This is the follow-up story to The Butcher of Sul
Incident at the Temple of the Inevitable Binomial Union
Sergeant Thomas looked down in amazement at his chest. A smoking hole the size of his fist had appeared, as if by magic. His numb hand lost the grip on his unfired rifle and it toppled to the ground harmlessly. There was no pain, only a seeping dullness that spread throughout his entire body.
?I?m ? sorry ?? Thomas managed to mutter to Braddock before he collapsed. The kneeling giant gave no sign that he?d heard him. Above Thomas the panoply of the starry night sky spread, and as he felt the life leaving his body he was grateful that such beauty would be his last sight. The stars burnt brighter to him, in strange celestial configurations that gracefully melded together before dancing apart again.
?My, that was an exciting show, wasn?t it, Bastian?? a feminine voice piped up cheerfully from out of view. Thomas recognized the speaker, and suddenly he wished that his soul would hurry along in its departure to Urcaen.
?Indeed,? responded the man that stepped over Thomas?s body towards Braddock. There was a flash of a long coat, the sight and smell of a smoking pistol with finely inlaid filigree, and then the night sky again. ?Chirurgeon Ovash was correct; despite the damage to his form, the secondary data point can be salvaged. It was Her will that we arrived before the minor denominator could unbalance the equation.?
A silken dress rustled against the sergeant and a dark form blotted out the beautiful stars.
?This one?s trying to look up my skirts, the naughty boy,? giggled the beautiful Iosan. Her cold metal eyes stared down at him with the horrible intensity he?d run from in the command tent. The woman?s lush lips turned upwards in a lascivious smile that only served to chill his blood, and bent down as if to kiss the dying man. Instead she produced a small vial from the inside of her sleeve and uncorked it above his mouth. The liquid flowed like burning quicksilver down into Thomas?s wound, and the fire spread throughout his body.
?Now, now, we can?t have such a valiant display go unrewarded, can we?? chided the woman. ?We must keep you as fresh as possible, or Ovash will have our hides instead of yours.?
Thomas silently screamed in his head, willing his soul to pass from his body. But his death had been arrested, leaving him paralyzed. The stars above taunted the sergeant as the woman moved on; he?d been so close to leaving the pain behind. Although he could no longer see her Thomas could hear the Iosan creeping from body to body, clucking in disappointment or squealing in glee when she found a poor soul that hadn?t expired yet, taunting the dying as she denied their passing.
?You really must stop playing with the components, Katanya. Just distribute the inhibitor and call the servitors. The Menites will soon gather enough courage to investigate this massacre.?
?Spoilsport,? pouted the Iosan?s voice. ?Fine. This was the last one anyway. The others have already gone beyond the inhibitor serum?s ability to stall their deaths. Our friend was too efficient in his tantrum.?
?The data point balanced the equation in his favor. Such is the way of Her plans,? Bastian responded without emotion, returning to Thomas?s body and signaling an unseen ally. The sergeant found that he could still feel pain as a swarm of flying orbs with metallic claws descended on him, hoisting him roughly into the air. Their grip was excruciating, and it was with relief that Sergeant Thomas discovered that he still possessed the ability to pass out. As the blessed darkness smothered him the last thing he saw was a larger swarm of the clawed orbs descending onto Bill Braddock.
The next few weeks were a nightmarish waking dream for the sergeant, half-glances at the strange world he?d been spirited away to. He vaguely remembered a hidden entrance on a ridge overlooking Sul where the pair abandoned he and the other half-dead corpses to metal monstrosities, the sweltering air closing in on him, a hallway of impossibly strong glass revealing iron and brass pistons, gears, and valves of intricate design working on all sides. There was a strange throbbing that permeated the transparent floors and walls in time to the machinery, as if a great mechanikal heart were at work deep within. Glimpses of men in iron hoods with surgical tools who moved among the steel monsters haunted him, cut into him, set him on fire from the inside out, bringing unwelcome knowledge and agony; the omnipresent servitor orbs hovering nearby, tending his mutilated body without care or mercy. Feverish visions of metallic insects as large as a warjack terrified him as they callously gathered him close to their cold chitinous chests. The pain of their proboscis piercing his organs was unbearable as he stared up into a glittering void, an alien sky with stars that laughed cruelly at his plight.
Time had no meaning to Sergeant Thomas; his life became measured only in intervals of waking pain and the darkness that brought relief. Each time he awoke less and less of his mind remained under his control, memories fleeing and being replaced by strings of numbers and strange formulae that he could not comprehend but was compelled to obey. After an eternity of confusion his surroundings began to stabilize, and his periods of lucidity occurred more often. The sergeant still lacked the ability to properly think, to reflect on either himself or his surroundings. Yet he was able to identify a voice, a man, Chirurgeon Ovash, someone that had spoken to him before and would do so again, an anomaly in the maelstrom of insanity.
?There you go, my friend,? whispered Ovash through the metal mask that covered his face. He brought back a bloody hooked tool from Thomas?s forehead. ?That should feel all better, yes? I do hope so. No, no, don?t try and answer, your attention is enough for me, and your lips were removed some time ago so it?s quite useless to try. We wouldn?t want you to feel the fool, would we??
Thomas could only wheeze in response, before a coughing fit sprayed bloody spittle over the obsidian faceplate of the speaker. The man, bent with old age under his voluminous crimson robes, merely wiped down the lenses of his mask with his wrinkled and arthritic hand, seemingly nonplussed by the event. The sergeant remembered the chirurgeon vaguely, time and time again in the fever nightmares, the demon that danced with blade and welding torch over his flesh.
?I?ve your new face ready for you; would you like to see it, my friend? I based the internal design on my own of course, but I?ve modified it for your new life somewhat. I hope you don?t mind, but I?ve taken the liberty of armoring it substantially; it just wouldn?t do to have so much of my work be destroyed so easily,? cooed Ovash as he lifted up a curved iron mask.
He displayed it to Thomas as a new father proud of his son, showing first the intricate tiny gears connected to a multitude of equally miniscule pistons and imprinted gold tracks, multiple needles connected to a series of lenses underneath, and ringed hoses, before turning it over to reveal a relatively smooth outer surface dotted with holes that served a variety of functions, allowing both the lenses and respirator system to function. The mask whispered softly to Thomas, promising an eternity of enslavement.
?Enlightenment without the need of effort, aren?t you the lucky fellow?? beamed Ovash as he brought the mask up to Thomas?s face and pressed it hard into the surgical moorings. He could not scream, could not beg, could not move, as the faceplate clicked into place, the needles from the lenses piercing his now-useless eyes to reach their targeted nerves as the respirator pried open his jaws and latched onto the upper and lower mandibles painfully with hooked clamps. The world spun, and then crystallized with excruciating precision. Thomas realized he could now see the extent of the cavernous room clearly for the first time, that the murky gloom lit only by forges and screams disappeared to be replaced with a monochrome clarity.
Around the room the strange insectile bodies of the temple?s Warders were being reshaped by artificers into something far cruder, armor and rivets marring the alien beauty of their shining carapaces, limbs confined and merged into more pedestrian configurations. Thomas could feel them now, sense their indignation at having their immortality scarred, but it was twinned with an overarching obedience and piety that they clung to as they suffered the injustice. Buried in their own alcoves deeper in the temple the sergeant felt some of his men, metal painfully replacing and augmenting flesh, as their own masks were bolted on. Their thoughts were a deep thrum within his mind, and as he explored the link tentatively he found that every mind, both sentient and not, were connected throughout the temple.