Until you’ve been this close to one, there’s no way I can explain just simply how loud an aerospace craft is, how physically overbearing. The Valk does a pass over the landing zone, flying low and what they’ll think of as slow, and I’m thankful for what little ear protection my vox-beads give me. And now I’ll agree with Gennid’s pronouncement that they’re more curious than murderous where he’s concerned, because now we’re staring down the unblinking eyes of the multilaser turrets under the chin and on each wingtip, and they’re dark and silent. The pilot flares the wings and makes a tight slow circle, bleeding off speed as suspensors and repulsors take over from the Valk’s trademark massive turbines, making with mechanical ease the tricky transition from flying like an aircraft to floating on antigrav.
The lander just seemed so much smaller when I last knew it, when we rode in it for training and acclimation. It’s the whole helmet thing, that acoustic insulation I don’t have. Even idling, the turbines make a high-pitched penetrating whine that cuts right through the skull. The bat-winged lander comes right back over us, much lower now, drifting on suspensors, coming to a rest in front of us as the armoured ramp drops with careful slowness. Agate are carefully drawn up by section, almost parade order. Deliberately making plain the gaps in our formation. Sisters, I’m truly sorry. Forgive me. I do not make light.
The scared girl I made myself out to be, she’s just about ready to break down completely. It would be so easy to be her. This Valk is here to bring us to safety, to rest, to a place I can let my guard down and get out of armour and stop being a-a battleground between drugs, autosystems and my own declining failing biology – I can hardly remember what it felt like not to hurt –
My eyes sting and my vision blurs and my throat hurts. (Good.) The ramp’s far enough down to see them, now – intimidating faceless black glacis curves of Lys-pattern helmets, immaculate purple surplices, not a scratch or smirch. It’s difficult to breathe properly and I firmly instruct my auto-systems that I know this is impacting my effectiveness, that this is what I want to happen, that this is all right. There are three. Only three of my elder sisters. Arabella is chief of convent security, doesn’t teach, never seen her fight, but that’s a chainsword at her side. The other two, I can’t tell who they are beyond that they’re full Sisters. I sag, lean on the armour, let it support me on locked ankles and legs in a way that says I don’t have the energy any more to stand up properly. It hurts. But it also looks exactly like I’m all the way at the end of my tether.
They descend the ramp and with a visible effort I steel myself and lift my confused suit out of lock. Shoulders back, blinding spike of pain from my wound, and my flinch and indrawn pained breath help too. Hear my squad clatter to attention, out of time, following my slovenly lead. And I make the aquila, and my cheeks are wet.
“Novice.” Arabella returns the gesture crisply, the synth giving her an angel’s voice. “Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes. What happened to you?”
I keep my own synth off. My voice comes out as a strangled squeak. I put my hands jerkily down by my sides as if I forgot how to handle my (still quite confused) armour, clench a fist, try again. “Sister-Superior. Our, our relics. Half a mile back, in a cargo-crawler. And -”
“Do I need to repeat myself, novice?”
“No, Sister-Superior.” I look down at the floor. “Civil disorder happened, s-some kind of disaster, our teachers, Sister Croix-” My voice squeaks and cracks on its own. I swallow hard. “We, we retreated, what was left of us. Regrouped. Tried a few other levels on the turbo, but they were – something was very, very wrong. We eventually hit on the plan to-”
“The cathedral.” If I weren’t familiar with synths, the sudden flow of harmonics and power into her voice would be terrifying. I see Magnus wince. “Tell me, blow by blow if need be. What happened?” Gennid opens his mouth and the helmet jerks in his direction, and I can recognise a sharp look even through the blank faceplate. “Not you.”
“The, the teleprompter broke. And Drabbe – sorry, Sister-Superior Drabbe – she stepped forward anyway, and she started talking and everyone could hear her and-” as I’m speaking I tell my auto-systems to dump adrenaline into me to make me shake, I let my voice come up in pitch, deliberately play hysterical and within a few words my own housemother couldn’t understand what I’m saying, I just stick to a convincing enough story that’s half true and half gibberish – “and Sister-Superior, uphive, the whole lot of it, the whole place, it’s, it’s, look, everyone’s waiting for the emergency to end and it just won’t and we need to announce-”
She steps forward and physically takes hold of me by the upper arm. She’s forgotten everyone and everything else. “Novice, LISTEN TO ME.” The subsonics in that are enough to steal my breath even though I pretty much knew that was coming. “Everything else is secondary. This is literally worth your life and mine both. In the cathedral. Was there a sermon? Did Drabbe preach before the congregation?”
