12', realizing that it was useless. That the squads had a completely different understanding of responsibility, mixed with the Ecclesiarchy's grim fanaticism, so they were more likely to shoot him for cowardice. Of course, if it comes to a fight, it is not clear whose will win. Inquisitorial training isn't like showing Gretchin a naked bone. But here's the trouble - a successful fight will force to kill everyone in the end, and this is the action of a real traitor and heretic.​

    Kryptman inhaled deeply, exhaled slowly, hoping that from the outside it looked like pious reflection. And he said: "I see. So we have an industrial-administrative junction ahead, from where the evil is dispersing. Behind the stern, the armored train is catching up. There's nowhere to turn, we can only run straight ahead, to the epicenter..."​

    "Mistress Mechanicum," he addressed the head.​

    "Yes. I'm listening."​

    The train rocked, the metal rattled, and the locomotive began to pick up speed little by little.​

    "A closed network..." Fidus remembered. "And you're not just simple 'cog', are you? A special agent who came especially for her? Or part of a general agency deployed to Beacon for some operation?"​

    "There is much sorrow in much knowledge, Inquisitor Kryptman," Jennifer replied without pause. "It is enough that now our goals are the same."​

    "We can get help from your... colleagues?"​

    "They will try, but the situation is too unpredictable and dynamic, and we have a lot of losses. At this point, we must assume that help will not follow."​

    Jennifer's head fell silent, squeaking the speaker like an old radio, then added: "Then its actual manifestation will be a pleasant surprise."​

    "Well, that's so fucking lucky," Bertha said exhaustively.​

    The Priest exhaled as he looked at Fidus.​

    "We're purificators," the shepherd said softly. "And we need someone with military experience. Or... Inquisitorial. Do you have any useful thoughts on how we could cut the Grox ears of heretics? Without cannons and missiles, with their superiority in numbers?"​

    Kryptman froze again for a few moments, tapping his palms nervously, then stared at Bertha.​

    "Lady Commandant," he mouthed, showing that he respects the chain of command. "Let me ask you about the disposition, how many cars are on the train at the moment?"​

    "Nine, counting the artillery and missile sites," the mentor-commandant said angrily but quickly.​

    "And our wagon is now the third from the head..." Fidus stretched out thoughtfully. "Then..."​

    He firmly stumped the black lines of the map against the white background with the palm of his hand.​

    "Then we won't unhook anything, these cars will be needed. We need to get through the fork first. And I want a list of what ammunition's left on board. All the ammunition."​

    "Do you have an idea?" The Priest looked at the inquisitor questioningly.​

    "There is knowledge of what an old inquisitor did in a similar situation," said Fidus. "But here we will need some miracle."​

    "Luct started loading the furnace, nineteen minutes to ramp up so as not to kill the furnace," Jennifer's head came back to life. "Then about eight or nine minutes we'll go to top speed with the fuses blown. And after that, another nine minutes on afterburner, unless something explodes first. Kriptman, are you sure we shouldn't unhook the extra wagons? It's tens of tons of weight and a loss of speed."​

    "Yes, I'm sure. The locomotive won't blow up the track?" Fidus asked.​

    "No, the energy will go to the sides and up. But the force of the explosion will be very high, at least the first wagon will be swept away. At the critical moment, we will have to unhook the train, otherwise, we could be overturned."​

    "Well, may Omnissiah have mercy on technology," Bertha summarized "And the people will do the human thing. The Emperor is with us. The Emperor protects!"​

    "Or at least give us the strength to do what we have to do," the Priest added.​

    "The Banner," Bertha remembered. "The Banner!"​

    "Exactly!" The Priest seemed about to slap himself on the forehead in a rage at his own forgetfulness.​

    One of the servitors was standing on the 'watch.' He holding the lever, operating the spreading furnace doors. Lüct took a full shovel of coal with measured movements, and the servitor opened the doors in front of it, closing them as soon as it was thrown in. The cast-iron flaps 'clapped', that is, clanked like artillery bolts. Great precision was required to ensure that a minimum of cold air entered the furnace, stealing precious heat. Two more servitors stood at the ready with a 'cutter' - a crowbar to break up the slag - and a scraper to rake up the same slag. For some reason, the one with the scraper could not find asbestos gloves, and the hot metal burned his parched flesh, and the steam yard reeked of burnt meat. The icy wind came up against the wall, but the locomotive could not care less, the steel beast roared like a real beast, clanking the flywheels.​

    Jennifer opened the siphon, listening to the characteristic roar of the safety valve, releasing excessive steam pressure - a measure prohibited by operation, but, under the circumstances, permissible. The arrows on the pressure gauges drew up to the yellow marks and went into the red zone.​

    One hundred and twenty-six kilometers per hour, an outstanding achievement in other circumstances. But this is not enough.​

