In Light, Chapter Eighteen

by artrald

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Half a second has passed and the heretic’s pistol screams again and I’m still alive.

There was a red-robe between me and her when she started firing. He slams into me from my right, convulsing, sparking – I have my hands over my head – on my other side the voicewright is grabbing for me with a desperate precision – what are they -?

Their hand snakes out and I feel the cold click of the cable detaching from my armour. Middle of a firefight and they’re more interested in recovering their cable than in diving for cover? Alicia’s gun screams again and something hits my wrist with a hammer but the bolt goes spiraling away unexploded. She’d been aiming for the side of my head.

My duty is done. If that didn’t do it, nothing can. Now my life is no longer too valuable to risk. And somehow in that moment that knowledge goes into my mind and it’s like turning a key in a lock. What’s burning in my gut is not the fear that’s driving that voicewright into a shivering heap on the floor behind me. It isn’t the tearing black-and-white pain of my wounds. No. Call it freedom.

And there is something I have been wanting to do.

My left foot fizz-clicks, briefly immovable, perfect grip. Surge to my right. The suit has a surprising range of movement if your form is good. Pain is there; pain doesn’t matter. My form is perfect. I physically throw the dying tech-priest at my target – sure, Alicia is strong, but I learned on the barricade the value of dead weight even against our equipment. The body fouls her aim and the next bolt goes into the floor or something and then I’m on her. Left hook towards her still-unarmoured face and she hasn’t had time to draw that sword – barely she gets a block to me – I push forward and she did not expect a headbutt. There wasn’t much force to it, but I’m helmeted and she’s not and I think I broke her pretty nose. She staggers backwards and I keep on her.

A Palatine should be a veteran of a dozen campaigns. She should not be off balance from such a simple sucker blow – she should not have taken a simple sucker blow. Her foot should not have slid on the floor unless she wanted it to. She shouldn’t be fighting to bring her pistol to bear when I’m inside her reach. I keep on her. Right uppercut hits her in the midsection – she’s trying to summon her sword so I don’t need my left hand to defend me, I don’t care if this lets her get hold of another weapon she can’t hit me with – grab her pauldron as she tries to pull away and this time she sees the headbutt coming.

But this time I have leverage, and once more the Emperor grants me the strength of an angel. I see stars and taste blood and scream pain and horror at her and I do it again and she falls when I let her go and she doesn’t get up.

Autosenses don’t go grey when you’re halfway to passing out, they don’t care about blood on the inside and outside of your helmet both. The metal doesn’t let me down even as my flesh is failing. I can see Alicia’s honour guard. The ritemistress and the choirmistress. I can see them both.

On my right, Garvia. The ritemistress. The ritemistress’s name is Garvia and she is not aiming a weapon. She has raised her hands in some kind of – wait. She doesn’t know, she doesn’t know. What I told them about the Valkyrie, she bought it. She didn’t tune in when I broadcast. Maybe she was scared. Maybe she didn’t want to risk souring it. Whatever. She’s looking at the literal chaos in front of her and her helmet hides her expression from me. But she is praying – I (hope I) do not know the words – what she isn’t is a tactical threat.

The other one, the one to the left, is the lady who taught me to sing. She’s backing away, shaking her head. She’s talking over helmet speaker – no, she’s praying too – they think they’re seeing a miracle –

Her weapon comes up, though, and that’s enough to decide who’s going to die first.

The confines of the corridor are tight. I’m almost in her face by the time she realises that yes I’m coming for her and I’m not going to stop. The bolter screams at me and in the same sliver of an instant there’s a sledgehammer thunderclap on my right shoulder as the bolt realises it’s supposed to explode rather than deflecting. But there’s no critical system inside the pauldrons of my armour – doubtless the shrapnel is impressive, this is what full helmets are for – I hit my choirmistress with enough force to push her over backwards and I go down with her.

And again. This woman is supposed to have been training in martial arts since childhood. The instinct to counter this frenzied clumsy tackle of mine with a simple throw should be ingrained, natural, muscle memory. There’s a part of me that’s watching me do this and already thinking as if I’ve been dumped onto the floor on my back. But no. No, what she’s trying to do is to point her bolter at me as if it’s any damned use at all when I’m literally on top of her. We hit the floor with an earsplitting slam. That bolter is nothing but a lever- if she thinks I’m fighting to point it at her – I shift my weight and push down hard.

You can outwit the machine-spirit of a suit. It will follow through with sheer unstoppable mechanical strength when no human would. All I need to do is make it think I have my weight on top of it – as she struggles instinctively to try and throw me off, I put my toes down and lift my weight off her lower body. And so rather than throw me off to her left with all its strength, the suit twists her lower body the other way with equal force.

I drop my knees down and shift my weight backward and she’s trapped – once more she pushes instinctively – this time I pull. She’s got a deathgrip on her gun. Her arm snaps out straight and that’s exactly what I was after. Drop one hand off her gun and grab her wrist and pull as hard as I can, half lifting her off the floor – and if we were sparring this is where we’d stop, because now I have her.

That also means I’ve never done what comes next.

