All that matters in that first instant is Niwall.
She’s lying where she fell, insensible, statue-still, her arms outflung and locked stiff. Her skin already corpse-grey, staring eyes rolled up in her head so I can’t see the white of them, but her armour’s intact. Not a mark, not a scratch on it as I go to a knee beside her –
sick black-and-white pain tries to steal my breath and a violent twist of will tells my suit to make that shut up and it does its best –
I take her left hand in both of mine, ask it to unlock from that grotesque pose, squint at the little screen on her wrist, call up a condition readout… r-right…. I’ve never seen some of these before. Rad exposure? Tox runes? Widespread deep burns but no breach to armour – contamination risk? This column here is – Throne, that’s really not supposed to be a flat line – my second glove comes off and I go to loosen her neck seal, second step on an armoured casualty is to check their airway.
And my suit arm locks with my fingers half an inch away from her. It, it won’t let me touch her with bare hands. Don’t have the dexterity to do this gloved – if I was just wearing a helmet I wouldn’t have this problem, I’d be able to see all the readouts. Frantic glance at my own wrist screen, what’s the spirit trying to tell me –
It comes to me that Gennid has physically grabbed my shoulder. It’s like his voice is a long dark way away. “She’s dead, you idiot! Dead and-” He goes to take hold of my unarmoured chin to try and get my attention and then I didn’t hit him hard, just moved my elbow like someone was crowding me: and as he tries to get up again there’s Rakil’s gun politely explaining that he’s been requested to stay down.
“Fools!” he yells, but I’m not listening, I’m trying to override my suit (denied), I’m trying to read back through Niwall’s monitor (the runes, it’s fading them out, it’s shutting down), with a snarl of frustration I’m going to the emergency panel on the side of her back-unit and she hasn’t breathed for eighty, ninety seconds now and –
My instruments and her suit’s instruments concur and they’ve been doing so since I first asked them and I open my mouth to say she’s dead and can’t fit the words out of my mouth.
Gone, just like that. Not just gone. I can’t even touch her to check for a pulse. I can’t even shut her eyes. The suit won’t let me. The one rune still active on her monitor is the trefoil, humanity’s most ancient symbol of aversion and dishonour.
Fuck dishonour. I am not leaving her here.
Gennid is talking. To Rakil, I think. “Get her moving,” he’s saying. “Damn you, girl, at least let me up – you want us to die here, do you? Want to stand there sucking down electrical smoke till you choke on it?”
Okay, I’m standing. It was hard. My sister is a terrible weight even in one-third grav. A nod and Rakil is getting the door open – violence works, it’s only hardplas. Gennid can go wherever he likes, preferably to hell.
Out of the door. We drop lightly down in the dreamlike grav-field, but Niwall just carries on and hits the floor with a loud heavy final crash I can’t stop and her head just lolls back and it’s just simply unfair, it’s obscene, that there is nothing to shroud her poor face. My own discomfort and pain are one thing. But surely a martyr shouldn’t have to have people see her like this.
I pick her up again.
Rakil takes her other arm. Guess the moment we leave the low grav, she’ll start weighing what she’s supposed to, or three times what I’m barely supporting –
Annnnnd apparently my own injury will suddenly decide to set off half my suit alarms at once and make the autosystems shoot me full of drugs. My head pounds and I’m sure I’ve flushed an unhealthy colour but I guess it beats falling over forwards with a sudden wave of agony. The armour’s hands shook already. I grit my teeth and put one foot in front of the other.
“Ellayn?” Porsia and her two first sopranos had made it as far as that next door. “I h-heard you yelling over vox, we – ohThrone -”
I have a free hand. The sign for contamination is sleep-learned: open little finger, closed hand, palm up to start, flick of the wrist, exaggerated gesture for mortal danger. Instantly she signs the response, just like the exercise, source? I nod to Niwall on my shoulder and her eyes go wide. Alive? I shake my head shortly. (My neck still hurts.)
But we’re sisters. Nobody needs to be told. Nobody’s going to talk about procedure, say we shouldn’t bear our fallen sister out of that terrible place, no matter what her suit tells us. And Rakil goes straight from being a strong shoulder under Niwall’s arm to pretty much collapsing the instant someone else takes the weight. (They don’t try and do that for me and that’s good too. My burden might be the only thing that’s keeping me upright.)
She weighs about a million tons but the Emperor is my strength. Rakil’s leaning pretty hard on Hayla now and that’s a black eye she’s developing, but she’ll be all right. We look after our own. God-Emperor, grant us fortitude to endure that which You have given us to bear.
“S-so,” says Porsia carefully –
“You don’t want to know,” I manage, and she’ll be able to hear the wreck I’ve made of my voice under the synth. “Message got through.”
“Right, sister.” She nods smartly, as if being professional now can make up for falling apart (oh Throne on Earth was it only) five minutes ago. “So what now?” she asks, and it’s a good few seconds before I realise she’s talking to me and an answer’s going to be a few more.
Blink hard. Swimming in pain. Get a damn grip. “One sure way out of here, the limo. Take your section ahead and secure it, we’ll follow at best speed. Don’t let Gennid leave without us, hear?”
