Content warning: violence, suicide
Amorphous grayscale blobs populate the grid. The blobs are cut, whittled, and colored. Shapes become forms and inherit meaning. A prism learns to become a building and is then cloned into a city. Laws and limitations are applied. Simulated gravity comes alive and light appears.
The Grand Machinist installs deadly flechette cannons to a row of bipedal Centurion-class mechs the size of sequoias. Armor plating descends from cranes onto broad shoulders, shielding the tender circuitry. The polygons on her brow bend to make an expression to make an emotion to make a character. Heavy with worry and unyielding in duty. She takes pride in her craft, and deludes herself into believing her hands are clean.
Civil unrest is personified in the Plague Wards. The city is rotting under corrupt leadership and outdated tradition. The Hallowed still dominate a public consciousness seeking answers to their suffering. Cells of a rogue faction enlist disillusioned veterans to take up arms with what little life they have left. War wages far beyond the stars, and the Emperor wouldn’t expect an attack from within.
The conspirators deploy their Assassin in the dawn light while select religious monuments are felled by explosives. The diversion is successful, battered foot soldiers mobilize to engage the Divine Legion.
Belt-fed machine guns are lugged onto the ramparts of the Palace of Grace as The Assassin enters through the catacombs below. They slip behind a banner of crimson and gold and breathe with a quiet staccato. They grip the hilt of their knife and thumb over the grooves of a holstered pistol; just as they’ve done before.
In an earlier attempt on the Emperor’s life, the Assassin’s limbs became caught on the geometry of a spiral staircase. Their torso stretched and seized like electrified taffy. Their neck became the length of a pitchfork and the width of a toothpick. They’ve inherited phantom pains but no knowledge of past missions. Any and all errors end in a total reboot with fragments of code echoing onward. Whispers of bugs and glitches, relics of catastrophic failure. The world disperses like a fleeting dream, rests in development limbo, and begins again.
The Assassin discovers a body unguarded in the interrogation chamber. It’s positioned in a cold and penitent forward slump. It’s missing fingers. The body’s textures fail to load. It’s a crude representation of a man with muted color but no detail; a fleshy mannequin with an exit wound.
Aliased shadows bisect the checkerboard throne room. Stained glass windows cast light over the crimson rug running to the Emperor’s feet. The Assassin is alone with their mark.
The windows display the Hallowed. A pantheon of awesome beings dwelling in Dark Space. Some humanoid, some closer to spiders, mountains, or comets. Some blind, some with limitless sight. Some strong, some cunning, some caring, some wrathful. They accompany reliefs of the empire’s interstellar campaigns; a record of conquered worlds.
The Emperor is a skilled naval tactician. From the bridge of his flagship, The Benevolence, he commands fleets to dwindle any and all planetary defenses. He commences orbital bombardment to break the spirit of those on the surface, and personally sees to the health and well-being of his reports. He treats his soldiers with love and respect, he asks after their families and shows genuine interest in their lives. He’s earned their loyalty on the battlefield, and is revered for his bravery and willingness to put himself in danger to protect those who would die for him. His gilded battle mech, The Intervention, of smooth curves and ruthless efficiency, leads charges and cover retreats. To him, a battle is only over when the wounded are treated and the dead are gathered. He considers every soul while formulating strategy, and never believes in needless sacrifice.
Many conquests brought new technologies and schools of thought. Lives were enriched with the art and music of cultures forced to assimilate. But alien microorganisms brought plague, and the Emperor was only great when at war.
With eyes like two milky-blue moons, he watches the Assassin approach. The Emperor lets his ceremonial claymore fall to the ground. He begins stripping layers of armor that rattle across the floor, his chest plate lands with the Coronation Sun facing defiantly towards heaven. When his deficient protection matches that of his opponent, he rearms himself.
The Assassin has never seen him so close. Years of space travel and variable gravity have accelerated his aging. He’s wrinkled, weathered, handsome; they understand why so many love him. His graying beard masks a collection of cuts, scars, and stitches. He appears kind and genuine. They see more good in him than their comrades believe, but it’s not enough.
The Assassin brandishes their pistol and fires three times into his chest. The Emperor takes a step back before falling to his knees. The blood spreads like nebulae. He topples and dies without a word.
