by Chris Cook

Adeptus Mechanicus Research Facility, Imperial World Skuld

The deep rumble of fusion engines shook the surrounding buildings. Servitors lumbered across the giant landing platform, removing fuel and supply hoses from the freighter Star Lord as it slowly brought its engines to full power. Technicians monitored the ship's status from a nearby control tower, while searchlights cut through the gloom overhead, ensuring a clear sky for the ship's take-off.

On a gantry platform leading from the ship to one of the buildings around it, a figure moved slowly towards the airlock. It wore long red robes, the colour faded with age, the material darkened by exposure to every sort of pollution. Tubes led from a bulky backpack to various connection ports sewn into the robe itself, and several disappeared into the darkness under the hood. A nearby searchlight momentarily illuminated the gantry, casting reflected light inside the hood. Two red bionic eyes stared out, the rest of the face was almost hidden behind a mass of tubes and cables running in and out of every feature. The searchlight moved on and the figure continued on its way in darkness. Behind it a pair of servitors, more advanced than the shambling creatures that attended the needs of the ship, followed like a bodyguard. Their own bionic eyes were continually scanning the gantry, the ship, the spaceport buildings. The small group disappeared into the ship, and the airlock closed with a faint hiss. The gantry retracted, and the servitors cleared the landing platform.

The giant ship's engines thundered to full power, and the nose of the freighter started to pull itself into the sky. Before it had risen more than a metre a ball of fire erupted from its centre, vaporising the bridge instantly. A secondary explosion in the engines shattered the spaceframe, and the remains of the ship crashed back to the ground, crushing the platform beneath it. A large piece of debris spiralled out of the inferno, carving a hole in the side of the control tower, then the ship's secondary fuel stores ignited, turning the entire landing platform into a lake of fire. The surviving technicians frantically raced to find some way to extinguish the blaze, while the servitors stood motionless as their flesh seared and melted away.

Out in the city, heads turned towards the Mechanicus compound as a bright flare lit the horizon, followed a moment later by a resounding boom as the sound caught up. Only one person who heard the blast did not look up - in fact, he did not react at all.

Inquisition Frigate Nova, in warpspace

Inquisitor Vail's communications console beeped urgently as the Inquisitor crossed the room to activate it. When she did, the screen flashed to the symbol of the Inquisition, shown in bright red. Recognising the sign for a coded transmission, Vail gave the system the required clearance codes. The symbol disappeared, replaced by the hooded face of the Master Inquisitor of Terra.

"This transmission never occurred, you never received these orders," the recording began. Vail knew that such a statement was merely a matter of procedure when the Inquisition investigated outside its not-quite-limitless authority. "Three days ago the freighter Star Lord exploded on take-off from a Mechanicus facility on Skuld. The freighter was completely destroyed and all crew were killed. The Fabricator-Lord of Hephaestus was on the freighter at the time of the explosion, on his way back to his homeworld after supervising research on Skuld. We had maintained an open file on him, but our data indicates that none of his enemies would be capable of engineering his assassination. This is obviously in error. We need to know who killed the Fabricator-Lord and why. As the matter is technically under the jurisdiction of the Mechanicus, you will travel to Skuld under an assumed identity, and you will not have any official power during your investigation. It is imperative for our relations with the Mechanicus that they be unaware we are investigating this matter. Find out who killed the Fabricator-Lord. Once we have that information our agents on Hephaestus will be able to uncover their exact motives. This transmission ends now." The screen blinked off, leaving Vail frowning. She turned to her desk, where her computer occupied its usual place, leaning against a stack of reports.

"Report relevant information on the Fabricator-Lord of Hephaestus," she said. The machine blinked its lights for a moment, then spoke.

"Mechanicus Fabricator-Lord Hephaestion. Family has ruled Hephaestus for twenty-seven generations. Maintains a base on Skuld for research and development of weapons technology. Hephaestion was one of eighteen Fabricator-Lords able to produce functional mind-impulse control mechanisms." The computer finished with a beep, indicating its report was complete.

"That's all?"

"Inquisition files indicate Hephaestion was highly paranoid, a common symptom of Mechanicus Lords' integration with cybernetics during advanced age. He was able to limit the amount of information available to the Inquisition over the last two hundred years, the period during which he has been Fabricator-Lord of Hephaestus."

"Not much of a start. Elaborate on the mind-impulse system."

"Hephaestion was able to construct mechanisms capable of translating human brainwave patterns into coherent instruction sets. Mind-impulse systems are of use in dreadnoughts and other such vehicles, and eliminate the need for a surgically-implanted spinal link for control of the machine. Such systems are extremely rare, most operational systems date from the Dark Age of Technology. Less than one hundred such systems have been constructed successfully in the last ten thousand years."

"So, a valuable technology. Very well, access cultural database on Skuld. If I'm going to infiltrate it, I need to know what the place is like."

"Skuld. Imperial gamma-three-beta class world. Skuld is noted for its extremely slow axial rotation. The planet rotates completely once every orbital year, meaning one half of the planet is constantly exposed to the sun. The light side of the planet is uninhabitable due to solar radiation. The dark side has a population of seventeen billion people. The majority of the population is organised into a group known collectively as Workers. Worker water supplies are artificially contaminated with psychoneural drugs suppressing individuality. During the last six hundred years a group known as Eyes have resisted official efforts to reintegrate them into the Worker population. At the beginning of this period supply of a key element in the drug was halted due to wars in nearby systems. The Worker population became self-aware and a state of anarchy ensued. Order was restored via official sanctioning of powerful street gangs. Sanctioned Operatives are eligible to become responsible for areas of the planet known as zones. The ruler of each zone receives a proportion of the revenue generated by the zone's industrial facilities, therefore it is in the interest of the zone rulers to ensure the continued operation of the factory complexes within their zone. Provided the ruling Sanctioned Operative does not allow the industrial productivity of their zone to be disrupted they are allowed to rule their territory as they see fit, and are provided with uncontaminated water supplies. Assassination of the ruling Sanctioned Operative is the only method of becoming the ruler of a zone. Official estimates put the Eye population of Skuld at fifteen million, roughly one third of these qualifying as Sanctioned Operatives, the remainder being lower-ranking gang members or service providers. This state of affairs has existed since the original disruption in the drug supply."

"Specific information on the zone containing the Mechanicus facilities?"

"Eos Zone. Currently controlled by Sanctioned Operative known as Element, real name unknown. Mechanicus does not permit contact between its staff and the zone population. The Eye population of Eos exists in a state of gang warfare similar to that found on most hiveworlds. Adeptus Arbites rates Eos as unlawful, but will not intervene unless production is threatened."

"We'll start there and get into the Mechanicus facilities. It might be worth talking to this Element person as well. Gangers tend to hear a lot of information, especially if something happens in their territory. He might know something about the freighter's sabotage. Prepare an identity and relay the required patterns for clothing and equipment to the autofabrication plant."

