Artrald, Ian Cattes, Requiem, Whoever

Alternative Origins, Mass Effects, other writing

In Light, Chapter Sixteen

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Fifteen

*

Until 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 Valk does a pass over the landing zone, flying low and what they’ll think of as slow, and I’m thankful for what little ear protection my vox-beads give me. And now I’ll agree with Gennid’s pronouncement that they’re more curious than murderous where he’s concerned, because now we’re staring down the unblinking eyes of the multilaser turrets under the chin and on each wingtip, and they’re dark and silent. The pilot flares the wings and makes a tight slow circle, bleeding off speed as suspensors and repulsors take over from the Valk’s trademark massive turbines, making with mechanical ease the tricky transition from flying like an aircraft to floating on antigrav.

The lander just seemed so much smaller when I last knew it, when we rode in it for training and acclimation. It’s the whole helmet thing, that acoustic insulation I don’t have. Even idling, the turbines make a high-pitched penetrating whine that cuts right through the skull. The bat-winged lander comes right back over us, much lower now, drifting on suspensors, coming to a rest in front of us as the armoured ramp drops with careful slowness. Agate are carefully drawn up by section, almost parade order. Deliberately making plain the gaps in our formation. Sisters, I’m truly sorry. Forgive me. I do not make light.

The 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 out of armour and stop being a-a battleground between drugs, autosystems and my own declining 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. There are three. Only three of my elder sisters. Arabella is chief of convent security, doesn’t teach, never seen her fight, but that’s a chainsword at her side. The other two, I can’t tell who they are beyond that they’re full Sisters. I sag, lean on the armour, let 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. But it also looks exactly like I’m all the way at the end of my tether.

They descend the ramp and with a visible effort I steel myself and lift my confused suit out of lock. Shoulders back, blinding spike of pain from my wound, and my flinch and 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 keep my own synth off. 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. Half a mile back, in a cargo-crawler. And -”

“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. I see Magnus wince. “Tell me, blow by blow if need be. What happened?” Gennid opens his mouth and the helmet jerks in his direction, and I can recognise a sharp look even through the blank faceplate. “Not you.”

“The, the teleprompter broke. And Drabbe – sorry, Sister-Superior Drabbe – she stepped forward anyway, and she started talking and everyone could hear her 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 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 announce-”

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. In the cathedral. Was there a sermon? Did Drabbe preach before the congregation?”

Shit.

She is. She really is.

And if someone as far down as the head security guard is, they all are. It’s one thing to suspect them, to wonder how deep the rot went, perhaps the thing in the cathedral was an isolated piece of madness, perhaps the Saint’s name was simply taken in vain: it’s quite another to see evidence right in front of me that my whole life I’ve looked up to people who were deliberately and coldly planning heresy against the Emperor-

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?”

For true? 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 sure, that –

“Did you HEAR it?!” Her voice has the thunder of absolute authority the Sisterhood uses for crowd control.

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

“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 as agreed, Magnus cuts in, or tries – “Sister-Superior, before you leave, a moment of your-”

She turns her attention from me long enough to yell at him and it doesn’t matter what.

Because all he’d wanted was to distract her, and now all hell breaks loose.

The plan’s simple. We didn’t have time for complicated. Twenty bolts in one gun is powerful: two bolts in ten guns is terrifying, devastating. If your weapon’s loaded and cocked you can go from port arms to firing in an instant and a half. And Niwall and I are nearly as good as a full Sister, nearly as strong and fit, and if I can get close enough to stop Arabella drawing the chainsword we knew she’d have, well. I’m the best infighter in my class and Niwall’s better than me. (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.)

So the idea is, sopranos take the guns on the left, altos take the guns on the right. Our armour is good, but a bolt impact is still going to ruin your entire day – the world submerges in thunder as suddenly I cue my mag-boots and twist violently, going to control Arabella’s sword-arm.

Not an instant’s surprise from her. She spins with me, not even going for the weapon, so where I thought I’d have a nice start on a joint lock I’ve just turned us to face one another – but it’s not me she’s fighting. The bolt-pistol flies into her open palm as she swings her arm around, and where I was expecting Niwall to back me up, my sister’s ducking awkwardly and frantically away as the wicked little weapon roars not two feet from my head. Arabella shoves me, hard, in the chest, and it’s stagger backwards or fall over, and 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 Niwall like a wrecking ball and see stars. And I hear one of my other sisters – Porsia, I think – scream and it’s like the sound grabbed my stomach and twisted.

The sister-superior catches me while I’m reeling, her free hand on my wrist, and yanks towards her with enough force to tear an unarmoured person’s arm clean off. I summon my sarissa into my left hand – two can play with maglocks – and follow up the momentum she gives me 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 in her other hand the bolt pistol comes up and it screams out a fully automatic sweep, half a dozen bolts in half a second and I hear a loud harsh cry from Niwall but looking around would kill me.

Arabella’s trying to get me into the Valk. Expecting another pull I cue my boots and lock my legs and core, for an instant a nearly immovable statue: 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 splintering and

music

red darkness

it hurts

The autosystems notify me I’m on maximal nontoxic dose of – hell, everything – but trying to struggle shoots me full of bright shining agony and I can’t seem to catch my breath. My boots must have released by themselves when I blacked out: she’s dragging me up the ramp by my wrist and I’ve got a good view of everything going even further to shit. Three of my sisters are still standing and one of the Sisters who landed, trading blows hand-to-hand with all the success I was having.

It’s like the exercise, it’s just like the exercise except it’s deadly serious and nobody’s going to stop when they connect hard, come over, make sure that kick didn’t break your kneecap, give you a chance to get up if you fell hard. To the uninitiated it might even look like a level playing field – they’re all in the same armour, they’re all superficially injured, the Sister has a gun and a helmet but she’s outnumbered. But it’s really not a fair fight. The novices have trained every day since childhood, but the Sister’s a twenty-year veteran at least, a full member of the Order for longer than any of the novices has been alive. And it’s not like you stop training at initiation. It’s literally an adult playing with children, except she’s not playing at all.

And she’s got a helmet on. She isn’t risking neck injury with every sharp impact, she isn’t guarding a vulnerable face or neck. She doesn’t blink, she can’t be blindsided, and a feinted headshot is transparent as hell. She’s got communication with her squad that’s more like telepathy than talking. Her eyes don’t need to be anywhere near her gun to aim it. The only reason she hasn’t won already is that one of that first volley of bolts clipped her knee joint and she’s favouring it.

My heels clatter on the ramp of the Valk. No outward sign of communication but all of a sudden she just walks straight into a straight-arm punch from Yasi, It’s clear in an instant she meant to, she lets the momentum carry her over backwards, turns it into a roll as she summons her fallen bolter –

if the weapon had had more than one round in it then I’d be watching Yasi and Manda and Vanyssa die right now but instead the sister turns and leaps for the ramp as it’s rising, 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 off me little black sphere banded with silver the aquila picked out in luminous flashing red and a nice little hole where the pin used to be, that is an actual grenade.

Krak grenade. Kar Duniash mark six miniature, the Lex supplies. Three-second variable fuze, directional gravitic implosion warhead. Specialised kit, Inquisition issue. Pretty much the only concealable antiarmour weapon. Her hand blurs.

Too late.

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

*

“All right.” I looked from one of my sisters to the next as I shared out the ammunition, meeting each pair of eyes in turn. “We don’t have a lot of time and I need to make sure-”

“Don’t have enough time for a pep talk, that’s for cer…” And Gennid trailed off as a dozen hard cold stares fixed on him like he was being targeted. He ground his teeth, turned away, checking over his concealed weapons, making sure each was loose enough to quick-draw and tight enough not to fall out.

I just carried straight on. “I need to know that you know what’s about to happen.”

“We’ve got your back,” said Porsia, resolute now. If only because being my second meant she didn’t have to think too hard.

An unfamiliar expression cracked my face. A genuine smile. “I know, sis. Goes for all of you. I trust you with my life. I mean that.” I’d met Isaby’s eyes then, remembered her confession of uncertainty, and she’d nodded as if to tell me she was done with that now. “But this is going to hurt, right? Not like anything I’ve asked of you before. There isn’t a one of our elder sisters I don’t look up to, not a one I haven’t seen from a window one evening and thought ‘you know, one day I’ll be like her’. A-and now I’m going to be asking you-”

“No.” It was actually Isaby who spoke up, then. “No. You aren’t. You’re asking us to stand up on the Emperor’s side and dare them to do the same or face the consequences.” She clears her throat. “I’m with you.”

“And me,” says Niwall, and Vanyssa speaks up a moment later, and there’s a vox-click from every girl in the unit who didn’t open her mouth.

I looked down. I didn’t deserve these people. “All right. Ask your suits and your weapons to remember who their friends are and more importantly who they might not be. If this goes loud it’ll do it in an instant and be over in an instant more – gain us half a second and you’ll gain us a victory.”

I didn’t deserve them. They fought and fell for me. I asked the impossible of them and they died trying not to let me down. Sweet holy golden Throne it hurts.

The back of the Valkyrie is dimly lit. My head’s spinning. 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 the Valk dusted off. There’s blood, new blood, on my face. And my ears hurt 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 six-inch-wide hole drilled all the way through her, through two thicknesses of armour and through her power-backpack. She’s dead. Gennid killed her. This is her blood on my face.

The sister leans down again, pokes the harness to secure it so I can’t open it. It’s not properly tight. A surge of acceleration and pain surfaces above my sea of painkillers: 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 in properly – I guess she was expecting me to stay unconscious for the whole trip. Novice, sermon is objective of V i g i l. 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 your heart will let you. I will never aid a traitor.

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

Yes. I saw. I heard sermon. Not sermon for the Emperor.

What is more likely? Her movements are as exact as a teacher’s. That heart of Order is heresy and wrong, or that you do not understand?

But where in L e x S o r o r i t a s is Saint? Emperor protects. Those last two words are one single simple gesture, so common are they in communication Which is my point.

She clenches her fists a moment. Was that all it took? Novice, no Saint in L e x 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. 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 weakened belt connection. Inquisitor’s word. Names used in sermon. Blasphemy. He said.

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

It doesn’t take much adjustment to bring tears to my eyes. I’m not wrong. Deep breath is more like a ragged sob anyway 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 gives it the lie.

Why not? The sister leans forward. Because your sisters killed and died for Inquisition lies? Because they are not martyrs if your cause is false?

I look up 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 my elder sister 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 I slam my elbows 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 wanted. And you know what? When I shared out my ammunition I kept two rounds for myself. I cue the maglock as she freezes in surprise. The weapon lands in my hand and my elder sister’s suit is still putting her hands together in the rarely used sign for please as I point the bolt-pistol and my arm locks for a split-second against the recoil and my sight fills with the purple afterimage of the blast.

