Artrald, Ian Cattes, Requiem, Whoever

Alternative Origins, Mass Effects, other writing

In Light, Chapter Eighteen

Up

Back

++++

Half a second has passed and the heretic’s pistol screams again and I’m still alive.

There was a red-robe between me and her when she started firing. He slams into me from my right, convulsing, sparking – I have my hands over my head – on my other side the voicewright is grabbing for me with a desperate precision – what are they -?

Their hand snakes out and I feel the cold click of the cable detaching from my armour. Middle of a firefight and they’re more interested in recovering their cable than in diving for cover? Alicia’s gun screams again and something hits my wrist with a hammer but the bolt goes spiraling away unexploded. She’d been aiming for the side of my head.

My duty is done. If that didn’t do it, nothing can. Now my life is no longer too valuable to risk. And somehow in that moment that knowledge goes into my mind and it’s like turning a key in a lock. What’s burning in my gut is not the fear that’s driving that voicewright into a shivering heap on the floor behind me. It isn’t the tearing black-and-white pain of my wounds. No. Call it freedom.

And there is something I have been wanting to do.

My left foot fizz-clicks, briefly immovable, perfect grip. Surge to my right. The suit has a surprising range of movement if your form is good. Pain is there; pain doesn’t matter. My form is perfect. I physically throw the dying tech-priest at my target – sure, Alicia is strong, but I learned on the barricade the value of dead weight even against our equipment. The body fouls her aim and the next bolt goes into the floor or something and then I’m on her. Left hook towards her still-unarmoured face and she hasn’t had time to draw that sword – barely she gets a block to me – I push forward and she did not expect a headbutt. There wasn’t much force to it, but I’m helmeted and she’s not and I think I broke her pretty nose. She staggers backwards and I keep on her.

A Palatine should be a veteran of a dozen campaigns. She should not be off balance from such a simple sucker blow – she should not have taken a simple sucker blow. Her foot should not have slid on the floor unless she wanted it to. She shouldn’t be fighting to bring her pistol to bear when I’m inside her reach. I keep on her. Right uppercut hits her in the midsection – she’s trying to summon her sword so I don’t need my left hand to defend me, I don’t care if this lets her get hold of another weapon she can’t hit me with – grab her pauldron as she tries to pull away and this time she sees the headbutt coming.

But this time I have leverage, and once more the Emperor grants me the strength of an angel. I see stars and taste blood and scream pain and horror at her and I do it again and she falls when I let her go and she doesn’t get up.

Autosenses don’t go grey when you’re halfway to passing out, they don’t care about blood on the inside and outside of your helmet both. The metal doesn’t let me down even as my flesh is failing. I can see Alicia’s honour guard. The ritemistress and the choirmistress. I can see them both.

On my right, Garvia. The ritemistress. The ritemistress’s name is Garvia and she is not aiming a weapon. She has raised her hands in some kind of – wait. She doesn’t know, she doesn’t know. What I told them about the Valkyrie, she bought it. She didn’t tune in when I broadcast. Maybe she was scared. Maybe she didn’t want to risk souring it. Whatever. She’s looking at the literal chaos in front of her and her helmet hides her expression from me. But she is praying – I (hope I) do not know the words – what she isn’t is a tactical threat.

The other one, the one to the left, is the lady who taught me to sing. She’s backing away, shaking her head. She’s talking over helmet speaker – no, she’s praying too – they think they’re seeing a miracle –

Her weapon comes up, though, and that’s enough to decide who’s going to die first.

The confines of the corridor are tight. I’m almost in her face by the time she realises that yes I’m coming for her and I’m not going to stop. The bolter screams at me and in the same sliver of an instant there’s a sledgehammer thunderclap on my right shoulder as the bolt realises it’s supposed to explode rather than deflecting. But there’s no critical system inside the pauldrons of my armour – doubtless the shrapnel is impressive, this is what full helmets are for – I hit my choirmistress with enough force to push her over backwards and I go down with her.

And again. This woman is supposed to have been training in martial arts since childhood. The instinct to counter this frenzied clumsy tackle of mine with a simple throw should be ingrained, natural, muscle memory. There’s a part of me that’s watching me do this and already thinking as if I’ve been dumped onto the floor on my back. But no. No, what she’s trying to do is to point her bolter at me as if it’s any damned use at all when I’m literally on top of her. We hit the floor with an earsplitting slam. That bolter is nothing but a lever- if she thinks I’m fighting to point it at her – I shift my weight and push down hard.

You can outwit the machine-spirit of a suit. It will follow through with sheer unstoppable mechanical strength when no human would. All I need to do is make it think I have my weight on top of it – as she struggles instinctively to try and throw me off, I put my toes down and lift my weight off her lower body. And so rather than throw me off to her left with all its strength, the suit twists her lower body the other way with equal force.

I drop my knees down and shift my weight backward and she’s trapped – once more she pushes instinctively – this time I pull. She’s got a deathgrip on her gun. Her arm snaps out straight and that’s exactly what I was after. Drop one hand off her gun and grab her wrist and pull as hard as I can, half lifting her off the floor – and if we were sparring this is where we’d stop, because now I have her.

That also means I’ve never done what comes next.

It takes a really spectacular windup and full suit strength to put a sarissa through armour. Unless, for example, you have the luxury of being able to put the tip of the blade inside the adjustable section at the shoulder joint and under the arm. Then you could even do it with failing oxygen-starved muscles poisoned by exhaustion and drugs.

The crossguard of my knife is a simple straight bar and the sound it makes as it hits the plates either side of the weak spot is tick and there’s no resistance any more.

One more target.

I stand as I turn –

I try to –

The condition monitor on the right-hand side of my vision is trying to get my attention. Apparently it’s been sounding audio alarms that I can no longer hear. Armour integrity. Fluid levels. Heart and breathing rate. Oxygen saturation. Blood pressure – blood toxicity – blood volume. I think it’s running out of excuses to give the Emperor as to why I’m not dead yet.

Apparently these excuses no longer run to things like the ability to stand.

With an incoherent animal noise I have a bolter in my hands and the target isn’t more than five yards away. The aimpoint of the bolter is a red dot in the world that makes more sense than anything else that’s happening right now. A steady red dot around which the world can revolve.

I can’t make the world stand still enough to take the shot. Damn you, Garvia, five yards away on your knees and you won’t stay still enough for me to draw a bead. Slam a knee down myself and the impact shakes my whole world loose. Stationary she dances past the aimpoint in the centre of the universe – there! – I pull the trigger.

And as everything before me dissolves in white, as pain once again fills the front of me with black-edged flames, as the servos of my damaged shoulder give way against the bolter’s recoil – as the weakness of the flesh finally overwhelms the grace I’ve been granted – the last thing I see is the flash of my bolts striking home.

God-Emperor of Mankind, into Your arms I

++++

What do you do, waking up when, you know, when you never intended to?

The final death toll will never be known. Practically everyone on the planet knows someone who knows someone who suffered worse than simply a week’s worth of terror. Population numbers will have recovered in a decade, they say. 

Order will be back to normal in a generation, I’m told. The people we brought out of hell with us – the same idiots we couldn’t trust alone with each other without armed guards – in the meantime they shall own this hive. The man who defended me on that first barricade was wearing a general’s stars before I was even out of surgery.

As for the hive’s spire itself, they say, we will not know for a century. The blow was not immediately mortal, but the great engines were dealt grievous harm, an injury that would have murdered anything lesser. Whether it will scab over, whether it will heal? The red-robes shall swarm like ants. If it can be done, it will be.

To the Imperium of a million worlds, though, there are five other hives. To the Imperium, of course, whoever prevented the complete social collapse of this place and its fall to the Archenemy, whoever prevented a cascade that immolated the planet, well –

What do you do, on waking up to discover you saved the world?

Imperial records shall not show that the Order was destroyed. That would be wasteful. It is no work at all for the Imperium to forget what it never knew. To waste is a sin.

I awoke and was a loose end. I suppose that I had never considered what happens to loose ends. I had never expected to wake. When the Lord Inquisitor looked me in the eye and asked what he was supposed to do with me, should it have been ever so surprising that I had no clue?