"Identity prepared. Sanctioned Operative Salacia de Voura. Recently transferred to Eos from Ember Zone. Low probability of official detection using this data. Patterns sent. Autofabrication plant engaged. Five hours to completion."

Eos Zone, Skuld

A man wearing a long coat and hood stepped out of a doorway and began to walk along an alley towards the main street at its end. He didn't appear to notice two men detach from the shadows and fall in behind him, nor did he seem to see the bulky man who blocked his path until he collided with him. The ganger pushed the man backwards, where his arms were caught and held by his two pursuers. The leader had long hair, dyed bright red, and sported several unsophisticated piercings. He also had very heavy looking steel caps on his boots, which he used to kick his target's legs out from under him. As the man crumpled to the ground the leader nodded at one of his assistants, who produced a metal bar from his coat. He kicked the target's leg out to one side, then swung the bar down onto his knee, causing a muffled crunch as the kneecap shattered. The leader leant down, close to the fallen man's head.

"Consider than a warning, friend. Element wants you out of the Zone. You show here tomorrow, we break something else. Understand?"

The man didn't make any noise, or give any sign that he was conscious of what was going on. Frustrated, the leader grabbed the man by the back of his head, turning the head to bring them face to face.

"You being smart..." he began, but trailed off. He pulled his hand out of the hood, and stared at the blood coating his palm. Swearing in disgust he pulled the man's hood back. In the dim light from the distant street he could see the glistening of blood covering the back of his head. The man's eyes were unfocussed.

"What'n hell," he said, looking back at his two assistants, "he like that before?" The two men looked at each other and shrugged. The leader looked back down at the dazed man.

A ganger on the street heard several screams from the alley, but knew better than to look. After several minutes the red-haired man emerged from the alley and stumbled off into the darkness.

Inquisition Frigate Nova, silent running in orbit of Skuld

Vail looked up as the door to the corridor beeped. She quickly put on her hood and opened it, to find a servitor carrying a large steel crate bearing the insignia and tracking codes of her ship's autofabrication plant.

"There," she said, pointing to a bare patch of floor in the main room of her quarters. The servitor lumbered past her and lowered the crate to the ground, a slight mechanical whine indicating the augmented strength that kept the thing from dropping the heavy load. It turned and walked out of the door and back down the corridor. Vail closed the door and keyed her personal code into the tiny lock on the crate. It opened with only a slight hiss as the pressure equalised. She reached inside and lifted the outfit that had been made for her.

"Princess," she said after a moment, "tell me this is the wrong pattern."

"Negative," said the machine, "this style of clothing is considered normal for a Sanctioned Operative in Eos Zone. Modifications have been made to allow space for equipment."

"This is normal for a gang fighter?" Vail asked in amazement.

"Extravagant styles are common among Sanctioned Operatives. Zone society places a high priority on individuality."

"Extravagant is something of an understatement." Studying the outfit Vail had to admit it had several advantages. Most of it was made from a shiny leather-like material, which she knew would have been made to reflect laser-type weapons - the best her ship's autofabrication could manage was about 70% reflection, but that could be the difference between wounded and dead. Parts were covered with metal plates, although their placement seemed based more on style than any attempt to provide armour. At least, she mused, any opponent stood a good chance of injuring himself on any of the various spikes that protruded from the shoulders, torso and legs. After a couple of false starts she managed to master the straps and buckles that kept the whole thing together. As she pulled on the gloves she noted the series of thin silver rings around the fingers that indicated, to a practiced eye, concealed weapons. She flicked her wrist back, causing a series of thin blades to extend from the fingers of the glove. As an afterthought she clipped her digital weapons, toxin-filled needle launchers, over the outside of the fingers of one glove. Although Skuld had an apparently advanced level of technology, she guessed that the weapons would merely seem to be more ornamentation to people who would likely never have seen such a thing.

"Any more fashion advice," she said to the computer in a carefully level tone.

"Openly displaying a weapon of some sort is advisable," it replied, oblivious to her sarcasm. "To not do so would invite suspicion and/or attack." Vail weighed up the relative merits of the weapons available, and eventually selected a thin chainsword with a power field generator concealed in the grip, on the basis than an obvious power weapon might stand out, even in a group as sophisticated as the Eos gangers. On that thought she added a plasma pistol, disguised as a more mundane laser weapon. Noting that Princess has modified the outfit to include a large selection of concealed equipment pouches, she included a selection of grenades and scanning equipment, and finally the computer itself, tucked in behind the spiked metal plate covering her lower back.

"Ready?" she asked.

"Affirmative," said the computer via an earpiece speaker. Vail nodded to herself, and drew her sword.

"Transmit the teleport coordinates. Point-to-point, I can't afford to have the crew see me like this."

"Teleportarium engaged. Destination locked."

Vail disappeared from her quarters, headed towards the dark world below.

Eos Zone, Skuld

Vail glanced up and down the alley she found herself in, making sure her arrival hadn't been noticed.

"Where am I?" she asked under her breath.

"Continue forward. Building opposite this alley is the location to which official payments for Zone maintenance are made."

"Element's base," said Vail to herself. She headed towards the slightly brighter-lit street. She emerged to find it occupied by various gangers, traders, and an assortment of other people whose occupation could only be guessed at. The street was lit by overhead lights, many of which were broken or functioning below normal power. The uneven lighting didn't seem to be a problem for the inhabitants, who were presumably used to this. Vail wondered briefly if any of them had ever seen sunlight, but discounted the possibility - the only way for one of them to see the sun was from space. While she was observing the inhabitants, a hand wrapped around her waist, and a voice from behind her said, in an unappealing accent, "Hey lady, wanna dance?"

"Appropriate reaction to this situation..." began Princess, but Vail knew the type of society she was dealing with. Her hand closed on the arm around her waist, pressing on a nerve and causing a cry from behind her. She turned around to find an unhintelligent-looking ganger dressed in a dirty combination of materials and armour, and delivered a kick to his stomach that dropped him to the ground.

"You want to try again?" she asked, putting a dangerous edge into her voice, "I could go lower."

"Bitch," growled the ganger, struggling to his feet. Vail shrugged and lashed out a foot at his leg, cracking against his shin. She felt the bone break, and delivered another kick to his jaw, knocking him out. She crossed the street, altering her step slightly to introduce an attitude of casual arrogance, while her suitor slumped against a wall. She noticed several people who had turned to watch the encounter go about their business as if nothing had happened, although a few picked up their pace to be out of her way by the time she had crossed the street.

The building she approached was built low, as were most of the buildings she could see. There were windows, but they were sealed and barred, obviously a long time ago. A glaring neon sign spelled out 'Despair' in low gothic, and a rhythmic thumping noise emerged from within - the evidence pointed to a club of some sort. As Vail neared, a group of people emerged. Several were obviously prominent gangers, maybe SancOps, she guessed. Their clothing was certainly different to the more mundane inhabitants, consisting of various interpretations of leather, bright colours, bare metal and assorted chains and studs. They all had weapons of some sort in full view; a handful of others did not, and from the interactions of the group Vail guessed these were either prostitutes or slaves.

