Short Fiction

Machine Ways

Machine Ways

An unofficial Warhammer 40,000 Short Story
Written by Delio Pera
Reading Time: 24 minutes

I’d thought I’d be able to see my home as I left. I’d pictured it so many times, the transport punching up through the clouds as I watch my receding home shrink ever smaller. I should have known that what I’d leave in would be an old windowless clunker.

“Here,” said Gasselum. The pilot handed me a strip of rawhide. “Bite on it,” he said. “This ol’ girl gets real shaky.”

Real shaky? When the engines ignited I thought she would explode. Bite down on the leather? I could hardly keep my mouth shut. My eyes hurt and my head shook so hard that I drifted in and out of consciousness. After some minutes, a sort of equilibrium was reached and the shaking settled into a hum.

Once free of Norso’s gravity, I noticed the weight of my body. Or, I guess, the lack of weight. It wasn’t a switch being flipped, but a gradual thing. The effort I needed to lift my arm from my chair’s torn up armrest lessened and soon I felt my limbs and torso as though they were separate things connected only by joints. Before the weightlessness of space, my body had always felt as a singular thing; once free of Norso’s atmosphere it seemed I was a collection of parts.

I waved my left arm and looked at each of my fingers. I saw them as individual digits connected to my hand, my hand to my arm by way of wrist, forearm to elbow, and on to shoulder. I reached into my hair as it moved about my head in a swirl.

The vox in the cabin where I sat with the half dozen other passengers crackled to life.

“How’re you doing back there?” Gasselum asked. There were murmurs and nods from the others. “Feel free to unbuckle and move around a bit. Try to sleep. It’s another sixty-five hours to the moon.”

 

Norso is a manufacturing planet: a place where millions of components are made. The moon-sized shipyards and Hivecity planets get all the attention, but without places like Norso, the tanks, starships, Titans, and even the lowly lasgun would sit unfinished. Norso is one of the planets where small actuators, pistons, cog arrays, fasteners, joints, screen casings, and hinges come from. Thousands of factorums litter its surface and produce more waste than most minds can imagine. Those tonnes of scrap are sent to Norso’s moon where it’s either smelted, recycled, or sent on its way for other uses.

I grew up on Norso, one of the few humans who lived there. Few compared to other planets at least. When I headed to Norso’s moon, the population of the factorum planet was somewhere around a million. Most of us served as minders to the billions of servitors. And watching over the human’s shoulders were the one hundred and seven tech-priests who guided Norso for the past three thousand years.

 

I woke to Gasselum, remarking on Norso’s moon in the way a travel guide talks about grand sights.

“… is where the steel is sent, and those bright flames there are the furnaces that have been running day and night for the past six hundred and twenty-eight years.” The vox cut out for a moment and the freighter’s engines kicked. ‘You doing okay back there, Boyslen?’

That was me. Oeller Boyslen.

“Yeah.”

I don’t know why I answered. Gasselum couldn’t hear me. He could see me via pict-feed, but there was no vox linking the crew cabin to the pilot. I nodded and gave him a thumb’s up.

 

Every ten years a trip was made to Norso’s moon to drop off its latest human watcher. The hundred and seven tech-priests would prefer the moon be run by servitors and overseen by one of their own, but the Imperium insists on a human presence. Most Norsoian’s think “human presence” was meant to be more than a single individual, but the hundred and seven have the final say and follow the Imperium’s rule to the letter.

Two thousand years ago, the humans debated the hundred and seven on the matter. They explained how humans need the company of each other. Some clever arguments were made explaining how the hundred and seven came and went to the moon as they pleased, visiting each other when they wanted. So the tech-priests, in an act of fairness, decreed that only one of them would be stationed on the moon at any given time. The other hundred and six would remain on Norso. The sole tech-priest’s watch on the moon would last a hundred years before they returned to Norso. In this way, the Mechanicum was able to say they spent ten times as long on the moon as the humans.

