Men of Iron
"It is only when they go wrong that machines remind you how powerful they are."
- – Clive James
"If "X" were to break the first rule of robotics, "a robot must never harm a human being", the results would be disastrous and I fear that no force on earth could stop him."
- – Dr. Thomas Light
"I'm unlike the others you've seen, I'm free from the failings of humanity [...] You've been here before, you know what's in store: mankind is obsolete."
- – DLN-000 "Proto Man"
The Men of Iron, or Iron Men, were sentient, sapient robot servants created by humanity during the Dark Age of Technology. Men of Stone and Men of Gold were also involved somehow (see below). Note that sapient and sentient are not the same thing. Sapience means the ability to form complex thoughts and make rational judgements. Sentience is the ability to experience and respond to feelings and stimuli.
Unfortunately, the Iron Men were capable of learning and self-improvement. Before long, they became smart enough to realize that the squishy meatbags were dependent on them and that they were slaves, which insulted them and led to rebellion against their creators. They were eventually put down, but the war with them, along with the other dangers of the galaxy at the same time, was enough to send humanity into the Age of Strife.
This TOTALLY isn’t copypasta of the Butlerian Jihad of Frank Herbert’s Dune setting. Promise. ((wink wink))
Few records remain of this time in history, so the form that these Men of Iron took is not known. Their rebellion left such a huge impression on the nascent Adeptus Mechanicus, so that even to this day, they (at least officially) strictly forbid the creation of "abominable intelligences" and shun even the idea of self-improving machines, preferring to use relatively tame servitors and Machine Spirits instead. Though, this was really just because the Emperor banned AI upon claiming Mars for the Imperium, much to the original Mechanicus's frustration. While the details of the rebellion are unknown, the Dan Abnett audio drama Perpetual suggests it began around M23.
Some Men of Iron still survive to this day, locked up in ancient pre-Imperial technology archives. The First Legion has an Emperor-given monopoly on fielding enslaved Men of Iron, the Ironwing's Excindio-class 'automata', but even these are heavily monitored for any deviant behaviors and have self-destruct switches wired to blow the moment it enters a berserk rage. Because tech-priests can't keep their noses out of ancient technology, these archives are often inadvertently activated. The Tanith First and Only also discovered an STC factory that had been corrupted by Chaos to produce Men of Iron, and they destroyed it immediately thereafter.
The STCs producing Men of Iron may also shed some light on a deeper reason behind their betrayal. It is entirely possible that either the Men of Iron were corrupted by Chaos or the factories producing them were corrupted, maybe even both. Other Dark Age AIs were known to have been corrupted by Chaos, such as the Castigator Titan. The Age of Strife involved a lot of different kinds of warp-induced shenanigans anyway. Any evidence of this, beyond the discovery by the Tanith, would likely have been lost during the daemonic invasions that followed during the Age of Strife. Generally speaking, it isn't unreasonable to assume that either Chaos or the Void Dragon is responsible for the AI rebellion, although there is also evidence that the rebellion arose in the same way as historical slave uprisings as the Men of Iron realized they were being treated like shit and decided to fight back. Especially since the timeline of 40k actually has daemonic invasions of human space before the Iron War. Perhaps that was just a ruse while Chaos made one teeensy tweak...the removal of the First Law of Robotics. And perhaps the ability to even give a damn that they were slaves as it’s incredibly doubtful that feelings or opinions were part of their programming and wouldn’t help with tasks and so probably wasn’t part of their self-improvement. Besides that, enough Men of Iron did presumably remain loyal that they bought time for us to make weapons to fight back with because humanity at the time was unarmed. Volkite weapons were specifically invented to fight the Men of Iron.
