In Light, Chapter Fourteen

by artrald

Up

Thirteen

++++

Those parts of the tech-priest’s face not covered by the metal mask go pale with horror and they back physically away from me with neat little gyro-stabilised steps. “You… The Inquisition does not engage in humour and this would be in spectacularly poor taste if it… how do I… ah-ha.” They straighten, draw themselves up to their full height and look Gennid in the eye. “Bad request. Safety protocols prohibit my accession.”

Gennid curls his lip. “I am aware that the action I have requested is hazardous to life. Do you know what we are doing here?”

“Digression request denied.” They have the expression of a regicide player playing what they hope will be a fork between rex and mannulus.

He looks unimpressed. We don’t have time for this. “Override your damned protocols, tech-deacon. Are you a servant of Deus Mechanicus?” Their affronted expression is exactly what he was trying to provoke. And from his pocket he takes the wallet that I saw before, his credentials, the seal of the Inquisition. “This is the seal of Inquisitor Toth of the Order of the Hammer, which identifies me as interrogator and plenipotentiary. You are requested and required in the name of Deus Imperator to render to me any assistance that I should order, without constraint, without let or hindrance. And I have given you a direct order. Any further questions?”

“But you will hurt the turbolift.” It’s as if they are talking about some beloved animal. “Standing orders… (no, no, they are overridden by)… external-interaction principles… (no, unbelievable, we clearly understand each other)… basic human decency?” They spread their hands. “You mean to say that there is no other way beyond violence?”

“I would love to get our urgent mission through this mess without loss of life,” Gennid hisses. “You have five seconds to tell me how I can do that with available resources, before either you do what I told you or I have the Sisters tear that door open with their bare hands. Are we clear?”

“Insufficient data, as you well know.” They turn unreadable eyes to me. “Sisters, please. Be reasonable. If you sabotage that door your own mission will be performed less properly. Please do not -”

I hold up a hand. “Stop.” I hope the tech-deacon can decode the sympathy in my voice. “I don’t think you mean to tempt us into disobedience.”

The deacon’s eyes blink, once, with a metallic click. “If my choices are to repurpose the machines under my care -“ they pronounce the word as if it were actually poisonous – “or to be torn limb from limb in their defence? Well, I suppose-”

“Your choices are to preserve at least something of the machine and live to repair it, deacon, or to stand in the way of our mission.” I try to meet their eyes and hope they are still human enough to read my expression. “Please don’t make us find out what happens if you try that second one.”

Another moment. The little deacon is entirely unarmed and the top of their head wouldn’t quite come up to my chin. I hope they think I’m being logical. Don’t the red priests consider emotions to be against their religion or something?

And then they look away. “I concede,” they say, and turn to the workings of the door as if on a turntable. “Reconfiguring lovingly maintained turbolift terminus into pneumatic bloody murder cannon, Sister, aye.”

“The sacrifice of the Mechanicus is noted and remembered,” I say, but it doesn’t help: they hunch their shoulders and begin to type.

It hurts, to hurt someone else. I think that we’re supposed to learn to forget that. I’m not sure I want to.

++++

We stand to. We’ve sent Gennid back with Niwall – with Niwall’s body – and Pink, on the skybridge and hopefully out of the way. The vehicle depot is somewhat to the left of the concourse gate: we’ll deploy to the right of Magnus’ people, echelon formation, with me and Rakil anchoring the ends because neither of us has a working automatic weapon with a decent supply of ammunition. (Porsia wordlessly gave me the laspistol she took as a sidearm. Ideally there isn’t much in the way of shooting to do anyway. Like hell am I using any of my twenty-one remaining bolt shells).

“Small talk request: we have five minutes.” The tech-deacon doesn’t look up from their work. “You are moving downhive as if all the daemons of the Warp are after you.” (I blink a little harder than usual and my wound stabs with the drug-dulled memory of pain.) “As a pathetic attempt at quid pro quo – Might I dare ask if you started in uphive?”

“We… did, yes.”

“And might I ask further whether you have knowledge of the status of -”

“Gone,” I say, flatly.

And that makes them look. They do not pause in their work, but they swivel their head at what must be an uncomfortable angle. “I did not even tell you where in uphive I was asking about.”

“Doesn’t matter,” I repeat.

“Doesn’t…?” They stop, freeze mid-keystroke. Close and open their eyes in a deliberate reset. “Disaster?”

“Hardly.” I cut the word off neatly.

“Sacred Host.” They turn back to the terminal, start work again, the clicking of the keys feeling somehow reluctant. “Is… battle concluded?”

“For now.”

They nod, mechanically, dully. “You are… you cannot be retreating?”

