In Light, Chapter Eight

by artrald

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seven

++++

music.

Experience returns before identity, before memory, before time. For –
I have no idea how long for –
I exist without knowing where or what I am, it’s forever and it’s no time at all, and unknowing I grasp at these straws and they elude me.

Before I see anything, before I know anything, I can hear music, more familiar to me than my own name. The darkness is red and I feel viscerally horrifyingly awful, sick, disoriented. No idea which way is up.

It comes to me that that music could be the roaring of my heartbeat in my ears. That I can hear raised voices, people shouting. Sight claws its way back into my consciousness, confusing, jarring, jumbled. My sisters have me by the shoulders lowering me to the floor. Someone bending over me, a man with a beard. Light, bright light in my eyes, and I blink. A cool touch to the side of my neck surprises me: I flinch and my suit thinks I meant to backhand the medicae in the chest hard enough to knock him sprawling. The irresistible force of two of my sisters catches me by the arm and shoulder before I can do any more harm – without a hospitaller or ritemistress there is nobody to tell my suit that they are no threat to me –

and then it’s later. I… I am lying down, or as close as you can get in armour, propped up on the back-unit. My head is pillowed on something soft between my neck and the back of my collar. The strangling ache of my neck and a thudding new pain in my head are engaged in a battle to see which of them can kill me first. I cough weakly and a star ignites behind my eyes in a charming fashion. Voices, floating arguing voices as the world turns right-way-up. I can’t see the two of them, I was laid facing a wall.

“Did I somehow imply that my direct and lawful orders were in fact a polite suggestion, Arbitrator?” This penetrating and not particularly pleasant baritone is new. “What part of ‘now’ did your mind not apprehend? You-are-to-reverse-course.” A pugnacious silence. “And not when we have reached your alleged haven and offloaded your supposedly important charges. Now. Immediately. Forthwith. Go on.”

“I do hear you, Interrogator.” The note of careful politeness in Judge Magnus’ voice is the same one he was using to me earlier. “And as I’ve said, sir, I spoke to the one man we’ve got who can work this thing, and he says it’s not a question of won’t so much as can’t. We’re in transit between two shafts right now – we want the high-speed shaft if we want any journey to take less than a damn week, so we’re switching – and the machines won’t listen to a soul while they complete a transit.”

The strange man, the interrogator, growls in the back of his throat. “How long?”

“Barring any more hitches – with luck – forty minutes to an hour.”

“Too slow.” That clipped accent doesn’t come from any part of the hive I’ve heard of, more foreign than even Carnelian. “Stop the turbo. We’ll dismount, move around and find another.”

“With respect, Interrogator, we’re in a machine-level, not designed for unmodified humans. Even if we could get the door open, there’s no guarantee it’d be pressurised out there, doesn’t have to be a livable temperature-”

“More obstruction. The title I bear, the rosette I have shown you, they make me second only to my lord inquisitor and above him the Master of Humankind: surely you’re aware of the meaning of what I say?”

“Quite thoroughly, Interrogator – Ah, sister, you’re awake.” Suddenly it is that the judge is bending over me, his narthecium humming as it speaks to my suit systems. From the hot ice that runs in my veins in response, I’m pretty sure he just requested them to wake me – “How are you feeling?”

“Nnh. Do you want an honest word?” – uh. Shit. Not exactly the time for informality, this. The person I ought to be, she’d open her eyes and deal with the pain. Lose the pillow and any other sign of weakness. She’d say, “Tell me what you need.”

“Sister Ellayn, Adepta Sororitas: our guest is Gennid Morst, witch-hunter.” Magnus steps back with a slight bow. “Now, I’ve absolutely no inkling of which of us is in charge, except that as I’ve been repeatedly reminded, it ain’t some uppity policeman. So why don’t you and him have this argument now, let me know, h’m?”

“Sure.” I grit my teeth against a wave of nausea. “N…Need to come see you about medication in the near future. My sisters. Are they…?”