Ffffffuck.

It worked. She’s dead. I killed her. Hit her in the face. I had less than a second to realise that yes, I did know her name (Silexa) –

No time, no time. Traffic on the vox-band and I have no idea what because I’m (still? permanently?) 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.” Can’t hear my own voice. (More traffic on the vox. Can’t hear that either.) The Sister-Superior’s helmet has 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 face, 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 the rest 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. 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… “Accepted. Authorization denied, Novice.” Well, so much for the easy – “You must complete the mission yourself.”

I mean, I know that those words will have been taught to the servitor for training flights. It doesn’t stop them hitting me in the chest.

“Roger that.” Swallow hard. Sleep-lessons give me the words to use, but that’s very different from understanding how this is done. “Beseech auspex and fire control.”

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. Am I going to be expected to aim by feel?

But no, there they are, three calm green aimpoints to match the red of my weapon: fire control, not manual aiming. 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, there’s a mach indicator, what’s a mach indicator –

I sit down hard and cram my eyes back into my damn skull before I fall over.

Three 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 carve off all the badges of rank and status from my suit and poor Silexa’s. And to steal her tattered, blood-soaked surplice.

Seventeen

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In Light, Chapter Fifteen

Up

Fourteen

*

The level two-hundred descent helix isn’t just a roadway, and 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 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 it, 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 fault-line, a phase boundary, a big deal. On any ordinary day we’d be scanned a dozen times for credentials. Gennid is sat there thinking (I guess) nothing more than that we’re a few impatient steps closer to our goal. I’m wondering how long before the ration allocations of the fabs 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. And 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 for the dozenth time to shut the hell up, determinedly think about something that isn’t disasters and victims and screaming and my 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 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.

*

And 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, it is 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 full but very rarely are they heavily congested.

This feel like a normal time, at all, does it? There aren’t even five minutes between my brief moment of incautious hope and our little convoy grinding to a solid halt.

“D’you hear me Agate, Aqua, this is Scale.” The vox doesn’t hide Magnus’ growl. “Dismount and make ready, over.”

“Acknowledged.” I can’t hear gunfire. “Trouble brewing, your honour?”

“Might say that. Get your walkin’ shoes on, sister. We’ve got a traffic situation.”

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 of the deep levels send their stuff up great crawling cargo-lifts, the cousins of the turbos of uphive and midhive, but it goes the last half-dozen miles by crawler. So when I swing out of the crawler and 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 just as stationary.

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 cyclopean industrial vehicles. But none of these great lane-straddling beasts is moving at even a walking pace. The intricate dance that lets carriers three and four lanes wide share the same seven-lane via has ground to a tangled halt and now nobody can go anywhere.

We dismount. Leaving Keyt and Jeny behind hurts in a way the pain-balms won’t mask. See you again, Jeny says, and this time we’re all quite aware those words are from the last rites. This time I leave nobody behind who’s physically capable of moving fast, and Vanyssa looks at me like I’m trying to make up for leaving her behind last time, and tell the truth, I’m not honestly sure. Who the hell put me in charge in the first place?

The general looks at us like he found us on the bottom of his shoe, but at least he’s still here. He insists on his people taking the vanguard – I realise why when we start moving. Transit pace in armour is eight miles per hour, a comfortable spring-heeled jog that’s not really harder than walking for the armoured and reasonable to expect the unarmoured to keep up with – these people apparently never learned that, or they don’t have the training to do it. Throne’s sake, a six-month novice is expected to be able to do this. Those people have apparently been in the military all their lives and just bloody look at the idiots and their slow measured walking pace. Yes, all right, fine, the youngest of them has fifty years on me and none of them has had any kind of rejuvenation treatment. All that means is they shouldn’t be wearing that armour. Sister Croix was eighty-six and she could turn a backflip from a standing start even without her kit.

And they’re marching. I mean, this is potentially hostile territory. I’ve got the eleven of us split up by section, travelling overwatch, watching each other’s backs, looking out for sightlines, generally making it so that if anyone’s going to be ambushing the front of the little column then we’re set up to ruin their entire day. And meanwhile the twenty-one life company troopers are drawn up two by bloody two in a couple of nice little blocks with their leaders out front like they’re on parade, for crying out loud. And they’re giving us dirty looks. Guess we’re pretending that they’re nothing but bait, then.

“Give me a new estimated arrival time, please, Scale.” Gennid sounds about as pleased as we are. I can see the sharp look the Judge throws him. Exactly why is he doing this on a channel I can hear on? (I listen.) “Ideally a reason for this rigmarole, as well.”

“Reason, interrogator, aye.” From here I can see Magnus scowl, not that his helmet really lends itself to another expression. “Roadway’s blocked. My guess, they’ve closed the railhead. Nothin’ gets off northbound, nothin’ gets off the lifts, so no lifts free, so southbound’s frozen too. Like a jammed geartrain. Only way we get through this today is on foot.”

“We will be too late. Sister, your opinion. Does public order handle another shift without us?”

I shake my head. “Magnus is the expert.”

“And I’m surprised order’s as good as it is.” The vox doesn’t transmit the man’s snort. “Standin’ orders assume response is there within one shift – the precinct has fliers, even, so there ain’t a thing can stop that gettin’ through.” (The airlanes filled with fire and burning light. The drivers of the vehicles we’re passing huddled in their cabs awaiting the end of the world. The hive screamed.)

“I don’t suppose anyone can raise those fliers on vox?” Silently and for the fifth time I ask my suit if it can hear the emergency channel. Silently and for the fifth time of course it can’t.

“Still jinxed,” says Magnus. “Our operator’s getting no more than a mile, the precinct’s fourteen.”

“Then how fast can you run, interrogator?” The armour doesn’t bother echoing my shrug.

“Too slow.”

Sigh. “Well, that’s me dry of ideas. Anyone got better, speak up.”

Silence.

What else have we got? Speed? We’re going less than half as fast as my sisters and I can do, but the unarmoured Gennid and Magnus aren’t exactly marathon runners and even at this snail’s pace they’re showing signs of fatigue. And we’re strong, sure, but not to the point of running full pace while carrying a grown man. And confident as I am in my credentials, I do not feel them good enough to get us into that precinct alone. Equipment? We have a dozen working bolt guns and (if I shared them out) a whopping two bolts each. Our voxcasters, nothing wrong with them but the jinx that everyone’s got: they’re high fidelity performance grade sets. We can sing? Pray? (To the… wrong entity…)

Shit.

Vox. “Tech-deacon. Transconductor. D’you hear me, Transconductor?”

We’re not out of range yet of the carrier he’s driving. The voice is identical over vox and in person. “Sister Ellayn, response/handshake good.”

I almost stumble over the formal words. “Deacon of Mars, in the name of my Order I request the intercession of your Guild before the, uh, Omnissiah your master.”

His response is in a complete monotone. “Recognised. Sister, you do realise that I have no access to others of my Guild right now?”

“Yeah. Pretty sure that if you can’t do this, adding more of you won’t help.”

He keeps silent for long enough to take a deep steadying breath. “Speak your request.”

“I require a message to be sent to the fortress-precinct.”

“Not soon, sister. I do have access to similar vox-volume to you and could construct an amplifier, but the jinx – 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.” I can practically hear the idea percolating through his mind. “And… Hmm.”

“It would surely be a miracle of the Deus Mechanicus for them to rally to our aid.”

“You… might put it in such terms.”

“Deacon of Mars?” I grin. “In the name of my Order I request the intercession of your Guild before the Omnissiah your master.”

*

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 He 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 rember, 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 Deus Imperator 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 see the interplay of electromagnetic harmonies as they make of it a sixteen-part canon that makes the deacon’s voice sound as poor 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.

Looking for a decent vantage, it’s the work of less than a minute to climb the leg of a nearby container-crawler. There isn’t a ladder, but between suit strength and mag-boots there might as well be, and if the mahout hears my footsteps they do nothing about it. The height’s nothing to me, certainly nothing to the woman I’m dressed as. Longest sightline inside the hive, this – we’re half a mile down the dead straight eighteen-mile via magna, and there’s no bulkhead on the road to the railhead. Continuous line of massive vehicles from here to there, each unique, and anyone from around here could tell you which one sent out the products of their fab and returned with the imports of their hab. Each one represents fab-lines clogged with their output and hab-stores bare of needed supplies, people stuck watching their masters’ stores slowly dwindle, without even hard work to occupy them. (Stop it.)

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 at 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. Surely it won’t take that long.

Ten minutes is a creditable response time and a long time to stare off into the distance looking for engine flares. (Or muzzle flashes. Is Gennid’s paranoia rubbing off on me? It’s not so brightly lit in here that I’d miss them. Probably even in time to call a warning and get the hell out of here. Wait. Is that a…)

“Scale, Aqua, Gennid, looks like they heard us.” I come to my feet, shade my eyes, squint for the little flash of movement against a perfectly still background. “We’ve got a launch. I think. Inbound flyer.”

“Acknowledge, Agate. You see anywhere around here that looks like you could land a flyer?”

“Think I’m standing on it, your honour.”

“Was what I was afraid you’d say. See you shortly, out.”

*

So in terms of the comedy of errors, we have three separate instances here, and none of them feel as funny as all that. Item the first: Gennid doesn’t have mag-boots and isn’t one of nature’s climbers. Item the second: Magnus does have mag-boots, but he’s got to be scraping the bottom of his order’s fitness standards and he’s wearing heavy unpowered armour. He literally can’t climb. The solutions to these two look roughly the same: twelve Sisters, in pairs, two feet and one hand locked immovably to a perch on the leg of the tall flat-topped crawler, a human ladder, and our charges are literally passed up hand to hand.

Which leaves the third problem. The power-armoured, geriatric life-company troopers take one look at that climb and decide that if it’s climb that or walk to the precinct they’d prefer the walk – I open my mouth to say something to the general, something magical that will remind him and his toy soldiers that this isn’t a damn pleasure jaunt –

“Sister,” says Magnus carefully. He’s behind me, now, looking out north towards the precinct and the incoming flyer. “That flyer. It’s… Not one of mine.”

I shut my mouth, turn and squint. It’s no longer just a moving dot in the distance. Fixed-wing craft, oddly familiar shape – painted the Saint’s purple, unless I miss my guess – wait a second – “The Judges don’t maintain a secret flight of Valkyrie assault landers, you mean?”

“Not so much.” He purses his lips. “Does this mean we have a problem?”

“Uh. It certainly looks like our Valk. Is that a problem, rather than a solution?” I sneak a nervous glance at the interrogator, just being hauled the last few feet up onto the deck of the crawler. “Mm…maybe. Gennid?”

