Short Fiction

The Wheel Must Turn

The Wheel Must Turn

An unofficial Warhammer 40,000 Short Story
Written by Noah Miller
Reading Time: 21 minutes
A Soul of Theseus

I put two bullets in the captain’s brain pan and ended six years of friendship. He squealed a syllable of unidentifiable noise, and died with a queer expression of confusion. I’d risen through the ranks and become his closest confidant. We spent many a night, drinking and pontificating as I provided a mirror for him to love. Through steady, subtle questioning, I’d sniffed out the shape of his entire trade network. I passed that information through an astropath. One that I’d corrupted with bribes and chemical dependency. He bit his own tongue off as his last tainted injection dissolved his veins. I am an operative of The Wheel, and I follow the plan. 

My timed explosives shattered the gellar field generator. I activate my dormant implants. They burn beneath my chest and sizzle esoteric designs of profane provenance into my flesh. Their influence stings at my soul. Yet they save me from the horrors that flood through the corridors. I stumble over the thrashing body of a steward, the unwilling consort of a metaphysical creature. It resembles a pig, and it consumes her from the inside out. 

The coffin sized chamber sits nestled in the cargo hold. Some other agent had smuggled it aboard years before The Wheel assigned me to this mission. My presence activates its mechanisms and automates my escape. What arcane science the device uses to translate me out of warp space is beyond me. I am disassembled and whipped across the galaxy, out of warp space and forcibly birthed back to reality. With a painful flash of light, I find myself back aboard The Wheel. 

There are no congratulations. No rest or relaxation. The Wheel must turn, the work never slows. Servo skulls guide me to my quarters, where a data slate waits for me. The Wheel provides me with tasteless sludge, high in nutrients. I eat and read, and prepare for my next assignment. The sour tin taste of pharmaceuticals tightens my jaw. I swallow anyway. The concoction is designed to dull the coming piano and prepare my mind for the transition. 

The Wheel is an automated station, controlled by an adaptive abominable intelligence. It works to complete a predetermined plan put in place generations ago. A plan that I am only one cog in. I am not privy to the full tapestry, nor will I ever be. Whoever it is I serve, whoever I was when I chose this path, is information lost to me. Still I can’t help but wonder. 

Why am I here? Who am I?

Compartments on the wall open. My fingers struggle on the buttons of my doublet—the past persona of the rogue trader holding tight to my mind. I remind the fictitious personality that it just murdered its closest friend. It gives a final cry as I remove the clothing of that life and shed its attachments to me. I place the clothing in a waiting chamber and watch it burn in a burst of flames. I’m glad to be rid of it.

The skulls nudge me on, pushing me to the room and the machine. It is here that one life is destroyed, and another is crafted. Where my body will be mutilated, augmented, and reformed. The inscription above the door disturbs me every time I read it. 

In perpetuum volvitur. 

The Wheel must turn, forever.

My muscles tighten as I enter the machine. My body cries out to resist, but I know better. The wheel must turn. I’m held in place by restraints that lap across my arms, legs, head and chest. Hot blades slice across my dermis with precision and speed. The drugs do little to help. The pain is all consuming, and in that pain, the poor privateer finally dies. Only when I’m in the machine am I ever myself. It is only during this process that I have access to all my many lives. Jumbled, out of order and confused, but they’re here. No pseudo mind has control. No indoctrinated memories flood the passages of my mental palace. For this moment, I have control.

Needles loom fresh flesh over excised raw bleeding muscle. Discarded sheets of my past skin fold onto the floor in tiny heaps. Mechanism shatters my legs. They’re extended and grown anew. I’ll be taller this time. Thin blades remove my eyes and alter my corneas. I’m given bright blue irises this time. I wish that they’d use clone parts, but that’s unlikely. Clone material could be detected by a skilled biologist. It disturbs me that most of my body is composed of the corpses of others.

As the auto-doc breaks my cheekbones, I’m reminded of a myth from old Terra. 

The Ship of Theseus was sturdy, but over decades of service, the ship, beset by wood rot, had its boards replaced. Each voyage, it loses a part of itself, inch by inch, bolt by bolt, until none of the original vessel remains. Theseus wonders to himself at night, if none of the original components remain, is this still the same ship? While I don’t have an answer for the dilemma, the theoretical boat has a luxury I do not. It still retains its name painted across the bow. My name, however, has been long forgotten. Erased and overwritten with each turn of The Wheel.

Fat stores are injected throughout my body. I’m being given shape and form; it appears I’ll be a woman. Not the first time. 

