Artrald, Ian Cattes, Requiem, Whoever

Alternative Origins, Mass Effects, other writing

Category: In Light

In Light, Chapter Sixteen

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Fifteen

++++

Unless you’ve been this close to one, there’s no way I can explain just simply how loud an aerospace craft is, how physically overbearing. The Valkyrie does a pass over the landing zone, flying low and what they’ll think of as slow, the thunder of its engines doing its best to make our hearing protection feel inadequate. Gives us a good look at its long, boxy, snub-nosed efficient body, the long massive turbines at the roots of a pair of blunt bat-wings. Turrets under the chin and on each wingtip watch us with unblinking eye, tracking us unerringly as the craft swings by. I can make out the gun barrels – that means they’re not spun up and ready to shoot – Good. That’s… good. The pilot flares the wings and makes a tight slow circle, bleeding off speed as suspensors and repulsors take over and the turbine sound fades upward from a chest-rattling thunder to a penetrating toothaching whine.

It just seemed so much smaller when I last knew it, when we got a chance to ride this same craft back when my biggest concern was whether my conditioning against motion sickness had taken properly. It’s the whole helmet thing, I guess, that acoustic insulation I don’t have – even with vox-beads in my ears it’s cutting right through the skull. The pilot brings the lander right back over us, no more than fifty feet up, drifting down suspensor-soft to rest on empty air ahead of our cargo-walker. The armoured ramp drops with careful firmness. My sisters and I come to attention, port arms. Gennid’s keeping his hands out of sight.

And that scared girl I made myself out to be, she’s just about ready to break down completely. It would be so easy to be her. This Valk is here to bring us to safety, to rest, to a place I can let my guard down and get myself out of this armour and stop being a-a battleground between drugs, autosystems and my own failing biology – I can hardly remember what it felt like not to hurt –

My eyes sting and my vision blurs and my throat hurts. Good. The ramp’s far enough down to see them, now – intimidating faceless black glacis curves of Lys-pattern helmets, immaculate purple surplices, not a scratch or smirch. It’s difficult to breathe properly and I firmly instruct my auto-systems that I know this is impacting my effectiveness, that this is what I want to happen, that this is all right. I just hope they believe me. The humans inside those suits will ask far too many questions if they don’t see weakness.

There are three. Only three of them. Arabella is chief of convent security, doesn’t teach, never seen her fight, but that’s a chainsword she has there. The other two, I can’t tell who they are beyond that their armour says they are fully vowed Sisters. I’m sagging, leaning on the armour, letting it support me on locked ankles and legs in a way that says I don’t have the energy any more to stand up properly. It hurts. It’s terrible practice. It would have me up on punishment detail on any normal day. It’s the kind of thing I’d only do if I had hit breaking point. That’s what they’re going to see. That’s what they’ve got to see.

They descend the ramp and with a visible effort I steel myself and lift my confused suit out of lock. Shoulders back. A blinding spike of pain from the wound across my ribs: my involuntary flinch, my indrawn pained breath help too. Hear my squad clatter to attention, out of time, following my slovenly lead. And I make the aquila, and my cheeks are wet.

“Novice.” Arabella returns the gesture crisply, the synth giving her an angel’s voice. “Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes. What happened to you?”

I remind my synth sternly that it is off, and it reluctantly agrees. My voice comes out as a strangled squeak. I put my hands jerkily down by my sides as if I forgot how to handle my (still quite confused) armour, clench a fist, try again. “Sister-Superior. Our, our relics -”

“Do I need to repeat myself, novice?”

“No, Sister-Superior.” I look down at the floor. “Civil disorder happened, s-some kind of disaster, our teachers, Sister Croix-” My voice squeaks and cracks on its own. I swallow hard. “We, we retreated, what was left of us. Regrouped. Tried a few other levels on the turbo, but they were – something was very, very wrong. We eventually hit on the plan to-”

“The cathedral.” If I weren’t familiar with synths, the sudden flow of harmonics and power into her voice would be terrifying. “Tell me. Blow by blow if need be. What happened?”

Gennid steps forward, taking a breath in, already holding up his credential, raising his voice over the turbines. “Sister-Superior. My name is-“

“Not you.” The jerk of her helmet is dismissive. The weapon that the sister to Arabella’s left is suddenly pointing at him, that’s less so. He freezes. Some of that expression at least is a reflexive puzzlement. Whatever else you do to an interrogator, you don’t ignore one. She fixes her gaze back on me, and even though I can’t see her eyes through her helmet, you can tell if someone’s looking at you. “Speak, Ellayn.”

I nod jerkily, painedly. “The, the first we knew was that the teleprompter broke. And Drabbe, sorry, Sister-Superior Drabbe, she stepped forward anyway, and she started talking and everyone could hear her even though the voxes were broken and-” as I’m speaking I tell my auto-systems to dump adrenaline into me to make me shake, I let my voice come up in pitch, deliberately play hysterical and within a few more words my own housemother couldn’t understand what I’m saying. I just stick to a convincing enough story that’s half true and half gibberish – “and Sister-Superior, uphive, the whole lot of it, the whole place, it’s, it’s, look, everyone’s waiting for the emergency to end and it just won’t and we need to tell-”

She steps forward and physically takes hold of me by the upper arm. She’s forgotten everyone and everything else. “Novice, LISTEN TO ME.” The subsonics in that are enough to steal my breath even though I pretty much knew that was coming. “Everything else is secondary. This is literally worth your life and mine both.” I revise my opinion of the courage of Rorkel and Gennid. What mortal would stand up to this? “In the cathedral,” she says, and there is a burning fervor in her voice that the synth didn’t put there. “Was there a sermon? Did Drabbe preach before the congregation?”

Did we need proof, still? Were we still in doubt? Was that a thing that we were worrying about? This woman struck literal awe into me, once –

She thinks I’ve zoned out. She physically shakes me, suit and all. “Novice. Ellayn. Come back to me. Before the disaster. Did Drabbe speak? Preach? Was there a sermon?”

Sniff. “Yes, Sister-Superior, I-I think so.”

“Do you remember what she said?”

Yes. Yes, I do, I know those words like they’re written on my eyelids. On the wall. I start to stammer that I’m not perfectly sure about the phrasing, that –

“Do you REMEMBER?” Her voice has the thunder of absolute authority the Sisterhood uses for crowd control, and I can physically feel her words in my throat and my chest.

“Yes!” I yelp, half-involuntary. If I push her too much further she’s going to resort to actual violence before we’re ready.

“Bless the Saint. All right, novice.” She doesn’t let go of me, takes a step backwards towards the lander and it’s come with or be pulled over forwards. “You’re coming with me.”

And Gennid makes to step forwards and the sister pointing a gun at him is suddenly doing so actively and urgently and nearly in his face, but that’s what he wanted and the signal is for me to raise my voice in any fashion and it comes out as an unrecognisable shriek.

The plan is simple, absolutely simple. No cover here. Port arms is incredibly close to aiming a weapon for a snap shot, if you have a round chambered. And I’d had twenty bolt rounds to share out between us. And we have our suits’ permission to kill them. (And full combat settings on your autosystems are notorious among novices for making you shake like a leaf and burst into tears if there’s nothing to fight right at that instant.)

Our armour is good, but a bolt impact is still going to ruin your whole day – my three sisters raise their guns as Arabella’s two point theirs –

And everything happens at once. I cue mag-boots and twist violently – that chainsword is a proper danger – I go for that swordarm. Gennid dives behind me, fouling the aim of the one shooting for him.

Not an instant’s surprise from Arabella, not a single moment of shock. She spins with me like we’re dancing, feeds me the arm I’m trying to grab – drops my other arm, why would you deliberately

Three bolters fire simultaneously, the two others a half-second later – that’s all we got from forewarning the machine spirits. I don’t know what that did. Gennid hits the ground behind me rolling – Arabella’s got something on her other hand as I try to sweep her empty sword-arm up for a lock – little thing, black and red and yellow and oh crap it’s –

I catch underneath the grip with the edge of my hand like we were taught and rather than torching Rakil the plume of terrifying flame from her incinerator goes straight up. The other hand twists unstoppably out of my grasp – she hits me in the gut, hard, with a knee, and it’s stagger backwards or fall over. Never mind the hot sticky pain across my midsection and the star at the top of my spine as my existing wounds remind me they’re here. I cannon into Rakil like a wrecking ball and see stars and at least one bolt from her gun goes wide. Something else hits the ground like a hammer and I think that scream was Yasi and the sound grabs me by the gut and twists.

Arabella has dropped the incinerator and it just goes, Throne knows where, spewing sticky death – I’d been grabbing for that gun and now it’s gone and suddenly she has that wrist. Her hand fizz-clicks and sticks to me unstoppably, and as I reel backwards she pulls me toward her with enough force to take an unarmoured person’s arm off at the shoulder. I will my sarissa into my other hand – two can play with maglocks – and come forward with a hard quick thrust to come up between thorax plates. But again she twists, just enough for the blade to cut nothing more vital than her surplice as it skips and skitters over her armour, quick step back at the same time, and we’re a step closer to the lander. 

And she summons the incinerator back to her free hand and Rakil screams and I just manage to get to her wrist and point it anywhere but at my sisters and after another half second of hellfire it coughs dry.

Okay. Arabella’s trying to get me into the Valkyrie? Expecting another pull I cue my boots and lock my legs and core, for an instant a nearly immovable statue. And instead she takes advantage of my sudden loss of shock absorbtion to drop my wrist and punch me in the gut with a short sharp hammerblow and I feel armour splinter –

for a good long eternity that might be as long as a whole second I am wondering if she has smashed my ribcage, if this is what it feels like to die –

– And trying to struggle shoots me full of black-and-white agony and I can’t seem to catch my breath. My boots must have released by themselves when I – I must have blacked out – she’s carrying me up the ramp by my armpits and I’ve got a good view of everything going even further to shit. 

I can see Rakil pointing her bolt pistol straight at me and Arabella and the muzzle wavering and I can see pure white all around her eyes and she can’t pull that trigger and Gennid is down unmoving behind her.

I can see one of the faceless Sisters down on a hand and a knee on top of Yasi and locked there unmoving and that whole area is covered in someone’s blood and I don’t know why.

I can see Manda and the other Sister squaring off with knives, and Manda’s missing a pauldron and that’s blood leaking out of a ragged scar in the armour over her left hip and the poleyn on her left knee is just gone, but the one she’s facing has a crack across her helmet and a surplice covered in blood where it isn’t on fire.

My heels clatter on the ramp of the Valk. I can’t fight this. Even if I could escape this inexorable grip and get my feet under me, I don’t know if I could stand. And just that second the one fighting Manda feints, makes my sister dodge backward, and dives backward herself. Hand down like you’re not supposed to, and just like I did a million years ago she vaults backward like nobody would even consider that someone in our massive armour could do and her feet fizz-click onto the ramp and lock.

I feel sick – we’re moving – and as the ramp starts to come up I see a dark blur that is Gennid no longer playing dead, his arm whips out, something small and spherical blurs out in a nearly flat arc, hits me in the chest and sticks –

Arabella bends down with every ounce of speed she has and grabs the thing. I have a lovely view as she pulls it violently off me. A little black sphere banded with silver. The aquila on it is picked out in luminous flashing red. That is an actual grenade.

Krak grenade, as a matter of fact. Kar Duniash mark six miniature, my sleep-training supplies. Three-second variable fuze, directional gravitic implosion warhead. Specialised kit, not standard issue. Pretty much the only antiarmour weapon you can fit up your sleeve. Arabella’s arm blurs as she realises what it is, as she tries to get it away from her.

It sticks to her hand.

The sound of the grenade that was meant for me is too loud to hear.

++++

Music, again. Darkness. Redness, and – and sweet holy golden Throne it hurts, my ears, my chest, my neck, and I can’t make myself care – and –

and identity and context drag themselves across the rough bloody floor and cram themselves back into this overcrowded head –

The back of the Valkyrie is dimly lit. My head’s spinning and I feel as sick as my suit will let me. I’m not where I was, I’m in one of the seats, strapped in half-arsedly with a sister standing over me, the one I saw diving in as we dusted off. There’s blood, new fresh blood, on my face. And my ears hurt like a nail’s been driven into the side of my head and all I can hear is this high-pitched ringing.

The Sister-Superior’s body is still standing, locked, where she must have been when the grenade went off. There’s a clean-edged hole drilled all the way through her, six inches across, through two thicknesses of armour and through her power-backpack, leaking blood on the one side, leaking oil on the other. She’s dead. Gennid killed her. This is her blood on my face.

The one standing over me leans down again, pokes the harness to secure it so I can’t open it. It’s not properly tight. A surge of acceleration. Pain surfaces above my sea of balms and drugs: I screw my eyes shut and grit my teeth and if I made a noise I didn’t hear it.

The sister sits down and secures herself: while her eyes are probably off me I shift myself to the side in the ill-fitting harness, far over as I can go. A vox-band is trying to talk to me. I open it but I can’t hear it. Finger-sign to the helmeted sister – vox contact, is that you? Communications issue. Injury.

Novice. Your ‘friend’ really wanted to kill you. It doesn’t seem to be a question. Let us take it from here. Speak sermon and you can rest. She’s using signs out of context, some of them official signs, some of them the slang that novices use behind a teacher’s back. But their Gothic translation’s clear enough.

F u c k (I have to spell that) you. Go ahead. Kill me. All who know sermon are dead except me. You got nothing.

She’s locked and strapped herself in properly. Another kick of acceleration shoves us into our restraints, sideways, facing each other across the Valkyrie’s boxy cargo compartment. Her fingers flicker. Novice, sermon is whole objective of Vigil. Sisters, Sisters-Superior died for what? You can fulfil glory of Saint. What heretics told you irrelevant. Speak sermon and live in glory, all can be repented. Save your soul and your sisters’.

No, I respond with short abbreviated gestures. Kill me if heart will let you. Traitor.

She pauses for a moment, tilts her head. Her helmet is cracked across. Is that what this is? To you I am traitor?

Yes. I saw. I heard sermon, I recall sermon. Blasphemy. Not sermon for the Emperor.

What is more likely? Her movements are exact and precise and authoritative. That heart of Order is heresy and wrong, or that you do not understand?

But where in Lex Sororitas is Saint? Emperor protects. Those last two words are one single simple gesture, which is my point. This sign language was designed around statements like that.

She clenches her fists a moment. Was that all it took? Novice, no Saint in Lex except Mother D o m i n i c a. Not C e l e s t i n e, not A r a b e l l a, none. Is Order of Silver Shield traitor too? Order of Martyred Lady?

No I exaggerate the gesture to make it mean of course not. Incidentally I push myself to my left with my elbow, looks accidental, and feel the harness creak. She’s strapped me into one of the ones with a dodgy belt connector. I don’t know a sign for interrogator. Inquisitor’s word. Names used in sermon. Blasphemy. He said, he said!

Inquisition i d i o t s don’t know us. Inquisitors go heretic. Her gestures are emphatic. Sisters do not.

Not wrong. I am not wrong! Deep breath is more like a ragged sob as I shift in my seat. Emperor protect me, guide my hands and my heart. I can’t be wrong, I sign, emphatic, but the mask of my face says that I don’t believe my own words. Or I hope it does. I cannot be wrong about this.

Why not? The sister leans forward. Because your sisters are not martyrs if your cause is false?

I look at her wretchedly. Emperor cloud her sight. Emperor uplift me, and grant me this day the strength of angels. I don’t know, I sign, and my suit’s rising and restrained power makes my hands shake like a leaf, and I let myself burst into tears again.

And she bought it hook and line and sinker. Praise the Emperor, she even actually opens her faceplate to look me in the eye, I can see her mouth moving as she moves her hands. Come back, sister. Come home-

And with a shout that I can’t hear I slam my left elbow sharply back and straighten my legs explosively, and I feel the suit get behind that like the hand of the Emperor. The harness tears away on the right-hand side, exactly as I knew it would, and my hand comes forward with the fingers stiffened like a knife –

Ffffffuck.

It worked. I felt my fingertips hit the back of the inside of her helmet. I had less than a second to realise that yes, I did know her name (Silexa) –

No time, no time. Traffic on that same vox-band and I have no idea what because I’m still deafened by that grenade. But there’s a solution and I’m staring at it. My sarissa cuts the rest of the seat harness.

“My apologies to you, machine-spirits, I recognise you have no part in the heresy of your fellows, now for the sake of Him on Earth I implore you grant me your aid this day.” Made that prayer up. Can’t hear my own voice. (More traffic on the vox. Can’t hear that either.) The Sister-Superior’s helmet is undamaged, there’s a catch either side; I lift it off from behind because I can do that without looking into her eyes, and praise the Throne it comes. Careful not to trap my (horrible matted) hair as I lower the thing down onto my head, drop the faceplate –

The inside of the faceplate is blank metal covered in cushion-gel: the helmet seals at the neck and the breather covers my mouth and nose, and there’s a moment when I am stuck inside this claustrophobic facelessness that smells of someone else’s blood. And it’s a bloody good thing I know what’s coming next as the unsettlingly warm connection is made at the top of my spine and the gel touches my face.

And then, glory. The auto-senses come online like opening a new pair of infinitely better eyes, and suddenly the outside of the armour is the outside of me, its senses my own. It doesn’t matter any more that I’m bleeding from the ears. With a thought I slave the vox to auto-sense input, and I hear the voice directly through neural connection.

Internal circuit. “…say again, sister. That sounded like another explosion. What the hell?” And suddenly everything else can wait.

“Situation arising, wait one, out.” My voice sounds awful. Not like me at all. Relying on confusion. My hands move almost by themselves as I visualise the layout of a Valkyrie’s cockpit, I was sat in a working replica not two hours ago. Pilot-servitor sits on the far right; two other seats. The helmet I’m wearing helpfully paints the occupant into the one on the left: the auspex can’t see through walls, but the helmet has chosen to betray the false order, and it knows its erstwhile fellows.

“Sister?” I release the other harness and pull my dead sister off her seat to get at the ammunition storage on the left side of her power-backpack. Bolter. Drop spent mag, fit new mag, front first, push, click, cock, release.

“What in the Saint’s name is going on back-?” The internal bulkhead of a Valk isn’t really armoured and the weakest angle for a Sister’s armour is a straight impact in the back. I give it a full five-round burst, and not a single round decides I meant to fire at the wall rather than through it.

And then I have to lock my armour and close my eyes and just breathe for a second and Deus Imperator, I did it. (I will not think about what I did. I will not think about what could have happened if I hadn’t. I will not think about anything. I have a mission.)

All right. Vox, internal connection. The Lex has my back here. “Servitor, respond.”

Vox-click.

“Servitor, read out course and arrival estimate.”

The pilot responds in an androgynous monotone. “Three five nine point eight mark fourteen mark two zero eight, docking bay five, flank speed, docking approved. Arrival seconds two hundred forty.”

“R-reverse course. Approach previous coordinates and land.”

“Authorization.”

Well, here goes nothing – “Voiceprint: Ellayn, Sister-Novitiate, squad Agate.” Emperor protect me, guide my path. Emperor make the servitor recognise my voice when I hardly do myself.

“Voiceprint…” come on… “Recognized. Authorization denied, Sister-Novitiate Ellayn.” Well, shit. Think fast, Sister-Novitiate Ellayn.

… Well. Let’s try – “Slow to minimum cruising speed?” 

“Aye-aye.”

Right. Brilliant. Bought me some time. Swallow hard. Tastes abominable. Sleep-lessons give me the words to use, but that’s very different from ever having done this – “Beseech auspex.”

Vox-click. I can feel options I barely understand unfolding in the back of my head. The auspex’s picture of the world is weirdly tactile, the microwave beam feeling like an extra limb almost, the texture of the returns rich with information I can’t understand. And then a simple squint of the eyes and it’s like the walls of the compartment fall away and I have an instant of a terrifying rushing view of the via-magna and its massive inhabitants as we scream past at – oh, look, I’ve got a mach indicator, what the fuck’s a mach indicator –

I sit down hard and cram my eyes back into my damn skull before I fall over. “Timestamp to arrival, now.”

“Seconds three hundred eighty.”

Six minutes left. Machine-spirits forgive me: it is by the authority of the Inquisition I do this. If I live, I give my word I’ll do everything in my power to restore you. But right now I have a powerful need to break things.

++++

There’s a thing to notice, as I’m doing this. As I’m desecrating two corpses and abusing and mutilating what might actually be the only actually holy things here. As I’m rehearsing my reassignment of who killed who and how, as I’m wasting a careful ten of Silexa and Arabella’s two hundred and thirty bolt shells to make the inside of the back of the Valkyrie a warzone.

The thing to notice, it’s this. These people who are supposed to be my elder sisters. They’re not right.

Silexa. I can’t look at her head. But… remember Rorkel, the diminutive man in armour built to fit a tall soldier? She’s nearly the same. Yes, all right, she does just fit her armour, yes she handled it like an expert. But… but Sisters in our convent are fed performance-enhancers their whole lives, and we grow taller and stronger than most humans in the hive. ‘Short’ for my class was five foot nine. I’m five eleven. Porsia’s six three. And ‘Sister Silexa’ here is five foot two.

She’s not alone. The staring eyes of the upright-locked corpse of Sister-Superior Arabella are level with my chin. I feel sick. I pretend I’m feeling sick because of what I have to do.

Neatening up with my sarissa, carving off the insignia of rank. There’s only a couple left on my suit and they’re glued on. Most have already fallen off. We were never supposed to go into battle like this. But Silexa’s will be bonded on – should have, should have been bonded on as if they were of one piece with the ceramite beneath. I should not be able to twist them off with gloved fingers. I should need the sarissa for more than faking battle damage.

I’ve told the servitor to slow down, and at least it took that order. I have three minutes left. Sisters train – it’s right here in the back of my mind – the Rule bids Sisters not in action spend as much time in physical training as the human body can take without injuring itself. I was not the fittest in the choir and I once managed a full set of fifteen freestanding handstand pushups in a row. Arabella’s suit is built to accommodate a woman with a neck and shoulders like a bull’s and on her it’s loose and she’s the security chief.

And the suits – ours were heavily adjustable, one size fits none perfectly. Sure. We’re trainees. You don’t find every seventeen-year-old her own custom-adjusted relic. But Arabella was a Sister-S… fuck… Arabella was impersonating a Sister-Superior, should have had a suit that fit her like a second skin. If she was short – and I guess it’s not impossible, there were girls back in the schola for whom the treatments didn’t take perfectly – she shouldn’t have been in an adjustable suit that had been resized as small as it could go. She should’ve had a suit that was semipermanently her size, fit to her by Order artificers and the ritemistress.

In other words, this is a novice’s suit she’s in. The convent’s head of security was wearing novice gear and that’s the reason her helmet fits my suit perfectly.

Imagine growing up a whole life within a world made of painted canvas. Imagine trusting that the walls around you were stone and steel as the Throne intended.

Imagine tripping and falling, one day, and tearing one.

With a helmet on, the aimpoint of my bolter is a red dot in the world. If I concentrate, the path of the bolt is foreseen as a red dotted line.

At least the daemon had the decency to stop existing when I blew its head apart.

Seventeen

In Light, Chapter Fifteen

Up

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

In Light, Chapter Thirteen

Up

Twelve

++++

My sisters don’t see it happen.

The limo’s base is towards the hive, its nullgrav engaged. My sisters are inside a cushioned insulated soundproofed windowless floating box and their viewscreens are off, and they wouldn’t even know the first thing about it except that I told them, so they don’t see the sky fall and I don’t either because my eyes are closed because I can’t look and I can’t not look and if I hadn’t worked it out, if I didn’t know, then I’d think this was just really bad turbulence and my suit pings at me angrily because I’m hyperventilating and breathe.

Fucksake. No good to anyone like this. Bet Gennid is watching me. Breathe. Eyes shut. Stuck in here with my thoughts and nothing else and nothing to do and all of a sudden it’s bright outside and I can pretend my eyes are screwed shut and stinging because of a light that has nothing to do with a sun.

Channel request. Private. It’s Rakil. I can’t turn it down.

“Tell me,” she says, her voice full of a perfection both of us recognise as artificial. “Tell me, sister. Please tell me we didn’t do that. Tell me we didn’t fail.”

My throat hurts.

“I just -” I recognise that characteristic break in the words, now. The synth doesn’t know what to do with you if you’re not even trying to be what it wants you to be. “I just need to know that it’s not our fault, yours and mine. I really need to know that right now. I really need you to tell me that.”

I swallow hard and it still tastes awful. “I… It’s complicated.”

“That all you got?” There’s nothing of her voice in what I’m hearing. It’s the machine conveying her words. “That’s enough to keep you going?”

Pause. The paint on my lips tastes bitter.

I don’t have the words.

“Sister?”

“We didn’t make that happen.” It’s exactly what she wants to hear. “We didn’t make them fire.” It’s easier to say if I can’t see her.

“…what did?”

“They would have fired anyway. Whatever we said.”

“You told me that our mission was to save lives.” Her voice is bleak. “I thought you believed that.”

“I did.” Swallow. “We did. We changed their target, I, uh.” Dammit, I can do this. I open my eyes. Gennid has the screen set to show him –

to – 

I squeeze them shut again. “One volley. It was just one volley. It’s, the radius of effect is – the fire is – it stops at uh. It stops around level thirty-five.”

“Oh. Is that all?” The synth takes the rancor in her voice and makes something poisonous. “What’s that in round numbers, call that… thirty million people killed?”

“Call it twenty times that who we can still save.” I wish I could see her.

“We can, can we?”

“Maybe. If we get to somewhere that can broadcast emergency codes before the chaos really gets going in downhive, maybe we can stop it.”

“Blood of the Emperor. D’you want fries with that utter fucking miracle?”

“It’s all we have, Rakil. I can’t give you what I don’t have.”

Pause. A pause long enough for her to take a long shuddering breath. “That bit right there. That’s where the lies were supposed to go. That’s where the morale happens. That’s where you should have told me it was all going to be all right.”

“That what you wanted, was it?”

Silence, again. Nearly long enough for me to wonder if she’s really going to say anything at all.

“No. No, it wasn’t.”

She closes the channel.

The rest of my sisters leave me alone.

They will need me, when we land. They will need the person I’m supposed to be, the one who’s in charge, the one who knows bone-deep that it’s all going to turn out all right. The closest facsimile of authority that any of us has. This careful pretense we’ve all got that I’m not just reading it all out of the same textbook we’ve all got in our heads. They will need Sister Ellayn, the next time I see them. The one who knows what’s going on and has a plan. The one who pulled them out of hell once and by the Throne she’s going to do it again. But that’s twenty minutes away. If I pretend that the interrogator doesn’t exist then I’ll call this some privacy. I take my gloves off and the skin of my face is cold to the touch and sticky with Throne-knows-what. Let’s say I’m praying.

Let’s go with that.

yeah.

++++

Pink brings our limo down with a flutter of suspensors, the last few shreds of its prosthetic wings hanging off the boxy vehicle like tattered purity seals. The bottom of the craft slams drunkenly into the ferrocrete and the incomprehensible lights on the dashboard in front of me flicker and fail, and Pink puts her hands flat on the console and bows her head. 

She opens her lips a scant millimetre and her jaw does not move as her voicebox speaks. “House Omber thanks, thanks, thanks. You for your custom and patience. Have a nice day.” That very slight rattling noise, I realise, that’s her fleshless hands against the control panel. She’s shaking. “Conveyance and holy gift of Deus in Mechanicus, spirit, we thank you for your service and your-your service and your sacrifice.”

It was a pleasure-craft, an aristocratic toy dressed as a lander, suddenly called on to do the job of one of the Emperor’s Valkyries. Its repulsors have breathed their last, melted by flash, seized by the freezing air outside the hive. It’s saved all our lives. But this is the end of its road, an unmarked resting place in an aeroport that looks like nothing so much as a scrapyard.

This place must have been full when the strike hit. Wreckage lies strewn across the plascrete like so many discarded toys – the charred bones and tattered corpses of machines touched by the God-Emperor’s light. Not a human corpse, not a scrap to remind us of the mortals that might have been here. An inlay, gilded paint bubbled and peeled from heat, brashly proclaims hive-level two hundred. Half a dozen vertical miles from uphive, we’ve come. And the whole damn place, everything that can possibly still burn is on fire.

The hive is full of ventshafts and chimneys, you see. The atmosphere processors of the hive’s ancient backbone take in the smoke, gases and bad airs from the mines and the manufactories and even from Outside, and they breathe out pure sweet air in the continuous cycle that is the hive’s lungs and its only weather. Around the outlets are built the habs, where people eat and sleep and live: around the intakes are built the fabs, where people and machines toil and labour. But when the Stilletto spoke, when the Spire fell, the fireball and the overpressure would have found these open conduits an easy path to hab and fab alike. I can taste acid in the back of my throat. I wonder if we’re going to find anyone alive. Aren’t there… I don’t know, baffles? Gates? Void-shields? (Against the Emperor’s judgement? Against the wrath of the Imperium, literal fire from the actual sky?)

