COLOSSUS: Chapter III, A Kiss for Daddy
17/05/2010 in Warhammer 40K
III: A Kiss for Daddy
But now let us descend to greater woe
-Inferno (Canto VII)
Wansaman had two eyes, which he considered fitting, though each looked out upon a different vastness.
Wansaman was fairly sure of other body parts, too. He was dimly aware of a beating heart, for instance. He probably had ears… or at least one, as, every now and again, he sensed a high chattering noise truncated by rhythmic and rather wet mastication that became apparent -he was sure- through means other than thought. On rare occasions he was conscious of a citrus-like odour that rapidly intensified into what he decided must be flavour, before fading to nothing – somewhere, and probably in the same locality, he sported a conglomeration of taste receptors and epithelia. And he still had a brain, obviously, otherwise whither awareness?
Wansaman liked to believe there were more parts strewn about, his remaining organs, perhaps even limbs; but he could find no connection to them, try as he might to induce one with the ghostly memories of what it was to be whole. Moreover, where all these parts might be situated -both those he was certain of and those he only hoped to exist- he had no idea. For all he knew, his disparate bits were strewn many kilometres apart, those he was conscious of interconnected with monstrously elongated nerve fibres or some other medium…
Xenos medi- No! I’m still human! I’m just exploded.
And greatly magnified. Certainly one of his eyes was, at any rate. He had been unaware of it at first, there being nothing in either of his views on which to base any concept of scale. The myriad organic structures bobbing before what he called his outer eye -having decided that the tiny white pinpricks of light that provided a backdrop there were indeed stars and not simply distant biolumens- were little help: meaningless masses of blazing colour conjoining, splitting, nudging; bathed in a light source Wansaman could not see off to his right. They might have been microscopic for all he then knew. Eye and subjects both.
It was only the introduction of one of the most innocuous objects in the Imperium that gave Wansaman an intimation of magnitude: a cargo container. It had floated in from the left of his field of view, blackened, ruptured, its denotations illegible… but its dimensions suddenly, and quite shockingly, forcing magnitude on the panorama.
The container was dwarfed by the distended spheres and irregular ellipsoids floating around it; batted here and there by cilia Wansaman realised were tens of metres high; sucked in meditatively by curious lips a half-kilometre wide; spat out in disgust or shat through sphincters a Baneblade could have parked upon.
Knocked indifferently aside by a passing assemblage of pastel-yellow bags continuously inflating and deflating, the container had been sent spinning toward Wansaman’s eye. He watched it grow, his alarm galvanising the blurry, colourless motes that served him in place of blinking, sending them scurrying here and there ready to spray their pock-filling clear gum and brush up irritants. For a moment, Wansaman had panicked, his mind sending out desperate avoidance signals to a body it was no longer connected to.
But the container had become faint with proximity before it had even outgrown one of the motes, hitting his cornea to bounce back and be lost in the ever-shifting organic swarm.
Wansaman had felt the impact. Felt the irritating scratch before the motes came to refresh and repair.
An object twelve metres long and three high had been akin to dust on his retina.
Wansaman’s outer eye was hundreds of metres wide.
He suspected his inner eye was of comparable dimensions, though there was never anything in its sight to properly verify this. However, the attendance of similar motes -for some reason coloured an iridescent green readily apparent even in their fuzzy immediacy- leant credence to the notion, not to mention Wansaman’s innate desire for some kind of symmetry.
The eye looked out into what Wansaman called the Ribcage, and the horrific nativities he witnessed there -though they could conceivably have been either gigantic or microscopic- were of such a nature that he was sure he at least observed matters on a human scale, whether or not the orb employed shared that characterisation.
Taking magnitudinal orders as a given, then, Wansaman estimated the cubic area of the Ribcage to be many thousands of metres, its irregular ellipsoid shape making a tighter estimate impossible. Illumination came from roaming transparent bags of luminescent blue gas, their conical bases terminating in a cluster of farting jets that provided vector. The bags clustered wherever they seemed to be needed, their piscine movements creating alarming spikes of shadow among the circumnavigating ridges that buttressed and trussed the vast chamber like gigantic thinly-skinned bones. Foresting the roof between the buttresses was a wonderland of pliable pastel-coloured stalactites, constantly dribbling ichor of every viscosity and shade imaginable (and a few that Wansaman had no name for), swaying with a rippling motion like wind on grass (though Wansaman’s eye was never affected by any breeze). Hanging here and there were pale, many-jointed limbs, their terminations a cloud of writhing pseudopodia and grasping fingers. These were the stalactites’ tenders: cleaning crusted sphincters, popping blisters, or anointing raw epidermal patches.
Wansaman suspected that the chamber’s purpose, namely organic progeny, was partially to blame for these and other more chronic ailments that periodically sprung up within it. Who knew what pathogens -the ungovernable side effects of xenos experimentation- might be present at the nightmare deliveries the chamber hosted?
Littering the Ribcage’s floor, in valleys of mottled skin stretched between the buttresses, were the ectopic wombs. They were nursed by ground-rooted clumps of more jointed limbs lining the apexes and slopes of the buttresses, their most common task being to massage the multi-coloured exudations rained from the rippling stalactites into the wombs’ leathery skins. The purpose of this chemical soup wash was unknown… unless it was an over-complex method of lubrication.
The empty wombs were merely shapeless bags of flesh. The occupied, however, were distended mounds of widely varying size, pulsing, shaking, even undulating with the disparate life quickening within them… waiting to burst through the tightly sealed labia that crowned every organ.
Waiting to rend and destroy.
