Technology and mankind were always close. Inseparable. But, as many other things, technology has the other, darker side people try to ignore. An electric oven helps us to cook, and a lasgun helps us to kill. No one cares, because advantages and convenience are always more valuable than moral values and other insignificant things that can be easily pushed aside. For a profit, for some petty revenge and for hundreds of other 'important reasons' people use to indulge their selfish deeds.
Enginseer Emma Ferrum smirked and tried to catch her reflection on the surface of a dirty glass filled with local alcohol.
'Omnissiah, what am I thinking? Is it this stage of intoxication when you start to think about weird philosophical things? I guess it is.'
Young woman tilted her glass a bit and saw a reflection of a pale face, partially hidden under the big red hood. Freckled nose and well-shaped lips were all that was visible. The hood casted a deep shadow over her eyes, but they were still visible from the soft blue glow they radiated. An accident during the plasma generator installation forced her replace the burned organic tissues with artificial analogues. She had no regrets. Quite opposite. She was happy that she was able to receive such high-grade augmentations despite her relatively low rank. She loved her new hands, face and her master-crafted eyes. A great gift from Magos Euclidus - or a decent price - It all depended on the perspective.
'W-would you l-like me to refill y-your c-cup?..' Asked shy stuttering tavern maid, not daring to raise her eyes. The girl tried to relax by holding the edge of her apron, but it didn't help - her hands were trembling even more than her voice.
'What? Oh, yes. Sure.'
Emma stretched her hand and moved the glass closer to the maid, holding it with her chromed fingers and sliding it over the rugged surface of an old wooden table. The girl gasped and jerked back as if Emma's fingers were sharp claws covered in blood. It took the maid several seconds to muster enough courage to take a large bottle and pour its contents into the glass.
When it was done, the girl loudly inhaled, and then quickly asked before her courage faded away.
'M-may I t-touch t-them?..'
'Hm?' Ferrum stopped examining her refilled glass and looked at the girl. She did it quickly enough to meet with two big blue eyes full of fear, but also curiosity. In contrast with those of machine priestess, girl's eyes were _alive_. A feat no craftsmanship could replicate.
'S-sorry, m-mistress!' Chirped the girl, backing away. 'I w-was r-rude, and I d-didn't w-wanted t-t-to...'
It was too much for the poor thing. Emma saw how girl's cheeks turned red and her eyes filled with panic.
'Hey, everything is fine. Don't wo...' Ferrum instinctively stretched her hand to comfort the maid, but it caused the opposite effect. The girl produced a short muffled scream and ran away, still hugging the big bottle like it was a miraculous device able to protect her from all evils.
'Oh Throne...' Murmured Emma, looking at retreating girl who left her bottle at the bar and hid in the servants room.
It was four in the morning, so there was no one to witness that incident in the tavern. No patrons, no servants. Emma wondered what made that girl to start working so early. Maybe she was the daughter of the tavern's owner. Or maybe she needed extra payment. Or maybe...
'Less logic. More alcohol.' Said Emma's inner voice in its usual mentor tone.
Ferrum nodded to that thought and returned to her glass, leaving behind the strange girl and all other things. It was Emma's free time. Short free time before returning to the long hours of monotonous hard work and long boring talks with the local 'tech sages' who were no smarter than tribal barbarians from some feral world. Ferrum wanted to spend that time relaxing and drowning the organic part of her tired brain in alcohol.
Not a chance. Her augmented ears detected a person. It was closing to Emma's table, and judging by the approximate weight and speed it was...
'Greetings, noble priestess.'
Tavern owner. Bart Kerpsley. Short overweighted man in his 50s with only one dream in his dull life - to be 'noble'. But he was a son of a common trader, which made that dream unreachable. Especially on Arcis III with its feudalism and ancient noble houses which didn't see 'lesser citizens' as human beings.
Bart also was some kind of a local mayor, and he thought that it was his responsibility to make Ferrum's stay as comfortable as possible. There was nothing wrong with that, except the fact that Kerpsley was _very_ energetic and serious about his duties. So Bart's company didn't improve Emma's already bad mood.
'Greetings.' Answered Ferrum reluctantly, showing with all her attitude that a long conversation was among her least desired things at that moment.
Kerpsley held his response, awaiting for usual 'long noble pleasantries', but Emma was in no mood for local customs.