A nod, fingercode aye-aye, and she goes on ahead. All right? Next burning issue. I take a deep breath-
try to –
Throne, but my side hurts. Every time I breathe it’s like there’s broken glass sticking in me. Standing still now. Yasi’s the other one carrying my burden now and she’s looking at me like maybe I’m fragile, going to break if she says anything. What would I tell another sister in my…
Condition. Condition monitor. Mine. Wrist. Wouldn’t need this if I only had a hat on. Dammit. Runes are swimming in and out of focus and I hope that’s the tears in my eyes and not damage to the suit. (Breathe. Grit my teeth.) Okay. Okay. Armour integrity? No breach, none, not a tear, not a puncture, not a scratch more than I had walking in there. Blood… wait, I’ve got blood loss without a suit breach? Did I expect this to make sense? That one says – cracked ribs, possibly worse. Flashing runes, those ones there. A decision point. It’s asking –
It’s asking if it can unlock the hard stuff. Moment it does that, I’m on a clock – four hours of function, then I go down so hard my suit can’t get me back up. Either a preparation for martyrdom or a statement that help is on the way – I hope I got the correct rune as I mutter the first verse of the Litany of Blessed Endurance. Guess I’ll find out in four hours.
The suit’s homeostat is plugged into four big plugs between the muscles of my back, about level with my heart, looks like a spider made of of steel, goes on before the backplate. I can feel it tick-click to itself in a manner that feels somehow approving, and it’s like everything tightens and sharpens and brightens and works.
All right. I breathe and it hurts but suddenly that’s not a problem. Yasi looks me in the eye and I nod to her and we get moving. Next problem.
Pink. The little pilot is in our way. Sat there against the wall with her legs stuck out in front of her, staring down unblinking at the fleshless razor latticework of her augmetic hands. She’s not moving. That astropath unscrewed the picture frame round each of our self-portraits. Who’s here to pick up the pieces of her?
She seems to hear our footsteps in a way she didn’t hear the others’. Turns her head to see us, a mechanical defensive motion, shift in her weight, a moment of fight-or-flight. I meet her eyes, neither pity nor threat, don’t make me carry you too.
“Apologies, Sister.” The sunny customer-service tone is completely at odds with the look of her. She doesn’t need to move her lips to talk. “For the lap-lapse, the lapse, lapse in.” She bites her mouth closed, deep breath. Opens her lips a grudging crack. “How can House Omber assist you today, Sister? Your satisfaction is our concern.”
“I thought our next step would be to get ourselves out of here, if you’d agree.” And I have something new to thank the Emperor for, that the machine that grants me a voice doesn’t steal away my actual tongue. I have it lighten up on the bass and drop the volume a little, not angelic, just audible. “Do I need to ask the interrogator to drive?”
That has her getting her feet under herself. “I shouldn’t think that should be necessary, milady Sister.” Her bladed fingertips leave gashes in the wall as she hauls herself to her feet and the mag-soles on her impractical shoes activate with a reassuring click. Her bearing is perfect. Her eyes… aren’t. “Passengers are invited to make their way to-to-to-the, to the landing pad for dep-departure.”
Gennid’s leaning against the limo when we get there, his back against the once-pristine fibreplas of the false Valkyrie hull. Flicks a hand to me as we approach in a good approximation of our finger-code: you. Here. Now.
Fuck off (not that I can say that in fingercode). I’m hurting and I’m pissed off and despite the drugs I know my body is exhausted. He’s not ordering me around like some kind of pet. We get Niwall locked in between Yasi and Porsia, her suit seems to recognise what we’re doing and plays along, and meanwhile Pink’s warming the limo up. The interrogator has the good grace not to press the issue. I don’t know, maybe he thought that he was being subtle with that sign-language, maybe he doesn’t know we literally grew up speaking fingercode alongside Gothic and he might as well have broadcast that order at full volume. I guess I shouldn’t ignore it entirely.
But he still doesn’t merit the effort of a salute. “You wanted something, interrogator?”
A weary nod. “You’re forrard with me. We should talk.”
I look at him till he starts speaking Gothic again.
“Forrard.” He gestures at the limo’s cab. “For information control. You understand?”
No, but apparently he’s ordering me to sit – where? –
Okay. So everyone else gets the nice opaque reassuring confines of what at least looks like the back of a Valk, and the company of our martyred sister. Me? I get to sit in the middle of a cockpit built for three mortals, a seat that truly wasn’t designed for an armoured body, but at least it’s hard. It’s a good thing the other two in here are small, and that Pink’s piloting doesn’t involve anything more energetic than fitting her hands into the control-gloves.
Is this befitting of the dignity of our office? Pink’s voicebox sounds as cheerily professional as always. “Destination, honoured sister, noble sir?”
“Take us downwards.” Gennid jams a verbal foot in the door. “Cruising speed, remaining close to the hivewall. Specifics to follow. What is this thing’s strongest thrust vector?”
Pink raises an eyebrow. “Upwards: it is a safety feature.”
It’s as if she’d said something amusing. “Very well. Nose to the ground, then, if you please, belly to the hive. Stand ready to cut nullgrav and redline everything else, d’you understand?”
“Understanding is not required. Course laid in, mymy lordsir.”
