The Decider’s ship lowered through the endless snowstorm, coughing up a vast wave of ice. The haggard ship was built to withstand such conditions, its birdlike feet adjusting to the shifting shape of the ground. From the top of the ship steadily emerged a giant pole which thrusted high into the blizzard. Fully extended it was around 50 feet tall, roughly three times the height of the ship. Then the pole began to open out into what looked like a colossal transparent umbrella. Once open it formed a perfect half sphere dome which slowly lowered until it covered the ship like a gigantic snow globe. Gill-like vents on the side of the ship opened, and began pumping seething hot air into the inner globe, and soon enough, the ice started to melt, and the globe began to sink deeper and deeper into the ice.
The ship continued to descend through the thick, icy mantle, and the evaporating ice caused the globe to fill with steam. After a few minutes the ship’s feet touched upon a hard flat surface, and the steam was sucked into a vacuum tube. Now there was only total darkness, and silence but for the gentle baritone of the ship’s resting engine. After a few moments a faint blue light began to emit from the ship, pulsating intermittently every few seconds like the natural neon lights of deep sea plankton. The cockpit hissed open and a walkway glided towards the ground. The Decider disembarked.
The body of his suit was jet black, made up of hundreds of tiny jagged intersecting plates which looked distinctly reptilian. His enormous helmet was made up of thousands of coloured gems which were patterned to look like some sinister shamanic mask. Immense tusks of some unknown beast spiralled into the air from the cranium, and a mass of leathery cords formed a mottley mane. The Decider’s body was almost invisible in the darkened space of the dome, but the great helmet sparkled radiantly in the flashing blue light: it was as if the head was floating in the void like some ancient tribal specter.
The Decider’s movements were quick, insectile, he seemed keen to finish the task he had been set. He knelt on the flat ground a little way from the ship, and from the thigh of his scaly armour he pulled out an ebony dagger, which started to glow a smouldering crimson. He delicately pressed the tip of the dagger into the ground, and after a few seconds the tip started to melt through the surface. He drew a circle, and once finished he placed the dagger back in its unseen holster and went back to his ship, attaching an extension cord to his suit. He went back to the circle, and with no hesitation he jumped into the dead centre with all his weight, and fell through into blackness.
The Decider calmly plummeted through the dark, the scales of his suit opening like miniature ailerons to slow his descent, and soon the ship’s wire slowed him to a gentle stop. He dropped lightly a few feet onto the waiting ground, and the glaring yellow eyes of his helmet lit up so that he could see his nearby surroundings. The ground all around him was covered in what looked like black vines, thousands upon thousands of them. He picked up one of the vines, and cut through it with his heated dagger. It let out a loud spark which momentarily lit up the pitch dark like a flare. Not vines, electrical wires. There was a structure nearby which the wires seemed to move toward, like the central nervous system of some sleeping god. The Decider made his way towards it across the sinewy floor.
Suddenly he heard a scuttling sound from the darkness. He glanced towards it, but the sound stopped. Whatever it was, it was beyond his range of sight. He pulled out the dagger and kept moving. His glowing eyes continued to scan the darkness like prison spotlights.
Then the scuttling came again, this time much closer. He snagged a wire and cut through it, again lighting up the dark like a flashbang. This time The Decider caught a glimpse of the thing in the dark. It was around a hundred feet away – a cluster of mechanical legs huddled beneath a great armoured shell, like some gargantuan robotic trilobite patrolling the ocean depths.
The Decider ran, and the trilobite instinctively gave chase.
For its size it moved with breathtaking speed, closing the gap within moments. The Decider could hear it hot on his heels, the mechanical legs clicking like a horde of frantic typewriters as it clambered hungrily over the mesh of wires. When he could sense it was only a few feet behind him, The Decider reached down as he ran and let his dagger cut through the topmost wires, sending a trail of sparks like firecrackers in his wake. The trilobate gave an agonised shriek, a sound not unlike the dial-up crescendo, before receding into the pitch darkness once more.
The Decider had reached the structure at the core of the wires. They raised up and twisted to form a gigantic wiry stalagmite. There was no door, only a thin opening through which The Decider struggled to fit his broad horned helmet.
Once inside the floor illuminated under his footsteps like some divine aura. He made his way through the labyrinthine passages, as he had so many times before, and soon came upon the central atrium. In the centre of the large room was a towering statue of a figure similarly adorned to The Decider, only much more regal. This figure was cloaked, and held a hammer as long as the tallest man which radiated a pastel glow, and thrummed with power. The gigantic mask was encrusted with fist-sized diamonds of all different colours, and the curved ebony horns made The Decider’s look paltry by comparison. Whilst the ghostly visage depicted on The Decider’s mask was sneering, the visage on the statue was neutral, which oddly made it seem even more imposing.
The faint glow of the hammer lit up a small section of the room, which looked like a cross between some alien Sistine Chapel and Plato’s Cave. The walls and ceiling were adorned with a detailed tapestry of some seemingly ancient civilisation: thousands of small wiry figures praying to the various towers, at the top of which was a floating demonic face.
A little way behind the great statue were some stone steps, which The Decider made his way down, and came upon two seated figures. Unlike The Decider, these figures were unmasked: they were hairless, their faces were leached of any colour, their open eyes veiled by a thick silvery cataract. They looked like what a human might look like after adapting to living deep underground in darkness for thousands of years.
They were both sat down back to back, a crosshatch of wires inserted into their body. Each had their own small screen which dangled from a web of wires just a few inches in front of their face. The screens displayed one question: ‘Are you sure you want to permanently empty the contents of your life?’.
The Decider approached the accused, and they slowly turned to face him with their empty, film-covered eyes.
Then the Decider spoke. His sonorous voice made the light of the screens shimmer and fade, as if radiating some unseen electrical surge.
‘You are both sentenced to automatisation for high treason. You place the blame for your crime on each other. But only one of you is responsible. It has been five years and your time limit has now been reached. Now every memory you have ever created, actual or artificial, will be dissolved. You will both become living automata – slaves to the highest bidder. You shall be clean slates, capable only of the most basic functions, and your implanted personality shall be dictated by your new master.
You were given the opportunity to save another by taking the blame for your crime. Your admission would have been a final act of honour before the gods. But you have chosen shame, blasphemy, you have selfishly chosen to take an innocent life. To the innocent – may the gods take pity, and rekindle your spirit in the next life. To the guilty – may the gods cast you into the void.’
Then, just as The Decider moved to pull free the screens, one of the men’s eyes cleared…
(NB: featured image is by Luke Fielding of deviantart, and the image comes from a series of images based on Peter V Brett’s incredible demonwar saga, which I highly recommend)