'Err. Forgive me, but I overheard the part of your previous conversation. Does that girl bother you, mistress? If so, I assure you that she will never bother you aga...'
'No-no. Nothing like that.' Ferrum waved her chromed hand in refusal.
Bart hid his head between his shoulders and made one step back to avoid even possible proximity to the 'magic hand'.
'As you wish, mistress.' He struggled to produce a 'noble bow', but it looked more like a movement of an old man with aching back who tried to get something from the ground. 'How do you find your house?'
Yes, her house. It was decent enough... by local standards and those standards were desperately low. Everything with a roof and an oven passed for 'house', and if some building was several stores high - it considered being 'almost a castle' by the locals. Of course, there were no water or gas pipes, or any other pipes. Lumispheres were quite rare, and local latrines... Emma thanked The Omnissiah for her wastes disposal implant that spared her the 'pleasure' of using local 'private rooms', which, in most cases, were presented by smelly buckets or holes in the ground covered with several wooden planks.
'I'm... pleased with my apartments. Thank you'.
A wide satisfied smile appeared on Bart's wrinkled face.
'Oh, wonderful! You can't imagine how pleased I am. I was worried that you could feel yourself uncomfortable in that building'.
'No, it's really fine'. Ferrum exhaled, thinking about the ways of repelling that overly-hospitable tavern owner. 'If you'll excuse me, I need a moment of loneliness to concentrate before the... rituals'. Emma said 'rituals' with enigmatic voice, implying 'something very complicated and mysterious'. In fact, it was a lecture about simple electrical wiring, scheduled to be held that morning, but locals saw any more or less complicated technology as 'magic', and treated it with fear and respect.
When Kerpsley heard the word 'ritual', his face reflected the whole fullness of understanding. At least he tried to look that way.
'Oh, yes, yes! Of course! Forgive me for interfering with your preparations!' Said he, hastily backpedaling away. 'I'll be in my room if you need anything'.
Bart quickly hanged a big 'CLOSED' tablet over the front door and disappeared in his room, leaving Emma alone with her glass.
Mechanical eyes of a priestess focused on a smooth surface of a glass. In that moment several strings of white semi-transparent letters appeared over it, telling Emma about the result of express analysis performed by her brain implants.
'Material: glass. Structural integrity: weak. Detected several micro-fractures. Bio hazard: minimal'.
Ferrum's lips formed an ironic smile. Battle implants. Always analyse your surroundings and feed you with all kinds of data if you forget to turn those functions off. Emma sent a command, and white letters momentarily disappeared.
'No high tech when I'm off duty' murmured tech priestess, gulping from the glass.
The liquid locals called 'ohtan' was a 'high class' beverage which was served only to 'very important' persons. It was a miracle that a simple tavern owner managed to get a bottle, which proved once again the seriousness with which he carried his duties. Emma knew that she supposed to feel herself 'proud' - noble treatment and all, but the local 'luxuries' were so primitive and 'savage', that only a feral world barbarian would call them nice.
With those thoughts, Ferrum swallowed the cold stinging liquid and put her glass aside. All her attempts at 'relaxing' were futile, and she was perfectly aware that no amount of alcohol could change that. It was a time for a new day, and for her duties.
Emma issued a mental command, and her field of vision flashed with several indicators - her implants switched to normal mode, feeding her with streams of various data. The 'metal' part of Ferrum's brain gathered and processed those streams automatically, leaving the 'normal' brain free of such exhausting work.
'Oh yes, the organic part' thought priestess. 'Can't start my working day like that'.
She found disabled 'toxin filtration and elimination' function of her health control implant and activated it. A minute later Emma's head completely cleared, returning Ferrum to her sober state.
'Ehh, back to work'.
Priestess abandoned her cozy table and left the tavern. Before going further, Emma's chromed fingers gently flipped the tablet above the front door, changing it to 'OPENED'.
It was a cloudy dawn. Noting like those nice clear dawns Ferrum used to see when she was stationed at Elenia. But it was unfair to compare a paradise world to a backwater planet with harsh climate like Arcis III. By local standards, it was a nice morning. Nice for the locals, but gloomy and cloudy for Emma, whose mood was 'brightened' even further by the weather forecast. 'Heavy rain prob. 85%' appeared in front of her eyes when she looked at the sky covered with dark-blue, almost black clouds.
'Niiice'. grumbled priestess, looking at the sky with 'Omnissiah, get me out of here' expression on her face.