He ignores the slip. “Now set us off on a regular transit course downward, maintaining your orientation. You’ll know if you need to do the other thing, trust me. I’ll speak of where to land when we’re less high up. Meanwhile, privacy, if you will. Peccatula non vides, peccatula non audies.”
“Privacy, aye. Dumb, blind – excuse me – deaf to audio in three, two.” She averts her eyes, too, and dammit if that’s not creepy in – a – a –
Aaaaaand now the water-clear canopy in front of me is pointing straight at the distant ground and there’s a thousand miles of nothing in every other direction and my gut tells me we’re falling. Thank you, interrogator, thank you so much…
“I suppose it would be too much to ask,” says the man perfectly matter-of-factly, “that you’d have been trained in how to handle a confession?”
I grit my teeth and haul myself back inside my own skin. “I think that those words perhaps do not mean to you what they mean to me? I mean, I don’t think you are my subordinate, and you look bloody strange for a Sister Famulous?”
He makes another of his little disgusted noises. ”No would have been sufficient.” He leans back slightly and looks straight ahead out of the canopy. “So, ‘Sister’. What now?”
“It’s not hard to understand, it’s not a technical term. What now? By luck as much as judgement we have succeeded at the objective that overrode everything else. Now we are back at square one. Now we have an enforced half hour or so of introspection in transit. We have the luxury of asking questions. Of… second-guessing.”
“Second-guessing.” I try and shift into a less impossibly awkward position, double-check the maglocks securing me to my seat, try not to worry about falling out into the infinity above me or the decidedly not-infinity in front of me. “This is about me and my sisters, again. Isn’t it.”
He pinches his brow, again. He’s doing it with his left hand, his off-hand. He’s doing that because he’s kept his right hand concealed from me since he stepped onboard. “Isn’t it? As I told you, in you we have a mystery. Girls educated and trained and what’s more equipped after an incredibly rare and exclusive fashion. Girls who-”
I frown. “Gennid, surely it’s no surprise to find, well, little Sisters? Did you think we sprang into existence as battle-hardened valkyries?”
“Sis-ter-hood.” He draws the word out in that irritating habit of his. “You see, there’s the rub. Whoever you are, whatever you are, however mislaid or misdirected, you look a whole lot like the Adepta Sororitas. No unholy weapon would have come to your hand in response to a heartfelt prayer, and I know blessed ammunition when I see it. Your wargear, you aren’t ‘dressed up like a Sister’: you are equipped as a Sister, down to small details you’d want an expert for. Your hate and fear of that Herald were real enough. Your sleep-training I have already put to the question. But answer me this.” He takes a deep slow breath. “Who is Saint Ursula? Who is your patron?”
“Uh.” To say this story is familiar would be an understatement. “Saint Augusta Ursula Vigiliae, ascension day zero-zero-nine of year eight-eight-nine of the thirty-sixth millennium. Patron of lobbyists and petitioners, shrineworlds include Baelis, sponsor of-”
He grunts as if satisfied. “For comparison, then. Recite for me the names of Saint Alicia Dominica?”
And sleep-learning takes over. I never learned this awake, never read this, nobody ever told me this tale, it’s part of me like my name is. In my current state, the words just fall out of my mouth like glossolalia – “Glory be to her name, the Blessed Saint Alicia Dominica, Mother of the Sisterhood, Scourge of Vandire. Author of the Sisterly Rule, prima inter pares et-”
His eyes narrow. “The titles of Saint Macharius.”
“Glory be to his name, the Blessed Saint Macharius, Pellides and Heir of Donia.” I don’t even have time to think. “Lord-Commander Solar, Macharian Crusade.” I could only stop the tumbling words by biting my mouth closed. “Angelus Ignis, peer to angels.” It’s like hearing someone else speaking.
“Enough. Now recite for me-”
“I-I know.” Abruptly I raise a hand to stop another tirade of catechism, and for an instant he tenses. Any motion of mine is a threat. “All right? Let me cut to your conclusion. Everything I know about everything that is important, it’s sleep-learned, it’s indoctrinated, stamped on me by machine. Textbooks behind my eyes, litanies written on my tongue. Everything except the Saint, her hymns, her stories, her rites – they’re all memories formed awake. They’re not in the litany. They’re local. Honestly learned, if that is the word. And you don’t trust anything local a-and we shouldn’t either. Yes?”
Frustrated he hisses. “Yes, yes. The next part is the bit I need: what are we missing? Sister, you are dressed and equipped and indoctrinated into the part. Even if my impression of your indoctrination is deluded, how do I explain your wargear? But you’re not telling me that the blasphemy at the top of the hive was one lone sister gone rogue. You’re not telling me the rot doesn’t run deep.”
Nnh. I can stare at the man or I can stare at dizzying infinity or I can shut my eyes. They sting. “The. The foundation. The Saint herself?”
He shakes his head shortly. “I don’t know. We don’t know. Somewhere up there-” he jerks his head in an odd, alien gesture, I guess he means to refer to the voidship he came from- “there’s right now a battalion of archivists digging through a forest of mouldering codices looking for a single proper unambiguous reference. There’s a dozen people who could have been Saint Augusta Ursula, half a dozen ways an Order-Minor ends up recruiting and indoctrinating on a hiveworld. You were indoctrinated in her stories in vivo, what did you call it-” His mouth twists as if with the sourness of his tone. “Honestly?”
