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I’m currently feeling that the soundtrack for this story is Mozart’s Requiem.
OK look. I have no idea when this is going to finish and will publish it as one whole thing when it is. My problem is that I ran into a brick wall explaining how the Order got to be how it was, because it never did fit setting. I now have an explanation… possibly… and that might lead to an acceleration and some finish or it might never. No promises.
The ramp drops and I’m there alone and disguised. Anyone in the Order would’ve done what they could for their dead before anything else, so I did that: they are lying neatly behind me, locked. Only I and the machines know that I spoke no rites for the dead heretics, that the indignities they’ve suffered are largely (entirely) my own fault. I trust in the Emperor, and within me is no room for fear.
To meet me is Palatine Alicia herself. The Old Lady’s terrifying enough barefoot in a simple habit – to see her fully loaded and, you-know, not on my side makes the mouth go dry. Tall, imposing, powerful, her armour a burnished black with a mirror’s shine, her purple surplice heavy with silver embroideries. She doesn’t have a helmet, but I shouldn’t be fooled: her auto-senses are every bit as good as mine. Think she’s using those eyes to see? And just above her smooth unblemished honey-coloured skin – she doesn’t look more than half a decade my senior, to the unpracticed eye – sizzles the energy field of an Iron Halo. I could shove the grenade that killed Arabella right in her face and it wouldn’t even make her blink.
My stolen helmet recognises her honour guard, tags them for me under voxnomen Amethyst. Teaching faculty. Good. My disguise might hold: they wouldn’t know a security guard much better than I do. The armed salute doesn’t involve the aquila and wouldn’t be expected to, so I don’t need to know if they’d make it or not. They don’t. And there’s no changing the plan now.
“Explain this.” Alicia is as no-nonsense and straightforward as a headmistress could be; her voice is pure ice. “I send out four veterans. Four of the best trained, equipped and motivated fighters in the whole damned subsector. In a heavily armed Valkyrie assault lander. I get back, what. One single seriously injured sister and a Valk shot full of holes? Report.”
“Yes, Mother Alicia.” Subvocalising, as if I can’t manage more because of my injury. Synth set to mimic Silexa’s. Now I find out if I’ve stolen her voice properly. “We were ambushed upon landing. Eleven of Squad Agate lived; they had some kind of allies, Inquisition from their kit. Sister-Superior Arabella and I exfiltrated with one prisoner.”
I can almost feel her scowl. “I can’t tell, Sister. Do you mean the headless corpse in the battered armour, or the headless corpse with a hole punched right through her?” (Yes. I did. I shot Arabella’s dead body in the head. I had to. I’d stolen her helmet. It’d have given me away.)
I stand as straight as my injuries will let me. – I know how to take a dressing-down. “The former, Mother. Sister-Superior Arabella had identified that the novice had received the Heart of the Vigil-” Emperor guide my tongue, I’m guessing these words – “and asked her to pass it on.”
And that is very nearly excitement in the Old Lady’s voice. “And did she?”
“Yes, Mother.” Small movement of my helmet, I lift my chin with feigned pride, and if Mother Alicia weren’t a damn traitor that ought to get me a sermon on the spot – nope – “I heard it. But as she spoke she… changed, somehow.”
“Changed.” Her eyes widen. “Physically?”
“I don’t know, Mother. She tried to kill us. Tore straight out of a restraint harness and summoned a weapon.” I gesture towards the surplice covering my torso armour, already stained with my blood as well as Silexa’s. “Hit me first, and unarmed. My sisters weren’t so fortunate.”
A crease between her sculpted brows. “Hnh. Which novice did you say this was, so transubstantiated by the holy litany that she put down a Sister-Superior out of hand and nearly took out a whole Valkyrie?”
“Uh.” Swallow hard. Emperor, don’t let me down now. Don’t let her recall me too closely. A sister can tell squadmates apart by how they stand, how they move, the rhythm of their voice even through a synth, the very scratches on their armour. Throne, please. “The prisoner was Novice Ellayn. First-year. A chorister with squad Agate.”
