By Jude Reid
The heat was stifling.
It was Brona Norvok’s first time inside the water reclamatorium, and if she had her way, it would be her last. The air burned her throat with each breath, the metal plating scalding even through the thick soles of her work boots. In the last ten minutes, sweat had soaked her bodyglove to salt every inch of her skin. It seemed impossible that anyone could work in these conditions, let alone the capering, scrawny fool at her side.
Brona wiped the stinging sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. “Exactly how much longer do you expect this wild grox-chase to take?”
“Only a little further.” The labourer flashed a toothless, apologetic smile. “Patience, I beg you, honoured enforcer.”
“For the last time, I’m not an enforcer,” Brona muttered. Proper enforcers — not lowly factorum guards, hired by the overseer to keep the labourers in order on their journeys between their work and the sprawling downhive hab blocks — had better things to do than investigate spurious rumours of stolen rations. “What exactly do you need to show me?”
The labourer nodded, almost grovelling in his eagerness to please. Brona wasn’t a tall woman — no one downhive was — but Hannek barely reached her shoulder, the bones beneath his synthweave robes as fine as a bird’s. If what he had said when he had brought his complaint to the overseer was to be believed, he was a shift supervisor with ten years of experience. Not many labourers made it to a full decade of service in the reclamatorium, which made his wild allegations come as even more of a surprise.
“Look.” Hannek pointed a scrawny finger down the passageway, his other hand tugging at Brona’s sleeve. “There.”
“Touch me again and I swear by the Throne I will end you.”
“Forgive me.” The labourer bowed his head, his rheumy eyes still fixed on the darkness. “But you do see them?”
Brona squinted down the narrow passageway, her eyes acclimatising to the gloom. Three robed and hooded figures were attending to the steaming copper pipes that ran along the walls. “I see diligent labourers about their business, Shift Supervisor. Surely that can’t be what you’ve brought me down here to witness.”
“But do you see them?”
There was a desperate intensity in the little man’s voice. Brona shook her head, frustrated, then stopped as one of the labourers reached overhead, causing her hood to fall back.
The contrast with Hannek’s fragile frame could hardly have been starker. Where the shift supervisor was skin and bone, the labourer at the pipes was solidly built, her wrists broad and her neck corded with muscle. Fine tattoos snaked across the big woman’s face, vanishing into close-cropped pale hair.
“They must be stealing food, honoured enforcer.” This time she let Hannek’s mistake go uncorrected. “No one could sustain such vigour on our allotted ration.”
“Should I take that as a complaint, shift supervisor?”
Hannek lifted his hands and wheedled out an apology. “No, honoured enforcer. I am grateful for the Overseer’s generosity. I wish only to see these thieves punished appropriately.”
Brona shot a glance down the corridor. The burly labourer had disconnected a section of pipe, and was holding up a heavy-looking replacement for her fellows to weld into position.
“And how do you know they’re thieves? Not just blessed by the Emperor with a sound constitution, or buying extra food in the markets?”
She knew her question was stupid before it left her mouth. No one here had the God-Emperor’s blessing, and the pittance the labourers earned each month after rations and accommodation were deducted would barely have been enough to buy a single extra meal, let alone enough to maintain the strength she had just witnessed. Either the labourers had found some way to conjure nutrition out of empty air, or the repugnant little shift supervisor was correct.
Hannek’s toothless mouth was stretched wide into a grin of triumph. “Because I’ve seen where they hide their stolen goods.”
“You swear it?”
He met her gaze without flinching. “I swear it.”
“Then take me there. Now.”
The door didn’t look like much, just a single sheet of metal set into the plascrete walls of one of the upper gantries, the sort that might have led to an alcove for storing cleaning equipment or machine parts awaiting repair.
“They keep their stores there?” she asked.
“Yes.” Hannek was nodding hard enough that his scrawny neck looked about to snap. “In and out, in and out, all the time. They must be punished, honoured enforcer. Punished for their theft and for their lies.”
The sooner this matter was laid to rest, the sooner she could be out of the reclamatorium and out of Hannek’s loathsome company. She put a hand to the door and shoved, and it swung open with a creak of ancient hinges. The closet inside smelled damp, with an undercurrent of decay that the heavy smell of cleaning unguents couldn’t quite mask. Brona stepped inside and activated her flash-lumen, then stopped, her breath catching in her throat. Light was gleaming from an open pair of eyes, staring directly back at her from the gloom.
