In Light, Chapter Seven

by artrald

Up

Six

++++

The tiredness, the exhaustion, it’s starting to bite. (Starting to? Exactly how many times during the Vigil did I fall asleep again?) 

Anyway. We’re all of us making mistakes. I don’t know if the layfolk can notice, but it’s obvious even to me that our armour handling is starting to suffer. And I’m filthy and I can’t wipe my damn face without taking a glove off and somehow somehow finding something clean.

They weren’t able to get the turbo to drop those last six measly feet. We can’t get the wide, low, long emergency conveyor up a six-foot step – the Lex says a sister shall lift a quarter of a ton to her waist and a fifth of a ton over her head, and if that thing weighs less than ten tons I’ll be surprised. Everything we – everything I went through to get hold of a single measly dented truck and the civvies can’t get a lift to drop far enough to take it with us. Aware I’m being watched, I don’t give vent to it. Not without a helmet to hide my face and my voice.

Two of us to lift one of those crates up into the lift – in theory, one of us – thank the Emperor, our magboots are working properly. Rakil stumbles and nearly falls off: her boots save her at the last instant with a heavy jarring clash of metal on ferrocrete. She says she’s all right. It’s a lie.

(And here I am just trying to keep my eyes open because of what I see when they are closed. Throne lighten my load. Throne take from me what I saw. What I said. Throne give me the strength to take each further step. I knew those words. Knew them like my own name, the one they gave me when I joined. It’s already hard to remember a time when I didn’t know them. Still know them, lurking there in the corners of my memory like the socket of a lost tooth.)

Save it for confession. Boxes to lift. Lift the damn boxes.

Rations. Fuel-cells, med supplies. Arbiter riot gear, all in extruded plastek crates. Not heavy, two hundredweight maximum, but they need two of us to balance because the maglocks in our gloves don’t see why they should have to lift plastek. The drums are metal at least: counterseptic concentrate, food-grade oil, promethium. A sister shall lift a quarter of a ton to her waist, it is written, and a fifth of a ton above her head. My armour objects to this menial duty, just another thing that I didn’t need, having to continually hold it back and restrain the little twitches and intention-movements that will turn into throwing or breaking or dropping. If it senses my own frustration –

Huh. Noise on a vox-channel, a priority one. Static. The vox can’t tell if it’s a voice or not, so it’s asking me for a second opinion – it – has the rhythm of speech…

There it is again. I am not hallucinating and until I receive proof that I am, I shall behave as if I’m not. Broadcast, same channel, all the volume my suit can give me. “Say again, over?”

“Was hoping I imagined that,” grates Judge Magnus’ voice. I see him turn his vox’s amplifier up all the way. “Imperial contact, this is Scale. Vox-signal unclear, say again, over.”

The far end has clearly done its best. My vox’s little spirit thinks it’s found the odd word under the hiss and crackle and amplifies it for me. “Scale, this is… name of the holy ordos of the Emperor’s Inquisition… and require your… one point one… say again… hive coordinates one point one by three hundred forty two by eight.”

A pause that’s a little longer and more reflective than is strictly comfortable.

“Carnelian,” the Judge says, and I can hear the growl in his voice even through the vox connection. “Aqua. Agate. Pink. Meet me on band gamma.”

I swap the vox over. “So,” I hear Magnus saying. “What do we reckon?”

“The location,” sends Pink. Her voice sounds exactly the same over the vox as it does face to face. “It is believable. A hive-bulwark one and a half thousand yards down the main boulevard. A likely place to become trapped if one does not have applicable caste-credentials, or if power is lacking to the gates. As to what the message said, such is not for the likes of me to understand.

“What I understand,” says Carnelian slowly, “was that we just heard a very big claim over a very poor connection.”

“What I just heard was nothing.” I can see General Rorkel glaring pointedly at the lower-ranking outhiver. “No sideband, no authent on that. The Imperium uses authentication codes for a reason.”

“Could be a handset. Could be a vox-bead without its base. Could just be being jinxed.” Carnelian shakes his head. “Thousand reasons a poor connection doesn’t have authent, milord general.”

“Sister,” drawls Magnus. “Your Order’s the closest thing to experts on the big I. Can you remind for us who’s on the hook if the holy ordos of the Inquisition call and we fail to listen? Legally speaking?”