Whenever a birth was imminent, the jetting bags of blue gas would cluster, jostling for position – pooling their lambency with a voyeur’s avidity that had Wansaman fervently wishing he could tear his gaze away… or simply that he retained an eyelid.
At least he couldn’t hear proceedings.
It had started out as the sort of rough-and-tumble Kaelee had once often had with her three brothers – wrestling, pathetic attempts at martial arts, that sort of thing. Kid’s things.
But this time a button had been pressed, a lever pulled, and the Inevitable Machine had been set in motion.
Just like her mother had said it would.
Perhaps it was her own fault. After all, she couldn’t deny that the warning signs had been there, could she? The way the games they used to play together seemed to suddenly just stop, her brothers going off without her to patrol the corridors and halls of Level Nine – whereas before it had always been the four of them. They were once known as the Bewley kids, now it was the Bewley boys and their sister.
More obviously it was her brother’s lingering stares whenever she undressed in their shared bedroom, trying to keep her newly ‘filled-out’ -as the slightly disconcerting phrase had it- body angled away from them. Their hot gaze led her to eventually hang a tarpaulin between her cot and theirs – a barrier of modesty and discretion she had never felt the need for before. She patched holes in it with thick duct tape… tape that kept mysteriously peeling off. With gut-churning frequency she had been aware of one or more of her brothers watching her through the holes; but she had done nothing – something within her frightened of the outcome were she to snatch the tarp aside and confront them.
But Kaelee had never thought it would actually come to this. The Male Beast had been switched on, had consumed all three of her brothers. In fact, were they her brothers anymore? It was like the possessions the Father Groddish always spouted about. Except that this had nothing to do with Foul Chaos.
She really should have known better. An hour before, after months of ignoring Kaelee in almost every fashion other than the sly attention they paid to her physical differences, her brothers had come home from their shift at the forge and launched into a bout of tag. Just like the old days, the -yes- innocent days, they had pushed their beds against the sweating iron walls of their room to clear a space, and begun to wrestle. As it had always been, it was her two younger brothers, Jon and Keril, both fifteen, against her eldest, Har, who had just turned eighteen. As usual the bout had, amidst much grunting and laughter, descended into mayhem, with both younger brothers attacking Har simultaneously.
Kaelee had been giving the kitchen food dispenser its bi-annual overhaul, listening to the barely muffled thumps and shouts from the adjacent room. The Hive Edification Vox in the kitchen’s upper corner had been sputtering Beati Mundo Corde through the rags mother had stuffed into its copper grill years ago. For about a minute there was an unexpected silence from her brothers, suddenly broken by an even more unexpected call of, ‘Kaelee, Kaelee, come and get these two grox-heads off-of me!’
Just like it used to be.
She had actually smiled, giving in to the rush of sibling warmth the once-familiar call engendered within her. She had put down her tools and rushed next door.
And, for about a half hour, it had been just like it used to be. The laughter and the mock outrage at mock betrayal, the taunting and mock commiseration, the victorious shouts, and the enjoyable flush of physical exertion.
Nevertheless there had been an edge to it. Kaelee had smelled the coolant moonshine on their breath – the chemical stink of it had filled the room. Yet she had chosen to ignore it, as lately her brothers had often come home enveloped by its nostril-flaring reek. She had also chosen to ignore the looks passing between them: surreptitious glances, raised eyebrows, tiny nods they thought she hadn’t noticed. And their hands, the way they seemed to slip over her body with an urgency they never had before – rough caresses and pinches she knew were anything but accidental.
She had chosen to ignore those, too.
And then the buttons had been pressed, the levers pulled, and the holy programmes that had been her brothers were overwritten, hacked by the Inevitable Machine, the Beast that was within all men.
She was no longer in a room with Jon, Keril, and Har, but three rutting animals.
The tide of the wrestling turned – it became Kaelee’s brothers against her. Rapidly overwhelming her suddenly desperate defences, they pinned Kaelee to the warm iron floor with Jon and Keril at her arms and Har squatting over her lower legs.
And that look had passed between them.
‘Me first,’ said Keril, his gaze travelling over Kaelee’s jerkin.
‘You?’ said Har, ‘You wouldn’t know where to put it. I’ll go first, it’s my right. Besides,’ he added, his fat-lipped mouth wide in a beast’s grin, ‘I think you both probably need a practical demonstration.’
Har leaned over Kaelee, his big hands resting just beneath her armpits… like he used to do when he was going to tickle her to a hair’s-width of unconsciousness. Breath she could have ignited wafted over her. ‘Don’t struggle, Kaelee.’
Momentarily, the beast was eclipsed in her brother’s face, and Kaelee was cast back three years to a time when she had scalded her hand due to a sticking faucet stat – the concern on Har’s ugly, dear features. ‘Don’t struggle, it’ll go easier for you. It’s our right, sis, you know that. Just… Just let us do it, then it’s done.’
And the lever was thrown and the beast returned.
‘Undo her buckles. Hurry – he’ll be back, soon.’
This reference to their father cancelling any further argument with their older brother, Jon and Keril shifted around to fiddle with the buckles that secured Kaelee’s one-size-fits-all leggings…
Allowing her right hand to properly grip the stem of the Smelt Boy of the Year trophy Jon had been the proud recipient of two years ago – the heavy pewter cup having fallen from Jon’s bedside cabinet during their scuffles.
Har’s head moved closer to hers as he used his right hand to fumble clumsily with his own buckles. He grunted, even giggled. ‘While you’re down there, boys, you might have to undo -’
Kaelee’s arm snapped upward from the elbow.
The thin lip of the cup must have gone into Har’s temple quite deeply. It certainly seemed that way to Kaelee – she was sure she felt the scrape of bone. And the amount of blood spurting from the wound was certainly supportive.
