In Light, Chapter Six

by artrald

Up

Five

++++

It’s taken us half an hour to make our way the two miles through the darkened commercia. Hugging the walls, keeping overwatch, long sight-lines. Most definitely not jumping at shadows, but if just one of those damn shadows were to move we’d be all over it before it could so much as twitch –

Never been here before, but I’ve seen pictures. This place is supposed to be a galaxy of light, a cornucopia of sounds and sights, a delight for any who can afford to appreciate it. Uphivers live well, uphivers consume continuously and conspicuously, and this is the kind of place they get what they consume: I can smell spices over the ever-present tang of anointing oil. But it’s dark, it’s quiet, it’s shut, it’s deserted. I mean, literally an hour ago this would have been the beating heart of the area, and it’s just flatly empty.

The main concourse, which we’re staying out of for perfectly sensible reasons so we don’t need to reach for dumb ones like just how giant sucking empty it is, should be crawling, day-cycle or night-cycle, holy-day or work-day. I mean, there’s the odd sign that people were here once, that something has happened, that we haven’t just walked into some kind of dream – storefronts broken or half-shuttered, luminator poles knocked down, signage broken – but where are all the people? I’m finding myself almost hoping that the heretics do show up, at least to put an end to this damned absence.

Nowhere in a hive is empty. I mean, this is what I guess outsiders wouldn’t get. There is literally no public space within Baelis Hive Tertius that doesn’t have people in it, no matter the shift, no matter the hour. The uphive day consists of one shift at your appointed task, one left to your discretion (for to be an uphiver is to have substantial personal holdings and latitude to manage them), and one for rest and relaxation: at every shift-change this entire street should be so full of people that every human could stretch out fingertips and touch another’s, and even in midshift you’d never have to turn your head to see another human, and that counts as lightly populated. To be alone in a hive is – I mean – my sisters and I are already feeling the pinch with only a dozen of us.

Finally we round the corner and the precinct’s there as advertised. The austere, solid lines of its facade are cast in a sullen neon red by four great luminators, the golden Scales of Imperial Law glittering and casting long fidgety shadows in the harsh white of our own lamp beams. And Barte the arbitrator stops short, swears under her breath.

“Problem, constable?” I keep my eyes up and scanning for trouble.

“Mmm-maybe. Doors shut. No challenge.” She pulls out a little hand-vox. “Precinct eight north, this is Scale Four, status, over.”

Nothing.

“Nor’west eight district, this is Scale Four calling all points, check in, over.”

Nothing. She frowns. “This thing should be able to reach anyone in the district. That call I made – an all-points request? – we should be getting our ears squawked off, the vox should be fizzing.” A nervous, abbreviated gesture to the precinct’s reinforced gate: her hand goes straight back to her gun. “You close that door if you’re locking down in an emergency and at no other time. Procedure, procedure is three teams sortie and one holds – there should be a whole response team in there, those shutters up there should be open, we should have a Tarantula tracking us right now. O-or the place should be covered in bodies and bullet holes and the whole place stink of riot gas. This just isn’t right.”

“They could be talking and we’re not hearing,” says Rakil at my elbow. “That tech-curse. I’ve heard stories of them spreading faster than headlice in a novice dorm.”

“Next move, then.” I give that gate an appraising look: to my eye it looks just like something from a training exercise. “Break in?”

Barte gives us a look of frank disbelief. “You serious? That’s nine inches of armour plate, that is.”

“Who do you think you’re talking to?” Cue vox. “Porsia, what do you think? Can we get in?”

She comes straight back. “Don’t see why not. That door’s steelcrys, you think? Opens inward? Bolts in the middle?”

I see the arbitrator nod. “Okay, Agate. Cut the bolts and break the hinge locks. Altos, overwatch. Sopranos, let’s take that door.”

The hinges are massive and well armoured, the gates solid metal. Our borrowed guns wouldn’t do more than char the paint. No kind of riot could possibly make those doors do anything they don’t want to. They’re probably perfectly good for their job. But that job just isn’t to keep us out. Hayla draws her sarissa, puts it just so against the crack of the door, low down as possible, and locks a hand out flat over the pommel as an anvil: Tandra steps up, takes careful aim, apologises to her sister (even armoured, this hurts) and kicks Hayla in the back of the hand with full suited strength. It goes in up to the hilt.

