In Light, Chapter Three
This is a kind of place I’ve never been. A turbo-lift, perquisite of the aristoi and their retinues, vast, plush and spacious, somewhere to spend your transit between hive-layers in palatial comfort. Tapestried walls, soft carpet – though magboots seem to work just fine. Someone’s smashed the great pict-screens – not stray shots, but neat holes deliberately placed. And the great doors stand mostly open, and what greets us is a partial barricade made out of haphazard comfort-couches and random furniture, and equally mismatched defenders. The general’s life company might be an honorary posting for a bunch of pensioners, but those ceremonial suits have powered servos and a gold-plated lasrifle is still a gun. The ceremonial guard of the planetary defence force might be unarmoured in their braid-encrusted dress uniforms, but those guns look perfectly honest and they’re holding them like they know which end is which. And the bodyguards of the aristoi come in all shapes and sizes, seemingly unarmed handmaidens with fistfuls of suspiciously ornate rings, dressed-up downhivers with battered well-used sidearms, the odd hulking genetweaked bruiser.
And the civilians. Somehow I hadn’t been really expecting so many. Somehow I’d thought that everyone at the ceremony had either fallen under the sway of whatever-that-was or become immediately its victim: I hadn’t really considered that perhaps there would have been people willing, ready and able to run.
And as I hear a man in a captain’s hat explaining to the unimpressed-looking general, what are we supposed to do? Turn them away? There are hundreds of them here, huddled together by family and house allegiance, either that or they’ve just decided to sort themselves into groups based on what they’re wearing. Each one of them has to be someone of importance from somewhere in the hive, or they wouldn’t have even been at the ceremony. Lot of important people here, but then, there’s a lot of hive for them to come from: not sure the fighting cares whether you’re a midhive shift-boss or Mamzel Fayett herself. They’re all just refugees now.
Judge Magnus calls out our squad’s name a second time: brought to my senses, I jog over. I don’t miss the stares – I suppose everyone here has an opinion of us. I suppose that some of these narrowed eyes saw me unleash fury and destruction against a holy agent of the Emperor’s own Inquisition. Saw me chanting the glories of the S- of the – shutup shut up – my point here is that they’ve got some pretty damned fine reason to be suspicious of me. And if I were one of those troopers, wearing figure-hugging red and a bolero jacket cunningly tailored to suggest the wargear they wear every other damn day of the year, I think I’d be jealous too.
“Judge?” My armour brings me to a rough parade rest, weight on the balls of my feet, its body language suggesting an entirely inappropriate enthusiasm. “Agate present and correct. My sisters are getting our casualties onboard now, and I’ve asked them to help out with any heavy lifting. Can confirm we were last out.”
“So noted.” His moustache twitches. “Your squad, uh, you got a metalpants?”
I frown. “A what, your honour? That’s not a word I’m-”
“Slang, lady.” (Well, apparently I can kill a man without blinking, but being called ‘lady’? That feels weird.)
“Cog-girl, I guess you might call ’em? Lubricant-lover, oildrinker, engine-seer, priest-oracle of the Great Whatsitsname…” He waves his hand vaguely in the direction of the lift’s technical shrine. “You know. Metalpants.”
“That would be ‘ritemistress’, and no. We’re a choir, not a logistic unit.” I eye the little shrine and the misanthropic glow of its Icon Mechanicus. “Do you ask for a reason?”
“Well, now you mention it.” He scowls at the thing. “Keep this to yourself, lady, but the damn thing’s jinxed itself. Workin’ just fine this morning. But right now, far as I can tell, it’s got its fingers in its little robot ears.”
I swallow that feeling of cold hard worry, it’s doing nobody any good. “Tell me that there’s more to this plan than hoping one of my sisters can speak to a turbo?”
He makes a face. “I mean, it’s basically ‘hope someone else can’. I’ve got the Arbites among the civvies askin’ right now. The Fayetts have owned a half dozen turbos for five generations, you’re not telling me none of ’em knows how one works.”
“Meanwhile, we stand to and pray?”
I think that was supposed to be a smile. “It’s like you’ve done this before.”
