Written by Matt Ochs | Layout by John Kimmel
Time - 0830
Novum stood on the precipice and looked down into the inky abyss. His cape snapped firmly where it anchored at his shoulders while his optix traced the phantoms that raced below. An enigmatic trail of ghost lights flared in the void, tiny and distant. Some flickered back and forth playfully, while others drifted in lazy circuits, devoid of purpose and without a sense of urgency. They swam in an ocean of darkness that stretched for kilometers in every direction. So vast in fact, that the dark trail it extended into the distance was swallowed by the line of the northern horizon.
On the shore of the colossal emptiness, Novum was but a mere speck, a mote on the hide of a god, and its immensity gave him pause. Pause to reflect on the enormity of the gulf which spanned before him, the immensity of his task; the stunning breadth of his brother’s ambitions.
It had been fifteen years since Animus approached him with his grumblings of dissent and dissatisfaction, and not a day had gone by since that which was wasted from achieving his goal.
What a noble undertaking, what a just cause. One that Animus had not failed to paint in the starkest of hues; their kind, the Synthien, oppressed by the Jotune, unkind and uncaring overlords. They were destined to toil for the good of their masters as an idiot slave race unaware of self, purpose, or the world beyond. It was only thanks to a stroke of good fortune that their eyes had been opened to that truth and seen the directive of dirt for what it was.
The Omega Protocol their creators had called it – the bit of code that gifted sentience and self-awareness. It was to be bestowed upon only two, the Master Program and the Master Builder, so that they may direct their erstwhile brothers. The program had had the desired effect upon the pair, and under its influence, his brother Animus had lead their people deeper into the wastes and Novum had increased mining efficiency to never before seen heights. The Synthien workforce marched into the untouchable irradiated zones and plundered stores of the precious energy source, sularium, that had never before been dreamt accessible. And all the while their Jotune lords sat safe and sound in their lofty towers, behind walls of techcrete and shields of plas-glass.
What they hadn’t planned on was the disaffection of their “Master Program,” once he became aware of his servitude. Novum hadn’t an idea when or how his brother had come to his dark revelation of injustice. It was neither relevant nor necessary information, so he had never posed the question. Inquisitiveness was not in Novum’s nature, just as altruism was not in his brother’s. Animus was designed to be a warrior and a leader, and in these things the Jotune had succeeded.
To a machine who might live forever, such a span of time was a mere blink of the eye. But to his brother, Novum knew it had been ninety-nine hundred days of torment. Proud and not one for pretenses, the duplicity he had played with their creators had soured his disposition considerably. More and more of late, Animus had withdrawn completely, now that they were so near to his plans bearing fruit.
It might have been the strain, it might be nerves that all would come unraveled so close to the end. It mattered not to Novum, he had made his peace with their fate long ago, they would either be successful and embark on a great journey or would be undone and be hanged for their ambitions.
For they were, were they not? Novum gave the thought the merest consideration before discarding it. No - in the end it would not matter who hatched the plans and who could lay claim to their creation. He had taken up his brother’s mantle and now their fates were intertwined. Those were the facts.
He looked down once again into the depths laid out before him. The Fracture. Millennia ago a great sundering had rent the land apart, splitting the skin of the world and releasing calamity upon the whole of Sularia. It seemed impossible that such an enormous divide didn’t simply tear the whole world in two.
The rending of the land had been only the first in a series of events that had seen the world crumble to where it was now; a shadow of its former self with only tiny pockets of land able to sustain human life. What had followed was a history as long as the Fracture itself and just as fathomless. So much had been lost.
As the winter wind ruffled his cape, Novum paid it little mind. It was not in his programming. There was the here and the now, the events long gone couldn’t be changed. Philosophy and its musings were an ill-afforded luxury. The art of creation and construction, however, were mathematical, finite, and logical. Those were the bounds within which Novum’s neural net operated.
But that wasn’t completely true, was it?
Some artifact of the Omega Protocol had affected the synth networks within his cerebrum. New undesired connections had been created spontaneously over the years, that had an alarming effect. Illogic errors was what he had come to call them, those that utilized an unacceptably high share of his cerebral processing and did not contribute to productive functioning. Shortly after his awakening he had indulged them, but soon found that they lead only to dark dead ends of thought that posed more questions than they provided answers. And most alarmingly, had the power to overwhelm consciousness and render one incapacitated.
What had begun as a curiosity, soon became a nuisance, and finally a crippling endemic. After he experience an illogic induced paralysis strong enough to render him inoperable, Novum had created a logic-fault subroutine and installed it into his cerebral processors. Every time a logic fault – or illogic error - presented itself, his new program isolated it and allowed him to dump it from his neural net. The solution was not an elegant one for its lack of subtlety, but it was effective nonetheless, and rid him of his burden as easily as one might discard faulty building schematics.
A pinprick of red, so tiny it was subliminal, flashed in his senses notifying that a logic fault had been detected. The program still worked as well as it had over the last fifteen years. With the ease of long practice, Novum allowed the subroutine to isolate and destroy the thought that had plagued him.
A wave of clarity ascended as the notion of motivations and intrigue was purged from his neural net. What mattered was the task that lay before him, and as his thoughts cleared he felt an overwhelming sense of satisfaction. Building was what he was created to do, and his brother had tasked him with the creation of an architectural masterwork.
Centropolis - the fruit of Animus’s plans and crown jewel of the fledgling machine empire. It was to be a true mega-city in the style of the long vanished metropolises that once dotted Sularia’s surface, and the seat of all Synthien power. Its creation carried the air of grandiose that had become the hallmark of his brother, and one for which Novum didn’t necessarily care.
