“I have looked upon the face of God, and all I saw was fear.”
– Archon Pinaz Tripathali; Commander of the Rim Fleets of Veda and Ect; First Mistress to the Secretariat of Geo-engineers
* * *
Izoil could feel the pulse of the scanner, even through the armoured skin of her suit. She checked the readout screen and keyed her head-mic.
“Control, this is Surface One.” A pall of static hung over the airwaves, interrupted only by the faint wailing of stray locater signals.
“This is Control, go ahead Surface One.” A monotone voice squawked in her ear.
“I’ve just completed the sweep of Zone 317. I’m still reading high Iridium concentrations in the tropospheric dust, but still nothing to suggest it’s anything other than fly-off from the plate construction. Radiation remains high, but still within background limits. I’ve picked up a couple of ion spikes over the last hour, I’m sending the data up for cross-referencing with engine traffic.” Replied Izoil.
“Data receipt confirmed. Please stand-by for further orders. Glory to the Quadrumvirate. Control Out.” The line went dead.
“Might be nice if they sent some of that glory my way. The Quad aren’t the ones slogging their way across the arse end of nowhere.” Izoil muttered to herself.
Holstering the scanner Izoil sat down and sank into the powdery synth-loam, stirring up tiny clouds of sparkling ices and puffs of pyroclastic ash. Without the rhythmic hum of the scanner and without the nattering of radio traffic, Izoil was left alone with the bountiful silence of the planet Exūsa.
The mission file said that the name had come from a dead language from the cradle of the Old World. Though it might once have been a language of empire, of religion or of science, none of that now remained. Only a few scattered words survived to this day. Exūsa: it meant forged, beaten or composed. The Secretariat had forged her out of hot stellar iron and beaten her out of unyielding asteroid stone, with these they had composed a grand sonnet to their own power and magnificence. A perfect world built by their hands. But for all the wonder of their artifice the thing they had created was not simply forged as in made, it was forged. It was an imitation, a fraudulent copy of something ancient.
The face of Exūsa was a dead place, there was no life to it. Even the most desolate of planets have at least some modicum of essence of life to them: the faintest stirring of a wind; the lashing of rains; the crumbling of rock; the shimmer of a burning sun; all faint hints of the soul of the planet reaching out and caressing those who walk about it’s surface. But there was none of that on the cold face of this planet, or if there was, it slumbered heavy and deep, far beyond the reach of those who found themselves upon her skin.
So Izoil sat alone in the small circle of light from her helmet lamps. The world around her was lost in a soup of blackness as thick and impenetrable as the void above. Her breath fogged against the inside of her visor. There was an eeriness to this place, an unpalatable strangeness that seeped into the skin. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad, had it not been so dark and so still, but with each passing moment, fear crept in to the hinterlands of her consciousness. It gave Izoil the feeling that this was not a place which had any right to be. It felt unnatural, which by rights, it was. And although this feeling might fade over the years and in a future far from now, at the present moment Exūsa felt like it was still in its wrapper; not fully unpacked and dressed for show.
Izoil couldn’t help but admit to herself that this wasn’t exactly what she signed up for.
“See the galaxy, they said.” Izoil muttered to herself. “Visit strange new worlds, they said.”
She shifted awkwardly in the dust.
“They’re weren’t exactly lying, but they certainly sold the whole adventure angle a lot harder than they really should’ve. They didn’t mention a damn thing about the mindless drudgery, or your body being used as a test bed for the effects of a synthetic planetoid on humanoid flesh forms.” She stood up and began to pace.
“Fucking pencil-pushing, Secretariat arseholes.” Izoil kicked at the bluish dust, sending a plume of it into the cold, still air. It hung there like smoke. Time stretched onward and Izoil waited. Devoid of distraction or purpose, minutes felt like hours. Were it not for the faint blue clock on the inside of the visor, Izoil feared that she would go mad.
It took Control 34 minutes to return with further orders.
“Surface One, this is Control.” Came the monotone squawk over the airwaves.
“This is Surface One, go ahead control.” Replied Izoil, stifling a yawn.
“The Secretariat has received the Quadrumvirate’s permission to commence ignition.”
“They’re turning it on!? But I’m still planetside.” Izoil said with rising panic.
“The Quadrumvirate have requested that the event be recorded from the surface of Exūsa. For posterity.”
“And they’re giving that honour to me?”
“That is affirmative, Surface One.”
“Well, shit…” muttered Izoil.
“The arrays should be overhead shortly. Ignition will commence within 10 standard minutes. Blessings of the Quadrumvirate be upon you, Surface One.”
Izoil unholstered her scanner and plucked a handful of grape-sized camera drones from her belt. She tossed the glimmering white spheres into the air and let them dart off into the darkened sky. As she set every camera, microphone and sensor in her suite to record, her eyes were fixed on the heavens.
With the wicked cadence of orbit Exūsa spun towards dawn.
At first it was visible only as a black shadow against the starfield, a square in the sky where there was nothing. Then the flames of fusion caught and flashed through the focusing arrays. A surging spread of light flowing out from its centre like a dull, molten silver. The light grew from this faint, cold shine as it began to heat to operating temperature. Numbers and graphs danced across Izoil’s visor: particle distributions; photon spreads; spectral readouts. But she was enthralled by the square sun: a tribute to the enduring wisdom and glory of the Quadrumvirate.
The sun filled the horizon with a lurid pink as it refracted through the rarefied atmosphere, the distant mesas seemed to burn and melt, the dust beneath Izoil’s feet began to steam. With the rising of the sun the fear born of a hidden maybe was supplanted by a revealed truth. The fear swallowed Izoil like a breaking wave. The words that fell from her lips would be remembered till the dying days of the empire, a testament to the awe-inspiring power of the Quadrumvirate, and to their towering unbreakable will:
“What hath we wrought?”