He clambers to his feet and makes a face. “What, you worried I’m going to try and take on a lander’s worth of the hardest killers on the planet, on my own?”

“More the other way about. How can I put this one – you don’t need to open your mouth to give yourself away as an offworlder. But maybe they won’t shoot first. Do you have input on the likelihood of that?”

He clears his throat. “Well, I think they’re curious enough not to shoot on sight, or they’d be dropping a missile on us right about now. That range, the auspex on that craft can resolve – what?”

I shake my head. “The training convent has one Valk that I know of: the auspex is myopic and those are training simulants on the hardpoints. As I said – do my superiors have reason to go after you on sight?”

“No clue.” He eyes the approaching craft as if staring will let him see into the souls of its passengers. “For certain they would have had no hint that we were coming: then, seeing as the jinx worked on your comms, we can guess that it worked on theirs. So they should be as poorly informed as the rest of the hive – but on the other hand, there’s no telling what kind of foul witchcraft they might have access to.”

“Nothing I ever heard or saw, but that means nothing, I’m a first-year.” I shoot my sisters a worried glance. “Porsia, back me up?” (Please back me up?)

“Of course. But we’re none of us full initiates.” Distaste twists the corner of her mouth. “If there was a witch at the convent, though, well. By their works shall ye know them, and all? No works, not that I saw. Nothing like we felt i-in the quire. I’ve never seen the sisters act like they knew more than they should.”

Gennid keeps up his stare. “Hmm. So, what are we-”

A channel comes up in the curious sixth sense that is my vox-awareness, and I hold up a hand to stop him talking. “Out of time.” Finger-code to Porsia to tell my sisters to hurry up with getting ourselves onto the top of this crawler. Vox. I don’t subvocalise. Gennid and Magnus need to be able to hear this. “D’you hear me Valkyrie Herja, this is Sister-Novitiate Ellayn of the Choir of the Vigil, speaking for Squad Agate. D’you hear me Valkyrie Herja, over.”

Beat. I get an eyebrow from Magnus. Gennid doesn’t even glance in my direction.

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 and the professionalism of a real Sister. “This is Herja. Sister-Superior Arabella speaking for Squad Onyx. Request tac-sermon, novice, over.”

I literally have to bite my lip to stop my mouth opening, to get my brain between the words and my tongue. Our mission, our mission. I cannot simply obey my indoctrination and spill a full report to this woman who’s perfectly entitled to request and require one of me. 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. (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.

Synth off. My naked voice sounds exhausted, hurting, scared, lonely. Weak. Exactly what I need her to hear. “Acknowledged, 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. But you know, that’s exactly what needs to happen too. “I’ve kept the squad together, th-those that live, I’ve brought them here out of harm’s way, picked up a few other people with the same idea. Request -” I don’t need to try too hard to make my voice crack – “Request exfil, Sister-Superior, transit to the precinct, to safety, we’re at the end of our endurance here.” Swallow hard. I don’t want to genuinely burst into tears. “Over.”

“Confirm, novice. We’ve got you. Fix on your comm for landing zone, over?”

“Roger that, Onyx. We’re on top of cargo-crawler two-one-five-november-whiskey-eight, over.”

“Understood. ETA two minutes, Onyx out.”

And I let out the rest of my breath and bite my lip again and nearly don’t see the look Gennid shoots me. For the first time, there’s – something that might look almost like respect if you saw it in the right light. “Well, then. Two minutes it is.” And he nods, businesslike. “Sister, you’re a damned natural. That’s our foot in the door. Now to follow up.”

*

Sixteen

In Light, Chapter Fourteen

Up

Thirteen

*

Those parts of the tech-priest’s face not covered by his metal mask go pale with horror and he backs physically away from me with neat little gyro-stabilised steps. “You… The Inquisition does not engage in humour and this would be in spectacularly poor taste if it… how do I… ah-ha.” He straightens. “Bad request. Safety protocols prohibit my accession to your request.”

Sigh. “I am aware that the action I have requested is hazardous to life. Do you know what we are doing here?”

“Digression request denied.” He has the expression of a regicide player playing what he hopes will be a fork between rex and mannulus.

I make my words as clear as I can. “Your safety protocols are laudable under ordinary circumstances. Override them, tech-deacon, this is an order, on the authority that we are damn well wearing.”

“But you will hurt the turbolift.” It’s as if he’s talking about some beloved animal. “Standing orders… (no, no, they are overridden by)… external-interaction principles… (no, unbelievable, we clearly understand each other)… basic human decency?” He spreads his hands. “You mean to say that there is no other way beyond violence?”

“I would love to get our urgent mission through this crowd stampede without loss of life,” I practically hiss at him. “You have five seconds to tell me how I can do that with available resources, before either you do what I told you or I tear that door open with my bare hands, are we clear.”

“Insufficient data, as you well know. And sister, if you sabotage that door your own mission will be performed less properly-”

“Three,” I say to him levelly. ‘Two. One?”

“I concede,” he says, and turns to the workings of the door. “Reconfiguring lovingly maintained turbolift terminus into pneumatic bloody murder cannon, Sister, aye.”

“The sacrifice of the Mechanicus is noted and remembered,” I say, but it doesn’t help: he hunches his shoulders. I turn back to the rest of our situation. Gennid is with Rakil’s body and the injured Pink, on the skybridge and hopefully out of the way. The vehicle depot is somewhat to the left of the concourse gate: we’ll deploy to the right of Magnus’ people, echelon formation, with me and Niwall anchoring the ends because neither of us has a working automatic weapon with a decent supply of ammunition. (Porsia wordlessly gave me the laspistol she took as a sidearm. Ideally there isn’t much in the way of shooting to do anyway. Like hell am I using any of my twenty-one remaining bolt shells).

“Small talk request: we have five minutes.” The tech-deacon doesn’t look up from his work. “You are moving downhive as if all the daemons of the Warp are after you.” (I blink a little harder than usual and my wound stabs with the drug-dulled memory of pain.) “As a pathetic attempt at quid pro quo – Might I dare ask if you started in uphive?”

“We… did, yes.”

“And might I ask further whether you have knowledge of the status of -”

“Gone,” I say, flatly.

And that makes him look. He does not pause in his work, but he swivels his head at what must be an uncomfortable angle for him. “I did not even tell you where in uphive I was asking about.”

“Doesn’t matter,” I repeat.

“Doesn’t…?” He stops, freezes mid-keystroke. Closes and opens his eyes in a deliberate reset. “Disaster?”

“Hardly.” I cut the word off neatly.

“Sacred Host.” He looks back to the terminal, starts work again, the clicking of the keys feeling somehow reluctant. “Is… battle concluded?”

“Consider what it is that I’ve asked you to do.”

He nods, mechanically. “Likely you are heading to the fortress-precinct of the Adeptus Arbites. You are retreating?”

“Not quite. The hive is falling into civil disorder given the recent disaster; we’re tasked with restoring Imperial authority.”

“By slaying a holy machine.” Another cadence of keys, a warning tone silenced with a gesture, and the chilling orange flash of the warning lamps that I’ve been taught to mind ever since I was old enough to take part in drills. “There,” he says with a narrowing of the eyes. “This place has stood without significant renovation since the revolt of two-eighteen, one of only two such stations in the hive: it has withstood a dozen riots, and would have withstood a dozen more save for this sacrifice. It-”

“Deacon,” I say, and I let a little gentleness into my voice. “Deacon, stop.”

“Why should I? It is important. It is sacred, that which you call to be used as if it were so many munitions -”

I shake my head. “I think you don’t quite get it. The battle is over. It was ended. By the Imperium.”

“The hive-quake?”

Ignis ex altitudine,” I say, and the red-robe freezes completely immobile, statue-still, at the High Gothic words. “Fire from the sky.”

“Why?” His question is reflexive. “Deus Mechanicus, why?”

“There was a reason.” I look him in the eye, I won’t let myself look away. “And forgetting our rank, deacon, forgetting our titles and orders, human to human, trust me. You do not want to know it.”

Another moment’s immobile silence from him. Broken, snapped out of it, by a chord from the console behind him that he acknowledges with a start. “Three minutes, Sister. And if I may make some kind of attempt at a reply upon that unknown protocol you are using?” He ducks his head. “Thank you for your… for your honesty at least.” And he turns back to the console. “I shall give your team a countdown over vox from thirty seconds, audible until the first word of the Cave Arbitros.”

*

CAVE ARBITROS.” We speak as one. We don’t need to. None of the volume is coming from our vocal cords. And everyone knows these words. But the Cave Arbitros is choral, it has to be. Nothing about this is individual, nothing about this is personalised. This is the verbal equivalent of the Imperial boot.

ADVENIT JUSTITIA IMPERIAE.” I hear the words coming back to us from the public address system, audible at stunning volume over the roar of the crowd. The Inquisition is a higher authority, but the Arbitrators are a familiar one. To a populace that doesn’t speak High Gothic, what these words mean is that the Arbitrators have found their target: be somewhere else.

IN NOMINE IMPERATOR.” Behind us now a high, building, mechanical squealing screech, the incoming turbo. Three seconds. The gate to the turbo shaft slams open. And just as planned, our warning makes them see this not as an escape but as a threat. And I can only pray that we’ve had enough volume to get everyone to decide that where they want to be now is as far away from us as possible. Or there is about to be a lot of blood.

ADVENIT IRA JUSTITIAE. PARETE. PARETE. PARETE.” And on our last word every one of us secures for concussion. Hand before the face, eyes closed, teeth clenched, lips drawn back. Joints and magboots locked.

They brought the turbolift in as fast as they dared, everyone without a powered suit will be in a brace position not unlike ours. The shaft ends here and the turbo’s airtight in the shaft: that gives it a lovely soft pneumatic emergency air cushion.

Unless someone opened the lift door.

The sound is like being hit by a board, and we’re not even in its path – the combeads in our ears are nearly as good as ear defenders, and praise the Throne for that, but regardless I see stars. And while I’m at it, praise the Throne I have my eyes screwed shut and my hand over my face so that I do not need to see the shockwave plough into the crowd.

And not a moment later we move. Imperial troops coming out of the turbolift. Not the charge I’d expected, but a slow lockstep march. Powered armour, bright blue – the general’s life company are the only ones with the equipment to deploy straight out of that drop. Arbitrator riot batons, they’ve got, rifles slung, not that a baton isn’t a deadly weapon in their hands. Suit luminators on full, making the dust of our arrival into a wall of light – I finger-code an order to follow suit and it travels down our line. I give directions in clipped battle language the second my vox tells me what their channel is and my voice sounds like it’s coming from a long way away, and vox-clicks are just easier to distinguish than words.