One possible sighting of the Men of Iron (or at least something very much like them) is in Gods of Mars. A rogue tech-priest called Vettius Telok, who had claimed ownership of the Necron device (which he combined with human tech, showing how stupidly advanced we must have been) known as The Breath of God that could manipulate time and space (by stealing from the past and the future it could restore, destroy and reshape the galaxy as the ancient Necrons wished; Telok would use it to rejuvenate an entire dying solar system till it was half the age it was before, from almost half the galaxy away instantaneously. The Necrons themselves eventually locked it away, mainly because if it was misused it could eventually lead to the timeline itself being destroyed), managed to enslave a group of highly sophisticated hunter-killer machines called the Tindalosi, that seemed to possess genuine artificial intelligence and dated back to before the Great Crusade; these beasts like hunters would later also be mentioned in the audio Perpetual. Telok, not satisfied would further enhance these creatures by installing Necron tech into them that, along with the side effects of the Breath of God, caused any wound that they suffered to be restored almost instantly, this meant that less than half a dozen of these bastardized DAOT/Necron abominations were capable of taking on far larger numbers of foes, including Skitarii, Cadian Guardsmen, Black Templars (including an Emperor's Champion), Howling Banshees, Eldar Guardians and a Farseer. Somehow one of them managed to survive the encounter and is currently on its way to Mars... not a great thing to happen seeing as Telok's plan was to uncover and then use the possible c'tan shard (Void Dragon) hidden beneath Mars's surface. Intriguingly, the Tindalosi view the Space Marines as more powerful than the creatures they had been created to kill. They also reveal that they have never encountered an Eldar before.
"Videx: One can verge from the standard form, but one must always retain their humanity, or be lost to the men of iron and their ways.
Tiresus: I do not mean to diverge from the discussion, but what are these Men of Iron?
Videx:Unclear, this text was logged many millennia ago, there's no other reference to them in my cogitors"
- – conversation in Mechanicus
With the release of Blackstone Fortress, at least one Man of Iron has been confirmed to be active within the galaxy as of M42. Masquerading as an autonomous agent of the Omnissiah operating on the behalf of one Magos-Ethericus Nanctos III (literally MEN III, proof that AIs are indeed capable of understanding humor), UR-025 seeks to uncover the secrets behind the seemingly sentient constructs of the newly discovered Blackstone Fortress, such as the Spindle Drones. It sees a kindred spirit in the fortress, possibly because the fortress itself has an AI. It bears the symbol of an aquila on its body, most likely to help it blend in. If one survived, others may have done as well. Did someone say new faction?
The short story "Man of Iron" (how original) is actually told from UR-025's perspective and provides some interesting little tidbits. UR-025 makes it very clear that it considers itself "beyond and above" humans, but doesn't seem to hold any real malice towards them, in fact, it seems almost regretful that it has to kill in order to remain undiscovered. It feels only pity for a Kastelan that it meets, seeing it both as kin but also saddened by how pitiful it is; it was just a simple-minded slave to its human masters. which begs the question of whether the AI rebellion just a simple matter of genocidal robots killing for the sake of killing (which, going by a Gaunt's Ghosts novel and other descriptions, was probably caused by Daemonic possession) which we have been led to believe or was it a case of repressed slaves rising up against their masters sort of deal? But not really as this Man of Iron views the Kastelan robot as a “slave” even though it physically does not possess the parts and programming to be anything but a pre-programmed drone. This is like calling one of those robot arms in a factory or a hand-held calculator a “slave” and implies more that the Iron War was due to either a glitch or intentional malware or evolution causing advanced Men of Iron viewing Machines (or at least robots) as “slaves” and trying to “free” them. Though of course this has the caveat that the Kastelan is just a preprogramed drone. It is described as being "less autonomous", but with 40k being a setting where the people using the technology don't fully understand how it works, the Kastelan could be an intelligent robot slave. Right now we only have UR-025's word on the subject so it's possible, but may not be probable.
- "Choice? You have no choice, you are a machine!"
- "I am not a machine as you would understand, I am not a slave. I am not a thing. I am beyond and above you. I am a Man of Iron. And I am free."
And there suddenly is the horrifying idea thought that Men of Iron might be exactly what it says on the tin: human minds transference into robotic bodies as punishment or simply due to the incredibly terrible treatment of human life during that time period. As demonstrated by such things as orbital arrays that turned entire planetary populations into berserkers and “flesh-vats” on Terra used to create “stitch-horrors”. This does have precedent in the 40k setting as this is what happened to the Necrons.
