The following is an extract containing one of the many short stories I penned for the forthcoming Codex Aeternum book for Machina Arcana by Adreama Games. Each piece in the book sheds further light on the lore, protagonists and antagonists in the ongoing Machina Arcana story, focussing specifically on the forthcoming ‘To Eternity’ chapters. It has been a pleasure collaborating with designer Juraj Bilic in expanding this universe and we are eager to share with you the fruits of our labours.
As delivery of the game draws nearer, please bide your time amidst this glimpse of the mysterious Sentinel syndicate, its enigmatic leader and his obliquely sinister pursuits.
As the carriage drew to a halt in the shadow of the Sentinel outpost, Grigor clutched his satchel tightly to his chest and gingerly made his way down the single stair boarding rail to the cobblestones below.
It was late and his mind was swimming, untethered as it was by the sleep deprivation his schedule had imposed as the project swelled in intensity.
As he glanced upwards at the building’s towering façade, an involuntary shudder passed over him. How many nights had he spent within the cloistered embrace of this nondescript brutalist edifice? He remembered his first time crossing the threshold, eager and wide-eyed, so filled with ambition. It seemed a lifetime ago, and he felt the weight of every moment bear down on him now in these final hours.
The revolution had opened many doors for a mind of his calibre. The industrial awakening, they called it. The great mechanised stride. As humanity had taken its first fumbling steps in harnessing the power of steam and automata, it had not only called for countless bodies to man the assembly lines, it had called for minds to unravel the possibilities inherent in these new frontiers. Minds to focus the efforts of so much centralised labour. Not for him the grinding hours of routine toil in the billowing, spark-filled satanic mills, nor the scant hours of respite spent in squalid tenement housing, stacked to capacity as the cities filled with souls, eager to lash themselves to the promise of industry.
A bookish boyhood spent deep in the theoretical realms had prepared him amply for when the Sentinel came recruiting in those nascent days, emerging as it did to cast the cooling liquidity of white-hot potential that the great stride had unleashed in its ironclad wake.
Hurriedly, almost clandestinely, he placed his key into the grill-toothed mechanism with a practiced familiarity and was granted access to the foyer of the great building. The coiled twin S’s of the Sentinel logo and the ostentatiously large portraits of company president Clovis seemed to glower at him as he crossed the floor, as if they knew the treasonous thoughts he harboured as this final act tapered to its inevitably tragic conclusion.
Glancing over his shoulder reflexively, he summoned the elevator that would usher him below, into the bowels of the building and the laboratory workshops where he had spent so many fevered evenings in pursuit of what he now knew were unconscionable ends.
Adolphus Derleth was an industrialist to his very bones. He had built the syndicate up from humble beginnings, dedicating his life to that most demanding of mistresses- the accumulation of capital. He had done so with an investor’s eye and a callous hand, indifferent to the toil of his chattel and cattle- his reality comprised of units of measurement, be they barrels of spermaceti, bushels of hay or pints of blood spilled to oil the wheels of his enterprise. His genius had been one of consolidation and efficiency, harnessing economies of scale to render both vast routes of trade and the imposition of his will upon the very landscape, as he extracted its bounty and remade the world in his own image.
For sixty years he had remained scrupulously committed to his vision, to the detriment of all else- including the son who was learning what it was to live in the shadow of his absent father’s ambition. Under the yoke of his steerage, the Sentinel had flourished, prospered- and yet despite the enormous influence he wielded, he remained an inscrutable proposition, wreathed in shadows as he shunned the limelight that lesser men may have succumbed to in its obsequious embrace.
When he had expired under mysterious circumstances there were no obituaries in the newspaper, no public outpourings of grief, no startling share price fluctuations. Control of the syndicate and all its assets had passed silently into the hands of his eldest son Clovis, and it was clear from the very beginning that within his pale and pox-scarred breast Clovis harboured an ambition to dwarf even that of his father’s.
It was early in Clovis’ tenure that Grigor had first been summoned to meet the man. His diligence had not gone unnoticed, and as he made his way to that first of many appointments, there was almost a spring in his step as he thought of the new beginnings he might help announce to the world. With his insights and the almost limitless resources of the syndicate he was certain he could unlock even greater undreamt utility in mankind’s ongoing brass awakening.