Vail entered the building to be confronted with a wall of noise. The thumping noise she had heard from outside turned out to be the bass track of what, technically, must have been music before it had been fed through a low-quality amplification system. The result was noise, but a casual glance confirmed that the patrons didn't seem to mind the lack of subtlety, as it was made up for by sheer volume. The building's main feature was a large open space, where several hundred people of various types were writhing to the beat. Thick smoke hung in the air, illuminated by coloured spotlights that swept through the chamber in rapid, jerky movements. Vail could see several circular stages, upon which were dancers - professionals, she guessed - clad in more revealing leather costumes. Their stages were enclosed by metal bars, although it was debatable whether this was for their protection or to fit with the style of the place. Around the edges of the chamber were a multitude of people being less active. Many were at tables having heated discussions with each other, others sat alone, watching their comrades. People wandered between the tables offering various services - drinks, narcotics or themselves mainly - to the patrons.

In the instant it took for Vail to see this, a heavy-set man emerged from a nearby shadow to block her path further into the building.

"Fifty credits," he rumbled. Vail looked up at him. He was almost the size of a marine, obviously the result of methodical drug treatments, and more importantly he was clearly not a freelance extortionist, but an employee of the place.

"You work for Element?" said Vail.

"So? You want in, you pay."

"You can keep your dance club. I want to speak to Element. Now." The man was clearly going to continue to argue, so Vail interrupted whatever thought was crossing his mind. "Look," she said, "everyone's enjoying themselves, and they'll all start having a really bad time if I have to kill someone, yes? Get Element for me and we won't have any trouble."

The man inspected her closely, then shrugged and made a hand gesture to someone else concealed in the shadows. He then turned back to her and folded his arms, apparently content to wait for a response from his unseen partner. Vail waited, taking care to show a degree of impatience, as she guessed a SancOp would do. After a few minutes a pair of gangers appeared. One was obviously a bodyguard, dressed in a similar style to the muscleman - a uniform of sorts, or at least what apparently passed for one in Eos. The other was a tall woman whose exposed limbs bore glowing patterns which Vail recognised with some surprise as skingraphs. The technology was expensive, and Vail guessed they showed considerable status.

"Who are you?" the woman said, waving the muscleman away. Her bodyguard maintained a discreet distance.

"Salacia de Voura," replied Vail. "Is Element here?"

"No. You can talk to me. If it's good, he'll be told. SancOp?" the woman asked, leading Vail towards a table and evicting its previous owner by means of a backhand across the face.

"Yes," answered Vail, "and you are?"

"Demure," said the woman, in the face of evidence to the contrary. "I advise Element. You in from outside the Zone? I haven't seen you before. I see everyone, pretty much."

"Just in, from Ember," said Vail. Demure grabbed a bottle from a passing servant, filling a glass for herself after Vail refused the toxic-looking liquid.

"Uh-huh. Long way to travel. Think you'll find business here?"

"Had some trouble in Ember," improvised Vail. "I'm not looking for business, just information."

"Information," repeated Demure with a laugh, "well, that's my field, isn't it. You think Element has what you want?"

"This is his zone," said Vail by way of explanation. Demure nodded.

"Well, Element's out in the Zone at the moment. Checking out this ripper thing. Could be a few days."

"Ripper?" asked Vail, wondering if this had anything to do with the Necromunda ripperjacks. The things had an unfortunate tendency to get lost in shipping and end up breeding on new worlds with no predators.

"You don't know? Huh, yeah, new in town. It's what all them sick bastards love talking about though," she added, with a toss of her head towards the other tables. "Some jerk's been killing in the Zone. Killing Workers, I mean. Bad stuff. Rips their head open, real messy. Been about a dozen so far. They'll tell you it's some sort of alien or something, but that's just 'cause they're bored."

"You don't think so?" prompted Vail.

"Nah. Someone trying to make a name for themselves. Too weak to hit proper gangers, so they hit the Workers and make it messy so it gets talked about. Makes an impression on their type," she added, nodding towards the muscleman who had resumed his post by the door, "but it won't count for much with real gangers. Element's put a bounty on him. Doesn't do good to have Workers being killed. 'Trators get violent if they think the factories are getting hit. Anyway, Element's out for now. You got a message for him?"

"Will it go only to him?" asked Vail. Demure became serious.

"Hey, I didn't get here by spilling things people wanted kept quiet. You say it, he hears it. No-one else."

"The freighter explosion," said Vail, noticing Demure's surprise. "I think someone in the Zone knows what happened. Maybe Element knows who that is."

"Huh. Some machine-men kill each other, doesn't bother me. Well, if you wanna know. I'll see he hears that. Gotta go, business to do. Keep outta trouble the next couple of days. Hey, maybe you looking for some work? Element wouldn't mind a new SancOp on the team."

"Maybe later. I'm not after work now."

"Fair," said Demure, standing and walking Vail to the door, "just keep out of the way. There's plenty of gangs want our people dead, wouldn't do for you to get involved with them, huh?" Vail nodded in response. The doorman rumbled as she passed.

"Interesting," said Vail to herself as she moved down the street, glaring at anyone who looked like approaching her. "I counted five guards in there armed with laspistols. Codex patterns."

"Scanners indicated power cells were standard Imperial manufacture," answered the computer.

"And," continued Vail, "skingraphs are high tech. Those weren't a black market job. Someone knows how to get into the Mechanicus. Equipment at least, maybe some personnel."

"Mechanicus has not reported any missing supplies or personnel."

"They wouldn't. To them, these people are barely human, they'd never admit they had lost weapons to them. Better just to ignore it, so long as the gangers keep their wars to themselves. But I need a way into the Mechanicus facility, and someone here has one. Time to find a gun dealer."

It took three hours for Vail to find the person she wanted to speak to. After numerous arguments and several false leads, she was introduced to a man known as Site. Princess had done her job well in creating her image - the people she had talked to had obviously taken her for a serious SancOp, not just a ganger trying to get some fancy weapons. There was no trust, but it saved the time and effort of convincing them she was worth negotiating with.

Site occupied the top floor of an unremarkable building several blocks from Despair. The place was unadorned, and there was no outside evidence of the sort of business that went on inside. Vail took this to be a sign that Site was someone who didn't have to advertise - a good sign. The man himself wore an uncomplicated outfit, more like an engineer than a fighter. A scar ran across his face, and in place of one eye was a bionic implant. As Vail got closer, she saw that it wasn't an eye, but a data port. Besides herself and the weapons dealer, the room contained a few chairs and several professional-looking guards, all armed with equally professional-looking weapons. Vail noticed a meltagun, obviously old but in good repair. Her own weapons, at least those she wore openly, were in the custody of one of the guards.

"So," began Site in a not unpleasant voice, "you're de Voura. Heard you were down at Despair, wanted to meet Element. Word gets around," he said, in answer to Vail's questioning look. "I do business with Element. Good customer. Now, what is it you want so badly you've been trying to find me all day?"

"You can get into the Mechanicus factory," Vail answered. Site frowned at her.