“Well, you are.” The response is automatic – this tired, I could hardly stop the answer even if I wanted to. Sleep-taught words bubble up from my subconscious unbidden. “The voice of the Inquisition shall be as that of the Emperor, and blessed are they that hear it, for it is ordained that they shall see salvation: thus it is written.”

“But we didn’t bloody hear the Inquisition,” says Rorkel. “What I heard was some oik who stole a hand-vox. They know we’re loyal servants of the Throne so they conjure with the Emperor’s name.”

“General,” I find myself saying calmly. “Do you consider that your theory should make us less likely to respond?”

“I’m telling you that you are listening to the bait in a damned trap.” He strides to the edge of the turbo so he can look down at me, look me in the eye to talk to me. “Sister, we have very nearly got away with taking what was a pretty major tactical risk. You want to throw that away on the strength of an obvious fabrication?”

No. No I don’t. The Inquisition – they were there when all this started. They’ll turn around and name me heretic. At the very least they will call out the blasphemy I committed with the holy weapon I’ve got strapped to my power-backpack. They will judge me and I know that I will be found wanting – but – but are we in holy orders or are we not? I literally just quoted the Lex Sororitas on the subject. (And now I look like I’m giving a cold silent unimpressed stare to a lord general.)

Magnus gave me space to say something and now I haven’t taken it. “Carnelian, detach a section, go with ’em.” Okay. Yes. What I just did was a great deal like volunteering. “Advance to vox contact and assess. Try and pin some sanity on it, will you?”

“Good luck with that.” Rorkel shoots a final glare down at me like I’m doing this on purpose to spite him. “Pink, you’ll enquire of Esquire Fayett about dropping this lift a few feet while they’re away. My life company can’t be expected to play stevedore.”

“No task is onerous in the service of the Throne, no burden is great.” I can pretend I’m talking to my sisters as I make the aquila, just happen to point it at the general. “Should my master require that I sing sweetly in His adoration, that I bear the flame against His foe, or that I should pick up the smallest stone from the road before Him lest His path not be sure, this I shall do, for my vow is obedience.” Reciting from sleep-learning is more like saying learned lines than reading from a book. “Thus it is written. So say we all.”

The general has the sense not to say anything uncomplimentary till we’re out of earshot.

++++

Baelis Tertius hive is shaped somewhere between a cylinder and a cone and a heap of scrap, two point one billion humans cradled in a single structure that stretches all the way from the stratosphere to the measureless automated depths of the mines below. It is divided legally by levels and sectors, divided physically by the great hive-floors and bulwarks, united by the turbolifts, the airlanes and the roadway helices, and the great and baroque bulwark gates.

If the airlanes and helices did not stand forever open, downhive would suffocate on the byproducts of its own industry: if the bulwarks did not stand closed, uphive would be ravaged by an eternal tornado, and the voxnet and datasphere of the place would be mired by howling confusion. Such is the word of the tech-priests of the Guild of Transconductors and Toll-takers: and concerning the works of the Deus Mechanicus they name it blasphemy to lie.

The hive is another parent to all who live within, even to the Sisters who never knew the families of their birth: the hive provides warmth and air freely to its children, and the hive’s great conduit-veins are tapped for the water and power that sustain us. And taps may fail: but the Hive’s own infrastructure does not, will not, cannot. The air will never run out. The hive-levels would be cold without their people, but they would never have the chill of Outside, where acid-of-chalk condenses and falls as dirty snow. A tap may fuse or fail, plunging a sector into grim sodium-lit gloom (vide: gloom, grim, sodium-lit, for exhausted Sisters to pick their way through) but the infrastructure of the Hive itself never shall fail. Such is the word of the tech-priests of the Guild of Appropriators and Lamplighters: and-

“Agate, Carnelian.”