In the midst of all this, surrounded by talk of decades and generations and millions, of what import are a dozen people who never existed to begin with? I was convinced he’d have us shot. But he quoted Macharius to me: To waste is a sin, be it ever so venial: seek ever to avoid it.

For us, see, this was terror and pain like none ever knew.
For us this was grief and loss and life-changing horror.
For us this was the bonfire of all that had been our lives.
For him it was a day’s work.

And he wondered if a bonfire couldn’t be a forge-fire.

It’s impossible, as it turns out, to tell an Inquisitor that things cannot be done. His doctor did not even consider me particularly badly hurt: the front of my ribcage is metal, now, and one of my lungs. The thing I had been hiding in my mind, the thing I had not told Gennid about for fear he’d try to destroy us all, the thing that started this all – there are things I cannot remember now, cauterised like a scar, and that includes what the Inquisitor did to me and how.

The question of our origins and nature? It is completely amazing how explaining your problems to one who handles the fate of worlds will trivialise them. Apparently it is more than reasonable for an Inquisitor to have any retainers he wishes.

And, you know, he tried to give us an actual damned choice.

Any who wished could muster out and he’d see us situated amongst the hive’s new leadership, but if we’d rather –

Rakil interrupted him.

My dear sister interrupted the Lord Inquisitor and asked if the alternative was death, because otherwise she volunteered.

And he actually laughed.

++++

++End of testimony: Liber Secretorum, alpha++

++Shall I commit the file to the archive?++

Cold steady ice-pale hands remove the data-cable from the right temple; a grey hood is raised to cover hair cut helmet-short. What’s the difference, again, between a faraway look and a thousand yard stare?

++Interrogator?++

“Make it so.”

How do you know, if you are acceptably righteous? D’you just wake up one morning and decide not to be a heretic? Does someone tell you? How do they know?

“Thought for the day, cogitator.”

++Awaiting.++

“Blessed is the mind too small for doubt: thus is it written. The rest is left as an exercise for the reader.”

++So say we all.++

Black-painted lips quirk. “So say we all.”

In Light, Chapter Seventeen

Up

Back

++++

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

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

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

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

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

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

I cue the damn ramp and I’m committed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

++++

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

…No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I take the deepest breath I can still take.

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

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

Gulp.

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

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

++++

forward

RPG NERD GLOSSARY: SHARK REPELLENT

I keep using this phrase as if everyone knows what I mean. Let me unpack it.

Consider a buyable power in some kind of fantasy campaign. SHARK REPELLENT, it is called. What does it say on the tin that shark repellent does? It repels sharks, that’s what it does. Guaranteed. You have to spend meaningful resources buying it, resources you could have spent on the standard PC skill THRILLING HEROICS. But just you wait! When a shark comes along, it’s in trouble!

It is in trouble, right?

From the GM side of the screen, shark repellent is frankly a poisonous trap, and here is how.

Non shark encounter: Character A engages in thrilling heroics. Character B does not.

Shark encounter: Character B uses SHARK REPELLENT. Encounter goes away!

… But you didn’t actually control whether Character B had shark repellent. Maybe they didn’t take that class. Maybe they sidestepped that power. Maybe they will not be at the session. Maybe they will have a brain fart and not use it. Now do you balance sharks for the presence of shark repellent or not?

Let’s say you don’t. Let’s say that once per fiveish sessions, there’s a shark encounter. Maybe sometimes there’s a shark dungeon. Character B shines! Character A is sidelined! That’s OK, you all think, they get to have fun the rest of the time. But does Character B actually shine? They do their thing. They make up for being 90% strength 90% of the time with being 190% strength 10% of the time. But is this actually fun? It’s pretty much an I-Win button – have you seen the anime One Punch Man? I-Win buttons suck. This is the experience of a pre-Tasha’s 5e D&D ranger in a wilderness they’re expert in. This is one potential experience of a fifth level 5e D&D cleric versus diseases and curses.

OK, so you balance sharks for the presence of shark repellent. Now if character B is not present, the party must run from the sharks. If character B is present, the sharks are repelled and a balanced encounter proceeds. This is called the Rogue’s Dilemma – replace sharks with locks and traps – or the Decker’s Dilemma – replace sharks with computers. Whole screeds have been written about the Rogue’s Dilemma and I don’t propose to go into them, but suffice to say that design moved away from this direction for a reason.

Assume you’ve done one of the above… but now you want to challenge the players. Maybe you’re not thinking, maybe you didn’t think hard enough, maybe you just had a brain fart. The following train of thought is incredibly natural: let us create a shark that is immune to shark repellent.

So now I’m going to turn the screen around again. We’ve fought through the dungeon. Character A has been shining with their THRILLING HEROICS skill. Character B has been waiting. Now we get to the boss – a giant shark! Huzzah! Except, wait! The SHARK REPELLENT doesn’t work!

On TV, this is standard horror movie fare. You never expect the shark repellent to work. In tabletop, there’s often an expectation from a player who’s been waiting all session for their five minutes of being awesome that this will work. It’s got to make up for an entire session of waiting. It better be amazing! And you know what? It didn’t work. They used the situational power that’s supposed to be equivalent to on-demand access to thrilling heroics, and it didn’t work. The shark repellent didn’t repel the shark. You’ll have to fall back on thrilling heroics again. 

wait.

*

This entirely avoidable experience is distressingly common. I’m not saying don’t have situational abilities, necessarily.

I’m not saying this is impossible to get around. Many things get around it many ways. D&D 5e does it by providing a golf bag of different types of repellents and letting you swap them in or out, but it’s always had the problem where Turn Undead was impossible to balance, and it still doesn’t handle curses and diseases well.

I’m not saying it’s impossible for a DM to balance. Many can. I have tried. But the presence of highly powerful situational abilities that have to be planned for is pretty much a newbie trap for both players (Do Not Buy Shark Repellent) and DMs (Shark Repellent Must Always Work On Sharks). I call this the shark repellent problem. I thought everyone did. I think they probably don’t.

(thank you for coming to my TED talk)

In Light, Chapter Sixteen

Up

Fifteen

++++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do I need to repeat myself, novice?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you remember what she said?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It sticks to her hand.

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

++++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ffffffuck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vox-click.

“Servitor, read out course and arrival estimate.”

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

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

“Authorization.”

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

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

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

“Aye-aye.”

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

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

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

“Seconds three hundred eighty.”

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

++++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seventeen

In Light, Chapter Fifteen

Up

Fourteen

++++

The level two-hundred descent helix isn’t just a roadway. I’m not just talking about the vast cyclopean scale of the place, about the warm sticky breeze that flows in from each entrance and up through the airlane in the centre. And it’s not just the toll-gates and barriers that bar entry on the upbound side, not just the downbound checkpoints and scanners. The true barrier between midhive and downhive is in people’s minds.

You live on level two-hundred, you’re a midhiver: your hab is above ground and you know it and you’re proud. Your ration-credit is remitted to an account sealed to your caste-code and geneprint. It’s your business how and where you spend that credit, your business how you spend your time outside of labour hours, your calculation whether and with whom to procreate. If not true freedom – for if you become too hungry or unfit, sleep-deprived or impoverished or squalid, you are corrected – then at least you have the illusion of freedom. Or so I was taught. And when you kneel before the God-Emperor you have chosen to, for the Emperor protects: and provided you never choose anything else, you are kneeling of your own free will.

You live on level two-oh-one, you’re a downhiver: your hab is in the Hive and that is all that you know, and you’re proud. Your employer receives ration-credit for their output, calculated by the Admninistratum to allow them so-and-so many inhab arbeiters at such-and-such an activity level. It was by their judgement that a permit was granted for your existence, and it is their duty to feed and clothe, train and succour and house you: and in return it is your duty to conduct your life as a loyal citizen. The machines are taught your geneprint and they are watching as you do your duty to your fab and your hab. And if you do not do your duty and you could have, then you do not eat, for there is not enough for all unless all do their bit. Or so I was taught. And when you kneel before the God-Emperor you are doing so because it is midshift, and it is your duty to kneel before the God-Emperor at midshift observance.

And naturally both sides look down upon the other and count themselves fortunate.

