Short Fiction

A Wondrous Little Thing

A Wondrous Little Thing

An unofficial Warhammer 40,000 Short Story
Written by Hank Wilcox
Reading Time: 13 minutes

It began with a crack on the wall. It was during a standardised eight-minute sustenance period, wherein manufactorum grunt #996978 was struggling to operate the protein tube dispenser. Grunt #996978, or Crowe, as his few acquaintances knew him, was once again questioning why this machine had such a distaste for him. He issued another whispered Rite of Activation, then pressed the dispenser’s worn rune. Once again, there was only the rumbling of internal mechanisms and a shudder of defiance. It was then that something caught his eye. The smallest glint of metal in the space behind the dispenser. He leaned forward to investigate, before quickly remembering his surroundings.

Crowe turned to look at the line forming behind him. He saw other grunts, heads shaven, bodies gaunt with malnourishment and eyes full of hunger, glaring back at him. He looked to the other dispensers and the other queues. To give up now was to deny himself food for the day. But to stay… that could result in something worse. Slowly, he stepped out from the line. As he moved, his sunken eyes turned back to the space between the dispensers, where he had seen the mysterious glint. Instead, in the yellow lighting of the cafeterium, he saw only a crack on the wall.

With only six minutes left in the period, Crowe knew he could not waste a second.

He pushed through the queues, past hundreds of other workers. They moved in a slow, methodic way, reminding him of the machines they worked. The room was hot, loud, and poorly lit. All these distractions, the monotony of it all, made it all too easy for Crowe to find a place to slip between the dispensers unnoticed. If any saw, they were too focused on the promise of food to care.

In the meagre space between the room’s back wall and the rears of the dispensers, Crowe quickly found it harder and harder to move. His skinny frame snaked a makeshift path between a forest of twisting pipes and heavy rubber feed tubes. For every wire and tube he pushed from his way, he ushered a quick prayer of forgiveness to its Machine Spirit. In truth, they were only half-prayers. Crowe understood machines as much as he liked them: not much at all. 

After a minute or two, he reached the crack in the wall. The mechanical obstructions were fewer here, partially pushed away from the crack. It gave Crowe enough room to ball up right in front of the old rockcrete. He rested his back against the dispenser from before, his eyes moving around the meagre space. Nothing here matched the golden glint he had seen. Crowe’s stunted mind, moulded for years to complete only one single task, could think of no reason why the glint was not here. Indeed, crawling behind the dispensers was perhaps the most inventive thing he had done in a decade or more.

Crowe frowned and looked at the crack once more. There it was! The glint had returned, shining in the darkness of the rockcrete gash. A small, golden object reflecting the light of the room beyond. It sat there for a moment and then was gone just as fast. Crowe reached a bony, scarred hand towards the crack. Perhaps he could fit his fingers inside… 

A warning blast from the work-vox stopped his movement, informing him that his sustenance period was over. A cold feeling shot up his spine as he made his way back through the forest of wires. He had wasted too much time and would be one of the last to his workstation. He could already feel the lashes from the discipline servitors. He didn’t stop to pray for the wires and tubes on his way back. Time was of the essence. 

The next day, Crowe made sure to be the first in line for rations. Using a different dispenser, he obtained a stick of corpse paste, and quickly made his way back to the crack in the wall. The crack had occupied his thoughts for the entirety of the past two work shifts. This obsession had resulted in a three percent decrease in efficiency, which he had been disciplined for. During the lashing, a portion of his pinkie finger had been cut away. A bandage now wrapped the stub that remained. Yet, the pain was of no consequence to Crowe. He had felt something after his venture behind the dispensers, a feeling he had not felt since before his requisition to the manufactorum: excitement. 

As he sat on his haunches in the tiny space, he watched the crack with great interest. Slurping down his corpse paste, he cocked his head. The gash seemed larger than it was yesterday, the extremes of it slightly wider than he remembered. His introspection was interrupted by another glint. Crowe leaned forward, pressing his eye to rockcrete, hoping to get a better look. Beyond the crack was a void. At first, there was nothing. Then, a small green glow hovered into view. A tiny green orb, barely bright enough to illuminate the body it was attached to. The thing was small, no bigger than Crowe’s hand. It had a round body, a few sets of spindly metallic legs, and a tiny head tipped with a pair of pincers. 

The thing skittered about the darkness as Crowe watched. Its body was indeed a dull brass colour. This thing had to be the source of the glint! Crowe gasped at his revelation, and suddenly the thing turned to face him. Its movement was fast and fluid, its legs not even moving as it spun in the dark. Crowe could see the tiny pincers moving on its head as it seemed to look at him with its green orb of an eye. He giggled with excitement. In response, the thing made a quiet chittering noise. Then, for the first time in a long while, Crowe had an idea. What if the thing was hungry? Stuck in the void beyond the crack, surely it had nothing to eat. He grabbed a morsel of corpse paste and rolled it into a ball with his fingers. Then, he flicked it into the crack towards the thing. The ball entered the tiny aura of green light.

