The Charter

fanfic by tom
- every young writer will produce a million words of utter crap before they get to the good stuff; ensure that your friends, family and whoever else you subject to your bad words, are expecting such when you put pages in front of them, and don't be offended when they start ignoring your calls.
Jack Kerouac

The lights had never come on before. The business that went on in the Registry didn’t require them. The yawning depths of Malfi’s data-caverns had been uninterruptedly black for the entire span of the Registrar’s tenure; he understood that by the measure of humans, this period was substantial. Occasionally, the airless silence flooding the file-warrens might be punctured by the hum of vibro-quills, guilty fingers scratching at parchment long yellowed and cracked in its feeder. A valve might hiss in the distance, a cogitator taut with the strain of processing a long anticipated document. The click of metallic toes chipping further into equidistant grooves would throw off a furtive echo, quickly stifled by the density of the surrounding gloom. That darkness though, had never been disturbed.

The lights were not strictly forbidden, not by any law or protocol the Registrar had discovered. But, he reasoned, if his predecessor had found no use for light, nor his predecessor’s predecessor, then it must offer no advantage to Registry business. In fact reversing his logic, the lights might indeed interfere in some way with his department’s productivity. He must balance the possibility that the lights signified some new amendment to the business practices of the Registry, against the possibility that the lights would detract in some way from the workings of the machines around them. If he decided to investigate and the lights meant nothing, he risked being away from his post when some important data arrived, yet to allow such aberrations to run rampant, un-scrutinised in his department would constitute negligence. For a period of 309.96 minutes, the Registrar analysed the problem, and, finding no precedent for his situation in the department’s code of practice, came to a conclusion based on decidedly unscientific reasoning. The lights might interfere with his game. He unfolded himself, sliding multi-jointed limbs out of brassy sheaths and hauling his wasted, papery frame out of the logic-bay. His chattering forelimbs puffed tiny wisps of steam, shaking loose coils of dust with each lurching step, his hoary, withered features puckering with concentration. With a phlegmy bark, he activated his locomotor array, and lurched out of the inky darkness towards the troublesome lamps.

He knew the game was important, though of course ancillary to his main purpose - overseeing the transfer of title to assets within the personage of the esteemed noble-houses of Malfi. The game could not exist without the fulfilment of his primary purpose, and for that reason the Registrar had never thought of it as an impediment to his work. The reason for its’ importance was lost, founded on long forgotten human drives; he only knew, with an absolute certainty, that of the means by which title might descend, his favourite was definitely death. The Registrar had never ‘won’ the game; indeed he suspected that if he ever did, he would be greatly disappointed. Luckily for now, it had proved singularly exigent. The game had begun with the observation that the average lifespan of a House Black family member diverged greatly from the sector’s recorded median. Indeed the measure of human lifetimes in general seemed stubborn in its’ refusal to set an agreeable trend, varying greatly from planet to planet, but the Blacks were particular. The most long-lived lineages on record were the Great Houses Von Lash and Krin, the Scintillan Navigator Families, and Rogue Trader lines Haarlock, Elder, and Black. The excitement began, when he challenged himself to accurately predict the occurrence of such a death, ideally with a margin of error of only minutes or seconds. The Registrar had established that title transfers by death occurred at a median rate of 1/276 years, interspaced between an average of 3.1 marriages and 6.7 births. The next death was scheduled in roughly 97 years, 11 days and some number of minutes. He supposed that deaths in the Black family owed their particular significance to their apparently correlative relationship with malfunctions in his respiratory array. Upon the discovery of a death notice pertaining to House Black, the Registrar often suffered strange diaphragmatic irritations, heaving with intense shuddering coughs and a halting, high-pitched wail. His heavily lobotomised brain matter would tingle, as though on the verge of some great realisation or flood of emotion, before receding back into its dull default state of mute anticipation. These fits were the reason he enjoyed the game. He had no understanding of their relevance to his purpose, but he craved the sensations they brought. As he rounded a corner, slinking between data-stacks, he finally caught sight of the light source and buzzed in consternation.


