Echoes of Eternity (7) by Aaron Dembski-Bowden
The war was over.
The Imperial Palace was dead. It had been a tectonic sprawl, breathless in scale; a marble scab the size of a continent that crusted over the Eurasian land mass, reaching from the dry eastern coast to the empty western sea. Now it was rubble. The regions that weren’t destroyed were infected. The sectors that weren’t abandoned were aflame.
All that sacred rock, gone to waste. The stone used in its construction wasn’t only Terran in origin. Luna had contributed, as had Mars, as had many of the moons spinning through space in their sedate ballet around the Sol System’s gas giants. Exo-system stone had been long-hauled back to Terra from rediscovered and conquered worlds, with populations that knew nothing of Old Earth outside of whispered myth now quarrying marble for the sake of a palace they would never see.
But Terra had given up the greatest portion of her bones for the project. She was already plundered from the Dark Age of Technology and scarred from the unknowable ruinations of the Age of Strife that followed – and she suffered again when Imperial ambition mined her crust hollow. The Emperor’s people tore a planet’s worth of precious stone from the ground, dragging it from the deep earth by the sweat of slaves and prisoners and servitors. Terra surrendered her bones, not that she had a choice in the matter, and they were hauled away beneath the gaze of adepts; payloads for code-goaded Imperial machines.
Polished. Refined. Processed. Rendered into art by architects. Rendered into reality by labourers. Rendered into battlements by soldiers.
And now gone, all of it. A continent razed. A hemisphere reduced to rubble.
A single tower will fall and its dust chokes a city block for hours. The death-smoke of two spires tumbling will blanket a region for days, turning the air to grey dust. But a witness in the sky drifting above the devastation of Terra now wouldn’t see a lone spire fall, or the death of a mere two towers. A palace of gods and demigods had been laid to waste. This witness would see the aftermath: dust, dust, dust – horizon to horizon.
An axiom from a more enlightened age stated, Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in. That sentiment speaks not only of sacrifice, but vision. A future with foundations born in the deeds of the altruistic dead. Instead of such sacrifice, and bereft of vision, Terra now burned because of weapons in the shape of men.
Higher than life can climb unaided, above the thinnest reaches of the atmosphere, the Warmaster’s fleet lay anchored in orbit.
Space was no longer a void. Beyond Terra, what was once the cold vacuum of space had curdled with an infestation of unreality. Colours without names tendrilled around the armada, wreathing ships in clawed fog and dipping their misty protuberances into the planet’s exosphere.
The voidmist coalesced into figures and shapes a thousand times larger than ships themselves; the silhouetted promises of watching gods. Eyes the size of moons opened and closed in that seething mist. Teeth were bared, the length of continents. Great wings capable of eclipsing the sun spread and furled and rotted away and regrew. The orbiting ships absorbed this mist, their ironwork warping with its saturation. To open a vox-channel was to listen in on burning souls.
Elsewhere in the galaxy, the craftworld refugees of the aeldari race would recognise these sights of unreal wonder. The warp and reality interlocked, focused on a core of absolute suffering that their seers would find all too familiar. Centuries ago, this was how their species had given birth to their baneful god. This was how their empire had died.
Thousands of crew members looked out at the toxic skies and down upon the world below, at their victory turning to ash. Terra was dying. The savants and scholars of Kelbor-Hal’s New Mechanicum could perceive the exact threads of annihilation, grasping the delicate balances of life and physics being thrown aside in the name of regicide, but the truth was evident to everyone. Anyone that looked out of a porthole or gazed from the wide windows of a command deck saw it plain.
You didn’t need to be an expert to see the war had killed Terra. You merely needed eyes.
Lotara Sarrin looked upon the blighted world from the bridge of the warship Conqueror. She sat slouched in her command throne, her deteriorated form at the very edge of terminal dehydration, and she stared at the world she’d helped destroy.
She had been proud, once. She’d been righteous in her rebellion, loyal to the Legion that treasured her, loyal to the crew she commanded and the soldiers whom she protected. She was a fleet-killer, a huntress of the stars, commanding one of the most powerful vessels ever conceived and created by human ingenuity. Her service record was decorated with avowals and commendations. Her uniform was marked with the Bloody Hand of the Twelfth, the highest honour a mortal could earn from her Legion.
She was still loyal. Even when insanity crept its way through her ship, she’d stayed loyal. Even when the World Eaters rampaged through the halls and chambers, butchering their own serfs and slaves. Even when she’d been forced to execute warriors whom she’d served alongside for years, who had lost their faith in the Warmaster’s way. Even when every drop of water in the crew’s supply tanks turned to flyblown blood. Even when her nights became sleepless epileptic seizures of flicker-flash horrors, as dead comrades cried out from the shadows of the ship they were doomed to haunt. Even when the degrading Conqueror began to phase in and out of reality, and entire districts of its lethal bulk turned rancid with the warp’s corrosion. Even when her skin began to scale with the rawness of her sins manifesting on her flesh.
Lotara Sarrin had sworn her loyalty to the very end, and now the end had come. She hadn’t expected it to look like this.
