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Dark Mantle, Part One
Posted By: Cthulhu117<azathoth117@gmail.com>
Date: 29 May 2008, 9:29 pm

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Dark Mantle

Part One: The Tangent Universe

The Mantle

1. The holders of the Mantle are to protect the orderly flow of space and time.

2. The holders of the Mantle are to protect the races which have been given into their control and protection.

3. The holders of the Mantle are to protect the existence, development and dissemination of organic life in the universe.

4. The holders of the Mantle are to protect the honor and legacy of their forerunners; to abhor the abuse of the Mantle for individual gain.

5. The holders of the Mantle are to protect the single heir-species to maintain and uphold the Mantle after their inevitable closure.

      The cold blue flames raged near and yet far below him, a blinding maelstrom of light flaring up from the cold of space and the heat of an artificial paradise turned hell. He was weightless, perfectly poised between life and death, light and dark, lies and truth, on the knife's edge of his own mind.

      Outside, liberated from the metal-flesh crucible of his body, the mind wandered through the corridors of frigid gray metal and the liquid currents of violet light poured like cold mercury into the cybernetic junction at the nape of his neck. He saw the revenant-destroyer, seeker of vengeance, fearing for his life for the first time; he saw the atoner, his life and death purified in the flames he had brought upon himself; he saw the raging flood of thought and emotion manifest in many bodies. He saw all this, and more besides; but he did not see past the blue-black door, the tangent vortex from the foundry-world below.

      The portal was his barrier, the element that was not his. In this moment he was Destiny, yet he could not see past the door from vacuum-night to vacuum-night. On the other side of the door, even Fate was blind.

      The Suppressor's armor was bright white, at first, a mobile chrysalis of metal blazing bright into the darkness of a thousand battlefields. After the one thousand battlefields, after the armor had saved his life a thousand times and taken many thousands of lives that had not belonged to it, the armor was no longer bright white, but brown and green and red with the filth of the thousand battlefields and the thousands of lives. Inside it, however, the Suppressor was still clean.

      Across the one thousand and first battlefield, the Suppressor walked, the silver machines clustering about him as a living ablative armor. This was their prime directive, the only responsibility that they could be delegated in battle. The Fourth Mandate prevented their use as killing machines; to utilize their formidable offensive capabilities would be a terrible violation of the trust of the Mantle. Of course, there were few these days who believed that the Mantle held any significance whatsoever; the ancient machines were applied as shock troops on the most dangerous missions, and very few commanders objected. Some even actively disobeyed it, making their own machines in an attempt to duplicate the intricate machinery of the ancient guardians. But none of their results, effective though they were, could duplicate the fluid, compound-mind coordination of the pre-existant machines. Their new machines were inferior copies, nothing but a crude imitation that billions of warriors had come to accept.

      But the Suppressor was still white. He believed the Mantle, as he had always been told to, and he upheld it.

      For this reason, he had survived a thousand battles.

      The first tenet of the Suppression Fleet Training College was "All things are fallible; synthetic things more so." The Suppressor did not depend on machines to fight his battles for him. He let the Precursor sentinels fight whatever battle they chose and did the rest himself.

      The thinking dead were all around him as he walked, outside his oblate shield of living machines, and the Suppressor drew his foils slowly, the pulse conductor arrays on the grips sparking to life as the third joint of his fingers curled around the hilts.

      The Suppressor took a shallow breath and whistled, a practiced warble that the sentinels knew well. They dispersed in a sudden out-rush of force, leaving him alone in the stormy twilight with no light to guide him and hundreds of foes surrounding him.

      It did not matter. He already knew exactly where the enemies were.

      His primary thumbs clicked the firing studs of the foils. The half-minded shells of the parasite fell around him, feeble boneless flesh reduced to ash in seconds by the bright blue flames. But more were coming, the tentacular eyestalks in their chests drawn inexorably to the heat even as it seared their predecessors to heaps of charred tissue.

      The Suppressor killed them all, and when the conduction filaments of the foils were white-hot and unable to fire, he locked them to his gauntlets and used them as they were meant to be used, blazing hot metal blades against the clammy, boneless whip-arms of the Flood. The perfect weapons to him, although they could have been made more perfect by violation of the Mantle.

      But that, to the Suppressor, was the point of the Mantle, the great scrutiny it turned on all people who aspired to it. Only the strong could live under the Mantle, and he was strong, even where others were weak.

      There were countless more of the skinwalking creatures there, hordes of mindless husks desiring his body and mind, but none posed a threat to him. The foils were bathed in the gray-green lifeblood—so to speak—of the parasites, and he was careful to scrupulously sterilize them before dimending them. They were, after all, Precursor workmanship, one of the few original paired sets of foils still in active use.

      When operations concluded after eleven hours, he was one of the last few to enter a cleanship. His combat skin, a class six, was largely unharmed, but as soon as he was aboard the cleanship, he shed it anyway, the waxy viridian coating flaking off and purging through the armor—plating of his battle harness. Such was procedure.