"Why you think that?"

"Their weapons," she said, nodding towards the guards. "They didn't come from some backroom workshop."

"Uh-huh. What of it?"

"I want in to the factory."

"Hmm. Let's pretend I can do that, why would I?"

"I'm guessing you get lasguns mostly, that sort of thing. Everything else has too much security, yes? Too many codes to break. I can help." Site looked guardedly interested.

"What exactly are we talking about here?"

"You get me inside the factory, I'll see you walk out with a dozen plasma rifles plus ammo."

"Just the rifles? There's all sorts of stuff in there."

"That's the offer. Your choice. Plasma rifle's a powerful weapon, and I don't see many on the streets. I bet you'll be able to get a good deal for them. Like I say, your choice." Site appeared to think this through.

"Well like I say, this is just hypothetical," he answered eventually, as if reciting from memory. "However," he added, his voice suddenly serious, "you come back here in five hours, we'll talk again. Maybe take a walk. Understood?" Vail nodded. Site motioned her to the door, and the guard handed back her weapons.

"Oh, one other thing," the dealer said as she holstered her pistol, "between now and then I'll do a little research. Just for my own curiosity. But if I find something I don't like, you'd live longer if you don't show up later. Yeah?"

Vail nodded as if such things were routine, and allowed herself to be escorted out of the building.

The Sanctioned Operative known as Element was not a big man, although something in his stance suggested power. His hair was cut close to his scalp, his features were relatively unadorned by the standards of his world, as he wore only a pin through his lower lip with the tip in the shape of a tiny laughing skull. His clothing consisted of an outfit of dark, slightly faded black material covered in various armour plates that showed signs of several fights in which they had stopped a killing blow. He wore a pair of bolt pistols hanging from his belt, and seemed to always have a hand ready to draw one no matter what the situation.

He looked up from his pacing as one of his guards entered the room, followed by a more elaborately-dressed ganger, his hair dyed red. He immediately waved a silent signal to the guard, who backed out again and shut the door. There was a click as it locked, and the other man waited.

"So," said Element in a voice that seemed to hiss more than speak, "did you find the killer?" The other man nodded slowly. "Good. Can't have Workers being offed like that. Bad for business. Don't want the 'trators coming down here, that'd only be trouble. You take care of him?"

Element looked closely at his lieutenant when the other man failed to respond. He took a step closer, and noted a collection of new scratches and bruises on his face and arms. He was about to inquire about their origin when he saw the man reach for the autopistol hanging at his waist. No stranger to betrayal, Element had drawn and fired a bolt into the man's chest as his hand closed around the weapon's grip. The man staggered back as blood sprayed across the room, and thudded against the closed door, his shattered ribcage exposed, torn organs leaking vital fluids.

Element had already turned away when he heard a shot and felt a bolt of lightning run through his shoulder. Ignoring the pain and the bleeding he turned to see the corpse still standing, pointing its pistol at him. His mind reeled but his reactions took over, drawing his other pistol and firing directly at the thing's head. The explosion tore off half the thing's face, and the Operative's mouth dropped open as he stared at the figure before him. Then the autopistol sounded again, and again, and Element died.

The bloodied man closed his long coat over the gaping hole in his chest, then carefully replaced his autopistol in its holster and reached behind his back, for an object held in the back of his belt. The hand returned holding a crude iron mask, which he placed over his head. His remaining eye stared out of the mask as he turned and opened the door. Immediately a pair of gangers burst into the room, guns drawn. They took in the scene in an instant: Element lying in a pool of his own blood, and the masked man standing calmly to one side. Recognising the situation, they slowly lowered their weapons.

"Tell them all," said the man in the mask slowly, in a deep, croaking voice, "this zone belongs to Forge now."

Site had kept his end of the deal, and Vail now found herself watching as he walked briskly through a tunnel beneath the fortified walls of the Mechanicus compound. The tunnel had obviously been dug by crude equipment, but it was well-maintained, and also well-travelled. It emerged in a darkened office somewhere inside one of the factory buildings. Vail guessed the owner of the office was being paid handsomely for the use of it, and took note of the code printed beside the entrance door for future reference. She followed the arms dealer as he led the way through the unlit building, the only noises the footsteps of the man in front and the half-dozen 'assistants,' as they had been introduced, that Site had brought with him.

The main factory was separated from the rest of the building by a security wall, requiring Site to stop for a moment and retrieve a complex-looking device from his backpack. He plugged its wires into the access portal and waited. After a moment a green light flickered on and the portal rolled open. The factory itself was a cavernous chamber, filled with manufacturing equipment. Vail recognised some of it, but a lot was more advanced than she had seen before, reminding her than the facility's main function was research. She stayed in the middle of the group as Site led the way to the storage depot, to one side of the factory itself. Once inside the assistants spread out between the storage silos, heading for the ones for which they had the necessary access codes. Site beckoned for Vail to follow, and led the way to a particular silo. He pointed to the string of icons printed beside the access hatch, which indicated to anyone who could read Lingua-Technis that the contents were standard beta pattern plasma rifles, this shipment for delivery to Hephaestus to be tested and formally blessed. Vail nodded and drew her computer from the pocket at her back. Placing it beside the code keypad she pressed her fingers to the various lights, pretending to use them as buttons.

"You know what to do," she said, as if talking to herself. Unheard to Site or anyone else, the machine answered through her earpiece.

"Accessing security network. Access confirmed. Cross-linking to data network. Retrieving primary access codes. Entering new data to security systems. Main security system updated, access code Vail-One now entered in compound security database. Shutting down link to data network. Decrypting storage silo entry code. Done."

The silo hatch hissed open, revealing a stack of crates, each one containing a weapon. Site nodded his thanks and began unloading the crates. The assistants had returned now, each one carrying a pair of lasgun crates. Vail noted with interest that the crates had been fitted with suspensors; she had wondered initially how Site intended to move any significant volume of weapons without some sort of vehicle, or at least a trolley. It seemed that anything was available in the Zone, for the right price. Carrying three plasma rifles himself and delegating the rest, Site jerked his head back towards the factory chamber and headed off. Vail followed, returning the computer to its hiding place.

Site and Vail surfaced inside a building not far from his own centre of business. The others had departed via a tunnel leading away from the main one, taking the weapons with them. Site wouldn't risk letting Vail know where he stored his merchandise. The dealer turned to her after closing the concealed entrance to the tunnel.

"Well, that's the show. I didn't see you do anything in there. You got what you wanted?"

"Yes. I said I wanted to get in, nothing else. I only needed to know my code worked." Site looked at her carefully through his one eye for a moment, then shrugged.

"Well, ain't to me to tell you what to do. Know this, though, anything goes down because of something you did in there, I don't know you. Yeah?"

"Yeah," answered Vail without expression. "See you if I need to buy something."

"Maybe," said Site cautiously. He opened the door to find a pair of his bodyguards waiting outside, and left in their company. Vail turned and headed back towards the small building she had cleared out and secured after her first interview with Site, intending to take some sleep before making another attempt to find Element. She was used to starship travel, but even there night and day was simulated. The endless, timeless night of the planet was beginning to feel oppressive.

