Of Techpriests and Telepaths
The heavy clang of metal on metal announced the approach of Enginseer Litilus down the corridors of the Rogue Trader vessel The Gilded Ambition long before his crimson robe came into the view of the confused serfs and crewmen crowding the hallways and watching the fuming techpriest from the corner of their eye. As he replayed his previous conversation in his head (literally, as his augmetic eye was implanted recording functions), his rage only increased. Litilus could still hear the smug voice of the Rogue Trader ringing in what used to be his ears…
Litilus had just made his way to the bridge. The owner of the vessel, Lord Captain Regis Flavius Jean Claude van Calrissan III, had just returned with his personal retinue from whatever banal errand it is Rogue Traders occupy their time with. Usually this meant a great deal of work for Litilus: scrap for him to sort through, injured to replace the limbs of, machinery and weaponry to fix, and half a dozen other odd jobs. But this time the Lord Captain had personally summoned him to the bridge, as to why the techpriest could only guess. When the doors opened for him he found himself staring at the back of the magnificently adorned Trader, a glass of unknown but undoubtedly expensive liquid in one hand as he gazed out of the observation pane.
"You called for me, sir?" Litilus asked, his synthetic voice cutting through the air and earning him van Calrissan’s attention.
"Ah, yes! Litilus, was it? I need you to look after a certain member of our happy little vessel and her well being aboard this vessel. A certain psyker girl, by the name of…"
"Akadia, milord." His seneschal flatly interjected
"Akadia! That’s the ticket! Many thanks, my dear Percival."
"My name is Callidon, milord. It always has been."
"Quite right, Percival, quite right. Anyways, Litilus, that last sortie of ours took quite a lot out of our little Akadia, so I think a little company would do her nicely!"
Litilus remained silent for a full minute, trying to process the information he had just been given. "…begging your pardon, sir, but I don’t see why you have chosen me. I have many more pressing duties to attend to and do not have the time waste on frivolous social interaction when-"
"Nonsense, my boy! You of all people should know the benefit of something working at full capacity! And let me tell you, that girl works wonders when she puts her mind to it – do you see what I did there, Percival? It’s what we gentlemen call a pun!"
"Your mastery of Gothic knows no bounds, milord."
"Quite right, Percival, quite right."
Litilus tried to force his way back into the increasingly one-sided conversation "If I may interrupt, I would like to ask again why you chose me. This task falls from my area of exper-"
"Oh, pish posh, my boy! Just think of her as one of those machine spirits you love so much that needs oiling! In fact, I would like you to go pay our dear friend Akadia a visit once a week from now on. Now off you go!"
"Not another word from you! Off you go! Come now, it’ll be fun!"
He spat at the memory. Or would have spat, if he still had lips. Or any sort of a lower jaw. He settled for vocalizing the gesture from the mouthpiece that dominated so much of his face.
"Like that flamboyant egotist knows anything about the work I do! I didn’t sign up just to babysit some Omnissiah damned psyker! 'Just think of her as a machine that needs oiling', he says, 'You of all people should know the benefit of a something working at full capacity' he says! Like some miserable wretch can compare to the serenity of placating the machine spirits!"
Litilus noticed the entire corridor surrounding the door to his assignment's quarters was in disrepair and oddly absent of the bustle that filled the rest of the ship. Rolling his remaining organic eye, he rapped harshly on the portal, wanting to hurry up and get this over with. Some muffled muttering from within and voice shout "Just a minute" over the clatter of dishes was all he received before the door opened and greeted him with the visage of Akadia. Her skin was pale, too pale. He could see that those orange eyes of hers were unnaturally vibrant despite the fact that she avoided direct eye contact. The dark pits that sat underneath them only served to make them pop out that much more. Her hair was short and messy and she wore an equally messy faded purple robe. She smiled weakly at the techpriest "Did you need something from me?"
"Greetings, female. I am Enginseer Litilus. You are the one known as Akadia, correct?"
"Most folks call me Dice." Her voice was barely audible, as if she was talking mostly to herself.
"This gratuitous information is noted. Are you interested in…talking?"
Akadia’s expression shifted to one of confusion as she opened and closed her mouth a few times, trying to get words to come out. "You…want to talk? With me?"
"Those are indeed the words I previously stated."
She paused for a moment, as if unsure what she was supposed to do next before exploding into frenzied motion and ushering the hapless techpriest into her quarters. "Please, come in, come in!" She sped up as she spoke, like she was trying to say everything in one breath. "I just made a fresh pot of tea and would love to share it with someone-and-you-are-the-first-person-who-ever-came-to-see-me-so-have-as-much-as-you-want."
"I don’t drink tea. I have an induction port installed within my esophagus through which I intake a nutrient paste." Litilus still stood awkwardly at the entrance to her quarters, all of his willpower focused on not running away from this entire debacle. "I cannot help but notice you already had two teacups set, no doubt a product of your psyker powers."
Akadia flustered, words failing her once more. "No, uh, actually, well…I-always-do-that."
"I'm not crazy!" She protested a little too quickly. "I'm not. I just…get lonely sometimes…"
They both sat in awkward silence, staring from opposite ends of the quaint table they had sat down at for tea. As Akadia took a long sip from her cup, Litilus scanned the room (once again, literally) with mild boredom.
"I noticed you have no cooking implements"
"Oh! Yes, that! That’s what I do. See, I can actually burn things. You know, with mind. Because I'm a psyker. And stuff."
"I can see where that could come in handy."
"Funny story! That’s actually how I got the nickname Dice! Back when I was in the Guard I may have accidentally liquefied one of my handlers or two over the years. Maybe four. Since then, some guardsmen said surviving being assigned to watch me was like throwing dice." She paused, waiting in vain for any sort of response from the techpriest that sat stiffly across from her. "I'm…not used to entertaining guests."
"That is becoming…increasingly apparent."
"In fact, this is actually the longest conversation I've had in years!"
