In Light, Chapter Seventeen

by artrald

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I’m standing in the Valkyrie and the ramp is in front of me. Alone and disguised. Anyone in the Order would’ve done what they could for their fallen before anything else: they are lying neatly behind me, suits locked, and the inside of the Valkyrie looks like the aftermath of a desperate battle.

Only I and the machines know that I spoke no rites for the dead heretics, that the indignities they’ve suffered are largely (entirely) my own fault. That I wasted half a clip of the Emperor’s ammunition making it look like someone had fired wildly and riddled the thing with holes from the inside. I trust in the Emperor, I tell myself, and within me is no room for fear.

Palatine Alicia herself has turned out to meet me. The most senior Sister on planet – squinting, I turn the Valkyrie’s auspex senses on her. I’m looking, I’m looking for… Throne, I don’t know. I guess I’m looking for some miracle that says it doesn’t go as far as her. That by some thunderbolt of chance the heretics consisted of four teachers and three security guards and we already got them all. The Old Lady is armoured, taller than her honour guard, and she’s beautiful like a killing blade is. Black fleur de lys tattooed on perfect honey-coloured skin under green eyes framed by short black hair – she’s helmetless, of course, for rear-echelon business. After today my sisters and I have more scars than she. Ankle length cloak and surplice of purple silk. The hilt of that sword sparkles with violet sapphires. The bolt pistol at her other hip glitters with golden inlays. She’s fluttering with the purity seals you’d expect of a holy woman, little strips of parchment with prayers of the Saint caught at the top with plaswax. They’re especially thick in some odd places – her belt, her upper arms – turns out she’s literally got parchment or cloth over every armour joint – blessed machine grant me sight beyond the visible –

By providence my vox is not set to transmit when I see/feel the concertina adjusters at her elbows and hips, the ones like I have. Nobody but the servitor pilot hears me swear at the top of my voice. The armour doesn’t think I really meant to bang on the wall that hard and robs the gesture of full strength. She is the Order’s second in command, the headmistress of our formatory, and she’s wearing novice’s gear and concealing it and that means she is a fake and that means it is every single one of th- of us.

I already, I already knew all of this. It’s what I was expecting and what I planned for and it punches me in the gut anyway.

The plan tastes like bile at the back of my mouth and this is exactly like that moment at the other end of the hive, when I decided we needed a truck more than I needed it to be quiet in my head.

I cue the damn ramp and I’m committed.

Auspex is recognising her honour guard, tagging both of them for me under voxnomen Amethyst. Teaching faculty. Good. My disguise has a chance: they might not know a random security guard much better than I do. The armed salute doesn’t involve the aquila and wouldn’t be expected to, so I don’t need to know if I should make one. And there’s no changing the plan now.

There’s a moment when the Palatine runs her eyes over the scene that greets her. A moment as she takes it in, and then she’s back on an even keel. “Sister… Silexa?”

I click my heels. “Reporting main objective success, Mother.”

“Explain,” she says, as coldly straightforward as a headmistress should be. “I send out four veterans. Four of us, equipped and armoured and invincible, riding in on a heavily armed assault lander. I get back, what. One single injured sister and a ship full of holes?” She shakes her head irritably. “Tell me of this ‘victory’.”

“Yes, Mother Alicia.” Subvocalising, as if I can’t manage more because of my injury. I’ve set my synth to mimic Silexa’s. I don’t know how she talks. Bets that the Old Lady will? “We were betrayed. The novices attacked us without even waiting to parley; they had some kind of allies with them, well armed. Sister-Superior Arabella and I exfiltrated with a useful prisoner.”

I can feel her scowl on my skin. “I can’t tell, kid.” Kid? I tense. You wouldn’t call a full Sister that. Nobody moves. Nobody makes a move. It’s like nobody but me heard that protocol breach. “Is your ‘useful’ prisoner the headless corpse in the battered armour, or the headless corpse with a hole punched right through her?” 