Reflected in her eyes was a globe of sickly grey, with its halo of violet madness. No visible land masses, no signs of life. She could see nothing beneath the layer of filthy murk. The Conqueror’s scanners, when they functioned at all, couldn’t cut through the dust. Terra didn’t look like Terra. It looked like Venus. It choked under a similar tainted sky.
Choppy reports analysed the clouded atmosphere. The marble dust in the air was enough to destroy any reliability with the vox, but it was nothing compared to the true damage. Toxic vapours were rife, churned up from a million surface detonations and the orbital barrages tormenting Terra’s carbonite-rich crust. The impacts and the world-tearing heat of cannon fire from the Warmaster’s armada had ripped craters in the Palace and carved chasms in the surrounding territories. Dying Titans contributed their swansongs, too – their heart-reactors going nova as they lay in the rubble-graves of their failed marches.
It all added up: fusing and igniting the gases that lay stable beneath the earth. Sulfa dyoxide, an element known to the sages of the Martian Mechanicum, was born from these blasted-open pores in Terra’s skin. The poison coiled its chemical tendrils through the filthy air, ruining it further, turning it acidic.
And there was more. The earth bled lava from suppurating ulcers. Pyroclastic flows of burning gas and volcanic tephra had gushed from the riven land, blanketing embattled regions with flash-melting smoke and sludge. The ash and dust clogging the air were conjoined now, layered yet inseparable, a curtain of pale grey denying sight and breath. Dust paste caked the lungs of millions of survivors. Those without rebreathers were at risk of asphyxiation just by remaining within the Palace, but there was nowhere left to run.
The destruction of the Imperial Palace also released chemicals used by the abandoned industries of Terra. Containment failures in several palatial manufactories haemorrhaged a processing substance marked as maethal eysocyanite. This gas clung to the ground with a predation that almost spoke of intelligence, flooding several remaining bastions at their lower levels, an unseeable tidal wave of chemical venom dissolving into the defenders’ eyes and throats. It blinded, burned, killed within hours. The Astartes could survive it, though it mutilated many of them. Hordes of human defenders and refugees were not so lucky.
Last and far from least, there was the radiation. By design or misfortune, subterranean stores of nameless Dark Age materials had been cracked open over the course of the war. Many of the gaseous elements sighing out of these ancient bunkers were barely understood and defied current naming convention, but their radiological effects were murderously familiar. They were death, one final horror from the past, the very last breath of a forgotten age.
Lotara had taken the last report she’d seen and given it to one of the few remaining Mechanicum sages still aboard the Conqueror. His augmetics were rusted, chafing at his ghoulish skin. Blood poisoning showed in lightning-bolt veins beneath his flesh. He had to tap out a reply on a speaking keypad because his vocoder had degenerated beyond repair. He’d never even set foot on the surface; the Conqueror had done this to him.
When he printed his reply to her, Lotara read it three times to be sure she understood just what the war was doing to Terra. And there it was, laid out in grinding totality. The absolute destruction of humanity’s birthworld. The war that had let the galaxy burn now covered every inch of Terra’s surface, darkening the heavens and gouging into the planet’s mineral flesh.
But it wasn’t the toxicity or the blindness that stuck with her, it was one of the tech-priest’s simple, blunt summations halfway through his analysis. He’d detailed how the sulfuryk elements from the world’s injuries had seeped into the air, scattering Sol’s incoming light within the human visual spectrum. With this explanation, a brief note gave simple context:
To those on the surface, the sun has gone red.
She couldn’t shake that image.
Now she looked at the oculus viewscreen where, from orbit, a pall of grey covered the entire world. They had come to take the Throneworld and had instead wrapped it in a funeral shroud.
‘Khârn,’ she spoke out loud for the first time in hours – or perhaps days – her voice a parched whisper. The closest crew paid her no mind at all. They were hunched at their own consoles, lost in their own pain.
‘Khârn?’ Lotara said again.
Khârn stood not far from her command throne. His visage was a riven mess of scars and battlefield staple-stitches. He didn’t say anything. He never said anything anymore.
Her stomach clenching was the only warning she got. Her insides heaved with enough force to drive her out of her throne and onto her knees, ears ringing with pressure, spit stringing between her open lips. She cried out at the sudden pain, at the poison running up her throat, and her yell turned into a hot flush of vomit slapping across the deck.
As she gasped for her breath back, she looked down at the half-digested spread of her last meal. A pool of thin bile, a few scraps of stomach lining, and three of someone’s fingers.
Disbelief overpowered her exhaustion for a few precious seconds. She recoiled from the puddle, pulling herself back into her throne. Just a trick of her sleepless mind. That was all. That was all.
Khârn approached the flagship’s captain, kneeling to rest at her level. He didn’t offer his aid as she hauled herself on shaking limbs back into her chair. He was unarmed, and Lotara couldn’t recall ever seeing him without his axe before. Blood trickled from her eyes as she stared into the patchwork ruin of his face. The thirsting husk of her body gave up yet more precious fluid in the form of those profane tears.
‘Khârn,’ she whispered. ‘What have we done?’
It was a question being asked across Terra and above it, by the men and women on both sides of the war.
Khârn had no answer.
|September 4, 2022
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