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Band of Sisters (Part 2)

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A Tale of the Far Future

Band of Sisters

by

E. E. Nalley

 

Part 2

 

In the grim, darkness of the far future,
there is only war...

 

Chapter Six

Plans Within Plans

I remain, your obedient servant, Constance De La Concordia, Palatine, Adepta Sororitas.”

Abigail Winters sat at her desk and contemplated the frozen image of the Palatine she had dispatched against her better judgment, standing ghostly, and transparent in holographic pause before her desk. There had been many fears to cloud her mind that she had ignored in an effort to save the careers of two sisters she felt had been dealt unjust hands at the game of life. She had hoped that assigning Constance's now redeemed mentor to her mission would perhaps head off some of her misgivings.

But never, in her wildest dreams, would she have thought that the Inquisitor would demand something like this.

Yes, it was within his authority, but it had never been considered before. The handful of times the Inquisition had hidden within the Adepta Sororitas they had all already been women. Of course, it went almost without saying most of those exceptions had ended badly for the impostor sisters. Abigail had no doubt whatsoever that Jonas was serious; Constance would never had bothered her if he was even remotely insincere in his demands.

Her heart heavy, she stood from her desk and soft gesture dismissed the hologram of Palatine Constance. She walked around her desk and out of her office, her thoughts in complete disarray. There were so many contradictions to consider. If she gave Constance approval to kill Jonas, the Inquisition would be incensed. War between the two major divisions of the Ecclesiarchy would be disastrous for the Empire of Man. It could even possibly bring about another dark age, but if she allowed him to violate the Order Passive, to allow a man to bear arms in an Ordo Militant, would violate a truce that had headed off thelastthreat to human civilization.

For a time, she considered ordering Constance coyly to do away with the bothersome Inquisitor. Accidents happened in combat zones all the time, but all of the indications from the operation on Thuria related that combat was unlikely. A death as questionable as Jonas's would be, regardless of Constance's skill in arranging the dead to appear to be victims of their own misfortune would be heavily investigated. No coy work from Constance would stand to such scrutiny.

Outside, under the warm spring air, Abigail walked and considered punting the problem upstairs. She could invoke Prioress Helena the Virtuous, head of the Convent Sanctorum, but Abigail had lived long enough to know that if this blew up, there needed to be a certain distance, a certain plausible deniability from the head of their convent if there was any chance of avoiding an Ecclesiarchy Civil War. If Helena knew, then perhaps the last hope of civilization itself might be gone.

Humanity needed someone to fall on their sword.

Abigail sighed and smiled to herself. She had lived a long life, done remarkable things and saved lives beyond count. If this last service was needed by the Emperor, then she would oblige him. Her decision made, she turned her feet from the garden and into the long care ward. After several minutes, she came to the ICU and looked at her haggard reflection in the glass through which she regarded her victim. “Forgive me, child,” she whispered. “The Emperor has one final need of you.”

Reverend mother?”

The voice of the ward nurse brought her from the contemplation. She turned and took in the young girls face and smiled warmly. When did her nurses become so young? “Good evening, June, isn't it?”

She blushed at being recognized. “How may I help you, Reverend Mother?”

Abigail made a gesture at the window she stood beside. “What is the status of Sister Rachael's condition?”

The young nurse stood from her desk and came over. “There's no change, Reverend Mother,” she said sadly. “The wound is healed, but the brain damage is too great. We had a Psyker check, just on the off chance, but she was pronounced brain dead. I sent the paperwork for her organs to be harvested and her remains laid to rest to your office this morning.”

I recall,” Winters replied sadly. “The unit is keeping her body otherwise alive?”

Yes, Reverend Mother. We can begin harvesting tomorrow...”

That is countermanded,” she ordered softly. “June, I am swearing you to secrecy for a service to the Emperor that may cost you your life. How say you?”

I am at the Emperor's service,” she declared reverently. “Whatever he needs of me, I will do.”

Winters nodded and laid a consoling hand on her shoulder. “Pack your things quietly, then collect Rachael's things from storage. Once done, you will return here and prepare her body for transport.”

Transport where, Reverend Mother?”

Warp travel,” the Reverend Mother declared. “Where you need not know, so you cannot testify to it later.”

The young face paled. “Reverend Mother, taking a body into the Warp risks possession...”

Before we depart you will remove Sister Rachael's brain and reverently lay it to rest in the Garden of Fallen Heroines. Without that direct connection, we should not have anything to worry about. Still, to be safe, on board, you and I will both stand watch,” Abigail assured her. “Will you still pledge yourself?”

I hear and obey the will of the Emperor.”

Abigail leaned down and kissed the girl on the forehead. “Bless you, child. On your way, and not a word to anyone.”

* * *

“You wanted to see me, Connie?”

Constance looked up from her data-slate tiredly, but forced a smile to her mentor and invited her into the small cabin. Fiona was dressed casually in her Day Service Habit, a simple gown that fell to her ankles in black with the three quarter bell sleeves, similar to the Battle Habit with her Rosarius in red beads as a belt. Already, there was a fuzz of gray hair about her scalp, mixed with the honey blonde that been her natural color. “Come in, Fiona,” she invited, waving her at a chair. “I want you to hear this.”

The older Sister noted the Servo-Skull that was hovering on its anti-gravity field, awaiting her command. She dogged the hatch shut and tripped the security field to Classified. It wasn't uncommon for secrets to need to be discussed without fear of a flight recorder logging them, and the ship had been constructed with that in mind, for those of the appropriate station. As Fiona slid into the seat, Constance made a gesture of introduction to the skull. “This is Baldermort, the former librarian of the ship. Baldermort, this is Sister Fiona Vander, my good right hand.”

The skull dipped in the air. “I am deeply honored, Sister.”

Vander cocked her head to one side. “Are you an A.I. Baldermort?”

“I have only the vaguest memories of it now, my lady, but once, long ago, my skull was covered in skin and I possessed a body, rather than these crude cybernetic appendages and I walked in the sunlight in the service of our emperor,” the skull replied. “That my service was so exemplary to justify my current station is the crown of any servant who has done his duty.”

“An actual conscious Servo-Skull on a war ship?” Vander asked her protege in amazement.

Constance smirked. “No longer, I've informed Captain Newberry I am invoking my privilege to transfer Baldermort to our Mission. I've found his help invaluable.”

“I'm certain that did nothing for your stock in the Captain's eyes.”

“Oh, he stooped to crass bribery, but I was firm. Baldermort serves us, now.” Turning to the skull, she commanded, “Show Lady Vander what you showed me.”

The holographic projector built into the skull's left eye lit up and soon a pair of service records were floating beside each other in front of Fiona. “The document on your left is the local copy of the service record of His Grace Cameron Wren, retrieved by automated poll yesterday at Palatine De La Concordia's request. On your right is the Master Record, sent via secure transmission at my request for the Palatine yesterday from the central archives of the Adeptus Administratum on Holy Terra. Comparing the documents finds twenty discrepancies, predominately, the omission of attached letters to the file. However, most troubling is an After Action report of a boarding party, initiated by HMAV Atlanta and led by it's Executive Officer, Lord Lieutenant Cameron Wren is completely missing from the local copy.”

Fiona quickly scanned the report, an eyebrow raised as she turned to Constance. “By this, it would appear his Grace deserves theMedallion Crimson at the very least.”

“Oh, it's much deeper than that,” Constance replied. “I had Baldermort check the medical reports of the Atlanta and I found that the surgeon reported that His Grace's heart stopped for a full minute while being operated on for his injuries in the action. A fact his official record expunges.”

“There's a chance he could be tainted!” Vander protested. “He should have been watched for signs of possession...!”

“And yet he wasn't,” Constance replied. “He kissed the sigil of the Emperor, which no Chaos Tainted has ever been able to do, but...”

“We have to test him,” Fiona persisted. “At once!”

Softly, Constance asked her mentor, “Doesn't that tip our hand, Mother?” Worry of one kind was replaced on her face with another, more sinister version.

Rubbing her chin, Fiona nodded finally. “You make a good point.” After a moment of thoughts, she asked, “What if we...” Fiona couldn't continue as she was interrupted by a knock at the door. Frowning, she rose and undogged the hatch to tower over a young petty officer. “Yes?”

“Excuse me, sister,” the young officer replied, then looked beyond her into the cabin. “Palatine, I have your response.”

“Oh, excellent, thank you,” Constance replied, coming to the hatch as she did so. The Petty Officer handed her a slip of paper.

“It was transmitted in the clear, ma'am, or I would never...”

“Thank you, Petty Officer,” Constance interrupted her, though laying a consoling hand on her arm as she did so. Constance could not be as polite as she might like because of the puzzling slip in her hands and it's terse message. She walked back to her desk as Fiona re-secured the hatch and followed her.

“What's this about?” she asked.

“There is another consideration,” the Palatine told her. “Our Inquisitor has invoked his right to masquerade as a member of any organization to further keep an eye on the Duke.”

“Who does he intend to pretend to...wait, you don't mean...?”

“I do,” Connie assured her. “The little miscreant had the stones to suggest it to my face. I wish now I'd killed him by reflex, but I only slapped him. I had a communique in to Revered Mother Winters for guidance and I was awaiting word back.” She raised her hand. “Here it is.”

“Well, what does it say?”

“On my way, take no action until I arrive,” Constance read. The older woman frowned rubbed her chin. “Surely Reverend Mother Winters can't intend to allow...?”

Fiona shrugged. “I've known Abby for a long time. I make a point of never trying to second guess her. She thinks downright sideways some times. So, I suppose we should inform Captain Newberry we won't be leaving as quickly as we thought?”

“Well, she did say no action.”

“I'll tell him,” Vander replied. “Meanwhile, you and I need to put our heads together and make certain there is no chaos taint in our handsome Duke.”

“We're a new Mission,” Constance mulled softly. “And a new Minor Order. I could request a reliquary...”

Vander's smile and wink was all the confirmation Constance needed.

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Gretchen lay in her bunk and stared up at the ceiling as her mind ran in panicked circles. Having a cabin to herself as a lowly squad leader was a luxury on a ship of the line, even one as large as the Vigilant. The 'cabin' wasn't much, a glorified closet, really, with a bed that folded out from a sofa in a room just long and wide enough for it, then another meter of space that was crammed with lockers for her things, a desktop that folded out of the wall, a screen on an armature and a little sliver of open deck between them. The entire room stripped to the walls would likely be only two meters by three.

While it was all hers and she didn't have to share it, Gretchen found it ironic that she chose to.

Next to her, in the hard little futon passing itself off as a bunk, Jennifer stirred in her sleep. Despite her own preferences, Sister Superior GretchenWycroff had not intended to seduce Jennifer. Sure, Jennifer just happened to fit the mold that Gretchen liked her women, but the day previous, she had only intended to comfort a fellow Sister in dealing with the harsh reality of combat in service to the Emperor of Mankind. Holding her crying sister, comforting a member of her squad, a life she was responsible for, Gretchen had been fixed on doing her duty, both as a soldier and as a human being. However, Jennifer had done the last things she'd expected.

Jennifer had kissed her.

Some part of Jennifer, having faced the horrors of Chaos Taint, needed to feel the deep connection with another human being. It was a natural reaction to traumatic stress, the need to feel alive, it just happened that she'd picked the person who should not be having this kind of relationship with her trooper. Gretchen sighed, the previous twenty four hours had been amazing. This was clearly not Jennifer's first dance with another girl. There was no shy hesitation, no holding back at all to be honest. Of course, Jennifer had not been Gretchen's first dance partner either. Their lovemaking had been intense, almost feverish and now, spent Gretchen was more relaxed than if she'd had a week off on R&R.

The problem was, she now had to hurt this woman who, otherwise would be an ideal partner.

She had to find some way of telling Jennifer this was their first and last hours stolen from the night. “You're thinking too loud,” Jennifer mumbled into her shoulder.

“Am I?” Gretchen asked with a chuckle and kissed the top of Jennifer's head.

Her face shifted as she got a bit more comfortable. “Yes. You're probably all bent out of shape thinking about how you just banged one of your troopers and how will that look on your next performance evaluation?” A hand found Gretchen's intimate center, causing her to gasp and mew. “I think you'll like my performance evaluation better...”

With a Herculean effort of will, Gretchen reached down and gently, but firmly, removed Jennifer's hand from the inside of her panties. “I'm not doing this because I want to,” she told the younger girl fervently, and she meant it. “I...I can't get involved with someone who reports to me. It's not right.” The expression on Jennifer's face, a mix of sadness and hope ate at Gretchen's resolve. “If you were in another Mission, yes, so much yes, Jen, but there's only twenty five of us! I...I can't...!”

“Nobody has to know...” Jennifer started, but trailed off immediately seeing the look on her lover's face.

“You're better than that, Jen,” Gretchen gently scolded her.

The blonde sighed and rolled over in prelude to sitting up. “I guess I should go, then,” she declared, looking about to figure out which clothes on the floor were hers. Gretchen sat up and gathered the other girl into her arms. Their skin felt so wonderful against each other that it made it hard to think.

“Please, baby, don't take it like that...”

Jennifer turned, her face millimeters from Gretchen's. “How should I take it, Gretch? I'm sorry, are we on duty, Sister Superior? Because if we're not on duty enough to ignore discipline for me to call you 'Gretch' then why the fuck can't we be together off duty?”

Wycroff opened and closed her mouth, not sure what she was trying to say. Truth be told, there wasn't any mention in the regulations about relationships between sisters. There were regulations concerning relationships with civilians; about how the needs of the Order came before any other. The forbidding of being seen patronizing a brothel or negotiating with gigolos, in or out of uniform, and needing approval from one's Canoness Commander to become pregnant. There was no rule about fraternization, but for some reason, it seemed wrong to Gretchen. Still after a long moment, she looked Jennifer in the eye and asked, “Are you willing to go with me to Palatine De La Concordia and ask her permission?”

Jennifer took Gretchen's face in her hands. “Yes,” she answered firmly. “Right now.”

“Breakfast first?”

The blond pushed her back down on the bunk. “No,” she declared. “Breakfast second.

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Duke Cameron took a moment as he got out of the hover car to take in the flurry of activity around his estate appreciating the ordered chaos carefully being orchestrated by his Major Domo. There were florists and handymen being led about with ladders, all changing the somewhat staid exterior of the Ducal Estate into something out of a fairy tale.

The fortified manor house was readily lent to such comparisons thanks to the Gothic and Neo Baroque style it was built in, white plaster and marble gleaming in the mid morning sun looking down over gardens that were kept with the precision of a military parade ground. He could see electricians stringing ropes of LED lights in the vines and flowered garlands that, after dark, would likely make the house glow with magic. The water from the fountain and basin the main rotunda of the drive looped around would be made to run in a rainbow of colors that glowed and faded artistically.

