Chapter one: Fall in Flame

Sentinels, chapter one: Fall in Flame

The Regulator headquarters squatted in one of the central caverns of Tol, a huge, forbidding structure of concrete and steel, built in the form of a large number of short, broad, interlocking tubes. The windows were black-tinted, making it impossible to see in but very easy to see out. The street outside was a constant bustle of activity, with Regulators constantly coming and going, dressed in their uniforms of long coats of reinforced leather with brass pins affixed to the left shoulder, along with protective caps and visors that gave them a menacing, faceless impression.

To this place arrived Force of Brutal Necessity, astride the great arachnid machine-spirit that served as her steed, early one Crystal shift. She had been urgently summoned to meet with Torr, Chief Regulator of Tol.

Urgently summoned and promptly arrived, Force of Brutal Necessity dismounted her machine-steed and strode with long, even strides into the Regulator HQ, revelling a little in the double-takes and slightly-too-long-glances her presence elicits. No one openly stares, they’re a smidge too well-trained and stoic for that, Regulators in general, but not quite above looking a little in awe and (as they should) a little fearful of her. Fear and awe were good. She could light a fire with either emotion and the resulting flame would make the person she spoke to malleable like hot gold.

She walked past the people behind desks or standing in doorways, who lesser folk might have to consult with in order to be able to reach Chief Regulator Tor, or, more likely, speak with in order to be palmed off to some lesser official, and continued straight toward his room.

She opened the door to Torr’s office, finding the middle-aged, heavyset woman behind her desk. She looked just as square and solid as her desk, too – a fixture of the office, a center that would hold no matter what. She was wearing a Regulator’s uniform, albeit with a few extra stripes on the shoulder, but she had no helmet – her face was bare, and the rectangular, orange soul gem that identified her as part of the government gleamed in her forehead. She stood up and saluted as Force entered.

“Champion,” she said. “Thank you for responding so quickly. The reason I have called you is that the chemical refinery in Sector Eleven suffered and accident an hour ago. There was a massive explosion, resulting in the destruction of the entire factory subsection and the loss of several hundred lives. We have reason to believe that sabotage might have been involved.”

“Unacceptable,” bit out Force, after having given a crisp nod to the Regulator at the salute. “The efficiency of our industrial workers must not be interupted with criminality. Shall I be dispected immediately or is there further situational information to discuss?”

“There is a suspect,” Torr said.

She pressed a control on her desk, and a flickering hologram appeared over it, showing the image of a nondescript-looking young man, black-haired and narrow-faced. He was wearing a jumpsuit and a cap, and his soulgem was the black, round one of a Populat member.

“This is Citizen Haqq,” Torr said. “He was a worker in the factory, and one of the ones that has yet to be accounted for. Several of the survivors swear that they saw him tip over a vat of several tons of flammable oil, leading to the destructive fire.” Torr gave Force a steady look. “They also swear that he did so with his bare hands, displaying literally superhuman strength.”

“Often people in shock are confused and their memories unreliable,” Force stated, after a moment of silent contemplation, afixing the suspect’s face into her memory. “If that is the case, then their testimony will be easily dismantled by cross-examination. If what they say is true, then I also do not doubt my ability to deal with that situation in a similiar straight-forth manner. Have there been reports of dissent from Citizen Haqq by his cohort?” It made absolute sense of Force that any kind of treason would have been instantly reported for the chance to gain a Glot or two.

“None,” Torr said. “I have reviewed Haqq’s record. It appears to be entirely unremarkable. He was never late for his shifts or otherwise disorderly, but nor did he ever exceed quota or take initiatives. Routine psych evaluations only say that he exhibited non-critical levels of social standoffishness – failing to have the recommended level of interaction with the people around him, but without showing serious asocial tendencies. However, this is all from our regular files – we have not made a full inquiry among his peers at this time. I leave that to your discretion.”

She paused.

“You will not be able to examine the crime scene for some hours yet,” she said. “The disaster control and rescue work is still being carried out. However, the workers of the factory have been confined to their barracks if you want to question them.”

“A slight, utterly manageable hinderance,” Force said, although privately she was less pleased. People lied, and even when they didn’t, they rarely told a story in a linear sequence of events, rarely included the relevant facts, or meandered into inclusion of petty details instead. Talking with the Populat was much less efficient than speaking with Regulators, but it had to be done. Space and metal and the other elements of the physical world were immutable and suited her better. Luckily most people were mostly easily eased into reacting the right way and revealing the right insights; sometimes they were even curiously interesting, in a sort of flame-flickering kind of way. “Any other information?”

“None at this time,” Torr said. “Good luck, Champion. If this was the work of some foreign power – or worse, of Voidbringers – we must know as soon as possible. They might not be done yet.”

