In Light, Chapter Fifteen

by artrald

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Fourteen

++++

The level two-hundred descent helix isn’t just a roadway. I’m not just talking about the vast cyclopean scale of the place, about the warm sticky breeze that flows in from each entrance and up through the airlane in the centre. And it’s not just the toll-gates and barriers that bar entry on the upbound side, not just the downbound checkpoints and scanners. The true barrier between midhive and downhive is in people’s minds.

You live on level two-hundred, you’re a midhiver: your hab is above ground and you know it and you’re proud. Your ration-credit is remitted to an account sealed to your caste-code and geneprint. It’s your business how and where you spend that credit, your business how you spend your time outside of labour hours, your calculation whether and with whom to procreate. If not true freedom – for if you become too hungry or unfit, sleep-deprived or impoverished or squalid, you are corrected – then at least you have the illusion of freedom. Or so I was taught. And when you kneel before the God-Emperor you have chosen to, for the Emperor protects: and provided you never choose anything else, you are kneeling of your own free will.

You live on level two-oh-one, you’re a downhiver: your hab is in the Hive and that is all that you know, and you’re proud. Your employer receives ration-credit for their output, calculated by the Admninistratum to allow them so-and-so many inhab arbeiters at such-and-such an activity level. It was by their judgement that a permit was granted for your existence, and it is their duty to feed and clothe, train and succour and house you: and in return it is your duty to conduct your life as a loyal citizen. The machines are taught your geneprint and they are watching as you do your duty to your fab and your hab. And if you do not do your duty and you could have, then you do not eat, for there is not enough for all unless all do their bit. Or so I was taught. And when you kneel before the God-Emperor you are doing so because it is midshift, and it is your duty to kneel before the God-Emperor at midshift observance.

And naturally both sides look down upon the other and count themselves fortunate.

So crossing that line, it’s a social fault-line, a state border, a big deal. There’s literally passport control. The reason the Judge put us at the front, apart from to separate me from Rorkel – besides him we have the clearest signs of status. We’re simply wearing our authority, and it’s impossible to fake. What would take the interrogator ten minutes of bluster, we’d be freely waved through, and anyone we vouch for is holy by association.

The thought amuses me, for a moment, or something that passes for amusement from here. Rakil catches my bitter little corner of a smile and I can see her regretting that I can’t share the joke without the others hearing. Put the fakes at the front, they look better than the real thing.

Except that we go another quarter turn down and that’s not funny in the absolute slightest.

Passport control is made up of ferrocrete prefabbed blockhouses, locked down to the fabric of the descent spiral. These things are a hybrid of hab and checkpoint and commercia, taxed neither by midhive nor downhive, competing with each other for smartness and custom, warmth and humanity muraled onto cold ferrocrete. And now – just now – they are dead. Flatly dead. Broken. Erased. Here we have a building that’s been torn off its magnetic foundations by some titanic force. There, a mural depicting the triumph of Macharius has been burned to charcoal and rust. 

Every window is smashed; the crawlers’ wheels crunch over broken glass and I raise a pathetic little prayer that it doesn’t slash our tyres. Flames lick and gutter from some of the buildings. We don’t get close enough to see many of the corpses. We don’t linger long enough to check for survivors. I tell myself nobody could have survived that.

And we did this – we didn’t do this – we didn’t, we did not. This would have happened anyway. We survived this. We didn’t make that ship start firing, we made it stop where it did. And other pointless useless vaguely comforting self-justificatory bullshit. I’m looking at all this and in my mind I’m just repeating over and over again that this isn’t my fault. I’m almost surprised my sisters can’t hear it. I still can’t make myself believe it.

And next to me Gennid is sat there thinking (I guess) nothing more than that we’re a few impatient steps closer to our goal. And I’m wondering how long before the ration allocations of the fabs below us run out, and whether the arbeiters of two-oh-one will think that perhaps there is food in the richly stacked commerciae that they’ve heard of but never seen on two-hundred. I’m wondering where exactly the people went, who ran before us into here like rats boiling out of a steam-vent suddenly gone hot. I shall imagine that they dispersed, went home. Hid. Got safe. Why not. It’s a big hive.

