Nero listened with impatience to the junior officer as she finished her status report. The Holy Enterprise’s systems remained rife with malfunctions, following Tetsuwan Atomu’s infiltration, but none of them posed a significant risk at the moment. Whatever Phi Rho had done, he seemed to have thwarted the hostile artificial intelligence.
Nero abruptly dismissed the officer and called Hundred Eyes to take over the bridge, satisfied that his direct intervention was no longer needed. He listened to his micro-bead as the away team finished dispatching the group of armed servitors that had intercepted them aboard the Discovery.
“Nero, status,” called Lokus over the vox loop.
“The Enterprise is secure,” answered the void master.
“Good,” answered the acting captain. “We’re approaching the Discovery’s bridge.”
“It looks worse than I thought,” Alarak’s voice broke into the loop.
“It would be illogical for us to engage the servitor horde directly,” opined Phi Rho 81.
Nero did not like what he was hearing. Being separated from the only people in his life that he cared about brought back painful memories. Memories of the Pariah. The memory of the look of horror and pleading on Kamal Haasan’s face as their mutual brother was gunned down by a toothless void pirate. Nero felt his pulse quicken. He had lost all of his brothers that day, the only family he had ever known. He was not about to lose anyone else.
“I’m on my way,” Nero called into his micro-bead, doubling his pace.
“Good,” replied Lokus. “Bring reinforcements.”
Nero began issuing orders across the vox as he moved, arranging for another hundred crewmen to grab lasguns from the armoury and meet him in the launch bay.
Lokus helped Phi Rho 81 pull open an access hatch in the corridor leading away from the Discovery’s bridge, while Alarak kept a lookout behind them. The explorator’s utility mechadendrite whipped over his head and interfaced with the cogitator access point behind the panel. He immediately felt the Discovery’s machine spirit and began analyzing what remained of Tetsuwan’s presence, following the destruction of the primary cogitator banks.
“We’ve got company!” Alarak shouted, mere moments later.
The others turned and saw four utility servitors sprinting down the corridor toward them, brandishing servo-fists and whirring chain-axes. A gene-bulked servitor followed them, awkwardly gripping an autogun in its overly muscular hands. Apparently unconcerned with the risk of damaging its fellows, the bulky servitor began saturating the corridor with solid projectiles. The explorers reacted instinctively, keeping their heads down as they ran into the adjoining corridors to take cover from the onslaught.
Lokus was the first to recover from the attack and quickly returned fire with his inferno pistol, blasting the foot off the lead servitor. Phi Rho and Alarak took turns leaning around the corner and firing into the advancing attackers, scorching and shredding body parts and cybernetic augmetics.
Hearing the gunfire ahead, Nero sprinted ahead of his troops filing out of the cargo bay, where the servitor greeting party’s corpses still lay. He rounded the next corner and came up behind the gene-bulked servitor. Nero immediately pulled out his bolt pistol and opened fire. His target took notice and impassively turned its autogun on him. Nero was stunned for a moment under the sudden hail of fire, before quickly realizing that his armour seemed to be proof against the weapon.
The barrage of fire from Alarak, Phi Rho and Lokus steadily chewed through the advancing servitors, although their grievous injuries did nothing to dissuade them. Even the servitor with a lost foot continued to crawl forward on hands and knees, the teeth of its chain axe sparking against the metallic floor.
Within seconds, two of the automatons had closed the gap with the explorers. Phi Rho drew his power axe and swung it into his adversary. Its blade bit into pale flesh, but it did little to slow the living machine.
Lokus broke into a cold sweat as he found himself holding an empty pistol, sidestepping his attacker’s furious servo-fists.
Suddenly, crackling, chaotic energy filled the corridor. Lokus and Phi Rho 81 watched in amazement as all four nearby servitors blazed in unnatural, blue flames for a moment before exploding in a horrific shower of blood and metallic fragments. The two explorers turned to face Alarak, behind them, and just glimpsed the navigator’s third eye closing as a grin spread across his bloated face.
Nero heard the gene-bulked servitor’s autogun click empty and charged headlong, blasting his pistol as his enemy attempted to reload. The exploding bolt shells ripped chunks of meat and machinery off their target before a headshot stunned the servitor, sending it crashing to the floor.
Lokus, Phi Rho 81 and Alarak caught up to Nero as he calmly placed the barrel of his pistol against the enemy’s head and executed it without pity.
“I will resume my connection to the Discovery,” said Phi Rho 81, slinging his hellgun across his back and returning to the cogitator access point, his mechadendrite twitching in apparent anticipation.
“Talon, do you read me?” Lokus called into his micro-bead.
“Still here,” replied the veteran Guardsman.
“Reinforcements are moving in now,” Lokus said, vigorously waving the newly arrived crewmen onward to the bridge.
The nervous conscripts screamed and charged in, their lasguns blazing. Lokus, Nero and Alarak followed them in, barking orders and opening fire on the now flanked servitor army.
Phi Rho 81’s mind raced along the circuits of the Discovery, detecting traces of Tetsuwan everywhere and quickly erasing or quarantining them. He wrested control of defense turrets on the bridge and turned them against the servitors as he worked. Finally finishing his work, he keyed the ship-wide vox.
“Cease all activities,” he commanded in techna-lingua.
The servitors immediately held their fire and stood passively, even as they continued to be gunned down by the boarding forces.
“We’re not taking any chances,” Lokus declared. “Terminate them all.”
When the final servitor collapsed, the dead were tallied. The boarding troops had lost only fifteen of their number, all of whom were dragged back to the assault shuttles, destined for the Enterprise’s crew reclamation facility.
Lokus quickly organized a skeleton crew of two hundred to take over the Discovery. Their orders being to strip everything of value from the ship, while keeping a careful eye open for any surviving traces of the AI.
