Short Fiction

Hourglass

Hourglass

An unofficial Warhammer 40,000 Short Story
Written by Darren Davies
Reading Time: 30 minutes
I

Death’s eye dipped below the horizon and Tobekh walked into the desert. 

The air was still warm, and no-one paid any mind to his departure. He simply put down his tools, turned his back to the generators he had worked on all day, and moved away. He limped across the conduits that snaked across the sands towards the monolithic, miles distant structures of the ziggurats, gave acknowledgement to the bored looking guards still sweltering beneath their heavy robes, and went.

No hand was raised against him as he passed through the site, and no voice spoke out to prevent him from leaving. He ducked beneath the now dormant solar collectors and threaded his way past the utility assemblies, his path seemingly aimless. Initially, he was one amongst many finishing their shifts, brushing sand from the cracks that burdened their skin and dust from the Phaeron’s cartouche stitched onto their robes, yet as others turned away, he continued. At the edge of the camp, where the workers fabricated buildings ended and the desert continued, he stopped.

Hours passed, the shadows lengthening across the sand as the crimson light of the dying sun bled into that of the rising moons, until there was no difference between them. He waited there until a darkly robed figure approached him. It appeared as if from nowhere, rising from the sands like a wraith. Tobekh tensed.  

‘Tobekh?’

 ‘Do you have it?’ His mouth was dry and his voice croaked.

The newcomer inclined his head and glanced over his shoulder, confirming they were alone. ‘I have it, though it was not easy to get. There are fewer suppliers these days, and the Phaeron’s edict is uncompromising.’  

‘I understand,’ said Tobekh. ‘You received the payment?’

‘I did. Are you sure you want this?’

Tobekh nodded, and the cowled figure sighed before handing over a small package. Tobekh took it without looking, hiding it beneath his robe.

‘Thank you,’ he said, his voice low.

‘I don’t know why,’ replied the figure softly. ‘There can be no return once you go. Are you certain this is the right way?’

Tobekh drew breath to speak, but there was no time to explain it all. An eternity might not have been enough.

The figure sighed when no answer was forthcoming. ‘If it is any consolation, you are not the only one seeking this way out.’

Tobekh nodded. He looked to the sky as a wind blew in, the rapidly cooling desert air parting the grey clouds above, and for a moment, the luminescence of twin moons cast his features in stark relief. The light was not as he remembered it, not the pure silver of an untouched night; this carried a sickly sheen, an unnatural putrescence that made him want to look away as soon as he saw it, for fear its taint was contagious.

‘I have to go. There isn’t much time.’

‘There never is,’ said the figure, his voice a dry rustle of understanding. ‘They won’t notice you’re gone until the start of the next shift cycle at least. I’d wish you good fortune, except…’

‘I know,’ finished Tobekh, and fell silent.

For a moment, it seemed as if the figure was going to say something more. He glanced towards the gargantuan mass of stone and metal silhouetted on the near horizon and watched lightning play along its surfaces in response to the power of the engines hidden deep within. Arcs of jade light framed the ziggurat, illuminating the dynastic glyphs scored into its bulk. Tobekh followed his gaze to a line of figures coiling towards it, their slow progress lit by the secondary generators of the construction sites.  

When he turned back, the hooded figure had disappeared into the night. The wind rose again with his departure, and Tobekh risked another glance at the sky before moving away quickly, anxious not to be caught lingering by the overseers. Far too many had been beaten almost to death for minor transgressions.

He walked out into the heavy silence of the desert, the radiated heat of the day leaching from the sand with every step he took. There were no guards at the perimeter; they weren’t needed anymore. The noise of the camp faded, swallowed by the arid desolation, until all that remained were the whistle of the wind and the soft crunch of the sand beneath his feet. He went past moonlight drenched husks of mass transit vehicles once used to ferry workers from the city and trudged on until he came to the hidden transport. It was a crude vehicle, industrial in form and function, used for swift transportation of heavy items, one of thousands scattered across the construction sites ringing the city. Tobekh pulled away the fabric covering it and powered up the machine. 

As he struggled aboard the craft, he paused. His contact had been right; there was no turning back if he went any further, no return from this disobedience against the Phaeron’s edict. That thought alone, a result of a lifetime’s conditioned servitude, was almost enough to snuff out the flame of rebellion.