The vox is part of my suit, an extra sense, an appendage I didn’t know I had until I put it on. Just lucky it’s part of the back-unit, not the helmet: the wires that let me commune with it are plugged into a pair of nerve-taps either side of the top of my spine, and I can feel their quiet cold presence with every motion of my trapezius muscles. Its use is learned, for you can’t sleep-teach reflexes. I receive the sense of a whole lot of information together with what’s being said, on what channel (alpha, usually used for short-range inter-squad comms) and what it sounds like, but I have no idea what half of the information actually is. All that’s in the Lex is that The sister-novitiate shall receive diligent instruction upon all aspects of the equipment and arms of a sister-ordinary until these are mastered, which competence to include (skip a bit) vox-operation to the standard of a deacon-minor of Mars or equivalent – Wait, Carnelian was talking – “Say again, Carnelian.”

He doesn’t have a synth. The vox transmits his frustration just fine. “The gate, Sister, closed. Even the little ped-gate. Sure hope you don’t think I have a relevant caste-code. I’m an outhab, recall?”

“Opening the gate at least shouldn’t be a problem.” Assuming it bucks the trend of all the other tech around here and isn’t jinxed. “How’s your vox contact? I have nothing.”

“Same, Sister.” you don’t need to correct him Sister is valid for a novice from a layperson it’s a term of respect “My guess is the bulwark’s killing the signal entirely.”

“Well,” I say, and the synth takes the exhaustion straight back out of my voice, “I guess we’ll find out if this is a trap, then. If it is, we’ll be dependent on your covering fire.”

“And we on your strength, mamzel. Emperor protects.”

I’m nobody’s mamzel – “In whose name we serve.”

The gate’s properly powered, of course: unlike most of the rest of the architecture around here, it’s part of the hive itself. Soprano and second alto have the door, the little ped-gate on the left hand side. First alto have the controls. The unarmoured Carnelian and his troops are a hundred yards back in the cover of a shopfront. The pad asks Sister Gyllen for an authent – she puts her right hand on it, and the override works perfectly as the quill and scroll appear on all the monitors. (The quill and scroll, the symbol of the Saint that I’m not thinking of. The one to whose name we gave our oath of loyalty. The one in whose name our popular young teacher sang contagious beautiful blasphemy and then that Inquisitor literally crushed her in the name of the Emperor. That Saint?) Stop it, Ellayn, whose side are you on? (That’s rather the question?)

I squeeze my eyes shut tight, open them again. Vox. Try and sound professional. “Be ready for anything. Gyllen, give us the count.”

Fingercode. Three. Two. One. The ped-gate snicks open like a knife. Light the far side, far too bright after the gloom of the last mile. Noise, physical and vox both. Gunfire. Shouting. Not isolated voices: the overlap of thousands into a snarl of homogeneous fury, the mob as insensate beast. Riot. I open my mouth to warn Carnelian. Twenty people don’t stop a riot like that: they run from it…

 “…I say again, Scale, pinned down in toll-post by hive-bulwark north-northwest eight, require immediate repeat immediate reinforce and exfil.” The voice on the vox is distorted, a man yelling at a hand-vox. Abruptly he swaps language into Low Gothic, with a heavy foreign accent.“Damn your eyes, Judge, this is Interrogator Gennid, and by the rosette I hold and the authority of the holy ordos whence it came I am giving you a direct-” Glass breaking the far side, the whoosh of flames and he cuts off with an incoherent yell.

It’s bright in there, and there’s the hot oily stink of promethium flames. I meet Porsia’s eyes across the open door and there’s nothing for it: we move.

It’s so bright. Dazzled. Keep moving. Few moments to make sense of the scene – few moments while the mob work out who the hell we are. Probable that their confusion saves us: don’t ask Providence why, just accept it. So much fire. To our left a building, the toll-post, and it’s got burning promethium all over it. Straight ahead, more fire. Just like one of our training exercises, a proper wall of fire and smoke like a flamer sets up. To the right, and beyond the flames, the riot. A proper hive-mob this is, a terrifying thing, but a mob fears fire. I can see them with insulation chunks and broken bits of furniture to throw and the odd gun half-levelled. What provoked all this? The interrogator? I see a man raising a bottle, a flame dancing on its lip –

The snap-crack of a lasgun: Porsia’s taken a decision. She fires from the hip, and the bottle falls and there’s that same sound of broken glass and fire blooms. The baying of the mob takes on a more urgent tone – suddenly people coming at us – it’s memory that takes over more than anything else, it’s the barricade again. Five of us are through this door now, and at this range it’s impossible to miss. There’s no trigger, just a touch-plate, and no recoil, and the sound of the gun at full-automatic is a high flat echoing stammer –

there weren’t that many of them, not this side of that sudden billow of impassable flame, but they’re throwing things at us now. . Our guns fall silent. A heavy chunk of insulation bounces off my pauldron. I reach for the vox-channel that spoke to me, make myself as clear as I can. “Interrogator Gennid, this is Agate speaking for Scale. We’re holding the ped-gate for you. Exfil at your convenience, over.”