Novelty wears off quickly. Nothing to see, nothing to look at, nothing really to say. I mean, what can you say? The world’s changed, forever, gone to hell, and we did it. Doesn’t matter that the alternative might have been worse. In truth we’ll never know. (And the hive screamed.) I instruct myself one more damned time to shut up. Determinedly I think about something that isn’t disasters and victims and screaming and my own damn fault. The… huh. The cargo-crawlers aren’t close to max weight, but they’re still heavy bastards: the gradient of the descent helix takes attentive driving, especially because I’ve a pretty good idea that our drivers don’t exactly do this for a living. Emperor’s grace, the roadway lights are still on, the place swept ( – fucksake, girl, move on – ) clear of traffic and obstructions: as Magnus becomes more sure we’ve lost the crowd we gather speed, fast as we dare. Regardless of what has happened, it’s working – home stretch. We can do this.

++++

Is it not written that hope is the first step on the road to disappointment?

Thing about roadways, you see. Roadways in hives, the principal nature of which is that they’re full of people. Their natural state, right, dayshift and nightshift and shiftchange and just all the time, the roadway is naturally not so much ’empty’ as ‘full’.

I mean, the Administratum are pretty good. Pretty damned good. The demand for traffic and the carrying capacity of the infrastructure is one of the dozens of factors going into the calculation of rations and quotas and zoning decisions: in normal times the roadways of the hive are close to full capacity, but very rarely is traffic slowed below its efficient speed.

This feel like a normal time, at all, does it? 

The brakes are loud. The driver is apologetic. I tell them I’ll pass on the bad news.

“D’you hear, Aqua, Scale, Pink, Gennid? Agate speaking. Heavy traffic ahead, over.”

I suppose that the idea that there would be traffic had crossed my mind. I mean, I’d expected civilian vehicles in a kind-of abstract sense. But this roadway, the via-magna, is the main transport artery for everything going north: I’d really rather forgotten that this also meant external traffic, you-know, exports. The fabs and the mines deep below us send their stuff up great crawling cargo-lifts, the cousins of the turbos of uphive and midhive, but half of it goes the last half-dozen miles by crawler. So when I swing up to the roof to get a better view, when I see that the via-magna resembles a vehicle depot rather than a bustling main road, I don’t mean it’s choked with small vehicles or even service trucks. I mean an array of giant ugly wheeled, tracked and many-legged conveyors, big as buildings. And they are… not moving fast.

The vox doesn’t hide Magnus’ growl. “Of course we have traffic. Instruct the drivers to make best speed in the priority lane.”

Seven lanes either way, the left lane for local traffic, the right one for priority: the middle five are taken up by what should be an orderly and organised march of these gigantic vehicles, and it’s, uh, it’s not. Not every one of them is one lane wide, you see – some are two, some are three, some take up the space of four vehicles in three different lanes with their great unlovely piston-legs – and on a normal day, their destination more often than not will turn out to be free just as they arrive at it. All credit to Him-on-Earth, or the Omnissiah, or indeed the intercession of innumerable red priests and grey functionaries – it’s a dance as intricate as the motion of cogs.

And this is the thing about cogs. Take just a few little ones out, and you’ve handily constructed chaos from order and everything will spin and nothing will move. “Aye, Judge, best speed.” Put one cog in the wrong place, and the whole damn thing will lock solid. “Priority lane is little better, though, I’ll warn you.”

“Bloody thing should be clear enough.”

I mean, he’s right. Priority lanes are reserved for the privileged and the holy. I suppose the emergency services use them, too – I suppose that by volume, that’s their main use. “Not so, your honour. Lights and sirens as far as the eye can see. Walking pace at best.”

“You have a better idea?”

The world compresses again for an instant, how dare he – breathe, dammit – “No, your honour. Passing word.”

Gennid heard all that. Leans over to me. Speaks fairly softly. “Your plan, then?”

I match his volume, at least. “Oh, come on. You just heard me say we didn’t have one.”

He jerks his head towards the priority lane we’re crawling towards, the sludge-slow traffic of frustrated emergency vehicles. “Those are all servants of the Throne, no? The Adeptus Arbites holds their fealty? There’s a reason you don’t just order them out of the way, I assume.”