He leaned against the control panel and bowed his head, hesitating as his resolve drained away. The ziggurats glowed behind him, sky and cloud fleeing before the uncaged energy of the great machines. The workers’ camps glowed with reflected light, those within them effectively prisoners by order of the dynasty.

They would come soon.

Tobekh had seen them once, in a first flowering of dissent when he broke curfew out of curiosity and ventured close to the vast cyclopean engines. He’d watched them descend like carrion feeders from the heavens, swirling around the summits of the ziggurats as if drawn to a flame. Gigantic swirls of translucent energy had coalesced and broken apart as if they were no more substantial than the wind. Yet the wind didn’t resolve itself into nightmarish approximations of faces and distended limbs, didn’t draw the energy of the machines upwards like parasites scenting fresh blood, nor bring with it the soul sapping terror these creatures did. The Phaeron celebrated them as allies, though his words could not dissipate the malevolence nor the burning hunger those entities radiated. There was a name for them, spoken by the workers in hushed tones around crude heaters at night, but Tobekh could not bring himself to utter it.

Once, he had thought they were all components of a greater work, each of them playing their part in the salvation of their species. But no deliverance had come, only the constant drudgery of enforced labour and the count of those who fell by the wayside. The grind had reduced them all, made them a cowed people, either content to be part of the machinery, or too weak to resist those who controlled it.

Not everyone had acquiesced, but those days were past now, the uprisings crushed with predictable savagery. Tobekh’s hand strayed to the package concealed within his robes. Individual acts of defiance were all they could muster now.

His arms shook with sudden weariness. He looked at his hands. There were lesions on his fingers now, thin, silver patches of dying skin that were only a reflection of the disease twisting its way through him. A month ago, they hadn’t been there, and those with medical knowledge said it was a sign of accelerating malignancy.

‘No time,’ he said, his voice no louder than the shifting sands around him. 

The craft moved under his command, lifting away and heading towards the city.

II

The ground sped past in a blur as Tobekh flew. He had little mastery of the craft but pushed it to a place where his skill and feelings of urgency could co-exist without inviting disaster.

The sand sea undulated beneath him, dunes rising and falling in shadow and silver until the low buildings of the city’s outer districts came into view. Already, the long process of surrender to the desert had begun. Enveloping sand crept beneath the doors of abandoned dwellings in slow procession and whistled through apertures left forever open by people who would never return. These were simple dwellings, rough, laid out in ramshackle fashion, league upon league of them, mostly silent now, and mostly empty. 

Dispersed within their confines were the great tomb complexes, vast graveyards built higher and with more care than the homes of the living. Yet the necropolis fared no better than the housing districts; sand piled at the bases of grave markers and tombs, the abrasion of old stone already starting. 

Communal areas were choked with vegetation that had bloomed in the absence of horticultural care before dying off as water supplies were diverted elsewhere. In the gathering dark, the grey tendrils of dead creepers snaking across avenues and clogging walkways looked like collapsed veins. Ossified fruit hung forlorn from dust covered branches, forever threatening to crack and fall.

It was the Phaeron’s decree that things be thus; every effort directed towards the construction of the salvation engines and the dark ziggurats that housed them. There seemed no end to it, and while the builders and engineers were ordered into the desert to toil beneath a sun that slowly killed them, everything else fell into neglect, until the city became populated by silences and memories.  

But even in this quiet place of destitution, dangers still lurked. Tobekh got as close to his destination as he dared before abandoning the lumbering construction craft in the dead ground between an ornate sepulchral complex and a mundane collection of necrontyr dwellings. 

He kept to the shadows, hobbling past the dark shells of abandoned homes. The streets were grey rivers shaded by darkling clouds the colour of slate; little in the way of communal lighting remained active anymore. The engines in the desert syphoned away so much power that there simply wasn’t enough to go around. As always, the people were the first to be deprived.

Tobekh clamped down on the thought. It was too late to change things now.  

His mind drifted, preoccupied with pain and weariness, so much so that he nearly missed the low hum of engines on the street ahead. Drawing back, he huddled in a shadowed recess, pressing his raw hands against the solidity of the wall behind him. The sound grew, a buzzing malignance drawing closer. Tobekh dug his fingers into the soft plaster, trying to ignore the vibration in his chest, a building pressure that threatened to coax him into revealing himself. Light crept around the corner, sickly emerald illumination probing into nooks and crannies as the craft floated slowly forward.