This is exactly like a classroom exercise. The mind’s eye would imagine you’d cut downwards, right, but that’s hard. You’re trusting to magboots to hold you to the floor, or all you’re doing is a one-handed pullup, and that’s not where the strong muscles are in your body. So what they’re doing is cutting upwards – Hayla’s hand on the hilt, Tandra’s hand over that, each sister bracing her forearm with the other hand, letting the power servos take the strain – and the blade simply slices the metal like it’s cutting hard cheese. The blade goes up along the seam for the full seven feet of the gate, pulls free, back in its sharp-sheath: and this next bit is one I am familiar with.

I’ve never played the Sister-Superior’s part – but just as clear, nobody else is going to. The words are right there in the sleep-learned Lex, I just need to think of the ritual and they almost say themselves. “Emperor of Mankind, in whose name we serve, by whose decree we exist.” Stand facing the door, shoulder to shoulder. Closed fist against the hard metal, and feel the slight shift in balance and posture as the armour recognises the rite and makes us one.  “Grant us this day and always that strength that is not ours to expect but rather Yours to bestow.” Draw back one careful step, six of us in mechanical unison: careful, because it’s like our feet are all tied together. I’ve seen a dozen novices try this and fall like dominoes. “Purify for us our actions and lend us in this moment the strength of angels.” Pull back, twist the torso, envisage the blow going into and through the solid object.

Deep breath, and six voices cry out, a single wordless shout as one. One single perfect thunderous step and strike, our armour keeping our movements in perfect unison. Resist the urge to close my eyes and grit my teeth at the crashing shock of the blow, as it travels up my arm in a fashion that I’m pretty sure that I ought to care about – these pain-balms, they’re really something. I feel something break and hope it was the door.

And praise Him, it was. The thing’s suddenly loose on its hinges: in the next moment we’re unslinging those stupid toy rifles again. “Second sop, speartip. Arbiters, with me. Firsts, you got our back. Stack up.” I hand-sign: three. Two. One.

The door slams open and we’re the only light. The Lex and our training are crying out in the back of my head to kill the lights and get down – we’re perfect targets – but how exactly can I do that when I can’t see in the dark? Rakil and I are the point of the spear, through together into an open, functional entrance bay. Move up by section and overwatch. Our luminators wash the whole place in yellow: one wide-angle, one following where the suit thinks we’re looking. It has to guess because we’re not wearing helmets (shut up) –

“Not even emergency lights,” says Barte softly. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

(Oh, really, constable? When did that start? I button my lip.) “Which way?”

She plays the beam of her luminator over a door on our left. “The vehicle bay doesn’t open from this side. Left here, then right: stores are at the back. Be aware, though, without power all the doors are -”

Rakil takes it off its hinges with an unscientific boot.

“Right.”

And in we go. Large flat luminator panels on the wall in place of windows – with the power on, this place would be brightly lit in antiseptic white, the Scales clearly blazoned on every wall. But it’s dark, and our lights fill the place with long, fingered shadows and paranoia. Everything’s deserted. We keep to hushed, clipped battle language, sharp gestures, quiet careful movements, watching each other’s back. Again – an hour ago, maybe two by now, this place would’ve been a bustling workplace. Where in the void’s name are all the people?

The door behind the sergeant’s desk is open. An office, behind it, open-plan: still dark. Again, signs that something happened here. The odd overturned chair. Spilled cup of recaff staining the short-haired synthpile of the floor black in the gloom. No bodies. These people are trained like soldiers, rotate regularly through midhive postings where they’ll at least see some kind of action, or that’s what I think I recall from lessons. Surely if there was violence, we’d be seeing some damage. This looks more like they all realised they’d forgotten something, got up and left in a hurry.

A sudden noise, earsplitting in the silence. “Contact!” I hear Barte yell. Training takes over – lights out, grab cover. The noise was a gunshot – she is carrying a riot-gun – I peer out, weapon levelled.

Yeah, genius, a helmet didn’t suddenly appear. Pitch black here. Of the nine of us in the building, only Manda and the arbitrators kept their damn lights on. “Lights!” I snarl, as if I hadn’t made just the same mistake, and sheepishly they come back up and I even succeed at not putting a burst of lasfire into any suspicious-looking shadows.