“Not quite. The hive is falling into civil disorder given the recent disaster, of course. It’s … not going to blow over unless someone does something about that. That ‘someone’ is us.”

“By slaying a holy machine.” Another cadence of keys, a warning tone silenced with a gesture, and the chilling orange flash of the warning lamps that I’ve been taught to mind ever since I was old enough to take part in drills. “There,” they say with a narrowing of the eyes. “This place has stood without significant renovation since the revolt of two-eighteen, one of only two such stations in the hive: it has withstood a dozen riots, and would have withstood a dozen more save for this sacrifice. It-”

“Deacon,” I say, and I let a little gentleness into my voice. “Deacon, stop.”

“Why should I? It is important. It is a sacred thing, that which you call to be used as if it were so many munitions -”

I shake my head. “I think you don’t quite get it. The battle is over. It was ended. By the Imperium.”

“The hive-quake?”

Ignis ex altitudine,” I say, and the red-robe freezes completely immobile, statue-still, at the High Gothic words. “Fire from the sky. Nothing remains above hive-level thirty-five.”

“Why?” The question is reflexive. “Deus’ sake, why?”

“There was a reason.” I look them in the eye, I won’t let myself look away. “And forgetting our rank, deacon, forgetting our titles and orders, human to human, trust me. Blessed are the ignorant.”

Another moment’s immobile silence from them. Broken, snapped out of it, by a chord from the console behind them that they acknowledge with a start. “Three minutes, Sister. And if I may make some kind of attempt at a reply upon that unknown protocol you are using?” They duck their head. “Thank you for your… for your unusual candour. Quotation: zero greater than zero plus ignorance.” And they turn back to the console. “I shall give your team a countdown over vox from thirty seconds, audible until the first word of the Cave Arbitros.”

++++

“CAVE ARBITROS.” We speak as one. We don’t need to. None of the volume is coming from our vocal cords. And everyone knows these words. But the Cave Arbitros is choral, it has to be. Nothing about this is individual, nothing about this is personalised. This is the verbal equivalent of the Imperial boot. “CAVE ARBITROS.”

“ADVENIT JUSTITIA IMPERIAE.” I hear the words coming back to us from the public address system, audible at stunning volume over the roar of the crowd. The Inquisition is a higher authority, but the Arbitrators are a familiar one. To a populace that doesn’t speak High Gothic, what these words mean is that the Arbitrators have found their target: be somewhere else.

“IN NOMINE IMPERATOR.” Behind us now a high, building, mechanical squealing screech, the incoming turbo. Three seconds. The gate to the turbo shaft slams open. And just as planned, our warning makes them see this not as an escape but as a threat. And I can only pray that we’ve had enough volume to get everyone to decide that where they want to be now is as far away from us as possible. Or there is about to be a whole lot of blood.

“ADVENIT IRA JUSTITIAE. PARETE. PARETE. PARETE.” And on our last word every one of us secures for concussion. Hand before the face, eyes closed, teeth clenched, lips drawn back. Joints and magboots locked.

They brought the turbolift in as fast as they dared, and everyone without a powered suit will be in a brace position not unlike ours. The shaft ends here and the turbo’s airtight in the shaft: that gives it a lovely soft pneumatic emergency air cushion.

Unless, say, some complete bastard opened the lift door.

The sound is like being hit by a board, and we’re not even in its path – the combeads in our ears are nearly as good as ear defenders, and praise the Throne for that, but regardless I see stars. And while I’m at it, praise the Throne I have my eyes screwed shut and my hand over my face. Praise the Throne that I have an excuse not to see the shockwave plough into the crowd.

I can hear it, though. We can all hear it. The sound punches through my ears into the back of my head, into my gut, and we’re back there in a line again facing the mob and they’re screaming for us and I can smell the blood and the gunsmoke and our weapons have come up ready for the volley fire that’s going to be completely inadequate –

and the only thing that stops us pulling the trigger is that the thing I said next back then is the first thing that I think to say. “Agate,” I hear, calm, cold, professional, and then a moment later I realise that I said that – “At fifty.”

…fifty? The crowd is further from us than that already, and those that are standing are fighting one another to get away –

It’s enough, it’s just enough. That’s not blood that I smell, it’s just the smell of packed humanity. That’s not gunsmoke, it’s dust.

And here they come, to our left. Imperial troops. Not the charge I’d expected, but a slow lockstep march. Powered armour, bright blue – the general’s life company. Makes sense – they’ve got the best wargear. Arbitrator riot batons in their hands, rifles slung. Not that a baton isn’t a deadly weapon in their hands. Suit luminators on full, making the dust of their arrival into a wall of light – I finger-code an order to follow suit and it travels down our line. That clipped professional sister-superior gives them directions in curt battle language the second their channel shows up on her vox, outlines Agate’s part in the plan briefly, and off we go. That sister-superior is me.