He adjusts something on his narthecium: there’s a corresponding visceral click from my suit’s homeostat and it’s like he threw a coarse blanket over the world, but my head stops thumping and things start swimming into focus. “Getting some shut-eye, I said I’d keep watch. I’ve filled your suit’s chem stores with my best analogues – pep is not as good as a night’s sleep, but it’ll have to do. Then this bugger woke up. And I really do need the two of you to sniff one another’s Inquisitorial butts, exchange secret handshakes or whatever, let me know what’s what. I have supplies to audit and patients to treat.”

That bastard. He knows perfectly damn well that I don’t have rank. Then again, he’s a legal expert, did this for a reason – bet there’s a technicality – my eyes unfocus slightly as I try to call to mind the relevant sections of the Lex without them spilling out my mouth, as the interrogator sits down on the couch opposite mine so I’m not having to crane my neck to talk to him.

The coffee-skinned man couldn’t be more obviously an offworlder if he’d had it on a sign round his neck. Big head, brown eyes a hair too big and far apart, his mouth and nose a hair too small, unnaturally gaunt and fragile-looking to my eye: I’d be a head taller than him out of armour. “Told you’re the reason I’m here,” he says gruffly. I get the irreverent impression that the little man’s coat is wearing him.

“We all know our duty,” I return, slightly cautious. “I had the best vox and the most combat endurance. Regret that we couldn’t save the rest of your team.”

“It is better to die for the Emperor than live for yourself,” he repeats in much the same tone as I said the prayers of requiem for my sisters. “As the Judge said – I’m Interrogator Gennid, given name of Morst. My principal is Inquisitor Toth: as per clairvoyances conducted on the Stiletto-” (the what?-) “before deployment and Lord Toth’s own eyewitness evidence upon initial confrontation, this heresy is a matter of warpcraft, not sedition. In other words -” he taps his cheek with a funny gesture of two fingers, and an electoo of a hammer lights up cerulean blue against his dark skin – “I’m not a witch-hunter. This op is Malleus jurisdiction, Sister, all of it, even the bits that look superficially like simple counterinsurgency. In fact -” he hisses out a breath in a foreign mannerism that’s probably supposed to indicate disbelief – “I wasn’t even fully cognizant that the Ordo Hereticus were even planning to contest that. D’you understand what I’m saying?”

Uh. The holy orders of the Inquisition shall number three: the Hammer of the Daemon, the Bane of the Xeno, the Scourge of the Heretic. Malleus – hammer. Like the hammer on his cheek, that I’m supposed to recognise. He’s a daemon-hunter. This little man hunts down and destroys creatures that not one in a million humans would own as anything more than a fairy-tale and a bad dream. Meanwhile the Sisterhood, we’re technically part of the Ordo Hereticus (and isn’t that a bad joke just now), so he’s asking me – “Apologies for my slowness, Interrogator: blame the sedatives. You’re trying to requisition our refugees? What possible use can they be?”

He pinches the bridge of his nose. Suddenly the man looks very, very tired indeed. Nearly as tired as I feel. “It’s your transport I need. My objective is to contact Stilletto as soon as is physically possible, auctoritate Malleus haec in instantiam. Given the lockdown on the Spire, vox-arrays are out of the question: that means the Astra Telepathica compound up on hive-level two.”

“I see.” (I don’t.) “There should be a quire where we are headed. With the supplies we just loaded, we should be capable of at least getting an advance party there as soon as tomorrow?”

He shakes his head violently. “Unacceptable. Too late. You are ordered to-” I raise an eyebrow and he was clearly expecting me to, because he stops mid-flow. “Sister, this is absolutely no time to argue precedence with me. You have already won these people’s respect: I shall require your assistance in-” He stops again. Snaps his mouth shut. I can almost see his mind working as he narrows his eyes. “Uh. I am not an expert on the symbols of the Adepta Sororitas, but – uh. Who did you say you were?”

Ice down my neck. Throne, but I am not in a good shape to be doing this right now. Here goes. “Sister-” (-Novitiate) “Ellayn, acting field command, Squad Agate.”

He stares, a little like a snake. His tone of voice has gone strangely slow and careful. “Lost your officers?”

