I crawl out of the nest of my sleeping brothers and sisters, taking care not to wake any of them. I’m good at that, moving quietly, making myself unseen and unheard. It’s my special talent, I think. Mama says that when I was really little I would sometimes climb into the vents and hide, and it would take her more than an hour to find me. Mama seems annoyed when she tells that story, but Papa just laughs.
When I reach the common room, Papa is already there, sitting at the cafeteria table with his morning gruel. He drums his fingers and frowns into his bowl. I watch him quietly for a moment. Papa has big hands, a big mouth, dark skin, and a shiny bald head. He looks really different from Mama, who is small with light skin and long black hair. I mostly look like Mama, but I don’t have any hair, like Papa. I’m like a mix.
I run into the room, and Papa’s head snaps up and he bares his teeth. For a second, he almost looks scary. But then his lips curl into a smile, and his eyes twinkle. I could never be afraid of Papa.
‘Ah, Esther. My sweet star-child. Always so sneaky. You are up early.’
‘I didn’t sleep very good,’ I say.
‘Neither did I,’ Papa says with a grin. ‘Too excited. The day is fast approaching. Grandpapa will be visiting soon.’
I grin too, and bounce up and down in excitement. I’ve been hearing about Grandpapa’s visit ever since I can remember. Papa and Mama say they’ve been planning for it since before I was born – since before they were born, even! They’ve told me so much about Grandpapa, about how wise he is, how kind he is, and how he’ll save us from the people who hurt us.
Outside, the wake-klaxons sound, loud and jarring. Papa doesn’t flinch, but I nearly jump out of my skin.
He stands as my brothers and sisters enter the room, rubbing sleep from their eyes. ‘Time to get to work,’ Papa says.
Papa and my brothers and sisters who are old enough – ten and up – go out the door in their big suits. Papa goes last, and just before he closes the helmet, Mama gives him a kiss on the cheek, and whispers something into his ear. I can’t hear what she says, but Papa smiles. Then the helmet lid comes down, and I can see myself and Mama reflected in the scratched-up orange dome.
Outside, people from the whole hab pile into a row of big grey trucks. When the trucks get to the mine, people will put big saws on the front, and use them to crush stones and look for important stuff inside. I’ve never been to the mines – I’m still too little – but my eldest sister told me about it once. I get sad whenever I think about that. I really miss her.
In the distance is the Imperial Tower. It’s so big you can see it from anywhere in the habs. It looks totally different from everything around it. It’s a hundred storeys tall at least, with statues and carvings all over the outside. At the very top is a huge ‘Aquila’, the weird two-headed bird that Empire people put on everything. I’ve never seen a real living Aquila but there must be a lot where the Empire comes from, because they really like them.
I usually stay home with Mama and help her with house-stuff, but today she tells me I have a job to do outside. I have to bring a present to Uncle in another hab. I used to have more uncles – and aunts too – but some of them died and some of them moved far away, so now I just have one. That’s why I just call him ‘Uncle’.
Mama leans down and kisses me on the forehead, then helps me put on my wig. I hate it. It’s so ugly – it looks like a dirty yellow mop – and it’s so scratchy, and the glue hurts when I take it off. She says it keeps me safe, like Papa’s suit in the mines, but Papa doesn’t have to wear a wig, and his head is balder than anyone’s but Uncle’s… but I always listen to Mama, so I don’t complain.
With my bag all packed up, I leave our room and go out into the hab square. With everyone gone, the hab is weirdly quiet and empty, and it feels almost haunted. The only noise you can hear is the distant drilling and explosions from the mines.
In the basement of the hab is a hatch that’s always left unlocked, and from there you can squeeze into the tunnels that run under the surface. When I deliver things for Mama, I always go underground. It’s hard to know which way you’re going, and I’ve heard stories about monsters in the tunnels, but at least in the tunnels, you don’t have to worry about being stopped by the Empire people.
I follow the path I always take, but it’s strange today. Some ways that should be open are closed instead, and it takes me longer than it’s supposed to. By the time I arrive in Uncle’s hab, the suns have moved pretty far in the sky.
I find Uncle in the hab’s workshop. He’s bent over the desk, sifting through a bunch of tangled wires and nuts and bolts. Next to him is a big saw, like one they use in the mines, though this one looks broken. He must be fixing it.
Instead of sneaking up, I call out to Uncle. Uncle can be a little nervous sometimes. He turns around and cocks his head to one side, then pulls off his mask and goggles and smiles widely. ‘Hello there, little one!’ he says, and climbs down from his chair. ‘I didn’t know I would be receiving a visit from you today!’ Uncle has a sort-of weird voice, really raspy like he always has a dry throat. I would never tell him that, because I don’t want to hurt his feelings.