We laid our fallen sisters in the corner of the turbo that had become a de-facto field hospital: of all the expressions that met me there, it was the hope that bothered me the most. (It is written, hope is the first step on the road to disappointment. One of the textbooks nestled away in the back of my mind is the Sisterly Rule, the Lex Sororitas.) Everyone knows the Sororitas run the best hospitals. Maybe people thought we’d have had a medicae. Even a nurse. We’re the Daughters of the Emperor, of course we can help, right? But of course, all we had were five casualties immobile in armour two strong people would struggle to lift, simply there to put yet another drain on nearly nonexistent resources.
No time for that voice of doubt. Sudden brainwave on seeing four men struggling to carry a row of reinforced comfort-seats to the makeshift revetment: one thing we can do is lift and carry. We claim the right flank of the barricade as ours, and each of us picks out a likely-looking spot. I dub Niwall quartermaster – with no right glove, she can’t lift properly or shoot anything with any recoil – and ask her to collect ammunition from the injured. I have eleven bolts remaining in my pistol’s last magazine: she hands me two more mags with a thin nervous smile and that’s my lot. Three of us had both sidearm and bolter functional, and one of the casualties’ weapons would respond to queries, makes twelve of us who can shoot –
“Praise the Blessed Saint!” The shout echoes. Man’s voice, and I can see him now. He’s in the lead of five of them, purple-robed, the colour our surplices were when we put them on. Breaking into a ragged footsore trot down the corridor. “O Saint’s mercy, we’re saved!” The approach corridor is seventy-five yards long and poorly lit: they’re at the far end.
“Agate, can you vouch?” The Judge’s voice crackles on the vox. “Because I can tell you what that looks like to me, over.”
I squint. Do they expect me to just be able to weigh a soul with a glance? Or do they think I might know those people? They look like males – “Cannot vouch for them at this time, over.”
“Copy. General’s party, do the honours.”
As I said before, a lasrifle just doesn’t sound that impressive. A half-dozen individual dry, high-pitched snapping noises, like nothing so much as a whole bundle of firecrackers, and the neat bright little circle of plasma flash against the target. The sacristan, it’s like he’s tripped and fallen, except that he simply doesn’t get up again. One of his deacons falls in the same moment, the others scrabbling to halt their rush toward us, to get themselves away, anywhere but here. Another set of shots. Another one of them falls. Whatever you might say about the honour guard’s gunnery, at least that’s chased them off –
The roar of a bolter cuts the air and one of the running figures falls ruined. The other one simply screams, puts his head down and runs for the cover of a bend in the passage. “Put him down!” yells Porsia, and there’s a ragged succession of shots from anyone who thinks they’ve got the range, the other five proper boltguns of our section adding their voices – somehow he survives, dives rolling for safety, and Porsia swears bitterly.
She meets my eyes, my unspoken question. “Think he’s got friends, do you?”
Wince. “Hope is the first step-”
“-Aye.” She cues the vox, speaking battle-language. “Be advised: incoming, unknown strength.”
The general’s voice sounds like he’s talking through gritted teeth. “Acknowledged. Eyes front.”
And then, of course, nothing happens.
I mean, for just long enough to make us think we got away with it, there’s nothing. The soft worried conversations of the civilians, the muttering and praying and occasional snatches of utterly incompetent singing from the aristo they found prepared to claim some knowledge of the turbo’s mysteries. One of the PDF soldiers stationed between us toying with his bayonet, clipping it into and out of its sheath at his hip with an irregular clacking to set the teeth on edge, oblivious to the occasional unimpressed glare. The thrum of the crystal battery inside my backpack, the occasional quiet sound of servos as one of us shifts on her feet. Porsia staring palely at the place those men ran to, hardly daring to blink in case she’s right.
And then we hear the singing. Quiet at first, but it echoes. And everyone here knows the words. Stand Vigil With Me, an old one, a congregational hymn. They sing it at courtball matches; they sing it in schola; they sing it at observance; and as they’re doing here, they sing it shockingly obscenely flat. Fourteen verses, and the rest. You hear the opening chords, you know you’re there for the duration. I’m sure the heretics intend it to be intimidating, and I’m sorry, but the reaction from the entire of the choir isn’t the unified defiance of the Sisters of Battle facing the Archenemy – it’s a heartfelt and unanimous wince.
