In Light, Chapter Thirteen
My sisters don’t see it happen.
The limo’s base is towards the hive, its nullgrav engaged. My sisters are inside a cushioned insulated soundproofed windowless floating box and their viewscreens are off, and they wouldn’t even know the first thing about it except that I told them, so they don’t see the sky fall and I don’t either because my eyes are closed because I can’t look and I can’t not look and if I hadn’t worked it out, if I didn’t know, then I’d think this was just really bad turbulence and my suit pings at me angrily because I’m hyperventilating and breathe.
Fucksake. No good to anyone like this. Bet Gennid is watching me. Breathe. Eyes shut. Stuck in here with my thoughts and nothing else and nothing to do and all of a sudden it’s bright outside and I can pretend my eyes are screwed shut and stinging because of a light that has nothing to do with a sun.
Channel request. Private. It’s Rakil. I can’t turn it down.
“Tell me,” she says, her voice full of a perfection both of us recognise as artificial. “Tell me, sister. Please tell me we didn’t do that. Tell me we didn’t fail.”
My throat hurts.
“I just -” I recognise that characteristic break in the words, now. The synth doesn’t know what to do with you if you’re not even trying to be what it wants you to be. “I just need to know that it’s not our fault, yours and mine. I really need to know that right now. I really need you to tell me that.”
I swallow hard and it still tastes awful. “I… It’s complicated.”
“That all you got?” There’s nothing of her voice in what I’m hearing. It’s the machine conveying her words. “That’s enough to keep you going?”
Pause. The paint on my lips tastes bitter.
I don’t have the words.
“We didn’t make that happen.” It’s exactly what she wants to hear. “We didn’t make them fire.” It’s easier to say if I can’t see her.
“They would have fired anyway. Whatever we said.”
“You told me that our mission was to save lives.” Her voice is bleak. “I thought you believed that.”
“I did.” Swallow. “We did. We changed their target, I, uh.” Dammit, I can do this. I open my eyes. Gennid has the screen set to show him –
I squeeze them shut again. “One volley. It was just one volley. It’s, the radius of effect is – the fire is – it stops at uh. It stops around level thirty-five.”
“Oh. Is that all?” The synth takes the rancor in her voice and makes something poisonous. “What’s that in round numbers, call that… thirty million people killed?”
“Call it twenty times that who we can still save.” I wish I could see her.
“We can, can we?”
“Maybe. If we get to somewhere that can broadcast emergency codes before the chaos really gets going in downhive, maybe we can stop it.”
“Blood of the Emperor. D’you want fries with that utter fucking miracle?”
“It’s all we have, Rakil. I can’t give you what I don’t have.”
Pause. A pause long enough for her to take a long shuddering breath. “That bit right there. That’s where the lies were supposed to go. That’s where the morale happens. That’s where you should have told me it was all going to be all right.”
“That what you wanted, was it?”
Silence, again. Nearly long enough for me to wonder if she’s really going to say anything at all.
“No. No, it wasn’t.”
She closes the channel.
The rest of my sisters leave me alone.
They will need me, when we land. They will need the person I’m supposed to be, the one who’s in charge, the one who knows bone-deep that it’s all going to turn out all right. The closest facsimile of authority that any of us has. This careful pretense we’ve all got that I’m not just reading it all out of the same textbook we’ve all got in our heads. They will need Sister Ellayn, the next time I see them. The one who knows what’s going on and has a plan. The one who pulled them out of hell once and by the Throne she’s going to do it again. But that’s twenty minutes away. If I pretend that the interrogator doesn’t exist then I’ll call this some privacy. I take my gloves off and the skin of my face is cold to the touch and sticky with Throne-knows-what. Let’s say I’m praying.
Let’s go with that.
Pink brings our limo down with a flutter of suspensors, the last few shreds of its prosthetic wings hanging off the boxy vehicle like tattered purity seals. The bottom of the craft slams drunkenly into the ferrocrete and the incomprehensible lights on the dashboard in front of me flicker and fail, and Pink puts her hands flat on the console and bows her head.
She opens her lips a scant millimetre and her jaw does not move as her voicebox speaks. “House Omber thanks, thanks, thanks. You for your custom and patience. Have a nice day.” That very slight rattling noise, I realise, that’s her fleshless hands against the control panel. She’s shaking. “Conveyance and holy gift of Deus in Mechanicus, spirit, we thank you for your service and your-your service and your sacrifice.”
It was a pleasure-craft, an aristocratic toy dressed as a lander, suddenly called on to do the job of one of the Emperor’s Valkyries. Its repulsors have breathed their last, melted by flash, seized by the freezing air outside the hive. It’s saved all our lives. But this is the end of its road, an unmarked resting place in an aeroport that looks like nothing so much as a scrapyard.