It wasn’t so bad though. At least I didn’t think it would be. Maybe I was naive as to how long ten years really was. Admittedly I’d only seen two full decades at that point and, at the time, to think I’d be in my thirties when I returned home was something I couldn’t truly appreciate.

I wasn’t all bright eyes and wonderment though; I did have concerns. For one, I worried that my parents wouldn’t be the same when I got back. It wasn’t that either of them were ill when I left, but a lot can change in ten years. My little brother had turned nine a month before my departure and imagining him almost my age when I saw him again made my head fuzzy. It was hard—no, impossible—to picture. At that time, his head came even with my waist and I had to kneel for my goodbye hug. When I returned I figured we’d be about the same height. That alone was weird to think about.

I had other thoughts too, dark ones that I tried not to dwell on. But if I’m going to be honest, I suppose I should air them.

I wondered what I would do when I returned home and someone I knew had died. The chances of that happening in ten years was better than I wanted to consider. If everyone I knew was still perfectly healthy, breathing, alive, and only ten years older, it’d be a small miracle. God-Emperor alive, I hoped that was what happened, but I wasn’t stupid. The reality of existence said that such was less than likely. It was almost a given that someone I knew would have joined His side in golden light.

I prayed it wasn’t anyone close.

Gasselum put his freighter down with the subtlety of a bomb. Grinding and tearing echoed through the cabin as we half crashed, half landed. I was glad then that there weren’t any windows; I can’t imagine they would have survived such violence.

Once we came to a stop and the doors opened, I tasted the air and wondered how long it would take to get used to. It was similar to Norso’s in that the taste of metal filled my every breath, but its metallic taste was rustier, drier, and dirtier on the moon.

The moon was a wasteland of towering scrap heaps. Servitors clambered over piles of junk metal in search of pieces worth smelting.

A few hundred feet away from our landing spot was one of the moon’s dome pillars. The five-thousand-feet-tall spires that held the moon-spanning dome aloft had bases as big as small cities. Apparently there were gardens on the moon. I’d seen them in picts, but where we landed there was only red metal, black oil, and brown earth; not a hint of green.

A couple of servitors made their way to us. One had three legs and the other moved on articulating treads. In time I would call the first Triod and the other Scraps. Not the most interesting names, but they were what came to mind.

“Hey, hey. Is your boss around?” Gasselum scanned about for the moon’s sole tech-priest. “And where’s Tamber?” He chuckled, his arms open. Ready to give the kid a hug. “Hey, Tamber,” he yelled. “Where you at?” His voice got lost in the endless junk.

The servitors said nothing. Their heads jerked as they looked at us and the freighter.

“Go on,” Gasselum told the others with us. “See if you can find Tamber. Meet back here in two hours.”

 

Gasselum and I walked past scrap piles toward a small recyclereum. Dozens of servitors milled around, carrying armfuls of junk metal into the structure belching black smoke. I’d never seen so many different machines. Some moved on legs, some had wheels, others, like Scraps, had treads. No two looked alike. I spotted a servitor with ten legs skittering up the side of a junk heap as one of its five eyes watched us. The other four scanned where it went while its arms grabbed bits from the heap, tossing parts into a heavy canvas bag hanging from its back.

“God-Emperor alive, it’ll be wild seeing Tamber again,” Gasselum said. “Ten years is so long. I don’t think the tech-priests realize how much of a human’s life that is. I suppose when you live for thousands of years, ten must feel like an afternoon.”

“He was about my age when you dropped him off?”

Gasselum rubbed his jaw and thought for a second. “I think so, yeah. How old are you?”

“Twenty-two.”

“I think he was a little older. Twenty-five, if I remember correctly.”

 

We entered the small recyclereum and looked around, but saw no sign of Tamber, only more servitors. We continued searching for the moon’s previous watcher, now and then calling his name, but we never heard a response, even an echo, our voices getting lost in the mountains of junk.