So crossing that line, it’s a social fault-line, a state border, a big deal. There’s literally passport control. The reason the Judge put us at the front, apart from to separate me from Rorkel – besides him we have the clearest signs of status. We’re simply wearing our authority, and it’s impossible to fake. What would take the interrogator ten minutes of bluster, we’d be freely waved through, and anyone we vouch for is holy by association.

The thought amuses me, for a moment, or something that passes for amusement from here. Rakil catches my bitter little corner of a smile and I can see her regretting that I can’t share the joke without the others hearing. Put the fakes at the front, they look better than the real thing.

Except that we go another quarter turn down and that’s not funny in the absolute slightest.

Passport control is made up of ferrocrete prefabbed blockhouses, locked down to the fabric of the descent spiral. These things are a hybrid of hab and checkpoint and commercia, taxed neither by midhive nor downhive, competing with each other for smartness and custom, warmth and humanity muraled onto cold ferrocrete. And now – just now – they are dead. Flatly dead. Broken. Erased. Here we have a building that’s been torn off its magnetic foundations by some titanic force. There, a mural depicting the triumph of Macharius has been burned to charcoal and rust. 

Every window is smashed; the crawlers’ wheels crunch over broken glass and I raise a pathetic little prayer that it doesn’t slash our tyres. Flames lick and gutter from some of the buildings. We don’t get close enough to see many of the corpses. We don’t linger long enough to check for survivors. I tell myself nobody could have survived that.

And we did this – we didn’t do this – we didn’t, we did not. This would have happened anyway. We survived this. We didn’t make that ship start firing, we made it stop where it did. And other pointless useless vaguely comforting self-justificatory bullshit. I’m looking at all this and in my mind I’m just repeating over and over again that this isn’t my fault. I’m almost surprised my sisters can’t hear it. I still can’t make myself believe it.

And next to me Gennid is sat there thinking (I guess) nothing more than that we’re a few impatient steps closer to our goal. And I’m wondering how long before the ration allocations of the fabs below us run out, and whether the arbeiters of two-oh-one will think that perhaps there is food in the richly stacked commerciae that they’ve heard of but never seen on two-hundred. I’m wondering where exactly the people went, who ran before us into here like rats boiling out of a steam-vent suddenly gone hot. I shall imagine that they dispersed, went home. Hid. Got safe. Why not. It’s a big hive.

Novelty wears off quickly. Nothing to see, nothing to look at, nothing really to say. I mean, what can you say? The world’s changed, forever, gone to hell, and we did it. Doesn’t matter that the alternative might have been worse. In truth we’ll never know. (And the hive screamed.) I instruct myself one more damned time to shut up. Determinedly I think about something that isn’t disasters and victims and screaming and my own damn fault. The… huh. The cargo-crawlers aren’t close to max weight, but they’re still heavy bastards: the gradient of the descent helix takes attentive driving, especially because I’ve a pretty good idea that our drivers don’t exactly do this for a living. Emperor’s grace, the roadway lights are still on, the place swept ( – fucksake, girl, move on – ) clear of traffic and obstructions: as Magnus becomes more sure we’ve lost the crowd we gather speed, fast as we dare. Regardless of what has happened, it’s working – home stretch. We can do this.

++++

Is it not written that hope is the first step on the road to disappointment?

Thing about roadways, you see. Roadways in hives, the principal nature of which is that they’re full of people. Their natural state, right, dayshift and nightshift and shiftchange and just all the time, the roadway is naturally not so much ’empty’ as ‘full’.

I mean, the Administratum are pretty good. Pretty damned good. The demand for traffic and the carrying capacity of the infrastructure is one of the dozens of factors going into the calculation of rations and quotas and zoning decisions: in normal times the roadways of the hive are close to full capacity, but very rarely is traffic slowed below its efficient speed.

This feel like a normal time, at all, does it? 

The brakes are loud. The driver is apologetic. I tell them I’ll pass on the bad news.

“D’you hear, Aqua, Scale, Pink, Gennid? Agate speaking. Heavy traffic ahead, over.”

I suppose that the idea that there would be traffic had crossed my mind. I mean, I’d expected civilian vehicles in a kind-of abstract sense. But this roadway, the via-magna, is the main transport artery for everything going north: I’d really rather forgotten that this also meant external traffic, you-know, exports. The fabs and the mines deep below us send their stuff up great crawling cargo-lifts, the cousins of the turbos of uphive and midhive, but half of it goes the last half-dozen miles by crawler. So when I swing up to the roof to get a better view, when I see that the via-magna resembles a vehicle depot rather than a bustling main road, I don’t mean it’s choked with small vehicles or even service trucks. I mean an array of giant ugly wheeled, tracked and many-legged conveyors, big as buildings. And they are… not moving fast.

The vox doesn’t hide Magnus’ growl. “Of course we have traffic. Instruct the drivers to make best speed in the priority lane.”

Seven lanes either way, the left lane for local traffic, the right one for priority: the middle five are taken up by what should be an orderly and organised march of these gigantic vehicles, and it’s, uh, it’s not. Not every one of them is one lane wide, you see – some are two, some are three, some take up the space of four vehicles in three different lanes with their great unlovely piston-legs – and on a normal day, their destination more often than not will turn out to be free just as they arrive at it. All credit to Him-on-Earth, or the Omnissiah, or indeed the intercession of innumerable red priests and grey functionaries – it’s a dance as intricate as the motion of cogs.

And this is the thing about cogs. Take just a few little ones out, and you’ve handily constructed chaos from order and everything will spin and nothing will move. “Aye, Judge, best speed.” Put one cog in the wrong place, and the whole damn thing will lock solid. “Priority lane is little better, though, I’ll warn you.”

“Bloody thing should be clear enough.”

I mean, he’s right. Priority lanes are reserved for the privileged and the holy. I suppose the emergency services use them, too – I suppose that by volume, that’s their main use. “Not so, your honour. Lights and sirens as far as the eye can see. Walking pace at best.”

“You have a better idea?”

The world compresses again for an instant, how dare he – breathe, dammit – “No, your honour. Passing word.”

Gennid heard all that. Leans over to me. Speaks fairly softly. “Your plan, then?”

I match his volume, at least. “Oh, come on. You just heard me say we didn’t have one.”

He jerks his head towards the priority lane we’re crawling towards, the sludge-slow traffic of frustrated emergency vehicles. “Those are all servants of the Throne, no? The Adeptus Arbites holds their fealty? There’s a reason you don’t just order them out of the way, I assume.”

I make the it’s-complicated face and you know, he actually listens. “Half of them will be guild, that is, Mechanicus, we might need your authority rather than the Judge’s. But it’s not… I mean. Those are first responders on their way to emergencies. They are the people that people make way for. If there was anywhere for them to make way into, they’d already be using it to jockey for position.”

A slow nod. “So, then. What is your plan to go faster? Or do you think that going fourteen miles at four miles an hour will be enough to save your world?”

I make a frustrated noise in my throat. “A standard transit pace would have us there in less than an hour – wouldn’t want to push much faster in our current state. How fast do you run a half-marathon?”

He shifts in his seat, clears his throat. Avoids my eye. “Half as fast as that.” And don’t make him try. Got it.

“The judge said much the same. Rorkel’s armour could probably keep up with us, but he’s too small for it – using the servos for what they were built for would pull his legs out of their sockets. We could memorise directions from Rorkel as to where we had to go once in there What’s required to make your credentials work?”

He shakes his head. “They are keyed to my thumbprint and genescan.”

“So, your hand. How warm does it need to be?” I take in his moment of shock. ”Let’s call that a backup plan.”

“I mean, I can write you an authorisation for the action we need, but we’d need someone to let you close enough to read it – so we return to the need to get ourselves there.”

“Interrogator, I’m honestly running short on ideas. There’s no getting this vehicle down this road faster unless we can grow wings and…”

“Wait.” He sits forward, suddenly interested. “Flight. Can we?”

I pry the mind’s eye away from the last time that I saw something growing wings. Swallow. Still tastes awful. “I, uh… if we could, it would be just what we… These suits don’t have flight packs. We don’t have an aircraft or even a skimmer. The one we brought down from the top of the hive looked awfully dead when Pink landed it. Everything even near that aeroport we stopped at was burned. Where do we-?”

