III: Prayers and unease.
It was dark when Carn awoke, though that was no real indicator of time given that his office had no exterior windows. He'd never minded, there wasn’t really anything worth looking out on anyway. Nonetheless it was dark, the Illuminator Servo skull hovering nearby having deactivated the light after detecting a prolonged period of inactivity, or perhaps picking up on his soft habitual snoring. Carn didn’t know or care, the spirits of these machines were inscrutable at best of times, primitive though they were. He reactivated the servo skull’s illumination function and rubbed the back of his neck, massaging the crick from his awkward sleeping position and working his jaw, trying to rid himself of the sour taste and numb mouth associated with excessive Skee consumption. Checking his chronometer he could see that several hours had passed. It was best sleep he had had in an age though his dreams had as so oft of late, been infiltrated by Larkarsky’s mutilated flesh. In this instance however it had been whilst visualizing much of the ill-fated Adept's logs that he had read. Fading swiftly as dreams were wont to do, he struggled to recollect what he had absorbed before slumber overtook him.
Pallas, (after reading so many of his thoughts, Carn felt he knew him in a way he never could in real life) had awoken a short distance from his destination and noted that there was some change in his surroundings with banners and pendants of a golden yellow hung everywhere along with repeated occurrences of an odd symbol, again rendered in yellow. An odd aesthetic choice to his mind, especially stark against the drab environs of Endomaw. He noticed too that the tanks and troops that were even more prevalent this deep in the city (for a city it indeed seemed to be despite all reports and available information) were similarly emblazoned with the same logo. When his luxurious transport had stopped Pallas had been escorted by his driver, (who had supplied him with another mask as the Adept had left his on his seat) into a large and strangely architectured building, crenelated with gargoyles and statues of a type that Pallas was wholly unfamiliar with and yet filled him with an unaccountable trepidation.
Presently he was introduced to the administrator of Endowmaw, a hunched and berobed individual called Geriok Mkawas. The Adept described him as ‘an unwholesome sort with a sibilant speech and exotic perfume’ after exchanging banal pleasantries they had got to work and Larkarsky had noted their conversation in exhausting and brain numbing detail. Much of it was to do with quotas and production levels, statistical and baffling with percentages and very long figures which Carn really had no grasp of at all. After all, it wasn’t his job, ivestigating what had happened to Larkarsky and Endomaw (it was still silent) was. Suffice to say for every point that the Adept raised Geriok seemed to have a counter argument, none of which warranted further investigation. In fact Geriok seemed somewhat put out and surprised that Larkarsky had been sent at all. Insisting that nothing was unduly awry and no further action was required. Nonetheless Pallas Larkarsky had dutifully requested to inspect the mining operation itself. This tallied with the first brief report which Pallas had submitted back to Narthley in which he had indicated that he had met the administrator and following a lengthy discussion was now going to inspect the mine. In this report all seemed normal and no sign was shown of the unease that was omnipresent in later communications.
The journey to the mining site was relatively uneventful though Pallas did remark that his host became ever more garrulous, presumably in an attempt to deflect Larkarksy’s insistent probing. For his part, the Adept noted that the second journey was unremarkable though he found that he was noticing more and more as time went on, including furtive movements in the shadows that had previously gone unseen. Half conversing with Geriok and half analyzing the passing scenery he noted that as they headed towards the mine there were increased signs of building and construction and an higher military presence. Merely for security and deterrence, Geriok assured him with a disarming yet false smile. Nonetheless Pallas noted that Endomaw seemed prepared for conflict and more than capable of defending itself. He surmised that the city was only eclipsed by Narthley in terms of scope and capability. He recorded that there was something else that bothered him but he couldn’t quite put a finger on it and in any event was quickly distracted and enamoured by the vibrant purple foliage that appeared as the limousine left Endomaw city and headed toward the Endomaw Mine.
And that was as far as Carn had got before he had fallen asleep. It seemed that he had made some notes of his own before he had lost the battle for wakefulness and he tidied these up briefly, submitting a short report of his own so as to keep Ralscon off his back for a little longer. He marveled at how someone as seldom spoken as Pallas Larkarsky could be so amazingly verbose when it came to the written word. Every little detail and thought was captured and recorded and seemingly much of it was from his own recollection as unless Carn was missing something, the shorthand scrawled notes contained only very basic information and statistics. Indeed it seemed that Larkarsky may well have had an Eidetic memory such was his power of recall. Carn chided himself for thinking about the Adept in the past tense but then reflected that given his current condition his memory may well be best referred to as a thing that was rather than is. Rising from his desk he stuffed all the slates and notes into the satchel, resolving to take them home with him. As he did so the Aquila on the golden chain fell from its pocket and he caught it, looking at it for a moment in his palm as it caught the soft light from the Servo skull which dutifully hovered nearby. He resolved to return this charm to Larkarsky if he got the chance, it was the least he could do.