“I will send a sound report in a timely manner,” Force reassured her, although she thought that the Regulator should probably know that and not need to be reassured. “May the rest of your day be exceeding efficient,” she said as a parting salutation, and turned on her heel to leave the office.

Outside her spider waited, occassionally rippling its legs to keep the gear lubricated with oil, the undulating movement earning a tense glance from passer-by rushing to their next task. She propelled it towards the main thoroughfare that lead to Sector Eleven.

The great machine carried her swiftly through the long, dark corridors. As she rode by, the cries of the merchants hushed momentarily and people gave her furtive glances that didn’t quite dare to be stares. If a Sentinel was going somewhere in such a hurry, then someone, somewhere, was in deep trouble.

Very soon, she arrived at Sector Eleven and dismounted outside of the huge, grey barrack.

Inside, the place was in an uproar, with people gathered in frightened throngs, talking animately to each other. Many of them were sporting burns or other injuries, and many more were sooty and disheveled, having taken part in the rescue work before being sent here.

The barracks themselves consisted mostly of endless corridors with bunk beds, beneath which small chests with personal possessions were kept. Even so, Force knew, Tol offered relative luxury to its Populat. In many other cities, the Tripartite had arranged it so that one worker slept in the bed of another while she worked, so that no bunk went inefficiently unused at any given time.

Many of the conversations swiftly ceased as Force entered. A short, gaunt man with a small, black moustache hurried over to her. He had the black soul gem of a Populat member, but carried himself with a certain authority.

“Champion!” he said, bowing. “An honour, and honour. I am Shift Chief Lurr. May I be of assistance in any way?”

“Your readiness to assist the investigation is noted and appreciated, Shift Chief Lurr,” she began, relaxing the corners of her mouth in not-nearly-a-smile but closer than usual for her expression. Populat liked it when you used their names, generally. “Perhaps you could direct me first to the eye-witnesses of the event that occured here? On our walk to them, inform me of your view with regard to their personas and reliability.”

“Of course. Of course.” Lurr nervously led her to first one group of people, then another, letting her ask her questions. For each one, he supplied, with some humming and hesitation, a description of their morale, piety and overall good sense.

Force asked each what they saw, asking for the small details that would call out liars (even those who did not know they were lying) when compared to the testimony of others, to gain the most truthful picture of what had actually occured. She asked about unusual happenstances in the days or weeks leading up to the accident, and even asked each person for what their own explanation of who and why (it was nice for them to think their views were being taken seriously, good for morale and the petty egotism so many unjustifiably – in Force’s mind – carried around with them; and perhaps one of them might be right (and earn a few Glot for Service to the Law, as a fine example to their compatriots, and also as a stunt to boost public opinion of the Regulators) – or at the very least their self-constructed narrative may contain something that assisted the investigation). Of course, if their own thoughts went on for too long or were blatantly erroneous, she would cut them short and move onto the next.

Force skillfully extracted every scrap of information that the room had to offer, filtering out incorrect data and making each person tell her things they hadn’t even realised that they had seen. There were many mistakes – for instance, many people thought they had seen Haqq use some sort of artifact to tip over the vat, but they could not agree on what sort of artifact it had been, and how he had used it, and none of their descriptions sounded like a real artifact rather than some ignorant Populat member’s idea of one – but in the end, Force managed to form what seemed like an accurate image of the events.

Haqq really had tipped over the vat with his bare hands, grinning maniacally as he did so. As he did, there had been a faint shimmer around him, like some illusion fraying at the seams – it seemed likely that Haqq’s appearance might have been nothing but a lie. After that, he had left without due haste, all while the oil spilled over the factory floor, igniting and causing multiple explosions. His eyes had gleamed as he walked out, several people agreed, though some added that they had been less gleaming than flickering, like lightbulbs about to go out.

Haqq had seemed uncharacteristically excited when going to his shift, displaying a zeal that was usually missing from what had, in most people’s minds, been a rather listless and taciturn man. One man recalled an offhand remark from him about good things coming to those who wait.

In the weeks before, he had frequently disappeared, and no one knew where to. Some had seen him fiddling around with parts of discarded machinery at the factory, but they had assumed that he was working on some kind of personal project that he might sell at the market – not entirely legal, but common enough that they hadn’t seen the need to inform on him for it. A few also recalled him going for long walks in his off hours, and at least one – who was, as far as Force could tell, and as far as Lurr could inform her, honest and not prone to flights of fancy – swore that he had been seen coming back from the bad parts of town, and that he had been carrying something in a box.

He had been transfered to the barracks and the factory some five months ago, and made no particular friends during his stay, though some said that they had seen him talking to a quiet, mousy woman named Jiqqa. If there had been anyone else with whom he associated for any other reason than half-hearted duty, no one was aware of it.