Almost immediately, the thing was upon it, grabbing it between its pincers, the morsel of food disappearing into what seemed like a tiny mouth. When it had finished, the green eye looked back at Crowe, almost expectantly. Crowe laughed, the sound rattling like a raspy cough.

‘What a wondrous little thing you are!’ he said hoarsely. 

Like yesterday, the moment was broken by the sound of the work-vox. Crowe turned to leave, deciding he would come back the next day. The thing chittered quietly as he left.

During his work shift the next day, Crowe found his mind wandering. He felt a kind of freedom, something deep inside him unlocked by interacting with the thing in the crack. Standing at his assembly line post, he thought of his childhood, something he had never cared to remember before. He remembered playing with the vermin near the reclamation pits of the hive. He remembered the great dozer servitors and the mountains of bodies, slowly rotting in great metal holes. He remembered the rats, perhaps millions of them, and the way they swarmed upon the great piles. It had confused him, so much life among the dead.

As he clocked out of his shift that day, the overseer scribe scolded him from his shielded watchtower. 

‘Grunt #996978, join the discipline line. Again, I detect a three percent decrease in workmanship and efficiency. Continue with this unruly behaviour and I will have you transferred to-‘ the scribe droned on and on. 

Crowe didn’t listen, he simply submitted himself for the beating. Something he was sure would become regular. In the depths of his worn memory, he could see the face of a woman scolding him the same way the scribe was. He wasn’t sure, but he vaguely recalled it had something to do with the rats. 

Crowe sat in front of the crack again, placing half of his paste stick into the void. A green glow and quiet chittering marked the acceptance of the food. As Crowe began eating his own half, he once again observed the crack, which now was turning into more of a hole. He could see the thing clearly now, its little gold body hunching over the paste stick. 

‘So hungry,’ he said, chuckling. ‘Like me!’ He thought for a moment. ‘I think you need a name, my little friend.’ 

The thing’s head poked up from its feast, as if to listen for just a moment. Then, quickly, it went back to eating.

‘I will call you…’ Crowe thought long and hard, his brain struggling with the concept of originality, ‘…Gorb! Yes! Because you are such a glutton. Ha!’ Crowe coughed as he laughed. Once again, Gorb seemed to look up at him, having finished its meal. ‘Well, I must be going, I can’t miss the work-vox warning again. See you tomorrow, Gorb,’ Crowe said, starting to crawl away. 

Gorb watched him go, and then skittered forward to snack on the rockcrete.

Today Crowe was not lucky in the ration queues. As he stood in line, he tapped impatiently with his foot on the worn floor. He was worried about Gorb, who needed food as much as he did. His thoughts were interrupted as someone bumped into him from behind.

‘What do you do behind the dispensers?’ a meagre voice said.

Crowe turned and looked into the face of grunt #979855, a woman called Chiel. She was smaller than he was, her eyes so sunken and flesh pulled so taught over her skull she appeared skeletal. Yet, beneath her munufactorum robes Crowe could make out a bodily figure he registered as vaguely attractive. 

Crowe looked ahead. ‘None of your business.’

‘If you are tampering with the holy machines of the Mechanicus, you are a sinner,’ Cheil said coldly.

‘I am doing no such thing,’ Crowe rasped back.

‘Then what are you doing back there?’ Chiel said again, stepping forward as the line moved.

‘Eating. Just that. I just want to be alone.’

‘I want to come with you,’ Chiel said in a whisper. 

‘Why should I let you?’ Crowe said, the defiant tone in his voice something he was not aware he was capable of.

‘B-because I’ll tell people you are sinning in there. You’ll get taken.’

Crowe looked around at the few discipline servitors in the room, their cold eyes scanning the crowd in a slow, methodical way. They couldn’t notice everyone, but if they were told to look for someone… they would see him slip behind the dispensers. The thought chilled him. He looked back at Chiel, who was glancing towards a group of larger male grunts seated a few tables away. When she turned to face Crowe, he could see something in her eyes. Was it fear? He couldn’t understand why. 

‘Fine. Tomorrow. But only if you do what I say, and don’t tell anyone,’ Crowe said, finally reaching the dispenser.

Chiel coughed, wiping blood from her lip. ‘Thank you.’

Crowe looked at the dispenser, thinking of Gorb somewhere behind it. He hoped the little thing could go on living without food for one day.

That night, Crowe had a dream. It was a memory of the reclamation pits again, but this time clearer. He remembered sitting near the edge of the pits, watching the rats scamper up the piles of rotting humanity to meet him. He would let them nibble at the tips of his fingers, which hurt for but a moment before he would offer them some of his food. After a while, the rats didn’t need to bite. They knew him as a friend. That made Crowe happy. But the woman in the dream was not happy. She yelled at him for his bloody fingers and beat him during the night cycle, when the lights dimmed. It was her who sent him even lower than the pits, to the dark places of hissing metal and gargantuan machines where he was to spend the rest of his life. And where, at the end of his days, he would be carried into the pits himself.