The insectile mass of a ghost ark drifted into view, black spurs rearing up on each side like the ribs of a long dead leviathan. Its high stern curled forwards in imitation of the deep desert skorpekh, as if it were a barb forever poised to strike at some nameless prey.

Figures lay slumped against the dull metal of the machine. Some were chained, while others were simply prostrate, any defiance beaten out of them. Tobekh felt a chill settle in his bones; those few rebels and dissenters who remained were no longer executed but were instead taken out of the city, imprisoned somewhere out of sight in the desert. None were ever seen again. Grim faced necrontyr clad in ornate headdresses and ostentatious armour stood watch amongst the prisoners, in a scarcely better state than those they presided over. Glaives and energy weapons were held at attention as they scoured the shadows for signs of anyone possessing the temerity to break the Phaeron’s curfew. At the rear of the craft, as withered as her subjects, sat the hunched form of an overseer. Tobekh knew his labours in the desert, even though they were part of the dynasty’s great work, would carry no weight if he were caught. He was one of a million replaceable parts.

The ark slid to a stop.

Shouts rose, loud in the stillness, as the guards began clambering down from the machine and marching towards a house in the street. The overseer followed, alighting like a cautious arachnid.

‘No!’

A family was dragged from the dwelling, the adults thrown into the dust and kept there by the reverse ends of glaives hammered into their faces when they tried to rise. A child, as yet unblemished by cancer or tumour, was dragged out and forced towards the ghost ark, kicking and screaming in the arms of her captor.

The mother rose, wraithlike, stumbling after the guard carrying her child. Quicker than Tobekh would have thought possible, she took a knife from her robes and plunged it into the back of the guard, adding a second stab of the blade before the arc of a glaive knocked her from her feet.

She tried to pick herself up, ready to attack again, but the edge of the overseer’s weapon at her thin throat made her pause. Rheumy eyes holding the authority of generations pinned her in place as the overseer spoke. Tobekh couldn’t hear her words, but more guards clambered down from the ark, chains and restraints held in their narrow hands. The adults were bound and thrown aboard the ghost ark, while the overseer stood over the child. She spoke softly, the wind changing so Tobekh could hear the last part of what she said.

‘Every spark of life is precious, little one. This is only the beginning.’

The child looked at her with wide eyes, taking a hand when it was offered, and was lifted aboard the ark with her parents. The overseer watched them, an unreadable expression on her face, before turning her gaze to the downed guard.

‘Will he live?’

Tobekh didn’t catch the answer, but the prostrate necrontyr was lifted into the ark with the others. A dark stain marked the street where he had lain. Tobekh closed his eyes again, unwilling to bear further witness to the resigned despair of the prisoners. To set eyes on the child again, knowing what they did not, might have been enough to break his spirit. In one way, he was glad he and Nasseth had never been blessed.

Once rounded up, there was little chance of escape, and none of justice. The arks were an increasingly common sight, menacing cyphers of the Phaeron’s desperation. He was dying, they said, his bones crumbling to powder, and so he drove his people to death before him in an effort to save his own life. It had always been thus, from the time before his people had first bid to sail the void, and yet the titanic construction effort in the desert seemed somehow beyond even those spoken of in the histories.

Creatures who would be Gods strode amongst them now. Tobekh would not call them that, just as he would not utter their name, and Nasseth had chided him enough times to keep his own counsel when talking to others about it. He had seen their creations in the desert, marching away from the great engines beneath suspended monoliths etched with the Phaeron’s glyphs. The sun had glinted from their limbs, making them radiant in the life sapping light, and for a while, they had all believed. They had all hoped.

The ark rumbled, moving on down the street.  

III

Tobekh waited until he was sure the ghost ark was gone, then risked a glance. The street was as still as the sepulchres that ringed the city districts, and his breathing began to slow. He forced himself to peel away from the wall, to move away from that illusion of safety. He snuck through streets somehow quieter than they had been before, dust devils preceding his footsteps. Progress was slow as he checked corners, listened for sounds of movement, and endured the agony of stretched seconds before shuffling across empty streets. Though the dwellings here in the third circle of the city were roughly fashioned, his tired heart rose a little when he recognised the contours of the building he called home.  