“In the debacle upstairs, yes. We hooked up with Judge Magnus and the general of the hive’s defence forces when your lord and master couldn’t.” All true and no lie.

“And your surplice.” (Well, excuse me for not being parade-standard just now.) “Who’s your patron saint?”

The knot in my gut ties another loop. Now or never. I say it quickly. Yes, we’re the home team – “Saint Augusta Ursula Vigilata.”

A muscle tightens in his jaw, his eyes narrowing, hand making a near-involuntary twitch towards a holster – it takes every remaining ounce of self-control I’ve got not to so much as think of echoing that movement, because my armour’s spirit would take that as an order to go for his throat –

“Interrogator, listen to me, I was there, in the cathedral, all right, I saw it all, everything, front row seat.” Breathe. Slow my speech. “I was on that stage.” (I committed blasphemy same as the others.) “And when the Emperor’s wrath fell upon the thing that – that had – upon what my Sister-Superior had become, my squad, my squad was – m-most of my squad was – spared.”

A frown. He’s probably doing just the same threat assessment I am. He’s wondering whether he can get his sidearm in my face before I can take him down, and Holy Throne let him come to the same answer as I do. His voice is a skeptical growl. “Spared? For your holy innocence, I suppose?”

The words are automatic. “It is written that there is no such thing as innocence.”

“By whom?” He was expecting that.

“Saint Alicia Dominica, blessed be her deeds, in the Sisterly Rule?” I blink. “You should know we’re sleep-indoctrinated.”

“Al-leg-ed-ly.” He draws the word out. “Hmm. The Revilement of the Heretic, please, Sister, in its entirety.”

Frown. “There’s no single canonical version.”

His expression doesn’t alter. “What is the purpose of the Sisterhood?”

“The service of the Emperor, bare of let or technicality. His causes are our causes.” There is a particular flow to sleep-learned recitation. “In detail we differ and in purpose we are united. Thus speaks Saint Alicia Dominica, so say we-”

He interrupts me, nearly monotone in that offworld accent. “The Heretic is known to us by…?”

“…thought, by word and by deed, for just as our Faith drives us, so are they c-“ 

I guess if I were faking it, the rapid changes of direction would throw me off. “How is vox-band theta known to the Mechanicum?”

“Mantissa two-bravo-three-one exponent six microw-”

“Which heresies are you guilty of?”

“-Wha?” It’s a lot like hitting a wall and the strangled sound that comes out of my mouth completely confuses the synth. “I uh.” It is said the Inquisition can see guilt on you: I’d always taken that as a reference to the way that lying to someone wearing auto-senses is really really hard. But whatever it is, he wouldn’t need to be a genius to see it on my face right now. “Interrogator, the, uh.”

He doesn’t move. I’m too much of a physical threat. Any move he makes would have to be from surprise. “Take your time, sister.”

“Um. Sister-Novitiate. Sir. Training convent. Novice choir. Me, personally? I’m the, the youngest, age eighteen Solar, day after tomorrow. Great honour. Not even one full year since I took novice’s vows. No rank, no seniority, I’m gabbling, sorry.” Close your eyes, girl, breathe, get a grip. “I am… unsure that there is any heresy of which I am guilty: I am a loyal servant of the Emperor, beloved of all, and of his Saints. There is -” and here it comes, but I won’t lie to him and I already started so I’ll finish – “there are probably grounds for several counts of blasphemy, sir, which I can enumerate.”

“…Huh,” he says. “No need. Sleep-training is hard to feign and editing the scripts is impossible: the truth of your story is not impossible, just unlikely, and for the time being I’ll work with what I have.”

I cannot stop myself. “What… is that, sir?”

“A mystery.” Abruptly his stillness breaks. He pinches the bridge of his nose, the first motion he’s made since I stopped being a resource and started being a threat. “If it looks like an anatid, if it moves like an anatid, makes a noise like one, if it’s damn well labeled as one…” He shakes his head. “No. No time. We’ll return to this. Right now, however?” He makes that funny little alien hiss of incredulity again. “I happen to… need you. Whatever you are.”

“For what?”

