Adger was fed up with following orders and sick of being treated like a liability. He was capable, and he was going to show everyone that he was ready to be treated like a real man.
These thoughts had been bouncing around Adger’s mind for the past few days, goading him. The dock was quiet at the moment. The loading robots were on standby, and the workers had gone home. His father was outside talking to the foreman or someone else. Whatever he was doing, he made sure everything was powered down before he left — not daring to leave Adger in charge of anything more complicated than a lightswitch. Lounging in the Dockmaster’s seat with his feet resting on the control lectern’s screen, Adger mulled over yesterday’s events again.
There had been an accident. One of the older, non-T’au-made loading robots had dropped a cargo container on one of the workers. A split-second reaction to lean away had saved her from being flattened, but hadn’t saved her leg, which was crushed underneath the container. Her screams rang out across the loading dock while Adger’s father keyed in the lengthy remote shutdown sequence. Not wanting to stand idle, Adger had suggested that he go and manually shut down the robot, but his father had ordered him to stay put. The workers looked on in horror as the defective robot had picked up another container and traversed over to where the injured woman lay immobilised. The first remote shutdown sequence hadn’t worked, but Adger’s father entered it a second time anyway. Adger was itching to run out onto the loading floor and shut the machine down himself, and he continued voicing this to his father, but he was ordered to stay put. All he could do was watch as the scene unfolded before him.
After the sequence failed for a second time, Adger’s father barrelled out of his office, leapt down the stairs, and charged across the loading floor. The robot stood over the worker, about to drop its container and end the woman’s screams for good.
Scrambling to the robot’s control panel, the Dockmaster tore it open and hit the manual shutdown switch. Shuddering, the robotic arms stopped moving, and the machine powered down. The woman’s screams had faltered now, and she was growing increasingly pale. The other workers were still in shock, but Adger’s father was a man of action. Returning to the office, he had then told Adger to stay put again while he organised a Medicae team and shut down the other loading robots. The woman needed a new leg, but she survived thanks to the Dockmaster’s rapid response.
That last part was what all the workers kept saying. Adger was sick of it now. He could have manually shut down the robot right from the start, but no. He was forced to sit and wait for his father to sort it out. What made him seem so incapable? His age maybe? He was fifteen years old! That’s old enough to know how to shut down a robot!
Kicking his boots off the control lectern, Adger observed the black mark they had left on the screen. His father probably wouldn’t notice. There were plenty of marks on it anyway. The thing was ancient. Each button was emphasized with a glossy circle polished from decades of use, and when he squinted, the scratches adorning the sides of the device formed distinct patterns. There, a tree; there, a building; and there, a twin-headed eagle.
Looking for shapes in the scratched metal was one remedy for the total boredom Adger usually felt standing behind his father and watching the robots move containers around the dock. A better remedy was his data slate. He perused the news snippets, and they all seemed to be preoccupied with the so-called ‘Rogue Slaver.’
The Rogue Slaver was old news, as far as Adger was concerned. Everyone knew the story now: a mysterious vessel appeared in orbit, its captain demanding food, fuel, and various other resources from the Planetary Governor. The trade minister went up to greet the captain, like they do when T’au ships arrive to trade. The minister’s report was widely publicized but had obviously been embellished. Apparently, the vessel’s systems weren’t run by computers, like normal, but by humans augmented into the controls. The crew members who weren’t plugged into terminals were held there at gunpoint by the officers, literally slaved to the machines. That must’ve been why the media coined the term ‘Rogue Slaver.’ All very mysterious, but the best part was the demands. To the trade minister, this pirate, or whatever he was, demanded an annual tithe of 50% of our planet’s crop and tens of thousands of soldiers for something called the ‘Astra Militarum.’ All of it was absurd. There weren’t even any soldiers around anymore, not since the Coalition of Nations was founded and the T’au arrived. They showed everyone how to work together to end the international rivalries, all for the Greater Good.
It was all very strange, and Adger was getting tired of it. It seemed like every week since the Slaver’s departure a few months ago a new expert was weighing in. Production quotas were being met, the T’au hadn’t been up to much and, inexplicably, there hadn’t been any recent upper-caste scandals. The media must be desperate for a good story, and what better than yet another opinion piece on the Rogue Slaver? By now, Adger reckoned, it had been embellished so much that the truth in the story had long since withered away.
