In Light, Chapter Five

by artrald

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Four

++++

Okay, so this is incongruous. 

This place is carpeted with refugees, just collapsed on the floor in little knots, most of them, a sea of human wretchedness, and then right in the middle of them we’ve got the Judge calling a staff meeting. Five of us sat around an ornate little caff-table, blood-soaked, battle-armed, perched on these plush little purple comfort-couches made for the aristoi. The turbolift itself is projecting a polite little privacy field for us, a nice quiet pocket of air-conditioned tranquility and literally soft music. Is this how the aristoi live? How does anyone stand so much… softness? It doesn’t feel real to me, it’s like some sort of hallucination.

The Judge was last to arrive: he clears his throat. “So, then. Esquire Fayett says we should have half an hour before the next stop, so we’ve a little time to introduce ourselves and brief. I’m Piter Magnus, Judge, Adeptus Arbites, you’ll have heard of me. I’m claimin’ tactical command here, due to the irretrievable breakdown of law ‘n order we all pulled our butts out of up there, vi Solii Terrarum, by the power vested in me and all that good stuff. My voxnomen is Scale.” He nods to the man to his left.

The man’s armour is a latter-day knockoff of the work of storied Mars, not a patch on ours, but for a mere soldier it’s really first class gear. Nothing but the best for a man of such rank, I suppose. I’m still looking down on him – literally, he’s the shortest adult male I’ve met. All the adjustables are set to their absolute shortest to fit him in: from the way I saw him run earlier, his hips and shoulders still aren’t quite where the armour wants them. It’s got to be torture. (But at least he’s got a damn helmet. Even if it isn’t gas-tight.) “Rorkel,” he says. “General, Baelis Hive Tertius planetary defence, and what’s left of my life company is on voxnomen, ah, Aqua. I acknowledge your authority as I acknowledge the Throne it springs from, and do cede you tactical command at this time, your honour. I’d say my people stood ready to obey, but, ah.” His armour tries to make a ridiculous little shuffle as he shifts uneasily. “I’m fairly sure I saw a few of ’em in that crowd upstairs.”

We’re carrying around clockwise. This man’s in iridescent crimson with gold braid, a ridiculous short little jacket with gold buttons and epaulettes, peaked cap and what this morning must have been an actual cape. Tall enough to look me in the eye, and he’s not wearing massive boots like mine. Oddly musical accent. “Topher, captain, Baelis planetary defence.” He clears his throat with an apologetic glance to the general. “Hive Quartus planetary defence. On voxnomen Carnelian. We were honour guard to the Quartus delegation, I’m not even from this -” A wince as he realises how that sounds – “But we’re yours, your honour, to the last breath, me and my forty. We’ve spent blood keeping aristoi of Tertius alive and we don’t plan on quitting now.”

The next one looks like an aristo maiden to a first glance- long skirts, perfect skin, big dark innocent-looking eyes, long black hair scraped back – but the illusion ends at the tattered remains of elbow-length opera gloves, the synflesh abraded back from her hands revealing claws of metal. Never seen augmetic work so delicate. She opens her mouth and an augmetic voicebox speaks for her, a calmly perfect voice issuing from her unmoving lips. “House Omber is representative for those fortunates you are in the process of rescuing, and is supplying command and control services to their houseguard and militia: I am their representative, captain of Omber houseguard, name and voxnomen Pink.”

And then it’s me. Six foot four in glossy black armour, bare-headed, sharp-faced, ice-blonde under the grime, the burns on my forehead and my nose still shiny under a coat of seal-and-heal. As I say, Sisters don’t always show their age – they couldn’t tell if I was seventeen or seventy.