She is. She really is.
And if someone as far down as the head security guard is, they all are. It’s one thing to suspect them, to wonder how deep the rot went, perhaps the thing in the cathedral was an isolated piece of madness, perhaps the Saint’s name was simply taken in vain: it’s quite another to see evidence right in front of me that my whole life I’ve looked up to people who were deliberately and coldly planning heresy against the Emperor-
She physically shakes me, suit and all. “Novice. Ellayn. Come back to me. Before the disaster. Did Drabbe speak? Preach? Was there a sermon?”
Sniff. “Yes, Sister-Superior, I-I think so.”
“Do you remember what she said?”
For true? Yes, I do, I know those words like they’re written on my eyelids (on the wall). I start to stammer that I’m not sure, that –
“Did you HEAR it?!” Her voice has the thunder of absolute authority the Sisterhood uses for crowd control.
“Yes!” I yelp, half-involuntary. If I push her too much further she’s going to resort to actual violence.
“Bless the Saint. All right, novice.” She doesn’t let go of me, takes a step backwards towards the lander and it’s come with or be pulled over forwards. “You’re coming with me.”
And as agreed, Magnus cuts in, or tries – “Sister-Superior, before you leave, a moment of your-”
She turns her attention from me long enough to yell at him and it doesn’t matter what.
Because all he’d wanted was to distract her, and now all hell breaks loose.
The plan’s simple. We didn’t have time for complicated. Twenty bolts in one gun is powerful: two bolts in ten guns is terrifying, devastating. If your weapon’s loaded and cocked you can go from port arms to firing in an instant and a half. And Niwall and I are nearly as good as a full Sister, nearly as strong and fit, and if I can get close enough to stop Arabella drawing the chainsword we knew she’d have, well. I’m the best infighter in my class and Niwall’s better than me. (And full combat settings on your autosystems are notorious among novices for making you shake like a leaf and burst into tears if there’s nothing to fight right at that instant.)
So the idea is, sopranos take the guns on the left, altos take the guns on the right. Our armour is good, but a bolt impact is still going to ruin your entire day – the world submerges in thunder as suddenly I cue my mag-boots and twist violently, going to control Arabella’s sword-arm.
Not an instant’s surprise from her. She spins with me, not even going for the weapon, so where I thought I’d have a nice start on a joint lock I’ve just turned us to face one another – but it’s not me she’s fighting. The bolt-pistol flies into her open palm as she swings her arm around, and where I was expecting Niwall to back me up, my sister’s ducking awkwardly and frantically away as the wicked little weapon roars not two feet from my head. Arabella shoves me, hard, in the chest, and it’s stagger backwards or fall over, and never mind the hot sticky pain across my midsection and the star at the top of my spine as my existing wounds remind me they’re here – I cannon into Niwall like a wrecking ball and see stars. And I hear one of my other sisters – Porsia, I think – scream and it’s like the sound grabbed my stomach and twisted.
The sister-superior catches me while I’m reeling, her free hand on my wrist, and yanks towards her with enough force to tear an unarmoured person’s arm clean off. I summon my sarissa into my left hand – two can play with maglocks – and follow up the momentum she gives me with a hard quick thrust to come up between thorax plates. But again she twists, just enough for the blade to cut nothing more vital than her surplice as it skips and skitters over her armour, quick step back at the same time, and we’re a step closer to the lander. And in her other hand the bolt pistol comes up and it screams out a fully automatic sweep, half a dozen bolts in half a second and I hear a loud harsh cry from Niwall but looking around would kill me.
Arabella’s trying to get me into the Valk. Expecting another pull I cue my boots and lock my legs and core, for an instant a nearly immovable statue: instead she takes advantage of my sudden loss of shock absorbtion to drop my wrist and punch me in the gut with a short sharp hammerblow and I feel armour splintering and
The autosystems notify me I’m on maximal nontoxic dose of – hell, everything – but trying to struggle shoots me full of bright shining agony and I can’t seem to catch my breath. My boots must have released by themselves when I blacked out: she’s dragging me up the ramp by my wrist and I’ve got a good view of everything going even further to shit. Three of my sisters are still standing and one of the Sisters who landed, trading blows hand-to-hand with all the success I was having.