This place must have been full when the strike hit. Wreckage lies strewn across the plascrete like so many discarded toys – the charred bones and tattered corpses of machines touched by the God-Emperor’s light. Not a human corpse, not a scrap to remind us of the mortals that might have been here. An inlay, gilded paint bubbled and peeled from heat, brashly proclaims hive-level two hundred. Half a dozen vertical miles from uphive, we’ve come. And the whole damn place, everything that can possibly still burn is on fire.
The hive is full of ventshafts and chimneys, you see. The atmosphere processors of the hive’s ancient backbone take in the smoke, gases and bad airs from the mines and the manufactories and even from Outside, and they breathe out pure sweet air in the continuous cycle that is the hive’s lungs and its only weather. Around the outlets are built the habs, where people eat and sleep and live: around the intakes are built the fabs, where people and machines toil and labour. But when the Stilletto spoke, when the Spire fell, the fireball and the overpressure would have found these open conduits an easy path to hab and fab alike. I can taste acid in the back of my throat. I wonder if we’re going to find anyone alive. Aren’t there… I don’t know, baffles? Gates? Void-shields? (Against the Emperor’s judgement? Against the wrath of the Imperium, literal fire from the actual sky?)
But as the limo’s doors open, as Pink cracks the cockpit seal, it’s plain then and there to anyone with ears that the hive still lives.
That noise, the first time I ever heard it in my life was when everything went wrong. The sound of the mob wounded and screaming, of an unimaginable number of people whose world is quite literally falling down about their ears. And it opens a black gnawing hole in the pit of my stomach and I feel sick and if I’m bad my sisters are worse. They aren’t deploying according to drill like they should, they’ve clumped up together and they’re sticking to the cover of the doors like there’s incoming fire. But the place is empty except for the noise.
And there’s no mob. Not here. There’s nobody here but us. The sound is –
the noise is coming from the concourse tunnel, from the gate there that stands torn half-open, from the place we have to go. I can, if I don’t think for a second I can –
can smell the blood and gunsmoke, I can hear –
Dammit, girl, pull yourself together. Open vox, squad band, enough synth to cut through not just what they’re hearing but what they think they’re hearing. Even if I can’t fill that sucking black hole in my gut, at least I can make it sound like I can. This is what my equipment is actually for.
“Agate. I hear it too, but we’re negative for enemy contact. Standard deployment by sections, if you please. First sops and first altos point, second soprano on Gennid. Second alto, you have Niwall. Move.” The obligatory prayer sticks in my throat a second. I spit it out anyway. “Emperor protects.”
And… it works. Works like a magic spell. Works like the Emperor blessed my voice. (I mean, isn’t that what the synth literally is?) My sisters shake their heads, they straighten their backs, they move. The idiot Gennid probably didn’t even notice our misstep. Pink and Rakil follow me like a shadow. And the splintering pain in my ribs can bother me later.
All right, Ellayn. You opened the door of your vehicle in a safe environment and talked your people into getting out of it without more than a momentary wave of terror and panic. Congratulations.
Secure the lift-station and await Magnus. Was that our objective? Think of the scale. This place is massive, the size and roughly the shape of the great cathedral that we’re all trying desperately not to think of. The massive and ornately decorated columns of three massive turbo-shafts drop from the vaulted ceiling, their gates facing outward into a concourse ornately criscrossed with politely drawn ped-lanes and transitways. Three spindly skybridges twine between them, themselves works of art: the aristoi can’t be expected to mix with the great unwashed as they go about their downhive business.
By luck or good judgement we’re coming in the top, on the tallest of the skybridges. There’s a barrier at the far end and it’s still sealed. We’re safe. We’re safe. And I’m just repeating that to myself because as we shoulder the heavy aeroport gates far enough open to get through, the sheer force of the din inside comes out at us like a breaking wave, like a physical force. But the only way out is through and somehow I lead the way. Because below us is the mob, the true crowd of the hive, and it is screaming.
We form up as if the sound itself is the threat but it’s not. Down there – below us – thousands of them. Tens of thousands. More. The transport concourses are meeting-places of dozens of modes of transport, not least pedestrians, and on a normal day when everything was not terror and chaos they would be packed – below us there is a sea of dirty terrified desperate humanity and none of them know where to run but everyone knows not here.
Gennid is beside me and the apple of his throat moves as he swallows nervously. Stood three feet away and only the vox lets me hear him. “Ellayn, you’re local. Read this… situation out, for me? I can’t see the target of this action.”