Personal theories were many and varied. Haqq was a gremlin, an evil machine spirit, some said. Human, but some sort of anarchist, others claimed. One woman even dared to mention the word “Apostate” in front of Force, though she looked very frightened while doing it. Force had a feeling that many more were thinking it, but didn’t want to confront an Exalt with the notion of evil Exalts, just in case she didn’t appreciate the reminder.

In the remaining time before the site of the incident was ready for her perusal, Force decided it would be worth speaking with this Jiqqa woman. Also, the circumstances of his transfer and his previous history as a citizen were worth looking into. After the inspection of the crime scene, Force figured she might follow an intitution she felt about venturing into the grimer parts of town and uncovering what Haqq was up to there.

Jiqqa turned out to be a short, frightened-looking woman with dirty-blonde hair, who looked like she wanted to be anywhere in Autochtonia right now other than facing the white industrial fires of Force’s eyes. When going to meet her, Lurr had told Force that she was generally well-liked but mostly ignored in the barracks – she was always trying to help people, but her kindness was of a kind that was more commonly taken advantaged of than actively appreciated.

“What? N-n-no,” Jiqqa lied unconvincingly. “I don’t know anything. I mean, I never… I wouldn’t…”

Force didn’t smile – that tended to have the unfortunate affect of imobolising those of Jiqqa’s temperament with absolute terror. Instead, she creased her features in a sort of aimless, non-threatening concern which could be interpreted as worry for Jiqqa’s state, or the state of the investigation, or merely an uncomfortable chair. If a Sentinel could be concerned, surely that spoke to a humanity within them that was shared with the onlooker. That seemed to calm people down some. The non-specificity of concern lead people to make links in their own mind of what she might be concerned about, generating a kind of artificial empathy, perhaps even likeability, if they decided – subconsciously – that the Sentinel, might, possibly, be concerned about them, even if it were more likely to be about the investigation or the chair. They wouldn’t feel intimidated by her concern or attention, that way, but they might feel some measure of it and relax, a little. Not too much. But enough to get words flowing. To be sure,

Force began to emit a soothing pheromone from a small implant in chest. “It is okay. I am sure everything you did or didn’t do is completely understandable and will be viewed likewise by myself and your superiors. Just say what is on your mind.”

Jiqqa seemed to relax a little. She swallowed and went on.

“Well… when he first came here, he seemed lonely,” she said timidly. “So I tried to reach out to him… you know, like a good citizen should? And he talked to me. I don’t know if he really planned to, but he had… all these thoughts that it seemed like he needed to get off his chest. I thought maybe that if he got to talk about it, it would… vent those dark feelings, so that he wouldn’t act on them…”

She trailed off, clearly pained by the fact that it evidently hadn’t worked out like that.

“You acted well,” Force affirmed, although she wasn’t sure that was entirely true. It was possible Jiqqa would be held accountable for not informing her superiors of her knowledge, but perhaps her forthcomingness now would save her any harsh treatment. In any case, it wasn’t Force‘s domain. “Could you tell me about these thoughts? And feelings?” She added the last phrase after an almost imperceptible pause during which she shrugged off a prickly feeling in her scalp. People who could not control their feelings – they bothered her. Which, she knew, was an understandable reaction to her partner’s … issues surrounding her ex-partner’s discharge, and completely normal, and would not interfere with her investigation if it did tend to that direction.

“Nothing treasonous!” Jiqqa said. “I would have told someone if it had been. He just… grumbled. He thought that everyone was… ‘too soft.’ He said that the Surgeons were too slow to administer euthanasia to people once they had gotten too old to be useful workers. He said that a lot of the smaller border towns were drains of Claslati resources, and should be… ‘cut loose,’ that we should either transfer the people there to the big cities, or just send them off into the Reaches.”

“You should have told us about this anyway,” Lurr said, sounding like he was trying to be mad but finding it hard. After all, he was unknowingly standing in an invisible cloud of Force’s calming fumes, as well.

“I see that now,” Jiqqa said miserably. “And he said… forgive me, but… he didn’t like the Soulsteel caste at all. The Sentinels were worse than the others, he said, because they were the ones who were supposed to make the tough decisions, and they weren’t.”

She half-cowered.

“I really didn’t think it was more than grumbling,” she said lamely.

“Apparently it was,” Force muttered, and even though the calming pheromones, Jiqqa flinched. “Do you know what he was doing travelling to the darker-city?”

“No,” Jiqqa said in a small voice. “I didn’t even know he went there.”

“I shall leave you to yourself,” Force replied, and then proceeded to do exactly that. She would presently check if the scene was clear for investigation and check on the data-requisition she’d put into motion about Haqq’s history before assignment to the factory.



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