“Yes.” The synth still doesn’t know what to do with a voice that isn’t even trying to be sure of itself. “We were told that localisation is done this way, just as weapons training requires physical training as well as-”
“Thing is, that’s not impossible, it’s not bizarre, it’s… winked at. Every induction in the whole bloody Adeptus Terra is variant. Show me a single training facility that uses nothing but hypnodoctrination and I’ll show you a bald-faced lie.” His finger taps fitfully on the dashboard as he stares at our reflections on the cockpit. “Your cover identity is so damned plausible.”
“And yet.” I meet his reflection’s eyes.
“And yet,” he hisses at himself. Raises an eyebrow after a moment, looks up at me irritably. “All this doesn’t bother you?”
“What gave you that impression?” I glower at him. “Would anything be served by curling up and waiting for the truth to go away? Hope is the first step on the road to-”
“See?” He throws up his free hand and I manage not to flinch. “You even talk like a damn Sister. A more perfect bunch of holy innocents…”
He’s trailed off. I try to look as if I’ve never met a particle of doubt in my life. “Yes?” I say, eventually.
“Holy innocents. Very specific-” He clears his throat. “For what was your choir selected? Just your singing voices?”
I frown. “We were told it was progress with our studies, that we couldn’t let ourselves fall behind just because we sang for an extra hour a day. I mean, Niwall-” who’s dead because she followed me – “she’d always joke that we’d been chosen for our looks-“
“Progress.” Gennid makes a fist. “Sleep-learning is perfect first time in maybe half of all cases. How many of your choir ever had remedial indoctrination sessions?”
Blink. “We had physical lessons on the Saint?”
“Only about the false saint.” He lets his hand fall gently onto the dashboard. “You were in the cathedral. Presumably you’d have been central to the rite my lord Toth interrupted?
“I mean, we were, we were literally the choir.” I swallow hard. “Do you want a-“
A muscle works in his jaw. “We were told that something about the rite would be… Like a disease of the soul. That fervent faith in the Emperor would be a shield, but how many people in the hive are truly that loyal to-“
He stops talking because shock has chiseled its way through the drugs I’m swimming in and blasted my face pale and Sisters are not supposed to use language like this in front of outsiders, but my synth is quite happy to make “motherfuckers” into a benediction. And I shut my eyes and take a deep breath and then I let the idea out of my head. “Faith shall be our shield. Interrogator, the words that the blasphemer spoke came from nowhere. They flowed through us and around us and out of us and left us and we didn’t remember them. We were like… I mean, it’s like we were catching what she said and broadcasting it, but we couldn’t remember a word. To coin a phrase, it was like we were shielded.“
“Because a lamp with a wick that burns up quickly is no good.” He curls his lip. “And innocents would have made for excellent sacrifices as they gave out one by one, no doubt.”
“You’re, uh. It’s a lot to…” I swallow hard. It tastes awful. “We’re seriously suggesting that my sisters and I, we were raised for…?”
“Possibly the Order entirely,” he rasps. “Look at the prize. If my lord Toth had not been there, if the red priest Ariah had not cursed the hive’s communications as thoroughly as they could, if the Stilletto had not been enacting a curse upon all broadcasts out from the hive, if my team had not been cutting all communications links between uphive and downhive. What we’ve seen here would have spread across this whole hive and this whole planet. Six hives. As many billion souls.”
I clear my throat. “Twice that.”
He gives a short, bitter, alien hiss. “Twice that. You see the stakes. You’re surprised they rest on so much as a century’s conspiracy?”
I swallow. I say nothing.
“The source of your equipment, your training and so on. We will uncover it, people will burn for it, but not today. This is not what we are about, in this moment.”
“What is, sir?” My synth makes the question sound matter-of-fact. Just flatly hides whether I’m sounding small and alone.
He makes a fist to stop his tapping fingers. “Ignoring you is no option. We cannot go our separate ways, it’d be an abrogation of duty. I cannot sensibly investigate further into the Order of the Quill without a means of doing something about any findings – apart from anything else, your conditioning makes you unreliable where they are concerned, it’s the weakness of all such orders. And I am resourceful, but I do not have a dozen angels in my back pocket. No, it’s trust you or don’t, take you on or…” He shakes his head. “On the left hand, you are living, breathing ritual components created by a cult of the Changer of the-”
He swallows the words. “Answers that question. On the right hand, those components are the best facsimile of the Sisters of Battle I’ve ever seen, assembled from the correct materials in the correct order, and we are in one of the situations for which the Sisterhood exists – the Emperor could certainly use a dozen Sisters today. We must work with or against each other. And now is as good a time to decide that as any.”
My eyebrows go up. “You’re literally asking my advice on whether or not the next thing we do is kill each other.”
He sits back, hand still under his coat like he’s being subtle. “Call it a last-ditch façade of due diligence.”
Deep slow breath. My ribs ache dully. Consider my next move, choose carefully. Wrong words and this goes bad, fast. My heart would be pounding if my suit would let it.
“Bullshit,” I hear myself say.
Not the words you were expecting, interrogator? “You’re… going to have to repeat that,” he says, deliberately.
