Spirit of the Machine

The screaming had stopped.

Magos Physic Antonias Rasvaal peeped out nervously from between his fingers. He was crouched down behind a row of cabinets, on the cold stone tiling. The laboratory's air was close with the scent of smoke and ozone. There was also a sickly aroma, of blood and death. Rasvaal tried not to gag. He trembled as he peered out; it was hard to see anything, the lighting had been damaged. A fluorescent panel in the ceiling to his left was flickering, casting strobes of white light over the wrecked lab.

Rasvaal swallowed fearfully. Half an hour – just half an hour ago, everything had been fine. The Explorator and his key staff had been waiting for the deep probe results to come in. The scanning machine was still stood over there, miraculously intact, lights blinking on its façade. Rasvaal remembered awaiting the results with the other researchers. The air had been tense with anticipation, everyone keen to learn the secrets buried below this world's ice. Then the alarms had gone off. Reports came in, telling of an attack on the base! The defenders were fast overwhelmed, fighting all the way back to this, the central lab itself. Every flash of plasma and every bolter shell were ingrained on Rasvaal's memory.

Rasvaal wondered if he should get up. He could hear nothing-

'Yes, stand up. We know you're there.'

He jerked, startled. He had no doubt the voice had been speaking to him. It had sounded sibilant and dry, even amused. Something about it struck renewed fear into him.

'Get up. I shan't ask again.' The menace was unmistakeable.

Rasvaal took a deep breath. Shaking, he stood. His head rose above the cabinets as he straightened. He brushed himself, dust flaking off his jacket. The servos in his right arm whirred unhealthily; clearly, the mechanism was damaged. He could hear the machine spirit's displeasure; he would have much work at some point to calm it.

He looked around. The laboratory had been ruined. Broken equipment lay everywhere. Shattered screens gaped like dead faces above their keyboards, operators' chairs lay tumbled atop the corpses of their occupants. Blood was splashed over work surfaces here and there and in the background, cabling and ducts hung torn from their mounts. One such cable was sparking, its actinic flares hissing loudly in the deathly quiet.

In the room's centre stood the intruders.

Rasvaal stared. There were just three of them. All of this, and they were only three! They stood, giants amidst the wreckage, over seven feet tall – Space Marines, albeit of a weird variety. Their helmets were adorned with odd blue and yellow headpieces. They should have looked ridiculous and yet somehow, they just looked all the more terrifying. Their armour was of similar colours and they bore bolters of an antique-looking pattern. Rasvaal frowned, technological curiosity piqued … he had seen something similar, somewhere. In a book – but the memory was elusive.

One of them stepped forward. Debris crunched under the warrior's boot; Rasvaal's concentration broke. He swallowed. He realised that the glowing, electric-blue eyelenses were looking at him! This marine was the most decorated of them all; his shoulder pads were edged with gold, his chestplate bore a weird staring-eye symbol and the vents of his backpack had actually been sculpted into stylised dragon-heads. Rasvaal stared, as fascinated as he was frightened. There was a purple glow emanating from the 'mouths' of the vents. He wondered what process could account for such a strange thing. He could see no sign of lamps and none of the heathaze he would expect from plasma…

'Magos Rasvaal.' The marine spoke. He sounded disappointed. 'You seem smaller then I expected.'

Rasvaal blinked. What a bizarre remark. Apparently, these intruders knew his name! Incredulity joined his fear. 'You – you know of me?'

'Yes.' There was a mad clarity in the marine's voice. 'It's because of you that we're here. You have proved a hard man to track down, Magos Rasvaal.'

'I – I don't understand. Who are you? What – what do you want? Why did you attack the lab? What's going on?' Rasvaal could hear the hysteria in his own voice. He was a man who disliked surprises and today was bringing too many of them!

The marine laughed, a hollow sound. Rasvaal shivered. 'Who are we? Magos, we are of the Thousand Sons.'

His belly turned to a knot of ice. The Magos had travelled the Galaxy in his search for knowledge. He had never come across them before, but he had heard of the Chaos Marines – dark rumours, edged with just enough genuine fear to convince him they were a reality. Now three – three! – stood before him!

Trying not to let his fear overwhelm him, Rasvaal croaked, 'And what do you want?'

