Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Prognosticating Virus Bomb

False Gods: Plague Moon (IV)

Magnus the Red (copyright unknown)
Welcome, citizens, to the truth.

Strange as it may seem to today's citizens of the Imperium, there was a time when Astartes slaughtering innocents would have been genuinely astounding.

It is not that the Astartes of the 41st Millennium are utterly without compassion, of course - one need only recall Salamanders Chapter Master Tu'Shan's condemnation of Captain Vinyard's live bait tactics on Armageddon to realise that.  The direct killing of civilians (as oppose to their deliberate sacrifice) is still a comparative rarity in our endless wars - though that may have more to do with the Imperium grabbing hold of the authority to extinguish entire planets in the fires of Exterminatus - but even so, today it is simply one of the costs of defending the Imperium. Back before Horus' rebellion... well, let's just say it is unthinkable just how unthinkable such an action would have been.

And yet, as we all know, it happened just the same. Not without reason; when someone you love is poisoned you can hardly be expected to concern yourself with the niceties of crowd control.  But still it happened, and the consequences, as we shall see, of great importance.  The act itself and the response are therefore of great interest.  With Varvaras and Maloghurst taking opposite positions on the matter, it is hardly surprising that the truth lies somewhere in between, but the specifics of the Docking Bay Massacre are sufficiently complex that some unpacking is required, not least because of the potential difficulty in separating two entirely distinct problems: should the Mournival have done what they did, and should they, having done it, remain unpunished?

Many will argue that these questions are not separate.  If a man should do something, they say, how can it be appropriate to punish them? This is not a hard argument to sympathise with, but it misses something very important.  We are responsible for our actions, and our actions have consequences even if by acting another way, the consequences would be worse.  The worlds Inquisitor Kryptmann poisoned are no less dead because they denied Hive Fleet Leviathan vital bio-matter (Kryptmann, of course, was later sanctioned for his action). The punishments we receive for our actions are in some sense the price we pay for them.  Arguing that necessary actions should not be punished is therefore entirely too close to saying certain things - in this case the lives of innocents - can become devoid of worth.

This is not to say that the need to keep Horus alive was not obvious, for all that in retrospect the Imperium would almost certainly have been better off had he perished. Yes, Primarchs had fallen before, but the success the Emperor had displayed in erasing those men and their Legions proves in itself that their impact had been less than that of the man crowned Warmaster.  The loss of Horus would be a blow from which the Great Crusade might not recover, just at the moment when the forces of Chaos were finally showing their true strength.  We are simply noting the problem inherent in arguing that saving Horus is so important it was worth sacrificing two dozen civilian lives, but no so important that those directly responsible for those deaths should be willing to pay a price for those actions.

In many ways, this reminds us of an age-old philosophical discussion, usually referred to as the "prognosticating virus bomb".  Once upon a time this hypothetical would deal in human lives, but with those so horribly cheap in the modern era, we shall instead rely on capacity to produce weaponry which is considered so much more important since the Tyranids arrived and the Necrons stirred.  Imagine a renegade has placed a virus bomb inside the largest structure on a Forge World.  Should the bomb go off, armour production for the entire sector and even the Segmentum will suffer. The renegade himself has sealed himself inside an unbreakable room (at least, unbreakable within the time limit), which means the only way to learn the location of the bomb is to use a psyker to probe his mind.

Except... there are no sanctioned psykers to be found. The only option is to drag an unsanctioned mutant from the antiseptic cell and drugged stupor in which they awaited passage on a Black Ship, and use them to extract the information.

Obviously, such an act is utterly forbidden.  Just knowing an unsanctioned psyker without reporting them carries a harsh penalty, let alone encouraging one to use their powers.  Yet if we do not make use of this resource, the creation of thousands of tonnes of weaponry could be halted for months at least.  What should we do?