The response isn’t coherent. He’s yelling at the vox and it can’t compensate, can’t hear him properly. At least he can’t be dead if he’s yelling and coughing like that. There’s smoke coming out of the toll-post windows now. Damn it all. “Rakil, with me!” And I go for the toll-post door. If we had helmets this wouldn’t have bothered us in the slightest – fire is our ally, sanctitas in ignis – but I don’t think the people who wrote the prayers had imagined we’d be trying to go into a solid wall of smoke and flame without our damned helmets on. Deep hyperventilating breaths, in, out, in, out, in, hold – and go. Trust my suit systems to get the hint, to give me a few extra moments. Instantly my eyes are burning.

Door’s only thin – I punch through it and tear it skittering away with what feels like a flick of the wrist. Thick black smoke boiling out. Hot, unbelievably burning hot on my face. There are flames inside, but not everywhere: the firebomb must have burst as it broke the window. A shape in the smoke that’s about the right size for a man, more humanoid shapes huddled on the floor not moving, some of them on fire. The suit is dumping oxygen into my blood to keep me functional, it feels like an immense rush of power but if I don’t start breathing again pretty damned soon then I’ll collapse. No time for subtlety – he struggles weakly as we grab him but I don’t feel anything break. Drag him bodily out the door and sling him into my sisters’ waiting arms through the flames, mostly blind here, eyes streaming. I can hear the people yelling but the fire’s keeping them back.

Roaring in my ears. We only ever did this the once in training – emergency drill for helmet failure, yeah, my helmet’s principal failure is being a mile away – breathe out as hard as I can, everything goes grey and it feels like all the blood has rushed out of my head and I gasp for air like I was drowning and it tastes of foul oily smoke. My actual hair is smouldering.

Can’t breathe. Can’t see. Can hardly walk. My sisters are passing Rakil and me and our prize – Throne, let this actually be the interrogator, not his bodyguard or something stupid – almost from hand to hand back through the door. The flame won’t last much longer without a flamer to lay more down. A chunk of something hard bounces off my armour – they never stopped throwing things, and I realise my sisters are firing back. Come on, girl – I have to lock my armour to stop a coughing fit throwing me to my knees – focus, damn you. These people are relying on you.

It’s dark where I am now. The probably-interrogator is on his knees coughing his guts out but he’s alive. He’s smaller than he looked in the smoke. Two of us are still holding the gate: I cue the vox. “Agate, all through?” Acknowledgements. “Okay, Gyllen, close it up.”

Pause.

“Don’t tell me.”

“Uh-huh.” I guess that what I can hear is the sound of my sister very carefully restraining herself from committing any kind of percussive blasphemy against the Deus Mechanicus. “Ellayn, I can’t read this display. Either it’s jinxed, or I didn’t tell it to do what I thought I did, or-“

“Can you get it closed?”

“Nnnn-not soon.”

Time to curse and swear later. I set my vox so that Carnelian can hear me, and maybe Judge Magnus too. “Okay, people, that ped-gate’s not closing.” I cough. It hurts. The vox doesn’t betray my weakness. “First sop, you have the interrogator, get him into the lift, carry him if you must: go. Rest of us-” cough- “Fall back by sections. Second sop, we’re last out. Move.”

There I go volunteering my people again. What about Rakil? She’s coughing too, and I just volunteered her for last out. Niwall’s missing a glove. Keyt can’t run properly with her knee. We take over at the door anyway. The flames aren’t so high any more. Someone rakes us with a stuttering autogun, hard rounds pinging harmlessly off our armour, and I put a shot just below the muzzle flash and it stops.

“Carnelian, overwatch. Agate, clear to pull back.” The man’s battle-language is as clear and precise as an instructor’s. You never know, maybe he is one.