He placed his hand on the door, pausing to feel the rough wood beneath his palm. He laid his head against it then, ignoring the brief spike of pain from his bruised skin, and for a moment, he rested before pushing at the door and going in.

The room beyond was sparsely furnished and lit by low light globes that filled the corners and kept the fallen night at bay.  

‘Tobekh?’

The voice was weak, strained with exhaustion and stretched thin by pain. He moved through the room towards the area they used for sleeping, going to his knees before the raised platform his life partner lay on.

‘I’m here, Nasseth.’

‘You startled me,’ she said, her eyelids fluttering open. ‘I didn’t know if you’d make it back.’ A sob escaped her.

‘I’m sorry I couldn’t come sooner,’ he said, and placed his hands gently on either side of her head. She reciprocated, her hands shaking, and they both managed small, wan smiles as they parted. She was thinner than ever, emaciated almost beyond tolerance. Her skin was stretched across her bones, grey and feverish in the dim light. The disease had taken so much from her, sapping her strength with each day that passed.  

‘You’ve been working too hard,’ she murmured, setting off a brief coughing fit. ‘Did they let you go?’

‘I ran.’

‘They’ll come for you.’ Her breath rattled; the sound of old bones jumbled together.

‘They won’t notice,’ he said, ‘I’m just another body to them.’

She nodded as the lie settled in the space between them. ‘Did you get it?’

He swallowed, afraid that to admit what he had done would make their plans real. ‘I did,’ he said at last.

She blinked, her eyes heavy, and he thought he saw a glimmer of relief in them.

‘You don’t need to do it,’ she said, coughing.

‘I couldn’t leave you alone any longer,’ he said.

The look she gave him carved his heart in two, and if the tumours hadn’t stolen his ability to weep, he might have broken down then, but instead, he reached for a water gourd, tipping a little of the contents over her cracked lips.

‘That’s not what I mean. You can still escape. When I am gone,’ she started, then another fit of coughing stole her voice.

He swallowed. ‘I will. But not yet.’

Nasseth lay back and her eyes closed. The package beneath his robes hung heavy against his side as Tobekh rose and prepared a little food. He had no appetite, and any sustenance Nasseth took was a futile exercise in pushing back the inevitable, but the simple tasks kept him from dwelling on the unavoidable truth.

When Nasseth woke again, he was beside her. She propped herself up a little, the breath wheezing in her chest, and he made an excuse to turn away when she winced with pain and gasped at the effort moving cost her. She thought he didn’t notice. He did, of course. He’d never not noticed. 

He brought the food he’d prepared, and they ate slowly, swollen throats and distended stomachs struggling to ingest the meagre portions. They talked while they ate, and for a brief time, everything else was forgotten. She laughed weakly at some inconsequential story he told, the drink she’d just taken spluttering from her mouth, and the look on her face made them both laugh more, before coughing fits seized them both. It was as it had been when they first knew each other, before the disease was discovered in them. Before the tumours began to grow.

As the night bled to grey, Nasseth sank into the platform, her eyes growing heavy. With one hand, she reached up to touch his face.

‘The hourglass is empty,’ she said.

Tobekh said nothing, hanging his head so she wouldn’t see the grief written in his eyes. 

‘Don’t grieve, Tobekh. We had so much, more than most of our people have ever known.’

‘We can again,’ he began, but Nasseth stopped him.

‘You don’t need to cheer me with false promises. I know my time is near,’ she said, and paused to draw a ragged breath. When she spoke again, her eyes were clear. ‘Listen to me, Tobekh. When our species first ventured out into the void, we met creatures who had raised themselves to a level that exceeded our own. They did not like us, nor we, them. Our aspirations were too similar for us to coexist, I think. They called us cold, though they themselves were cold-blooded. They named us many things, but the worst thing they ever said about us was that we were a species incapable of love.’

Her hand slipped from his face as a coughing fit took her, leaving blood speckled on her lips. She waved a weak hand when he reached for the water gourd and took a long breath.