Stick to formation. Behind us the real Arbitrators and the other troops are getting their heads on straight and looking to back us up. Ahead – dimly I can see them through the dust – people are fighting each other like rats to get away from us. And I realise the armoured guardsmen are keeping their step just slow enough that we’re not catching them up. Guess there are people on the ground, not trying to get up, not trying to get out of our way, and not a few. Prostrated or injured or – don’t look, just don’t look at them. (But don’t step on them.)

I’m aware of vox traffic. I’m aware it’s Magnus talking. It’s too far away to hear. The tech-deacon replying, of all people. A moment later and I hear our voice again over the ‘casters, the Cave Arbitros once more. Another moment and I realise it’s a recording.

And you know what, it’s only bloody working. It was loud enough, it was shocking enough to get through the madness, and somehow the mob has found a way to give way.Whatever it is they were running from, we’ve successfully made ourselves more terrible than it is.The Judge’s plan would crumple in moments if the crowd turned into a riot – except that now I’m seeing clearly I can see Arbitrators and bodyguards in breathers moving out to form a loose second line inside the armoured wall. Those grenades are riot-gas. (The civvies on the turbo, they’re moving too, stunned, bruised, but surviving. My suit reminds me of my sisters back there with them, the injured and the dead and Keyt and Jeny and Vanyssa.)

And the crowd is still moving. Wherever they came from, they’re going back. Just don’t think about the descent helix they’re going into and the long empty drop down the middle and whether there’s a wall there. The vehicle bay has walls, it has a tall heavy gate. My hearing is beginning to return to something approaching functional as the Scales of Law come up on the gate’s monitors and it judders and creaks its way down into the ground.

Everything is happening so fast. Everything depends on being fast and smooth, on looking and sounding like cogs in the vast Imperial machine, as immovable as the pillars and gates of the very Hive. (But I have heard the Hive scream). Magnus’ voice on the vox details us to stick with the vehicles, Aqua to spread out in the onward direction and the light infantry to cover all our backs. Someone else is in charge, someone else is calling the shots. All I need to do is what we’re told. I don’t even need to brief Magnus, Gennid’s doing that.

Not just cargo-crawlers, they found. Servitors. Actual stevedore-servitors, their pale metal-caged flesh making the least of them my equal in simple strength, steroid-bulked arms wrapped in massive pallet-claws, stiff steps following the tech-deacon like massive misshapen children after their teacher, as we make our way back to the lift with one crawler to pick up –

Our sisters are there on the threshold of the shattered turbolift and Keyt is biting her mouth closed to keep back tears. Cold perfection of my armour brings me to attention, we make the aquila, we shake hands because even if you could hug in armour you shouldn’t. Jeny tells me I look like shit and I tell her that’s rich coming from a girl with a broken leg and for, oh, a minute or two everything is as normal and fine as it can be.

When you’re wearing a life-support machine set to keep you conscious, sharp and lucid to the exclusion of all other concerns, and regardless it’s put you on fifty per cent dose of pain-balm. When you’re loading your martyred sisters onto a flatbed crawler with the assistance of a dead-eyed baby-faced cyborg built for hauling crates. When you aren’t reading your own condition monitor because blessed are the ignorant and you have read about gut wounds.

And a short and corpulent man in aqua-blue armour walks up to me with murder in his eyes and says he’d like a private word.

*

“Give me one good reason for me to let you travel with us one damned step further.” It’s like being attacked by some kind of small herbivorous animal. The little man is staring up at me like I’m not a head taller than he is, making up for the difference in height with additional bristling outrage.

I take perhaps half a step back. “Excuse me?”

“This. All this.” He gives an abortive little jerk of the head. “On you. Your fault. Murdering bitch, I should call you out right here.”

Eyebrow. “You want to try that sentence again?”

He growls like a tiny rabid canine. “Your word. All this on your word. Have you any conception of what it was that word asked us to do? Have you? Idiot.” I’ve – I don’t think I’ve ever been properly insulted by a male before. It just doesn’t parse. I’m not sure I feel offended, just… confused. “I’m sure you’d just have loved it if we’d come at this straight, wouldn’t you. Damned death cultist.”

Other eyebrow. “Are you… trying to provoke me?”

I mean, that kind-of got through to him. A little. Made him suddenly see me (and my sisters, a good double handful within yelling distance) as a physical threat, at least. He grits his teeth. “No, Sister, wouldn’t dream of it, Sister, just my charming little rhetorical device, Sister. Just was trying to get across the idea – and stop me if you’ve heard this before – that just maybe when you give an inappropriate military order, people die? Even with me there to break out the nonlethals, hold back the gas if there’s no sign of riot, risk all of our damn lives because for some reason I just ain’t comfortable with the idea of carving our way through an innocent hive-crowd with hot las. Have you any idea how many innocent unarmed civvies are dead because of you?”

I look him steadily in the eye. “To the nearest ten million?” I let the word fall into silence. “Today?” The emotion, it comes out as anger. “General, I will not apologise, and I am not done, and you are not done. We have – let me check.” I pull up my wrist-chrono. “About negative one-half hour to get to the fortress-precinct, declare martial law and authorise a state of emergency, or downhive will eat itself alive. Is that enough by way of information for you, General? Do you get me now?”

“I’get’ that the interrogator has ‘got’ to you, sister.” He curls his lip. “You meet one crisis and now everything’s urgent, everything’s too late, everything has a billion lives at stake, nobody’s trying their best to help you for some reason. And before you know it you’re ordering up war crimes and states of emergency left, right and centre for no better reason than that you can. This time I was there to catch it. This time. Sister, the Inquisition’s got a reputation at command level, and not a good one, and it’s got it for a reason-”

ENOUGH.” The synth puts harmonics into my voice to turn the gut to water and make the rest of my sisters look round and wonder what the hell we’re talking about. “Is there a point to your words? Or are you simply here to let off some steam?”

“A point?” He looks around at the devastation, the ruin of the turbolift and its station, the smashed supplies, the scattered civilian bodies by turns groaning and silent. “Yeah. Yeah, there’s a point – we are done. You and me part ways. I will not follow orders to commit crimes against the hive I signed up to protect. You stay with the Judge? Me and mine don’t. Hear me?”

That – there’s a name for that, what he’s doing, and the Lex has an answer for him, and I just about bite my tongue on it – “General,” I say, and I stare him down. “Are you sure you meant to say that?”

He pales. Anger, fear, little of both. “Was that a damn threat?”

“Yes,” I say, flatly. “Look. I’m not deaf, but this argument is taking up time and space we just don’t have. And as for my reasons and Interrogator Gennid’s? I assure you, blessed are the ignorant. Hate me all you want – rather than, oh, I don’t know, the enemies of Humanity, whose fault this all is – but refusing orders would be something that I could not let slide. And d’you consider we have the luxury of infighting, right now?

“And what then, huh? You make like a commissar, shoot me in the head. Think my second’s any less pissed-off right now?”

“General,” I say through gritted teeth, “I am already stretching the boundaries of the Rule. In the direction of mercy. Because your anger is just. But you take one more step on this course and by the Throne I tell you there will be pieces of you decorating the roof in here and they will not be large pieces. Get back to your unit. Ensure Magnus and Gennid make it to the precinct, haec cum voce Imperatore locutus, in the Emperor’s name I say we are done here. Now fuck off while you still can.”

It’s only as I turn back toward my sisters and order my auto-systems to stop my hands shaking that I realise the Judge is leaning against the wall in comfortable range to overhear all that. Desperately I try not to look guilty. “Uh. Something I can do for you, Judge?”

“Interrogator said you were wounded.” He pats the narthecium case slung over his shoulder.

… No, no he didn’t. Fucker doesn’t care if I live or die, never said a word about my injury except to tell me off for getting it, and wouldn’t ask Magnus for anything that wasn’t a matter of operational necessity. I raise him an eyebrow. “Sir, I’m surprised at you.”

“Amazing what a disaster will bring out in people.” His moustache gives a completely unrepentant twitch. “Are you, though? Gennid wasn’t exactly full of details on what the hell could kill one of your sisters with all the rest of you trying to stop it.”

“Blessed are the ignorant,” I reply, levelly. (There is nothing he can do for me that my suit isn’t doing, that doesn’t require a facility capable of taking me out of armour, and he himself admitted that he’s not great at medicating people hooked up to autosystems. It’s definitely that, that’s my reason. Not fear. Not having read about gut wounds. Blessed are the ignorant.)

He takes a conciliatory hand off the medical equipment. “We still need to talk.”

“Gennid did tell you what’s going on, right?”

“Got me as many questions as answers, but this ain’t about that. Loadin’ the last vehicle now, and we’re letting the crowd percolate out down the road helix. Estimated time for the rest of the trip is half an hour once we hit the roadway, given that crowd and nothing further – trust my expert advice when I say we won’t go faster by doing anything murderous or ditchin’ people. I’m not holding things up for this chat, sister, trust me.” He clears his throat. “Look. Rorkel was right about one thing, and probably not the thing you think.”

“Really.” I half turn away. This man is Imperial justice in person. No matter that I’m pretending to be someone who’s above it, no matter that he’s got a vested interest in keeping up that pretence. “Will everyone just… stop? I know. All right? Fundamentally I get it. On a level that no outhab, no offworlder ever will. I am a hiver, an inhab, I might be dressed as a Daughter of the Emperor but my mother is the Hive. And today I’ve committed the one sin we keep quiet about, the one sin I-I didn’t learn about from the Lex, didn’t get lectured about at observance, didn’t get hectored at by my housemother, the one we all take in with the air we breathe and the water we drink. I have done injury to the Hive. And I’m going to have to live with that. Now. D’you have charges to press, judgement to give? Not just for the last half-hour, but for the bit where, you-know. I did the duty of a woman I’m not and helped some offworlder with an Imperial badge do the utterly fucking unthinkable? For the bit where, you know what, I’m not going to stop here?”

“Not what I mean. If the little general thought he could take you,” he says in a perfectly conversational tone, “you’d absolutely be workin’ out how your Rule handles an aristo-style honour duel right now. And as you said yourself, he’d have just cause. If you weren’t above planetary jurisdiction, if you weren’t who you are, you know, he’d just have you arrested or shot as appropriate to caste-code. Or, you know, I would. A subordinate of mine who’d given me what you gave me? They would not have got -” he gestures. “This. This was on your word as a Sister, and it’s pretty much the same reason you’re still alive to mope about it.”

“You know I’m not a real Sister, Magnus.”

“Yeah, that might have been true when we met.” He shakes his head. Still looking at me steady. “Pretty sure you are one now.”