“That fire’s dying, people.” We move, together, going at Keyt’s speed. That used to be a food vendor; it’ll do as cover. “Rioters the far side, guessing they’re going to come for us like in the turbo.”

“Clarification, milady.” Perhaps it’s because he’s a foreigner. Perhaps it’s his way of staying sane. Perhaps it’s because of what he thinks we are. Whatever. “Please confirm.” Carnelian’s doing it all by the book as if everything hadn’t gone to hell, as if those people could have been citizens we’d sworn to protect. “The rioters. Are they condemned?”

Yeah. I was trying to avoid the thought, but here it is: That’s not a normal riot. Just look at them. Dressed up for the festival, all different walks of life – and their instant, concerted, directed fury, when yesterday the very sight of us would have had them bowing and scraping – and the way they were looking at the fire. Literally standing before a wall of fire with certain death the other side, and only not coming for us because they can’t quite physically make it through the flames. They are not behaving like real people any more and that makes it okay when I say “Confirm, Carnelian, weapons free.” I swallow hard and don’t stop moving. The words I need are right there in the Lex. “Servants of the Throne, attend: I do hold these people condemned for heresy in the sight of the Throne, not least among their crimes assault upon the person of-”

The las-shots are so close to simultaneous that the weapons speak with one voice. “Witnessed. Incoming heretics.”

It’s like a shooting range. Perfect marksmanship conditions, targets silhouetted, and I bet Carnelian’s people have their las-sights on straight. That first heretic was testing just how hard the flames were: they try to come through as a group, a tide, a flood – into Carnelian’s disciplined fire. We’re thinking the same thing. If we let them mass we’ll be swarmed. In my armour I can outrun a mob. Can Keyt, with her injury? Can Carnelian, seemingly fit, but that’s a mile for him to sprint?

The first press of them goes down like they’d just decided that the door was a decent enough place to lie down. We get ourselves into cover, line up our sights. Luminators off, they’ll just point us out for no reason. Just pray that nine slightly inexpert guns can take over for twelve troopers who know what they’re doing. There’s a lull. “Agate, overwatch. Carnelian, when ready.”

And the troopers move. One half, peeling off and staying low, back fifty yards, down, re-address and the other half go. It’s going to be a bloody long mile, is all I can say.

They try their luck again. The lasrifle is almost too easy to control in autofire, stitching little white circles of plasma flash up and over the luckless enemy – how did we decide these ones were bad guys, again? They were trying to kill a servant of the Inquisition? –

“Carnelian, overwatch.” I spent sixty or so rounds there. The altos fall back. Say we’re bounding a hundred yards each time. Say every bound is like this one. We move, again visibly slower than the others because of Keyt’s limp. What’s fifteen times sixty, relative to my ammunition counter, currently reading 837?

There, behind those buttresses. Less of a stable surface for aiming, and nearly double the range, but it’ll do. “Agate, overwatch.”

Human-size target, silhouetted, hundred and fifty yards – not a problem. It’ll be more of a problem at five hundred, if the enemy are still coming. It would be completely irrational to still be coming. Heretics: not known for reason. Doctrine recommends heavy weapons, here – fill the door with flame, or have the heavy gunner fall back a thousand yards and cover us. Doctrine tells us our fire is accurate at a thousand yards with targeters, auto-senses, bolt rounds we don’t have. A bolter hits harder, actually at a thousand yards than point-blank. Doctrine has a number of things to say about this bloody situation. Doctrine can shut the fuck up. I’m drifting again. Focus, dammit.

That noise we hear as we take the next bound, high and abrasive. I’ve heard it before, can’t place it. Can’t place it as we get into cover, as we get set up to take over –

It screams through the gate like a fireball, trailing flame and smoke, luminators blazing like a pair of burning white eyes. Eight feet long, no higher than a person – wheels

It’s a wheelbike. Aristoi use them. Long low things, big engine for ostentation, flywheel gyro to keep it stable at walking pace or slower in a crowd. Tyres a foot and a half wide – never seen one with the front wheel lifting off the ground before.

It draws fire from twenty lasrifles. The things aren’t exactly armoured and it’s not trying to jink – it’s aiming for the winking red eye of Carnelian’s las-sights – no clue, no idea what broke as it skids, falls, tumbles. Adrenaline. By the Emperor’s grace we can kill even these.

