The Gutter Pearl
An unofficial Warhammer 40,000 Short Story
Written by Gregory Pickett
Reading Time: 14 minutes
Pyrrho woke on the cobbles, the cool mud a balm for his blistered face. Cracking weary eyes, he watched the second-shift workers pass like shadows on a sundial, unmoved by his condition. His eyes closed of their volition, as if to blunt the raw ache of his back. Bells chimed in the distance, heralding night and other things.
‘Today marks eighty years of freedom, eighty years since our forebears cast down the Enemy and its false idols.’ The Administrator’s dull words floated amid the chimes, only to fall on Pyrrho with the severity of stone. ‘Only with the greatest of sacrifices did they succeed, and so we honor them this day with the greatest of efforts. Your service is sacred.’
Pyrrho stirred, causing curious rats to flee his back in favor of the midden on his left. Incensed at the disturbance, they watched him with eyes like piercing gems.
‘To the first-shift, your extra hours do not go unrewarded,’ the Administrator extolled Pyrrho as the sun touched the neighboring rooftops. ‘Even now, He smiles upon you.’
Groaning, Pyrrho pushed himself upright. A spark flashed in the corner of his eye, sending ice crawling down his cramped neck muscles. Tilting his head for a better look, he searched those dark warrens, but saw nothing of that light. The great bells tolled seven times, reverberating gently with the falling twilight.
‘Second shift begins.’ The Administrator’s ageless voice floated up with the cheery notes. ‘He extolls you first-shift, may all venerate your service in their prayers.’ Then the Administrator intoned a sonorous prayer that eased Pyrrho, though he understood only snippets with his Low Gothic.
‘May His will be.’ Breathing the prayer, Pyrrho closed his eyes a moment. He opened them to find that intoxicating gleam spilling out from the Gutter’s rotten folds. His heart twisted, compelling him to throw his arm into the pit. Grasping blindly, he braved slick fur and warning teeth before his fingers found warm metal. Ripping his arm free, he dredged wet filth into the street.
A warm pulse shot through his heart as he clutched the prize. Yet he didn’t dare look, terrified it would disappoint. Then his world exploded into stars.
Blood welling on his cheek, Pyrrho wavered, fighting the desire to pass quietly into unconsciousness. Bleary-eyed, he stared at the armored figure facing him. An iron club smacked in the other man’s palm, impatient and severe as its wielder.
‘Respect His property, everything is in His chosen place.’ Growling, the Enforcer tapped Pyrrho’s shoulder with the maul. ‘Is this not the lesson we accept?’
Pyrrho didn’t dare shy away, he had no illusions of escaping. His stillness was rewarded with a blow to the jaw that knocked him back a pace. Tasting blood, Pyrrho considered himself lucky, a younger Enforcer would have broken his jaw.
‘May He forgive my trespass.’ Mumbling through a split lip, Pyrrho kicked the midden back, both hands clasped to his chest. The Enforcer watched impassively, before pointing his club down the street.
‘Go. It’s getting late. Your place awaits.’
Pyrrho nodded as heran, exhaustion forgotten as darkness closed with the tolling bell. Ten minutes later, he raced up narrow stairs then down a narrow hall of doors. Trembling hands found his keys, scratching the lock in his haste to crack it open.
‘Enforcers coming by tomorrow Pyr,’ Thucydides, a friendlier neighbor, called out. ‘Should…’
Heedless, Pyrrho darted into his room. There he laid his treasure on the lone table, where it caught the wavering light like a trembling bubble. Heart rattling his ribs, Pyrrho listened for the inevitable thunder of fists on his door. Only when the street-lights finally dwindled, did he relax. Snatching his prize, Pyrrho curled up on the lifeless mat he called a bed.
For once, he dreamed.
An uneven field extended before him, colored an industrial gray. He squinted, yet gleaning details from the sludge was no easier than staring into the sun. Casting his eyes up in frustration, Pyrrho saw the meteors. Shrieking down in torrents of fire, they were destined to crush him, yet something compelled him to fling his arms open.
Heat and fire engulfed him, forcing him awake. Lying in the stiff cot, he smiled at the cracked ceiling.
‘Inspection!’ A grim voice rapped Pyrrho’s door. Primed for such an order, Pyrrho shot out of bed and threw open the door. A broad-shouldered shadow waited; face obscured by a crude helmet.
Stomping in, the Enforcer shoved Pyrrho aside. Fear’s cold claw in his gut, Pyrrho kept silent as the man methodically patrolled. Tapping his maul against the wall, the Enforcer heard a hollow thud emanating from a discolored patch.