I run over and give him a hug, then I unpack my bag and hand him the parcel from Mama. ‘It’s something for Grandpapa’s visit,’ I tell him. I also give him a canteen. ‘I asked Mama if I could bring some water too. I thought you might be thirsty because it isn’t your hab’s day to get water.’
‘What a sweet child you are,’ Uncle coos, and curls his long tongue into a U-shape to take a drink. Uncle has a dark, purplish tongue unlike anyone I’ve ever seen. I’ve even seen him pick up food with it before! Sometimes I get jealous, because it would be so neat to have an extra hand, but I don’t think I would want a tongue like Uncle’s. What if I accidentally swallowed it?
I say goodbye to Uncle and go back to the tunnels. It really is starting to get late. I don’t want to worry Mama.
When I get underground, the door I came in through is closed and it’s too heavy for me to pull open. I look around for another way, but I can’t find anything until I see a sign for a tram. I’ve never ridden a tram before. Mama says they’re dangerous and you could get crushed up by them if you’re not careful, but the only way I know back is closed, and it’s too risky to go above. If an Empire person catches me out, they’ll want to know why I’m not at home or work, and then I would be in trouble. One time, one of my older brothers went out after dark, and I heard he got caught by the Empire. We never saw him again. It makes me feel really guilty to think it, but I’m sort-of glad he’s gone. He was always really mean to me.
I get onto the tram. There are lots of switches and buttons and wheels and things are written on all of them, but I don’t know what any of it means, so I just look at the pictures. I push a button with an arrow on it, and the tram starts moving… but when I get to a part where I can see the sky between the girders above, I realise I’m going the wrong way.
I’ve never been inside the Imperial Tower before – I’ve never even been near it – but when the tram comes out the mouth of a big skull and into a bright room with Aquilas on the walls, I know that’s exactly where I am.
While I’m worrying about what to do next, I hear the sound of voices coming closer and scramble off the tram and through a side door, just before two women in red come into the room. ‘Why has this tram arrived? So many malfunctions lately…’ is all I hear before I get down a hall and into a tiny square room. I’ve nowhere else to go.
I take a deep, shaky breath and fight back tears. I’m really, really scared. I’m not supposed to be here. If someone catches me… I don’t even want to think what they’ll do.
I close my eyes and clasp my hands over my heart, and I start praying quietly. I beg the gods to send a miracle and save me, to take me away from this horrible place and back into Mama’s arms. I pray to my parents’ gods, not the God-Emperor they talk about on the voxes, but gods that really care about us down here: the gods-among-the-stars.
The doors shut and I feel movement around me, and I pray even harder, falling to my knees. Then I hear a voice from above. It isn’t a beautiful voice – it sounds like someone in pain – and it says ‘Executive Floor.’ I look up, and there is a man with no arms or legs hanging from the small room’s ceiling. He’s all tangled up in wires, and his eyes are wide and blind. The top of his head is open, and I can see dirty cables going right into his brain. It’s the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen.
The door opens, and there’s a woman standing there. Not a woman in red, but someone new. She is really ugly, and not in a normal way. She’s thin, with scraggly hair hanging down from her head, and she wears a big furry coat with an animal’s head on one shoulder, and there are tubes, like from mining gear, coming out from under her coat and plugging right into the side of her face. She leans on a metal cane, and she wears a breastplate with a big, gold Empire Aquila, and there are lots of little scraps of paper hanging from it. And worst of all, there’s a human skull floating just over her shoulder, a quill scratching at a long sheet of yellow paper fed out from between the teeth, watching me with one glowing-red eye.
‘Who is this filthy little girl?’ the woman yells. ‘Some wretched miner’s daughter in my personal lift? What are you doing here? How did you get into my home?!’
Mama told me what to say if I was ever questioned, but I can’t remember! I’m too scared. I can’t say anything. The woman grabs me by my wig and yanks me out of the lift, and I scream as the glue pulls at my skin. She throws me down onto the shiny floor, and I hit my face on the ground.
‘Speak up, you little pest, or I’ll have you turned into a servitor!’ She hits me with her cane and a shock goes through me. ‘Then at least you’ll have an excuse for not answering!’
The blood in my mouth tastes bad and my eyes are welled up with tears. I’m about to start crying when a voice from across the room says, ‘Forgive me, governor. That girl is one of my charges. I brought her along during my survey of Imperial Tower for the repairs you requested. It seems she mistakenly used the executive lift instead of the service lift to join me up here.’
‘This miserable creature is training to be an architect?’ the woman says. She sounds more surprised than angry now, but she still sounds horrid. ‘I suppose it makes a certain sense that some of the lesser classes should learn to build, vulgar though it may be.’ Her boots go click-click as she steps into the lift. ‘I’m off to a very important meeting. Make certain your charge does not wander off. If I come upon her again, I will make good on that promised lobotomy.’ And then she’s gone.