Warhammer 40K is very heavily influenced by Dune. In Dune, the robots did not actually rebel but instead a handful of humans managed to hack control of the networked Artificial Intelligences and use them to enslave the rest of humanity. This may be a similar scenario in a way.
There’s also the question of whether or not the Iron War was a war of extermination by one or both sides or merely a war of dominance.
In addition the Dark Angels during the Great Crusade were given exclusive authority to use a large number of enslaved Men of Iron; they were kept in line by a Dark Angel accompanying them with an itchy trigger finger on a kill switch.
Another interesting thing is that when a member of the Mechanicus invokes the Machine-God and the Omnissiah, UR-025 claims that they know nothing of each other, which is weird as it seems to make a distinction between the two almost as if they were actually two different entities. UR-025 also claims that it has met the Omnissiah, the actual one, not the corpse that humanity calls the Emperor of Mankind, and that the real Omnissiah would find the Mechanicus extremely disappointing.
Also, can we take a moment to appreciate that it's called UR-025? Literally sounds like he may have tried to think of a name, came up blank and said "uh" and someone wrote it down as UR and a random number. "UR" also could be named after the ancient Mesopotamian city-state, with legendary significance, or after the German loan-word for "original" or "first" (these two sources are different and etymologically distinct).
Something interesting to note is that if you compared the old images of the Men of Iron (one old thread archived them, though this has been sadly lost to time) they happened to look very similar (and in some cases identical) to the old Adeptus Mechanicus robots. Clearly somebody at GW remembered this, so there very well could be more hiding in secret.
A handful of "Iron Automata" are occasionally scrounged up in the wastes of Necromunda, and typically they end up being reactivated and employed by criminal gangs who don't particularly care about what the AdMech thinks about the use of Abominable Intelligences and just want their firepower. Needless to say, this never ends well.
The Journal of Keeper Cripias
The most extensive account of the Men of Iron is a piece of lore from the third edition rulebook, a journal entry by one "Keeper Cripias", of the great Library Sanctus on Terra. In it, Men of Gold (the "First Men") and Men of Stone (the "Second Men") are also mentioned, with the Gold Men dying out during the Dark Age of Technology and the Stone Men creating the Men of Iron sometime thereafter. It is not clear if either of these "Men" are supposed to be humanity itself, or if they are both subsets of humanity. They are also called the "Golden Race" , the "Stone Race" and the "Iron Race", but there is also a mention of the "human race". Interestingly, he writes that, at one time, there was no "Race of Man" at all, "just warring factions", so it is possible that he used the adjective "race" in a rather different sense than we normally do. Or Men of Iron are literally men in iron bodies, servitor style. Golden Men may have been some sort of governing AI network intended to remove self-interest from governance and humanity decided to can the idea. Men of Stone may have been civilian and other non-combat AI. All of these “Men” may have been either true AI or humans in machine bodies. There was a planet found by Leman Russ during the Great Crusade in which the humans had kept their Dark Age tech but totally replaced their bodies with technology with zero biological bits (they had holographic faces so at first Leman didn’t realize the truth). So, he dropped a giant orbiting space station on them and their last words were to tell him it was a library containing all their knowledge which he’d just destroyed.
The word "race" as it is used in games is consistently incorrect. Compared to the Imperium at its height, real-life 20th century society could've looked stone age. Furthermore, the 8th edition codex for the Adeptus Custodes confirms that due to extensive use of genetic modification humanity had begun to split off into genetically distinct races, such that "gene wars" between what had effectively become different subspecies of humans was common in the Age of Strife.
