Chapter two: And If They Fall As Malfeas Fell...

Sentinels, chapter two: And If They Fall As Malfeas Fell…

Factory unit 24601, subsection C, was usually a cathedral-sized hall dominated by three great, cauldron-shaped vats standing atop arrays of furnaces. Pipes lead out to them from lesser vats by the wals, and great metal mixers could be lowered from the ceiling into them. The room was criss-crossed by catwalks that could be accessed by ladders, letting workers go out over the boiling liquid in the vats to perform tests or fine-tune procedures.

Now, the whole place was in shambles. Two of the vats had exploded, filling the hall with sharp metal shards. The remaining one had been tipped over. The floor was covered with sharp metal fragments and an ooze of chemicals. In some places, the ooze was bubbling ominously as the right chemicals were mixing to form acid or cause exoteric reactions. Half the catwalks were still standing, but others had broken partly or whole from their supports. One of them had its broken-off end leaning on the floor, creating a ramp leaning at about sixty degrees – another had fallen completely and was now lying on its side like a massive grating fence. The mixers were lowered and kept switching on and off at irregular intervals, their massive metal blades spinning and sending off sparks for a few minutes before stopping again. A horde of workers were still sifting through the wreckage, looking for salvagable instruments and parts, or trying to clean the worst of the mess up. Force could see a Harvester thaumaturge – dressed in a Populat member’s overalls, but with a gleaming pin over his heart indicating his rank – chanting over a particularly upset-looking stretch of ooze, trying to use his Sciene to make it safe for the workers to scoop up and remove.

Force of Brutal Necessity:
Force scanned the room at length. She asked one of the cleaning crew what had been in the vats at the time of the accident – nothing special, it seemed, just the normal effluent and by-product remanufacturing into solvents and resins and other things useful to Tol at large, along with purification of Autochon’s oil. She walked toward where Haqq would have been standing when he tipped the vat and examined the area there.

Force studied the tiopped-over vat. It had faint but noticeable dents on the side where Haqq would have stood, positioned and sized in such a way that Force had no doubt that they had been made by human hands. Haqq really had just put his hands against the thirty-foot-tall metal vat and pushed it over.

Her trained gaze calculated the way the chemicals would have spilled out. They would have been sent straight into the furnace of the second vat, where they had exploded and tipped over that one, which had caused its chemicals to mix with that of the third, causing all sorts of destructive reactions. Force looked around the room, and saw a highly calculated, very precise chain reaction, initiated by a single push.

Not just strong, then. Very, very smart, too – and wanting to cause as much damage as possible.

Something tugged at her mind – a minor flaw, something that didn’t fit. After a moment, she found her gaze drawn to a pile of inactive, salvaged drones, lying on a dry spot of the floor. Some of those automata – flying, insectoid ones, meant to be lifted by their fluttering moonsilver wings – were wrong. They looked almost like normal factory drones, but those stingers had been modified… and was that starmetal circuitry on their backs meant to generate holographic projections? Those things had been modified…

Force of Brutal Necessity:
Force moved closer to the drones, her eyes narrowing slightly. She beckoned over one of the workers as she strode towards the pile. “What is the purpose of these drones?” she asked, crisply.

The pale little man stumbled towards her, looking wide-eyed and unhappy. He took off his cap to nervously stroke sweat and dirt from his bald scalp.

“T-they are just probing drones, Champion,” he said. “They hover over the vats and test the scent of the chemicals. Sometimes they crawl down the inside of the vats and taste them, too. If something is wrong, they fly off and notify us. These ones don’t seem too badly damaged, so we are going to see if they can be repaired. I-is there a problem?”

Force of Brutal Necessity:
“Nothing to be worried about,” she replied, bending down to pick one up and examine it. “Could you sent that Harvester over to me?” she asked, as she turned the drone over in her hands. This was obviously the ‘project’ Haqq had been working on in his spare time. Not for the market after all. What had he used them for? Could they have been responsible for the hologram-like flickering around Haqq’s body when he tipped the vat?

“Of course, Champion,” the Populat member said and hurried away.

A moment later, the Harvester came striding purposefully through the destruction. He was tall and impressive-looking, wearing his simple overalls like an Exalt’s gleaming orichalcum armour. The soulsteel pin at his breast glittered dully.

