More; and if it seems a little rushed, there's a reason for that. I decided to put in a shout-out for a webcomic which I happen to enjoy, and some of the 40K'ers out there undoubtedly know about already- Turn Signals on a Land Raider http://tsoalr.com/
I go over there, and find out the author can't afford to keep the site going much longer, so this may be the last chance to see- go and enjoy it while it's still there.
A Squelch of Empires ch 11
Around the table, the assembled representatives of the Imperium of Man were boggling at a simple display of technological superiority; the holo projector.
Tactical link, high bandwidth, gyro steady and photon sharp- as opposed to their own which were frequently the other way around. It was showing two galaxies, one above the other, one with a pair of close dwarf companions, both large spirals.
Their own was library, the locals was sensor data from the interferometer line of probes.
‘First silly question; have any of your stars moved irregularly, imploded, unpredictably exploded, changed spectral type, mutated, otherwise departed from the main sequence, learned to talk, or decided not to shine recently?’ Lennart asked.
He got a set of confused glares back, from the political officer who didn’t, no, who knew exactly what he was talking about and was desperately trying not to admit it. From the mechanicus who was immediately considering the theological implications of the question, that theirs didn’t.
The two warship commanders who ought to know, the actual navy officer looked envious then contemplative- Lennart could tell, his basic technique of acting like a psionic sponge seemed to be bearing fruit, that the young man was initially astonished, recovered quickly, and was trying to decide what to admit and what to conceal.
The marine, he knew a fair amount about it too, and was distinctly disturbed by the whole concept- his mind was veering towards the prospect of a private accommodation, not with the problem but with the Empire.
As Lennart had expected, they hadn’t been able to arrive without representation from the other elements of their side. Lachlan in particular was seething inside, as he had only managed to get out of being overseen by the Deathwatch by the drastic expedient of accepting something even worse; the company of Canoness Palmyra of the Order of the Rose of Blazing Agony.
She, in her capacity as representative of the theocracy, was radiating a sour and narrow- minded loathing for everyone and everything around her.
Cain, the political officer, was accompanied by the heavyweight soldier he had been talking to earlier and another representative of the ground forces, a bizarrely misshapen man who had a metal disc embedded in his forehead.
The technomancer was accompanied by one normal- looking man, in a military longcoat with insignia- that worried Lennart. The eldar hadn’t exactly gone into detail about the Imperium, just sketched out the bones. He was some kind of war- machine pilot, had been studying the AT-ATs closely and didn’t seem to think much of them. That and another machine- man.
The naval officers had their seconds too, one of whom was obviously a flag lieutenant.
Evidently the question touched a nerve. ‘I presume that the answer to that question of the instability of the stars is, yes?’ Lennart asked, trying to look moderately surprised.
‘The will of the Emperor is the light that illuminates the stars.’ The baroque armoured woman said, as if it was a fact- worse, as if it was an explanation. The others winced, but made no effort to contradict her. However flaky she was it was less painful than confronting what must be a very ugly reality head on.
‘How many of these stars do you actually control?’ Lennart pointed at the image of their galaxy.
‘The worlds of the Imperium are without number, jewels in the void.’ She stated.
‘Ye obviously huvnae’ been tae the same worlds.’ Lachlan said, sotto voce, but Lennart put it rather more plainly.
‘You’re a religious nutter, aren’t you?’ he said, sarcastically, and watched their reactions. Stunned horror from most, evidently that was a jest too far- these people took their faith seriously.
The marine was shaking his head, even if it was true it was terribly bad form to say so. Fine. He needed to break these people’s resistance down, it was becoming painfully obvious that this environment was corrosive to sanity.
So…religion, then? Going pre-emptively mad in their own way to stop the galaxy driving them insane in it’s? Hell of a survival technique. Hell of a threat that made it necessary.