For a moment Har’s eye’s met his sister’s. The beast was knocked from them – there was only hurt and incomprehension. He didn’t even make a noise.
The other two, still trying to unclasp Kaelee’s buckles, didn’t notice anything wrong until Har collapsed against Jon, his unexpected weight pushing the younger boy clear enough to allow Kaelee to free that arm and clumsily buffet the still oblivious Keril on his ear.
Amidst the pained, shocked, and quickly dismayed grunts and half-articulated words, Kaelee managed to scramble to her feet. She brandished the cup, its brim dripping as if recently upturned after being filled with her brother’s blood. Blood that slicked the left side of Har’s face and neck; that was warm and slippery on her hand and forearm.
But the beast had fled them now. The levers were returned to their neutral positions, the Inevitable Machine de-energised. Har was unconscious (dead?), the others were still trying to comprehend the sudden change in their situation – from priapic rut to bloody pain and mess.
Kaelee dropped the cup and ran.
She ran through Level Nine’s familiar humid corridors, the two assembly halls, the Launce Boulevard with its eon-dead trees, along the mezzanine skirting the multi-level Logus Arcade. At first she ran simply to be free of that room, of its stink of male sweat and moonshine, of her brothers. But, as some equanimity gradually returned, her strides took on direction and intent.
She would go to her father.
At a public drinking font that still provided a trickle of coppery water, she cleaned Har’s drying blood from her hand and arm, rinsed her face, and then continued at a quick walk.
Kaelee felt as if levers were being pulled in her, now, setting her into mechanical, programmed motion that involved the minimum of volition. She kept her mind blank other than to focus on her destination. If she started to think, to go over what had just… what had nearly just…
She heard her mother’s voice, its Level Twelve twang as clear as it had ever been before the cancer ravaged her throat (first target before a more general assault). ‘You were warned, girly. That sort of thing’s rife in this hive. You can’t squeeze so many people together without the basest instincts squirting round the edges – Father Groddish’ll tell you that. And there ain’t much more to men than base instinct at the best of times.’
Twenty minutes and two conveyancer belts later, Kaelee stood before the wide maw of Manufactory IX. From around her came the low conversation of the compline shift crowd as it waited for the scream of the factory whistle. When it came, Kaelee covered her ears like she used to do whenever she and her mother had waited for Father or her brothers to finish work, trying to muffle the reverberations in her skull.
Compline shift shuffled in, intermingling with vespers shift shuffling out; the minds of the former already booting the programmes they needed to run to enter Holy Communion with the Omnissiah and become gears in the Imperial Machine; the latter briefly enjoying the relief of a completed shift before it was clouded by the realisation they would repeat the process tomorrow… they only had the freedom to dread its return.
She saw her father, his close-shaven silver head bowed between his massive shoulders like all the others, his white skin still damp from the shift-end affusion. He wore only a vest and leggings, always claiming to be too warm for the ubiquitous jerkin.
He would be going to the nearby refectory for his usual coffee. Kaelee fell in alongside him.
Neither spoke. Kaelee wondered if, so soon after emerging from his shift, her father even knew she was there, if he had ever known she and her mother were there when they used to wait for him. He never acknowledged their presence until his first sip.
They sat at one of the plastic tables arranged in long rows in the low-ceilinged refectory. Around them, others from vespers shift did the same, the familiar scrape of chair feet on heavily worn flagstones filling the air. There was little conversation – they all waited for that first sip.
Kaelee hadn’t been here for years, but everything was just the same: all the old routines of her childhood, the old smells. She recognised many of the other faces – only their frowns seemed to have deepened. All that was missing was her mother… No, that’s not true. There’s a child missing, too – the child I no longer am.
Dispensing servitors fixed to ceiling rails that clanged and sparked at every intersection deposited steaming mugs of thick black coffee before each worker. Father got his, and, as Kaelee watched him stare meditatively into its inky depths, she wondered -as she always used to- how the servitors differentiated – neither she nor her mother had ever been given coffee.
Father sipped, bending down to the mug and tipping it slightly rather than lifting it to his mouth.
‘Why are you here, Kaelee? You haven’t done this since…’
Kaelee stared at her father. She wanted to tell him, but found herself suddenly unable to articulate the words.
Father took another sip, and for the first time actually looked at her. With a shock, Kaelee realised she couldn’t recall him considering her that way, actually focussing all of his attention on his daughter, since Mother’s incineration day. Then he had laid his heavy hand upon her shoulder, shouting above the roar of the furnace vent to say, ‘You’re the woman of the family, now, Kaelee. Your brothers and I have to work the forge; you have to take on all her duties. That’s the way of it.’ His grey eyes, dull with loss, had held her gaze, and she remembered the absurd pride she felt as she nodded (absurd because she had quickly come to realise the drudgery the ‘woman of the family’ underwent), the pride at her father’s direct attention upon her – rare even then.
Pinned by his gaze once more, she felt that pride again and actually found herself stifling a pathetic smile of self-importance.
But there was an edge to his stare she had never noticed before: something she intuitively grasped to be a commingling of extant loss, irresolute anger, and soul-crushing dismay at the total unfairness of human existence on Level Nine… in this hive… on Ghast itself… Why not throw it all in? Hm? Why not say ‘in the Imperium of Man’? Instinctively she knew that this edge had always limned her father’s gaze, but the child she had been was incapable of recognising it.
Kaelee knew she would see the same thing lurking behind every other expression in the refectory, in every other face she would ever see. Has it come to mine, yet?
She blinked, her near-blasphemous thoughts breaking the spell of her father’s stare and allowing her to speak.