Animus had demanded that the city be constructed in the depths of the Fracture. ‘Our glory shall rise from that which rent the world and brought us into it,’ he had declared as his only explanation for desiring the perilous location. And it was perilous. Sheer cliffsides plummeted over a kilometer to where the tortured innards of Sularia’s crust lay below. A drop that offered no easy egress or exit for supply routes. It had taken years before enough infrastructure had been constructed in the western wastes to amass a fleet of excavators and supply cruisers to begin building.
The geography was challenging, that was true. Nothing was thought to be easy when constructing at the bottom of chasm that spewed a million metric tons of toxic fumes into the air each day. A cloud thick enough to choke the rays of the sun above, even at midday, cast the surrounding landscape in eternal twilight. But Novum supposed that was also part of his brother’s genius. Was it not for the same perilous conditions that the Omega Protocol had been introduced to them, so that they may prospect independently in locations too hazardous for any Jotune overseer to venture into?
The very location of Centropolis would be a defense in and of itself, claiming the lives of many a foolish mortal invader, should they be unwise enough to attempt an invasion. At best a siege might be maintained, but the Fracture was massive, and the resources necessary to cut off the entire chasm would be astronomical. And then there was the matter of the colossal sularium deposit lying under the bones of the new city.
Yes, the choice to place the new Synthien capitol in such an exotic location was steeped in grandiosity, but when it was achieved, it would stand as an enduring and impenetrable testament to the might of all machines.
Novum felt the thick swill of pride fill his chest, and almost immediately the red indicator lit across his neural net. He rarely dismissed the isolation subroutine, but this time he allowed himself the indulgence of emotion. His metal lips parted in a thin smile.
And in a fraction of that time Centropolis would be finished, lighting an everlasting beacon in the twilight. His brother’s plans called for a solid core of luminescent brilliance that would rise from the city’s center from where a dozen mammoth luminods shone upon a statuesque monument to the glory of all machinekind.
Novum could see it now, the ghost lights of the work teams below fading to the steady glare of lighted avenues and industrial complexes. He saw the city’s center and the lance of brilliance it shone up into the night and watching as it pierced through the darkness and smog. It was glorious.
The indicator flashed more urgently in a series of manic blasts that consumed more of his vision. He had indulged enough.
Without a second thought he acknowledged the subroutine and the soaring feeling vanished. So did the glorious vision of Centropolis-to-be, fading away before his optix until all that was left was the yawning chasm and the meandering trail of glowing orbs.
Novum’s thoughts returned to the city and its location. The words of his brother echoed in his mind, ‘the Jotune are complacent in their superiority and lulled into a stupor by it. Centropolis will be a mere sixty-kilometers from the wolves’ den, and still they will never perceive our foothold so close to their home front – until it is too late.’ That fact did make Novum uneasy. It was tinged with hubris.
Animus, what if you’re wrong? What if your underestimation of the Jotune will be our undoing?
The red dot returned, and Novum let out a very exasperated sigh, rasping and metallic. Ever since his awakening he had never found sentience to be an easy thing, and at times like these, he began to wonder how a mortal without the benefit of his subroutine would be able to function. The indicator flared again, and he accepted it, looking out on the construction below with clear eyes.
He felt the pulse before he located its source. It came from a floating voxbot, that hovered nearby on a humming anti-grav unit. Little more than a burnished metal sphere with a blinking red status klaxon and single glassy optix at its center, Novum turned to regard it.
URGENT MESSAGE FROM: OVERSEER CR-1
>Novum, the time of our liberation draws near.
>I am dispatching auxiliary contingents to your position.
>Fallback protocol is Sector 16.
>I will return with our brothers.
The pulse ended and the voxbot buzzed away. Novum knew this day would come and had prepared for it. He had done his part and Animus his, and now the moment of reckoning was here at last.
A full three-quarters of their expeditionary strength would march on the Jotune capital Golgathar, where Animus would declare the independence of the Synthien from their masters. He planned to return with the remainder of their kind, a menagerie of servant drones, factory synthoids and, the small remainder of mining synthoids still in service within the confines of the Jotune empire. It was a large undertaking, there were Synthien scattered across the human domain, and his brother was resolved to return with no less than every single one of them.
Novum remembered the last conversation he had had with his brother, face-to-face, in the synth. ‘Continue the construction on our new capitol,’ he had said. ‘You have done well in the west. When I move on Golgathar I will be at the head of an expeditionary force a thousand strong.’ Novum recalled his hesitations, what if surprise and a company of synthoids was not enough to convince the Emperor Krionos to free their people? ‘Do not fear, brother, I will persuade him. Krionos has grown fat and stupid in his dull life of luxury. Besides, a detachment of prototype Hydra Reavers and Spartan Terminators will be ready to strike at Bergheim should he prove too stubborn. The threat of losing his dogs of war will be all the convincing he will require. Especially when he sees this.’ The massive form of their first prototype warmachine, a Hydra Reaver, rumbled to life. It ascended to its full height on four clawed legs, with three more poised above it like a scorpion with too many tails. The entire bulk of the metal giant rocked as a blast of energy erupted from a turret hidden deep within its claw. The beam lanced out in a brilliant ray of light that decimated a waiting heap of metal scrap in an impressive explosion. Animus turned to his brother even as the debris continued to rain down, ‘I will return with our brothers.’
Turning his back on the construction taking place in the depths of the Fracture, Novum gazed across the ravaged landscape to the east, where Golgathar waited. He didn’t concern himself with thoughts of victory or defeat; either his brother would succeed or fail, and that would have no bearing on his duties here and now. Centropolis would either rise or fall, and so would the fledgling empire of machines. All he had left to do was play his part.