Out of self preservation, my mind drifts. I ponder the same question I always do when the machine does its painful work.

Who am I?

Maybe, that’s not the right question. Who was I? Did I agree to this life? These short lived violent identities? Lives where my closest friends are the people I intend to defraud and destroy?

Pressurised plates reconfigure the shape of my skull. The pain is unimaginable. To escape, I cast my mind back to the before.

Apostate

My name was Callan, and I am – was – a Terran-born noble, sowing my oats out among the stars. I bounce from paradise planet, to pleasure palace, to underhives, the luxurious vagabond that I am. I’d made quite a name for myself. Dropping untold fortunes and satisfying unspeakable desires. More than once, I felt the pull of a seductive cult and the whisper of dark voices. Only somehow, they could tell my passions were false and gave me a wide berth.

I was hunting a rare breed of endangered shark on the distant ocean world of Acrion. It was here that Deacon Algiaus chose to approach me. A solemn man, with a pleasant demeanour and a light touch. He was charming enough, though his intentions were blatantly clear. He’d drink with me, laugh at my jokes, regale me with stories of the temple’s wars in the outer reaches of the galaxy. Making sure to mention the costs of such an endeavour. These transparent attempts at manipulation would work on your average socialite noble. So I capitulated. 

‘Of course, I’d have to meet the people I’m funding,’ I told him between sips of fine malted liquor.

‘Meet them?’ He stuttered.

‘The front lines! The smell of the battlefield. The taste of blood in the air! Oh my friend, if I’m going to pay for it, I need to see the Emperor’s voice march across those far flung planets!’

He hummed and hawed. I suspect more from fear of travelling there himself than any bureaucracy that would get in the way. Deacon Algiaus was a coward; he was also greedy. I mentioned the amount I could pay, higher than he would expect but not so high he wouldn’t believe it.

They rolled out the red carpet. A small fleet of ships ferried me across the void. At night I was visited by tributes, men and women who gave me their bodies. I was fed cuisines from across the galaxy. They spared no expense. I was a prize.

The temple tendency of these devotees means this memory must be from before the reformation. Thousands of years ago. Am I really that old?

After six months of travel, we found ourselves at the forefront of the war—a strange planet, humans and xenos living in harmony. I asked cursory questions. The type one of my station might ask. Peppered with ignorant slurs, feigning disgust.

By my fifth week touring the front lines, I’d executed one of the enemy, ranged in bombing runs, and participated in torture sessions. I was a war tourist with a front row seat. Algiaus came to me, tittering with excitement. He was coming to visit. The Ecclesiarch! The High Lord! Here, on this distant rock, newly risen in power and freshly minted in station, touring his battlefields, just as I was. What a coincidence, what a joyous confluence of events.

If I were less professional, I’d have grinned, and beamed with pride.

I followed the process, the pomp and circumstance. During my years as this noble, it was rare I’d meet someone of a higher social standing. Let alone the undisputed ruler of the Imperium of Mankind. I added the right level of fear and worry to my voice. 

His attendants announced him, ‘Kneel and receive the visage of the Ecclesiarch, Master of the Administratum, High Lord of Terra, second only to the glory of the God-Emperor. Goge Vandire.’

He smiled wide, his skin held tight across sharp features and piercing eyes. The meeting was brief, and the Ecclesiarch seemed more interested in my family’s influence than my riches. Narcissism and leadership always seemed to go hand in hand. We ended it with a grasp, arm to arm, one meant to reflect loyalty. His rosarius field kept him safe from blasts, blades, even pin pricks of poison. Yet every man has to breathe. Cracking a tooth implanted decades before, I blew a fine powder from my mouth to his nostrils. He sucked it in without even knowing.

Yet, it wasn’t death The Wheel wished to inflict upon him, the end goal was far worse.

His growing madness destabilised the Imperium for generations.

And I returned to The Wheel.

The Educator

My vision is glassy, blurred and unsteady. In the flood of memories, this moment sticks for little more than a brief flash. I am young, thirty or forty. Before me are my students. My children. I wear a uniform, pressed to perfection. I take pride in the insignia strapped to my body. 

Am I a soldier? Who was my target here? Who am I betraying? 

‘The wheel must turn, no matter the cost,’ I lecture them, ‘Behind it we drag society with us, upwards into the light. Should we fail, should the wheel stop, Mankind will skid backwards into the mud, never to rise again.’ 

I try to focus on the rows of students. I see them, their faces, repeated again and again. The same face, stamped a hundred times over. I want to vomit, the pit of my stomach lurches and I’m filled with anxiety. 