She was hesitant at first, of course – she was telling her father that her brothers, his sons, had attempted to rape her. However, as she relived the attack, spoke of the last few months of their incestuous intimidation, she felt anger rising within her, its heat lending impetus to her words. They talked of ‘right,’ but what right could they possibly have for… that?
Again, Kaelee felt Jon’s Smelt Boy of the Year trophy in her hands, felt it puncture Har’s temple. But this time she didn’t stop. She caved Har’s skull through into his brain… did the same to Jon and Keril. Surely that was now her right?
Father said nothing, but his coffee was slowly cooling before him. Kaelee could see his anger intensify, filling his stare. There would be punishment, she knew.
Yet when he did speak, it was also of rights.
‘How dare they?’ he asked, his huge hands flexing powerfully against the rigidity of the plastic mug. ‘How dare they think they could take this? They will be disciplined. They have no right. It is the father’s. It has always been the father’s. That’s the way of it, here. They come after.’
Right…? Father’s…? The way…? After…?
Kaelee stared at her father as the last remnants of the world she knew were absolutely shattered.
Then, again, she ran.
Wansaman had little concept of time. In fact, it was arguable if he had any at all, there being nothing in his existence by which to measure it. The purview of his outer eye was all random, multi-coloured behemoths, idling through his field of vision like impossible piscine creatures in an impossible tank. And the terrifying births he witnessed through his inner eye were far too irregular to stand as chronological increments.
He had tried to set aside part of his mind as he once heard certain adepts could, disciplining his consciousness to mark the passage of time… but without success. He lacked the force of will or grasp of the necessary methods for the task, and his mind continually wandered. Wansaman consoled himself with the thought that perhaps certain implants were a prerequisite for such abilities, that a perfect internal clock could not be achieved through simple mental regulation alone.
Therefore Wansaman had no idea how long he had occupied his exploded state. He did, however, make the deliberate decision to declare his existence as a whole human being to have been A Very Long Time Ago. The memories were so faint, so sporadic, that he often found himself considering them more as a cluster of strange dreams than the recollection of actual events (ignoring the fact that he never properly slept, of course).
There had been a ship, a science ship, the name of which had something to do with eyes and ancient stone cups. There had been an experiment, a vast experiment: prodding and agitating the Immaterium in a manner which retrospect allowed -if not demanded- the qualification ‘foolhardy.’ The resulting warp storm had flung the vessel an incalculable distance (Wansaman vaguely recalled the phrase ‘extra-galactic’), spitting it out directly into the midst of a tyranid hive fleet.
A snowball materialising in the core of a neutron star – that was the chance they had. Wansaman recalled screams. He recalled blazing blurs of beautiful colours quickly made uniform with simple, glistening red.
He recalled teeth and torn flesh and pain.
While playing disassembler beams subsumed the ship into its atomic -sub-atomic, for all Wansaman knew- constituents prior to amalgamation into the incalculable immensity of the hive fleet, its crew were similarly treated within tyranid stomachs.
And yet Wansaman came back.
Even after passage through xenos digestive tracts and waste treatment systems, his DNA coding somehow remained intact or was reassembled, miraculously discovering mediums through which it could nurture its genetic capabilities and once again blossom into multi-cellular life and awareness… though the results fell somewhat short of any human norm.
But was it a miracle? There were surely no more fertile grounds for genetic sports than a tyranid hive fleet (ignoring the unquantifiable capabilities of Chaos); even so, Wansaman strongly suspected something quite deliberate in his resurrection.
Leaving aside his physiological aspect, the likelihood of such a successful and entirely coincidental return to life was patently astronomical. Wansaman was sentient; he could sense; he had identity and memories. He was a human in a purely xenos world. Such an existence could only occur through manipulation – outrageous chance simply could not be a factor.
The voice was confirmation.
At disparate intervals Wansaman believed to be irregular, he suffered another presence within his mind. With a thrust of alien thought he was violated, his mental struggles and screams of protest swept aside or ignored as if they were nothing. Helplessly, he was forced into an empty corner of his psyche to endure its trawling – ‘watching’ as it was read and cogitated upon by this other. His knowledge, his experiences down even to those dim, grey memories of lost intimacies, parental love (things he rarely cared to dwell upon lest despair drown him), were analysed. And when the other departed, Wansaman felt a perverse antipathy towards his memories -as if they had been sullied and soiled, used by that other- that seemed to take some while to pass. He was left internally at odds, almost self-detached – and being the only human for uncountable light years, what else had he but himself?
This occurred many times before the other first spoke.
You understand me, Once-a-Man?
It verbalized directly into his mind, timbreless and sexless, though nevertheless evocative of great age and immensity. That is your new name – your old one is meaningless and I have removed it.
Sympathetic hunger engulfed Wansaman. Yet it was not the hunger of an empty belly (which could never be anything other than psychosomatic in Wansaman) – it was the hunger of a race. Eternal, unappeasable, infinite starving – an undeniable drive to consume.
It is dry here, now. I want wetness. Your galaxy is still wet. I will suck it to dust. And you will watch, Once-a-Man.
The mental take-overs became more frequent, their selections more specific. Stellar charts Wansaman had only glimpsed in passing during his more… typical human existence flowered in his mind as if he had studied them with the intent and love of the Navis Nobilte. Military news reports he barely noticed as backgrounds to his life where repeated with the clarity and import of an Imperial Navy tactical overview. Laymen’s ordnance encyclopaedia he had idly flicked through in his barely-remembered youth flashed in his mind as if backlit by explosions.
And always, the hunger.
All this metal you humans enclose yourself in. All this crystal and plastic. No faith in the capabilities of the organic. I will find your Imperium and teach your kind the error of its ways. I will force such faith.