Ekertain was a big town. Locals proudly called it 'the center of all local trade'. Indeed, it was really 'big' for that planet, but for Emma, who spent five years working in a hive city, that 'town' looked more like a lone shack in the centre of a desert. Despite of that, Ferrum liked the local architecture. Everything was sturdy and monolithic, made of stone and metal to withstand harsh local conditions. No wonder that the local nobility eagerly accepted Imperial engineers and architects with their plans to erect even more sturdy and monolithic buildings across the habitated continent. However, they were not so eager to accept the appointed planetary governor and a regiment of imperial guard, but several public executions and well-timed bombing runs persuaded them to reconsider.
Despite the 'Imperial world' status, Arcis III mostly remained in its 'backwater' state. Locals were armed with swords and primitive flintlock rifles, there were few roads, medicine was so poor that it was less painful to just die rather than be treated, all tech was perceived as 'magic', and more or less 'normal' technology can be seen only inside imperial buildings like ministorum cathedrals, Arbites fortress or several imperial guard bases. Ferrum took that as a blessing. Locals, even the 'noble' ones, were stupid or arrogant, but more often - both. Talking to them was irritating at best, and their smell and manners were even worse than their intellect. So Emma was glad that all the tech she had to work with was mostly situated in imperial areas where she could feel herself more or less comfortable. But there was one thing that ruined all the comfort of her situation - the teaching duties.
Emma got no idea when and how she offended The Omnissiah to receive such assignment as a divine punishment. By some bad luck, she was granted the position of a head Instructor and ordered to educate local 'tech sages'. Those 'sages' were... strange individuals. Before the moment when she met them for the first time, Emma thought that some members of the Machine Cult were too obsessive with their duties. Sages showed her that every obsession can be pushed even further with appliance of enough devotion and absent-mindedness. They were complete fanatics with superiority complex so big that some planetary governors would look like shy boys in comparison. But what made them a big trouble was their obsession with technology without any true understanding of it. They knew how to turn on a luminator, but they had no idea what it was or how it could be fixed. This, plus their 'high and mighty' attitude made any communication with them very difficult. But they were the part of the Machine Cult (at least on paper), so Emma had to perform her duties and educate 'brothers and sisters', shoving her irritation in the far corner of her mind. Besides, everything wasn't so bad - sages saw Ferrum as a 'supreme priestess' and were quite respectful.
'Hello, group. This is a laspistol. It shoots bright magic that makes your enemies dead. Please do not disassemble it' murmured Emma, imagining the upcoming lesson while stepping with the thick soils of her military boots on uneven surface of a stone road. The stones were old, polished by countless boots and wheels. Thin grass showed in the gaps between them. And, of curse, there was mud, mixed with excrement and other byproducts of city life.
'Please, reassign me to Arbites Fortress' tiredly whispered Emma, touching her Omnissiah pendant.
Schola building - a plain construction assembled from 'colonist issue' building blocks, was situated in a very prestigious area away from the noise of the King's Castle. That picturesque piece of land was exclusively given to nobility for 'various needs'. Usually those needs included erection of a huge mansion or even a small castle to show neighbours one's status and wealth.
'People are the same everywhere' apathetically grumbled Emma, looking at impressive buildings which appeared on horison, partially hidden by lush green of private parks and gardens. 'Rogue traders brag about their ships, politicians brag about their power, and locals brag about their wealth. Uhh. Just once I wish I could meet a rich person who doesn't advertise his wealth'. Thought Ferrum, closing to her destination.
The building of Schola Mechanicus wasn't big. In a striking contrast with local mansions it was a well-fortified sturdy building created in the best tradition of Imperial military architecture. It was made for teaching and repelling infantry assaults - nothing more. Schola was two stores high and had four towers - one at each corner. The wall made of reinforced plasteel and ceramite surrounded the building, adding few more heavy bolter turrets to the building's defence grid. Massive gates were closed, guarded by skitarii garrisoned in two infantry bunkers to each side. That place was safer than King's Palace, and everyone knew that, which gave sages, who were 'official residents', one more reason to brag about their high positions.
Emma turned on her vox and called the skitarii post.
'Ferrum here. I'm closing. Are my sages there?'
'They came 24 minutes ago.' answered the voice of Matteus - the chief of security. 'Full group. Very agitated and eager to learn'. Added he with irony in his metallic voice.
