In Light, Chapter Two
Sound comes back to me, and light, and sense.
Sense. There’s a bad joke. What I can hear is my suit’s vox, one of the choir praying in a subvocal hysterical whisper. Niwall, it’s Niwall. She’s repeating the Mortification of Repentance, over and over again. It’s not even a prayer of the Order. It’s something every child knows. The world is on its side. My head feels – I must have hit my head on my pauldron as I fell – I can feel the blood dripping.
Sister Drabbe is dead. I distinctly remember her being struck by the aquila, and nothing could have survived that: but more than that, the spell is broken. The fervour that gripped me, the words that had bubbled up uncontrollably from my lips, all the glory and certainty and all that outraged power, it’s gone.
I can’t remember one damned word out of those that we were all saying. It’s all gone.
And in its wake?
I can hear – screams, shouting, wailing. Distant gunfire drowned by the sounds of human catastrophe. The nave of the cathedral is screaming chaos. Everything is broken. My ears are ringing. I wonder whether I can move. I can hear my sister crying and praying like those two things are the same thing.
Come on, Throne damn it. I’m lying on the floor, we’re trained not to stay down, the reflex goes deeper than thought (thought is a sucking black pit). I flop over onto my belly, a chime from my auto-systems acknowledging the return of active control. There is – blood, that is blood on the floor. There is too much of it for it to be mine. I am lying in a shallow little river of stinking human blood. Ignore the hot spikes of pain, focus on the move, one of the first things they drill us in. Bring my arms up under me, push to my knees, let the armour do the work, stand up. Lock joints as my vision greys, push through the sudden wave of nausea, unlock as it passes. What in every vision of hell is going on? I’m unarmed, I shouldn’t be unarmed. With a thought I key the mag-lock in my glove, summoning my weapon. It fell when I did. It leaps obediently to my hand and magnets fizz-click my grip tight.
Niwall has finished another repetition of the Mortification, her mouth hardly moving, but she’s left her her vox-thief on and it’s going out over her suit speakers. She was standing next to me before all this happened: now she’s lying face down, her arms flung out to her sides. She has twisted her head uncomfortably sideways and backwards, trying to keep her face out of the pool of sticky gore on the floor. I can see her eyes, very round, very white, and she stops praying. “Ellayn? Sister?”
My voice comes out as an incoherent squeak. I try again. “I’m here.”
“Help me? My suit, sister… it won’t accept repentance.” Her long fine blonde hair is matted and stained red. “C-can’t move.” Her gun is still in her right hand. Every few seconds it dry-clicks. Her weapon… ohThrone we did what, said what? But the words are gone now. I can’t exactly hunt them down and cram them back in.
And I fired on an Inquisitor. I fired at an Inquisitor with a ceremonial weapon, with the holy bolt-gun that was nothing less than the gift of the Emperor. The moment replays in my mind. The scream and roar of the bolt leaving the gun, the yellow flower of the impact on the armour just under the pauldron, chips of paint and armour flying, a metallic scar gouged into an ancient and sacred relic. I committed blasphemy. With this gun, this thing that I am holding right here.
What – what – happened to Drabbe, anyway? I remember light, purple light, I remember what felt like a parade of miracles, her voice expanding to ensnare all that heard it, purple light dripping from her like water and four wings opening behind her in that instant –
My sister whimpers. Get a, get a fucking grip. The backup display just below my bolter’s iron sights blinks accusing red lights at me. I can’t read binaric, more than to recognise status patterns and basic numbers. But I’m sure what it says: HERETIC it says, and, and it’s right. I want to throw it away, I want to break it in half, I want it never to have existed, I want –
“Ellayn?” There are tears in that voice. Niwall saw me get up but she can’t see me now. She saw me pull my weapon, maybe I’m aiming it at her –
It’s a reflex to lock the gun at my hip, or maybe I just tried to drop it like it bit me and the armour did the rest for me. I take a knee by Niwall’s side. A malfunction is something I can work on, something to keep busy. “I’m here. Can you unlock your suit manually?” She stammers a negative.
I have never done this drill, but it’s all there in the indoctrination, like there’s a textbook in my head. Telemetry is conveyed from suit to suit by the machine-spirits: to hear the complaints of my sister’s suit I have to ask mine. Without my helmet I need to use the emergency display on the inside of my left forearm.