Despite such idealistic daydreaming, the meeting had gone even better than he had dared to hope. Clovis was indeed a man of vision, whose gaze seemed fixed on a horizon far loftier than that of Adolphous’ grim pragmatism. Grigor had sat spellbound as Clovis enunciated his mission in a passionate verbal screed that was almost a soliloquy in its delivery. They had lashed the hand of man to the wheel. They had glimpsed the possibility that such a concentration of labour could bring to bear on transformative enterprise, and in their lifetimes, they had seen the rise of technology enough to boggle the minds of even still-living remnants from before the great stride. Pistons, cogwheels, steam-engines, spinning looms and more, all harnessed in the pursuit of the miraculous.
Hand cannons, motor carriages, airships! Great swathes of the landscape transformed in thrall to this indefatigable beast of industry. It was a beautiful thing to contemplate, let alone behold. And in the crucible of this new dawn, new men had been forged, he had said. Men like himself, men like Grigor! Grigor winced now as he recalled how easily such flattery had swayed him.
And so, drawn into the rarefied air of Clovis’ perfumed inner circle, Grigor had set to task in gifting the Sentinel with theoretical new uses for the roiling waves of energy that mankind was now learning to saddle.
As the elevator descended with a soporific hum, Grigor’s hand rose to scratch absent-mindedly at his now dishevelled hair and unkempt beard, as an agitation rose unbidden within him at the memories of those first unblemished years.
His work had been exemplary; his commitment absolute. Under his stewardship, the teams in charge of experimental applications had furthered the reach of the syndicate’s operations to an almost unfathomable degree. When conjoined with Clovis’ eye for efficiency, the numbers continued to rise, leaping in compound arcs as they doubled, quadrupled and spiralled into the realms of near fantasy. He had experienced all of this from within the protective bosom of the laboratory and workshop walls. Divorced from the reality of their origins, the numbers- flat on paper- continued to seduce him, unaware as he was of the grim toll they represented in human life and labour, beyond the gilded periphery of the Sentinel’s walls.
Inevitably however, the law of diminishing returns came knocking to enact its pound of flesh. He knew it would, of course – the projections could only ascend with such unbounded velocity for a certain time before they collided with the limitations of the hand that was brought to bear in enabling their propagation. Despite the enormous smoke-belching facility that the great stride had lent to proceedings, the hand of man was still an essential link in the chain, and they were rapidly approaching the point where its sinew, its will and its sheer numbers were no longer enough to continue this miraculous march of unchecked growth.
Had he visited the iron belly of the floors and foundries himself perhaps he could have understood what an unsustainable toll it had taken already, snatched indifferently from the exhausted hands of the millions who had flocked to man the levers and oil the gears of this monstrous endeavour.
But from within the confines of his workshop, he was blissfully unsullied by such concerns. Free to focus on the work. The mission. The experiments.
The years sped by in a succession of worldly milestones unheeded. Birthdays, anniversaries, sweeping global events – all were insignificant distractions as he laboured, his mind ablaze – an ardour for the sheer thrill of discovery guiding his hand through long nights and dusted days in pursuit of the next breakthrough that would again set those infernal numbers to rise.
It was Clovis, of course, that had first conceived of the answer. It was so obvious, Grigor was almost envious that it had not sprung from his own visions. He remembered the gathering of his colleagues as Clovis had first pronounced with relish his grand vision. The board room had seemed to dwarf them all within its prodigious dimensions. In comparison to the cramped utility of his workspace it seemed impossibly vast, with its opaque windowpanes, polished mahogany fixings and towering bookshelves that stretched to infinity. From their seats at the rimmed circumference of the titanic oval desk they had listened intently, and with a creeping sense of awe as Clovis’ speech unfolded.
Throughout his exposition, the President’s body seemed to take on a new animation as he first rose from his chair to pace the room, then ascended to stride upon the table itself, each syllable rising in intensity as his vision played out, punctuated with grandiloquent, almost messianic phrases as the enormity of his audacious genius became clear. Grigor’s whole body had tensed then, shivering as he sat, the dizziness of hyperventilation spreading throughout his limbs as he grasped the implications of what was being proffered.