I make the it’s-complicated face and you know, he actually listens. “Half of them will be guild, that is, Mechanicus, we might need your authority rather than the Judge’s. But it’s not… I mean. Those are first responders on their way to emergencies. They are the people that people make way for. If there was anywhere for them to make way into, they’d already be using it to jockey for position.”

A slow nod. “So, then. What is your plan to go faster? Or do you think that going fourteen miles at four miles an hour will be enough to save your world?”

I make a frustrated noise in my throat. “A standard transit pace would have us there in less than an hour – wouldn’t want to push much faster in our current state. How fast do you run a half-marathon?”

He shifts in his seat, clears his throat. Avoids my eye. “Half as fast as that.” And don’t make him try. Got it.

“The judge said much the same. Rorkel’s armour could probably keep up with us, but he’s too small for it – using the servos for what they were built for would pull his legs out of their sockets. We could memorise directions from Rorkel as to where we had to go once in there What’s required to make your credentials work?”

He shakes his head. “They are keyed to my thumbprint and genescan.”

“So, your hand. How warm does it need to be?” I take in his moment of shock. ”Let’s call that a backup plan.”

“I mean, I can write you an authorisation for the action we need, but we’d need someone to let you close enough to read it – so we return to the need to get ourselves there.”

“Interrogator, I’m honestly running short on ideas. There’s no getting this vehicle down this road faster unless we can grow wings and…”

“Wait.” He sits forward, suddenly interested. “Flight. Can we?”

I pry the mind’s eye away from the last time that I saw something growing wings. Swallow. Still tastes awful. “I, uh… if we could, it would be just what we… These suits don’t have flight packs. We don’t have an aircraft or even a skimmer. The one we brought down from the top of the hive looked awfully dead when Pink landed it. Everything even near that aeroport we stopped at was burned. Where do we-?”

“Mm. But this avenue, what did you call it, via-magna?” He jerks a thumb upwards. “It’s set up for air traffic, is it not? And clearly not everything here is burned. Is there something I can commandeer?”

“That’s actually not a dumb idea.” I key my vox, reflexively hand-signing that I’m doing so. “D’you hear, Scale? Agate speaking. We are talking about whether there would be flyers within vox range that could get a team to the precinct quicker. Any clarity from you?”

“Wait one.” A few moments. Emperor’s grace set our feet on the right path, and lead us not astray- “The precinct just might have somethin’ that can fly, but we can’t even get carrier signal that far. I suppose our vox set’s still jinxed. Short-range only. Unless you could have a word with Him Upstairs about making that right?” The vox steals his tone of voice, but that was a joke.

“Understood. I’ll get right on that, Scale, Agate out.” 

My sisters all heard that. Porsia’s synth doesn’t quite hide her amusement on our squad channel. “Who taught that man theology?” 

Rakil beside me meets my eye and this time we can share that bitter little smile, because we’re thinking the same thing – who taught us? – and then her eyebrows go right up.

“Wrong theology,” she says, softly to herself. “Wrong theology… Ellayn, did we… did Magnus bring that red priest along with us? The deacon enginseer?”

Huh. You know… “I think so. I think they’re driving one of the eighteens.”

She nods encouragingly. “Right. Right. And while I don’t know about you, sister, but I wouldn’t know vox-liturgy from random noise – do you know who maybe would?”

Hope is the first step on the road to disappointment. I finger-sign that I’ve swapped my vox to the shared channel. “Tech-deacon. Transconductor. D’you hear me, Transconductor?”

Their voice is the same over vox as in person, although it retains none of the vigour that it had when we first met. “Sister Ellayn. Response/handshake good. What can I destroy for you now?”

The formal words are ones that I was taught by my teachers. By the traitors. They’ll work anyway. “Deacon of Mars, in the name of my Order I request the intercession of your Guild before the Omnissiah your patron.”

Puzzlement. “Recognised. Sister Ellayn, you do realise that I have no more access to others of my Guild, right now, than you do?”

“Yeah. Pretty sure that if you can’t do this alone, adding more of you won’t help.”