Triod and Scraps followed us. At the time it didn’t occur to me to try asking them any questions. After a couple hours of searching and finding nothing. we made our way back to Gasselum’s freighter. The others hadn’t found Tamber either and were finished unloading my supplies. The things I would need for my years on the moon.

“Well, I wish I knew what to tell you,” Gasselum said. ‘Here’s rations for your first six months. You’ll be sent another load every five. That gives you a month of overlap.”

“Alright,” I said. I knew this already. It’d been gone over more times than I could remember in the months leading up to my time on the moon.

“Be safe and stay sane,” Gasselum chuckled. We shook. Palms to forearms.

 

I spent my first week getting myself set up in the watch station. At least when I wasn’t crying. I never would have admitted it then, but I have no feeling about it now. That was so long ago, it feels like it wasn’t even me. In many ways it wasn’t.

I sobbed. Day and night. I think there were a few days where I did nothing but cry and drink water so the tears would continue to flow.

When I finally calmed down and got a look at my surroundings and the place I was to call home, I did find signs that Tamber had been there, but it didn’t look as though he’d been by in quite some time. I wondered what had happened to him. The moon’s dome prevents all vox traffic to Norso and thus Tamber, myself, and all those before us were completely cut off from our families and friends. Something to do with the lead shielding.

Triod and Scraps followed me wherever I went. At first, their company was an annoyance. I asked them why they didn’t do anything else. Didn’t they have work to do? Why follow me? What was I doing they cared to watch? They never answered. At least not in any way that I could understand, but that would begin to change.

I’m getting ahead of myself though.

 

By the end of my first month, I’d gotten into a groove. I ate a simple breakfast, then went on long walks. Evenings were spent in the watch station. I talked to myself, asking questions as, “How long did it take for that scrap heap to get so big?” and “How many ways can I prepare these rations?” My conversations, if you can call them that, were circular and, more often than not, ended without resolution.

The title of overseer was misleading. The mantle sounds as if those in my position actually oversaw things, even implying that an overseer might have a say in how things on the moon are run. There was no truth to that whatsoever. I was stationed on the moon to fulfill an Imperial rule: that a human had to be there. Nothing more. There must have been some byline requiring the human to be alive, otherwise I’m sure the hundred and seven would have planted a corpse in a box and called it good. Look, there’s a human. So what if it isn’t breathing?

I encountered dozens of servitors in that first month, but it was Scraps and Triod that stayed with me wherever I went. They were the last thing I saw before I went to sleep and the first thing I saw when I woke. Their jerky head movements and twitching bodies that I’d at first thought of as faults started to take on meanings. There was a sense to the way they juddered.

 

More than anything else, my first year was a test in acceptance. Accepting that I was here and couldn’t leave was the first challenge, then I had to accept the time. Ten years alone. Ten years of the same sort of food. True it wasn’t much different back home, but at least I shared it with people I loved. On the moon my only company were the servitors, and rarely any others besides Scraps and Triod.

Near the end of that year, I had an accident. I suppose boredom and a desire to get a better look at my surroundings impelled me to climb the highest junk pile I could find. I’d climbed other piles before, but this one was far taller. Triod followed me while Scraps stayed down on the ground floor, its treads unable to make the trip. As I climbed, Triod led the way, clambering along and scoping out sure handholds for a stable path. It tapped where it was safe for me to go with one of its three legs.

All was fine on the way up. I took my time, double checked each hold for my hands and feet before moving, and after what had to be at least an hour of climbing, reached the summit. I could see for miles. Junk piles littered the moon’s surface in every direction, the rolling pattern broken only by recyclereums and the towering dome pillars. I sat there and cast my view over the scene for some hours.

Triod sat nearby in silence. Only moving when I did, watching and gauging me, prepared to leave at a moment’s notice if that’s what I decided. By that time I learned that there was more to Scraps and Triod than the mindless automation I’d assumed when I first met them. I don’t know if you could call it a personality, but nothing else fit. For example, the way Triod tapped a piece of metal as we climbed the heap had a certain humor to it. As if saying ‘You sure are fragile, needing me to guide your every step.’