Let it slip, the memory is gone and I’m falling through the torrent, reaching for any life to hold onto. 

Fatherhood

I remember a wasteland, filled with scattered fires.

I didn’t have a name this time. My form was large, comically muscular. I’d have rivalled an Astartes. I recall having trouble learning restraint. For weeks I’d break every object I tried to pick up and rip doors from their frames.

Genetic engineering tinted my new skin a dark sage. The machine had scooped out my organs. It replaced them with strange pheromone producing monstrosities. My teeth were sharpened to jagged spikes, and aged to a rotted yellow. Vile jutting tusks were implanted in my jaw.

An Ork? I was an Ork. The Wheel has a peculiar sense of humour.

My first year on Ullanor Prime was spent forcing my way into Ork society. I bloodied my fists. Violent, vicious and wild. More than once, I blacked out, waking to find myself higher and higher among the many tribes.

A part of me couldn’t help but recoil from these beasts. My skin stung deep within. I’d scratch at it until it tore, and bled a gelatinous green that turned red when oxygenated. My blood wasn’t even my blood.

With a sufficient warband at my disposal, I began to preach, and introduce new ideas to the Ork masses. I added nutrients to their food supply, increasing their intake of developmental chemicals. Encouraging mental and physical growth. I taught painboyz the secrets of Ork physiology. I set them loose experimenting on their people. In secret, by candlelight, I manipulated the orkoid fungal genetic code. Allowing newer generations of my tribe to access much older ideas, coded into them by their primogenitors. Social structures, urban planning, limited farming. Even a dormant form of bureaucracy. I gave a kickstart to this xenos race who’d been stagnant far too long.

And then it happened—a challenge to my authority as warboss. As helpful as my insights and discoveries were, I was a thinker and planner, not a warrior. I was weak in the eyes of my people.

We stood in what passed for our city square, the bodies of my enemies hung from poles all around. If I wasn’t careful I would soon join them.

The challenger was massive and young, only a month in age. In time it would grow to an impossible size. It let out a howl that shook the ground. Spittle dripped from its lips and spattered on the ground like buckets of warm rain. Its breath enveloped me in warm uncomfortable clouds. The stench was unbearable.

The creature kneeled, it had to because I was so far below it. I don’t recall ever feeling fear like I did when it whispered in my ear.

‘Father,’ it spoke perfect High Gothic.

I tried to respond but my throat turned dry. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine my tinkering to have so great an outcome. The creature was an impossibility made manifest.

‘I owe you my existence, that gratitude only extends to this moment. Run.’ The beast stood, body receding into the darkness. Yet I could see the glimmer in its eyes as it studied me, piercing into my very being.

I fled, and returned to The Wheel.

Cui Bono

The pain breaks my concentration, I’m back in the present. I watch as my hands are severed and taken off into the dark. I wonder if the ones that return will be the same.

These things I’ve done, I don’t see the pattern in them. They’ve harmed the Imperium, that much is clear. Who benefits? Breeding dangerously smart Orks bloodies the Imperium, but they’re an uncontrollable force. A danger to all. Having the Imperium run by a madman could have collapsed Terra. That madness could have focused outward. Turning an already militant society into an engine of galactic extinction.

Cui bono?

These glimpses led me no closer to who I am, and why I became part of The Wheel. I forced my eyes closed and descended back into the deep turbulent river of memory.

A Kiss

The rust patch had a strange pattern. Almost angelic. Once, an aquila hung here. The mercenaries I had hired were an old company, with ties going back to the origin of the Imperium itself. Their choice of ships reflected that history. Our cargo shuffled behind me, the chains holding its cage in place rattled. I injected a battery of chemicals into its hold. Its breathing slowed as it fought and failed to stay conscious. Too many injections might harm the creature, but better to err on the side of caution than risk failure.

My body was stiff, beaten and bruised. I winced as the electro-cloth stiffened into an instant cast around my broken arm. I wouldn’t have to last much longer, we were closing in on our goal. The ship shook. My vision twisted and I vomited as the ship translated out of warp space.

‘Apologies for the rough exit. This particular tunnel isn’t used that often, but you requested a quiet entry into the solar system.’ The Navigator’s voice rippled out of the ancient loudspeaker.

I took a moment to enjoy the view through the porthole. The system swarmed with flotillas and transports and militarum vessels. Space itself, even this far from the system core, was choked with flotsam and jetsam. We had reached the outer depths of the Sol System. Home, I thought to myself.

Home? Why did that cross my mind? For all I know, I’d never been to Terra. Was this some racial memory? Did I instinctively know the birthplace of our people? Or… Could I have been born here? If so… When? 

