The Iron Circle Ch. V

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Chapter V: Murderers

Many found the sounds of machinery to be crude and noisome. Loud, irascible, grating on the ears. Noise pollution, something to block out with a good pair of earmuffs.

For Petra, there was no sound more melodious than the high-pitched whine of a drill-bit.

She carefully guided the bit in a smooth, looping pattern, letting the diamond-tip bite into the polished metal of the rifle barrel. Her work was nearly finished—all that was left was a bit of gilding to apply here and there. She pulled the drill back back and revealed a line of flowing script etched into the weapon, written in Latin:


'The Outcome Justifies The Deed'. The words—and the rifle they were carved onto—seemed appropriate for the intended recipient: a tool of murder for a murderer, who led a pack of murderers.

Like the rest of the Magical Girl world, Petra had heard much but ultimately knew little about the Ninth's new Warmaster. Her most famous epithet fit the rumors, in any case. Already the Amanuros Order's data-sifters had picked up rumors about an incident at the Big Shell facility: how the infamous Murderface butchered some of the Sixteenth's best agents, and took apart a combat robot so advanced it made Fiona grumble with jealousy. How the Shell was a smoking ruin after the Murderers had done their work.

The Sixteenth guarding the Big Shell had been wearing Mk. I 'Cadre' powered armor, too, mused Petra. State-of-the-art stealth-capable powered armor, made right in the Olympia's own factories. Yet the Sixteenth's reinforcements found most of them lying in pieces, their heavy support robot somehow bisected down the middle, and an important asset from the premises stolen. No losses reported from the Ninth, either.

Sobering to think about, these Murderers.

Fiona had questioned the decision to offer the 'Exitus' rifle as a gift. “Makes us look weak, Petra,” she'd said. “Make us look like we're submitting. Offering tribute, like some sort of weaker country buying off a stronger one.”

Her temper and paranoia aside, the Fabricator-General had a point: play the game wrong, and it really would look like Petra was begging favors from one of the most unlikely Warmasters in Officio history. But, reasoned Petra, no doubt Matsuda herself felt vulnerable. She'd need help from the diplomatic corps to spin it right, but Petra decided to strike while the iron was hot; a new Warmaster with a clean slate was a chance for the Fourth to make friends, build alliances.

Fiona had questioned that, too: the strongest are strongest alone, she'd said, and no one was mightier than the Machines. But then, Petra had tired of this debate a long time ago.

At last satisfied with her work, Petra raised the rifle into the workshop's light.

The rifle was a somewhat blocky weapon, taking the form of a long-barreled marksman's gun, complete with a long-range scope. Various modular weapon parts rested on the table nearby. A bulky cylinder that could render the rifle whisper-silent, a shortened barrel and extended magazine that could turn it into an assault weapon, even a slew of specialized rounds designed to deliver anything from a tank-killing anti-armor shot to a localized napalm blast; the tools of the rifle's bloody trade gazed back from where the sat, and were Petra the superstitious sort, she might have felt their anger and their unwholesome desire to be used.

It was one of her better works, felt Petra. She felt that warm, pleasant buzz of satisfaction so familiar to a craftsman after a job well done, and hoped its intended recipient would put it to good use.

Something chimed. A message icon appeared in the corner of her vision.

<New message received. Sender: Fiona Mac Manus. Subject: You're not going to fucking believe this>

Petra paused and set the rifle back down as she read the message.

As Warmaster of an Officio unlike any other, one both unique and isolated from the rest of the world, Petra found that very few things surprised her.

What she found in the message was one of those things.


“Well, I guess it solves that mystery.”

The two of them were walking down the halls of the Olympia: Petra on the left, Fiona on the right. Their pace was hurried, as the curious news they had received could wait for nothing.

“All this time, we were wondering where the hell the 'Indomitus' pattern Tactical Dreadnought suit went,” said Fiona, snorting. “And it turns out the bitches in the Ninth had stolen it.”

Petra remained silent. The gears in her head, both literal and figurative, turned as she mulled over the situation.

Just a few minutes ago, she had received a message from the Ninth Officio Assassinorum. A request, it seemed, to send someone from the Fourth to repair the 'Terminator' armor in question, to be completed as soon as possible. Petra wasn't sure what the Ninth had been doing with the thing—if the pictures they had sent were accurate, it looked as though they had tossed it into an active volcano and fished it back out.

For the Fourth, the normal response was retribution. Demands to have the armor returned, an additional fee penalizing the theft; refusal would beget an arms embargo, perhaps even the threat of force, or threaten to have the Olympia turn their Officio's worthless holdings to glass.

In an earlier age this was precisely what Petra would have done, without hesitation or mercy. You do not simply steal Fourth Officio property, break it, and then have the temerity to ask for help in fixing it—without the hammer of the Fourth breaking your bones.

But, as they say, times have changed.

Fiona let out a growl. “I know I'm due in Britain in a few hours, but give me a squad and I'll get the 'Indomitus' back. With interest. Whether it's paid in cash or blood is up to them.”

