In Light, Chapter Four
My last magazine. One dozen bolts between me and the baying horde. I’ve flicked my pistol to semi-auto to make sure each one counts. Try to take a deep breath. Try to steady myself. Ten yards is the high-water mark the crowd left last time. Ten yards is where we showed them the Emperor’s fury and stood them off. Ten yards is the range.
And once more our line erupts in shocking terrifying flame, our fingers tightening almost in unison on triggers and touch-runes, and at the same moment they hurl themselves forward. Ten yards is nothing.
I tag a priest that I could have sworn I’d met before all this started, and his head explodes and the one behind him trips over his body and is trampled. That man in dress armour not a million miles from the stuff the general’s people are wearing, and the bolt takes his leg off at the hip. The one who tries to hurdle his body and she comes down in pieces. The one pointing a stumm-rod at my face. The one just now lighting a flare. The one wielding a ceremonial flagpole like a spear, and oh Throne they’re not going to break. To either side of me the troopers are just holding down the trigger, spraying shots into the mob like hosing down a fire.
Our shooting is having some effect. The momentum of the crowd is slackening. The ones that can see us, fear us. They’re not going to hit us at the run. But we’re not going to scare them off with gunfire this time. That group with the shock-halberds, the ones who must have been ceremonial guard: they will be here first. Almost without thought I kill their leader. The one behind him is within reach and he darts forward: in the same moment I twist, catching the halberd’s thrust with my left forearm and deflecting it high, shooting him in the chest. A descending blow aimed at my elbow joint and I sway aside, a snap-shot in that direction yielding a scream.
They can’t use the length of those weapons because the crowd is carrying them forward. The one right in my face isn’t there by choice, and I punch him under the chin with bone-cracking force, and I hammer my sarissa down into the side of his neck with my left hand. He spits blood at my face as he dies and I flinch back –
And that saves my life. Swung from an angle, a crackling halberd blade comes down an inch in front of my face and glances off my pauldrons and gorget as it discharges harmlessly. I aim my pistol down the haft – I squeeze the trigger and the wielder’s convulsive clutch bounces the recharging weapon into my face.
Even at half-charge it’s like being struck by lightning. Everything goes white. I think I may have screamed – holy Throne, that hurt. My hair stands on end where it’s not matted with gore. Blind for that moment and hopefully not more, I throw up my arm to cover my face: another thrust deflects from my forearm and hits me squarely in the chest. I feel my abdomen and leg joints lock into solidity for a fraction of a second and the weapon’s blade snaps.
My vision’s returning: don’t play anvil, they’d only need to be lucky once. An awkward scything backhanded cut with my sarissa and they’re howling for my blood: I give them another bolt and shrapnel pings off my armour as they scream. One last round left and I put it through the face of the one in the front. Drop my pistol and the maglock secures it into its holster as I knew it would, swap the sarissa point-up in my left hand. They’re climbing over corpses for the honour of dying at the hands of a Daughter of the Emperor. Bring it on, you recusant fuckers: the sheer volume of my suit speakers might be enough to stun and dismay.
A heavy-muscled man comes for me with a dress saber that’s hardly seen a sharpening-wheel in its life, let alone a fight: I grab the blade in my right hand and it bends, use the leverage to pull him forward onto my knife. I don’t expect him to grab my hand: there’s a terrible mad light in his eyes as he grabs hold and pulls, pulls himself onto the blade, throws his weight suicidally onto my arm.
Instinctively I meet strength with strength, but he’s a big man, got to weigh eighteen stone, and he’s trying to put every ounce of that onto my arm. His legs buckle as bloody froth comes from his lips. He’s trying to pull me down, spending his life to lever me out of line, and if I go down I’m dead, armour or no. The nameless carcass of metal we used for the barricade, it creaks alarmingly. I hammer my fist on the back of his unarmoured head and now he’s dead twice over, but it’s not enough: he’s still got a death-grip on my arm. Another one comes in, just wielding what looks like it used to be an organ pipe, and I have to block with my right forearm.
The lessons are ingrained: don’t play punchbag. Don’t play anvil. Nobody ever won a bout simply by taking a beating. No matter how desperate your condition, hand to hand, if you can hurt them, do. The next blow I catch on an open palm, grab the improvised weapon and just shove as hard as I can. The man’s eyes widen, his jaw drops at the strength my armour lends: his crude club is torn out of his hands and I feel the other end strike his chest with a terrible jarring impact.