In contrast to the sentiment of its words, however, the other’s intrusions now gradually dropped off – as if it had gleaned all it could from Wansaman and now had little use for him. However, even when the other was absent, Wansaman found himself aware of the other’s ever-watchful presence as the fundamental consciousness upon which his own had been rebuilt – revealed as omnipresent now he could recognise it through their conjoining.
The other had always been here, would always be here, was everything here.
Time passed without proper marking.
Then, as Wansaman blankly watched the gargantuan pavane without, and the myriad multi-coloured drips of ichor within, the familiar, immeasurable starvation engulfed him once again. However, this time Wansaman retained control of his exploded body.
I have found it!
As one, the nudging behemoths outside shuddered, their dance disarrayed as individual monstrosities began to careen and collide with previously unseen violence. Quickly, the collisions escalated into conflict, giant maws tearing into the flanks of formerly peaceful neighbours. Ichor jetted and clouded, fogging Wansaman’s shocked gaze. Occasional clumps of torn flesh started to thump off his cornea, agitating his attendant motes into scurrying motion. Shadowy masses shifted in the murk, clusters of gigantic cilia writhed in and out of clarity.
And, in the Ribcage, the spawning began.
The multi-jointed attendant arms on both roof and floor jerked spastically, waving and flexing. Simultaneously, the myriad pastel-coloured stalactites sprayed their polychrome ichors like ecstatic ejaculate, flooding the chamber floor in blazing morass of intermingling hues.
And every single one of the leathery womb sacks began to swell.
I have found your galaxy, Once-A-Man. I have found food. My long eyes look upon it now. It glitters so. I select targets. Watch as I prepare my muscle-and-flesh engines, my many mouths.
The view of Wansaman’s outer eye finally began to clear. Gigantic shreds of flesh, each trailing bloody contrails that looped and intersected into an impossibly complex -and rather graceful- knot, were all that remained of the once docile behemoths. Now a new entity eclipsed the stars.
It was roughly spherical, its pastel blue surface forested with crimson phalli. Slowly it revolved, as if exhibiting itself. Shadows lengthened and shrank, imbuing insubstantiality – as if the sphere was more image than corporeality. As usual, Wansaman found size almost impossible to judge; however, certain familiar star formations were occluded, and this, coupled with the quiescent state of his attendant eye motes, pointed to something of at least a kilometre in circumference.
As he watched, subcutaneous sphincters commenced an uneven ascent from the phalli’s bases – a rising ripple of red flesh. Slowly, they each gained the tips -Wansaman refused to say ‘glandes’- before dropping at a slightly faster rate to their starting points.
The process became continuous, the sphincters’ speed increasing. The globe began to shudder, the phalli to vibrate.
Oh, this is ridiculous, thought Wansaman.
Pale fluid spurted in distinct globular clusters from pursing lips crowning each of the phalli, jetting outwards for a short distance before clumping together into amorphous masses.
The sphincters returned to their starting positions and were still. The shudders and vibrations subsided. Spent, the pastel ball rolled from Wansaman’s field of vision, scattering gently heaving globules of pale matter from its path.
A new creation, Once-A-Man, inspired by your memories and the records of your ship. Was it familiar? Was it appreciated? Watch now.
A mottled globe of beige and brown now hove into view. Much larger than its predecessor, it filled Wansaman’s vision, its surprising resemblance to human flesh coupled with recent events sparking unwanted memories of intimacy. A tear appeared in its lower hemisphere, splitting into a red gash.
Whether from their own unseen means of locomotion or some compulsion from the sphere, the pale globules were suddenly mobile, merging into a milky river that swept swiftly into the gash.
The globules gone, the gash resealed.
The sphere began to glow. Ripples of coruscating energy mapped its fleshy surface, spreading to form a vast, radiant shield of purple – an atmosphere of lightning.
The sphere disappeared.
A contingent of my clandestine forces, Once-A-Man. Now, with your inner eye, witness my vanguard.
In Ribcage, wombs were torn open.
Look at them. With these, I will rape your Imperium of Man.
Until she careened off the corner of the Space Marine’s pedestal, Kaelee had no awareness of where she was.
Of who she was.
There had been corridors. There had been blurred ovals that must have been faces. Patches of light interspersed with patches of dark. That was all.
No thought; no feeling; just a simple, meaningless succession of shape and shade that was without definition – there being nothing in Kaelee’s mind to provide it. She didn’t even recall the floor beneath her feet. It was as if she had floated, disembodied, or like the suspended servitor skulls that occasionally patrolled Level Nine’s thoroughfares.
Yet even those automatons, executing the will of HiveSpirit, would have had more awareness of their environs.
But impact with the pedestal literally knocked the sense back into Kaelee. Her mother’s voice, sounding from somewhere behind the silver stars fracturing her vision, suddenly expanded to fit her mental vacancy, ‘What are you doing? Damned idiot! Come here and I’ll batter brains into you!’
Kaelee slumped to the ground, now all too aware of the physicality of her existence as pain detonated through her cranium and the silver stars were almost engulfed by their black backdrop. Tentatively, she touched her forehead. Her fingertips came away freshly coated in red.
Like they were from that cup when I hit Har when he was -
‘Are you alright?’
Kaelee looked up, trying to see through the stars yet peppering her sight. Had the Space Marine spoke? Would the statue be offended at the blood now splattering its marble pedestal? She had heard Space Marines underwent all sorts of medical procedures on their path to becoming the ultimate tool of the Emperor’s will, one of which was rumoured to be castration. Would that mean that the Emperor’s finest where the only men she could feel safe with? Men from whom the Beast had been surgically removed, the Inevitable Machine permanently de-energised?