It’s like the exercise, it’s just like the exercise except it’s deadly serious and nobody’s going to stop when they connect hard, come over, make sure that kick didn’t break your kneecap, give you a chance to get up if you fell hard. To the uninitiated it might even look like a level playing field – they’re all in the same armour, they’re all superficially injured, the Sister has a gun and a helmet but she’s outnumbered. But it’s really not a fair fight. The novices have trained every day since childhood, but the Sister’s a twenty-year veteran at least, a full member of the Order for longer than any of the novices has been alive. And it’s not like you stop training at initiation. It’s literally an adult playing with children, except she’s not playing at all.
And she’s got a helmet on. She isn’t risking neck injury with every sharp impact, she isn’t guarding a vulnerable face or neck. She doesn’t blink, she can’t be blindsided, and a feinted headshot is transparent as hell. She’s got communication with her squad that’s more like telepathy than talking. Her eyes don’t need to be anywhere near her gun to aim it. The only reason she hasn’t won already is that one of that first volley of bolts clipped her knee joint and she’s favouring it.
My heels clatter on the ramp of the Valk. No outward sign of communication but all of a sudden she just walks straight into a straight-arm punch from Yasi, It’s clear in an instant she meant to, she lets the momentum carry her over backwards, turns it into a roll as she summons her fallen bolter –
if the weapon had had more than one round in it then I’d be watching Yasi and Manda and Vanyssa die right now but instead the sister turns and leaps for the ramp as it’s rising, I see a dark blur that is Gennid no longer playing dead, his arm whips out, something small and spherical blurs out in a nearly flat arc, hits me in the chest and sticks –
Arabella bends down with every ounce of speed she has and grabs the thing. I have a lovely view as she pulls it off me little black sphere banded with silver the aquila picked out in luminous flashing red and a nice little hole where the pin used to be, that is an actual grenade.
Krak grenade. Kar Duniash mark six miniature, the Lex supplies. Three-second variable fuze, directional gravitic implosion warhead. Specialised kit, Inquisition issue. Pretty much the only concealable antiarmour weapon. Her hand blurs.
The sound of the grenade that was meant for me is too loud to hear.
“All right.” I looked from one of my sisters to the next as I shared out the ammunition, meeting each pair of eyes in turn. “We don’t have a lot of time and I need to make sure-”
“Don’t have enough time for a pep talk, that’s for cer…” And Gennid trailed off as a dozen hard cold stares fixed on him like he was being targeted. He ground his teeth, turned away, checking over his concealed weapons, making sure each was loose enough to quick-draw and tight enough not to fall out.
I just carried straight on. “I need to know that you know what’s about to happen.”
“We’ve got your back,” said Porsia, resolute now. If only because being my second meant she didn’t have to think too hard.
An unfamiliar expression cracked my face. A genuine smile. “I know, sis. Goes for all of you. I trust you with my life. I mean that.” I’d met Isaby’s eyes then, remembered her confession of uncertainty, and she’d nodded as if to tell me she was done with that now. “But this is going to hurt, right? Not like anything I’ve asked of you before. There isn’t a one of our elder sisters I don’t look up to, not a one I haven’t seen from a window one evening and thought ‘you know, one day I’ll be like her’. A-and now I’m going to be asking you-”
“No.” It was actually Isaby who spoke up, then. “No. You aren’t. You’re asking us to stand up on the Emperor’s side and dare them to do the same or face the consequences.” She clears her throat. “I’m with you.”
“And me,” says Niwall, and Vanyssa speaks up a moment later, and there’s a vox-click from every girl in the unit who didn’t open her mouth.
I looked down. I didn’t deserve these people. “All right. Ask your suits and your weapons to remember who their friends are and more importantly who they might not be. If this goes loud it’ll do it in an instant and be over in an instant more – gain us half a second and you’ll gain us a victory.”
I didn’t deserve them. They fought and fell for me. I asked the impossible of them and they died trying not to let me down. Sweet holy golden Throne it hurts.