A grin settled on his face from ear to ear with the vindication of knowing if you took care of your staff, your staff would always take care of you. He was uncharacteristically enthusiastic as he took the arm of Henry Eddington, the expert manager of his household, and pumped it vigorously. “Henry, you've outdone yourself!” he congratulated as he looked about, everywhere his gaze fell he found people working, stringing banners and garlands with abandon.

“Modesty forbids, sir,” Eddington replied in his cultured, slightly accented baritone. “I daresay the lads have come through in fine fashion, however.”

“Outstanding,” Cameron declared, practically giddy with seeing movement on his plans. “And how goes the search for the convent?”

From behind his back, the Major Domo produced a data-slate that he offered to the Duke as he fell in at his side, walking up the wide, shallow steps to the house proper. “I've taken the liberty of reducing the selection to three on your behalf, sir, keeping in mind your requirements was not an easy task, but I think you'll be pleased.”

He took the slate and quickly glanced through the entries as they swept through the foyer into the grand hall. “Oh, yes, the old Montrose Estate, that's...”

“Just up the road,” Henry finished with a smile. “I rather thought you'd prefer that site.”

Wren paused and took in the long face of his chief of staff. “What kind of condition is it in?”

“The facilities are all functional, power, water and the like,” Henry replied. “I'd imagine the entire estate could use a good cleaning and attention from a Gardner, but there is plenty of space for a cadre of such combative minded women as Sisters of Battle. Likely enough improvements to be made that they shan't worry about being maneuvered into this particular site.”

Wren beamed. “What would I do without you, Henry?”

“I'm sure I don't know, sir.”

“Invitations?”

“All out this morning, by courier, sir. Already I have confirmation from both the supplemental caterer to assist Chef and his staff, as well as the musicians. They should be arriving after lunch.”

“Carry on, Henry, I see you have everything well in hand.”

“Thank you, sir. Have you broken your fast as yet? I can have Chef...”

Cameron waved him off over his shoulder as he headed for the grand staircase and his private apartments. “No, no, I'm fine. Have to try and catch up on things before this evening.”

“Very good, sir.”

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Chapter Seven

Garters and Daggers

Ruth threw her kit bag on the bunk she had vacated just an hour or two ago and growled with repressed anger. “Pack to leave, unpack we're staying, make up your Emperor Damned minds!” she muttered, unfortunately right as Sister Vander was walking by. The older woman paused and laid a hand on Ruth's shoulder.

“At ease, Sister, I'm sure Palatine De La Concordia has every reason to delay our departure.”

Ruth's temper got a hold of her tongue before her mind could. “You'd know, wouldn't you, Sister?” she demanded angrily, snatching her shoulder out of the other woman's grasp. “What is it between you and the Palatine, anyway?”

Fiona's expression changed from concern to disapproval. “What confidences I have, are just that,” she declared softly. “You all volunteered, you knew...”

“No,” Ruth corrected her vehemently, her finger coming up in accusation. “I didn't volunteer. My Squad Leader volunteered the entire squad!” Her arm swept the other members of the squad who now were watching the little drama unfold, much to Fiona's deterioration of mood. “Right in the middle of convalescent leave, in strolls Sister Superior Wycroff who informs us we just got dumped out of the Order we picked, the MOS we trained for and suddenly we're all bound for the hind end of the Empire! And for what? To baby sit some uptight idiot with a silver spoon up his ass?”

Vander's disapproval pulled into a more menacing expression of dislike. “And you could have sought transfer before we deployed.”

“Leave my squad?” Ruth demanded, her anger now in full command of her mouth. “Leave the Sisters I trained with? When we all knowwhat each other are doing without saying a word? Get lumped in with ten strangers and start over? Fat chance!” There were murmurs of agreement just at the edge of Fiona's hearing and she realized this had to be snuffed out and quickly before it festered into something worse.

“Then you did volunteer,” Vander told her tightly, raising her voice to address the entire squad. “So every one of you screw that into your heads. You all volunteered, now put a lid on your belly aching and get your minds in the game. This isn't a simple assignment, and everyone of us needs each other sharp and paying attention!” Turning back to the dark faced source of this little drama, Vander tapped her on the shoulder, right on her rank epaulet. “You want to be in charge, Elohiem Advance? Act like it! Lead your sisters, and get your head out of your ass; shut up and soldier!”

“You want me to soldier, sister?” Ruth snarled. “Let's! For starters, you're right! I am Elohiem AdvanceRuth Whitworth and you will address me as such!”

“You really do not want to go down this road, Eloheim,” Vander replied.

“Yes, yes I do,” Ruth replied as she stormed over to the communications panel by the hatch. “I want this sorted right rutting now!” She slapped the panel on and after a moment it was picked up. “Palatine De La Concordia, Elohiem Advance Whitworth. Sorry to trouble you, ma'am, but I wonder if you could sort out an issue on our TOA for us regarding Sister Vander.”

There was a burst of static, and suddenly a hologram of the Palatine appeared by the hatch. “Attention on deck,” she ordered, her face stern. The sisters all braced into attention and the hologram turned to face her mentor. “Sister Vander, front and center.”

“Ma'am,” the Sister replied as she marched to stand beside the hologram, facing the combined sisters of the mission. The girls looked nervously at each other out of the corners of their eyes.

“Ladies, allow me to introduce former Canoness Preceptor Fiona Vander. Canoness Vander has fought in every major campaign of the Convent Sanctorum for the last hundred years. That means multiple combat drops into Espandor, Parmenio, and Lax. She also took part in the boarding action of the Star Fort Galatan! She has fought every Zenos threat and Chaos demon known to Man as well as corruption in our own order as displayed by her success in the Rite of Repentance. I am appointing her as the actingLegatine of our Mission; she answers to me, and to me alone. Is this clear?”

“Yes, Palatine!” the room echoed, both subdued and a bit awed at the revelation.

The hologram turned to Ruth. “Does this settle the TOA to your satisfaction, Elohiem Advance?”

Ruth stood stiffer at attention. “Yes, ma'am.”

“Carry on,” the hologram replied, before it faded away.

Fiona glared at the room for a moment, then shook her head. “Anyone asking me for a war story will be cleaning latrines for a month!” she declared, then satisfied they were cowed, turned back to Ruth. The young woman stood at perfect attention in the way most young Non-Commissioned Officers did when they had fucked up in sight of the brass. Ruth had fucked up in spectacular fashion, but had the sense to realize it and that was plain on her face. Fiona decided to try diplomacy so she walked over to the young sister and in a tone of voice only she could hear, commanded, “Now that we're settled, Elohiem Advance, I want your head out of your ass. So go do whatever you do to relax and get your mind back in the game. Go to the small arms center and put rounds down range, sleep, go get laid, build a ship in an Emperor Damned bottle, whatever it is, you obviously need it. Go do it. That's an order.”

“Yes, ma'am.”

“Out of my sight,” Fiona declared and Ruth scampered through the hatch as quick as she could. Fiona sighed and turned to face the crowd of women, most still at attention and all staring at her. “As you were,” she ordered and headed back to the somewhat isolated bunk at the back of the compartment that she'd claimed from before.

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Constance sighed as she clicked off the hologram camera and shook her head. “I'm getting old,” she scolded herself. I should have promoted Fiona before we left the Convent of the Healing Heart. She winced as she realized the amount of paperwork she had just assigned herself, and likely an official inquiry of bias in command judgment assuming she survived long enough for the Mission to be established in the first place.

Perhaps sooner, since Canoness Winter was coming.

De La Concordia frowned as she remembered the cryptic message she had received and wondered again why the Canoness would be coming in person, rather than sending a sealed order packet or even a bio-metric locked survo skull. Her thoughts were disturbed by the door tone and she quickly pulled herself together before answering, “Come.”

The hatch opened, revealing Sister Superior Wycroff and another sister who's name escaped Constance. Just what I need, she thought to herself. More personnel problems.Out loud, she asked, “Yes?”

The two sisters came to attention and Gretchen spoke. “Palatine, Sister Hamilton and I were hoping...that is, we'd like your permission...”

The stuttering at least took the edge off this being a serious personnel issue. “If you're bucking for a transfer, Sister Superior, you're out of luck. I'm short handed as it is.”

“Oh, no ma'am,” Gretchen replied, her cheeks blushing. “You see, the regulations are silent on this particular topic and, well, it's personal, and...” Jennifer sighed noisily and rolled her eyes.

“Begging your pardon, ma'am,” she declared forcefully, “the Sister Superior and I would like your permission to have a sexual relationship.”

Connie leaned back in her chair, somewhat taken aback. “I...see...” she drawled. “And you need my permission because...?”

“I am a member of the Sister Superior's squad, and thus I report to her,” Hamilton replied evenly. “Gretchen is concerned that would make our off time 'recreation' an asterisk beside her reviews of my conduct.”

“The Sister Superior has a point,” Connie declared. “Our small size means we depend more than most on being ready for action, being able to depend on each other. Splitting loyalties, or the appearance of favoritism undermines the chain of command.”

“We understand that, ma'am,” Gretchen managed, getting back into the conversation. “I just wanted to be above board and since there was no regulation against it, we thought your permission would be the best course.”

Connie drummed her fingers on her desk for a moment, giving each woman a measuring stare. Finally, she made a decision and made sure her command face was set. “We are a small Mission, ladies and I expect we'll be operating on somewhat detached status for some time. Normally, I would agree with Sister Superior Wycroff and err on the side of caution, but because I need my troopers in top shape, I'm inclined to be somewhat flexible due to our isolated nature. Let me be clear, the first time it comes to my attention what the two of you engage in on your off hours is affecting your performance, that will be the end of this lenience. Understood?”

“Yes, ma'am,” the lovers declared in chorus.

“Wycroff, have Sister Superior Marks double check any paperwork you have to generate concerning Sister Hamilton.”

“Yes, ma'am.”

“I'll depend on your discretion, ladies, otherwise, what you do in your off hours isn't my concern. Permission granted. Anything else?”

“No, ma'am.”

Jennifer grinned. “Thank you, ma'am.”

“Don't make me regret this,” De La Concordia cautioned them. “Dismissed.”

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The Ward Room of the Vigilantwas becoming something of a second home to Constance as she poured herself a glass of tea from the beverage mess in preparation for taking her lunch. She had long ago learned to ignore the surreptitious glances of the junior officers her Order sometimes had to interact with on their way to and from engagements. At her age, it was a bit flattering if she was honest with herself, thankful for the martial lifestyle and modern medicine that let her turn heads at fifty.

Even if her body did not look thirty yet.

Of course, it wouldn't do to allow those same young officers to know she found their appreciative glances flattering, so she kept her face neutral as she returned to the small table in the corner she had laid claim to on the journey. Setting her tea beside the pot roast and potatoes the galley had made for the Officer's lunch, she bowed her head and let her nose appreciate the aroma of the food. Potatoes were an essential part of the Vigilant's waste management system, like all human space craft, and so were a staple food, practically omnipresent at meal time in some form. The meat had been heavily processed to give it longevity and shelf life, but humanity had been in space for forty millennia at this point, with plenty of experience in turning long shelf life food stores into palatable meals. While her head was bowed, she softly blessed the meal to the strength of her body and the needs of her Emperor, noting that the soft susurrus of conversation in the Ward Room ceased as she did so.

It was good that ship's chaplain was doing such an exemplary job in keeping up the religious zeal of the crew.

The meal blessed, she took up her utensils and began to eat; appearing to not notice conversation in the compartment resume. It was not that Constance and her Mission were the only females on board, the actual ratio of males to females in the crew was probably below sixty forty, but they were new and novelty had a charm that was quite powerful to the human male.

Notjust the human male,she admitted to herself as her mind brought up the image of Duke Wren from her memory. Perpetuation of the species was a sacrament, after all, and there was nothing sinful about the act of procreation. A forkful of pot roast paused halfway to her mouth. How long had it been since she'd enjoyed the attentions of a man? A year? Before her last mission, surely, but that would make her estimate plural, wouldn't it? Fortunately, before her thoughts could become more depressing the ship's bracelet on her wrist vibrated.

The bracelet concealed a small computer and up link device that was tied into the power broadcast of the ship. It was specific to her, so her whereabouts were tracked in case she was needed and allowed for an interface to the ship's communications system. A quick sip of tea got her mouth clear and she pressed the acknowledgment button on the bracelet. Just off her tray, in the center of the table, the head and shoulders of the petty officer from communications appeared and her voice, coming from a small speaker microphone in the ear ring Constance was wearing, spoke. “Sorry to disturb your meal, Palatine, I have a call coming in from the planet for you. Duke Wren.”

Constance couldn't keep a look of surprise from her face, but was glad only she would be able to hear what the Duke had to say. “Put him through, thank you.”

A burst of static replaced the young woman's head with the Duke, looking dashing in billowed sleeve shirt that left a scandalous amount of his chest exposed. “My lady, no hologram could ever do your beauty justice.”

“While only I can hear you, your grace, I should warn you I'm at lunch in the Ward Room of the Vigilant, so be mindful. What can I do for you?”

He sketched an elegant bow. “I come with glad tidings, I hope,” he informed her. “My Seneschal has been able to find suitable lodgings for your convent.”

“We're hardly worthy of the personal attention of your grace,” she replied. “But please extend my gratitude to your Seneschal.”

The grin on his face widened. “You can tell him yourself, if you like. The actual reason I called was to invite you to a ball this evening. If you'll permit me the honor of escorting you, I should like to introduce you to the upper crust of society, or what passes for it in our little corner of the Empire.”

“A ball?” she replied, her mind rapidly considering the possibilities such an event would offer. As a method of practical intelligence on the current situation of the world, it was priceless. And it had the added bonus of spending additional time in the Duke's company. Time she found she was coming to enjoy.

“Indeed. And you needn't concern Captain Newberry with your transportation needs, I have a shuttle already on its way up for your convenience.” He read the uncertainty on her face and turned the charm up a notch. “You should know, I simply won't accept 'no' for an answer. I've only been apart a handful of hours and already I must see you again.”

Constance smirked. “Oh, really?”

“Your disbelief wounds me, my lady!” he protested with a great drama. “Why, my food has no savor denied the light of your presence! And please, do not hesitate if you would like to bring your entire mission in escort. My humble abode shall surely shine the brighter for their brilliance.”

De La Concordia leaned forward and placed her chin in her hand. She doubted there was anything humble about the Ducal residence, though that alsowould be a window into the kind of man he was. Still, it wouldn't do to appear eager, so she drawled, “Your grace flirts with desperation with such excess.”