"Unfortunately, the same holds true for me." "I know what you mean! I just wish less people were afraid of me…"
"Allow me to correct you: I am typically able to conclude whatever business requires my congress with a meatbag long before this length of time has passed."
She craned her neck and looked around the room, twisting in her chair. "I have some books, but those aren’t fun unless you’re the one reading them…I already made tea (By the Emperor, Akadia, you sure are a boring one)…Oh! I know! I have a voxcaster!" She leapt to her feet and began digging through her belongings. "You like music, right?"
Litilus scoffed, a noise that sounded like static. "Music is a fruitless pursuit. Much like art or freeform poetry. Honestly, I don’t see why anyone would-" His tirade was interrupted by a loud slam.
"No it’s not!" Akadia shouted, hands clenched tightly around the device she had previously sought. Her eyes seemed brighter now, as she glowered angrily at Litilus. "It’s not pointless. Music strengthens the mind and soul. It calms the bad thoughts and chases the nightmares away."
His pride would not allow him to back down. "All of which are fruitless endeavors when the weakness of flesh can just as easily be stripped away."
"With music we can sing praise to the Emperor and be reminded of his infinite mercy, even to the wrong like us psykers!"
Litilus stood up and joined her in her shouting match. "Which is nowhere near as productive as a Binary chant to Omnissiah to soothe the machine spirits into function!"
"If music is so pointless, then why would they make machines for it?! I bet if I gave you my music player, you would neglect your precious machine spirits inside of it that you think so loudly about!" Without warning, AKadia’s glare softened and she began to trip over her own words. "I'm so sorry! I-know-your-Omnissiah-must-be-important-to-you-and-I-just-called-you-a-bad-person-but-music-is-important-to-me-and-you-said-"
"You're right." Litilus admitted grudgingly.
"Were you to give me that device of yours, it would go unused. And the machine spirit would go neglected. You give it purpose I never could."
Liltus dipped one of his mechadendrites into his teacup and a multitude of figures scrolled by on his augmetic eye. "According to my sensors, your tea was brewed well within proper temperature range, contained a satisfactory tea-to-water ratio and was steeped for the suitable time interval. Were I still tied to the vulgarity of taste buds, I would likely find it delicious. I do still contain olfactory receptors, so at the least I can confirm that the aroma is pleasing."
"You really mean that?"
"You can always read my mind if you do not believe me."
"Only sometimes." She corrected as fiddled nervously with her robes. "I'm mostly just good at…you know, burning things."
"Well, rest assured, I would never lie about the accuracy of my sensors." Litilus noticed that Akadia’s eyes had started to mist up. "Oh come on, I was trying to give you a compliment!"
"No! It’s not that. It’s just…that’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. In a very long time."
For a moment they just stood there, Akadia sniffling and wiping away her tears as Litilus’ mechadendrites absentmindedly fidgeted.
Not sure what to do, Litilus approached the miserable looking creature and cautiously held out two fingers, reluctantly patting her shoulder as one might a leper. "There. We have exchanged various 'small talks' and I have shown you token physical affection. I believe that is enough to constitute a friendly conversation."
Akadia giggled at this remark and threw herself at him in a hug
"You're funny. Did you know that? Thanks for being my friend. It’s nice to finally have one."
"Yes, well then. I suppose this works too. These robes were due for a wash anyways."
She giggled again and let the squirming techpriest go, watching him as he briskly made for the door like a frightened animal. Her gaze lingered on the door for a minute more after he left before she set to cleaning the dishes, humming along to the music emanating from her voxcaster.
As soon as he was out of view, Litilus shook his head and attempted to smooth out his robe. That was most certainly…interesting. He had just experienced about as much unaugmented human contact as he had been privy to for the entirety of his life up until that point, all in under an hour. And the way she used his own veneration of the Omnissiah against him was far from what he expected from the frail little psyker girl he first met. What he needed now was a break, some alone time. Just him and some machinery to set his mind straight. Yet, when he found a nice spot to lean back and drift off to the soothing rumble of the ship’s engines, he could’ve sworn that somewhere in the back of his head, he could hear a feminine voice humming a tune he had never heard before in his life. The most startling part was how little this bothered him…
Lord Captain van Calrissan watched the scene between the techpriest and the psyker unfold on the pictcaster front of him with rapt amusement.
"I dare say this may turn out even more entertaining than I had previously hoped, Percival!"
"Quite, milord, though I must ask, what exactly are you hoping to accomplish here?"
Van Calrissan’s eyes never left the pictcaster as he responded to his ever present seneschal
"Those cogboys like science and experiments, right? Well now he gets to be part of the most interesting experiment mankind can know: a social experiment!"
"I'm not quite sure that’s how the Adeptus Mechanicus works, milord."
"No matter, Percival, I mostly just want to see which one snaps and blows the two of them up first."
"Shall I make arrangements for their replacements?"
"Please do, Percival. Oh! And did you see what I did back there? With the oiling? That was some expert innuendo, if I do say so myself!"
"Though, I don’t suppose the old cogboy actually understood it…"
"Not everyone can have as refined a wit as you."
"Quite right, Percival, quite right! I can hardly wait to see what those two get up to next week."
Litilus awoke to the insistent screeching of an alarm. Which was odd, given that he rarely felt the need for sleep and even then he never slept long enough to need an alarm. What could he have possibly needed to set an alarm for? What reason would he have to remind himself of a specific time? Or…was it a specific day?
"No…it couldn’t be…" He muttered aloud in fearful realization
Litilus hurriedly turned the clock over and over looking for the display to confirm his fears.
"No…no! No! No!"
Litilus slammed his head against the wall in futile frustration. He could’ve sworn that it was just yesterday he was obsessively washing his robes to cleanse them of any filthy secretions of the flesh, but numbers don’t lie. Seven days. One hundred sixty eight hours. The clock’s display blinked this value at him with mocking finality. Once again, he had to go visit Akadia…
"I like your squiggly arms."