“Yes, what it it?” he said, not quite rudely, but also with rather less awed respect than most people would show a Sentinel.

Force of Brutal Necessity:
Force held out the drone. “Do you have experience with these? I see the stinger has been modified. I suspect by the perpetrator of this mess. To what purpose?” She turned the drone to display the circuitry. “And here – is it hologram circurity? Could you repair it?” She paused, for a moment, looking the man up and down. “If you cannot, perhaps you could fetch me a Scholar?”

The Harvester sniffed.

“A Scholar?” he said with distaste. “What do they know? Oh, if you put them in a nice, clean workshop with plenty of pristine, newly-manufactured parts, they can build you a few interesting things, I will grant you, but they are hopeless at field work. No, what you need is someone who knows about making do with what you have. One moment…”

He pulled a tool off of his belt, which was hung full with them, and began unscrewing a part of one of the drones.

“Hmm, an on-the-fly modification, I think,” he mumbled. “Nice work, though – see, someone has filed down the strut here to make it fit. Oh, and there seems to be…”

There was a crackle of electricity and the Harvester was thrown backwards and to the floor, where he lay moaning.

The drone he had been working on rose into the air in a metallic flutter of moonsilver wings. With a clatter of scrap metal being pushed apart, four others rose from the pile and flew up to hover in formation with it, their multi-faceted crystal eyes glittering. There were shouts and cries from elsewhere in the factory as people noticed the sudden change in situation.

Force of Brutal Necessity:
Force’s gaze snapped between the fallen Harvester and the newly-functioning drones. She pulled in a deep breath and flexed her fingers, blades unsheathing from her fingertips with a smooth, pneumatic sound – upon seeing this, the shouts redoubled, and a few workers bodily threw themselves toward the walls of the factory, scrambling to hide behind grating or pieces of the vat, almost heedless of chemicals they were now crouching in. Honestly, Populats. Force leapt forward, attempting to close her clawed hands around one of the bugs, crushing its powering-mechanism while keeping it mostly in tact.

Force caught the drone in an iron grasp and with a quick, efficient motion she rammed her claws into its head and ripped out the net of starmetal wires that formed its brain. The light in the drone’s eyes flickered and went out.

The other four drones remained in formation, and the air between them shimmered. Before Force‘s eyes, a holographic image formed, large as life. She found herself looking at Haqq’s plain features.

“Hello, old friend,” he said, his voice crackling with static.

Force of Brutal Necessity:
“I am not sure that is likely,” Force responded, dropping the drone to the floor in case she needed to swipe at the remaining holograms – to cut off a treasonous message that would upset the Populats, or to disable them if they attempted to electrocute more people or spray neurotoxin from their altered stingers.

Haqq lifted his grubby hands and looked at them, raising an eyebrow.

“No,” he said, “I suppose that if I was easy to recognise, I would have kkkkkkkkk…”

The sound lasted for only half a second, but it made Force flinch, even so – it was a sharp, mechanical sound, like an ungreased engine about to tear itself to pieces.

“… been caught long before now,” Haqq continued as if nothing had happened. “Perhaps you recognise me better without the Husk-Sculpting Apparatus active.”

Haqq’s features rippled, his flesh reshaping itself like clay. Skin peeled away from parts of his face, revealing metal.

In a moment, the hologram before Force bore the shape of her ex-partner, Arbiter. Not as she remembered him, though – not as the proud and regal Champion he had been. What stood before her was a nightmarish wreckage of what had once been Arbiter.

He was still a tall, muscular man, and he still wore the torn and dirty remnants of his old Regular uniform. His arms and half his face, however, were covered – maybe replaced – by burned-looking machinery, rusted iron and ragged wires. His left eye still burned a steady white, but the right one flickered on and off like a light bulb about to go out. Though it was just a hologram, Force thought she could feel an oily, overheated scent coming off him – the stench of Apostacy, of Voidtech.

Force of Brutal Necessity:
“I’m coming to find you,” Force said. She meant to bark it out; her tone didn’t quite get there. The moment the hologram had spoken, a hot, unspoken feeling had rushed through her – deep inside her, a place that she had shut up tight creaked and cracked open under the pressure. A memory of Arbiter’s face before it had become so mutilated flashed on and off over his current visage like a strobe.