“Did I over sell it?” he asked with a laugh. “It did feel like I over sold it. Ah, well, the proverbial cat is out of the bag, the invitation is extended and cannot be withdrawn.”

She smiled and shook her head. “Not to worry, your grace, your faux pas is safe with me. And we'll be delighted to accept so over sold an invitation.”

“Be still, my beating heart!” he exclaimed. “I will count the minutes until your arrival.”

“Be sure to breathe,” she cautioned him. “Blue isn't your color.” He bowed again and with a rakish smile disappeared from the table. However, this only proved she was in great demand as the wrist bracelet was already vibrating again. Not bothering to wipe the smile from her face, the Palatine made an adjustment and moments later a hologram of Fiona graced her table. “Ah, Fiona, I was just about to call you.”

“Palatine?” she asked.

“Did you remember to pack your dancing shoes, Legatine?” The look of confusion on her mentor's face was priceless. “Turn out the mission in Mess Dress, Fiona,” she ordered around her mirth. “Evidently, we have a date, this evening.”

“I can't wait to hear the explanation for this one,” Fiona chuckled.

“Me too,” De La Concordia shot back.Then paused when the hologram of her newly promoted Executive Officer didn't leave the table. “Something else, Legatine?”

“Yes, ma'am. I have notification from the CIC, there is a destroyer coming along side us; the HMAV Saint Arabella.

Constance's eyebrow rose as she finished chewing her current mouthful and swallowed it. “Reverend Mother Winters? Here, already?”

“Evidently she put our troublesome Inquisitor at the top of her to do list.” Vander replied as her protege wolfed down a last morsel. “Eat quickly, I'll meet her and bring her to your office.” Constance's eyes did her thanking for her as Fiona's hologram snapped off and gave her just enough time to get enough food so her stomach would not growl at an embarrassing time. That accomplished, she handed her plate and glass over to the Steward of the Wardroom and directed her feet quickly to her office.

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De La Concordiawas able to beat Fiona and the Reverend Mother to her office, but not by much. Still she was able to get the coffee pot going so she could offer refreshment to her superior and catch her breath in sufficient time to collect her thoughts. She was just pouring out the cups where there came the door tone. “Come,” she commanded and the door opened on the Reverend Mother and Legatine Vander. Constance placed the cup on her desk to formally drop a curtsy. “Reverend Mother, we are honored by your presence. Will you rest yourself and join me for refreshment?”

“No time for formality, Constance,” Abaigail told her as she and Fiona entered the little bulkhead and paused for Vander to close and dog the hatch shut. “Though I will have some of that coffee,” she said to soften her arrival and swept over to hug Constance and kiss her forehead. “The Emperor guide and protect you, my daughter.”

“Your insight makes me wise, Reverend Mother,” she replied. “Please, sit. Cream and Sugar I believe?” Abigail nodded, adding the condiments to her coffee and stirring it to her liking. “I take it my message reached you, what is your will?”

The warmth left Abigail's face as she stirred her coffee. “Constance, what is your opinion of this fool Jonas? How serious is he about what he desires?” A shadow as equally grave fell across Constance's face as she handed a cup to Fiona before pouring her own.

“Serious enough to suggest it to my face, in striking distance.” De La Concordia sighed and shook her head as she returned to her desk and sat. “I wish I'd killed him by reflex. To answer you, Reverend Mother, I believe he means to have the ship's surgeon carve on him until he thinks he'll be able to pass as a Sister. Then to don our raiments and dishonor us. If I allow it, I risk dishonoring our entire order and if I refuse I risk civil war in theEcclesiarchy.

The Reverend Mother turned to her other Sister. “Fiona? What is your opinion?”

The Legatine sat up a bit straighter in her chair and ran a hand over her shaved scalp that was trying to regrow from her Rite. “Reverend Mother, it is not my place to...”

“Don't hide behind rules with me, Fi, we've known each other too long,” Abigail scolded her.

“Alright, Abby,” Vander replied. “Yes, I agree with Constance. He's just the sort of little snake that would turn this into a major schism. He'll push until he gets his way or is flat refused and then he'll call a Crusade. He thinks his office protects him from our third alternative, so he has either some level of courage, or is a fool. I have no doubt he would follow through with this surgical blasphemy.”

Winters sighed again and let her gaze wander between her old friend and her protege. “There is, ladies a fourth option. One I dearly hoped would not be necessary, but I don't see any alternative. Yet, you both agree he will not back down, therefor we must indulge his loathsome request, but on ourterms.”

Constance frowned. “What terms could we offer that would allow him to impersonate a Sister while not allowing a man under arms in our ranks?”

Suddenly all of Abigail Winter's age settled on her and she looked every bit her two hundred plus years. From her coffee, she looked and fixed her sternest gaze on Constance. “With me, I have brought the still living, but mortal remains of Sister Rachel...Winter.”

“Rachel died?” Fiona demanded, horrified.

“A training accident,” Abigail replied, her voice flat and devoid of emotion. “She fell off a Rhino tank and her head struck the side armor on the way down. We tried everything, even aPsyker, but...” The Reverend Mother was remarkably stoic. “My daughter is with the Emperor, but her body is here and, I am informed, there is a qualified surgeon on this ship who can maintain survo-skulls...”

Constance's face went white. “Reverend Mother...?”

At the same moment, Fiona leapt to her feet. “Abby, you can't be serious...!”

Reverend Mother Winter slapped the desk she sat before with the palm of her hand so sharply it sounded like a thunderclap. “Do not make this harder for me!” she declared with a quiet force that did what it needed without volume. “Our choices are war or dishonor or...sacrifice! I choose Sacrifice, as befits our Order and our Master!” She turned to her old friend, her gaze steel and her eyes on fire. “Fiona, my sister, go and collect up this little monster and bring him here so he can choose.”

Vander stood slowly, and though there were tears in her eyes, she kept them there. “If he refuses, I will strike him dead.”

“No,” Winter declared somberly. “I will. On your way.”

Fiona bowed with great dignity. “Yes, Reverend Mother.” She headed to the hatch, already talking to her ship bracelet. “Security alert, locate Jonas Merle.”

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Vander's long legs ate distance, even with a ship the size of the Vigilant. Even though her face was stern, stern enough that the ships' personnel hastily stepped out of her way, her thoughts were a chaotic mess. She had wondered why Abigail had been so distant when she had arrived on Banudan, now many things made much more sense. A part of her wept at the loss of her friend's daughter, and more so at the defilement of her remains all for the pleasure of a self serving little nobody.

Who, it figured, had not even bothered to rise yet.

With in short order, she had arrived back at the visiting officer's quarters on the ship where Constance herself had a cabin, as well as the rest of the mission. As she made her way down the corridors, a door opened, revealing of all people, Eloheim Advance Ruth Whitworth who was emerging from a cabin Fiona knew was not hers. She was also in a rather disheveled condition that could best be described as 'rode hard and put away wet.' “Whitworth,” Fiona snapped, and the smile melted off the face of the young NCO at her approach.

She gave a little jerk as if trying to come to attention and restore her uniform to a presentable condition at the same time. “Legatine!”

“At ease,” Vander ordered as she passed. “Your head out of your ass, girl?”

“Yes, Legatine. I mean, I appreciate...”

Over her shoulder, Fiona snapped, “Don't mention it. With me, now.” Ruth trotted to catch up to the older woman while getting her Day Habit in a more presentable condition. “Back me up, take no action before me.”

“Yes, ma'am,” Ruth replied, unconsciously falling in step with her superior and getting her game face on in remarkable speed. She noted the older woman's wink at her and allowed herself a smile of the cat that got the cream variety. “I hope I haven't pissed in my own beer too badly, Legatine.”

Fiona found that funny and chuckled darkly. “You're young, learn from your mistakes and don't repeat them and you'll do fine.”

“Thank you, Sister.”

“Twenty seven fifty one,” Vander said to herself. “Here we are.” She paused and disdained the door sensor to beat on the door with a closed fist. “Jonas Merle! Open in the name of the Emperor of Mankind!”

Two doors, the next down the hall, and the one on the other side of the hall opened, their occupants saw a pair of Battle Sisters in the hallway and promptly decided it was none of their business. Those doors closed as Twenty Seven Fifty One opened. “What's the meaning of this?” the Inquisitor demanded.

“Jonas Merle, you are summoned to the presence of Canoness-Preceptor Abigail Winters,” she declared with the voice of a thunderstorm. “You can come on your feet, or in chains, how do you answer?” The eyes of the weasel like man opened bit as he began to comprehend his situation.

“On...on my feet,” he stammered.

“Wise choice,” Vander retorted as she reached in getting a handful of the jacket Jonas was wearing to pull him from his cabin and roughly searched him for weapons. Finding none, the Battle Sister propeled him down the hall towards the Palatine's office. Once or twice he thought to either protest his treatment, or attempt to ferret out information to what he was facing, but Fiona Vander was stone faced and in no mood to entertain his cowardice, and each attempt was met with silence and a shove to encourage a faster pace.

When they arrived at the office, Ruth stepped around her superior's hostage and pressed the call button by the door, then posted herself there, making it clear they would not be disturbed while she lived. Fiona gave the younger woman a nod of respect and when Constance opened the door, Vander took the inquisitor by the shoulder and frog marched him into the cabin.

The door closed with awful finality behind her.

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Chapter Eight

Sacrifice and Celebration

Jonas Merle had been afraid many times in his life.

He had been afraid when he was selected to join the Ordo Hereticus that he would not be able to pass the qualifications and training. When he had been selected to become an Inquisitor, he was afraid he would be found wanting himself or executed for heresy. Then, on his first assignment free of supervision he had come face to face with the Chaos the Emperor's armed forces fought so endlessly against and he came to understand what true fear really was. Pain, discomfort, torture, death, these were temporary things, laughable to be feared of now that he fully comprehended exactly what the nature of evil really was.

Understood that there were fates far worse than death that would last forever.

It was then that Jonas Merle had internalized the faith that he had paid lip service to his entire life. He had looked deeply into the abyss, saw what awaited should the forces of mankind lose their perpetual war; and had the denizens of the Warp look back into him. It was then that Jonas Merle believed.

It was this belief that had given him the courage to say and do things his previous self would never have had the temerity to do. It let him stare down and shout at hardened Battle Sisters, let him look them in the eye, see their disdain and scorn for him, to bear their threats of violence and the actual deed of it so long as they did what he wanted them to do. His ego didn't matter, what his belief demanded was far too important to let his own discomfort get in the way of.

So when he was hauled from his cabin and frog marched into the office of the Palatine to face her, her disgraced mentor and, of all people, Reverend Mother Winter, he knew his own life hung in the balance, and he hardened his will to do whatever he had to so that his mission would succeed.

There was nothing more important than the death of Cameron Wren.

Jonas licked his lips as he felt the breasts of Fiona Vander in his back and her hands on his shoulders. It was a tight grip, like a vice, not painful, yet, but the promise was certainly there. “Reverend Mother Winter,” he started with and surprised himself how calm he sounded. “It's a pleasure to see you again.”

“I rather doubt it,” she replied, the scorn in her voice palpable. She picked up a data-slate from the desk beside her and held it up. “I have here the preliminary report of the loyalty test of Cameron Wren,” she drawled. “Do you know what was found?”

Jonas chose his words carefully. “I am willing to bet they did not find any sign of disloyalty.”

“You are betting,” she corrected him. “With your life. And you are correct. Computer experts have gone over his records with a fine tooth comb, his person and personal papers have been thoroughly searched and he has taken all of this in good humor and steadfast loyalty. Do you know what the penalty is for laying false allegations of treason against a loyal subject?”

The Inquisitor raised his chin. “I do, and I stand by my accusation. Cameron Wren is a traitor, a heretic and an enemy of mankind.”

Reverend Mother Winter rolled her eyes and laid the data-slate back on the desk. “So you claim. Palatine De La Concordia has forwarded to me a request, by you, that you intend to invoke your privilege of the Inquisition to hide yourself amongst her Mission by impersonating an Adepta Sororitas through some form of surgery. Is this true?”

“It is true, and it is also my right as an Inquisitor.”

The old woman's eyes became steel and despite her white hair or the lines on her face, the mask slipped and the hardened killer underneath the genteel Reverend Mother shone through. “What madness took you to make you think I would allow such a blasphemy?”

“Take care,” he whispered. “I have been diligent in my own reports and communiques with my superiors. They know the threats you have made, the shoddy disrespect I have endured in my duty and they will not believe any imaginative fiction you come up with to try and hide my murder.”

“Take care yourself,” the Palatine growled, speaking for the first time. “Your petty spite has brought the Ecclesiarchy to the brink of civil war!” It was clear the Palatine had a good bit more to say, but a soft gesture from the Reverend Mother caused her to hold her tongue and defer to her superior.

None of the steel had left Abigail Winter's eyes as she stood and walked over. With Fiona's hands on his shoulders, Jonas could not retreat, so he stiffened his spine and looked up at her, daring her to strike him. “I die innocent and loyal!” he declared, but his voice broke at the end and spoiled what he thought was his final defiance before death.

“Die?” drawled the Reverend Mother. “Do you intend to commit suicide?”

Jonas blinked and some of the surety left him. “No. I...I...thought...”

“Don't misunderstand me,” Abigail continued with a vague gesture at her subordinates in the room. “Both of my daughters would dearly love to kill you. I would be lying if I didn't remind you I entertained the notion myself. But we are creatures of duty, Inquisitor; we live our lives by it. You have informed us your duty requires us to indulge you to masquerade in our ranks. It is our duty to inform you that every other Inquisitor that has done so has paid with their life; not from nefarious actions from us. We live our lives on the battlefield, Jonas Merle and if you put on the habit of our order you will truly swear our vows and you will be expected to do everything any other sister would be required to do.”

“I'm not...” He started, but suddenly there was a knife at his throat and he wasn't sure whose hand held it. “...I...”

“Consider your next words very carefully, Jonas Merle,” the Reverend Mother told him quietly. “My duty requires me to allow you to invoke your privilege, but there is nothing in that duty that exempts you from being required to live up to the oaths and duties of that uniform.”

Jonas tried to swallow his fear, but his Adam's apple was stopped by the blade against his throat and would not allow it to pass. “Reverend Mother, I will gladly pledge to do my best and swear any oath that does not interfere with my duty to the Inquisition, but even I know I am not physically capable of meeting the requirements of a Battle Sister.”