But as the limo’s doors open, as Pink cracks the cockpit seal, it’s plain then and there to anyone with ears that the hive still lives.

That noise, the first time I ever heard it in my life was when everything went wrong. The sound of the mob wounded and screaming, of an unimaginable number of people whose world is quite literally falling down about their ears. And it opens a black gnawing hole in the pit of my stomach and I feel sick and if I’m bad my sisters are worse. They aren’t deploying according to drill like they should, they’ve clumped up together and they’re sticking to the cover of the doors like there’s incoming fire. But the place is empty except for the noise.

And there’s no mob. Not here. There’s nobody here but us. The sound is – 

it’s – 

the noise is coming from the concourse tunnel, from the gate there that stands torn half-open, from the place we have to go. I can, if I don’t think for a second I can – 

can smell the blood and gunsmoke, I can hear –

Dammit, girl, pull yourself together. Open vox, squad band, enough synth to cut through not just what they’re hearing but what they think they’re hearing. Even if I can’t fill that sucking black hole in my gut, at least I can make it sound like I can. This is what my equipment is actually for.

“Agate. I hear it too, but we’re negative for enemy contact. Standard deployment by sections, if you please. First sops and first altos point, second soprano on Gennid. Second alto, you have Niwall. Move.” The obligatory prayer sticks in my throat a second. I spit it out anyway. “Emperor protects.”

And… it works. Works like a magic spell. Works like the Emperor blessed my voice. (I mean, isn’t that what the synth literally is?) My sisters shake their heads, they straighten their backs, they move. The idiot Gennid probably didn’t even notice our misstep. Pink and Rakil follow me like a shadow. And the splintering pain in my ribs can bother me later.

All right, Ellayn. You opened the door of your vehicle in a safe environment and talked your people into getting out of it without more than a momentary wave of terror and panic. Congratulations. 

Next problem.

++++

Secure the lift-station and await Magnus. Was that our objective? Think of the scale. This place is massive, the size and roughly the shape of the great cathedral that we’re all trying desperately not to think of. The massive and ornately decorated columns of three massive turbo-shafts drop from the vaulted ceiling, their gates facing outward into a concourse ornately criscrossed with politely drawn ped-lanes and transitways. Three spindly skybridges twine between them, themselves works of art: the aristoi can’t be expected to mix with the great unwashed as they go about their downhive business.

By luck or good judgement we’re coming in the top, on the tallest of the skybridges. There’s a barrier at the far end and it’s still sealed. We’re safe. We’re safe. And I’m just repeating that to myself because as we shoulder the heavy aeroport gates far enough open to get through, the sheer force of the din inside comes out at us like a breaking wave, like a physical force. But the only way out is through and somehow I lead the way. Because below us is the mob, the true crowd of the hive, and it is screaming.

We form up as if the sound itself is the threat but it’s not. Down there – below us – thousands of them. Tens of thousands. More. The transport concourses are meeting-places of dozens of modes of transport, not least pedestrians, and on a normal day when everything was not terror and chaos they would be packed – below us there is a sea of dirty terrified desperate humanity and none of them know where to run but everyone knows not here.

Gennid is beside me and the apple of his throat moves as he swallows nervously. Stood three feet away and only the vox lets me hear him. “Ellayn, you’re local. Read this… situation out, for me? I can’t see the target of this action.”

… Well, he did say he was from somewhere practically uninhabited. “It’s, that’s a stampede, not a riot. Can’t you hear? They’re scared, not-”

A scowl. “To fear is human, as it is written.”

“Yeah? To fear that is human.” It’s unreal, standing on this wide open decorated empty skybridge and looking down at Throne knows how many people crushing themselves to death under the sheer weight of fear. Training says read it. Make myself look. Unfocus the eyes a little, look at the aggregate motion, not any individual. The mob, not its appendages. “Looks like they’re trying to get away from the roadway helices.”

“I shall take you at your word.” He peers at the disaster as if it doesn’t hurt to look at. “Out of interest, why? Surely those are the best avenue of retreat?”

“Airlane down the centre,” I can hardly hear myself say. “The uh. Whatever the strike looked like to these people, whatever it sounded like. It would have looked like it came from there.”

“I see. And of course, we need to go that way.” He doesn’t, he can’t. “I assume this is a hazard you’re familiar with?”

“Never been near one, if that’s what you ask.” Acid in my voice. “You can tell, see, because I’m alive. You expect us to go into one? Voluntarily? Against the flow? You’d need…” I wave a hand vaguely towards the vehicle park, itself nearly packed with crowd. “Something that could literally fly. Another antigrav carrier or a skimmer or something. Except I’d be amazed if there were any left near here.”

“I’m afraid to say that your distaste for a ground action is immaterial-”

“Distaste?” I physically turn to face him. “Gennid, you’re an offworlder, first time you ever met a hive, right?” I get a scowl out of him for that and a short you-know-that nod and I carry straight on. “But where you come from, there are still hazards, you know? There are things you just grew up knowing are dangerous, like, I don’t know. Volcanoes. Rain. Heights. Whatever.” I jerk my head towards the crowd. “Every single other person here is a hiver. And every single one of us learned as a child that a stampede is death.”

“But the people down there, don’t they know that?”

“Yes,” I say grimly. “So they’re running. From the stampede. Creating more stampede. Because staying still in a stampede is certain death.”

He runs his eyes coolly back over the chaos below. “I… see. Your recommendation, then?”

“Stay out of it,” I say instantly. “A stampede doesn’t last f-for ev…” I trail off as my brain catches up. “Shit.”

He just waits for me to finish. Standing here is like sandpaper on the soul. I don’t see how he isn’t feeling that. We need to get out of here. With Magnus. Restore some sense of order. Or what I just said is wrong and it will last forever, or what we are looking at is going to get worse rather than better, or the Stilletto should just have fired at the base of the hive and saved us all the trouble and –

Breathe. (The air stinks, but it’s the smell of massed humanity and burning fuel, not blood and incense and gunsmoke and the cathedral.)

“Okay.” I swallow hard. “We’re not equipped o-or really trained for crowd control. Not our mission, not our calling. But… but incoming in that lift is an actual Judge of the Arbitrators, and he literally is an expert. New objective: vox terminal. Get back in touch with Magnus. Get his take.”

“I don’t like the uncertainty, Sister. This plan has too much of that already.”

“Well, interrogator, you know what they say.” I gesture to my squad and the first sops move out, still kind-of treating the world like it’s going to start shooting any second. “A problem shared is a problem doubled.”

++++

The three lift shafts come down into a compound, a corral with a sturdy wall. The barrier between us and the crowd is solid steelcrys with a gate that’d come off best against a ram-raid, but it’s only ten feet tall. Thank the Throne, our assessment from above was right – it looks like the moral threat hasn’t spread here at least. There’s no purpose behind the violence and power of that terrified mob, it’s just a very human and understandable mentality. Those aren’t heretics, out there, they’re innocents. Victims. Our victims. At the very least they’re not out to kill us. We don’t need to worry about the mob deciding our deaths are worth more than their lives and pushing that wall over like so much sand.

Happy thoughts, Ellayn.

The tech-chapel serves all three lifts, a squat ugly little thing festooned in all the usual cable-trunks, votive panels and randomly spiking antennas of the Cult Mechanicus, and its walls are utterly seamless with the ferrocrete floor like it was there when this hive-level was made. It’s neutral ground – the Guild of Transconductors and Toll-takers are priests of Mars, wholly outside the hive’s structure of ranks and castes. A parallel church worshipping a parallel deity, tending to their mechanical flock with a care and attention many priests of the Emperor would struggle to match. Even my s… even my supposed superiors would need permission to enter a place like this.

The door boredly trains the Mars-red eye of its camera on me as I approach; it narrows its iris and interrogates my suit with a perfunctory little comms laser, and I think that entirely alien sensation I feel was the armour-spirit’s curt response. It’s like there’s a vox-message passing between them, but I don’t speak enough binaric to know what they said.

But it’s clear enough an instant later when the iris widens and flicks – nervously? – to stare at the interrogator following in my wake, and before I have time to open my mouth the door grinds open.

I’m greeted by the metal-studded tonsure of a shortish, roundish person in a ratty robe that’s as brown as it is red. “Servants of the Inquisition!” They straighten from a deep bow and fix me with a monocled eye; their voice is almost entirely synthed, a well-rounded and unexpectedly merry tenor. Completely unfazed by the noise beating down on us from all sides like a physical pressure. “For it is exloaded that the words of the Inquisition are motivated by the cogitations of Deus-prime-fork-alpha-as-reintegrated-by-treaty, all efficiency to those who speed their passage: welcome and handshake!” Their mouth is covered by a metal grille and the rest of that pudgy face is as expressionless as if it was paralyzed. I think those words were supposed to be perfectly normal Gothic? They present no hand. “State your request?”

“Uh.” Nothing in sleep-learning about how to actually talk to the cultists of the machine. Our ritemistresses are Sisters on secondment, servants of Deus Imperator in Mechanicus, they’re still people like us, they’ve just got another set of words in the back of their head, what do I say? “I, uh, need to speak to the turbolift coming down tube nor’west alpha, sibling. Immediately, if that’s possible.”

“Bad request, I think! Abort-retry-approve?” The tech-priest twitches an eyebrow and their eyes twinkle. “Turbo Ninety speaks Emerald and binaric-prime, oh yes, but no height of Gothic. I am permitted to auth you, but surely you are not capable of-”

“Interrupt.” Gennid gives me a look as if to ask what rock I grew up under and near-physically elbows into the conversation. “Retry. We request a vox-intercession with the cargo of Turbo Ninety, preferably with Judge Magnus.”

The priest emits an entirely incongruous synthesized little laugh. “Recognition! Of course! Sily me: let me patch you now!” They don’t leave their doorway – behind them, it’s just about possible to see that the shrine is packed solid with machinery. You could maybe fit three people in there at once if they didn’t need personal space. “Your interpreter?”

Gennid steps forward a little too quickly, in case I do something wrong, I suppose. He holds out his battered hand-vox. (Of course. An ‘interpreter’ would be something that translates between Gothic and a machine language, wouldn’t it?) The priest tilts their head, makes a peremptory little sound, something between clearing the throat and a burst of static, and out from the chapel snakes a prehensile cable in a way that’s just a little bit disturbing. From the depths of the stained red robe the priest brings forth an adaptor the size of my fist, which screws squeakily into the end; a worm-fine cable extends and that clips into Gennid’s handset. The tech-priest mutters the first few familiar lines of the Litany of Access, and it’s not until they finish their incantation that I realise that they were saying it over the vox so that the machines could hear.

Come on. Deep breath. Instruct my suit to direct my voice only into that channel and hope it takes. “Agate for Scale, d’you hear me, Scale, over.” Pause. Nothing. An encouraging nod and gesture from the priest and I try again. “D’you hear me, Scale, this is Agate, over.”

And something, something from the far end. The tech-priest frowns and meddles with the hand-vox, turning dials as far as they will go, pulling a spare dial from the depth of their robes, attaching it to the side of the vox-cable and turning that. Mostly my suit thinks that the signal coming in is a high-pitched screeching, the cry of some kind of machine, though I don’t know if that’s a sign of some problem or operation as usual. But perhaps there are words in it. I can almost feel the vox-spirit guessing at their shape – aha – “…good to hear the sound of your voice, Agate. Scale here, over.”

“Agate reporting in position at lift-station concourse north one, no enemy contact at this time.” I stick to battle-language, it’s literally made for this. “No… no enemy contact. Report hazard, fifth-order crowd currently in stampede repeat stampede. Please advise, over.”

The man doesn’t bother to close the channel before he starts swearing. Very good, sir, but I do actually need advice here –

After a while the words stop. “Say again, Scale?”

“Never mind.” He drops back into battle-language. “Can you hold, over?”

I shoot the concourse gate a calculating look. “Provided situation remains stable: affirmative. No clear path downward, over.”

“Advise you recconoitre vehicle depot. Can you secure materiel, over?”

“Negative, Scale. Materiel present but not accessible, over.” There’s this matter of a giant screaming mob, sir. Between us and that objective, sir. Did I not mention?

“Roger that, Agate, wait one. Out.”

The interrogator makes a face. “That doesn’t sound encouraging.”

I can tell the suit not to send my voice up the cable. I even think I did it successfully. “He’s the only expert we have, unless you’ve been holding out on me.”

Gennid scowls. “And when he doesn’t have a plan either? If you’re right, this little riot is only the beginning.”

“The Emperor will provide,” I say, mostly to shut him up. “And that’s not a riot, interrogator, as I said. Can’t you hear?” He’s opening his mouth to retort when that screech comes out of the vox again along with Magnus’ voice.

“D’you hear me, Agate, over?”

“Loud and -” almost – “clear, Scale, go ahead, over.”

“First take, I recommend we kill turbo velocity, you hold and wait. Stampedes burn themselves out.”

I chew on my lip and it still tastes vile. “I advise against, your honour.” How to say this? “Tactical sitch has evolved, are you aware?”

“Enlighten me.” And even through the chain of thinking machines that connect his voice to my ear and the screeching over the airwaves, I can hear his gritted teeth. Or perhaps every one of the spirits aiding us could hear it, and thought I needed to.

“Aye-aye. Sitch follows. Destruction in uphive has progressed, uh -” I grope for words – “Become, uh, total. Assume all assets above mid-uphive transition lost. Hive communications sabotaged repeat sabotaged. No general emergency response observed. Uncontrolled crowd disorder here and possibly elsewhere. Risk of evolution of disorder to full disaster status.” The dry curt words tie my stuttering tongue like a bandage. “Your honour, if we hold….”

“Copy, Agate, copy.” Stop talking, we get it.  “Comms still sabotaged in downhive, please confirm, over?”

Think so? I meet the tech-priest’s eyes and they nod hurriedly. “Yes, your honour. Still short-range only.”

“Command decision, sister. Short on intel. Macharius, Imperio Imperii, four. Three, one. Advise. Do you copy?”

… book four, chapter three, verse one… right. Right. Yes. “Copy, your honour, wait one, out.”

And of course, Gennid opens his trap the instant he can. “The reference, sister?”

That little-known secondary function of a Sister of Battle, the lending library – “On Imperial Authority, book four, commentary on Guilleman’s Tactica. The verse is, uh, let me translate, ‘The angel’s (uh) scale balances here the cost of action not against the, the reward of victory, but… against the… cost of inaction.’ Does Magnus know that hypnodoctrination covers the text only? Not whatever weird context the Judges teach for that verse?”

The twist of the corner of Gennid’s mouth has nothing to do with humour. “He’d better. Any road, he knows pretty much exactly what we’re going to ‘advise’ him.”

“He’d better.” I mirror his expression. “I think his question is whether clearing this crowd would be worth it. Because we can see and he can’t.”

“Your call, sister. You’re the one who just spent a quarter hour lecturing me on how much I didn’t know about your home. Got chapter and verse for ‘yes’?”

“Clearing, I said.” I wet my lips. They still taste awful. “The word is too clean. Just so you know. I can’t see a reason he’s asking that question that doesn’t involve the words ‘massive’ and ‘collateral damage’.”

He has the decency to look away, in the direction of the people we’re talking about. “I’m not blind to that. Can we help? If we get to the Arbitrators’ putative sanctuary, I mean. Are we on a hiding to nothing?”

Swallow. Yuk. Pretty sure the drugs that are keeping me upright are having side-effects. “I have to believe we can do what I said we might be able to.”

“Then the cost of inaction eclipses the cost of action.” He looks – for the barest instant he looks almost regretful. “Welcome to our world.”

“I hear you.” Breathe. “Okay.” I nod to the techpriest that we need the vox to work again, and the squeal cuts into our audio feed once more. “D’you hear me, Scale, over?”

“Loud and clear, Agate. Please advise.”

“Aye, your honour.” I shut my eyes as if I’m literally reading the text on my eyelids. “Ibidem, six, one and two, do you copy?” Advance: attack: assault. For the Guard as for the angels, it is critical that the initiative over the enemy be retained.

Silence.

Silence that stretches for long enough that I’m nearly opening my mouth to ask if he wanted me to try and send that in plaintext. Silence that makes me wonder if maybe he was expecting tactics and not philosophy – “Heard,” he says at length. “Understood. Acknowledged. Have Mechanicus provide arrival countdown. At three, open all the gates, deliver Cave Arbitros with all possible amplification, and take cover.”  A grim silence as he gets his jaw around the rest of the plan. “Then counteract for riot-gas and engage the condemned.”

“Copy, your honour, uh. Engage who, sir?”

The vox doesn’t need to transmit his tone of voice clearly. “The ones your words condemned, sister.”

++++

Fourteen

In Light, Chapter Twelve

up

eleven

++++

All that matters in that first instant is Niwall.

She’s lying where she fell, insensible, statue-still, her arms outflung and locked stiff. Her skin already corpse-grey, staring eyes rolled up in her head so I can’t see the white of them, but her armour’s intact. Not a mark, not a scratch on it as I go to a knee beside her –

sick black-and-white pain tries to steal my breath and a violent twist of will tells my suit to make that shut up and it does its best –

I take her left hand in both of mine, ask it to unlock from that grotesque pose, squint at the little screen on her wrist, call up a condition readout… r-right…. I’ve never seen some of these before. Rad exposure? Tox runes? Widespread deep burns but no breach to armour – contamination risk? This column here is – Throne, that’s really not supposed to be a flat line – my second glove comes off and I go to loosen her neck seal, second step on an armoured casualty is to check their airway.

And my suit arm locks with my fingers half an inch away from her. It, it won’t let me touch her with bare hands. Don’t have the dexterity to do this gloved – if I was just wearing a helmet I wouldn’t have this problem, I’d be able to see all the readouts. Frantic glance at my own wrist screen, what’s the spirit trying to tell me –

It comes to me that Gennid has physically grabbed my shoulder. It’s like his voice is a long dark way away. “She’s dead, you idiot! Dead and-” He goes to take hold of my unarmoured chin to try and get my attention and then I didn’t hit him hard, just moved my elbow like someone was crowding me: and as he tries to get up again there’s Rakil’s gun politely explaining that he’s been requested to stay down.

“Fools!” he yells, but I’m not listening, I’m trying to override my suit (denied), I’m trying to read back through Niwall’s monitor (the runes, it’s fading them out, it’s shutting down), with a snarl of frustration I’m going to the emergency panel on the side of her back-unit and she hasn’t breathed for eighty, ninety seconds now and –

My instruments and her suit’s instruments concur and they’ve been doing so since I first asked them and I open my mouth to say she’s dead and can’t fit the words out of my mouth.

Gone, just like that. Not just gone. I can’t even touch her to check for a pulse. I can’t even shut her eyes. The suit won’t let me. The one rune still active on her monitor is the trefoil, humanity’s most ancient symbol of aversion and dishonour.

fuck it.
Fuck it.
Fuck dishonour. I am not leaving her here.

Gennid is talking. To Rakil, I think. “Get her moving,” he’s saying. “Damn you, girl, at least let me up – you want us to die here, do you? Want to stand there sucking down electrical smoke till you choke on it?”

Okay, I’m standing. It was hard. My sister is a terrible weight even in one-third grav. A nod and Rakil is getting the door open – violence works, it’s only hardplas. Gennid can go wherever he likes, preferably to hell.

Out of the door. We drop lightly down in the dreamlike grav-field, but Niwall just carries on and hits the floor with a loud heavy final crash I can’t stop and her head just lolls back and it’s just simply unfair, it’s obscene, that there is nothing to shroud her poor face. My own discomfort and pain are one thing. But surely a martyr shouldn’t have to have people see her like this.

I pick her up again.

Rakil takes her other arm. Guess the moment we leave the low grav, she’ll start weighing what she’s supposed to, or three times what I’m barely supporting –

Annnnnd apparently my own injury will suddenly decide to set off half my suit alarms at once and make the autosystems shoot me full of drugs. My head pounds and I’m sure I’ve flushed an unhealthy colour but I guess it beats falling over forwards with a sudden wave of agony. The armour’s hands shook already. I grit my teeth and put one foot in front of the other.

“Ellayn?” Porsia and her two first sopranos had made it as far as that next door. “I h-heard you yelling over vox, we – ohThrone -”

I have a free hand. The sign for contamination is sleep-learned: open little finger, closed hand, palm up to start, flick of the wrist, exaggerated gesture for mortal danger. Instantly she signs the response, just like the exercise, source? I nod to Niwall on my shoulder and her eyes go wide. Alive? I shake my head shortly. (My neck still hurts.)

But we’re sisters. Nobody needs to be told. Nobody’s going to talk about procedure, say we shouldn’t bear our fallen sister out of that terrible place, no matter what her suit tells us. And Rakil goes straight from being a strong shoulder under Niwall’s arm to pretty much collapsing the instant someone else takes the weight. (They don’t try and do that for me and that’s good too. My burden might be the only thing that’s keeping me upright.)

She weighs about a million tons but the Emperor is my strength. Rakil’s leaning pretty hard on Hayla now and that’s a black eye she’s developing, but she’ll be all right. We look after our own. God-Emperor, grant us fortitude to endure that which You have given us to bear.

“S-so,” says Porsia carefully –

“You don’t want to know,” I manage, and she’ll be able to hear the wreck I’ve made of my voice under the synth. “Message got through.”

“Right, sister.” She nods smartly, as if being professional now can make up for falling apart (oh Throne on Earth was it only) five minutes ago. “So what now?” she asks, and it’s a good few seconds before I realise she’s talking to me and an answer’s going to be a few more.

Blink hard. Swimming in pain. Get a damn grip. “One sure way out of here, the limo. Take your section ahead and secure it, we’ll follow at best speed. Don’t let Gennid leave without us, hear?”

A nod, fingercode aye-aye, and she goes on ahead. All right? Next burning issue. I take a deep breath-

try to –

Throne, but my side hurts. Every time I breathe it’s like there’s broken glass sticking in me. Standing still now. Yasi’s the other one carrying my burden now and she’s looking at me like maybe I’m fragile, going to break if she says anything. What would I tell another sister in my…

Condition. Condition monitor. Mine. Wrist. Wouldn’t need this if I only had a hat on. Dammit. Runes are swimming in and out of focus and I hope that’s the tears in my eyes and not damage to the suit. (Breathe. Grit my teeth.) Okay. Okay. Armour integrity? No breach, none, not a tear, not a puncture, not a scratch more than I had walking in there. Blood… wait, I’ve got blood loss without a suit breach? Did I expect this to make sense? That one says – cracked ribs, possibly worse. Flashing runes, those ones there. A decision point. It’s asking –

It’s asking if it can unlock the hard stuff. Moment it does that, I’m on a clock – four hours of function, then I go down so hard my suit can’t get me back up. Either a preparation for martyrdom or a statement that help is on the way – I hope I got the correct rune as I mutter the first verse of the Litany of Blessed Endurance. Guess I’ll find out in four hours.

The suit’s homeostat is plugged into four big plugs between the muscles of my back, about level with my heart, looks like a spider made of of steel, goes on before the backplate. I can feel it tick-click to itself in a manner that feels somehow approving, and it’s like everything tightens and sharpens and brightens and works.

All right. I breathe and it hurts but suddenly that’s not a problem. Yasi looks me in the eye and I nod to her and we get moving. Next problem.

Pink. The little pilot is in our way. Sat there against the wall with her legs stuck out in front of her, staring down unblinking at the fleshless razor latticework of her augmetic hands. She’s not moving. That astropath unscrewed the picture frame round each of our self-portraits. Who’s here to pick up the pieces of her?

She seems to hear our footsteps in a way she didn’t hear the others’. Turns her head to see us, a mechanical defensive motion, shift in her weight, a moment of fight-or-flight. I meet her eyes, neither pity nor threat, don’t make me carry you too.

“Apologies, Sister.” The sunny customer-service tone is completely at odds with the look of her. She doesn’t need to move her lips to talk. “For the lap-lapse, the lapse, lapse in.” She bites her mouth closed, deep breath. Opens her lips a grudging crack. “How can House Omber assist you today, Sister? Your satisfaction is our concern.”

“I thought our next step would be to get ourselves out of here, if you’d agree.” And I have something new to thank the Emperor for, that the machine that grants me a voice doesn’t steal away my actual tongue. I have it lighten up on the bass and drop the volume a little, not angelic, just audible. “Do I need to ask the interrogator to drive?”

That has her getting her feet under herself. “I shouldn’t think that should be necessary, milady Sister.” Her bladed fingertips leave gashes in the wall as she hauls herself to her feet and the mag-soles on her impractical shoes activate with a reassuring click. Her bearing is perfect. Her eyes… aren’t. “Passengers are invited to make their way to-to-to-the, to the landing pad for dep-departure.”

++++

Gennid’s leaning against the limo when we get there, his back against the once-pristine fibreplas of the false Valkyrie hull. Flicks a hand to me as we approach in a good approximation of our finger-code: you. Here. Now.

Fuck off (not that I can say that in fingercode). I’m hurting and I’m pissed off and despite the drugs I know my body is exhausted. He’s not ordering me around like some kind of pet. We get Niwall locked in between Yasi and Porsia, her suit seems to recognise what we’re doing and plays along, and meanwhile Pink’s warming the limo up. The interrogator has the good grace not to press the issue. I don’t know, maybe he thought that he was being subtle with that sign-language, maybe he doesn’t know we literally grew up speaking fingercode alongside Gothic and he might as well have broadcast that order at full volume. I guess I shouldn’t ignore it entirely.

But he still doesn’t merit the effort of a salute. “You wanted something, interrogator?”

A weary nod. “You’re forrard with me. We should talk.”

I look at him till he starts speaking Gothic again.

“Forrard.” He gestures at the limo’s cab. “For information control. You understand?”

No, but apparently he’s ordering me to sit – where?

Okay. So everyone else gets the nice opaque reassuring confines of what at least looks like the back of a Valk, and the company of our martyred sister. Me? I get to sit in the middle of a cockpit built for three mortals, a seat that truly wasn’t designed for an armoured body, but at least it’s hard. It’s a good thing the other two in here are small, and that Pink’s piloting doesn’t involve anything more energetic than fitting her hands into the control-gloves.

Is this befitting of the dignity of our office? Pink’s voicebox sounds as cheerily professional as always. “Destination, honoured sister, noble sir?”

“Take us downwards.” Gennid jams a verbal foot in the door. “Cruising speed, remaining close to the hivewall. Specifics to follow. What is this thing’s strongest thrust vector?”

Pink raises an eyebrow. “Upwards: it is a safety feature.”

It’s as if she’d said something amusing. “Very well. Nose to the ground, then, if you please, belly to the hive. Stand ready to cut nullgrav and redline everything else, d’you understand?”

“Understanding is not required. Course laid in, mymy lordsir.”

He ignores the slip. “Now set us off on a regular transit course downward, maintaining your orientation. You’ll know if you need to do the other thing, trust me. I’ll speak of where to land when we’re less high up. Meanwhile, privacy, if you will. Peccatula non vides, peccatula non audies.”

“Privacy, aye. Dumb, blind – excuse me – deaf to audio in three, two.” She averts her eyes, too, and dammit if that’s not creepy in – a – a –

Aaaaaand now the water-clear canopy in front of me is pointing straight at the distant ground and there’s a thousand miles of nothing in every other direction and my gut tells me we’re falling. Thank you, interrogator, thank you so much…

“I suppose it would be too much to ask,” says the man perfectly matter-of-factly, “that you’d have been trained in how to handle a confession?”

I grit my teeth and haul myself back inside my own skin. “I think that those words perhaps do not mean to you what they mean to me? I mean, I don’t think you are my subordinate, and you look bloody strange for a Sister Famulous?”

He makes another of his little disgusted noises. ”No would have been sufficient.” He leans back slightly and looks straight ahead out of the canopy. “So, ‘Sister’. What now?”

“Sorry, what?”

“It’s not hard to understand, it’s not a technical term. What now? By luck as much as judgement we have succeeded at the objective that overrode everything else. Now we are back at square one. Now we have an enforced half hour or so of introspection in transit. We have the luxury of asking questions. Of… second-guessing.”

“Second-guessing.” I try and shift into a less impossibly awkward position, double-check the maglocks securing me to my seat, try not to worry about falling out into the infinity above me or the decidedly not-infinity in front of me. “This is about me and my sisters, again. Isn’t it.”

He pinches his brow, again. He’s doing it with his left hand, his off-hand. He’s doing that because he’s kept his right hand concealed from me since he stepped onboard. “Isn’t it? As I told you, in you we have a mystery. Girls educated and trained and what’s more equipped after an incredibly rare and exclusive fashion. Girls who-”

I frown. “Gennid, surely it’s no surprise to find, well, little Sisters? Did you think we sprang into existence as battle-hardened valkyries?”