'You,' the marine said.

Rasvaal stared. Inwardly, he relaxed; it suddenly seemed obvious he would not survive much longer. With the certainty came a peculiar sense of freedom. He could do what he liked in the next few minutes; consequences no longer mattered. 'Me? But – no, I'm sorry, you've lost me. I'm no warrior and I have no list of great deeds to my name. I can't imagine why any sort of Astartes would be interested in me.'

'We've read your paper,' the Thousand Son replied.

'My – what?' Rasvaal blinked. Another surprise had just landed.

' "Legacies of the Machine-God in Post-Fall Cultures",' the marine quoted. 'The one you got in trouble for. The one that got you exiled to this worthless ball of ice. That paper. The one showing a hint of insight.'

Rasvaal's jaw dropped. The broken cable sparked and hissed loudly.

'We are interested in all forms of sorcery,' the marine explained. 'In your paper, you discussed the decline of the rational arts at the end of the Dark Age of Technology. You also discussed, briefly, the emergence of the psyker on many worlds. You also speculated on how residual memories of the old sciences might have influenced the emerging magical systems. That caught our attention. It also got you sent here.'

Rasvaal's shoulders sagged. Old bitterness welled up inside him. 'That paper was the worst mistake of my life. It was just – all I wanted to do was float an idea! I wish I'd never bothered.'

'True,' the marine agreed, 'you made a mistake – you relied on the wit and insight of your peers. Sadly, the fools lack even the weak understanding of one such as you. Truly Mars's finest are now mere shadows of what they once were. You seem small and snivelling but I think you may possess some intellectual courage – enough that you put that paper out, anyway.'

Rasvaal stared. 'If you just want me, then why – why all this?' He waved his hand to take in the carnage around him.

'As I said – we just wanted you. The rest of the staff here?' The sorcerer shrugged, voice dripping with contempt for those he saw as lesser beings. 'Just surplus ambulatory meat. Ending their empty little lives was a mercy they did not deserve.'

Rasvaal hugged his chest, the damaged servos in his arm protesting loudly. 'Okay, I gather you want me. What for?'

'As I said, you show some insight. That could be useful to us. You have many obvious defects, both physically and in personality, but I think in time they could be fixed. The mind between your ears has potential.'

'And why – why would I want to go with you?'

'We would not censor your studies – indeed, we would actively encourage them. You have pursued your present path for years in search of knowledge, but tell me – in all that time, have you found any?'

Rasvaal scowled, professional pride wounded. 'I know the ways of the machine spirit, Chaos Marine.'

'Ah but have you ever spoken to one? Do your ways allow you to commune with those spirits you serve?'

'I know their ways. I know how to interpret their signs.' He flexed his fingers, wincing at the whine from the servos.

'Over there you have a deep-scan machine. I believe your late compatriots were trying to use it to see through the ice. We left it intact for you. Go to it. Scan my marines with it.'

Rasvaal frowned. 'Why?'

'Just do it. See inside the armour. Tell me what you find.'

Another weird remark, Rasvaal thought. Could this day get any stranger? He debated telling refusing. He glanced at the bolter gripped in the Chaos Marine's gauntlet and recognised a bad idea.

He walked to the scan machine. It was indeed still intact. The status lights glowed with evident health. He ran his hands over the controls, invoking the spirit with the appropriate rituals. As the holy actions were completed, the results screen lit up with a beneficent light. Rasvaal scanned the lines of sacred text in growing perplexity.

'What-? No. I don't – no, there must be something wrong.' Baffled, he checked the power couplings and linkages.

'Something the matter, Magos?' The Chaos Marine sounded amused. 'Do you distrust your rites?'

Rasvaal opened one of the access covers and looked at the electronics within. The analytical engines all looked fine. He could see nothing wrong, except for the scan result itself.

He looked back at the screen, staring. 'It – it says there's nothing in there. No Space Marine wearing the armour. Just dust. But…' He looked at the sorcerer again. 'I don't believe it. It can't – I'm talking to a machine spirit. I'm actuallytalking to a machine spirit!'

Awed, he fell silent and sank reverently to his knees.

The sorcerer sounded satisfied. 'You will serve us.'