The back of the Valkyrie is dimly lit. My head’s spinning. I’m not where I was, I’m in one of the seats, strapped in half-arsedly with a sister standing over me, the one I saw diving in as the Valk dusted off. There’s blood, new blood, on my face. And my ears hurt and all I can hear is this high-pitched ringing.
The Sister-Superior’s body is still standing, locked, where she must have been when the grenade went off. There’s a six-inch-wide hole drilled all the way through her, through two thicknesses of armour and through her power-backpack. She’s dead. Gennid killed her. This is her blood on my face.
The sister leans down again, pokes the harness to secure it so I can’t open it. It’s not properly tight. A surge of acceleration and pain surfaces above my sea of painkillers: I screw my eyes shut and grit my teeth and if I made a noise I didn’t hear it.
The sister sits down and secures herself: while her eyes are probably off me I shift myself to the side in the ill-fitting harness, far over as I can go. A vox-band is trying to talk to me. I open it but I can’t hear it. Finger-sign to the helmeted sister – vox contact, is that you? Communications issue. Injury.
Novice. Your friend really wanted to kill you. It doesn’t seem to be a question. Let us take it from here. Speak sermon and you can rest. She’s using signs out of context, some of them official signs, some of them the slang that novices use behind a teacher’s back. But their Gothic translation’s clear enough.
F u c k (I have to spell that) you. Go ahead. Kill me. All who know sermon are dead except me. You got nothing.
She’s locked and strapped in properly – I guess she was expecting me to stay unconscious for the whole trip. Novice, sermon is objective of V i g i l. Sisters, Sisters-Superior died for what? You can fulfil glory of Saint. What heretics told you irrelevant. Speak sermon and live in glory, all can be repented. Save your soul and your sisters’.
No, I respond with short abbreviated gestures. Kill me if your heart will let you. I will never aid a traitor.
She pauses for a moment, tilts her head. Is that what this is? To you I am traitor?
Yes. I saw. I heard sermon. Not sermon for the Emperor.
What is more likely? Her movements are as exact as a teacher’s. That heart of Order is heresy and wrong, or that you do not understand?
But where in L e x S o r o r i t a s is Saint? Emperor protects. Those last two words are one single simple gesture, so common are they in communication Which is my point.
She clenches her fists a moment. Was that all it took? Novice, no Saint in L e x except Mother D o m i n i c a. Not C e l e s t i n e, not A r a b e l l a, none. Is Order of Silver Shield traitor too? Order of Martyred Lady?
No. I exaggerate the gesture. Incidentally I push myself to my left with my elbow, looks accidental, and feel the harness creak. She’s strapped me into one of the ones with a weakened belt connection. Inquisitor’s word. Names used in sermon. Blasphemy. He said.
Inquisition i d i o t s don’t know us. Inquisitors go heretic. Sisters do not.
It doesn’t take much adjustment to bring tears to my eyes. I’m not wrong. Deep breath is more like a ragged sob anyway as I shift in my seat. Emperor protect me, guide my hands and my heart. I can’t be wrong, I sign, emphatic, but the mask of my face gives it the lie.
Why not? The sister leans forward. Because your sisters killed and died for Inquisition lies? Because they are not martyrs if your cause is false?
I look up at her wretchedly. Emperor cloud her sight. Emperor uplift me, and grant me this day the strength of angels. I don’t know, I sign, and my suit’s rising and restrained power makes my hands shake like a leaf.
And my elder sister bought it hook and line and sinker. Praise the Emperor, she even actually opens her faceplate to look me in the eye, I can see her mouth moving as she moves her hands. Come back, sister. Come home-
And I slam my elbows sharply back and straighten my legs explosively, and I feel the suit get behind that like the hand of the Emperor. The harness tears away on the right-hand side, exactly as I wanted. And you know what? When I shared out my ammunition I kept two rounds for myself. I cue the maglock as she freezes in surprise. The weapon lands in my hand and my elder sister’s suit is still putting her hands together in the rarely used sign for please as I point the bolt-pistol and my arm locks for a split-second against the recoil and my sight fills with the purple afterimage of the blast.
It worked. She’s dead. I killed her. Hit her in the face. I had less than a second to realise that yes, I did know her name (Silexa) –
No time, no time. Traffic on the vox-band and I have no idea what because I’m (still? permanently?) deafened by that grenade. But there’s a solution and I’m staring at it. My sarissa cuts the rest of the seat harness.