… Well, he did say he was from somewhere practically uninhabited. “It’s, that’s a stampede, not a riot. Can’t you hear? They’re scared, not-”
A scowl. “To fear is human, as it is written.”
“Yeah? To fear that is human.” It’s unreal, standing on this wide open decorated empty skybridge and looking down at Throne knows how many people crushing themselves to death under the sheer weight of fear. Training says read it. Make myself look. Unfocus the eyes a little, look at the aggregate motion, not any individual. The mob, not its appendages. “Looks like they’re trying to get away from the roadway helices.”
“I shall take you at your word.” He peers at the disaster as if it doesn’t hurt to look at. “Out of interest, why? Surely those are the best avenue of retreat?”
“Airlane down the centre,” I can hardly hear myself say. “The uh. Whatever the strike looked like to these people, whatever it sounded like. It would have looked like it came from there.”
“I see. And of course, we need to go that way.” He doesn’t, he can’t. “I assume this is a hazard you’re familiar with?”
“Never been near one, if that’s what you ask.” Acid in my voice. “You can tell, see, because I’m alive. You expect us to go into one? Voluntarily? Against the flow? You’d need…” I wave a hand vaguely towards the vehicle park, itself nearly packed with crowd. “Something that could literally fly. Another antigrav carrier or a skimmer or something. Except I’d be amazed if there were any left near here.”
“I’m afraid to say that your distaste for a ground action is immaterial-”
“Distaste?” I physically turn to face him. “Gennid, you’re an offworlder, first time you ever met a hive, right?” I get a scowl out of him for that and a short you-know-that nod and I carry straight on. “But where you come from, there are still hazards, you know? There are things you just grew up knowing are dangerous, like, I don’t know. Volcanoes. Rain. Heights. Whatever.” I jerk my head towards the crowd. “Every single other person here is a hiver. And every single one of us learned as a child that a stampede is death.”
“But the people down there, don’t they know that?”
“Yes,” I say grimly. “So they’re running. From the stampede. Creating more stampede. Because staying still in a stampede is certain death.”
He runs his eyes coolly back over the chaos below. “I… see. Your recommendation, then?”
“Stay out of it,” I say instantly. “A stampede doesn’t last f-for ev…” I trail off as my brain catches up. “Shit.”
He just waits for me to finish. Standing here is like sandpaper on the soul. I don’t see how he isn’t feeling that. We need to get out of here. With Magnus. Restore some sense of order. Or what I just said is wrong and it will last forever, or what we are looking at is going to get worse rather than better, or the Stilletto should just have fired at the base of the hive and saved us all the trouble and –
Breathe. (The air stinks, but it’s the smell of massed humanity and burning fuel, not blood and incense and gunsmoke and the cathedral.)
“Okay.” I swallow hard. “We’re not equipped o-or really trained for crowd control. Not our mission, not our calling. But… but incoming in that lift is an actual Judge of the Arbitrators, and he literally is an expert. New objective: vox terminal. Get back in touch with Magnus. Get his take.”
“I don’t like the uncertainty, Sister. This plan has too much of that already.”
“Well, interrogator, you know what they say.” I gesture to my squad and the first sops move out, still kind-of treating the world like it’s going to start shooting any second. “A problem shared is a problem doubled.”
The three lift shafts come down into a compound, a corral with a sturdy wall. The barrier between us and the crowd is solid steelcrys with a gate that’d come off best against a ram-raid, but it’s only ten feet tall. Thank the Throne, our assessment from above was right – it looks like the moral threat hasn’t spread here at least. There’s no purpose behind the violence and power of that terrified mob, it’s just a very human and understandable mentality. Those aren’t heretics, out there, they’re innocents. Victims. Our victims. At the very least they’re not out to kill us. We don’t need to worry about the mob deciding our deaths are worth more than their lives and pushing that wall over like so much sand.
Happy thoughts, Ellayn.
The tech-chapel serves all three lifts, a squat ugly little thing festooned in all the usual cable-trunks, votive panels and randomly spiking antennas of the Cult Mechanicus, and its walls are utterly seamless with the ferrocrete floor like it was there when this hive-level was made. It’s neutral ground – the Guild of Transconductors and Toll-takers are priests of Mars, wholly outside the hive’s structure of ranks and castes. A parallel church worshipping a parallel deity, tending to their mechanical flock with a care and attention many priests of the Emperor would struggle to match. Even my s… even my supposed superiors would need permission to enter a place like this.