People coming through in its wake, finding cover. I yell to Agate to readdress even as I’m bringing up my own weapon – full of afterimages, I can’t see muzzle-flashes in the dark, but it’s not like we’re any easier to see. The heretics will be blinded in the gloom.

Didn’t think there was just one bike, did I? “Agate, overwatch!” I call into the vox, making myself shoot for the gate and not for the bike screaming through or the one after it, trusting in my older sisters to hit the faster-moving targets. Their aim is so much better than mine. One of the riders suddenly slumps and the bike slews to one side and crashes hard. The other one, the fuel tank’s trailing fire, it’s just riding straight at the troopers full pelt – I look past and keep shooting – there are too many coming through now. “We’ve lost the gate.” The synth makes me sound calm.

The next thing I hear is a bone-chilling slam from somewhere behind me. Carnelian yelling at one of his troopers to get her ass up and move. The bike’s engine howling, the tyres screaming as the rider throws it into a turn. Fuck knows how they stayed on. More of them inbound. I swap my aim. The bikes are the threat now.

“Alto, overwatch!” That’s Gyllen on the vox. “Ellayn, we can’t just hold here!”

“Copy! Second sop, let’s go!” A final burst almost from the hip, and the newest bike flips backwards as the dying rider’s hand clutches convulsively on the throttle. “Keyt, can you pick up the pace?”

“Let’s see,” she growls. Turns and sets off at a proper run, quick as you like – nothing wrong with her armour at least, but that’s got to be hurting like hell. Rakil and I fall in beside her, the armour nudging our long strides into step with each other – running when the armour’s doing all the work is the strangest feeling –

“Sisters, you’ve got incoming!” Carnelian yells: I whirl, and it’s almost on top of us. Intellectually I know that bike’s only eight feet long and the rider’s head is actually lower than mine, but the sound and the burning eyes of its luminators tell me a different story, tell me it’s massive and terrifying and predatory and after me

I go for it. Don’t ask me why. The thing’s coming straight at me: fine, good for it. No time to point the gun. I only have a single instant – I punch forward, willing my mag-boots into solid immobility –

It hits me like a mountain falling. The Emperor granted me this armour and it does exactly what I wanted it to, but my mortal human flesh isn’t so strong – the air goes out of my lungs and a fresh new blaze of pain ignites in the base of my neck and I see stars – the world turns on its side – I’m vaguely aware that I’ve grabbed that rider by the neck and slammed him physically down onto the ground as the bike goes spinning away, and he’s no longer all in one piece any more and fresh blood is dripping off my nose and the point of my chin and none of it is mine. I look up at the enemy and there’s another one coming, I can hear the engines screaming, and between me and the armour’s own reflexes I’m standing up and facing them.

Can’t outrun them, that’s all that’s going through my head. Got to kill them. So I stand there in the light of their burning eyes. Not running. Not prey. Not cowering. Not even at bay. Come on, you bastards. I yell that, or something like. Perhaps I used words. Definitely I put full suit volume into it. Maybe they can hear it over their engines.

Made myself a target. Makes no sense. But when exactly did this all start making sense? They come for me for the same reason I come for them: because they must. There are two bikes, racing one another to get to me. They can see me just fine but all I can see is their blinding luminators. They have no idea what I can do. Feeling’s mutual. I spread my hands, I look them in their burning eyes. Come on, then. Why don’t we find out?

And the time is right. Abruptly I step towards the first one, straight into the light – and just as I’m gritting my teeth a hideous shattering impact catches us both off balance. The rider had had the gyro turned all the way up to let him lean right out of the saddle, swinging a bat at where I’m suddenly not: his head hits me in the chest at a good thirty miles an hour –

Falling! When the world assembles itself back together I’m falling backwards, far too late to stop. No time to think that the fall could smash me just as easily as the impact broke him. Reflex, reflex I’m supposed to be training myself out of, flings out my hand – too late –

The maglock on my hand activates very briefly as a terrifying shock runs up my arm and across my shoulders (my stance, my stance was poor, that’s why I fell). The world is upside down and I’m still moving, tumbling, rolling, I feel the armour flex my arm and just flick and suddenly my boots strike sparks from the floor, skid for an instant before my reeling mind can tell them I want to stand still, straightening from the crouch like I do one-handed cartwheels every day. I’m guessing that looked really damned impressive if you thought for one instant that I meant to do that. I’m still trying to work out which way is up.