“Rat.” The other arbitrator, Vinsen, his voice shaking. “Throne’s sake, Barte, it was just a damn rat.”

“Like hell,” she hisses. “Like hell. I tell you.” She’s staring unblinking at the place’s central, spiral stairwell, weapon levelled. “Five feet tall at least. This is not downhive. That was not a rat.”

“Keyt.” I hand-sign to my limping sister: overwatch, those stairs. “Barte, which way?”

She doesn’t move. “I tell you. Something down there.”

“And won’t it get a damn surprise,” I say softly. “Which door?”

“Vinsen. Show ’em.”

Still shaking, he indicates with a nervous twitch of his hand: I kick down another door, and when a tide of heretics doesn’t come immediately boiling out, we follow through and do another.

“S-supplies, that one.” He gestures to an unremarkable bulkhead door. “Place has a loading dock, but if we’re locked down it’ll be shut.”

“Noted.” I give a hand-sign: Rakil tears off the maint hatch beside the door, grabs the manual handle and applies a bit of strength. The door rasps like a rusty hatchet. I suppose since we knocked down the front door there’s no actual point to being quiet.

Inside, the place is untouched. Abandoned. Nobody’s been in here. Little wire enclosure up here at the front, little quartermaster’s desk, abandoned. Big heavy cargo gate halfway down the right-hand wall. And then the stores themselves, racks and racks of boxes and barrels, drums and crates, untouched, lined up for us, all nice and clearly labelled in binaric and in Gothic letters.

I squint, subvocalise on the vox rather than let the arbitrators see me uncertain. “Uh. Porsia?”

“Here.”

“You read Munitorum code, right? I think these boxes are mislabelled.” I frown at the nearest crate. “Victor three six point echo four four one charlie?”

“Alternatively, Sister Ellayn’s just insufficiently ready to believe in miracles, and that crate truly does contain an armoured vehicle,” mutters Manda drily.

“One sec.” Porsia shoots Manda a firm glare as she trades up to the front of our formation – be much more effective if her suit hadn’t decided that meant Manda needed a spotlight full in her face. “Ah: I see the problem. Civilian codes, not military.” She raises her voice. “Vinsen. D’you know Administratum storage codes?”

The arbitrator nods slowly. “I… yes?”

“Excellent. You’re with me: we’ll work out what we’ve got here.” She cues the vox. “First soprano – can you work on getting the loading dock open?”

“Meanwhile, I’m on the armoury.” I back out of the storehouse, let them work. “Barte, seeing as we’re here. Feel like picking up some riot gear?”

“Yeah.” Audibly she takes a deep breath. “Yeah, all right.” She gives the suspicious staircase a jaundiced look. Rakil’s still there, she’s got overwatch, it’s fine. “Follow me, Sisters.”

We keep up a quiet chatter over vox. Not just because it’s so vastly hollowly quiet – if I were the first altos, still on guard at the entrance, I’d be getting skittish as hell if I didn’t hear anything from us inside. This place is like a sawtooth on the nerves.

Breaking doors is getting to be a habit. Room clearance is one of the standard drills, but it’s another thing entirely to be kicking down doors with the aquila and the Scales of Law on, to be checking corners in a building laid out for the comfort of uphivers rather than some abandoned downhive warehouse. The armoury itself is built more to look secure than to actually be secure: I guess a building’s worth of the hive’s security forces is supposed to balance that out. The door’s not locked, just unpowered, and I grab the manual handle and start doing what Manda did downstairs –

Okay, that’s the lock on the loading door now. Hope you’re nearly done up – Oh.” Ice down my spine. “Sssssshit. Holy shit.

I give her a suitably long pause to explain herself – you know, two or three madly pounding heartbeats – as I drop the handle, turn and sprint for that storehouse without explanation to the arbitrators. Battle-language. “Status. Porsia, status.”

Protegat Imperator.” That’s her voice, but nearly all I can hear of it is the synth – she’s not subvocalising, she’s whispering. And that’s not battle-language. “Imperator hanc in hora audi famula sua Porsia, Solium Terrarum me in extremis protege.” That’s High Gothic, a prayer from the Lex.