He awoke with a start, gasping for breath in his unlit hab-cube. He found the only way to drift back to sleep was to think of the dark void beyond the crack, a place where there was no noise other than the soft chirping of Gorb. In that void was freedom from this place, a return to something he had longed for. Something natural, not like a machine. Something that was kind, not cruel like humans. A true friend.

Others in the hab-cubes awoke that night. Not because of their own dreams, for they had none. Rather, they awoke to the sound of faint scraping within their walls.

As Crowe and Chiel crawled through the mass of pipe, tubes, and wires, Crowe spoke.

‘You must not be afraid when you see him. Gorb is small, he won’t hurt you. Give him some of your paste and I promise he will be your friend.’

‘So, you aren’t alone after all,’ said Chiel, pushing a tube from her path.

Crowe said nothing. Eventually, they reached the small space before what was now a hole in the wall. Looking toward the hole, Crowe called out.

‘Gorb? Are you there? I have brought a friend!’ No response came from the dark circle, perfectly carved in the rockcrete. Crowe looked back at Chiel. ‘I will go in first, then you can squeeze in front of me. You should be able to see him through the hole.’ 

Chiel nodded as Crowe squeezed into space. She moved in front of him, obscuring his view into the hole. It looked bigger when viewed straight on, probably large enough for a small child to force their way through.

‘Do you see him?’ Crowe asked, listening closely for Gorb’s chittering. 

Chiel was pushed against the wall, her face practically shoved into the hole. 

‘Not yet. But maybe… I can hear him!’ she said, her voice muffled.

Chiel’s hand moved for the corpse-paste, her face continuing to look into the hole. 

‘I think I can see him!’ she said excitedly, moving the paste tube closer to the hole.

Crowe was distracted, Chiel’s thin frame pressed up close to his own. He had never been this close to someone before. He stared at the back of Chiel’s shaven scalp, feeling her body against his in the confined space. He did not notice the slight jolt of her back, nor did he see her hand go limp, dropping the paste tube.

Crowe pulled himself from his trance. ‘Did you give him the paste?’ he asked, excitedly.

No response came from Chiel. She felt heavy in his lap.

‘Chiel?’ Something stirred in his stomach, a cold, fluttering feeling. Fear.

At that moment, Chiel’s head twitched, listing to the side ever so slightly. Crowe heard something like a crack come from the back of her skull. The sound was quiet, but so close it made him jump. He tried to move her, less to check her condition and more to make for the forest of wires that led away. Suddenly, a spray of blood hit his face as the back of Chiel’s head split outwards. In the darkness behind the crack in Chiel’s skull, Crowe saw a dim green glow.

‘Gorb?’ he said, his startled response a rasp that turned into a fit of coughing.

From Chiel’s skull came a chittering. Crowe crawled backwards, backing into the wires and tubes. Chiel’s body fell back into the open space, her skinned, bloody face crawling with dozens of things that looked like Gorb. More and more appeared from the hole, until Crowe stared at a small crowd of them, standing over the body of Chiel. Some looked Crowe at expectantly, others simply continued to strip Chiel of… everything. It was a feeding frenzy. It reminded Crowe of the rats. Yes, the rats!

Crowe put out his hand. His barely healed pinkie was the first thing he offered to the little things. From the concave shape of Chiel’s head, a single bloody thing emerged. It had to be Gorb. Crowe moved his hand closer to Gorb, his nostalgic memory overwhelming his sense of fear. Somewhere, practically in another world, the work-vox rang its warning. Gorb floated over its kin, hovering over to the outstretched pinkie. The first bite was a painful pinprick, just as Crowe had expected.

‘That’s it,’ Crowe said calmly. ‘I’m a friend, see?’ 

The crowd of Gorbs began to stalk towards him. He pointed to Chiel’s half-devoured body, not even thinking the gesture through. His mind was lost in his own freed memories, decades of Imperial warnings and customs not even entering his thoughts.

‘I brought you food, see?’ Crowe put out the rest of his fingers in offering.

Now, hundreds of things like Gorb were coming from the hole, their light chittering combining into a rumbling buzz. Those closest to Crowe were sampling his fingers, his arms, his toes… The bloody thing called Gorb watched its kin feed. Its tiny machine brain could barely comprehend exactly what it was seeing. What it did understand was the sudden command to run back into its hole, descend into the darkness below and inform its master of what lay above.

About the Author

Hank is a student at the University of North Dakota, studying history and communications. He’s an avid 40k fan and is especially interested in the lore, most notable the role that faith plays in the 41st millennium. His favorite factions are the Adepta Sororitas and the Tempestus Scions