In Light, Chapter Ten

by artrald

Up

Nine

++++

Whoever designed the inside of the limo-carrier had clearly been told to make it just like a real Valkyrie: and then just as clearly, someone else had come along after and quietly straightened out a few issues concerning aristoi and what they expected their world to, well, feel like. Ranks of acceleration seats down the sides, handles and grabrails in all the right places, no windows, ramp exit: all perfectly normal, down to purity seals hanging off hatchcovers bearing dire warnings in binaric.

But I’m by no means the only one to rock wildly and nearly fall right over upon trying to sit in one of those seats – the whole thing’s softplas and memfoam, it’s like settling into a cloud. I can’t get into the harness. It’s made for aristoi, fit me easy at the waist even considering the armour, but no way would it stretch over my backpack and pauldrons. We link hands, will our boots to stick fast to the floor and our gloves to each other: it’ll have to be enough.

A Valk is loud inside. If you’re not wearing your helmet, the noise is loud enough to make your teeth buzz and your throat ache. The craft’s flight is limited by the mortal frailty of the cargo, not the capabilities of its massive turbines: you strap yourself to this metal coffin as securely as mag-locks and harnesses allow, you lock your helmet against whiplash, and you pray. It is considered that if Sisters need to travel in comfort they do not need to travel by air.

So of course it’s nothing like that. We take off in silent stillness, and the only sign that we’re airborne is that the floor is suddenly dead level and a soft autochime starts up a twinkly little tune that Gennid kills within two bars. “Underway. Suspensors nominal, repulsors five-by-five,” sends Pink from the screened-off cab. A real Valk is piloted by a coldly perfect servitor, only co-piloted by a full human: for all her augmetics, Pink is still more human than machine. “Traffic control, dead. Airlane control… dead or jinxed. Visibility, blind. Transponder readings… jinxed, jammed, or there is nothing in the airlane at all. Weather readings, absent.”

“Make for the exhaust-gate, flank speed,” is all Gennid has to add. His eyes are tight shut, his arms crossed over his harness straps.

“Best speed, aye.” The sunny little voice of Pink’s vocoder doesn’t transmit her evident disquiet. “Interrogator, we are flying dead reckoning without external cues and I do not know the windspeed accurately. Gracious passengers, would you kindly brace for… percussive turbulence.”

I’m sitting across from Rakil, and I meet her eyes with the slightest hint of – percussive? As in hitting things? What things? Large things?

It’s Niwall who strikes up the prayer. It should have been me. I pick up after two words with the general air that I was just about to do that.

God-Emperor protect and defend us in this Your conveyance as we plummet, that sick feeling in the stomach nothing more than evidence of a three-way tug of war between the gravity of the planet, the suspensors making us weightless and the repulsors sending us on our way.

Guiding Light guide our path through this noisome darkness, this soft windowless coffin doing nothing to allay the sick, heavy, claustrophobic feeling of rushing through a smoke-filled chimney at Emperor knows what speed, utterly blind, guided only by our airspeed and a map.

Holy Throne let us do your will on this blind headlong hurtling immediacy of a mission that might already be too late, to save all our lives, to spare (somehow? For some reason?) the hive, our orphanage and our training cloister and everyone I care for and all of my sisters younger and older and me. But somehow not the heretics.

Be our armour, be our sword, these words our only shield against the empty horror of mortal danger none of us can even try to do anything about. If we are to die here we will never see it coming.

Be our fortitude, be our strength as we hurtle sightless helpless knowless into stinking unthinking darkness.

Be our champion, be our wisdom as we look straight ahead into each other’s eyes like we’re daring one another to show fear.

Protect and defend us against all terrors and dangers of this

++++

The world tilts dizzyingly backwards with a sharp bang and on its heels there’s this indescribable noise – a high distressing rending splintering scraping noise, and the craft judders like it’s been picked up and shaken, twice, hard. The tilt continues – it’s like we’re for some reason sitting halfway up a wall, I’m on my back looking straight up at Rakil- and our pilot is dead silent. The rhythm of our prayer falters, but I bring it back on track: the discipline will help us, will steady our minds.