"My what?" Litilus never looked up from his dataslate. Coming prepared this time, he had brought some diagnostic readouts of The Gilded Ambition to peruse as he inhaled the sweet fragrance of Akadia’s tea. Today’s blend was an assembly of various berries unknown to him. Akadia had also prepared for the day, arranging her two chairs such that they were sitting side by side instead of across from each other like when they had first met. Unbeknownst to Litilus, she had done this immediately after he left quarters one week prior.
"Y’know, your squiggly arms."
Akadia poked one of his metallic tendrils for emphasis.
"Ah, yes. Those. They are my mechadendrites."
She began to fiddle with the claw tip of the nearest dendrite.
"What’re they for?"
"They assist me in my day to day duties, such as holding extraneous tools or accessing hard-to-reach locations on vehicles and machinery. 'Many hands make light work', as they say."
"Huh. If I had more hands, I’d probably just get bored faster. My grampa had a metal arm, but it wasn’t all squiggly. He couldn’t feel very well with it either and it was kinda clumsy. Can you feel stuff with your mecha squiggly arms?"
"I constructed them with the sole purpose of handling delicate machinery too fragile for clumsy, human hands, so no. In fact, their sensors are particularly sensitive."
"Oh." Akadia stopped tugging on the mechadendrite and gave it a gentle pat. "Sorry."
Litilus returned the gesture, patting her still outstretched hand with the dendrite in question, still not looking up from his dataslate. "Do not worry yourself over it. I cannot count the number of times I have snagged them on something while repairing a Sentinel. Guardsmen never treat those poor things with the care they deserve. "
Akadia giggled and blurted out. "I bet they really come in handy!"
Only to be met with a blank stare as Litilus looked up from his dataslate.
"Well yes, I did just tell you that I often use them– oh. I see what you did there. Clever."
"Sorry. That was dumb of me. Besides, I bet you get that one all the time…"
"You would make the first, actually. I am not often approached by…outsiders unless they need something from me. Even then most conversation that is exchanged is them trying their hardest not to stare at the mechadendrites. Frankly, I'm honestly surprised that you aren’t more…put off by them. Most people outside of the Mechanicus are."
"Like I said, my grampa had a metal arm. Metal face, too. Not like yours, though. Just the jaw. His old war buddies used to call him Nobface, cuz his face was uglier than an ork's. And cuz an ork was the one who punched his jaw in. They were just joking, though, they didn’t really think he was uglier than an ork. Friends joke like that sometimes. At least, they do in my stories." She let that sentence hang in the air for a moment more before she muttered "'Sides…they’re neat, your squiggly arms…just-like-you."
Litilus finally set down his dataslate and stared incredulously at the cheery psyker "Err…thanks?"
Only to be met by another giggle from the psyker.
"Your face just turned the same color as your robes."
Litilus pulled his hood forward to cover his face and attempted to redirect the discussion. "You mentioned a 'Grampa' twice in the past conversation. I take it this person is important to you?"
"Yeah… he kinda raised me by himself. Until I was eight, at least. Gramma died before I was born and Momma killed herself after she…found out what I was. Dad never forgave me for Momma so that just left Grampa. Fought for the Guard. He and all of his Guard friends fought so hard that the Emperor rewarded him with the world I was born on." Akadia slowly brought her legs up into her chair and clutched her knees to her chest, staring off into the distance. "He was also the last person to talk to me before the Black Ships took me away…"
"That sounds like quite the…difficult childhood."
"Yeah…That was probably the worst birthday I ever had."
"What’s a birthday?"
"You don’t know?! It’s when you get to celebrate the day you were born and everyone is nice to you and gives you presents and a party and you get to eat all the cake you want until you get sick! It’s great! You’ve never had one?"
"That’s terrible! Sounds like your childhood wasn’t so great, either. I can’t imagine growing up without birthdays…"
"It was nothing noteworthy. My parents were deemed genetically compatible by the Magos Biologis, thus their genetic material was combined and distilled into a fetus in an artificial. After a period of incubation time, I was decanted along with the rest of my generation and then we were communally raised and taught the ways of the Machine God. Those who refused to learn were converted into servitors. Just your average childhood, you know?"
"That’s…" Akadia tried to stifle her laughter, failing miserably.
"What? What’s so funny?"
"I'm sorry!" She continued after she regained her composure. "I just…like-the-jokes-you-make. They cheer me up."
"I wasn’t making a joke."
"You weren’t? But that’s not a normal childhood at all!"
Litilus grumbled dismissively. "Oh, like you would know."
Joy drained from Akadia’s face at this remark as she stared dejectedly into her teacup "Yeah…I guess you’re right."
"No, wait. That is not what I meant. I was trying to say–"
"It’s true, though."
Her voice was flat. Devoid of the expressiveness Litilus had come to expect from the psyker.
"I…think I should probably leave now."
Her despondent gaze remained firmly on the contents of her teacup. Summoning all of his courage, Litilus put his entire hand on her shoulder.
"I am sorry, Akadia. I want you to know that."
As he made his exit, the embarrassed techpriest hung awkwardly at her doorway for a moment more.
"Oh, and thank you again for the tea."
Akadia finally looked up and a feeble smile crept onto her face.
"Your face is the same color as your robes again."
Before she could say another word, Litilus was gone.
A few days later, Litilus was frantically turning his private quarters inside out. Where in the Warp did he leave his dataslate? He finally had some time to work on his personal projects and the damned thing was nowhere to be found! He had even triple-checked all of his various hiding places (after all, the best way to keep those damned meatbags and their squishy, greasy fingers off of things they shouldn’t touch is to remove it from their sight entirely). He sat down by his workbench and gave up his search, annoyed by his own recent incompetence. Where was his mind at these days? He was never this scatterbrained and disorganized. Could it really be that those damned meeting with Akadia were affecting his mind this much? And for that matter, why had he even bothered to remember her name? No sooner had he begun to ruminate on these pressing questions when there was a knock upon his door.
"No, I will not double-check your lasrifle. The error most likely lies with the user, not the device." He called out listlessly, not even bothering to get up from his moping roost. An all too familiar voice called back to him.