It takes a really spectacular windup and full suit strength to put a sarissa through armour. Unless, for example, you have the luxury of being able to put the tip of the blade inside the adjustable section at the shoulder joint and under the arm. Then you could even do it with failing oxygen-starved muscles poisoned by exhaustion and drugs.

The crossguard of my knife is a simple straight bar and the sound it makes as it hits the plates either side of the weak spot is tick and there’s no resistance any more.

One more target.

I stand as I turn –

I try to –

The condition monitor on the right-hand side of my vision is trying to get my attention. Apparently it’s been sounding audio alarms that I can no longer hear. Armour integrity. Fluid levels. Heart and breathing rate. Oxygen saturation. Blood pressure – blood toxicity – blood volume. I think it’s running out of excuses to give the Emperor as to why I’m not dead yet.

Apparently these excuses no longer run to things like the ability to stand.

With an incoherent animal noise I have a bolter in my hands and the target isn’t more than five yards away. The aimpoint of the bolter is a red dot in the world that makes more sense than anything else that’s happening right now. A steady red dot around which the world can revolve.

I can’t make the world stand still enough to take the shot. Damn you, Garvia, five yards away on your knees and you won’t stay still enough for me to draw a bead. Slam a knee down myself and the impact shakes my whole world loose. Stationary she dances past the aimpoint in the centre of the universe – there! – I pull the trigger.

And as everything before me dissolves in white, as pain once again fills the front of me with black-edged flames, as the servos of my damaged shoulder give way against the bolter’s recoil – as the weakness of the flesh finally overwhelms the grace I’ve been granted – the last thing I see is the flash of my bolts striking home.

God-Emperor of Mankind, into Your arms I

++++

What do you do, waking up when, you know, when you never intended to?

The final death toll will never be known. Practically everyone on the planet knows someone who knows someone who suffered worse than simply a week’s worth of terror. Population numbers will have recovered in a decade, they say. 

Order will be back to normal in a generation, I’m told. The people we brought out of hell with us – the same idiots we couldn’t trust alone with each other without armed guards – in the meantime they shall own this hive. The man who defended me on that first barricade was wearing a general’s stars before I was even out of surgery.

As for the hive’s spire itself, they say, we will not know for a century. The blow was not immediately mortal, but the great engines were dealt grievous harm, an injury that would have murdered anything lesser. Whether it will scab over, whether it will heal? The red-robes shall swarm like ants. If it can be done, it will be.

To the Imperium of a million worlds, though, there are five other hives. To the Imperium, of course, whoever prevented the complete social collapse of this place and its fall to the Archenemy, whoever prevented a cascade that immolated the planet, well –

What do you do, on waking up to discover you saved the world?

Imperial records shall not show that the Order was destroyed. That would be wasteful. It is no work at all for the Imperium to forget what it never knew. To waste is a sin.

I awoke and was a loose end. I suppose that I had never considered what happens to loose ends. I had never expected to wake. When the Lord Inquisitor looked me in the eye and asked what he was supposed to do with me, should it have been ever so surprising that I had no clue?

In the midst of all this, surrounded by talk of decades and generations and millions, of what import are a dozen people who never existed to begin with? I was convinced he’d have us shot. But he quoted Macharius to me: To waste is a sin, be it ever so venial: seek ever to avoid it.

For us, see, this was terror and pain like none ever knew.
For us this was grief and loss and life-changing horror.
For us this was the bonfire of all that had been our lives.
For him it was a day’s work.

And he wondered if a bonfire couldn’t be a forge-fire.

It’s impossible, as it turns out, to tell an Inquisitor that things cannot be done. His doctor did not even consider me particularly badly hurt: the front of my ribcage is metal, now, and one of my lungs. The thing I had been hiding in my mind, the thing I had not told Gennid about for fear he’d try to destroy us all, the thing that started this all – there are things I cannot remember now, cauterised like a scar, and that includes what the Inquisitor did to me and how.

The question of our origins and nature? It is completely amazing how explaining your problems to one who handles the fate of worlds will trivialise them. Apparently it is more than reasonable for an Inquisitor to have any retainers he wishes.

And, you know, he tried to give us an actual damned choice.

Any who wished could muster out and he’d see us situated amongst the hive’s new leadership, but if we’d rather –

Rakil interrupted him.

My dear sister interrupted the Lord Inquisitor and asked if the alternative was death, because otherwise she volunteered.

And he actually laughed.

++++

++End of testimony: Liber Secretorum, alpha++

++Shall I commit the file to the archive?++

Cold steady ice-pale hands remove the data-cable from the right temple; a grey hood is raised to cover hair cut helmet-short. What’s the difference, again, between a faraway look and a thousand yard stare?

++Interrogator?++

“Make it so.”

How do you know, if you are acceptably righteous? D’you just wake up one morning and decide not to be a heretic? Does someone tell you? How do they know?

“Thought for the day, cogitator.”

++Awaiting.++

“Blessed is the mind too small for doubt: thus is it written. The rest is left as an exercise for the reader.”

++So say we all.++

Black-painted lips quirk. “So say we all.”