These were the thoughts bumbling through his inattentive mind when his father entered. The stocky, red-faced man looked at Adger with familiar, exasperated eyes. Without so much as a greeting he strode over to the lectern and examined the fresh mark on its screen. ‘Have you had your boots on the lectern again?’ He shot at his son. Adger rolled his eyes away and responded in the affirmative. The Dockmaster continued, ‘You’ve got no respect for this equipment, or for the workings of the dock. One day you’ll be in charge of safety ‘round here and…’ He didn’t trail off, but Adger stopped listening. He had heard this lecture enough times to repeat it by heart now. Nothing could be less interesting than safety protocols, especially when all they involved was watching a stupid screen all day. Adger knew it all anyway. He could take over running the dock on the very next shift if his father let him, but was that ever going to happen?
‘You’re not even listening to me, are you?’ The Dockmaster’s face was even redder now. Speaking to his son from behind the lectern, the stocky man gripped two hand-shaped indentations on the device’s edge. Adger surmised that those indentations hadn’t always been there, but had been created by the veteran Dockmaster’s vice-like grip over decades. As he gazed at his father, it occurred to him that the ageing man looked ever-more suited to his place behind the ancient lectern. A place where a king could survey his realm. The dock was his industrial kingdom: a huge roofless building with gargantuan landing pads, crewed by thousands of robotic loaders and scores of human workers, all beavering away at their jobs.
The Dockmaster had clearly had enough of his son’s insolence. Exhaling slowly before deliberately meeting Adger’s eyes, the angry man calmed down. ‘Son, you need to learn to respect this job before you’ll ever gain an iota of responsibility here. To that end, I want you cleaning the sensors of every loading robot for the entirety of the next shift. At least after that, you might have learnt some discipline.’ Adger sighed and cast his eyes down. He longed to be away from the judgement of his father. The Dockmaster was a good man at heart, and Adger hated disappointing him. Sullenly, he picked up a tool bag and left the office.
A quick flick of his wrist-chron told Adger that he was three hours into his eight-hour shift. He didn’t like the thought of that. No, how about, ‘In three hours, I’ll only have two hours left?’ Much better. Saying it aloud made him feel better and took his mind off the work’s monotony. He had cleaned 36 robots by now and still had many to go. No matter how dull the job was, he couldn’t slack off. His father would be keeping an eye on him from the office.
Slaving away like an automaton wasn’t the real punishment. The real punishment was that he was back in the work cycle and therefore would miss the arrival of the latest T’au traders. The whole city was celebrating, and Adger would miss it all.
In the distance, he heard a crump noise, followed by several more in quick succession. Great, they were putting on a fireworks display, and he was going to miss that, too. The noise began to morph, not just a crump now but a sprinkling of other sounds too, a clattering.
The communicator in Adger’s tool bag spoke in a metallic subversion of his father’s voice: ‘Keep at it son. I’m going to check what all that noise is about. Stay here and finish up.’ Adger acknowledged the message and watched as the Dockmaster left through the outside door. No longer under his father’s watchful eye, he began cleaning much more slowly. A small yet sweet rebellion.
More crumps sounded as Adger’s mind wandered from his task. ‘They must really be going all out on the fireworks,’ he muttered. As he spoke, his nose detected a whiff of smoke. It made him uneasy. Almost imperceptibly, the air was getting warmer. Adger finally gave up cleaning the sensor and looked around. The place was deserted. The emptiness of somewhere usually filled with so much activity set Adger on edge. He fished a nail gun out of the tool bag and held it firmly in his hand. He liked the feel of its weight. Feeling a little more in control now, he set off towards the office.
As he reached the stairs to the office, Adger noted that the crump sounds were now so close together it was a struggle to pick out a single one. For a moment he hesitated. If his father returned now, he’d be in big trouble; the Dockmaster disliked anyone slacking off. Shaking his head, Adger kept moving. With the nail gun in his hand, he felt strong, like he had a license not to listen to his father’s constant instructions.
As he reached the office door at the top of the stairs, Adger glanced outside through the window. On a good day, you could see right out to the Governor’s Residence and the T’au quarter of the city. But today was not a good day.
The normally crisp, white sky was stained dark with streaks of noxious black smoke. The Governor’s Residence, and a good part of the city, was ablaze. From his vantage point, Adger saw brilliant flashes as buildings disintegrated. Each mighty crump fractured the city like a hammer striking glass. They left behind immense smoking craters that set fires around them.
Adger was frozen to the spot, taking in the cataclysmic scene, when another sound emerged — a low rumbling that grew steadily like a wave. The sound was coming from the sky, and Adger spun around from the window to look up through the roofless building. What he saw filled him with a combination of excitement and pure fear.