She had only travelled a block, however, before a familiar figure stepped out of the shadows in front of her. Demure nodded her greetings, which Vail returned cautiously. Her skingraphs, Vail noted, were turned off, presumably meaning she was out on business.

"Hey Sal," she said as she closed the distance between them, "heard you were around Site's place. You still want to see Element?" Vail nodded. "Pity. Guess you haven't heard. Been out on one of Site's little guided tours of his warehouse, have you? Huh. Well, someone's taken out Element. Some ganger called Forge got in disguised as his lieutenant. Heard from a contact an hour ago."

Vail cursed mentally. If Element had known anything about the freighter's sabotage, the knowledge had died with him. Demure approached a little closer and lowered her voice.

"Listen," she said, "I got a good instinct for people. I'll tell you something, 'cause I figure you for a good type. Whatever you wanted with Element, don't take it to this Forge guy. I don't like what I'm hearing. We haven't met yet, and I intend to keep it that way. You stay clear of him, yes?"

"What've you heard?" asked Vail, her curiosity getting the better of her.

"Nothing concrete, but bits and pieces. I get bad feelings about this. This won't turn out well. Some people are saying he's rounding up Workers, and they ain't being seen again. You look out for yourself, you hear? I've got enough people to take care of me, but you don't want to go on your own with this guy on the loose. You look useful, so if you need something you take a look for me, 'kay? Trust me, if it comes down to it, you'd rather be with me than him." Demure placed a hand on Vail's shoulder, then turned and ducked into an alley. Without her luminescent decoration, she disappeared easily into the shadows.

Six hours later Vail approached a small portal in the Mechanicus compound's security wall, her SancOp outfit concealed beneath an inconspicuous faded red cloak. As promised, the code Vail-One caused the portal to open without complaint, and she slipped inside. Keeping to the shadows between buildings, she made her way towards the central research facility, using the code to bypass the various security measures she encountered.

Once inside she headed directly for the Fabricator-Lord's spacious research laboratory, still deserted, as it would remain until a new Lord was chosen. The room was large, with a low ceiling decorated with intricate murals depicting various events in the history of the Mechanicus. Vail recognised the arrival of the Emperor on Mars, and several images of the fighting machines of the Titan Legions. Others were less familiar, and Vail took them to be from Hephaestion's own homeworld. The Great Seal of Mars, above the less intricate Seal of Hephaestus, dominated the room, the sightless eyes of the Imperial Eagle atop it staring out across the space. Between the carved columns supporting the roof were rows of machines, only a few of them bearing any resemblance to anything Vail had previously seen. Not for the first time she regretted the isolationist tendencies that kept the branches of the Adeptus Terra apart. Discarding the thought, she found a data terminal on what appeared to be the Lord's work desk, and quietly plugged her computer into it.

"Princess," she asked, "what do you see?"

"File contents are encrypted. High level algorithms. Attempting decoding of identity data. Running standard breaker routines. Connection complete. File list translated."

"Anything relevant? Personal files? Diaries?"

"Negative. All files appear related to experimental equipment. Correction, possible relevance to current investigation located."

"What is it?"

"File three-zero-alpha, file name Forge."

"Forge. A coincidence, maybe," Vail murmured to herself. She didn't believe in coincidences. "Could Hephaestion have had some contact with this Forge person? Maybe there's a connection between the Lord's death and Forge's control of the Zone. Download the Forge file and begin decryption as a secondary process." Disconnecting the computer once it reported the download had completed, Vail was in the process of leaving the laboratory when she heard faint sounds coming from the building's main floor. She silently closed the laboratory's door and crept along the catwalk leading away from it. After a few metres the walkway emerged into the building's large central chamber, running from one side of the main floor to another, fifty metres above ground. Vail lowered herself and looked through the grille the walkway was made of, trying to make out shapes in the darkness below.

Something was moving. As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she saw lots of shapes moving around, going to and from the storage silos at one end of the chamber. She determined that the people she could half-see were taking the stored equipment from the silos to the other end of the building. Quickly returning to the laboratory she reconnected the computer to the data terminal.

"Princess," she said quietly, "can you access the security network? Are they using the same codes as Site's people?"

"Negative," replied the machine after a moment's thought, "equipment access in this building is using clearance codes for Fabricator-Lord Hephaestion."

"They're using the Lord's codes? If Forge had contact with Hephaestion, he might have those codes. Can you tell what's being taken?"

"Negative. Storage records indicate no specific description entered for equipment being removed." Vail left the laboratory again, this time descending to ground level the same way she had originally entered. On leaving the building, however, she headed further into the compound, peering around the corner of the building. The silent figures were taking the equipment into a small one-level building not far from the main complex. She noticed that no more were heading towards the research complex, and after waiting a moment she saw the last of them emerge, carrying its load into the small building and vanishing. Vail allowed a few minutes to ensure there were no further intruders, then followed.

The building was merely four walls and a roof, containing nothing of apparent interest. For a moment Vail wondered where the people had gone, then she remembered Site's unorthodox entrance to the facility. After a moment's checking, she found a small control on one wall that activated a vehicle-sized lift set into the floor. Hoping that the noise of the machinery would not be heard below, she started the lift's descent and jumped down onto it as it disappeared below ground level.

The lift thumped to the bottom of its shaft, which opened into a wide tunnel large enough to accommodate a vehicle. Stepping off the lift, Vail found tracks to indicate that some sort of transport had been in the tunnel recently, the weight of the vehicle pressing its tracks into the packed earth such that even the imprint of the many feet on top of it had not erased the patterns. There was a curious noise echoing down the tunnel, getting louder as Vail moved along. There was a strange rhythmic thumping noise, accompanied by various metallic screeches and hisses. Vail was reminded of the music in Despair, but as she neared the source of light up ahead she could hear it was actually the sounds of machinery operating.

The tunnel ended in a vehicle bay, containing at least a dozen heavy equipment transports. Slipping between a pair of the vehicles, Vail advanced towards the edge of the bay and looked out beyond it. For a moment she stood motionless, taking in the scene, before her instincts took over and she began to analyse what she was seeing.

For perhaps a mile in front of her a huge cavern had been carved out of the rock. Massive structural supports ran across the roof of the cavern, supported in turn by thick metal pillars driven into the ground. Occupying this colossal excavation was a giant factory, its machines operating at full pace. Conveyor belts, tiny from the distance Vail was at, pulled silvery objects along, as scores of machine arms reached out and repeated their sequence of motions again and again. The flash of welding torches fought with the deep, angry glare from vats of molten metal, lighting the cavern with a crimson glow like the fires of hell. Tiny as ants, people moved in and out between the machines, some attending to control panels, others apparently carrying equipment from place to place.