Three more rooms. I hear no gunfire. “Hayla? Tandra?” All I get over vox is a strangled squeak. A seasoned Sister, a Sister with a damn helmet on, would be confident enough in her armour to go straight through these fibreboard admin-cubes, not around like I’m doing. “Agate, cover and hold, status in one.” Vox-clicks.

The first thing is the smell. Salty, coppery, thick, intrusive – it reminds me of the cathedral. The only time in my life I smelled anything like this before was in the cathedral. It’s almost a physical force, almost a fluid to wade through. One corner left. The lasgun’s pistol-grip is slightly the wrong shape and the lack of a trigger guard is disconcerting. I can taste bile.

Last corner. Grit my teeth. Stay low.

There’s Hayla, down behind hard cover, looking forward. Tandra, there, just a little forward of her, and she’s covering the room. They’ve had the loading gate open, looks like they plugged in a portable powercell and opened it – can’t see through it from here, but that’s where the smell is coming from, thick and pungent as downhive smog. Porsia’s ducked behind a crate toward the middle of the room, but she’s been stationary there for far too long even if she was being fired on. And the arbitrator constable, the man, he’s standing there in the middle of the room with his jaw dropped open, his riot-gun half raised like he’s only just been introduced to the concept that it’s a weapon –

Okay. I move in, quick, drop down next to Porsia. Cover first, because if your sisters think there’s something wrong, they’re probably right. She meets my gaze as I go to one knee behind the solid plastek crate, and her eyes are as big and as scared as they were when she refused to take command up in the cathedral. Deep breath. No incoming fire. I take a –

look –

Slam back down again. Vox. Stick to battle-language, it doesn’t have swearwords. “Contact. M-moral threat in vehicle bay.” Other words it doesn’t have: charnel house. “First sop: withdraw one room.” Blasphemous altar. “Second sop: join on first, overwatch. Second alto, ‘ware vehicle bay door: overwatch. Ellayn out.”

Hellscape. Carpet of corpses, insane scrawlings, bodies – parts of bodies – nailed to the fucking wall

Act now. React later. Save it for confession. Breathe, damn you. I look my sister in the eye and she’s just shaking her head – “Porsia. Look at me, all right? Listen to the training. Regroup, secure, contain.” I can see her making herself take slow steady breaths. “I’d like you to fall back to the next room, okay, to Hayla. Hold that door, can you do that?”

She nods, three times, like she forgot how to stop.

“All right. I’ll cover you. Three, two, one – Move.” And she goes, head down. I swing my weapon out to cover –

surely there’s nothing alive in –

Okay, Vinsen. The arbitrator constable, he’s just standing staring frozen. Won’t have even our own level of training. Regroup, secure, contain. I make myself stand up, take steps towards that gate. Don’t want to turn my back on it. Tear my eyes away. The man is hardly even breathing.

I take hold of his shoulder. Gently: he’s breakable. “Vinsen.”

“N-nn.” He shakes his head.

I shove him, just with a flick of the wrist, not heavily, just enough to make him stumble. To break his line of sight. I get up in his face and he steps back further by instinct as he regains his balance. Ask the synth to put harmonics into my voice, bit of volume, bit of subsonic, enough to rattle his teeth. “Arbitrator-constable Vinsen, eyes on the floor and that is a Throne-damned order.” The snap in my voice produces the obedience I’m looking for. “About face. Get your butt behind my sisters where it belongs.” He’s trembling, walking like a man underwater, not going as fast as I’d like. “Move!”

… Okay, Ellayn. Now you’re alone

with –

there was a door control, they’d plugged one of the storehouse’s own portable power cells into it, that’s how they got it open –

It’s not real, it’s not real, not if I can’t touch it, I don’t have to go and poke it, it’s not my duty, I’m a novice. Lex says, upon potential compromise by moral threat: disengage, regroup, secure, contain, call it in and await backup (what backup?) –

this rune means ‘open’, so logically this rune is –

there are vehicles in there, cargo-conveyors –

I close my eyes for a long hard moment. “Agate. When the loading bay door is closed, it will be safe to re-enter the storehouse and the armory. Porsia and Vinsen, prioritise things to take. Post a watch, and bring the stores we require to the front entrance.”