I raise my bloody face to look at my saviour. He has bumpy skin and wrinkled hands, and wears a big fur hat, and a coat with an Aquila badge. He has lines on his face, sort-of purple and veiny under the skin. I don’t say a word.
The man helps me up and leads me away by the hand. When we’re alone, he takes out a soft handkerchief from his coat pocket and cleans my face. I feel the inside of my mouth with my tongue. I’m missing a couple teeth. I wonder how many days before they grow back. He crouches down to my level, even though he seems in pain, and says, ‘You’re one of Abigail’s daughters. Esther, yes?’
I nod at him, confused. I don’t know him, but somehow I just know I can trust him. Even though he’s dressed like an Empire person, he doesn’t seem like one at all. He seems nice.
‘How do you know me?’ I ask.
‘I’m a friend of the family,’ he says. ‘I know Grandpapa.’
There are people in the tram room when we get back. The red women from earlier are there, but they’re lying face-down in a pool of blood with a group around them
‘Do not be frightened, Esther,’ the wrinkled man says, and I am not.
There are six other people in the room but one of them is special. She is a bald-headed woman wearing a suit like Papa’s, goggles, a heavy cape and a backpack full of all sorts of tools and supplies – and she has three arms!
‘Who is this?’ the three-armed woman says.
‘She’s one of us,’ the wrinkled man answers. ‘She’s wearing a wig.’
The woman laughs. ‘I gathered. Can we trust her?’ She looks at me directly. ‘Can we trust you?’
‘Good.’ The woman smiles, and I can see she has really sharp teeth.
The wrinkled man waves over one of the others. ‘Acolyte, take the girl back out through the tunnels. Bring her as close to Hab-22C as you can. After that, return to your team and await further orders.’
The Acolyte steps forward, and I see that he also has three arms. They all do.
The wrinkled man turns to me. ‘Esther, my friend is going to take you home. Don’t tell anyone what you saw here…’ He thinks about something for a second, then adds: ‘…be awake before klaxon-time tomorrow. Watch the Imperial Tower.’
When I get home, the whole family is sitting around the table. Mama sweeps me into her arms and hugs me tightly and cries. Papa laughs with relief. My brothers and sisters hug me too. I tell them everything is OK, but when they ask what happened and why I was gone so long, I shake my head. I’m not allowed to say. Mama seems upset, but Papa tells her it’s fine. He gives me a little smile. I think he knows more than she does.
I get up early, just like the wrinkled man told me to. I’m not alone. Papa hears me going out the door and instead of asking what I’m doing, he just tells me to lead the way. We climb up to the hab roof, and stand there in the dark, looking at the far-away lights of the Imperial Tower. We’re right next to a klaxon, and hear the hiss as it turns on. I don’t see anything going on at the Imperial Tower. I don’t know what we’re waiting for.
Then there’s a crackle as the klaxon comes to life, but instead of the normal blaring noise, beautiful music pours out: singing in a language I don’t understand, but recognise right away deep in my heart.
Out in the hab – and in other habs too – people start screaming. They run out their doors and throw themselves off balconies or run around until they fall over, bleeding from their ears and noses and eyes. I’m not scared. I’m not in danger. I just feel sorry for them. They don’t like the music.
Then there’s a huge BOOM! and the sky is lit up by a flash of light from the Imperial Tower. I want to shield my eyes, but I don’t. I stare straight at it. Next to me, Papa does too. Flash after flash, boom after boom, as every level of Imperial Tower, from the top all the way down to the bottom, blows up, and then the whole thing just falls. The last thing I see before the smoke hides everything is the Aquila, falling into nothing.
Then a shock goes through me, an overwhelming feeling unlike anything I’ve ever known, and suddenly, I understand so much more than I did before. I feel connected to something really big.
I look at Papa and he looks at me, both of us eyes wide, and then we can’t contain ourselves. We start laughing and cheering. The music gets softer, and I can hear we’re not the only ones. The screaming has stopped, and all throughout the habs, people are celebrating. There are more of us than I thought.
Papa opens his mouth to say something, but I blurt it out instead; ‘Grandpapa is here!’
Trucks roll into the hab square and Uncle steps out, joyfully revving his newly-refurbished rocksaw. He waves up at me and Papa and we wave back. Off in the distance, more explosions go off, more screaming, more music; the sound of guns; the sound of bombs; the sound of freedom.
I grin, thinking about what’s coming next.
Time to go to work.
About the Author
Jesse is a writer from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. He is a neophyte (hybrid) to the world of Warhammer 40,000, but a devoted one. His favourite game is Necromunda, and his favourite faction is Genestealer Cults. He’s written short stories, theatre, comics, films, and role-playing games.