Sister Keyt is to my right, her armour’s right leg locked out straight against a wrenched knee. “Psychological weapons,” she mutters over the squad’s vox-channel. “Wish to report moral threat.” There are a variety of snorts of what might be in line for consideration as laughter on a better day.
“All right.” I make sure, belatedly, that my vox is speaking on the same channel. “Incoming, lots of it. I’ll be calling three-round volleys, like we trained, just like the exercise. First one at fifty yards, where that pair of statues are. The PDF might have ammunition to burn: we don’t. Pick your targets: as Sister Augusta said, you’re shooting for their morale, not their bodies.” Swallow hard. “A-and fix bayonets.”
Our bayonet is the sarissa. Sixteen-inch double-edged indestructible spike of a blade, balanced perfectly well as a bayonet or a fighting knife. With suit strength behind it it’ll go through solid ceramite. Don’t have a longarm to fix mine to, but I put it point-down in my left hand and feel the maglock engage. I could drop this knife or throw it, even, and it’d fly right back to my hand the moment I willed it.
And here’s our first sight. Around the corner shoulder to shoulder, singing as they come, sounding like nothing so much as a sports crowd, but the blood and the improvised weapons give them the lie. The man who escaped us before, he’s front and centre. Mostly civilians again, mostly just uphivers here for the ceremony, people who picked the wrong side and were carried along, or, Throne, I don’t know. I don’t know why they’re coming for us. (Does it matter? I can see one of them, in the front rank, raising a finely inlaid sidearm and sighting. They want us to die and we’d rather like it the other way around. Does it matter why?)
“Steady.” That’s the PDF general’s voice on the vox. His vox is a latter-day knockoff without a synth. “Agnew, puncture me that purple git.”
A lone rifle sings out. The deacon falls. I guess it’s important to someone’s ego that that man die. Screams from the front rank of the heretics are quickly replaced with louder singing. The march starts to gather momentum; the general speaks. “Life company. Present.” The arthritic soldiers clatter clumsily to the breach, and I’m sure I’m not the only chorister imagining what our instructors would make of that shoddy handling. The Judge’s irregulars have taken position between the heavily armoured figures, but it’s notable that very few of them are comfortable standing anywhere near us. There’s a clattering of cocking handles and a click of expensive targeters; not much call for a targeter here. A few las-sights project superfluous red beams into the mob. The heretics continue to march in measured pattern, singing. They’re not what you’d call armed, exactly – the odd pistol here and there, ornamental swords, an occasional riot-cannon or shock-pike marking a security trooper – but quantity has a quality all of its own, as they say. A pause. The range is seventy-five yards. The targets are tight-packed. This is going to be a massacre.
“Let’s have them, then. Lasrifles, by ranks. Volley… Fire!” And now it is that I see a shadow of the lasgun’s native home, the barest inkling of why the Emperor would have His soldiers bear this frankly unimpressive gun. Because the weapon on its own, or a few of them in independent fire, that’s not so bad. But even a couple of dozen of them together, in synchronous double-tapped volley, and the high sharp reports overlap into a fizzing tearing shriek that cuts the air like a scythe. Again the general barks, and again the volley strikes out, and the front rank of the crowd, they stumble and fall. I realise that there are probably more people in that crowd than we have rounds of ammunition.
Those that fall, it doesn’t matter if their wounds were mortal: they are trampled. On they come, as the general calls for another volley and I can see the sharp white flashes of solid hits blossoming around them and the press of their numbers carries them forward. A hard-round slams into the barricade in front of me; another pings off my armour and I flinch. “Fire.” We’re taking some return fire, but it’s poorly organised and aimed. “Fire.” They just keep coming. “Fire.” Calm volley fire is supposed to be murder to an undisciplined mob. “Fire.” I don’t think this undisciplined mob has read the manual.