    Jennifer looked to her left, to where the enemy armored train was crossing. The 'Sixty-fourth' was not visible to the human eye, but the mechanical goggles gave quite a usable image. The ten-wagon train was rushing along, smeared with unholy signs from the wheels to the vent caps on the roofs. The smear was so thick, it looked as if it had been painted over for days. Tiny figures, scurrying about like monkeys, indicated that the personnel was preparing for boarding, galloping about the train like primates with suction cups for fingers. Above the locomotive hovered a banner, a huge rag with torn edges and glowing figures that seemed to have a life of their own, glowing and moving in a bizarre dance. Strict analysis showed that 'Twelfth' was not in time for the fork first, not fast enough.​

    Luct threw another batch of charcoal, and Jennifer ordered him to stop.​

    "Get a sledgehammer."​

    The servitor silently obeyed, frozen, awaiting instructions. Wakrufmann did another quick analysis, calculating the layout of the propulsion system, and then she knelt down, prostrate on the platform, feeling the icy cold and the sizzling heat at the same time. The vibration of the huge machine and the howl of the wind. The coded whispering of the servitors is made up of the simplest commands. And on top of it all reigned the grim lump of steam engine spirit. The memory of long years and many events, forever imprinted in the metal, the essence of the machine. The true Spirit of the Machine. It was to this spirit that Jennifer turned, crying out for help. Apologizing for the ordeal she was about to subject the majestic creature to. Promising dignified deeds, as in the old days of the locomotive's fighting youth.​

    You were born in fire, for death's sake, and you will die in the fire, surrounded by your enemies who perish ingloriously. So help me prepare a proper burial for you! - she whispered in binary code, addressing the heart of the beast.​

    And the response was not long in coming. Mute assent spread through the cold air, penetrated Jennifer's metallic body, rumbled through the darkness, promising suffering and pain to the malevolent heretics who dared to encroach on what Omnissia deemed his own. The steam monster seemed to straighten its limbs, stretch the joints, and respond with silent consent, full of sullen joy, like an old wolfhound ready to die with its teeth clenched on the throat of a wolf. The fiery heart of the cauldron pounded in a measured and terrifying rhythm, pounding out the innermost things:​

    I served and will serve again...

    We will unite in service... - Wackruffmann reverently continued.​

    To bring oblivion to His enemies, the non-human and non-machine finished in unison.​

    Jennifer rose to her feet, imperiously ordered the servitor:​

    "Hit!"​

    And Luct raised his hammer over the first valve.​

    "I see evil, but I don't let it into my heart," the Priest muttered, twisting the muff. His eyes, however, turned toward the sixty-fourth overtaking. There was something immeasurably alluring in the huge banner that flew over the heretical train, the brilliant play of colors, the enchanting dance of the figures. The enemy was on a parallel course, blowing snow like fountains of foamy water.​

    "Fuck the evil," repeated the monk, with a struggle to act with his disobedient fingers. Here, on the roof of the staff wagon, it was incredibly cold. The fierce wind was rushing in, tearing with cold claws, literally tearing shreds of frostbitten skin from his face. But shepherd did not give up.​

    "Hold it there," the Priest ordered, and the Wretched Man obeyed, awkwardly moving his hands in thick mittens. It wasn't that cold outside, but the wind and the speed of a hundred and fifty kilometers already had a crushing effect.​

    A steam locomotive howled very low, with an eerie wail, and from the roof, they could see that its chimney was red-hot and yellow. A stream of grayish-white smoke rose from it in a vertical candle, illuminated by crimson light. Along with the smoke, a fiery stream of sparks spewed out of the locomotive's womb, which followed the train like a plume of fire, not wanting to go out in the wind.​

    "Done," the Priest whispered, more to himself than to the Wretched Man, straightening up wearily, almost dropping the crescent wrench. The assistant jerked the wire loop, loosening the ties, and the red cloth with the white Squad insignia flapped over the flagpole, unfurling.​

    The Priest gazed reverently at the holy symbols, drawn strictly from a sketch that Clarence himself had hand-drawn in the old days. There was nothing but pure delight left in the shepherd's soul. The Priest looked around, and when he saw the Wretched Man, he read the same sense of sincere, unadulterated joy in his comrade's eyes.​

    And now we need to make it work for Kryptman. And then the former brethren who had become heretics would be in for a big surprise. The locomotive siren roared again, and no longer sparks but real flames burst from the high chimney. The Priest looked without fear at the enemy's banner, so ridiculous and absurd in comparison to the austere simplicity of St. Clarence's standard​

    "Let's go, brother," he said to the Wretched Man. His frozen lips were barely moving, but he understood and nodded.​

    "There are truly great things waiting for us."​

    With blinding clarity, the Priest realized that he must be seeing the sunset of the Sanitary Epidemiological Squad. The last great deed, at which the ministry and the very life of the not-so-young shepherd of men would end. And so the faithful servant of the Emperor has only to make efforts to make that act truly the greatest of all.​
    * * *​
    Fire steam train​
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