‘When I first heard it said, during the last years of our long war, I believed it to be a cruel jibe. But it was true, Tobekh. Our people do not love, not truly. The lords are too busy scheming for position, the Phaerons too concerned with indulging their power, and people like us are too short lived and too tired to give it anything more than passing thoughts.’

Tobekh listened, his face twisted in misery.

‘But somehow, we managed it, Tobekh. We loved.’ She raised her hand again, shakily now, and he clasped it between his own. Her eyes grew heavy. ‘You and me. That won’t end when our souls depart. We should be grateful for what we had.’

‘Nasseth,’ he said. His voice was ashes in his throat, the words he had planned and fretted over lost now that the moment arrived.

‘I know,’ she said. ‘I’ve always known.’

He smiled at her, a soft curl of his face stretching skin atrophying with lesions, the brief flash of pain hardly felt at all.

‘I’m tired, beloved. I need to sleep.’

‘Goodnight,’ he managed, his voice thick. ‘Sleep well.’

She nodded, and her eyes fluttered closed.

IV

The world was colder without her.

Morning came, the dull red of the malevolent sun painting the room with growing light, but Tobekh felt no warmth. He sat beside the platform, holding Nasseth’s lifeless hand, and stared without seeing. The world was silent, cocooned by his disbelieving grief. His mind drifted, alighting on things both inconsequential and profound without being able to settle on either. 

When Nasseth became ill, and the nature of the work in the desert became apparent, Tobekh resolved that while she was alive, he too had to survive. He had to live long enough to spare her the fate that was coming for them all. Now she was gone, he had no reason to live, for the truth was that there was no way out, not for any of them. His chest felt hollow, his mind numb. 

Tobekh sat for hours, unable and unwilling to move. But as time passed, reality began to intrude. His hip ached, and his thoughts started to coalesce.

He let Nasseth’s hand go, smoothing her grey fingers, and reached into the folds of his robe. He unwrapped the package.

Beneath the oil-cloth covering was a small, crystal vial. He held it up. The liquid within shimmered orange in the morning light, clinging with vicious tenacity when he tilted it first one way, then the next. This was death in a bottle, saviour and destroyer in one.

Tobekh stared at it for long moments, finally clutching it fiercely in his hands before pressing the bottle against his forehead while his body shuddered with silent reverberations of grief. There would be no internment in the vast crypts for either him, or Nasseth. No honoured laying to rest beside those who had gone before. No veneration as ancestors in the now ceased remembrance rituals held at the start of every lunar cycle. Their bodies would simply wither in the heat of endless days, until they decayed down to dust.

He struggled to his feet and placed the vial on the table. Limping back to the sleeping platform, he stooped to Nasseth’s lifeless body and crossed her arms on her chest before covering her with the sheet she had lain under. He tucked it around her frail limbs, leaving her head and face uncovered. Every necrontyr knew the initial funeral rites, and the room was filled with their dirge as he spoke their words. When he was finished, he smoothed the sheet down and bowed his head, backing away before the sobs rose up in his throat and seized him again.  

He moved around the dwelling, fingers trailing along walls and furniture, never staying in one place for long. There was no feeling in anything, nothing that could bring even a moment of relief, and so he flitted from one place to another, circling the small space like an untethered ghost.

She had wanted him to escape, but where was there to run to? There was nowhere beyond the Phaeron’s reach, no place where the overlord’s loyal followers would not find him. He would die in the deep desert as surely as he would if he returned to the construction sites. What was there but a choice to die now or die later?

The bottle glinted on the table. The light caught it again from across the room, and finally, Tobekh ceased his aimless wandering.

Saviour.

Destroyer.

He had taken two paces towards the vial when the door shattered and splinters flooded the threshold. Tobekh flinched and ducked. Something inside tore with the sudden movement, and pain flared through him. He gasped as he turned towards the doorway, his face twisting in shock. A metallic figure stepped inside, its footplates ringing on the stone floor as it ducked beneath the lintel. As it straightened, Tobekh froze in fear. He’d seen its likeness before, marching away from the ziggurats into the desert. Green eyes blazed with energy above a skeletal frame constructed in a twisted approximation of necrontyr bone structure, enlarged beyond the bounds of the living and made grotesque. Its carapace caught the light and shone red as it advanced. From inside its thorax, a jade glow emanated, casting the death mask of its face in shadow. 