"Umm, I don’t have a lasrifle. I do have a laspistol, though, but I didn’t bring it with me. Oh! But that’s not why I'm here. I wanted to bring you something because I think this belongs to you because it’s not mine but I found it in my room and you’re the only person who ever visits me so here it is. Oh wait, you can’t see it…Can you open the door please maybe if it’s okay with you?"
Litilus grumbled as he trudged through the mess he had just finished making on his way to his door. What greeted him on the other side was not the pale face he had expected, but rather a blank screen shoved in his face. As he plucked his missing dataslate from Akadia’s trembling hands, he noticed that her eyes were downcast, focusing on a particularly interesting piece of flooring.
"Sorry for taking so long to get it back to you! I wanted to find you and give it back as soon as I noticed you left it but I was nervous and thought you wouldn’t want to see me again so soon but I also know how much I hate it when one of my books goes missing so I just kept fretting over it for a day or two or maybe three – I lose track sometimes – and then it took me a while to find someone who could show me where you were because everyone pretends they need to be somewhere else whenever they see me and then when I finally found your quarters you were never there so I was going to just leave it by your door but I was afraid something might happen to it and then I got nervous and ran off and I kept doing this until just now and I just wanted to–"
"Thank you! I have been looking everywhere for this!" Litilus interrupted, more focused on his reclaimed dataslate than her frenetic confession. "I was about to have to go back redo everything from scratch and Omnissiah knows how long that would have taken…"
The jovial techpriest even went as far as to forgo his usual misgivings about personal contact and clap Akadia on the shoulder in his joy at being reunited with the missing dataslate. She nearly jumped in surprise at the sudden physical contact before cracking an unsure smile and addressing the area around his face and the ceiling instead of the floor, still too nervous to make direct eye contact.
"Oh! Umm, you’re welcome, I guess. Like I said, I know frustrating it is when something you were looking forward to reading goes missing, so I just wanted to make sure you got yours back. I mean, it was sorta my fault it was missing in the first place and all…"
Litilus waved a mechadendrite dismissively, still invested in the dataslate. "Do not worry yourself over it, Akadia, the fault was all mine for being forgetful enough in the first place. Besides, today is the first day I got enough free time to even access the thing."
"So…you like to read stories too?"
"This dataslate does not contain a storybook within it, but rather diagnostics to the ship. You see, this ship is positively ancient, more so than I believe even the good Lord Captain truly understands. I intend to return to the Mechanicus with a full understanding of the workings of this ship. A mere dream, I know, but it was what drove me to volunteer for this position when the Lord Captain requisitioned the aid of a techpriest from our order.”
He cocked his only eyebrow in puzzlement.
"You…really think so?"
"Well…yeah. To have a goal like that to work for. I'm really only here because Mister van Calrissan promised me less fighting and real food and all I had to do in return was wear a purple robe because apparently purple is a fancier color than brown. Also because he bought the Guard Company I was attached to so I didn’t really have much of a choice. But you, you have your dreams to work for."
"You know, most people just stop listening once I have fixed whatever machine they are currently abusing so I never get to talk much about it ever since I signed on this ship, but starships are something truly dear to me. They way the shrug off the lethality of the void and brave the perils of the Warp itself in order to aid man in his conquest of the stars…They are truly the ultimate testament to the Will of Mankind and our greatest technology, as well as the greatest gift the Machine God has ever bestowed upon us."
"And the Emperor" Akadia mumbled.
"What was that?"
"The Emperor. He gives us psykers like me – well not me but the Astropaths and Navigators who are also psykers so they’re sorta like me – to guide the ship and help make sure it gets where it needs to be and keep us all connected."
"Yes, yes I suppose so. You psykers are absolutely vital to the proper function of an Omnissiah-blessed ship." He poked his head out into the hallway, looking around for any potential interlopers. "Can…can I tell you a secret? Something I have never even told another servant of the Machine God?"
Akadia’s eyes shone in wonder.
"Yes, yes! Absolutely yes! I swear I won’t tell another soul! Living or dead! It’s not like anyone else talks to me anyways so you know I'm telling the truth!"
"Well…I hope to one day be able to study a xeno vessel. Not because I'm a heretek or anything like that! I just…want to know how it is possible to survive the void without a machine spirit to guide you or the blessing of the Omnissiah to protect you. If we knew that, we could more easily destroy those who would threaten mankind. After all, assembling something and taking it apart require roughly the same set of skills."
Akadia smiled warmly at his admission.
"I think that’s wonderful, Litilus. And thank you for trusting me."
"Right, well, I should probably get back to, you know…" Litilus waved the dataslate awkwardly, unable to find the words to complete his sentence.
"Right! Right. I should probably also…go do…a thing…that-isn’t-standing-in-a-hallway. Bye!"
And with that, Akadia scampered off. Litilus, meanwhile, had returned to his workbench, eager to dig through all those lovely diagnostics and return to the soothing task of synthesizing cluttered data. And yet, he found himself staring off into nothingness or getting distracted by the most minor things. No matter what he did, he just couldn’t find his focus. Irritated, Litilus shut off his dataslate and went for a walk to clear his head.
Akadia could barely contain her joy as she hurried back to her room. No one had ever shared a secret with her! That was the sort of thing that only happened in her stories because only friends share secrets with each other and she hadn’t had one of those since she was a kid. This was probably the best day in her life since the Black Ships came for her! Overwhelmed by emotion, she flopped down on her bed and simply reveled in the warm, foreign feeling she was currently experiencing. She lost track of how long she had laid there when she heard a knock on her door and hurried to answer it.
"Hello again, Akadia. I was wondering if you, well, desired to…talk?" the uncomfortable techpriest on the other side ventured.
Akadia beamed. Yes, this was definitely the best day since the Black Ships.