“Sis-ter-hood.” He draws the word out in that irritating habit of his. “You see, there’s the rub. Whoever you are, whatever you are, however mislaid or misdirected, you look a whole lot like the Adepta Sororitas. No unholy weapon would have come to your hand in response to a heartfelt prayer, and I know blessed ammunition when I see it. Your wargear, you aren’t ‘dressed up like a Sister’: you are equipped as a Sister, down to small details you’d want an expert for. Your hate and fear of that Herald were real enough. Your sleep-training I have already put to the question. But answer me this.” He takes a deep slow breath. “Who is Saint Ursula? Who is your patron?”

“Uh.” To say this story is familiar would be an understatement. “Saint Augusta Ursula Vigiliae, ascension day zero-zero-nine of year eight-eight-nine of the thirty-sixth millennium. Patron of lobbyists and petitioners, shrineworlds include Baelis, sponsor of-”

He grunts as if satisfied. “For comparison, then. Recite for me the names of Saint Alicia Dominica?”

And sleep-learning takes over. I never learned this awake, never read this, nobody ever told me this tale, it’s part of me like my name is. In my current state, the words just fall out of my mouth like glossolalia – “Glory be to her name, the Blessed Saint Alicia Dominica, Mother of the Sisterhood, Scourge of Vandire. Author of the Sisterly Rule, prima inter pares et-”

His eyes narrow. “The titles of Saint Macharius.”

“Glory be to his name, the Blessed Saint Macharius, Pellides and Heir of Donia.” I don’t even have time to think. “Lord-Commander Solar, Macharian Crusade.” I could only stop the tumbling words by biting my mouth closed. “Angelus Ignis, peer to angels.” It’s like hearing someone else speaking.

“Enough. Now recite for me-”

“I-I know.” Abruptly I raise a hand to stop another tirade of catechism, and for an instant he tenses. Any motion of mine is a threat. “All right? Let me cut to your conclusion. Everything I know about everything that is important, it’s sleep-learned, it’s indoctrinated, stamped on me by machine. Textbooks behind my eyes, litanies written on my tongue. Everything except the Saint, her hymns, her stories, her rites – they’re all memories formed awake. They’re not in the litany. They’re local. Honestly learned, if that is the word. And you don’t trust anything local a-and we shouldn’t either. Yes?”

Frustrated he hisses. “Yes, yes. The next part is the bit I need: what are we missing? Sister, you are dressed and equipped and indoctrinated into the part. Even if my impression of your indoctrination is deluded, how do I explain your wargear? But you’re not telling me that the blasphemy at the top of the hive was one lone sister gone rogue. You’re not telling me the rot doesn’t run deep.”

Nnh. I can stare at the man or I can stare at dizzying infinity or I can shut my eyes. They sting. “The. The foundation. The Saint herself?”

He shakes his head shortly. “I don’t know. We don’t know. Somewhere up there-” he jerks his head in an odd, alien gesture, I guess he means to refer to the voidship he came from- “there’s right now a battalion of archivists digging through a forest of mouldering codices looking for a single proper unambiguous reference. There’s a dozen people who could have been Saint Augusta Ursula, half a dozen ways an Order-Minor ends up recruiting and indoctrinating on a hiveworld. You were indoctrinated in her stories in vivo, what did you call it-” His mouth twists as if with the sourness of his tone. “Honestly?”

“Yes.” The synth still doesn’t know what to do with a voice that isn’t even trying to be sure of itself. “We were told that localisation is done this way, just as weapons training requires physical training as well as-”

“Thing is, that’s not impossible, it’s not bizarre, it’s… winked at. Every induction in the whole bloody Adeptus Terra is variant. Show me a single training facility that uses nothing but hypnodoctrination and I’ll show you a bald-faced lie.” His finger taps fitfully on the dashboard as he stares at our reflections on the cockpit. “Your cover identity is so damned plausible.”

“And yet.” I meet his reflection’s eyes.

“And yet,” he hisses at himself. Raises an eyebrow after a moment, looks up at me irritably. “All this doesn’t bother you?”

“What gave you that impression?” I glower at him. “Would anything be served by curling up and waiting for the truth to go away? Hope is the first step on the road to-

“See?” He throws up his free hand and I manage not to flinch. “You even talk like a damn Sister. A more perfect bunch of holy innocents…”

He’s trailed off. I try to look as if I’ve never met a particle of doubt in my life. “Yes?” I say, eventually.

“Holy innocents. Very specific-” He clears his throat. “For what was your choir selected? Just your singing voices?”

I frown. “We were told it was progress with our studies, that we couldn’t let ourselves fall behind just because we sang for an extra hour a day. I mean, Niwall-” who’s dead because she followed me – “she’d always joke that we’d been chosen for our looks-“

“Progress.” Gennid makes a fist. “Sleep-learning is perfect first time in maybe half of all cases. How many of your choir ever had remedial indoctrination sessions?”

Blink. “We had physical lessons on the Saint?”

Only about the false saint.” He lets his hand fall gently onto the dashboard. “You were in the cathedral. Presumably you’d have been central to the rite my lord Toth interrupted? 

“I mean, we were, we were literally the choir.” I swallow hard. “Do you want a-“

A muscle works in his jaw. “We were told that something about the rite would be… Like a disease of the soul. That fervent faith in the Emperor would be a shield, but how many people in the hive are truly that loyal to-“

He stops talking because shock has chiseled its way through the drugs I’m swimming in and blasted my face pale and Sisters are not supposed to use language like this in front of outsiders, but my synth is quite happy to make “motherfuckers” into a benediction. And I shut my eyes and take a deep breath and then I let the idea out of my head. “Faith shall be our shield. Interrogator, the words that the blasphemer spoke came from nowhere. They flowed through us and around us and out of us and left us and we didn’t remember them. We were like… I mean, it’s like we were catching what she said and broadcasting it, but we couldn’t remember a word. To coin a phrase, it was like we were shielded.

“Because a lamp with a wick that burns up quickly is no good.” He curls his lip. “And innocents would have made for excellent sacrifices as they gave out one by one, no doubt.”

“You’re, uh. It’s a lot to…” I swallow hard. It tastes awful. “We’re seriously suggesting that my sisters and I, we were raised for…?”

“Possibly the Order entirely,” he rasps. “Look at the prize. If my lord Toth had not been there, if the red priest Ariah had not cursed the hive’s communications as thoroughly as they could, if the Stilletto had not been enacting a curse upon all broadcasts out from the hive, if my team had not been cutting all communications links between uphive and downhive. What we’ve seen here would have spread across this whole hive and this whole planet. Six hives. As many billion souls.”

I clear my throat. “Twice that.”

He gives a short, bitter, alien hiss. “Twice that. You see the stakes. You’re surprised they rest on so much as a century’s conspiracy?”

I swallow. I say nothing.

“The source of your equipment, your training and so on. We will uncover it, people will burn for it, but not today. This is not what we are about, in this moment.”

“What is, sir?” My synth makes the question sound matter-of-fact. Just flatly hides whether I’m sounding small and alone.

He makes a fist to stop his tapping fingers. “Ignoring you is no option. We cannot go our separate ways, it’d be an abrogation of duty. I cannot sensibly investigate further into the Order of the Quill without a means of doing something about any findings – apart from anything else, your conditioning makes you unreliable where they are concerned, it’s the weakness of all such orders. And I am resourceful, but I do not have a dozen angels in my back pocket. No, it’s trust you or don’t, take you on or…” He shakes his head. “On the left hand, you are living, breathing ritual components created by a cult of the Changer of the-”

I flinch.

He swallows the words. “Answers that question. On the right hand, those components are the best facsimile of the Sisters of Battle I’ve ever seen, assembled from the correct materials in the correct order, and we are in one of the situations for which the Sisterhood exists – the Emperor could certainly use a dozen Sisters today. We must work with or against each other. And now is as good a time to decide that as any.”

My eyebrows go up. “You’re literally asking my advice on whether or not the next thing we do is kill each other.”

He sits back, hand still under his coat like he’s being subtle. “Call it a last-ditch façade of due diligence.”

Deep slow breath. My ribs ache dully. Consider my next move, choose carefully. Wrong words and this goes bad, fast. My heart would be pounding if my suit would let it.

“Bullshit,” I hear myself say.

Not the words you were expecting, interrogator? “You’re… going to have to repeat that,” he says, deliberately.

“Bull. Shit.” I don’t look away. “Bullshit. I’ve fought for you. Killed for you – d’you know how many hours it has been since the first time I ever deliberately shot at someone on purpose? Niwall, my sister – did you think that word was just a metaphor? – she died. Saving your pathetic Throne-damned life. Again.” If I don’t moderate my tone then my synth will decide I want real volume and my sisters will hear. “You have all of the evidence for our loyalty that you are ever going to get. You want me to salve your conscience? You want me to go first? You want me to let you stand before the Emperor and say you died in battle with a heretic? No. Fuck you. No.”

“Sister Ellayn, may I remind you to whom you are speaking-”

“How could I forget? It’s the first thing out of your mouth whenever you don’t get your own way. Gennid, I have no more proof for you, no more evidence, no… words to say to justify my sisters or make us fit your taxonomy. At this point you pretty much know all I do. So as you say. Take us on. Or try the other thing, and we find out if that grenade in your pocket goes off before I can throw it out of that canopy with you attached.” Pause. Breath. “We clear?”

A moment’s silence. He closes his eyes, and for what feels like a long time he’s still as a statue. Then he withdraws his right hand smoothly from under his coat and my arm just blurs – my thoughts, such as they are, are centred on stopping my suit hurting him further until I know whether it has a weapon in it – I have him by the wrist, immobilised entirely. This hold hurts even before you consider that I’m doing it with a powered glove – he doesn’t make a sound.

And his hand is completely empty. 

I make myself open my fingers.

And he folds his hands before him, slowly, carefully, without any further sudden movements. “Yes,” he growls. “Fine. Yes.” And he looks me in the eye. “This day and hour, let you and your so-called unit be hereby requisitioned to the service of the Throne until He is done with you, auctoritate Malleus in instantiam: welcome to the service of the Ordo Malleus.” He turns his head, stares off out at infinity. “My lord Toth can always have me shot for cowardice when this is over.”

++++

The little man sits hunched in his seat staring at the beautiful terrifying dizzying view and nursing the long red bruises I’ve left on his hand, and to the extent that the word applies to a servant of His Imperial Majesty’s holy Inquisition, I’d say he’s sulking.

“This prosecution is a Malleus operation,” he growls, “as I believe I mentioned. From the beginning, then. Nothing was left to chance: the Archenemy cannot be allowed even a foothold in a place as rich in human and natural resources as Baelis. The Inquisitor and the captain of the Stiletto, between them, have ensured that the enemy shall not prevail. No ‘probably’, no ‘might’, no ‘if’, and believe me when I tell you this is not propaganda. The Archenemy cannot triumph this day: before even I started my own work, we had won.”

I raise my eyebrows. “So… this is what winning looks like, is it?”

“The Imperium has a broad definition of success.” He doesn’t smile. “Thus was the plan: backstop first, ensure victory, then work to mitigate collateral damage. This is how we work. The Stilletto has orbital superiority, top cover on the polar launch tower on Hive Primus and a clear shot at anything launched from the equatorial accelerator. The threat has been contained to the planet, therefore, and at worst it is conveniently arranged in the six hives.”

“And so, what. The Inquisitor descended to the hive the threat was going to originate from? He knew where and when?”

A short nod. “When the Inquisition needs a fortune told, they do not go to charlatans. My lord Toth and his personal guard deployed to prosecute the principal threat – as our second-greatest military asset, they had the best chance at a surgical strike that preserved the most lives.”

I snap my eyes shut. The mental image doesn’t budge. “I was there, you know that?”

“Quite.” He’s drumming his fingers on the dash again. “Then, yes, the Inquisitor has determined the points at which actions will preserve the greatest quantity of Imperial resources, and there he places his pieces. Ariah, an allied priest of the Deus Mechanicus, was ordered to shroud the eyes of the hive and prevent any information concerning the threat in the cathedral from leaving in an uncontrolled manner. I and my team were deployed to the communications nexus, to cut the links from uphive to midhive in order to render any potential failure of Sibling Ariah’s mission less damaging.” Tap, tap-tap. “Below us, teams have been deployed to the four barbicans of the hive, their mission to lock the hive’s exits down in order to render any potential failure of mine less damaging.”

“The cathedral was… a…” I clear my throat. “Our voxcasters picked up Imperial chatter. It… The Inquisitor slew the, whatever happened to Sister Drabbe. But could not answer calls for aid thereafter. It didn’t sound much like a glorious victory.”

He grunts. “A battle never does. I should believe the Inquisitor lived unless I had seen his corpse myself. Sibling Ariah, though: clearly their curse went off, but its objective is incomplete.”

“Wait. The curse in uphive? The static on the vox? The way we can’t call backup or work out what’s going on? That was our side?”

“The way the sermon that the daemon was preaching in the cathedral was contained after merely a few words were broadcast, you mean?” A grim nod. “It is said that the place’s ceremonies are broadcast live planetwide, but there had to be a processing delay of some crucial moments. During that time we physically severed the links with downhive, but not in time to prevent the staff of the processing facility hearing, nor simulcasts from private recordings or the equipment of the noble houses.” Tap-tap-tap-tap. Does he realise how annoying he is? “The daemon-ascendant, the false saint, what’s her name, Drabbe or Ursula Augusta or whoever: she was dealt with by the Inquisitor personally. Disorder in the cathedral was inevitable and broadly acceptable. Our problem is then the sermon. An act of warpcraft, a disease of the mind.”

“A song of madness?” (It’s in my head.)

“If knowing the enemy were as simple as a psychological diagnosis, girl, the witch-hunters should be out of a job: let us settle simply on ‘they turn their coats, effectively by magic’. It could be simply activating something within the corrupted saint cult, something that you and your sisters could have been sheltered from. Notice that all of our offworlder troops heard it and none succumbed.”

Wince. “Maybe. The struggle beside the Saint is supposed to be a metaphorical one, an act of endurance, but people didn’t see it like that. Even – even my sisters and me, we…” I shut my mouth. You just convinced him to trust you, idiot. Want to change that with a nice few words about how you shot at his inquisitor?

He shakes his head irritably. “Regardless. Between our acts of sabotage and the jinx laid on the hive by Ariah, the daemonic sermon currently exists only as a few isolated recordings-” (the writing on the wall, the words I can’t forget -) “That is, it was not transmitted downhive, and now it cannot be, because I have cut the links. Until the jinx is lifted, mass broadcast in midhive and downhive is possible only via a very few means. In other words, the attempt to corrupt an entire hive has been halted, and can be stopped. Provided we act quickly to cauterise the threat.”

“Provided we -” Sudden dry mouth. “No.”

His gaze is suddenly very steady and level. “No to what?”

“No, wait, the, the, uh.” I stammer, try and crane my neck upwards and backwards as if to see the too-bright star that is the Stilletto, as if seeing it would somehow help. (My neck hurts.) “You’re, they’re going to open fire, aren’t they. Why you needed the astropath, you just ordered a-an orbital strike.”

“We did, yes.” His eyes are flinty. “Or at least, we confirmed that one was required.”

“B-but.” The distant, deadly ship can’t be seen from here. “There are millions, literally actual millions of innocents in every single layer of the Hive.”

“Roughly forty-eight million humans occupy the first thirty-one levels of Hive Tertius,” he says, the sound of his voice carefully and callously level. “I’d call it roughly forty to fifty per cent impact of the warpcraft among listeners: call it twenty-five million innocent, fighting for the Emperor. Would that we could arm them and marshal them to victory. But that is not possible. A limited sterilisation is indicated.”

“The, the cathedral, there are reliquaries in the Spire.” I can’t twist far enough in my seat to point. “Just right up there behind us. Holy sites. The centre of the Ecclesiarchy of Baelis. The Autocrator’s palace.” It isn’t sinking in, it’s bouncing off my conscious mind that he’s going to do this, that the Holy Imperium itself is going to deliberately

“Yes?”

The feeling is of scrabbling for a grip on sliding scree. “Collateral. Collateral damage. How, uh. H-how much? You were, you were talking of saving the hive?”

“Indeed I was.” He nods towards the miles-distant ground. “Forty million souls in uphive, the briefing says; one hundred forty million in midhive; one thousand four hundred million in downhive, and the remainder below. Even assuming every one of them is as spotless as you are. What if I told you instead that we’d given every loyalist in uphive the ability to martyr themselves to save the rest of the hive?”

The synth makes my voice into an ethereal whisper and silences the shuddering breath I take before speaking. “What’s going to happen?”

He makes a face. “One effect cycle from each of the lances to intersect inside the hive-spine at level thirty-one, then a single load of -”

The words carry on for a while. I’m not listening, just watching his mouth move. It stops. I repeat my question. “What’s going to happen?” I ask, as if he’s simple. “To us.”

“At an upper estimate, sister, the devastation shall reach to level thirty-six. Forty-five to fifty million is a reasonable guess.”

“The-the cloister of Saint Ursula, it’s on level thirty-two south-east. Our younger sisters, the orphanage, the hospital, the support staff, the… it’s not even in uphive -”

I bite my mouth closed before he says anything, and he doesn’t fill that silence.

“…you’re testing me,” I say. At length, when I can control my voice.

“Do you mean by that,” he says slowly, “that you think I am lying to you?”

I shake my head, numbly, just a little. “Five per cent of the hive by population, twenty per cent by consumption, seventy per cent by wealth.” He’s watching me just as closely as before. “It’s the only way to be sure, that’s what you’ll say. The bureaucracy and the houses will hold civilisation together for long enough for the Administratum to pick up the pieces. New nobles will be elevated. Wealth is not truly anything to do with money. They don’t make anything in uphive apart from laws, as the saying goes.”

An eyebrow. “This straw-man you’ve assembled, is he misguided?”

“I – don’t -” I can’t meet his reflection’s eyes. “It’s unimaginable.”

“That isn’t an answer-”

“Stop it!” I can’t help it, my synth gets involved. Enough subsonic and secondaries on my voice to give it a snap that would blister paint: the man physically flinches. “Shut up! You’ve – you’ve – we’ve put a gun to the head of everyone I ever knew or liked, to my family and the people who raised me and the only life I’ve known and we’ve pulled the trigger and fired our weapon dry and you’re still bloody needling me and…”

He’s put his hand up, palm towards me, lowered his eyes. Possibly he’s just trying to get me to simmer down before someone gets a ruptured eardrum. I pause for breath and stare at him and wait for him to speak and eventually he does.

“We have misunderstood one another.” Again. “Now, allow me to be explicit.” He grits his teeth for a moment, then speaks. “My briefing you… it was supposed to be an olive-branch.” Seeing my incomprehension – “A peace offering. It isn’t you who needs the briefing, Sister. It is me. I was born and raised aboard a voidship. I was schooled and indoctrinated on a garden world. In case you have not realised it, I am exquisitely aware of how little I know about the consequences of the Inquisition’s actions here. You say I need you: this is correct. I need your knowledge.” He bites off the end of the word as if it stings his tongue to say it. “Enlighten me, Ellayn. Tell me of the collateral damage. Forty million of you are dead. Tell me the rest.”

Blink.

Uh. I swallow hard, clear my mouth. Can’t get the vile taste out. Deep breath.

From the beginning, then.

++++

I bet you think our biggest problem is the next few hours. Hivequakes. The fear, the sudden terrible crawling agoraphobic dread of being reminded that you’re not walking on the ground but on a miles-high lattice of ‘crete and plasteel. Panic, sudden and immediate, at the imposition of the helpless realisation that you are just simply not in charge of whether you live or die today. Smoke in the air-vents, poison in the water, spikes in the power, darkness and chill in the streets, all the trappings of a disaster, yes?

Well, that’s all as good as happened. I have no way of knowing how many will survive the initial strike. But, but that’s not our true worry. You’ve thought of that, you’ve envisaged it, even an outsider would have seen this far. Disasters happen to worlds, even to hives. Not even a tenth part of the population of the hive is affected. An orbital strike is a big thing, but hives are big places: you would not believe what it takes to kill us. The hive will survive it, yes?

It’ll survive that, yes.

But the thing that poses most danger to our hive is the hive itself.

They say civilisation is three meals from anarchy. They say the Emperor’s armies march on their stomach. They say – yes, all right. They say a lot of things. And I bet you that if I’d asked you to consider food supply on your list of things to worry about today, you’d not have considered it, would you? Knowing that humans can go a week without food easily, that the hive’s reserves are broad and deep?

I am not worried about – well. I am worried. It hurts, deep in my gut and in the back of my throat, that all that I’ve said will come to pass – but what I truly fear is not that people will die in that first initial disaster but that the system itself will break – that – that even the ways for the system to go wrong will fail. With the nobility dead, with the reins of bureaucracy cut, it is the stupid things, the boring things, that will be the doom of the hive.

It’s a crime to hoard, you know that, and more than that, it’s a sin, and not one that’d get as far as the arbitrators. Your shift-mates catch you with more than your share, and you are corrected by your peers long before it needs to be a matter for authority. Rations are practically automatic, you say, they’re released at dawn. And yes, they are. But when’s dawn? Who says?

You got your training in a world with a sun, Gennid, but to all intents and purposes you aren’t on one now. ‘Dawn’ is a time on a clock on a wall. You hear myths of the king whose job it was to make the sun rise? Interrogator, it is literally the Autocrator’s job to press the button to signal the start of the hive’s day, and he or his representative has to do that every day. The hive’s day-length is modified depending on quota requirements. And everyone who can push the start button – down to the replacements for the fallbacks for the backups for the people who will just push the button if they don’t hear anything? Well, they’re among the forty million we cannot save.

So there will be no dawn today, just as simply as if the planet has ceased in its rotation and its orbit. Time will not progress. And no shift change is an implicit order to keep working. The workers at the fab will chafe, but extended shifts are a thing. And yes, the people in their habs will wait, but hungry and idle they will not wait forever. And then they will riot. Tear down the storehouse door, feed themselves.

Treachery, you say. Disobedience is blasphemy, and mutiny is a crime against the God-Emperor – yes, it is, and it’s punished as one – but you’ve already got something wrong, I mean, just by thinking in that way you’re getting something jumbled.

You think of a hive as a place of order. I mean, it is – but that doesn’t mean no crime, it doesn’t mean no mutiny, it doesn’t mean people don’t riot. They do. A lot. Everyone in a hive has seen it. But a hive is a place where disorder serves order. A food-riot is a horrifying thing – but the thing about a food-riot is that it feeds people. If a noble fails to do their duty, or if their greed gets the better of them, and they push their underlings beyond breaking-point, then the underlings rebel – the necessities of survival are fairly easily had – a few troublemakers and a bad noble are weeded out – and on average, on the large scale, the system looks after its own.

Until it can’t.

Sector storehouses don’t hold more than a couple of days’ food for a hive-level. And that’s got to feed the next shift too, the ones who will mutiny at some later time that nobody knows and come seeking food. A mutiny lasting more than a day or so would be unthinkable – sectors have neighbours, above and below and widdershins and deosil and inward and outward, and every one of those neighbours will turn on a mutineer just the moment that they can. The nail that sticks out is hammered down, it is written. And the Hive keeps her children alive because on average, most of those children are doing their jobs most of the time.

But with enough failure – enough simultaneous failure – then we can no longer rely on that. Mycofarmers will die of thirst less than a mile from moisturers who are freezing in the dark because the supplementary power plant can’t run because the fuel team joined a food riot to get at a commissary that’s only got one meal’s worth of food left because it’s awaiting a delivery from a mycofarm. And the whole system is founded on the principle that the Emperor’s authority is just around the next corner, in the hands of your neighbours if nothing else, but it’s not going to be because everywhere is broken at once.

And the ones who die in the orbital strike will be the lucky ones and it doesn’t matter whether there was another way.

Now, if I know this, surely everyone does? Well, of course. But every local administrator who says screw-the-rules will guess a different way. If everyone decided not to have a disaster, there wouldn’t be one – but try telling that to hungry people when food is to be had.

Isn’t there an emergency response, then? What of the arbitrators?

Yes. Absolutely. The hive’s authorities will be working to shore it all up. But the secret of the Adeptus Arbites is that they are weak, o-or at least weaker than the mob. Their strength comes from being able to move quickly and decisively and accurately – their command and control are their greatest asset, they mean they are strong at a point. To be at all effective quelling an insurrection they must concentrate and mobilise and triage, pulling out of five sectors to save a sixth.

Except that today, the Arbites are going to be no better informed than anyone else. You see the orbital strike a scant eleven miles away and say that surely everyone will guess what is going on – I see an unthinkable disaster two hundred cities away and say that most people will not even know someone who knows someone who could guess at what just happened. Not without a communications infrastructure that for perfectly decent and sensible reasons has been laid waste.

And who’d like to bet that everyone with the authority to order a hivewide state of emergency, or at the very least the wit to know what’s going on, was attending some kind of gathering of the great and the good when this disaster struck?

Tell me, interrogator. Does the Archenemy have a tendency towards convoluted planning, on occasion?

++++

“Sisters. Briefing-sermon: attend.” My voice sounds perfect. Infallible. As I say the words I prepared and hear the synth broadcast them, it’s a little like listening to someone else talking. “This hour we have accomplished victory for the Imperium. To our tally of martyrs we add Sister-” The synth blanks the noise I make instead of her name. Breathe. Try again. “Niwall. But she shall not go before the Throne alone.”

It doesn’t transmit me clearing my throat. “The Archenemy threat in uphive is now contained by the actions of the Inquisition. This information has now been relayed to our colleagues of the Imperial Navy. And by order of Inquisitor Toth of the Hammer, we expect that uphive, and the heresy within, shall shortly… by… by fire from on high be cleansed.”

Eight requests to speak. I hope the rune I pressed silenced them, rather than stopping them hearing me. “Our path now is clear. The only remaining leadership in the hive is now heading towards the Adeptus Arbites fortress-precinct in the company of Judge Magnus. We shall rejoin that group at the lift-terminus and escort them to their destination, where they shall release emergency authority and restore temporary government to the Hive.” Fucking somehow. Dammit, Ellayn, will you not focus.

I close my eyes, imagine the faces of my sisters. As if that helps. “We may assume that the destruction shall include the Cloister of Saint Augusta Ursula and our home: that means we may represent the last remnant of the Order here on Baelis.”

Breathe. “I know you have questions. Trust me, so do I. And I have no more answers than I did last time we spoke. But what I do know is this. That without what we just did, the heresy would have spread, and the fire I speak of would not have stopped with uphive. That without leadership and full of fear, the hive is on a countdown to starvation and uprisings and a chaos that has nothing to do with the Archenemy. That whatever the books and the offworlders say, whatever the histories shall tell, whichever of our teachers had fallen from the true path and whatever they were trying to make of us, I say that we are the Emperor’s own daughters and this is the hour of need. Objective-primary: restore coordination to the Hive before the Emperor’s people within fall to disorder. Objective-immediate: rejoin Judge Magnus and form on him. Thus said, let it be done.”

Silence.

Then a single request for the channel: it’s Rakil. Rakil who saw the daemon with me, Rakil who watched Niwall die just as I did. Rakil with the smart mouth, with the black sucking spiral of doubt where her morale should be, who came to me and I didn’t have enough for either of us but maybe that was okay. I could deny the request and nobody but her would know. She’s going to take everything I just said and shatter it but I let her talk because I want to hear her voice anyway.

And she doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t speak a word. She takes the channel and sets her synth, and she starts humming a tune. It’s the melody line from an old elegy, just the simplest little thing. Porsia opens her own voxthief, adds a harmony. Yasi and Rowyn pick it up like it’s a classroom exercise. More voices pick it up and the music takes on a life of its own, and I take a moment to breathe. My voice is a wreck, but this is why the suit has a synth in the first place.

It’s the senior Sister’s place to do this. It feels right. The words I fit to the music aren’t exactly the ones from the Lex but they will serve. “Emperor accept unto your court those fallen today in Your name,” I try to say, and the machine makes it into words. “Ahead of us they go before the Golden Throne, and know not what virtue they may claim in death. Know that among them are the holy, the innocent, the righteous fallen beside the corrupt. God-Emperor, we believe that You shall know Your own, and may You grant them in eternity the state of martyrs-lesser. This we ask of You this day, Holy Throne, Guiding Light, Him on Earth. In whose name we serve:”

And as I’m about to sing my own response, Gennid opens his mouth. “Protegit Imperator,” he intones. The oldest prayer, the motto of the Ecclesiarchy. The Emperor protects.

Such a good job He’s doing.

++++

Thirteen.

In Light, Chapter Eleven

up

ten

++++

The astropath opens his mouth and begins to mutter. Not words but the edges of words, little scraps of sound, corners of consonants and little grunts and murmurs of vowels, and no sound that he makes dies away. They echo, hanging there in the air, overlapping and overlaying, ebbing and flowing into a sea of whispers.

And not all of them are in – well, I don’t know what his voice sounds like, do I, but not all of them are in the same voice at all. I kind-of expected to hear my own voice there (I’m yelling at someone unspecified to stop it and I sound terrified) but there are more – people I know, people I remember. Yilya, our housemistress when we were nothing but orphans, I’ve hardly even thought about her in years. Interrogator Gennid, trapped in a burning building, yelling into a handset. Sister-Superior Drabbe, preaching, her eyes alight.