They keep silent for long enough to take a deep steadying breath. “Speak your request.”

“I require a message to be sent to anything within range that can fly and carry at least three passengers.”

Pause. Outright perplexity in their voice, now. “I can do this thing, but I fear it shall avail you little. Away from great machines, I only have access to similar vox-volume to you. I suppose that if I were not driving, I could construct an amplifier, but all of this equipment is cursed, as you are doubtless aware. It would take a true miracle for a signal to -“

“I’m aware,” I say. “But hear me out. This via. Is it not filled with the holy engines of transport?”

“It… is, yes.”

“Which are animated by the spirits of the blessed machine.”

“Of course.”

“Which speak to each other.”

“So it is written.”

“And your vox can easily reach the nearest one.”

“Ye-es. That range is twelve feet.” I can practically hear the idea percolating through their mind. “And… Hmm.”

“It would surely be a miracle of the Deus Mechanicus for the spirits of the machines to rally to our aid.”

“One… might put it in such terms.”

“Deacon of Mars?” I grin at Rakil. “In the name of my Order I request the intercession of your Guild before the Omnissiah your patron.”

*

That’s the thing about the religion of Mars. Prima facie, to the untrained eye, it doesn’t seem to fit. It looks and sounds like idolatry. Here they are beside the holy works of ancient technology, the gifts of the Emperor to His Imperium, the legacies of the dark ages before the Great Crusade, and it’s like they misunderstood that word ‘holy’ and started to bend the knee to the footprint and not to Him that made it. Their name for their god is different. They don’t even say that the Emperor protects. Their rituals are perfunctory, even utilitarian, deliberately avoiding passion, emotion, zeal. As if they are striving to strip away anything to differentiate them from the machines they serve –

But then, consider the machines. Not simply the little spirits of hab and fab and weapon that everyone’s familiar with, but the ancient cogitators and turbos and the machine-spirits of air and darkness that enfold and sustain us all. How do they listen? How do they think? How do they speak? Not like we do. The first lesson of the priesthood, save only that the Emperor protects, is that it is the task of the Adeptus Ministorum to deliver the Emperor’s word in the language and idiom of the flock. Is it any surprise, then, that the tech-priests would teach that same lesson? They are not there to minister to humans in the name of the Deus Imperator, or even of the Deus Mechanicus. We all too often forget, and we’d do well to remember, that the machine-spirits themselves are our siblings in faith. And the red-robes are there first and foremost for their benefit.

And I cried out to the Emperor in the astropathic quire and the machine-spirits came to my aid and I remember that too.

The tech-deacon’s prayer is a precise droning repetitive incantation on a dozen vox-bands I can hear and doubtless a dozen more I can’t. The language is binaric, of course, the common tongue of humans and machines: I can’t hear my message within it, just have to trust it’s there. And then, like the rustle of windblown leaves in some ancestral forest, the signal starts to echo back from a thousand little ‘casters.

And the ferrocrete jungle comes alive with voices no unaugmented human can hear, as the little spirits of engine and wheel take it up. And they sing, and the musician in me can just about make out the interplay of electromagnetic harmonies as they make of it a sixteen-part canon that makes the deacon’s voice sound as odd a specimen of a machine as it was of a human. But regardless of their beauty their voices are small, and though they do inspire their peers in neighbouring vehicles, though the message is indeed travelling, it’s doing so at a practical walking pace –

But the little spirits aren’t singing for each other. As the message travels forward in that slow leapfrog it is also travelling inward: and suddenly the piercingly intense voices of the vehicles’ emergency transponders come online. They aren’t singing the little deacon’s original tune: it was flawed. They have rectified that. The message they pass on is shorter, it’s cleaner, a melody line: and it’s sung out across all channels at a sufficient volume to clear them of all other traffic. And what I can only pray bears some resemblance to my original distress call sings out down the via at the literal speed of lightning, and this message is picked up and passed on instantly and verbatim by nearly every ‘caster that can hear it. 

Ave Omnissiah, apparently.

++++

That message felt… one-way, to me. And whether or not we actually need to know if anyone heard it, till they turn up or don’t? I’m not alone in wanting to.