He moved, stumbling towards the glass vial, but the metal figure swept out a long limb. The table crashed over, the khopesh in the skeletal figure’s hand gouging a chunk out of the rough wood. Tobekh fell to the floor, watching in despair as the liquid from the shattered vial soaked into the stone.

The metal construct seized his shoulder and lifted him from the ground, tightening its grip with mechanical bluntness until Tobekh felt his bones beginning to crack. He cried out.

‘Enough.’

The grip on Tobekh’s shoulder eased, then ceased. He flopped onto his back as a smaller figure stepped out from behind the metal revenant. He recognised the overseer from the ghost ark the previous night. A lifetime of servitude forced him to his knees as she swept in.

‘You have defied the dynastic decree and broken the Phaeron’s law. You have been judged accordingly, and found guilty,’ she said. Her eyes were hooded, dead things flickering beneath her heavy headdress. She glanced from where Nasseth’s shrouded form lay, to the stain on the floor where the vial had shattered.

‘Did she die, or did you take her life?’

Tobekh said nothing, cowed into silence.

‘Ah. I see.’ The overseer paused, looking around at the humble dwelling, taking in the rough furnishings, the stone floor, the cramped spaces, until her eyes settled again on the shards of glass scattered across the floor.

‘You sought to cheat your fate. You planned to take your own life after she died.’

Tobekh swallowed, breathing heavily.

‘Your fate is already decided, vermin. You abandoned your duty and betrayed your Phaeron with your selfishness. Honesty now will not make things worse.’

‘I know what you are doing in the desert.’ Tobekh’s gaze flickered to the skeletal construct beside her. ‘What the Phaeron is creating.’

‘Do you? He acts to save us all, by the command of the Silent King himself.’

‘We can’t be saved by dying in those machines.’

The overseer’s laugh was a thin, rattled whisper that was barely a sound at all. ‘You presume to know more than your betters? More than the Phaeron? Such arrogance from one whose face is so close to the dirt. In another time, I would simply have killed you for showing this insolence. But these are difficult days, and so you must be put to use.’

The overseer glanced around the room a final time, her eyes lingering on the sleeping platform, before gesturing to the skeletal figure. ‘Such a waste. Bring him.’

The metal hand descended again, seizing Tobekh and dragging him outside to where the ghost ark waited.

V

The construct put chains on him, shackling his thin wrists to the glyph etched spurs of the ghost ark. He shrank back from the creature, revolted by its cold touch, repulsed by the unliving energy within its metal carapace. Of the necrontyr guards from the previous night, there was no sign.

In a corner of the ark, a robed figure slumped against a spur. His face was a mass of bruising and dried blood, lips split and skin gashed from repeated blows. Gouges in his flesh mirrored tumour lesions. One eye was swollen shut, the other narrowed with pain. Tobekh recognised him as the necrontyr who had given him the vial, but when their eyes met, the figure turned his head away. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered now.

The craft lifted, and Tobekh watched his home disappear beneath the vessel with numb eyes, scarcely blinking as they soared over the city.

He was not the only one to be seized that day. Beneath the unrelenting glare of the red sun, others were pursued, found, and forced aboard the ark. Each time, the overseer and her metallic guardian descended from the vessel, dragging some necrontyr unconscious from hiding places, or sweeping up others from where they wept beside the tombs of ancestors. Not every landing brought success. More than once, Tobekh saw them emerge empty handed, and on the final occasion the ark set down, the overseer came out of a house wiping a dark spray of blood from her face.

He watched her, impassive. She felt the weight of his gaze, and for a moment their eyes met. He saw nothing in them. No understanding, no empathy. Nothing but blind obedience to the dynasty. She turned away, issuing orders to the metal creature, and the communion between them was broken. The ghost ark rose and powered away from the city.

Tobekh had never seen the city from this high up. It lay like a vast spiderweb, fringed on every side by the endless expanse of the desert. Beneath them, a warren of adobe buildings passed by in a blur, homes of menial workers like him, disenfranchised from the wonders enjoyed by their betters. The marvels of technology and the majesty of ships that sailed the void were never shared with his kind. They were a slave caste, dismissed, neglected and disposable.