We’re spinning. As well as the tilt backwards I think we’re spinning. We’re conditioned against motion sickness – the glorious exhilarating terrifying week when our conditioning was verified using the novice cloister’s single ageing Valkyrie spins past the mind’s eye –

our prayer has gone up half an octave we’re all going to die

Abruptly it cuts off. All of it. Gravity returns grudgingly beneath our feet. Silence. Peace. We look at one another. Is this good? Have we finally come to a broken halt? Are we there? Was that noise nothing but the natural state of the bare atmosphere?

“House Omber offers apologies for the ride quality,” sends Pink, and I wonder if I detect relief underneath the chirpy fakeness of her mechanical voicebox. “We entered the exhaust junction forty-eight yards off axis due to error in groundspeed estimates; praise the Emperor that it was not fifty-one. We have now exited Hive Tertius-“

no no it’s all right it’s all right we meant to we’re going to be coming back again-

“And we are now in free air and updraft, destination Adeptus Astra-Telepathica on hive-level two, expected flight time around fifteen minutes. It is a fine night here outside the hive: the sky is clear, traffic all but nonexistent, the weather is fine. Please enjoy the remainder of your journey.”

“Show me,” says Gennid. He appears entirely unmoved by the entire episode, as if this is just something that happens occasionally when you’re hunting daemons. Arsehole.

“Passenger warning: agoraphobia. Three. Two. One.”

None of us closed our eyes. The Daughters of the Emperor are conditioned against –

oh, sweet Throne.

I didn’t know anything could be so big.

A hexagonal grid has swum into life over the walls and ceiling of the limo’s interior, a pict-screen fit for an aristo, decidedly not Valkyrie equipment: a moment later and the world is full of stars.

We must have turned. Straight ahead of me, to the limo’s right, behind Rakil, the stars are a galaxy of colours. Reds predominate – the colour of Mars, they say, and the colour of the Deus Mechanicus. Red is the colour the machines use to speak to one another, little nav-lights lighting up the eyes of Icons Mechanicus or adorning the tops of spires, aflutter with the epileptic twinkle of binaric transmissions. But there are so many colours of red, and I’m sure to a scholar they would have deep and subtle meaning – to me, they serve only to outline the darkness and put a scale on it, to say that one half of the world belongs to the great mother Hive, to remind us that we are drifting upwards beside its huge impossible cyclopean bulk.

But behind me and to my left, the stars are white and steady – the sky is carpeted with them, the domain of the Emperor laid out before us, and the wonders we’d see if only we could see far enough. The bright band of Galaxy stretched diagonally across the void above, the domain of the Emperor, Imperium Hominum. Nobody had bothered to mention that there were so many – I hadn’t expected it to be so beautiful –

and here we are without our helmets in a tiny little box that’s weightless and anchored to nothing, and all that’s stopping us and all of our air falling infinitely up into nothingness and void is the roof of the carrier and I can’t see that right now

Light. A steep diagonal line of hexagons down towards the front of the limo goes searingly black then white, and the baroque surface of the hive is thrown for one instant into stark monochrome relief. “Readout!” calls Gennid instantly, as we blink stupidly at afterimages.

“Shit.” Want a list of words you really don’t want to hear from your pilot? The lack of intonation in Pink’s vocoder just makes it worse. “Sieur, I think that was ground fire.”

And of course Gennid’s face clouds over. “I can tell that, idiot, the angle was wrong for orbital. Shooter? Weapon? Might I hope you can divine the target?”

 “Please… hold, sieur. I am not inloaded for-“

“Fine. Belay that, then. Evasive action.” The interrogator is sitting forward, staring around him like he can somehow wring meaningful information out of the starfield. “See if you can lose us in surface clutter.”

“Interrogator, I am a civilian pilot, not a combat one, and this glorified shipping container would not know what evasive meant if you shoved a dictionary up its-“

He practically hisses. “Knew I should have driven. In small words, girl: hug the spire. Close as you dare, and quicker.”