The solicitor was sweating. He mopped at the beading drops on his neck, baulking as an inky smear came away with his handkerchief. He huffed thick, greasy air; no doubt his favourite coat, a rich velvet garment that comfortably cupped his bulbous gut, would be unwearable by the time he returned to the office. Wisely it seemed, his attendants wore grey. Ahead of him, two security officers and a Registry Technographer stood huddled around a cogitator, it’s sparking organs thrown open on a grav-tray. The spluttering synthetic yellow of their grav-globes lent the scene an eerie torch-lit quality, weirdly at odds with the smog-stained data-towers that enclosed it. Abyssal darkness yawned above the hunching figures, a true primordial night unknown to the lifetime hivers. Malfi’s ceaseless light pollution was quenched; though its’ surface glowed in space, throbbing with the density of civilisation, so deep beneath the crust its’ lonely star could offer no warmth. We are on the very precipice of the Emperor’s realm here, thought the solicitor suddenly, and his skin crawled.

The guards were young, he noticed, and skittish – they quipped and burbled to ease their nerves. The mag-lamp’s glow hollowed their faces, and deadened their eyes. Typically, his employer had provided no escort, nor indeed, directions for this assignment, so the solicitor had trawled a waterdamaged directory in a public comm.-booth looking for security firms. These two barely competent idiots were apparently the best the Administrative Quarter could summon. Half-awake, slouching against the oily walls in crumpled uniforms, they waited, worming through lho cartons with quivering fingers. They feel like grave-robbers, he supposed. The Technographer at least, was a professional. It was possessed of a fluid efficiency, rummaging through the machine’s innards, tugging and hoisting a mess of wires while chanting in an unchanging, tinny timbre. Saccharine clouds of incense puffed from slivery dispensers, it’s servo-digits scuttling along exposed circuitry like joyful spiders. He sighed and massaged his arthritic knuckles. “Must get my hands done,” he muttered.

Suddenly, the Technographer spurted binary, harsh notes slicing the watery silence. The guards snapped up their rifles, voices pitching with disorientation. “What? What is it?” The Technographer hauled the engine grate shut with an echoing clash; “The device is not malfunctioning. There is no evident defect within its’ workings. The only conclusion is that its’ inoperativity is the result of a lockdown sequence.”

The solicitor stepped forwards and peered at the darkened screen. He tapped the glass lightly. “Can you override it?”

“If my analysis is not incorrect, the device continues to function, save that it no longer forwards the information it collects. You may attempt to search the Register manually Solicitor, while I review my programming logs.”

“Terrible pity my Lord, your dragging yourself down here for no good cause.” The guards were getting restless, scenting a chance to get out of the unnatural dark. Chuckling around their drooping smokes they shifted, foot to foot in a nervy shuffle. One, backhanding the other’s shoulder, chuckled “Machines, eh?” and threw a wary glance at the immobile Technographer. It was oblivious, churning through data-stores.

“Begin” said the solicitor. The screen flickered for a brief second, before tiny green letters began to appear.
++Setup Complete- Search Engine 0013 ACTIVE
++Please input Authorisation Code to begin… >

He looked over his shoulder. The officers were leaning in behind him, peering at the glowing letters. “A moment please gentlemen,” he said sternly. “This won’t take long.” They made their apologies curtly enough, and wandered a short way off. Neither of them stepped beyond the meagre circle of light though. He rolled his eyes.
Internal fans whirred and letters rolled across the screen.
## Stonewall and Finch, Practitioners of Law 0.55/67 …
+Clearance Level Adeptus [Ordinary]

“Search Register.” The cogitator beeped acquiescently.

He pulled a document out of his coat, a long submission his office had received concerning a property dispute. A faded letterhead displayed the heraldry of a Terran jackal on a jade field. He thumbed through it hurriedly. For the consideration of the learned Magistrate, House Kail humbly submits a contestation…blah blah blah… such being inherent in the equitable right to land, blah blah blah, remedies in consideration of the extinguishment of the expired right of way…ah, here we are.

“Black Familial Holding, title to …“Weatherfort Estate, Capital Coast.”

Laid low hundreds of years earlier by the suspicious disappearance of its progenitor, House Kail had never regained prominence among the Traders. They had dwindled into petty planetary merchants and perpetual class action litigants, hounding after the scraps left by their former peers. Before their destruction, the Kails had feuded bloodily and often with the Blacks; it seemed the best revenge they could hope for was to ceaselessly harass their one-time rivals with lawsuits. This case, like many the Kails had instigated, required a lengthy and torturous examination of Black family Deed documents. And of course, due to some unknown malfunction at the Registry, the necessary documents were proving equally frustrating to recover.