His eyes are piercing. “Stop this lift. Better than anyone else here, you and your sisters can survive whatever is out there. I can write down my message. You are locals: you know your way, or better than I. And whatever you are or aren’t, you’re at least outfitted as heavy infantry. Force your way to the astropathic quire on level two and deliver my message verbatim.”

“… stop the lift? And probably kill half a thousand loyal civilians and soldiers, and the head of the hive’s Arbiters? And you?” It’s incomprehensible. “Interrogator, the Judge isn’t obstructing you because he doesn’t like you. He’s obstructing you because you are describing elaborate and pointless suicide.”

“Doesn’t matter.” That look in his eyes. He thinks he’s a dead man anyway. “I do understand and recognise the value of life, sister, especially mine. But truly I tell you, if this lift were packed to bursting with every single person of worth on this planet, except possibly Inquisitor Toth, it could not be worth enough to give me pause in sacrificing every one of them for this mission.”

“Uh. Okay. Okay, right.” Fanatic. And that’s me saying that. How do you talk to a fanatic? “I’m fairly sure that the Judge was saying that stopping the lift was pointless, okay, he’s not just being obstructive, he’s not that type. You want us to bust our way out of this shaft, somehow make our way to another one, somehow find another turbolift ready to take us to our destination on a machine-level where nothing stops, and do all this quicker than forty minutes?”

He makes a face. “By the grace of the Emperor are all things made possible. Can your engagement with this be taken as acquiescence to my order? Can you go and light a fire under Magnus?”

Sigh. “Interrogator, I’m telling you this as a loyal servant of Him-on-Earth, as someone sworn to serve the same Throne as you, but most importantly as a-a local. Machine-levels are death and leaving a lift between shafts is death and additionally nobody but a red-robe knows their way around a machine-level. Not even me, not without a map that’s in a helmet I don’t have. It is somewhere around ten whole levels between us and the quire – do you think we can cut through infrastructure walls into an ascent spiral, because the answer is we can’t – look, I can go on all day. Giving you what you asked for does not get you what you think it will.”

He practically snarls at me. “Are you aware of what the Inquisition’s mission is here on Baelis?”

“No?” The synth apparently doesn’t like me being shouted at and puts a power into my voice that really didn’t need to be there: but it does stop him midstream.

He shakes his head. Looks at me levelly for a silent moment. “Fine. Listen. If my message does not get through, sister, then not only are your efforts in vain, but so is everything you can see around you. If the Imperial warship Swift Stilletto of the Emperor’s Quick Response, currently geostationary directly over Hive Tertius, does not hear from me, within a deadline of-” he taps his wrist, I guess the shattered thing on that scorched plastek band was once a chronometer – “of all too damn soon? Then literally a billion people will die for no frakking reason. Including you and me and Judge Magnus and all your precious VIPs. You get it, now? You understand?”

I blink, a couple of times. Didn’t think it had been possible that I could feel any worse about all this. “Uh.”

“We done playing twenty-frakking-questions yet?”

I nod, dumbly. The pain-balm means that doesn’t hurt nearly as much as I was expecting. “I’ll… see what we can do.”

++++

The creepy aristocratic handmaid with the metal hands tilts her head at an unnatural mechanical angle as she looks up at me. “Should you be up, mamzel? Your colour is poor and your heart rate abnormal. Are you in pain?” Her lips don’t move. Her voice is almost a parody of demure politeness. It’s unnatural.

“Uphive geography,” is all I say. Maybe she’ll knock it off if I ignore it. “I’ll assume you’re most likely of anyone here to be familiar. I have a thorough, firm and pressing need to get to the astropathic quire on hive-level two as soon as physically possible. Advise me.”

“You are in pain.” She frowns. “I cannot read your vital signs perfectly through the suit, but it has been less than half a shift since you fainted, and you’ve not so much as eaten a bite. Should I ring for some tea, mamz-”

Sudden white-hot irrational fury. Half a second happens and her toes are just touching the ground and our eyes are level. “For the voice of the Inquisition shall be as the voice of the Emperor,” I say, and I make myself relax my grip, because her slender neck doesn’t feel armoured. “Blessed are they that hear it, for surely they shall find salvation. Pink, you might not have noticed, but I have had one hard fucking day. You do not want to be making it harder.”

