3.25/5 (1)

A philosopher of Old Earth – his name long lost with the passing of the Age of Terra – once wrote that in Heaven, all is either silence or music; in Hell, there is only noise. Archmagos Aj-tzib Santorus had seen as much of Hell as anyone who still called himself a man could, and he could say with confidence that Forgeworld Baktun wasn’t even close. Still, one could be forgiven for the mistake. 

Beneath a shroud of smog that had long ago choked all native flora, the world-forges burned night and day – or, at least, they burned through what the priests of the True Mechanicum called night and day for the sake of convenience. There had been no sunrise on Baktun for twelve thousand standard years. On that world, pillars of waste-fire rose high into the stratosphere, casting a red glow over the pale, silent masses swarming beneath. It was a convincing picture of damnation, and Santorus was not immune to it. The corpse-worshippers liked to believe his kind monsters, revelling in the ugliness of what they’d built – but that was their way, not his. The deluded Imperium exulted at the brutality of their war-machine. The enlightened priesthood cared only for efficiency. 

Little of his mind remained from before the augmetics, but he remembered sunlight on this world. He remembered, if only dimly, having skin to be warmed by it. Archmagos Santorus tried to tell himself he didn’t miss it. A small price to pay, he said to his attendants in moments of weakness, for the chance to freely explore the mysteries the false ones feared. The lobotomised servants never answered, but it helped bring his wandering thoughts back to whatever puzzle he was currently wrestling with. At the moment, that puzzle was the small data-puck in front of him.

It was an unimposing thing, floating lazily in a dim blue suspensor field in the centre of the chamber. He could see from the blinking red light atop its cylindrical shell that a beam-connection had been made, yet the device stubbornly refused to dump its contents to the cogitator beside it. Santorus had been scrying the puck for weeks now, running every crack-algorithm his order had access to against it to no avail. He’d expected some degree of resistance, of course; the storage device had been uncovered by a scouting party in the vast subterranean ruins of a military complex built by the first colonists long before Old Night.

Judging from the way it was hidden behind the inch-thick steel of a lockbox in what looked to have been the commander’s quarters, the contents must be valuable indeed. Santorus had eagerly accepted the challenge when it was offered to him, but the novelty had soon worn off. Now, he just wanted to be done with the thing. 

Invalid credentials, the cogitator flashed as its code-incantations failed for the 12,773rd time. Spitting a crackle of binary profanity, Santorus advanced on the data-puck, his twelve insectile legs clanging against the deck. He yanked it from the suspensor field with a triple-jointed arm, then held it up to his oculars for another scan. He cycled through spectrums, one after another, more to feel like he was doing something than in hope of any new revelation. Thermal, magnetic, empyrean – he didn’t linger on that wavelength for more than a few seconds. Finally, despairing, he switched back to base optics and began turning the object over in his hands like a child who’d found a particularly interesting rock. 

There. On the underside. 

There was a thin line of text scrawled in ink above the machined serial codes. The Archmagos was no fool; He’d deciphered it within the first hour of receiving the device. Password123, it read in the Proto-Gothic dialect of Old Iberia. At the time, he’d assumed it meant the puck contained a horde of access-keys for the planet’s ancient machinery. But now…

On a whim, he placed the device back in its cradle, loaded an archaic script-bank into the cogitator, then keyed in the runes exactly as they appeared. 

Credentials Accepted. Welcome, Colonel Ruiz.

The Archmagos’s two mechanical hearts began to race as data flooded the screen. The organisation was sloppy, the classifications indistinct: the files bore names like Anniversario ’27 or 6 cumpleaños de Carlos. He opened one at random, not bothering to translate the title.

A pict-capture, still clear after more than ten millennia. An open space. A thick layer of green vegetation carpeting the ground. A tree, a lifeform unseen on Baktun since before Santos’s birth, spreading its wide boughs over a family sitting cross-legged on a blanket.

Family. The word felt awkward in his mind. He noted with no little surprise that the sky displayed in the pict was blue. He could see the sun.

The Archmagos cycled to the next image, a juvenile human leaning over some sort of confection. Six lit candles were inserted at regular intervals along its circumference, and the juvenile was exhaling over them with a great show of effort in an attempt to extinguish them. 

Aj-tzib Santorus had not had a stomach in 5,534 standard years. It growled nonetheless.

Growing frustrated – and some other, deeper emotion he could no longer name – the Tech-priest scanned the entire bank of pict-files- all 8,630 of them – for any sign of stenography. There had to be something here, some message embedded in this mundane gallery. The code-scry returned nothing. 

No access-keys. No secrets. Just shockingly blue skies, white-fronted wooden habs, children and adolescents baring their teeth in an organic gesture of pleasure.

Loosing a staticky growl of disgust, Santorus wiped the data-banks clean, then grabbed the puck once again and hurled it into the open furnace at the back of his workshop. It landed in a cloud of ashes. Thin cracks spread along its casing as the internals melted. 

Aj-tzib Santorus turned away from the relic with a final glare of his one remaining eye. Then he hailed Archmagos Belwain over the noosphere to report the disappointment.

About the Author

Lincoln Addington lives in Virginia, USA with his wife and 3 cats, all of whom crave the strength and certainty of steel. His obsession with Warhammer 40,000 continues to grow to new and worrying heights.