These are nobility I’m talking to, all of them: precedence is their life, and this is a little like a hand of cards. Military beats civilian, general beats captain, even though they come from units so different they’re basically in different armies. But there are special rules, too: a Judge of the Arbitrators outranks nearly anyone if and only if there is an insurgency – and he just said there was one, and everyone else agreed. But then there’s me, and their eyes are all asking me if I think I fit in that ‘nearly’. Even if they can’t tell I’m a novice, I didn’t automatically speak first, I haven’t been acting like I was in charge – but I’m a member of a senior service, to the extent that it’s probably an actual crime for the Judge to try to give me an order.

I make the sign of the aquila, thumbs locked, fingers spread, and my armour lends a professional snap to the salute. “Ellayn, leading squad Agate, Order of St. Ursula.” Gulp. “Judge Magnus, as per our conversation earlier, I hear your assessment and concur.”

And let’s not forget that there is the very slight edge of fear in all of their eyes. After all, they saw me singing on that stage, saw words I didn’t know and can’t remember bubbling up out of my mouth till my throat was bleeding. They all saw what my sister-superior became. Maybe they saw me shoot at that inquisitor. But they saw us fight on their side, too. Saw us stand up and wield the Emperor’s wrath in their defence. Saw us fighting when the heretics got over the barricade. Saw what we could do. Only a fool wouldn’t be scared of us.

Their eyes are asking me to tell them that it’s all right. That somehow all that stuff about what I did in the cathedral was a misunderstanding and a hallucination. That the killing angel they see in front of them is their ally and their defender and their guardian and at least please Throne on their side?

For my part? Deep breath, face like carved stone. Maybe if we pretend, if we pretend really hard that we are what we haven’t quite said we are – maybe that’s who we were all along. Maybe I dreamed everything before the battle, maybe I made it all up. I clear my throat and the armour’s synth just flatly blanks the sound, quietly erases that little trace of humanity from my voice. Angels don’t do that, it’s telling me. “I offer you all any assistance my twelve able-bodied sisters and I can still extend.” It makes me sound like I know what I’m doing.

And, well. The judge makes a convinced face, anyway. “Arright. So here’s the sermon. I’ve counted our numbers and they don’t look like a fightin’ unit. Eighty-three fighters all told, mostly miscellaneous light infantry, and we’re pretty much fresh out of ammunition other’n las-packs. Pink, you want to go ahead and remind us how many people we’re tryin’ to escort?”

The creepy lady opens her mouth. “Six hundred and forty civilian souls look to you, your honour.”

“Six hundred forty.” He lets that number sink in. “In other words, this ain’t an army so much as it’s a refugee convoy. We’ve shown we can defend the turbo – in fact, we’re better off now than we were, because I’m pleased to report that Esquire Fayett got those doors workin’. But there’s no way we’re riding out this storm stuck on the slow lift to level Nowhere.” A shrug. “Lucky for us, then, that we do at least have a plan. My organisation’s planetary precinct is on hive-level two-oh-eight, north of spire fifteen miles – Nominal ground level, near the hivewall, not far from the Hive Primus railhead. Place is a genuine fortress, built to handle somethin’ like, Emperor forbid, your whole spire turns traitor. Big guns, walls, defenders, astropath, whole nine yards, and it’s founded on one of the hive-spine’s support spars, better’n bedrock. My codes will open that door, and you’re all hereby invited. All we need to do is get there.”

“To fifteen north two-hundred-eight, from damn near spire summit.” General Rorkel’s bushy eyebrows go up. “Seven miles vertically, fourteen horizontally. With no vehicles, eighty troops, north of half a thousand civvies, across a hive that could very well be falling into insurrection. And we’re going into this with pretty much no supplies at all?”