‘Come here, citizen.’ The low growl reeled Pyrrho to the man’s side, where he cowered beneath the helmet’s emotionless gaze. Staring Pyrrho in the eye, the Arbites punched the wall. Wet clumps of plaster burst from the crater, revealing only trickling moisture that gnawed at paper-thin walls.
Pyrrho would have sighed in relief if he didn’t expect a broken jaw in return. Instead, he kept his back stiff as the Enforcer’s deadpan gaze snapped to him.
‘It seems everything is in order.’ Whispering, the Arbites resumed his patrol. ‘I will notify the Administrator of the repairs. He provides.’
Every time that maul scraped the wall, Pyrrho’s heart tightened painfully, until at last the official reached his squalid nest. Hurrying on leaden legs, he pulled the bed apart. A ragged blanket crumpled on the floor, while his mattress sagged against the wall. Below was a clean floor, which the Enforcer stared at impassively before driving his heel against it. The satisfying thud that followed eased Pyrrho’s heart.
‘Continue to venerate His generosity, and our work,’ the enforcer grunted as the bells tolled. ‘Do not be late.’ As he made to leave, Pyrrho released a sigh. ‘I represent His will.’ Rounding back with a snarl, the Enforcer’s obsidian visor encompassed all of Pyrrho’ view. ‘In my presence, citizens are expected to speak their mind.’
‘Thank you, Enforcer.’ Pyrrho squeaked from aching lungs. His fingers prickled as he clutched that gutter-pearl, savoring the warmth buried in it. It didn’t occur to him that it made a fist.
Lashing out, the Enforcer cracked open Pyrrho’s hand, sending the gutter-pearl bouncing with a lighthearted chime. ‘Where did you find that?’ Rolling the maul in his palm, the Enforcer spoke in a murderous hiss.
‘The gutter.’ Pyrrho stooped over, blindly groped for the delicate thing until an armored boot crushed his hand.
‘He will not be pleased to hear that; the gutter is no place for His children.’ The Enforcer’s words coiled up like a hammer-blow, yet they were not devoid of a pitying tone.
‘Please,’ cheeks burning with tears, Pyrrho said, ‘I’m sorry, I know better! I won’t disappoint Him again, just don’t let Him know.’
‘He already does, citizen.’ The Arbities lifted his boot. ‘But He forgives, for he loves all His children.’ Rising to his full height, the Arbites gestured to that glittering thing. ‘Follow me, His priests will know best what to do.’
Stifling a sob, Pyrrho crawled on his knees to wrap both hands around his treasure. It winked in his shadow, promising everything would be alright. But it looked so fragile that a breeze might tear it to shreds, let alone an interrogation.
‘We all succumb to weakness.’ Suddenly gentle, the Enforcer lay a hand on Pyrrho’ shoulder. ‘Strength is admitting we were wrong.’
Pyrrho eased a fraction then, lips a quivering smile as he stumbled upright. Heart aching with the trouble he had caused, he looked down to what he held so close, determined to see it for the trash it was. Instead, he saw something frail as a child, intangible as an unrealized promise. Cool sweat greased his palms as adrenaline flooded his muscles and tightened his gut.
Pyrrho made up his mind as the Enforcer strode to the door.
Surging forward, Pyrrho sunk the crook of his elbow deep under the Enforcer’s chin. Heaving backward, he folded the man over his knee, as armor plates creaked in faint protest. The Enforcer’s maul cracked against the floor as he reached back, gauntlets pounding Pyrrho’s head. But he had taken the foreman’s blows all his life, and so endured as he always had. A hand tugged his elbow, trying to loosen the chokehold. Hardened by labor, Pyrrho simply held tight and waited for the Enforcer to still. After what felt like a century, Pyrrho heard the seven bells toll, the sound shocking enough to break his iron grip.
The Enforcer fell hard yet without protest, as if sorry to be a bother. Strangely calm, Pyrrho looked at his hands, expecting oceans of blood. There was nothing but that delicate gleam. Wrapping his fist tight about that jewel, he hurried toward the door.
Everything would be all right.
Sweat evaporated on his brow as Pyrrho poured molten steel into waiting molds. For once the heat didn’t bother him, its oppressive force now a dim memory. While his companions foundered with heavy chains, Pyrrho worked with a hum on his lips. Gone was the dismal fugue that turned seconds into hours. His seconds were crisp, allowing him to keep clear eyes on the foremen.
‘Faster,’ the one behind Pyrrho grumbled, voice viscous as the glowing steel all about. Beneath his dark hood, the man’s sweatless face was a suffocating orange as stared across the line at Thucydides, who had dared take a swig from his canteen. He was a large man, broader than Pyrrho, and a head taller.