The most expensive, and risky part of our endeavour began now. The Wheel spent untold fortunes securing a Rosette of the Inquisition. Not a recreation or a counterfeit, but the seal of an Inquisitor of the Ordos Malleus. Even so, we are questioned endlessly by all manner of security services. Bribes and threats become our currency in the two months it takes us to reach Terran orbit.

My crew are tasked with answering and deflecting the hundred comms calls we receive from all manner of security forces. They’ve trained for this moment for our entire journey and know their roles inside and out. Still, this will only buy us a handful of hours.

Even with the Rosette, direct access to Terra would be impossible. Fortunately, the Wheel had provided. I tore the lid off the crate, being in its presence churned my stomach. My head pounded. My wounds wept. I reached within, the metal burned my skin. It sizzled and sloughed. It was an orb of shifting silver and platinum. Liquid and solid at the same time. From its surface, long protruding tubes connected it to the second half, the controller—the chrome skull of a Necron Lord.

The damn device wouldn’t work without it. I affixed the head over my shoulder with straps, and stood near the cargo. The sphere had melted through to my bone, I couldn’t wait any longer. The skull’s eyes burst with bright green light, and thick clouds of darkness filled the hold. I choked through their noxious fumes, and the cargo sprung to life, screaming and howling, bashing against the walls of its cage to be let free. The shadows sucked in on themselves, pulling us all within the sphere and then, with a whoosh of air pressure, we were gone. 

Inside the darkness, I could feel things reaching out for me, brushing past me. Our three consciousnesses became one for just a moment. My jumbled lives mixed with the impossible hunger of the cargo, and the sterile hatred of the Necron Lord. For that instant, we were a wrongness in the universe. The taste of us disturbed the nature of reality to such a degree that it spat us out like rotten milk.

With a booming announcement through thick clouds of vile darkness, we arrived. Deep within the bowels of Terra. A hundred miles below the surface. In the darkest pits of the old world.

I dropped the orb. I couldn’t wait to be free of its influence. The head screamed at me as I tossed it aside. Both clattered down a massive chasm into the ever growing darkness below. It may still be there to this day.

Dealing with the cargo was my final task. Retrieving it killed a dozen mercenaries. Keeping it locked up took a year of constant vigilance. The Wheel’s plan was for me to set timed charges and make my way to safety. Instead, I unchained the crate, loosened the bars and stepped back. The front slammed to the ground. Reverberating throughout the tunnels.

‘Go… You’re free.’

It hesitated, inching its way out of the dark recess of its confinement. Four clawed hands gripping the edges of the cage.

Its head protruded slowly into the light, which reflected across its ink black organic armour. Its long tongue slid from a twitching mouth. We made eye contact. A Genestealer. One of the deadliest beings in the galaxy. I, its jailer and it, my prisoner.

The creature sniffed at me. Tilted its head. Peered into my soul. I can’t be sure but, in the same way I understood it, it understood me. Our moment as one marked me as one of its own. Or maybe it knew I’d helped it reach a better, richer feeding ground. Or maybe it was blind luck.

Maybe I wanted to end myself. Maybe I hoped it would infect me and send me down a new path. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Instead, the bastard swatted me aside. I slammed into the wall, cracking the ancient tiles that had adorned the tunnel for thousands of years. My skull split, blood burst across the mosaic, and my world went black. Hours passed before I woke. My implants worked overtime to repair the damage, and even then, it was slapdash work. The Genestealer had disappeared to perform its dark trade, and I was lost in the infrastructure of a dead society.

It took a month to shuffle my way back to the surface. I survived on rats, insects and putrid water. The bright orange light cast from the polluted Terran skies burned my retinas. I stood on a walkway between two megastructures and looked out over the maddening mass of humanity below and I–

—I’ve seen this before. This place. This world. I’m from here.

The chatter of crowds below. The screams, the howls of life—

—No! No more. Stop remembering! Follow the feeling. Follow Terra.

Siege

The skies were ablaze with the constant barrage of traitor munitions. The void shield flickered in its last moments of life. Legions of warped mutilated Astartes flooded the palace, bringing a final violent end to the world we built. I wear a uniform, it marks me as a member of the Arcanus Consortio. The intelligence services. I’m a spymaster. The Spymaster. My hands are… wrinkled, frail. My skin is paper thin. I’m old, very, very old. Decrepit.

I can’t imagine that this body serves any useful purpose to anyone, least of all myself. There’s no way the Wheel would ever design a form for me like this one. My chest was tight, my mind filled with regret, and I wept. Real human emotion flooded through me. This was my first life. My true life.