After taking in all the details she could see from her hiding place, Vail used the cover afforded by rows of crates to move closer to the machines. She had to crouch to avoid being seen above the crates, and when she finally reached the machinery she flattened herself against the side of a construction engine, glancing left and right to ensure she remained unseen. Using the thick power and coolant cables emerging from the machine as a ladder, she clambered to the top of the machine, lying flat across it, and looked down towards the conveyors.

The silver glints she had seen before had come from metallic armour plates which were being systematically assembled over inert human bodies. The section of the line she could see was attaching a set of electronic sensor devices to the heads of the bodies lying on the belt. Further off she could see other forms, almost entirely covered by metal armour, their lower arms replaced by bulky devices, the function of which she couldn't tell from the distance. She caught glimpses, between the machines, of some of the things moving on their own, looking like human-sized robots. As she was studying the man-machines, a group of figures appeared on her left, one leaving the group to attend to each machine they passed. Vail recognised the ungraceful movements and crude bionics of servitors, but she didn't doubt they had been fitted with some sort of security programs. Pushing herself backwards, she dropped back to the ground and headed towards the vehicle bay, and the surface.

Vail's hope that Forge would be at Element's old headquarters in the Despair building sank as she rounded the corner of the block to see the building in ruins. Fires burned among the debris, but nothing else moved. The bodies of those inside were scattered across the scene of devastation, half-buried under chunks of shattered concrete and twisted metal.

"Thorough, huh?" said a voice from behind her. Demure was watching her, a couple of gangers behind her.

"Was Forge inside?" asked Vail. Demure laughed and shook her head.

"No such luck. No-one knows where his base is, but it wasn't there. They just killed a bunch of drugged-out gangers."

"Who did this? The Arbites?"

"Yep. Didn't I say there'd be trouble? See for yourself. Forge's people are rounding up all the Workers in the zone. I've seen it myself. Don't know where they go, but they aren't showing up back at the factories. Looks like the 'trators found out Forge was the reason production's dropping off. Come on," said Demure, leading Vail away from the burning ruin, "we shouldn't stay here. Arbites are probably watching the block, bouncing a signal up into orbit or something. You don't want to be seen here. Now listen, there's gonna be trouble real soon. I don't know what Forge thinks he's doing, but the 'trators are an army, and they're gonna be here soon to kill. Best way to stay alive is to come with me. That way when the fighting starts they'll know you're not one of the bad guys, yeah? I know a couple of techs near the governor, they know my people aren't with Forge. But they don't know you, so you have to be with us, otherwise they'll figure you're with Forge, and that won't be the winning side. Whatever he's got, the 'trators'll grind him down." Vail thought of the underground factory, and the endless rows of man-machines, their silver armour glittering in the red light.

"Yeah, maybe," she answered, "but I don't think it'll be a short fight."

The Fortress-Precinct of the Adeptus Arbites stood like a monolith among the low buildings. Its massive defence walls surrounded a solid castle-like building that bristled with sensors, searchlights and turret weapons. The only entrance was a pair of heavy metal gates, which had opened to allow a convoy of vehicles to pass through. The few people on the streets quickly moved into whatever alleys or shadows they could find as a row of armoured vehicles emerged, each one sweeping the streets with spotlights, the barrels of autocannon and heavy bolters following the lights.

After the first five such vehicles, a different one emerged. Instead of the half-track troop transports, this was a tank in full, its tracks grinding over the street surface, its turret turning as the vehicle moved, seeking out targets. The personal banner of the Arbitrator Precinct-Lord flew behind one of the smaller multi-melta turrets. As the vehicle turned, there was a crackle from above, and a white-hot bolt of light soared down from a nearby rooftop. It cut through the tank's massive armour plates as if they were paper, and the street was lit by a brilliant explosion as the vehicle detonated. The front of the following transport was caught in the blast, and it too exploded, sending shrapnel hailstones into the nearby buildings. When the light died all that remained of the Precinct-Lord's personal battle tank was a crater twenty metres wide.

As the other vehicles opened fire blindly, a handful of gangers on a rooftop dropped their bulky conversion beamer and ran. They had managed a few steps before a shower of cannon shells cut them apart.

In another of the endless low buildings in the Zone, Vail watched Demure talking to the informers who came and went almost without pause. The gang leader was out of earshot, but Vail could see from her expression that events were proceeding as she had predicted. Eventually the woman dismissed the last of her people and approached Vail.

"Hey, de Voura," she said in a weary voice, "did I mention things were going to hell?"

"What've you heard?"

"The Precinct-Lord is dead. Forge's people hit a 'trator convoy with some sort of superweapon that blew the tank apart. I guess he thinks he can make them keep out of the Zone. Stupid. It's gonna be war down here soon. If Forge keeps up this resistance, there'll be a whole load of dead gangers by tomorrow. Now, I need your help."

"Why," asked Vail cautiously. Demure sat on a chair and looked at her, unblinking.

"You came here looking for something. I don't think you're after the Zone, but you need something here. You wanted to talk to Element about the freighter, so I figure you think he might know who did it. Makes sense, this was his zone, so if someone was planning something like that he'd know. But now he's dead, and you've lost your lead. Then there's this Forge guy. Shows up outta nowhere and takes over, and now he's got his hands on some death rays or whatever. That says to me that he's got people inside the Mech compound, that's the only place you'd get something that'd turn a tank into a hole in one blast. So now you need to get to Forge, 'cause he's got contacts inside the compound, and he might know something about your freighter. How'm I doing so far?"

"I can see why Element wanted you on his side," Vail answered. Demure shrugged, and smiled for the first time in quite a while.

"Yeah, not just a pretty face," she said. Her skingraphs glowed for a moment, then darkened again. "Now," she continued, "all this tells me you're not just another SancOp out to make a living. Maybe the Mechs hired you to work out who blew their boss to the moons and back, maybe you've got some people in the compound yourself, I dunno. But my instinct tells me you've got the codes to the weapons we need. I heard about the rifles you got for Site, but I figure you didn't want to give him too much. Supplying weapons isn't your job here, yeah? But right now I need to know what you know about Forge, and then we need the hardware to take him down."

Vail considered the offer. Currently she had no way of reaching Forge safely, and the situation was only going to get worse when the Arbites began to attack in earnest. In normal circumstances she would take command of whatever military forces were near enough to help, and take her target's army out. Without any official power to command the PDF or the Arbites, Demure's people might be her best chance. She weighed the risks of trusting the ganger, and decided that she could hardly allow the current state of affairs to continue.

"My employers want me to find out who killed the Mechanicus Lord," she said, choosing her words carefully. "Forge and the Lord had some contact prior to his death, and Forge's people are using the Lord's access codes to steal equipment from the compound. He's got a factory underground where he's taking the Workers and turning them into some sort of machine army. He's got access to everything stored in the compound, all he has to do is go and get it. Weapons, vehicles, anything. I don't think it can be a coincidence that this all started when the Lord was killed. I need to know what Forge knows, whether he was responsible for the freighter's sabotage, and why. You say you need my help? Well, I need yours."

"What do you have in mind?"

