“We’re hooked on something.” The pilot was straining at the control sticks.
The crawler yawed on its axis, the left side was caught, then a horrid grinding was transmitted through the floor as the gears slipped and fought one another.
“Disengaging the shaft.”
“No I can recover it.”
The words came too late as the gears disengaged and the terrible noise of metal on metal ceased. With a snort the pilot slapped a large switch and the engine rumble cut off into a decaying whine like a huge departing insect. He pulled his headset off and slammed it onto the holding rack.
“I could have got her off it, what’s your damn problem?”
“This place is,” The copilot waved at the heavily shadowed gorge around them. “I know you’re good but you’ve never driven in a place like this and I’m not letting you get us stuck out here. I don’t fancy my life in the hands of some cog-head’s magic beacon.”
The pilot took a deep breath and let it out in a huff. He slapped his cheeks a few times with sweaty hands and, after a pause, nodded.
“You’re right. I didn’t mean to shout but…this place.”
He looked out into the dimness. They were a small pool of light rolling on six wheels and the crawler, normally so massive and reassuring, looked like a child’s toy compared to these massive rifts in the planet’s crust.
“Yeah, this place,” The copilot agreed. “So how about a shot of caffeine then we’ll get out there and get rid of that rock or whatever it is.”
“Sounds good, I’ll go and tell the cog.”
They’d begun using the nickname whenever she was out of earshot in the cargo bay. There was just something about the way she was driven. The pilot couldn’t help but think, as he walked to the bulkhead, that they were completely expendable to her, even if she ended up stranded. It was enough to make a man shiver when he was this far from home or anything even approaching safety. He was glad of that shotgun, that’s for sure.
The door hummed open.
“Why have we stopped, pilot?”
“Hung up on something. We’re going out there with plasma cutters to free her.”
“I shall accompany you,” She stated. “The Machine Spirit may need my calming influence. Also I wish to examine the area.”
“Suit yourself.” He shrugged.
Ten minutes later and they were outside. The two men were cursing as they worked in the bright flare of the cutting torches while she walked into the centre of the ravine. Away from the yellow bubble of the crawler’s lights and the blue-white fountain from the cutters she felt the essence of this place.
The ravine was at least fifty metres wide with a rough floor in the centre from block lava flows. Presumably that’s why the pilot was keeping them on the sloping fringes. She strained her eyes upwards but even with the ocular shutters fully open there was no way to make out the details of the upper walls. It was as though the rocks near her rose into black emptiness, snapped into sudden rust red for a few metres where the sunlight caught the lip of the ravine and then we’re swallowed again by the blackness. No, not complete blackness. She could see the glint of stars, or ships, who knew which? Sol was probably the most crowded system in the Imperium.
But that was irrelevant. She shook herself away from the sight. Of course there would be ships, Terra was the heart of the Imperium therefore, logically, there would be ship traffic. Why was she so jumpy and distracted? It had taken her fifteen minutes to fashion the transmitters when she should have finished it three. They were close, that had to be it. Whether it was the Omnissiah’s hand on her or just her own intuition she knew, just knew.
A cry floated across the canyon, sounding like a lost child in the night. It did not echo, as she would have expected, but was swallowed up as though wrapped in heavy felt. They were done clearing the rock, good, it was time to make the last step. She fished out the memory chip and activated it. It was making more and more sense; this was definitely the route Thaleos had taken. She reached to her belt and pulled an ornate skull free. One mechadendrite went to her temple, unplugged a cable and connected it to a receptacle in the skull’s temple. Its feeble servitor brain struggled, cogitation units clicking and whirring, then it emitted a brief chime. She nodded in satisfaction as her mechadendrite withdrew the cable. Thumbing a brass switch she cast the skull aloft as though it were a hunting bird. It tumbled gracelessly end over end until, at the apex of the flight, the grav motors activated.
For a second she watched the small speck climbing upwards then turned to walk back to the crawler. She had taken only a few steps when something caught her eye. A glint of silver, or so it seemed. No, she’d lost it, wait, there it was. She ran over to it and knelt down.
It was a shard of metal. Just a flake, a hand’s length long, but it shone like polished steel. It shone in the darkness, it shone out in the shadow and she knew it was something greater than she’d ever seen. The double pattering of her bionic heart became a metallic drumbeat. This was it, she could feel the hand of the Omnissiah. Quickly she pocketed the shard. It wouldn’t do to show the drivers, they wouldn’t understand and she was too excited to fabricate another lie. But in just a few minutes she would be able to seal the cargo bulkhead and fully examine the fragment. There was no doubt the prize was nearby, perhaps only a few hundred metres from where she knelt.
As she rose and walked back to the crawler the fragment wriggled in her robes. She must have knocked it when she stood. It was the only logical cause. Anyway, it would only be a few moments and she’d be contentedly holding it. Excitement pushed out her other thoughts like a rushing wave.
In her pocket, its new owner blissfully ignorant, the shard twitched. It had been a long time since the presence of a being had awoken it.