“Well, that shouldn’t have happened.” She gives a sidelong glance to one of her attendants. “The rite was highly specific. Innocents, for the choir, or the message would disintegrate before it was transmitted. Spotless, was a word used to me. Foolproof, I seem to recall, another.”
Cold, down my spine. My sisters and me. Beasts fattened for slaughter. Raised loyal and innocent as no more than a component for a damned rite.
The Sister-Superior – Garvia, ritemistress – shakes her head. “I am positive their indoctrination contained only the Lex Sororitas. I am positive the copy used was unadulterated.” A shrug. “Novitiate Ellayn was an honour student. Sheltered. The selection criteria were-”
Betrayal sucks at me, boils acid in my gut. Emperor, I am so damn glad of this helmet You sent me. I am glad that Mother Alicia cannot see me grit my teeth and stare. I am glad that she cannot feel just how much it is that I want to avenge my sisters on these people who betrayed them. I make myself pay attention to what they are saying. I shall complete the mission, and that shall have to be enough.
“Well, regardless.” The Old Lady curls her lip. “It’s not unknown for novices to corrupt themselves, you know: human nature is a powerful force. Go on, sister. The novice spoke the Heart of the Vigil to you, and in her flesh you received a… miracle.” Wash your fucking mouth. “You were speaking of how you chose to interrupt that miracle with violence.”
Traitor, I don’t say. “Ma’am, I did that. And I’d do it again.” The mission is bigger than her. And I don’t think I could kill her if I tried. “How would my duty have been fulfilled by dying in a blazing wreck? She very nearly crashed the Valk, and then the Heart would have been lost entirely.”
She inclines her head. “In opera mutationis, certe Chaos exspectas: you may not have been wrong.” Ugh. Casual blasphemy in place of holy writ. I choke down another wave of hatred. Ugh. “But you recovered the words? You heard the sermon, and you recall it?”
The corner of her mouth lifts, just a little, just slightly. It fucking shouldn’t. “Well, then. Go on.” She flicks her hands to indicate herself and her entourage. “We await the wisdom of which you are chosen vessel.”
And – well. Here goes nothing. “Mother, respectfully I refuse.”
She doesn’t snap at me. She tilts her head, intrigued. “Are you sure the novice wasn’t the only one changed by the Heart of the Vigil? Explain yourself.”
Keep my voice level and quiet, keep it so all she can hear is the stolen voice out of my synth. “Mother, I request the honour of broadcasting what I know to the Hive personally.”
She doesn’t quite smile. “You can hardly stand, sister. You went out with what should have been complete overkill, and you barely limped home. Your Sister-Superior is dead. Your sisters, you failed to protect. A set of armour, one of our precious relics, is out there right now, lost, because you decided to exfil rather than fight to retrieve her. Explain to me why you deserve to be the vessel for the Heart of the Vigil.”
“For every reason you just gave,” I respond, enforcedly level. “My sisters are dead, Arabella is dead. This wound-” I tap the splintered armour under my surplice, my hand comes away bloody – “is probably mortal. I have sacrificed for this. Mother, let me do this.”
“Do you consider that your sacrifice is not mine?” I’m stretching her patience here. But something tells me it will hold. “Sister, you are literally asking for the greatest honour I have in my gift today, and you are asking for it because you failed.”
“No, Mother.” I stand a little straighter. “I am asking for it because this is the only way the Heart will be transmitted.”
If she were who she should be, what I just said would be the end of me. She should have me on my knees in penitence for such insubordination. She should have my tongue cut out for speaking words of pride. But all she does is raise an eyebrow, and ask me, “Did you truly just make a threat?”
“I believe I did, Mother.” There is no room in me for fear. “You need this. You need me. My price is not high. Let me honour my sisters’ sacrifice. Take me to the emergency broadcast system and allow me to do my duty.”
“Or what?” She continues to show nothing more than this incongruous restrained amusement. I continue to want to punch her face in. “I want to hear you say it, sister.”
“Allow me this honour,” I say smoothly, “or the Heart of the Vigil shall die with me.”