I stood at the window of my expansive office and accepted the truth. It was over and we had lost. The dream had died. I think of Theseus again… Why?

‘Your name. Theseus is your name.’ The voice hits me from behind.

I turn around. He’s there. A massive being. In deep shimmering blue armour. The three headed hydrae painted on his pauldron. Ghost Legion… Alpha Legion. My sons.

‘I’m not your child, Theseus,’ he says. Can he hear me?

‘Yes. Of course I can, and you know why,’ it wasn’t a question.

He was right, I understand, and it fills me with despair.

‘Good… Say it.’

‘You– you did this to me. You put me in the Wheel… Strato? You are Strato, aren’t you? You Alpha Legionnaires look so alike.’ I feign confidence, but he can see right through me.

‘You never had trouble telling us apart, old man. You know exactly who I am. Who else would go to these lengths?’ He laughs.

Stratos, my greatest student. Before the war, before the crusade, before their Primarch was discovered. I taught those early recruits everything I knew about subterfuge. I raised you into the duplicitous bastard I always knew you could be.

‘This was the moment. You were there, at that window, crying… Crying! And I forced my way up this tower. I murdered your entire organisation. You could hear me coming, one death at a time. I made them scream your name as I crushed the life from their chests with my hands. It was indulgent, but it was so beautiful.’ He removed his helmet. Such hate behind those eyes.

He was always theatrical. It was one of my main criticisms. Stratos did great work, but he needed to be seen doing it.

‘That right there, that is why you’re in the position you are now. That arrogance. I may have had flair, but only because I took pride in my work. You were a tyrant. A baseline human who thought he could command the lives of immortals,’ he says with contempt.

I taught lessons, hard lessons you had to learn.

‘You sacrificed us like pawns.’

Yes, I used my agents to complete the assignment. In perpetuum volvitur. The wheel must turn. Forever. Regardless of the cost! We are building an empire to last the test of time, and the wheel requires blood.

‘How is that working out for you?’ He waved his hands at the window, and I turned my gaze to the atrocity framed in the intricate gold leaf designs.

‘Your Imperium bleeds. Is that blood enough?’ He chuckled and I wept. He placed his gauntlet upon my shoulder, gently without intent to harm, but with all the malice his black soul could muster. He held my chin with the other, forcing me to stare out at the clouds of smoke, bursts of bolter fire, streets flooded with blood and sparks of daemonic energy flowing through my life’s work.

‘Have you figured it out yet Theseus? The real purpose of The Wheel?’ he whispered in my ear. ‘I took you from your petty palace of lies and built the Wheel to torture you. I could think of no better torturer than yourself. The intelligence that runs it is patterned off your own mind. Its only goal is to send you on mission, after mission, after mission, destroying all that you love most. Your Imperium. For all time.’

I turned, and looked at him with horror in my eyes. A vile concoction of emotion floods through me, the sheer staggering darkness of his machinations is frightening. I made such mistakes training a generation of monsters and unleashing them like a tide on the galaxy. Yet, there’s another part of me, the mentor, who feels… pride? 

My son, reaching heights I could never imagine. The Wheel is a stunning creation, a torture wrack ad infinitum. A precision tool turning your enemy’s greatest strength into its greatest weakness. Pride is too small a word for what I feel. 

‘Don’t do that, don’t try to turn this into your victory you decrepit old man,’ he sneers at me, pounding at his armoured chest. ‘I did this, me! Strato! Not you!’ 

‘How long has it been?’ I ask.

‘Oh, nine… ten thousand years? I’m either long dead or I’ve forgotten about you. But this here, this little tableau? We’ve done it every time,’ his eyes narrowed. His voice darkened. ‘I want you to remember what I’ve done to you. I need you to experience this fresh pain every single time we turn the wheel.’

He smiled and the wheel turned.

True pain flooded my system. I was back in the real world. The familiar click and buzz of mechanics marked the end of my journey. The smell of burnt flesh dissipated. My eyes were new and struggled to focus.

I screamed. Desperate to hold onto these revelations. If I can buy just a little time, I could do something about it. Somehow I’d be able to save myself, save the Imperium, and stop the wheel turning.

By the time my feet touched the floor, the memory had faded, and when I stood it was gone.

The centre of the maze is dark and lonely, but the wheel must turn.

In Perpetuum Volvitur

About the Author

Noah Miller is a writer/director/animator from Los Angeles, CA. You can see more of their work at www.theopposition.party, including the short film Alien: Alone from the 40th Anniversary Alien Celebration.

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