She chose to deal with his scepticism by self assertion. Lennart hoped the shield wall was up to taking a micromissile round. ‘We are the warrior arm of the Ecclesiarchy.’ She declared, overriding the ‘nutter’ part – or taking it as a given- and clearly could have gone on about the Saving Radiance, the Divine Word and Divine Might of the Emperor, but Lennart held up his hand.
He could have laughed at her- felt very much like doing so, her mind was such a grotesquely misshapen nodule of acidic fervour it was the only response it deserved- but that would be diplomatically fatal.
In fact, it was getting increasingly difficult not to. Perhaps Lennart had absorbed more of the harlequins’ outlook than he thought he had; she, that tiny minded, frantic puddle of hate, was exactly the sort of thing they lived and loved to mock.
Not quite, he thought, not quite; the seed of common sense is still there, if she is a fantastic mutation of the wits- worse than any chemical or radiational grotesque- then it is because she has been exposed to a source of fantastic mutation, which I believe I can name. Although- if these people are warped this badly by their own protective measures, what the kriff does it look like when those measures fail?
Like something…wondrous, a peculiarly birdlike voice at the back of his head said.
He told it to piss off, and said to the battle sister ‘Your ways are strange to us; we have no state religion, don’t need one, and it would probably be culturally impossible anyway. There was a band of cultists that made themselves of some service- but they exceeded their authority, failed in their aims, and were stamped out by the power of the secular state.’
That was about as twisted a version of the Cloister Coup as it was possible to produce, but it was true, from a certain point of view. A monstrous pack of lies, considering the rise of the Sith and their lesser minions, but there were some things best not said.
In both directions, too. Not quite the situation of a deep-sea creature raised to the surface after all; in a background of far greater power...could there be such a thing as Force Obesity? A surfeit of indigestable power, clogging the arteries of the soul? Considering the monstrous error of judgement Alderaan had been, and disposing of the senate, Palpatine probably suffered from it already.
It had very strange results; all of them, even the mechanicus, looked utterly horrified by that. No religion? None at all? The kamikaze nun couldn’t take it; she drew herself up to her full height, seven foot four in high heeled power armour and ridiculous pudding bowl haircut, and attempted to lay a curse on him.
‘Condemned to damnation be he that turns his face from the Emperor; cast from grace are those-‘
That was as far as she got before Lennart, unable to hold it in any longer, made his diplomatic suicide attempt. He laughed at her. Once he started, feeling the angry resonance from her mind and the images that wafted in on it, there was nothing else to do; doubled over, pounded his fist on the table, fell off his chair and literally rolled on the floor laughing.
The men of the Imperium of Man looked at him mostly blank-faced, stunned by the sheer audacity and effrontery of laughing at one of the sisters of battle; actually, the political officer looked a shade envious.
When he eventually managed to stop, he climbed back into his seat, looked over them and said ‘Does anyone, in your skull-ridden wasteland of a state, even remember how to laugh? The madness fuelled pain that you have suffered, and dealt out in the indiscriminate purging of guilty and innocent alike- do you have no conception of how utterly ridiculous, how stunningly cosmically inappropriate it is for you to try to curse me?’
Actually, there may be more than a few grains of truth in that if we can’t solve this force problem.
One of his seconds took over- ‘Your galaxy with the dubious stars, how many of them do you control?’ Commander Qalkhir asked her- he was the com/scan department head from Glacier. The machine spirit killer.
Lennart found it difficult to trust him, partly because of his almost total lack of a sense of humour, partly because he really was very good, and to be that sharp as a slicer, amongst other things, meant that the Ubiqtorate would have been keeping an eye on him, and therefore he was highly likely to be their man.
There was some humming and hawing, and eventually the political officer said ‘What is it that you intend to do with the answer?’
‘Contemplate it.’ Lennart said. ‘You must have thought, I know we did, what are all the guns for? What, you didn’t?’
‘I wonder who your enemies are, that you need that kind of firepower.’ Cain said.
‘I wonder who your enemies are, that you need those numbers.’ Lennart bounced back.