Above him hung a gargantuan vessel as large as the landing pad itself. It was descending with terrific speed, and it wasn’t long before he could hear the whine of its turbines — spinning at full thrust in an attempt to slow the ship’s atmospheric fall. Rooted to the spot, Adger was unable to tear his eyes from the dropship. With a deafening crash, it thundered into the landing pad, cracking the metres-thick rockcrete and making Adger’s bones shake in their sockets. The air was filled with dust, and Adger started coughing as it assaulted his lungs. Through the dust-choked air, he could just about see the ship sitting immobile on the loading floor. Its alien presence put him on edge.
Clicking the nail gun’s safety switch off, Adger slowly made his way down the stairs. When he reached the bottom, he pointed his weapon at the inert ship. As the dust settled, more of the ship started coming into view. Adger could see that it was at least three times as big as he initially thought.
Suddenly, a jet of steam shot out from the ship’s front. Adger instinctively ducked and jerked his finger. A nail shot out from the gun and pinged harmlessly off the ship’s paneling. It was soon followed by several more. Shooting his rudimentary weapon at the ship was exhilarating and instantly restored Adger’s confidence. Before long he had emptied the nail packet. His muscles tingled. He had never felt more like the man he had yet to become.
A second jet of steam precipitated a crash as the ship’s great mouth slammed open and ramps clanged against the ground. But those noises were nothing compared to what came next.
A metronomic beat, like a million blacksmiths striking their anvils simultaneously, filled the air — the sound of unfathomable numbers of metal feet hitting the ground in unison. It didn’t so much shake the ground as shake Adger himself. It thundered in his ears and absorbed the air around him. The fleeting confidence granted by the nail gun gave way to fear.
Straining his eyes through air thick with rockcrete dust, he could see them. Backlit from flashing lights inside their ship, silhouettes of dark figures disgorged themselves in perfect rank and file from the ship’s cavernous depths. As they marched forth, their monstrous sound grew louder and more disorientating. More were appearing. An endless marching tide. Each individual was humanoid and had some sort of weapon slung at its front. Seemingly built from the same template, they were all identical in height and garb. Adger knew that only robots like those he worked with could have such martial precision.
‘A robotic army?’ Adger stammered. The nail gun fell out of his hand as his muscles relaxed. He quivered. An overwhelming urge was beginning to take hold in him. The urge to run.
He had to run. He had to escape. The grey robots were advancing, and he couldn’t allow them to trap him in the building.
The instant ‘escape’ entered his mind, Adger started running. Fueled by adrenaline born from both excitement and fear, Adger leapt down the stairs and raced across the loading floor to the outside door. He felt them behind him but didn’t turn to look. The metronomic thud of their iron-shod feet was all the encouragement he needed to keep moving. He ripped open the door and lurched through onto the street outside. His mind preoccupied with the robots behind him, Adger was shunted back into the present by another earth-shattering crump.
Outside was utter pandemonium. The street was strewn with debris, and small fires burned haphazardly among wreckage of vehicles and buildings. Screams and shouts could be heard in between the concussive shocks of earth-shattering explosions. The usually-white sky was now almost entirely painted black by noxious missile-streaks. Below that, a dull orange hue from a million raging fires sat on the horizon. Everything was ablaze outside the landing sector. Looking upwards, Adger caught sight of a black streak as it annihilated what little remained of the original sky. He watched as it neared the ground, betraying the target of its deadly payload. Crump.
The earth shook beneath his feet and Adger lost his balance. He tried to stand, but then another mighty shockwave brought him face-down to the ground again. What inhuman weaponry caused the very earth to shake like this? How many hundreds of shells had rained down on the city? How many thousands more were still on their way?
Behind him, the wall of the loading dock building collapsed, and out marched the grey ranks. Disorientated, Adger rolled over. As silhouettes emerged from the rubble, they took form in the clear outside air.
On marched rank upon rank of humanoids clad in grey coats strapped with equipment. Each carried a crude, factorum-stamped firearm bristling with a saw-toothed bayonet. Their heads were domed in steel and their faces were featureless brown. In place of a mouth or nose, they simply had a tube feeding into a chest-mounted box. But it was their eyes that Adger hated the most, for they had none — only two discs of dark-coloured glass on their otherwise featureless faces, glowing with the orange hue of the burning city.
As he watched, transfixed, one fell under a bright burst of light. Then another, and another. Soon the whole front rank had fallen, cut to pieces by blinding light. This didn’t seem to bother the horde, who merely stepped over their fallen brethren and maintained their inexorable advance. They were less than 50 metres away now.
Shielding his eyes, Adger turned to see his father and a gang of workers shooting at the horde from behind a vehicle. They were armed with T’au pulse blasters and were inflicting terrible casualties on the advancing front ranks. Seeing his father taking a stand gave Adger a glimmer of hope. Maybe he would get out of this nightmare unharmed. He stood, shakily, and began hobbling towards the gang of defenders when, suddenly, the dreadful metronome stopped. The robotic advance halted.