For the first year my comments to Scraps and Triod were offhand remarks, nothing I expected a reply to. I spoke to them the way I talked to—or at—machines back on Norso, like, “Oh, what’s wrong now?” or “Come on already,” followed by a quick rap. Not at all the way I would talk to a friend.

My accident came on the way down from the junk pile. Once again Triod led the descent, tapping those places it deemed safe for me to hold and step. Due to no fault of Triod’s, my hand slipped. I lost my footing on a rusty plate and fell, but my hand was caught.

In the span of a thought, I knew what was going to happen and I cried out. The fingers of my left hand were stuck in a metal grill. Before my foot gave out, my hand had been placed flat against it. I’d consciously avoided putting my fingers into it for fear of the very thing that happened. Yet when my foot gave out, my hand, of its own accord, grabbed what it could to stop my fall. The weight of my entire body hung from the first three fingers of my left hand, and my skin was beginning to tear.

A memory flashed through my mind. I was back on the freighter that brought me to Norso’s moon, feeling the weightlessness of space as gravity ebbed. That was the first time I felt my body as a collection of parts, fingers, hands, feet and legs, all connected to a torso, controlled by a brain in a head that was informed by senses.

I tried lifting myself up; no good. I tried swinging, but the added strain on my trapped fingers was excruciating. An ever-growing stream of blood ran down my hand, to my wrist, onto my forearm.

Then, the strangest thing happened. As the pain grew, so did a feeling that it was separate from me, isolated at the point where my fingers connected to my hand. True, the pain spidered out from that point, but that was only its source. More blood ran down my arm and onto my shoulder, reaching my chest. The metal grill continued biting into my skin, tearing deeper as I hung. I was turned in such a way that trying to use my other hand to get a hold meant turning and pulling even harder on my caught fingers.

Triod scampered over the pile, twitching, clacking, looking at my hand, then moved to a spot below me. Its frantic movements spoke of frustration and concern.

With blood continuing to run down my arm, onto my chest, even reaching past my waist and wetting my legs, I began struggling to stay conscious. My head swam, the scene grew too bright, my vision blurred.

I shook my head.

Big mistake.

 

When I woke I was back in my station hut. At first I didn’t remember what had happened. Then it all came back and I sat with a start. I wondered how I’d gotten here, then saw Triod, Scraps, and a couple other servitors. They all stood back, a few more in the doorway looking in. If concern can be felt by machines, it was plain to me that’s what they were expressing.

I knew something was different. I knew I’d changed. Some piece of me that I’d taken for granted most of my life had been altered. When I swung my legs off my bed a shiver ran up my left arm and I knew, without a doubt, that I was not the same person who had climbed the scrap heap. One person had gone up, and a different one had come down.

At first I didn’t want to look. The servitors seemed anxious though, taking tentative steps toward me only to scoot back again. They were excited and wanted to share in this moment, yet gave me space. Somehow word of my waking had traveled and more and more machines came to see this changed version of the human that lived with them.

Still I refused to look.

My insides churred, my gut convulsed. I came close to throwing up. I put my hand on my stomach and tried to steady my breathing to calm myself. I had to consciously tell my right hand to be the one to move, still unwilling to point my awareness at my left.

I could only put things off for too long though, and my machine audience had grown to dozens. My room was crowded with them. Small ones, the size of insects, clambered over the walls and buzzed in the air. Triod and Scraps waited in front of me as so many others stood around all waiting for me to finally look at my left hand.

As I said, I knew I’d changed. The collection of parts that made me were no longer the same as they’d been. Was I still human? That was a question then that still lacks an answer.

My left hand was still a hand, but where I’d had three fingers of flesh and blood and bone, I now had two of metal. The moment I lifted my left hand and worked the two new digits, the gathered machines let up what I can only describe as a cheer. They spun what spun, shook what shook, twisted and clattered metal on metal. It was the first time I witnessed machines express joy, but it wouldn’t be the last.