‘Are you concussed? You really smashed into old Augustus there. Are you alright?’
A hand, a male hand, parted the slowly-dimming stars and gently touched her shoulder.
Ferociously, Kaelee knocked it aside, pushing herself to her feet in spite of the way everything around her tilted and slid. Sudden rage nullified her nausea and pain. ‘Would you - Have you swived your daughter?!’ She was almost snarling, ‘Have you had your rights?!’
The man was dressed in the mass-produced tweed of the lower Administratum echelons. He backed away from Kaelee, fear and confusion eclipsing concern. His pulled down his loosely-fitting and slightly askew bowler hat more securely. ‘I was only asking. No need for… You just…’
And then he was gone, lost in the crowd milling around the statue. Kaelee glared about her, waiting for further comment, some other helping -groping- hand. But nobody in her vicinity would make eye contact with this dishevelled, bloodied, obviously mad girl.
Shaking, almost drunk with emotion and returned pain, Kaelee pushed through the throng, the crimson of her torn forehead carving a path as if it were some kind of laser.
She did not recognise this place. A huge, elliptical dome of blue and purple crystal, heavily leaded in a cunningly intermingling pattern of cogs and imperial aquilae, arched far above. Each intersection of its frame supported a cluster of globular lumens, some intensely bright, others coldly dark. The dome’s lower edge terminated in a ring of wide archways divided by towering statuary, mainly consisting of noble Space Marines similar to the one with which Kaelee had collided.
She headed toward the nearest arch, intent upon finding a map or area designation. Kaelee didn’t recall any upramps or elevators in her flight from the refectory (but then, she hardly recalled anything after her father had stated his rights, did she?); however, she must have traversed some because this certainly was not her own Level Nine. The dome was well maintained, clean even – factors repeated in the people swarming its floor, where there was not another stained jerkin or patched pair of leggings in sight.
She forced her way toward the wall. There automatic vending machines where ranged, offering all manner of food, drink, and other consumables ‘essential’ to hive life. There was even one, heavily armoured, that dispensed glittering jewellery and stylish wrist chronometers. Here, at least, was something familiar, as similar vending machines lined the corridors and arcades of Level Nine – albeit offering considerably more basic produce. Behind them would be maintenance ducts and crawl-ways – the ‘tweenwalls she had known since her first toddling steps away from her family home.
With a quick look around to be sure nobody watched, Kaelee ducked behind the vendors. There the warm air rising from refrigerator condensers with its familiar stench of rotten food and vermin almost made her smile. Almost.
She quickly located a service hatch in the wall, more or less where she expected to find it. It was prominently labelled with a yellow ‘G.’ ‘G’? What does ‘G’ mean? It should be a number. As usual, the hatch lock was broken. She pulled the door back on its greased hinges and crawled through, careful to close it again behind her.
The ambient roar of the crowds was muffled, replaced by the humming and clicking of the complex sorting cartridges that supplied the vending machines, the mechanisms occasionally clattering into louder life as selections were made without. Stretching away from Kaelee down the narrow crawlspace were the rubber belts and ducting that automatically stocked the cartridges, jarringly lit by strobing maintenance lumens.
Kaelee began to crawl.
It had been some time since she had last explored such places on her own Level Nine, and it wasn’t long before her palms and knees began to feel raw and the small of her back and the span of her shoulders began to ache. Nevertheless, she continued on, the new pain going a little way to cancelling that in her aching head and the thoughts that would otherwise crowd it.
She wasn’t worried about apprehension. She knew from experience that, ‘tweenwalls, she would be ignored by any maintenance servitors so long as she didn’t interfere with the belts and ducts. This wouldn’t be the case if she followed the crawlspace to its termination in the inevitable production plant, but she had no intention of doing that. Other tunnels would intersect with this, and it was one of these she sought.
Presently her certainty was realised by an elliptical and badly rusted metal hatch held shut by a simple latch. Freeing the latch from its rusted pivot and pulling the hatch open with a vibrating creak so severe Kaelee expected the hinges to break, she peered down the new tunnel.
Blackness that was relieved only by pinpricks of linear white lights. At first the lights seemed to bar Kaelee’s entrance, until her eyes adjusted to the gloom and she made out the tunnel’s smooth iron walls, dry and echoing to the belts behind her. She clambered in, pulling the hatch closed after her as best she could, there being no handles on this side.
She resumed her crawl, silence gradually smothering her. Soon there were only the sounds of her hands, knees, and feet scuffing against the tunnel floor and the rasp of her breathing.
Kaelee had no idea of where she was going – she was simply succumbing to the imperative to get away, to get somewhere safe. And ‘tweenwalls was the best place she could think of.
Now that it was no longer home.
In spite of the pulsing pain in her head and the rawness of her palms and knees, images began to play before Kaelee’s mind’s eye, images she didn’t want to see. Her brothers’ faces twisted with lust. Her father’s…
She would not think about -
Sweet, heady, thick on air Kaelee now realised swirled to a slight breeze, the smell of blooming plant-life wafted over her.
That was something she had never experienced on Level Nine.
The smell grew stronger as she continued; as did the breeze. A dusky light began to seep into the blackness between the sparse lumens. Soon, Kaelee could discern a bend in the tunnel. Rounding it, she found herself squinting into verdant light so bright her eyes momentarily ached as much as her head. She crawled out into a lush garden…
And rose to her feet on the floor of a cathedral.