The Assassin crouches to inspect their kill, but the body phases through the floor. The Emperor is in free fall, suspended in his final pose, traveling through the rooms of his opulent palace. He emerges on the other side of the world into an unlimited purgatory and the city grows smaller above as he plummets away from the many towers raised in his name across the galaxy.
Unshaken, the Assassin delves deeper into the palace until hallways of white marble give way to manufactured steel. They enter the fortified addition grafted over the cliff side to house the empire’s weapons and greatest military minds. The soft sounds of their footsteps mix with a din of combat chatter. The Grand Machinist, her polygons erect and static, is alone in her control room overlooking the mech hangar. She stands dutifully at a wall of flickering monitors, all displaying the vitals of pilots lost behind the insectoid masks of their bio-suits.
The Assassin watches a face not quite their own dart between aerial feeds showing the real-time routing of rebel defensive positions and rally points. The curvature of their half-sister’s features creates an intense figure, one of a singular and programmed purpose. She carries herself like an instrument of fate; resolute, uncaring, and all together unified. Sired into an elevated status and separated from her family at age 12, the Grand Machinist was trapped on the fast-track to design and perfect the empire’s tools of domination. Tools who walk upright, carry weapons, and gaze down with hollow eyes of golden light.
The Assassin sneaks into their half-sister’s field of view. Startled, the Grand Machinist smooths down creases on her white coat and backpedals towards the executive desk. She faraway remembers the pair of eyes locked to her, and recognizes within their dilating pupils a spirit which mirrors her own when shaving crucial seconds off jumper jet cooldowns. She understands the beloved commander is dead.
The pair only manage to communicate once every few years between campaigns and never face-to-face. A network of bribed officers relay messages employing childhood nostalgia and love to enlist the other to the cause. They both lament a relationship torn apart by duty to opposing masters. With every escort ambush or midnight raid, they always expect to find each other among the dead.
In a fluid and practiced motion, the Grand Machinist produces a handgun and turns it on herself. The Assassin moves quickly and delivers precision strikes to the arm, head, and stomach. They catch their incapacitated half-sister, squat down, and drape her across their shoulders.
Ranks of dormant mechs dangle from the hangar ceiling like cadavers in cold storage. They are suspended by enormous hooks digging between their shoulder blades. Transparent fiber wires form synthetic sinew snaking around their naked skeletons. Their enormous jaws are locked into a frozen battle cry. Their golden eyes extinguished, their bodies vacant and raw.
Straining only slightly from the weight of their half-sister, the Assassin walks the length of the hangar bay towards the outdoor launchpad. They inhale a gust of air heavy with the stench of ocean water and fuel exhaust. They hear the rattling gunfire reverberating across the coast and the low, guttural moan of the empire’s war machines.
A squad of colossal mechs in armored regalia dwarf the skyline, stooping to drag their gruesome claws across the cobblestone roads. A squad of retreating militia are dismembered by screaming chain guns erupting from a Centurion’s chest. Misting tear gas grenades make graceful arcs across an overpass. A salvo of bouncing incendiary bombs set an entire block ablaze, prompting the automated response of Fire Control Drones emerging from their street corner docking stations.
A rocket coils out of a belfry window and strikes a mech in the lower rib. It stumbles back and braces itself against a pair of crumbling buildings before planting its feet and destroying the tower with a single blow.
The particle count spikes to new highs and the system strains and chugs and begins to degrade. Pulverized clusters of brick and iron and bone and flesh and dust descend in a halting tempo.
The Assassin feels an eerie familiarity with the way their limbs lurch as if they’re inhabiting a puppet. With the Grand Machinist still groggy on their shoulders, they step off the launchpad and onto an invisible surface suspended over opalescent waves marching towards the coast and reflecting the cloudless skybox where mute constellations of the Hallowed blink beyond the purple atmosphere.
The memory leak runs rampant and consumes every resource and process, and the wounded world limps forward. The levitating Assassin strains their eyes towards a horizon eclipsed by buildings constructed from blobs and grids and prisms. They remember an overload and crash and reset. They remember stress tests and tweaks and revisions. They remember the pieces moving back into the place; the city restored, the dead reanimated, and the sun reversed.