Magnus’ moustache twitches in what might be a smile. “You heard me. Clearly we need ammo, provisions, weapons for a miltia, ideally vehicles, or the odds of making it ain’t good. Now the milit’ry supply depots are all in downhive, but there are justice precincts every few levels even up here. Place I’m thinking of is two miles nor-by-nor’west of spire on level eight, a response base full of transport and relief gear. I voxed it about ten seconds after trouble first showed, but by then all long range comms were dead – still it’s our closest shot at supplies, and that’s where we’ve got the turbo goin’. Arms, meds, food, fuel, the works. Never know, might even have reinforcements. If that cupboard’s bare, there’s half a dozen others we can go after: just drop a few levels on the turbo, send a scouting party, move on till we get what we need. Then once we’re tooled up we drop down to level two hundred, low as the turbolifts go, follow descent spiral nor’-nor’west two down to nominal ground, then it’s a straight transitway to the precinct.”

“Just like that.” The general shakes his head gently. “I suppose we’ll see how far that debacle up there matches the rest of the hive. Might have cause to regret a fourteen-mile ruck down what’ll pretty much look like one big shooting gallery to any fool with a lasgun.”

The person I look like would speak up. The synth is underlaying my voice with subtle harmonics, mostly like it’s adding a lifetime’s worth of command experience. “Do you see an alternative, general?”

He makes a face. “Offroad takes us into a maze of smaller streets. Not likely to get lost, we have good maps, but you lose any advantage from vehicles and it’s perfect ambush ground. We’re better off taking our chances on the transitway. Just, well. Not exactly a milk run.”

“Well, then,” I say, and the Judge gives me the tiniest of nods. “Agate volunteers for scouting those justice precincts: we’re best set up to deal with any surprises.” Belatedly realise that no, Ellayn, you don’t have that calm little blue map-overlay in the top right of your vision – “We’ll, uh, need a guide.”

“I’ll send a couple of mine,” says Magnus. “Be kind to ’em, sister, they can’t run like you can. Meanwhile, from everyone I’ll want a stocktake: be prepared to share any surplus of materiel.” Such nice words for looting the corpses of your own comrades. “General, you’ve got a proper quartermaster? They’re now in charge of our stores. When the sisters find us our depot, I want them holdin’ a wishlist all ready to go. Meanwhile. Anyone in anythin’ close to armour, I want ’em armed best we can, and we’ll worry about sortin’ out all the tech-rites just as soon as someone finds me a damn cogpriest. Any further questions?”

“A request, your honour.” It’s Pink. “The houseguard and bodyguards of our… clients.” She tilts her head, deliberately inhuman. “Two of the three Houses have petitioned for their release from collective militia duty, and the leadership of House Omber requests I acquire that permission.”

The judge scowls. “Has someone perhaps neglected to inform your clients that there is a damn war on?”

“Certainly not, your honour, and that is not-”

“Then you may have it conveyed to them, with my respects, that our numbers are tight enough as it is without providing individual bodyguards to specific pompadoured fucking nobility.”

She nods, tightly, in the way I’ve seen outsiders do to Sisters giving them orders they don’t understand. “I must admit to confusion, though, my lord. I was under the perhaps mistaken impression that you wished our clients to arrive at the precinct alive?” She doesn’t wait for an answer. “Because, sir, on the word of House Omber and my own decades as just such a bodyguard to all manner of specific pompadoured nobility, sir, if we just up and leave three houses’ worth of posh bastards to sit there and play with their dicks without their minders, then the moment they get bored they shall start to murder each other.” The cheery cut-glass accent of the synth makes the coarse language stand out like a siren. “With paper cups and their own fingernails if we take away their toys.”

Sigh. “Throne on Earth, give me strength. This is a real danger, is it?”

“Clear and present, my lord.” She bobs a disturbing little curtsey. “The word ‘civilian’ is chosen over ‘noncombatant’ advisedly: the dueling culture of uphive is extensive. Normally, they are carefully seated and insulated from those with… differing opinions. But today?” She gives a slightly despairing shrug of the shoulders. “Consider them akin, my lord, to well-dressed gangers with nothing to do but squabble.”

The Judge growls. “Arright. Disperse the damn irregulars, at least till we’re expectin’ threat. Got any rule-breakers yet?”