“Stick to formation,” sister-superior says, just the order I’d have given if I’d thought for a moment. Behind us the real Arbitrators and the other troops are getting their heads on straight and looking to back us up. Ahead – dimly I can see them through the dust – people are crawling over each other like rats to get away from us. And I realise the armoured life company soldiers are keeping their step just slow enough that we’re not catching the crowd up. There are people on the ground, here. Not trying to get up, not trying to get out of our way, and not a few. Prone or fetal or motionless, prostrated or injured or – don’t look, just don’t look at them. Step over them, or around them. Make like they don’t exist.

Nobody’s shooting. We’re not shooting either. We aren’t shooting at them. They aren’t the enemy and we aren’t shooting at them and maybe I haven’t condemned them all to death. 

I’m aware of vox traffic. I’m aware it’s Magnus talking. It’s too far away to hear. The tech-deacon replying, of all people. A moment later and I hear our voice again over the ‘casters, the Cave Arbitros once more. Another moment and I realise it’s a recording.

And you know what, it’s only bloody working. 

It was loud enough, it was shocking enough to get through the madness, and somehow the mob has found a way to give way. Whatever it is they were running from, we’ve successfully made ourselves more terrible than it is.The Judge’s plan would crumple in moments if the crowd turned into a riot – except that now I’m seeing clearly I can see he’s thought of that, too. Arbitrators and militia are moving out to form a loose second line inside the armoured wall. They’ve got a motley assortment of breathers and facemasks on. Those grenades are riot-gas. But they’re not throwing them.

The civvies on the turbo, they’re moving too. Stunned, bruised, but surviving. There’s a familiar not-quite-sensation as my suit recognises more of its fellows, tells me instinctually where they are. Keyt with the busted knee. Jeny with the shattered ankle. Zade and Avhata and Rillith, their armour telling me they’re alive if not awake. Vanyssa, the one we left behind to play ministering angel.

And the crowd ahead of us is going. Wherever they came from, where they’re going now is away. This place is built to let people out of it. Just don’t think about the descent helices they’re going into and the long empty drops down the middle and whether there’s something there to stop them just – falling. The vehicle bay has short little walls and it has a tall heavy gate. My hearing is beginning to return to something approaching functional as the Scales of Law come up on the gate’s monitors and it judders and creaks its way down into the ground.

Everything is happening so quickly. Everything depends on being fast and smooth, on looking and sounding like cogs in the vast Imperial machine, as immovable as the pillars and gates of the very Hive. (But I have heard the Hive scream). Magnus’ voice on the vox details us to stick with the vehicles, Aqua to spread out in the onward direction and the light infantry to cover all our backs. Someone else is in charge, someone else is calling the shots. All I need to do is what we’re told. I don’t even need to brief Magnus, Gennid’s doing that. I needed this, Throne on Earth, I needed this. I’m coming back into focus.

Not just cargo-crawlers, they’ve found. Servitors. Actual stevedore-servitors, their pale metal-caged flesh making the least of them my equal in simple strength, steroid-bulked arms wrapped in massive pallet-claws, stiff steps following the tech-deacon like massive misshapen children after their teacher, as we make our way back to the lift with a crawler, as we head back to pick up –

Our sisters are there on the threshold of the shattered turbolift and Vanyssa is biting her mouth closed to keep back tears. Cold perfection of my armour brings me to attention, we make the aquila, we clasp forearms because even if you could hug in armour you shouldn’t. Jeny tells me I look like shit and I tell her that’s rich coming from her. And for, oh, a minute or two everything is as normal and fine as it can be.

As it can be when you’re wearing a life-support machine set to keep you conscious and sharp and lucid to the exclusion of all other concerns, and on top of that it’s pumped you full of the kind of drugs they give to raddled pit fighters to make sure the audience gets a show. When you’re loading your martyred sisters onto a flatbed crawler with the assistance of a dead-eyed baby-faced cyborg built for hauling crates. When you aren’t reading your own condition monitor because you have been told about gut wounds, because blessed are the ignorant.

And a tiny little man with a handlebar moustache and aqua-blue armour walks up to me with murder in his eyes and says he’d like a private word.

++++

It’s like being attacked by some kind of small and vicious animal. The little man is staring up at me like I’m not a head taller than he is, making up for the difference in height with additional bristling outrage. “Give me one good reason,” comes the aristocratic voice from somewhere behind that moustache, “for me to let you idiots travel with us one damned step further.” 

