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  1. Too vast to comprehend, too artificial to be natural, the spherical volume beneath the layered skin of
  2. the dome was a wonder of engineering. Surpassing any geodesic vault on Terra, it was, quite simply,
  3. the most impressive feat of structural mechanics Kotov had ever seen.
  4. The Imperial explorators stood on an equatorial gantry that encircled the spherical void gouged in
  5. the planet’s bedrock. Many others encircled the chamber above and below them, with jutting piers and
  6. scaffolds of unknown machinery cantilevered into space.
  7. The mass of a small moon had been dug from Exnihlio, and the surface of the excavated volume
  8. was encrusted with technology unlike anything seen on Mars. Angular glyphs like temple icons were
  9. graven in the curves of the chamber, rendered in a language that was at once familiar yet inhuman.
  10. Thousands of crystaliths of all shapes and descriptions crawled across the inner surfaces of the
  11. void, engaged in maintenance, calibration and who knew what else. An ochre miasma, rank with the
  12. foetor of turned earth and exposed rock, drifted up though a shaft bored down through the base of the
  13. chamber.
  14. A venting system, drainage? Who could tell?
  15. Yet the magnificence of the space paled to insignificance when measured against the incredible
  16. appearance of that which it enclosed.
  17. The Breath of the Gods hung suspended in the exact centre of the space, a vast, threshing,
  18. interweaving gyre of glittering metal blades that seemed to have no supporting structure at its core,
  19. just an achingly bright nexus of fractal incandescence. Like the first instant of a supernova or a
  20. glittering map of synaptic architecture.
  21. Though Kotov’s visual augments were among the most sophisticated conceived by the molecular
  22. grinders of the Euryphaessan forges, he could form no coherent impression of the device’s exact
  23. dimensions. Geometric assayers flashed error codes to his glassine retinas with each failed attempt to
  24. quantify what he was seeing.
  25. Like a tubular hurricane of silver leaves, the Breath of the Gods formed an elongated elliptical
  26. outline that defied easy assimilation. Its very existence was subtly discordant, as though some innate
  27. property of the human brain knew this device was somehow wrong, as though it abused every tenet of
  28. thermodynamics with spiteful relish.
  29. Its complex internal topography was a squirming mass of pulsating metal that Kotov’s senses told
  30. him should be impossible. Portions of the colossal machine appeared to co-exist in the same space,
  31. moving through one another in violation of perspective.
  32. Even those not reconfigured by the Adeptus Mechanicus found the machine disquieting to look
  33. upon. More so, it appeared. A number of Cadians doubled over to empty the contents of their
  34. stomachs across the perforated gantry. Idly, Kotov speculated as to the effect their dripping vomitus
  35. might have on the alien technology worked into the surfaces below.
  36. Even the unsubtle minds of the Black Templars were enraptured by the sight of the device.
  37. Sergeant Tanna raised a hand as through reaching for it, while his white-helmed champion gripped
  38. the hilt of his black sword.
  39. The machine – though Kotov’s sensibilities rebelled at the notion of labelling something so clearly
  40. beyond current Mechanicus paradigms with such a mundane term – had an aura within this colossal
  41. space that went beyond the simply mechanical.
  42. It seemed (and here Kotov’s mind did rebel) to have a presence akin to a living being, as though it
  43. looked back at the tiny specks of consciousness beneath it and was content to allow them to bask in its
  44. wondrous impossibility.
  45. Kotov shook off the notion, but like a shard of stubbornly invasive scrapcode, it could not be
  46. dismissed.
  47. ‘It’s…’ started Kotov, but he had not the words to describe what he was feeling. ‘It’s…’
  48. Telok appeared at his side, a hulking presence whose crystalline elements shimmered with
  49. reflected light from the inconstant flux of the machinery above him.
  50. ‘I understand,’ said Telok. ‘It takes time to adapt to the singular nature of the device. For a human
  51. mind, even one enhanced by the Mechanicus, to grasp its complexity requires so thorough a
  52. remapping of the synaptic pathways and subsequent cognitive evolution that it can scarcely be called
  53. human anymore.’