The cyborg raises an eyebrow so neatly you could almost hear it click. “We… do, yes. Nothing my remaining houseguards cannot-”

“Uh-uh.” The man’s moustache bristles. “Those crimes were committed on my shift, and I do believe I lit’rally read you all the riot act just now?” He laces his fingers together and stretches his hands, to an impressive array of cracks that at first had me wondering if his gloves were damaged. “Dismissed, all.” He keys his vox set with a button on his ornate lapel. “This is Scale. Enforcement team on me. Let’s go raise some morale.”

I return to my unit. I have sisters to see to.

++++

I clasp the hands of Verien’s suit together in the aquila. “To rest I commend this soul.” This is a lesson none of us had reached yet, but it’s there in the Lex Sororitas, the Rule we were sleep-taught. “Pro famulam mortuam tuam Verien oramus: requiem aeternam dona eam, Lux Praelucens, Solium Terrarum, Deus Imperator Hominum.” The words spill from my lips like I’m breathing them out. “Astronomici sequatur: et in curia tua maneat in aeternam.” I take a deep unsteady breath, trying not to smell, trying not to look at where her face ought to be. “Vale, soror: pro nobis noli lacrima. Mox videbis.

Vale soror. Mox videbis.” The choir echo the High Gothic words: farewell, sister. You’ll see us soon. And that makes five sisters dead. Keyt’s just mouthing the prayer, tears streaming down her face. There’s a soft harmonic chime from our fallen sister’s armour as it locks into a permanent rigidity.

The sleep-lesson tails off in a sucking void labelled ‘sermon’. I clear my throat. (Careful. People are earwigging, and not a few.) “Verien. Our fifth sister called home since this morning. She was always better than me with systems and rites, I – When I was thirteen and she was fourteen, she had the bunk above mine. We fought like sump-rats. Like sisters.” My voice catches in my throat, but the synth holds it steady. At least it picks up on my emotions and gives a sound that’s bleak like the angel of winter wind. “And she deserves better than this. They all do, our sisters deserve better than, than basement-quality field rites from a scant dozen of us in a corner of a malfunctioning lift, without even a cloth to cover her face, because all we’ve got is these damned rags.” My hand clutches at my tattered, stained purple surplice. We took Verien’s off: she’s not going before the Emperor with that symbol on her.

Breathe.

I look every one of my people in the eye, one by one, as I speak. “I… I’m not pleased with the price we got the Emperor for these lives. They’d have wanted them sold more dearly. They were worth more than this. So that sin is on us, now, all right? All of us, one-sixth part of every good deed: that’s for them, now, that’s for our sisters lost. Make them smile.” Force myself to unclench my fists. “In the Emperor’s name, for this sin and those unnamed, we shall atone. Porsia, if you’d lead us: Achaeas’ For the Angel Fallen.”

The piece is a trivial one for us. I chose it because it’s fairly short and the melody line’s something we’ll miss Verien in, but it’s also something we could practically sing in our sleep – the musical equivalent, if you like, of a half-arsed funeral in the corner of a malfunctioning turbo. It’s only as the elegy rises and weaves that I realise that all speech and movement in the lift is coming to a halt, a spreading pool of silence as people stop what they’re doing and turn to listen to us sending off our dead – that most people don’t live with this sort of music as their constant companion – and the second altos resolve the discord of the final measure into harmony, and the trooper who’s been politely waiting for us to finish is blinking back tears.

“Squad fall out,” I subvocalise, not wanting to break the spell, and they follow the order with the snap and precision their armour lends them. The turbo begins to fill once again with the sounds of people no longer holding their breath.

++++

So I guess it’s my job to meet the nice man and find out what he wants. The man must be seventy at least, liver-spotted, grey-haired and balding: he’s wearing his armour a little better than his boss. “Can I help you -” I look him over for anything that might be a rank tab – “Trooper?”