“Mm. But this avenue, what did you call it, via-magna?” He jerks a thumb upwards. “It’s set up for air traffic, is it not? And clearly not everything here is burned. Is there something I can commandeer?”

“That’s actually not a dumb idea.” I key my vox, reflexively hand-signing that I’m doing so. “D’you hear, Scale? Agate speaking. We are talking about whether there would be flyers within vox range that could get a team to the precinct quicker. Any clarity from you?”

“Wait one.” A few moments. Emperor’s grace set our feet on the right path, and lead us not astray- “The precinct just might have somethin’ that can fly, but we can’t even get carrier signal that far. I suppose our vox set’s still jinxed. Short-range only. Unless you could have a word with Him Upstairs about making that right?” The vox steals his tone of voice, but that was a joke.

“Understood. I’ll get right on that, Scale, Agate out.” 

My sisters all heard that. Porsia’s synth doesn’t quite hide her amusement on our squad channel. “Who taught that man theology?” 

Rakil beside me meets my eye and this time we can share that bitter little smile, because we’re thinking the same thing – who taught us? – and then her eyebrows go right up.

“Wrong theology,” she says, softly to herself. “Wrong theology… Ellayn, did we… did Magnus bring that red priest along with us? The deacon enginseer?”

Huh. You know… “I think so. I think they’re driving one of the eighteens.”

She nods encouragingly. “Right. Right. And while I don’t know about you, sister, but I wouldn’t know vox-liturgy from random noise – do you know who maybe would?”

Hope is the first step on the road to disappointment. I finger-sign that I’ve swapped my vox to the shared channel. “Tech-deacon. Transconductor. D’you hear me, Transconductor?”

Their voice is the same over vox as in person, although it retains none of the vigour that it had when we first met. “Sister Ellayn. Response/handshake good. What can I destroy for you now?”

The formal words are ones that I was taught by my teachers. By the traitors. They’ll work anyway. “Deacon of Mars, in the name of my Order I request the intercession of your Guild before the Omnissiah your patron.”

Puzzlement. “Recognised. Sister Ellayn, you do realise that I have no more access to others of my Guild, right now, than you do?”

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

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

“I require a message to be sent to anything within range that can fly and carry at least three passengers.”

Pause. Outright perplexity in their voice, now. “I can do this thing, but I fear it shall avail you little. Away from great machines, I only have access to similar vox-volume to you. I suppose that if I were not driving, I could construct an amplifier, but all of this equipment is cursed, as you are doubtless aware. It would take a true miracle for a signal to -“

“I’m aware,” I say. “But hear me out. This via. Is it not filled with the holy engines of transport?”

“It… is, yes.”

“Which are animated by the spirits of the blessed machine.”

“Of course.”

“Which speak to each other.”

“So it is written.”

“And your vox can easily reach the nearest one.”

“Ye-es. That range is twelve feet.” I can practically hear the idea percolating through their mind. “And… Hmm.”

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

“One… might put it in such terms.”

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

*

That’s the thing about the religion of Mars. Prima facie, to the untrained eye, it doesn’t seem to fit. It looks and sounds like idolatry. Here they are beside the holy works of ancient technology, the gifts of the Emperor to His Imperium, the legacies of the dark ages before the Great Crusade, and it’s like they misunderstood that word ‘holy’ and started to bend the knee to the footprint and not to Him that made it. Their name for their god is different. They don’t even say that the Emperor protects. Their rituals are perfunctory, even utilitarian, deliberately avoiding passion, emotion, zeal. As if they are striving to strip away anything to differentiate them from the machines they serve –

But then, consider the machines. Not simply the little spirits of hab and fab and weapon that everyone’s familiar with, but the ancient cogitators and turbos and the machine-spirits of air and darkness that enfold and sustain us all. How do they listen? How do they think? How do they speak? Not like we do. The first lesson of the priesthood, save only that the Emperor protects, is that it is the task of the Adeptus Ministorum to deliver the Emperor’s word in the language and idiom of the flock. Is it any surprise, then, that the tech-priests would teach that same lesson? They are not there to minister to humans in the name of the Deus Imperator, or even of the Deus Mechanicus. We all too often forget, and we’d do well to remember, that the machine-spirits themselves are our siblings in faith. And the red-robes are there first and foremost for their benefit.

And I cried out to the Emperor in the astropathic quire and the machine-spirits came to my aid and I remember that too.

The tech-deacon’s prayer is a precise droning repetitive incantation on a dozen vox-bands I can hear and doubtless a dozen more I can’t. The language is binaric, of course, the common tongue of humans and machines: I can’t hear my message within it, just have to trust it’s there. And then, like the rustle of windblown leaves in some ancestral forest, the signal starts to echo back from a thousand little ‘casters.

And the ferrocrete jungle comes alive with voices no unaugmented human can hear, as the little spirits of engine and wheel take it up. And they sing, and the musician in me can just about make out the interplay of electromagnetic harmonies as they make of it a sixteen-part canon that makes the deacon’s voice sound as odd a specimen of a machine as it was of a human. But regardless of their beauty their voices are small, and though they do inspire their peers in neighbouring vehicles, though the message is indeed travelling, it’s doing so at a practical walking pace –

But the little spirits aren’t singing for each other. As the message travels forward in that slow leapfrog it is also travelling inward: and suddenly the piercingly intense voices of the vehicles’ emergency transponders come online. They aren’t singing the little deacon’s original tune: it was flawed. They have rectified that. The message they pass on is shorter, it’s cleaner, a melody line: and it’s sung out across all channels at a sufficient volume to clear them of all other traffic. And what I can only pray bears some resemblance to my original distress call sings out down the via at the literal speed of lightning, and this message is picked up and passed on instantly and verbatim by nearly every ‘caster that can hear it. 

Ave Omnissiah, apparently.

++++

That message felt… one-way, to me. And whether or not we actually need to know if anyone heard it, till they turn up or don’t? I’m not alone in wanting to.

We’re in the priority lane, now, passing between rows of great building-sized trucks – our horizon, it’s kind of limited. But the convoy isn’t going too fast to catch up with, and just sitting here and worrying feels wrong when I could instead be scanning the horizon and worrying. Now to identify a likely vehicle…

Pretty sure Gennid didn’t expect the first and second sopranos to hop lightly down out of the crawler as a unit. Pretty sure he’ll cope.

Our chosen vantage point is the tallest one we could see. It’s a walker pattern, six legs each the size of a small truck, tall and wide enough to drive two of our own cargo-crawlers underneath side by side. Each massive leg takes a step about once every five or six heartbeats, lifting a judicious two inches, sliding forward and coming down with a deceptive elephant softness. The outside of the thing is bare of handholds – but it’s metal. Emperor take my hand, lead me safe, hold me fast. I touch an experimental hand to the thing and it sticks like it should, and it comes away like it should – excellent.

The walker will be guided by a single mahout, physically plumbed into the machine with sockets not too different to the ones that connect me to my armour, except theirs will just be around the base of their spine. There’s no way they won’t feel our weight on their machine’s servos, no way they won’t notice the fizz-click of our fingers and toes as we climb, no way that camera up there doesn’t see us. Frankly, no way they aren’t praying that we’ll be on our way without wrecking everything we touch. But the view

Yes, a sister shall not be subject to the following fears including – skip many – a fear of open spaces and the sky. Yes, we received conditioning about this – otherwise known as a seemingly endless procession of nights bookended by nightmares about falling into the sky. And besides, we saw worse than this on our little trip by air. My blood doesn’t freeze. But there’s still this deep-seated feeling, when we get up there, when there’s suddenly nothing between us and the distance, when we look down a road that’s so long that the planet’s curvature is starting to obscure what’s at the far end. A feeling that’s got all of us kneeling, taking cover, weapons half-raised against the incongruous threat of just simply too much nothing. 

The line of massive vehicles stretches just all of the way into that distance. Every one of these things is unique, some wheeled, some tracked, some walking. Some taller, some wider, all tremendously long – I bet that anyone from around here could tell you which one sent out the products of their fab and returned with the imports of their hab. I bet that anyone from around here would know who was going to starve in two meals’ time if one of these things didn’t make it to where it was going and back – I blink. Look away. Every one of these vehicles is completely irrelevant unless we succeed. Might be irrelevant even then. I can’t forget that. What I can do is look for what I’m supposed to be looking for.