More. Everyone. A nine-year-old Vanyssa yelling that I did that on purpose. Rakil asking me if I really meant a billion. A man I heard yelling on the street this one time, screaming the message of the Imperial Redemption into the passing crowd of unmoved commuters. Porsia, thirteen and full of zeal, telling me I’d never make it with that attitude. Sister-Superior Croix explaining for the dozenth time that if you did that with a real chainsword it’d foul and twist in your hand. Sister-Superior Drabbe, preaching, in the words I know well that had nothing to do with the Emperor.

Niwall telling me she doesn’t want to drown. A voice I don’t know, clipped level accent like Gennid’s, saying that Stilletto quire recognises Baelis Tertius tower.

My own voice, speaking clear if hesitant battle-language. Gennid, identifying himself like he keeps doing, then saying –

“Primary objective complete success, casualties six. Datalinks to midhive confirmed severed.” A humourless snort. “The jinx is most certainly still active. Cult activity-” He looks straight at me, looks me in the eye. “Not impossible.” My own voice, repeating a prayer of the Saint as if in answer. Niwall, nine years old, repeating the Mortification with her eyes closed to prove she doesn’t need the words. “But I can confirm that uphive is isolated.” Sister Drabbe – or at the very least, something with her voice – repeating a prayer I’d never heard before that day, repeating it with a burning inhuman intensity, and my very blood singing along with the words.

That unfamiliar voice again, talking about interference. Gennid raising his voice as if that will help, speaking battle-language now as you would with a malfunctioning vox. Saying once again that he’s done his damndest to cut the reins by which the hive is steered and that he’s pretty sure of success. Reinforcing that uphive is jinxed repeat jinxed. Drabbe saying – oh, fuck –

 My mouth opens unconsciously, I take a breath in and make myself bite my top lip because you can’t do that and sing. My teeth draw blood. Hand-sign with my left hand because my right has my weapon, absolute silence. Vox-click, think that was Rakil. I hear Niwall start to say a word and then stutter to a whimpering halt.

Sister-Superior Croix patiently repeating the catechisms of the bolt gun, the words familiar as our own names from sleep-learning, as the class follows the actions the astropath of the Stiletto, suddenly bell-clear and pin-sharp, stamping on all our minds the searing impression that our message is garbled to shit but the gist is clear. Clear target zone (as if that’s possible). My head is ringing, there’s pain deep inside and I think it’s mine, like the distant voice was actually made of dripping fire. I open my mouth long enough to spit blood on the floor. It bubbles. My throat is bleeding just like it was when
Drabbe’s voice singing a hymn that is burned into me like a brand.
I clamp my traitor mouth shut so hard it hurts.

Gennid, confirming that he heard that as if this is a vox, and asking for a tactical update as if the astropath would have anything for him, and all the voices that aren’t singing begin to laugh. Sister Manda laughing, delighted, with the news that she’d outshot every single girl in the cloister. Housemistress Yilya laughing as she says that no, I don’t get out of chores on my name-day. One of the heretics I killed, didn’t notice at the time but he was laughing as he died. Drabbe, preaching, and there’s nothing funny about that at all.

The distant voice repeating something that all units were ordered to do. My voice repeating Drabbe’s words, and I don’t ever recall sounding so happy about anything and I know for sure my mouth is shut.

The distant voice saying something about fire. Rakil’s voice repeating Drabbe’s prayers with the same burning fervour she gives (used to give) her solos and behind my right shoulder her terrified intake of breath turns into a sob. All the voices are saying the same thing now and Drabbe is leading them. Listing the titles of a being that she never outright refers to as the God-Emperor. Words I saw scrawled upon the walls of a place that part of me never left
LORD ON EARTH AND ELSEWHERE LORD WOVEN THROUGH THE WARP AND WEFT OF THE UNIVERSE

no

“Stop it!” I make myself yell and my words fly apart into nothing, snatched away on the tide of sound. “Astropath, stop it! Cut the link!” It’s a huge and painful effort of will to keep my voice to myself. The corpse in front of me is repeating the litany so loudly my voice can’t be heard so I boost the volume on my synth. I have not the slightest idea how astropaths work. “Moral threat! Secure, regroup, retreat! Close the channel! Don’t listen! S-stop talking!” All delivered at a volume that in a dusty mundane logical part of my head I know should cause physical pain to hear, and my ears ring, but all I hear is a hoarse stage-whisper
ARCHITECT OF FATE LORD OF NINE LIGHTS

There is sticky white light spilling like tears from the broken empty sockets of the astropath’s eyes. His mouth isn’t moving, his teeth clenched and his lips drawn back. His skin is flushed beetroot with the drugs and with some enormous invisible effort. I don’t know whether he’s even trying to do what I said. I try and formulate as clearly as I can in the front of my head the shining golden fact that if he doesn’t make it stop right this second, then he will die at my hand –

A surge of thick choking helpless inescapable predestined terror -“No!” shouts Gennid, I have no idea who at. The voices are rising in chorus. “Stop it! Who d’you think you’re helping?”

Drabbe’s voice calling out clearly
CHANGER OF WAYS

 I cue my maglock and my blade is in my hand and I yell, “End this! Now!” And the next words out of my mouth were going to be or we will

But Rakil is carrying a riot-gun, and the white wall of the chamber is suddenly and extensively red.

++++

The astropath didn’t have time to make any kind of noise at all.

Rakil was standing to my right, range all of ten feet, a clear shot, an irregular fistful of ceramic shot impacting just behind his right ear and painting the spotless white of the wall in front of him in a random patchwork of crimson. The roar of the riot-gun dumps burning freezing adrenaline into the pit of my stomach – as the body begins to slump forward I’m already recovering, ready for anything, as all those voices begin as one single chorus to scream.

Niwall calling my name, raw hoarse panic in her voice. Sister Croix snarling at me to stop it – it was that time I tried a smart cross-step and magboot cue to turn a right angle at a flat run, stripped every servo-sheath in my left lower leg and snapped my shinbone. (My own voice, answering my name loud and clear at my investiture.) Porsia yelling my name in the heat of battle. Gennid damning me for a know-nothing idiot. Getting harder to distinguish the voices, harder to hear what they’re saying, torrents of invective overlapping and interfering and I wonder if the others are hearing my name or their own, and I don’t think I’m hearing this with my ears (don’t clap your hands over your ears, you’ll hurt yourself)

It’s only been the barest instant. The body is still spraying blood and organic matter, red and a sickening shocking purple against the white wall – a glance at Gennid and his jaw’s dropping open and he’s reaching under his coat, his hand scrabbling for a weapon like it’s somehow the spray of blood that’s the threat. I cue the vox, thinking to give an order they’ll actually hear – but – yes, Ellayn, what was it you were going to tell them, again?

And we must have been too late. The purple, it’s spreading. That’s not blood. It’s like everything else is happening in slow motion. There’s a, a depth there that there shouldn’t be, a – there’s something behind the wall something purple and the whiteness is like whitewash covering it up and the blood is washing it off and showing us what’s really there –

daemon –

it’s got hold of both sides of that uneven ragged splash like it’s a hole in the wall – daemon – it’s pulling, two no three splayed clawed hands great purple wings daemon and it’s pulling and it’s coming for us and fuck taking on crawling clawed horror with nothing but a knife and the interrogator has fumbled some kind of yellow handgun out of his holster but his hand’s shaking so much he dropped the damn thing. I unsling my lasgun quick as I can and point it with a wordless yell that isn’t a scream because I’ve decided that it isn’t (I guess it went out on the vox) and beside me Niwall and Rakil raise their guns and the instant we see a pair of eyes between those claws –

I know that face –

– we unleash hell.

Or we do our best. Niwall’s got a laspistol, a semi-auto sidearm that’ll put a right deadly fist-sized crater in a target if there isn’t smoke in the way, assuming the target has water or volatiles in it to give a proper plasma flash. My lasrifle isn’t putting its shots out quite straight and it’s not listening to anything but a request for autofire – lucky guess, little spirit – but the laser shots themselves dump no more energy than the pistol. Rakil’s at least got some stopping power there, I guess – the muzzle-flash and report are impressive at short range if you never saw a big gun before – but its bark is worse than its bite, those are frangible rounds specifically designed not to be a danger to hard targets. Is a daemon fucking daemon with Drabbe’s face a hard target?

The horror blinks, slowly – right between the eyes we hit it, all three of us, and I hold my finger on the touch-plate and there’s no recoil to drag the barrel off course – and then it moves. We stung it, you see. It goes for what looks like the biggest threat. The one with the big loud noise and the bright flash that’s maybe a real gun?

And Rakil’s got damn fine reflexes. She fires right into the horror’s open mouth and then it’s gone past as she slams over backward with a heartbreaking scream. I spin as fast as I can, the lasgun stitching a line of fruitless little scorches in the wall, but the thing’s already turning around. I distinctly see one of its eyes light up with plasma flash from either my weapon or Niwall’s we shot it in the eye with a fucking laser and all it does is blink and go for Niwall.

I’m there. Didn’t even consciously think about it, it’s my sister and she’s crying. Stab the gun into the daemon’s side like it’s got a bayonet on, still got the trigger held down as I feel the weapon’s plasteel case snap under the impact, next thing I know is an earthshattering blow about the level of my belt. The thing’s backhanded me and I see stars and feel sick – the magboots let go, because it’s that or break my ankles. My feet go out from under me and the impact knocks the breath out of me, try to fall relaxed and I land skidding on my front as the suit pulls my arms forward in a breakfall. Lasrifle’s nowhere.

It sweeps both its hands up and back and then down and Niwall is so fast. She’s not where it swung. I’ve no idea how that thing telegraphed but she saw it, she moved, and spins with it like she’s dancing. Her knife’s in her other hand and that put a neat little slice in the horror as they moved. Again it moves, as I stand – she dodges, leaves nothing in her place but a cutting edge – and the daemon ducks under her blow like it doesn’t have any bones at all, hits her with a stamping kick to the gut with a sound like a piledriver, puts her down on the ground like she suddenly decided to sit down, not even breath to yell.

And then its hand is on fire, sick pink flames, and I’m pushing to my feet and the magboot cuts in and throws me forward as the flame licks forward and everything seems to stretch. The daemon is paying all of its attention to Niwall and I can see white all the way around her eyes and she’s scrabbling backwards away from it as the fire reaches out almost softly, as it passes gently through her breastplate as if it wasn’t there, as the purity seal on her shoulder ignites like it was made of magnesium –

And I hit the damn thing like the Emperor’s own spear. My sarissa is sharp and hard enough that you could use it to carve steel, and I’ve put all my strength and all my weight and all my suit’s into this one overhand blow between its shoulder blades. I feel the hilt slam into the creature’s rubbery flesh with a colossal impact – step – hit it again – I pull the creature towards me, or the blade through its flesh, either works, and my other fist unwinds into an uppercut that could’ve made a hole in a concrete wall, and the blade tears clear with a gout of pink ooze. 

Fucker doesn’t even stagger. Bonelessly it reverses its arms at the elbow, opens eyes in the back of its head – I try and put the dagger between them – a clawed hand flashes past under my guard and comes away bright crimson red and the world goes black and white with pain. Some kind of suit alarm shrills in my ear as involuntarily I stagger back a pace. Three broad lines across my midsection are suddenly demanding all the attention I can give, my hand goes to the wound automatically and there’s the clack of ceramite on ceramite as if I simply imagined that blow – I will not look down, I will not fall, I will not, the Emperor is my strength –

IGNI EXPURGATUR!” Gennid’s voice cuts through the clamour and pain like a rusty knife. The little man is standing to my right holding something up with arm outstretched as he screams the High Gothic words at the daemon. The thing he’s holding, it’s a little yellow-and-black cylinder covered in aquilae, little nozzle at the top, and I recognise it in the instant it all happens.

It’s an exterminator, it’s a fucking exterminator. The simplest smallest flamethrower you can get. Just a little pressurised canister of blessed incendiary and a way to let it out. Crazy bastard was carrying one in his breast pocket and he just pulled the pin and everything in front of him goes white with the wash of flame as he continues with his exorcism. I hear Rakil swearing, pushing herself frantically away from it on the floor. All I can do to keep my feet but I’m staggering back myself – no helmet no helmet if that fire gets onto me then I will die burning –

“I AM THE HAMMER!” The tendons are standing out on Gennid’s scrawny neck as he plays the shockingly broad stream of white fire straight at the daemon. “I AM THE SWORD OF THE EMPEROR!” It’s squealing, it’s turning towards him but it’s being driven back against the wall and everything around it is on fire. “I AM THE TIP OF HIS SPEAR!” Its skin is blackening and bubbling. “I AM HIS SHIELD!” It slams into the wall, twisting and fighting the stream of flame –

And the little flamethrower falters and coughs and is spent, and in the same moment the daemon stops squealing and starts laughing. It peels itself off the wall and out of its blackened burned ruined skin and it’s an obscenely naked anoxic blue underneath, a parody of the human form that used to bear its face as it pulls itself forwards into the rapidly dying knee-length flames between it and the interrogator, as he pulls out the silver aquila on its chain around his neck and raises it up as he continues his prayer at the top of his lungs like he’s got absolutely nothing left but just that – as it reaches out a hand with an obscene horrible skull’s smile and the aquila glows a sudden cherry red and starts to sag and droop as if from extreme heat –

Imperator protegat Emperor protect me famula sua Ellayn in hora exigentia protect Your handmaiden in her hour of need – Holy Throne please –

The maglock in my right hand must have thought I was talking to it and I feel it pull and click – and in the next instant somehow I’m holding a blessedly familiar weight and the rest is automatic. Gennid’s aquila falls off its little chain and the horror has its hand around his neck as if it’s got all the time in the world to tear his head off. The action of the cocking handle is reassuring and familiar and at a range of six feet I hardly need to even aim and then the roar of the bolter and the detonation of impact are one single thunderclap.

The bolt takes the horror in the left shoulder and it turns to me in that instant as Gennid falls coughing to the floor. Unconscious action flicks the fire selector and I fire again and the enclosed space fills with the sound of the Emperor’s wrath. This gun came with me from the cathedral, it’s the one I committed blasphemy with. Two rounds hit the daemon in its open mouth and blow a hole right through it and it’s the blasphemy’s turn to stagger backwards in shock and confusion and pain. 

Niwall (ohThrone Niwall her eyes rolled up into her head) hadn’t thought to ask me when she was playing quartermaster, pulling spare mags from jammed weapons. I don’t know how many rounds I have but it’s more than I’ve fired. I squeeze the trigger again and pain screams from my wound but suit servos lock and hold me steady, multiple detonations knock the thing downward and backward and I track it back and down and give it another burst when something among those remains tries to get back up, blessed explosive shells bursting inside it and tearing it apart like it was a range target.

And then it isn’t anything, wasn’t anything, just a smear of organic and nameless goo around the walls and floor of a sphere that’s half on fire and filling with lung-burning acrid smoke as the electronics spark and chitter and our brains try to tell us that none of that happened at all.

++++

twelve

In Light, Chapter Ten

Up

Nine

++++

Whoever designed the inside of the limo-carrier had clearly been told to make it just like a real Valkyrie: and then just as clearly, someone else had come along after and quietly straightened out a few issues concerning aristoi and what they expected their world to, well, feel like. Ranks of acceleration seats down the sides, handles and grabrails in all the right places, no windows, ramp exit: all perfectly normal, down to purity seals hanging off hatchcovers bearing dire warnings in binaric.

But I’m by no means the only one to rock wildly and nearly fall right over upon trying to sit in one of those seats – the whole thing’s softplas and memfoam, it’s like settling into a cloud. I can’t get into the harness. It’s made for aristoi, fit me easy at the waist even considering the armour, but no way would it stretch over my backpack and pauldrons. We link hands, will our boots to stick fast to the floor and our gloves to each other: it’ll have to be enough.

A Valk is loud inside. If you’re not wearing your helmet, the noise is loud enough to make your teeth buzz and your throat ache. The craft’s flight is limited by the mortal frailty of the cargo, not the capabilities of its massive turbines: you strap yourself to this metal coffin as securely as mag-locks and harnesses allow, you lock your helmet against whiplash, and you pray. It is considered that if Sisters need to travel in comfort they do not need to travel by air.

So of course it’s nothing like that. We take off in silent stillness, and the only sign that we’re airborne is that the floor is suddenly dead level and a soft autochime starts up a twinkly little tune that Gennid kills within two bars. “Underway. Suspensors nominal, repulsors five-by-five,” sends Pink from the screened-off cab. A real Valk is piloted by a coldly perfect servitor, only co-piloted by a full human: for all her augmetics, Pink is still more human than machine. “Traffic control, dead. Airlane control… dead or jinxed. Visibility, blind. Transponder readings… jinxed, jammed, or there is nothing in the airlane at all. Weather readings, absent.”

“Make for the exhaust-gate, flank speed,” is all Gennid has to add. His eyes are tight shut, his arms crossed over his harness straps.

“Best speed, aye.” The sunny little voice of Pink’s vocoder doesn’t transmit her evident disquiet. “Interrogator, we are flying dead reckoning without external cues and I do not know the windspeed accurately. Gracious passengers, would you kindly brace for… percussive turbulence.”

I’m sitting across from Rakil, and I meet her eyes with the slightest hint of – percussive? As in hitting things? What things? Large things?

It’s Niwall who strikes up the prayer. It should have been me. I pick up after two words with the general air that I was just about to do that.

God-Emperor protect and defend us in this Your conveyance as we plummet, that sick feeling in the stomach nothing more than evidence of a three-way tug of war between the gravity of the planet, the suspensors making us weightless and the repulsors sending us on our way.

Guiding Light guide our path through this noisome darkness, this soft windowless coffin doing nothing to allay the sick, heavy, claustrophobic feeling of rushing through a smoke-filled chimney at Emperor knows what speed, utterly blind, guided only by our airspeed and a map.

Holy Throne let us do your will on this blind headlong hurtling immediacy of a mission that might already be too late, to save all our lives, to spare (somehow? For some reason?) the hive, our orphanage and our training cloister and everyone I care for and all of my sisters younger and older and me. But somehow not the heretics.

Be our armour, be our sword, these words our only shield against the empty horror of mortal danger none of us can even try to do anything about. If we are to die here we will never see it coming.

Be our fortitude, be our strength as we hurtle sightless helpless knowless into stinking unthinking darkness.

Be our champion, be our wisdom as we look straight ahead into each other’s eyes like we’re daring one another to show fear.

Protect and defend us against all terrors and dangers of this

++++

The world tilts dizzyingly backwards with a sharp bang and on its heels there’s this indescribable noise – a high distressing rending splintering scraping noise, and the craft judders like it’s been picked up and shaken, twice, hard. The tilt continues – it’s like we’re for some reason sitting halfway up a wall, I’m on my back looking straight up at Rakil- and our pilot is dead silent. The rhythm of our prayer falters, but I bring it back on track: the discipline will help us, will steady our minds.

We’re spinning. As well as the tilt backwards I think we’re spinning. We’re conditioned against motion sickness – the glorious exhilarating terrifying week when our conditioning was verified using the novice cloister’s single ageing Valkyrie spins past the mind’s eye –

our prayer has gone up half an octave we’re all going to die

Abruptly it cuts off. All of it. Gravity returns grudgingly beneath our feet. Silence. Peace. We look at one another. Is this good? Have we finally come to a broken halt? Are we there? Was that noise nothing but the natural state of the bare atmosphere?

“House Omber offers apologies for the ride quality,” sends Pink, and I wonder if I detect relief underneath the chirpy fakeness of her mechanical voicebox. “We entered the exhaust junction forty-eight yards off axis due to error in groundspeed estimates; praise the Emperor that it was not fifty-one. We have now exited Hive Tertius-“

no no it’s all right it’s all right we meant to we’re going to be coming back again-

“And we are now in free air and updraft, destination Adeptus Astra-Telepathica on hive-level two, expected flight time around fifteen minutes. It is a fine night here outside the hive: the sky is clear, traffic all but nonexistent, the weather is fine. Please enjoy the remainder of your journey.”

“Show me,” says Gennid. He appears entirely unmoved by the entire episode, as if this is just something that happens occasionally when you’re hunting daemons. Arsehole.

“Passenger warning: agoraphobia. Three. Two. One.”

None of us closed our eyes. The Daughters of the Emperor are conditioned against –

oh, sweet Throne.

I didn’t know anything could be so big.

A hexagonal grid has swum into life over the walls and ceiling of the limo’s interior, a pict-screen fit for an aristo, decidedly not Valkyrie equipment: a moment later and the world is full of stars.

We must have turned. Straight ahead of me, to the limo’s right, behind Rakil, the stars are a galaxy of colours. Reds predominate – the colour of Mars, they say, and the colour of the Deus Mechanicus. Red is the colour the machines use to speak to one another, little nav-lights lighting up the eyes of Icons Mechanicus or adorning the tops of spires, aflutter with the epileptic twinkle of binaric transmissions. But there are so many colours of red, and I’m sure to a scholar they would have deep and subtle meaning – to me, they serve only to outline the darkness and put a scale on it, to say that one half of the world belongs to the great mother Hive, to remind us that we are drifting upwards beside its huge impossible cyclopean bulk.

But behind me and to my left, the stars are white and steady – the sky is carpeted with them, the domain of the Emperor laid out before us, and the wonders we’d see if only we could see far enough. The bright band of Galaxy stretched diagonally across the void above, the domain of the Emperor, Imperium Hominum. Nobody had bothered to mention that there were so many – I hadn’t expected it to be so beautiful –

and here we are without our helmets in a tiny little box that’s weightless and anchored to nothing, and all that’s stopping us and all of our air falling infinitely up into nothingness and void is the roof of the carrier and I can’t see that right now

Light. A steep diagonal line of hexagons down towards the front of the limo goes searingly black then white, and the baroque surface of the hive is thrown for one instant into stark monochrome relief. “Readout!” calls Gennid instantly, as we blink stupidly at afterimages.

“Shit.” Want a list of words you really don’t want to hear from your pilot? The lack of intonation in Pink’s vocoder just makes it worse. “Sieur, I think that was ground fire.”

And of course Gennid’s face clouds over. “I can tell that, idiot, the angle was wrong for orbital. Shooter? Weapon? Might I hope you can divine the target?”

 “Please… hold, sieur. I am not inloaded for-“

“Fine. Belay that, then. Evasive action.” The interrogator is sitting forward, staring around him like he can somehow wring meaningful information out of the starfield. “See if you can lose us in surface clutter.”

“Interrogator, I am a civilian pilot, not a combat one, and this glorified shipping container would not know what evasive meant if you shoved a dictionary up its-“

He practically hisses. “Knew I should have driven. In small words, girl: hug the spire. Close as you dare, and quicker.”

“Sieur.” And immediately the red and green lamps of the hive swell dizzyingly in the screen – I envy the sisters with their back to that, I really do.

It hadn’t been so bad when we were a respectable distance away. Sure, we were going fast, but I couldn’t see that. But with our noses pressed right against it, as it were, I can even make out the occasional twirl of architecture or stylised gargoyle as they flash past. I mean, I’m sure that a seasoned flyer would not even say we were going that quick – in my head I know, I am utterly sure that we’re flying in a pleasure-barge, as Pink said, a glorified shipping container without even proper engines, not even supersonic. It’s just that I’ve never in my life seen myself going this fast.

Does it lessen the fear, does it truly, when you can see and understand it?

Fifteen minutes she said.

We go back to our prayer.

++++

The quire is in a little minaret of its own protruding from the dizzying slopes of the Spire. Hive-level two. Not more than a mile from the ruin of that damned cathedral. The landing bay is that gothic arch there: the smooth, functional doors bear the image of the one-eyed aquila, the Astra Telepathica.

A symbol of fear. We spend so many words and so much thought upon the witch as enemy of humanity – mutants, all of them, but not even honest ones where you can see the stigmata. We spend so long teaching that the witch is a danger to themselves and everyone else, a ticking timebomb every second that they live: and yet without them, without the astropaths sanctified and sanctioned by audience with the Emperor Himself, the Imperium would not function.

And now I guess we’re going to meet one.

The interrogator pulls up a terminal from the arm of his fake seat as we hover to a stop, our fibreplas Valkyrie nose mere feet from the gate. Speaks softly to it, then more sharply: with a rough impatient gesture he pulls a wallet from his pocket, opens it to reveal a purity seal dense with writing, presses that to the glass of the terminal. And the gates grind themselves open, and Pink’s landing is as gentle as tissue paper.

The ramp hisses as it descends: this bloody vehicle has an actual smoke machine in it to enhance the effect. Gennid’s already on his feet: he’s still got his wallet out with what I guess must be the Inquisitor’s seal. I take his right, Rakil his left. And as the ramp comes down enough to let in the bright light of the landing bay, we’re met by five impassive white figures.

They look a little like humanoid beetles. Carapace armour, they’re wearing, battlefield grade stuff like stormtroopers have, but bright sparkling polished titanium white, and their opaque blank-faced helmets speak of autosenses just like the ones we ought to have. Those guns are short-coupled broad-barreled shotcannons, absolutely regulation, antipersonnel things going for stopping power over penetration. And we’re looking at one another, and there’s a moment when the guns are pointed straight at us, and then there’s a moment when they realise what we are (what we look like) and lower them.

“Access denied,” says the one in the centre. His voice is dead flat. I mean, we have our own indoctrination, of course we do, but the Astra Telepathica are something else again. The textbooks are silent on the subject of what’s done to them, but voluble on their legal powers: on their own ground the only greater authority is, well. Us. “Lockdown,” the man says, with all the intelligence and humanity of a servitor. Ugh.

“Override,” Gennid responds promptly, “authorisation, Gennid for Lord Toth: I bear his seal.”

The armsman makes no move to examine the wallet in Gennid’s hand. “You are not authorised.”

A scowl. “Clarify. I am an agent of His Imperial Majesty’s Holy Inquisition, acting on the behalf of Lord Toth of the Ordo Malleus.” He activates the electoo he showed me in the turbo. “There is no place on this entire damned planet that I may not go.”

“Aye, sieur.” He is silent for a moment. “I am not authorised to raise lockdown.”

“Then call someone whose rank is sufficient.”

“Unable, sieur.” The armsman repeats himself, as if to the terminally confused. “Lockdown.”

Gennid sighs. “I don’t have time for this. Guards, you are directly ordered to take me to your nearest superior, haec cum voce Imperatori locutus.”

Those High Gothic words are an explicit threat. Disobedience to a direct order spoken in the Emperor’s name is blasphemy: taking His name in vain is blasphemy. If they don’t obey, somebody is going to die.

The guards clearly can’t obey.

They stand like statues for a moment. Then the man says, “You… have now reached two failed attempts. A third shall provoke deadly force.”

But that’s okay, see. Legally. Because it’s absolutely fine and within the power of an Interrogator on official business for him to do what he’s going to do next.

Which is to… Huh. Apparently it’s to step behind us. “Sisters,” he says in much the same voice you’d use to loose an attack dog.

Wait, what? I’m halfway through turning to ask him what the hell he thinks he’s doing – but Rakil makes the other call. She’s stepped forward the instant the interrogator spoke, and by the time I really register it she’s drawn her blade and sunk it under the arm of one of the guards. Their muzzles swing reflexively to point at her, much good it’ll do them in close quarters –

Damn it all. By this point it’s them or us, and not even a contest. Sure, they’re armoured: heavy lasproof ceramic plates without a spirit to guide them. Sure, they’re trained: they move straight from ineffective shotcannon fire to pointless strikes with weapon butt or armoured elbow or knee as we get inside their aim. But in our armour we’re bigger than them, we weigh half again what they do, and we’re strong enough to literally break them with our bare hands. Never mind that when I pick my target and hit him, the spirit of my suit glues my feet immovably to the floor and twists my shoulders and hips, turns a pretty decent punch into an unstoppable piledriver.

They make us kill them. Their conditioning, it must include a shire-sized dose of the stronger sort of combat drugs. The man I hit tries to stand and fails: there’s blood coming out of his helmet and even so he draws his laspistol aiming for my face. Niwall takes him down before I have a chance. Is this us, now? Killers on demand? These guards are Imperial servants. We literally waste their last breath because our interrogator couldn’t talk them down. And speak of the man, he steps neatly around the slaughter with a general air of so-where-was-I, and I grind my teeth.

“Those stairs, I think.” He strides. 

I catch Rakil’s eye – what was she thinking – and what I see there scares me. Just… flat. Meaningless. Where was our compass pointing again? We’re heretics, remember? Who in the name of Holy Terra are we to judge, if the interrogator says to murder people at random because they happen to be in our way? I get the feeling she’s looking for something from me. 

I don’t get the feeling she can see it. I point my eyes somewhere else. Give orders in curt finger-code that describe bodyguarding Gennid like we meant to do that, not trailing along behind him like a leash of damned hounds.