+Deed of Title Found.

The solicitor frowned. His employer had told him the company was privy to all the property information of their clients. It was typical of the chairman to neglect the minutiae. Passwords, he thought, shaking his head. Throne above. Reluctantly, the solicitor held his hand over a glass reader-panel.

< Clearance Codes Required … >

His sliver ring, inlaid with obsidian lions glittered as the cogitator lashed it with needles of light. The ring was of a class of devices usually borne by the heads of the Great Noble Houses. After a string of vicious and public assassinations among the higher-ups of the Haarlock Lineage, it had become custom to assign them to trusted household agents instead. Usually in the case of a sudden Tithe Office inspection, these agents could manually suspend security measures on House financial records and make whatever alterations were necessary to conceal their master’s dubious dealings. Given how routinely the noble houses exchanged such thinly veiled sabotage attempts (tipping off the taxman at every opportunity), oddly bejewelled accountants were enjoying an unexpected vogue.
The cogitator churned loudly, deliberating.


“What the frak is going on?”
“Problem sir?”
“Be quiet!”
He tapped his chin.
“Search; Clearance Requirements”
<Patriarchal clearance codes required to override lockdown>

He stared at the ring. Aurelius Black had given it to him forty years ago, along with his instructions to safeguard the family’s planetary holdings, and a piercing coppery glare. He was only supposed to use it in an emergency…was this some kind of failsafe? Had his codes expired? Was he forgetting to input some critical data?
“Override: Aurelius Black, Patriarch.”


Ah. So that’s it.

“Poor bastard,” muttered the solicitor, switching off the reader. He wondered how the old rogue had died, then amended the thought. He wondered who had killed him. The man would have only been about 160, not so far past middle-aged for a noble of stature. Though he had no love of rejuvenat, conservative treatments should have kept him alive a hundred more good years. But he had no doubt his old master was dead. Each member of House Black contributed a drop of blood at birth, to a vast Dark Age construct which housed the Registry. By means long forgotten to the Mechanicus, with perfect precision this machine would register the deaths of any person from whom it had tasted. By long-standing arrangement, the machine would then forward it’s information to the Stonewall Finch offices, who would arrange the inheritance. The firm had often completed the necessary paperwork months before astropathic messages reached the Administratum with news. The system had functioned perfectly, and without imprecision, until now.

“Descent of Patriarchy, Toris Black” Inherent in the position and role of family Patriarch, all the considerable resources of House Black were vested by tradition in a single individual. He remembered Aurelius’ eldest son, had dealt with him on a number of matters concerning family enterprises offworld. He had a real head for business that boy, and less of a nose for adventure than his father. Although the galaxy had lost a little colour with the death of the eccentric voidfarer, no doubt House Black would prosper more fiercely than ever under Toris’ leadership.

<File Found>
Finally - For a moment, the solicitor’s heart stopped.

He was looking at the document detailing the descent of the Patriarchy over thousands of years, down through the ranks of the now deceased. The cogitator had highlighted Toris’ name just as he had requested, but it wasn’t at the bottom. It was halfway up the list.

The solicitor blinked and swallowed, clutching at his chest. His eyes rolled across the screen, each name struck through with a bold red line and the append, “DECEASED.” Aurelius and Toris, the warrior and his brilliant firstborn, both struck through. Arthis, the second child, competitive and optimistic. The third son, Agrippa whom the solicitor had known only as a sullen young savant, never far from his father’s side. As the list progressed he read through names he had never heard, the names of the Aurelius’ grandchildren, and their children. He franticly enlarged his search to include the whole family, flicking through file summaries and coming at last to a gruesome tally board. “God Emperor above, preserve me.” 10 consecutive heirs to the fortune were dead. Each of their wives was listed as “status unknown” – none having contributed the vital drops to the engine below. But the sisters, nieces, and daughters along with the sons, every living member of the ancient and noble House of Black was erased from the universe. 63 family members were dead or presumed so. Only the Emperor knew what had become of their servants. How in His name could this have happened?