We’re in the priority lane, now, passing between rows of great building-sized trucks – our horizon, it’s kind of limited. But the convoy isn’t going too fast to catch up with, and just sitting here and worrying feels wrong when I could instead be scanning the horizon and worrying. Now to identify a likely vehicle…

Pretty sure Gennid didn’t expect the first and second sopranos to hop lightly down out of the crawler as a unit. Pretty sure he’ll cope.

Our chosen vantage point is the tallest one we could see. It’s a walker pattern, six legs each the size of a small truck, tall and wide enough to drive two of our own cargo-crawlers underneath side by side. Each massive leg takes a step about once every five or six heartbeats, lifting a judicious two inches, sliding forward and coming down with a deceptive elephant softness. The outside of the thing is bare of handholds – but it’s metal. Emperor take my hand, lead me safe, hold me fast. I touch an experimental hand to the thing and it sticks like it should, and it comes away like it should – excellent.

The walker will be guided by a single mahout, physically plumbed into the machine with sockets not too different to the ones that connect me to my armour, except theirs will just be around the base of their spine. There’s no way they won’t feel our weight on their machine’s servos, no way they won’t notice the fizz-click of our fingers and toes as we climb, no way that camera up there doesn’t see us. Frankly, no way they aren’t praying that we’ll be on our way without wrecking everything we touch. But the view

Yes, a sister shall not be subject to the following fears including – skip many – a fear of open spaces and the sky. Yes, we received conditioning about this – otherwise known as a seemingly endless procession of nights bookended by nightmares about falling into the sky. And besides, we saw worse than this on our little trip by air. My blood doesn’t freeze. But there’s still this deep-seated feeling, when we get up there, when there’s suddenly nothing between us and the distance, when we look down a road that’s so long that the planet’s curvature is starting to obscure what’s at the far end. A feeling that’s got all of us kneeling, taking cover, weapons half-raised against the incongruous threat of just simply too much nothing. 

The line of massive vehicles stretches just all of the way into that distance. Every one of these things is unique, some wheeled, some tracked, some walking. Some taller, some wider, all tremendously long – I bet that anyone from around here could tell you which one sent out the products of their fab and returned with the imports of their hab. I bet that anyone from around here would know who was going to starve in two meals’ time if one of these things didn’t make it to where it was going and back – I blink. Look away. Every one of these vehicles is completely irrelevant unless we succeed. Might be irrelevant even then. I can’t forget that. What I can do is look for what I’m supposed to be looking for.

At the end of the via the railhead, the hive’s northern barbican above it and hidden by the ceiling of this hive-level, the haze of distance making it look a little like a painted backdrop. But I’m looking for something a little nearer, the style of the architecture deliberately foreign, the very fabric of its walls deliberately unusual. A foreigner among the buildings of the hive, a flaw in the symmetry of the place, and its construction makes it obvious to anyone with eyes that its builders relied on the hive for precisely nothing. It’s even set slightly askew, as if to remind that Imperial authority cares nothing for petty local regulations. And those gargoyled arches conceal enough weaponry to hold off an army, and unlike the barbicans of the hive proper they make no assumptions concerning where that army might come from. And somewhere in there are launch bays.

If there were a flyer nearby, we’d see it coming in as little as a minute. A few seconds for your machine-spirit to parse the message, a few more to track the origin and turn. I scan the sightlines, the unfamiliar horizon, looking for the black dot that’s all that a flyer would be. No dice. Time passes, and drags its feet. 

Ten minutes is a creditable turnaround time to get a flyer in the air if you have one sitting ready to launch. Ten minutes to warm up a jet engine from cold, ten minutes for a signal operator or maybe a red priest to go up their chain of command far enough to find someone who understands why it’s important. Ten minutes is enough for our convoy to go about a thousand yards. We keep up – the gaps between these vehicles aren’t large for us. The mahout stares as we pass their cab. I can see them clutching a little chrome aquila in their hand. Ten minutes was a dumb idea anyway. Nobody’s got a carrier ready to scramble on the off chance someone calls with an extra-serious emergency on a day when you’re already handling more emergencies than you’ve ever thought could happen at once.

Fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes is a pretty good response time. Five minutes for someone to go up their chain of command and get a decision to launch a flyer. Ten minutes to scare up a crew and warm up the engines while they work out where the signal’s come from. There are six of us who’ve chosen to do this rather than sit in the crawlers wondering and worrying: me and Rakil, Porsia and Hayla, Manda and Yasi. If I’m in charge, Porsia’s my second – doctrine should have me leave her behind whenever I split us – hell, doctrine should have me send her and stay behind myself –

Wait. There. I freeze, my boots sticking suddenly to the top of this crawler with a crack like a lasgun discharging. “Manda, you’ve got the best eyes. Verify for me, launch, precinct, twenty-three o’clock, thirteen miles?”

She squints, reflexively triggering helmet senses that aren’t there, just like I did. “Confirm, Sister. Fast mover. Wish I had thermo.”

“Heard, seconded, motion carried.” Vox. The synth keeps me sounding professional. “D’y’hear, Scale, Gennid, Carnelian, Aqua. Flyer launch confirmed from the precinct.”

“Eh?” The vox robs the Judge’s intonation, but it’s clear enough. “Say again, Agate. The precinct put a skimmer in the air?”

Manda shakes her head. A couple of the others concur. “Negative, Scale, it’s a fast mover.”

“Well, ain’t that a thing.” I can imagine the man’s face. “I know where I left my Aquila, and it ain’t in there. Rest of the place’s flyers are lighter’n air or don’t carry passengers.”

I will one-hundred-per-cent not be the first person to mention the sudden sick feeling that we could have a strike fighter inbound. “Whose is it, then? Definitely a fixed-wing silhouette. Too far to see more.”

Gennid weighs in. “Colour? Markings?” 

I shake my head, see Rakil do the same. We look to Manda. She’s shading her eyes with an ungloved hand –

Then she drops her hand to her side nerveless and it looks like she’s seen a ghost as she turns to look at me. It’s a moment before she can get the words out. “Purple. I-it’s purple, Ellayn. It’s a Valkyrie assault lander in the Saint’s purple.”

Dry mouth. Sure it’s just a symptom of the combat drugs. Sure I read that somewhere. I nod as if that hadn’t frozen my gut solid. Finger-sign, vox open again. “All units, we have tentative ID on the flyer contact. Valkyrie, Order of the Quill.”

“The way you said that, Sister.” It’s Rorkel. “It’s as if it’s not good news.”

“There’s good reason to consider all other Order of the Quill assets to be hostile,” says Gennid, blandly. I look at my sisters. They look at me. There’s no way to talk about that sentence. There’s no way to think about that sentence. “ETA on the flier?”

“Three, uh. Three minutes.” For the umpteenth time I forget not to chew on a black-painted lip. “Two until we’re in vox range. We need a plan. Now.”

“I have one.” And for the first time since the lift terminus, Gennid sounds sure and certain again. “Stop the crawlers. Magnus, Ellayn, meet me by my door.”

++++

Those two minutes turned out to be one minute forty.

A channel comes up in the curious sixth sense that is my vox-awareness, and I hold up a hand to stop the men talking. “Out of time.” Vox. I don’t subvocalise. They need to be able to hear this. “D’you hear me Valkyrie Herja, this is Sister-Novitiate Ellayn speaking for Squad Agate. D’you hear me Valkyrie Herja, over.”

Beat. I get an eyebrow from Magnus. Gennid doesn’t even twitch.

The incoming signal is powerful, directional, a tight-beam. They’ve got it turned all the way up to try and defeat the jinx. All that the men will have heard of that was a piercing stab of static – the channel is encrypted – I tell my suit to decode for them. The voice has the ghostly perfection of a synth. “This is Herja. Sister-Superior Arabella speaking for Squad Onyx. Request tac-sermon, novice, over.”

Those are the proper words. My conditioning is kicking in. Arabella is my legitimate superior in – she’s my superior – she’s, uh. I squeeze my eyes shut and bite my lip and taste blood and lip gloss. I clench both fists and get my brain between the words and my tongue and just breathe. Is this what being a proper agent of the Inquisition is like? I stumble over the thoughts and the words. Throne send me righteousness, Emperor set my feet straight, and don’t even think the part of that prayer that mentions the Saint. I fix my eyes on the Valk, easier to talk to them when I’m looking at them. Deep breath.