‘Seriously, you’ve probably guessed, we worked some of it out from the armed merchant that fell through the wormhole, guessed some of the rest from interferometry and interceptions- we came in cold and are learning as we go. We are the galactic hegemon.’ the holoimage of their own galaxy lit up with the controlled stars in brilliant red, all fifty-plus million officially inhabited, all the how many million others with less than a genetically stable population- mining camps, research colonies and terraforming bases, all the stars regularly overseen by the might of the Galactic Empire.
‘We are a multiracial power, something which may or may not be connected to that, and we currently have no external enemies that matter in the slightest.’ Lennart said, optimistically but essentially correctly.
‘No pockets.’ Bugler said.
‘Rather difficult for a stellar agglomeration to wear a jacket.’ Lennart quipped. ‘Unless you sew them into a shkadov thruster, but that’s not what you mean, you’re looking for political pockets. There are individual worlds, and segments of the population on too damn’ many worlds, but nothing at this resolution.’
But there are some.’ The political officer said shrewdly.
‘Keeping the galaxy this way takes effort.’ Lennart admitted. ‘I presume things are the same on this side, otherwise why the assorted gigatonnage of dinosaur, combat, naval mk 1b you have here?’
Hard to avoid acknowledging the truth of that; although the insult involved was harder to swallow, and Lennart regretted it- no doubt there would be better things to take the mick out of later on.
‘So your enemies are essentially domestic, the prime job is internal security?’ The broad- shouldered ground force trooper said.
‘We most often find ourselves going up against renegades of our own weight and type, yes.’ Lennart admitted. ‘If they weren’t at least as capable as our own home grown loonies, we wouldn’t really need to try very hard to squish them. Your tentacle waving space monsters, what are they called?’
‘Tyranids?’ Cain said, adding ‘they’re not ours, you can have them if you like.’
Lennart was starting to be able to pick up tone and timbre in gothic, it helped that most of them spoke slowly by comparison, and the political officer seemed to consider them very dangerous indeed.
‘Those overgrown cockroaches are actually a real problem to you?’
‘Problem? Their main body tried tae eat the Imperium no’ sae long ago, an’ took a damn’ big bite afore they got their comeuppance.’ The tartan- clad Marine said.
‘Which brings us back to the state of your galaxy in general- absent the theology and propaganda, do you actually have the resources and scale for it to be worth the Galactic Empire’s dealing with you? If a billion or so of those things are actually a serious threat-’ Lennart suggested leaving it hanging- when he noticed the looks of horror on the IoM detachment’s faces. A billion of them were more than just a serious threat, it seemed.
‘Just how badly put together is your Imperium?’ he asked. ‘They can make you fear them, I understand that, they’re probably much nastier up close- but in the void they had nothing, nothing at all.’
‘When we can meet them head on, we usually win. We would have been able to take them today.’ Bugler stated. ‘It’s tracking them and intercepting them with enough force in enough time that’s the real problem.’ The others glared at him- for not taking proper and righteous offence at Lennart’s comments, mainly.
‘They take days to make planetfall.’ Lennart said. ‘You’re seriously trying to tell me that’s not enough time to reinforce?’ The Target-Rich Environment was starting to look better and better. No wonder they needed that kind of force density, if they couldn’t make the journey from world to world in less than- weeks? They could be taken apart piecemeal, after all.
The fact that they hadn’t been indicated that, whatever other enemies they had, they weren’t much better.
‘So how long does it take you?’ Bugler asked.
Lennart decided to show off. ‘Well, the Open Circle Fleet made their run to Second Coruscant in less than, what, fourteen hours including underway replenishment. Could have been faster but they needed to get there with enough fuel in hand to do something useful.’ His own team looked perplexed at him, choosing to mention such a historically touchy subject.
The political officer picked up on that, but before he could frame the question the technomancer asked ‘Fourteen hours from one star system to a neighbour?’
‘No…fourteen hours from the halo stars to the heart of the galaxy.’ Lennart said, watching the depth of their horror and surprise. The problems involved in the navigation he would leave to later. ‘I take it we are looking at some kind of hideous mismatch here, it would take you years or worse?’