“Very good, mamzel.” She doesn’t need to move her jaw to talk, and the tone of her augmetic voicebox doesn’t care to convey anything more than calm politeness. “I have bespoken-”

Sis-ter,” I growl. “Somewhat relevant to the situation at hand, would you not agree?”

“As you say, Sister. One moment.” I let go: she lands without a stagger. I wonder how much of her is still human. (I wonder what her masters are like, that she accepted that without so much as a blink.). After a moment more, she reverses the tilt of her head in a manner so mechanical I can almost hear the gears click.

“We may have something. House Omber – that is to say – I wish to report a potential solution, but if I might petition you to conceal that I was the source of-”

“Get on with it.”

“Indeed.” She spreads her hands in a fluting gesture that would be graceful if there were flesh on them. “The level two quire has a landing pad, an external one. I personally am a qualified pilot. House Ephraim operates an aerospace port on Lane Seven, two miles on a bearing of three-twenty from Spire on level twelve: it is inconceivable that we should not find a single functional craft, and even a dirigible would be faster than this lift by some measure.”

“Security?”

“It is fairly standard fare: riot barriers and a contingent of Ephraim houseguard. The airlane gate itself is incapable of closing for reasons of hive ventilation.” She wrinkles her nose in a disconcertingly human mannerism. “Ephraim go for deterrent over quality in their houseguard – past clashes paint them as very willing to display shiny toys and very unlikely to be able to use them worth a damn. In terms of loyalty, we shall conduct a poll of our clients, but it would be best to assume the worst.”

“That’s a thought for the day, right there.” I look down at her. “How many troops will your inevitable craft hold?”

Shrug. “You could berth a dozen in what we would call an intimate space for one, and carry twice that with a minimum-rated airlane drive.”

“Then that’s all the plan we need. Talk to Magnus about stopping on level twelve. I’ll handle the interrogator.”

She clicks her heels. “Sister, I.” Her voicebox is terrible at conveying hesitancy. “I meant it about self-care. Milady’s complexion is somewhere beyond alabaster.”

“And when the Emperor grants me rest, I’ll get right on that.” I look her in the eye. “Pink, there are a lot of things around here I might be playing by ear: my endurance is not one. I have been standing vigils since I was twelve. I have been fasting regularly for prayer and training since first I took novice’s vows.” Sounds far more impressive if I let her imagine how many years that is. “And I’m no stranger to the sight of my own blood, as you might imagine. Look to your own people, will you, and I’ll see to mine?”

She bobs. “As you say, Blessed Sister.”

++++

See to my people, I said – well, at least I can avoid waking them. They’ll be pissed off enough having to get up after two hours’ sleep having gone down expecting eight. Manda volunteered for watch, looks like, and was asleep in little more time than the others: I take my gauntlets off and fix her a pillow, to take a little of the sting out of sleeping sitting up. I can keep watch well enough.

You can’t sleep easily in armour. The back-unit stops you lying on your back, the glacis curves and pauldrons stop you lying on your side, and lying on your front for long periods is uncomfortable, undignified, unstable and unnecessary. So what you do is, either you sit on something and lock joints, like Manda’s doing accidentally, or you kneel: there’s a trick to getting the legs and torso to lock and support you so your legs won’t cramp, passed down from novice to novice before each year’s Vigil. The last bit of the trick is to set the helmet collar just so, so it will keep your head upright and stop you waking with a stiff neck: they’ve improvised with scraps of purple foam torn from cushions.

The refugees have made space for us, out of something between respect and fear. Hivers one and all, only the highest of the aristoi have a concept of private personal space: the turbo is the size of a small warehouse, and they’ve pretty much made three camps within it for the civilians, another for the soldiers, one for the wounded, and then a circle for us.

