Mar 18

Planetary Governor’s Residence, Encara Tertius, Segmentum Auxa

‘Four manufactorums silent. Four!’

His raised voice was muffled by the opulence of the chamber, with most surfaces finished with cushioned material. Lapis lazuli wall coverings clashed with vibrant red floor tiles arranged in diamond patterns, all trimmed with gold amidst mahogany frames and skirting. The door slammed behind the Lord of the Tithe and a flake of cerulean blue from a mural of flying cherubs dropped to the ground.

‘Penal officers massacred,’ he raged on while covering the distance to the man behind the desk. ‘And now we’ve lost contact with Gillean’s Reach. This falls on the highest levels, you hear? Or have you forgotten? That lackey you send in your stead might have the ruling caste hanging on his words but you are responsible. You, Planetary Governor.’

The tirade met silence. Facing away from the intruder towards a tall archway that led to a balcony, the Planetary Governor sagged in his carved throne. His blue and white ceremonial uniform had even more gold trim than the chamber though it was creased and grimy as though worn for days.

‘No,’ the Planetary Governor whispered and turned towards the politician. His face went ashen and his lips trembled. He buried his head in his hands, hiding the dark circles that ringed his eyes and revealing veins forked across his bare cranium which gave it a violet hue. ‘Not any more.’

Before the Lord of the Tithe could voice his question, the door clicked shut again behind him. He whirled around and saw the long, black coat of the figure standing there. The blood drained from his face.

‘Emperor save us…’

Mar 05

Gillean’s Reach Mine, Encara Tertius, Segmentum Auxa

‘I’m telling you,’ Gev said to the bedraggled man by his side as they stumbled past a tracked ore processor, its rumbling engines and the crunch of rock masking their voices, ‘this is it. Can’t believe they moved us here. We steal out of this mine, we got wilderness, not twenty more levels of penal hive.’

The man grunted and shook his head, stirring the nest of cables in his enviro suit. ‘Not happening,’ he rasped, strained and distorted through his mask rebreather. His pace increased slightly, taking the lead as he ducked under an uneven stanchion.

‘Air still getting to you?’ Gev asked, not wearing a mask though the dim flickering tunnel light revealed little more than the swelling of old bruises on his already round face. Scarred, pockmarked, and with the reddish tint of extended rad exposure, his face was straight out of the Encara Tertius manufactorums, a face that had experienced the hives. ‘Seems just fine to me. Benefits of being an underhiver; air might stink and fumes set your head spinning, but it makes you hard. When you’ve lived in that,’ he made a show of filling his lungs to capacity, ‘you’re hardened to anything. Still, doesn’t mean I’m sticking around in some mine ‘till one of those rock saws takes my head off or I’m in the wrong place when the brass melta-bore through the wrong tunnel wall. Ain’t that right, surfacer? They ain’t letting us out of here. You know it like I do.’

When no response came, Gev changed tac. ‘Where are we heading anyway? You got a better route out of here? Usho? What’s the matter with you?’

‘Yeah,’ Usho said. He waved vaguely down an uneven passage. The heavy air held the scent of freshly hewn rock. ‘Down here.’

The tunnel lacked the finish of the previous and the ore processors diminished to a distant hum behind them. They trudged uneven ground for minutes, not another soul crossing their path until the grind of rock saws grew louder once more. It was darker here. The first person they passed ground at the walls with a rock saw held in both hands. He worked only by the lambent bug-eyes of his enviro suit and paid them no mind beyond a short, sidelong glance.

They passed another two, similarly garbed, who paid as little attention as the first, or so Gev thought. Something about the fourth worker caught his eye. His stance was wrong for someone cutting rock, suited more to a prepared swing of the heavy cutting tool. Gev then picked up on a subtle gesture from Usho before the worker took up a stance more appropriate to mining. Far too appropriate, for the worker’s third arm gave him exceptional control of the tool.

Mutants. Not unheard of in the bowels of the underhive, huddled under cowled rags in dank, secluded corners. Not unheard of, but mutants always meant danger. Gev’s hand involuntarily moved to a cluster of pockmarks on his face. Always dangerous. ‘What’s going on, Usho?’

Boots scuffed on the ground behind.

Gev spun around and faced three miners in bug-eyed enviro suits blocking his exit, one with a rock saw and the other two with mining picks. ‘Usho? What is this?’

Usho reached up and removed his mask to reveal discoloured skin and a bald head with an elongated cranium. ‘A choice,’ he rasped.

The rock saws whirred to life.

Dec 19

Adeptus Astra Telepathica Station, Segmentum Auxa

Message intercepted. Planetary Governor Inweldian Cassinara Gell, Encara Tertius, to Imperial Administratum.

The Infocyte skimmed the text and brought up a single paragraph.

Furthermore, I am delighted to report that the Imperial Tithe is met 8 months ahead of schedule. Partial credit must go to a clerk from the XN-34217 penal hive for advising reassignment of select teams of low security prisoners to the deep mines. In all trial regions, mining and ore processing output has since increased three-fold. Naturally, the clerk in question has been subjected to interrogation and tested for warp taint for his unsanctioned ingenuity. Having shown no sign of taint, the clerk has since joined my personal staff assigned to manufactorum productivity.

Like a hundred others that shift, the Infocyte flagged the message for further investigation and moved on to the next batch.