The marine was too clued up to make the obvious slip, but the technomancer let it out. ‘The warp is pseudo- random, time unpredictable, short stages, perhaps sixty years.’
Lennart decided to annoy them by refusing to be surprised. ‘Ah, you are neofeudal. I thought so. This warp thing of yours, it seems to be the cause of a lot of your problems?’ And if there was a leading question involved…
‘What sort of problems is it causing you- you’re a psyker, aren’t you?’ the political officer challenged, more openly than he would have liked to but Lennart brought the subject up too directly for that.
‘Force user, thank you very much. The way it seems to pan out,’ Lennart decided to cut to the chase, ‘our universe has a much fainter- if they are two separate cases of the same general physical law, the force is far less significant than the warp. How do you go about protecting yourselves against it?’
‘Faith in the Emperor.’ Sister Palmyra snapped, gratified to get one back on this mocking heretic.
‘Really? That’s all- oh.’ A patriarchal glow with an undertone of screams, their hypersensitive had said, and presumably that was him. Screams? Lennart decided he could quite happily go without knowing exactly what that worship consisted of, although chances were they were quite likely to find out. Their religion and their madness made a little more sense now.
‘How effective is this beacon?’ he asked, admitting that he knew about it.
‘Did the eldar tell ye, or kin ye-‘ the marine began, letting slip that they knew about that.
‘One of my crew noticed it almost at once, as soon as we spent any time here at all.’ Lennart acknowledged. That contained another message, which the political officer and the young space commander picked up on.
We can follow your beacon, we can find your capital system, and get there in far less time than it takes you to reinforce. Decapitation just became a viable strategic option.
‘Through ra ‘nids? Past yon hive mind?’ Lachlan said, incredulously, changing the subject to hopefully prevent Lennart realising that they had worked it out for themselves, too. Not quite fast enough.
‘Essentially, yes. Why, is that supposed to be impossible?’ Lennart said, enjoying himself with that.
‘It’s supposed tae’ be damn’ near suicidal. Could’ ha ca’d the hive mind down oan ye.’ He thought about it and added ‘No’ that that would ha’ been ae problem.’
‘I go back to my earlier question. Yes, we do know of something like the warp- it’s much less powerful, we only have a relative handful of people who are any good with it, and they all seem to go into politics for some reason.’ Lennart said dryly, to the considerable amusement of his own side.
‘It isn’t them I’m worried about. It’s the people, possibly thousands on my side, whose below-the-resolution trace of force aptitude gets magnified here into real power that they don’t have the slightest idea how to handle, and brings them to the attention of the strange attractors in the warp they don’t have the slightest idea how to fight off.’
There was a general appearance of absolute horror on the IoM side of the table; a possibility only the political officer had even dimly considered.
Lennart could almost hear him thinking, and to his pleasant surprise the unthinkable had occurred to him after all.
If they are vulnerable to chaos, he was thinking, if they fall easily, then chaos can become much stronger here, we could get a second Eye of Terror (a reference accompanied by an indistinct and fearful image)- but our best defence against them might be to let that happen.
Chaos is, well, chaotic, he was thinking; letting that kind of power fall into the hands of random madmen- or the sort of warped abomination people exposed to the powers of chaos frequently became- would be a disaster to echo down the ages.
With all that, it might actually be less dangerous for the Imperium than showing them how to withstand the powers of darkness and having them and their new order arrive to kick our arses in a thorough, efficient manner.
Sacrificing our enemies to the powers of chaos- that’s taking pragmatism too far, he consciously thought- the whole idea revolted him, but at least he had been able- minded enough to think of it.
While they were trying to think of a way to discuss the situation, the holodisplay started showing a little winking dot where they were. Coloured, in accidental accuracy, green.
Lennart left the table, pulled his com out of his pocket, uplinked to his ship, said in Standard ‘Brenn, you’re trying to tell me something?’