Red runes flow past, ones and zeroes resolving into a pattern that’s not binaric at all, the shape of the readout making angular words in Low Gothic, LEAVE ME ALONE it reads. I swallow hard. “The, the spirit is offended. I’m going to try an invocation of reconciliation.”
I SHALL DENY THEE. I flinch back from her suit as if stung. The angry runes of the spirit’s ire continue to scroll, the text coming apart into incomprehensible incantations of malice. I cover the readout with my hand – don’t even know how to tell my suit to stop listening, Emperor, please don’t let it spread –
“Um, right. I, uh, look – the curse, the tech-curse the Inquisition laid, I think your suit’s infected. It won’t listen to me.”
Niwall’s voice cracks. “I don’t want to drown, sister. I don’t know how long I can hold my face out of the blood and I don’t want to drown and I repent I promise and I just want to go home and I don’t want to drown…”
Think, dammit – okay – “I’ve got an idea. Hold still. A-and think light thoughts. All right?” I reach over and take hold of her underneath her armpits, make sure of my grip and lift. She’s a dead weight, her armour servos holding her almost rigid. Come on, the armour’s supposed to be able to do this. Hands into lock. Back straight. Don’t think about what I’m lifting, just lift.
My muscles and suit servos creak and strain as one. Niwall’s armour weighs twenty stone, never mind the sister inside. Am I imagining that the power armour is begrudging its own assistance? She’s coming off the ground. Buckles slightly at the knees and I nearly fall on top of her; I cue my mag-boots to keep me dead stable but they really do balk at aiding a pair of blasphemers. Trying to turn her over towards me. It has to work.
It’s not working. The bolt gun is still mag-locked to her hand, cursed into immobility. I cannot lift her high enough to bring it clear of the floor. My biceps and quads are burning, I’m starting to shake – lock joints! Breathe! (Somehow!) Unlock and lift! There is a metallic noise, a creak. Is it my armour? Hers? The gun maybe? I cannot think right now. I keep doing what I am doing because some miracle will make it work. (Like we deserve a miracle.)
Another desperate heave: a splintering crack and everything suddenly moves and Niwall screams. But now she is the right way up, staring out towards the chaos in the nave, where I have refused to look. Something gave way – Holy Throne, let it not be her arm – and I can’t hold her any more and it’s my turn to go at the knees as she half-falls to the ground but at least she’s on her back now. She’s hyperventilating, grey-faced but conscious: her suit’s decided not to let her pass out, shot her full of something or other. The purple surplice over her armour is sticky and wet with blood that doesn’t look to be hers. The gun isn’t in her hand any more. Her glove is mangled, the fingers jerking randomly, the back of the hand buckled, but it looks like her actual hand is fine: all right, let’s get the glove off, and I’m not thinking about the damage I’ve done to these relics of the Order.
She whimpers as I pull the ruined thing loose: she’s still forgotten to close her vox-thief. Simply can’t be blasphemy to try and help my sister. I won’t allow it. She’s saying there is blood on her hands – well, yes, I just pulled her glove off – it sparks and shorts in the pool of gore. I stare at it dumbly for a long slow shuddering breath, and my suit gives an irritated click at being asked to look after a sister who’s refusing even to breathe properly.
Okay. Raise my eyes. Slowly. What am I looking at?
More than half of the great luminators are smashed, and the ones that remain are swinging crazily or giving out nothing but a fitful lightning stutter. I squint my eyes, by reflex ordering auto-senses to filter the overwhelming chaos down to something I can process – congratulations, Ellayn, the auto-senses are in your helmet, which you aren’t wearing. Bare eyeballs will do. The dais where our superiors were standing, where the priesthood was, where I saw Sister-Superior Drabbe cry out in words that seared the soul as the Inquisitor – as in the Emperor’s name, as – it hurts to think about – the place is broken, it’s smashed, it’s a smouldering crater. Nothing remains, and the Inquisitor is gone.
There were twenty of us in the choir. Firsts and seconds, alto and soprano, every one a novice – I cast about, counting heads. Four of us on our feet: Sister Porsia, lead first soprano and three years my senior, meets my eyes. There’s a cut above her right eye and her cheekbone and sharp jaw are outlined in sticky red. It can’t be blasphemy to help one another, we’re Sisters. It’s easier to help people with two pairs of strong hands, and that quickly becomes four pairs. Sister Verien recalls the binaric translation of the prayer Niwall was chanting and repeats it in her sweetest voice and Niwall’s suit joints unlock spasmodically, at least enough for her to curl into a ball with her hands over her head.