Yes. I did. I had to. I’d stolen her helmet. It’d have given me away. She was a heretic anyway. I stand as straight as my injuries will let me. I know how to take a dressing-down. “The former, Mother. Sister-Superior Arabella had identified that the novice had received the Heart of the Vigil-” Emperor guide my tongue, I’m guessing these words – “and asked her to pass it on and things… evolved.”

She raises eyebrows. “Tell me you didn’t come back to me empty-handed as well as defeated.”

“As I say, Mother, main objective success. She passed it on and I recall it.” Small movement of my helmet, I lift my chin with feigned pride. “I heard it, I recall it – but as she spoke she… changed, somehow.”

“Changed.” Her eyes widen. “Physically?”

“I don’t know, Mother. She tried to kill us. Tore straight out of a restraint harness and summoned a weapon.” I gesture towards the tattered surplice covering my torso armour, already stained with my own blood as well as Silexa’s. “Hit me first, and unarmed. My sisters weren’t so fortunate.”

A crease between her sculpted brows – “Hnh. Which novice did you say this was, so transubstantiated by the holy litany that she put down Arabella out of hand and nearly took out a whole Valkyrie?”

Swallow hard. Emperor, don’t let me down now. Don’t let her recall me too closely. I can tell my squadmates apart by how they stand, how they move, the rhythm of their voice even through a synth, the very scratches on their armour. Throne, please. “The prisoner was Novice Ellayn. A first-year chorister of ours, she claimed.”

“Really? Well, that shouldn’t have happened.” She gives a sidelong glance to one of her attendants. “Drabbe was highly specific. Innocents, for the choir, or they would not last long enough to transmit. Spotless, was a word a choirmistress used to me. Foolproof, I seem to recall, something that a ritemistress may have said?”

Cold, down my spine. My sisters and me. Beasts fattened for slaughter. Raised loyal and innocent and fake as no more than a component for a damned… Get a hold of yourself, girl. You can’t take the three of them. Trying will not get your objective achieved.

The Sister-Superior – Garvia, ritemistress – is shaking her head. “I am positive their indoctrination contained only the Lex Sororitas. I am positive the copy used was unadulterated.” A shrug. “Novitiate Ellayn was one of the primary cohort. Sheltered. Isolated. Top grades for indoctrination. The selection criteria were-”

Hatred boils acid in my gut. That, or the drugs that are keeping me upright. Emperor, I am so damn glad of this helmet You sent me. I am glad that Mother Alicia cannot see the snarl that crosses my face. I am glad that she cannot see just how much I want to avenge my sisters, how much I want to forget everything and see how many of these blasphemers I can take with me. I make myself pay attention to what they are saying. I think I see how I can get my objective done.

Alicia shrugs. Someone who’s supposed to have spent practically a century wearing that armour should know not to make a motion that it doesn’t know what to do with. “Human nature is a powerful force: it was too much to hope that all twenty were suitable, and some people will simply corrupt themselves.” She says it as if making a well-known joke. “Go on, Silexa. This novice spoke the Heart of the Vigil to you, and in her flesh you received a… miracle.” I can’t hide the tremor that runs through me at hearing that called that. “You were speaking of how you chose to interrupt that miracle with violence.”

“We could all have died in a blazing crash if you’d’ve preferred?”

Her eyebrows go up again. Did I overstep? If an actual Sister were to speak so to some kind of actual Palatine – well – she might escape with merely punishment duty if she put her face on the floor right now –

But Alicia just simply chuckles. I choke down another wave of hatred. “But you recovered the words, yes? You heard the sermon, and you retain it?”

I nod briefly. “It is impossible to forget.” That was even true.

“Well, then. Go on.” She flicks her hands to indicate herself and her entourage. “We await the wisdom of which you are chosen vessel.”

And – well. Here we go. Here’s the gambit. “No,” I say, matter-of-factly. If this fails I will fire fully-automatic, aim for her face, charge forward to throw their aim. Reckon I can take her with me. “Sorry.”

