Men crawled the world below as ants atop their mound, picking clean the surface and near-depths to feed the hive and Imolier at its peak. This was the closest they would ever be to those beneath, feeling almost close enough to touch – before the telescopic lens refocused. Those below turned to faint smudges against the grey, then mere numbers upon the screen.
‘None, Your Grace,’ Bedelin answered. ‘Seven more perished in the rescue attempts.’
‘Seven?’ Imolier, suddenly beaming, turned to his blank-faced scribe. ‘Auspicious! Make a note of that.’ Now if he could only remember to which of the Gods ‘seven’ belonged…
A frown slowly creased his brow. ‘Are you sure it wasn’t six? Perhaps the seventh was merely maimed or is yet expected to die?’
Bedelin shuffled awkwardly, hooded eyes fishing his datastream. ‘The report… does not specify. It could well be that you are correct, Your Grace. I will dispatch men to find out and a medicae to ensure six-’
‘Or nine,’ Imolier interrupted, ‘nine would also be acceptable.’
‘-or nine, as Your Grace states. And rest assured, there will be punishment for-’
Imolier nodded, cutting the aged sycophant off once again with a raised finger as he turned to the psyker. Pale Uroce, whose restless eyes were never free of red streaks, shifted slowly side-to-side atop his over-cushioned seat. His head shook.
Imolier sighed and gestured for Bedelin to continue.
‘-the, uh…. laxity of the reporters.’ The words hung like a blasphemer, whatever point Bedelin had been making quite forgotten amidst Imolier’s changing moods. None of the court would rescue the Minister. He swallowed and cleared his throat.
‘More positively, the clans have assured us that mining quotas will not be impacted, and the tithe will be ready should the collectors arrive—along with that of the previous years.’
The last tithe collection had been in the time of Imolier’s father. He didn’t know—or care—how many years standard it had been, only that it had caused disaster. While the material sat happily in the passing years, the compounding gap in Militarum mobilisations had not only caused drastic increases in unemployment, but population growth outpacing the bio-dynasts predictive models by almost a tenth of a per cent. A hundred million died to starvation and unrest in the outer habs, untold and unknowable more in the depths of the spires themselves: disease, cannibalism, slaughter. Dark cults arising, preaching destruction, promising salvation. Augurs’ warning of dire portents, disturbances in the aether, and black-burning stars overhead…
And then… nothing. Was there such horror across the galaxy that their world’s suffering could go unnoticed? Imolier’s father simply purged what he had to and rebuilt the rest. Levels quietened, streets returned to stagnant order, and life resumed its monotony. Dry banquets, uninspired holodramas, tired orgies. His world was abandoned…
Until the dream. Until the psyker had shown him how to be free of his father and what this world might yet be.
He noticed the faint smell of ozone, and it dawned upon him that Bedelin had been speaking at length, unheeded during Imolier’s reverie.
‘… and while the Ecclesiarch questions the extent of the violence, the return of the blood-games has had great success in quelling the recent unrest.’
‘And the instigators?’
Commandant Valtro interceded. ‘The instigators are in hand, Lord-Governor.’
‘Good, good. Thank you for your report, Minister Bedelin. You are released.’
The old man bowed low, enough so that Imolier questioned if he would ever rise, and followed suit with an exit slow enough it felt almost like defiance.
Valtro coughed gently, perhaps sensing the thoughts beneath the Governor’s furrowed brow.
‘We could ensure the Minister is issued an appropriate stimulant before our next convening, Lord-Governor?’
Imolier nodded. Valtro knew his mind often before even he. It was he who had first introduced the psyker, his men who had planted the mining charges below.
‘Make it so. And perhaps send some bondsmen to accompany the medicae.’
‘Nine it is, Your Grace.’
The rest of the meeting passed in the slow-released breath of a redlho stick, the speakers before him fraying into abstract colour and shimmering vibrations. His breath was the wind between the High Spires, his eyelids the shuttering nightgates; his drifting nods the distant assent of a God-King. For what else could a god be but distant?
The whispers did not come. There were, but five of them left when he awoke in another place he knew well. People filled the room beyond the viewport—dozens of men, women, children, most dressed in rags. The sixth time such had filled this chamber.
‘The instigators and their families, Lord-Governor.’
Imolier turned. Valtro, Uroce, two masked guards. There was no judgement here, not for their Lord Governor, their prophet. Not for the blessed words he spoke or the doom he proclaimed. The people before him choked and died as the gas was released. Skin bubbled, burst, bodies twisted, bulging and splitting before him. The glass held back the screams.
Sacrifice was a solemn thing, but he could hold back his anticipation for only moments. ‘Uroce?’
A sigh. ‘Nothing, Imolier.’
‘Lord-Governor,’ Valtro growled.
Uroce ignored him. ‘Sacrificing something of no value to you means little.’ Again, that faint ozone smell…
Staunch Valtro. The last of his old friends, true believer, best of his servants.
Stalwart Valtro, leaking from a cutthroat. Imolier choked back tears. ‘I consecrate and release thee from thy service. Go to the Gods.’
This time he did not ask, did not need to. He would have felt it were the Gods aware, and right now, Imolier felt nothing but the shaking of his hands and the foul breath of Uroce on his neck.
‘The galaxy is large, our brethren many. You will yet earn Their attention.’
Imolier sniffled. The guards were silent as they dealt with the corpse of their former commander. They knew their governor was a holy man, a man that talked to Gods.
If only they would talk back.
About the Author
UK-based L. James Elliott is a long-time Warhammer 40k fan, general fantasy/sci-fi nerd, and occasional writer. When not struggling to write a bio, he aims to bring a fresh voice and new directions to the grim darkness of the far-future.