“Zodiac Engines…” murmured Dax. “I’ve heard that before. Once…somewhere…”

He looked up and saw Athellus giving him a look. “What?”

“How did you hear about them?” the other man asked. “I know for a fact they’re not common knowledge in London.”

Dax shrugged, helplessly. “I’ve had a lot of dreams about this place, even before I came here. I think that phrase was in one of them. –Forget it. Please, keep going.”

Athellus looked at him for a moment longer, then nodded. “The Zodiac Engines are war machines that were built by the Ancestors, thousands and thousands of years ago. After they were created, the paradigm of the zodiac affected them, caused a shift in their structure, and they took on the characteristics of the signs. That’s how they got their names. It makes them sound funny, but it’s a misnomer - they’re probably the most dangerous things you’re ever likely to encounter.

“The Ancestors were good at building things, but unfortunately they spent most of their time trying to kill each other, and that became a running theme, even when they had an outside enemy like the Guardians to distract them. They gave the Engines reasoning abilities, but it was all centred around their primary function…to destroy things. Left to their own devices, the Engines’ programming cycled and grew until they finally achieved sentience, if you can call what they have sentience…they’re ruthlessly destructive, and they’re gleeful about it. Unleash one of the Engines, and it’ll cut a swathe through the world…just because it can.

“Fortunately, they have one major weakness. They’re still basically machinery, and they need an operator to make them do what they’re designed for. Though, if you get too close, you’re likely to become fascinated by them, like a… like a mouse being watched by a snake. They can have an influence on the mind, that makes you want to operate them. And if you try it, that’ll be the last thing you ever do. The Engine will hardwire you into its systems and force you to operate it until you die…and its life support systems can keep you alive for a long time.”

Dax shuddered.

“The Scorpieth heard Jayton Ember’s ambition, his pride,” Athellus continued. “It Gated through to Nones and came out of the ocean. It smashed through the coastal defences – destroying most of the Gating regulation system in the process – and faced the southern defence corps. But its operator, some poor lad it had captured long ago, was close to death, and he died before it was able to do any real damage. The Scorpieth powered down and stood dormant, but the southern corps had been ordered to fall back and they weren’t about to disobey orders. The report came back to Jayton Ember about an hour later. He was horrified by what had happened, but not as horrified as he should have been.”

“How’s that?”

“He didn’t know what the Engine was,” Athellus explained. “All the data concerning the Engines had been in the Archive –“

“ – and the Archive was broken.”

“Yeah. As far as he knew, it was some new weapon sent in response to his Gating excursions. So he and his Entourage – his loyal friends and companions – went out against it, just as they had done in the old days. And when he saw the Scorpieth, Ember was fascinated. He thought they could capture this new weapon, find out where it had come from and use it against its senders. And the Scorpieth was watching him too, because it knew this was the mind it had come hunting.

“Ember went over to take a look at it. He had no idea of the danger he was in. He just walked right up to it – all he must have been hearing was the Scorpieth’s voice in his head, making some gentle suggestions. Finally he got right up to the operator’s compartment and, the second he stepped into it, the Scorpieth had him.”

Athellus snapped his fingers – Dax flinched. It sounded like the spring of a mousetrap.

“And then it started,” Athellus went on, quietly. “The Scorpieth bound Jayton Ember into its systems – he was helpless to stop it. It read all Nones’ tactical data from his mind and powered up again, ready to attack. Its first kill was Adrigal Lawley. She saw what had happened to Jayton Ember and she went crazy. She just drew her weapons and lunged right at it. The Scorpieth shot her and crushed her body underfoot.

“Then it murdered the rest of the Entourage, one by one, finally turning on the city itself. It decimated every battalion sent against it – destroyed the aircraft dispatched there – crushed the cannons on the city walls. The Scorpieth was facing its greatest challenge and it revelled in it. The entire southern quarter of the city, the outskirts, was reduced to rubble, and it’s a testimony to just how well the founders built Nones’ defences that the Scorpieth was slowed down at all. But it was nearing the river and the nerve centre of the city. It wouldn’t be long before Nones would be permanently crippled.

“But it never got that far. The Scorpieth was stopped.” Athellus pointed at the statues. “By those two.”

 

 

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