“My apologies to you, machine-spirits, I recognise you have no part in the heresy of your fellows, now for the sake of Him on Earth I implore you grant me your aid this day.” Can’t hear my own voice. (More traffic on the vox. Can’t hear that either.) The Sister-Superior’s helmet has a catch either side; I lift it off from behind because I can do that without looking into her eyes, and praise the Throne it comes. Careful not to trap my (horrible matted) hair as I lower the thing down onto my head, drop the faceplate –
The inside of the faceplate is blank metal covered in cushion-gel: the helmet seals at the neck and the breather covers my face, and there’s a moment when I am stuck inside this claustrophobic facelessness that smells of someone else’s blood. And it’s a bloody good thing I know what’s coming next as the unsettlingly warm connection is made at the top of my spine and the gel touches my face.
And then, glory. The auto-senses come online like opening a new pair of infinitely better eyes, and suddenly the outside of the armour is the outside of me, its senses my own. It doesn’t matter any more that I’m bleeding from the ears. With a thought I slave the vox to auto-sense input, and I hear the voice directly through neural connection.
Internal circuit. “…say again, sister. That sounded like another explosion. What the hell?” And the rest can wait.
“Situation arising, wait one, out.” My voice sounds awful. Not like me at all. Relying on confusion. My hands move almost by themselves as I visualise the layout of a Valkyrie’s cockpit, I was sat in a working replica not two hours ago. Pilot-servitor sits on the far right; two other seats. The helmet I’m wearing helpfully paints the occupant into the one on the left: the auspex can’t see through walls, but the helmet has chosen to betray the false order, and it knows its erstwhile fellows.
“Sister?” I release the other harness and pull my dead sister off her seat to get at the ammunition storage on the left side of her power-backpack. Bolter. Drop spent mag, fit new mag, front first, push, click, cock, release.
“What in the Saint’s name is going on back-?” The internal bulkhead of a Valk isn’t really armoured and the weakest angle for a Sister’s armour is a straight impact in the back. I give it a full five-round burst, and not a single round decides I meant to fire at the wall rather than through it.
And then I have to lock my armour and close my eyes and just breathe for a second. Deus Imperator, I did it. (I will not think about what I did. I will not think about what could have happened if I hadn’t. I will not think about anything. I have a mission.)
All right. Vox, internal connection. The Lex has my back here. “Servitor, respond.”
“Servitor, read out course and arrival estimate.”
The pilot responds in an androgynous monotone. “Three five nine point eight mark fourteen mark two zero eight, docking bay five, flank speed, docking approved. Arrival seconds two hundred forty.”
“R-reverse course. Approach previous coordinates and land.”
Well, here goes nothing – “Voiceprint: Ellayn, Sister-Novitiate, squad Agate.” Emperor protect me, guide my path. Emperor make the servitor recognise my voice when I hardly do myself.
“Voiceprint…” come on… “Accepted. Authorization denied, Novice.” Well, so much for the easy – “You must complete the mission yourself.”
I mean, I know that those words will have been taught to the servitor for training flights. It doesn’t stop them hitting me in the chest.
“Roger that.” Swallow hard. Sleep-lessons give me the words to use, but that’s very different from understanding how this is done. “Beseech auspex and fire control.”
Vox-click. I can feel options I barely understand unfolding in the back of my head. The auspex’s picture of the world is weirdly tactile, the microwave beam feeling like an extra limb almost, the texture of the returns rich with information I can’t understand. Am I going to be expected to aim by feel?
But no, there they are, three calm green aimpoints to match the red of my weapon: fire control, not manual aiming. And then a simple squint of the eyes and it’s like the walls of the compartment fall away and I have an instant of a terrifying rushing view of the via-magna and its massive inhabitants as we scream past at – oh, look, there’s a mach indicator, what’s a mach indicator –
I sit down hard and cram my eyes back into my damn skull before I fall over.
Three minutes left. Machine-spirits forgive me: it is by the authority of the Inquisition I do this. If I live, I give my word I’ll do everything in my power to restore you. But right now I have a powerful need to carve off all the badges of rank and status from my suit and poor Silexa’s. And to steal her tattered, blood-soaked surplice.