PART 1 : GAEA PRIME
She screamed again, louder this time as she collapsed to her knees, soft sand shifting under her weight. Tears streamed down the smooth skin of her face, hidden behind her long, dark hair. She was almost completely naked, body wrapped in pieces of parchment, each bearing ancient scripture ranging from psychic wards to litanies of purity. Her skin was cut in places, the result of self-flagellation and ritual cleansing, and anointed with consecrated oils. Meant to be signs of her dedication to the Imperial creed, they made her look more like a worshipper of the dark gods of Chaos than an Imperial citizen. Sunlight filtered through the rafters of the ruined building and was reflected by the oils, giving the pain wracked figure a soft, surreal glow. Inquisitor Alexi Dovator watched her carefully, blue eyes narrowing in the shadow of his wide-brimmed hat, wishing the demonstration of her abilities would stop. He felt bad for being a part of her pain, no matter how hard he tried to convince himself that she wasn't human, wasn't like him. She's a witch, he told himself, an affront to the Emperor, no matter how repentant she may be. Not human at all. It wasn't working.
Dovator looked up from the convulsing woman, and examined the face of the fat man conducting this "demonstration." The man had given her to Dovator as a gift, his own personal psychic ground, bound to his mind for life. Her one purpose, the jiggling figure had explained, unable to hide his excitement, was to fall victim to whatever psychic attack was directed at her master and dissipate its effects. A wonderful gift, Dovator had thought, thanking the man for his generosity. Then the bastard had decided a demonstration was in order, and with a wide, sadistic grin on his face, channelled his psychic energies into an attack on Dovator's mind.
Still smiling, the corpulent fool giggled softly to himself, almost as if the screaming, crying figure before him was some sort of joke. Dovator had seen enough. "Stop!" he shouted, surprising himself as much as the quivering hulk.
"What? Why?" the fat man sounded disappointed, his three chins vibrating with each syllable. "We aren't even at the good part of the demonstration yet. A little longer and I can show you it's safety mechanism. The thing actually renders itself unconscious in an attempt to escape death!"
"She," Dovator muttered.
"She," he repeated, louder this time.
"She? It's a freak. A bolt magnet. A witch. Or do you believe it to be . . . human?" he added with a sneer, spitting at the crumpled form lying before him.
"More so than you," Dovator replied, immediately realizing that his mouth was about to get him into trouble again. It was a bad habit of his, speaking before he thought out the consequences. And in his line of work, even the smallest thing had consequences.
The fat man's eyes bulged out and his face turned bright red, his entire mass shaking with rage. "I give you such a wonderful gift, and you repay me with such heretical words? I had heard your views were radical, but this. . ." He gestured toward his gift, lying unconscious near Dovator's feet. "This is going too far. Emperor damn your soul!" he howled, reaching for his laspistol.
The man was fast. Dovator was faster.
The console flickered briefly and went out with a loud crack that filled the room with smoke and showered sparks on the man lying underneath it. He cursed as he removed the damaged components from the underside of the console. "When will they learn," he muttered to himself. "Outdated technology won't save the Imperium." Carefully, he replaced each component he removed with a newer one, each lovingly crafted or modified. If those fools on Mars could see me now, the man thought to himself, a smile spreading across his grease-stained face. It had been at least a decade since he had last set foot anywhere near an Adeptus Mechanicus outpost. His ideas for improvement of existing technology had been called "blasphemous," sins against the great Machine God, offensive to the sacred Machine Spirit. He had refused to follow the proper rituals that had been passed down for centuries, tried to prove that they were nothing but the result of years of ignorance. The tech priests didn't take kindly to his accusations. They had given him an option – cease his heresy or die. He chose to run.
"Weiss!" a voice shouted from the other side of the ship. Weiss had heard that tone before. Dovator was in a hurry, and that was never a good thing. The tech adept sat up quickly, forgetting that he was underneath the console. He swore loudly as his forehead met its metal casing.
"Yeah?" Weiss called back as he exited the engine room, rubbing his head. He was fortunate to have found Dovator. Any other Inquisitor would have had him executed for speaking in such a tone. Dovator chose to keep a retinue of close friends rather than fearful servants. He strongly believed in giving people a reason to be loyal, rather than forcing them into it. Weiss had concluded that Dovator's attitude was what had kept them together the past five years. Neither one of them conformed to, or had much love for, the debased standard the Imperium had set for the human race. Blind faith over human values is more evil than Chaos, Dovator had once told him. And from what he had seen over the years, Weiss knew that this was a fair assessment.
"Get us out of here," Dovator ordered. Weiss grinned knowingly as he headed for the bridge.
"How did your meeting with the High Inquisitor go?" Weiss asked as he settled into the pilot's seat and began pressing the activation runes. He always found it amusing how much faster he could get a ship off the ground compared to a tech priest. While they were busy anointing the consoles and filling the bridge with incense, he was activating ship systems.
"We had a small. . . disagreement," the Inquisitor replied as he entered the bridge. Weiss turned around and studied him, still grinning.
"You shot him, didn't you?"
Dovator was silent for a moment. He took off his hat and ran his hand through his graying hair. It was another one of his habits. Weiss had learned that it meant the Inquisitor had gone and done something stupid. And that usually meant trouble wouldn't be far behind. Dovator sighed as he placed his hat back on his head. "Yeah," he muttered.