To the south, at the city’s centre, lay the vast pyramids of the Phaeron and his court, resplendent still in golden sandstone and gleaming marble – the palaces of artisans and practitioners of arcane science; plasmancers and crypteks and technomancers. Isolated pinpricks of light glowed white and blue from the top levels of gigantic obelisks, earthbound stars set against a vast emptiness. As the sun began its decline to the horizon, Tobekh wondered if the courtiers had survived the Phaeron’s proclamations, or if they too had become ghosts populating a dying realm. All of them had failed him in one way or another, from the medical practitioners who had been unable to extend the necrontyr lifespan or cure the diseases which wracked them, to the nemesors and overlords who had been defeated in the wars against the Old Ones.

He knew he would die without receiving an answer.

The sound of metal striking metal made him glance up from his reverie. The shadow of the skeletal warrior fell across him, and besides it as always, the overseer peered down at him.

‘Do not look that way,’ she said. ‘Rather, look outwards to the desert, and what you have helped to create. That is the future.’

Tobekh followed the line of her outstretched arm, to where the death’s eye glare of the sun bathed the ziggurats. The desert shone pink; its purity deceptive from this high up. He knew the sands were dotted with construction detritus, machines and material peppering the landscape, and he felt no pride in the part he had played in the great work. He turned away, only to find his face seized by a metal hand and turned towards their destination.

The ziggurats loomed ahead, black stone and metal facades as high and mighty as the Phaeron’s palace. They lacked its majesty, for these were towers of pragmatism built out of desperation, foreboding structures lacking what little artistry the necrontyr possessed. Though he had toiled at their construction for months, Tobekh had never truly appreciated their scale, nor the miasma of threat that radiated from them.

‘Will I tell you what awaits you?’

Tobekh shrank back a little, the manacles on his wrists clinking together. 

‘Immortality.’ Her voice rose as she spoke, until all in the ghost ark could hear her words. She turned, addressing them all, her arms trembling as they lifted. 

‘The Phaeron has been gifted with the ability to create something never before seen. The allies of the Silent King have passed their knowledge and their power to us, and with it, we will rise anew. Imagine it, never again having to endure pain, never bowing down to the contagions that plague us like a curse. No more weakness, no more illness. We will become strong once more, and we will make the stars ours.’

Her eyes shone with an enthusiasm Tobekh would have thought beyond her. And yet, with the last rays of the sun on her face, all Tobekh could see were the lines on her skin and the welts where the cancer ate away at her flesh. And there, somewhere deep in her sunken eyes, the same fear he felt.

‘You will kill us all,’ he said. ‘Every last one of us will perish.’

The overseer turned with a snarl, becoming a gargoyle reflection of herself.

‘Silence,’ she hissed. The steel warrior loomed over Tobekh and raised its khopesh. He flinched.

‘Your words do not matter. You are nothing. Those who rose up against their rightful lord have already been disposed of, and now nothing remains but the transformation. This is but the first step until we are ascendant over all others. Until we have mastered death itself.’ The overseer leant towards him. ‘This is only the beginning.’

Tobekh might have responded, but the vessel was descending now, passing over the construction sites he had worked on, the staggered line of ziggurats growing before them.

As the ghost ark drew closer, Tobekh stared in stunned horror at the magnitude of the looming monoliths housing the salvation engines. He’d never seen them this close, nor appreciated the magnitude of what he’d helped create.

Fabrications of dark metal marked with dynastic glyphs turned slowly on beds of aberrant green light suspended hundreds of metres in the air. Flashes of lightning in that same, sickly jade sparked between slate coloured obelisks made in the same style as those surrounding the Phaeron’s palace. Stark pillars of dark metal and black stone scratched at the sky, angled sides stepping towards the heavens in defiance of gravity. The size of them challenged comprehension, sharp edged and bleak through their sheer scale. Vast spurs for harnessing and containing energies beyond imagining stretched out from the sides of the structures. The ark fell beneath their dark shadow, joining others until a procession of vessels swept downwards. Below them, lines of necrontyr moved in lockstep towards the cold shade of the ziggurats, watched over by guards. In amongst them, light gleamed from metallic limbs.