Abigail's eyes were ablaze with emotion. “And if I offer you a way to do so, what would you say?” Her thin finger came up in caution. “Here is your last chance to turn aside, Jonas Merle! Is your conviction such that you will give up your very body in the Emperor's service?”

The thin man's chin rose just a bit. “I am oath bound. I will prove Cameron Wren is a traitor though it cost me everything in the service of the Emperor.”

Though her eyes threatened to burn his very soul, he met her gaze and did not blink. At long last, her finger dropped and the blade left his neck. “So be it,” she declared. The fire in her eyes died and she looked over his shoulder at Vander and nodded. “My Sister, take the Inquisitor to the Surgeon. He knows what to do.”

“I will not disappoint you, Reverend Mother,” he told her, but she turned away and heavily walked back to her chair.

“Get him out of my sight,” she whispered.

Uncharacteristically, Fiona did not immediately obey; though her grip on his shoulders intensified and was just on the edge of pain. “Connie, he'll need a minder, a teacher...”

“Who will have to be in on this,” Constance finished. She turned to the Reverend Mother who was sinking into her chair. Almost imperceptibly she nodded and Constance's glance was all the permission Fiona needed. She wheeled the Inquisitor about as the last thing Jonas expected happened. As he was being shoved out the door of the Palatine's office, he turned at a sound he couldn't believe he was hearing. Over his shoulder, he saw Reverend Mother Winter lay her head on her hands on Constance's desk and began to weep.

Then the door was shut as his mind spun, trying to understand what all of this meant. “Whitworth, you're with me,” Vander ordered and the sister fell in step with them to the closest travel tube. The Vigilantwas just shy of five and a half kilometers from stem to stern and the best part of a kilometer abeam at her widest. Such massive size made it impossible to move only on foot with anything like a timely manner. Thus the ship had system of rapid transport, part subway train, part elevator. The tube served as the main conduit of systems throughout the ship, stopping at central hubs for lines that moved up and down or port and starboard from the two main lines that traversed the ship fore and aft.

There was a brief respite from the march as the two women and the Inquisitor awaited the next tram. “What is going on?” Jonas demanded. “Why did Canoness Winter start crying?”

“What do you care, coward?” Vander snapped back, her face painted in scorn only a shade or two from pure hatred. “You're getting your way!”

“Legatine?” Ruth asked cautiously.

The tram arrived, causing the doors to snap open. Vander restrained herself from shoving her captive into the tram and chose not to answer until she was sure they would not be over heard. In a hoarse, terse voice she said, “The Inquisitor will be impersonating a Sister.” She saw the younger woman's eyes widen in full understanding of what was said and the consequences it implied. “It will be your duty to instruct him in what is expected of him, the vows he will swear and exactly what they demand of him.”

“He's a man!” Ruth protested.

Vander let loose a gallows laugh as she stared into the Inquisitors eyes. “Not for long,” she declared ominously and again Jonas felt the return of his old companion fear and he couldn't help but worry he had made a terrible mistake.

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The air boiled and waved around the barrel of the Mezoa Pattern Melta Gun. With it's distinctive hiss the super heated plasma was spat down range boiling the water out of the air as it traveled, boring through a fifteen centimeter plate of armor that instantly glowed white at the impact site. The remaining stream of plasma flowed onto the steel like a hot needle that then half melted, half exploded through onto the back stop of the range. On a battlefield that empty space would have been the crew compartment of a tank or APC with messy, predictable results. “Point eight four,” declared Wendy Marks from behind the blast shield next to the armored form of the sister holding the Melta Gun.

The white visor of theSabbat Pattern Helm rose to reveal the squarish face of Mary Cotton who was careful to keep the muzzle of the weapon pointed down range. “See, 'Supe? I told you the accumulator coil was sluggish.”

Wendy picked up a canister of compressed CO2 and sprayed the weapon to cool it enough to be save to handle. “Not enough for anybody to pick up without a timer,” she mumbled, making a gesture for the other sister open the weapon to get at the offending coil.

“I did,” Mary replied stubbornly.

“You're supposed to,” Marks shot back. “How many rounds did you put on the coil back there?” There was a pause as Mary worked the controls inside her armor and a hologram appeared over the weapon displaying it's diagnostic information. “Under a thousand? That's pretty light.”

“Yeah, well, there wasn't as much need for the Melta on Goshen IV.” Wendy got the coil out of the Melta and examined it in the light. “I keep it clean,” Mary protested, but the Sister Superior just shook her head.

“I don't think you haven't been,” she informed the other woman. “I don't see anything wrong with it, but go ahead and request a replacement from the ship's armorer.”

Mary closed the receiver cover and put it against her thigh were the grabber field in her armor would keep it. “Ugh, I hate dealing with those creepy machine heretics!”

It was with great force of will that Wendy kept her temper at dealing with this particular issue again. “The Adeptus Mechanicus were brought into the Imperium of Mankind by the Emperor himself. They bow to and venerate our Emperor and by law, commandment and precedent have indulgence for their genetic abnormality.”

“Mutant heretics,” muttered Mary as she backed away, towards her armor carrier so it could remove both her generator backpack and the fuel tank for the Mezoa that hung under it. The tank made safe and stowed, separate armatures deployed to remove the weapon from her thigh, separate it from the hoses to the tank, and returned it to the space for it in the carrier. Both were then locked away by the device into storage.

Sister Superior Marks raised her finger. “I'm not having this argument with you again, Cotton. The Emperor has converted, theEcclesiarch has indulged and you will obey.”

Mary bowed her head and gestured Anjali mudra, while still in her armor which managed to make the humble posture of submission somewhat sarcastic. “I hear and obey the will of the Emperor,” she declared before turning back to the carrier and spreading her arms for it to free her from her armor.

The Sister Superior considered barking after her for the cheekiness of her retort, but decided that would only make her look weak as so decided to ignore it. “You probably won't even see one,” she declared as she gave a gesture to alert the Range Gang that the sisters were finished so they could clean up the mess of the used target. “Five thrones says you get it from a Navy Shipman and you don't even lay eyes on theTransmechanic.”

Down to the battle habit and her link suit, Cotton turned back to her Superior and held out her hand. “You're on, 'Supe! And you're out five thrones!”

Wendy slapped the other woman's palm to seal the bet. “Make sure your note is nice and crisp when you pay up, I like my Throne Gelt neatly pressed!”

“What's neatly pressed?” The new voice drew both women's attention to the hatch out into the gangway where Gretchen Wycroff was just coming through it.

“Hey, Gretch,” Wendy greeted, while Mary dropped a light curtsey to her squad leader.

“'Supe,” she declared.

Sister Superior Gretchen nodded her head at her squad mate to acknowledge her protocol, then turned to her fellow squad leader. “Sorry to hit you with this, Wendy, but I have to from the Palatine.”

Marks only shrugged as she handed the accumulator coil to Mary as the other sister walked past. “Orders are orders,” she commented philosophically. “Cotton, you're going in your Battle Habit?” The heavy weapons specialist paused in the door way with a grin.

“Get undressed in front of the Range Gang? I'd cause a riot!”

Gretchen turned to look over her shoulder. “Wherever you're going, double time it. I got a vox from the Legatine, we have to turn the Mission out in Mess Dress.”

“What for?” demanded Wendy as Mary tossed a salute and trotted off to wherever she was headed.

“I dunno, we just have to assemble in the Shuttle Bay in Mess Dress at seventeen hundred,” Gretchen told her. One of the Range Gang cautiously approached the two women, removed her hat and curtseyed deeply despite wearing a uniform with pants.

“Blessed Sister, may this humble Shipman address you?” Wendy and Gretchen shared a look, then Gretchen turned towards the young woman, and reached out to place her hand on the Shipman's head.

“Be blessed in the light of the Emperor, my daughter, and speak your mind.”

“The ship's chaplain is quite a zealot!” Wendy chuckled sotto voce. “I wonder if he's married?”

“Blessed Sister, forgive me for speaking out of turn, but I heard from others before I came on shift that the destroyer Saint Arabellahad come along side us and that a great lady of your revered Order came aboard.”

The question was painted on Gretchen's face as she turned to Wendy who shrugged her own ignorance. “Thank you, daughter, for bringing this news. You may return to your duties.” The Shipman curtseyed again as the Sister Superior withdrew her hand. “Wasn't the Saint Arabellain orbit around Banudan when we left?”

“I think so,” Wendy replied. “Why would Reverend Mother Winter chase us down after sending us out here?”

“Hopefully to save us from being stranded out here!” Gretchen quipped. “We must be doing inspections or something. Have your squad ready.”

“I'm on top of my squad,” said Wendy as she walked over to the armor carrier Cotton had left and laid her hand on it so it would grant her authorization to move it. Oblidingly, it rose up on a suspensor field and followed her back to Gretchen. “What did the Palatine order you to tell me?”

Wycroff's face blushed for some reason, though Wendy caught it. “Uh, I am to have you go over any paperwork I have to do concerning Sister Hamilton.”

“Jennifer?” demanded Marks. “What for? She's your squad, not mine.” Gretchen's blush deepened a bit and she tapped the ends of her index fingers together. “Shut up!” Marks exclaimed. “Your own squad sister?”

“It...it just happened,” Gretchen stammered. “And we got the ok from Palatine De La Concordia.”

“You admitted you...” Wendy trailed off at a sharp gesture from Wycroff and a tilt of her head towards the Range Gang who were studiously still cleaning up the slag from the steel target. They were also dilligently appearing to be paying no mind to the Sister's conversation. “And she's ok with that?” demanded Marks in a much more discreet tone.

“Keep it under your helmet, would ya?” Gretchen told her in an equally quite voice. “Yes, I told her; well, actually we both asked permission and she said so long as we are...discreet...and there's no favoritism she's willing to cut us some slack.”

“Emperor's Throne!” Wendy muttered. “I'd heard the Palatine was...unconventional, but this takes the Caba Nuts!” The two women left the range and began walking through the corridors towards the compartment serving as their barracks.

“Hey, she did say she wouldn't have if we were in a normal posting.”

Wendy waved off that with a vague gesture. “That would have been the answer from any other Palatine I've ever heard of,” she declared. “So, is this a battlefield thing or...?” Gretchen shrugged her own ignorance.

“I didn't plan this, it just happened.”

“Hey, at least you'll get some trim on the regular,” Wendy groused. “I've been so busy I haven't had time to look, let alone find somebody to do his duty to the Emperor and perpetuate the species.”

Gretchen elbowed her friend in the arm. “Oh, come down off the throne, you're on the same shots I am and neither us have any Canoness' permission to bring a new subject into the galaxy!”

The grin on Wendy's face was lecherous. “He doesn't have to know that!” They arrived at the barracks and with a gesture, Marks sent Cotton's armor carrier to her bunk. “Attention on deck!” she commanded, causing conversation to cease and all of the assembled Sister to rise and face them. “Orders have come down from on high, ladies. We're to report to the shuttle bay at seventeen hundred in Mess Dress.”

A chorus of groans filled the room for a bit, causing Gretchen to frown. “Knock it off!” she ordered. “And make sure of your spit and polish, the Saint Arabellacame along side us and the rumor is a VIP of our order got off. One plus one equals two, ladies so I want the squad turned out and looking sharp. Go over your kits now and be ready for inspection before we assemble!”

“That goes double for you, my girls!” Marks echoed. “You've got some time, use it wisely! As you were!”

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Doctor Julius Boucher was a grizzled Navy veteran in his ninth decade. His left eye, and a good chunk of the left side of his head were replaced by cybernetics that had saved his life years and battles previous. The soft red glow from the electronic eye gave his craggy features a sinister air even as they were slightly hidden by the blue white haze of a sterility field. Most of the operating theater was cast in shadow due to the intense cone of light from the ceiling centered on the bed. “This is the patient?” his gravely voice asked as he gestured to a woman, also dressed in surgical attire who looked like she might be a Sister Hospitalier.

The hairs on the skin of both women and their Inquisitor charge stood up as they stepped through the sterility field over the hatch. Fiona propelled Jonas towards the operating table the doctor stood beside. “He is,” she snapped. “I'll need your oath of silence, Doctor.”

“It is on file,” Boucher replied, gesturing towards the bed for Merle to get up on it. “However, I realize my lady needs to hear it, so; 'I swear on my honor, life and immortal soul, as a loyal man of His Imperial Majesty's Royal Navy that which I see here I will not see, that which I know of these events I will not know, that which I hear will never leave my lips as the Emperor's Own Man, So Help Me.'”

“Do I get a say in this?” Jonas asked. “We don't talk about what I'll...”

“No,” the doctor replied as he took the coat the Inquisitor had taken off away from him and casually threw it aside. He pushed the smaller man onto the bed where an immobility field snapped on, penning him to it.

“Wait, I can take my clothes off, don't cut them off!”

“I won't,” the doctor replied as he fiddled with a control with the metalic cluster of machines his left hand, which was also a replacement, had become. Over Jonas' head the surgical armature came to life, multiple arms tipped in sinister looking tools reached down like some mechanical spider reaching for it's prey. “There's no need. Your head is clear.”

“My head?” Jonas asked as something stung him in his neck. “But, I thought...”

The world became unclear and indistinct as the red glow leaned over him. “Don't worry, I'll see your brain safe in it's new home.” Terror gripped Jonas, but it was so difficult to think, he didn't understand why. Darkness fell and the last thing he knew was the pounding of his heartbeat, unable to move or see.

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Mary Cotton arrived at the master armory of the Vigilantto be greeted by the pair of sailors under arms that were guarding it. It was situated at the end of long corridor with no other access or doors so that anyone entering it had no other destination. One of the Sailors stepped forward while his partner unslung his lasrifle and shouldered it. “Halt! Who approaches?” the senior demanded.

The Sister of Battle stopped and raised both hands. “Sister Mary Cotton, daughter of the Emperor, Adepta Sororitas.”

“State your business,” the petty officer demanded.

“I am sent of my Sister Superior in service of my weapon. I have a failing accumulator coil.”

The Petty Officer nodded. He worked a control and a vidscan unfolded from the wall on an armature. “Advance to the vidscan to be recognized.” Mary slowly walked forward, keeping her hands at her shoulders. The Battle Habit she wore would slow the lasgun, but not stop it and now was not the time for an accidental discharge. She looked the vidscan in the lens and it's mechanical voice growled out from the vox.

“Cotton, Mary, Sister, Adepta Sororitas.”

The lasrifle was returned to being slung and the Petty Officer bowed. “You are welcome, Sister Cotton,” he said, returning to his post by the hatch. Mary lowered her hands and smiled at the two men.

