On the shrine world of Palma Alternum, deep beneath the planet’s surface, there are libraries that run for hundreds of miles. Dark catacomb-like tunnels that stretch beyond sight are filled with skeletal ironwork shelves that tower dozens of feet, reaching from dark stone floor to hewn ceiling. Candles tall as grown men and dim flickering lumens the only sources of light. The candles burn for weeks, their wax pooling in huge piles. Roaming servitors come by with shovels, scoop the wax into baskets to later be taken to the candle manufactorum to be recast.
The first tunnels were dug fifteen thousand years ago and even to this day new sections are being added. One could spend a lifetime walking amid the endless shelves and never set foot on the same patch of rock twice. The libraries hold written works gathered from across the Imperium. Paper dust drifts through the dark air giving the endless tunnels a musty, ancient smell. Some of the shelves are almost as old as the tunnels themselves, repaired again and again. New braces can be seen welded onto rusted sections, giving the shelves a lumpen misshapen look, like the mutated and bloated legs of metal giants.
Dovella Reinstall, Battle Sister in the Order of the Buried Word, says a prayer of thanks then drinks from her canteen. Dovella is in her mid thirties, her face smooth and without blemish or scar. Her skin is so pale veins can be seen in places on her hands and neck. Her lack of scars is something she’s not proud of and has considered remedying that lack herself. Long days in prayer and reflection on the Emperor has managed to stay her hand, but she longs for battle.
Dovella followed the drifting path of smoke from a candle whose flame is high beyond her head. The smoke wafted up, up past shelves that reach beyond sight into the darkness above. Up there, out of sight, the flapping wings of cherubim sound like pages of ancient books blown in a wind the libraries will never know. The cherubim are tasked with dusting the shelves, and send fragments showering down to be swept up by cleaning servitors. Some of the cherubim carry censers at the end of chains looped around their bodies. The censers filled with incense swing back and forth, blessing the books and scrolls, and shelves themselves. Other cherubim play hymns through voxs mounted to their malformed adolescent bodies. The songs channeled from chapels miles away sing praise to the God-Emperor and softly echo through the tunnels.
Dovella scanned a sign stamped into the side of the shelving tower nearest her, it read COLUMN BG12-468. She turned to the servo-skull floating at her side, said, “Give me a new estimate, Glint.” She’d named the skull during her last trip into the libraries, the candle atop its head its one affectation and the source of Dovella’s inspiration for the name. As the pair journeyed through the caverns the little candle was their one constant source of light, all others came and went.
There was a pause, cogs clicked, wheels spun, the sounds of Glint’s machine spirit processing the request. Then a voice, sounding both metallic and helpful, like a kindly librarian speaking across a vast distance through multiple radios, “Another nine hours at your current pace, Sister. If you were to jog you might reduce that time by-”
Dovella waved her hand, “No. Sister Superior Jolian keeps telling me I have something to learn down here, I’ll not rush things.” She patted the bag at her side, gave it a couple gentle feeling squeezes. Twelve hours ago it’d carried a small cache of food. A couple rations, three pieces of fruit, cured meat, five cans of recaf. She was down to one can of recaf, no fruit, and her last ration. “And how far until we reach another food storage unit?”
The candle atop the skull wobbled as Glint considered the new question. Glint bobbed through the air, read another sign, turned a corner and went down between shelving. The candles’ light wavering as it went, and dimming as Glint ventured deeper into the darkness.
Dovella paused, waiting, and ran her fingers over the rosarius wrapped around her left wrist whispering litanties and catechisms with each new bead touched. Each bead was different in some sublimely subtle way. Anyone else would have been hard pressed to notice differences between each, but Dovella felt them straight away. Her fingers touched one with a small chip on the edge closest to the cord, the next with a pair of slight cuts, and the one after a hairline crack. After some minutes she began walking again, Glint would return soon enough.
Her eyes dropped to her feet, each heavy armored step getting lost in the tunnels. The sound bounced off iron shelves then was swallowed by the innumerable books and scrolls. Ahead a trio of candles pulled her attention, the smallest of the three came even with her face while the other two rose well above it.