“Bull. Shit.” I don’t look away. “Bullshit. I’ve fought for you. Killed for you – d’you know how many hours it has been since the first time I ever deliberately shot at someone on purpose? Niwall, my sister – did you think that word was just a metaphor? – she died. Saving your pathetic Throne-damned life. Again.” If I don’t moderate my tone then my synth will decide I want real volume and my sisters will hear. “You have all of the evidence for our loyalty that you are ever going to get. You want me to salve your conscience? You want me to go first? You want me to let you stand before the Emperor and say you died in battle with a heretic? No. Fuck you. No.”
“Sister Ellayn, may I remind you to whom you are speaking-”
“How could I forget? It’s the first thing out of your mouth whenever you don’t get your own way. Gennid, I have no more proof for you, no more evidence, no… words to say to justify my sisters or make us fit your taxonomy. At this point you pretty much know all I do. So as you say. Take us on. Or try the other thing, and we find out if that grenade in your pocket goes off before I can throw it out of that canopy with you attached.” Pause. Breath. “We clear?”
A moment’s silence. He closes his eyes, and for what feels like a long time he’s still as a statue. Then he withdraws his right hand smoothly from under his coat and my arm just blurs – my thoughts, such as they are, are centred on stopping my suit hurting him further until I know whether it has a weapon in it – I have him by the wrist, immobilised entirely. This hold hurts even before you consider that I’m doing it with a powered glove – he doesn’t make a sound.
And his hand is completely empty.
I make myself open my fingers.
And he folds his hands before him, slowly, carefully, without any further sudden movements. “Yes,” he growls. “Fine. Yes.” And he looks me in the eye. “This day and hour, let you and your so-called unit be hereby requisitioned to the service of the Throne until He is done with you, auctoritate Malleus in instantiam: welcome to the service of the Ordo Malleus.” He turns his head, stares off out at infinity. “My lord Toth can always have me shot for cowardice when this is over.”
The little man sits hunched in his seat staring at the beautiful terrifying dizzying view and nursing the long red bruises I’ve left on his hand, and to the extent that the word applies to a servant of His Imperial Majesty’s holy Inquisition, I’d say he’s sulking.
“This prosecution is a Malleus operation,” he growls, “as I believe I mentioned. From the beginning, then. Nothing was left to chance: the Archenemy cannot be allowed even a foothold in a place as rich in human and natural resources as Baelis. The Inquisitor and the captain of the Stiletto, between them, have ensured that the enemy shall not prevail. No ‘probably’, no ‘might’, no ‘if’, and believe me when I tell you this is not propaganda. The Archenemy cannot triumph this day: before even I started my own work, we had won.”
I raise my eyebrows. “So… this is what winning looks like, is it?”
“The Imperium has a broad definition of success.” He doesn’t smile. “Thus was the plan: backstop first, ensure victory, then work to mitigate collateral damage. This is how we work. The Stilletto has orbital superiority, top cover on the polar launch tower on Hive Primus and a clear shot at anything launched from the equatorial accelerator. The threat has been contained to the planet, therefore, and at worst it is conveniently arranged in the six hives.”
“And so, what. The Inquisitor descended to the hive the threat was going to originate from? He knew where and when?”
A short nod. “When the Inquisition needs a fortune told, they do not go to charlatans. My lord Toth and his personal guard deployed to prosecute the principal threat – as our second-greatest military asset, they had the best chance at a surgical strike that preserved the most lives.”
I snap my eyes shut. The mental image doesn’t budge. “I was there, you know that?”
“Quite.” He’s drumming his fingers on the dash again. “Then, yes, the Inquisitor has determined the points at which actions will preserve the greatest quantity of Imperial resources, and there he places his pieces. Ariah, an allied priest of the Deus Mechanicus, was ordered to shroud the eyes of the hive and prevent any information concerning the threat in the cathedral from leaving in an uncontrolled manner. I and my team were deployed to the communications nexus, to cut the links from uphive to midhive in order to render any potential failure of Sibling Ariah’s mission less damaging.” Tap, tap-tap. “Below us, teams have been deployed to the four barbicans of the hive, their mission to lock the hive’s exits down in order to render any potential failure of mine less damaging.”
“The cathedral was… a…” I clear my throat. “Our voxcasters picked up Imperial chatter. It… The Inquisitor slew the, whatever happened to Sister Drabbe. But could not answer calls for aid thereafter. It didn’t sound much like a glorious victory.”
He grunts. “A battle never does. I should believe the Inquisitor lived unless I had seen his corpse myself. Sibling Ariah, though: clearly their curse went off, but its objective is incomplete.”
“Wait. The curse in uphive? The static on the vox? The way we can’t call backup or work out what’s going on? That was our side?”
“The way the sermon that the daemon was preaching in the cathedral was contained after merely a few words were broadcast, you mean?” A grim nod. “It is said that the place’s ceremonies are broadcast live planetwide, but there had to be a processing delay of some crucial moments. During that time we physically severed the links with downhive, but not in time to prevent the staff of the processing facility hearing, nor simulcasts from private recordings or the equipment of the noble houses.” Tap-tap-tap-tap. Does he realise how annoying he is? “The daemon-ascendant, the false saint, what’s her name, Drabbe or Ursula Augusta or whoever: she was dealt with by the Inquisitor personally. Disorder in the cathedral was inevitable and broadly acceptable. Our problem is then the sermon. An act of warpcraft, a disease of the mind.”
