Once the Sleep of Reason had been a slaughter-ship, delivering fresh grox to the hives of Choalea IV until outbreaks of tongue-rot had retired her. Now she delivered pilgrims to Terra. More pilgrims made it home than grox had, but only barely.
They huddled on the Sleep’s former killing floor, where hooks still dangled from chains in the dark. Some had the wit to bring furs, lumens, food. Others, who’d vowed a pilgrimage in unthinking religious ecstasy, shivered in their street clothes and starved. Not all passengers were the devout; food vendors circulated, doing a brisk trade in ship’s rat, and so did storytellers and minstrels, offering a temporary distraction from the pilgrims’ privations and the warp raging outside.
The Lux In Tenebris Theatre for Illustrative & Edifying Works Of Faith was in one corner of the floor, behind makeshift walls of rope and canvas strung from the meat-hooks. Camilla tended the projector, lighting votive candles to appease its machine spirit ahead of the first show of the day. Plastered to its lamp-house was a Mechanicus dispensation, declaring its film-stock and intermittent-sprocket technology not sophisticated enough to require an attending tech-priest.
Coins clattered into her collection box as her next audience filed in and sat on the theatre’s threadbare cushions. They were all children, and she grimaced at the thought of what they faced on the long road to Terra. Her fingers walked over her dented cans of film—what to show them? Something sweet like The Emperor’s Lambs, or more rousing like His Angels of Death Watch Over Us?
‘Miss?’ She turned; an elderly woman, barely bigger than the children, held up a grimy film can of her own. ‘Miss? I am Madame Cecilia of the Schola Dolora, and these are, ahem, my charges. I would be delighted if you would show’ – she held the can higher – ‘instead of your planned, ahem, entertainments this evening?’
A schola making a collective pilgrimage wasn’t unknown, and neither was the request; there were always proselytisers looking for converts to their outré interpretations of the Imperial Creed. Anything too outré could bring the Ecclesiarchy down on her, though. She’d begun to shake her head, when Madame Cecilia’s other hand held up a glittering Throne. She shrugged and took the coin, and the can. The metal was filthy, blackening her hands, but she extricated the reel of greasy film and threaded it through the projector. As the header wound through the machine’s guts she lit incense and mumbled the rite of activation, then locked the lens into place and opened the shutter, and light spilled onto the canvas screen.
The black-and-silver image was of a portly man in hiver dress, walking along an esplanade that was clearly a painted facade. Stark makeup made harsh, angular planes of his face, and an undercranked camera gave his gait the illusion of sprightliness.
The film was silent, title cards in Low Gothic announcing the action: ‘He Refuses The Collection Plate’, ‘He Turns From The Call To Prayer’. Clearly a setup to a Sinner Redeemed story—a shop-worn plot, but the children seemed entranced. They giggled convulsively when the sinner on screen shook his fist at street preachers, and flailed his arms at the cherubs (puppets dangling from obvious strings) that circled his head. When another puppet lowered into frame—the God-Emperor in shining warplate, shaking his head sorrowfully at his wayward child—they cheered lustily, almost drowning out the rattling projector.
Camilla began to feel uneasy during the sinner’s visit to a bawdy-house. The scenes of half-clothed men and women lounging on cardboard divans went on and on. She glanced at Madame Cecilia, who’d seemed so prudish, but she was clapping as hard as the children. The image seemed brighter, brighter than the projector’s lamp itself, although that was impossible. The titles had changed too—no longer Gothic but curving symbols she didn’t recognise. When had that happened?
The Emperor descended into frame again, covering his eyes at the scandalous display. The children tittered, and she saw one girl clap so hard that blood spurted from her palms. Camilla, uneasiness shading into dread, glanced at the projector. The reel seemed to have barely shrunk, although the film had been running for…how long had it been? She realised she didn’t know.
The seminude figures on screen danced licentiously, and the Emperor-puppet comically dropped its sword. A jump-cut, and his armour suddenly sported a priapic bulge. Enough! Camilla reached for the shutter knob to douse the light, but it seemed to squirm in her palm, and she snatched her hand away. The children were standing now, stamping their feet as the old woman writhed sinuously, mirroring the dancers on screen.
She had to get out of here. She had to alert the priests, the crew, anyone who would listen. The children were screaming, blood puffing from their scoured throats. Nothing on the screen now but those wriggling symbols, triune circles and eight-pointed stars flashing past almost too quickly to see. Camilla yanked at the canvas wall, dread turned to terror. Beside her the children, although they no longer looked like children, were doing the same, and behind her the projector’s light grew and grew to a blinding, burning white.
The canvas finally fell, unearthly radiance spilling onto the killing floor. Pilgrims cried out, shielding their eyes. Then the children were upon them, dancing, shrieking, doing things. She saw one of the crew, firing a laspistol in blind panic, before the diminutive figures brought him down. Then he got up again, face a mask of blood, and joined the dance.
A blow between her shoulder blades drove her to her knees. Camilla turned her head and saw Madame Cecelia with a knife, shrieking with mirth as she planted it in her heart. Camilla fell and lay still.
Then she joined the dance too.
About the Author
Y. T. Lee lives in Canada.