*

Fifteen

In Light, Chapter Thirteen

Up

Twelve

*

If a thing is said to be providence, what profit to she who says that it is not?

We are granted time to say Rakil’s last rites, sitting there in the limo as Pink threads it carefully into a near-deserted midhive airlane. Hayla was closest to her, chooses an anthem that was Rakil’s favourite – my voice cracks and the synth covers it as I ask Hayla to sing second soprano because neither Niwall nor I can handle it with our injuries. It’s a completely inappropriate anthem for a funeral – it’s a hymn of battle – but Hayla turns it into a fragile requiem, a martyr’s crown, and the least of us is musician enough to follow her lead. I close my eyes, and let their song be my prayer, and carefully don’t imagine the shape and extent of my injury or read my suit’s condition monitor. Provided I’ll be functional in an emergency I don’t need to know, that’s what I tell myself. Until I discover that I have been mortally wounded I am resolved to act as if I have not.

The measure is completed and for a moment our sister rests in peace. Then the world turns precipitously upon its head and Pink has decided that comfort is for passengers who aren’t fleeing fire from heaven. The limo’s largest thruster is on its underside, I think: between these facts and judicious adjustment of our suspensors to let gravity lend us a helping hand, it’s almost reminiscent of a real Valk ride. Calmly or perhaps with the slightest smile she spins us on two axes to take a corner with a blistering and thoroughly illegal racing line complete with oversteer. No smoke in these tunnels, not yet at least, and it appears that any other traffic has taken the lack of traffic control as an excuse to go as slowly and carefully – Pink is playing slalom as she drives this lumbering fake well beyond anything its manufacturer ever said it’d do.

And as I said, providence. If we’d been in the air I don’t like to think what would have been. We’re landed when it happens, we’re disembarking, my sisters are surreptitiously checking for signs that the Interrogator and I didn’t tear one another limb from limb while we were having our private little chat. Half an hour to make the ten-minute trek to the lift-station. And suddenly the world is divided in half by eye-burning white from the airlane above and I hear Gennid yell “BACK IN!”

Hayla, standing in the open hatch, doesn’t get it for just long enough of an instant for Yasi to tackle her, physically throw the two of them inside (they trip over Rakil) we get ourselves inside the limo in a mad scramble and I’m the last, slam the button to close the door and curse the little spirit for doing it so damn slow.

“Grav warning!” Gennid’s voice over the vox, he must be in the cockpit, an instant later my body feels like it turned to lead as the suspensor does its best to stick us to the floor. And the whole world shakes, a jagged tearing physical visceral booming crash that starts and just doesn’t stop –

And then the noise really starts. It strikes like a hammer, a box on the ears even through the walls of the limo, a long low terrifying agonised roar. The Hive, the Hive herself is screaming. The shaking hasn’t let up, and now I think I feel – are we sliding? – yes, I think we – my stomach tries to jump into my throat as we suddenly drop and impact hard, the landing skids have snapped, and now there’s the horrid slow grinding of the belly of the little craft over the plascrete of the landing pad. It’s getting hot in here – and how large was the pad again? Are we about to fall uncontrolled into the gaping bottomless airlane?

Another slam, the world tries to turn weirdly impossibly on its side and then crashes back the right way up and doesn’t make it quite all the way. That horrible noise is passing. The leaden grav dragging us down is fading fast. Someone’s sniffling like she’s trying not to cry.

“Is everyone okay?”

Chorus of bruised voices and vox-clicks and I count them and breathe easier. Crammed shoulder to shoulder in one end of the limo-carrier, locked on to anything that affords a handhold, some standing, some kneeling, Yasi and Hayla lying on the floor, bruised and battered and half-blinded but we’re alive. What’s the appropriately human response to survival in the face of ten million lives sacrificed?

I speak the prayer. It feels like we might be the only ones in the world that know. The words aren’t exactly the ones from the Lex but they will serve. “Emperor accept unto your court those fallen today in Your name,” I say, and the synth papers over the cracks in my voice. “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, th-the innocent, the righteous felled beside the corrupted. 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:”

They respond in chorus. “Protegit Imperator.” The oldest prayer, the motto of the Ecclesiarchy. The Emperor protects.

And a heartbeat and a half later, Rowyn pipes up – “Ellayn? Sister? All due respect, but if you ask us for another bloody anthem I’ll not be held responsible.”

It’s dangerous to laugh. It’s dangerous because we’re alive, we’re still alive for no reason, the whole thing is just so damned ridiculous and you might not ever stop again – at least nobody left the vox open. I swear our suits must think we’re insane. Not sure how far wrong they’d be either –

Vox. More static than before. “Agate, this is Pink.” Game faces on, dammit. What sort of Battle-Sisters break down in hysterics at one little brush with annihilation? “Reporting damage to cockpit. Assistance requested.

Crap. “Roger that, Pink, on our way.” I push the button for the door and it budges half an inch – executive decision, this bird isn’t flying again. Elbow strike to the top of the door and the mechanism goes crunch: a solid boot and the door slams open.

Stinks of promethium and smoke: the fuelling station on the pad is smashed and half of the place is on fire. Porsia’s by my side – the outside of the fake Valk is bubbled and melted, the fibreplas smouldering sullenly, the craft’s one remaining wing sagging, the canopy –

It held. Just. The fake outer streamlining is burned away, the foil of the mirrored insulation peeled back as if sandblasted, the plastek reinforcement just simply gone, the glass of the interior so scratched and abraded as to look frosted. It shatters as I try and tear it away and foul smoke pours out. I can hear Gennid coughing. Porsia goes right in – no idea how she can see in that – and an instant later I’m being handed the slight-framed Pink who weighs half again what she looks like she would.

She’s got her eyes closed, but she’s holding her head up, she’s alive and conscious even. “All right, let’s get you out of the smoke.” She’s been burned, her face has this funny diamond grid pattern on it – she must have thrown her hands up to cover her face, only without the synflesh on them they aren’t a barrier – “Damage report.”

She responds on vox, tightbeam, her mouth closed. “Unfit for duty, mamzelmiladySister, locomotion possible in limp-home mode.” Her eyes open, red-rimmed cold cybernetics. She’s shaking. “Vision apparatus degraded. Multiple organic hardware faults. Medicae requested.

“Can you walk?”

She winces. “I had better, correct?

“Magnus’ lift should be incoming. The station isn’t far.” I cast a glance over to Porsia, in the middle of putting Gennid down on the floor regardless of its heat. “How is he?”

Gennid answers me once he’s stopped coughing enough to string two words together. “Shoddy frakking piece of bargain basement refuse -” cough – “seriously, I’ve no conception of how people think that travelling in those things is -” cough – “Damn thing caught fire. My coat’s literally made of sterner stuff. Caught some smoke, though. How long till that rendezvous?”

“Half an hour. Do you not own a chrono?”

He makes a disgusted growl in the back of his throat. “Time we secured that lift-station.”

*

The lift terminus at hive-level two hundred, on paper, could have been designed for our needs. The lower aristoi and the important midhivers travel by turbo: if they are going to level two-hundred, they are either heading to the administrative departments on that level or they are visiting their house’s holdings in downhive, and either way they need wheels. And thus the terminus is right next to the descent spiral we need and it’s packed with vehicles for us to choose from: perfect.

Except for the crowd. Secure the lift-station, Gennid had said: the place is massive and there are literally thousands here, and one should not forget that the other thing that you find in a transport nexus is people. And as we come down the bridge from the aeroport and the noise builds till it’s thick enough to cut with a knife, I realise that there was a word I’d forgotten when I was briefing Gennid in the limo cockpit’s tight confines, and that word was stampede, and a near-instinctive fear crawls up my gut and tries to strangle me.

We’re on the skybridge, we’re safe. It goes right over this, into the lift-station at a higher level and that’ll be separated by a gate and a wall from the concourse proper. Precisely so that when this happens, the uphiver bastards who probably caused it are safe. Wide-eyed the interrogator is beside me and I see his adam’s-apple move as he swallows hard. “Uh, sister.” We’re standing next to one another and he’s talking into his voxbead to be heard over the roar of assembled and terrified humanity. “You’re the local. Read me out the situation. What am I looking at?”

“Crowd disaster in progress,” I make myself open my mouth and say, and I can almost feel the apprehension settling over my sisters at those cold impersonal words for sheer bloody murder. “Recall I said they’d be fine till something spooked them: something did just that, wonder what.” 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. Using the vox to talk to someone three feet away because I physically couldn’t shout over this noise. “Looks like they’re trying to get away from the descent spiral.”

“Can you see why?”

“Probably the way it was screaming and on fire ten minutes ago?” I’m sure the synth doesn’t transmit the acid in my voice. “There’s utterly no way anything short of a tank gets through that crowd alive, not against the flow, and in a tank you’ll kill a thousand people doing it.”

“I mean, we’ll have to try. You know what’s at-”

I physically stop, turn to face him. “Gennid, you’re an offworlder, first time you ever met a hive. Right? But where you come from, there are still hazards, you know? There are things you just know are certain death, like, I don’t know. Volcanoes. Weather. Hull breaches. Machinery. 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?”

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

“So. What’s ideal procedure?”

“Not in the Lex. All I have is what my housemother taught me, and that stops at ‘hear it, don’t wait to see it, get out’. Porsia?”

“Manda and Hayla and I have basic crowd training, but…” She makes a face. “Call the Arbites? I mean, crowd control isn’t what we do for a…”

Our eyes meet.

“All right,” I say. “New plan, we need to get to the Chapel Mechanicus for the turbo-station. There’s got to be one, and it’ll be on the uphive section of the concourse.” I said it confidently so now it’s true. “Sooner the better: pick up your feet. Go.”

*

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. The lift and the chapels are on the uphive side of it, the empty side, but if the crowd truly wanted to get over that thing then we’d be submerged in moments. Praise the Emperor, it looks like the moral threat hasn’t spread here. There’s no purpose behind the violence and power of that terrified mob, it’s just a very human and understandable insanity. (Happy thoughts, Ellayn.)

Chapels Mechanicus are some of the only places in the hive that even my superiors would need to ask permission to enter. The unblinking red scanner-eye set over the doorway scans over us boredly, and I’m stepping forward to knock on the touchplate, lining up the proper phrases to get my request handled by what passes for a genuine human when the scanner widens in alarm and the door snicks obediently open. Far side I’m treated to the top of a shaven and metal-pocked head: a short little tech-priest and he’s bowing to us or at least to the interrogator.

His voice is surprisingly human, which is not to say pleasant: it’s high and nasal and lacking support. “Servants of Lord Toth: it is written that your words are motivated by reflections of the will of Deus-prime-fork-alpha as reintegrated by treaty, thus, come in, be welcome. Might I accede to your requests in form quid pro quo?”