The flash-lumen dropped from her hand, its beam casting wild shadows across the cramped confines of the alcove. “Shit—!”
“What is it? What happened?”
“Nothing.” Brona drew a deep breath and stooped to recover her flash-lumen, her heart thudding. “Just a broken servitor and a pile of old junk. If your colleagues are storing stolen goods somewhere in the factorum, it’s not here.”
Hannek elbowed his way inside the cramped space, his face creasing with disbelief. “That’s not possible. They come here all the time. I don’t understand—”
Something in Brona snapped. “You useless little shit. I’ve got better things to do than indulge your workplace squabbles!” ” She grabbed his coveralls in both fists and shoved him into a bundle of broken mop-handles, but instead of meeting the resistance of the wall behind she encountered only a filthy plas-tek sheet hung across empty space. She thrust Hannek roughly to one side and drew back the drape.
A gust of warm, foetid air met her face, the smell rank enough to bring bile flooding into her mouth. Beyond the space beyond opened up into a cramped passageway filled with pipes and valves that led further into the darkness. She played her lumen-beam across a glistening trail of slime marked with smeary booted footprints.
“Close the door,” she said, then drew her stub-gun and squeezed herself into the narrow passageway between the pipes and the wall.
The quality of the light changed as she squeezed her way along the pipelines, turning to an oily grey that only made the shadows deeper by comparison. The heat was close to unbearable now, pressed close around her like a tangible force.
“We should go back,” Hannek murmured from behind her, his knuckles bloodless where he gripped a broken mop-handle.
Brona shook her head. “You’ve dragged me out this far. No turning back now.”
But why not turn back? It would be the easiest thing in the world to retrace their steps, for Brona to report to the Overseer that nothing had been found to substantiate Hannek’s allegations and for the shift supervisor to receive his allotted punishment. But her curiosity was piqued, and the thought of returning to the endless monotony of her shift was an unwelcome one. Here she almost felt like the enforcer that Hannek had mistaken her for. Here she could imagine her actions had meaning, something that might grant her the merest modicum of favour in the God-Emperor’s sight.
Ahead, the source of the dim light became apparent, as the passageway opened onto a grid of gantries suspended above one of the manufactorium’s enormous tank rooms. Pipes swarmed down from overhead, discharging freshly purified water into an open-topped steel tank that was large enough to hold a small hab-block. Overspill from the pipes fell in glittering waterfalls like a benediction, and she tilted her face upwards to wash the sweat from her skin.
It would have been easy to miss the little shrine. It had been placed on the gantry overhanging the very centre of the room, the glow of its candles warm and welcoming by comparison with the grey light seeping through the dirty glassine roof.
“Don’t you have a labourer’s chapel?” Brona asked.
“Of course, honoured enforcer.”
“Then why —” Brona waved a hand. “This?”
Her feet clattered on the metal gantry as she moved along the grid of hanging walkways towards the makeshift shrine. It was made of an old copper vat polished to a gleaming, iridescent shrine. She stopped close enough that she could see the gilded reliquary on top, its lid lying open. A prickle of unease ran down her back.
“Honoured enforcer?” Hannek’s silhouette flickered in the corner of her vision, and she waved him irritably away.
Brona leaned forward. Nestled inside the reliquary lay a skeletal finger, far too large to come from any normal mortal. Shreds of ancient, mummified skin still clung to the discoloured bone, and the stench of decay rising from the reliquary lingered in the back of her throat. A puddle of purulent fluid had collected around it and was dribbling through the reliquary’s base, down the copper of the shrine, dripping through the gantry floor and into the great open-topped vat below.
“Honoured enforcer, please!”
The gantry creaked behind her. Brona turned sharply to see a group of three labourers advancing towards her, led by the burly woman she had seen on the lower level.
“Come to worship at Grandfather’s shrine?” the woman said.
Brona took a step back and aimed her stub-pistol. “Stay back.”
The woman smiled pleasantly, and took another step forward. In the light from overhead, what had seemed like health and vigour was revealed as something unnatural, something malevolent. The woman’s flesh was doughy and pale, skin stretched tight and gleaming over swollen tissues beneath. What Brona had taken for tattoos on the woman’s face were blood vessels, a dull grey-green as though a fungal soup was running in her veins instead of blood. “I can’t let you stop what we’re doing here.”