“A song of madness?” (It’s in my head.)
“If knowing the enemy were as simple as a psychological diagnosis, girl, the witch-hunters should be out of a job: let us settle simply on ‘they turn their coats, effectively by magic’. It could be simply activating something within the corrupted saint cult, something that you and your sisters could have been sheltered from. Notice that all of our offworlder troops heard it and none succumbed.”
Wince. “Maybe. The struggle beside the Saint is supposed to be a metaphorical one, an act of endurance, but people didn’t see it like that. Even – even my sisters and me, we…” I shut my mouth. You just convinced him to trust you, idiot. Want to change that with a nice few words about how you shot at his inquisitor?
He shakes his head irritably. “Regardless. Between our acts of sabotage and the jinx laid on the hive by Ariah, the daemonic sermon currently exists only as a few isolated recordings-” (the writing on the wall, the words I can’t forget -) “That is, it was not transmitted downhive, and now it cannot be, because I have cut the links. Until the jinx is lifted, mass broadcast in midhive and downhive is possible only via a very few means. In other words, the attempt to corrupt an entire hive has been halted, and can be stopped. Provided we act quickly to cauterise the threat.”
“Provided we -” Sudden dry mouth. “No.”
His gaze is suddenly very steady and level. “No to what?”
“No, wait, the, the, uh.” I stammer, try and crane my neck upwards and backwards as if to see the too-bright star that is the Stilletto, as if seeing it would somehow help. (My neck hurts.) “You’re, they’re going to open fire, aren’t they. Why you needed the astropath, you just ordered a-an orbital strike.”
“We did, yes.” His eyes are flinty. “Or at least, we confirmed that one was required.”
“B-but.” The distant, deadly ship can’t be seen from here. “There are millions, literally actual millions of innocents in every single layer of the Hive.”
“Roughly forty-eight million humans occupy the first thirty-one levels of Hive Tertius,” he says, the sound of his voice carefully and callously level. “I’d call it roughly forty to fifty per cent impact of the warpcraft among listeners: call it twenty-five million innocent, fighting for the Emperor. Would that we could arm them and marshal them to victory. But that is not possible. A limited sterilisation is indicated.”
“The, the cathedral, there are reliquaries in the Spire.” I can’t twist far enough in my seat to point. “Just right up there behind us. Holy sites. The centre of the Ecclesiarchy of Baelis. The Autocrator’s palace.” It isn’t sinking in, it’s bouncing off my conscious mind that he’s going to do this, that the Holy Imperium itself is going to deliberately –
The feeling is of scrabbling for a grip on sliding scree. “Collateral. Collateral damage. How, uh. H-how much? You were, you were talking of saving the hive?”
“Indeed I was.” He nods towards the miles-distant ground. “Forty million souls in uphive, the briefing says; one hundred forty million in midhive; one thousand four hundred million in downhive, and the remainder below. Even assuming every one of them is as spotless as you are. What if I told you instead that we’d given every loyalist in uphive the ability to martyr themselves to save the rest of the hive?”
The synth makes my voice into an ethereal whisper and silences the shuddering breath I take before speaking. “What’s going to happen?”
He makes a face. “One effect cycle from each of the lances to intersect inside the hive-spine at level thirty-one, then a single load of -”
The words carry on for a while. I’m not listening, just watching his mouth move. It stops. I repeat my question. “What’s going to happen?” I ask, as if he’s simple. “To us.”
“At an upper estimate, sister, the devastation shall reach to level thirty-six. Forty-five to fifty million is a reasonable guess.”
“The-the cloister of Saint Ursula, it’s on level thirty-two south-east. Our younger sisters, the orphanage, the hospital, the support staff, the… it’s not even in uphive -”
I bite my mouth closed before he says anything, and he doesn’t fill that silence.
“…you’re testing me,” I say. At length, when I can control my voice.
“Do you mean by that,” he says slowly, “that you think I am lying to you?”
I shake my head, numbly, just a little. “Five per cent of the hive by population, twenty per cent by consumption, seventy per cent by wealth.” He’s watching me just as closely as before. “It’s the only way to be sure, that’s what you’ll say. The bureaucracy and the houses will hold civilisation together for long enough for the Administratum to pick up the pieces. New nobles will be elevated. Wealth is not truly anything to do with money. They don’t make anything in uphive apart from laws, as the saying goes.”
An eyebrow. “This straw-man you’ve assembled, is he misguided?”
“I – don’t -” I can’t meet his reflection’s eyes. “It’s unimaginable.”
“That isn’t an answer-”
“Stop it!” I can’t help it, my synth gets involved. Enough subsonic and secondaries on my voice to give it a snap that would blister paint: the man physically flinches. “Shut up! You’ve – you’ve – we’ve put a gun to the head of everyone I ever knew or liked, to my family and the people who raised me and the only life I’ve known and we’ve pulled the trigger and fired our weapon dry and you’re still bloody needling me and…”
He’s put his hand up, palm towards me, lowered his eyes. Possibly he’s just trying to get me to simmer down before someone gets a ruptured eardrum. I pause for breath and stare at him and wait for him to speak and eventually he does.