“Good,” she says, and she smiles. “Was that so hard? Sisters, take note. Though I am Palatine and mistress of the commandery, yet what does that truly mean? My authority springs only from hierarchy and order. Hers stems from the transfigurative power of Him we serve.” And she steps back from me and clicks her heels with a slight bow that could be mocking or – I don’t even know – “You are authorised, sister. Let us proceed. Praise Him we serve:”
shit, it’s a responsory, it’s one I don’t know – a phrases bubble up from Drabbe’s words, things I saw on the wall, I snatch at one of the least awful – “Praise the… Lord of Nine Lights,” I say, and try to hide my shudder.
And the teachers I looked up to my whole life echo the title that doesn’t mean the Emperor, and the false Palatine smiles. Emperor forgive me. The words are bile in my mouth. I knew them for a name of the Archenemy and spoke them anyway. Emperor make those words into daggers in the ears that hear them. I can feel my lips drawing back from my teeth. Emperor walk with me.
And the false Palatine leads the way and I fucking fall in, and I try to focus on what I’m going to say and I just keep getting distracted by the image of grabbing her around the throat with both armoured hands and pulling hard in two directions.
It’s simple, it’s all so simple. The emergency system that will let my voice thunder from every vox in Baelis Hive is in a little tech-chapel off to one side of a meaningless little corridor. Nobody has even objected. This isn’t our facility, but the Mother Palatine outranks nearly everyone we could possibly meet, the simple authority of the armour we wear opens every door. I wonder aimlessly as we walk, how the heretics got this authority in the first place. Did they steal it? A generation of cuckoos slowly hollowing out the true, holy Order? Did they fake it, somehow steal the relics and trappings and fabricate credentials, must have been centuries ago? Did they fall? Were these good people, once, before for some unknowable reason they chose to abandon the God-Emperor for the Archenemy?
I cannot. If I think about it, about them, this will all come apart. I know, intellectually I know, that violence will not solve this problem. That, yes, I could sucker-punch the Palatine and maybe deal some real damage before her Halo recognised me as a threat and stopped me. I could likely get my bolter into my hand before they reacted, likely expend half the clip before anyone hit me. I would go down with the Emperor’s name on my lips and His wrath in my hands. I could go before the Throne saying that I had died avenging my sisters and myself, and the Hive, and the Order that should have been and somehow isn’t – that if anyone had a right to hold her head high there, then I would –
Deep breath. I ruthlessly tell my homeostat to get my pulse back under control: it feels like a wave of static washes over me and my vision would go grey if not for the cold auto-senses. I cannot kill these people. I cannot avenge us. I will never know why any of this happened, I will never know how it was allowed to come to pass, I will never know how the Inquisition knew. But I can complete the mission (the one I gave myself). I can do what I have decided is my duty. And then I will die.
There is no way I get out of this alive. I know that some of my sisters still live. I pray that they will forgive me for leaving them alone. I shall fall in striking a blow against the tool and lieutenant of the Archenemy, whose name is Panic, whose name is Disorder, whose name is Chaos. The weapons I shall bear as I fall are my voice, my determination, my human will. My racing heart slows. The tech-chapel is here. Let the Emperor’s will be done.
The Palatine’s authority is enough to secure the assistance of the priests of the Mechanicum. The lie she tells, it is that we have an urgent message for universal broadcast concerning a disaster in uphive: I almost laugh. Two of the three red-robes in attendance step out into the corridor to let me inside. Eyeing the walls – this place is tiny, covered in machines every square foot that’s not the door. Can’t tell what is and isn’t important: when the Palatine tries to stop me, I don’t know what collateral damage to avoid. For a tech-shrine this place is large – twenty feet by six – and a tech-priest stands in front of me and one behind.
The red-robe before me looks up at me to give me the connection. I have to bend down so she can reach the port – she’s four and a half feet tall – it hurts to bend, it hurts like white clawing fire and there’s fresh blood down my surplice. “Voicewright,” I say as I bend. (It’s her rank.) “Record what I say and have the spirits repeat it when I say ‘message repeats’, broadcast on a continuous loop. Ensure it goes out. No matter what happens.”
She raises an eyebrow that seems to have its own dedicated window in the metal that covers her face. “Categorical request received. Clarify: continuously for how long?”
