‘Congratulations, Mr Pious. You’re dead.’
The words slowly flowed into his brain through a pair of frostbitten ears. Something wasn’t right about them – something wasn’t right about any of this, for that matter, but he was having trouble understanding what precisely this was. Could it be… Ah yes, that was it. He hurt. Every part of his body ached and burned all at once. Being dead wasn’t supposed to hurt, was it?
Being dead also wasn’t supposed to involve comfy red chairs, large imposing offices, or soberly dressed women with eyes full of threat. Death, it seemed, held some surprises for Tolliver Pious.
He tried his voice and found that, like the rest of his body, it also hurt. It was barely a whisper.
‘Dead?’ he croaked.
‘Oh yes, Mr Pious, most definitely dead. For the last forty-seven minutes, in fact. Five hundred people would swear they saw you thrown from an airlock into the hard void. A decent crowd, in all truth, not bad for a small-time data desecrator. There were a few more revelrous attendees – previous victims of yours, it seems – but mostly, it was a modest and jovial affair. I believe someone was selling recaff and hotcakes.’
‘Dead?’ he tried again. For a man who had entered the afterlife, he felt very painfully still attached to his mortal coil.
‘Yes, Mr Pious, without a doubt. Everyone knows that when you are ejected from an airlock in nothing but a prisoner’s jumpsuit from a space station accelerating at half-burn, you’re dead. How could anyone possibly survive that? You would have to be caught almost immediately by someone who knew precisely when and precisely where the depressurisation would throw you, and then revived through a difficult, risky and overall very expensive medical procedure. Only the Stationmaster could have the knowledge and resources to do such a thing, and of course, it is the Stationmaster’s duty to see that all crimes committed on board meet their due punishment, is it not?’
The question hung conspicuously in the air. Dimly, Pious was aware of a quiet thunder coming from all around him, the muted roar of a thousand quills scratching away, a thousand tidy little jobs being done all at once. When he tried to turn his head, however, a gauntleted hand as hard as ceramite descended from behind him to grip his chin and return his attention firmly to the speaker. He whimpered.
The figure in black continued regardless.
‘And what do you think the odds are that Mr Tolliver Pious received such a salvation? Mr Pious, the known information thief, the man who robbed a thousand people not at the barrel of a gun but with the point of his pen? The man who, with his technical talents and brilliant logistical mind, could have served this station and his Emperor admirably but instead contented himself merely with stealing. Friendless, penniless, hated by the common folk and the Family-Guilds alike, unloved by all. What are his odds, sir? Zero.’
The frozen grey matter in his skull began to thaw off a little, slowly stretching his capacity for understanding. He started to catch up to the conversation.
‘Mr Pious is dead?’
‘As I have said, sir.’
‘So… who am I?’
The woman’s radiant smile grew wider. And it was radiant, he thought, in the truest sense of the word. It irradiated.
‘Very good, sir, you do catch on quickly. As to who you are, well, that is yet to be decided. What I can say for certain is that Mr Pious is dead, and the opportunity has now arisen for something better to take his place.’
She gestured towards a key that sat on the desk between them. It was a simple thing, its silver plating dulled grey by age, all except for the head, which was stitched with bright scratches from frequent use. Attached to one end was a faded red ribbon that bore the signet of the Administratum.
‘You see, Mr No-Name, this station is in dire need of someone to fill a vital position. Six hundred years ago, Tenebrum Octavis was given the right to appoint its own local Administratum Overseer from qualified members of our population. This unusual boon occurred for a wide variety of reasons – ease of record keeping, familiarity with local bureaucratic systems, the management of jurisdiction rights when moving between different subsectors and so on – but more than anything, it was due to concerns of attrition.’
‘Yes. The rate of attrition amongst the Overseers assigned to us from Holy Terra. You see, they kept going mad.’
‘Mad?’ he squeaked.
‘Oh yes, quite mad. The stress of the job, I’m given to understand, too much pressure for one mind. Some went missing – lost amongst the archives or buried under their paperwork, no doubt – but most of them met a more conspicuous fate. Leaping from data stacks, burning themselves in pyres of unprocessed documents, and, in one case, recording their own death into their schedule a week beforehand and then keeling over when the allotted time came. But you see, Mr Yet-To-Be-Determined, the role itself still needs to be filled. It has been vacant for quite some time.’
That deadly smile flashed again, making some deep animal instinct in the former Tolliver Pious scream at him to run. Something even more primal, however, told him to sit perfectly still because beneath the veneer of this clean, tidy, thoroughly civilised office, he knew there was a capacity for pain which he could not begin to unimagine. Even if he were able to get out of the chair, even if she didn’t try to stop him, even if he got past whatever creature was attached to the gauntlet that he knew was looming behind him right now, it wouldn’t matter. He would never outrun that smile.
The woman in black picked up the key by its ribbon and swung it gently back and forth.
‘So, Mr Possibly-Overseer, tell me. How familiar are you with bookkeeping?’
About the Author
Liam is a longtime 40k enthusiast and an amateur writer with aspirations of grandeur, or at least a little more confidence and a little less embaressment.
Whilst a love for gothic sci-fi and 80s metal naturally led him to Warhammer at a young age, his taste have slowly evolved away from the battlefield and towards the true totalitarian madness that sits at the heart of the 40k universe – bureaucracy.
The Administratum has the potential to be Terry Gilliam’s Brazil by way of Discworld, and this contest has given Liam the chance to explore that particular idea a little further.