The door’s locked, but its machine-spirit has an intelligence and logic that the guards didn’t have – or a sense of self-preservation. Gennid presents his wallet, and it’s scanned by a little red laser line that makes an approving little noise. (For crying out loud, the poor bastards were outranked by their own front door.)

The far side of the door smells of –

there’s a moment when we’re shoulder to shoulder and our weapons come up, we bar the door with a wall of steel and ceramite, the heretics won’t get close enough to hurt us again –

there’s nobody there, nobody living.

I’m not the only one to swear.

I’ve met enough death now to know how it stinks. There’s no other word. This was supposed to be a reception-room, an area where the servants of the aristoi are met by fawning functionaries and vast considerations are negotiated in return for brief messages over quite literally astronomical distances. Now it’s a ruin.

The decor was Astra Telepathica white, once, giving the whole place the feel of a padded cell. Smoothly curving white walls, thick soft white carpet, white furniture, even the negotiators and functionaries who worked here would wear white robes in an echo of the attire of an astropath. But it’s not white any more.

Conditioned to work unruffled alongside witches, the guards themselves look to have been immune to the murderous madness we saw elsewhere. One of the doors has been torn open: guess which way, girls. We cover the angles, wary of any remaining heretics. 

The place is silent. Empty. Again. It’s fucking unnatural.

The Telepathica guards fought to the last: that much is clear. Up here they wouldn’t carry much in the way of ammunition, wouldn’t be equipped for battlefield endurance, because why should they be? An unruly delegation, a recipient of bad news intent on shooting the messenger, even a worst-case angry mob are all things to be dealt with by a brief and shocking demonstration of force and a locked and barred gate. But today the world turned on its head. Today the astropath’s guards spent their paltry few dozen shells and were rushed and overborne by their aristocratic customers. Today it turned out that their strength and fitness were merely mortal, and they were dragged down and torn apart, and their beetle-armour served them as well against that crowd as it did against me and my sisters.

Those guards we killed. We’d given them an impossible order. Their superiors were dead. They were survivors. The only survivors of this, alive because their post was out of the way. Now they’re dead. We murdered them for no reason at all. They were in the way. But they were defending a broken position. No reason at all. (Void’s name, Ellayn. Your own worst enemy, you are, shut up.)

And Gennid swears in a language I never heard before, all sibilants and gutturals. “They smashed the damned interlocutors. One talks to the witches through their people: the backup is there.” He gestures to a ruined console-desk. “Fine. Gird yourselves: we shall have to do it in person.”

“In… person, interrogator?” I wince. “We have secure voxcasters of our own, sir.”

“The quire isn’t equipped to receive you.” He leaves off the insults: he must be rattled. “Its links are hardwired. Let us see if the door will be close enough.” He snorts. “Or, come to that, if the door kept out the tide of heretics.”

The guards weren’t the only line of defence, of course.. Behind them, down a corridor papered with dire imprecations and injunctions against trespass – IF YOU PASS THIS SIGN THEN YOU WILL DIE, I read in Low and High Gothic and what I assume is binaric, and muse briefly that it’s true for us all – there must have been a short little flight of steps. Must have been, see, because at the top of it, the floor is just about visible between the bodies.

Turns out, you see, that the Astra Telepathica are not believers in fucking around when it comes to the security of their astropaths against events that should never happen. Turns out that a Tarantula-class multilaser turret is a small thing, not really too intimidating unless you know what it is, not much of a deterrent till you’ve seen it in use, and combined with a heavy sealed armoured plasteel gate it really doesn’t give a shit how many people there are in your Help.
Shit!
Ugh! I cry out involuntarily and just about stop myself putting a hand to my head (armour, Ellayn, you’ll knock your own block off.) That voice came from inside my Help me.
Fuck!

It sounds like my own voice. I’m not hearing this with my ears. It sounds like my voice sounds from inside my head, not recordings. It’s like hearing myself, feeling myself say something and knowing that I have done no such thing all at once. They are breaching my defences.
Ugh!

The – weakness in that voice, the sheer shivering terror. It’s not – I would never – The wolf is at the door. Augh! The rest of my sisters, they’re reeling too. Hayla actually screamed, Porsia’s thrown her hands up to cover her face, dropped her weapon, backing awkwardly away till she runs into Yasi with a clatter of armour. Rakil and Niwall have spun round, closed up, levelled weapons at nothing, put their backs to mine. Pink has just simply frozen, jaw slack, deadly razor-fingered hand halfway to her mouth.

Deep breath. I have seen worse than you, mutant. I bare my teeth and snarl, “Interrogator!”

He’s standing there looking stupidly up at the turret before the door, his eyes half-closed, swaying slightly. If the turret didn’t recognise us then he’d be dead and we’d be taking cover. We need to keep Peril. The last of my guards have fallen.

I narrow my eyes. Fuck off, telepath. “Gennid!” Nothing. What was his first name? “Morst!” I’m at his side now: I try the same trick that worked with another man staring stupidly in the face of moral threat. Grab his shoulder with fingertips, spin him none too gently to face me. Subsonics and volume into my voice, don’t yell. “Come on, soldier, snap out of it.”

I think it was grabbing him that worked: he shakes off my hand and growls in the back of his throat. Ignores the heaped corpses like they were just an innovative choice of decor. Strides up to the door with the expression that says couldn’t I have been the one to do this, and slams one palm down on the scanner beside the door while holding up his purity seal to the door’s camera with the other. His voice fails him the first time he tries to speak to it. Clears his throat. “Januam aperiri,” he growls hoarsely in his accented High Gothic. “Vi Solium Terrarum!” Slams his hand irritably down on the panel again when nothing seems to happen. “Damn you, machine, this is the Inquisition! In the Emperor’s name let me pass!”

Inquisition? Shock and surprise, entirely alien to me, try and drop the bottom out of my stomach. Gennid nearly falls over. Behind me Niwall and Rakil have linked hands, close behind me as they can physically get, the whole squad drawn together back to back, Manda shouts something wordless, get the fuck out of my head, witch! The door’s crawling open, I support the interrogator and half carry him through. Terrible plan. Worse plan to turn tail. The only way out of this is through it. It’s only a voice.

The quire is a sphere, a white sphere inside a room that’s a cube. Suspensor globes orbiting like little satellites and keeping this place at a dizzying one-third grav. A litttle gantry of scaffolding provides a ladder up to a round hatch in the side of the thing. People don’t come this way often. The witches will have every physical need supplied within their sphere itself, it’s got its own atmosphere processor and recyk plant, as close to a closed system as you get. There’s a yellow-and-black line painted on the floor around the sphere, warning runes painted regularly within it, almost cute in their redundancy: potential moral threat. As if anyone would make it as far as the hive’s astropaths and not understand what that meant.

“Quire.” It takes Gennid a couple of tries to find his voice. He spits on the spotless white floor and the trajectory of the little gob of phlegm is all wrong in the light grav. “Quire!” He shakes off my arm. “I, Gennid Morst for Lord Toth, of the Hammer of the Daemon, do request and require your-“ I acknowledge your right.

Gennid grunts as if punched and keeps going. I bite my lip: the pain levels me out. It’s getting easier. “I require communication immediately,” he says heavily, “to the astropaths of the Swift Stiletto of the Emperor’s Quick Response, shore-to-ship, and return of acknowledgement and potential reply.” Someone else’s helpless lonely trepidation punches me in the gut and I make a noise like it was a physical blow but stay standing. Niwall and Rakil are my only sisters who dared follow me in here and they’re here for me, not for any conception of duty. My armour says the rest of the squad are hunkered in a protective star formation in the entranceway. We can’t take this forever.

Training says pull back, regroup, secure, call it in. Training says we aren’t alone out here and aren’t dealing with a witch and I cannot hear you clearly. An image, I see clearly the sphere’s boarding gantry, a hand – my hand – a man’s hand reaching out and opening a physical door in the side of the sphere because My intercommunicator is malfunctioning

And with a yell that’s made of sheer frustrated revulsion I throw the witch out of my damn head for the umpteenth damn time. The interrogator needs to go there? Okay, then, I practically pick the bastard up. Only way out is through. Billion lives. My sisters realise I’m moving towards the sphere, last place they want to go, but they’ve come this far. One-third grav, the temptation is to cut mag-boots and jump rather than use that rickety ladder – maybe if I was a real Sister. Gennid is just about together enough to let himself be lifted. Deja vu is sickening watching him copy the exact gesture, angle, motion I saw in someone else’s mind’s eye.

It’s clean in here, it’s so clean and white, and there’s no shadow, the light comes from all around us. Columns of constantly changing text and images paper the walls. This is a hemisphere and in the centre of it there is a triangle of chairs and two of them are occupied by dead people. Dessicated skeletons, papery skin stretched taut, mummified in white uniforms.

“Close the door,” says the third. You think of a witch as being thin, pinched, sinister – this man is the shape of an overripe apple, wrapped coccoon-like in the many swathing folds of what could either be his once-white robes or a filthy white fluffy dressing gown. He’s sitting in the third chair: the three of them are on a turntable and it spins to face us, not like the two dead bodies will mind. “There’s a draught.” His voice his voice though it sounds exactly like mine sounds like inside my own head. I look at him because he won’t have the victory of seeing me look away from weakness and I see that the blindfold he’s wearing is crusted with layers and layers of old dried blood.

Gennid’s voice is careful and slow, like when he thought I was a clear and present danger. “Your fellows?”

The fat man shrugs. “Old news. We’ve been awaiting replacements for half a decade. So. What can I d-” (don’t say it don’t say it maybe the omens are wrong) “Do for the Ordo Malleus? Do you require a psyker for some mission? Or are you here to rescue me? I am sure I have my suspensor-belt somewhere.” (Yuk. That I’m somehow feeling myself saying this makes everything worse. I clamp my jaw shut.)

Gennid swallows hard. He’s sweating. “I… require.” He swallows again. Fear is spilling in around the edges of the world. “Shore-to-ship contact, Imperial Navy vessel Swift Stilletto of the Emperor’s Quick Response. Return of acknowledgement and potential reply.” The foreign gnawing pit of horror in my belly is just growing and growing and these words are doing nothing but eating away at the bottom of it and fuck off!

“I… see. My lord, is there a second vessel by that name?” He’s trying to find a way out. He’s trying to find a way that he doesn’t have to do it. I have my mouth pressed into a firm tight line to prove that it’s him that’s talking and not me.

“Why do you ask?” Gennid rasps, suddenly wary.

“Because if your lordship means to refer to the Navy vessel directly over our heads, vox lag would be…” one of the monitors flickers through a series of calculations – “Less than an eighth of a second. You, you can use my personal vox-array, even. Do you truly require-“

“Every vox for half a dozen leagues is jinxed, witch: why d’you think I didn’t just call you in the first place, hmm? You think I enjoy mainlining the by-products of that misshapen brain of yours? I have a priority-one communication for the ears of the captain and for Inquisitor Toth. Are you prepared to send?”

(No. No, he’s really not.) “I… must warn you that the omens are spectacularly poor. Due to the unforeseen events of this morning-“

“We were there, you colossal puling waste of flesh!” The astropath cringes at Gennid’s voice, Rakil and Niwall both draw in a sharp breath – I hardly even feel that one. “I am well aware of the damned omens: I received them from my lord Toth personally. And I repeat. Priority one. Clear and present threat to the hive. This message would be worth all of our lives, if it came to it.”

(The night is young.) I clench my fist involuntarily against the sick feeling of that foul creature’s thoughts in my brain and he can’t help but imagine what I could do to him with just that fist, and – get out – he looks away. It doesn’t matter how truthful the interrogator is being. His heavies will tear me to pieces if they are balked. If it’s die doing one’s duty or die a traitor get out!
Do you want me to add you a new exit?

“I, I hear and obey.” Not clear he isn’t talking to me. He gestures and his platform turns him to face one of the incomprehensible screens: another gesture and it fills with a breathtaking image I now recognise as the night sky. “Shore-to-ship, sieur, by your command, realtime. You will know when contact is made.” He can’t stop himself saying, “Make your first words count, my lord, or we all died in vain.”

And I realise he’s not exaggerating, or at least he doesn’t think he is. The image on the screen expands dizzyingly and whatever else I ever see in my life, now I know that the space between stars is filled with more stars

A bright twinkling star in the image expands and unpacks and isn’t a point of light any longer, it’s long and the front of it is sharp and I can see why they might name it Stilletto. It’s on its side just the way you always think of a ship, in profile, and for an instant i think nothing of that because that’s the shape ships are.

Except… that picture must be looking straight up. Which means we are staring directly down the barrels of the great vessel’s broadside – the Astropath casually removes his blindfold and hardly even feels the pain as freshly scabbed wounds tear open, but holy crap the rest of us can feel that. His back is to us so I can’t see whatever he has instead of eyes. Rakil whimpers and Gennid wipes his own eyes with the back of his hand reflexively and I grit my teeth.

As the corpulent man takes a deep convulsive breath as the tubes in the back of his seat feed him an unpleasantly viscous nameless white substance and then every screen in the place whites out.

++++

eleven

In Light, Chapter Nine

Up

Eight

++++

I asked them for volunteers for a duty that warranted courage and got thirteen hands. Even my two sisters who couldn’t walk volunteered. Fucksake. Every novice knows that a task framed like that is menial and unpleasant. Every single one of them wanted to make it plain that they were going to do it so I wouldn’t have to take it on myself.

…Sorry, sisters, I can’t do this one for you. At least the fact that they volunteered made it easier for them. Now Keyt and Jeny are staying behind because it is their duty to guard our fallen and the relics they wear, not because of injuries they almost certainly got from lapses in armour handling. I give the rest of my people the option to put their hand down now they know what the duty is –

Now that’s another sister-superior’s trap. You put your hand down, you’re on the shit-list for sure. And my second sopranos, Niwall and Rakil, lower their hands, looking me straight in the eye.

Not them, then. Not Porsia, I need her experience. Not Manda, she’s a better shot than some of the instructors. Not Isaby, she’s shaky enough without giving her responsibility. Not – look, I can’t leave Keyt and Jeny without someone who can walk – I pull up my interface and have it draw lots.

“And Vanyssa makes three,” I say, and she stares flatly straight ahead and doesn’t let me see that that hurt her – but everyone saw me draw lots for that, what else could I have done – and that’s that. “The three of you have eight hundred souls and the relics of our honoured fallen in your hands.” Speech goes here. I don’t have one. “Farewell, sisters. We shall see you again.”

It’s not until they repeat my words back to me that I realise where I heard them before.

++++

This new turbo-shaft is a lot less forgiving than the old one. The grav fluxes up and down by a full two fifths as it accelerates and decelerates – we’re fine, but the refugees could easily have done without. It comes to a halt with an echoing crash, and then the utterly incongruous polite little chime of a turbolift designed for pampered aristoi. The doors begin to grind open – light and warmth, a good sign – wait, are there people?

Weapons come hastily up – “Hold,” I say warily over vox, and Magnus echoes me, just a little slower on the uptake. The last time I saw a miscellaneous dirty crowd of jumbled humanity they were trying to murder me, and let’s not rely on everyone else having more self-control. The doors judder to a halt, nine feet between them. We’ve still got part of a barricade over that.

The crowd on the far side, though, they’re different from the last ones I saw. The sound of the crowd is muted, the movement less purposeful. People are milling, sitting down, gathering in little clumps. To be honest, it looks a bit like our own civilians, if a little less well dressed. Refugees fleeing Throne knows what, packed into a space that’s then become safe for them just due to the sheer number of them
(like a vehicle bay, perchance?)
stop it –

And they see who we are and it goes through them like a wave. All voices are silenced. All faces turned towards us. People are making obeisance, making the aquila with their hands, fishing out the holy symbols they’re wearing, anything shiny they’ve got. Holding them up to catch the light, and as I watch the crowd begins to sparkle with little flashes of silver, chrome and polished steel. Whatever else we think we are or aren’t. The common people see the lift open and the Daughters of the Emperor are standing here for them.

And this, at least, is familiar. I turn my synth up to the point that everyone in the crowd will hear me, but I don’t shout at them. Tone of voice is important. And what I sound like more than anything else right now is the angel of death, passing by. “Citizens, attend,” I say, and I am already seeing them backing up, drawing aside. “Passage for the servants of the Throne.”

“Vigilance,” mutters Gennid over our vox channel. “Eyes out. Threat could come from any angle.” So, yeah. If ever you wanted proof positive that Gennid was an offworlder, that was it. The rest of us, once the initial surprise passed, a crowd is just the natural state of a public place. Whether eeling through it as a schola kid or taking pride in wearing the uniform and letting them make way before me, a crowd’s just natural – but I can see the hunted look in the man’s eyes, the set of his shoulders. He’s thinking it’s a perfect hiding place for an attacker: we’re looking at the reassuring mass of loyal humanity and frankly starting to feel safer. He was expecting them to make more room, perhaps: we’re seeing they’ve made a broad respectful gangway a good nine feet wide, you could get a tank down this. Maybe he was expecting not to draw quite every eye in the place? Not sure where else he’s expecting them to look.

They’re turning their little shiny things to face us as we walk. I’ve seen this before, at the funeral of Ecclesiarch Bellecci. The light of the hive is the light of the Emperor. It shines on the people of the hive, grace freely given: they pass it on and their prayers with it. I can see the interrogator squinting suspiciously.

A movement up ahead, a ripple in the sea of humanity. I’ve halted before even thinking, a quick move sharply backward and inward, knowing Niwall is doing just the same to my left. This is exactly like one of our drills, except you don’t touch your shoulders physically together if you’re armoured. Eyes scan the crowd in a flash – there – a middle-aged and robed man stepping forward with purpose there ahead of us, but the people don’t think he’s threatening – looks to me more like they’re encouraging him?

“What is it?” The interrogator only noticed something was wrong when our formation suddenly drew together like a fist, when Pink stepped casually across in front of him.

“Non-hostile, eleven o’clock, fifty feet,” I subvocalise, deep breath, come down off that hair-trigger. “Gennid, we have a petitioner.”

“You have got to be joking.”

I don’t even dignify that one. The man probably doesn’t even realise how close he came to dying in a hail of las-shot as he steps out and falls melodramatically to his knees, hands clasped in the aquila. His robes – if he had his hat on, he’d be a sacristan-major, a keeper of relics. “Holy sisters, hear you our petition!” He’s basically crying the words towards my knees. “Loyal adherents of the Throne are we, bringing this day the most humble of requests before the Chamber Militant!” And… that would be the correct form of words, hat or no hat.

“Don’t tell me you’re stopping for this timewaster,” Gennid growls softly, behind me.

Briefly I entertain thoughts of what would have happened if I’d let my suit off the leash when the paranoid little git went for his gun. “Get up,” I say to the priest, not unkindly. “We do not have time to waste. Walk with me, sacristan, and speak quickly.” Two quick long strides ahead of the group and he takes place beside me.

“Of course, Holy Sister. Of course.” He keeps his eyes averted. I’ve seen this protocol before. Being on the receiving end doesn’t even make top ten on the list of things to concern me right now. “The heretics, Blessed Sister, you know? You heard? You came?” His expression is pathetic. “The shrine, the reliquary shrine on the corner of Beneficent and Eleventh. I don’t know where they came from, they – we ran – please, Holy Sister?”

“Who are ‘they’?” Well, at least he isn’t calling me mamzel. “How many?”

“I, I don’t.” My unimpressed expression, the evident scratches and scars on my armour, the fact that now he looks at me I’m covered by a patchwork of little injuries and maybe my hair’s not rust-brown and matted by nature, he’s losing his thread. “Maybe twice as many as my workday congregation. A hundred or three.”

“Composition?” I see incomprehension in his eyes. “Did they have weapons, vehicles, uniforms? Do you have any idea who they were?”

He clears his throat. “Uniforms they might have had, I think, maybe, once. Blue tunic, most of them, black boots. Bits of armour strapped on. See-through, you-know, those see-through plastek shield thingies. Here and there the Scales of Law, but they weren’t keeping the law, Gentle Sister.” Memory hollow in his eyes. “Like animals they were. For all that they were crying the names of the Saint. They had a big lady with a voxcaster. They had flaming torches, just bits of insulation dipped in prom. As for weapons, we…” He was looking down already, but now I’ve got the feeling it’s from shame. “Didn’t exactly wait for them to show us.”

Arbitrators. What were once arbitrators. Roaming the streets in packs. Lovely. “How long ago was this?”

“Falling half of the fourth hour, Holy Sister.” Or about two hours after Sister Drabbe’s, after everything, you know. After the whole world went completely uh. “But we’ve heard them. We know they’re still there. Desecrating our shrine, Noble Sister, please.”

This is the gate out of here. The far side of this is the via-magna, eleventh spoke. Straight road to where we’re going. Or, in the other direction, that shrine. (But it’s a legitimate request, and in any sane world a sacristan of the Ecclesiarchy should expect all assistance from a novice of the Sisterhood, even if there’s no way he can give me a direct order). They are drawing back the bolts for us. The poor man’s practically on his knees. That shrine will have been his life’s work.

I look down at him. Even if he straightened up I’d have a couple of inches on him thanks to these boots. “Do you ask me to lie to you, sacristan?”

“No, of course not, Holy Sister, I – just -” He glances between me and my paltry unit. “They are surely no threat to you, and -”

And it’s dawning on me that it is me that everyone is watching, as the gates slide open and the rest of the squad deploys by sections into the wide smoke-smelling avenue, as Gennid gives me a significant glare as he stomps past. They want someone to – they want me to – say something. To make it right. We’re the Throne’s representatives? Um. Okay, then, what does the Throne want? Why is this happening? How can they fulfil the will of Him on Earth and somehow make all this suffering and horror mean something? Why in hell are those mute pleading eyes asking this of me? (Who else is there, I guess?)

Wait.

“Scale, Agate.”

“Here, sister.”

 “Opportunity here. That weaponry we brought you. I think I recall we had a crate or two of leftovers?”

“Go on.”

 “I have a reliable report here of renegade law enforcement. You have a mission: so do we. But right here we have a militia and a priest to lead them.” I’m not subvocalising. The sacristan can hear every word I say.

“Got you. Better this stuff goes to some use at all, is your thought? We can spare five minutes.”

 I look the cowering priest in the eye. “Make it so.”

He looks for all the world like I just physically loaded that crate onto his back. “Sister, do you take us for soldiers? Truly I say to you-”

I clear my throat and he bows his head into silence. “Thought for the day,” I say, searching for words as I turn up suit volume. And a reading springs to mind almost unbidden – it’s not about armour maintenance or one of the seemingly endless litanies of precedence and duty – go for it.

Cleave not to hope, ye who shall kneel before the Throne. All hope abandon: for hope is the first step on the road to disappointment.” Between the sleep-learned words and the synth turning my voice into an angel’s, it almost feels like someone else is saying this, like I’m listening, not speaking. “Hope is the cousin of apathy. Hope is the enemy of providence. Were you worthy, you would not hope, for you would believe. Were you able, you would not hope, for you would act. So said Saint Alicia Dominica, distilled for us here in the words of the Lex Sororitas.”

And my squad, bless them, come in exactly as the people do. “So say we all.” I lock my hands together in the aquila as each person in the crowd does the same: and then we are gone, and whatever they are moved to do next is my damn fault.

++++

We’re on the via-magna now, one of the twelve spokes that holds together the wheel-shaped hive-level. As such, on a clear day you’d see for miles – but this day is not clear. The smell of the smog is overpowering – the industrial fug of promethium mixing with the sharp stink of overloaded insulation, the dirty odor of heavier oils and things I can’t and don’t want to identify. Lighter notes that make me think of the shooting range. The fading tang of riot gas. There’s a heavy, sluggish wind blowing – there’s always a breeze in a sector with an aeroport. All we need to do is follow the wind. And not think too hard about why the ventilation of the hive is full of smoke.

“Interesting.” The interrogator’s had a vox-bead out of the supplies we took from the precinct, to replace that bloody handset of his. “A diversion, after all that talk of the value of life. You do know they’re all going to die doing that.

“You’re perfectly correct,” I say, and I’m surprised by the venom in my own voice. “Apparently Providence agrees, or didn’t you hear the reading I gave?”

“You chose it.”

“Did I, now.” The synth doesn’t like sarcasm. It’s not befitting. “It doesn’t mean I have to like it, interrogator. But remember that mob on level seven. Blind mindless aggression. The fewer of those between us and the aeroport the better.”

“I didn’t say it was a bad plan,” he mutters. “Can you make out the aeroport from here?”

“It might have passed you by, interrogator, but I’m operating on eyeballs and iron sights here. The only thing my eyesight has on yours is youth.”

He snorts. “You really don’t like me, do you, Ellayn?”

“Irrelevant.”

“First sensible thing you’ve said.”

Well, I suppose it wasn’t exactly a pleasure trip to start with: at least he shuts up. The smog’s too thick to use finger-sign accurately, so we’re using vox-clicks to coordinate, moving up through the eerie beige gloom, the occasional cough the loudest thing about us. Pink and Gennid sticking to the second altos so we all know where they are.

There’s singing on the wind, now, made muffled and distant and strange by the smog. I wince, and not just because I sent them to die for the Emperor. I know every word, of course. Not sleep-taught – my musical knowledge is honestly come by (honestly? I mean, probably taught by – look, I’m not thinking about it – honestly.) I’ve been singing since I can remember, a chorister from the moment they assayed a nine-year-old girl with perfect pitch and named her for a holy martyr from Mordia Quinte. And all that time I’ve been singing songs of the Saint. I mean, pretty much that entire book of hymns they’re murdering, you could practically give me a page number and I’d know.

And all that time it’s all been lies? (I notify the altos to move up: we’ve got an intersection to cover. We cross in professional harmony, moving as one: timing’s one thing we choristers can do perfectly.) Thousands of hours of practice, thousands of services and observances, and for what? I’ve been the voice of the Saint. The same voice that boiled unstoppably out of our favourite teacher and grabbed us all by the tongue and the heart, that same voice that pointed us at an Inquisitor of the Throne and told us that wrong was right: that voice. It’s been me. The same words scrawled in blood on the walls of that awful place, the same words that took Drabbe and turned her into… I knew them and nobody ever taught them to me. This cult that’s the reason this level’s full of the acrid smoke of people’s entire lives going up in bonfire: I bore their bloody standard, and I did it and tried to pretend I wasn’t proud because that would have been a sin.

The smoke is irritating my eyes. I blink and they sting and my throat hurts.

Fuck it. If I’m feeling like this, the others will be worse. I mean, Porsia was but a year from initiation, she’s done two vigils before, solos before the Ecclesiarch and everything. I bite my lip and the pain stings me into action. Cue vox, squad private channel. “Bloody hellfire, sisters, will someone not put that poor hymn out of its misery?”

And as I predicted, it’s like I took a pin to it. I hear a hiss over the vox which was Porsia’s attempt at a bitter little laugh. I’m close enough to Rakil to see her show her teeth. “Anyone got a pitch-pipe?” says Rowyn, and her synth decides to give her words perfect delivery.

“Take aim,” says Manda. “Ugly fucker with the voxcaster, six o’clock, three arpeggios rapid.”

“Incoming,” says Yasi, drily. “Minor seventh, six o’clock. Duck and cover.” She’s right, too. That hymn couldn’t be any flatter if they jumped up and down on it –

Porsia gives two rapid vox-clicks on the channel we share with Gennid and Pink: enemy sighted. Game faces on. Training says, if visibility is poor for you, don’t be the idiot who blithely assumed it was poor for your enemy: cover first, and don’t waste time taking a peek back out, because if I could have seen the enemy I’d have been the one giving the warning, now, wouldn’t I.

“Incoming, assault light disordered, eleven o’clock, two hundred, unaware.” Assault infantry, light, disordered: battle-language is designed for battlefields, not police actions, and doesn’t really have a word for a mob without weaponry or direction. You’d use the same words for a pack of dogs. Eleven o’clock: they’re on the left side of the via, and there’s plenty of cover for us on the right.

“Cross right, keep low.” Our footsteps won’t be audible for two hundred yards. We find cover on the right-hand side of the street, stay down. The luminators are up, washing the whole place in a hideous dingy grey, but smog just takes strong light as an excuse to get serious. I can hardly make the heretics out clearly, and they’re not even looking for us.

What does a heretic look like? Well, in this case, remarkably well dressed. This is hive-level twelve, still thoroughly a part of uphive: most people who live here would draw a finer distinction, calling the top ten levels the Spire and putting themselves at the top of the hierarchy of the rest of the hive, the richest honest folk in Baelis Tertius. They grow tall and stout on imported foodstuffs and wear clothes that their grandparents would denounce as resembling underwear. Until lunchtime today, none of that mob ever worked with their hands, ever missed a meal. Their exercise is taken in gymnasia: these people are too rich to be unfit. They run past as if out for their morning constitutional. And in their soft hands are tools they likely don’t even know the function of, beyond the heft or the blade that furnished those bloodstains.

Well, the diversion worked. I bite my tongue rather than tell my sisters not to engage. They won’t. I know that the only one I’d be talking to is me. I close my fists and stare till they are gone, and make myself breathe steady so my suit won’t get the wrong idea and flood me with adrenaline.