Well, perhaps garden was inappropriate. Jungle suited better. Green, in every shade from something that was almost yellow to something almost black, was everywhere. Small trees choked with vines, intermingled bushes, erratic paths of thick-stemmed, knee-high grass. And, spotting the green like the symptom of some wonderful disease, were the flowers. All shapes, all sizes, all aromas, all colours; hanging, spiking upright, chastely closed, wantonly open; elegantly simple, garishly opulent. The air was so thick with their mingled scent Kaelee found it difficult to breathe, or, rather, she feared to breathe: surely such laden air would be poisonous? She could taste it, for Emperor’s sake!
And it was warm, too. Really warm, like the corridors of Level Nine’s Area XV, which ran parallel to a giant mainline steam duct.
Kaelee looked up. The cathedral’s brown rockcrete walls tapered smoothly above into a funnel roofed with a series of huge fans, long disused judging by the runnels of rust and desperately clinging fauna that had taken root in the shallow dust gathered there.
But what was that? Between the massive impellors, Kaelee could see… pearly white cloud? A sky of the deepest chemical blue?
Suddenly, Kaelee understood two things at once. She knew what this jungle was, and she knew what the ‘G’ had stood for in the statuary chamber, behind the vending machines: Ground Level.
She’d heard of these places during one of her rare scholum attendances. This wasn’t a seat of worship at all, but an exhaust tower for an ancient atmospheric processing plant, built in the distant past when it was still thought possible to reverse the runaway pollution of Ghast’s uncountable factories. All now abandoned (like this), demolished, or converted, they had been of many different designs incorporating many different concepts… one of which had been the introduction by the Biologics Division of engineered high-yield oxygenating fauna.
This circular jungle was one such that had survived.
And gone wild.
Kaelee breathed in deeply. Silence and scents. She felt light-headed from a combination of the thick air and recent events. Suddenly, she just wanted to rest. The turf was springy yet soft underfoot… inviting.
Kaelee lay down where she was and promptly fell asleep.
When she awoke it was dark, yet had remained warm. Her head still throbbed, though not as severely as before. The air had thinned somewhat: there was a detectable acid tang to it now, seeping down from the poisons skimming through the sky. She looked around. The ambient glow of hive lights reflecting off streaking clouds above provided a dim illumination, allowing Kaelee to see that many of the flowers were now shut, trapping their dizzying scents -and much of their oxygen-producing capabilities- within.
And it was snowing.
Grey flakes of… something were falling between the seized impellors far above, dusting everything about her… dusting her.
What was it? Ash? It certainly wasn’t the near-mythical snow her mother’s fairy tales often mentioned – this wasn’t cold. In fact, it was quite warm. In fact -
Kaelee’s skin began to burn wherever the flakes had touched. This was snow that didn’t melt… it melted.
She scrubbed at her arms and face, desperately trying to brush the flakes off. But they had become part of her, merging into her skin. Panicking, Kaelee began to run, heading for the maintenance tunnel, trying to escape the fallout.
The burning suddenly eased, and Kaelee gasped at the unexpected cessation of pain.
And then screamed as the burning resumed within her.
The Ribcage was empty. The ectopic womb sacks lay flaccid, some of them partially floating in pooled multi-coloured ichor that had not yet drained away. The udder-like stalactites also hung limp from the roof, spent after their orgasmic jetting during the birthing frenzy, gently cleaned now by the attending clumps of many-jointed limbs. Shadows lay thick and black, lazily expanding and contracting to the desultory movements of the jetting bags of blue gas, their number less than half what it was. As Wansaman watched, another bag flickered, dimmed, and spiralled slowly to the ground.
The Ribcage was being decommissioned, mothballed, its purpose for the time being done with.
And that purpose was the production of tools for the consumption of mankind. The cutlery with which the Hive Mind will dine upon the Imperium of Man, thought Wansaman, giddily. He was still in a state of considerable shock. The hundreds of nativities he had witnessed in the Ribcage, the templates he had watched tear free from their wombs (their terrible forms the physical representations of barely contained tyranid violence and unappeasable hunger), had left him dismayed.
What hope for the Imperium?
And it’s your fault.
With his outer eye, Wansaman had watched dozens of segmented umbilical cords grow from his peripheral vision to attach in a complex tangle to seemingly random points on the gargantuan organic battleships that had waited in an untidy queue. He had seen the bulges forced peristalticly along the umbilicals, in many cases still madly writhing and threatening to tear through. Within the bowels of each ship factories would clone the newly-birthed monsters millions of times over, growing the armies with which the Hive Mind would rend and consume.
And it’s your fault.
He had watched as, one by one, the battleships and their terrible payloads had begun to coruscate with blinding snakes of light that rapidly coalesced into encompassing ellipsoids before winking out of existence, vessel and all – off to rendezvous points un-guessable light-years away prior to attack.
And this was surely only one instance of the whole process of birth, loading, and departure – only a small fraction of those that must be taking place all over the hive fleet.
Your fault. Your fault.
Now the space beyond Wansaman’s outer eye was peaceful, empty save for a few young behemoths that had come -still glistening with the frozen fluids of their own nativities- to take the place of those ancient creatures that had torn each-other apart in violent, ecstatic orgy at the Hive Mind’s locating of the Milky Way.
The xenos calm Wansaman was familiar with had returned.
But not in the Imperium of Man, eh? Never there. And its further aggravation is your fault, isn’t it?
Another voice spoke in Wansaman’s mind. Your conscience is correct, Once-A-Man: I would not have found this new meal where it not for you.
But your usefulness is not over, Once-A-Man. I cannot properly direct consumption from here. A localised portion of my intellect is required – and I feel that it/I will need you as advisor there. You are going home, Once-A-Man.
Close your eye – you would not wish to see the interim.