"If Forge is taken out of the picture, this all stops. I need your people to get me to him. I can provide the weapons, but I need you to use them. One strike, at the underground factory. Forge'll be there, with his army. If it works then Forge will be dead or harmless, and the Zone is yours. If it doesn't work, my guess is we all die. Your choice."

Demure considered the words for a long time. She kept her face carefully immobile, but Vail could see the tiny signs of her thoughts: suspicion, doubt, but eventually decision.

"Alright," she said at last, "one strike. You get us the weapons, we get you to Forge. You be ready in two hours?" Vail nodded, and Demure got up and began to issue new orders to her people. She was clearly able to run her private army efficiently, and Vail guessed that she had been preparing for Element's death even longer than his killer.

"Decryption of file Forge complete," said the computer through her earpiece. Without drawing attention to herself, Vail turned away from the discussions on the other side of the room and answered.

"Summarise. Who is Forge, and what contact did he have with Hephaestion?"

"Forge: codename of personal research project to create artificial mind-impulse storage unit. Project aim was to create a mechanical system into which a human mind could be transferred to extend the life of the user beyond the capabilities of the human body."

"Forge is a machine," said Vail to herself. "A machine with Hephaestion's access codes, his knowledge." A vague suspicion was forming into a definite reality. "Hephaestion transferred his own mind into the Forge system."

"System was not complete at time of last file addition. Preliminary results indicate possibility of neural instability in impulse matrix."

"But he must have thought it was worth the risk," reasoned Vail. "He knew he was in danger, so he faked his own death. One of his servitors must have carried the bomb, no wonder it wasn't detected. And now he's in control of the Zone, and he's fighting the Arbites. Why would he fight? Unless the system in unstable. He's insane."

"Last recorded Forge system diagnostics indicate this is possible. Additional: this data completes investigation criteria. Suggest return to Nova." Vail looked back at the group of gangers, who were now making plans around a large map of the Zone. More people were passing through, leaving fragments of information which were hastily sketched out on the map.

"Not yet," said Vail quietly, "I've got some business to attend to."

Forge turned to see two of his fighters drag a prisoner into the room. He saw by the man's clothes that he had been a ganger, but not a powerful one. His face was half-covered in blood from a wound on his forehead, and he looked around in a daze. After a moment his eyes focussed on the iron mask staring at him.

"Leave us," said Forge. The two fighters wasted no time in leaving the prisoner and Forge alone. The mask watched them go, and turned back to the prisoner as the door sealed. Forge carefully removed his coat, folding it and placing it on an inactive workstation. He then took off his mask, replacing its blank stare with that of two dead eyes. The prisoner tried to pull back, but Forge's arms were on his shoulders with inhuman speed, holding him immobile. Quickly, he turned the man around and leaned closer to the back of his head. The man's struggles ended as a metal rod shot out of Forge's mouth and buried itself in the back of his skull. There was a crunch as the bone shattered, then a cracking noise as four tiny mechanical arms folded out of the rod and tore open the scalp. A pair of claws emerged from his eyes, holding the skin open, and then his face erupted in a shower of blood as something pushed its way out. As Forge's lifeless body crumpled to the floor, the mechanical claws closed the skin behind the thing now resting in the prisoner's brain cavity. The prisoner took a shaky step forwards, then stood up straight. A hand reached for the mask. After a moment, Forge summoned a servant to remove the body.

Vail ducked instinctively as the front of a nearby building collapsed. She noticed that her companions seemed more apprehensive than she was; no doubt this was their first experience with full-scale war, despite the lawless nature of the Zone. Demure held up a hand, her palm flashing a series of luminescent symbols to one of her squad leaders across the street.

As the small force moved through the war-torn zone, the sounds of a major battle echoed overhead. Explosions lit up the night sky as the Arbites fired every weapon at their disposal at Forge's army. Vail had seen several PDF fighter aircraft pass overhead, and now and again a line of anti-aircraft fire crossed the sky. So far she had counted two flashes that indicated an aircraft had been hit.

When they reached the entry portal to the Mechanicus compound, Demure waited for Vail to take the lead. They had already discussed the procedure for getting into the base without being detected, but it relied on the gangers being able to conceal themselves in the event of a guard or servitor being nearby. They had made a good effort, but their weapons and faces would give them away if anyone got close. Whispering instructions to Demure, who then passed them on to her people via a flashed signal, Vail made her way into the compound.

She found she needn't have worried about detection: the buildings were all but deserted. The only movement was from auto-sentries, their scanners pointing outwards over the walls. Forge's presence beneath the compound was unknown to the Arbites, and he seemed to be inclined to keep it a secret. What little Demure had found out about the battle told her Forge's people were using underground tunnels to move around, and the attackers hadn't even managed to get close to penetrating the tunnel network. The defenses were said to be impressive, although the only people who had seen them and lived had done so from quite a distance. The last report that had arrived before Demure told Vail to lead the way to the compound had said that tanks were being used to bombard the entrances. The description led Vail to conclude that the Arbites had found themselves hopelessly outgunned, and had called in Demolishers from the Defence Force.

While the gangers gathered weapons from the storage silos Vail's access code opened, the Inquisitor sprinted across the compound, arriving after a few minutes at the research building. As she suspected the entrance to Forge's underground base had been sealed, the edges of the vehicle lift were still slightly warm from the welding torches. If Forge was smart, and it seemed he was, the tunnel would be collapsed as well. Vail returned to the storage silos to find Demure ready, her people fully armed.

"He closed the door?" asked the ganger. Vail nodded. "But you figured he would," Demure continued, "so you've got a back-up plan to get in. Lead the way." Vail headed towards another building, which Princess had identified as vehicle storage, reassured that Demure was as capable in the field as she was gathering information. She hoped that the former adviser had chosen her gangers as wisely.

The eleventh armoured division of the Defence Force had been chosen to make the next assault on one of the largest entries to the underground. After a preliminary bombardment laid down by distant Basilisks and Manticores, the troops advanced behind the cover of a full battle group of Leman Russ tanks. It was their unlucky fate to be the nearest targets when the machines emerged.

Moving swiftly over the shattered terrain, the silver-armoured warriors advanced in small squads. The lead battle tank halted and began to turn its turret towards the new enemy, but not fast enough. One of the machines scrambled atop a fallen pillar and raised its weapon arm. A crackling bolt of energy leapt from it, blasting the vehicle's turret to pieces. The tank's heavy bolter roared in reply, its shell impacting on the machine's chest, sending it hurtling backwards to the ground. The gunner watched in disbelief as it stood back up and took aim again.

On the left flank the machines had engaged the troops directly, their covering vehicle having been destroyed in a cataclysmic explosion when a stray blast hit its fuel tanks. Red hot shrapnel had killed half a dozen men, and the survivors barely had time to regroup before the machines were among them. Lasgun shots exploded harmlessly on their armoured casings, bayonets broke against them, and the machines had only to bring their heavy arms down on their enemies to crush the life out of them. One broke through the melee, and a cannon-like weapon emerged from its armoured backpack, aiming over its shoulder. Rapid-fire laser bolts tore into the second infantry line, as more troopers fell and more machines began to fire again.