“Sieur.” And immediately the red and green lamps of the hive swell dizzyingly in the screen – I envy the sisters with their back to that, I really do.

It hadn’t been so bad when we were a respectable distance away. Sure, we were going fast, but I couldn’t see that. But with our noses pressed right against it, as it were, I can even make out the occasional twirl of architecture or stylised gargoyle as they flash past. I mean, I’m sure that a seasoned flyer would not even say we were going that quick – in my head I know, I am utterly sure that we’re flying in a pleasure-barge, as Pink said, a glorified shipping container without even proper engines, not even supersonic. It’s just that I’ve never in my life seen myself going this fast.

Does it lessen the fear, does it truly, when you can see and understand it?

Fifteen minutes she said.

We go back to our prayer.

++++

The quire is in a little minaret of its own protruding from the dizzying slopes of the Spire. Hive-level two. Not more than a mile from the ruin of that damned cathedral. The landing bay is that gothic arch there: the smooth, functional doors bear the image of the one-eyed aquila, the Astra Telepathica.

A symbol of fear. We spend so many words and so much thought upon the witch as enemy of humanity – mutants, all of them, but not even honest ones where you can see the stigmata. We spend so long teaching that the witch is a danger to themselves and everyone else, a ticking timebomb every second that they live: and yet without them, without the astropaths sanctified and sanctioned by audience with the Emperor Himself, the Imperium would not function.

And now I guess we’re going to meet one.

The interrogator pulls up a terminal from the arm of his fake seat as we hover to a stop, our fibreplas Valkyrie nose mere feet from the gate. Speaks softly to it, then more sharply: with a rough impatient gesture he pulls a wallet from his pocket, opens it to reveal a purity seal dense with writing, presses that to the glass of the terminal. And the gates grind themselves open, and Pink’s landing is as gentle as tissue paper.

The ramp hisses as it descends: this bloody vehicle has an actual smoke machine in it to enhance the effect. Gennid’s already on his feet: he’s still got his wallet out with what I guess must be the Inquisitor’s seal. I take his right, Rakil his left. And as the ramp comes down enough to let in the bright light of the landing bay, we’re met by five impassive white figures.

They look a little like humanoid beetles. Carapace armour, they’re wearing, battlefield grade stuff like stormtroopers have, but bright sparkling polished titanium white, and their opaque blank-faced helmets speak of autosenses just like the ones we ought to have. Those guns are short-coupled broad-barreled shotcannons, absolutely regulation, antipersonnel things going for stopping power over penetration. And we’re looking at one another, and there’s a moment when the guns are pointed straight at us, and then there’s a moment when they realise what we are (what we look like) and lower them.

“Access denied,” says the one in the centre. His voice is dead flat. I mean, we have our own indoctrination, of course we do, but the Astra Telepathica are something else again. The textbooks are silent on the subject of what’s done to them, but voluble on their legal powers: on their own ground the only greater authority is, well. Us. “Lockdown,” the man says, with all the intelligence and humanity of a servitor. Ugh.

“Override,” Gennid responds promptly, “authorisation, Gennid for Lord Toth: I bear his seal.”

The armsman makes no move to examine the wallet in Gennid’s hand. “You are not authorised.”

A scowl. “Clarify. I am an agent of His Imperial Majesty’s Holy Inquisition, acting on the behalf of Lord Toth of the Ordo Malleus.” He activates the electoo he showed me in the turbo. “There is no place on this entire damned planet that I may not go.”

“Aye, sieur.” He is silent for a moment. “I am not authorised to raise lockdown.”

“Then call someone whose rank is sufficient.”

“Unable, sieur.” The armsman repeats himself, as if to the terminally confused. “Lockdown.”

Gennid sighs. “I don’t have time for this. Guards, you are directly ordered to take me to your nearest superior, haec cum voce Imperatori locutus.”