Enough to shake the corpse on my other arm, in fact.
The sarissa tears itself free in a spray of bright blood, all of my weight and all of the dead man’s combining, suddenly driving the terribly sharp blade through bone and flesh with a quickly vanishing amount of resistance – I flail for balance –
I fall backwards off the firing-step.
The first thing you learn in armour is how to fall over. Because trust me, the first time you try to walk in what are effectively four-inch platforms that try to move your feet for you, you’re bound for the floor. The right thing to do feels exactly wrong – your body’s instincts scream at you to put a hand out, and if you do that the arm joints will lock and you’ll pivot unexpectedly onto front or back, and you’ll be viciously reminded that in armour you weigh three or four times what you’re used to. So what you do instead is, you go limp entirely, and without active conscious input the suit will do what’s best for you. It’s the oddest feeling, like you’re suspended inside it on springs as the armour spreads the impact across as much of you as it can, as the helmet cradles your head at the perfect angle to avoid concussion –
All of which is approximately furthest from my reeling mind as I overbalance, flailing, disbelieving, coming down with a staggering amount of momentum, arms outflung like a falling angel, the sarissa spinning away to stick point down in the deck. My head snaps back and I see stars – holy Throne no please don’t let me have broken my neck – everything hurts – nnh.
Don’t stay on the ground. Never stay down. In training bouts it’s an automatic forfeit if you could have stood and don’t, even if you went down because Niwall kicked you in the gut with the point of her toe and all you want to do is throw up. I half-roll right, ignore the sudden fire from my neck: if I don’t fall over and die right this second then anything else can wait. Lean on my right hand, get a foot under me. The world spins: grit my teeth, concentrate on the move.
A yell. The man who’d been to my left, the injured one, has stepped across in front of me. He’s got the haft of a shock-pike from somewhere, just the broken haft, and he’s fending off strikes with it, playing hero. As I watch the thing snaps in the middle and he throws one broken half at his unseen attackers. Has to dodge the next swipe. He’s not going to last forever. Get up, damn you!
My mag-boots decide this is an excellent time to start helping. I don’t know, maybe the fall was supposed to be some kind of object lesson? Nevertheless, you-know, judge not a gift of providence: suddenly my footing is rock-solid and suddenly my balance is perfect. My nausea and pain can wait their turn. Amazing what just that one touch of blessed solidity will do. Emperor look upon your Daughter: by Your grace and the gifts of Your bounty, God-Emperor, make me invincible in this hour.
The next blow aimed at the man, I step up suddenly and fend off with an open hand: this weapon is a window-cleaning pole. Grab, pull, twist: mine. Take it in both hands for leverage. I don’t bother changing ends of the thing: jab one guy in the throat with the butt, thwack another one around the side of the head, whip it upwards quickly and then down onto another in a skull-splintering blur. An incoming swing and I angle the haft to deflect it into the barricade, jab the attacker in the chest and the pole goes in and sticks: mindful of being pulled again, I let go with a vicious shove.
There’s something wrong with the angles. This attacker’s strike is awkwardly aimed, as if I’m not where I was supposed to be: I reprise with an open-handed blow at his midsection and he can’t block it, the impact folds him up. Another jab from yet another of the ceremonial halberds, but it’s actually somehow coming down at me, and I can see the waists of the crowd as if they were somehow going –
up – Emperor’s name, we’ve done it –
A confusion of white cloth; a staggering impact around my head and shoulders and I feel the whole lower half of my suit lock, my mag-boots keeping my footing, my suit joints effortlessly denying this attempt to throw me from my feet. My neck explodes in pain. Someone has literally jumped – fallen? – on top of me, scrabbling, unarmed: blindly I grab her and throw her to the floor with all the force I can muster and she’s not getting up. There are more people coming over, so many, all at once: it’s like, it’s just like the front rank of the heretics simply rose up and spilled over our barricade like a wave.
There’s an exercise we do in hand-to-hand class, not an armoured exercise, just part of our training regimen, something I’ve been doing since the earliest days of our training. A student from two classes above stands in the centre of the mat, and the entire of the class goes for them, four at a time, timed intervals. And from age twelve, more often than not, if there was a choice, that older student was me. The reflexes kick in. I’m bigger than the people coming for me. I’m stronger. Keep moving, keep turning, keep aware, eyes up. Neck hurts. I’ll live.