How tall were they to start? She wondered and tried to recall if she’d ever seen one of the candles lit. No, she had no memory of that. She’d seen the servitors going about their cleaning. Scooping up the wax and sweeping up the dust the cherubim brushed free from the shelves. The faceless servitors silently drifting through the libraries always disturbed Dovella on a primal level. It bothered her that they should be here, among such treasures and yet wholly unaware of the glorious works that surrounded them.
Glint floated over Dovella’s left shoulder, moved on beyond her then turned, still floating but now facing her and keeping pace with its master. “Food storage unit N4/c is the closest to your current position.”
Glint’s machine spirit worked out the question. “Two hours. You would take a right at the next major junction to reach N4/c, but our destination is straight ahead.”
Dovella picked up something in the servo’s voice. A hint of frustration or minor annoyance? “What is it?”
“N4/c is not en route to CH43-823.”
Dovella tutted, “Of course. Are there any units along our way?”
“There are, yes.”
“Five hours at your current pace.”
Dovella thought for a moment, narrowed her eyes, and ran her fingers over the beads, then said, “We’ll go to that one. I don’t want to add any more time to this trip.” She wouldn’t start jogging to decrease the time, but there was no sense in adding to it.
The pair continued, Dovella marked distant pools of light cast by the candles and lumens as goals to reach. Each lit space stood out to her in the darkness like a safe haven in the otherwise dark tunnels. So dark in some places one wouldn’t be able to see the shine on their own fingernails. A dark so deep it gnawed at you, seemed to have a weight that pulled on you. Dovella was glad for Glint in areas like that, not that her path took her though many. Only twice had the pair gone through such on this current trip. The longer of the two stretches had lasted half an hour and was more than enough for Dovella.
What is it you want me to learn? Dovella wondered, thinking of her Sister Superior’s insistence that she once more return to the library and fetch another book. The retrieval of the book was not the lesson, that much she understood. It was her task, but what she was meant to learn hadn’t been spelled out. Jolian said she needed to learn to read between the lines.
‘The God-Emperor does not speak to us through words, but signs. It is our duty to learn to see his teachings in all things,’ Dovella thought, recalling Jolian’s words. What am I missing? There were so many books, so many written works. Surely Jolian didn’t want her to pick things at random and look for meaning that way. No, no of course not. What then? Or, rather, where was she to look?
Ahead stood a single tall candle amid row after endless row of shelving. The last source of light, a dozen paces back, had been a single flickering lumen strung between steel wings protruding from the sides of towering iron. Smoke from the candle mingled with incense drifting from the censers, carried by the unseen cherubim. Dovella looked up trying to spot one. She could hear their wings from time-to-time, but almost never spotted them. She thought of Glint and wondered about the servo-skull’s past life. Would it remember anything from back then?
Dovella reached into her food satchel and pulled the last can of recef out. She cracked the top and said, “Glint, do you remember anything from before?”
The servo-skull turned in mid-air to face Dovella, its movement remained the same. “Before when, Sister Dovella?”
The pair had reached the solitary candle and Dovella paused in the pool of light it cast, she said a quick prayer before bringing the can of recaf to her lips. She took a moment to smell the sweet incense wafting through the air like ghostly fingers. The skin of her hand holding the can pulled tight and she swore she could see blood moving through her veins. Was that possible? The words of her Sister Superior played through her mind again, but before she could consider their meaning Glint was speaking.
“Sister? Before this trip?”
Dovella sipped recaf, the first taste always made her smile. “No. Before you served in this form. Do you remember when you were still alive?”
The skull shuddered, as if hit by a chill. Of course that wasn’t possible, it had no nerves, no way of feeling anything. The candle atop its head flickered. “Sometimes I see flashes.”
The pair started off again. “Of what?” Dovella asked, thinking the skull must mean daydreams or memory fragments. “What do you see?”
“Oh, I don’t think it’s worth sharing. My only task is to assist you, Sister. My old thoughts aren’t worth anything now. Fragments of a life better left behind. This is what I am now.”
Glint’s reply had only increased Dovella’s curiosity. She took another sip of recaf said, “I’d hear what you see.”
The servo-skull was silent. It continued to lead the way down the path they were on, now and then it would turn to scan a placard on the side of a shelving tower. Dovella waited, maybe it was thinking. After a couple of minutes had passed and the skull still hadn’t replied Dovella asked again what it was the skull saw.