Those High Gothic words are an explicit threat. Disobedience to a direct order spoken in the Emperor’s name is blasphemy: taking His name in vain is blasphemy. If they don’t obey, somebody is going to die.

The guards clearly can’t obey.

They stand like statues for a moment. Then the man says, “You… have now reached two failed attempts. A third shall provoke deadly force.”

But that’s okay, see. Legally. Because it’s absolutely fine and within the power of an Interrogator on official business for him to do what he’s going to do next.

Which is to… Huh. Apparently it’s to step behind us. “Sisters,” he says in much the same voice you’d use to loose an attack dog.

Wait, what? I’m halfway through turning to ask him what the hell he thinks he’s doing – but Rakil makes the other call. She’s stepped forward the instant the interrogator spoke, and by the time I really register it she’s drawn her blade and sunk it under the arm of one of the guards. Their muzzles swing reflexively to point at her, much good it’ll do them in close quarters –

Damn it all. By this point it’s them or us, and not even a contest. Sure, they’re armoured: heavy lasproof ceramic plates without a spirit to guide them. Sure, they’re trained: they move straight from ineffective shotcannon fire to pointless strikes with weapon butt or armoured elbow or knee as we get inside their aim. But in our armour we’re bigger than them, we weigh half again what they do, and we’re strong enough to literally break them with our bare hands. Never mind that when I pick my target and hit him, the spirit of my suit glues my feet immovably to the floor and twists my shoulders and hips, turns a pretty decent punch into an unstoppable piledriver.

They make us kill them. Their conditioning, it must include a shire-sized dose of the stronger sort of combat drugs. The man I hit tries to stand and fails: there’s blood coming out of his helmet and even so he draws his laspistol aiming for my face. Niwall takes him down before I have a chance. Is this us, now? Killers on demand? These guards are Imperial servants. We literally waste their last breath because our interrogator couldn’t talk them down. And speak of the man, he steps neatly around the slaughter with a general air of so-where-was-I, and I grind my teeth.

“Those stairs, I think.” He strides. 

I catch Rakil’s eye – what was she thinking – and what I see there scares me. Just… flat. Meaningless. Where was our compass pointing again? We’re heretics, remember? Who in the name of Holy Terra are we to judge, if the interrogator says to murder people at random because they happen to be in our way? I get the feeling she’s looking for something from me. 

I don’t get the feeling she can see it. I point my eyes somewhere else. Give orders in curt finger-code that describe bodyguarding Gennid like we meant to do that, not trailing along behind him like a leash of damned hounds.

The door’s locked, but its machine-spirit has an intelligence and logic that the guards didn’t have – or a sense of self-preservation. Gennid presents his wallet, and it’s scanned by a little red laser line that makes an approving little noise. (For crying out loud, the poor bastards were outranked by their own front door.)

The far side of the door smells of –

there’s a moment when we’re shoulder to shoulder and our weapons come up, we bar the door with a wall of steel and ceramite, the heretics won’t get close enough to hurt us again –

there’s nobody there, nobody living.

I’m not the only one to swear.

I’ve met enough death now to know how it stinks. There’s no other word. This was supposed to be a reception-room, an area where the servants of the aristoi are met by fawning functionaries and vast considerations are negotiated in return for brief messages over quite literally astronomical distances. Now it’s a ruin.

The decor was Astra Telepathica white, once, giving the whole place the feel of a padded cell. Smoothly curving white walls, thick soft white carpet, white furniture, even the negotiators and functionaries who worked here would wear white robes in an echo of the attire of an astropath. But it’s not white any more.

Conditioned to work unruffled alongside witches, the guards themselves look to have been immune to the murderous madness we saw elsewhere. One of the doors has been torn open: guess which way, girls. We cover the angles, wary of any remaining heretics. 

The place is silent. Empty. Again. It’s fucking unnatural.