I have to step down from the firing-step to get fighting room. I put my shoulders into a punch and the man’s literally taken off his feet. Someone leaps off the barricade at me and I grab them by the front of their ornamented tunic, carry their momentum over into the ground and drop my armoured weight on them as they land, and they don’t get up again. Stand up, catching movement in the corner of the eye, and I just have time to identify that it’s not a sister of mine before I hit them and then they hit the ground.
Something between my reflexes and the suit’s spin me around, twisting a laspistol out of another screaming heretic’s hand, step inside and give an elbow-strike to the face with the force to send her spinning.. A man behind her that I don’t recognise, raising a broken shock-halberd high for a blow against someone on the floor, and I pull him over backwards into a knife-hand blow of my own. Unarmoured people break when you hit them that hard. No time or need for a follow-up: turn, hands already up to ward off the next attacker – there’s nothing there but a – lift shaft wall.
Wild-eyed I look around. Who’s next? Who’s coming? The world has been divided into threat and not-threat nearly forever. I can feel my heartbeat pounding in my throat. That shape there, is that – no, that one’s dead, I think I killed him. Further ahead – Sister Keyt with her back to the barricade, slumped to the floor, staring straight ahead – the guardsman, the wounded one, a dress saber bloody in his hand – Sister Manda, carrying a gun that’s the wrong shape – Sister Niwall just standing there staring dumbly much like me, her bare hand covered in fresh blood, clenched into a fist. I breathe, a convulsive shudder. Can’t think. What now?
Sound. Sound over the vox, a voice, hoarse but he’s speaking recognisable Gothic. “…sounds like the fat lady to me, people: bloody good show. Units to check in in five, please: irregulars, if you can hear this, form on Captain Topher. Rorkel out.”
We did it. We did it. By Human Will is the Heretic denied. My hands start shaking uncontrollably and my suit stops holding them steady. Swallow hard: my mouth tastes of blood. Select our squad band on the vox, drop my voice to a subvocal mutter and let the synth turn it into words. “Agate, status report. Check in by sections?”
“First sopranos.” That’s Porsia. The knot in my stomach unclenches slightly, to know she’s all right. “Out of ammunition, not one bolt left. Think Hayla has a concussion, and Cira a-and Berres are out already, of course.” The vox doesn’t transmit the long slow shuddering breath she takes. “We can’t do that twice, Ellayn.” No shit, sister.
“First alto. Limited weaponry.” Manda won every gunnery contest I ever saw her in: of course she looted a gun first chance she got. It’s probably the squad’s only working firearm now. “Medicae for Jeny if there’s one going – she fell badly, her ankle’s hurt. Zade and Avhata are with the wounded already.”
Pause. I can’t see all the rest of my section. Niwall’s over there, trying to wipe her face clean with a hand that’s completely covered in blood. Keyt’s let herself down to sit against the remains of the barricade –
“Second alto.” Yasi’s voice cracks. “Verien’s dead. I’ve s-sent Vanyssa to find a medicae, she’s bleeding bad. Rest of us… we live.”
So. Rillith was a casualty already, that’s why I couldn’t see her – but Rakil’s not there, moving or not. I call her name – see Niwall’s eyes widen as she realises the same thing – scan vainly back over the bit of barricade that she was holding, see nothing but the dead. No, wait – there. I can just see her outflung hand. She’s at the bottom of that heap.
Cue the vox. “Second soprano, a hand here please, Rakil’s stuck. Rillith is with the wounded. Dry on ammo. Anyone with specific concerns -” I bend down to lift a broken body out of the way and the synth doesn’t transmit a yelp born from a sudden star of pain at the base of my neck – “Call me. We’re all we have, sisters, we look out for one another or we fall.”
“Okay, I got one.” That’s Rowyn, second alto. “What are we doing here, sister? I-in whose name?”