Vox-clicks.

It’s Rakil who speaks up as I stand, slowly, eyes down, nerving myself to do this. “Ellayn? Where are you?”

“We can’t lump several tons of supplies from here to the turbolift,” I say, my voice tightly level. “Have those stores ready. Outside, in the street, not somewhere you could see into the vehicle bay from if the door was open.”

“You’re not doing this on your own,” she says. I can hear her, she’s on her way.

“No, you’re right.” I press the rune. I step over the gate as it rises like a fanged mouth. “The Emperor is with me.”

The door to the storage opens. She can’t see into the vehicle bay from there. I can hear her without the vox. “Dammit, sister-”

“As you were.”

I hear her come to a halt. I don’t look around. I don’t need to see her face.

The gate closes.

++++

It’s –

I can’t. Simply I can’t. Leave it, I mean. Them. Like this. It would be unconscionable. I am a Daughter of the Emperor, a servant of the Golden Throne (I am, right?) I, I should have a – if we’d been outfitted properly one of us, probably Hayla, would have had a flamer and we’d cleanse this whole damn –

“Don’t tell me she’s gone in there on her own.”

“You telling me I should open th-that thing up again?”

I have no choice but to step on this corpse and it crunches as I trust my weight to the cold dead surface and I bite my lip, firmly remind my stomach that it’s been empty for more than a week, there’s literally nothing to throw up besides a swallow of brackish water from the suit’s catchpocket –

“Can it, sisters. We’ve got our orders. First alto, overwatch – I do not want a surprise. Second alto, help us in the storehouse – don’t touch that! Second sop, armoury. Move.”

I can’t exactly leave them pinned to the wall. It’s but the work of a few minutes to –

this corpse has been literally bisected down the middle and either painted with blood or it was done when they were still –

“Leave that one. It’s not on the list.”

these bodies, I think they were supposed to be laid out in the shape of writing, the words continuing in splashes of reddish-brown where they ran out of pitons to secure the flesh to the wall –

I can’t avoid reading it, it would be nice to say I didn’t understand it, it would be nice to say I didn’t know –

 I –

every word of this –

God-Emperor, Holy Throne forgive me, I don’t even have a hose to deface these foul symbols daubed on the wall with the blood of innocents –

foul symbols? This is what I was literally singing – these are my own damn words, the ones that none of us can remember –

“Yeah, just load all of the powerpacks. Reckon Aqua’s quartermaster can be the one to work out if they fit.”

it sounds like bitter laughter, it’s another moment before I realise it’s mine. I’m not likely to forget those words now, am I –

that head, that severed head, it was looking at me staring eyes focusing on me-

Throne forgive me I can’t unsay words but I can erase this I can deface it I can fucking destroy it –

“All right, that’s enough.” 

she can’t be talking to me

“Start a second row, here.”

I’m shaking, I’m covered in blood (no, I’m not, it beads and runs from the suit like water on oilcloth), I’m exhausted, I feel sick, but damn it all (literally) I am not leaving this – fucking –

Right. Okay. And their blasphemous, makeshift altar breaks easy –

“She is on her way, right?”

 “What exactly would you do if I said no?”

this response truck wasn’t part of their little display, it lights up when I sit in the seat, guess I’m not too much bigger and heavier than a big heavy man in Arbiter riot gear, guess the pedals were already built for someone in heavy boots, guess that’s the power cell gauge, thirty per cent should be plenty –

“Emperor protects, sister, she’s on her way right now.”

clutch, clutch, where –

button, side of gear lever –

It’s surprisingly like driving a Rhino, actually, except the thing doesn’t try and pin me to the seat and embed its nose in the far wall when I give it a tiny bit of throttle –

the gate at the far end, it’s not powered, but I tell you, what sort of thing is a great deal like a battering ram if you grit your teeth?

At least the vehicle bay doors weren’t heavy. I round the corner. I help them load. Nobody meets my eyes or notes the brownish red of my footprints or the stains on the truck’s tyres, nobody says a –

Mental note to try and refill my suit fluid levels if there’s any going. I’m down a swallow or two of brackish water and half a stomach’s load of desperately bitter yellow bile.

It doesn’t take the little black truck long to get us back to the turbo.

++++

Seven