Forever. Until the stars burn out and the worlds end. I think of the longest period of time I can envision. “An hour,” I say as she twists the cable and it locks into place.
And I straighten, turn to the side as I do so, making it look like I’m being careful of the little input cable. Not at all that I’m facing my armour’s strongest remaining intact plates towards the heavily armed people who are about to try and end me.
Deepest breath my body will let me.
Helmet speaker off. This will go out only over the broadcast system. Pray for lag. Every second will count.
“All stations, all listeners. Stand by for the Sermon of the Vigil. Stand by and listen, for your salvation is at hand. Auctoritatis Hereticus in instantiam. Blessed are they who hear the voice of the Inquisition, for they shall surely find salvation.” Palatine Alicia is smiling. Radiant. She closes her eyes. Dammit: she is hearing me as I speak. If only she were using those eyes to see.
“Disaster in uphive. Duration, indefinite.” I see Alicia frown. I carry on with the words Magnus gave me, I tell my suit to deliver the imprint of his biometric he gave me, I speak as quickly as I can and trust the synth to make my words clear. “Orders, all stations auth Scale four-four-eight-one-two-four. Devolve ration and discipline authority to local command under-” Her eyes snap open. An instant of blank surprise, a gift from the Emperor, I keep talking – “Under emergency condition ultraviolet for self-sufficiency. Emergency protocol prime: maintain order and feed your people, all other considerations secondary. Protegat Imperator.” I can see the realisation as it crosses her face. In the same moment I duck and there’s a tech-priest between me and her.
“In the Emperor’s name, station compromised. Further transmissions-” A bolt-pistol screams and I don’t have any cover any more. Hands over my head – “to be disregarded message repeats-”
What’s the last I recall?
I was shouting, yelling frantic words into the vox, and I thought I knew I was going to die. A sense of achievement, of terrible burning purpose –
then I think I was hit in the back, the powerpack. My power supply fluxed and suddenly I couldn’t breathe or stand up and here I
It is dark.
There is no sensation. No pain. God-Emperor of Mankind, into Your hands I commend my spirit
A mote of light intrudes upon the silence and darkness. God-Emperor of Mankind, unto You do I commend my life
The mote becomes a line, becomes a circle. What colour? Red.
I have the strangest feeling that as I look upon it, it looks upon me. It’s ever so slightly fuzzy around the edges and I squint my eyes automatically, telling my auto-senses to make sense out of what I’m seeing for me.
I didn’t for an instant expect it to react. There is a noise, sound, auto-sense input. A soft synthetic chime. It pulses. This all feels so much like a dream.
Words. Just the sense of them, a datastream, the feeling of having seen something rather than the experience of seeing it. Sister. Me. That’s a word that means me. Are you conscious, in there?
Emotion is distant, scrabbling, slipping. I think it’s supposed to be fear.
Shit, am I…
I try to talk. Auto-systems do not read thoughts: they interpret nerve impulses. I do not feel my mouth move when I tell it to. I do not feel anything. If there is something wired up to me, it provides me no feedback. What I try to say is: “Yes.”
My name is Scale. Who are you?
“Ellayn.” Without neurofeedback my voice will be coarse, thick, wrong. I don’t even know if it is my body speaking for me. It doesn’t feel like I am breathing. “What happened?”
A battle. We recovered five bodies. We must be sure. Can you tell me who you are?
Can’t he tell?
Maybe he can’t. Emotion might as well be happening to someone else. “Auth Scale, four. Four. Eight. One. Two. Four.”
You are the third person to use my code claiming to be Ellayn. Try again.
He can’t identify me. Throne, what happened to me? “We killed a lift together, and you told me Aqua was right.”
What is my name?
“Piter Magnus of the Adeptus Arbites, Chief Justice of Baelis Prime before the God-Emperor beloved of all.”
A pause, I think. Time is odd in dreams.
“Where am I?”
Field hospital, Inquisition forces. Which order are you expecting?
Pause. Do I just… do I just guess?
Thrice is done. I need to be sure that I have Sister Ellayn, and not one of the heretics.
“The Hammer of the Daemon.”