We can’t wake Berres; there’s blood coming out of her ear, but her suit tells mine she’s breathing. Rillith, shock-pale, was thrown against and through one of the pews on the stage by the blast: she goes at the knees when I try to help her stand. Avhata took a splinter to the face: someone’s surplice becomes a bandage and we’ve stopped most of the bleeding, but she’s not going anywhere soon. And do you know how hard it is to tie a bandage with powered gloves that have a mind of their own and the strength to crush your patient’s skull? The list goes on. Out of the score of us there are two without any kind of injury or malfunction, and there are five who can’t or won’t get up at all. Nobody in charge. Our superiors are dead, we all saw that happen. Nobody is giving orders. People keep looking to Porsia as the oldest of us, but she just won’t. Throne, we’re a mess.
And beyond our little circle beneath the one mostly functional luminator, everything is worse. Every single person here heard Sister Drabbe speaking with golden tongue. We all joined with her to chorus words we’d never been taught. Everyone saw her denounced for blasphemy, for heresy, by a man whose armour bore all the signs and symbols of the Holy Inquisition. Saw it picked up and broadcast a hundred feet high by the cathedral’s pict-casters. Saw her response – those – words that we can’t quite remember that felt scored on our very souls, words that called on us all to stand up and be counted, to defend her, to kill for the Saint, to die for the Saint.
And everyone saw what happened next, the light, the – changes – the way the Inquisitor brought her low seemingly with a word. So is it any wonder that even before the panic and the terror and the stormtroopers breaking the roof in, the congregation had already begun to turn on each other? Down there it’s chaos and it’s blood and it’s the honoured leaders of nine billion souls turning on one another in fear and unreason.
And any minute someone’s going to look up – Throne’s mercy, it could be either side at this point, and that’s assuming there are sides – and wonder if we can be added to the tide of chaos. There’s nothing between us and them, there’s nothing more than a few dozen marble steps. We’re going to have to get it together, we’re going to have to move, we’re going to have to move now. But where?
A new signal crackles over our com-beads, cutting through the continual droning prayer Niwall is still repeating, through my train of thought. It’s speaking Imperial Army battle-language. “Imperial forces. Imperial forces. Calling any unit in range.” Frantic finger-code from Porsia says that she’s not answering that. “Request support, radius zero-three-fifty, spire bearing forty-one, layer one point two. Protecting VIPs. Making for extraction. Pinned down. Calling any unit in range.”
Silence. Silence apart from Niwall’s muttered litany. Silence just long enough to make me wonder if maybe I shouldn’t be making some sort of a response. Are… are we Imperial forces? Are we? What are we if not? And then an answer, fuzzy with static and interference. The vox thinks it hears words and picks them out for us. “Malleus here… fully engaged ours… dentify yourselves.”
“Piter Magnus, Adeptus Arbites.” I know that name. That’s Hive Tertius’ supreme justice. “General Rorken, Baelis Tertius hive defence. Elements of aristoi houses Omber, Fayett, Lunan.” It’s like a roll-call of the front row of the congregation, people who would have been sitting close enough to see my face without the pict-casters.
The static comes back immediately. “Copy, Judge. Cannot… exfiltration of VIPs at this… .”
“Malleus, I say again.” It’s not posible to swear in battle-language, there are no words to use for emphasis. It’s made for clarity over bad vox links, not for arguments. “I have access to exfil at this time, I say again, I have found a way out. Pinned down at zero-three-fifty by forty-one by one-point-two. Request diversion, distraction. Fire support.” I imagine I can hear the frustration in the judge’s voice as he enunciates the clipped syllables carefully to give the vox the best chance he can. “Inquisitor, I request anything you can give me.”
“Judge, I am … rsuing primary objective… is an absolute priority. I say ag… assets are already fully eng… cannot provide exfiltration… time we simply do not have.” There’s an explosion from the other end of the cathedral, up on one of the higher tiers of seating. I can’t see what’s so interesting up there, beyond that something is on fire, but a wave of static shears through the channel like an axe. Whatever the inquisitor was going to say next, all we can hear is noise.
And I look across at Porsia and at our sisters trying to pull themselves together and without words it’s settled. Whatever is going on here. Whatever else is happening. That man said that he had a way out of here. And out is better than anywhere else we could be going. And every other question can wait.