Brona took aim at the labourer on the woman’s right, and fired. The stubber kicked in her hand, and the bullet punched a neat hole through the skin just above the man’s right eye. He dropped like a stunned grox. The big woman gave a roar of anger, lowered her head, and charged. Brona fired into the woman’s chest — once, twice — but the labourer didn’t slow. Hannek stepped forward and swung his mop-handle into the other labourer’s face, and then the big woman hit Brona like a speeding groundcar, driving her into the altar, sending the reliquary flying, and then slamming her into the ground. A brawny hand locked around Brona’s wrist and slammed her hand into the ground again and again, but she kept her fingers locked tight around the pistol.
The cultist’s weight on her chest was making it difficult to breathe. Brona shoved upwards with her free hand, and her thumb sank into something soft and yielding. The woman recoiled with a shriek, wet red jelly seeping down her pallid cheek.
“My eye! You bitch, my eye!”
The momentary distraction was enough. Brona scrambled to her feet and brought the pistol round again. “Hannek! Down!”
The scrawny labourer ducked just in time. The bullet struck his assailant in the shoulder; the man staggered back, off-balance, and the momentum was enough to take him over the hand-rail, still screaming as Brona turned her pistol back to the leader.
“How many of you are there?”
“Our name is legion, for we are—”
Brona fired again. The shot hit the woman in the thigh, and she shrieked, a high, animal shriek that almost made Brona pity her.
“You’re too late.” The woman smiled, her teeth scarlet with blood. “You can kill me, destroy the holy relic, but this water is sanctified by Our Grandfather himself. Every labourer in this factorum has drunk of his essence. Soon the whole hive will know his blessings.”
The woman’s gaze darted to the side. Brona followed it to the suppurating finger bone, lying free of its reliquary on the edge of the gantry. Her finger tightened on the trigger, but the cultist was too quick. The cultist’s hand closed around the blasphemous relic, her face lighting up with triumph — then she plunged over the side into the waiting waters below.
“Shit.” Brona scrambled to her feet. Hannek was supporting himself on the hand-rail, doubled over and breathing heavily. “Where does the outflow from this tank go? What does it supply?”
“The whole factorum.” Hannek’s voice was flat. “The workers here have been drinking from it for months.”
“What about the city? Does it drain into the city’s water supply?”
He shook his head. “Not directly.”
Brona leaned her weight on the railing, the metal hot to the touch, her mouth dry. Had she drunk water since setting foot inside the reclamatorium? Uncertainty was an uncomfortable state to be in when a single drop would bring corruption.
“Honoured enforcer.” Hannek’s voice was soft, shorn of the wheedling edge she had come to expect. “I must ask you for a favour.”
He motioned to the stub pistol in her hand. “For the Emperor’s mercy.”
Brona shook her head. “No. We take this to the Overseer. She can—”
“Honoured enforcer.” Hannek managed a resigned smile. “You know what will happen to everyone who works within this place. You and the guards outside may yet be spared, but for the labourers, only death waits. I would prefer my death now, if you would be so kind.”
He closed his eyes, lips moving in silent prayer. Brona searched her thoughts for a prayer of her own. She cleared her throat.
“God Emperor, have mercy on this man, your faithful servant.”
For a moment, she would have sworn that she saw Hannek’s face bathed in light.
The pistol’s report echoed through the vast, empty hall, and the light died.
The image on the screen was grainy and dark, but the figure sitting in the centre of the cell was visible enough. A woman, kneeling at prayer, her head so freshly shaven that the nicks and scrapes on her bare scalp were clear despite the low-quality vis-augurs.
“You’re sure this is the one you want, my Lord Interrogator?” the acolyte said, eyes flicking down to her dataslate. “Brona Norvok. She’s a simple factorum guard. If the team needs more muscle, surely one of the hive enforcers —”
The acolyte’s master raised a hand, and the acolyte fell silent. “Tenacity. Courage. A kindling spark of the true faith. She has faced damnation and emerged with her soul unstained, which is more than can be said for those luckless manufactorium workers whose pyre-smoke is filling the air with stench.” He rose to his feet and sniffed disdainfully. “Have her brought up from the Penetentium, and tell the pilot to make the gun-cutter ready to depart.”
“Yes, Lord Interrogator.”
“Our newest companion has endured her first test of faith.” The hint of a smile crept across the Interrogator’s face. “Let us waste no time in finding her a fresh challenge.”