I take perhaps half a step back. “Excuse me?”

“This. All this.” He gives an abortive little jerk of the head. “On you. Your fault.” Anger is rolling off him like mist. “I should call you out right here.”

I just look completely blank at him. “Call me…?”

He growls like a tiny rabid canine. “I assume your people have rules for this situation. I assume I don’t care. I assume one of your girls can stand for you.”

I’ve – I don’t think I’ve ever been properly insulted by a male before. It takes a while to parse what he’s trying to do. People this size and shape aren’t ever shouting at me

“Your word. All this on your damned word. Have you any conception of what it was that word asked us to do? Have you? Idiot.” I’m not sure I feel offended, just… confused. “Have you any idea, have you any Throne-cursed idea how close your orders came to killing ten thousand innocent citizens? Sure you’d have loved that, wouldn’t you. The God-Emperor shall know His own, after all. Damned death cultist.”

Blink. “Are you… trying to challenge me or something?”

“No,” the little man snarls, “I’m inviting you to a formal dinner and dance. D’you…” His eyes widen as if he’s not sure he can believe what he’s saying, but he’s got this far, he keeps going. “D’you quarrel, mamzel? I’m at your disposal.”

I shake my head. “General, even if I had taken leave of my senses and wanted to knock your block off, it is entirely against the Rule – a sister shall not engage in local customs of  – do you want chapter and-?”

His eyes go wide and he draws back his hand. Some little corner of a memory somewhere – if the formula for a constrained duel is rebuffed, a physical blow is a challenge one can’t refuse, or something? I step back quickly, out of his reach. ”Stand down.”

He shows his teeth. “Oh, now you place a value on life-”

I’m not looking at him. “Rakil,” I say, warningly. I’m remembering some poor bastards dressed in beetle-white armour, and I’m remembering who killed them, and the helpless empty look on her face after she did it.

Because walking quietly on ferrocrete in metal boots is one of the things we learn. There’s a moment when he thinks I’m trying to sell him an old trick – look behind you! – and then there’s a moment when he realises that no, I’m really not. The little man flinches back away to one side, away from the massive shadow suddenly behind him, away from me, his arm coming up to ward us off. And Rakil just keeps looking at him with those eyes that have killed better men than him today. But she stays her hand.

And now it’s Porsia behind him. She clears her throat and he spins entirely around and she does nothing but raise an eyebrow and stare.
And now my suit tells me I have Vanyssa and Yasi behind me.
And now there’s only one way he can retreat.

I give the man a faint, black-painted smile that bears no kind of warmth. “Go back to your unit, Rorkel. We have a hive to save. Were you not briefed?”

And, well, I mean, credit to the man, he does not retreat. “You people. You bloody people.” He curls his lip. “You meet one crisis and now everything’s urgent, everything’s too late, everything has a billion lives at stake, nobody’s ever trying their best to help you, everyone needs threatening before they’ll do their bloody job. And before you know it you’re ordering up atrocities and states of emergency left, right and centre for no better reason than that you can. This time I was there to catch it. This time. Sister, the Inquisition’s got a reputation at command level, and not a good one, and here I see it’s got it for a reason-”

“ENOUGH.” The synth puts thunder into my voice to turn the gut to water. I moderate it with a thought, because my sisters’ poor ears have been through enough. “Do you want to hate us? Feel free. Get in line. But everything is urgent – everything is too late – you are actually a little short on the number of Imperial lives we would like to save today. And we have already wasted enough time here. If you wish to declare yourself our enemy, then get on with it. I’m sure your successor will be a loyalist.”

He takes that last word about the same as he’d have taken it if I’d been the one trying to slap him. Keenly aware of who is behind him. He flaps his mouth for a moment – his eyes waver from me to Rakil beside me – he decides to keep it shut.

And Rorkel brings his hands up in the sign of the aquila and his suit lends an inappropriate professional respectful snap to the gesture. We mirror it, ten of us in perfect unison. He goes.

My sisters disperse, wordlessly.

++++

It’s only as I get around to ordering my auto-systems to stop my hands shaking that I realise the Judge had been leaning against the wall in comfortable range to overhear all that. I straighten up. “Uh. Something for you, Judge?”

“Oh, maybe.” He pats the narthecium case slung over his shoulder, nods in the direction of Keyt and Jeny. “Your girls over there called a medic, ‘cause apparently someone was about to get his fool head kicked in.”

I wince. “Sorry to put you out, your honour.”

“No trouble. Better the one thing than the other, sure that’s written somewhere.” And he eyes me up and down. “Do we need to have a word about what he said?”