“We have misunderstood one another.” Again. “Now, allow me to be explicit.” He grits his teeth for a moment, then speaks. “My briefing you… it was supposed to be an olive-branch.” Seeing my incomprehension – “A peace offering. It isn’t you who needs the briefing, Sister. It is me. I was born and raised aboard a voidship. I was schooled and indoctrinated on a garden world. In case you have not realised it, I am exquisitely aware of how little I know about the consequences of the Inquisition’s actions here. You say I need you: this is correct. I need your knowledge.” He bites off the end of the word as if it stings his tongue to say it. “Enlighten me, Ellayn. Tell me of the collateral damage. Forty million of you are dead. Tell me the rest.”
Uh. I swallow hard, clear my mouth. Can’t get the vile taste out. Deep breath.
From the beginning, then.
I bet you think our biggest problem is the next few hours. Hivequakes. The fear, the sudden terrible crawling agoraphobic dread of being reminded that you’re not walking on the ground but on a miles-high lattice of ‘crete and plasteel. Panic, sudden and immediate, at the imposition of the helpless realisation that you are just simply not in charge of whether you live or die today. Smoke in the air-vents, poison in the water, spikes in the power, darkness and chill in the streets, all the trappings of a disaster, yes?
Well, that’s all as good as happened. I have no way of knowing how many will survive the initial strike. But, but that’s not our true worry. You’ve thought of that, you’ve envisaged it, even an outsider would have seen this far. Disasters happen to worlds, even to hives. Not even a tenth part of the population of the hive is affected. An orbital strike is a big thing, but hives are big places: you would not believe what it takes to kill us. The hive will survive it, yes?
It’ll survive that, yes.
But the thing that poses most danger to our hive is the hive itself.
They say civilisation is three meals from anarchy. They say the Emperor’s armies march on their stomach. They say – yes, all right. They say a lot of things. And I bet you that if I’d asked you to consider food supply on your list of things to worry about today, you’d not have considered it, would you? Knowing that humans can go a week without food easily, that the hive’s reserves are broad and deep?
I am not worried about – well. I am worried. It hurts, deep in my gut and in the back of my throat, that all that I’ve said will come to pass – but what I truly fear is not that people will die in that first initial disaster but that the system itself will break – that – that even the ways for the system to go wrong will fail. With the nobility dead, with the reins of bureaucracy cut, it is the stupid things, the boring things, that will be the doom of the hive.
It’s a crime to hoard, you know that, and more than that, it’s a sin, and not one that’d get as far as the arbitrators. Your shift-mates catch you with more than your share, and you are corrected by your peers long before it needs to be a matter for authority. Rations are practically automatic, you say, they’re released at dawn. And yes, they are. But when’s dawn? Who says?
You got your training in a world with a sun, Gennid, but to all intents and purposes you aren’t on one now. ‘Dawn’ is a time on a clock on a wall. You hear myths of the king whose job it was to make the sun rise? Interrogator, it is literally the Autocrator’s job to press the button to signal the start of the hive’s day, and he or his representative has to do that every day. The hive’s day-length is modified depending on quota requirements. And everyone who can push the start button – down to the replacements for the fallbacks for the backups for the people who will just push the button if they don’t hear anything? Well, they’re among the forty million we cannot save.
So there will be no dawn today, just as simply as if the planet has ceased in its rotation and its orbit. Time will not progress. And no shift change is an implicit order to keep working. The workers at the fab will chafe, but extended shifts are a thing. And yes, the people in their habs will wait, but hungry and idle they will not wait forever. And then they will riot. Tear down the storehouse door, feed themselves.
Treachery, you say. Disobedience is blasphemy, and mutiny is a crime against the God-Emperor – yes, it is, and it’s punished as one – but you’ve already got something wrong, I mean, just by thinking in that way you’re getting something jumbled.
You think of a hive as a place of order. I mean, it is – but that doesn’t mean no crime, it doesn’t mean no mutiny, it doesn’t mean people don’t riot. They do. A lot. Everyone in a hive has seen it. But a hive is a place where disorder serves order. A food-riot is a horrifying thing – but the thing about a food-riot is that it feeds people. If a noble fails to do their duty, or if their greed gets the better of them, and they push their underlings beyond breaking-point, then the underlings rebel – the necessities of survival are fairly easily had – a few troublemakers and a bad noble are weeded out – and on average, on the large scale, the system looks after its own.
Until it can’t.
Sector storehouses don’t hold more than a couple of days’ food for a hive-level. And that’s got to feed the next shift too, the ones who will mutiny at some later time that nobody knows and come seeking food. A mutiny lasting more than a day or so would be unthinkable – sectors have neighbours, above and below and widdershins and deosil and inward and outward, and every one of those neighbours will turn on a mutineer just the moment that they can. The nail that sticks out is hammered down, it is written. And the Hive keeps her children alive because on average, most of those children are doing their jobs most of the time.
But with enough failure – enough simultaneous failure – then we can no longer rely on that. Mycofarmers will die of thirst less than a mile from moisturers who are freezing in the dark because the supplementary power plant can’t run because the fuel team joined a food riot to get at a commissary that’s only got one meal’s worth of food left because it’s awaiting a delivery from a mycofarm. And the whole system is founded on the principle that the Emperor’s authority is just around the next corner, in the hands of your neighbours if nothing else, but it’s not going to be because everywhere is broken at once.