They had reached the dawn of a new phase in the great stride. Sentinel had been instrumental in furthering the cause of industry to the loftiest peaks conceivable by lesser men. The time had come for the next evolution – not only of industry, but of man itself.
How tragic, he had said, that great vision was hamstrung by the limitations inherent in the labouring classes. There were only so many hours in the day, so many arms that could be bent to application, so many peptides and bromides to ward off the stultifying hand of sleep as the engines burned on. With their help, he cooed, Sentinel had reached the towering apex of efficiency. Their enterprise had grown to consume lesser conglomerates and concerns, binding their resources to the superior Sentinel model and unifying the purpose of entire populations! It was a stupendous feat. A bureaucratic marvel. A logistical triumph! A testament to the powers of inspired men and manifest destiny. But it could only produce so much, distribute so many. They were now standing at the coalface of a new paradigm, one where the success and spread of their ideal would not be dictated by the limits of men’s bodies, but by their very essence.
As the elevator doors slid open, Grigor stepped wearily from its confining copper womb and cast his eyes across the riot of mechanisms, machinery and intricate apparatuses that comprised his workspace. He had been spared no expense in his pursuits. Enabled by the finest technology that money could buy and buoyed by Clovis’ mantra that they were expanding the very limits of human experience, he had made this place his de-facto home for more years than he dared to tally. As he strode between stations on his way to the office nestled far within the depths of this subterranean lair, his mind reeled with visions as he cast his eyes upon each workstation and laboratory, recalling with horror the experiments that had been conducted upon each.
It had started simply enough at first. It had seemed almost benign; no – altruistic. They were unlocking a whole new realm of potential dormant within humanity. Peering with untutored eyes upon vistas of possibility that, if harnessed, could transform everything, eradicating need and ensuring that mankind could ascend as one into new realms of evolution – no longer beholden to the studious sloth of nature in its glacial advance of increments.
It was the screaming he was not so keen on.
He had first noticed the visitors at around the same time he noticed the tomes that Clovis was poring over had begun to shift from principles of management and engineering towards more esoteric shores. He had stolen furtive glances at their contents during lulls in his conferences with Clovis, or when the great man had turned to peer out of the vast boardroom window, lost in thought as his tirades unspooled with a litany of demands that grew ever more grandiose with each passing day.
He was not, however, privy to the meetings Clovis held with these odd new patrons. He saw their comings and goings at odd hours, their cowled attire conspicuously different from the dapper tweed trappings of his usual business acquaintances.
Clovis’ grand new vision had been announced in the midst of this period, and had Grigor been less entranced in the demands of his work, he may have noticed the queer stories that had been appearing in the newspapers with an increasing frequency. Seemingly unconnected at first– tales of ritual, strange sightings and a voyage to the frozen south.
The experiments continued apace, and at first the results were as promising as to be miraculous. The studied expertise and herculean schedule of Grigor and his companions was beginning to push the boundaries of how the human condition could be measured, could be tallied, could be tapped into and drawn upon to eke ever more productivity and potential from its prison of flesh and bones. Inch by agonising inch they had learned to quantify what lesser scholars and laymen might have referred to as a ‘soul’ as they explored the strange liminal spaces between consciousness and the physical self.
Those first steps had filled Grigor with a thrill he could scarcely describe. Each night, in what precious few hours of sleep he could manage, his head hit the feathery down of his pillows swimming with ideas until sheer exhaustion would finally claim him to offer some brief respite.
Clovis was thrilled, and as the work progressed, he drew Grigor ever closer into his confidences as the two shared both plans and brandy amongst the gathering dusk.
It was the next phase of operations that had proven more…problematic.
Grigor could still smell the burning flesh as he glimpsed the wheel of ascension that sat, half-draped in cloth as if to hide the patches of flayed skin and shredded remains that clung to its menacing pinwheel spokes. It was the look in their eyes that stayed with him, however. The startled pooling of the irises as apprehension morphed into shock, then abject terror as they realised the curtain was falling on their disposable role in this grander undertaking.
The scant snatches of sleep he had enjoyed were but a memory now as those terrified glares followed him into his dreams and beyond.
The pistol was where he had left it. The top drawer, so full of import. He wondered absentmindedly how much essence he would release as he breathed his last. It would be the part of himself that he could at last deny the Syndicate.
They found his body that morning. The experiments continued.
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