The Telepathica guards fought to the last: that much is clear. Up here they wouldn’t carry much in the way of ammunition, wouldn’t be equipped for battlefield endurance, because why should they be? An unruly delegation, a recipient of bad news intent on shooting the messenger, even a worst-case angry mob are all things to be dealt with by a brief and shocking demonstration of force and a locked and barred gate. But today the world turned on its head. Today the astropath’s guards spent their paltry few dozen shells and were rushed and overborne by their aristocratic customers. Today it turned out that their strength and fitness were merely mortal, and they were dragged down and torn apart, and their beetle-armour served them as well against that crowd as it did against me and my sisters.

Those guards we killed. We’d given them an impossible order. Their superiors were dead. They were survivors. The only survivors of this, alive because their post was out of the way. Now they’re dead. We murdered them for no reason at all. They were in the way. But they were defending a broken position. No reason at all. (Void’s name, Ellayn. Your own worst enemy, you are, shut up.)

And Gennid swears in a language I never heard before, all sibilants and gutturals. “They smashed the damned interlocutors. One talks to the witches through their people: the backup is there.” He gestures to a ruined console-desk. “Fine. Gird yourselves: we shall have to do it in person.”

“In… person, interrogator?” I wince. “We have secure voxcasters of our own, sir.”

“The quire isn’t equipped to receive you.” He leaves off the insults: he must be rattled. “Its links are hardwired. Let us see if the door will be close enough.” He snorts. “Or, come to that, if the door kept out the tide of heretics.”

The guards weren’t the only line of defence, of course.. Behind them, down a corridor papered with dire imprecations and injunctions against trespass – IF YOU PASS THIS SIGN THEN YOU WILL DIE, I read in Low and High Gothic and what I assume is binaric, and muse briefly that it’s true for us all – there must have been a short little flight of steps. Must have been, see, because at the top of it, the floor is just about visible between the bodies.

Turns out, you see, that the Astra Telepathica are not believers in fucking around when it comes to the security of their astropaths against events that should never happen. Turns out that a Tarantula-class multilaser turret is a small thing, not really too intimidating unless you know what it is, not much of a deterrent till you’ve seen it in use, and combined with a heavy sealed armoured plasteel gate it really doesn’t give a shit how many people there are in your Help.
Shit!
Ugh! I cry out involuntarily and just about stop myself putting a hand to my head (armour, Ellayn, you’ll knock your own block off.) That voice came from inside my Help me.
Fuck!

It sounds like my own voice. I’m not hearing this with my ears. It sounds like my voice sounds from inside my head, not recordings. It’s like hearing myself, feeling myself say something and knowing that I have done no such thing all at once. They are breaching my defences.
Ugh!

The – weakness in that voice, the sheer shivering terror. It’s not – I would never – The wolf is at the door. Augh! The rest of my sisters, they’re reeling too. Hayla actually screamed, Porsia’s thrown her hands up to cover her face, dropped her weapon, backing awkwardly away till she runs into Yasi with a clatter of armour. Rakil and Niwall have spun round, closed up, levelled weapons at nothing, put their backs to mine. Pink has just simply frozen, jaw slack, deadly razor-fingered hand halfway to her mouth.

Deep breath. I have seen worse than you, mutant. I bare my teeth and snarl, “Interrogator!”

He’s standing there looking stupidly up at the turret before the door, his eyes half-closed, swaying slightly. If the turret didn’t recognise us then he’d be dead and we’d be taking cover. We need to keep Peril. The last of my guards have fallen.

I narrow my eyes. Fuck off, telepath. “Gennid!” Nothing. What was his first name? “Morst!” I’m at his side now: I try the same trick that worked with another man staring stupidly in the face of moral threat. Grab his shoulder with fingertips, spin him none too gently to face me. Subsonics and volume into my voice, don’t yell. “Come on, soldier, snap out of it.”