Dammit.

We creep on through the stinking greyness. Distance loses meaning when visibility is maybe a hundred yards. Surely we’re past the aeroport by now. I’ve never been to this one. I don’t know what we’re looking for –

Okay. Maybe I do. 

Maybe it’s the place the heretics had decided to set up camp.

The entrance to the aeroport was designed to reflect the wealth and prestige of its owners: the wall on that side of the road is worked for twenty yards either side into a relief of a great golden wing, the decoration worked out into a huge beaked head either side of the entrance, taste discarded for ostentation. And someone’s shinned up that thing with a bucket of paint, and they’ve painted a jaunty purple blindfold over the eyes of the giant aquila – and I’m not certain that they knew or cared that this makes it into the insignia of the Astropaths. They’ve decorated the beak with wild scrawlings and daubings, whatever they could think of (fucking hell I know those words) and thrown the rest of the bucket over the dedication plaque and called the job a good one: and they’ve done so recently enough that the paint’s still dripping.

Fires, they’ve laid fires in the entrance. Don’t know, don’t want to know, what they’re burning. And they’re singing, but these are secular songs, low-caste shanties sung in a braying uphive accent. The wind steals their voices. I can see bottles being passed around. They’ve dragged a statue of the Saint down from somewhere or other and set her up in the middle of the entranceway: someone’s pried the quill from her right hand and the scroll from her left, and wedged and duct-taped a shock-pike in their place.

“I make my tally seventy,” I subvocalise. “Concur?”

“Eighty-five,” says Porsia promptly. “Light tactical, disordered. Pink, I see riot-guns, stumm projectors, sonics: nothing serious. That armour doesn’t move like armour. Am I missing something?”

 “No, mamzel, those are fancy dress costumes made out of polycarb and paint.” I can see the slender cyborg lean out around her cover. “I would not put stumm grenades past them, or perhaps riot-gas.”

“Our odds of sneaking past?” Gennid’s voice is level and matter-of-fact.

“Not great,” I offer. “All it needs is one eye out of place, and I don’t know about you, but I do not feel that lucky. Pink, how long to start up an aerospace vehicle?”

“It depends upon what is available. I would guess at a few hundred seconds, but I could be out by a factor of ten.”

“Lovely.” I narrow my stinging eyes. “Do you know your way around this place?”

“Affirmative. We had to secure the whole area once for a party.“

“Good. Second altos, protect and deliver: firsts, speartip. Pink, give them directions, you have Gennid’s back. Sops, we get their attention. I see some blasphemy that needs answering, it’ll make us feel better if we do something about it, and I don’t believe they’ll ignore that. Hard and fast, make a lot of noise, onward as they reel. In whose name we serve:”

“The Emperor protects.” Even Gennid joins me in that one.

++++

Half drunk, full of afterimages from staring into the flames, their flashy weapons discarded or slung, the issue isn’t whether they’d hurt us: it’s how many of them will get away. We hit them with no more warning than a battle-cry, our voxcasters turned up to battlefield levels. The key is speed, the key is aggression. The dented lasrifle still won’t give me anything other than automatic fire – that, or it’s realised that’s all I need right now. Even las-shots are enough for heretics, and their first instinct to group together and back away makes them practically line up for us as the altos push on at right-angles making for the flight deck. Another burst and it’s like they’re giving way for us, falling to a knee not with their injuries but out of deference to the Daughters of the Emperor. Into them and I lift a man physically off his feet with the butt of the rifle. This fire’s in half a fuel drum, and I kick it full force and it bowls two heretics over and they scream. By fire be purified.

Keep moving. Rakil’s riot-gun thunders. Three of them coming for me (or at least past me) from my left and suddenly Niwall is there, her shock-maul discharging with a bone-shattering overhand blow as she shoots a second one in the throat, the third one backing away as she takes careful aim and puts a laspistol shot between their eyes. The statue of the Saint they’re venerating, it’s a decent enough little objective: in a lull I sling my rifle, take hold of the thing by the hips, not even thinking about its weight I tear it from its pedestal and –

for an instant, for one single heartbeat flash I’m holding a woman, an unarmoured woman, I can feel bones creak and shatter under my hands and she screams and struggles, I’ve already cued the suit to smash her (it) on the ground, I can’t stop myself without wrenching joints and pulling muscles and landing on my face –

The statue, I have no idea what in Terra’s name it was made of, but it shatters like porcelain. Both my sisters threw their arm in front of their face as per training, I’m closer and had no such protection, guess I’m lucky I didn’t lose an eye. Don’t just stand there staring stupidly, don’t wipe blood off my face when I’m wearing powered gauntlets – plan – follow it.

“First sop, overwatch. Move.”

Vox-click. The heretics went straight from shock to fear: they don’t care where they’re going, they’re just going, and Porsia and her section have them in a practical shooting gallery. We turn, head for the doors that the altos tore open. Fire and movement. Trust that our sisters have cleared ahead of us. “Second sop, overwatch.” (What the sacred fuck was that statue?) “Move.”

The flight deck is broad and flat and ends in infinity. Bright luminators have turned the place into a soup of greyness shot through with orange flicker: things are on fire. A lot of things. I can see ten fliers from here – aristo transports, cargo carriers, tiny little blunt-winged couriers, even a dirigible – each in its own state of ruin. Did we come here for nothing?

But no, there they are. The suit has a sense for its fellows and they’re over to my left – can’t even see them in the fog. No bodies, no gunfire. Keep the channel clear as we move up, staying low, the open space making us all instinctively wary.

It’s a crashed Valk, that’s the first thought. The Order’s transports are Valkyrie-class assault fliers, boxy gull-winged things, big heavy engines, fly like a dart the Emperor threw at the sky. At first glance this looks exactly like one – the right wing bent out of shape, the cowling torn off the turbine, the whole thing slewed over at a crazy angle, but these things can fly on one engine –

A second glance, though, and things are off. Those aren’t hardpoints there on the wings – they look like them, but they’re not articulated, the only bit that looks like it’s working is the light on the end. The engines – if I didn’t know better I’d wonder if those two massive turbines are fake entirely. And why would a Valk be parked (crashed?) on hive-level twelve? There’s no army facility on this level at all –

“Surprised?” Yasi, second alto, waves us over. “So were the people who tried to break this. Smashed the fake engines, pulled it over on its side and job’s a good ‘un, but underneath all this fiberplas it’s a limo-conveyor. Sieur Whoever-it-is likes to make out that the defence forces are their personal taxi service.”

“Well, let the record state that the vanity of House Whoever-it-is may just have saved a billion lives.” Vox. “Pink, how long?”

“Three hundred seconds, this conversation, and anything further the Interrogator believes is crucial to say to me.” Golden Throne, that man should write textbooks on how to make friends and influence people. I send her a vox-click and shut my jaw. Five minutes.

++++

I stare over my sights. Most of us who kept our lasrifles have switched the las-sight off. Not just for stealth – Manda was dead certain the things were crooked. Perhaps I should have swapped mine for an undamaged one. Seems churlish when it saved my life.

“A billion lives?” It’s Rakil. Second soprano. She’s had my back the whole time. I fished her out of a pile of corpses. “Like, actually a billion, an exponent of nine decades? Not the population of uphive, more like half of Tertius Hive itself? That’s our mission?”

“Does it matter?” Eyes front. “Would we suddenly say, if it were four hundred million – ‘oh, I’m sorry, Interrogator, but four hundred million souls only merit the soprano section’? Would we fight twice as hard, perhaps, if he made it clear it was all two thousand, two hundred and eight million?” (That figure. Given today, that last digit is too precise. Does that change a thing?)

“I suppose.” There’s silence a moment. “I suppose it does. I -” She swallows. “I suspect that for a million souls, you-know, like a whole midhive level was at stake, I would feel different. Still a lot of people. Still worth putting my life at hazard for. But – I don’t know. It would be more important that we did it right than that we won, because life would go on, right? For most people. Most people in the hive wouldn’t even know someone who knew someone who was hurt. But they’d see us, they’d hear of our deeds vox and pict, it’d be a hymn to the Emperor either way.” She shivers. “We could do more harm by winning badly than losing well. But if it’s the entire hive?”

I shake my head. “Are there not five more hives on Baelis? Are there not three more hiveworlds in the subsector? Is this not the Imperium of a Million Worlds, in which not a millionth part of humanity would even know someone who knew someone who had been hurt?”

“Right. But who will see? Who will hear? They will read histories of us, win or lose, and I don’t know about you, but I can’t make myself believe that the remembrancers and hagiographers give a shit what the facts were. I mean, back there, right? We sent a thousand untrained refugees off with a couple of dozen guns to be eaten by heretics. You reckon that goes in the histories?”

“You think I did wrong? You think we should’ve taken that fight on ourselves?”

“No. Of course not. Because we couldn’t, because if we saved one shrine and failed main objective because of that, then nothing would matter. Is that right?”

“You’re asking if ends justify. You’re asking me if a desperate situation is worth more than principles.” I give her a sidelong glance. “You going Radical on me here, sister?”

She actually laughs. “Are we literally having that conversation now, Ellayn?”

“What conversation? The one entitled what-the-fuck?”

“That’d be the one. Voxes off, yeah?” I nod and finger-sign ‘affirmative’; she stares out at nothing for a moment. “The cathedral. The inquisitor. That… whole…” She makes a noise of disgust in the back of her throat and her synth ignores it entirely. “Fucksake, Ellayn. By their deeds are they known. You have eyes. I have eyes. Why the flying… blue…” She gestures incoherently, out of words. “Why are we still acting like we’re allowed to wear this uniform?”

“Weather’s cold out here.” I give what isn’t a smile. “With a thirty per cent chance of bullets. And you want to get your kit off?”

“Not funny. You know exactly what I mean.”

“And if I had an answer -” I mark out an imaginary, empty space in the air with a flick of my fingers – “here would it reside.” Stare downrange.  Nothing downrange. “Look, sister, I’ve seen what you have, and nothing you ha-” (lies) “uh, nothing pertinent you haven’t. I have no special miraculous insight you’re missing.”

“You spoke to the interrogator,” she says, darkly. “Convinced him. Lied. To the Inquisition.”

“No lie did I speak-”

“Oh, and I’m sure you just batted your eyelashes and that little matter of hymns to the literal Archenemy just evaporated like mist, did it?”

“He wasn’t interested,” I say, and as the words come out I acknowledge how weak they are. “Said we had bigger fish to catch. Fry. Whatever it is you do to fish. Like, if I wasn’t about to literally try to tear his head off that moment, our case could wait.”

“And you asked if I was a Radical.” She hunches her shoulders, like she’s trying to withdraw her head inside her armour. “Throne on Earth. An interrogator spooked enough to work with literal factual heretics-”

“Would you stop?” I scowl at her. “Did you wake up this morning and decide to be a heretic?”

“Might as well have.” She doesn’t look at me. “Our house of cards is missing one, sis. Bottom layer, right in the middle. The one that says that anything, literally anything they ever told us was what they said it was. The Saint? The Order? Our holiest rite? Oh, wait, our mistake. The titles of the Emperor we’d chant every day? Turns out if you say them in the right order then literally everything falls apart. The sleep-learning?” The stock of her weapon creaks as she tightens her grip beyond anything it was built to take. “Ellayn, what we were taught is who we are. How much of that can be trusted? Anything? Are we just a collection of – of landmines?”

“Look, this sounds pathetic. But -”

“Say it.”

“That bit, maybe I can help with.” I clear my throat. “The interrogator. You said we talked. You were right. The way I convinced him we weren’t going to go for him the instant his back turned. Sleep-learning. He said – he’s acting as if he believes it – that you can’t edit a sleep-tape. That you can’t make a new one. He got me to quote the opening passage of the Rule and some basic theology from memory and seemed to recognise it. I think, I think if he’s good then the tapes are good. The Rule, the textbooks. The basics. The – you know, the stuff that I know at least as well as you do. At least it’s a place to start?”

A scowl. “Damn straight it’s pathetic.”

“Best I can do. It’s not like I miraculously became some kind of competent authority when you lot decided I was in charge.”

“Right, and that’s another thing.” She shivers. It’s not cold. “I mean, everything is upside down. Why are we paying any attention to the authorities and precedences? I mean, apart from naming the first-year as sister-superior because she’s the only one too boneheaded to back down?”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“Any time. But… Why are we paying attention to the Inquisition? Why are we getting on this flyer? Today I’ve killed -” she pointedly checks her ammunition counter – “Fuck me. Lots. Lots of people. Bolter, sarissa, fists and feet, this toy gun, that shock-maul I nicked. Hardened killer, me. Yesterday I’d never seen someone die. Basically I’ve done all that because you told me to. And I don’t doubt you, don’t get me wrong, your will is the best excuse I’ve got. But anyone who’s heard you talk thinks we’re doing it because we’re the shining sword in the Emperor’s right hand.” She shakes her head as if this train of thought could be shaken loose. “And if we were that, sis, you do know that I ought to start by putting this gun in my mouth.”

I raise an eyebrow at her. “That’d be a bloody feat. You reckon you can operate it with your toes?”

That actually gets a laugh. “You know what I mean. But we’re not, though, are we? We’re a… a disgrace to the name ‘human’. A juvie gang all done up in kit we’ve got no right to, stolen authority, flat-out murdering people then telling ourselves and everyone else they’re heretics to make ourselves feel better. Ellayn, what I’m trying to say is that by any sensible yardstick we are the heretics here.”

“I know.”

That makes her look right at me. Actually gets a moment or two of silence.

I know, all right?” I don’t meet her eyes, don’t know that I could. “Like you said. I’m not a complete idiot. I’ve got all the same indoctrination you have. Same evidence. Same conclusions. But – but I feel, like, absolutely bone-deep, that my first duty is to you. To Agate. That it absolutely cannot be wrong to protect my sisters.” (Bloody good job I’ve done of it, say half a dozen dead faces.)

She nods, slowly. “Even if every word those precious sleep-tapes tell us about the Emperor says that we were damned the moment we opened our mouths and sang that daemon into the world.”

“For fuck’s sake, Rakil-”

“Or do you not remember that part? Did you take some kind of almighty blow to the head? You’re supposed to be smart. What would you call Drabbe?”

“Meat paste?” I look away. “To be quite honest with you, sis, I have been busily trying to scrub that whole picture out of my head. You know?”

“Worked, has it?”

Blessed is the mind too small for doubt,” I quote, mechanically.

“D’you feel blessed, Ellayn?”

“… Didn’t say that.” Still no heretics downrange. “To answer your question, sister? Yes. Really a billion. Really the whole hive in danger. There’s a – the Inquisition has a warship geostationary over Baelis Tertius right now, the Stiletto.”

“Don’t change the subject.”

“I’m not!” My synth kicks in like a thunderclap: I flush slightly and moderate my tone. “Do I know what the Emperor wants to happen? No. Do I know what he probably fucking doesn’t?”

“It’s not about us, you mean.” She makes a face. “As you say, bigger fish to hunt. Shelve it.”

“Yeah.” I look down. “Look, sis, I know it’s not perfect. I’m not exactly a confessor. But right now that’s what’s got me putting one foot in front of the other.”

A long, slow breath. Long enough for her suit to give her a questioning little click as to whether everything’s okay. “…right. Well,” she says, and I can hear her forcing life into her voice, “I guess I can’t exactly expect more out of you than you’re running on. I suppose that taking orders means we don’t need to do the painful sort of thinking for a while at least.”

For the voice of the Inquisition shall be-

“The irritatingly nasal maundering of a scrawny voidborn geek with an ego three feet taller than he is. And I feel about as blessed by it as you do.”

“Started listening to it yet, have you?”

Te crisere, lupella.” But there’s humour in her voice, hidden somewhere under that foul language.

“Come over here and say that.” I match her tone and we stare out at the smog. “Good talk, Rakil. Should do this more.”

“… Yeah.” She finger-signs that she’s turned her vox back on. “Yeah, you’re … not wrong.”

++++

Ten

In Light, Chapter Seven

Up

Six

++++

The tiredness, the exhaustion, it’s starting to bite. (Starting to? Exactly how many times during the Vigil did I fall asleep again?) 

Anyway. We’re all of us making mistakes. I don’t know if the layfolk can notice, but it’s obvious even to me that our armour handling is starting to suffer. And I’m filthy and I can’t wipe my damn face without taking a glove off and somehow somehow finding something clean.

They weren’t able to get the turbo to drop those last six measly feet. We can’t get the wide, low, long emergency conveyor up a six-foot step – the Lex says a sister shall lift a quarter of a ton to her waist and a fifth of a ton over her head, and if that thing weighs less than ten tons I’ll be surprised. Everything we – everything I went through to get hold of a single measly dented truck and the civvies can’t get a lift to drop far enough to take it with us. Aware I’m being watched, I don’t give vent to it. Not without a helmet to hide my face and my voice.

Two of us to lift one of those crates up into the lift – in theory, one of us – thank the Emperor, our magboots are working properly. Rakil stumbles and nearly falls off: her boots save her at the last instant with a heavy jarring clash of metal on ferrocrete. She says she’s all right. It’s a lie.

(And here I am just trying to keep my eyes open because of what I see when they are closed. Throne lighten my load. Throne take from me what I saw. What I said. Throne give me the strength to take each further step. I knew those words. Knew them like my own name, the one they gave me when I joined. It’s already hard to remember a time when I didn’t know them. Still know them, lurking there in the corners of my memory like the socket of a lost tooth.)

Save it for confession. Boxes to lift. Lift the damn boxes.

Rations. Fuel-cells, med supplies. Arbiter riot gear, all in extruded plastek crates. Not heavy, two hundredweight maximum, but they need two of us to balance because the maglocks in our gloves don’t see why they should have to lift plastek. The drums are metal at least: counterseptic concentrate, food-grade oil, promethium. A sister shall lift a quarter of a ton to her waist, it is written, and a fifth of a ton above her head. My armour objects to this menial duty, just another thing that I didn’t need, having to continually hold it back and restrain the little twitches and intention-movements that will turn into throwing or breaking or dropping. If it senses my own frustration –

Huh. Noise on a vox-channel, a priority one. Static. The vox can’t tell if it’s a voice or not, so it’s asking me for a second opinion – it – has the rhythm of speech…

There it is again. I am not hallucinating and until I receive proof that I am, I shall behave as if I’m not. Broadcast, same channel, all the volume my suit can give me. “Say again, over?”

“Was hoping I imagined that,” grates Judge Magnus’ voice. I see him turn his vox’s amplifier up all the way. “Imperial contact, this is Scale. Vox-signal unclear, say again, over.”

The far end has clearly done its best. My vox’s little spirit thinks it’s found the odd word under the hiss and crackle and amplifies it for me. “Scale, this is… name of the holy ordos of the Emperor’s Inquisition… and require your… one point one… say again… hive coordinates one point one by three hundred forty two by eight.”

A pause that’s a little longer and more reflective than is strictly comfortable.

“Carnelian,” the Judge says, and I can hear the growl in his voice even through the vox connection. “Aqua. Agate. Pink. Meet me on band gamma.”

I swap the vox over. “So,” I hear Magnus saying. “What do we reckon?”

“The location,” sends Pink. Her voice sounds exactly the same over the vox as it does face to face. “It is believable. A hive-bulwark one and a half thousand yards down the main boulevard. A likely place to become trapped if one does not have applicable caste-credentials, or if power is lacking to the gates. As to what the message said, such is not for the likes of me to understand.

“What I understand,” says Carnelian slowly, “was that we just heard a very big claim over a very poor connection.”

“What I just heard was nothing.” I can see General Rorkel glaring pointedly at the lower-ranking outhiver. “No sideband, no authent on that. The Imperium uses authentication codes for a reason.”

“Could be a handset. Could be a vox-bead without its base. Could just be being jinxed.” Carnelian shakes his head. “Thousand reasons a poor connection doesn’t have authent, milord general.”

“Sister,” drawls Magnus. “Your Order’s the closest thing to experts on the big I. Can you remind for us who’s on the hook if the holy ordos of the Inquisition call and we fail to listen? Legally speaking?”

“Well, you are.” The response is automatic – this tired, I could hardly stop the answer even if I wanted to. Sleep-taught words bubble up from my subconscious unbidden. “The voice of the Inquisition shall be as that of the Emperor, and blessed are they that hear it, for it is ordained that they shall see salvation: thus it is written.”

“But we didn’t bloody hear the Inquisition,” says Rorkel. “What I heard was some oik who stole a hand-vox. They know we’re loyal servants of the Throne so they conjure with the Emperor’s name.”

“General,” I find myself saying calmly. “Do you consider that your theory should make us less likely to respond?”

“I’m telling you that you are listening to the bait in a damned trap.” He strides to the edge of the turbo so he can look down at me, look me in the eye to talk to me. “Sister, we have very nearly got away with taking what was a pretty major tactical risk. You want to throw that away on the strength of an obvious fabrication?”

No. No I don’t. The Inquisition – they were there when all this started. They’ll turn around and name me heretic. At the very least they will call out the blasphemy I committed with the holy weapon I’ve got strapped to my power-backpack. They will judge me and I know that I will be found wanting – but – but are we in holy orders or are we not? I literally just quoted the Lex Sororitas on the subject. (And now I look like I’m giving a cold silent unimpressed stare to a lord general.)

Magnus gave me space to say something and now I haven’t taken it. “Carnelian, detach a section, go with ’em.” Okay. Yes. What I just did was a great deal like volunteering. “Advance to vox contact and assess. Try and pin some sanity on it, will you?”

“Good luck with that.” Rorkel shoots a final glare down at me like I’m doing this on purpose to spite him. “Pink, you’ll enquire of Esquire Fayett about dropping this lift a few feet while they’re away. My life company can’t be expected to play stevedore.”

“No task is onerous in the service of the Throne, no burden is great.” I can pretend I’m talking to my sisters as I make the aquila, just happen to point it at the general. “Should my master require that I sing sweetly in His adoration, that I bear the flame against His foe, or that I should pick up the smallest stone from the road before Him lest His path not be sure, this I shall do, for my vow is obedience.” Reciting from sleep-learning is more like saying learned lines than reading from a book. “Thus it is written. So say we all.”

The general has the sense not to say anything uncomplimentary till we’re out of earshot.

++++

Baelis Tertius hive is shaped somewhere between a cylinder and a cone and a heap of scrap, two point one billion humans cradled in a single structure that stretches all the way from the stratosphere to the measureless automated depths of the mines below. It is divided legally by levels and sectors, divided physically by the great hive-floors and bulwarks, united by the turbolifts, the airlanes and the roadway helices, and the great and baroque bulwark gates.

If the airlanes and helices did not stand forever open, downhive would suffocate on the byproducts of its own industry: if the bulwarks did not stand closed, uphive would be ravaged by an eternal tornado, and the voxnet and datasphere of the place would be mired by howling confusion. Such is the word of the tech-priests of the Guild of Transconductors and Toll-takers: and concerning the works of the Deus Mechanicus they name it blasphemy to lie.

The hive is another parent to all who live within, even to the Sisters who never knew the families of their birth: the hive provides warmth and air freely to its children, and the hive’s great conduit-veins are tapped for the water and power that sustain us. And taps may fail: but the Hive’s own infrastructure does not, will not, cannot. The air will never run out. The hive-levels would be cold without their people, but they would never have the chill of Outside, where acid-of-chalk condenses and falls as dirty snow. A tap may fuse or fail, plunging a sector into grim sodium-lit gloom (vide: gloom, grim, sodium-lit, for exhausted Sisters to pick their way through) but the infrastructure of the Hive itself never shall fail. Such is the word of the tech-priests of the Guild of Appropriators and Lamplighters: and-

“Agate, Carnelian.”

The vox is part of my suit, an extra sense, an appendage I didn’t know I had until I put it on. Just lucky it’s part of the back-unit, not the helmet: the wires that let me commune with it are plugged into a pair of nerve-taps either side of the top of my spine, and I can feel their quiet cold presence with every motion of my trapezius muscles. Its use is learned, for you can’t sleep-teach reflexes. I receive the sense of a whole lot of information together with what’s being said, on what channel (alpha, usually used for short-range inter-squad comms) and what it sounds like, but I have no idea what half of the information actually is. All that’s in the Lex is that The sister-novitiate shall receive diligent instruction upon all aspects of the equipment and arms of a sister-ordinary until these are mastered, which competence to include (skip a bit) vox-operation to the standard of a deacon-minor of Mars or equivalent – Wait, Carnelian was talking – “Say again, Carnelian.”

He doesn’t have a synth. The vox transmits his frustration just fine. “The gate, Sister, closed. Even the little ped-gate. Sure hope you don’t think I have a relevant caste-code. I’m an outhab, recall?”

“Opening the gate at least shouldn’t be a problem.” Assuming it bucks the trend of all the other tech around here and isn’t jinxed. “How’s your vox contact? I have nothing.”

“Same, Sister.” you don’t need to correct him Sister is valid for a novice from a layperson it’s a term of respect “My guess is the bulwark’s killing the signal entirely.”

“Well,” I say, and the synth takes the exhaustion straight back out of my voice, “I guess we’ll find out if this is a trap, then. If it is, we’ll be dependent on your covering fire.”

“And we on your strength, mamzel. Emperor protects.”

I’m nobody’s mamzel – “In whose name we serve.”

The gate’s properly powered, of course: unlike most of the rest of the architecture around here, it’s part of the hive itself. Soprano and second alto have the door, the little ped-gate on the left hand side. First alto have the controls. The unarmoured Carnelian and his troops are a hundred yards back in the cover of a shopfront. The pad asks Sister Gyllen for an authent – she puts her right hand on it, and the override works perfectly as the quill and scroll appear on all the monitors. (The quill and scroll, the symbol of the Saint that I’m not thinking of. The one to whose name we gave our oath of loyalty. The one in whose name our popular young teacher sang contagious beautiful blasphemy and then that Inquisitor literally crushed her in the name of the Emperor. That Saint?) Stop it, Ellayn, whose side are you on? (That’s rather the question?)

I squeeze my eyes shut tight, open them again. Vox. Try and sound professional. “Be ready for anything. Gyllen, give us the count.”

Fingercode. Three. Two. One. The ped-gate snicks open like a knife. Light the far side, far too bright after the gloom of the last mile. Noise, physical and vox both. Gunfire. Shouting. Not isolated voices: the overlap of thousands into a snarl of homogeneous fury, the mob as insensate beast. Riot. I open my mouth to warn Carnelian. Twenty people don’t stop a riot like that: they run from it…

 “…I say again, Scale, pinned down in toll-post by hive-bulwark north-northwest eight, require immediate repeat immediate reinforce and exfil.” The voice on the vox is distorted, a man yelling at a hand-vox. Abruptly he swaps language into Low Gothic, with a heavy foreign accent.“Damn your eyes, Judge, this is Interrogator Gennid, and by the rosette I hold and the authority of the holy ordos whence it came I am giving you a direct-” Glass breaking the far side, the whoosh of flames and he cuts off with an incoherent yell.

It’s bright in there, and there’s the hot oily stink of promethium flames. I meet Porsia’s eyes across the open door and there’s nothing for it: we move.

It’s so bright. Dazzled. Keep moving. Few moments to make sense of the scene – few moments while the mob work out who the hell we are. Probable that their confusion saves us: don’t ask Providence why, just accept it. So much fire. To our left a building, the toll-post, and it’s got burning promethium all over it. Straight ahead, more fire. Just like one of our training exercises, a proper wall of fire and smoke like a flamer sets up. To the right, and beyond the flames, the riot. A proper hive-mob this is, a terrifying thing, but a mob fears fire. I can see them with insulation chunks and broken bits of furniture to throw and the odd gun half-levelled. What provoked all this? The interrogator? I see a man raising a bottle, a flame dancing on its lip –

The snap-crack of a lasgun: Porsia’s taken a decision. She fires from the hip, and the bottle falls and there’s that same sound of broken glass and fire blooms. The baying of the mob takes on a more urgent tone – suddenly people coming at us – it’s memory that takes over more than anything else, it’s the barricade again. Five of us are through this door now, and at this range it’s impossible to miss. There’s no trigger, just a touch-plate, and no recoil, and the sound of the gun at full-automatic is a high flat echoing stammer –

there weren’t that many of them, not this side of that sudden billow of impassable flame, but they’re throwing things at us now. . Our guns fall silent. A heavy chunk of insulation bounces off my pauldron. I reach for the vox-channel that spoke to me, make myself as clear as I can. “Interrogator Gennid, this is Agate speaking for Scale. We’re holding the ped-gate for you. Exfil at your convenience, over.”

The response isn’t coherent. He’s yelling at the vox and it can’t compensate, can’t hear him properly. At least he can’t be dead if he’s yelling and coughing like that. There’s smoke coming out of the toll-post windows now. Damn it all. “Rakil, with me!” And I go for the toll-post door. If we had helmets this wouldn’t have bothered us in the slightest – fire is our ally, sanctitas in ignis – but I don’t think the people who wrote the prayers had imagined we’d be trying to go into a solid wall of smoke and flame without our damned helmets on. Deep hyperventilating breaths, in, out, in, out, in, hold – and go. Trust my suit systems to get the hint, to give me a few extra moments. Instantly my eyes are burning.