He clears his throat, tries to make out like he wasn’t just moved to tears. “Yes, mamzel.” (Okay – apparently I like ‘mamzel’ even less than ‘lady’. What do I look like, an aristo or something?) “Quartermaster said something about you being short on ammunition?”

“Bad news travels fast, it seems.” I nod, and through the pain-balms my neck reminds me that that hurts. “Please tell me someone has bolt rounds, seventy-five calibre?”

“Not hardly, mamzel. But if your Rule permits it, we might have something else?” He unslings the weapon he’s carrying. Longer in the body than ours, but shallower. “Aqua Company took, took casualties in that engagement, and we’re asked to redistribute as we can. Our lascarbines are adapted for use with armour, and the master-sarn’t, he thought you might make a better use of ’em than anyone else will, if it’s, uh.”

Better use. These people were the ones who couldn’t hit five men in a shooting gallery at fifty yards. Literally I’ve just performed the funeral of my sister who’d still be alive if not for –

Breathe. (If they’ve got a dozen lascarbines spare, girl, you’ve just sung the funeral of a dozen of their soldiers, and you literally just saw this man weeping for them, so you can button your damned lip.) A moment’s thought and I have a quote from the Rule. “If it appears that a thing is providence, what profit to she who says that it is not? Thus speaks Saint Dominica.” He clearly doesn’t understand – “That is to say, yes. The Emperor has moved you to offer us weaponry when our own is not available. We’ll accept your assistance and with our thanks.” Brief, terrible thought – “This, this is highly irregular, trooper, but – how do they, uh, how do they work?”

To his credit he doesn’t crack a smile. “Point and shoot, mamzel, no moving parts. Shot counter here. Touch this rune for safety, this for the las-sight, this for full versus semi auto: drag-zone here for power, put that at the top and leave it, this ain’t exactly the range.” Flips the gun over with a practiced near-mechanical movement: this demonstration is second nature to his suit, whether or not it is to him. “This rune is the trigger. This piece here’s the laspack. Rite of reloading: I-thank-you-for-the-Emperor’s-light-O-holy-weapon, the mag will ping, pull it off and stow it. Fresh mag against this plate, any laspack will do, Emperor-bless-and-guide-this-holy-weapon-hold-my-hand-steady-and-my-aim-true, take your hand off. If you’re worthy the mag sticks and you’re good.”

I nod. “How do I clear a jam?”

He shakes his head at that. “This is not a fancy weapon for people who get to argue with their fate. If it doesn’t shoot and there isn’t zero on the shot counter, the Emperor has chosen you to engage with the enemy hand-to-hand.” Abruptly realises who he thinks he’s talking to, goes a shade of pink- “Ah. Uh, sorry, mamzel, I don’t mean no-”

“You spoke no lie,” I say, and hopefully the look on my face is whatever he expects a blessed Sister to look like. “The Emperor often chooses such as me for that duty: and as odd as it may seem, we do not ‘get to argue with our fate’ either.”

The look in his eyes softens. I could be his granddaughter. “You lot don’t want to be here either, do you?”

“No.” I venture half a smile. The synth is still pretending that I’m a grizzled veteran with eternal youth. “How about we work together on getting out of this mess, then, trooper?”

He straightens. At least his suit is capable of proper military bearing. “Aye, mamzel.”

++++

The turbo groans, shudders, struggles, and a solid-feeling click shakes the floor. I hear the voice of Esquire Fayett chanting querulously to the tech-shrine’s unimpressed stare, and recorded voices singing a lackluster mechanical chorus of All Hail The Triumphant in answer. The great doors rasp, finally grinding to a halt with a five-yard gap: we’re front and centre, our borrowed rifles levelled. They feel like toys. (The calm red readout below the rear sight tells me I have 906 shots remaining in this pack at this power setting. The stock won’t butt nicely into the curve of my pauldron. I’m positive the las-sight is not pointing straight.)