I think it was grabbing him that worked: he shakes off my hand and growls in the back of his throat. Ignores the heaped corpses like they were just an innovative choice of decor. Strides up to the door with the expression that says couldn’t I have been the one to do this, and slams one palm down on the scanner beside the door while holding up his purity seal to the door’s camera with the other. His voice fails him the first time he tries to speak to it. Clears his throat. “Januam aperiri,” he growls hoarsely in his accented High Gothic. “Vi Solium Terrarum!” Slams his hand irritably down on the panel again when nothing seems to happen. “Damn you, machine, this is the Inquisition! In the Emperor’s name let me pass!”

Inquisition? Shock and surprise, entirely alien to me, try and drop the bottom out of my stomach. Gennid nearly falls over. Behind me Niwall and Rakil have linked hands, close behind me as they can physically get, the whole squad drawn together back to back, Manda shouts something wordless, get the fuck out of my head, witch! The door’s crawling open, I support the interrogator and half carry him through. Terrible plan. Worse plan to turn tail. The only way out of this is through it. It’s only a voice.

The quire is a sphere, a white sphere inside a room that’s a cube. Suspensor globes orbiting like little satellites and keeping this place at a dizzying one-third grav. A litttle gantry of scaffolding provides a ladder up to a round hatch in the side of the thing. People don’t come this way often. The witches will have every physical need supplied within their sphere itself, it’s got its own atmosphere processor and recyk plant, as close to a closed system as you get. There’s a yellow-and-black line painted on the floor around the sphere, warning runes painted regularly within it, almost cute in their redundancy: potential moral threat. As if anyone would make it as far as the hive’s astropaths and not understand what that meant.

“Quire.” It takes Gennid a couple of tries to find his voice. He spits on the spotless white floor and the trajectory of the little gob of phlegm is all wrong in the light grav. “Quire!” He shakes off my arm. “I, Gennid Morst for Lord Toth, of the Hammer of the Daemon, do request and require your-“ I acknowledge your right.

Gennid grunts as if punched and keeps going. I bite my lip: the pain levels me out. It’s getting easier. “I require communication immediately,” he says heavily, “to the astropaths of the Swift Stiletto of the Emperor’s Quick Response, shore-to-ship, and return of acknowledgement and potential reply.” Someone else’s helpless lonely trepidation punches me in the gut and I make a noise like it was a physical blow but stay standing. Niwall and Rakil are my only sisters who dared follow me in here and they’re here for me, not for any conception of duty. My armour says the rest of the squad are hunkered in a protective star formation in the entranceway. We can’t take this forever.

Training says pull back, regroup, secure, call it in. Training says we aren’t alone out here and aren’t dealing with a witch and I cannot hear you clearly. An image, I see clearly the sphere’s boarding gantry, a hand – my hand – a man’s hand reaching out and opening a physical door in the side of the sphere because My intercommunicator is malfunctioning

And with a yell that’s made of sheer frustrated revulsion I throw the witch out of my damn head for the umpteenth damn time. The interrogator needs to go there? Okay, then, I practically pick the bastard up. Only way out is through. Billion lives. My sisters realise I’m moving towards the sphere, last place they want to go, but they’ve come this far. One-third grav, the temptation is to cut mag-boots and jump rather than use that rickety ladder – maybe if I was a real Sister. Gennid is just about together enough to let himself be lifted. Deja vu is sickening watching him copy the exact gesture, angle, motion I saw in someone else’s mind’s eye.

It’s clean in here, it’s so clean and white, and there’s no shadow, the light comes from all around us. Columns of constantly changing text and images paper the walls. This is a hemisphere and in the centre of it there is a triangle of chairs and two of them are occupied by dead people. Dessicated skeletons, papery skin stretched taut, mummified in white uniforms.

“Close the door,” says the third. You think of a witch as being thin, pinched, sinister – this man is the shape of an overripe apple, wrapped coccoon-like in the many swathing folds of what could either be his once-white robes or a filthy white fluffy dressing gown. He’s sitting in the third chair: the three of them are on a turntable and it spins to face us, not like the two dead bodies will mind. “There’s a draught.” His voice his voice though it sounds exactly like mine sounds like inside my own head. I look at him because he won’t have the victory of seeing me look away from weakness and I see that the blindfold he’s wearing is crusted with layers and layers of old dried blood.