Lord Captain Regis Flavius Jean Claude van Calrissan was having a very bad day. His luxury shuttle was still out of service after the incident with that fetching eldar lass and her corsair crew which had forced him to ride in this dingy rumbling military vessel and actually share the same breathing space as his reserve guard contingent, he found difficulty caring even remotely about the unexciting mission at hand that warranted this shuttle’s use in the first place, and worst of all, he had run out of brandy for his breakfast snifter this morning. Regis decided that somebody would be getting shot for today’s egregious inconveniences, he just wasn’t sure who quite yet. It was then that he had idly glanced down at his shoulder and noticed some dust upon it.
"Percival! My coat appears to be sullied. Do be a sport and fix that."
"Yes milord." Callidon rolled his eyes as he produced a small dusting brush and set to his task, too weary to correct his employer yet again.
"And while you’re at it, tell me about this planet we traveled so far to reclaim. This…"
"Obsallis, milord. It appears that the Planetary Governor fell in league with the Tau some years back."
"Hmm, and now it’s up to us to bring His lost servants back into the fold of the Emperor. How very banal."
"I take it this will be largely by the numbers, then?"
"Quite right, Percival, quite right. Turn the governor against his blue-skinned benefactors, turn the tau against their puppet, and sell arms to both sides as well as anyone stuck in the middle. Once they all soften each other up, we clean up the mess, slap some aquilas about, and take everything of value we can stuff the ship with." Regis sighed loudly at how mundane this outing was shaping up to be. "To think that we came all the way out this way for something so utterly typical. You would think with the urgency that our good Inquisitor friend called us here, it would for something exciting. But no, just dreary grunt work. I bet this is payback for that poker game, too! I don’t believe she ever forgave me for that one…Say, Percival, did I ever tell you that story?"
"Yes milord. More than I would care to know, milord."
Regis sighed again."Oh well, I so suppose there is still some hope that something interesting rears its head during our little outing."
"Cheer up, milord, we can always acquire a few more of those tau girls you seem to enjoy so much."
"Oh I don’t know, Percival, I must say that their beauty was…greatly exaggerated. Those reports must have come from quite desperate guardsmen. Still, you make a good point. I haven’t collected a full set yet and I do suppose the old ones are getting a tad lonely. At I can say this venture of ours won’t be a total loss."
The shuttle gave one last rumble as it finally came to rest planetside. With a hiss, the loading ramp descended. Regis straightened his coat and cleared his throat as he stepped out into the crowd of onlookers.
"Greetings, citizens of…"
"Obsallis." Callidon muttered to the Lord Captain.
"Obsallis! I claim this world for the Emperor of Humanity and his Imperium. I bring justice and truth for the loyal. Punishment and death for the guilty. Now, do be good sports and take me to your governor."
Regis looked sidelong and gave his seneschal a sly grin as some awestruck official or another whose name and title he never bothered to ask directed them towards their objective.
"Though personally, I just want to get back to those 'stories' of mine. I truly cannot wait to see what those to do next."
Litilus hurried through the corridors of The Gilded Ambition, eager to see Akadia again after her several days’ absence. He never realized how accustomed he had grown to their daily talks until she had left for Obsallis as part of Lord Captain van Calrissan’s retinue. Even upon their return, it had taken all his willpower to allow her a few hours of rest to undergo whatever cleansing rituals it was that meatbags required. Once he reached her quarters, he input the door code she had given him and entered the now familiar abode.
Akadia was sitting down and staring off blankly into space. Her eyes were unfocused and a weathered book lay in her lap, open but unread. Litilus was contemplating whether or not to interrupt what could have been some sort of psyker trance when she snapped back to reality with a start and finally acknowledged the techpriest’s presence with a warm smile.
"Litilus! I'm so glad to see you!"
She looked more tired than usual, the circles under her eyes darker and her eyelids drooping a little lower than normal, but the smile on her face and the joy in her tired eyes were both genuine.
"Oh, that! Don’t worry about me, I'm fine! I just sorta…got lost. You know, in my own head. It usually only happens when I…well, have to, um…kill people. But it’s fine! Really! In fact, I got something for you!"
Akadia scurried off and began digging through her footlocker until she came back with a strange circular object. Before he could get a good look at it, she enthusiastically shoved it into Litilus’ hands. He inspected the unexpected gift and found it to be a mechanical drone, similar to the ones used by Tau military forces, only the size of a dinner plate and sporting two grasping claws where guns should be. Upon closer scrutiny, it was revealed to be severely battered in several places and Litilus even spotted a handprint melted into the circular rim of the upper casing.
"Happy birthday!" Akadia announced, beaming proudly.
The bewildered techpriest struggled to find proper words for the occasion. "I…this is…but I don’t…what?"
"You said you never had a birthday before so I decided to give you one! I was also going to bake you a cake, but then I remembered that you don’t eat food. Also I don’t know how to bake…but I still got you a birthday present! I know you said you wanted to study xeno ships and it’s not exactly a ship, but it sorta looks like one so I thought of you when I saw it! Sorry if it’s a little beat up, but it started beeping really loudly and tried to get away when I grabbed it so I had to bash it against the wall until it shut up and I think I melted it a little too. Hopefully you can still study it, though."
"You did all that…just for me?"
"It was nothing really! I just stashed it under my robes after that and nobody noticed anything. Either that or they just didn’t say anything because people don’t like talking with me when they don’t have to."
Litilus was at a loss. He looked back down at his 'Birthday Present' in awe, turning it over in his hands. Never before in his life had anyone given him such a thing. Sure, there was plenty of exchange of materials and expertise in the Mechanicus, but it always came with the tacit understanding that one would be recompensed for their services rendered. But to give someone something utterly free of charge with no strings attached was a just plain unheard of concept to Litilus. When he finally spoke, his words were quiet. As if each one was dislodged from his throat only by great effort.
"This…this is the kindest thing anyone has ever done for me. Thank you." He tore his gaze from the drone to regard Akadia, a glint of eagerness in his eye. "Would you mind if I…inspected it? Right now?"
She giggled at the confused techpriest.
"You're s'posed to open your presents right away on your birthday!"