Your case of armour weighs twenty stone. Try to move when it doesn’t want to help you and it’s like carrying one and a half people on your back. It’s cued to intention movements – make to walk and it’ll walk, make to run and it’ll run. Don’t change your mind halfway, you’ll fall on your face. Trick to moving efficiently in armour is to really telegraph what you’re trying to do, but let the armour itself make the movements. The S– I mean,
The Emperor is your strength: your mortal limbs are far too weak to move you alone. Is it heresy to recall a practical lesson taught to me by –
by uh –
People are depending on me. Still nobody wants to give any orders. I started moving and they followed, follow-the-leader. Does that make me leader?
Better lead, then. I split the squad in half to give us a fighting unit. Five who can’t really what-you’d-call walk on their own, including two who need physically carrying? Seven who are doubtful as to whether their weapons work? I ask the unarmed to deal with the wounded and call the remaining eight Sisters a speartip. I load my pistol. I never committed blasphemy with this lighter, simpler weapon. I dare not assign myself to the ranks of the unarmed, not with nobody else willing to show initiative.
The marble stairwell is full of sweet, perfumed smoke: my eyes smart and stream. A slick of perfumed anointing oil crackles as it burns, two flights down. Porsia covers the rear as I lead the speartip down the steps. We stack up at the archway leading to the Chapel of the Ecclesiarch and our best guess as to the coordinates we heard on vox. Like a drill, just like an exercise. Finger-code: three. Two. One. Together we move out into the warehouse-sized chapel, our footsteps inaudible over the clamour and cacophony of the aristocracy of a planet killing one another for blasphemy’s sake.
A hailstorm of weapon fire: the sound of it doesn’t even register over the cacophony upstairs. A neat circle on my breastplate flashes with a las hit, the low-power shot hardly doing more than abrade the paintwork: I get into cover, fast, and my sisters likewise. We’ve walked into the back-end of a firefight: a mob of what looks like civilians and their bodyguards have built a makeshift barricade from broken pews, statuary and their own dead and are trading ragged fire with dark shapes behind similar makeshift cover across not fifty yards of nave.
I’m not shooting at either side till I know who’s who. One of these two mobs is the enemy, and I’m not at all convinced it’s the people who just shot at us because they saw moving targets. Dare I use the vox, contact the Judge? Won’t that just tell the Inquisitor where we are? I have injured sisters to protect.
Bite my lip. One thing that won’t save anyone is bloody dithering. I cue the vox, call to mind my lessons in the same cant the Judge has been using. “Piter Magnus. D’y’hear me, Piter Magnus. This is Agate, Sororitas. I make my position zero-three-ten by forty-one by one point two. Uh.” (How do I phrase ‘which side is which?’) “Target identification not functional at this time, please advise, over.”
Relief in that gravelly voice. “Copy, Agate. Unit is beneath the window of the Saint beneficent. Request immediate support, over.”
“Confirm, Judge. The Emperor protects.” I glance upward and feel sick. The Chapel of the Ecclesiarch is full to bursting with the imagery we were raised with, the Saint glorious, the Saint indignant, the Saint vigilant. But the Inquisitor called upon the name of the Emperor and the – and Drabbe was – and the spell was broken. I look at the window of the Saint ascendant and all I see is that woman the instant before the aquila descended in flames and made her nothing. And the inner voice of doubt reminds me that the Saint’s doctrine says her depictions must never contain the aquila of the Emperor, supposedly for reasons of historical accuracy –
Over there. It’s, it’s the one over there. I can see people under the window, taking cover behind piled furniture. Nothing to tell them from any other, but they’re under the right window. So the group in the middle of the room, they’re our targets. Why? Why did I truly pick this side? Because the Judge has a way out. Does that make us unrighteous? Does it matter, truly, why we are doing this? Are the people I’m aiming my gun at not sinners, for shooting at a Judge? (Was the person who shot at me a sinner, then?) Throne’s sake, Ellayn, stop talking to yourself and call the shots.
Finger-code to the rest of the speartip. Centre group. Pick your targets. One volley, then fire at will. I see each one of my sisters confirm the order. They will fire when I do. I bracket a man in my sights, tall and heavyset, particoloured mesh coat after the style of a noble house I should be able to identify. His broad back makes a perfect target. Two-hand brace, kneeling.