Thank you. The Inquisitor has ordained that you shall live. You are on life-support until a stasis-sarcophagus can be sourced. A side-effect is that you shall remain at your current level of consciousness. Are you in pain?
“…No?” I had to think about that. I don’t think I am. But I… could be.
You are not alone.
“The Emperor is with me.” I probably spoke that out loud. Time stretches and squeezes. I don’t know if a second or an hour has passed.
Are you still there?
Your vital signs changed. Keep talking, so we know you are still there.
“Uh.” I don’t know how that came across. I suppose they have hooked up a voicebox or a servitor to my nerve impulse plugs. It should behave just like my actual voice. “The Emperor protects. The Guiding Light, the star we follow, the lodestone of our compass, He leads us through the night and we shall not despair.” The words tumble out of me and I just let them. “Listen now for the word of the Emperor, as distilled in the words of Saint Alicia Dominica, beloved of all, who stands even now beside the throne of the Master of Mankind: and with her each Sister martyred in Virtue, where they stand until their duty shall call them at the end of time. Hear now the Rule of the Sisterhood, the Lex Sororitatis-”
No. There is somehow urgency in the voice. Not something you have sleep-learned. I need to know your conscious mind is functioning. Give me, I don’t know, a tac-sermon covering all events since you last slept.
“Um. You’re aware I last slept more than two weeks ago?”
I am not short of time.
“Right. Yes. I suppose I can do that.” I think for what might be a second. “Sir. Tactical sermon, sir. Unknown strength, assault medium d-disordered, nomen Agate, actual Ellayn for sarn’t Croix fallen. Except she’s not a sarn’t, because, because she was a heretic and the whole thing was a lie.” Emotion is happening, but somewhere else. “Report begins day two hundred eighty-six year twenty-nine, eighth century of the Emperor’s millennium forty. Unit reported to and participated in heretic ceremony as per trained duty, maintained vigil fourteen days as part of ceremonial choir.” I can’t hear myself speaking and I’m sure this hardly sounds like a voice at all, but I suppose it’s not exactly the words that he’s after, more my capability to speak them. “Ceremony interrupted by agents of the Throne: collateral damage was significant including three of Agate, recorded in my suit as martyrs because, because I didn’t know any better. Regrouped and-”
The collateral damage. Be specific.
“Uh.” The mind’s eye doesn’t want to look. “Heretic officers were Finlye, Croix, Attesta and Drabbe, all fell. In that specific engagement, my sisters Berres, Rillith and Avhata sustained mortal injury. Civilian casualties, I wouldn’t even like to hazard a guess. As for destruction of-”
The civilians. Tell me. What happened to them?
If my body is still responding to my mind, then he’ll have seen me frown at the odd question. “You would know better than I.”
I was… Distracted. Trying to piece it all together. I need to make a good report to the inquisitor and you’re our best source. As much detail as you can, please.
…huh. “We didn’t recognise it at the time,” I say, trying to think faster than I can talk. “But it was recognisably a moral threat.”
Who worked it? When?
… no. No, you have got to be kidding me. “I mean… I mean.” Suddenly my mind is racing. “Sister-Superior Drabbe was the source, I think. The youngest of the Sisters-Superior, and her first time speaking the sermon of the Vigil.” I really, really hope I’m wrong. “I recall the exact words, if you would like me to repeat them?”
I’m not wrong.
Ellayn? Are you still there?
“To be Unclean, that is the mark of the heretic. To be Impure, that is the mark of the heretic. To be Abhorred, that is the mark of the heretic.”
I’m worried we’re losing you. These are sleep-taught words, Ellayn, I need memories. I need to know your conscious mind is-
“To be Reviled, that is the mark of the heretic. To be Hunted, that is the mark of the heretic…” I don’t know if the voicebox I’m connected to can shout, but that’s what I’m damned well telling it to do. “Screw you, Garvia, Sister-Superior, ritemistress, and of course you’ve got the skills to put me under and fool me. I never liked you, even when I didn’t know what you were. Yes – I know what you’re after. No – I’m never ever speaking any of it again. To be Purged, that is the fate of the heretic. To be Cleansed, that is the fate of the heretic.”
A significant pause.
Send for the witch. I told you this was a waste of