Memories – emotions – flashed past her like a sped-up replay of their time together: hesitation, comraderie, trust, betrayal, anger, guilt, each coalescing into the other until Force clenched her jaw and felt nothing again.

“Of course,” Arbiter said. “That is the pattern we must follow now. I am the Apostate; you are kkkkkkkk the Champion. I will flee and you will chase me, because we must. But there is one thing you must remember, when you finally catch up with me – whatever else I have become, I am still kkkkkkkk a Sentinel. In that, we remain alike.”

Force of Brutal Necessity:
“Why reveal yourself to me?” Force asked; she almost hadn’t meant to. But then – a Sentinel never did anything she didn’t mean.

“Because there is kkkkkkk a lesson you must learn,” Arbiter said. “By doing this, I have set you on the path. I await at kkkkkk its end. By the time you reach it, I can only hope that you have understood.”

He raised his hands.

“I beg forgiveness for the next part,” he said. “But I cannot kkkkkkk let you go soft.”

With that, the image flickered out – and the drones dived at Force, all at once. One of them was faster than the rest, and came careening towards Force, its stinger crackling with electricity.

Force of Brutal Necessity:
Force leapt backward to avoid the arc of electricity, raising her hands up in front of her, her fingers fanned out to that each wicked swipe would cover more area, hopefully connecting with the fast, vicious little drones. Faster, a voice growled in her mind. Not one of them should have been able to attack before you bisected them.

The drone wooshed past, circling around for another sweep.

Force of Brutal Necessity:
Just as soon as her feet touched the ground in the backward leap, she sprang forward again, raking her claws through the air, so at the middle of the horizontal swipes, the smallest finger of her upper hand passed over the thumb of the lower one in opposite directions.

Two of the drones fell in a crash of metal and a shower of sparks, swatted out of the air by Force’s powerful soulsteel claws.

Throughout the factory, people were running and screaming, getting out of the way of this sudden violence.

The remaining two drones closed in, moving more carefully now. Each one headed for one of Force’s shoulders, long, claw-like legs reached out to grasp and hold.

Force of Brutal Necessity:
Force threw herself forward, her hands coming down onto the hard factory floor – she used her momentum to propel herself into a forward roll, springing back to her feet the end of it, spinning in mid-air to face the attacking drones again as she did.

Despite Force’s near-preternatural swiftness, the machine-intelligence of the drones adjusted to her movements. Spindly steel legs clamed down, vice-like, on her shoulders, and a thunder of wings lofted her further up into the air and into a new direction.

The drones did not have the strength to lift her far; after only a heartbeat, they were forced to let go, unable to sustain the frantic beating of their wings. Force tumbled through the air, and landed with a splash in a patch of thick, black ooze. She felt a hot, searing sensation as it became to make its way in through her armour, burning her pale, artificial skin.

Force of Brutal Necessity:
Force drew her legs under her in a crouch, placing the hand of her injured arm on the floor to re-steady herself for a moment before springing forward from the crouch to swipe with the claws of her right hand, the other arm providing further impetus to propel her into the leap.

The drone went crashing to the floor in a shower of wrecked metal scraps.

The last drone came barreling against Force, stinger crackling, clearly too simple-minded in its programming to do otherwise than fight to the death.

Force of Brutal Necessity:
Force took two long strides backwards to bring her behind a large metal shard that stuck upward from the floor. She hoped to maneouver around it, to maximise on any object-collision weaknesses in the drone’s programming matrix.

The drone managed to avoid the shard – a flash of memory, recalling Arbiter‘s skill and precision on the job – and latched onto Force’s shoulder again. This time, she was ready. She swung around with her other arm and sliced through the drone’s metal casing with a flat hand, fingers together, short-circuiting the wires within. As the drone fell, so did she – landing nimbly on both feet, while the while the drone crashed and skidded across the factor floor.

Things were remarkably still. The only sound was the distant pounding of machinery from other, nearby factory sections, and the hushed whispers of the people gathering in the doorways, nervously trying to determine whether the danger had passed.

Force stood in the center of the ruined factory, surrounded by the shattered parts of the drones that had tried to kill her, the industrial fires of her eyes burning white. Her face was still; whatever was moving through what passed as her heart, no one but her could know.



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