At the end of the via the railhead, the hive’s northern barbican above it and hidden by the ceiling of this hive-level, the haze of distance making it look a little like a painted backdrop. But I’m looking for something a little nearer, the style of the architecture deliberately foreign, the very fabric of its walls deliberately unusual. A foreigner among the buildings of the hive, a flaw in the symmetry of the place, and its construction makes it obvious to anyone with eyes that its builders relied on the hive for precisely nothing. It’s even set slightly askew, as if to remind that Imperial authority cares nothing for petty local regulations. And those gargoyled arches conceal enough weaponry to hold off an army, and unlike the barbicans of the hive proper they make no assumptions concerning where that army might come from. And somewhere in there are launch bays.

If there were a flyer nearby, we’d see it coming in as little as a minute. A few seconds for your machine-spirit to parse the message, a few more to track the origin and turn. I scan the sightlines, the unfamiliar horizon, looking for the black dot that’s all that a flyer would be. No dice. Time passes, and drags its feet. 

Ten minutes is a creditable turnaround time to get a flyer in the air if you have one sitting ready to launch. Ten minutes to warm up a jet engine from cold, ten minutes for a signal operator or maybe a red priest to go up their chain of command far enough to find someone who understands why it’s important. Ten minutes is enough for our convoy to go about a thousand yards. We keep up – the gaps between these vehicles aren’t large for us. The mahout stares as we pass their cab. I can see them clutching a little chrome aquila in their hand. Ten minutes was a dumb idea anyway. Nobody’s got a carrier ready to scramble on the off chance someone calls with an extra-serious emergency on a day when you’re already handling more emergencies than you’ve ever thought could happen at once.

Fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes is a pretty good response time. Five minutes for someone to go up their chain of command and get a decision to launch a flyer. Ten minutes to scare up a crew and warm up the engines while they work out where the signal’s come from. There are six of us who’ve chosen to do this rather than sit in the crawlers wondering and worrying: me and Rakil, Porsia and Hayla, Manda and Yasi. If I’m in charge, Porsia’s my second – doctrine should have me leave her behind whenever I split us – hell, doctrine should have me send her and stay behind myself –

Wait. There. I freeze, my boots sticking suddenly to the top of this crawler with a crack like a lasgun discharging. “Manda, you’ve got the best eyes. Verify for me, launch, precinct, twenty-three o’clock, thirteen miles?”

She squints, reflexively triggering helmet senses that aren’t there, just like I did. “Confirm, Sister. Fast mover. Wish I had thermo.”

“Heard, seconded, motion carried.” Vox. The synth keeps me sounding professional. “D’y’hear, Scale, Gennid, Carnelian, Aqua. Flyer launch confirmed from the precinct.”

“Eh?” The vox robs the Judge’s intonation, but it’s clear enough. “Say again, Agate. The precinct put a skimmer in the air?”

Manda shakes her head. A couple of the others concur. “Negative, Scale, it’s a fast mover.”

“Well, ain’t that a thing.” I can imagine the man’s face. “I know where I left my Aquila, and it ain’t in there. Rest of the place’s flyers are lighter’n air or don’t carry passengers.”

I will one-hundred-per-cent not be the first person to mention the sudden sick feeling that we could have a strike fighter inbound. “Whose is it, then? Definitely a fixed-wing silhouette. Too far to see more.”

Gennid weighs in. “Colour? Markings?” 

I shake my head, see Rakil do the same. We look to Manda. She’s shading her eyes with an ungloved hand –

Then she drops her hand to her side nerveless and it looks like she’s seen a ghost as she turns to look at me. It’s a moment before she can get the words out. “Purple. I-it’s purple, Ellayn. It’s a Valkyrie assault lander in the Saint’s purple.”

Dry mouth. Sure it’s just a symptom of the combat drugs. Sure I read that somewhere. I nod as if that hadn’t frozen my gut solid. Finger-sign, vox open again. “All units, we have tentative ID on the flyer contact. Valkyrie, Order of the Quill.”

“The way you said that, Sister.” It’s Rorkel. “It’s as if it’s not good news.”

“There’s good reason to consider all other Order of the Quill assets to be hostile,” says Gennid, blandly. I look at my sisters. They look at me. There’s no way to talk about that sentence. There’s no way to think about that sentence. “ETA on the flier?”

“Three, uh. Three minutes.” For the umpteenth time I forget not to chew on a black-painted lip. “Two until we’re in vox range. We need a plan. Now.”

“I have one.” And for the first time since the lift terminus, Gennid sounds sure and certain again. “Stop the crawlers. Magnus, Ellayn, meet me by my door.”

++++

Those two minutes turned out to be one minute forty.

A channel comes up in the curious sixth sense that is my vox-awareness, and I hold up a hand to stop the men talking. “Out of time.” Vox. I don’t subvocalise. They need to be able to hear this. “D’you hear me Valkyrie Herja, this is Sister-Novitiate Ellayn speaking for Squad Agate. D’you hear me Valkyrie Herja, over.”

Beat. I get an eyebrow from Magnus. Gennid doesn’t even twitch.

The incoming signal is powerful, directional, a tight-beam. They’ve got it turned all the way up to try and defeat the jinx. All that the men will have heard of that was a piercing stab of static – the channel is encrypted – I tell my suit to decode for them. The voice has the ghostly perfection of a synth. “This is Herja. Sister-Superior Arabella speaking for Squad Onyx. Request tac-sermon, novice, over.”

Those are the proper words. My conditioning is kicking in. Arabella is my legitimate superior in – she’s my superior – she’s, uh. I squeeze my eyes shut and bite my lip and taste blood and lip gloss. I clench both fists and get my brain between the words and my tongue and just breathe. Is this what being a proper agent of the Inquisition is like? I stumble over the thoughts and the words. Throne send me righteousness, Emperor set my feet straight, and don’t even think the part of that prayer that mentions the Saint. I fix my eyes on the Valk, easier to talk to them when I’m looking at them. Deep breath.

I send a piercing thought at my synth, something between an order and a plea: don’t try and help me. My naked voice is what I need for this. I need to sound exhausted, hurting, scared. Lonely. Weak. “Heard, Sister-Superior, I, uh. Everything has gone wrong. Half of everybody is dead. Our officers with them.” Instinctively I feel that as much of the truth as possible is the best way to do this. Yes, this is a piss poor tac-sermon that a first-year novice should be ashamed of. I’m not even speaking battle language. “I’ve kept the squad together, th-those that live, I’ve brought them here out of harm’s way. Request -” I don’t need to try too hard to make my voice crack – “Request exfil, Sister-Superior, transit to the precinct, to, to safety. We’re at the end of our endurance here.” Swallow hard. I don’t want to genuinely burst into tears because the synth might kick back in. “Over.”

“Heard, novice.” Emperor, please. Let this work. “You are Agate, yes? The Choir of the Vigil? You were present in the cathedral?” Her vox is not like mine. It isn’t tuned for performance – it’s set to maximise clarity under battlefield conditions. It doesn’t hide that strange note in her voice, something that sounds disturbingly like excitement. “You were witness to the sermon? You recall the form of words?”

The person I am making myself out to be, she didn’t hear anything other than the prospect of salvation. “Affirmative, Sister Superior. I, I recall every word I spoke. Please… please confirm exfil?” It’s not hard to sound desperate. 

“I can confirm. Fixing on your vox signal. Find us a landing zone, Agate.”

“Heard, Onyx. Meet us on top of walker two-one-five-november-whiskey-eight, over?”

“Heard. ETA two minutes. Onyx out.”

I close the channel and I shut my eyes and I clench my fist till I can hear the armour creak. It’s true, it’s fucking… Sister Arabella was convent security chief. Hardly the most exalted rank. Can’t get the image out of my head, the day she chewed me out for some minor discipline violation – I can’t remember what. All I can remember is staring at her and thinking that I’d never seen anything quite so awesome quite so close up, I wanted to be her. And by the Throne, by Macharius and Dorn and Celestine and all the saints, if the security officer is in on it then what’s the betting everyone was, and how do you even –

My suit pings at me. Either it doesn’t understand my emotion or it disapproves. Or, hell, it’s just reminding me to breathe out.