“I see my past, incomplete pieces. A face, half a word, a broken scene.”
Was that pain Dovella was picking up on, loss? Was it possible to hear such things in the skull’s modulated voice? It seemed a far-fetched idea that the servo-skull might be able to express emotion.
It doesn’t want to talk about this, Dovella realised. Maybe if I offer something of myself it’ll be more comfortable to tell me what it sees.
She gave her can a little shake, feeling the contents, about half left. “Did you know I had a sister, Glint?”
“You have many sisters. Every one of your Order is-”
Dovella shook her head. Her long dark hair brushing against the pauldrons of her armor. “A blood sister.”
“Oh. No, I did not know that.”
“Aveona was three years older than me,” Dovella said. The skull’s machine spirit processed the new information.
Glint turned to regard Dovella. The pair was in another dark patch, the next man-sized candle many yards away. The skull’s little candle cast an eerie glow over its face, dark shadows filled the hollow of its eyes and nose and mouth. “Where is she now?” asked Glint. Then added, “If I might ask.”
“Of course. She’s with He on Terra.”
“May she forever bask in His light,” said Glint and Dovella nodded. “What did she do?”
“She worked here, in the libraries. She was a scribe and helped with the tracking and placement of books.”
The servo-skull’s movement stuttered, like a fisherman’s bobber being visited by a new catch. The candle almost went out from the sudden movement.
“I’d like to know what it is you remember, Glint,” Dovella said. The skull’s movement had a slight juddering quality to it now. It was clear to the Battle Sister that it was distressed. She knew she could command it to comply, but didn’t want to do that unless the skull remained guarded.
The pair passed into the light of another candle and Glint said, “Would you build me a new candle?” Glint paused in the light and turned the back of its head to the Sister.
Dovella pulled a new wick from a small pouch that dangled from the skull then scooped still-warm wax from the side of the large candle and formed it into Glint’s replacement. “Let’s give it a bit to cool,” she said.
“The one I have now won’t run out before then?” asked Glint.
Dovella grinned, shook her head, “No. It still has a few hours left.”
“I see this,” said Glint, finally answering Dovella’s question. “These tunnels. A shelf, the page of a book, a hand. Maybe mine, maybe not. I’m unable to make sense of what I see. I lack context.”
“Do you know how long ago you died?” asked Dovella.
The skull turned back-and-forth in mid-air. Without a body could it really be said that it shook its head? Dovella didn’t know, but found such left-over mannerisms both amusing and interesting. There was something in the way Glint moved that reminded Dovella of her sister. The last time the blood sisters saw each other was before Aveona had left on an expedition to retrieve books from another system. Dovella’s sister never came home. At least that was what Dovella had always assumed. She paused and stared at Glint, her eyes drawn to the dwindling little candle. It’s light wavering against the cold floor and massive metal shelves. Glint continued forward, unaware that Dovella had stopped.
Is this what you wanted me to see? Dovella wondered staring after the servo-skull and thinking of her conversations with Jolian.
Glint said something, but was too far ahead for Dovella to hear. “Glint,” she called after it, “hold on.”
The skull turned, and seeing the distance between it and the Sister began moving back towards her.
“What was it you said?” asked Dovella.
“I said no, I don’t remember when I died. All I remember is fire. I think I was trying to help someone, or maybe they were trying to help me.”
Fire. Dovella thought and took a slow breath. That’s how they said Aveona died, that she’d run into a library to try and save someone when the building collapsed. She opened her mouth to ask Glint a question, but the words wouldn’t form. She thought of a passage of scripture that Sister Superior Jolian was commonly citing. ‘We need not see, nor hear, nor bear witness. It is enough to believe.’
After the candle had cooled enough to keep its shape Dovella lit it with the remains of the old one, then put the new one in its place.
Looking at the servo-skull in a new way Dovella smiled and asked, “Could I get a new estimate, please?”
About the Author
Delio Pera lives in Seattle, WA and works a full time job. He finds time to where he can and while he’s known of the 40k universe for years has only recently become a fan. You can find more about him, his writing, and the Peranine Podcast at his website.