Seeing the damage being done to his division, the officer in charge ordered all the remaining tanks to ignore the gangers and concentrate their fire on the robot-like warriors. Lascannons blew massive holes in them, multi-meltas vaporised the flesh inside, but it seemed for every weapon directed against them, the machines had two more to return fire. In desperation the Defence Force called on its fighter bombers to lay down a flame barrage. As the aircraft roared overhead the battlefield was transformed into an inferno, huge rivers of fire leaping upwards as the incendiary bombs detonated in mid-air, spraying their contents wildly. Whole squads of troopers died instantly as the oxygen was sucked out of their lungs by the intense flames, and even the machines began to collapse as their armour heated, liquefying the bodies inside them.

In the underground factory the construction machines ran at full capacity. Servitors carried the limp bodies of drugged Workers to the mouths of the conversion engines, producing more warriors by the minute. A steady stream of armoured figures led from the factory section to the various access tunnels, reinforcing the machines already fighting on the surface. From a control room encircling one of the support pillars, high above the factory section, Forge watched as squad after squad of mechanical soldiers marched to battle. Behind him the lieutenants of the gang he had inherited lay dead, their necks snapped like sticks. Among the distant din of battle and the regular noises of the factory, another sound began to make itself known, a low rumble, like a storm approaching.

With no more warning, a shape burst from the stone wall of the factory, ploughing through a row of heavy transport vehicles. From the sudden maelstrom of exploding fuel tanks emerged a Termite transport, bearing the Seal of the Mechanicus, its massive borer drill winding down. As the vehicle slowed its troop hatch slid open, and a handful of gangers jumped out, spraying the nearest machine warriors with plasma fire. Taken by surprise and without cover, the machines had no time to react as Demure stepped out of the vehicle, braced herself against its side, and squeezed the trigger of her recently-acquired conversion beamer. The blast sent fragments of the machines flying through the air, vaporising at least a dozen and ripping twice that number to pieces. With a feral grin she dropped the drained beamer and raised a meltagun.

Vail looked out of the transport, scanning the massive cavern for any sign of Forge's location. Her eye caught a movement near the cavern roof, and she looked up in time to see a shape dart away from the observation windows of the control room. She aimed carefully along the barrel of a complex weapon bearing every experimental symbol the Mechanicus used, and fired. The graviton gun took a moment to reach full power, but when it did the control room tore itself from the roof of the cavern and crashed into the factory below. Switching the weapon off before it had a chance to malfunction, Vail looked out, trying to see any sign of a corpse in the wreckage. In fact there were several, but she also saw a figure running along one of the ceiling-mounted walkways that had a moment ago led to the control room. Muttering a complex curse in high gothic she slung the straps of a pair of meltaguns across her shoulders and stepped out of the vehicle.

"Hey Sal, you get him?" Demure had looked back for a moment, having sent her people forward. The machines seemed unable to fire at the factory equipment, and the gangers were taking advantage of this. Vail shook her head. "You want help? You kinda made out like he'd be tough to kill one-on-one."

"No, I'll do it," answered Vail. She took her computer from its pouch and handed it to the ganger. "Take care of this for me. Don't sell it while I'm gone." Demure made a quick examination of the slim unit, which gave every impression of being inanimate.

"Yeah, sure," she said. "You take care, yeah?" With a nod, Vail turned and headed towards a walkway that ran along the side of the cavern. She remembered Princess's directions, and estimated the probable position of the entrance to a tunnel from the factory to the Mechanicus spaceport. However insane he had become, Hephaestion was Mechanicus, and that meant he had plans within plans, and always a way out. All she had to do was get there before he did.

Forge lurched into the tunnel leading away from the factory. Only twenty metres to go, and he would be on his way to the spaceport, and escape. The word rattled around inside his mind, driving him forward. He stopped only when a slim figure blocked his path. He looked up to see a ganger, probably an Operative from the attire, aiming a pistol directly at his head.

"Always an escape route?" she said. "Predictable." Forge grinned underneath his mask as the transport bay doors opened behind the woman, revealing one of his remaining gangers.

"Drop it," he croaked as the woman turned to see the lasgun pointed at her. She calmly laid her pistol and chainsword on the ground and took a step back. Without hesitation, Forge drew his plasma pistol and reduced the weapons to ashes.

"Always an escape route," he repeated her words, "and always a plan. I'd like to know how you did what you did, but I haven't got time." He made a motion towards the ganger, who raised his rifle to fire. The Operative spun around and stretched out a hand. There was a brief flash from her fingers, and the ganger dropped to the ground, three tiny darts embedded in his throat.

"Needles," said Forge, his voice deteriorating but still broadcasting his arrogance. "They won't work on me, girl."

"No," Vail replied, pointing over the gang leader's shoulder, "but that will."

Keeping his pistol aimed, Forge turned his head. From the corner of his eye he spotted a small device clamped to the wall behind him. He turned further, and recognised the symbol stamped on its casing. Memories surfaced from the fragmented remains of his thoughts. He remembered the symbol, remembered seeing it on thousands of similar devices. He had made many himself, when he had been a mere Tech Priest centuries ago. A black circle, containing a tiny yellow star surrounded by three concentric circles. Haywire grenade.

The grenade detonated, its pulse wave passing through the rock walls, through Forge and Vail, into the transport bay, destroying the door mechanism. Vail watched as Forge's head was encased in a writhing ball of electricity, then it was gone and the body crumpled to the ground. She removed his mask and looked at it thoughtfully.

"May you find forgiveness in the Emperor's judgement," she said to it. "I don't think you'll find it here." Dropping the mask, she returned to the factory cavern, where the battle seemed to be drawing to a close. She retrieved a meltagun from its hiding place, beyond the grenade's pulse radius, and carefully destroyed the supporting pillars to the tunnel. She caught a glimpse of Forge's unmoving body, then the falling rocks covered it.

Vail replaced her computer in its pouch and straightened up, looking around the devastated city. At least the battle was over. Demure had used her contacts in the government to inform the Defence Force of the situation, and between them they had eventually destroyed the last of the machines. A rumble and a rush of debris and dust from the nearest tunnel had signalled the collapse of the underground factory, brought on by several dozen carefully-placed demolition charges.

"Hey Salacia, you never really gave me an answer," Demure had said as they watched the teams of engineers set the charges. "Who do you work for?"

"No-one you know," Vail had answered. She remembered a part of her oath of allegiance, when she had been accepted into the Inquisition. 'Seek out and destroy the enemies of the Imperium wherever they hide,' it had said. She had often wondered if that part got lost among all the missions and politics.

Noticing no-one was watching her at the moment, she ducked into the upright half of a building that had taken a battlecannon hit in one side.

"Princess, break communications silence, signal Nova for teleport. Direct to my quarters, I think. I can't be an Inquisitor looking like this." The lights of a teleport beam briefly lit the shell of the building, then the night flowed back in.

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