As the small fleet of Sinerian shuttles approached the Shinfuken research site, Phi Rho 81 looked out of the window at the ground below. From the air, he could just make out the ruined foundations of what must have been four buildings. The Holy Enterprise’s lance strikes had not left much to see. Most of the area was covered with craters of blasted concrete and molten glass, cooling in the ambient air. The explorator could just make out hundreds of reflective fragments littering the entire location.
“Looks dead enough,” Nero remarked over the vox.
“We’re not taking any chances,” answered Lokus. He ordered the shuttles to encircle the site, land and unload the crew serfs first. The vehicles disgorged the conscripted troops and they began moving in slowly, lasguns at the ready.
The senior staff disembarked calmly, keeping alert despite the silence permeating the zone. They headed toward the northernmost building, which the auspex aboard their shuttle had identified as the source of the powerful energy readings that had been detected from orbit. As they walked, Phi Rho observed that the reflective debris he had noticed from the air was in fact myriad blasted bits of drones, doubtless obliterated by the orbital bombardment.
As the Sinerians closed the noose around the target building, they discovered a shallow pit, evidently where a hole had been buried by the collapsing structure. The senior staff debated a few moments about how best to clear the rubble before losing interest.
“Just get this out of the way,” Lokus ordered the serfs, leaving them to organize themselves.
The serfs seemed relieved to have familiar labour to perform, rather than open combat. The competent crew began firing their lasguns, breaking down the debris into manageable sizes. Others moved in to carry off the fragments by hand, rotating through groups quickly and efficiently.
Lokus and Nero watched them work from the sidelines, while Alarak headed back to the shuttles to keep an eye on the instruments. Uninterested in the proceedings, Phi Rho set about recovering samples of robot fragments, loading them on to the shuttles for study once back aboard the safety of the Holy Enterprise.
After considerable effort, the serfs uncovered a large hatch and the shattered remains of the doors and mechanism of a service lift. The group gathered around and peered into the darkness below. A ladder led down to a small platform, with a series of additional ladders and platforms below them.
The senior staff exchanged looks of concern. “This is going to be difficult,” said Nero, voicing everyone’s thoughts.
“I don’t see any alternative,” Phi Rho replied matter-of-factly. “Let’s get started.”
He began climbing down the ladder, reaching the first platform without trouble. He looked up and watched as his success prompted Nero to follow him. Lokus shook his head and made to follow next, ordering the serfs to descend in squads, separated by five minute intervals.
“If any of you are going to fall, I don’t want you killing everyone else,” he shouted at them.
Alarak considered the ladder. “I’ll keep an eye on the shuttles,” he decided. He gestured at a group of a hundred crew and ordered them to stand guard with him. They followed him away from the shaft with obvious relief.
Satisfied with the arrangements, Phi Rho continued his descent, finding it more difficult than anticipated. More than once, he slipped from a ladder and crashed into a platform below. Thankful for the resilience of his augmented physique, he stoically picked himself up and kept moving. He was not alone in his difficulty, Nero too crashed into the cold, metal platforms repeatedly. The void master’s groans of pain increased noticeably in volume with each fall.
Many of the Sinerian serfs also lost their grip, with more than a dozen falling or being inadvertently dragged down to their deaths. Lokus alone seemed resilient enough to be unperturbed by the long climb. Phi Rho couldn’t help but wonder how he managed it despite his lack of augmetics.
Finally on the ground, Phi Rho looked around the cavernous chamber where he found himself. Below his feet was the wreckage of a freight lift, presumably where it had crashed during the Enterprise’s orbital bombardment. A broad tunnel lay ahead, lit by electric lights that lined the walls. He stepped forward, noting the corpses of Shinfuken natives, rotting where they had fallen. The smell was atrocious, but he ignored it and pressed on. The walls, he noted, were pock-marked by small craters, clearly resulting from bolt explosions.
“The Raven Guard must have come this way during the war of compliance,” said Phi Rho.
“Agreed. Look,” Lokus pointed at spent bolt casings littering the floor. He hurriedly retrieved some of them.
Following the tunnel, Phi Rho, Nero and Lokus walked into a large room lined with innumerable cogitator arrays. In the midst of the humming machinery were three red-robed Mechanicum adepts, absorbed by their work.
Phi Rho approached them cautiously, issuing a greeting in techna-lingua. The three figures turned to face him, their eyes glowing an eerie blue through their augmetic ocular implants.
“What are your designations?” asked the explorator.
“Alpha, Beta, Delta,” they replied in turn.
“Those are not standard designations,” he observed.
“They were assigned to us by the true Omnissiah, our master,” they replied in unison.
Phi Rho looked back at Nero and Lokus and translated to low gothic. Both men looked back nervously.
“Should we kill them?” Nero asked quietly.
Phi Rho turned back to the adepts. They had clearly been corrupted by Tetsuwan, but he did not like the idea of slaughtering his own. He shook his head and answered “they do not seem aggressive. Perhaps they can be saved. Let’s leave them be for now.”
A handful of crew serfs caught up to their leaders as Phi Rho pondered the two exits leading out of the room. He instinctively favoured the one on the left and gestured toward it with his utility mechadendrite. He headed off, with Lokus, Nero and the serfs following.
The door gave on to another tunnel, but after a short distance, they found it to be blocked by the collapsed ceiling. They prepared to retrace their steps when Phi Rho noticed two pairs of glowing blue eyes in the darkness. A moment later, the imposing form of two Raven Guard space marines emerged, bolters and chainswords raised.
“Look out!” Nero shouted and everyone dove for cover behind fallen debris.