“You honor the Emperor with your diligence,” she complimented as she opened the hatch and stepped through. Inside the armory was dark, well below standard illumination and it took a moment for her eyes to adjust. “Hello?” she called, stepping in to find a pale skinned man in a Navy Shipman uniform behind a counter. He smiled, but froze when a voice more in common with the vidscan than a human through sounded out in the gloom.

“Who calls?”

Mary shuddered, looking at the Shipman, but he was trembling and wouldn't meet her gaze. To the darkness, she announced, “Sister Mary Cotton. I have a failing accumulator coil I need replaced.”

“Who has offended the spirit of your Melta Gun, Sister Mary Cotton?” the mechanical voice demanded. The Daughter of the Emperor kept careful control of her temper and her voice.

“No offense was given,” she declared. “It's just wearing out.”

The sound of metal on metal came from the darkness. “Do you speak in ignorance, or falsehood, Sister Mary Cotton?” The words shot through Mary's temper like a bolter through a chaos spawn.

Striding forward to the counter the Shipman stood behind, she snarled, “Say that to my face, heretic!” The Shipman dove under the counter, but that nearly escaped Mary's notice for, from the dark, a mechanical hand gripped the doorway and a misshapen thing emerged from the darkness into the half light. It was wearing a red robe and hood that was in tatters, with three additional arms sprouting from it's hunched back as it came through the door, red light from fivecybernetic eyes glowing under the hood.

“I am not your enemy, Sister Mary Cotton,” came from the depths of the hood, behind what seemed to be a mask or respirator, the hoses of which came out the hood, and disappeared into the robe. “I serve the Omnissiah, who you call the Emperor, and we are both the weapon in his right hand. You are ignorant of the spirits of the machine and this is nothing to be ashamed of.”

“Then prove your loyalty and replace this failing part,” she demanded, slamming the coil to the counter. One of the arms on the creature's back reached out and picked up the coil to hold it in front of the glowing lens.

“Such anger,” the metallic voice declared, grating on Mary's ears. “This is why the spirit is unhappy with you. You do not allow it the joy of its duty to the Emperor, but instead only force from it service of your hatred.” The glowing lights turned from the part to Mary directly. “Replacement will only doom a new spirit to the unhappiness you have caused this poor coil to suffer.”

“My joy is purging heretics and mutants in fire!” Mary growled.

The metallic hand put the coil back on the counter. “No. Seek the wisdom of the Emperor to see the truth of your anger, Sister Mary Cotton. Make your peace with the spirit of the coil, and we will speak again.”

Mary stared at the part on the counter while the thing shambled back into the darkness. For a moment, she considered mounting the counter and chasing it, but was unsure how much trouble she would get into killing the ship's armorer and thought the better of it. Snatching up the coil, she stormed out, only just keeping her temper.

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Once more in her cabin, Constance sighed and shook her head at the strange road her life seemed to be traveling. Never in her life would she have thought she would have to console a Reverend Mother. Let alone even see one so lose control of her emotions it might be needed. In truth, she was awestruck by Canoness Winter's devotion to their order and Emperor.

She realized she had a new yardstick to judge her own loyalty and devotion against.

After what seemed a life time of holding the other woman as she at last poured out the grief bottled up inside her, she allowed the Canoness time to regain her dignity and escorted her to a guest cabin and saw her ensconced in it. Constance had been about to contact Duke Wren to offer her apologies, but once Reverend Mother Winter understood what her arrival had interrupted she insisted that Constance attend. Going so far as to command the Palatine to leave her so that De La Concordia would have time to prepare to attend the ball she had been invited to. She had broached no argument, ordering the younger woman to her cabin to prepare and had actually forced a painful smile for Constance as she left.

Constance's palm opened the small locker that served as her closet in the cabin and removed her most formal uniform from it's protective bag and laid it out on her bunk to inspect it with a critical eye. Like most of the uniforms of her order, first and foremost it was designed to emphasize her femininity and somewhat exaggerate her womanhood. To this end, it started with a simple, bell sleeved gown in red that fell, fitted closely to her waist in the same cut as the Battle Habit. Like the armor it mimicked, it offered a level of protection against blades and certain, low caliber, projectiles as it's designers realized a Sister of Battle was never really off the battlefield. Over this was a corset and bustier in black embossed with a silver Fleur-de-lis,the symbol of the Adepta Sororitas. The leather like material of the corset defined and displayed Constance's figure as way of emphasizing her femininity; the mission of every uniform of the Sisters of Battle. As it rested over her vital organs, it's armor value was sufficient against most chemical projectiles and would even turn a power sword for a brief while.

Again herInquisitorial Rosette served her as a belt, draped around her waist to lay against her left hip and below, a straight skirt of red fell to her ankles with slits for both legs to her waist that gave elegance and complete freedom of movement. Red leggings protected her modesty and high black boots completed the uniform.

A red wimple framed her face while it concealed her ebony hair and neck, with it's couvrechef veil over her head, in red and gold draped around her shoulders and announced her rank. Constance lightly stroked thewhite Maltese Cross and Heart indicating her membership of the Order of the Valorous Heart on the sleeve of the gown, then steeled herself. The past was the past, and it was time to get on with the future. She separated the uniform into it's component pieces and stripped off her Day Habit to don it.

First, nude, she knelt on the hard, cold deck, headless of her own discomfort, towards the double headed eagle, the Imperial Aquila, embossed on the far wall of her cabin. Bowing her head, she softly recited her prayer of dedication, committing herself anew to the Emperor's Service. Humbling herself, she asked forgiveness for the awe she felt at Canoness Winter's sacrifice and for the wisdom and strength to lead her mission and be worthy of such devotion and trust. She ended by rising from her kneel to genuflect herself, raising her hand over her heart and swearing to bring glory to the Emperor or to die in the attempt of it.

Purified, she rose, keeping her head bent in submission, to slowly and carefully don the uniform. The process was somewhat lengthy as she paused on each piece, considering in reverence the symbolism of the garment, the battles she had fought and the recognition the awards symbolized until at last, she was dressed and standing before her mirror, being certain of the drape and hang of the uniform. Constance carefully laid the sash of her acclaim across her right shoulder, her medals and a pair of Purity Seals hanging from it, until it sat properly on her hip, the long knife that hung from it secure behind her Inquisitorial Rosette.

On whim, or perhaps a desire to show some amount of consideration to her host, she picked up the bolter pistol his world had created and put it into the garter holster on her right thigh instead of the issued laspistol that distinguished her as an officer of the Order. She found it fit the holster well, despite not having been made for it, and was even a bit lighter on her leg.

“Yes,” she told herself with a smile. “A very large order.”

Satisfied, she pulled on a pair of scarlet gloves that reached over her elbow, well up the bell sleeve of the gown such that her face was the only visible skin. That accomplished, she pulled open the hatch to her cabin and began walking towards the nearest travel tube station. This took her past the compartment that was serving as the barracks for her Mission, which opened as she walked by.

Coming out was Fiona, resplendent in the same gown, minus only a few touches of rank, her own head covered only in a scarlet wimple that fell around her shoulders in place of the blonde mane she had worn ever since Constance could remember. Fiona curtseyed to her Palatine, which Constance nodded to acknowledge, feeling terribly out of place by their positions being reversed. The two women fell in step, several steps ahead of the rest of the mission who, having seen the number of awards on Sister Vander's Acclaim Sash were obviously awestruck.

There was not a single open space on the garment for another award to be worn.

As they walked, Fiona carefully caught De La Concordia's eye and with her hands, used the silent battle language of the sisterhood so that they could not be over heard. It's done, her hands proclaimed.

Emperor help us, Constance replied with her own hands. Emperor help us.

Amen, was Fiona's only response.

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Chapter Nine

The Last Party

Life returned slowly to Jonas Merle, as though from a great distance being drug every step of the way; the feet of the condemned on their way to the gallows. The first sense to return was the oldest, the sense of pain. From a dark, heavy soup rose up ache as if his entire body had been given over to those who loathed him and he was beaten to within a nanometer of his life. Next came sound as he moaned and with it was a sudden, horrible feeling of being out of sorts. The voice he heard, that he knew had come from his vocal cords, for he had felt the vibration in his throat and the air pass his lips, was also not his own.

Like a dam suddenly breached by torrential rains, a thousand sensations assaulted him, things that felt different from how his memory said they should be. As the moan he had heard was too high and too soft to have been his voice, the skin he wore felt different, there was flesh where there should not be and in a horrible moment he realized it was missing where it should be. Before sight could make its untriumphant return, something wet and cold was pressed on his face, over them. “Lie still,” a voice commanded. “If you begin to move, you might pull out the leads.”

“Everything hurts,” he managed to make his throat say, but now he was certain it was not his voice. This voice was light, higher than any note he could sing, even raw and course as it was now. Whoever was holding the sponge to his eyes found that funny and laughed.

“Pain is the oldest companion of womanhood,” she told him. “Get used to it.”Jonas tried to turn towards the sound of the voice, but the hand became firm to stop him. “Don't move,” she ordered. “Not yet. When you're ready, we'll put you in the recovery gel for a bit.”

“Who are you?” The woman's voice asked at Jonas' mental command.

The firmness left her hand and she began to gently daub his face. “My name is June, I am a Sister Hospitalier. I know who you are, or, rather, who you were. Rest easy sister, you will live to serve the Emperor yet.”

Jonas considered that for a long moment as he tried to take a mental inventory. His chest seemed to weigh more with each breath than it should and when he slightly shifted his legs, he became aware of the feeling of fabric firmly against his abdomen as it never had before, in addition to a void that was entirely novel and set his heart to pounding. “So,” June's voice told him as the sponge was withdrawn and he heard it dipped in water and rung out. “Let us talk about you.” The sponge returned, cool against his eyes and forehead. “Your name is Rachael. You are thirty two and a Sister of the Order of the Valorous Heart. Or, rather, you were. You have been reassigned to the Mission of Palatine Constance De La Concordia on Thuria. You are a Rhino commander, but you fell off your APC and injured your head when you fell. You likely have some level of amnesia so you were attached to this Mission to convalesce and recover your memory.”

“Rhino?” the voice she was beginning to recognize as her own asked.

“It's an armored personnel carrier, a kind of tank,” June told her. “When you're better, you can read over your personnel file and see if that brings back any memories.”

“I have a personnel file?” Rachael asked, somewhat incredulously.

“Of course you do, Daughter of the Emperor,” June's voice replied. “Every Sister of Battle, every servant of the Emperor does. It lists the battles you have fought, the honors you've won, everything about you. You should read it when you're up and about.”

Rachael sighed and couldn't keep herself from nodding. “I will.”

“You should,” June replied. “You should always honor those who gave up everything for you.” There came a hum of machinery and the bed underneath Rachael began to slowly lift her into a seated position. “Alright,” the nurse declared after the light against Rachael's eyelids lowered. “Open your eyes, slowly.”

Rachael willed her eyes to open, but found them slightly sticky and it was a bit of work to get them to open, despite the sponge bath they'd had. The room was dim, lit only by the glow of the lights of the diagnostic equipment and a pair of candles, well away from the bed. Her vision was blurry and there were halos around all the lights in her vision. She blinked several times and looked down to see the body of a lovely young woman, clad only in a medical modesty bra and panties in black.

The medical bra only pressed her bust against her chest to hold it in place, but it seemed there was a fair amount to secure. Milk white hair fell into her line of vision, longer than she remembered, but not as long as Palatine De La Concordia. Around her navel was a tattoo of the fleur-de-lis, the size of her palm in bold, dark ink against a peaches and cream skin. There were several electronic and IV Lines about her body, running out to the monitors that were providing light. Nothing felt their right length or distance, legs that seemed too long curved out of hips that were wider than they should be. Rachael tried very hard to remember and the last memory she had was fear, biting, terrible fear. That fear awoke as she realized there was no way to her recollection that her previous body could have been altered into this one.

She looked up, seeing a young woman, with olive complexion and black hair looking at her and something about her face seemed familiar. She was wearing nurses scrubs with bits of technology attached to them that he didn't recognize. “June...?” she asked.

“Sister Hospitalier June Campanelli, at your service, Sister Rachael,” the nurse confirmed. She reached up and began to disconnect the leads slowly and methoically. “How do you feel?”

“Dizzy,” Rachael replied. “Nothing feels right. How did they do this?”

“There was some emergency brain surgery,” June replied. “You've been in a coma for two months. We were worried we would have to pronouce you brain dead and harvest your organs.” The expression on the nurse's face hardened and her grip on Rachael's arm tightened unpleasantly. “But, let's not talk about the past here,” she said with great weight. “Let's get you into the tank so you can recover.”

Once the lines were cleared, June fitted a resperator over Rachaels face, and pulled the mask tight. Once that was done, she helped her to stand and led the way slowly to an empty recovery tank. The nurse had her sit on the floor of the tank while she made sure the air hose was secure and flowing, then stepped out and closed the door. Immediately, the tank began to fill with thick, yellow green liquid. It was just slightly warm against her skin and picked her up off the floor to float as it covered her head and it was even harder to see the nurse that was watching her. She saw June pick up a Vox and in her ear she heard, “We'll speak again when we can be more discreet.”

Rachael nodded her understanding and watched the nurse walk over to the desk at the edge of what she could just make out through the gel and the glass and sit down. Deep in the darkest recesses of her mind, Rachael remembered, don't worry, I'll see your brain safe in it's new home, and shuddered, in fear of what had happened to her.

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The shuttle Duke Wren had sent up was not a military model, but evidently his private one. The Sisters were welcomed aboard by a liveried steward into a plush, yet understated flying palace. Leather was the seating fabric of choice, while the appointments were burled wood and polished brass. Once they were comfortably seated in the expanisve and actually comfortable acceleration couches, the shuttle departed the Vigilant as gentle as a feather falling off a bird's wing. Constance was used to military pilots who took 'edge of the envelope' to mean 'how can I break this, but not have to pay for it', though she had traveled TDY on civilian craft when nothing military was going the right way. While certainly more conscious of their paying customers, the Duke's pilot put them all to shame by Constance looking out the window, wondering when they would depart, to see the Vigilant falling away behind them.

It was easily the smoothest take off she'd ever experienced.

From there, champagne was served, bringing an amused smile to Legatine Vander's face as she accepted the flute and lightly touched hers to that of her protoge and superior officer. “Obviously, Palatine, we picked the wrong MOS divisions.”

Constance sat back in the very comfortable chair and crossed her legs, savoring a taste of the sparkling wine. It was local, but a light, sweet vintage and well crafted. “I could get used to this,” she admitted. “Did I miss count, or...?”

“I left Whitworth behind to mind our new charges,” Fiona replied. At the confused look from Constance, she continued, “Reverend Mother Winter transferred a Sister Hospitalier to us as well, to mind...her...and we did need a medic.”