But she doesn’t even snap at me. She tilts her head, intrigued. Almost… approving. “You can hardly stand. You went out with what should have been complete overkill, and here you are barely limping home. Your squad is dead. Yet more of the irreplaceable assets with which we were entrusted are lost out there right now because you decided to exfil rather than fight to retrieve them. Do, please, explain to this audience why this incompetent wretch we see is fit to receive the honour for which she asks.”

“For every reason you just gave,” I respond, enforcedly level. “And one more, Mother.” I stand a little straighter. “I am asking for it because it’s the only way this is going to happen.”

If she were who she should be, what I just said would place me on a knife-edge. She should have me on my knees in penitence for the tone I’m addressing her in, even if I am correct – A Sister who is persistent in ill behaviour including but not limited to [yes, yes] disrespect and insubordination shall be disciplined, and if recusant after discipline shall be admitted to the Sisters Repentia to seek the Emperor’s redemption through exemplary violence. But all she does is raise an eyebrow, and ask me, “Did you truly just make a threat?”

I shake my helmeted head. “If I speak the words I risk what happened in the Valkyrie happening again.”

She leans forward slightly and fixes me with her eyes. “But that is a blessing.”

“Indeed? It would make the message die with us when we have the ability to spread it throughout the Hive.”

And here come the words, the tone that she should be using. “Are you saying that you presume to know better than me?”

There’s only one possible answer to that question. Some impulse makes me give the other one. “Yes, Mother. I am.”

“There,” she says, and she genuinely smiles and I want to hit her. “Was that so hard? ‘Sisters’, take note. My authority is, ah-ha, it is borrowed. Hers…” And she actually bows. “Silexa’s authority is genuine. It is that of truth. It flows from the Source. It matters not how she speaks it.” And that’s literally the fervour that I’d expect in this woman’s voice if she were speaking about the God-Emperor. But she’s, she’s not, is she. “You are authorised, sister. Let us proceed. Praise Him:”

shit, it’s a responsory, it’s one I don’t know – phrases bubble up from Drabbe’s words, things I saw on the wall, I snatch at one of the least awful – “Praise the… Lord of Nine Lights,” I say, and cannot hide the way it makes my whole body shake to let that out of my mouth deliberately.

And people I looked up to my whole life echo that title that doesn’t mean the Emperor, and the false Palatine smiles. Emperor forgive me. The words are bile in my mouth. I knew them for a name of the Archenemy and spoke them anyway. Emperor make those words into daggers in the ears that hear them. I can feel my lips drawing back from my teeth. Emperor walk with me.

And the false Palatine leads the way and I fucking fall in, and I try to focus on what I’m going to say and I just keep getting distracted by the image of grabbing her around the throat with both armoured hands and pulling hard in two directions.

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It’s simple, it’s all so very simple. The emergency system that will let my voice thunder from every vox in Baelis Hive is in a little tech-chapel off to one side of a meaningless little corridor. Nobody has even objected. This isn’t our facility, but the false Palatine outranks nearly everyone we could possibly meet, the simple authority of the armour we wear opens every door. I wonder aimlessly as we walk, how the heretics got this authority in the first place. Did they steal it? A generation of cuckoos slowly hollowing out the true, holy Order? Did they fake it, somehow steal the relics and trappings and fabricate credentials? When? Or did they fall? Were these good people, once, before for some unknowable reason they chose to abandon Imperial Truth for the powers of darkness?

…No.