In between the crumps of shells falling on the city, the entire universe paused for a moment. The defenders stopped firing too, staring wide-eyed like children at the ranks of grey-clad figures arrayed only 30 metres away. Those depthless grey ranks hadn’t fired a shot. They had lost scores to the defender’s pulse fire, and now they responded.
In unison, the figures in the first and second ranks took a single step forward, while the third and fourth ranks reached down to their belts and unhooked grenades. In one mighty movement, a wall of grenades was hurled towards Adger and the defenders. At the same time, the figures in the first and second ranks charged towards them. Above the din of collapsing buildings and earth-shaking explosions, he heard their battle cry: ‘Ave Imperator!’
The saw-tooth bayonets were almost close enough to touch before a cacophonous explosion tore Adger from where he was standing and hurled him towards his father and the others.
Adger hit the ground hard. Groaning, he raised himself on his hands and knees and crawled towards the vehicle. He had barely moved a metre before he spotted the defenders. They had been cut to pieces by the blast. Among them, his father lay on his back, innards exposed, in a smear of blood.
Adger recognised the weathered but kindly face of the man who raised him immediately, even though it was peppered with shrapnel. Any last remnant of childish excitement instantly evaporated, leaving nothing but despair and shock in its wake. His stomach turned over. Adger felt like a part of him had been ripped away. Despite the heat of the fires, a cold feeling descended on him. It felt as if a protective shield he never knew he had was suddenly pulled away like a blanket on a cold night, leaving him exposed to the harsh, uncaring world. He was utterly alone.
Hours before, he had wanted only to be left alone — without the old man’s lecturing and constant corrections. Now, he longed for nothing more than to be back in that office, in safety.
Memories began to flood in. Adger remembered his father teaching him how to operate the loading robots and training him on the control lectern. He usually listened, but always complained incessantly anyway. It dawned on him how little respect he had shown the old man, and he was struck by a wave of regret. Every eye-roll and deliberate boot-smear confronted him, bringing him fresh swells of anguish. Adger was still looking at his father’s broken face when he felt hot tears well in his eyes. He had to look away.
Turning his head from the gut-wrenching sight, he saw the shattered remains of the first rank. Charging forward with suicidal fury, many were blown up by their comrade’s grenades. Still in shock, Adger had a horrific realisation: he wasn’t facing an army of mechanical men like the robots he worked with, but an army of flesh and blood. Beneath those shrapnel-torn grey coats and inhuman masks were men. Men who had just killed his father and were burning his city to the ground. Adger had yearned to be a man. But now, facing death and destruction, he had never felt more like a child.
As the realisation dawned on him, Adger heard a sound. Right next to him was one of the grey-clad men. His body was a wreck. Blood was flowing freely from the stumps that used to be his legs, and the mask had been torn clear from his face. Adger could see him getting increasingly pale. Muttering, the man looked over to him, and his glare bored uncomfortably into Adger’s eyes. Clutching a shovel firmly in his hand, the dying man whispered before the life fully drained out of him: ‘In death, atonement.’
His eyes still locked with the dead man, a shadow fell over Adger. Rasping through a rebreather fixed to the front of his gilded ceremonial uniform, a tall man wearing a long storm coat and crimson peaked cap declared: ‘For fraternising with Xenos forces, taking up arms against those who serve, and turning from the Emperor’s golden light, your right to live is forfeit.’
Adger finally tore his eyes away from the dead man’s gaze and looked up at the figure. Confusion was stamped across his horrified, tear-streaked face.
The Commissar pulled the trigger of his las-pistol, only for a weak hiss to escape the gun. He looked down at the wretched heretic whose life had been momentarily extended and almost felt pity. It was a youth, likely not much younger than the Commissar himself. On another planet, perhaps, the lad could have been a friend, or a brother.
But he wasn’t. He was a corrupted soul on a Xenos-blighted world that had unequivocally rejected the Emperor’s light. Whatever pangs of humanity the Commissar saw in the heretic’s eyes were nothing more than a test of faith, he assured himself.
And this was only one city, on one world, in one system that the righteous warriors of Krieg had been assigned to purge. Far more bloodshed was to come.
Mechanically, the Commissar ejected the spent powerpack from his las-pistol and replaced it with a fresh one from a pouch at his waist. He then aimed the weapon squarely at the heretic’s face. There was no hesitation, but at the moment his finger tightened on the trigger, the Commissar could see nothing more than the eyes of a scared child gazing up at him.
The sound of a single las-shot rang out. It was one of the very first of that dreadful day, the day when the soldiers of Krieg returned a wayward world back to the glory of the Imperium.