And, I don’t know, maybe it’s the drugs. Maybe it’s the fact that in order to keep me upright and lucid, the suit I’m wearing has me on pretty much the exact same cocktail of substances that the astropath’s guards were full of. Maybe it’s the way that I have not slept for fifteen days. Maybe it’s the way that I can feel that there is blood inside my suit, pooling warmly around the seal at my waist. I don’t know what it is. But I turn to him and some part of me sees his eyes widen as the rest of me just snarls at him – “Leave it!” The synth makes the sound into a crystallisation of violence. “All of you – just – D’you think I don’t know? Do you?” My fists are clenched. The force through them could splinter concrete. “What I’ve seen, what I’ve done, what I’ve allowed to happen – You know. You bloody know, because I’ve bloody told you, you know exactly who you’re talking to, and just now you’re going to come to me and-”

“All right.” He puts his hands up, very much like he might do if I’d pointed a weapon at him. “Not what I meant.”

Breathe, Ellayn. Deep breath. “I am no less a child of the hive than that man.” The world starts to look less like a tunnel with a possible enemy at the end. “I shouldn’t need to tell any of you whose side I’m on.”

“Sure.” Conciliatory tone. Not sure I’m in the mood. “He’s hurting, same as all of us. You know he lost family up there, just like we all did? Maybe yelling at you might bring ‘em back. You know the kind of thinking.”

“Sure.” I meant to mimic his tone exactly, but the synth has other ideas and there’s poison on the word by the time it reaches his ears. “And he’ll stay out of our way from now on, I think, or you might need that narthecium.”

“I’ll see to that.” He shoots the retreating fellow a glance. “We’d have a problem if he deserted. But that’s mine to sort out, all right?”

“That sounds appropriate.” I follow his gaze, past the soldiers getting themselves in order. I take in our refugees, the Arbitrators moving around them like sheepdogs. “The plan, though, that’s still the same? Escort half a thousand civilians through hell to that fortress?”

He makes a face. “You won’t go faster by doin’ anythin’ murderous. Sure, you girls can outrun a cargo-crawler, but the rest of us?” He pats the carapace of his armour, over his abdomen. “Not sure in my own case. And you reckon Gennid or Rorkel ever ran ten miles all in one go, let alone did each one in four minutes like you lot? You’ll need one of us at the far end, to get you in the door and show you which vox-chapel to use if nothin’ else.”

“Got you.” The sudden surge of adrenaline, the equally sudden return of calm, it’s not great for my head. “We’ll make sure that-” the world blurs for a moment – nnh – “Happens.” 

And, yes, he didn’t miss that. He raises a bushy eyebrow. “Talkin’ of narthecia. Permission to check you over for life signs?”

It’s inflected as a joke. It’s not one. I know that. “Whatever would I do if you didn’t find any?”

He snorts. “If your skin is that colour on purpose, I’ll have your makeup artist up on charges. Don’t know what happened up in the spire, but it sure as hell looks like it left a mark.”

I’d say that the blood leaves my cheeks, but there would have had to have been some there in the first place. The Judge won’t miss that, either. “I appreciate your offer, but… there’s nothing wrong with any of us that you can fix.”

He shakes his head gently. “I’m not the headmistress, sister. You can tell me more than that.”

“No, your honour.” I swallow. It still tastes horrible. “No, I really can’t.”

“Have to shoot me if you did, is that it?” His moustache gives a completely unrepentant twitch. “All right. Any service I can do you without you callin’ up the firing squad?”

“Are you a full surgical facility equipped for the respectful handling of the relics of the Adepta Sororitas, its staff properly ordained and catechised that they may operate upon a body sacred unto Deus Imperator?” Shrugging in power armour confuses the servos that hold the upper arms and pauldrons in their proper places. “There’s one thing we need you for, Judge. And assuming you can do it at all, you can’t do it till we get you where you’re going.”

He holds hands up as if in surrender. “Can I at least make sure that you’ll make it that far?”

“How long to your fortress?”

He shakes his head softly. “Twice round the helix. Fourteen miles on the via-magna. Call it less than an hour, Deus willing.”

And as I nod, my neck reminds me that the first real injury I took in this action should have put me in the hospital. “I will remain active for at least twice that.”

“You’re only standin’ up right now because your suit won’t let you fall down.”

“And you are asking if Him-on-Earth has granted me sufficient strength to see your mission through.” I give him much the same smile that I gave Rorkel. “You don’t need your equipment to answer that question.”

It’s like I said something funny. “Yes, ma’am.”

“You don’t need to call me that, Judge.”

“Yeah, I do.” He braces up, gives me the sign of the aquila. “Emp’ror protects.”

++++

Fifteen