"Figures," Weiss replied with a laugh as he manipulated the controls, taking the ship up through the atmosphere. He was used to it by now. Dovator had an uncanny ability to find trouble more often than it found him. The ship shook violently for a moment as they broke through the upper layers of the atmosphere and pulled away from the planet's gravity. Weiss pressed a sequence of runes on the console, laying in a course to rendezvous with the other two members of their group.
"Come with me," Dovator said, turning to leave the bridge. "There's something you should see."
She moaned softly as she regained consciousness. Gradually, the fog that seemed to envelop her mind lifted. She opened her eyes, blinking to clear her vision. Cold metal bulkheads surrounded her. She sat up slowly. A heavy blanket had been carefully wrapped around her almost naked body. There was a doorway across from where she sat, perhaps five feet away. She rubbed her eyes with shaking hands and rose to her feet, pulling the blanket tightly around herself for warmth. The sound of metal on metal echoed through the room as the bolt on the door was drawn back. She glanced around nervously, pressing herself against the far wall. The door swung open and two men entered the room. She recognized the first man - the image of his blue eyes, graying hair and wide brimmed hat were still fresh in her mind. She was his now.
"My Lord," she whispered as he approached, quickly averting her eyes. Silently, she berated herself for speaking without first being spoken to. Her previous master, Inquisitor Braxxus, had often reminded her she was to remain silent, usually through flagellation. She had learned that such punishment was required to save her immortal soul. Many times, she had whipped herself until her skin broke and the blood flowed freely. The pain would serve as a powerful reminder to avoid making the same mistake twice. Yet here she was, speaking out of turn once again.
"Please forgive me for speaking," she mumbled, falling to her knees before her master. His forgiveness, coupled with the pain she would inflict upon herself would absolve her of this indiscretion. She bowed low, forehead to the cold metal floor.
The other man stared at her for a moment with a bewildered expression on his face. Gradually, his surprise turned to amusement and he grinned widely. "Unbelievable," he muttered. "So this is what they're giving out as gifts nowadays."
"You wouldn't be smiling if you had seen the 'demonstration,'" the first replied, disgust in his voice. His name was Dovator. She remembered High Inquisitor Braxxus calling him that when they met. "And I certainly don't want to see anything like it again."
She raised her head slowly, and allowed her eyes to meet Dovator's. "Do you disapprove of me, my Lord?" she whispered, immediately fearing she may have offended him. It was not her place to ask questions. When will I ever learn? She lowered her head again and pulled her blanket tighter, making a mental note to double her number of lashings.
"No," he replied, much to her surprise. "I disapprove of what you've been forced to endure." He crossed his arms and tilted his head slightly to one side as he considered the situation. Nodding slowly to himself, Dovator spoke again. "You've been bound to me for life right?"
"Yes, my Lord. You and Lord Braxxus."
"Just me now," Dovator said. He thought for a moment longer, then continued. "I guess there's really only one way I can make sure you're free," Dovator said as he drew his pistol. "Stand up." The woman rose to her feet slowly, her eyes widening with fear at the sight of the weapon. 'Just me now' he had said. Dovator had killed Lord Braxxus, she was certain of it. And now he would kill her too.
You will remain silent, she told herself. The Emperor has judged you. Accept your fate.
Ignoring the shock on her face, the Inquisitor continued. "We'll just have to make sure you outlive me. And the first step is to make sure you can defend yourself properly." He spun the pistol on his finger, holding the grip out for the terrified woman to take. "I don't want you to be afraid," he said as she took the weapon from him with trembling hands. "You're safe as long as you're with me."
"Thank you, my Lord," the woman mumbled, staring at the pistol clutched to her chest. Her mind was a jumble of confused thoughts. None of this made sense to her. She was his property; a servant whose sole purpose was to please her master. And yet his behaviour seemed to indicate otherwise. It was as if he were treating her as an equal.
"And stop calling me 'my Lord,'" Dovator added. The woman's confusion increased. Inquisitor Braxxus had always demanded she refer to him as her 'Lord', but now this man instructed her to cease using the title.
"What's your name?" the other man, who had stood silently until now, asked.
"My . . . name?" the woman repeated, meeting the man's gaze. She closed her eyes and thought hard, sifting through years of memories. It's been so long since anyone cared what my name was. And why should my name matter anyway? I'm a tool, a piece of war gear. I'm not a person. . .
"I'm sure it'll come to you." The man smiled reassuringly, seeing the confusion on her face. "I'm Weiss. Used to be working with the Tech priests on Mars, but we had a difference of opinion."
"A tech adept?" the woman's face revealed her surprise and interest. Again she cursed herself for speaking out of turn. These men didn't seem to mind, however, so she decided to take advantage of the opportunity. "But you haven't got any implants or –"
"You mean I don't look like a damned servitor?" Weiss laughed. "You can't fix the machine if you are the machine."
The woman's brow furrowed and she stood silently for a moment. Somehow, that made sense to her. At the same time, it was against the teachings of the Machine Cult. Granted, she was no expert on such things, but from what she knew of Mars and the Tech priests, machinery was sacred – a gift.
Her mind drifted back to his original question. My name. If these men preferred to call her by name, who was she to deny them that right? "Sara," she blurted out suddenly. "I remember now. My name . . . it's Sara."
Dovator nodded. "Welcome aboard, Sara."