‘Alright, I’m going.’ Thucydides stoppered the bottle, then hurried just out of range. Whip clutched in hand, the foreman’s large eyes tracked Thucydides, oblivious to assembly line-chains dragging past his side.
Noting the single-minded focus, Pyrrho touched the prize in his pocket before returning to work. Eight hours later, he was on the street, a dying sun reflected in the apartment windows. With the nameless song strong in his heart, Pyrrho returned home.
The Enforcer waited. Pulling off the man’s helmet, Pyrrho felt a pang of sympathy for the bluish face. It looked dependable, in a stolid sort of way, and he suspected they might have been best friends in other circumstances. Taking the man over his shoulder, Pyrrho carried him out. Other workers flit by like exhausted ghosts, ignoring his drunken gait as he navigated the crowds.
Just as the Gutter had hidden the Pearl, so too did it hide the Enforcer. Pyrrho lowered his friend with tender care, ruminating a moment before covering that pale face. Brushing his hands, Pyrrho returned home humming that jaunty tune.
‘Work!’ The foreman garbled, staring furiously, as Pyrrho leaned over the rail to gaze into the golden sea below. Unfolding his whip, the foreman did not notice the loose rivet fall from Pyrrho’s pocket, where it rolled across the ground to stop by the foreman’s boot.
Pyrrho showed no sign of noticing, deafened as he was by the cauldron chains rattling past. Swelling in indignation, the foreman stepped forward, only to find his weight sliding across the delicate pin. Pitching forward into the chains, it so happened that Pyrrho secured one, resulting in a multi-ton weight cinching about the foreman’s neck. His scream was blessedly short even before he fell into the molten sea.
It was a terrible accident, but worse, it compromised the batch’s carefully arranged chemical balance. Pyrrho was the first to stop the line and pour out the slag. The other workers quickly gathered around the scene, faces clouded by darkening moods.
‘Gonna take days to fix this.’ Thucydides crossed his arms, fingers digging into corded muscle. ‘If we’re lucky.’
‘Easy Thucydides, we’ll get through fine, just you watch.’ Pyrrho’s ready smile eased the man a little. ‘It was early in the batch; we didn’t lose that much.’ He nodded to where the remaining foremen watched in baleful silence. ‘They don’t know how this place works; they just make sure we do. Come on, let’s show them we know best.’ Thucydides rolled his eyes but listened.
By the end of their shift, the molds were all cooling into potent machinery for His army. In fact, they had made extras, which Pyrrho had encouraged them to set aside from the foremen’s prying eyes. A job well done engendered a sense of accomplishment that sent the crew home with a warm comradery they didn’t remember forgetting.
To their delight, they arrived the next day to find Pyrrho had taken the place of their absent foreman.
‘I hope you give me the same respect you did before.’ Pyrrho huddled them close with a chuckle. ‘All I got out of this was more responsibility, please don’t decide to bust out the grudges now.’They dispersed with claps on the back, eager to work. Hanging back, Pyrrho waited until they all trundled off to check his pocket, where the pearl winked back.
‘Foreman?’ The man in black lowered his hand, stiffly.
Yanking his chin up, Pyrrho extended a hand. ‘That’s me.’ He didn’t expect a name, Inspectors never offered one. Black would do, the man’s robes were distinctive enough.
‘Yes,’ ignoring the gesture, Black sniffed. ‘I am here to investigate your predecessor. He went twenty years without incident?’
‘Unfortunate, he was an excellent foreman.’ Black stepped within a foot of Pyrrho, his expression flat. ‘Your record, if I may, is unremarkable.’
‘Just followed orders.’ Pyrrho’s words came freely, slipping past the uncertain throb of his heart. ‘Someone had to fill the gap.’
‘Quite.’ Black’s dull eyes soaked up the light. ‘Tell me, have you organized men before? In any capacity.’
‘Never, just seemed we could use some encouragement. People were worried we’d fall behind.’
‘I see.’ Black imperiously scribbled in his notebook in hand. ‘Your residence; apartment Nineteen, Block thirty, correct?’
Pyrrho put on a delicate smile. ‘Is something wrong?’
‘There is always something wrong.’ Black’s eyes tightened into unamused points. ‘One of our Enforcers has gone missing. He was expected to inspect Block Thirty.’
‘That’s not good.’
‘Indeed.’ Tucking his notebook away, Black dipped his chin. ‘Thank you for your time Foreman. I look forward to working with you.’
Pyrrho stared after Black as he left, quiet until Thucydides called out. ‘Hey, you see the Inspector?’ Strolling up, Thucydides nibbled the hard rations that served as a meal. ‘Guy’s been asking everyone about ya all morning.’