'I bet...' Exhaled Emma, closing the channel.
Big armoured gates opened with a sharp hissing of hydraulics, letting Emma in. Matteus already waited for her, accompanied by his battle servitor and two servo-skulls.
'You forgot your servo-skull at the recharging station. Again.' said Matteus, not wasting time on greetings. 'More than that, your power h...'
'Oh, Omnissiah!' Ferrum raised her forearms in a defensive gesture. 'I know, I know. Bad example for Sages, have to always look by-the-book and shiny. I get it. No, really. This time - for sure.'
If it would not be for Matteuse's steel mask covering his face, he'd gladly present Emma with his scolding glance and raised brow. Alas, it ceased to be possible after another upgrade he performed several month ago.
'I see... Well then, please make everything right and hurry to your pupils. I suppose that you're dying to see them.'
The last words of Matteus were filled with clear and unmasked sarcasm. Every member of the staff knew about the 'love' Ferrum felt for her duties, and quite often people used it for jokes and 'friendly reminders'. At those moments Emma wished the rumors about 'emotionless Machine Priests' were true.
'Matteus, I sooo love you.' Grumbled Ferrum, showing the chief of security her small chromed fist.
'Trembling with fear before your wrath, as always.' Monotonously stated Matteus, pointing at the building. 'Now please, would you be so kind to visit armoury and recharging station to obtain a... proper look.'
'Armoury' was a big room covered in several layers of ceramite and surrounded by paranoid amount of security measures. Before reaching it, Emma passed two retinal scans, one DNA check, one full scan and two posts of battle servitors armed with flamers and hellguns. Retinal checks were passed by activating a sleeper program Ferrum installed into scanning modules when she helped to build the defence grid.
'Hey, Emma!' Cheerful dark haired young woman in carapace armour waved to Ferrum from her guard post. 'You've come for your halberd?'
The woman's name was Lika Green, and she was the local quartermaster. Ferrum always wondered how Green managed to remain so cheerful taking into account all that bureaucratic hell she had to live through every day. Still, Lika always looked happy and was ready to help, which made her Emma's friend. It's only natural, really. When there is just a handful of positive persons around, and other members of the staff are sad-faced, machinery-obsessed egocentrics, you end up befriending that cheerful bunch, because there is no alternative.
'I wish I could misplace it for good one day...' Murmured Emma, giving Lika a warm smile.
Being 27, Green looked as if she was 20, and majority of the local priests saw her as little sister rather than 'serious and grown woman'. She didn't mind. Besides, Lika managed to preserve her 'almost teenage' cheerful and easy-going attitude, which nicely went along with young face.
'Hm? I thought you tech priests are married to your power halberds. Why do you dislike yours so much?'
'Well...' Ferrum paused to form a proper response. 'I prefer practical things.'
There was a second of silence, when Lika waited for the continuation of Emma's statement.
'And?' Asked Green, raising her nice thin brows.
'These halberds are crap.' Emma looked at Lika's surprised face and her lips formed an ironic smile. 'What, you thought that it's a nice weapon? Not at all. It's too big and heavy. Yes, it can house a multi-tool, a power blade and even a plasma gun, but you can't mount a proper power generator on this thing, so all those 'features' take long time before recharging, and you can only fire that plasma gun once before it eats up all your charge and you have to wait several minutes for another shot. Besides, it has no counter weight to balance the centre of mass for proper swings like a _real_ halberd should have. And that multi-tool! Oh, that thing! It's so bloody limited that I'd take a tech servo-skull instead. Plus I just don't like halberds. I like swords. I like proper guns. But I don't like these monsters which try to combine all those things in one, failing at it.'
Lika's big eyes blinked in surprise. Then blinked again. Ferrum caught herself thinking that it looked quite cute.
'You definitely don't like your halberd.' Said Green, smiling. 'And now I know why. Never used one, so I believe in your judgement.'
'You can try it. Then you'll start to dislike it like I do.'
Green's brown eyes flashed with enthusiasm. 'Really?! I can try your halberd!?'
Emma felt Lika's hands wrapping around her torso with a lightning speed, and in a moment she was strongly hugged by her friend. Despite Green's light build, young woman possessed great strength, and Ferrum thanked her reinforced skeleton and subdermal plating for being there to protect her from crushing.
'Thank you! I always wanted to try one!'