Door’s only thin – I punch through it and tear it skittering away with what feels like a flick of the wrist. Thick black smoke boiling out. Hot, unbelievably burning hot on my face. There are flames inside, but not everywhere: the firebomb must have burst as it broke the window. A shape in the smoke that’s about the right size for a man, more humanoid shapes huddled on the floor not moving, some of them on fire. The suit is dumping oxygen into my blood to keep me functional, it feels like an immense rush of power but if I don’t start breathing again pretty damned soon then I’ll collapse. No time for subtlety – he struggles weakly as we grab him but I don’t feel anything break. Drag him bodily out the door and sling him into my sisters’ waiting arms through the flames, mostly blind here, eyes streaming. I can hear the people yelling but the fire’s keeping them back.

Roaring in my ears. We only ever did this the once in training – emergency drill for helmet failure, yeah, my helmet’s principal failure is being a mile away – breathe out as hard as I can, everything goes grey and it feels like all the blood has rushed out of my head and I gasp for air like I was drowning and it tastes of foul oily smoke. My actual hair is smouldering.

Can’t breathe. Can’t see. Can hardly walk. My sisters are passing Rakil and me and our prize – Throne, let this actually be the interrogator, not his bodyguard or something stupid – almost from hand to hand back through the door. The flame won’t last much longer without a flamer to lay more down. A chunk of something hard bounces off my armour – they never stopped throwing things, and I realise my sisters are firing back. Come on, girl – I have to lock my armour to stop a coughing fit throwing me to my knees – focus, damn you. These people are relying on you.

It’s dark where I am now. The probably-interrogator is on his knees coughing his guts out but he’s alive. He’s smaller than he looked in the smoke. Two of us are still holding the gate: I cue the vox. “Agate, all through?” Acknowledgements. “Okay, Gyllen, close it up.”

Pause.

“Don’t tell me.”

“Uh-huh.” I guess that what I can hear is the sound of my sister very carefully restraining herself from committing any kind of percussive blasphemy against the Deus Mechanicus. “Ellayn, I can’t read this display. Either it’s jinxed, or I didn’t tell it to do what I thought I did, or-“

“Can you get it closed?”

“Nnnn-not soon.”

Time to curse and swear later. I set my vox so that Carnelian can hear me, and maybe Judge Magnus too. “Okay, people, that ped-gate’s not closing.” I cough. It hurts. The vox doesn’t betray my weakness. “First sop, you have the interrogator, get him into the lift, carry him if you must: go. Rest of us-” cough- “Fall back by sections. Second sop, we’re last out. Move.”

There I go volunteering my people again. What about Rakil? She’s coughing too, and I just volunteered her for last out. Niwall’s missing a glove. Keyt can’t run properly with her knee. We take over at the door anyway. The flames aren’t so high any more. Someone rakes us with a stuttering autogun, hard rounds pinging harmlessly off our armour, and I put a shot just below the muzzle flash and it stops.

“Carnelian, overwatch. Agate, clear to pull back.” The man’s battle-language is as clear and precise as an instructor’s. You never know, maybe he is one.

“That fire’s dying, people.” We move, together, going at Keyt’s speed. That used to be a food vendor; it’ll do as cover. “Rioters the far side, guessing they’re going to come for us like in the turbo.”

“Clarification, milady.” Perhaps it’s because he’s a foreigner. Perhaps it’s his way of staying sane. Perhaps it’s because of what he thinks we are. Whatever. “Please confirm.” Carnelian’s doing it all by the book as if everything hadn’t gone to hell, as if those people could have been citizens we’d sworn to protect. “The rioters. Are they condemned?”

Yeah. I was trying to avoid the thought, but here it is: That’s not a normal riot. Just look at them. Dressed up for the festival, all different walks of life – and their instant, concerted, directed fury, when yesterday the very sight of us would have had them bowing and scraping – and the way they were looking at the fire. Literally standing before a wall of fire with certain death the other side, and only not coming for us because they can’t quite physically make it through the flames. They are not behaving like real people any more and that makes it okay when I say “Confirm, Carnelian, weapons free.” I swallow hard and don’t stop moving. The words I need are right there in the Lex. “Servants of the Throne, attend: I do hold these people condemned for heresy in the sight of the Throne, not least among their crimes assault upon the person of-”

The las-shots are so close to simultaneous that the weapons speak with one voice. “Witnessed. Incoming heretics.”

It’s like a shooting range. Perfect marksmanship conditions, targets silhouetted, and I bet Carnelian’s people have their las-sights on straight. That first heretic was testing just how hard the flames were: they try to come through as a group, a tide, a flood – into Carnelian’s disciplined fire. We’re thinking the same thing. If we let them mass we’ll be swarmed. In my armour I can outrun a mob. Can Keyt, with her injury? Can Carnelian, seemingly fit, but that’s a mile for him to sprint?

The first press of them goes down like they’d just decided that the door was a decent enough place to lie down. We get ourselves into cover, line up our sights. Luminators off, they’ll just point us out for no reason. Just pray that nine slightly inexpert guns can take over for twelve troopers who know what they’re doing. There’s a lull. “Agate, overwatch. Carnelian, when ready.”

And the troopers move. One half, peeling off and staying low, back fifty yards, down, re-address and the other half go. It’s going to be a bloody long mile, is all I can say.

They try their luck again. The lasrifle is almost too easy to control in autofire, stitching little white circles of plasma flash up and over the luckless enemy – how did we decide these ones were bad guys, again? They were trying to kill a servant of the Inquisition? –

“Carnelian, overwatch.” I spent sixty or so rounds there. The altos fall back. Say we’re bounding a hundred yards each time. Say every bound is like this one. We move, again visibly slower than the others because of Keyt’s limp. What’s fifteen times sixty, relative to my ammunition counter, currently reading 837?

There, behind those buttresses. Less of a stable surface for aiming, and nearly double the range, but it’ll do. “Agate, overwatch.”

Human-size target, silhouetted, hundred and fifty yards – not a problem. It’ll be more of a problem at five hundred, if the enemy are still coming. It would be completely irrational to still be coming. Heretics: not known for reason. Doctrine recommends heavy weapons, here – fill the door with flame, or have the heavy gunner fall back a thousand yards and cover us. Doctrine tells us our fire is accurate at a thousand yards with targeters, auto-senses, bolt rounds we don’t have. A bolter hits harder, actually at a thousand yards than point-blank. Doctrine has a number of things to say about this bloody situation. Doctrine can shut the fuck up. I’m drifting again. Focus, dammit.

That noise we hear as we take the next bound, high and abrasive. I’ve heard it before, can’t place it. Can’t place it as we get into cover, as we get set up to take over –

It screams through the gate like a fireball, trailing flame and smoke, luminators blazing like a pair of burning white eyes. Eight feet long, no higher than a person – wheels

It’s a wheelbike. Aristoi use them. Long low things, big engine for ostentation, flywheel gyro to keep it stable at walking pace or slower in a crowd. Tyres a foot and a half wide – never seen one with the front wheel lifting off the ground before.

It draws fire from twenty lasrifles. The things aren’t exactly armoured and it’s not trying to jink – it’s aiming for the winking red eye of Carnelian’s las-sights – no clue, no idea what broke as it skids, falls, tumbles. Adrenaline. By the Emperor’s grace we can kill even these.

People coming through in its wake, finding cover. I yell to Agate to readdress even as I’m bringing up my own weapon – full of afterimages, I can’t see muzzle-flashes in the dark, but it’s not like we’re any easier to see. The heretics will be blinded in the gloom.

Didn’t think there was just one bike, did I? “Agate, overwatch!” I call into the vox, making myself shoot for the gate and not for the bike screaming through or the one after it, trusting in my older sisters to hit the faster-moving targets. Their aim is so much better than mine. One of the riders suddenly slumps and the bike slews to one side and crashes hard. The other one, the fuel tank’s trailing fire, it’s just riding straight at the troopers full pelt – I look past and keep shooting – there are too many coming through now. “We’ve lost the gate.” The synth makes me sound calm.

The next thing I hear is a bone-chilling slam from somewhere behind me. Carnelian yelling at one of his troopers to get her ass up and move. The bike’s engine howling, the tyres screaming as the rider throws it into a turn. Fuck knows how they stayed on. More of them inbound. I swap my aim. The bikes are the threat now.

“Alto, overwatch!” That’s Gyllen on the vox. “Ellayn, we can’t just hold here!”

“Copy! Second sop, let’s go!” A final burst almost from the hip, and the newest bike flips backwards as the dying rider’s hand clutches convulsively on the throttle. “Keyt, can you pick up the pace?”

“Let’s see,” she growls. Turns and sets off at a proper run, quick as you like – nothing wrong with her armour at least, but that’s got to be hurting like hell. Rakil and I fall in beside her, the armour nudging our long strides into step with each other – running when the armour’s doing all the work is the strangest feeling –

“Sisters, you’ve got incoming!” Carnelian yells: I whirl, and it’s almost on top of us. Intellectually I know that bike’s only eight feet long and the rider’s head is actually lower than mine, but the sound and the burning eyes of its luminators tell me a different story, tell me it’s massive and terrifying and predatory and after me

I go for it. Don’t ask me why. The thing’s coming straight at me: fine, good for it. No time to point the gun. I only have a single instant – I punch forward, willing my mag-boots into solid immobility –

It hits me like a mountain falling. The Emperor granted me this armour and it does exactly what I wanted it to, but my mortal human flesh isn’t so strong – the air goes out of my lungs and a fresh new blaze of pain ignites in the base of my neck and I see stars – the world turns on its side – I’m vaguely aware that I’ve grabbed that rider by the neck and slammed him physically down onto the ground as the bike goes spinning away, and he’s no longer all in one piece any more and fresh blood is dripping off my nose and the point of my chin and none of it is mine. I look up at the enemy and there’s another one coming, I can hear the engines screaming, and between me and the armour’s own reflexes I’m standing up and facing them.

Can’t outrun them, that’s all that’s going through my head. Got to kill them. So I stand there in the light of their burning eyes. Not running. Not prey. Not cowering. Not even at bay. Come on, you bastards. I yell that, or something like. Perhaps I used words. Definitely I put full suit volume into it. Maybe they can hear it over their engines.

Made myself a target. Makes no sense. But when exactly did this all start making sense? They come for me for the same reason I come for them: because they must. There are two bikes, racing one another to get to me. They can see me just fine but all I can see is their blinding luminators. They have no idea what I can do. Feeling’s mutual. I spread my hands, I look them in their burning eyes. Come on, then. Why don’t we find out?

And the time is right. Abruptly I step towards the first one, straight into the light – and just as I’m gritting my teeth a hideous shattering impact catches us both off balance. The rider had had the gyro turned all the way up to let him lean right out of the saddle, swinging a bat at where I’m suddenly not: his head hits me in the chest at a good thirty miles an hour –

Falling! When the world assembles itself back together I’m falling backwards, far too late to stop. No time to think that the fall could smash me just as easily as the impact broke him. Reflex, reflex I’m supposed to be training myself out of, flings out my hand – too late –

The maglock on my hand activates very briefly as a terrifying shock runs up my arm and across my shoulders (my stance, my stance was poor, that’s why I fell). The world is upside down and I’m still moving, tumbling, rolling, I feel the armour flex my arm and just flick and suddenly my boots strike sparks from the floor, skid for an instant before my reeling mind can tell them I want to stand still, straightening from the crouch like I do one-handed cartwheels every day. I’m guessing that looked really damned impressive if you thought for one instant that I meant to do that. I’m still trying to work out which way is up.

And the other bike screams past. I failed to stop it, it’ll be after my sisters now – I turn, pulling the lasrifle, perhaps I can shoot it –

Remember that other bike? The one that hit Carnelian?

As I turn around there’s an instant of blinding light and the sound of a screaming engine, my joints lock as something hits me once again in the sternum with crushing force. And once again that thing shatters. I think this was a sledgehammer. I scream at them, wordless, pain and hate and shock, and my suit’s breach alarms are confidently silent. The flesh may be weak: the Emperor’s gift is not.

Don’t turn. Don’t turn around. Stay on target. This one’s turning, it’s not after my sisters, it’s after me. Somehow the lasrifle is not in my hands: I cue its maglock and it’s very like simply wishing it into place. (There’s a massive dent in the casing, the shape of my armoured hip.)

Emperor bless and guide this holy weapon in the hands of your servant, let it not fail or jam – I raise it to my shoulder as best I can, touch the trigger-plate and by His grace it works. I meant to put a stuttering five-shot burst just above those lights. The weapon wanted to hose the bike down with twenty, thirty shots – still firing for a good half a second after I take my finger off the trigger, watching the shot counter tick down. It’s still coming. At the last second I sidestep, involuntarily closing my eyes and gritting my teeth against another impact –

Nothing. I realise the bike has no rider, its gyro keeping it on course, but I’ve killed the heretic on top. One left. I can hear it coming. I can hear it making a target of my back. Learned my lesson: don’t turn to meet it. Duck down as it comes on, bow my head, pray the rider doesn’t have anything armour-defeating, tell my suit to stick me to the ferrocrete floor just as hard as it can.

This fourth impact hardly hurts at all, stars exploding behind my eyes, my neck screams, but the glacis of my back-unit does its job and the blow glances. Bring up the rifle, the back of the bike is a perfect target even as the rider throws it into a turn. Finger on the touchplate, follow the screaming bike around with the recoilless laser, just walking the bright white circles of plasma-flash up until the bike suddenly collapses and tumbles.

Stand up, panting. Look around. Hurts to move my head. More of them? No? Dimly I hear someone calling my name on the vox. I think they’re saying come on, pull back. Feels like someone has their hands round my neck and is squeezing firmly. I’m supposed to – I’m supposed to be in charge, I’m supposed to be telling my sisters what’s going on – I don’t know, I don’t fucking know myself. Roaring in my ears. Where are my sisters? Away from the mob, away from the light.

Channel alpha says that Carnelian’s breaking for the lift now. Good, that’s good. I can’t see my sisters in this gloom, the armour of a novice is nearly all black except the surplices we ditched, and our luminators are off. I keep up the pace of the run, let the suit guide me. First alto report they’re going for the station door and that’s good too. I see the door. Second alto move next. I think someone tells me I’m last out. Where are the other second sops? Keyt and Niwall? They’re my responsibility but the altos wouldn’t have left them behind. Right?

No, there they are. Holding the door for me. I hand-sign to Keyt to get moving and I take her place – she’s limping worse than she was, her armour has all but locked her knee again. The crowd, the heretics, the mob, they’re coming. I can’t have been more than a few hundred yards ahead of them.

Not much point shooting. We can’t stop them – I mean, my calm little red ammunition counter says I have 544 rounds remaining, Niwall’s likely got about the same, we’ve probably got as many shots as there are people in that mob, but they’re hardly just lining up all nicely well-lit to be shot. And we can’t scare them, not if they’ve got this far under heavier fire. I sign to Niwall to move and I think that what she just said was not without me.

Fuck it.

We go. It’s good that Niwall’s going in a straight line so my armour keeps me going the right way. There’s a six foot step to go up. She’s missing a glove (I did that, didn’t I?) so she goes up first, I boost her and Porsia grabs her hand. Then they reach down, mag-locks make our grip perfect, up I come. My neck is hurting so much that my head is spinning. The floor lurches – can’t process what is going on.

That ping is a vital-sign alarm. Blood pressure?

++++

eight

In Light, Chapter Five

Up

Four

++++

Okay, so this is incongruous. 

This place is carpeted with refugees, just collapsed on the floor in little knots, most of them, a sea of human wretchedness, and then right in the middle of them we’ve got the Judge calling a staff meeting. Five of us sat around an ornate little caff-table, blood-soaked, battle-armed, perched on these plush little purple comfort-couches made for the aristoi. The turbolift itself is projecting a polite little privacy field for us, a nice quiet pocket of air-conditioned tranquility and literally soft music. Is this how the aristoi live? How does anyone stand so much… softness? It doesn’t feel real to me, it’s like some sort of hallucination.

The Judge was last to arrive: he clears his throat. “So, then. Esquire Fayett says we should have half an hour before the next stop, so we’ve a little time to introduce ourselves and brief. I’m Piter Magnus, Judge, Adeptus Arbites, you’ll have heard of me. I’m claimin’ tactical command here, due to the irretrievable breakdown of law ‘n order we all pulled our butts out of up there, vi Solii Terrarum, by the power vested in me and all that good stuff. My voxnomen is Scale.” He nods to the man to his left.

The man’s armour is a latter-day knockoff of the work of storied Mars, not a patch on ours, but for a mere soldier it’s really first class gear. Nothing but the best for a man of such rank, I suppose. I’m still looking down on him – literally, he’s the shortest adult male I’ve met. All the adjustables are set to their absolute shortest to fit him in: from the way I saw him run earlier, his hips and shoulders still aren’t quite where the armour wants them. It’s got to be torture. (But at least he’s got a damn helmet. Even if it isn’t gas-tight.) “Rorkel,” he says. “General, Baelis Hive Tertius planetary defence, and what’s left of my life company is on voxnomen, ah, Aqua. I acknowledge your authority as I acknowledge the Throne it springs from, and do cede you tactical command at this time, your honour. I’d say my people stood ready to obey, but, ah.” His armour tries to make a ridiculous little shuffle as he shifts uneasily. “I’m fairly sure I saw a few of ’em in that crowd upstairs.”

We’re carrying around clockwise. This man’s in iridescent crimson with gold braid, a ridiculous short little jacket with gold buttons and epaulettes, peaked cap and what this morning must have been an actual cape. Tall enough to look me in the eye, and he’s not wearing massive boots like mine. Oddly musical accent. “Topher, captain, Baelis planetary defence.” He clears his throat with an apologetic glance to the general. “Hive Quartus planetary defence. On voxnomen Carnelian. We were honour guard to the Quartus delegation, I’m not even from this -” A wince as he realises how that sounds – “But we’re yours, your honour, to the last breath, me and my forty. We’ve spent blood keeping aristoi of Tertius alive and we don’t plan on quitting now.”

The next one looks like an aristo maiden to a first glance- long skirts, perfect skin, big dark innocent-looking eyes, long black hair scraped back – but the illusion ends at the tattered remains of elbow-length opera gloves, the synflesh abraded back from her hands revealing claws of metal. Never seen augmetic work so delicate. She opens her mouth and an augmetic voicebox speaks for her, a calmly perfect voice issuing from her unmoving lips. “House Omber is representative for those fortunates you are in the process of rescuing, and is supplying command and control services to their houseguard and militia: I am their representative, captain of Omber houseguard, name and voxnomen Pink.”

And then it’s me. Six foot four in glossy black armour, bare-headed, sharp-faced, ice-blonde under the grime, the burns on my forehead and my nose still shiny under a coat of seal-and-heal. As I say, Sisters don’t always show their age – they couldn’t tell if I was seventeen or seventy.

These are nobility I’m talking to, all of them: precedence is their life, and this is a little like a hand of cards. Military beats civilian, general beats captain, even though they come from units so different they’re basically in different armies. But there are special rules, too: a Judge of the Arbitrators outranks nearly anyone if and only if there is an insurgency – and he just said there was one, and everyone else agreed. But then there’s me, and their eyes are all asking me if I think I fit in that ‘nearly’. Even if they can’t tell I’m a novice, I didn’t automatically speak first, I haven’t been acting like I was in charge – but I’m a member of a senior service, to the extent that it’s probably an actual crime for the Judge to try to give me an order.

I make the sign of the aquila, thumbs locked, fingers spread, and my armour lends a professional snap to the salute. “Ellayn, leading squad Agate, Order of St. Ursula.” Gulp. “Judge Magnus, as per our conversation earlier, I hear your assessment and concur.”

And let’s not forget that there is the very slight edge of fear in all of their eyes. After all, they saw me singing on that stage, saw words I didn’t know and can’t remember bubbling up out of my mouth till my throat was bleeding. They all saw what my sister-superior became. Maybe they saw me shoot at that inquisitor. But they saw us fight on their side, too. Saw us stand up and wield the Emperor’s wrath in their defence. Saw us fighting when the heretics got over the barricade. Saw what we could do. Only a fool wouldn’t be scared of us.

Their eyes are asking me to tell them that it’s all right. That somehow all that stuff about what I did in the cathedral was a misunderstanding and a hallucination. That the killing angel they see in front of them is their ally and their defender and their guardian and at least please Throne on their side?

For my part? Deep breath, face like carved stone. Maybe if we pretend, if we pretend really hard that we are what we haven’t quite said we are – maybe that’s who we were all along. Maybe I dreamed everything before the battle, maybe I made it all up. I clear my throat and the armour’s synth just flatly blanks the sound, quietly erases that little trace of humanity from my voice. Angels don’t do that, it’s telling me. “I offer you all any assistance my twelve able-bodied sisters and I can still extend.” It makes me sound like I know what I’m doing.

And, well. The judge makes a convinced face, anyway. “Arright. So here’s the sermon. I’ve counted our numbers and they don’t look like a fightin’ unit. Eighty-three fighters all told, mostly miscellaneous light infantry, and we’re pretty much fresh out of ammunition other’n las-packs. Pink, you want to go ahead and remind us how many people we’re tryin’ to escort?”

The creepy lady opens her mouth. “Six hundred and forty civilian souls look to you, your honour.”

“Six hundred forty.” He lets that number sink in. “In other words, this ain’t an army so much as it’s a refugee convoy. We’ve shown we can defend the turbo – in fact, we’re better off now than we were, because I’m pleased to report that Esquire Fayett got those doors workin’. But there’s no way we’re riding out this storm stuck on the slow lift to level Nowhere.” A shrug. “Lucky for us, then, that we do at least have a plan. My organisation’s planetary precinct is on hive-level two-oh-eight, north of spire fifteen miles – Nominal ground level, near the hivewall, not far from the Hive Primus railhead. Place is a genuine fortress, built to handle somethin’ like, Emperor forbid, your whole spire turns traitor. Big guns, walls, defenders, astropath, whole nine yards, and it’s founded on one of the hive-spine’s support spars, better’n bedrock. My codes will open that door, and you’re all hereby invited. All we need to do is get there.”

“To fifteen north two-hundred-eight, from damn near spire summit.” General Rorkel’s bushy eyebrows go up. “Seven miles vertically, fourteen horizontally. With no vehicles, eighty troops, north of half a thousand civvies, across a hive that could very well be falling into insurrection. And we’re going into this with pretty much no supplies at all?”

Magnus’ moustache twitches in what might be a smile. “You heard me. Clearly we need ammo, provisions, weapons for a miltia, ideally vehicles, or the odds of making it ain’t good. Now the milit’ry supply depots are all in downhive, but there are justice precincts every few levels even up here. Place I’m thinking of is two miles nor-by-nor’west of spire on level eight, a response base full of transport and relief gear. I voxed it about ten seconds after trouble first showed, but by then all long range comms were dead – still it’s our closest shot at supplies, and that’s where we’ve got the turbo goin’. Arms, meds, food, fuel, the works. Never know, might even have reinforcements. If that cupboard’s bare, there’s half a dozen others we can go after: just drop a few levels on the turbo, send a scouting party, move on till we get what we need. Then once we’re tooled up we drop down to level two hundred, low as the turbolifts go, follow descent spiral nor’-nor’west two down to nominal ground, then it’s a straight transitway to the precinct.”

“Just like that.” The general shakes his head gently. “I suppose we’ll see how far that debacle up there matches the rest of the hive. Might have cause to regret a fourteen-mile ruck down what’ll pretty much look like one big shooting gallery to any fool with a lasgun.”

The person I look like would speak up. The synth is underlaying my voice with subtle harmonics, mostly like it’s adding a lifetime’s worth of command experience. “Do you see an alternative, general?”

He makes a face. “Offroad takes us into a maze of smaller streets. Not likely to get lost, we have good maps, but you lose any advantage from vehicles and it’s perfect ambush ground. We’re better off taking our chances on the transitway. Just, well. Not exactly a milk run.”

“Well, then,” I say, and the Judge gives me the tiniest of nods. “Agate volunteers for scouting those justice precincts: we’re best set up to deal with any surprises.” Belatedly realise that no, Ellayn, you don’t have that calm little blue map-overlay in the top right of your vision – “We’ll, uh, need a guide.”

“I’ll send a couple of mine,” says Magnus. “Be kind to ’em, sister, they can’t run like you can. Meanwhile, from everyone I’ll want a stocktake: be prepared to share any surplus of materiel.” Such nice words for looting the corpses of your own comrades. “General, you’ve got a proper quartermaster? They’re now in charge of our stores. When the sisters find us our depot, I want them holdin’ a wishlist all ready to go. Meanwhile. Anyone in anythin’ close to armour, I want ’em armed best we can, and we’ll worry about sortin’ out all the tech-rites just as soon as someone finds me a damn cogpriest. Any further questions?”

“A request, your honour.” It’s Pink. “The houseguard and bodyguards of our… clients.” She tilts her head, deliberately inhuman. “Two of the three Houses have petitioned for their release from collective militia duty, and the leadership of House Omber requests I acquire that permission.”

The judge scowls. “Has someone perhaps neglected to inform your clients that there is a damn war on?”

“Certainly not, your honour, and that is not-”

“Then you may have it conveyed to them, with my respects, that our numbers are tight enough as it is without providing individual bodyguards to specific pompadoured fucking nobility.”

She nods, tightly, in the way I’ve seen outsiders do to Sisters giving them orders they don’t understand. “I must admit to confusion, though, my lord. I was under the perhaps mistaken impression that you wished our clients to arrive at the precinct alive?” She doesn’t wait for an answer. “Because, sir, on the word of House Omber and my own decades as just such a bodyguard to all manner of specific pompadoured nobility, sir, if we just up and leave three houses’ worth of posh bastards to sit there and play with their dicks without their minders, then the moment they get bored they shall start to murder each other.” The cheery cut-glass accent of the synth makes the coarse language stand out like a siren. “With paper cups and their own fingernails if we take away their toys.”

Sigh. “Throne on Earth, give me strength. This is a real danger, is it?”

“Clear and present, my lord.” She bobs a disturbing little curtsey. “The word ‘civilian’ is chosen over ‘noncombatant’ advisedly: the dueling culture of uphive is extensive. Normally, they are carefully seated and insulated from those with… differing opinions. But today?” She gives a slightly despairing shrug of the shoulders. “Consider them akin, my lord, to well-dressed gangers with nothing to do but squabble.”

The Judge growls. “Arright. Disperse the damn irregulars, at least till we’re expectin’ threat. Got any rule-breakers yet?”

The cyborg raises an eyebrow so neatly you could almost hear it click. “We… do, yes. Nothing my remaining houseguards cannot-”

“Uh-uh.” The man’s moustache bristles. “Those crimes were committed on my shift, and I do believe I lit’rally read you all the riot act just now?” He laces his fingers together and stretches his hands, to an impressive array of cracks that at first had me wondering if his gloves were damaged. “Dismissed, all.” He keys his vox set with a button on his ornate lapel. “This is Scale. Enforcement team on me. Let’s go raise some morale.”

I return to my unit. I have sisters to see to.

++++

I clasp the hands of Verien’s suit together in the aquila. “To rest I commend this soul.” This is a lesson none of us had reached yet, but it’s there in the Lex Sororitas, the Rule we were sleep-taught. “Pro famulam mortuam tuam Verien oramus: requiem aeternam dona eam, Lux Praelucens, Solium Terrarum, Deus Imperator Hominum.” The words spill from my lips like I’m breathing them out. “Astronomici sequatur: et in curia tua maneat in aeternam.” I take a deep unsteady breath, trying not to smell, trying not to look at where her face ought to be. “Vale, soror: pro nobis noli lacrima. Mox videbis.

Vale soror. Mox videbis.” The choir echo the High Gothic words: farewell, sister. You’ll see us soon. And that makes five sisters dead. Keyt’s just mouthing the prayer, tears streaming down her face. There’s a soft harmonic chime from our fallen sister’s armour as it locks into a permanent rigidity.

The sleep-lesson tails off in a sucking void labelled ‘sermon’. I clear my throat. (Careful. People are earwigging, and not a few.) “Verien. Our fifth sister called home since this morning. She was always better than me with systems and rites, I – When I was thirteen and she was fourteen, she had the bunk above mine. We fought like sump-rats. Like sisters.” My voice catches in my throat, but the synth holds it steady. At least it picks up on my emotions and gives a sound that’s bleak like the angel of winter wind. “And she deserves better than this. They all do, our sisters deserve better than, than basement-quality field rites from a scant dozen of us in a corner of a malfunctioning lift, without even a cloth to cover her face, because all we’ve got is these damned rags.” My hand clutches at my tattered, stained purple surplice. We took Verien’s off: she’s not going before the Emperor with that symbol on her.