And I let out the rest of my breath on an explosive noise that’s not a swearword because words need thoughts lined up. I turn my synth back on and look at the others and for once its perfection is working for me. “Okay, you heard the lady. No turning back now.”

Gennid… For maybe the first time since I met him there’s real respect in those eyes. But the words don’t change. “Concur. Let’s go.”

Twenty seconds gone and I have three conversation requests. Magnus. Porsia. Rakil. And I have two minutes before we need to do the impossible, and I’m spending half of that hauling twelve stone of bastard up a Throne-damned cargo walker. Crying out loud. “Magnus, whatever you’re going to say, don’t. Get it done.” Close channel without letting him answer. Shift my weight – the side of the walker’s sheer. Did I just feel the mag in my left glove slip half an inch?

Gennid is trying to help. His boots are nothing but plastek and synth rubber, his gloves worse for grip than bare skin. Honestly it would almost be easier if he was a dead weight. I shoot Rakil an apologetic glance and I hope that’s understanding I see. “Porsia. Something better be on fire.”

“I should be up there with you.”

For Earth’s sake. I grab a stanchion and pull myself and Gennid up another four feet, wedge a boot on top of some kind of outcropping and it locks itself into a solid foothold. “This is not a conversation.”

“Damn straight. I’m senior.”

I can’t stop in my climb. I can’t turn. Another lift, another step up. Lock my toe into an inadequate foothold, fizz-click of my left hand against the side of the crawler, haul Gennid up another few feet.

I’m coming up-”

And fuck that. Lock everything. Forget that we aren’t wearing helmets. Forget that everyone can hear me yell. Forget to order the synth not to kick in. Forget Gennid’s face is two feet from mine. “Sister Porsia, in the Throne’s name you will stay where you are put.” And yeah, the faces at the windows of the cargo-crawlers tell me that every single one of the people we’re escorting heard that. Gennid squeezes his eyes shut. Hard to pretend you didn’t hear something with the echoes coming back to you like thunder.

And Porsia doesn’t blink. She doesn’t raise her own voice. “That should be me up there.”

Unlock my joints. Moderate my voice. Not apologising. No damned time. “I’m not sidelining you, sister. Your section has the hard job. Stick with the refugees and the wounded. Be there for them when we can’t.” Another step up. Rakil’s at the top now. Pull Gennid up – he grabs her hand and she lifts him effortlessly – “And if we fail, Porsia? You’re it.”

“That’s all true. Not denying any of that.” She takes half a step towards starting the climb. “I’m not saying the job isn’t that, sister. I’m saying we can’t do it.” I can hear her synth covering for a voice that’s falling apart and there’s nothing I can do about that. “I’m saying I’m not strong enough.”

“Neither was I,” I growl. “In Whose name we serve.” And I’ve already turned my back as she tells me that the Emperor protects, as if she believed I deserved that.

And Rakil clasps my hand and pulls me up. I didn’t need the help, but it’s written on her face that she needed to give it. Yasi and Manda are already up here. No time, no time. We double-check our weapons and fall in. Gennid at my left shoulder, Rakil at my right. I can hear the thunder of the Valkyrie’s engines.

Deep breath, set the vox to the correct channel. “Agate. We get Gennid into the fortress at any cost. That is the task, you understand?”

Any cost?” Manda frowns. “I just remember what happened the last time we used those words. That’s our elder sisters up there.”

“You heard Arabella on the vox, Manda.” Rakil’s voice is hoarse. The lack of honorific for our superior officer, the casual disrespect, it stings. It’s meant to. 

I nod. “You heard what she was asking about, what that means. You heard her sound excited when I said what I said. If you had any doubt any more, about whose side she’s on?” I clear my throat. Time to do the thing. Subtlety is for people with time. The words spring automatically to my lips. “Servants of the Throne, attend: I do hold Sister-Superior Arabella and those aboard Valkryie Herja condemned for heresy in the sight of the Throne. Not least among their crimes is treachery to Him-on-Earth. Witness my judgement.”

“Witnessed,” says Gennid, drily. His hands are out of sight behind his back.

“Witnessed,” says Manda, and the synth makes it ethereal. Rakil repeats the word in a growl, not taking her eyes off the lander. Yasi follows suit, blinks back her own tears, half-mechanical motion to cock her weapon.

“Witnessed.” The rest of the squad weigh in. It’s important. It’s not just some sort of psychological what-have-you, not simply a request for the Emperor’s blessing. As they all speak those two syllables, I feel a click from the targeter built into my armour and weapon. If I were wearing a helmet I’d see exactly what it meant. But the gist is this: the machines heard us, too. The machines have granted permission. Our weapons will now think of these people as valid targets. To be honest, they’ll probably do a hell of a better job at that than we will.

“As I was saying, Agate.” We’re lining up towards the back of the cargo-walker. “We have two duties here. We have our duty to each other – to those who can’t walk, to the martyrs, and to our comrades and the refugees. We need to see them safe. Porsia, in this moment and in the Emperor’s name I pass you that duty. If you need someone to believe in you? I do. All right? I know you can do my duty for me.”

Five precious seconds is a hell of a long time to waste on silence.

“Convoy’s moving. The Valkyrie isn’t looking for you. Get to the precinct.” There are four of us up here with Gennid because I didn’t even try to tell Rakil she couldn’t, and she asked Manda before I could tell her not to, and that meant Yasi came, and – “If I fail in my duty – if you don’t know if I’ve failed or not – assume I have.” If one of us isn’t enough, more won’t help. “Assume they’ve stopped us, and we’ll meet again before the Throne. Get to the precinct at best speed and send a message. It might be enough.” 

It won’t be, finger-signs Rakil, and Gennid nods, and I don’t have to let anyone else see me agree with that. “Protegat Imperator,” I say, Emperor protect. And then we’re out of time.

++++

Sixteen

In Light, Chapter Fourteen

Up

Thirteen

++++

Those parts of the tech-priest’s face not covered by the metal mask go pale with horror and they back 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.” They straighten, draw themselves up to their full height and look Gennid in the eye. “Bad request. Safety protocols prohibit my accession.”

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

“Digression request denied.” They have the expression of a regicide player playing what they hope will be a fork between rex and mannulus.

He looks unimpressed. We don’t have time for this. “Override your damned protocols, tech-deacon. Are you a servant of Deus Mechanicus?” Their affronted expression is exactly what he was trying to provoke. And from his pocket he takes the wallet that I saw before, his credentials, the seal of the Inquisition. “This is the seal of Inquisitor Toth of the Order of the Hammer, which identifies me as interrogator and plenipotentiary. You are requested and required in the name of Deus Imperator to render to me any assistance that I should order, without constraint, without let or hindrance. And I have given you a direct order. Any further questions?”

“But you will hurt the turbolift.” It’s as if they are 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?” They spread their hands. “You mean to say that there is no other way beyond violence?”

“I would love to get our urgent mission through this mess without loss of life,” Gennid hisses. “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 have the Sisters tear that door open with their bare hands. Are we clear?”

“Insufficient data, as you well know.” They turn unreadable eyes to me. “Sisters, please. Be reasonable. If you sabotage that door your own mission will be performed less properly. Please do not -”

I hold up a hand. “Stop.” I hope the tech-deacon can decode the sympathy in my voice. “I don’t think you mean to tempt us into disobedience.”

The deacon’s eyes blink, once, with a metallic click. “If my choices are to repurpose the machines under my care -“ they pronounce the word as if it were actually poisonous – “or to be torn limb from limb in their defence? Well, I suppose-”

“Your choices are to preserve at least something of the machine and live to repair it, deacon, or to stand in the way of our mission.” I try to meet their eyes and hope they are still human enough to read my expression. “Please don’t make us find out what happens if you try that second one.”

Another moment. The little deacon is entirely unarmed and the top of their head wouldn’t quite come up to my chin. I hope they think I’m being logical. Don’t the red priests consider emotions to be against their religion or something?

And then they look away. “I concede,” they say, and turn to the workings of the door as if on a turntable. “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: they hunch their shoulders and begin to type.