On his all too brief return to his residence Carn checked his messages, he deleted any from Ralscon and replied to one from an acquaintance that he had socialised with pleasantly a couple of weeks ago. There were also the ubiquitous commercial messages which he ignored and erased. Well, all but one that purported to tell of a miracle Emperor Blessed Hair restorative. He ruefully rubbed his own thinning scalp, before deciding that this too was charlatan in nature and consigning It too to digital oblivion. He knelt briefly before the altar in his living area, closing his eyes and making the sign of the Aquila over his chest as he heartfeltedly recited a couple of prayers to the God Emperor of Man, beloved by all. He added a prayer for Larkarsky as well, knowing that the Adept would be unable to make his own genuflections. Carn was far from the most pious of individuals but it seemed only right. Rising from the small shrine he activated the wallscreen and took in a propaganda programme before catching up with the latest newscast and assuring himself that all was right, or at least no more wrong than usual, with Worth. Except something was. He couldn’t identify it, but something definitely was. Like hairs raising on the back of his neck there was an unease about him and he glanced about swiftly and furtively before deciding on a small glass of Skee to settle his nerves. The bottle sloshed reassuringly as he picked it up though in reality barely a few days remained, perhaps less given his current consumption levels.
Pouring himself a more hefty measure than he had first intended he nonetheless sank it in one gulp, immediately pouring another. He found himself initially sipping it appreciatively before once again draining the glass in one swallow. He sat in his most comfortable chair and held out his hands in front of him. They were trembling, only slightly but there was a tremor there nonetheless. Throne, what had befallen him? A quick medi scan (another luxury afforded him by his status) that assured him that physically he was ok failed to reassure him. A shower and food also failed to remedy the uncharacteristic and unfathomable dread that he was feeling. He even resorted to lighting and taking a few drags on a lho-stick he had tucked in a drawer before he felt nauseous and remembered why he had quit the narcotic in the first place.
His eyes flickered to the satchel which sat where he had deposited it by the side of his altar. Still open and lit, the faux candlelight cast distorted shadows across the floor and his richly embroidered rug. The shadows flickered and twisted and formed into writhing tentacles and he shuddered and squeezed his eyes shut. It was the Lho, he told himself, nothing more. It had been a while after all. Opening his eyes again he was gratified that the shadows seemed more quiescent though they still moved slightly and unsettlingly. Rising, he shut the altar and the faux candles were snuffed out as the shrine registered the motion. Another glass of Skee was probably the last thing he needed but he poured one and knocked it back anyway, followed by another. The barest trace of alcohol remained in the bottle so he raised it to his lips and drained it. It didn’t help. Worse still, he didn’t really enjoy it, what a waste of good liquor. He tried to distract himself further but no matter what he did he couldn’t stop thinking about Endomaw and poor Pallas Larkarsky. It was with a half drunken air of resignation that he opened the satchel, retrieved the half read dataslate and powered it on. He would know no peace till he got to the bottom of this it seemed. He scrolled to the last read entry and then selected the succeeding log and read with bleary eyes before giving up and accessing the audio settings, connecting it up to his terminal and setting it up to read and record the logs. The equipment dutifully started copying the logs and the machine’s spirit started relaying Pallas’s writings in a dull, scratchy monotone:
"Presently we left the intriguing flora behind and approached Endomaw mine. Still, I found myself marveling at the near luminescence of the vibrant plants, pondering their botanical makeup and how they survived such harsh environments. Were they endemic to this area? Were they native to Worth? Colour aside they seemed unremarkable, perhaps the most intriguing thing about them being how they could propagate in Worth’s harsh and unyielding earth. The Purplish ash dust that covered our home must have some hitherto unknown nutrients that enabled them to flourish, but if that were the case why were they not more widespread? What was the Catalyst that provided them with such a foothold in this area in particular? I must confess that I allowed Geriok to continue his conversation somewhat one sided as I mused the possibilities. Not that I would have needed much of a reason to do so, continued interaction with the man left me feeling decidedly uneasy and unclean though there was nothing specific that I could attribute those feelings to.