Pause. Bite off the urge to retort rather than answering her question. No, this is important. “All right.” I know the whole squad can hear. “Objective-immediate: survive. We’re escorting all the loyalists we can find and we’re getting out of that madhouse upstairs. Objective-overall?” I swallow hard. “Sister, it’s not like I have some kind of revelation, some understanding you don’t. We’ve all seen the same. We jumped one way and it’s like half of everything jumped the other. We don’t have a sister-superior or a confessor o-or any superior of any kind here to tell us what to do. Tell you what, though. We’ll have a fuller debrief at vespers observance. When we’re not digging people out of piles of dead. Work things out then, all right?”
“Vespers.” Rowyn sounds like she’s holding back incredulous laughter, even through her synth. “Middle of all this, world gone mad and you’re going to say frakking vespers.”
“Are we in holy orders or not?” I clear my throat. “Look, the one thing I do know is the answer to the second half of your question. In whose name?” I pick up another dead body under the armpits, drag them away from my sister. “We’re doing this for the Emperor, for Him-on-Earth. You heard the Inquisitor. You heard the battlecry from our lines just now. There’s one, precisely One in whose name we serve. And about all I know is this.” I drop the corpse on the floor. “We’re on his side.”
“Emperor protects,” says Niwall, and the vox transmits it as an unearthly, floating whisper.
We echo the words, the oldest and simplest of all of the prayers. And I hear Rakil’s voice join the chorus and I dig harder.
The Arbitrator medic is a man in fabulously ornate ceremonial armour, blue, black and gold. Bushy grey beard, the ageless weatherbeaten look of a body-clock frozen at forty by juvenat. “Close your eyes and hold your breath.” I comply and there’s a spray of something that stings in every little cut and scrape. “Look here, please.” A bright light. “And here.” He frowns. “That hurt you?”
“My neck.” I feel like a postulant again, explaining an errant black eye to an unsympathetic housemistress. “I fell.”
“Hmm. Turn to the left again: and now to the right?” Okay, ouch? “Ah, I see. Prior chem?” I give him a blank look. “What-have-you-taken? Stims? Pain-balms, fettle, quil, pep, sand…” he waves his hand, vaguely – “Like you’d anoint a machine, but for a person? You eat it and feel strong, or awake, or whatever?”
Oh – sacraments – “Vigilance, standard dose, fourteen days ago and this afternoon.” I call to mind the relevant sections of the sleep-taught Lex Sororitas and the words bubble up almost unbidden. ”The Sacrament of Vigilance is known to the Mechanicum as the muriatic salt of C-fifth-paremphetazine, ingested, one and one-eigth dram, slow-release. Its purpose is-”
“Pep.” He flicks a finger over the rotatory collar on his narthecium. “Enough pep to flat-out kill anyone not wearing a damn life-support machine, you realise. You know how much we aren’t taught about battle-sisters, interrogators and other angel types who decide that being half invulnerable means you need to go ‘n find the other half?” A scowl. Belatedly I realise it’s an attempt at bedside manner. He lifts my matted hair aside, touches an administrator wand to the side of my neck and a coolness spreads from the touch. “This is a pain-balm, all right? S’posed to warn you about drivin’ or operatin’ heavy machinery.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I respond drily, and he actually smiles for all of an instant. Hang on, wait a minute. Bushy beard, black and blue and gold dress armour – “Your honour. I didn’t know you were a medicae.”
“Thought Arbitrators don’t get ill, what?” Level gaze. “Not here by accident. Mind favouring me with a tac-sermon, lady?”
Well, this I can do. Shoulders back, eyes front, my armour’s height meaning it’s like I’m talking to the aquila on his helmet crest. I give the report in battle-language, rapid-fire, just as per drill. “Sir. Thirteen strength, reporting operational recode assault medium was tac heavy, nomen Agate, actual Ellayn for sarn’t Croix fallen. Plus four cas, three fallen. Negative on organic medicae. Endurance unsupplied two days plus five, dry ammunition, sir.”
He blinks. “Well, I suppose if I ask, I get. Be obliged if you’d repeat that in plain Gothic?”
“Um.” I colour, slightly. “We’re, you-know, three of my sisters are dead. You’re basically looking at a dozen walking wounded and four proper casualties here, but I guess you knew that if you’ve got as far down the triage list as me. I suppose I’m in acting command, I’m sister-novitiate Ellayn. Our officers are-” I squeeze shut the mind’s eye, seeing the inquisitor kick my teacher in the face- “We’re all that’s left. Voxnomen for our squad is Agate. But if you’re looking for a miracle from us, your honour, look again. We, we’ve spent the last of our ammunition, we’re down to hand-weapons.”