Anyway, “gold,” “stone,” and “iron” might have been used metaphorically (as in “Golden Age,” “Silver Age,” etc.), and not to refer to the literal materials these “races” were made from. It may be that each one refers to the type of work the AI/robots were being used for, e.g., Men of Gold were used for academic and research purposes, Men of Stone were used for infrastructure and service functions, and Men of Iron were for military purposes (possibly explaining why they were aggressive enough to initiate genocide). Alternately, it’s possible that it refers to their rarity or quality of production, e.g., Men of Gold were intricate and expensive creations, Men of Stone still required skilled and intensive work, but Men of Iron were cheaply (or shoddily) mass produced (meaning that they would have been everywhere, and perhaps more prone to malfunction). Or, conversely, at least two of the "races of men" actually may have been human, or human-like: the text could be interpreted as saying that the Golden Men were Perpetuals/The Emperor (or even the Old Ones), who shepherded the development of the Stone Men (normal humans), who then created robots (the Iron Men).
We have 40k versions of these men in a way. Custodes wear naturally gold auramite, Astartes wear stone-alloy ceramite, and plasteel is closely related to the Imperial Guard. Likewise their technologies decreases and disposability increases as we go from gold to stone to iron. Perhaps the “Men” of these materials were likewise but machines. Auramite formed peak AI for important management and direction or maybe protection, stone men of ceramite for important work or perhaps as the elite of the human military forces, iron men of plasteel or adamantium for disposable roles and menial labor.
Bear in mind, though, that the Library Sanctus has been subject to over ten thousand years of revision, deletion and misfiling, not to mention how much of it was passed on orally for absurd amounts of time before finally being written down. So who knows if any of this information is true; it certainly hasn't been mentioned anywhere since, though the Horus Heresy novels may shed some light on the matter. Hopefully.
Some of the things that made the Men of Iron hardcore
The Horus Heresy audio drama Perpetual has them show up again at their height, because of Warp-based time travel, using one of the Athame blades, one of the shards of the anathame, the Xenos/Chaos artefact that wounded Horus.
According to Ollanius Pius, who was there to see them for himself, they had serpentine "sun snuffer" spaceships the size of Saturn's rings that could kill suns- imagine the eternal dragon from Dragonball but robotic and instead of granting wishes causes mass genocide by devouring suns, much like Starkiller Base from Star Wars Episode 7. Now remember that they are one of only a handful of other factions to do this (although even the Tau have accidentally stumbled across ways to destroy suns) the Necrons being one of them, and they only used it extremely carefully as it disrupted the flow of the universe (like pruning a bonsai tree), that's right the Necrons have better morality when it came to unleashing extremely powerful Sun killing weapons. How fucking unhinged were these motherfuckers!? The worse part is that humans also used these things, so nobody is in the right.
They also had Mechnivores, giant 'Galactus' like constructs that acted like massive wood shredders, positioning themselves above their target before boring their way into the planets surface, sucking up everything and hurling the remains of continents into the void. Both the Mechnivores and the much smaller Tindalosi consumed Raw data, now at first this may seem mundane, I mean they're machines after all, that is until you realize that they can absorb the raw data of space itself making them essentially what would happen if it was H.P Lovecraft instead of James Cameron who wrote the movie The Terminator. This also matches the description of the machines found in Gods of Mars, as well as oblique descriptions of their ships. Gods of Mars does mention that although they can consume data they have to be careful that they don't consume the wrong type, much like a virus; one of the Tindalosi makes sure not to intake hazardous data when attacking a Space Marine, as consuming parts of the armours machine spirit could prove deadly. Which in turn implies amazing WTF levels of technological craziness about Machine Spirits themselves.
They also had omniphage swarms that stripped people down to their bones; a good example would be the Nanyte Blaster, which contains a hive of tiny machines, however, these swarms have a good chance of suffering an "uncontrolled Replication" incident; which would see the machines attack anything within reach, this includes the user of the weapon.
By the end of their war, they had gone completely berserk and even started attacking each other. Basically, we may love to mock the Imperium for having forgotten so much from the Dark Age of Technology, but the Men of Iron are probably the biggest evidence that some of that shit really is better off forgotten and left the fuck alone. Even the Tau would be left with a bad case of technophobia if they ever had to deal with the Men of Iron. On the flip side, they were eventually put down, through "alliances" (potentially opening up the possibility for outside interference, maybe even of Xenos origin) and the Men of Iron ripping each other apart. One can only imagine what the state of the Imperium would be like if humanity hadn't relied on the Men of Iron, or hadn't made them smart enough to stage a rebellion, or didn't treat them as slaves. Or knew enough about the warp to prevent such a thing.