For many people it is obvious that applying the psyker - assuming one can be found who is sufficiently pliable - is the obvious choice. Indeed, they argue it is so obvious that it should be established ahead of time that no servant of the Emperor who chooses this path should ever have to fear punishment for what, under any other circumstances, would be a serious crime, lest those in this position feel uncomfortable in crossing this particular line.  This argument has always baffled us. Are we to assume that any true servant of the Emperor would fail to act here because the imminent destruction of a major fraction of a Forge World's productivity cannot outweigh a single person's fear of punishment? Is that really how we choose to see those who protect us in the Emperor's name? Another, perhaps even more powerful objection is this: how do we maintain that certain lines cannot be crossed if we enshrine in law circumstances in which they can be crossed without penalty?  Surely it would make more sense to maintain the line under the assumption that certain scenarios would mitigate the punishment of the transgression, rather than removing the idea of transgression in the first place?

It is this idea of a sliding scale - from standard punishment to, yes, no punishment at all - that can make the only sense here.  Actions are not either unforgivable or entirely reasonable.  There are a thousand definitions between the two, across many axes of circumstance.  The short-hand for this realisation is "the ends do not justify the means", but due to the corruptions and adaptations this saying no longer holds the true meaning of the phrase, which would be better structured as "the ends to not make the means more just". Something can be excusable, understandable, and indeed the only option, without it being just.  The deaths of those felled by the Mournival in their haste to save Horus were not just, no matter how important it was that the Warmaster reached the infirmary.

(There are, perhaps, those who would argue those deaths were just, insofar as those who died brought it on themselves by failing to realise Astartes bringing back an injured or even dead Primarch would be unlikely to ask politely for civilians to step aside.  We do not believe this to be a powerful argument.  The civilians aboard the 63rd Expeditionary Fleet did not arrive at their adulation of Horus and their need to check on his welfare in a vacuum. They were primed for this response by the iterators and the Astartes themselves from the moment they stepped aboard the Vengeful Spirit.)

All of this goes towards proving Maloghurst's response to this tragedy was the wrong one.  But so too was Varvaras'.  The correct decision was not to insist the mob be handed an Astartes to pacify them, but that a legal authority be appealed to so as to show justice being done.

Ah, but here we reach the problem, don't we?  What legal authority existed that could be employed here? Horus?  The Emperor?  Do we really have no potential judges over the actions of Astartes trying to save their commander other than the commander himself, or his own father?

This is what the stratification of the Imperium has led to.  An overclass which commands so much power that the idea of regular people gaining redress for their misdeeds is unthinkable. Where Astartes blanch at the very idea that they could ever be held responsible for their mistakes - where "mistakes" spans actions up to and including beating friendly civilians to death - by the very people from which they originate, and whom they ostensibly protect.  Justice is now no more than what the Astartes say it is.

In some ways, this first act of bloodshed against the Imperium is even more crucial to what follows than Horus' wounding by Temba and the anathame.  It is here, for the first time, that the Astartes realise they can cut down regular men and women without consequence, if it makes getting from A to B a little quicker.  If Jubal's fall to Chaos was the first sign that the Astartes had other, darker alternatives to slavish obedience to the Emperor, this was the second, and the effect if anything was greater on this occasion.  Hektor Varvaras, the man so adamant the Astartes should not kill Imperials with such impunity, would soon learn how much the game had changed when Horus had him assassinated on Aureus.

The rest of the galaxy would soon learn the same.


What Was

With events coming to a head regarding the forces of the Warp, it's interesting to learn the Emperor himself forbade making use of its powers at the Council of Nikea.  Was he just being prudent, or does Magnus the Red have the right of it?

The Emperor's ban seems to conflict with his more general policy of everything being explicable by science.  It also seems to leave Magnus Magnusson with nothing to do.  If the Emperor wants his sons to each take specific aspects, what's he doing banning his sorcerer from doing sorcery?

Just because he wants then to embody aspects doesn't mean all aspects must be covered.  There is unlikely to be a Primarch embodying the lust for farm animals, for instance.

Is that an aspect?

I don't see why that's any more specific an aspect than sorcerer.  But fine.  There's no Primarch who embodies sexytimes in any way.  Though they may be saving him for later books.

But if Magnus isn't a sorcerer, what does he have left?

He should have thought of that before he started messing with the Warp.

Again, though, why is that a problem? Experimentation should be something the Emperor is all behind.  A nice bit of empiricism should suit him down to the ground.  He'd probably shut himself down pretty quick anyway.  You're the statistician who runs the numbers for clinical trials; how many experiments would Magnus have to run before he could conclude the Warp wasn't safe.

It depends on how far from a normal day we want to define "not safe" as being.