Eye? But I have no lids! I -
Kaelee’s father put the steaming mug of coffee down beside the sink, gazing into the suggestive static on the kitchen windowscreen. Occasionally, the screen showed pastoral scenes meant to give the impression of looking out of some fictional farmhouse over the fields and hedgerows of an idyllic agriworld. He had always found the fizzing static more to his liking though, its inchoate, enigmatic depths sympathetic to his moods. Sometimes he lost himself in the grey chaos for minutes on end, with no recollection of his thoughts while he was there… assuming he had any.
However, pain prevented any such immersion now. He winced, flexing his right hand slowly. The knuckles were bruised, the hand patchily bloody to the wrist. The bruises were stinging, yes, but the blood wasn’t his. It was an amalgamation of his three sons’, though most of it belonged to Har, his eldest – the beating having re-opened the wound on his temple.
The wound Kaelee had given him when the three of them had attempted to rape her.
Rape their sister. But she’s your daughter. And what were you expecting to happen?
She had been gone for two days now, and he was seriously considering the fact that he would never see her again. Why would she come back after what her brothers had done? Now that she knew what he wanted?
His own shift normally preventing him from seeing Har, Jon, and Keril, he had actually booked time off work to confront them. This was a measure of the matter’s seriousness – the last instance of deliberate absence from the forge’s infernos was to bury his wife.
They had left for their shift at the forge now, sulky and sore, but in no doubt as to their father’s righteous wrath. They thought they had been beaten for their impudence, for their sheer audacity in attempting to take Kaelee’s… To force… It wasn’t theirs to take. It was his. How dare they.
For they had been right – that was how he saw matters. Fresh from the his shift, head still filled with the protocols and mindsets required to tend the gigantic forges, he was a simple cog in a vast machine, his human nature suppressed and the animal -the barbaric- side therefore allowed free reign.
But as his fists rose and fell, as his sons screamed for him to stop, Kaelee’s father had experienced catharsis. He found the violence released something, or allowed something in, and he remembered what he should be. What he was.
Father. Once husband.
This, this calming, this return to essential humanity, was something only his wife’s soothing presence -waiting for him day after day at the forge gates- had been able to achieve before.
His eyes suddenly felt hot.
If she still lived, her presence would have prevented his fall into the black side of hive society, into membership of this all but officially recognised fraternity of incest. Stories whispered and swapped in the refectories and washrooms and bars; actions excused and sanctioned by talk of right and, for those who required further excuse, comparison to the animal kingdom: we’re treated like animals, so we act like animals. But where were the animals to compare to in a hive?
Excluding rats, none but Man.
It was his wife’s fault. She shouldn’t have died.
He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to stem the liquid gathering there. But the action only caused them to brim over. Salt water dripped into the sink in slow accompaniment to the coppery water dripping from the tap.
Dripping tap. A job for Kaelee. Who was never coming back.
Yes, he was human again, now. Human and riddled with guilt. He’d driven his only daughter away; terrified and betrayed her when he should have consoled and protected. Wasn’t that the role of a father? It wasn’t about rights, was it? It wasn’t about that… other, secret, black side of masculinity. That was an ephemeral thing of lust and power, a by-product of living in the inhuman conditions suffered deep in any hive.
Fatherhood was a much more profound thing. Fatherhood was selflessness, unconditional, constant. Fatherhood was…
He almost smiled when the little word ‘love’ bobbed gently before his mind’s eye.
Yes. That – that’s what fatherhood was. Like much else that truly mattered, it was that little word.
Resolve filled him. He would teach his boys better. He would raise them above the filth they had fallen into, the animal barbarities. He would rear them into the brightness of the Omnissiah’s electric gaze.
And he would find Kaelee.
The door chimed, clicked open. He frowned. The door’s spirit would only admit family, and his sons had just gone to their shift. That only left… He turned.
Kaelee stood in the kitchen doorway.
For a moment, he didn’t recognise her. A huge cut festered on her forehead; her clothes were torn, dirty, and smeared in something green. Her skin looked blotched and sweaty, as if raging with fever. A wild child from the underhive – that’s how she looked.
But he knew that smile, had known it since Kaelee could fit comfortably in his hand. A smile that could brighten even the dingiest room, could charm even the angriest temper. A smile so full of innocence…
No. There was no innocence in his daughter’s smile now, was there? Now it was brazenly wide and full-lipped, and Kaelee’s eyes were full of… want?
A blood-red exotic bloom adorned her greasy hair. Where had she managed to get such a flower on Level Nine?
But none of that really mattered, did it? She was back. He had a chance at reparation.
‘Kaelee? I… Kaelee, is it too late to say I’m sorry?’
She didn’t answer. Slowly she walked toward her father until she stood just before him, gazing up. The look in her eyes intensified. Coquettishly, she pulled at her lower lip with her upper teeth.
His began to tremble. Was she…? Will she…?
Kaelee’s right hand snaked upwards. Hot and definitely feverish, it curled around the back of her father’s thick neck, tugging him gently down.
She is…! She wants…!
He relented and bent forward, thoughts of fatherhood drowning in the tide of his rising lust, eclipsed by his daughter’s compliance. The Inevitable Machine, as his wife had once called it, was energised. ‘I didn’t think -’
Kaelee’s lips parted. Wide. Wider. Too wide.
It was black inside her mouth. Pitch. Night. Void.
Nevertheless something glistened there.
And then erupted; pistoning up and out and through her father’s teeth, ramming down his throat.
Kaelee sat on the threadbare couch, still smiling. Behind it her father thrashed and moaned, his body still vainly fighting the changes tearing through it.
She looked at the cheap wall-mounted chrono her mother had bought before she was born. A few more hours. Her smile broadened. Her father would be ready by then.
Ready for when her brothers came home.
Ready to give them their rights.