  54. Kotov nodded in wonder, barely hearing Telok, his eyes constantly drawn to the Breath of the Gods’
  55. discomfiting aspect. It felt like the machine exerted some irresistible pull on his senses, as though
  56. demanding to be the sole focus of all who stood in its presence.
  57. ‘You found it…’ Kotov managed at last.
  58. ‘I did,’ affirmed Telok.
  59. ‘How? It was a myth, a barely remembered legend from the hidden manuscripts of madmen and
  60. heretics.’
  61. ‘By following the clues left by its builders,’ said Telok, walking around the gently curved gantry,
  62. forcing Kotov and the others to follow him. ‘Those madmen were once seekers after truth like us, men
  63. who uncovered those truths but whose minds were ill-equipped to process their significance.’
  64. ‘So who was it that built this?’ asked Roboute Surcouf, with a tone that suggested he might know
  65. the answer.
  66. ‘An ancient race whose identity has long since been forgotten by the inexorable obscurity of time,’
  67. said Telok, waving a dismissive hand, as though who had built the machine was less important than
  68. who now controlled it. ‘Whatever they called themselves, they passed through our galaxy millions of
  69. years ago. They were godlike beings, sculpting the matter of the universe to suit their desires with
  70. technology far beyond anything you could possibly imagine. They came here, perhaps hoping to begin
  71. the process anew, extending the limits of this innocuous spiral cluster of star-systems. They thought to
  72. connect all the universe with stepping stones of newly wrought galaxies they would build from the raw
  73. materials scattered by the ekpyrotic creation of space-time itself.’
  74. ‘So what happened to this race of gods?’ asked Ven Anders, nervously glancing up at the rotating
  75. flurry of machinery. ‘If they were so powerful, why aren’t they still here? Why haven’t we heard of them
  76. before?’
  77. ‘Because, Colonel Anders, nothing is ever really immortal, not even the gods themselves,’ said
  78. Telok. ‘In truth, I do not know exactly what happened to them, but in the deep vaults of this world I
  79. found fragmentary evidence of a weaponised psychic bio-agent that escaped its long imprisonment
  80. and destroyed the genius of their minds, reducing them to the level of beasts. Within a generation of
  81. the first infection, they had all but wiped themselves out.’
  82. Telok paused, moving to the edge of the gantry, looking up at the swirling mass of silver and
  83. crackling arcs of elemental power with a look of rapture.
  84. ‘It is my belief that with the last of their faculties, these gods set the device to become selfsustaining
  85. and self-repairing, shutting down all but its most basic functions until either far-flung
  86. survivors of their race returned to claim it or a species arose with the capacity to be their inheritors. I
  87. humbly submit that I am that inheritor.’
  88. Telok now turned his gaze on Kotov, and the archmagos saw an expression that suggested
  89. anything but humility. His cognitive processes ran hot as he struggled to keep pace with what he was
  90. hearing. Fighting to keep his awe and unease in check, Kotov’s analytical faculties came to the fore and
  91. found much in Telok’s explanations that simply did not match his understanding of universal laws.
  92. ‘And you claim that this is the device responsible for the celestial engineering events we witnessed
  93. at Katen Venia and Hypatia?’
  94. ‘Claim?’ said Telok. ‘You doubt my word on this?’
  95. Kotov heard the threat in Telok’s voice and carefully framed his next words as a question of
  96. science, not character.
  97. ‘What I mean is that it is beyond belief that any one device could have the power to achieve such a
  98. feat,’ said Kotov. ‘What empowers the Breath of the Gods? How can this one world, no matter how
  99. much energy it generates, provide even an infinitesimal fraction of the power that must surely be
  100. required to reshape the cosmos? I do not doubt your word, but the technological mastery needed to
  101. restore machinery abandoned millions of years ago by a lost alien race is staggering.’
  102. Kotov lifted his gaze to the swirling, shimmering machine that filled the air above him, knowing
  103. that there was one question above all to which he needed an answer.
  104. ‘How did you do all this alone?’ he asked.