The door boredly trains the Mars-red eye of its camera on me as I approach; it narrows its iris and interrogates my suit with a perfunctory little comms laser, and I think that entirely alien sensation I feel was the armour-spirit’s curt response. It’s like there’s a vox-message passing between them, but I don’t speak enough binaric to know what they said.
But it’s clear enough an instant later when the iris widens and flicks – nervously? – to stare at the interrogator following in my wake, and before I have time to open my mouth the door grinds open.
I’m greeted by the metal-studded tonsure of a shortish, roundish person in a ratty robe that’s as brown as it is red. “Servants of the Inquisition!” They straighten from a deep bow and fix me with a monocled eye; their voice is almost entirely synthed, a well-rounded and unexpectedly merry tenor. Completely unfazed by the noise beating down on us from all sides like a physical pressure. “For it is exloaded that the words of the Inquisition are motivated by the cogitations of Deus-prime-fork-alpha-as-reintegrated-by-treaty, all efficiency to those who speed their passage: welcome and handshake!” Their mouth is covered by a metal grille and the rest of that pudgy face is as expressionless as if it was paralyzed. I think those words were supposed to be perfectly normal Gothic? They present no hand. “State your request?”
“Uh.” Nothing in sleep-learning about how to actually talk to the cultists of the machine. Our ritemistresses are Sisters on secondment, servants of Deus Imperator in Mechanicus, they’re still people like us, they’ve just got another set of words in the back of their head, what do I say? “I, uh, need to speak to the turbolift coming down tube nor’west alpha, sibling. Immediately, if that’s possible.”
“Bad request, I think! Abort-retry-approve?” The tech-priest twitches an eyebrow and their eyes twinkle. “Turbo Ninety speaks Emerald and binaric-prime, oh yes, but no height of Gothic. I am permitted to auth you, but surely you are not capable of-”
“Interrupt.” Gennid gives me a look as if to ask what rock I grew up under and near-physically elbows into the conversation. “Retry. We request a vox-intercession with the cargo of Turbo Ninety, preferably with Judge Magnus.”
The priest emits an entirely incongruous synthesized little laugh. “Recognition! Of course! Sily me: let me patch you now!” They don’t leave their doorway – behind them, it’s just about possible to see that the shrine is packed solid with machinery. You could maybe fit three people in there at once if they didn’t need personal space. “Your interpreter?”
Gennid steps forward a little too quickly, in case I do something wrong, I suppose. He holds out his battered hand-vox. (Of course. An ‘interpreter’ would be something that translates between Gothic and a machine language, wouldn’t it?) The priest tilts their head, makes a peremptory little sound, something between clearing the throat and a burst of static, and out from the chapel snakes a prehensile cable in a way that’s just a little bit disturbing. From the depths of the stained red robe the priest brings forth an adaptor the size of my fist, which screws squeakily into the end; a worm-fine cable extends and that clips into Gennid’s handset. The tech-priest mutters the first few familiar lines of the Litany of Access, and it’s not until they finish their incantation that I realise that they were saying it over the vox so that the machines could hear.
Come on. Deep breath. Instruct my suit to direct my voice only into that channel and hope it takes. “Agate for Scale, d’you hear me, Scale, over.” Pause. Nothing. An encouraging nod and gesture from the priest and I try again. “D’you hear me, Scale, this is Agate, over.”
And something, something from the far end. The tech-priest frowns and meddles with the hand-vox, turning dials as far as they will go, pulling a spare dial from the depth of their robes, attaching it to the side of the vox-cable and turning that. Mostly my suit thinks that the signal coming in is a high-pitched screeching, the cry of some kind of machine, though I don’t know if that’s a sign of some problem or operation as usual. But perhaps there are words in it. I can almost feel the vox-spirit guessing at their shape – aha – “…good to hear the sound of your voice, Agate. Scale here, over.”
“Agate reporting in position at lift-station concourse north one, no enemy contact at this time.” I stick to battle-language, it’s literally made for this. “No… no enemy contact. Report hazard, fifth-order crowd currently in stampede repeat stampede. Please advise, over.”
The man doesn’t bother to close the channel before he starts swearing. Very good, sir, but I do actually need advice here –
After a while the words stop. “Say again, Scale?”
“Never mind.” He drops back into battle-language. “Can you hold, over?”
I shoot the concourse gate a calculating look. “Provided situation remains stable: affirmative. No clear path downward, over.”
“Advise you recconoitre vehicle depot. Can you secure materiel, over?”
“Negative, Scale. Materiel present but not accessible, over.” There’s this matter of a giant screaming mob, sir. Between us and that objective, sir. Did I not mention?
“Roger that, Agate, wait one. Out.”