Uh. I scan my eyes over his vestments for rank badges or ident cubes. Two pewter cubes worn on right wrist means – “Deacon,we need to talk to the incoming turbolift as a matter of urgency.”

He straightens. The bottom half of his face is made of metal. “Hmm. Etiquette error. Lingua-technis proficiency level three or above not demonstrated. Bad request, name or order.”

Gennid shoots me the look of ‘where did they find you, a hole in the ground?’ – “Translation, tech-deacon: friendship acknowledged, offer accept. Request immediate sync of vox on band Mars omicron with turbolift thirteen cargo, signal boost for twoway.”

The red-robed man raises his eyebrows. “Oh, of course; silly me. Vocifer!” The chapel really isn’t large inside, a little larger than a broom cupboard. Down from somewhere around the ceiling descends a servo-skull, its little suspensor whining under the weight of a metal cable as thick around as my wrist: into this he clicks an adaptor out of which a tiny worm-fine cable emerges. Gennid hands over his battered hand-vox and the cable fits a jack in the base, and the prayer the tech-priest utters has a peremptory note. As the rapid-fire monotone of his binaric comes to an abrupt halt, my own vox informs me of a… something… I’m just going to treat this as a regular channel.

“Agate for Scale, d’you hear me, Scale, over.” Pause. Nothing. Try again. “D’you hear me, Scale, this is Agate, over.”

Something, something from the far end. The tech-priest frowns and meddles with the hand-vox, turning dials as far as they will go. Mostly the signal coming in is a high-pitched electronic screeching. But there are words in it – “…to hear the sound of your voice, Agate. Scale here, over.”

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

The vox doesn’t recognise what he says next as words and I’m not sure I do either. “Say again, Scale?”

“Sorry. Ladies present.” 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 to roadway helix, no clear path to vehicle depot, no functional craft in aeroport.”

“Roger that, Agate, wait one. Out.”

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

“Then the Emperor will provide,” I say, mostly to shut him up. I guess I mean it, and all. 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.”

“There a compelling reason we don’t kill our velocity, hunker down and let it burn out?”

“There is, your honour. Time has become short. On my word, the Inquisition needs you at the precinct as fast as possible. The, the hivequake.”

Pause. A long enough pause to have me nearly opening my mouth to ask if he was still there. “Heard. Understood. Acknowledged, and on your word it is. You’ll hear us coming in and the metalpants can give you a count: at three seconds open the gates to lift-shaft and concourse both, and deliver the Cave Arbitros with all the volume you own. Do not be in the direct path between.” A grim silence as he gets his jaw around the rest of the plan. “Then have your suits counteract for riot-gas and engage the enemy in support.”

“What enemy, sir? I see no heretics.”

The vox is terrible at transmitting tone of voice. “Sister, you just decided to make us a good old Imperial crapton of enemies. And if I’m doing my job right, then anyone still standing up and pointed our direction is probably insane enough to count as a heretic, you get me?”

Gulp. “Loud and clear, your honour.”

“Then I’ll see you when we land. Scale out.”

*

Fourteen

In Light, Chapter Twelve

up

eleven

All that matters in that first instant is Rakil. She’s lying there on her back, immobile and corpse-pallid, her eyes rolled up in her head, her neck arched backward and her mouth open, no wound that I can see. Deep, sick pain across my midsection and a sudden rush of dizziness as I go to a knee by her side – with a twist of will I ask the suit to sort my head out and everything lightens, just a little, just enough. Her left arm’s flung out rigid, joints locked – I squint at the little screen, call up a condition readout.

Already unlocking a glove as I realise I don’t recognise half these runes, clip it to my belt, go for the other. Now, these words here I understand, but to see them on a real live report – rad exposure? Contamination risk? Poly-something toxic what? Stigmata? This column here is – that’s really not supposed to be a flat line – the second glove comes off, I go to loosen her neck seal, get her an airway –

dead

she’s dead that’s what it’s saying no breathing no pulse.

Nothing I can do for her that her suit hasn’t already tried. Dead. Gone, just like that. Gennid is saying it too, in fact he’s saying it kind of loudly. There is hell in my eyes and he looks away fast. Yeah, we’ll talk. Later.

Fucking pull myself together. Subvocalise to Niwall something that was meant to be “help me with her” and we’re opening the door, coughing, thick horrible smoke, something in there must have been flammable, whole place is going up. Rakil’s light, weirdly light, we’re all light as we drop from the gantry down to the floor of the room the quire’s in, but she just carries on and hits the floor with a loud heavy final crash and her head just lolls back and it’s just simply unfair, it’s obscene, that she doesn’t have a helmet. My own discomfort and pain are one thing, but a martyr shouldn’t have to have people see her like this.

I pick her up again.

At least out is not something bloody Gennid is going to argue on. My heart is still pounding, my breathing quick and shallow – suit systems, got to be, trying to draw out the natural adrenaline high rather than douse me in stuff that’ll cloud my head. And if my hands are shaking, well, the suit shakes on its own. A series of half-instinctive choices parade before the back of my mind as the spirit tries to work out what I want. Am I still fighting? Do I still need to be able to think straight or react properly quickly? These things don’t have an option for uncertainty. Never done this before. (No shit, sister?) The path the Lex prescribes for a commanding officer is very like saying no to everything. (Ow.)

“Ellayn?” Porsia and her two first sopranos made it as far as that door. “I heard you scream over vox, we – ohThrone -” And then we have help, and Niwall goes straight from being a strong shoulder under Rakil’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 fine too.)

Rakil weighs about a million tons but the Emperor is my strength. I don’t make the mistake of reading my own condition monitor, not right now. Niwall’s leaning pretty hard on Hayla and that’s a black eye she’s developing, but she’ll be all right. We look after our own. Throne of Terra, 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 grate. “But the message got through.”

“Right.” She nods smartly. “So what now?”

Gennid just keeps on going. Cold doesn’t do this man justice. Man’s got a perfectly good brain in his head, doesn’t have the excuse of the sheer burden of conditioning the poor bastards in white had. He’s just – I don’t know. Got to be something inside him that just doesn’t work. Now he’s trying to order Pink to stand up again, we’ll need a pilot to get us out of here.

She’s not moving. That astropath unscrewed the picture frame round each of our self-portraits and I’m pretty sure the little bodyguard doesn’t have hers screwed back in yet. But what the hell else are we going to do? Sit here and wait for her to feel like moving? She looks up at my approach, red-rimmed eyes meeting mine, the distinction for once clear between the cold plastek perfection of her augmetics and the human fallibility of her own flesh –

Next moment she’s hauling herself to her feet. I said nothing, did nothing. Do I look that bad?

Ugh. Come on. I look to Gennid. “So, Interrogator? Was that mission success? Did you get across what you needed to?”

“I – did. Probably.” He turns to put his back to the wall, trying to make it look like he meant to. Leans on it, looking up at the titanium-white vault of the ceiling as if he can see the warship hanging there watching us. “There is still a great deal that is left to providence. But we are still alive, and there is still work we can do for the Emperor.”

I shift under the weight on my shoulder. It’d be disrespectful to prop her up on locked joints. “Your enlightenment for us, then, interrogator?”

“First, as I was saying, we must get out of here, and as soon as we can.” Something strikes him as amusing and I’m pretty sure it isn’t anything of the sort. “Rejoining Judge Magnus would actually be an acceptable next move. Sisters, the limo. Pink, your flight plan will be-”

“Sieur,” she says, and her eyes say she thinks he’s an idiot. “I have the Judge’s itinerary. Am I being ordered to believe that you know the hive better than I?”

He raises an eyebrow, but he lets it slide. “-Will be left to your own judgement, for the reason you lay out. With the following exceptions.” He clears his throat. “You will re-enter the hive no higher than hive-level fifty. You will keep our primary drive unit pointed horizontally towards the hive at all times. You will keep it at continuous full charge, and you will be prepared at all times to fire it at the maximum accelerative impulse that the system will physically allow you to, no matter the damage to vessel or crew, instantly. Clear?”

She shakes her head, slowly. “Understanding is not required, sieur: you have my obedience.”

“Good,” he says. “Sister Ellayn, you and I shall ride for’ard.” Hardly even a wince for my blank look at the foreign word – “At the front, girl, beside the pilot.”

“And talk, sir, yes.”

“I’m glad we understand one another.”

(What Pink said, Interrogator.)

*

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 a seat that truly wasn’t designed for an armoured body, squeezed in next to the broad frame of the interrogator with the uncomplaining pilot on the other side. The canopy in front of us split three ways between the awesome spectacle of the night sky, the lights of the hivewall flashing by terrifyingly close, and the leaden realisation that the limo is pointed nose-down and that is the ground I can see down there –

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

I blink. “I think that those words perhaps do not mean to you what they mean to me? I mean, I don’t recall taking an oath from you, never mind that it looks and sounds like you’re male…”

He makes another of his little disgusted noises.”No would have been sufficient.” Sniff. “Pink, privacy, peccatula non vides, peccatula non audies.”

She opens her mouth and the voice that isn’t a voice comes out. “Aye-aye. Deaf ears to all but vox, in three. Two. One.”

Gennid watches her suspiciously until she nods to him, then leans back slightly and looks straight ahead out of the canopy. “It is understandable, and in another situation even laudable,” he says like he’s addressing a congregation, “that you and your sisters turned out to be every bit as innocent of knowledge concerning witches and the Archenemy in general as one could hope to wish. As the novices of the Sisterhood ought to be.” He clears his throat. “But innocence is traditionally paired, Sister, with obedience. That is to say – knowless as you plainly were, one might rightly expect that when faced with that which you did not understand, you might conclude that the righteous course was to defer.

I frown. “Interrogator, you have something to say. Say it?”

“Very well.” He turns in his seat as much as is possible, looks me in the eye. “Sister, your little lapse up there killed one of your sisters, injured a second – and you, I think? – endangered my life and possibly even imperiled mission success. I await your explanation.”

“Explanation?” I repeat the word hollowly, he’s blaming me, he blames me for Rakil, for the daemon? “Did, did you not hear what was happening? What’s your idea of what I should have done? Stood there and let it happen?”

He nods out of the window. “We’re falling, right now, Sister. We’re accelerating with our nose pointing straight towards the ground, and I don’t seem to be doing anything about it. Are you not afraid of falling? Can you fly? Should you not be doing something about this? The pilot is right there, do you think that putting a gun to her head would improve our chances?”

“For crying out loud, you’re seriously going to sit there and compare an actual witch to a limo-carrier?”

“Sister-Novitiate Ellayn, it is said that there are three weapons of the faithful against the daemon, yes?”