Someone gets possessed and murders everyone.

Then not many.  The body count would cause more problems than the sample size.

I wonder if Magnus discovered something specific that the Emperor wanted kept secret, and the blanket ban is to cover that.

What Is

Whilst we're on the subject, what are your thoughts on the latest Primarch to enter the story?

There wasn't enough detail for me to get a handle on them; which was kind of a theme for this chapter.  I mean, they're what? Astartes with sorcery.

Yep.  Which is awesome.

I don't think this bodes well for him.  Messing around with the Warp in front of the Emperor?  That's going to backfire.

You don't think disobeying the Emperor to show how awesome forbidden powers are is going to work out?

I do not.

More than anything else we've covered so far, this idea of a "Planet of the Sorcerers" is an obvious collision of fantasy and sci-fi tropes.  Are you cool with that?

I think it's interesting.  I'm not one of the people that kind of thing bothers.

Who is most directly to blame for the Docking Bay Massacre, do you think?  Is there any way it could have been avoided?

Well, whoever let everyone into the docking bay in the first place didn't make the smartest move.  I don't understand why people didn't clear a path when they saw Horus was still alive.

I think they were just too tightly packed in there; there wasn't anywhere to go, and it was too loud in there to communicate.

I don't see what the Mournival could have done differently.

The best thing I could come up with would be to fire a few bolter rounds over people's heads; to scare them and gain everyone's attention.  Even then, though, I'm not sure anyone has any ammo left.

And would it even have worked?

Maybe not, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try.

They were clearly out of their minds with grief.

Granted, but you've still got to take responsibility when you drop the ball, and apparently about two dozen people too.

I suspect they're going to soon enough.  I don't understand why Karkasy was so shocked by what he was seeing.  Have they not seen the Astartes in action before?

Well, I'm not sure Karkasy has, but that isn't really the point.  The point - and I think this is a crucial moment in the opening trilogy as a whole - is that it's never occurred to Karkasy that the Astartes being stronger, faster and braver than regular men doesn't necessarily make them better people.

I suppose hearing they have no fear can lead you to the wrong conclusions about them more generally.

Should we be more sympathetic to Maloghurst's position, or to Varvaras's?

I'm sympathetic to both, obviously.  One one level this is exactly what's happening on every human world in the galaxy that argues with the Emperor.

But these were humans who did agree.

Yes, though they weren't exactly being much help at the time.  It depends on the legal system here.  Do Astartes have the same rights as normal people?

Good question.

I assume it basically comes down to what Horus wants, but until he recovers I've no idea what the chain of command is. Can Maloghurst hand over someone from the Mournival?  Is Varvaras in charge? Or the man in charge of the fleet?

I'm not sure anyone in the fleet actually can answer that.

I guess it's just so unthinkable a situation there's nothing in place for it.

So if Horus doesn't recover quickly enough, or even dies, how long is it before the power vacuum gets filled? Who's going to make the first move?

Abaddon, surely.

Is the fall of the Warmaster and the deaths in the docking bay liable to make things easier or harder for Euphrati Keeler's missionary plans?

It depends which way people go.  If they're thinking like her, she'll be fine.  If they react the same way Karkasy did, she's in trouble.  Though I suppose if they're pissed off with the Emperor over what his Astartes have done, they might want to disobey him.

In general that's a good point, but it's a bit harder to imagine them being so angry with him they start worshipping him as a God.

I suppose.  Maloghurst might be a wild card here.  If he decides he needs something even bigger to cover up the massacre, the fleet filling up with people disobeying the Emperor might be just the way to do it.

What Will Be

The Warmaster is poisoned, the Warp is coming closer, and the fleet could tear itself apart if it learns about the Mournival's actions as they disembarked from their Stormbird.  Which storm is going to hit first, and what will it smash to bits?

It seems as if the spell us ready now, so that going wrong is first on the list.

What about in the fleet itself?

Well, nothing's changed since last chapter.

Except twenty-one people are dead, of course.

Pfft. Yeah; humans.  Do they matter?

That's a remarkably cynical position.

The whole of the last conversation in the chapter was about how the Astartes don't really care all that much.

Point taken, though people have a funny habit of deciding for themselves what does and doesn't matter to them.

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