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 –
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.”
“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.”
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?”
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.