The interrogator makes a face. “That doesn’t sound encouraging.”
I can tell the suit not to send my voice up the cable. I even think I did it successfully. “He’s the only expert we have, unless you’ve been holding out on me.”
Gennid scowls. “And when he doesn’t have a plan either? If you’re right, this little riot is only the beginning.”
“The Emperor will provide,” I say, mostly to shut him up. “And that’s not a riot, interrogator, as I said. Can’t you hear?” He’s opening his mouth to retort when that screech comes out of the vox again along with Magnus’ voice.
“D’you hear me, Agate, over?”
“Loud and -” almost – “clear, Scale, go ahead, over.”
“First take, I recommend we kill turbo velocity, you hold and wait. Stampedes burn themselves out.”
I chew on my lip and it still tastes vile. “I advise against, your honour.” How to say this? “Tactical sitch has evolved, are you aware?”
“Enlighten me.” And even through the chain of thinking machines that connect his voice to my ear and the screeching over the airwaves, I can hear his gritted teeth. Or perhaps every one of the spirits aiding us could hear it, and thought I needed to.
“Aye-aye. Sitch follows. Destruction in uphive has progressed, uh -” I grope for words – “Become, uh, total. Assume all assets above mid-uphive transition lost. Hive communications sabotaged repeat sabotaged. No general emergency response observed. Uncontrolled crowd disorder here and possibly elsewhere. Risk of evolution of disorder to full disaster status.” The dry curt words tie my stuttering tongue like a bandage. “Your honour, if we hold….”
“Copy, Agate, copy.” Stop talking, we get it. “Comms still sabotaged in downhive, please confirm, over?”
Think so? I meet the tech-priest’s eyes and they nod hurriedly. “Yes, your honour. Still short-range only.”
“Command decision, sister. Short on intel. Macharius, Imperio Imperii, four. Three, one. Advise. Do you copy?”
… book four, chapter three, verse one… right. Right. Yes. “Copy, your honour, wait one, out.”
And of course, Gennid opens his trap the instant he can. “The reference, sister?”
That little-known secondary function of a Sister of Battle, the lending library – “On Imperial Authority, book four, commentary on Guilleman’s Tactica. The verse is, uh, let me translate, ‘The angel’s (uh) scale balances here the cost of action not against the, the reward of victory, but… against the… cost of inaction.’ Does Magnus know that hypnodoctrination covers the text only? Not whatever weird context the Judges teach for that verse?”
The twist of the corner of Gennid’s mouth has nothing to do with humour. “He’d better. Any road, he knows pretty much exactly what we’re going to ‘advise’ him.”
“He’d better.” I mirror his expression. “I think his question is whether clearing this crowd would be worth it. Because we can see and he can’t.”
“Your call, sister. You’re the one who just spent a quarter hour lecturing me on how much I didn’t know about your home. Got chapter and verse for ‘yes’?”
“Clearing, I said.” I wet my lips. They still taste awful. “The word is too clean. Just so you know. I can’t see a reason he’s asking that question that doesn’t involve the words ‘massive’ and ‘collateral damage’.”
He has the decency to look away, in the direction of the people we’re talking about. “I’m not blind to that. Can we help? If we get to the Arbitrators’ putative sanctuary, I mean. Are we on a hiding to nothing?”
Swallow. Yuk. Pretty sure the drugs that are keeping me upright are having side-effects. “I have to believe we can do what I said we might be able to.”
“Then the cost of inaction eclipses the cost of action.” He looks – for the barest instant he looks almost regretful. “Welcome to our world.”
“I hear you.” Breathe. “Okay.” I nod to the techpriest that we need the vox to work again, and the squeal cuts into our audio feed once more. “D’you hear me, Scale, over?”
“Loud and clear, Agate. Please advise.”
“Aye, your honour.” I shut my eyes as if I’m literally reading the text on my eyelids. “Ibidem, six, one and two, do you copy?” Advance: attack: assault. For the Guard as for the angels, it is critical that the initiative over the enemy be retained.
Silence that stretches for long enough that I’m nearly opening my mouth to ask if he wanted me to try and send that in plaintext. Silence that makes me wonder if maybe he was expecting tactics and not philosophy – “Heard,” he says at length. “Understood. Acknowledged. Have Mechanicus provide arrival countdown. At three, open all the gates, deliver Cave Arbitros with all possible amplification, and take cover.” A grim silence as he gets his jaw around the rest of the plan. “Then counteract for riot-gas and engage the condemned.”
“Copy, your honour, uh. Engage who, sir?”
The vox doesn’t need to transmit his tone of voice clearly. “The ones your words condemned, sister.”