Its all this vicious darkness, he thought squeezing his hands together. The shadows in this place, have wrapped themselves around the truth, and muffled it; they’ve dragged it down, suffocated it, boiled it away, till only the bones were left. A miserable, desperate secret –sitting at the bottom of this lonely well.

He could see the operation code now, in a blinking alert window amid the death notices.

< Succession Extinguished. Lock Dynasty Assets>

That would of course include a suppression order on all Registry releases. Such measures were put in place so surviving family members could prevent their enemies from exploiting their sudden vulnerability. Apparently noone had anticipated a situation in which the entire line was extinct.

“We have to get out of here…”

The solicitor looked up sharply “What?”

One of the officers was peering into the watery gloom that bulged above them. His fingers were white on his gun grip, pink blossoming beneath the skin where flesh was pressed into bone. The gun was raised, and a single sooty tear of sweat was worming its’ way down his face. “Something is out there.” The solicitor began to stuff the documents back in his coat. “Don’t be ridiculous. It’s a sealed chamber. This vault hasn’t been opened for sixty years.” The guard looked dubiously around the echoing chamber and pressed the stock to a damp shoulder. “Correct,” said the Technographer, and they all jumped. “The temperatures and lack of adequate oxygen at this depth render the likelihood of any beast habiting here very slim.” With a snapping hiss, the cables running from its back into the cogitator depressurised and came free, hanging behind him like insectile wings. “Nonetheless we should leave. The solicitor’s mission has reached its conclusion.”
“It seems so.”
“I’m telling you, I heard something out there.”
“Alright, relax. Give me a moment to lock these files again and we’ll leave.” The officers, with palpable relief, shouldered the mag lamp and turned towards the distant vault door. The solicitor raised a hand towards the reader panel when a jagged shriek struck out from the darkness.

A torrent of unintelligible screeching punched into the men, knocking them to their knees in a mess of paper and equipment. The noise drilled into their eardrums, deafening and blinding them with pain. The Technographer, sagging under the pressure, pulled a laspistol and fired blindly, his servo-optics spitting sparks. One of the guards flicked a sizzling arc of bolts into the black as he buckled, fingers clenching, every muscle rippling. The other just keeled over; with a wet snap, pink mist coughed from his nose and ears. As the body slumped aside, rifle clattering uselessly to the floor, the solicitor caught the first glimpse of the creature. Gnashing forelimbs speared out of the shadows, straight for the surviving officer. One lashed across his hands as he struggled to bring up his gun, scooping away fingers at the knuckle. The other lanced into his screaming face, vibroquills sawing into eye-jelly, piercing tongue and jaw. The back of his skull broke open, blood blasting out like seawater churned in a propeller.

The solicitor dry-reached in terror. The thing was a hideous blend of atrophied human flesh and buzzing machinery, two withered arms slapping against an age-spotted torso. Its face and neck was encrusted with data-ports, biting into flesh like barnacles - save for a drooling, tattooed mouth, its’ face was all nightmarish iron. From the ribs down, insectile spindle-limbs thrashed and scraped through the pooling blood.

The shrieking receded as hymnal song echoed out across the vault. The creature tilted its cadaverous head towards the Technographer, whose crackling vox was emitting the Oppribruim Ommnissiah, defiantly pressing against the assault. Two waves of sound thundered into each other, stirring dust and the loose paper that was scattered across the scene. The Technographer threw up a hand against the feedback, a brilliant electoo glowing in its’ palm. Heaving back onto one knee, it intensified the deluge, under which the creature writhed in uncomprehending pain. The beast tried to take a step forward, but its limbs were failing, some of them spasming and tangling with the others. Its lips peeled back revealing black teeth and bloody gums – it bristled and spat it's displeasure. As it raised its’ head, a fallen rifle snapped up off the floor and into the magnetized hands of the Technographer.

Two servo-limbs shot straight into the initiate’s potentia-coil, piercing the brassy device and spurting spools of florescent coolant across the floor. The prayer fizzled out as the point punched into the ground, pinning the leaking body in place. For a moment the Technographer was held upright, its face displaying a very human expression of surprise and disappointment. Then the lights in its’ eyes dimmed, the muzzle drooped, and the body began to scrape slowly down the weapons’ edge.


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