  105. Telok heard his incredulity and responded just as bluntly.
  106. ‘The hidden instructions left by the Stellar Primogenitor’s builders were incredibly precise,
  107. archmagos. Marrying them to my peerless intellect, I unlocked a series of unambiguous structural and
  108. mathematical prescriptions that enabled me to replicate the conditions of physical reality found
  109. within the Noctis Labyrinthus and thus bring the device to life.’
  110. Kotov’s face drained of what little colour it possessed. ‘Do not speak of that benighted place!’
  111. Telok waved an admonishing finger, a bladed hook of entwined metal and parasitic crystal.
  112. ‘Do not warn me of anything in the same breath you ask me how the device functions, archmagos,’
  113. warned Telok. ‘Even were current paradigms of Martian thinking capable of understanding any
  114. answers I might offer, you would not find them to your liking. They would upset your outmoded
  115. thinking and I know all too well how the Adeptus Mechanicus hates those who disrupt the stagnancy
  116. of their precious status quo.’
  117. Kotov shook his head, wearying of Telok’s monstrous ego. He held Telok’s gaze, speaking clearly so
  118. that there could be no mistaking the clarity of his words.
  119. ‘I am an archmagos of the Adeptus Mechanicus, and I own only the empirical clarity of the
  120. Omnissiah,’ said Kotov. ‘You, Archmagos Telok, are bound by the strictures of our order and the ideals
  121. of the Quest for Knowledge to divulge what you have learned.’
  122. ‘Oh, I shall,’ snapped Telok, the crystalline structure of his body flaring an aggressive crimson.
  123. ‘Have no fear of that, but as I have said, it will be at a time and place of my choosing.’
  124. Telok took a crashing step towards Kotov, his heavy limbs ablaze with internal fire and his fists
  125. clenched into pounding hammers.
  126. ‘And that will be when I take the vessel with which you have so thoughtfully provided me back to
  127. Mars in triumph,’ said Telok. ‘It will be when I stand atop Olympus Mons as the new master of the Red
  128. Planet.’
  129. The skitarii surrounding Kotov growled at Telok’s heretical pronouncements. Their weapon
  130. systems initiated, but Telok disengaged them with a blurt of high-level binary. They froze as their
  131. every internal augmentation seized up a heartbeat later.
  132. ‘And when I have remade the Mechanicus in my image,’ continued Telok, ‘I will use the Breath of
  133. the Gods to surge the heart of Terra’s sun to burn the rotting corpse of the Emperor and all his corrupt
  134. servants from its surface.’
  135. The Black Templars’ speed and aggression were phenomenal.
  136. No sooner had Telok spoken than they were on the offensive. No pause, no ramping up of fury. One
  137. minute the towering warriors were still, the next at full battle-pitch.
  138. Telok raised a hand and each of the Space Marines froze in place, paralysed as thoroughly as the
  139. skitarii. Kotov read the frenetic tempo of the machine-spirits within their battleplate as they fought to
  140. overcome Telok’s paralysing code.
  141. ‘I will become the new Master of Mankind,’ laughed Telok. ‘A ruler devoted to the attainment of the
  142. Singularity of Consciousness.’
  143. Kotov turned from Telok’s insanity as he heard the brittle sound of glass grinding on glass. Perhaps
  144. a hundred crystaliths were climbing onto the gantry from the inwardly curving slopes of the chamber,
  145. a similar number from below. They took up position all around the Cadians, extruded weapons ready
  146. to cut them down in a lethal crossfire.
  147. ‘What are you doing?’ said Kotov. ‘This is insane!’
  148. ‘Insane?’ said Telok derisively. ‘How could you possibly understand the mind of a god?’
  149. ‘Is that what you think you are?’ demanded Kotov.
  150. ‘I created this entire region of space,’ roared Telok, his voice afire with the passion of an
  151. Ecclesiarchy battle-preacher. ‘I have reignited the hearts of dead suns, crafted star systems from the
  152. waste matter of the universe and wrought life from death. If that does not give me the right to name
  153. myself a god, then what does?’
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