With childlike enthusiasm and the trusty set of tools he always kept stashed in his robes, Litilus set to work on disassembling the xeno machine. Akadia was content to just watch him work and marvel at the way his mechadendrites worked in unison to organize the drone’s innards on her table.
"You know, you’re kinda wrinkly for a young person."
It had already been two days since his 'birthday' and Litilus had barely scratched the surface of the inner workings of the drone Akadia had gotten him. This was in all likelihood due to the fact that every time he tried to work on the machine in the comfort of his own chambers, he instead found himself here in Akadia’s room. He couldn’t quite explain it, but it felt somehow wrong to work on the machine without her. If he was going to uncover any weaknesses this filthy xenotech contained, he wanted her right there with him. Even these meandering conversations of hers that he used to find asinine and infuriating only seemed to help him focus now. He even found her music player puttering on dutifully in the corner pleasant in its own little way.
"And how do you know that I am young?"
He had disassembled the drone for the fourth time today, looking over the components and mentally comparing them to the innards of a servo skull to see if he could make any connections.
"Easy! Because you think young folk thoughts."
"Oh? And how does one determine the age of a thought?"
"Well, young folk always think about what they’re gonna do next, and old folks mostly just think about all the things they’ve already done. And when they’re dying, young folks regret all the things they haven’t done yet while old folks regret all the things they did."
Slightly unnerved by her matter-of-fact tone, Litilus decided to change the subject.
"I detect the stench of burning animal fats. Are you cooking lunch?"
"Huh? Oh, yes! Grox steaks, just like Grampa used to make! Well, Grampa never used his brain to cook them, but I figure it’s close enough."
"And you cook all of your meals this way?"
"Most of em! The guardsmen don’t like it when I use the mess hall so they just send me a bunch of meats and stuff to store in this nice personal fridge I got with the thrones Mr. van Calrissan pays me. I think they’re nervous that I’ll explode into warp spawn or something and kill all of them which is why they don’t like me hanging around very much. I tried to explain to them that if that really did happen, they would be the first ones ordered to deal with the problem so they would probably die anyways, but that just made em even more nervous."
"I am unsure of how to respond to that."
"So were the guardsmen."
"Regardless, it seems like a highly useful talent."
Akadia sat down beside the busy techpriest, picking at her steak with the same gusto that Litilus picked at his drone and speaking between mouthfuls.
"It’s my favorite trick! It was part of basic training back at the Scholastia Psykana for anyone like me. Pyromancers, I think they called us. They gave us five minutes to cook our rations using only our powers. It was s’posed to teach us how to control it instead of letting it control you, since too little meant you undercooked your food and might get sick from eating it and too much made it all crispy and even if you did it right and tried to share with others who didn’t, they would beat you and take away both meals and neither of you would get to eat. I got really good at cooking my own meals. Which means I got good at ignoring the glares and begging of those that didn’t. That was my favorite part of the Psykana."
"Being forced under the stress of starvation to cook your own meals and ignoring the plight of your peers was your fondest memory of your training?"
"Well, yeah. It was the only time they weren’t teaching me how to hurt people."
"Yeah…It’s not so bad, though! I just wished more people knew how I do what I do. See, most of the guardsmen think I just shoot fire from my hands but if it was that simple, they’d have replaced me with a flamer by now. To be fair, that’s what a lot of it is since it’s safer that way and is really easy to do, but it’s a really inefficient way of doing things since you gotta worry about what they’re wearing if their skin is tough enough just shrug off the fire and keep coming like those orks. So for the folks that the commissar or whoever wants dead fast, I…well, it’s kinda hard to explain. I guess to me, it’s sorta like everyone is candles on the inside."
Litilus stared at her.
"Yeah, candles. There’s a fire burning a wick and once all the wax runs out, the candle dies. My job is to just sorta…reach inside of their minds and make that fire burn the wax up all at once. It’s different every time, though. Sometimes they melt into gooey puddles, sometimes they burn from the inside out like a lantern with too much oil, and sometimes they just explode like fireworks during Harvest Festival. It’s why I'm not so good at reading minds, because the Psykana never needed me to go in someone’s head and pull stuff out. They just taught me how to burn everything down from the inside out."
"That sounds…exceedingly taxing."
"It’s not so bad. Well, except for the screaming. They always scream. Even if you burn out their throat, they scream inside their minds. Sometimes I can still hear the screaming for days afterwards. Other times it goes away for a while and then comes back out of nowhere and I can even see their face all twisted and burning in pain and then I can’t sleep and sometimes it gets so bad I throw up."
"Is that why you were so tired the other day?"
Akadia stared down at her lunch, moving the contents of her plate around but not eating any more of it. When she did speak again her voice was barely more than a mumble.
"What do you mean by 'sorta'?"
"Sometimes…sometimes I don’t think it’s the dead people screaming. Not always, anyways. I think…something else is using their voices and faces to try and make me scared and want to give up so it can slip inside my head and take over." Her voice was barely a whisper now. "Please don’t think I'm crazy."
Litilus waved a mechadendrite dismissively at the melancholy psyker.
"If you are crazy, then what does that make for visiting you every day?"
Akadia gave a weak chuckle and picked at her food some more.
"Sorry" she finally blurted out.
"For bothering you with all that stuff I just said. And ruining lunch even though you don’t eat. And talking too much. It’s just…I've never had someone to talk to like this before and it just sort of spills out all at once and the sad stuff spills out with it even though I don’t want to bother you with it but then I feel better afterwards so it keeps happening. So sorry. I've probably been interrupting your drone stuff, too."
It was Litilus’ turn to avert his gaze, reinvesting himself in his project.
"I actually enjoy listening to you talk. It makes my work easier."
"How is it coming along, anyways? I bet it’s a piece of cake for someone as smart as you!"
Litilus gestured as the scattered innards.
"Work has been slow. I have made some minute progress on determining the function of various components, but I have yet to find any way to make contact with its machine spirit. I fear it may have been destroyed. Assuming, of course, a machine spirit even existed in the first place."