Breathe.

I look every one of my people in the eye, one by one, as I speak. “I… I’m not pleased with the price we got the Emperor for these lives. They’d have wanted them sold more dearly. They were worth more than this. So that sin is on us, now, all right? All of us, one-sixth part of every good deed: that’s for them, now, that’s for our sisters lost. Make them smile.” Force myself to unclench my fists. “In the Emperor’s name, for this sin and those unnamed, we shall atone. Porsia, if you’d lead us: Achaeas’ For the Angel Fallen.”

The piece is a trivial one for us. I chose it because it’s fairly short and the melody line’s something we’ll miss Verien in, but it’s also something we could practically sing in our sleep – the musical equivalent, if you like, of a half-arsed funeral in the corner of a malfunctioning turbo. It’s only as the elegy rises and weaves that I realise that all speech and movement in the lift is coming to a halt, a spreading pool of silence as people stop what they’re doing and turn to listen to us sending off our dead – that most people don’t live with this sort of music as their constant companion – and the second altos resolve the discord of the final measure into harmony, and the trooper who’s been politely waiting for us to finish is blinking back tears.

“Squad fall out,” I subvocalise, not wanting to break the spell, and they follow the order with the snap and precision their armour lends them. The turbo begins to fill once again with the sounds of people no longer holding their breath.

++++

So I guess it’s my job to meet the nice man and find out what he wants. The man must be seventy at least, liver-spotted, grey-haired and balding: he’s wearing his armour a little better than his boss. “Can I help you -” I look him over for anything that might be a rank tab – “Trooper?”

He clears his throat, tries to make out like he wasn’t just moved to tears. “Yes, mamzel.” (Okay – apparently I like ‘mamzel’ even less than ‘lady’. What do I look like, an aristo or something?) “Quartermaster said something about you being short on ammunition?”

“Bad news travels fast, it seems.” I nod, and through the pain-balms my neck reminds me that that hurts. “Please tell me someone has bolt rounds, seventy-five calibre?”

“Not hardly, mamzel. But if your Rule permits it, we might have something else?” He unslings the weapon he’s carrying. Longer in the body than ours, but shallower. “Aqua Company took, took casualties in that engagement, and we’re asked to redistribute as we can. Our lascarbines are adapted for use with armour, and the master-sarn’t, he thought you might make a better use of ’em than anyone else will, if it’s, uh.”

Better use. These people were the ones who couldn’t hit five men in a shooting gallery at fifty yards. Literally I’ve just performed the funeral of my sister who’d still be alive if not for –

Breathe. (If they’ve got a dozen lascarbines spare, girl, you’ve just sung the funeral of a dozen of their soldiers, and you literally just saw this man weeping for them, so you can button your damned lip.) A moment’s thought and I have a quote from the Rule. “If it appears that a thing is providence, what profit to she who says that it is not? Thus speaks Saint Dominica.” He clearly doesn’t understand – “That is to say, yes. The Emperor has moved you to offer us weaponry when our own is not available. We’ll accept your assistance and with our thanks.” Brief, terrible thought – “This, this is highly irregular, trooper, but – how do they, uh, how do they work?”

To his credit he doesn’t crack a smile. “Point and shoot, mamzel, no moving parts. Shot counter here. Touch this rune for safety, this for the las-sight, this for full versus semi auto: drag-zone here for power, put that at the top and leave it, this ain’t exactly the range.” Flips the gun over with a practiced near-mechanical movement: this demonstration is second nature to his suit, whether or not it is to him. “This rune is the trigger. This piece here’s the laspack. Rite of reloading: I-thank-you-for-the-Emperor’s-light-O-holy-weapon, the mag will ping, pull it off and stow it. Fresh mag against this plate, any laspack will do, Emperor-bless-and-guide-this-holy-weapon-hold-my-hand-steady-and-my-aim-true, take your hand off. If you’re worthy the mag sticks and you’re good.”

I nod. “How do I clear a jam?”

He shakes his head at that. “This is not a fancy weapon for people who get to argue with their fate. If it doesn’t shoot and there isn’t zero on the shot counter, the Emperor has chosen you to engage with the enemy hand-to-hand.” Abruptly realises who he thinks he’s talking to, goes a shade of pink- “Ah. Uh, sorry, mamzel, I don’t mean no-”

“You spoke no lie,” I say, and hopefully the look on my face is whatever he expects a blessed Sister to look like. “The Emperor often chooses such as me for that duty: and as odd as it may seem, we do not ‘get to argue with our fate’ either.”

The look in his eyes softens. I could be his granddaughter. “You lot don’t want to be here either, do you?”

“No.” I venture half a smile. The synth is still pretending that I’m a grizzled veteran with eternal youth. “How about we work together on getting out of this mess, then, trooper?”

He straightens. At least his suit is capable of proper military bearing. “Aye, mamzel.”

++++

The turbo groans, shudders, struggles, and a solid-feeling click shakes the floor. I hear the voice of Esquire Fayett chanting querulously to the tech-shrine’s unimpressed stare, and recorded voices singing a lackluster mechanical chorus of All Hail The Triumphant in answer. The great doors rasp, finally grinding to a halt with a five-yard gap: we’re front and centre, our borrowed rifles levelled. They feel like toys. (The calm red readout below the rear sight tells me I have 906 shots remaining in this pack at this power setting. The stock won’t butt nicely into the curve of my pauldron. I’m positive the las-sight is not pointing straight.)

Blackness, before us. Not even a floor. One brief moment of nameless panic goes by before I cue my suit’s luminators, and my sisters follow my lead. Floodlight from the left shoulder, stablight from the right, a bright beam that follows where the suit thinks my nose is pointed.

“Scale, Agate.” I’m using the open vox-band, mostly just reassuring everyone. “The station’s dark and empty.” I sweep my harsh yellow light over the great vaulted hall. It’s unnatural. I mean, I know this is uphive, a commercia level that’s probably not a permanent home to more than half a million, but to see any place so empty – I shudder. “No contact, friend or foe. Turbo halted about six feet short. Proceeding, over.”

“Well,” returns the judge wryly in plain Gothic, “at least it’s defensible. Carnelian, overwatch: Pink, have someone set up a luminator. Light guide you, Agate.”

“Emperor protects.” I give the hand-sign and we drop down into the cavernous echoing space. Six feet’s nothing to the suit, even without a helmet to hold your head steady: the altos drop down almost without breaking stride and fan out immediately. My section is the last down: I turn and offer a hand down to the Arbitrators who’ll be playing guide. Man and a woman, blue and gold dress armour. Name tags read BARTE and VINSEN. “So, constables. Which way?”

“Follow our lead,” says the woman, Barte. “The precinct fronts onto the far end of the North Commercia main concourse, there’s an entrance not far west of here.”

We move out. Outside the lift station the street-luminators are running on emergency mode, washing everything in a bilious high-efficiency yellow. I cue my autosenses by reflex at the change of lighting and it’s still like stubbing a toe when fuck-all happens.

“Empty. Abandoned.” Gyllen’s whisper floats over the vox.

“You sure, sister?” The synth doesn’t quite know what to do with the acerbic note in Isaby’s voice. “Not sure I could make that out, past all the nothing over here.”

“Creepy.” Niwall made me promise not to leave her behind with the injured, missing glove or no. “Emperor guide our steps in the dark places we must walk.”

“Emperor send me a damn helmet.” That was Manda: the chorus of acknowledging vox-clicks, on the other hand, that’s the whole rest of my damned squad. (The trick of making your vox send nothing but an electronic chirp is one of the first things we learn about them that wasn’t sleep-taught.)

“Enough,” I subvocalise. “I hear you, all right? We’re hurting, we’re pissed off, we’re creeped out, we’re half dead on our feet, and here we are out in the freezing cold lonely dark with these ridiculous toy guns because there’s no bastard on that damn lift who’s better off. We start snapping at one another, we start letting discipline slip, and we can kiss our chances of survival goodbye, and there’s most of a thousand people who only get out of this living if we do.” Manda can’t see me glare at her. “So we fucking hold. You want to know why we hold? Because this day, this very hour, I have claimed for us the name of Daughters of the Emperor. And I don’t give a shit whether you think I have any authority. But you say one word, do one single thing to make me doubt that claim I made, and before the Throne on Earth and upon this holy weapon I swear that I will send you to meet Him with my boot-print in your recusant arse, do I make myself clear?”

Vox-clicks. Silence. I let out a slow breath, get ready to hand-sign for travelling overwatch.

“Sister?” It’s Rowyn. Her voice sounds as small as the synth will let it. “It’s vespers.”

The burst of sudden, violent anger is too much. “As you fucking were,” I snarl, and I realise just a little bit too late that that without a helmet on, people hear you when you yell –

The arbitrators both duck and cover at the sudden loud noise. Barte glances around at me, and I’m not sure if the fear in her eyes is for our situation or for me. “Problem, Sister?”

“No.” My synth takes the venom in my voice and adds subsonics and volume to make it hit her in the gut. I take a breath, shake my head. Cue the vox, but speak out loud. “Proceed, sisters. Alto, you have Vinsen: soprano, we have Barte, travelling overwatch by section. Forget the big picture, focus on what we’re doing, take it like a drill.”

More vox-clicks. I ignore the side-eye I get from the arbitrator. We move out, and don’t look back.

++++

Six

In Light, Chapter Three

Up

Chapter Two

++++

This is a kind of place I’ve never been. A turbo-lift, perquisite of the aristoi and their retinues, vast, plush and spacious, somewhere to spend your transit between hive-layers in palatial comfort. Tapestried walls, soft carpet – though magboots seem to work just fine. Someone’s smashed the great pict-screens – not stray shots, but neat holes deliberately placed. And the great doors stand mostly open, and what greets us is a partial barricade made out of haphazard comfort-couches and random furniture, and equally mismatched defenders. The general’s life company might be an honorary posting for a bunch of pensioners, but those ceremonial suits have powered servos and a gold-plated lasrifle is still a gun. The ceremonial guard of the planetary defence force might be unarmoured in their braid-encrusted dress uniforms, but those guns look perfectly honest and they’re holding them like they know which end is which. And the bodyguards of the aristoi come in all shapes and sizes, seemingly unarmed handmaidens with fistfuls of suspiciously ornate rings, dressed-up downhivers with battered well-used sidearms, the odd hulking genetweaked bruiser.

And the civilians. Somehow I hadn’t been really expecting so many. Somehow I’d thought that everyone at the ceremony had either fallen under the sway of whatever-that-was or become immediately its victim: I hadn’t really considered that perhaps there would have been people willing, ready and able to run.

And as I hear a man in a captain’s hat explaining to the unimpressed-looking general, what are we supposed to do? Turn them away? There are hundreds of them here, huddled together by family and house allegiance, either that or they’ve just decided to sort themselves into groups based on what they’re wearing. Each one of them has to be someone of importance from somewhere in the hive, or they wouldn’t have even been at the ceremony. Lot of important people here, but then, there’s a lot of hive for them to come from: not sure the fighting cares whether you’re a midhive shift-boss or Mamzel Fayett herself. They’re all just refugees now.

Judge Magnus calls out our squad’s name a second time: brought to my senses, I jog over. I don’t miss the stares – I suppose everyone here has an opinion of us. I suppose that some of these narrowed eyes saw me unleash fury and destruction against a holy agent of the Emperor’s own Inquisition. Saw me chanting the glories of the S- of the – shutup shut up – my point here is that they’ve got some pretty damned fine reason to be suspicious of me. And if I were one of those troopers, wearing figure-hugging red and a bolero jacket cunningly tailored to suggest the wargear they wear every other damn day of the year, I think I’d be jealous too.

“Judge?” My armour brings me to a rough parade rest, weight on the balls of my feet, its body language suggesting an entirely inappropriate enthusiasm. “Agate present and correct. My sisters are getting our casualties onboard now, and I’ve asked them to help out with any heavy lifting. Can confirm we were last out.”

“So noted.” His moustache twitches. “Your squad, uh, you got a metalpants?”

I frown. “A what, your honour? That’s not a word I’m-”

“Slang, lady.” (Well, apparently I can kill a man without blinking, but being called ‘lady’? That feels weird.) 

“Cog-girl, I guess you might call ’em? Lubricant-lover, oildrinker, engine-seer, priest-oracle of the Great Whatsitsname…” He waves his hand vaguely in the direction of the lift’s technical shrine. “You know. Metalpants.”

“That would be ‘ritemistress’, and no. We’re a choir, not a logistic unit.” I eye the little shrine and the misanthropic glow of its Icon Mechanicus. “Do you ask for a reason?”

“Well, now you mention it.” He scowls at the thing. “Keep this to yourself, lady, but the damn thing’s jinxed itself. Workin’ just fine this morning. But right now, far as I can tell, it’s got its fingers in its little robot ears.”

I swallow that feeling of cold hard worry, it’s doing nobody any good. “Tell me that there’s more to this plan than hoping one of my sisters can speak to a turbo?”

He makes a face. “I mean, it’s basically ‘hope someone else can’. I’ve got the Arbites among the civvies askin’ right now. The Fayetts have owned a half dozen turbos for five generations, you’re not telling me none of ’em knows how one works.”

“Meanwhile, we stand to and pray?”

I think that was supposed to be a smile. “It’s like you’ve done this before.”

++++

We laid our fallen sisters in the corner of the turbo that had become a de-facto field hospital: of all the expressions that met me there, it was the hope that bothered me the most. (It is written, hope is the first step on the road to disappointment. One of the textbooks nestled away in the back of my mind is the Sisterly Rule, the Lex Sororitas.) Everyone knows the Sororitas run the best hospitals. Maybe people thought we’d have had a medicae. Even a nurse. We’re the Daughters of the Emperor, of course we can help, right? But of course, all we had were five casualties immobile in armour two strong people would struggle to lift, simply there to put yet another drain on nearly nonexistent resources.

No time for that voice of doubt. Sudden brainwave on seeing four men struggling to carry a row of reinforced comfort-seats to the makeshift revetment: one thing we can do is lift and carry. We claim the right flank of the barricade as ours, and each of us picks out a likely-looking spot. I dub Niwall quartermaster – with no right glove, she can’t lift properly or shoot anything with any recoil – and ask her to collect ammunition from the injured. I have eleven bolts remaining in my pistol’s last magazine: she hands me two more mags with a thin nervous smile and that’s my lot. Three of us had both sidearm and bolter functional, and one of the casualties’ weapons would respond to queries, makes twelve of us who can shoot –

“Praise the Blessed Saint!” The shout echoes. Man’s voice, and I can see him now. He’s in the lead of five of them, purple-robed, the colour our surplices were when we put them on. Breaking into a ragged footsore trot down the corridor. “O Saint’s mercy, we’re saved!” The approach corridor is seventy-five yards long and poorly lit: they’re at the far end.

“Agate, can you vouch?” The Judge’s voice crackles on the vox. “Because I can tell you what that looks like to me, over.”

I squint. Do they expect me to just be able to weigh a soul with a glance? Or do they think I might know those people? They look like males – “Cannot vouch for them at this time, over.”

“Copy. General’s party, do the honours.”

As I said before, a lasrifle just doesn’t sound that impressive. A half-dozen individual dry, high-pitched snapping noises, like nothing so much as a whole bundle of firecrackers, and the neat bright little circle of plasma flash against the target. The sacristan, it’s like he’s tripped and fallen, except that he simply doesn’t get up again. One of his deacons falls in the same moment, the others scrabbling to halt their rush toward us, to get themselves away, anywhere but here. Another set of shots. Another one of them falls. Whatever you might say about the honour guard’s gunnery, at least that’s chased them off –

The roar of a bolter cuts the air and one of the running figures falls ruined. The other one simply screams, puts his head down and runs for the cover of a bend in the passage. “Put him down!” yells Porsia, and there’s a ragged succession of shots from anyone who thinks they’ve got the range, the other five proper boltguns of our section adding their voices – somehow he survives, dives rolling for safety, and Porsia swears bitterly.

She meets my eyes, my unspoken question. “Think he’s got friends, do you?”

Wince. “Hope is the first step-”

“-Aye.” She cues the vox, speaking battle-language. “Be advised: incoming, unknown strength.”

The general’s voice sounds like he’s talking through gritted teeth. “Acknowledged. Eyes front.”

And then, of course, nothing happens.

I mean, for just long enough to make us think we got away with it, there’s nothing. The soft worried conversations of the civilians, the muttering and praying and occasional snatches of utterly incompetent singing from the aristo they found prepared to claim some knowledge of the turbo’s mysteries. One of the PDF soldiers stationed between us toying with his bayonet, clipping it into and out of its sheath at his hip with an irregular clacking to set the teeth on edge, oblivious to the occasional unimpressed glare. The thrum of the crystal battery inside my backpack, the occasional quiet sound of servos as one of us shifts on her feet. Porsia staring palely at the place those men ran to, hardly daring to blink in case she’s right.

And then we hear the singing. Quiet at first, but it echoes. And everyone here knows the words. Stand Vigil With Me, an old one, a congregational hymn. They sing it at courtball matches; they sing it in schola; they sing it at observance; and as they’re doing here, they sing it shockingly obscenely flat. Fourteen verses, and the rest. You hear the opening chords, you know you’re there for the duration. I’m sure the heretics intend it to be intimidating, and I’m sorry, but the reaction from the entire of the choir isn’t the unified defiance of the Sisters of Battle facing the Archenemy – it’s a heartfelt and unanimous wince.

Sister Keyt is to my right, her armour’s right leg locked out straight against a wrenched knee. “Psychological weapons,” she mutters over the squad’s vox-channel. “Wish to report moral threat.” There are a variety of snorts of what might be in line for consideration as laughter on a better day.

“All right.” I make sure, belatedly, that my vox is speaking on the same channel. “Incoming, lots of it. I’ll be calling three-round volleys, like we trained, just like the exercise. First one at fifty yards, where that pair of statues are. The PDF might have ammunition to burn: we don’t. Pick your targets: as Sister Augusta said, you’re shooting for their morale, not their bodies.” Swallow hard. “A-and fix bayonets.”

Our bayonet is the sarissa. Sixteen-inch double-edged indestructible spike of a blade, balanced perfectly well as a bayonet or a fighting knife. With suit strength behind it it’ll go through solid ceramite. Don’t have a longarm to fix mine to, but I put it point-down in my left hand and feel the maglock engage. I could drop this knife or throw it, even, and it’d fly right back to my hand the moment I willed it.

And here’s our first sight. Around the corner shoulder to shoulder, singing as they come, sounding like nothing so much as a sports crowd, but the blood and the improvised weapons give them the lie. The man who escaped us before, he’s front and centre. Mostly civilians again, mostly just uphivers here for the ceremony, people who picked the wrong side and were carried along, or, Throne, I don’t know. I don’t know why they’re coming for us. (Does it matter? I can see one of them, in the front rank, raising a finely inlaid sidearm and sighting. They want us to die and we’d rather like it the other way around. Does it matter why?)

“Steady.” That’s the PDF general’s voice on the vox. His vox is a latter-day knockoff without a synth. “Agnew, puncture me that purple git.”

A lone rifle sings out. The deacon falls. I guess it’s important to someone’s ego that that man die. Screams from the front rank of the heretics are quickly replaced with louder singing. The march starts to gather momentum; the general speaks. “Life company. Present.” The arthritic soldiers clatter clumsily to the breach, and I’m sure I’m not the only chorister imagining what our instructors would make of that shoddy handling. The Judge’s irregulars have taken position between the heavily armoured figures, but it’s notable that very few of them are comfortable standing anywhere near us. There’s a clattering of cocking handles and a click of expensive targeters; not much call for a targeter here. A few las-sights project superfluous red beams into the mob. The heretics continue to march in measured pattern, singing. They’re not what you’d call armed, exactly – the odd pistol here and there, ornamental swords, an occasional riot-cannon or shock-pike marking a security trooper – but quantity has a quality all of its own, as they say. A pause. The range is seventy-five yards. The targets are tight-packed. This is going to be a massacre.

“Let’s have them, then. Lasrifles, by ranks. Volley… Fire!” And now it is that I see a shadow of the lasgun’s native home, the barest inkling of why the Emperor would have His soldiers bear this frankly unimpressive gun. Because the weapon on its own, or a few of them in independent fire, that’s not so bad. But even a couple of dozen of them together, in synchronous double-tapped volley, and the high sharp reports overlap into a fizzing tearing shriek that cuts the air like a scythe. Again the general barks, and again the volley strikes out, and the front rank of the crowd, they stumble and fall. I realise that there are probably more people in that crowd than we have rounds of ammunition.

Those that fall, it doesn’t matter if their wounds were mortal: they are trampled. On they come, as the general calls for another volley and I can see the sharp white flashes of solid hits blossoming around them and the press of their numbers carries them forward. A hard-round slams into the barricade in front of me; another pings off my armour and I flinch. “Fire.” We’re taking some return fire, but it’s poorly organised and aimed. “Fire.” They just keep coming. “Fire.” Calm volley fire is supposed to be murder to an undisciplined mob. “Fire.” I don’t think this undisciplined mob has read the manual.

“Agate,” I say, softly. The vox and synth mean I need not try to raise my voice over the din: this is what they were made for. “At fifty, three rounds rapid, with me. Make them count. For the Emperor.” I bracket a man with a shock-pike, aiming my heavy gun at his chest. I squeeze the trigger, feel rather than hear the weapon’s roar, feel the servos at my wrist and shoulder brace the recoil as the muzzle seeks to climb. Shift my aim left a hair, fire again at a woman with blood down the bottom half of her face like she’s been drinking it; back to the right, a third shot at a slavering man in a spacer’s spotless white dress uniform.

Fire blossoms across the enemy line and the singing wavers and loses tempo, and for a single beautiful second their line wavers. But the cry goes up: “For the saint! BLOOD FOR THE SAINT!” and the floor trembles as the heretics begin their charge.

The vox renders the general’s yell creditably – “Independent – fire!” The life-company and PDF set to immediately, their las volleys collapsing into syncopated stutters of burst fire. The irregulars start to open up with their pistols and assorted arms.

Somehow my voice is still under control. “Again,” I call. My first shot targets a man singing over a vox-amplifier and the amplified sound of the bolt round exploding inside his open mouth is loud enough to make my ears ring. My second strikes a man in Arbitrator’s black, taking him just below the waist, the explosion cooking off the thunder-flashes on his belt and the one in his hand. My third shot is made without shifting my aim as I squeeze my eyes closed against the eye-searing flash. I will not have missed.

I blink rapidly, trying to clear the afterimages – Golden Throne, I wish I had a helmet. The mob is still there. My eyes are streaming with tears. I give the command into the vox-bead. “Again!” It comes out as an incoherent yowl. (The pistol bucks and roars in my grip.) We have to break them. (Another shot. I’m just aiming at whatever is largest and loudest.) If that charge makes it here, we’re doomed. (Third shot. The bolt glances unexploded off the side of the target’s head, goes on to hit a brown-robed clerk in the face, detonates as he falls back.) Explosions and shrapnel and lasfire rip into them and they do falter: the momentum of the charge is broken. But still they come. I see the remains of a dead body being borne along by the press of the crowd. And that last volley of ours was ragged, a random pattern of reports and detonations over three or four seconds rather than a measured series of aimed shots.

Twelve guns, nine rounds each, every one a death. My sisters and I have maimed or killed over a hundred of them by ourselves. But there are too many, Throne, there are so very many behind them, and still they are coming. I can see white all around their eyes. They know they are staring destruction in the face. They know they are literally looking at their death. They are climbing over their dead to escape the pressure of those behind them – these are the people whose morale we’re supposedly trying to break?

This is nothing like anything I’ve ever heard about war. This is a disaster. And I don’t know what to do. I’m in – I took – charge. At least of my sisters. What right did I have? I’m supposed to know what to do. There’s supposed to be a tactic for everything. There’s literally a book of them that we sleep-learned. What do we do? All I can think is that I wish I had a helmet, and if I had a helmet my hair wouldn’t be trying to fall down over my eyes and I wouldn’t need to squint against the flash and I wouldn’t care about the gloom –

It’s the irregular to my left who snaps me out of it. He’s leaning on the barricade – must have taken a round earlier. Pale as a sheet. Emptied his little gold sting-blunt into the crowd, and he realises it’s not shooting any more and throws it at them with a scream. I see it fly, follow it with my eyes as an animal would, see it hit a yelling man in a yellow robe, see him go down and be trampled. What do I have to complain about? Here I am invincible in the armour the Emperor granted me, taller and stronger than most mortals, actual holy fire in my hands – and there this man is, broken and bleeding, harsh language all he’s got left to fight the enemies of the Throne so that’s what he’s using, and here I am whining that I don’t have some fancy hat on?

I clear my throat with a hacking cough. Try and put into my voice the calm that I don’t feel. Cue my vox-thief and hear/feel it come open, the synth taking my poor words and giving them the voice of an angel of wrath. “We need to shock them. Wait for ten yards. Then let them have it for the Emperor.”

I hear acknowledgements over the vox. I must have keyed it open on all channels, accidentally sent that to the whole line.

Shit.

I think I’m hyperventilating. Can’t take orders back. Everyone knows that. Stick to your plan, because the one thing that will kill you deader than a bad plan is uncertainty. I’m shaking. (Or is my armour shaking? It does that.) Deep breaths. Coolness as the suit’s auto-systems inject me with something they think will help. Five seconds, that’s enough time for me to swap out the mag on my pistol, flip the selector. I always wondered why these things were fully automatic. The heretics are so close now, close enough to spit on. Killing close. 

Ten yards.

I pull the trigger and I hold it down as I hear my sisters do the same, and across the line every single automatic weapon we have opens up at once.

And the Emperor’s wrath fills half the world with fire and noise and pain and I’m fighting alongside my armour-servos to keep the muzzle down, fighting to direct the bright white bolt shells where they will do His work, praying that it will be enough, that by some magic this will work. Bolts tear through one heretic and explode to scatter shrapnel into her fellows. Las-shots punch through their target and into the next. Hard rounds spin them round, trip them up, knock them down and break them. Flechettes rend and cut and tear them. Our fire carving into them, knocking them back, beating them down, not the individual hammer blows we struck earlier but detonations overlapping into a solid wall of thunder and flame, the voice of an angry god, the wrath of the Emperor.

My sisters and I run dry simultaneously, and everything seems to hold its breath. The corridor in front of us is a charnel house. Fully fifty yards of it, more than halfway, is strewn with whole and partial bodies, drenched in blood, pockmarked and scorched, scythed clean of the heretic. The baying of the mob is silenced. Like a tide they have drawn back. The ones we can make out from the crowd are in full flight, fighting the ones in front of them to get away from us.

My ears are ringing. I feel light-headed. I hear Sister Gyllen over the vox, her voice full of relief. “Oh, praise the Throne, we won it.” A ragged cheer goes up from the irregulars.

And we haven’t reloaded yet, and d’you think perhaps that they won’t let it go at that? I call to mind the tone and manner of our drill instructors, ‘forget’ to set my vox to speak only to my sisters. “Eyes front, Agate: reload and re-address.”

The general doesn’t have a synth to stop him sounding small and scared. “Likewise, troopers. They’re not done yet.”

And as I swap out my own spent mag and swap in my last fresh one, we see the tide turn in front of us, we see fear start to lose out to hatred, to the fervour that had taken hold of all of us at Drabbe’s words. People in the mob are turning, taking the odd shot at us. A hard round whines past my ear – if that had been an inch to its right –

Now there are people breaking away from the scared mass. Just breaking away, running at us as individuals, screaming prayers I learned for meditations, and any conception I had that our opponents were sane… Our irregulars start up again. Nobody to tell them when to start and stop.

General Rorkel, and the shake in his voice is anything but reassuring. “Keep fire discipline. Irregulars, take down the individuals. Hold it together. Unleash hell at ten yards. We broke them once.”

Forty yards, and the trooper to my right is knocked down and back by a stray round. I glance down: he’s bleeding but still alive. He starts to stagger to his feet; I give him a hand, set him back on our makeshift firing-step. Unarmoured people weigh so little. He nods thanks, clears blood from his eyes with the back of his hand and rests his autogun across the metal tabletop of the barricade.

Thirty yards. The irregulars have been doing a pretty good job of making sure none of the chargers make it. They’ve got to be running out of them, right? –

Twenty yards. The mob is starting to throw things. I see one coming and twist to take its impact on my pauldron. There are no rocks here. They are throwing whatever they can find on the floor. A boot, arcing high, nearly hits me on the head. There’s most of a foot inside.

Fifteen. The cries of the mob reach fever pitch; their measured advance on the uneven, slippery floor begins to accelerate. Some slip and fall. The rest do not care. I hear Judge Magnus over the vox. “Stand firm, servants of the Throne, let no crime against His Glory go unavenged.”

I turn my suit speakers to their earsplitting maximum and raise the battlecry as I concentrate on where my fire will fall. “FOR THE EMPEROR!” And for the second time our line vomits fire and death to meet the baying heretic charge.

++++

Four