‘Afraid so, skipper- the doc says shadows at the edge of consciousness, LFIs and probes confirm incoming. Different to this bunch, more amateurish, more self- actuating, more anarchic, more conventionally blood-crazed, more mental sidebands if I understand her correctly.’
‘Definitely not this lot then- hostile?’ Lennart said, fairly sure that none of the locals had more than a tangential grasp of Galactic Basic, never mind Standard.
‘Very probably. Move the tankers clear?’ Brenn asked for confirmation.
‘Light year below the ecliptic, Silverblue as escort.’ Lennart agreed. ‘Condition of the ship?’
‘Few more internal security issues, nothing major. Officially Condition-2, in practise we’re at battle stations.’ Brenn reported.
‘Fine, make it official, anything else?’
‘One of their navigators called us to complain.’ Brenn said, sounding amused and perplexed. ‘Apparently their drives are Force powered, and we’re a small strange attractor in our own right.’
‘Oh, joy.’ Lennart said. ‘The locals’ normal strategic response time is abysmal, but if we’re here and actually making a difference to the stellar landscape-‘
‘We could be drawing in interested parties from sectors around.’ Brenn finished the thought.
‘Glorious. Welcome to the Target Rich Environment- actually, anything resembling a pseudopod count?’
‘The surgeon-commander says they all think alike, not a hive mind but more like lots of individual minds all thinking similar thoughts, running more or less in parallel, so its hard to make out details and judge from there; lots, though, probably in the tens of millions. LFIs seem to indicate anywhere from forty to seventy separate clumps of them.’ Brenn reported.
‘Right, keep scanning for other weirdness, I’ll talk to the IoM, if I’m not back in time deal with them yourself, and don’t shoot my shuttle.’ Lennart said.
Lennart turned back to the table, and said to the assembled representatives of the Imperium of Man ‘Who, among your list of enemies, would you describe as being amateurish, anarchic and bloodthirsty?’
‘Orks.’ Five of them said simultaneously. At least there was no doubt on the subject.
‘What are they like?’ Lennart asked.
‘Barbarians.’ The political officer said, with some real animosity in his voice. ‘Green, well muscled and lots of teeth, always come in packs and always eager for a fight. No attention span, lots of aggression, damn’ nasty up close. Or upwind.’
Well, that didn’t sound like too much of a problem.
‘Ah take it ye’re askin’ fur a parteecular reason?’ the tartan marine asked.
‘My com-scan people tell me we have somewhere from forty to seventy of whatever it is they come in heading this way. Any ideas?’
‘Tactically speakin’…they’re stupit’, but no’ so stupit’ as tae be unable to come up wi’ some damn’ ugly surprises wance in a while. Fightin’ them frae distance works better than lettin’ them get close, are ye thinkin’ o’ some kind ae joint operation?’ Lachlan asked.
‘Are you saying you’d refuse help if offered? Just because you think we’re filthy deviant atheistic heretics, and we think you’re a self-mutilation society writ large, I see no reason why a thriving mutual contempt shouldn’t ultimately lead to a productive business relationship, and cooperation has to begin somewhere.’
The shuttle had barely touched down when Lennart caught sight of Shandon Rythanor waiting for him on the pad. That in itself was a sign that something was very, very wrong.
‘What is it?’ Lennart asked him, the familiar surroundings making it easier for him to resist using the force to find out.
‘Message drone from Torchbearer, guard squadron. The locals sent a detachment to force the wormhole.’
‘Tell me on the way up.’ Lennart said, heading for the turbolift.
Rythanor relayed the whole ugly tale- minus most of the pictures- on the way up. How they were now, very probably, at war. Some of the Imperium’s ships had managed to get past the blockade in various states of damage, and were roaming around the Rishi Maze, and worse yet, some of them had fled back through the wormhole.
‘Well, I’ve just agreed to form a joint fighting line to face the orks.’ Lennart pointed out. ‘I’ve never been much of a seer- I prefer actual thinking- but even a battery droid could foresee an interesting clusterkriff in our immediate future.’