“Poor girl,” De La Concordia observed. “I'm not sure which of us will have the worse time.

Fiona arched an eyebrow at her. “Babysitting captain grumpus or putting up with stuffed shirts at a party? I'll pick the party, thanks. At least there's dancing.”

“Maybe for you,” Constance retorted. “I'll be frantically taking mental notes to try and keep up with who is who.” Again Vander smirked at her and gestured with her flute.

“I thought you'd try to do something like that, so I planned ahead and drafted a co-conspirator.” Constance frowned and turned her head to find Baldermort's skull floating a meter or so behind her. The half robot slave dipped on his suspensor field and his voice managed to sound contrite.

“Good evening, Palatine,” the Vox declared. “I have taken the liberty of updating myself on the Who's Who entries for the local gentry, should your memory fail you, or may the Emperor decree, you actually decide to enjoy yourself. Now, no matter what you do this evening, my lady, do try to make time for fun.”

“I'm conspired against!” Constance declared with good humor. “I should have you both up on charges!” Before Fiona could laugh or defend herself further, the ship's speakers came to life and a pleasant, professional sounding baritone came forth.

“Good evening, my ladies, this is your Captain speaking. It's a crisp twenty two degrees this evening with clear skies over New Atlanta. If you look out the starboard side of the space craft you'll have a magnificent view of Dachaigh, the Ducal Residence. We have priority clearance of the air space so we'll be setting down in about five minutes or so. On behalf of the Stewards and crew I'd like to offer our gratitude to being of service and we hope you enjoyed the flight. Stewards begin your prelanding check lists.” A steward came by to collect up the empty flutes on his way aft and out of habit Constance made sure her seat belt was buckled.

“Despite my protestations, Baldermort, I am glad to have you along.”

The servo-skull floated down until it was hovering above a chair as if sitting in it. “It is an honor to be of service, Palatine.” Constance smiled as she turned to look out the far window. She was on the wrong side of the craft to get the full effect of the sun glinting off copper roof tiles that gleamed in the last rays of the setting sun. Despite that, Dachaigh, was almost modest for it's purpose. The Gothic and Neo Baroque style sprawled in an organic manner that suggested a central house that had been added to over the centuries. It was surrounded with magnificent gardens that were glowing in the fading twilight and a collection of limosines were parked on the various dives showing the Sisters had evidently arrived fashionably late.

The Captain's landing was as flawless as his take off had been, touching down on Thuria with out so much of a caress as would put a ripple in another glass of champagne. They had touched down on a private facility, not far from the main house. Already the ground crew was making the ship safe and servicing it; a stair on wheels was being pushed up as the Steward undogged the hatch and locked it open. Constance unbuckled her seat, then stood, turning aft to address her mission who were also rising, drawing their faces towards her. “My sisters,” she declared, being certain she had their attention. “Tonight is a new beginning for us. This is our new home, and the flaky stuffed shirts we'll meet are the upper crust of this society. I expect your decorum; you will be the face of our order to those who are our charges and neighbors, and above all, a certain level of respectability for the first impressions we make tonight. The first splash in a pond whose ripples we are adrift in.”

“Yes, Palatine,” they chorused. For a long moment, Constance keep her countenance stern, making eye contact with each of her soldiers, then allowed herself to smile.

“Alright, I've said what I had to. We're not on leave, but I'm reminded we are not on duty all the time and I even had someone pray to the Emperor that I would enjoy myself. These are the people you swore to lay down your lives to protect. So I'm telling you, go remember why. Enjoy yourselves, my sisters, dance the night away and make friends. Now go be young.”

Twenty two faces lit up as they shouted, “Sororitas!”

With the smile of a commander certain her troops would not let her down, Constance led the way down the stairs of the little luxery spacecraft. There, she was surprised to find the Duke waiting, a matching grin on his face as he watched her decend. There, he swept the hat of his uniform off and bowed with all the grace and panauche of a stage swashbuckler. “Ladies, you are most welcome in my humble home. Palatine De La Concordia, will you grant me the honor of your escort?”

Constance's smile widened just a touch. “Never let it be said you do things in half measures, your grace. The honor of your company is entirely mine.” She took the arm he offered and allowed him to lead up the walk towards his home. The sun's rays splayed out from the horizon as the last minutes of the Golden Hour ticked away to the soft caress of music from cleverly hidden speakers.

Ropes of lights hung artfully in arches and coils around trees nearly as old as the estate itself while liveried footmen stood guard at doors, ready to open them for the Duke's guests. “My congratulations to your staff, your grace, it's enchanting,” Constance complimented him, causing his chest to puff out just a bit.

“Take care of your team and your team takes care of you,” he quoted with a wink. “A sentiment I can see you apply yourself, my Lady.”

Constance arched an eyebrow at him. “I should scold you for your constant military aspirations, your grace and remind you to be grateful for the blessings the Emperor has bestowed on you, but I find I cannot muster the energy to be stern this evening. So I'll accept your compliment as it was intended, one leader to another.” His boyish smile gleamed through and he patted her gloved hand.

“I will always be grateful for the mercy of his Majesty and his Daughters,” he replied. “As touching my lady's energy level, I like to think I have a buffet laid out such that there will be something of service. I'm hoping for at least one dance from the most beautiful of my guests.”

De La Concordia knew an experienced tom cat at work when she heard it, but allowed herself to remember some of her most pleasant evenings had been the artistry of experienced tom cats and smiled back at him. “Only a single dance, your grace? Should I be jealous?”

He looked at her sidelong, as though a marksman gauging the arc of his last shot to see how close to his mark he'd come. “My dear Palatine, if allowed I would happily monopolize your dance card!” he shot back.

Not for the first time that evening, Constance indulged in her light, crystaline laugh. “You grace is a shameless flatterer, don't stop on my account!”

“The night is young,” he assured her. “And I have not yet begun to flatter!”

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Ruth's elbow let her into the critical care recovery ward of the Vigilant, as both of her hands were full with a pair of steaming cups of coffee. The smell brought June's face up from the screen she'd been montioring and a weary smile brightened her face. “Emperor bless you, sister!” she exclaimed as she took the mug Ruth offered and relished her first sip.

Whitworth hitched a cheek on an open spot of the desk that wouldn't upset anything or accidently touch a control. “Legatine Vander gave me authorization to disable to flight recorder in here, so we can speak freely,” she said, taking a sip from her own mug and looking over at the Recovery Gel tank. “How is she?”

“Asleep,” Camanelli replied, turning the chair to be able to follow her guest's gaze. “And I never thought I'd see her up and walking again.” She looked up at the other sister a bit guardedly. “You didn't go with the others to that ball or whatever?”

Ruth sighed and shook her head. “No, I'm his teacher,” she muttered in disgust. “I can't believe the Palatine would allow this!”

The Sister Hospitalier chuckled darkly and shook her head, relaxing now that she did not have to be on guard of betraying a confidence. “I don't think any of us had a choice. If Rachael were here, she'd probably laugh.”

That brough Ruth's eyes back to her. “Did you know her?”

“Not really,” June allowed. “Just in passing, and most of what I heard was from her squad mates. They invited me to her wake, after she'd been declared brain dead and I heard some stories. She wasn't like the Reverend Mother at all, or so I heard.”

“Reverend Mother?” Ruth asked.

That surprised the Nurse and her expression was incredulous. “The Legatine didn't tell you? That's the body of Rachael Winter, Reverend Mother Winter's daughter!”

Whitworth nearly dropped her mug. “By the Golden Throne!” she swore. “She actually...?”

Campanelli became stern. “Yes, she did, so you make certain who she is now lives up to that sacrifice!” Ruth nodded and turned back to the young woman floated in the tanks, moving gently either from a dream or the currents in the gel.

“I can't imagine what that might be like,” Whitworth muttered in amazement. “Either! To give up the body of your own child in the Emperor's service, or to wake up in someone else's body.”

The Nurse chuckled darkly. “As the ship's surgeon said, as he did it, it's not that much different than making a servo-skull.” She sighed and took another sip of her coffee. “We all serve the Emperor, but some more than others.”

Ruth's gaze returned to the Nurse and caught her eye. “How long until you can decant her?”

“I'll give her another hour or so.” Whitworth stood and finished her coffee.

“Alright, I'll see you in an hour.”

“Thanks for the coffee.”

“Anytime.”

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Mary Cotton had lived a hard life.

An orphan, she had been raised in the Scholas Progenium ofManzipor, part orphanage, part boarding school, part military boot camp under Drill Abbots and Abbesses who had no patience for dullards or the slothful. Mary had been given holos of her parents, a communications officer aboard the Dilverance who had been lost with all other hands when the ship was destroyed, and a Captain of the 27thManzipor Winged Hussars who had died a heroes death on Caliban.

This was all Mary knew of the humans who had been her parents.

She had been a particularly devout child and her frequent prayers for the souls of the faces of the people she had been told were her parents drew the attention of PalatineAisha, a retired Sister of Battle who was living out her final days teaching the next generation of the Emperor's loyal subjects. Seeing in Mary the potential of a new sister, she had ridden the child heartlessly, honing in her both the raging temper at her teacher's callous and capricious nature as well as the indominable will to keep it in control and herself out of trouble.

Hunger had been a constant companion of Mary's until she had finally proven herself to Aisha, and the Sister Qualifier Aisha had summoned to give her the final trial to see if Mary had what it took to be a Sister of Battle. She had been ten solar years old when she'd arrived at the Convent Sanctorum on Ophelia VII and discovered for the first time what a full belly felt like. Her instructors at the Convent had been hard, harsh at times, but fair and Mary had blossomed as a Novice quickly achieving high marks, both in her religious education and her martial one.

There had actually been some debate about which Order she should be trained for and had been given a rare choice to decide for herself where the Emperor called her. Mary had remembered the faces of her unknown parents, both soldiers in the service of the Emperor and had not hesitated to choose to join the Ordo Militant and a combat MOS to become a full Sister of Battle.

In all her schooling, or the battlefield she had walked, never in her life had she seen anything like the inside of Dachaigh. The magnificent decorations, the beautiful clothes and the tables laiden with food, the likes of which she'd never seen. “This must be what Heaven is like,” she whispered to Sister Superior Marks after they had made their way down the reception line, meeting people she would be hard pressed to remember later, but mindful of her protocol in the mean time.

Wendy chuckled at her sister's amazement and led the way over to one of the tables of food. “You'll want to be careful when you eat something,” she intimated, taking up a small plate and adding a portion of mixed fruits, most of which she couldn't identify. “Be mindful of your uniform and don't eat yourself sick.”

“I'm not that hungry,” Mary retorted as she took some of the fruit herself and looked, somewhat askance at the tiny fork she'd been given to eat them with. “You even know what this stuff is, 'Supe?”

“No clue,” Wendy replied carefully around her own mouthful. “Tasty though.”

Mary speared what she decided to call a strawberry, because it vaguely resembled what she'd imagined a strawberry would look like when she'd read about them. Her mouth was flooded with a sweet, tart flavor as she chewed and couldn't help but mew at how wonderful it tasted. “I think we hit the jackpot, Wendy,” she declared, quietly. “How about you?”

“This certainly beats being shot at,” Wendy agreed, snagging another flute of champagne from a passing waiter and taking a sip. “Praise the Emperor, I could get used to this!”

From a balcony above the main floor of the ballroom, music began to play, drawing both of their eyes up, to behold something neither had seen before; an orchestra, populated by live musicans playing musical instriments. Then, there was a magical moment as room began to be put to it's nominal use and couples began to dance. Mary caught sight of the Palatine and the Duke, out on the floor turning slowly on the floor, large smiles on both their faces. “I didn't think the Palatine was gonna let her hair down,” Mary declared in disbelief, elbowing her friend and superior officer and discretely pointing out their commanding officer on the dance floor.

Wendy caught sight of a pair of officers in what looked like Home Guard uniforms and turned back to Mary. “We going to let the Palatine have all the fun?”

“Emperor, no!” Mary asserted as the two men who were a bit startled by their approach and bowed. “You boys dance?” she asked, picking the bigger of the two. A surprised grin spread on his face and he bowed again.

“It would be our pleasure, my lady,” he replied.

“I'm Bob, this is Doug,” his friend declared.

“I'm Wendy and this is Mary,” the Sister Superior declared. “Let's dance!” Hands were grabbed and bodies led out onto the floor, and no one was really sure who was leading and who was being led, not that anyone cared. Then Mary had a tall, good looking young man's arms around her and she was dancing in a ballroom in what might as well have been a castle and the five year old girl inside her was beside herself in glee.

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Fiona sipped champagne and smiled to herself as she watched her protege dancing with their charge and tried not to worry about what had brought them here. Every where she looked, she saw loyalty, an idyllic, textbook example of a world fully secure within the Imperium of Man. There was not so much as a hint of heresy, disloyalty or treachery. It seemed obvious they had been sent on a wild goose chase; whatever a goose was, or why one would chase it she had no idea. It was then she sighed and decided to look at things through more experienced eyes.

Surely they should have found somethingirregular by now, shouldn't they?

Her mood somewhat soured, she turned and made a soft gesture. At her bidding Baldermort floated over and dipped on his suspensor field. “How may I be of service, my lady?”

“Baldermort, when was the last time there was any kind of issue on this planet? Any hints of chaos, heresy, anything?” The skull's lack of skin or muscles prohibited it from making any kind of facial expression, but just from the way it fidgeted on its suspensor field made her think it was taken aback.

After a long moment, the vox in the skull quietly replied, “Fifty years ago, my lady, there was a minor incident, a religious benevolent society was declared to be heretical, but the members surrendered themselves. The adjustication of the Adeptus Arbites and theEcclesiarchy was that the incident was a misunderstanding of certain notes of the Imperial Creed. It was judged an innocent confusion of dogma, not willful heresy.”

“What was the outcome of this leniency?”

“The accused renounced their misunderstanding and pledged themselves loyal. As they had cooperated fully with the Inquisition, they were allowed the Emperor's Mercy,” the skull intoned somberly. Fiona pulled at her chin in thought.

“Was anyone important caught up in this 'misunderstanding'?”

“I was,” a deep, mellodious voice declared. Fiona turned to find an older man, wearing not quite a uniform, though it had medals and braid aplenty, standing behind her. He had a full head of gray hair and a stern, weathered face. He clicked his heels together and bowed stiffly. “Leopold Gustav Holtz, Viscount of New Macon, your humble servant, my lady.” He stood up straight, taking the bottle of champagne from one of the tables chill buckets and refreshing Fiona's glass, then his own before returning it.