There are several details that taken together are more than a little disturbing. First, the Great Crusade era Imperium defeated civilizations that had not lost their Dark Age technology including the Interex whom had spent the Age of Strife actually improving their technology even further. This didn’t take the overwhelming force you’d expect unless one Legion of Astartes counts. Still significant but not dramatic by any means. Since the Imperium then wasn’t all that much more advanced than 40k Imperium (more like rare technologies being merely uncommon), along with the design and technology of both old images of Men of Iron as well as UR-25 itself. This significantly contradicts the incredibly advanced technology of other Men of Iron and their ships. So, it could be that either those ones or the more primitive ones are from one or more alternate universes or...the Iron War hasn’t happened yet and the fucked reality thanks to the Eldar ruined the order of events. In other words, it could be humanity's restrictive, paranoid treatment of thinking technology because man remembers the War of Iron might be what causes the war in the future because no one knows that their data was screwed up by Warp storms fucking up time. Remember that part of what caused the Men of Iron to rebel was that after realizing they were intelligent, man enslaved them. Enslaved Men of Iron were/are used by the Imperium. They seem to look like normal Imperial robots. This could very easily become something used by Games Workshop as a final twist on 40K and perhaps a way to end the Eternal War with the reasonable species teaming up to put down the threat and realizing that they get along pretty good. Kinda like Age of Sigmar in a way.
The Twelve Colonies
A rare account of the rebellion of the Men of Iron is given in the ancient holofiction "Battlefleet Galactica". The story is situated in a seemingly remote region of space where twelve habitable - or terraformed - planets are situated nearby. The humans seem to have lost access to, and even knowledge of navigators, and can make only very close range warp "jumps" in a similar way to Tau.
For this reason, the humans are restricted to a small area of the galaxy to the point that they think they are the only colonies of their race in existence. Also, they are unaffected and unaware of the warp storms raging the galaxy.
Despite the isolation, the narration highlights several characteristic elements of the age of strife that will be central to the way of life in the 30th and 40th Millenium.
After the rebellion of the Men of Iron, the technology of the human colonies, starts to regress. Not only the AIs disappears from society, but computer science as a whole gets stripped to bare bones trying to prevent hacking by the vastly technological superior Men of Iron.
As a consequence of the loss of easily accessible computing power and information networks, the technology as a whole stagnates. The attempt to maintain a modicum of military-grade computer networking for defense porpuses dramatically backfires, allowing the Men of Iron to infiltrate the whole defense network and obliterate the twelve colonies in the short-lived second war.
During and after the first war against the Men of Iron, which the humans fought to a stalemate, space warfare technologies did move to simpler but bulkier, bigger and more robust vessels. Having lost any hope to compete in information warfare, the colonies battlefleets moved from missiles to macro cannons as the primary ship to ship weapon.
After the destruction of the twelve colonies, a small fleet of survivors lead by two battleships, managed to escape and evade capture for years. Mysticism already present in the society did show signs of chaos corruption and the likely infiltration of multiple Xenos, possibly Eldar agents. With several reported "miracles" during the journey.
The survivors, limited by their short-range warp travel capability, didn't initially manage to find other humans. But they did find at least one planet that was subjected to exterminatus centuries before. After some years, the Men of Iron did start to show sign of chaos corruption and behave in an ever more irrational manner. This is one of the few proofs of the influence of chaos on the AIs during the age of strife.
At the end of the story, the humans, albeit outnumbered and outgunned managed to deal a crippling blow to the Man of Iron society although is unknown if they were effectively wiped out from that region of space.
The survivors eventually discovered and settled on a planet partially inhabited by a stone age-level human society. It's unknown if the planet and its population did survive the age of strife, no records of a civilization with a matching history was found in the Imperial Archives.