“Agate,” I say, softly. The vox and synth mean I need not try to raise my voice over the din: this is what they were made for. “At fifty, three rounds rapid, with me. Make them count. For the Emperor.” I bracket a man with a shock-pike, aiming my heavy gun at his chest. I squeeze the trigger, feel rather than hear the weapon’s roar, feel the servos at my wrist and shoulder brace the recoil as the muzzle seeks to climb. Shift my aim left a hair, fire again at a woman with blood down the bottom half of her face like she’s been drinking it; back to the right, a third shot at a slavering man in a spacer’s spotless white dress uniform.
Fire blossoms across the enemy line and the singing wavers and loses tempo, and for a single beautiful second their line wavers. But the cry goes up: “For the saint! BLOOD FOR THE SAINT!” and the floor trembles as the heretics begin their charge.
The vox renders the general’s yell creditably – “Independent – fire!” The life-company and PDF set to immediately, their las volleys collapsing into syncopated stutters of burst fire. The irregulars start to open up with their pistols and assorted arms.
Somehow my voice is still under control. “Again,” I call. My first shot targets a man singing over a vox-amplifier and the amplified sound of the bolt round exploding inside his open mouth is loud enough to make my ears ring. My second strikes a man in Arbitrator’s black, taking him just below the waist, the explosion cooking off the thunder-flashes on his belt and the one in his hand. My third shot is made without shifting my aim as I squeeze my eyes closed against the eye-searing flash. I will not have missed.
I blink rapidly, trying to clear the afterimages – Golden Throne, I wish I had a helmet. The mob is still there. My eyes are streaming with tears. I give the command into the vox-bead. “Again!” It comes out as an incoherent yowl. (The pistol bucks and roars in my grip.) We have to break them. (Another shot. I’m just aiming at whatever is largest and loudest.) If that charge makes it here, we’re doomed. (Third shot. The bolt glances unexploded off the side of the target’s head, goes on to hit a brown-robed clerk in the face, detonates as he falls back.) Explosions and shrapnel and lasfire rip into them and they do falter: the momentum of the charge is broken. But still they come. I see the remains of a dead body being borne along by the press of the crowd. And that last volley of ours was ragged, a random pattern of reports and detonations over three or four seconds rather than a measured series of aimed shots.
Twelve guns, nine rounds each, every one a death. My sisters and I have maimed or killed over a hundred of them by ourselves. But there are too many, Throne, there are so very many behind them, and still they are coming. I can see white all around their eyes. They know they are staring destruction in the face. They know they are literally looking at their death. They are climbing over their dead to escape the pressure of those behind them – these are the people whose morale we’re supposedly trying to break?
This is nothing like anything I’ve ever heard about war. This is a disaster. And I don’t know what to do. I’m in – I took – charge. At least of my sisters. What right did I have? I’m supposed to know what to do. There’s supposed to be a tactic for everything. There’s literally a book of them that we sleep-learned. What do we do? All I can think is that I wish I had a helmet, and if I had a helmet my hair wouldn’t be trying to fall down over my eyes and I wouldn’t need to squint against the flash and I wouldn’t care about the gloom –
It’s the irregular to my left who snaps me out of it. He’s leaning on the barricade – must have taken a round earlier. Pale as a sheet. Emptied his little gold sting-blunt into the crowd, and he realises it’s not shooting any more and throws it at them with a scream. I see it fly, follow it with my eyes as an animal would, see it hit a yelling man in a yellow robe, see him go down and be trampled. What do I have to complain about? Here I am invincible in the armour the Emperor granted me, taller and stronger than most mortals, actual holy fire in my hands – and there this man is, broken and bleeding, harsh language all he’s got left to fight the enemies of the Throne so that’s what he’s using, and here I am whining that I don’t have some fancy hat on?
I clear my throat with a hacking cough. Try and put into my voice the calm that I don’t feel. Cue my vox-thief and hear/feel it come open, the synth taking my poor words and giving them the voice of an angel of wrath. “We need to shock them. Wait for ten yards. Then let them have it for the Emperor.”
I hear acknowledgements over the vox. I must have keyed it open on all channels, accidentally sent that to the whole line.