I can smell food – they’re burning food-oil for fuel, I’m guessing, and apparently someone among the civilians at least knew how to cater. We literally can’t partake: it’s not a holy fast, not a matter of taking food out of the mouths of starving refugees, so much as the way we’ve had nothing but fluids for fifteen days at this point, and there’s no way on Earth we have the time and facilities for even a short-form rite of refreshment. If I just cram that flatbread and soylens into my mouth like an idiot, then the only one responsible for the resulting and predictable consequences will be stop thinking about food!

I pull up the terminal on my wrist. A proper sister would spend the time productively. I suppose I should be unsurprised that the rest of them have quietly told their equipment that I’m in charge – yes, Ellayn, you are responsible for the lives of all these people (and the rest) – I know what the admin rites are, I step through them like it’s a classroom. Fluid – we’re all filled up, and I guess the less I ask about where they found to dump our effluent, the more I’ll like it. They did mine too, which must have been fun with me flat out unconscious. Nutrient – well, we’re not likely to find any more out here. We’ve two more days before we go into true starvation. Sacramental supplies – well, as Magnus said, Arbitrator medical supplies will have to do. He seemed to recognise the Mechanicum names for the drugs. Just hope his ‘best analogues’ are anything like our actual stimulants and painkillers.

Med-sermon, next – I know the words, but I keep having to tell the thing to pause and go back. Typically you have one or maybe two runes in a report, and for training one of them’s something dangerous and the hospitaller asks you to help her triage: there’s no hospitaller here and the litany extends all the way to the edge of my little screen. Sprains, strains, cuts, concussions, burns, smoke inhalation – three cases of whiplash like mine – my own readout says I have a possible broken rib from the bit where someone hit me in the chest with a sledgehammer. I can’t feel it.

I’m not the only one drugged. Most of my sisters are on half or better dose of pain-balm to let them sleep, even through their exhaustion. I make myself read the whole thing, even for the dead, double back over my own section when I realise I’m not paying enough attention.

Niwall’s okay, at least physically. Keyt’s gone from a strained tendon to a displaced kneecap: there’s a note from Magnus here, saying she’s to keep off it unless it’s been her life’s ambition to have a metal leg. Rakil has burns to her face: apparently I do, too. I touch my cheek gently with an ungloved hand: it’s smooth, like plastic. Itches vaguely underneath, like the memory of pain. Literally half of us have at least one head wound, and of our eight casualties, six have (had?) head or neck injuries. Curse the wizened, dried-up little pencildicks who decided they’d rather have a good old leer at a couple of dozen holy maids than have us properly battle-ready – surprised they didn’t just have us perform in underwear, really – damn them, just fuck those guys, why can’t I just have one single bloody helmet, I wouldn’t even keep it for myself –

Breathe. Perfer et obdura, as it is written. Wipe my eyes. Tac-sermon I know, we’re on a lift, we’re fucked, move on. Loadout: most of my sisters have filled this out or their armour’s done it for them, with a motley array of borrowed weapons. The riot-guns must have been in one of the crates we got from the Arbites. Half of them have picked up shock-mauls and all – the nonlethal shock isn’t the point, I guess, so much as a decent plasteel club that should stand some power-armoured abuse – I’ll stick with my knife, thanks. Confessions –

who the fuck am I to be taking confessions –

Two. Niwall confesses to having liberated a glove from Sister Cira, on the basis that Cira has gone before the Emperor and He can grant her all the gloves she needs, while Niwall is stuck here with us, a close-quarter battle expert feeling utterly useless because she can’t throw a punch. I mean, they must have seen her do it. The other thirteen sisters, the eleven able-bodied and the two who can’t walk, must have watched Niwall go to where our dead are laid, kneel beside one of the statue-still forms and painstakingly convince her suit that it wants to let go of a part of itself. And they said nothing. And I want Niwall watching my back. Cira, Emperor, forgive her.

And Rakil confesses that she has no idea what the hell any of us are doing and no idea if any of this is right, and is going along with it all, with me, because she has no fucking clue what to do otherwise. The bitter little noise I make in the back of my throat isn’t laughter. I contemplate waking her so she can make the same noise.

I don’t. We’ll be up soon enough. Roughly in time to fail to say Compline.

++++

Nine