Nonetheless, before long we approached the mining complex proper and my thoughts were taken from exotic flora back to the Administrator's prattling (Oh the irony! Carn thought with a sardonic smile) which I again deigned to indulge. Geriok was going out of his way to be accommodating, talking in that sibilant way, his words dripping with a honeyed hiss. I noticed that he reclined somewhat awkwardly and unnaturally and found that I inexplicably loathed this man. His bald pate, pale skin, overly white teeth and crocodilian smile all disgusted me.(Carn had no idea what a Crocodilian was but inferred that it was non complimentary) The machine droned on heedless of his ignorance. I smiled in return and nodded attentively to his banal small talk but my head was overwhelmed with the wrongness of the situation and I resolved to make another Vis report to HQ as soon as I disembarked. Carn had reviewed this report, seemingly made in a shelter or lean to at the edge of the mine. Larkarsky had been agitated, tense and fidgety but advised that he had reached the mine proper and was descending to carry out his inspection and audit. He suggested that preparations were made to send additional adepts as the scale of the operation was much more than had been initially surmised. This aside, the report was ordinary short and to the point, with the promise of a full written report to be prepared and provided at a later time. As we approached the mine complex I was taken aback once more, not by how large the installation was but rather the opposite. Endomaw mine was tiny, nothing more than a few buildings and inactive drills and smattering of earth moving equipment. The limousine pulled up and I got out, remembering my mask this time. though the driver seemed to have one prepared anyway. I noticed that Geriok wasn’t wearing a mask, and hiding a flash of annoyance he breezily explained that he had become inured to the air, at least for short distances, the driver on the other hand had not removed his once and it occurred to me that the grunt I had received when trying to engage him could have been somewhat muffled. My unease grew and I excused myself to make a quick communication back to Narthley in a sheltered spot. This done I returned to the small building which Geriok and the driver had entered.
The Driver was nowhere to be seen but Geriok was animatedly remonstrating with another pair before glancing over at me and then back to his compatriots. He beckoned me over, smiling blankly in that reprehensible way. He introduced the two newcomers as Lek and Jerrod, explaining that he had important business to attend to nearby and would return in a while, it was nothing to worry about he assured me, merely an administrative matter that couldn’t be avoided. He left through a large double door to the side through which I very quickly spied a loading area with additional digging machinery and cargo vehicles. As the door shut it locked with a green rune flashing to red. I could only assume that Geriok carried a biometric key that had allowed him to open it. Turning back to Lek and Jerrod I introduced myself and my assignment, how long I expected it to take me (a couple of days to be thorough but I had overestimated the size of the operation as drastically as I had underestimated the size of Endomaw itself). and what I would require from them in order to complete it. They nodded and advised that they would need to take me down into the mine itself and therefore I would need to don a mining suit, similar to the garb they both wore. Fully understanding the importance of health and safety and standards to be adhered to, I readily agreed. As I was looking to be staying at least a few cycles they hastily arranged quarters for me and said they would take me to these first so that I could prepare for my first sojourn into the depths of Endomaw mine.
We went down some steps and into a dank passage with dripping pipes and flickering lights which cast strange shadows on the walls, unnatural and pulsating. I tried not to look at them instead filling mymind with quotas a nd statistics. Presently we came to a series of doors and they swung one open revealing a spartan room with a locker, a desk and a bunk. Lek, the more softly spoken of the pair (Jerrod’s tone was nigh on guttural) gestured into the room and bade me enter and prepare myself. They would return, he said in 30 minutes and then we could continue our journey into the mine. They departed down the corridor and I watched them leave and turn a nearby corner before I closed the door behind me and engaged the electronic lock, I was gratified to see that there was also a secondary bolt as well and I pushed this across to further secure the room. I looked around and was perturbed to note the absence of a shrine or anywhere to pay obeisance to the Emperor. A panel in the far wall next to the bunk slid up at the touch of a dimly lit rune to reveal a wash basin and dirty mirror. I made a mental note of supplies and amenities I would need to request and disrobed and cleansed my body as best as I could.
The mining suit presented me with some problems as I was unfamiliar with its configuration. I put on the tunic and heavy mining boots but the over suit was more inscrutable and cumbersome. I donned it as best as I was able and shortly after there came a rapping at the door. Unbolting and unlocking it I was greeted by Jerrod, the larger of my two erstwhile guides and certainly the less approachable. He gruffly informed me that Lek awaited us and gestured for me to stand still so that he could adjust my suit. I felt no small pride as I noticed that his adjustments were minor and few and accompanied by a semi approving grunt. Properly dressed and equipped I bent to retrieve my satchel and immediately smashed into the bunk with the bulky suit’s mining lamps. I flushed and grabbed my satchel, mustering as much dignity as I could. If Jerrod noticed he made no sign and had already started down the passageway as I exited the room. More stairs beckoned and as we descended into the lower levels it occurred to me that I was losing sense of placement and direction and without guidance would struggle to return to the surface. Before too long the stairs ended, leading to a small room filled with equipment and tools as well as some workstations and terminals. We exited this room through a grinding and stubborn sliding door and I took my first steps into Endomaw mine.
The machine stopped it intonation and a dull hiss issued from the speaker grille. The terminal flashed, indicating that it had finished copying the files; it had probably finished a while ago patiently signalling the completion of its task till prompted. Carn got up and disconnecting the data slate, instructed the machine to continue with the next entry, pausing it for a moment whilst he went to empty his bladder. Returning, he stopped just before he hit play, the selected file was flashing on the screen and at its increased size he could more easily see the file name. Unusual to say the least it conformed to no system or pattern that he could see, Dismissing it as another of Larkarsky’s idiosyncrasies he pressed play before settling back down. Nine logs down, six to go, and he was out of Skee and afraid to look into the shadows, Emperor save me, he thought.