I think I’m hyperventilating. Can’t take orders back. Everyone knows that. Stick to your plan, because the one thing that will kill you deader than a bad plan is uncertainty. I’m shaking. (Or is my armour shaking? It does that.) Deep breaths. Coolness as the suit’s auto-systems inject me with something they think will help. Five seconds, that’s enough time for me to swap out the mag on my pistol, flip the selector. I always wondered why these things were fully automatic. The heretics are so close now, close enough to spit on. Killing close.
I pull the trigger and I hold it down as I hear my sisters do the same, and across the line every single automatic weapon we have opens up at once.
And the Emperor’s wrath fills half the world with fire and noise and pain and I’m fighting alongside my armour-servos to keep the muzzle down, fighting to direct the bright white bolt shells where they will do His work, praying that it will be enough, that by some magic this will work. Bolts tear through one heretic and explode to scatter shrapnel into her fellows. Las-shots punch through their target and into the next. Hard rounds spin them round, trip them up, knock them down and break them. Flechettes rend and cut and tear them. Our fire carving into them, knocking them back, beating them down, not the individual hammer blows we struck earlier but detonations overlapping into a solid wall of thunder and flame, the voice of an angry god, the wrath of the Emperor.
My sisters and I run dry simultaneously, and everything seems to hold its breath. The corridor in front of us is a charnel house. Fully fifty yards of it, more than halfway, is strewn with whole and partial bodies, drenched in blood, pockmarked and scorched, scythed clean of the heretic. The baying of the mob is silenced. Like a tide they have drawn back. The ones we can make out from the crowd are in full flight, fighting the ones in front of them to get away from us.
My ears are ringing. I feel light-headed. I hear Sister Gyllen over the vox, her voice full of relief. “Oh, praise the Throne, we won it.” A ragged cheer goes up from the irregulars.
And we haven’t reloaded yet, and d’you think perhaps that they won’t let it go at that? I call to mind the tone and manner of our drill instructors, ‘forget’ to set my vox to speak only to my sisters. “Eyes front, Agate: reload and re-address.”
The general doesn’t have a synth to stop him sounding small and scared. “Likewise, troopers. They’re not done yet.”
And as I swap out my own spent mag and swap in my last fresh one, we see the tide turn in front of us, we see fear start to lose out to hatred, to the fervour that had taken hold of all of us at Drabbe’s words. People in the mob are turning, taking the odd shot at us. A hard round whines past my ear – if that had been an inch to its right –
Now there are people breaking away from the scared mass. Just breaking away, running at us as individuals, screaming prayers I learned for meditations, and any conception I had that our opponents were sane… Our irregulars start up again. Nobody to tell them when to start and stop.
General Rorkel, and the shake in his voice is anything but reassuring. “Keep fire discipline. Irregulars, take down the individuals. Hold it together. Unleash hell at ten yards. We broke them once.”
Forty yards, and the trooper to my right is knocked down and back by a stray round. I glance down: he’s bleeding but still alive. He starts to stagger to his feet; I give him a hand, set him back on our makeshift firing-step. Unarmoured people weigh so little. He nods thanks, clears blood from his eyes with the back of his hand and rests his autogun across the metal tabletop of the barricade.
Thirty yards. The irregulars have been doing a pretty good job of making sure none of the chargers make it. They’ve got to be running out of them, right? –
Twenty yards. The mob is starting to throw things. I see one coming and twist to take its impact on my pauldron. There are no rocks here. They are throwing whatever they can find on the floor. A boot, arcing high, nearly hits me on the head. There’s most of a foot inside.
Fifteen. The cries of the mob reach fever pitch; their measured advance on the uneven, slippery floor begins to accelerate. Some slip and fall. The rest do not care. I hear Judge Magnus over the vox. “Stand firm, servants of the Throne, let no crime against His Glory go unavenged.”
I turn my suit speakers to their earsplitting maximum and raise the battlecry as I concentrate on where my fire will fall. “FOR THE EMPEROR!” And for the second time our line vomits fire and death to meet the baying heretic charge.