"I hope I didn’t mess it up too much for you…"
"Worry not, if it was truly so fragile as to be destroyed from your efforts, then we have very little to fear from these Tau. Our own machine spirits are stalwart beings, able to survive centuries of isolation and even able to operate without a crew. Allow me to tell you the tale of Rynn's Might, a most robust land raider…"
While Litilus proudly regaled her with the thrilling exploits of the unmanned tank, Akadia remained lost in her own thoughts. It wasn’t until he had reached the climax of the empty tank’s daring showdown with the ork warboss that she interrupted his tale to blurt out the question that had been burning within her.
"You can talk to them?"
"To orks? They are theoretically capable of speech, but thankfully I have never had to deal with the beasts firsthand."
"The machine spirits. You can talk to them?"
"Well, yes. Proper maintenance of machines and the soothing of their spirits is my primary duty."
"And you do it with your brain?"
Litilus eyed her with a mixture of puzzlement and suspicion.
"Sometime a direct interface is required. Why do you ask?"
"It’s just the first time I've met anyone else that’s kinda like me in a way."
"I…" Litilus paused, digesting this new information while a hint of amusement crept into his modulated voice. "I have never thought of it that way. Interesting."
"So what’s it like? Talking to them, I mean."
"It’s hard to explain. They do not think they way we do. Even I am guilty of weaknesses of flesh, but the machine spirits, they are…perfect. There is no doubt or hesitation, just cold, beautiful logic. And an intense desire to complete the task they were constructed for."
Akadia smiled at the fondness in his voice.
"They remind me of Floop."
"He was my dog back home."
"I was only three when I got him!" She protested "He was brown and fuzzy and had these big floppy ears that would make a floopy noise whenever he shook his head. Grampa got him for me at the faire after the first time Dad hit me. Whenever I was sad or Dad would yell at me, he was there for me. Sometimes when I was hugging him, I would accidentally read his mind. But it wasn’t like a human mind, it was simple and mostly just emotions. Still, he never hated me or thought about how I was a monster or a freak, he just loved me. He didn’t care that I was different because he was my best friend in the whole galaxy." As she reminisced, her face began to grow sullen. "I miss him…"
"I am sure he misses you too."
Despite his attempts at placation, Akadia only grew more dismal.
"No, I know he doesn’t."
"Now why do you say that?"
Tears began to well in her eyes
"Because he’s dead."
"Well, I'm sure he lived a happy life and-"
"I killed him." Her tears fell freely now and her fists lay clenched on either side of her plate. "It was the day the Black Ships came. Me and Floop were out playing in the fields when they told me I had to leave forever. They told me I would never see Grampa or Floop again and I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to go so I hugged Floop tight and closed my eyes and wished it would all go away and, and I just got so upset. Then everything got really hot and then Floop started yelping and..." She choked back a sob. "…and then I was holding nothing but ashes… "
Litilus hated watching Akadia cry like this, but what was he supposed to do? The last time he attempted to comfort her, her depression only deepened. Growing frustrated at his inability to find the words she needed to hear, he outstretched his hand and rested it clumsily on hers, giving Akadia’s hand a tentative squeeze. He stared vacantly ahead of him, too afraid to gauge her reaction. Akadia sniffled and looked down in surprise. Eventually, she squeezed Litilus’ hand back, daring to entwine her fingers in his.
And so they sat for a time, comfortable in each other’s silence.
Another foray to the surface of Obsallis had come and gone, and once again Litilus had found himself outside of Akadia’s room. Unlike last time, however, Litilus wasn’t quite so eager to enter. He paced outside her door and tried to find the courage to make his entrance, or even just knock. Something was wrong with him, but for all of his system diagnostics he couldn’t find out what. The thought of seeing Akadia again after the previous visit’s events made his stomach queasy, kicked his remaining sweat glands into overdrive (reminding him that he really should go ahead and get rid of those when he finds the time), and made the box that he cradled with such care feel heavy in his hands. Over these last few days, even the mere thought of her made him feel…nervous? Scared? Excited? All three? Though Litilus couldn’t quite place the feeling, he did know that it wasn’t an entirely unwelcome one. But a scratching noise from the box brought him back to the present and prompted him to action. With a deep breath to ventilate his voxcaster, Litilus finally tapped on Akadia’s door.
"Akadia? Would it be acceptable if I entered?"
"Oh, Litilus! It’s you!" With the hiss of compressed air, the door slid open and revealed Litilus to its owner. "Come on in! I thought I gave you the code to the door, didn’t I?"
"Well yes, but…" He trailed off as he followed her in. "I brought have…gift? For you."
Akadia stared blankly at the fumbling techpriest, not quite sure as to how she was supposed to respond. Litilus ventilated his voxcaster once more and held the box stiffly out in the general direction of Akadia as far as his arms would allow.
"A gift. I brought you a gift. I want you to have it. Because it is a gift. For you."
Gingerly, she plucked the box from his trembling hands.
"Aww, thank you, Litilus! You're so sweet! I can’t wait to see what it is!"
Akadia honestly wasn’t sure of what to expect from Litilus’ generosity. After all, what exactly does a techpriest hold dear? The holes in the lid of the box gave her some clue, but she still couldn’t think of anything Litilus might give her that would need air. The most she could figure was that it must be pretty fragile, given the pained look that crossed what was left of Litilus’ face whenever she so much as tilted the box while undoing the ribbon that bound its lid. Maybe it was one of those servo skulls she always saw following other techpriests around. Though, even the extra pondering time her careful handling brought her wasn’t enough to prepare for what she saw. Once she lifted the lid, her eyes widened with unfettered, childlike glee.
"It’s a puppy!"
"I followed all of your specifications, too! Brown and fuzzy with big, floppy ears." Words came easily to Litilus now that he was at home amongst facts and figures he could rattle off. "I was even able to make some modifications to the standard template: it will not defecate at random, has been implanted with instinctual acknowledgement of you as its owner, and most importantly, its skin and organs have been designed to be completely impervious to flame. I do not know how well it will work against psyker projected fire, but I figure it should at the very least mitigate things."