“Flame, faith and firepower,” I parrot without thinking. “And they worked-”

“Or in other words -” he carries on, talking right over me – “throw everything you have at it and pray for a miracle. And you know why that is taught? Because you’ve no other recourse. Because the true weapon, the one that is effective beyond any other measure, the greatest tool of the Hammer? Is the psyker, the witch.” His hooded eyes bore into me. “Had there been a daemon there and you’d not just shot the man, my immediate order upon seeing it would have been to get behind the Astropath – just as I’d take shelter behind you and your sisters upon sight of heretics, and for the same damned reason. Bound to the Will of the Emperor as he was, that witch whose final breaths were wasted because you lost your nerve, could have torn that creature a new one like you’d do with a tenderfoot juve.”

“So, what? I should have stood by and just – let it happen? Is that it? When the, the… corpse in front of me was literally singing a litany of the titles of the Archenemy?”

His eyes snap wide – “How do you know that?

“Because I’ve seen it! All right?” The synth picks up on my spike of adrenaline and lends me the voice of a killing angel. “On the lips of the woman your lord and master slew for heresy. Painted on the wall of a damn charnel pit!” My hands are shaking. “I have seen the face of our enemy. And I-I thought I saw it again, and I ordered the witch to turn aside-”

“And so very well your sisters understood you,” he retorts –

And flinches at my sharp intake of breath, he actually flinches like he thought I was going to hit him. And I bite my lip and taste blood and stare at him levelly, just make myself breathe, steady and even, my knuckles go white inside locked gloves, until I can manage a low growl that my synth will render comprehensible. “Are you quite fucking finished?”

And it’s like I’ve popped a balloon inside him, and he sags, and with a controlled careful hand he slips something back inside a pocket of his long coat, something I hadn’t seen him draw. “Y-yes,” he says, and he doesn’t have a synth to cover the relief in his voice. “Yes, I think I am, Imperator, art thou merciful, and grantest me never more than I may bear.”

My eyebrows go right up – “…You were doing that on purpose?”

“No, Sister Ellayn, it’s standard inquisitorial practice to insult, bait and antagonise one’s people – yes, of course I was doing it deliberately.” He runs his other hand over the stubble of his scalp. “You were raised in service to a lie by a corrupted order, one of whose people was verifiably possessed. Then that daemon tried to kill you and didn’t: only then did you start seriously fighting, and you prevailed in seconds. It aroused… suspicion.”

“Wait. You seriously think-?”

“No longer.” He folds his hands in front of him. “Your response was human. You showed anger as a warrior should, but you didn’t explode: you gave up a distinct opportunity to reveal yourself as a servant of one particular face of the Archenemy and gloat. Thus exonerated, may I suggest we discuss our-”

“No. Fuck you.” I stare the man down. “I grew up with Rakil. She and I come from the same orphanage. I shared a dorm with her for nearly half my lifetime, closest to family someone like me ever gets, you think ‘sister’ is just a metaphor? And now she’s dead, martyred for saving your damned life. You do not get to use that as a stick to beat me, call me a dangerous incompetent, accuse her and me of outright heresy, then turn round with some paper-thin excuse and expect me to put myself and my remaining sisters at your disposal.”

“Sister Ellayn, may I remind you of the authority-”

“You have a passport from Inquisitor Toth, you say? Well, good for you, interrogator, that means I’m not the boss of you, never said I was. You want me to continue working with you for one damned second after this carrier touches down? You give me a reason. You want me to behave as if I’m the holy warrior I’m dressed as, and not the cultist juve you really hope I’m not? Then you let me in. You treat me like an ally, not a… a murder-servitor with a pretty face on it. You take one damned moment and tell me what the fuck is going on. We clear?”

A moment’s silence. Calculation. A miniscule nod. “Yes. I think that for once, we are; thus, attend. I’m not going to repeat myself. This was a Malleus operation: nothing was left to chance, for the Archenemy cannot be allowed a single foothold, cost no object. The Inquisitor and the captain of the Stiletto, between them, have ensured that the enemy shall not prevail – everything else in this system is considered disposable if need arises. The rest of the operation thus has one single goal: to minimise the cost of the victory, in lives and in the Emperor’s property. I assume you agree with these priorities.”

“Magnanimous of you. Go on.”

“The daemon-ascendant, the false saint, what’s her name, Drabbe or Ursula Augusta or whoever: she was dealt with by the Inquisitor personally. Minimal Imperial casualties; disorder in the cathedral was expected. Our problem then became the sermon. I have no idea what it is doing, or how, but we are seeing a situation where some large fraction of hivers, upon hearing it… how can I put this one.”

“Lose their damned minds?”

“If knowing the enemy were as simple as a psychological diagnosis, girl, I should be out of a job: let us settle simply on ‘turn their coats’. It could simply be that they are following an imperative within the false saint’s veneration -”

“It’s not.” The words are simply automatic. “Ursula Augusta’s virtues are endurance and benevolence, her sacred ritual a vigil, her triumph by word and virtue alone.”

“Well, you explain it, then.” He shakes his head irritably. “Regardless. Between my acts of sabotage and the jinx laid on the hive by our tech-priests, the sermon currently exists only as a few isolated recordings-” the writing on the wall – “and in the minds of those who have decided to commit it to memory and repeat it: it was not transmitted downhive, and now it cannot be, and 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 can be stopped, if we act quickly.”

“If we -” Sudden dry mouth. “They are going to destroy the Spire to save the Hive.”

We are, if you continue to call yourself an agent of the Throne. But, yes.”

“But -” hang on, these are all offworlders, what do they know about the Hive? – “The, the people, the inhabs, the proles. The Vigil goes silent, right? Last transmission from the cathedral is that everything is going fine, there’s everyone gathered around the pictcasters for the holy-day, and then it all goes dark. Stays that way for, what, six hours? Then everything seems to go nearly but not quite all the way to hell. Hive-quakes. Smoke, do you know how disturbing it is to see smoke in the hive ventilation? And nobody has a clue what’s going on, none of the emergency services are mobilised, and not even the high-ups know. Production will go astray, quotas won’t be written – services won’t process – We’ll have riots like nobody’s ever seen.”

“In other words, the Imperium needs to assert control. They need to know we have won, or in fear they will engineer defeat, yes?”

“Where’d they dig you up, a voidship or something? The Imperium needs to allocate rations,” I say, searching his eyes for some kind of evidence that a hiveworlder has thought about this at any stage. “Screw your tales of victory, the people need to eat. They need to be told what to do. They need to be confident that tomorrow will be like yesterday. Or in three meals’ time we’re looking at civil disorder with numbers you’d usually associate with planetary wars. Those billion lives you keep mentioning.”

“And for that,” he says with some trace of smugness, “we need the hive’s emergency broadcast systems. The only mass communication medium not jinxed. Accessed from the fortress-precinct of the Adeptus Arbites.”

“Who don’t know any of this, because their astropath locked down at the first sign of the Archenemy and the hive’s vox relays are jinxed?”

“If only there were an agent headed straight for the precinct, with the authority to do what needs doing and a broad idea of what that is.”

“Judge Magnus.”

He nods, shortly. “The team sent to secure the northern hive-barbican should already be on their way there as well, but twice warned is better than not at all.”

Vox. “Pink. Estimate time to intercept Magnus?”

“Two hours, I regret to say. Unless we wish to enter the field of fire of that defence laser on a flightpath that looks very much like we are trying to assault it, we must use the airlanes.”

“Understood.” Feels odd to use vox protocol when we’re literally sitting in the same cockpit. “Agate out.”

“And here,” says Gennid, not bothering with vox, “is our next major problem. As I’m sure you are aware, a hive doesn’t sleep. Yesterday was a public holiday: first shift’s holiday was untroubled, though many will have stayed up to watch a spectacle that cut off mid-broadcast with a reassuring symbol of inquisitorial authority-”

You can’t actually put your palm to your forehead if you’re wearing gloves and not a helmet.

He didn’t even notice my expression. “Second shift will have seen that broadcast, awaited for some time an update that never came, and then looked to local authority figures for instruction. The Administratum is well enough trained that they will probably send some flavour of perfer et obdura message: remain orderly, go about your business. Second shift are processing that information right now. Third shift will, before we reach the precinct, be waking to…. What?”

I flap my mouth a couple of times – “Interrogator, to use a metaphor? I think you don’t quite realise that that orbital strike is going to do to the hive what Rakil did to the astropathic quire.” I press on before he says anything. “Firstly, it’s the Feast of the Vigil: everyone stayed up last night, praising the Emperor and the S- yes, I know, and the Saint. First shift rejoiced because their sleep pattern wasn’t fucked over. Second shift are looking forward to the ceremonial meal after the service. Third shift are about to stay up all night, first going to observance and then tidying up after it. Then the broadcast comes. Modesty aside, they have been looking forward to my sisters’ performance for a good while now: then it cuts off, instantly, and you’re saying the last thing it shows is an aquila?”

“The barred I of the Inquisition.”

“Uh. Who on sacred Earth put you in charge of talking to the civvies, if that is your idea of reassuring?”

“Three dead friends,” he snaps. “Thinking time was limited.”

You have friends? “Right, of course, moving on. The tech-priests can’t help because they too are jinxed. So we have a huge number of people people who are angry that they were denied their observance and worried that nobody has been in touch, but the next thing on their list is a ceremonial meal: they probably go ahead with the party, because they already prepared it. So six hours ago the people of midhive and downhive are fed, sleepy and distracted, but worried. Second shift go to work, I’d guess: it’s part of the ritual and maybe the emergency will go away if they ignore it, and that is going to be as true for the overseers as it is for the proles. Third shift tidy up, it’s what they do instead of a vigil. First shift probably can’t sleep.”

“So now another shift has passed, and still they have had nothing. Are rations still flowing?”

First intelligent question you ever asked. “Holiday means full ration for everyone with a caste-code, assigned in advance regardless of whether they’ve put in a shift. I – I’ve never seen a proper emergency in the hive, so my knowledge stops about the end of this shift. I’m guessing that anyone with credit spends all they’re permitted to a-and that means that we start getting unpredictable local shortages, stocks being relatively low after the holiday. In midhive right now, third shift is going to go to break their fast after a long devotional night shift and find the commissariat to be one large stationary queue.”

“So right now, you predict short-term stability?”

“I-I don’t know. But the bad things start in midhive, because they have enough freedom to do the wrong thing and the right thing to do doesn’t look right. I think that downhive only starts going properly wrong when midhive stops going to work, or, well.” Nervous glance at the great expanse of hive-wall disappearing past us at terrifying speed. “Or if something happens to properly spook them.”