The half-darkness lights up with our volley as my joints lock for the barest instant against recoil. The flash of discharge, the scream of the bolt, the flat crack of detonation: the wrath of the Emperor, or so we were taught. Was that a lie, and all? The bolt strikes home and explodes and the target falls toward me just as if he were a target on the range: blood mists.
Huh. I’d, somehow I’d expected to feel something, at taking a human life. Never did that before. I guess it can wait its turn today.
The effect on his fellows is immediate. Yes, it was only one volley. Yes, there’s a lot of them down there. But they’d hardly been watching, to count our pitifully few guns: all they know is, their cover isn’t cover any more and this new incoming fire is different and terrifying. A las-shot sounds like nothing so much as popping insulation, a high hollow little snap-crack. Even autoguns aren’t that much, their sharp chatter lost in the general chaos and noise. But you’re not ignoring a bolter’s scream and concussion, and that goes at least double if it might have been aimed at you. These people have never seen anything like it in their lives.
Enfilade, it’s called. It means you’ve got them dead. That man down there has a ceremonial long-gun that might be a danger: I draw a bead, the hands of my armour suddenly perfectly firm and steady, and the explosion of the bolt spins him around as he falls. Porsia fires three rounds rapid and a knot of them fall. A woman throws herself behind a fallen statue for cover, leans immediately back out to try and fire back and Sister Manda puts a bolt in her. A young man turns and runs toward us screaming, a mad dash driven by nothing more than blind terror: he’s shot through the heart. These are civilians, just civilians with looted or ceremonial weapons, and just as clearly they’re terrified.
An answering crackle of fire from the group under the window. The mob we’re shooting at have nowhere to turn. I see the moment when their nerve goes: there are two directions with gunfire coming from them and one without. They run. The incoming fire can’t get them all. And a moment later I hear an unidentifiable shout over the vox and the other group breaks cover.
So… yeah. Quite a lot, there’s really quite a lot more of them than it looked like. Mostly civilian aristoi, all filthy finery and wide eyes and bodyguards who’d be fine and useful if it was assassination anyone was worried about. A dozen arbitrators, their dress weapons at least functional, their faces streaked with sweat and smoke under eagle-winged ceremonial helms. The Judge himself, broad and dark in his fabulously ornate state armour, concealing a limp; by the scores and scrapes and scorches, mostly it’s made him a target. And the general, and that man’s got a powered suit of his own: shame it’s coloured a lambent beetle’s-wing blue that’s about as subtle as a spotlight. (Also, I note to myself as he scurries past with a less than fluid tread, if my instructors had seen me wasting servo-power like that then they’d have had me running laps of the quad until my technique improved or I collapsed from exhaustion.)
A hand-sign from the Judge and half his arbitrators peel off to escort the panting general. The man in blue knows where he’s going and the civilians need someone to follow. The big man drops in beside me, behind what had been a perfectly sized bit of hard cover – “You Agate?”
“That’s us.” The mob down there are still running, but that’s not going to last forever. “You led us to believe you had a way out of here?”
“Should have.” He checks his wrist-chron. “The general’s got troops holding turbolift nor’west seven, we’re a little late, but they won’t leave without him. You askin’ to join the retreat?”
The word hits me like a brick. It’s automatic. That’s heresy out there, actual heresy. And I am (I’m not, I’m a novice, my vows are incomplete) a member of the Adepta Sororitas, the Sisterhood, and what in Earth’s name am I for if I run from heresy? But more than that, it’s conditioned. Never give up. No ‘try to’ in that, no ‘sometimes’, no ‘maybe’, I could sooner grow wings and fly than I could give in, even thinking of it hurts. The Judge can see my teeth and this isn’t a smile. I just about stop myself saying something involuntarily. At least he has the wit to realise what he said.
“I mean. Could you see your way to bein’ our rearguard, sisters?”
There it is. It’s justifiable. It’s not just some sort of excuse. This isn’t running away. It’s not cowardice. We’re not accepting defeat. We’re winning free. We’re saving the faithful. “Truth be told, your honour, we’re brittle. We have injured. The eight guns you saw are the eight I can count on. We’re not supplied for a combat mission.”
Grim expression. “Join the club, sister. You can do it, though?”
My attempt at a thin smile has got to look ghastly. “Your oath not to leave us behind?” I was trying to make a joke. It comes out almost as a plea.
He raises his eyebrows. “Given, Emp’ror witness. Don’t get caught up tradin’ shots.”
I nod shortly, try and project confidence I don’t feel. “Go.”