Petra answered with silence.

“Warsmith?” said Fiona, nonplussed. “Oi, Warsmith. Petra!”

“I heard you,” said Petra. “And I'm not sending you. I'm sending Speaker Falko.”

That made Fiona come to a dead halt. “What? Did your vox just glitch out, or did you just tell me you're sending that two-faced little snake to get our property back from the Murderers?”

“That wasn't a vox glitch. I'm sending Barbara Falko to get the 'Indomitus' back. If at all.”

It took Fiona a moment for the last part to sink in. “'If at all'?” she said, incredulous. “You can't mean to...” The Fabricator-General grabbed Petra by the upper arm. “Dammit, Petra, we're the Fourth, not a goddamn charity! You know how many months we spent researching and developing that armor? How much money we put into it? Now you're just going to give it all away to the people who stole it? What the hell is wrong with you?”

She leaned her visored head forward. “The more of our secrets you sell off in trying to make 'friends', the less important we are to the rest of the world. You keep forgetting that. We don't have numbers like the Ninth, we don't have local popular support like the Sixth. We don't have the Fourteenth's influence, and we're not low-profile like the Seventeenth. We lose our technology and we're scrap, because technology is what we are.” Her silver arms trembled as spat the words out. “And knowing all that, you want us to just give away the one thing that'll give us back our edge? Are you insane?”

Petra grasped Fiona's offending limb by the forearm. “You're jumping to conclusions, Fiona. First: I'm not necessarily going to give it to them for free, that will depend on how negotiations go. Second: if I do let them keep it, there will be a point to it. It'll be a good way to build relations between us and a fresh Warmaster of the largest and one of the most powerful Officios in existence. Because you're right, we're not a charity. Third: it's just a prototype. All else fails, we can build a new one if we really need to, and the R&D was almost finished anyway. I also doubt the Ninth can reverse-engineer it that quickly. Fourth:”

There was a creak, a groan of metal protest, as Petra's grip tightened. “If you take that tone with me again, Fabricator-General, I will consider that insubordination and I will punish you without mercy. I don't care if we're friends, I don't care if you're one of my Triarchs: I am Warmaster, and my word is law.” With a flick, she threw aside the dented silver arm.

“Insubordination?” said Fiona as she checked over her arm. Her tone was tense, but lacked even a modicum of fear. “Thought you made me a Triarch because I spoke the truth. Even if it hurt.”

“I made you a Triarch to tell me the truth, Fiona, not whine at me like a yappy little dog.”

Fiona glared at Petra for a moment, before letting out a harsh chuckle.

“Ha ha! True. But I'll say it again.” She resumed striding forwards. “Handing out shiny trinkets won't do anything except maybe get you a smile or two. A good way to by gratitude, but not respect.”

Petra hesitated for a moment, before following after the Fabricator-General.

“Hmph. I'll keep that in mind—hmm?”

<New message received. Sender: Fabricator Gamal Jazerant. Subject: Re: Message from the Ninth>

Fiona turned back towards Petra. The Warmaster had come to a full stop, gazing off into nothing as she read the new missive. “Eh? What's wrong?”

“Hmm,” murmured the Warsmith. “Just got a note from Fabricator Jazerant. I think this will make you rethink taking back the 'Indomitus' from the Murderers.”

“That'll be the day,” said Fiona with a snort. “What's it say?”

“Looks like 'Indomitus' was being taken care of by one of their technicians while they were holding onto it. Improved upon it, even.”

“Hnh. Well, with a technician like that, dunno why they're calling us.” Fiona idly checked her dented vambrace again. “Who is it? Think we should throw an invite their way? This one might be more promising than that Iwakura girl.”

Petra made a sound not unlike whisper-purr of a moving servo. It took Fiona a second to realize the Warmaster had chuckled. “Even if we do invite her, I doubt she'll come back.”

That made Fiona pause. 'Come back'? The Fabricator-General couldn't think off the top of her head of anyone the mystery person could be. And did Petra just laugh? This, she thought, was a day of surprises.

Fiona let out a chuckle herself. “Alright, and who's this genius who decided to leave us and never come back?”

Before them, the engraved doors of the Mechanicus facilities groaned open, bringing the Warmaster and her Fabricator-General to the familiar sight of heavy industry. Already, a pair of Fabricators were scurrying about, preparing tools, drones, and supplies for the journey to Japan, while others looked to their own duties.

As she observed her girls at work, Petra answered the Fabricator-General. There was a rare twinge of amusement in her voice.

“Do you remember little Misaka? Russian girl, had a brother—”

“—who was a reedy little shit, kept whining about stuff he found on the internet? I remember them. Why do you...wait.”

Realization struck like a hammer blow.

“ No way,” she muttered, shaking her head. “Really? No jokes? Little Misaka's the one who's been taking care of the 'Indomitus'?”

“Really,” said the Warmaster.