Gennid’s voice is careful and slow, like when he thought I was a clear and present danger. “Your fellows?”

The fat man shrugs. “Old news. We’ve been awaiting replacements for half a decade. So. What can I d-” (don’t say it don’t say it maybe the omens are wrong) “Do for the Ordo Malleus? Do you require a psyker for some mission? Or are you here to rescue me? I am sure I have my suspensor-belt somewhere.” (Yuk. That I’m somehow feeling myself saying this makes everything worse. I clamp my jaw shut.)

Gennid swallows hard. He’s sweating. “I… require.” He swallows again. Fear is spilling in around the edges of the world. “Shore-to-ship contact, Imperial Navy vessel Swift Stilletto of the Emperor’s Quick Response. Return of acknowledgement and potential reply.” The foreign gnawing pit of horror in my belly is just growing and growing and these words are doing nothing but eating away at the bottom of it and fuck off!

“I… see. My lord, is there a second vessel by that name?” He’s trying to find a way out. He’s trying to find a way that he doesn’t have to do it. I have my mouth pressed into a firm tight line to prove that it’s him that’s talking and not me.

“Why do you ask?” Gennid rasps, suddenly wary.

“Because if your lordship means to refer to the Navy vessel directly over our heads, vox lag would be…” one of the monitors flickers through a series of calculations – “Less than an eighth of a second. You, you can use my personal vox-array, even. Do you truly require-“

“Every vox for half a dozen leagues is jinxed, witch: why d’you think I didn’t just call you in the first place, hmm? You think I enjoy mainlining the by-products of that misshapen brain of yours? I have a priority-one communication for the ears of the captain and for Inquisitor Toth. Are you prepared to send?”

(No. No, he’s really not.) “I… must warn you that the omens are spectacularly poor. Due to the unforeseen events of this morning-“

“We were there, you colossal puling waste of flesh!” The astropath cringes at Gennid’s voice, Rakil and Niwall both draw in a sharp breath – I hardly even feel that one. “I am well aware of the damned omens: I received them from my lord Toth personally. And I repeat. Priority one. Clear and present threat to the hive. This message would be worth all of our lives, if it came to it.”

(The night is young.) I clench my fist involuntarily against the sick feeling of that foul creature’s thoughts in my brain and he can’t help but imagine what I could do to him with just that fist, and – get out – he looks away. It doesn’t matter how truthful the interrogator is being. His heavies will tear me to pieces if they are balked. If it’s die doing one’s duty or die a traitor get out!
Do you want me to add you a new exit?

“I, I hear and obey.” Not clear he isn’t talking to me. He gestures and his platform turns him to face one of the incomprehensible screens: another gesture and it fills with a breathtaking image I now recognise as the night sky. “Shore-to-ship, sieur, by your command, realtime. You will know when contact is made.” He can’t stop himself saying, “Make your first words count, my lord, or we all died in vain.”

And I realise he’s not exaggerating, or at least he doesn’t think he is. The image on the screen expands dizzyingly and whatever else I ever see in my life, now I know that the space between stars is filled with more stars

A bright twinkling star in the image expands and unpacks and isn’t a point of light any longer, it’s long and the front of it is sharp and I can see why they might name it Stilletto. It’s on its side just the way you always think of a ship, in profile, and for an instant i think nothing of that because that’s the shape ships are.

Except… that picture must be looking straight up. Which means we are staring directly down the barrels of the great vessel’s broadside – the Astropath casually removes his blindfold and hardly even feels the pain as freshly scabbed wounds tear open, but holy crap the rest of us can feel that. His back is to us so I can’t see whatever he has instead of eyes. Rakil whimpers and Gennid wipes his own eyes with the back of his hand reflexively and I grit my teeth.

As the corpulent man takes a deep convulsive breath as the tubes in the back of his seat feed him an unpleasantly viscous nameless white substance and then every screen in the place whites out.

++++

eleven