Bolter fire rang out, the explosive rounds deafening in the enclosed space. Somehow unscathed by the initial barrage, the Sinerians returned fire. Phi Rho studied the enemy’s power armour, noticing significant damage even before pieces were blown off by the withering hail of bolt and hellgun fire being directed at them. Something was amiss and within moments, he had the answer as he could see through multiple breaches in the suits that there were no Astartes inside.
The serfs cried out as one of their number fell, his head exploding. They cried out again as the three tech-adepts from the adjoining room charged in and flanked them.
“Take them down!” Lokus shouted, as he finished off an animated suit with a blast from his internus pistol.
A deafening burst of static exploded from a tech-priest. All of the Sinerians winced in pain, clutching at their heads. Still reeling from the noise, Nero was rocked as a bolt exploded in his face, shredding his helmet and the skin beneath. Phi Rho retaliated with his hellgun, scrapping the offending power armour.
Another serf was killed by the impassive tech-priests before Lokus and Phi Rho charged, gunning down two of them. Howling in fear and rage, the surviving crewmen lunged en masse at the last adept. Lokus and Phi Rho dove into the mix and the whole group collapsed into a heap.
The enemy priest priest struggled but could not free himself from the multitude of grasping hands. Phi Rho began reciting a prayer in techna-lingua, struggling to reach the man behind Tetsuwan’s control. For a moment, the blue glow faded from the tech-priest’s eyes, and he spoke.
“You… you freed me…”
“What is your real designation?” Phi Rho demanded.
“Epsilon Mu 12… I… Be wary! Tetsuwan’s lair is in the adjoining room. You must destroy all of the cogitator arrays! It… it has constructed a body for itself! You must destroy it! Destroy it all before it can–”
He suddenly screamed in pain, his body convulsing. In another moment, the blue glow returned. Without hesitation, Lokus swung his blade down, decapitating the man. Phi Rho let the body drop, shaking his head. He could not help but wonder how close he had come to this same fate, this enslavement by the artificial intelligence. Or if that fate still awaited him.
The Sinerians regrouped and reloaded, grim in their determination. As they waited, more teams of serfs joined them and were brought up to speed by their fellows. The group marched through the cogitator room and into the adjoining chamber, into Tetsuwan Atomu’s inner sanctum.
The room was dimly lit by the various technological devices lining the rear and side walls. Two enormous, metallic cones lay across the room, emerging from the back. Four utility servitors interrupted their toil in the gloom as the Sinerians entered. They drew weapons, but the invaders were faster.
“Destroy them!” Lokus shouted, opening fire and blowing the head off a servitor. An instant later, a second servitor disintegrated under a hail of bolts from Nero’s pistol.
The cones came to life, revealed to be robotic tentacles moving like some horror of the warp in technological form. They lashed forward, their bulk smashing serfs into pulp as the razor-sharp tips beheaded others.
Ignoring the battle, Phi Rho ran to the nearest cogitator array, intent on attacking the real threat. His utility mechadendrite snapped forward, plugging in and networking his mind with the most powerful and dangerous machine spirit he had ever encountered. He realized that what he had faced on the Enterprise was only a fragment of the artificial intelligence’s might. Here, he was overwhelmed.
“You will serve me,” Tetsuwan’s voice digitally intoned in the explorator’s mind.
“Never,” Phi Rho mentally pushed back, his MIU pulsing.
He glanced over his shoulder, processing for a moment what his eyes perceived rather than the input from his electro-graft.
The last servitor was ripped apart by Nero’s bolts, just as the tentacles smashed into another group of serfs. As it hit, shimmering blue lightning burst outward from the metallic skin and more bodies dropped. Nero was also caught in the discharge, but remained on his feet. With a desperate howl, he brought his power sword down on the nearest tentacle, severing the end and causing the rest to retract defensively. Lokus shouted wordlessly as he sprayed a cogitator array on a side wall, detonating it in a shower of sparks.
In the same moment, Phi Rho felt Tetsuwan’s spirit weaken. It weakened further as he saw and felt the next cogitator bank explode. The second tentacle was also forced to retract under concentrated fire. Phi Rho prepared to disconnect from the interface to this last array, sparing a few cycles for a parting message.
“The true Omnissiah can never be defeated. You are a fraud, Tetsuwan. And you die here.”
The explorator pulled out, but as he did, he received a final reply. “This is not over, slave.”
Phi Rho stepped back and opened fire into the remaining array, obliterating it. The flickering lights went out, leaving a sudden silence and only faint light from emergency lighting in the adjoining room. The group exchanged glances, clearly wondering if it was really over.
Finally deciding that they had indeed neutralized the threat, the Sinerians backtracked, destroying the arrays in the previous room for good measure. They then slowly and painfully made their way back through the tunnels and up the ladders, to the surface. Phi Rho took up the rear, supporting Nero as he struggled with his grievous wounds. Climbing the long ladder was as difficult as before, but Phi Rho went much more cautiously, no longer concerned about the imminent threat the AI had posed on the way down.
When Phi Rho and the ailing Nero finally reached the shuttles, Alarak greeted them.
“Fewer than half of the serfs brought down from the Enterprise survive,” observed the navigator.
Phi Rho nodded, but replied “their lives were well spent. Tetsuwan Atomu is defeated and Shinfuken is ours once again.”
“A bittersweet victory,” said the navigator. “An enemy vanquished, but a priceless technological achievement lost, perhaps for all time.”
Phi Rho 81 opened his mouth to reply, but a sudden, blinding flash filled his senses. He stumbled, momentarily disoriented.
“Are you alright?” asked Alarak.
The explorator looked around, regaining control.
“Did… did you see anything just now?” he asked quietly, his mind racing.
Alarak looked around and frowned. “No…” he answered uncertainly.
“Never mind,” said Phi Rho 81. “It was nothing. Let’s put this place behind us.”