Fiona stared at the hulking silhouette that sat at the back of the chamber. The 'Cataphract' suit gazed back, like a stern, vigilant god made of beaten and hammered metal. Then the Fabricator-General looked back at Petra.

“Well...maybe we could just build another one...”


Barbara Falko had been in her quarters, tending to a bit of her leg where the paint had come off. The thin brush in her hand dripped with blue paint as she read and reread the missive.

'The Warsmith wants me to do what?'

She paused, then reread the message from the beginning.

'Mission objectives: coordinate between Fabricators Feist and Stein, and the Ninth Officio Assassinorum during repairs of 'Indomitus' Tactical Dreadnought armor system; deliver package to Chiaki Matsuda. Whether or not we demand the 'Indomitus' back is left to your discretion.” Oh? So that's where that thing ended up. She hauled herself off of her chair and began putting away her paint supplies. 'And “left to my discretion”...'

Ah, the Ninth, thought Barbara as she packed her things and made her way down to the hangar bays. She had already been assigned to represent the Fourth during the new Warmaster's ratification ceremony, which she figured was just going to be a milk run. This, however, made things a little more interesting.

The diplomacy game with them was never dull. None of the overly-stiff formality of the Second, or the coarse bluntness of the Sixth: professional, subtle, and sharp as knives, those Murderers. She'd never had the chance to meet the great Malal—that infamous Equerry and Culexus Rank leader—which she regretted. She would rather have liked to meet the genius behind the Animus Speculum, but cataclysmic incursions into reality by abominations that had no right to exist had a way of ending one's dreams.

And there, of course, was the infamous “Golden Goddess”. By virtue of not living under the rock, Barbara had heard much about Mami Tomoe and her immaculate qualities. How she was perfect, how she the pinnacle of being a Magical Girl, how legions of girls around the world wanted to be just like her. Barbara wondered if this at last was her chance to see what lay beneath that flawless mask.

Digging through the honeyed words and the posturing and the body language to uncover the hidden agenda lying beneath was a requisite skill for any good diplomat, as it revealed precisely what the other party was trying to do. Any general worth the title had to know the enemy's intentions in order to formulate a plan to defeat it, and the negotiation table was just as much a battlefield as any.

Barbara also refused to believe any human could be so perfect the way Tomoe purportedly was. Not without keeping a skeleton or two locked away. After all, only a machine could be so perfect, and last time she checked, the blonde Vindicare was still only human.

So what was Mami Tomoe's agenda? What secrets was she hiding? Why would a someone, one so unrivaled in all aspects of being a Magical Girl, set aside becoming the Warmaster of the largest and one of the most powerful Officios in the world, letting a surly, sub-optimal drunk take her place? After having been Warmaster-in-training for so long, no less. Yet, when the time came, she obediently stepped down from her seat, and, if rumor were to believed, even openly supported her successor.

Oh yes. The upcoming Ratification ceremony in Japan was going to be interesting.

Barbara let out a sigh as she opened the doors to the Olympia's aircraft hangers. One of the gunships—similar to the one that brought Honoka to the Fourth—was being prepped for takeoff, maintenance crew and repair drones swarming around and atop of it like so many ants. One of the mechanics informed her that they still needed a few minutes before the plane was ready for take off, so Barbara opted to while away the time by reading up on the Ninth Officio.

“Fabricators Stein and Feist are on their way, Barbara,” said one of the mechanics. “Bring me back something cool, alright?”

A polite smile—optimized by human interaction software for maximum politeness—was Barbara's response.

As she skimmed her way through some intel files on the Ninth, nagging little voice gnawed away at her heart. She wondered if she was being too suspicious, too eager to dig up the old, rotting bones lying inside everyone's wardrobe. The Executor Fetial, Djara Crusius, often criticized her for that; a degree of vigilance is always good for a diplomat, she'd said, but paranoia is not. A degree of trust is needed, or communication is impossible.

Perhaps her boss and the head of the Emmeles diplomatic corps had a point. Or, perhaps, Crusius was just naïve. The Executor Fetial liked to say—shout from the rooftops, even—that the Fourth needed to open up to the outside world. Shed its long-standing image of being crazy hermits obsessed with tinkering. No wonder the Warsmith made her one of the Triarchs, what with her new policy of trying to make friends with the outside world.

Heh. Fiona Mac Manus was grouchy for days after that promotion ceremony.

The sound of approaching footsteps broke her out of her reverie.

“Speaker Falko?” It was Fabricator Stein, one of the top members of the Mechanicus. Her ivory-on-red paint scheme reflected the floodlights in the hangar bay. “We're ready to set out.”

Oh well, thought Barbara as she rose and made to follow. Officio politics weren't really to Barbara's tastes. Let the Fabricator-General and the Executor Fetial fight their petty squabbles; her job, as far as she was concerned, was to make sure the Fourth came out ahead in any deal or negotiation, and nothing else.

As she stepped up into the plane's cabin, Barbara idly wondered what sort of festivities the Ninth had planned.