“Legatine Fiona Vander, Adepta Sororitas,” she replied, with the lightest of curtseys in response to his own courtesy.

He conspiciously took a sip first from his flute and looked the Sister in the eye. “My sister, Emperor rest her soul, was disgraced in the affair. She had been particularly adament her societies beliefs were not heresy.”

“Her society?” asked Vander archly, taking a sip of the sparkling wine herself. Either to merely enjoy it, or show she was not intimidated, she wasn't quite sure. The Viscount gestured at Baldermort.

“The servator can tell you, it's a matter of public record, and I have nothing to hide over it. She considered the Society as a labor of love and was too ardent in its defense. When chastised by theEcclesiarchy for it she was...surly, some would say with good cause, but I will not debate that. She was stripped of her title and cast out of the family. She left Thuria and the last word of her I had was that she was dead.”

Fiona switched the flute to her left hand and looked at the nobleman sidelong. “Bold words, my lord. Especially in defense of Heresy to the face of a Sister of Battle.” The man chuckled darkly.

“You misunderstand, my lady,” he replied. “I offer no defense on behalf of my sister, her society or how she chose to defend it. I may reprove the Ecclesiarchy on its handling of the matter, but that judgement was handed down decades ago and the dead are buried. I trust my actions then and since vouchsafe my loyalty to our Emperor.” He stepped forward and Fiona continued to meet his gaze without giving up so much as a milimeter. “I cast my own sister out of my family, Legatine, to prove my loyalty. Can you say you would have done the same?”

“This is a perfect world so far, My Lord Viscount,” she told him evenly. “I have survived too many battles to be lulled into a false sense of security. If there is heresy or corruption on this planet, rest assured, we willfind it.” She took a sip of champagne while staring him in the eye. “And if there is only loyalty, the Emperor's subjects have nothing to fear from us.”

He smiled thinly and bowed his head. “Your reputation on that account preceeds you, my lady.” He turned, using that to step back slightly so as to lower the hostility between them without giving ground. “It seems we are both concerned over the younger generation,” he declared, looking out at the Duke and Palatine enjoying their waltz. “Perhaps we can find common cause...?”

“In what?” she drawled.

His eyes lingered on the dancing forms, then turned to look at her sidelong. “Perhaps,” he repeated, then bowed again. “Good evening, my lady Vander. I look forward to our next conversation.”

Fiona returned his bow, then watched him depart, her mind going in circles as she did so. Finally, without taking her eyes off the departing back of the Viscount, over her shoulder she called, “Baldermort?”

“The complete file of the Viscount, my lady?”

“Every little detail,” Fiona replied.

“Of course.”

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Chapter Ten

Fading Dreams

The entire vehicle shook as bolter rounds slammed into it's back quarter pushing it sideways. The Rhino, a squat, rhomboid shaped box on a pair tracks skidded in the mud, pushed sideways off what was passing as a road and into the ditch beside it. In the driver's compartment alarms began to blare and the worst light on the warning panel lit up: Track Failure. Rachael swore her choicest invectives as one hand slapped the rapid release of her harness and the other was reaching for her helmet. “Out! Out!” she shouted, the armor was holding, but probably not for much longer. “Starboard side!” The starboard hatch fell open and ten Battle Sisters flowed out like a river of black armored death.

Helmet in hand, Rachael grabbed the remote, swinging the storm bolter on its pintle mount on the roof of the disabled armored transport in the direction of fire her Rhino was taking. The Thermal Imager showed a traitor Marine in damaged power armor who had picked up an emplacement bolter and was using it as a personal weapon. His helmet was off and the Marine's eyes were wide and wild with Chaos madness. That gave her an opening that might save them all. “I've got something for you, traitor!” she growled. Rachael saw her target and held down the remote's trigger. The bolter on the roof roared, hammering the traitor Space Marine with explosive rounds that knocked him off balance, as they were unable to penetrate his armor. He threw up an arm to protect his defenseless head, which meant he had to stop shooting. Grinning, Rachael yanked the remote until she worked the stream down into a case of mortar rounds she'd seen.

The explosion blanked out the screen for several seconds and when the smoke and fire finally abated, most of the traitor's armor was still standing, but the traitor's head was missing. The gun fell out of his dead hands onto the sandbags of the position that the armor had shielded from the blast.

Problem solved.

The squad she'd been carrying had formed a ring around the stricken Rhino as Rachael clamored out, coming around to the far corner to assess the damage. The track had been severed, but only about two sections had been damaged. Fortunately, she had a spare bit of five track sections on the roof, but the drive sprocket was a mangled mess. This wasn't going to be repaired in the field. “Emperor's teeth!” she snarled. She pulled her helmet on and got the Vox thrower set to the right frequency. “Telestial, Telestial, this is Lucky Forward, I'm on foot and need a retrieval, how copy, over?”

Lucky Forward, roger, we have your locator, retrieval priority is seven, what is the status of your passengers?”

Rachael carefully kept her language clean for the broadcast. “Squad and I are signal one, standing by.”

Lucky Forward, negative stand by, proceed on mission to way point sigma. Discharged to squad Sister, how copy, over?”

“Orders received and understood,” she growled. “Lucky Forwardclear.” With a sigh at her lack of luck, despite her Rhino's name, she tromped through muck of the battlefield to the Sister Superior of the squad she'd been hauling. “Joan, I'm on foot, they're going to wait until this sector is more pacified to do vehicle retrieval, so I've been attached to you. We're to proceed on your mission.”

The white faced visor of Joan's Sabbat Pattern helmet swung up, revealing her grinning face. “Glad to have you, Driver! Nice shooting with that remote.”

“Thanks,” she laughed. “If any of your girls have a storm, there's rounds left over in the box.”

Joan nodded and called over her shoulder. “Tamura! Clean out that ammo box on the Rhino! We're walking from here, ladies.”

“Yes, ma'am,” Tamura replied as she dropped the heavy bolter she was carrying on its sling to free her hands so she could scramble up the Rhino and pull out the bolter ammo on its belt. “Should I disable this gun, 'Supe?” she called and Rachael shook her head.

“Don't break my gun!” she yelled, but the Sister Superior put a hand on Rachael's shoulder.

“I can't leave operational ordinance behind us,” she apologized. Turning up to her trooper, she ordered, “Pull the firing pins and give them to the Driver.” Rachael nodded her understanding and got her bolter and magazine belt from the lock box on the side of the Rhino.

The boxy, snub nosed battle rifle hanging from it's sling around her neck, she set about getting the belt comfortable as she fell in with the squad returning to the muddy road. The optics in her helmet told her Way Point Sigma was the better part of a kilometer down this mud track, through the ruins of a little hamlet that would likely have looked quaint and charming on a post card before this last week.

Last week the 78thManzipor Cannoniers, having reduced the capital ofGoshen IV to twenty square kilometers of rubble and blasted buildings, where now spreading their attention out into the country side. A twenty minute bombardment had turned an idyllic, rural landscape to a mud and crater hell of blasted trees, burned grass and irregularly shaped piles of stone and burned rubble that had once been homes, businesses and places of life.

Which underscored exactly how tough Space Marines, even traitor Space Marines were and Rachael desperately prayed the one responsible for putting them on foot was the sole survivor.

It was a long, grueling slog through the muck and bits of dead farm animals, every head on a swivel, every heart beating, wondering when the next enemy would make himself known by trying to kill them. The sister in front of Rachael raised her fist, dropping silently to one knee, which Rachael aped, passing the halt order down the line. Rachael got her bolter in her hands, made sure it was charged and swept her eyes over the side of the road that was her section to watch.

“Heads up,” whispered Joan's voice in the speaker in her helmet, “multiple heat sources in the town ahead.”

Rachael kicked herself for not already having her helmet's lenses set to thermal and did so, just in time to see five man shaped thermal images in the process of charging another emplacement bolter on a wheeled carriage. “Contact right!” she screamed. “Heavy weapon!” She was able to throw herself onto her stomach just as the bolter opened up and the one in five tracers began to zip over head, snapping and whistling as they broke the sound barrier. Rachael got her own bolter up and burped it three times, raking her fire over the gun, watching the thermal images fly apart, in clouds of cooling blood as her rounds found their marks.

The Gates of Hell swung wide and opened onto the little road as the bright red beams of lasrifles flashed over head and the staccato snaps of bolter rounds trying to find flesh flew by. The sound filters on the helmet kept the din from deafening the women as they frantically worked to defend themselves, while the local vox kept each in contact with the others. “You need to change your armor, Driver?” laughed Tamura as she stood in the hail of death, bathed in laser fire that was washing off the ceremite of her armor, as she got the storm bolter pointed in the right direction and it's motor up to speed.

“Die, Heretics!” she snarled as the bolter opened up, hosing the weapon left and right into the ruins in front of them. The other girls in the squad laughed with her until Tamura's rounds found something volatile and a massive explosion flashed up, flattening the remains of the building.

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Jonas snapped awake, startled by the vividness of the dream and panting into the mask as her heart thundered in her chest. Her eyes stung for a moment as the recovery gel bathed them as until her eyes became used to something physically against them again. Outside the tank, through the glass, she could vaguely see the room, distorted by both the gel and the glass. She saw June stand and walk over to the tank where she could see her better. “Bad dream?” June asked and Jonas heard her through the vox built into the straps of the mask on his face.

“Out!” she shouted, her voice muffled by the mask. “I want out!”

The Sister Hospitalier's voice became stern. “You can't come out yet, so stop thrashing! If you pull that mask off your face you'll drown before I can get the tank drained, so calm down!” Jonas shook all over and grabbed herself, trying to fight the overwhelming sense of panic.

That made her aware she had breasts. “I...I can't...! I can't breathe! Let me out!”

June turned back to the desk and her lips moved, but no sound came from the speaker, the microphone must be off. Jonas felt a little jolt, like a small electric shock, then a second one and her entire body spasmed in the most incredible orgasm of her life. It raced up and down her nervous system while her stomach and thighs trembled and spasmed. Unable to keep silent, she moaned into the mask and her hands banged into the glass of the tank as she tried to open herself completely to these incredible sensations. “If you couldn't breathe,” June's voice whispered in her ear. “You couldn't complain about not being able to breathe.”

“What...what was that?” she stammered in a fog, trying to force her jaw to work through the magnificent afterglow. Her body had been dipped in liquid pleasure and her mouth was trying desperately to lick her fingers.

The Sister's face was smug. “Just a little jolt directly to the pleasure center of your brain. I thought that would help you calm down.”

“It...was...amazing...” she whispered. “Can...can I...again...?”

“No,” the Hospitalier declared. “Want to feel it again? Find a lover, not a doctor. Now, I need you to stay in there for another twenty minutes. Can you do that?” Jonas sighed and nodded. “Good. What did you dream?”

“I...I was driving a truck, or something. I think maybe it was a Rhino. And it was disabled and I had to go with my passengers and we were ambushed.” She laughed a hallow laugh. “It was quite a fantasy, I even killed a traitor Space Marine.”

Something whispered in June's memory. “Where was this?” she asked quietly.

“Goshen IV,” Jonas replied. “Just a dream, why?” She watched the sister walk back over to the desk and begin to work theCogitator.

June's voice was determined as she worked. “Have you ever been to Goshen IV?”

The pause in Rachael's voice was just long enough to notice. “Yes...I was...part of the Inquisition Team there, beyond that I can't say.” June rolled her eyes.

“I don't care about your secrets, did you see combat?”

“Of course not!” she growled. “I was...well, I was in the rear area, and then mostly back on the Emperor's Fist.” The Hospitalier worked a control and an image appeared in the glass. It was a bit hard to make out through the gel, but it was a picture of the dead traitor Marine and Jonas could see a lovely young woman in Sororitas power armor standing before the headless corpse. She was grinning, looking through the flexed bicep of her right arm in the universal symbol of powerful women. She had dimples and heart shaped face under a mop of milk white hair that was mused from wearing the helmet and shining blue eyes.

There was something familiar about the face, but Jonas couldn't place it.

“That's the traitor Marine from my dream!” she exclaimed. “I shot him with the bolter on the Rhino and set off...”

“A box of mortars,” June finished as she walked back over. “That Sister in the picture is you. That is Sister whose body you are wearing. I heard this story from Sister Superior Joan Lang, who was there and took this picture.” June's eyes became steely. “I heard her tell the story at the wake of Rachael Winter.”

An icy cold stab of dread pierced Jonas' heart and any trace of that wonderful feeling from before was now long gone. “Winter?” she whispered. “Am...I...?”

“Yes,” June told her coldly. “She is your mother. And if you're learning this for the first time from me, you should be ashamed of yourself!”

“What happened?!” she demanded, once more in the clutch of the panic from before. “How? Why?”

“I told you,” the Sister replied flatly. “You fell off your Rhino and hit your head on the way down. And the day the Reverend Mother was to say good bye to her daughter, to see her buried with honor in the Garden of the Fallen, she came to me and had me remove her brain and bury it in secret, then pack her body up and bring her here, so this could be done. For you.” There was no invective in the sister's voice, no accusation or demand of guilt, for she had no need of any. The truth of the words themselves did all the accusation for her.

The fear left Jonas, pushed out by a much stronger emotion. Because June Campanelli was right, Jonas Merle was ashamed of herself.

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The balcony of Dachaigh held a magnificent view of the valley and over head, the stars shone in the moon light. Constance wasn't cold, despite the chill in the air, but the Duke had insisted on removing his jacket and draping it over her shoulders. The mugs of coffee he provided were delicious and warming against the slightly cool air as she followed his arm to the building he was pointing at. “Just there, at the top of the hill, you can see it. That's theMontrose Estate and most of the land around the hill to the river over there belong to it.”

“Your grace is very generous,” Constance assured him. “Hard to see in this light, but it looks like it will be ideal.”

He smiled at her, pausing his mug as he was about to take a sip. “My lady, we are alone and there is no one listening to scandalize. Please, feel free to call me Cameron.” The Sister of Battle arched an eyebrow at him and took a sip of her own coffee to give her time to decide how she would respond.

“Don't think I don't see what you're doing, Cameron,” she decided.

A grin hung itself on his face. “What, my lady Constance, am I doing?”

She smirked and turned back to the view of what would be her new home, noting not the least of which that it doubtlessly lay in view of the Duke's bedroom. “You are playing with fire,” she replied. “I was born at night, your grace, but it was not last night. I can see your lust as plain as when you kissed the back of my armored hand. What kind of a man flirts with his potential executioner?”