And the other bike screams past. I failed to stop it, it’ll be after my sisters now – I turn, pulling the lasrifle, perhaps I can shoot it –

Remember that other bike? The one that hit Carnelian?

As I turn around there’s an instant of blinding light and the sound of a screaming engine, my joints lock as something hits me once again in the sternum with crushing force. And once again that thing shatters. I think this was a sledgehammer. I scream at them, wordless, pain and hate and shock, and my suit’s breach alarms are confidently silent. The flesh may be weak: the Emperor’s gift is not.

Don’t turn. Don’t turn around. Stay on target. This one’s turning, it’s not after my sisters, it’s after me. Somehow the lasrifle is not in my hands: I cue its maglock and it’s very like simply wishing it into place. (There’s a massive dent in the casing, the shape of my armoured hip.)

Emperor bless and guide this holy weapon in the hands of your servant, let it not fail or jam – I raise it to my shoulder as best I can, touch the trigger-plate and by His grace it works. I meant to put a stuttering five-shot burst just above those lights. The weapon wanted to hose the bike down with twenty, thirty shots – still firing for a good half a second after I take my finger off the trigger, watching the shot counter tick down. It’s still coming. At the last second I sidestep, involuntarily closing my eyes and gritting my teeth against another impact –

Nothing. I realise the bike has no rider, its gyro keeping it on course, but I’ve killed the heretic on top. One left. I can hear it coming. I can hear it making a target of my back. Learned my lesson: don’t turn to meet it. Duck down as it comes on, bow my head, pray the rider doesn’t have anything armour-defeating, tell my suit to stick me to the ferrocrete floor just as hard as it can.

This fourth impact hardly hurts at all, stars exploding behind my eyes, my neck screams, but the glacis of my back-unit does its job and the blow glances. Bring up the rifle, the back of the bike is a perfect target even as the rider throws it into a turn. Finger on the touchplate, follow the screaming bike around with the recoilless laser, just walking the bright white circles of plasma-flash up until the bike suddenly collapses and tumbles.

Stand up, panting. Look around. Hurts to move my head. More of them? No? Dimly I hear someone calling my name on the vox. I think they’re saying come on, pull back. Feels like someone has their hands round my neck and is squeezing firmly. I’m supposed to – I’m supposed to be in charge, I’m supposed to be telling my sisters what’s going on – I don’t know, I don’t fucking know myself. Roaring in my ears. Where are my sisters? Away from the mob, away from the light.

Channel alpha says that Carnelian’s breaking for the lift now. Good, that’s good. I can’t see my sisters in this gloom, the armour of a novice is nearly all black except the surplices we ditched, and our luminators are off. I keep up the pace of the run, let the suit guide me. First alto report they’re going for the station door and that’s good too. I see the door. Second alto move next. I think someone tells me I’m last out. Where are the other second sops? Keyt and Niwall? They’re my responsibility but the altos wouldn’t have left them behind. Right?

No, there they are. Holding the door for me. I hand-sign to Keyt to get moving and I take her place – she’s limping worse than she was, her armour has all but locked her knee again. The crowd, the heretics, the mob, they’re coming. I can’t have been more than a few hundred yards ahead of them.

Not much point shooting. We can’t stop them – I mean, my calm little red ammunition counter says I have 544 rounds remaining, Niwall’s likely got about the same, we’ve probably got as many shots as there are people in that mob, but they’re hardly just lining up all nicely well-lit to be shot. And we can’t scare them, not if they’ve got this far under heavier fire. I sign to Niwall to move and I think that what she just said was not without me.

Fuck it.

We go. It’s good that Niwall’s going in a straight line so my armour keeps me going the right way. There’s a six foot step to go up. She’s missing a glove (I did that, didn’t I?) so she goes up first, I boost her and Porsia grabs her hand. Then they reach down, mag-locks make our grip perfect, up I come. My neck is hurting so much that my head is spinning. The floor lurches – can’t process what is going on.

That ping is a vital-sign alarm. Blood pressure?

++++

eight