It hurts, to hurt someone else. I think that we’re supposed to learn to forget that. I’m not sure I want to.

++++

We stand to. We’ve sent Gennid back with Niwall – with Niwall’s body – and 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 Rakil 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 their 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 them look. They do not pause in their work, but they swivel their head at what must be an uncomfortable angle. “I did not even tell you where in uphive I was asking about.”

“Doesn’t matter,” I repeat.

“Doesn’t…?” They stop, freeze mid-keystroke. Close and open their eyes in a deliberate reset. “Disaster?”

“Hardly.” I cut the word off neatly.

“Sacred Host.” They turn back to the terminal, start work again, the clicking of the keys feeling somehow reluctant. “Is… battle concluded?”

“For now.”

They nod, mechanically, dully. “You are… you cannot be retreating?”

“Not quite. The hive is falling into civil disorder given the recent disaster, of course. It’s … not going to blow over unless someone does something about that. That ‘someone’ is us.”

“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,” they say 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 a sacred thing, 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. Nothing remains above hive-level thirty-five.”

“Why?” The question is reflexive. “Deus’ sake, why?”

“There was a reason.” I look them 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. Blessed are the ignorant.”

Another moment’s immobile silence from them. Broken, snapped out of it, by a chord from the console behind them that they acknowledge 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?” They duck their head. “Thank you for your… for your unusual candour. Quotation: zero greater than zero plus ignorance.” And they turn 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. “CAVE ARBITROS.”

“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 whole 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, and 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, say, some complete bastard 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. Praise the Throne that I have an excuse not to see the shockwave plough into the crowd.

I can hear it, though. We can all hear it. The sound punches through my ears into the back of my head, into my gut, and we’re back there in a line again facing the mob and they’re screaming for us and I can smell the blood and the gunsmoke and our weapons have come up ready for the volley fire that’s going to be completely inadequate –

and the only thing that stops us pulling the trigger is that the thing I said next back then is the first thing that I think to say. “Agate,” I hear, calm, cold, professional, and then a moment later I realise that I said that – “At fifty.”

…fifty? The crowd is further from us than that already, and those that are standing are fighting one another to get away –

It’s enough, it’s just enough. That’s not blood that I smell, it’s just the smell of packed humanity. That’s not gunsmoke, it’s dust.

And here they come, to our left. Imperial troops. Not the charge I’d expected, but a slow lockstep march. Powered armour, bright blue – the general’s life company. Makes sense – they’ve got the best wargear. Arbitrator riot batons in their hands, rifles slung. Not that a baton isn’t a deadly weapon in their hands. Suit luminators on full, making the dust of their arrival into a wall of light – I finger-code an order to follow suit and it travels down our line. That clipped professional sister-superior gives them directions in curt battle language the second their channel shows up on her vox, outlines Agate’s part in the plan briefly, and off we go. That sister-superior is me.

“Stick to formation,” sister-superior says, just the order I’d have given if I’d thought for a moment. 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 crawling over each other like rats to get away from us. And I realise the armoured life company soldiers are keeping their step just slow enough that we’re not catching the crowd up. There are people on the ground, here. Not trying to get up, not trying to get out of our way, and not a few. Prone or fetal or motionless, prostrated or injured or – don’t look, just don’t look at them. Step over them, or around them. Make like they don’t exist.

Nobody’s shooting. We’re not shooting either. We aren’t shooting at them. They aren’t the enemy and we aren’t shooting at them and maybe I haven’t condemned them all to death. 

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 he’s thought of that, too. Arbitrators and militia are moving out to form a loose second line inside the armoured wall. They’ve got a motley assortment of breathers and facemasks on. Those grenades are riot-gas. But they’re not throwing them.

The civvies on the turbo, they’re moving too. Stunned, bruised, but surviving. There’s a familiar not-quite-sensation as my suit recognises more of its fellows, tells me instinctually where they are. Keyt with the busted knee. Jeny with the shattered ankle. Zade and Avhata and Rillith, their armour telling me they’re alive if not awake. Vanyssa, the one we left behind to play ministering angel.

And the crowd ahead of us is going. Wherever they came from, where they’re going now is away. This place is built to let people out of it. Just don’t think about the descent helices they’re going into and the long empty drops down the middle and whether there’s something there to stop them just – falling. The vehicle bay has short little walls and 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 quickly. 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. I needed this, Throne on Earth, I needed this. I’m coming back into focus.

Not just cargo-crawlers, they’ve 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 a crawler, as we head back to pick up –

Our sisters are there on the threshold of the shattered turbolift and Vanyssa is biting her mouth closed to keep back tears. Cold perfection of my armour brings me to attention, we make the aquila, we clasp forearms 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 her. And for, oh, a minute or two everything is as normal and fine as it can be.

As it can be when you’re wearing a life-support machine set to keep you conscious and sharp and lucid to the exclusion of all other concerns, and on top of that it’s pumped you full of the kind of drugs they give to raddled pit fighters to make sure the audience gets a show. 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 you have been told about gut wounds, because blessed are the ignorant.

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

++++

It’s like being attacked by some kind of small and vicious 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. “Give me one good reason,” comes the aristocratic voice from somewhere behind that moustache, “for me to let you idiots travel with us one damned step further.” 

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.” Anger is rolling off him like mist. “I should call you out right here.”

I just look completely blank at him. “Call me…?”

He growls like a tiny rabid canine. “I assume your people have rules for this situation. I assume I don’t care. I assume one of your girls can stand for you.”

I’ve – I don’t think I’ve ever been properly insulted by a male before. It takes a while to parse what he’s trying to do. People this size and shape aren’t ever shouting at me

“Your word. All this on your damned word. Have you any conception of what it was that word asked us to do? Have you? Idiot.” I’m not sure I feel offended, just… confused. “Have you any idea, have you any Throne-cursed idea how close your orders came to killing ten thousand innocent citizens? Sure you’d have loved that, wouldn’t you. The God-Emperor shall know His own, after all. Damned death cultist.”

Blink. “Are you… trying to challenge me or something?”

“No,” the little man snarls, “I’m inviting you to a formal dinner and dance. D’you…” His eyes widen as if he’s not sure he can believe what he’s saying, but he’s got this far, he keeps going. “D’you quarrel, mamzel? I’m at your disposal.”

I shake my head. “General, even if I had taken leave of my senses and wanted to knock your block off, it is entirely against the Rule – a sister shall not engage in local customs of  – do you want chapter and-?”

His eyes go wide and he draws back his hand. Some little corner of a memory somewhere – if the formula for a constrained duel is rebuffed, a physical blow is a challenge one can’t refuse, or something? I step back quickly, out of his reach. ”Stand down.”

He shows his teeth. “Oh, now you place a value on life-”

I’m not looking at him. “Rakil,” I say, warningly. I’m remembering some poor bastards dressed in beetle-white armour, and I’m remembering who killed them, and the helpless empty look on her face after she did it.

Because walking quietly on ferrocrete in metal boots is one of the things we learn. There’s a moment when he thinks I’m trying to sell him an old trick – look behind you! – and then there’s a moment when he realises that no, I’m really not. The little man flinches back away to one side, away from the massive shadow suddenly behind him, away from me, his arm coming up to ward us off. And Rakil just keeps looking at him with those eyes that have killed better men than him today. But she stays her hand.

And now it’s Porsia behind him. She clears her throat and he spins entirely around and she does nothing but raise an eyebrow and stare.
And now my suit tells me I have Vanyssa and Yasi behind me.
And now there’s only one way he can retreat.

I give the man a faint, black-painted smile that bears no kind of warmth. “Go back to your unit, Rorkel. We have a hive to save. Were you not briefed?”

And, well, I mean, credit to the man, he does not retreat. “You people. You bloody people.” 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 ever trying their best to help you, everyone needs threatening before they’ll do their bloody job. And before you know it you’re ordering up atrocities 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 here I see it’s got it for a reason-”

“ENOUGH.” The synth puts thunder into my voice to turn the gut to water. I moderate it with a thought, because my sisters’ poor ears have been through enough. “Do you want to hate us? Feel free. Get in line. But everything is urgent – everything is too late – you are actually a little short on the number of Imperial lives we would like to save today. And we have already wasted enough time here. If you wish to declare yourself our enemy, then get on with it. I’m sure your successor will be a loyalist.”