Back aboard the Enterprise, Phi Rho 81 initiated a detailed sensor sweep of the planet and its orbit. Analyzing the resulting data, he concluded that Shinfuken was ringed by debris from the Medusa and the Cerberus, among other defeated vessels and human remains. He shook his head in disappointment, not that anyone had been holding out much hope that the Sinerian vessels left behind to guard the new colony had survived the coordinated Gamoran offensive. He took some comfort from not detecting any debris from the Acheron, which had transported the Sinerian colonists allocated to Shinfuken. On the surface of the planet, the explorator detected only half a dozen areas showing concentrated energy use. The capital city shone the brightest, followed by an unidentified zone one hundred and fifty kilometers to the West.
Alarak opened his warp senses to the space outside the Enterprise and immediately felt faint traces of identities from the innumerable dead. He found some solace in the realization that the Gamoran forces had also suffered heavy losses here.
Lokus scanned through signals leaking from the planet into space, picking up miscellaneous news feeds and communications. He discovered evidence of four active factions: the Imperial planetary defense force, the Gamoran colonial government, Shinfuken’s surviving native population and the Sinerian colonists. The Imperial and Gamoran groups were clearly struggling to contain growing unrest among the other factions.
The senior staff discussed their reconnaissance. The obvious course of action, they agreed, was to make contact with the Imperial planetary defence forces. Lokus hailed the capital city, using standard Imperial frequencies.
A tense-looking communication technician’s enlarged face appeared on the bridge’s primary viewscreen. Lokus impatiently demanded to speak to the Imperial base’s commander, thoroughly intimidating the unfortunate underling.
“This is General Vance.” The technician’s image was replaced by a stern-faced man of advanced age, with an augmetic right eye surrounded by extensive scar tissue. “I’m a busy man, Seneschal Lokus. Be brief.”
“We are representatives of Tiberius Sinerian,” Lokus began haughtily. “By decree of the Adeptus Administratum, this planet belongs to the Sinerian dynasty. I demand that your forces depose the Gamoran government immediately.”
“That’s all well and good,” replied Vance, clearly unmoved. “But at the moment, this planet doesn’t belong to anyone. I’ve got Shinfuken natives in open rebellion, Sinerian colonists protesting in the streets and worst of all, rampant equipment failures making it impossible for my troops or Gamoran personnel to take any kind of meaningful action to control the situation. At least the Gamorans are trying to help, so I’m not about to depose them. If you can help to restore order, I’ll be more than happy to turn control of Shinfuken over to you.”
“You’ll eliminate the Gamoran traitors first,” Lokus insisted, “and then we will help to restore order.”
“If I turn on the Gamorans, I’ll be making the chaos worse, not better. Why should I believe that you’ll do any better than them?”
“Because we know what is causing your equipment malfunctions,” Lokus replied.
Vance leaned forward. “Is that so?”
“We encountered and disabled an artificial intelligence aboard the Discovery, in orbit,” Lokus answered smugly.
“A true artificial intelligence?” Vance replied in astonishment. “Impossible!”
“Think, man!” Lokus returned with passion. “Shinfuken was brought into compliance because of their tolerance and use of AI.”
Vance hesitated. “And you’ve been able to combat it?”
“We have,” Phi Rho 81 added calmly, stepping up behind Lokus.
“Let us discuss a compromise,” put in Alarak.
“I’m listening,” the General replied.
“We will land at your primary base,” began Lokus, after a brief discussion among the senior staff, “and cleanse it of the AI’s influence. That will prove what we have to offer and improve your operational effectiveness. Next, you will order your forces to execute all Gamoran personnel on site. Finally, we will continue to work with you to restore Shinfuken to compliance, under proper Sinerian rule.”
General Vance steepled his fingers in front of his face as he pondered the proposal.
“Very well,” he said at last. “But be warned that despite our technological difficulties, the Gamorans may detect your landing craft. I will not move against them until you’ve completed your end of the bargain.”
Phi Rho 81 watched as the last of the hand-picked crew boarded the pair of assault shuttles, in preparation for the deployment to Shinfuken. Alarak, Lokus and Nero were already on board. Talon Karrde and Nikita were resting in the infirmary, recovering from wounds suffered during the Discovery boarding action. That meant Hundred Eyes would be in charge of the Holy Enterprise while the rest of the senior staff was on the surface. Phi Rho respected the astropath and saw no reason to be concerned about his ship during his absence, particularly with Emulus Tague keeping a close eye on the enginarium. Hundred Eyes would also be blockading any astropathic transmissions that the Gamorans would try to send, hopefully preventing or at least slowing the arrival of enemy reinforcements.
Taking up the rear, Phi Rho made his way on to the nearest shuttle. He examined his companions thoughtfully as the bay doors began to close. A seneschal, a navigator, a void master, an explorator and forty ship serfs carrying borrowed lasguns. That was all the shuttles would be carrying down to the surface of a planet being torn apart by rebels, hive scum transplanted from off world, Gamoran usurpers and a rogue artificial intelligence.
Before reaching Shinfuken, Phi Rho 81 had been eager to seek out new, possibly heretical technologies beyond the understanding of the present-day Mechanicum. Now that he had actually encountered such things, he found himself questioning his convictions. Was some knowledge simply too dangerous to ever be known?
“Phi Rho,” Lokus’ voice came across the vox. “Are all hands accounted for?”
“Affirmative,” replied Phi Rho 81.
“Alright, we’re off,” Lokus continued. “Are you ready to send that AI packing?”
Phi Rho 81 thought back to the battle of wills he had endured to free the Enterprise from Tetsuwan Atomu. Would he be up to the challenge of facing the AI again? This time on its home turf?
Continue to Episode 5…