I send a piercing thought at my synth, something between an order and a plea: don’t try and help me. My naked voice is what I need for this. I need to sound exhausted, hurting, scared. Lonely. Weak. “Heard, Sister-Superior, I, uh. Everything has gone wrong. Half of everybody is dead. Our officers with them.” Instinctively I feel that as much of the truth as possible is the best way to do this. Yes, this is a piss poor tac-sermon that a first-year novice should be ashamed of. I’m not even speaking battle language. “I’ve kept the squad together, th-those that live, I’ve brought them here out of harm’s way. Request -” I don’t need to try too hard to make my voice crack – “Request exfil, Sister-Superior, transit to the precinct, to, to safety. We’re at the end of our endurance here.” Swallow hard. I don’t want to genuinely burst into tears because the synth might kick back in. “Over.”

“Heard, novice.” Emperor, please. Let this work. “You are Agate, yes? The Choir of the Vigil? You were present in the cathedral?” Her vox is not like mine. It isn’t tuned for performance – it’s set to maximise clarity under battlefield conditions. It doesn’t hide that strange note in her voice, something that sounds disturbingly like excitement. “You were witness to the sermon? You recall the form of words?”

The person I am making myself out to be, she didn’t hear anything other than the prospect of salvation. “Affirmative, Sister Superior. I, I recall every word I spoke. Please… please confirm exfil?” It’s not hard to sound desperate. 

“I can confirm. Fixing on your vox signal. Find us a landing zone, Agate.”

“Heard, Onyx. Meet us on top of walker two-one-five-november-whiskey-eight, over?”

“Heard. ETA two minutes. Onyx out.”

I close the channel and I shut my eyes and I clench my fist till I can hear the armour creak. It’s true, it’s fucking… Sister Arabella was convent security chief. Hardly the most exalted rank. Can’t get the image out of my head, the day she chewed me out for some minor discipline violation – I can’t remember what. All I can remember is staring at her and thinking that I’d never seen anything quite so awesome quite so close up, I wanted to be her. And by the Throne, by Macharius and Dorn and Celestine and all the saints, if the security officer is in on it then what’s the betting everyone was, and how do you even –

My suit pings at me. Either it doesn’t understand my emotion or it disapproves. Or, hell, it’s just reminding me to breathe out.

And I let out the rest of my breath on an explosive noise that’s not a swearword because words need thoughts lined up. I turn my synth back on and look at the others and for once its perfection is working for me. “Okay, you heard the lady. No turning back now.”

Gennid… For maybe the first time since I met him there’s real respect in those eyes. But the words don’t change. “Concur. Let’s go.”

Twenty seconds gone and I have three conversation requests. Magnus. Porsia. Rakil. And I have two minutes before we need to do the impossible, and I’m spending half of that hauling twelve stone of bastard up a Throne-damned cargo walker. Crying out loud. “Magnus, whatever you’re going to say, don’t. Get it done.” Close channel without letting him answer. Shift my weight – the side of the walker’s sheer. Did I just feel the mag in my left glove slip half an inch?

Gennid is trying to help. His boots are nothing but plastek and synth rubber, his gloves worse for grip than bare skin. Honestly it would almost be easier if he was a dead weight. I shoot Rakil an apologetic glance and I hope that’s understanding I see. “Porsia. Something better be on fire.”

“I should be up there with you.”

For Earth’s sake. I grab a stanchion and pull myself and Gennid up another four feet, wedge a boot on top of some kind of outcropping and it locks itself into a solid foothold. “This is not a conversation.”

“Damn straight. I’m senior.”

I can’t stop in my climb. I can’t turn. Another lift, another step up. Lock my toe into an inadequate foothold, fizz-click of my left hand against the side of the crawler, haul Gennid up another few feet.