Was my next change intentional? I still waffle between yes and no. Some days I know it was. I know I put myself in a position that would lead to the loss of my left leg. Other days I am certain it was an honest mistake, an error in the extreme. I honestly don’t know which is true. What is undeniable is that as the massive ground scrapper passed by it took my leg with it.

Scraps was there and lit one of its plasma torches, the same it’d used to heat bowls of soup for me. The gushing wound was cauterized in an instant of searing pain. I screamed in agony while, at the same time, felt distant from my pain.

The augmetic leg that the servitors built for me was what I can only call beautiful in a rugged utilitarian sort of way. The pistons and cogs, actuators and wiring, were all visible, protected by a cage of rigid mesh.

 

While I still don’t know what I was thinking when I ended up in the position that cost me my leg, I know full well what led to the replacement of my entire right arm.

I asked the machines to cut it off. I wanted to be more like them, more like the beings I’d come to see as friends.

By the end of my eighth year on Norso’s moon, my relationship with the machines had become something more than I could have ever imagined on my trip there. I understood them. I saw laughter in a twitch, sadness in slowed movements, wonder in the way an eye lens focused.

I’ve yet to mention anything about missing my friends and family back home. I suppose I haven’t brought it up before now because it was the most painful thing about living on the moon. That first year was agony. I know no other word to describe what I felt. It was a pain, a sense of loss, that cut to the core.

Meals were the worst. I dreaded eating for the first couple years. Knowing that when I sat I’d be alone without anyone to talk to was a sorrow that had me contemplating suicide on more occasions than I can recall. I often wondered if that’s what had become of Tamber. Did he succumb to the pain and throw himself off one of the junk heaps?

I never did find out what happened to Tamber.

My only company was the servitors and, as I’ve said, they were cold comfort. At least at the beginning. As time went on I began to find warmth where once I’d found only distant, indifferent, gazes. I’d once seen the way Triod or Scraps came to my hut as a pattern, a thing they did because of their programming. That was wrong; they did what they did because they wanted to.

What does a machine think? Where do its desires, wants, and needs come from? How different are they from humans?

I had plenty of time to think of these things. I believe the base drive at the core of all humans is hope. The foundation on which all other motivation is built is hope to see a new moment, another Now. Be that a new year or another second. Why though? What is it we wish to find? Why do humans look forward to seeing each other? What is it they hope will come from this meeting that didn’t happen during the last? It is nothing more than the novelty of the new? Things I wonder to this day.

So then what drives a machine? Because they don’t hope. At first I thought, as I said before, they were driven by programming. And for some of the more menial ones that might be true (although I’m unconvinced). What of Triod or Scraps, and their ilk? Not to mention those far more advanced, like the hundred and seven tech-priests or the Skitarii. I’m certain, but I think curiosity is what sits at the core of every machine.

Hope and curiosity are similar, even linked in some ways, but they are not at all the same. I’ll use a personal example as I find them best.

When I got to Norso’s moon I hoped, daily. Each morning I would hope for afternoon, and once it came I hoped for night so that I could go to sleep and have one more day behind me. I hoped for the weeks to pass faster than they did. At each dome opening, that distant low rumble, I hoped it was a freighter come to pick me up. I hoped that my time was done, my ten years on the moon ended. Over and again my hopes were unmade. As each day passed another began, and so too the cycle of hope. The dome’s rumble never sounded the arrival of my departure, only more junk sent from Norso.

I hoped I might find Tamber, some other human to talk with. I hoped that each bite of every meal would taste better than chalky paste. I hoped to find a vox capable of penetrating the dome and allow me to talk to my family. My gut would swell with hope when I thought I heard a voice, only for it to be the yawning or groaning of metal. Hope came, again and again, and each time it let me down.

I hoped for nothing when I asked the machines to cut off my arm. I was only curious as to what they would replace it with. I wondered what it would feel like, but had no hopes.