'Errghh, all right, you can stop trying to crush me to death now.' Said Emma, straining her artificial lungs to inhale proper amount of air. 'And try to avoid attention of other tech priests while you'll be playing with my halberd. They can... take it the wrong way'.
After receiving obligatory invitation to 'have some recaf when your work is over', Emma said goodbye to Lika and left the armoury. She passed through all security checks, again, and continued her walk down the well-lit corridor towards another huge door. It didn't look that impressive and was guarded by a lonely skitarii in full carapace armour with his auto-shotgun behind his back. A long military dark-green overcoat covered the most of his body, revealing only a wide sturdy belt which held two holsters with a high-caliber pistol in each. Ferrum's battle implants marked the guard by a red frame, giving resolution 'Not battle-ready. Security compromised'.
'My implants called you not battle-ready.' said Emma in a friendly tone, smiling.
Ferrum knew that guard from the time when she worked in a hive world as a chief of an air filtration station. Even back then Drake wasn't the most talkative person. Grumpy and serious, he preferred night shifts and rarely talked to anybody outside of his mandatory guard post reports. But he had another, more cheerful side. Emma discovered it during one of the pipe inspection assignments, when she and Drake happened to be trapped by a malfunctioned blast door. It appeared that 'grumpy guard' wasn't Drake's real self. He was just shy. Later, when they managed to get out, Ferrum helped Drake to 'connect' with Lika, turning them into a nice couple. Since then those two became Emma's 'friends', if she interpreted that kind of human interactions correctly. That's why, when Ferrum was told to compose a list of preferred personnel to form a new work group, the first two persons Emma included were them.
'Yeah? They can bite me.' murmured Drake, trying to hide a faint smile and keep his 'bored guard' face.
'Oh come now. We're alone in this corridor. I know that you're not like that.'
With a sigh, Drake gave up and let a wide smile to appear on his scar-crossed lips.
'Hi Emma. It is really nice to see you.'
'Me too. That's why - hug time!'
Ignoring Drake's 'But wha...', Ferrum made a quick step forward and embraced a blushing man.
'All right, now I'm officially embarrassed.'
Emma released her victim and raised her palms in an 'I surrender' gesture.
'Sorry. You look too cute when you blush. Can't resist.'
'Ohh, spare me.'
'No way. But today is your lucky day - I'm in a hurry.'
'Praise the Omnissiah. Your 'sages' again?'
Emma rolled her eyes, which turned the glowing circles of her irises into half-moons.
'The Omnissiah punishes me for something, I'm sure.'
'For sudden hugs?' Drake smiled.
'If that's the case - I regret nothing.' Ferrum lowered her shoulders in exhaustion. 'But really, this 'sage schola' project is so inefficient. Do you know what they did when I showed them a data slate?'
Drake lifted his thick black brows, politely waiting for the answer.
'They fell on their knees! Grown men fell on their knees because they saw a magical tablet with moving pictures. And next week I have to explain them how a laspistol works!'
Emma raised her chromed hands, murmuring:
'Omnissiah, deliver me from this burden...'
'Now I see why you look so upset every morning.' Drake shook his head. 'That's a really difficult assignment...' he fell silent for a few seconds. 'You know, maybe I can help. I know one guardsman - he's quite good at explaining our technology to the locals.'
Ferrum presented Drake with a warm smile and, without giving him any chance to dodge, quickly hugged him again.
Emma left recharging station in a great mood. She liked Drake. Not in a way that Lika liked him, but Ferrum felt deep attachment to that man. Being raised on an orbital station by deeply devoted Omnissiah servants left many 'usual' human things out of Emma's childhood. Later there were merchants and rogue traders with their great stories and interesting personalities, but they came and went. And then, when Ferrum met Drake and Lika, it appeared to young priestess that she had no idea what to do with that new 'Now I have friends' experience which suddenly fell on her head. Still, it was a pleasant thing, so Emma didn't mind.
Ferrum covered the last metres of a long corridor running, her recharged servo-skull humming nearby. But she changed pace and switched to slow walking when the door #27
was a few steps away. Matteus was right, after all - a priestess of The Omnissiah had to look prim and proper. Especially in front of the... less enlightened individuals. The air before the servo-skull shimmered, turning into a holo-copy of its owner. Emma hastily checked if everything was in order, then turned off the hologram, and, with a tired sigh, she finally grabbed the big bronze door handle in a form of a cog...