Blackness, before us. Not even a floor. One brief moment of nameless panic goes by before I cue my suit’s luminators, and my sisters follow my lead. Floodlight from the left shoulder, stablight from the right, a bright beam that follows where the suit thinks my nose is pointed.

“Scale, Agate.” I’m using the open vox-band, mostly just reassuring everyone. “The station’s dark and empty.” I sweep my harsh yellow light over the great vaulted hall. It’s unnatural. I mean, I know this is uphive, a commercia level that’s probably not a permanent home to more than half a million, but to see any place so empty – I shudder. “No contact, friend or foe. Turbo halted about six feet short. Proceeding, over.”

“Well,” returns the judge wryly in plain Gothic, “at least it’s defensible. Carnelian, overwatch: Pink, have someone set up a luminator. Light guide you, Agate.”

“Emperor protects.” I give the hand-sign and we drop down into the cavernous echoing space. Six feet’s nothing to the suit, even without a helmet to hold your head steady: the altos drop down almost without breaking stride and fan out immediately. My section is the last down: I turn and offer a hand down to the Arbitrators who’ll be playing guide. Man and a woman, blue and gold dress armour. Name tags read BARTE and VINSEN. “So, constables. Which way?”

“Follow our lead,” says the woman, Barte. “The precinct fronts onto the far end of the North Commercia main concourse, there’s an entrance not far west of here.”

We move out. Outside the lift station the street-luminators are running on emergency mode, washing everything in a bilious high-efficiency yellow. I cue my autosenses by reflex at the change of lighting and it’s still like stubbing a toe when fuck-all happens.

“Empty. Abandoned.” Gyllen’s whisper floats over the vox.

“You sure, sister?” The synth doesn’t quite know what to do with the acerbic note in Isaby’s voice. “Not sure I could make that out, past all the nothing over here.”

“Creepy.” Niwall made me promise not to leave her behind with the injured, missing glove or no. “Emperor guide our steps in the dark places we must walk.”

“Emperor send me a damn helmet.” That was Manda: the chorus of acknowledging vox-clicks, on the other hand, that’s the whole rest of my damned squad. (The trick of making your vox send nothing but an electronic chirp is one of the first things we learn about them that wasn’t sleep-taught.)

“Enough,” I subvocalise. “I hear you, all right? We’re hurting, we’re pissed off, we’re creeped out, we’re half dead on our feet, and here we are out in the freezing cold lonely dark with these ridiculous toy guns because there’s no bastard on that damn lift who’s better off. We start snapping at one another, we start letting discipline slip, and we can kiss our chances of survival goodbye, and there’s most of a thousand people who only get out of this living if we do.” Manda can’t see me glare at her. “So we fucking hold. You want to know why we hold? Because this day, this very hour, I have claimed for us the name of Daughters of the Emperor. And I don’t give a shit whether you think I have any authority. But you say one word, do one single thing to make me doubt that claim I made, and before the Throne on Earth and upon this holy weapon I swear that I will send you to meet Him with my boot-print in your recusant arse, do I make myself clear?”

Vox-clicks. Silence. I let out a slow breath, get ready to hand-sign for travelling overwatch.

“Sister?” It’s Rowyn. Her voice sounds as small as the synth will let it. “It’s vespers.”

The burst of sudden, violent anger is too much. “As you fucking were,” I snarl, and I realise just a little bit too late that that without a helmet on, people hear you when you yell –

The arbitrators both duck and cover at the sudden loud noise. Barte glances around at me, and I’m not sure if the fear in her eyes is for our situation or for me. “Problem, Sister?”

“No.” My synth takes the venom in my voice and adds subsonics and volume to make it hit her in the gut. I take a breath, shake my head. Cue the vox, but speak out loud. “Proceed, sisters. Alto, you have Vinsen: soprano, we have Barte, travelling overwatch by section. Forget the big picture, focus on what we’re doing, take it like a drill.”

More vox-clicks. I ignore the side-eye I get from the arbitrator. We move out, and don’t look back.

++++

Six