‘Hope he didn’t ask you to keep that to yourself.’
‘Didn’t say nothing like that.’ Swallowing, Thucydides stared across the bustling forges. ‘Told him what everyone did, yer the only foreman who cares about us more than his career. It shows.’
‘How’d he like that?’
‘Wrote it down in his little book,’ Thucydides snorted, then pulled himself straight. ‘Listen, if he causes trouble for you just let me and the boys know. Okay?’
‘That won’t be necessary.’ Pyrrho studied the vast machinery cooling beneath his feet. ‘I’ll be fine.’
‘Ah, Foreman, I was hoping to find you.’ Black waited at the factory entrance, pen scratching frantically while his haunting eyes fixed Pyrrho in place. ‘I was hoping you could show me around Block Thirty. I find locals are aware of things that even I miss.’
‘Of course, Inspector.’ Pyrrho set off immediately. Though the streets thronged with sleep-deprived husks ambling home, Black had no trouble following. ‘It’s a bit out of the way, but there’s an old gutter just ahead, people throw everything there.’
‘Mhm.’ Jotting something in his notebook, Black looked up sharply. With a light step, he hurried up to the decaying corridor where Pyrrho had found his pearl. Without a word he waded into the mess, stopped to tear through a fresh pile, then stiffened.
‘This is-‘ He choked off as Pyrrho wrapped an arm about his throat.
‘Yes,’ Pyrrho mumbled to himself. ‘In the end, this will all work out. You’ll see.’ With surprisingly little struggle, Black stilled. Pyrrho held tight for a minute to ensure his hard work didn’t come undone. Soon he lay Black down beside the Enforcer’s bloodless face. He moved only when the second shift bell rang again. ‘You’ll see.’
He dreamed again of the meteors, watching them fall upon the city. Only now did he see the emblem shining upon them, lifting his aching heart. Yet it was all taken from him in the moment of truth.
Pyrrho woke to a thud on his door. It was not the considerate drumming of a guest, but a hammer-strike determined to enter. Bolting upright, he scrambled to his feet. From the murky windows overlooking the street, an unsteady glow cast sinister shadows on the wall. Voices rose in song, wafting over the sill like winter. They didn’t quite overcome a shrilling that sent chills down his spine. Breath catching in his throat, Pyrrho fumbled for the gutter-pearl in his pocket as the door burst open. Wooden scraps skittering across the floor like peals of maddening laughter, prompting him to stare in wonder at what lay beyond.
A grim-faced mob stared back at him; their faces uncertain in quivering torchlight. Stepping away, Pyrrho twisted over his shoulder. There he glimpsed tongues of sulfurous flame, licking stakes ringed by dancing thousands. Their song shook the floor in time with thundering bells. The clamor shook him, reverberating through the trinket in his pocket. Breathless he looked to the door, where those dour statues parted to allow another.
‘Foreman.’ Black’s voice was wet, like something dragged from the grave. His eyes were rat-chewed voids that plagued Pyrrho’s mind. Worse was the putrescence creeping into his sallow cheeks. It was too advanced to have set in the hours since they last met, but he hadn’t seen it before. He opened his mouth, but his lungs were empty. ‘Take him away.’ Black loosed the silent horde with a gesture. ‘Do not fear Foreman, Grandfather forgives trespasses, even against Him. You needn’t even ask.’
Warm hands seized Pyrrho, twisting him like chaff. That precious trinket slipped from senseless fingers. Hearing it bounce on the floor, a frenzy overtook him. Wrenching free of his assailants, he lunged for the bright spark in the darkness. Inches away, clammy hands seized his neck, then dragged him away. He did not see the Enforcer’s pallid face behind those strong fingers, for he was oblivious to all but his glinting prize. Even as the eager boots closed about his face, that shine was all he struggled for.
Stepping into the room’s middle, Black picked up a metal pin. It was a two-headed eagle that imperiously stared down each of its outstretched wings. Admiring the gilded craftsmanship, Black looked to the green night with a thin smile on his crumbling lips. ‘The Enemy, was it?’ Black held the pin up to the flame-lit window. Then he looked to the corpulent shape dancing in those flames ‘Yes Grandfather, this all worked out after all.’
About the Author
Greg is a software developer who finally got to writing out of college. Dawn of War exposed him to 40k, where he was drawn to the dense lore and dark fantasy. Metal, Lovecraft, Blame!, and Berserk are much of his current inspiration as he works on his first (cyberpunk) novel. You can find more of his work at viciousstars.com, following the link below.