And the ones who die in the orbital strike will be the lucky ones and it doesn’t matter whether there was another way.
Now, if I know this, surely everyone does? Well, of course. But every local administrator who says screw-the-rules will guess a different way. If everyone decided not to have a disaster, there wouldn’t be one – but try telling that to hungry people when food is to be had.
Isn’t there an emergency response, then? What of the arbitrators?
Yes. Absolutely. The hive’s authorities will be working to shore it all up. But the secret of the Adeptus Arbites is that they are weak, o-or at least weaker than the mob. Their strength comes from being able to move quickly and decisively and accurately – their command and control are their greatest asset, they mean they are strong at a point. To be at all effective quelling an insurrection they must concentrate and mobilise and triage, pulling out of five sectors to save a sixth.
Except that today, the Arbites are going to be no better informed than anyone else. You see the orbital strike a scant eleven miles away and say that surely everyone will guess what is going on – I see an unthinkable disaster two hundred cities away and say that most people will not even know someone who knows someone who could guess at what just happened. Not without a communications infrastructure that for perfectly decent and sensible reasons has been laid waste.
And who’d like to bet that everyone with the authority to order a hivewide state of emergency, or at the very least the wit to know what’s going on, was attending some kind of gathering of the great and the good when this disaster struck?
Tell me, interrogator. Does the Archenemy have a tendency towards convoluted planning, on occasion?
“Sisters. Briefing-sermon: attend.” My voice sounds perfect. Infallible. As I say the words I prepared and hear the synth broadcast them, it’s a little like listening to someone else talking. “This hour we have accomplished victory for the Imperium. To our tally of martyrs we add Sister-” The synth blanks the noise I make instead of her name. Breathe. Try again. “Niwall. But she shall not go before the Throne alone.”
It doesn’t transmit me clearing my throat. “The Archenemy threat in uphive is now contained by the actions of the Inquisition. This information has now been relayed to our colleagues of the Imperial Navy. And by order of Inquisitor Toth of the Hammer, we expect that uphive, and the heresy within, shall shortly… by… by fire from on high be cleansed.”
Eight requests to speak. I hope the rune I pressed silenced them, rather than stopping them hearing me. “Our path now is clear. The only remaining leadership in the hive is now heading towards the Adeptus Arbites fortress-precinct in the company of Judge Magnus. We shall rejoin that group at the lift-terminus and escort them to their destination, where they shall release emergency authority and restore temporary government to the Hive.” Fucking somehow. Dammit, Ellayn, will you not focus.
I close my eyes, imagine the faces of my sisters. As if that helps. “We may assume that the destruction shall include the Cloister of Saint Augusta Ursula and our home: that means we may represent the last remnant of the Order here on Baelis.”
Breathe. “I know you have questions. Trust me, so do I. And I have no more answers than I did last time we spoke. But what I do know is this. That without what we just did, the heresy would have spread, and the fire I speak of would not have stopped with uphive. That without leadership and full of fear, the hive is on a countdown to starvation and uprisings and a chaos that has nothing to do with the Archenemy. That whatever the books and the offworlders say, whatever the histories shall tell, whichever of our teachers had fallen from the true path and whatever they were trying to make of us, I say that we are the Emperor’s own daughters and this is the hour of need. Objective-primary: restore coordination to the Hive before the Emperor’s people within fall to disorder. Objective-immediate: rejoin Judge Magnus and form on him. Thus said, let it be done.”
Then a single request for the channel: it’s Rakil. Rakil who saw the daemon with me, Rakil who watched Niwall die just as I did. Rakil with the smart mouth, with the black sucking spiral of doubt where her morale should be, who came to me and I didn’t have enough for either of us but maybe that was okay. I could deny the request and nobody but her would know. She’s going to take everything I just said and shatter it but I let her talk because I want to hear her voice anyway.
And she doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t speak a word. She takes the channel and sets her synth, and she starts humming a tune. It’s the melody line from an old elegy, just the simplest little thing. Porsia opens her own voxthief, adds a harmony. Yasi and Rowyn pick it up like it’s a classroom exercise. More voices pick it up and the music takes on a life of its own, and I take a moment to breathe. My voice is a wreck, but this is why the suit has a synth in the first place.
It’s the senior Sister’s place to do this. It feels right. The words I fit to the music aren’t exactly the ones from the Lex but they will serve. “Emperor accept unto your court those fallen today in Your name,” I try to say, and the machine makes it into words. “Ahead of us they go before the Golden Throne, and know not what virtue they may claim in death. Know that among them are the holy, the innocent, the righteous fallen beside the corrupt. God-Emperor, we believe that You shall know Your own, and may You grant them in eternity the state of martyrs-lesser. This we ask of You this day, Holy Throne, Guiding Light, Him on Earth. In whose name we serve:”
And as I’m about to sing my own response, Gennid opens his mouth. “Protegit Imperator,” he intones. The oldest prayer, the motto of the Ecclesiarchy. The Emperor protects.
Such a good job He’s doing.