“Understood you that time,” he grates, “and that’s about what I thought. But just so’s you know, those thirty per cent casualties you report, that’s the lightest of our whole lot.” His mouth is set in a flat line. “I mean, you were always going to be, but for as long as we’re stuck with one another, your squad is literally our best by strength as well as experience and morale.”
My poker face just won’t cope with that one. I cover my instinctive incredulity poorly with a cough. The gesture to cover my mouth, you can’t do it in armour, you’ll punch yourself in the face.
He scowls. “Sister, I do realise that your type don’t get out much, but it’s like this.” He nods towards the corpse-strewn wreckage that used to be our barricade, the exhausted defenders slowly gathering into little knots of same-coloured uniform at irregular intervals. “These are what you’d call ceremonial units. The general’s life company’s an honour posting for washed-up old soldiers who don’t have the caste-code to rate juvenat work – they might have powered suits on, but you saw what I’ll laughingly call their marksmanship, and that was their strong suit. The honour guard, meanwhile, that’s where you send your kid if you want them a military record without actually ever having done anything beyond stood in a tidy little line and drilled with a rifle twice a week. Not to mention that that uniform ain’t armoured worth a damn. They’re not exactly carryin’ a full load of ammo either. My arbiters go everywhere fit for duty, but there are six of us left and our suits are unpowered – and as for the irregulars-”
“Your honour!” I blurt, and realise I’ve interrupted the Judge, but now I’ve started I’ll finish. “I’m honoured by your regard, really I am. You look at us and see us with, with our bolt guns and our holy armour and the fleur-de-lys, and you know Sisters get juvenat early, y-you probably can’t tell us apart. So you reckon you have yourselves a baker’s dozen veterans in real wargear, and you want us front and centre. Possibly because you’ve seen the Adepta Sororitas at work before and they made an impression?” I spit blood on the floor, resist the urge to wipe my mouth with an armoured hand. “Judge, what you have here is the Order of St. Ursula girls’ choir. The convent on this planet is a training facility, a-and all the instructors are dead: when I said acting command, that’s because every Sister or better is gone. This isn’t juvenat you’re looking at, your honour: we’re sisters-novitiate, we’re -” I grope for the downhive slang-word – “we’re juves, your honour. I mean, yes, I’m thirteen years a martial artist, but that’s because we start at four, for Throne’s sake.”
The expression darkens further still. “You been spreading that around, have you?”
“Not yet.” I realise as I’m saying the words how much of a novice I really sound. “Nobody asked, a-and we were too busy-”
“Right. So from now on, Blessed Sister – though by rights and law I can’t give you orders – it is my very strongest suggestion that you keep some of those pertinent facts to your damn self.” He flicks his narthecium’s case closed, as if to underscore. “For absolute bloody truth, your appearance back in that chapel felt like the chap sitting in that Throne on Earth had taken a glance over in our direction and gone ‘you know what, that Magnus fellow, he could do with a bit of a hand’. Right? And that was me feelin’ that, this stonefaced hardbaked git. Your rank and file are lookin’ over and seein’ that we’ve got the Emperor’s own daughters with us, the universe’s turned around and smiled on us for a change. And if all He’s given me is a dozen half-trained juves in training gear?” He shrugs. “Well, I’ll put ’em to work and still not believe my luck. I’m tellin’ you, lady, you’re the Emp’ror’s gift to this endeavour.”
“Throne help us all.” The words leave my mouth without my thinking brain really having noticed: too late to cram them back in –
“So say we all, sister.” He grimaces. “Tac-update for you, proper one, while we’re keeping things to ourselves. We’re right and properly fucked. But we’re less fucked now than when you’n I met – and less then than when all this shit started.” He meets my eyes, like perhaps I’ve got something to say: I look down. “Any chance you can help that trend carry on in the right direction?
Bite my lip. Tastes vile. “Only one answer to that, your honour.”
“That’s how you know it’s His will.” He braces up, clicks his heels, makes the sign of the aquila as if he’s the one who’s supposed to be saluting me. “Senior staff in five, just over there.” He clears his throat. “Means you too. Get your head in gear.”