He takes that last word about the same as he’d have taken it if I’d been the one trying to slap him. Keenly aware of who is behind him. He flaps his mouth for a moment – his eyes waver from me to Rakil beside me – he decides to keep it shut.

And Rorkel brings his hands up in the sign of the aquila and his suit lends an inappropriate professional respectful snap to the gesture. We mirror it, ten of us in perfect unison. He goes.

My sisters disperse, wordlessly.

++++

It’s only as I get around to ordering my auto-systems to stop my hands shaking that I realise the Judge had been leaning against the wall in comfortable range to overhear all that. I straighten up. “Uh. Something for you, Judge?”

“Oh, maybe.” He pats the narthecium case slung over his shoulder, nods in the direction of Keyt and Jeny. “Your girls over there called a medic, ‘cause apparently someone was about to get his fool head kicked in.”

I wince. “Sorry to put you out, your honour.”

“No trouble. Better the one thing than the other, sure that’s written somewhere.” And he eyes me up and down. “Do we need to have a word about what he said?”

And, I don’t know, maybe it’s the drugs. Maybe it’s the fact that in order to keep me upright and lucid, the suit I’m wearing has me on pretty much the exact same cocktail of substances that the astropath’s guards were full of. Maybe it’s the way that I have not slept for fifteen days. Maybe it’s the way that I can feel that there is blood inside my suit, pooling warmly around the seal at my waist. I don’t know what it is. But I turn to him and some part of me sees his eyes widen as the rest of me just snarls at him – “Leave it!” The synth makes the sound into a crystallisation of violence. “All of you – just – D’you think I don’t know? Do you?” My fists are clenched. The force through them could splinter concrete. “What I’ve seen, what I’ve done, what I’ve allowed to happen – You know. You bloody know, because I’ve bloody told you, you know exactly who you’re talking to, and just now you’re going to come to me and-”

“All right.” He puts his hands up, very much like he might do if I’d pointed a weapon at him. “Not what I meant.”

Breathe, Ellayn. Deep breath. “I am no less a child of the hive than that man.” The world starts to look less like a tunnel with a possible enemy at the end. “I shouldn’t need to tell any of you whose side I’m on.”

“Sure.” Conciliatory tone. Not sure I’m in the mood. “He’s hurting, same as all of us. You know he lost family up there, just like we all did? Maybe yelling at you might bring ‘em back. You know the kind of thinking.”

“Sure.” I meant to mimic his tone exactly, but the synth has other ideas and there’s poison on the word by the time it reaches his ears. “And he’ll stay out of our way from now on, I think, or you might need that narthecium.”

“I’ll see to that.” He shoots the retreating fellow a glance. “We’d have a problem if he deserted. But that’s mine to sort out, all right?”

“That sounds appropriate.” I follow his gaze, past the soldiers getting themselves in order. I take in our refugees, the Arbitrators moving around them like sheepdogs. “The plan, though, that’s still the same? Escort half a thousand civilians through hell to that fortress?”

He makes a face. “You won’t go faster by doin’ anythin’ murderous. Sure, you girls can outrun a cargo-crawler, but the rest of us?” He pats the carapace of his armour, over his abdomen. “Not sure in my own case. And you reckon Gennid or Rorkel ever ran ten miles all in one go, let alone did each one in four minutes like you lot? You’ll need one of us at the far end, to get you in the door and show you which vox-chapel to use if nothin’ else.”

“Got you.” The sudden surge of adrenaline, the equally sudden return of calm, it’s not great for my head. “We’ll make sure that-” the world blurs for a moment – nnh – “Happens.” 

And, yes, he didn’t miss that. He raises a bushy eyebrow. “Talkin’ of narthecia. Permission to check you over for life signs?”

It’s inflected as a joke. It’s not one. I know that. “Whatever would I do if you didn’t find any?”

He snorts. “If your skin is that colour on purpose, I’ll have your makeup artist up on charges. Don’t know what happened up in the spire, but it sure as hell looks like it left a mark.”

I’d say that the blood leaves my cheeks, but there would have had to have been some there in the first place. The Judge won’t miss that, either. “I appreciate your offer, but… there’s nothing wrong with any of us that you can fix.”

He shakes his head gently. “I’m not the headmistress, sister. You can tell me more than that.”

“No, your honour.” I swallow. It still tastes horrible. “No, I really can’t.”

“Have to shoot me if you did, is that it?” His moustache gives a completely unrepentant twitch. “All right. Any service I can do you without you callin’ up the firing squad?”

“Are you a full surgical facility equipped for the respectful handling of the relics of the Adepta Sororitas, its staff properly ordained and catechised that they may operate upon a body sacred unto Deus Imperator?” Shrugging in power armour confuses the servos that hold the upper arms and pauldrons in their proper places. “There’s one thing we need you for, Judge. And assuming you can do it at all, you can’t do it till we get you where you’re going.”

He holds hands up as if in surrender. “Can I at least make sure that you’ll make it that far?”

“How long to your fortress?”

He shakes his head softly. “Twice round the helix. Fourteen miles on the via-magna. Call it less than an hour, Deus willing.”

And as I nod, my neck reminds me that the first real injury I took in this action should have put me in the hospital. “I will remain active for at least twice that.”

“You’re only standin’ up right now because your suit won’t let you fall down.”

“And you are asking if Him-on-Earth has granted me sufficient strength to see your mission through.” I give him much the same smile that I gave Rorkel. “You don’t need your equipment to answer that question.”

It’s like I said something funny. “Yes, ma’am.”

“You don’t need to call me that, Judge.”

“Yeah, I do.” He braces up, gives me the sign of the aquila. “Emp’ror protects.”

++++

Fifteen

In Light, Chapter Thirteen

Up

Twelve

++++

My sisters don’t see it happen.

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

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

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

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

My throat hurts.

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

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

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

Pause. The paint on my lips tastes bitter.

I don’t have the words.

“Sister?”

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

“…what did?”

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

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

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

to – 

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

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

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

“We can, can we?”

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

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

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

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

“That what you wanted, was it?”

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

“No. No, it wasn’t.”

She closes the channel.

The rest of my sisters leave me alone.

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

Let’s go with that.

yeah.

++++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

it’s – 

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

can smell the blood and gunsmoke, I can hear –

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

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

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

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

Next problem.

++++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

++++

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

Happy thoughts, Ellayn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Roger that, Agate, wait one. Out.”

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

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

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

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

“D’you hear me, Agate, over?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Loud and clear, Agate. Please advise.”

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

Silence.

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

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

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

++++

Fourteen

In Light, Chapter Twelve

up

eleven

++++

All that matters in that first instant is Niwall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I pick her up again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“S-so,” says Porsia carefully –

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

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

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

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

try to –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

++++

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

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

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

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

I look at him till he starts speaking Gothic again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry, what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Enough. Now recite for me-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I clear my throat. “Twice that.”

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

I swallow. I say nothing.

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

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

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

I flinch.

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

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

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

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

“Bullshit,” I hear myself say.

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

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

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

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

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

And his hand is completely empty. 

I make myself open my fingers.

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

++++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That isn’t an answer-”

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

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

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

Blink.

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

From the beginning, then.

++++

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

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

It’ll survive that, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until it can’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

++++

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

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

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

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

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

Silence.

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

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

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

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

Such a good job He’s doing.

++++

Thirteen.

In Light, Chapter Eleven

up

ten

++++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

no

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

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

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

Drabbe’s voice calling out clearly
CHANGER OF WAYS

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

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

++++

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

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

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

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

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

daemon –

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

I know that face –

– we unleash hell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

++++

twelve

In Light, Chapter Ten

Up

Nine

++++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protect and defend us against all terrors and dangers of this

++++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

oh, sweet Throne.

I didn’t know anything could be so big.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fifteen minutes she said.

We go back to our prayer.

++++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then call someone whose rank is sufficient.”

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

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

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

The guards clearly can’t obey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Those stairs, I think.” He strides. 

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

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

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

The far side of the door smells of –

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

there’s nobody there, nobody living.

I’m not the only one to swear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

++++

eleven