I’m coming up-”

And fuck that. Lock everything. Forget that we aren’t wearing helmets. Forget that everyone can hear me yell. Forget to order the synth not to kick in. Forget Gennid’s face is two feet from mine. “Sister Porsia, in the Throne’s name you will stay where you are put.” And yeah, the faces at the windows of the cargo-crawlers tell me that every single one of the people we’re escorting heard that. Gennid squeezes his eyes shut. Hard to pretend you didn’t hear something with the echoes coming back to you like thunder.

And Porsia doesn’t blink. She doesn’t raise her own voice. “That should be me up there.”

Unlock my joints. Moderate my voice. Not apologising. No damned time. “I’m not sidelining you, sister. Your section has the hard job. Stick with the refugees and the wounded. Be there for them when we can’t.” Another step up. Rakil’s at the top now. Pull Gennid up – he grabs her hand and she lifts him effortlessly – “And if we fail, Porsia? You’re it.”

“That’s all true. Not denying any of that.” She takes half a step towards starting the climb. “I’m not saying the job isn’t that, sister. I’m saying we can’t do it.” I can hear her synth covering for a voice that’s falling apart and there’s nothing I can do about that. “I’m saying I’m not strong enough.”

“Neither was I,” I growl. “In Whose name we serve.” And I’ve already turned my back as she tells me that the Emperor protects, as if she believed I deserved that.

And Rakil clasps my hand and pulls me up. I didn’t need the help, but it’s written on her face that she needed to give it. Yasi and Manda are already up here. No time, no time. We double-check our weapons and fall in. Gennid at my left shoulder, Rakil at my right. I can hear the thunder of the Valkyrie’s engines.

Deep breath, set the vox to the correct channel. “Agate. We get Gennid into the fortress at any cost. That is the task, you understand?”

Any cost?” Manda frowns. “I just remember what happened the last time we used those words. That’s our elder sisters up there.”

“You heard Arabella on the vox, Manda.” Rakil’s voice is hoarse. The lack of honorific for our superior officer, the casual disrespect, it stings. It’s meant to. 

I nod. “You heard what she was asking about, what that means. You heard her sound excited when I said what I said. If you had any doubt any more, about whose side she’s on?” I clear my throat. Time to do the thing. Subtlety is for people with time. The words spring automatically to my lips. “Servants of the Throne, attend: I do hold Sister-Superior Arabella and those aboard Valkryie Herja condemned for heresy in the sight of the Throne. Not least among their crimes is treachery to Him-on-Earth. Witness my judgement.”

“Witnessed,” says Gennid, drily. His hands are out of sight behind his back.

“Witnessed,” says Manda, and the synth makes it ethereal. Rakil repeats the word in a growl, not taking her eyes off the lander. Yasi follows suit, blinks back her own tears, half-mechanical motion to cock her weapon.

“Witnessed.” The rest of the squad weigh in. It’s important. It’s not just some sort of psychological what-have-you, not simply a request for the Emperor’s blessing. As they all speak those two syllables, I feel a click from the targeter built into my armour and weapon. If I were wearing a helmet I’d see exactly what it meant. But the gist is this: the machines heard us, too. The machines have granted permission. Our weapons will now think of these people as valid targets. To be honest, they’ll probably do a hell of a better job at that than we will.

“As I was saying, Agate.” We’re lining up towards the back of the cargo-walker. “We have two duties here. We have our duty to each other – to those who can’t walk, to the martyrs, and to our comrades and the refugees. We need to see them safe. Porsia, in this moment and in the Emperor’s name I pass you that duty. If you need someone to believe in you? I do. All right? I know you can do my duty for me.”

Five precious seconds is a hell of a long time to waste on silence.

“Convoy’s moving. The Valkyrie isn’t looking for you. Get to the precinct.” There are four of us up here with Gennid because I didn’t even try to tell Rakil she couldn’t, and she asked Manda before I could tell her not to, and that meant Yasi came, and – “If I fail in my duty – if you don’t know if I’ve failed or not – assume I have.” If one of us isn’t enough, more won’t help. “Assume they’ve stopped us, and we’ll meet again before the Throne. Get to the precinct at best speed and send a message. It might be enough.” 

It won’t be, finger-signs Rakil, and Gennid nods, and I don’t have to let anyone else see me agree with that. “Protegat Imperator,” I say, Emperor protect. And then we’re out of time.

++++

Sixteen