He strokes his chin. “We could potentially get to the precinct faster by ignoring rendezvous with Magnus and just flying this carrier down the transitway, but without good communications they’re more likely to shoot us down than wait for us to get into vox contact.”

Nod. “Throne, but this isn’t going to be pretty. Either we’re arriving too late, or we’re shot down in flames by our choice of a trigger-happy barbican or a precinct that can’t read our friend-foe ident.”

“One of those situations, we’re alive to do something about it, so that’s the plan.” He sits back and fixes his eyes on the view out of the canopy. “You’re supposed to be the holy sister, Ellayn: perhaps this would be a good time for a prayer or two, hmm? We could do with a stroke of providence.”

*

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’ve never heard his voice, have 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. 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 don’t remember that had nothing to do with the Emperor.

Niwall telling me she doesn’t want to drown. A voice I don’t know, heavy sibilant accent, something about a stiletto. My own voice, speaking clear if hesitant battle-language. Gennid, identifying himself like he keeps doing, then saying –

“Primary objective success. 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. 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.

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 talking about the heretic, repeating once again that every soul shall be a soldier, that the hand of every true believer turns against those who deny the truth of glorious transfiguration wait what? Was this what she was saying, what we were repeating?

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 that The astropath of the Stiletto, suddenly bell-clear and pin-sharp, stamping on our minds the searing impression that our message is garbled to shit but the gist is clear. 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.

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 the voices 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. The distant voice saying something about the Stiletto. Rakil repeating Drabbe’s prayers with the same burning fervour she gives her solos. 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 I have been fighting tooth and nail to forget LORD ON EARTH AND ELSEWHERE LORD WOVEN THROUGH THE WARP AND WEFT OF THE UNIVERSE ARCHITECT OF FATE LORD OF NINE LIGHTS THE CHANGER OF WAYS LORD OF

no

“Stop it!” I yell panicked and my words fly apart into nothing, snatched away on the tide of sound. “Astropath, stop it! Cut the link!” The corpse in front of me is repeating the litany and 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! Close the channel! Don’t listen! S-stop talking!”All delivered loud enough that in a dusty mundane logical part of my head I know should cause physical pain to hear, and all I hear is a hoarse stage-whisper.

There is white light spilling 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.

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

Drabbe, calling out to the Lord of Change. 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 yell.

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. Rakil screaming her lungs out and I never heard that before. 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 pink 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 pink, 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 pink 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 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 glistening unlovely pink eyes between those claws 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 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 right there a hard target?

The horror blinks – 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 piercing 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 Rakil again.

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 Rakil screams till she runs out of breath and suddenly Niwall is between it and me bringing her maul down on its back. One blow she gets in, one single blow with all her strength and all her rage, and that’s the first thing I ever saw give the daemon pause. It felt that.

I’m getting a knee under me as the daemon’s growing eyes in its back. Then all of a sudden as Niwall’s raising the weapon for another strike it reverses the joints in its arms and shoulders, opens a mouth where its ass should be, goes for her with a terrible blurring speed.

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 I sink my blade into the creature’s back using every bit of strength and weight my armour lends me. Goes in up to the hilt and starts to open a deep, oozing cut – again the thing reverses its arms bonelessly and I drop the knife and try to dance away – a clawed hand flashes past me 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 – 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. He’s 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 aquilas with a little nozzle at the top and I recognise it – and his words – in the instant it happens.

It’s an exterminator, it’s a fucking exterminator. The simplest smallest flamethrower you can get. Just a little canister of blessed incendiary under pressure 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. I hear Niwall swearing, pushing herself frantically away from it. All I can do to keep my feet but I’m staggering back myself – no helmet no helmet if that incendiary gets onto me then I will die burning –

“I AM THE HAMMER!” The tendons are standing out on Gennid’s neck as he plays the shockingly broad stream of sticky 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, 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 shark-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 sua 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 what passes for a 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 that bastard’s turn to stagger backwards in shock and confusion and pain. Niwall hadn’t thought to ask me when she was pulling spare mags from jammed weapons. I squeeze the trigger again and pain screams from my wound but suit servos lock and hold me steady, and the multiple detonations knock the thing downward and backward and I track it back and down and give it another burst when it tries to get back up, the shells smashing through that horrid blue skin and 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 pinkly 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 memoryfoam, as real and solid as an inflatable counterfeit. 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, tell 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. A Valk’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 in assault landers.

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. “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 vocoder’s cold mechanical voice doesn’t transmit her evident disquiet. “Interrogator, we are flying dead reckoning without external cues and I do not know the windspeed accurately. Brace for… percussive turbulence.”

I’m sitting across from Yasi, 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 and the orphanage, the training cloister and all of our sisters younger and older and us. 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 maglocked halfway up a wall, I’m on my back looking straight up at Yasi- 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 in her impersonal vocoded ‘voice’. “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.

“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, the limo’s right, behind Yasi, 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 and my right, 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 before us, 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.

“Defence laser, sieur, from the northern cardinal barbican. Target was bulk-conveyor P3X-408-theta out of-“

“Evasive action.” The interrogator is sitting forward, staring around him like he can somehow wring meaningful information out of the starfield. “Let’s not wait to see whether they fancy a bite. See if you can lose us in surface clutter.”

“Interrogator, this is not a Valkyrie and I am no combat pilot.”

He practically hisses. “Hug the spire, Pink, unless you want to suddenly become one.”

“Sieur.” And immediately the red and green lamps of the hive swell dizzyingly in the screen – I envy the girls 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 fast – in my head I know, I am utterly sure that a limo-carrier is a suspensor-based luxury barge whose pathetic engines are just about up to the task of shuttling aristoi around in luxury without spilling their drinks, one step up from a blimp. It’s just that I’ve never in my life travelled this fast in anything where I could see how fast I was going.

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 bay 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 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 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 the inevitable outcome of trying to use those weapons on a power-armoured Sister and they lower them.

“Access denied,” says the one in the centre. His voice is dead flat. I mean, we have our own conditioning, of course we do, but the Astra Telepathica are something else again. I guess the less that goes through the head of a witch’s guards, the better. “Lockdown,” he 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. “Unauthorised.”

A scowl. “Clarify.”

“My rank is insufficient to authorise you, sieur.”

“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. Immediately.”

They stand like statues for a moment. Then the man says, “I… cannot obey. You have now reached two failed attempts. A third shall provoke deadly force.”

Gennid steps backward and behind me with deceptive swiftness for a big man. “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 –

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 –

And nobody threatens my sisters. Right jab to the faceplate staggers one, a blow that would’ve broken his face but for that helmet: straight left with all my strength in it and the next one falls as his helmet shatters like glass. The one in the centre fires uselessly into Rakil’s side- behind me my suit tells me Niwall’s stepped protectively across in front of the interrogator – Rakil rips her blade out of her second kill, spins and the third just gets his weapon up in time to get it in the way of a heavy overhand blow that tears it out of his hands.

(Killing them, are we? Is this us, now?) My blade is drawn with little more than a thought and I stab the man down through his collar seal like I’ve been doing it all my life. Behind me Niwall finishes off the one I stunned. And the interrogator steps neatly around us with a general air of so-where-was-I and I grind my teeth.

“Those stairs, I think.” He strides. I exchange glances with Rakil – her expression speaks of a billion lives, and fucking around being a luxury – and I give orders in curt finger-code that describe bodyguarding him like we meant to do that, not trailing along behind him like a pack of canines on the leash.

The door’s locked, but its machine-spirit has an intelligence and logic that the guards didn’t have. Gennid presents his wallet, and it’s scanned by a little red laser line that makes an approving little noise and now the machinery of this place is his ally.

The far side of the door smells of death. I’ve met enough of it now to know it and there’s no other word. This is 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. The decor was Astra Telepathica white, 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 I say ‘was’, because while the random haphazard sprays of red are almost beautiful, what they aren’t is deliberate.

Conditioned to work unruffled alongside witches, the armsmen themselves seem to have been immune to the murderous madness that’s overtaken uphive: but they were few, and the others in here were not so fortunate. Nearly a dozen of the guards died here, drawn back around one of the room’s several exits: it looks like the attackers were the negotiators themselves, their bodyguards and flunkies. The door’s been torn open: guess which way, girls. We cover the angles, wary of any remaining heretics.

They fought to the last: that much is clear. A guard up here wouldn’t carry much in the way of ammunition, wouldn’t be trained 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 demonstration of force. But today the world went insane: today the astropath’s guards spent their paltry dozen shells and were rushed and overborne, and their strength and fitness were merely mortal, and they were dragged down and torn apart and their beetle-armour did nothing.

Gennid swears in a language I never heard before, all sibilants and gutturals. “They smashed the damned interlocutors. Hard-wired connection, you talk to them from here.” He gestures to a smashed console-desk. “Or at least through the staff, just my accursed luck. Brace yourselves: we shall have to do it in person.”

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.)

But the guards weren’t the only line of defence. 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, because at the top I can just about see the floor 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 proper 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 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, 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 grabbing her by the shoulder, putting her section against the wall. Rakil and Niwall have 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.

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.

An involuntary shudder runs through me and I narrow my eyes. It’s just a creepy voice. “Gennid!” Nothing. “Morst!” I’m at the man’s 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 snarls hoarsely. “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. 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.

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 slightly 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 resyk plant. 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 to 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.

I bite my lip and the pain levels me out. It’s getting easier. Gennid snarls like a canine and keeps going. “I require communication immediately, 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 fear and helpless lonely trepidation punch 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 duty. My armour says the rest of them 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 revulsion I throw the witch out of my damn head. The interrogator needs to go there? 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 climb, to reach out. Deja vu is sickening watching him copy the exact gesture, angle, motion I saw in someone else’s minds 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.

“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 uniform 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 swallows hard. He’s sweating. “I… require.” He swallows again. The astropath is terrified and it’s spilling out 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.

“My lord, is there a second vessel by that name?” He’s trying to find a way out of it. 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 it’s not me.

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

“Because if you mean the one 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 vox, even. Do you truly require-“

“Every vox for half a dozen leagues is jinxed, witch: why d’you think I didn’t vox 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 not.) “I… must warn you that the omens are poor. Due to unforeseen events of this morning-“

“We were there, you colossal puling waste of flesh!” The astropath cringes and 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 planetary survival. 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. I will tear him to pieces if we are balked. If it’s die doing his 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, by your command, realtime. You will know when contact is made.” He can’t stop himself saying, “Make your first words count, 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, and it’s on its side just the way you always think of a ship, in profile, and that picture must be looking straight up which means we are staring directly down the barrels of its broadside – the Astropath removes his blindfold and hardly even feels the pain as freshly scabbed wounds tear open, but you can bet that the rest of us can feel that. 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