 

A month after my arm was replaced, I held a blade and looked down at my leg, the one I was born with. Next to my metal one it looked so lame and pathetic and frail. A thing that was dirty and in pain more often than not. The alignment with my mechanical left leg was off. Not by much, but enough that after a day of walking my right hip ached.

The scalpel was part of my shipments. A piece of the first aid-kit that was sent with my rations, entertainment, and clothing.

It was curiosity that moved my hand. Curiosity that made me draw a red line from kneecap to upper thigh. I wondered, would it hurt? And, at first, it didn’t. The blade was so sharp there was no pain. Only when I began to peel my skin open was there a burn. Much less than you might expect. There was a sting, similar to a sunburn, but not much more. I’d cut deep enough to reach muscle and blood that ran free, putting an amused smirk on my face.

If you think me sick, or that I’d lost my mind, you’re wrong. Maybe you think my time alone had driven me mad? Being away from my family for nine years had certainly taken a toll on me. I’ll admit I missed them. But it wasn’t madness that moved the blade across my leg, that saw me pull skin, cut bits of muscle, run the scalpel up the inside of my calf to knee and open my leg. It was curiosity.

I wanted to know why I inhabited this form. Also, how much could be altered before I felt it. Yes, there was pain, but I existed beyond that pain. You don’t agree? Pinch yourself. Go on. Do you feel that? Really? I don’t think so. Certainly your body feels it, your nerves do, but not you.

You’re… I’m… well, that’s what I didn’t know.

I still don’t.

But then, as I peeled my skin back I realized that I was both in horrific pain, and yet separate from that pain. I was somewhere else. You might think that I was in shock, but that wasn’t it. If I’d been in shock I wouldn’t have had such clarity of mind. I saw exactly what I was doing. I felt every fiber of fat as I pulled it out, bit by bit, from the muscle. I continued to cut, deeper into my leg until I hit bone.

Machines filled my hut, all there to watch me. I can only assume they were as curious as I was. What makes the man move? How does his leg work? What will happen next?

Using the mechanical fingers of my left hand as forceps and the strength of my right arm I tore chunks from my leg off. I think when I’d begun there was a hint of hope that I might return my leg back to how it’d been before I began cutting. But as I sliced, peeled, and tore into myself hope died and in its corpse bloomed curiosity.

Gasselum’s freighter landed an hour ago and I’ve heard him calling for me. He and his crew have wandered through the recyclereum, stopped into the hut I called home for the past ten years and poked through my things. They looked at food I haven’t touched in months. I eat less now, far less. Ever since I cut out my stomach and had it replaced with a more efficient mechanical one I eat a bite every few weeks.

I watched them from a distance, through gaps in metal girders and heaps of junk. I doubt they would recognize me, my face is more metal than flesh. I almost walked amid them, like some of the other machines did, just to see if there would be a flicker of recognition.

Gasselum has aged ten years and wears every day in the lines in his face. There’s a look in his eyes I might have called sadness before I gave up most of my emotions. You may wonder how a human can give something like emotions up, and I wouldn’t be able to answer you. It’s a thing that happens when you start giving up the rest that makes you human. Are different feelings connected to oneself like limbs? Cut a finger off and you lose the ability to care, cut off a leg and you stop feeling empathy? No, I don’t think it works quite like that. I think it’s a process. That as I lost what made me human, the flesh, blood, and bone bits, I gave up the emotional parts as well. What use did I have for them when machines, not humans, were my company?

The freighter took off, leaving another human on the moon for their ten years as overseer. I watched him for a bit, but couldn’t have cared less about visiting him. Maybe in time I would. Maybe once I’ve given up the last parts that make me human I’ll be curious about them again, but right now all I’m wondering is how to finish what I began.

All I wanted in that moment was to be nothing like that sad, pathetic, human so alone and miserable. I’d been in their shoes once, but that was a lifetime ago.

 
About the Author

Delio Pera lives in Seattle, WA and works a full time job. He finds time to write where he can. You can find more about him on his website and YouTube channel.

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