I cannot. If I think about it, about them, this will all come apart. I know, intellectually I know, that violence will not solve this problem. That, yes, I could sucker-punch the Palatine and maybe deal some real damage before they stopped me. I could likely get my bolter into my hand before they reacted, likely expend half the clip before anyone hit me. I would go down with the Emperor’s name on my lips and His wrath in my hands. I could go before the Throne saying that I had died avenging my sisters and myself, and the Hive, and the Order that should have been and somehow isn’t – that if anyone had a right to hold her head high there, then I would –

Deep breath. I order my homeostat to get my pulse back under control and it does so ungently: it feels like a wave of static washes over me and my vision would go grey if not for the cold auto-senses. I cannot kill these people. I cannot avenge us. I will never know why any of this happened, I will never know how it was allowed to come to pass, I will never know how the Inquisition knew. But I can complete the mission I gave myself. I can do what I have decided is my duty. And then I will die.

There is no way I get out of this alive. I know that some of my sisters still live. I pray that they will forgive me for leaving them alone. I shall fall in striking a blow against the tool and lieutenant of the Archenemy, whose name is Panic, whose name is Disorder, whose name is Chaos. The weapons I shall bear as I fall are my voice, my determination, my human will. My pulse is enforcedly normal, my breathing measured. The tech-chapel is here. Let the Emperor’s will be done.

The Palatine’s authority is enough to secure the assistance of the priests of the Mechanicum. The lie she tells, it is that we have an urgent message for universal broadcast concerning a disaster in uphive: I almost laugh. Two of the three red-robes in attendance step out into the corridor to let me inside. Eyeing the walls – this place is tiny, covered in machines every square foot that’s not the door. Can’t tell what is and isn’t important: when the Palatine tries to stop me, I will not know what collateral damage to avoid. For a tech-shrine this place is large – twenty feet by six – and a tech-priest stands in front of me and one behind.

The red-robe before me looks up at me to give me the connection. I have to bend down so they can reach the port – they are four and a half feet tall – it hurts to bend, it hurts like white clawing fire. “Voicewright,” I say as I bend. (It’s their rank.) “Record what I say and have the spirits repeat it when I say ‘message repeats’, broadcast on a continuous loop. Ensure it goes out. As far and wide as possible. Every remaining part of the Hive if you can. No matter what happens.”

They raise an eyebrow that seems to have its own dedicated window in the metal that covers their face. “Categorical request received. Clarify: continuously for how long?”

Forever. Until the stars burn out and the worlds end. I think of the longest period of time I can envision. “An hour,” I say as they twist the cable and it locks into place.

And I straighten, turn to the right as I do so, making it look like I’m being careful of the little input cable. Not at all that I’m giving the voicewright something to read.

This purity seal on my left pauldron is not a purity seal any more. It is an order from the Judge and the Interrogator bearing their personal marks of authority. I am told the people who need to will understand it. I see the techpriest bow their head in assent and the Palatine doesn’t see them wave a scanning wand over the thing, and the gremlin Hope puts its silvery claws in my gut.

I take the deepest breath I can still take.

Suit speakers off. This will go out only over the broadcast system. Pray for lag. Every second will count.

“All stations, all listeners. Stand by for the Sermon of the Vigil. Stand by and listen, for your salvation is at hand. Blessed are they who hear the voice of the Inquisition, for they shall surely find salvation.” Palatine Alicia is smiling. Radiant. She closes her eyes. Dammit: she is hearing me as I speak. She’s tuned her vox in.

Gulp.

“Disaster in uphive. Duration, indefinite.” I see Alicia frown. I carry on with the words I memorised. I speak the plain Gothic words as quickly as I can and trust the synth to make them clear. “Orders, all stations, see sideband primus, ration and discipline authority hereby released to local command under-” Her eyes snap open. An instant of blank surprise, a gift from the Emperor, I keep talking – “Under authority of Inquisitor Toth of the Hammer. Emergency protocol follows in clear maintain order under Arbites actuate life support and feed your people all other considerations secondary – protegat Imperator-” I can see the realisation as it crosses her face. In the same moment I duck and there’s a tech-priest between me and her.

“In the Emperor’s name station compromised-” A bolt-pistol screams and the tech-priest beside me cannons into me – hands over my head – “disregard all further message repeats-

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