"Oh, it was easy enough. Mostly. I had an acquaintance in the Magos Biologis work out the details for me and called in several favors and incurring a few debts of my own to get it to Obsallis. From there it was a simple matter of getting planetside, which is as effortless as informing a shuttle pilot that the integrity of his vessel is at risk unless he let me aboard to inspect the craft. Most people will not second guess a techpriest."
Akadia managed to tear her eyes from her new friend to stare hard at Litilus. Her eyes shone wetly in the fluorescent light.
"Why did you do all of this for me? I don’t deserve any of it."
"Why not? Did I do something wrong?"
Akadia shook her head.
"The first time you visited me. I didn’t have to be psychic to know you didn’t want to be there, but it helped. I didn’t say anything, though. Because even though I knew you didn’t want to be here, that you didn’t want to talk to me, you still did. And I wanted that so badly that I pretended not to know. I'm sorry for lying to you, Litilus, and thank you for even pretending to be my friend. You can leave now. Take your dog too, I don’t deserve him."
She stood and headed towards the door console, opening with the press of a button as a dumbfounded Litilus remained still.
"Do I have to?"
Akadia could only stare in disbelief.
"But you were forced to be my friend…weren’t you?"
"I was never forced to be your friend, just to talk to you. And I only had to talk to you once a week."
"Then…then why’ve been visiting me every day?"
Litilus joined Akadia over by the doorway, pressing the same button she did to close it once more. He held her arms and looked into her eyes as one of his mechadendrites brushed away her tears.
"Because I wanted to. I wanted to talk to you, to know you. To be your…you know. Because, well, I…" He pulled her into a hug and gently pressed his forehead against her own. "I am terrible with words."
After relishing in the unexpected affection for a spell, Akadia snaked her hands up to Litilus’ face, pulling it level to her own. With a sigh, she kissed him squarely on the mouthpiece. In this instant Litilus not only understood the function of lips for the first time in his life, but regretted getting rid of his own. This regret dissipated as quickly as it came as he pulled her closer and immersed himself in the sensation of closeness he now felt. Some time had passed before either of them broke the kiss and it was Akadia who finally broke the following silence with a giggle.
"Your face is as red as your robes again."
Then she leapt into his arms with renewed vigor.
The mismatched pair laid side by side in Akadia’s bed, their respective robes and other garments strewn about the floor leading up to it. Litilus clutched Akadia’s nude form close to him with arm and dendrite alike while she traced her fingers across his torso, exploring the different sensations his skin and steel provided. This time, it was Litilus who broke the silence.
"Are you sure this is all you wanted? Something feels…missing."
"Well, in all my books whenever the lovers kiss the next chapter has them in bed naked." Her fingers paused in their lazy inspection and looked up into his eyes. "We are lovers, right?"
Litilus brushed a stray hair from her eyes as his dendrites pulled her ever closer to him.
"I would like to say so."
"You really mean it?"
"I really do."
"To the Emperor?"
"And the Omnissiah."
Satisfied with her interrogation, Akadia snuggled up against Litilus and drifted off to sleep, leaving Litilus alone with his thoughts. He thought about the psyker next to him, and how he was supposed to consider her unaltered flesh disgusting, how what he had done tonight was probably more deviant amongst his Mechanicus brethren than even his fascination with xenos starships. He also thought about how good it had felt when she pressed her body against his without any clothes to separate them, especially when she kissed him. He realized that none of these issues really mattered to him when he looked down at Akadia and saw the smile on her face. It was the first time he had ever seen her look completely content and at peace, all the little stresses of her daily existence having melted away in this blissful moment.
Using his mechadendrites to drape a blanket over the two of them, Litilus followed Akadia into slumber.
Callidon frowned at the vidcaster, the image of a certain psyker and techpriest sharing a bed displayed upon it.
"I was so damned sure one of them was going to explode before this was all over."
This earned him a hearty slap on the back from Regis
"I warned you not to bet against me, Percival! I never lose! Though, it would have been nice to see SOMETHING happen between those two. "
"One could call this whole affair quite anticlimactic, milord."
Callidon found himself the recipient of yet another friendly slap from Regis.
"Masterful wordplay, Percival! Perhaps you can give them some direction for next time!"
Callidon shuddered at the thought.
"I do believe you would be better suited in that department, milord."
"Quite right, Percival, quite right. Oh, and do enjoy all that red tape, friend. It is such a bore placing a new Planetary Governor in power. Especially one of those simpering puppets the Inquisition loves so very much. Much too much paperwork involved, I always say."
"Yes, milord." Callidon stated with a sigh.
"Oh, dear cheer up, Percival, I'm sure you’ll do better next time!"
A sly grin crept onto Regis’ face.
"Why of course, Percival! Next time. You see, a certain lady Inquisitor friend of ours has decided that I need a little 'spiritual guidance' and has instructed me to take a missionary onto my crew. And seeing as I was already planning a quick stop by Carlos McConnell once this Obsallis business was all said and done, I figured we should see how well one of those Sororitas ladies gets on with an abhuman."
"You cannot be serious, milord."
Regis’ grin only widened.
"So what do you say, Percival? Double or nothing?"
Callidon mulled it over a glass of amasec. Summoning his resolve, he downed its contents in one swig and eyed his Lord-Captain.
"If I win, you have to call me by my name. It’s Callidon, dammit!"
Regis sipped at his own glass.
"Don’t I always, Percival?"
Waiting in Lord-Captain Regis’ private shuttle for their last venture to Obsallis, a stormtrooper leaned over and whispered to the Arch-Militant.
"Hey boss, you think we should we tell her?"
"The psyker. She’s wearin’ cogboy robes."
He looked over at Akadia, clad in red, grease-stained robes that were a few sizes too large for her and apparently rather itchy.
"No need to embarrass the girl. ’Sides, those two still think they're bein' sneaky about it."
"Hey boss, how do think they–"
"By Him upon the Throne, I hope I never find out."