      It was on the cleanship, in the control module, that the Suppressor met her, and it was on the cleanship, in the control module, that he spoke for the first time in many years. The tenets of the Suppression Fleet Training College discouraged verbal communication with organics, and almost always forbade verbal communication with non-combat personnel.

      Nonetheless, her beauty presupposed exceptional circumstances.

      With the sort of nervousness that only non-combatant females produced in him, he cleared his throat. "Reverent greeting," he said. His voice did not sound like he had remembered; it was slightly lower, with a rasping note and a profound hopelessness to it.

      She turned with fluid grace, and he realized by the flickers of light under the edges of the skull that she was wearing a platform interface skin, no doubt a highly synchronized level. Any interface skin higher than a class four precluded the possibility of verbal communication; it was something of a mockery to speak to anyone wearing a high-level skin. They were also difficult to remove or replace, so he merely lowered his eyes and reflected calmly on the foolishness of his actions.

      After a few seconds, she turned back away and returned to her work, her hands flitting over the cleanship's control surfaces with blinding speed and precision. It was indeed a very synchronized interface skin, probably optimized for this particular ship, and he nodded in approval before opening the control module door and entering the dimended recreational hall of the cleanship.

      Most modern vessels, even warships, had considerable environmental development in recreational areas. Some had whole, unique ecosystems possible nowhere else in the universe. But since the opening of the present conflict and the first uses of cleanships, the level of biodiversity had dropped steeply into the cavernous, sterile rooms he saw before him.

      The hall contained few other soldiers, most from Suppression Fleets like his own, but at least one of them was wearing the pale gray informal-activity skin that marked them as a planetary Security Fleet officer. Unlike the Suppressors, the Securitors did not carry foils, and they seldom wore battle harness unless circumstances were regularly extreme. This operation had been the result of planetary ambush, and there had been no extreme circumstances to worry about prior to attack. The nearest was sitting, or rather floating, several feet above the current ventral surface, his anterior limbs folded in a position of meditation. But he was shaking slightly, the minute vibrations that would have been all but invisible to an untrained eye obvious and unsettling to the high trained eyes of a Suppressor.

      The Suppressor gave no sign of emotion—dynamic facial expression was frowned upon by the Suppressor Fleet Training College—but he was slightly displeased. Even Securitors, the loosest branch of the military, were expected to be utterly impassive in even the most dire situations. Emergency-Circumstance soldiers were not only utterly impassive with regards to emotion, but with regards to virtually all stimuli. They were unthinking juggernauts, perpetually embalmed in prime-class combat skins that neutralized the sensory neurons. They could continue to fight until they were all but dead; and when they were all but dead, they could still continue to fight until their vital organ clusters were divorced from their limbs.

      There were none of them here. The situation was not dire enough for that.

      The cleanship's coordinating construct flickered to life in midair before him, a mote of deep blue light that pulsed in time with its toneless voice. "All personnel, prepare for planetary reclamation operations."

      The Suppressor crossed and uncrossed his primary thumbs, displaying his palms to the construct's avatar in a mute gesture of acknowledgement. Several seconds later, there was a brief tensing in the ship's vibrations, and a crackle of energy flowed across the Suppressor's informal-activity skin. "Planetary reclamation operations" was the official terminology used for coordinated orbital bombardment. Cleanships were not heavily armed, being more dreadnought-affiliated transport vessels than independent warships, but, if necessary, the ship's external layer could configure itself into a slipspace-pulse conductor not unlike an upscaled version of Suppressor foils. Their effect was similar, although obviously with far more destructive capacity.

      However, unlike a foil, a cleanship was not a weapon, simply a weaponized transport. Its pulse arrays were not nearly as efficient—or, proportionally speaking, powerful—as those inherent to a foil. Its fire would not purge the world, although it would sterilize large areas of the surface. It would be the dreadnought in high orbit, or more properly its seven pulse arrays, that would eradicate not only the Flood below but everything tainted by their presence. The world of DR h 2189 would be stripped of its planetary crust, and after the ninth volley, even that was usually nothing more than a shell of molten rock clinging tenuously to the planet's core. It was brutally, mechanically efficient, although it always gave the Suppressor an odd feeling, as though all his life's work had been invalidated in seconds.

      The Suppressor set his first fingers perpendicular to each other and tapped the tips together to summon the cleanship's construct. The mote of light popped back into existence, and he spoke to it in his measured, yet grating voice. "Provide an operation report," he ordered calmly.

      Almost immediately, the construct displayed a screen to him, full of various statistics on ships summoned, troops engaged, combat timelines and so forth. But three numbers at the bottom were of particular interest to him.

      CASUALTIES [MILITARY]: 10,928,602
      CASUALTIES [CIVILIAN]: 472,699,003

      The Suppressor tapped his jaw thoughtfully, then clenched his fists and placed the knuckles together in a dismissal order. The mote of light winked out, and the death tolls vanished into the ether.

      The living were his business. The dead were now irrelevant.

      The Suppressor crossed his anterior limbs and began to meditate.