Sand rose to cloud their landing. The prisoners were unchained and shoved from the ark in a staccato chorus of cries and moans. Tobekh was dragged to his feet and propelled into a line, dust scratching at his dry throat as he shuffled forwards. To his right, someone in another line refused to move, falling to their knees while they begged for mercy from their captors. A flash of metal was their reward, the butt end of a glaive knocking them senseless. They were dragged away by a pair of guards. 

The lines shuffled forward towards rows of portals on the sides of a ziggurat. Spaced between them were stepped causeways leading to yet more portals embedded in the sides of the structure. A dim glow emanated from each, jade tinged and hungry. Tobekh recoiled, his hesitation resulting in a blow to his back. He staggered and looked around to see the impassive faceplate of a metal warrior, identical to the one who had taken him from his home, staring down at him. He looked past the construct to the overseer, standing on the deck of the ghost ark as it rose in a shimmer of displaced sand, and their eyes met for the final time. When he shifted his gaze back to the metal warrior, he saw no difference between their expressions.

Another blow sent him on his way, and he passed beneath the shadow of the ziggurat into a chamber. The floor was solid, a polished obsidian that reflected what little light there was, and gave the impression of walking on liquid. The temperature dropped, and he shivered, thinking of Nasseth’s hand in his and the warmth of her draining away after her life had fled.

The chamber led into another, and another, alternately small then huge as they progressed deeper into the bowels of the ziggurat. The lines of necrontyr separated, so that each was lost from the sight of the others as they moved forward. The workings were hidden, each chamber more featureless than the last yet sprinkled far above with patterns of ever shifting light. 

‘I’m sorry, beloved.’

The words were a whisper, intended for no living ears, and were lost amid the cries and weeping of his fellow necrontyr.

‘I delayed too long, and in the end, it was too late.’

Ahead, doorways appeared. The line slowed, and when the doors opened, flashes of bilious green radiance pulsed with steady rhythm. Here, the only guards were the metal warriors, each of them identical to the next.  

‘Was it enough if only one of us avoided this fate?’

The doorway ahead opened, and Tobekh walked forwards, the festering brightness from within making him squint as bright spots swam before his eyes. The light was everywhere now, an insidious thing like the sun overhead, crushing life rather than sustaining it. Tobekh found himself in a bright chamber studded with silver nodes. He bowed his head and closed his eyes, the numbness he had felt since Nasseth died forcing his compliance as much as anything else. He no longer cared what happened to him.

He felt a spike of sensation in his back that spread along his limbs. Pain disappeared, the relief making him gasp. He stood straighter than he had in years, but when he opened his eyes he saw the tips of his fingers becoming dust, flakes swirling away above him. There was nothing of what he had feared; no discomfort, no agony, simply a slow disintegration as his atoms were stripped away.

At the other end of the chamber he saw something beginning to materialise, indistinct in the blinding light, something with silver limbs and metal spurs for ribs. Its face was briefly visible; a grinning visage with hollow sockets for eyes that now, at the end, began to glow with emerald light. He might have screamed then, in defiance, in terror, in horror at the end of his life and the scrubbing of his soul from existence.  

But in the final seconds, Nasseth’s voice came to him and felt something like peace as he closed his eyes for the final time.

But somehow, we managed it, Tobekh. You and me. We loved.

VI

The sun baked the shimmering wasteland below. Across the eternal sands, the engines toiled, gathering and releasing the soul-energy of a dying people, while above saviours and destroyers drank the essences of the dead in a futile attempt to stave off a never-ending hunger. And on the ground, the process continued as designed. The living went in, some willingly, others cajoled or forced against their will. On the other side, glimmering metal constructs emerged in streams of silver. Thousands became millions, obedient constructions of trapped energy and circuits and necrodermis, to stand in neat ranks where they would await with the patience of immortality on the orders of their Phaeron.

These were no longer a people who had reached for the stars and tumbled to the earth beneath the weight of their own ambition. That species died beneath the lies of the Star Gods and the hubris of the Silent King. 

In time, the engines of biotransference fell silent, and the necrontyr were no more, replaced with creatures who did not fall ill, suffer in pain, or feel anything at all. 

Into the desert marched the dead. 

About the Author

Darren Davies is a professional engineer living in Ireland with his family, and far too many animals. A long-time admirer of all things science fiction, he fills his spare time by looking for a quiet place to write about the strange things that come into his head.