He leaned against the stone railing to better admire her side long. “An innocent one, who has nothing to fear from a fellow loyal survant of our Emperor. If my advances are unwelcome, please, accept my unconditional and abject apology for them. Command me, and I will cease, even though I am a mere man, overwhelmed by the beauty before me to forget myself.”

“Oh, you are good,” she complimented.

He dipped his head in what he actually managed to make appear humble. “I am inspired by an angelic muse of singular perfection.” He took a sip and his smile returned. “And, despite my reputation, I am capable of controlling myself and you have my word; no matter what does, or does not pass between us, I will not allow anything to jepardize the relationship of the Duke of Thuria and his Sister Famula.”

She sighed, and reached out to pat his cheek. “I'll have you know, that were I a lowly Celestian, and you some Home Guard captain I would throw you on whatever bed or couch was handy and command you to your duty to the Emperor.”

His grin spread from ear to ear as he reached up to take her hand and kiss it. “Were I some humble Home Guard captain, your slightest wish would be my instant command.”

“But we are not those people,” she said sadly. “I am a mission commander, charged with sheparding this house to the greater glory of the Emperor.”

“That's not a command for me to cease persuing you, Constance De La Concorida,” he observed. She gently freed her hand from his grip and wagged a finger at him in rebuke.

“You are maddening, Cameron Wren!” she told him. “What good does it do you to persue me? Am I the final trophy notch on your bedpost? The ultimate conquest? Do have any idea how many different ways I could kill you with just my bare hands?”

“More than I care to contemplate,” he said softly, “I'm sure.” Deciding to change tactics, he sat down his mug to the side, then laid both of his hands on the stone rail behind him and half sat on it. “Though I note my lady is capable of being remarkably direct, she chooses not to be. Do not misunderstand my persuit, you are not a prize for my collection, which even I have the humility to be embarrassed over. I was young, not that I offer that as an excuse or indulgence for my lotharios. It is simple explination. Young men are foolish, and do foolish things.”

“Play stupid games, win stupid prizes,” she warned him.

To her slight surprise, he nodded in agreement. “You are exactly right. Now how can I, with my reputation, plead a lovesuit to a lady of quality and decernment? A heroine of our empire, a pious warrior of the church, a creature of singular wit and awe inspiring beauty.” Constance's smirk returned.

“You're over selling it again.”

“A woman of your quality deserves to be over sold,” he replied. “Not that I am up to the challenge, though I will try with gleeful abandon.”

“What are you telling me?” she demanded, looking at him askance. “That you desire what? Some kind of lenghty formal arrangement? You think to make me your mistress and have me preform my duties while being snickered at behind my back?”

“Any man who so much as looks ascance at my wife will find his life short, his death long and creative in its execution.”

Despite herself, Constance was so taken aback by his words she faultered a step backwards. “Are you proposing marriage to me?” she demanded. “A woman you met scarcely a week previous who, I remind your grace, was pointing a gun at you!”

Now it was his turn to smirk. “As I recall, your pistol was on your thigh and your hands empty, save for your rosette.” Constance had taken all she could and, unable to contain herself, reached out and slapped him sharply across the mouth.

“What do you take me for, Cameron Wren?” she shouted at him. “Some moon struck little whore who will swoon at empty promises of marriage? Do you think I don't know exactly what you're after?” His head snapped to the side from the force of her slap, but he didn't loose his balance and stood up off the rail to sternly return her gaze, then sank to one knee before her.

“Forgive me, my lady. On reflection, I realize how my sincerity could be misconstrued. I deserved far worse than that, and I am grateful for your mercy.” Constance found herself panting in her anger, before mastering her temper and reaching down to urge him to his feet.

“No, your grace, it is I who should apologize, that was an inexcusable breech of protocol.”

He took her hand as he stood, and kissed it again. “I deserved worse, even were I a lowly Home Guard Captain,” he told her with his wolfish smile only slightly diminished by the fading red mark on his cheek.

“Oh, you!” she declared, exasperated.

“Hear me, and understand,” he declared in a tone of command that was actually quite stirring. “I never, ever, meant to imply that I could be that much of a cad. And any man who calls you a whore in my hearing will be dead before the sun sets that day.”

She squared herself looked him dead in the eyes. “I have fought and served my Emperor for forty of my fifty years, I have sworn oaths and taken vows that cannot be cast aside, that place the needs of my order above my own life! Never mind my wishes, hopes, ambitions or idle fancy! I cannot even have a child without the say so of my Cannoness!”

“Constance,” he chided her, “listen...”

“No!” she snapped, in her passion flinging her mug to the stone pavement where it shattered. “You listen, and understand! If you are being honest with what you claim, know the entirety of what you seek! I will never cease to be a Sister of Battle. I will never be released from my order, nor would I even seek to try! And though you were my loyal husband and patiently waited through deployments, and campaigns and crusades knowing I may not return, though you were the loving father of my children, if commanded I will put a gun to your head and shoot! Understand that, Cameron Wren! I will never choose you over my order or my Emperor! NEVER! And if you fall to Chaos, I will kill you and I will not hesitate! Is that who you want for your wife?”

He reached up and took her hand in both of his. “I cannot begin to understand the depth of commitment like that,” he admitted softly. “I know that my ancestor came to this world with practically nothing but the grit and determination to tame it and make a home. All my life I have tried to live up to the blood in my veins. No, Constance, I don't understand it, but I can admire it. I can tell you unreservedly that if I fell to Chaos I would want you do just that. If I am lying, may the Emperor strike me dead! And if you will protect your children, by his grace, our children with that devotion then I tell you I couldn't ask for a better woman for my wife.”

She reached up and took his hands in her last free one. “That kind of commitment demands proof, Cameron. It's not to be had for a few sweet words under the stars. Show me!” She sighed and gently pulled her hands free. “Or return to being his grace, Cameron Wren, Duke of Thuria, my charge and mission.” He reached out and took her by the shoulders, his eyes on fire as he did.

“Challenge accepted!” he declared, pulling her to him. His kiss was as fierce and passionate as the promise of it had been.

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From the shadows of the room that looked out onto the balcony,Henry Eddington lowered the hand he had raised to stay the ducal guards, drawn by the sound of angry shouts and broken pottery. He allowed himself a small smile seeing his master's passionate embrace of the Sister of Battle in both her own uniform and his coat, who was slowly returning his passion and taking a hold of him as well. Allowing himself to hope his young charge was finally growing up, he carefully schooled his expression to a neutral one before he turned to the guardsmen behind him and soothed small wrinkles and imagined lint from his tuxedo.

“I think it's alright, lads,” he assured them. “Nothing to see here.” He paused, then added, “Nothing to have seen.”

“Yes, sir,” they replied softly and returned to their stations. Henry allowed himself a final glance, then withdrew himself, he had a party to over see for his master.

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In the gardens below the balcony, a pair of faces watched the Sister of Battle and the Duke of Thuria locked in their passionate embrace, and turned to smile at each other. “Look at that!” whispered Jennifer, her eyes sparkling in the moonlight, her face enraptured and betrayed her as a hopeless romantic. “Good for the Palatine!” she declared as Gretchen took her hand up again and they continued their discrete dance away from the eyes of the ball room.

“I'm happy where I'm at,” Gretchen told her as they turned slowly to music that was drifting on the evening air. She stole a glance back up at the balcony, then flashed a grin at her lover. “To each their own, I guess!”

Jennifer arched an eyebrow. “You're saying you'd rather be with me than a rich, powerful Duke?” Gretchen laughed as she twirled her dance partner and decided to be bold and dipped her.

“Not my cup of tea,” Wycroff assured her. “Besides, I have a thing for blondes.”

“Lucky me,” Jennifer giggled. “I have a thing for powerful women.” She laid her head on Gretchen's shoulder and for a timeless place they just danced and held each other in a beautiful garden, on a lovely planet and for a time, Hamilton imagined spending the rest of her life here. Imagined only shooting her weapon on the range every six months to renew her qualification with it, only having to fight boredom at parties or guard details, watching over a nobleman her commanding officer was banging.

Imagined never being in combat again.

“Gretch,” she whispered. “I can't thank you enough for being there for me.”

“I'll always be here for you, baby,” Wycroft breathed softly into her ear. “I'll protect you, and you'll protect me.”

Jennifer felt her eyes tearing up and tried to fight it so she wouldn't cry on her lover's uniform. “I don't get it,” she complained bitterly. “I trained so hard for it, I drilled and practiced, so I'd be perfect! You saw me! You even said how proud you were about how much I was working on my movement drills! I shouldn't have...but, the smell, I could smell it and I don't know why!”

“Hush, dear heart,” Gretchen soothed her. “You can train for years, baby and think you have it completely down and when you see the elephant, it all goes out the window.” Jennifer flinched as her mind tortured her with the image of the bright orange flame leaping out of the Combo Gun she'd taken off the Palatine's armor while the Hospitalier worked to save her life. Remembered the unholy scream of the thing that had possessed a meek looking little accountant, in the tattered remnants of a suit, his glasses melting off his burning face.

“Why here?” she demanded. “Why? This place is nothing like Goshen IV!”

Wycroft gently kissed Jennifer's fore head. “Because you know it can happen here, don't you?” She hated doing it, but Jennifer nodded into Gretchen's shoulder and squeezed her tightly. “And if it comes,” Wycroft told her. “We'll be here, to protect them. To stop it.”

The accountant screamed as the demon abandoned the body it had possessed and was banished back to the warp. Jennifer squeezed her eyes shut, trying not to remember watching that poor man she'd just murdered thrash about on fire until the Hospitalier shot his head off with her bolter and the lifeless corpse collapsed at her feet to cook. “We couldn't stop Goshen IV.”

Gretchen stopped and gently raised her lover's face to look into her eyes. “No,” she admitted. “We weren't there, we couldn't prevent it. But we stopped it from spreading. And we're here, aren't we? We can stop it here.”

“I...I don't want to have to kill again, Gretch, I'm sorry, I just...!” Hamilton's voice trailed off, hearing the vicious cursing of the Sister Hospitalier in her mind. Once more she felt the sting of her slap and her harshtones of command.

Emperor damn you!the Sister Hospitalier had shouted. I can't save her lifeand protect us! Do what you came here to do! Buck up, you sniveling little novice! Buck up and kill them!

“I don't want to either, Jen,” she agreed. “We didn't take these vows because we want to kill, did we? We took them because we knew we might have to.” She hugged her lover and kissed her gently. “You'll be ok, Jen. If it comes, I'll be right beside you.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

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Chapter Eleven

To Sleep, Perchance To Dream

Finally free of the recovery gel, June and a new Sister, a dark complected woman who identified herself as Eloheim Advance Ruth Whitworth, had allowed Jonas to stagger into a washroom connected to the ICU unit and take a shower. The gel was particularly stubborn in her hair and had to be washed three times to get it all out. For Jonas, this was something of a novelty. He wore his own hair extremely short on the 'advice,' which was actually more of a command, of his instructors. “The body is a distraction,” they'd repeated over and over like a litany. “A doorway to allow impurity access to your mind. Conquer your body and rule your mind!”

The Adepta Sororitas, on the other hand, seemed practically adamant they wear hair and a fair amount of it. What had likely started as yet another visual cue they were women, not men under arms, had become a practice, then a sacrament over the press of centuries. Indeed, the Sisters used being shaven headed as a brand of shame, enforcing it ruthlessly on their disgraced Sisters under going the Rite of Repentance. Rachael, Jonas discovered, had liked her hair full, all one length, and to her jawbone; which made getting the gel out of it something of a chore.

That accomplished, it was time to take stock of this body he had effectively stolen. The shower gave him a gauge of height and told him she had been taller than he had been, probably about a hundred and eighty nine centimeters to his one seventy. She was somewhere around sixty kilos, but very little of it was fat, and all of that seemed to be concentrated on her chest. Rachael was busty and the weight tugging on her chest felt odd, but then everythingabout her body felt odd. Her hips were too wide which forced his gait to change into an odd rhythm that his body seemed to like but felt utterly alien to him.

This was heightened by the seemingly constant reminder of the void between his legs.

It was remarkable that something he had spent his life ignoring, first at the demand of the Drill Abbess and Abbot at the Scholas Progeniumhe had grown up in, then his instructors in the Inquisition, was now so prominent in his mind. It had been something he'd spent his entire life suppressing. Like so many children of the Imperium of man, Jonas Merle was an orphan and had grown up under the stern eyes of the Ecclesiarchy. Once he had been caught playing with himself and this had so enraged the abbot that he had deliberately broken Jonas' pinkie finger to punish him. From then on, he had done his best to ignore his genitals. Now their being missing brought an ironic constant awareness of the lack of something he'd spent his life ignoring.

The irony was made worse in that he was forced to actually handle her...opening...to be sure it was clean of the gel, then a careless finger had found a bright star of sensation. Jonas bit her lip, remembering the incredible pleasure June had calmed him with, assured himself that it was strictly for personal hygiene and began to explore. Other than a few particularly vague classes in Scholas, Jonas, being a virgin, had no first hand experience with the anatomy of the human female. Her explorations were clumsy and it took her a while to find the right mix of pressure, speed and rhythm, but when she did she got another taste of the white hot pleasure she had been sedated with. Her stomach and thighs spasmed gently and she felt a desperate need for the void to be filled with something, anything,that spoiled things slightly.

Still, panting after her breath, she came down from the high, euphoric and, oddly, content. As though the feelings had helped her internalize that this was now her body. There was a wash of guilt and she looked around to be sure no one had seen her, and that dealt with, she finished her shower and realized she had a great deal to consider.

Clean, she went to a sink and wiped the steam off the glass to get a look at her new face. Rachael Winter's heart shaped face looked back at him, wet hair hanging about her head in a wild pattern from the shower. Her blue eyes were remarkably bright and her eyebrows were chestnut, which was likely her natural hair color. The white locks had a good five centimeters of dark hair the same color before they turned white and the hair hung below her jaw about the same about. Probably the length of growth from her accident to now. “This is my face,” Jonas told herself in Rachael's voice, taking in every little detail.

It was nothing like the pinched, ugly face of Jonas' real body. It was an open face, with cheeks that were rounded from smiling as that seemed to be her natural state. The face of a woman who was happy to be friends with anyone and couldn't be bothered to give a shit if someone didn't like her. He reached up raising the wet hair and saw a trace of a scar that disappeared into her hair line. She stared in awe at the line, realizing at last what had happened to her.

She shuddered, fighting down the revulsion, and tried to lose herself in simple maintenance. Jonas brushed her teeth, finally able to get the horrible taste out of her mouth and then wrapped the towel around herself, as she had no clothes, to go back out into the room she had woken up in with the now empty tank and gurney where Ruth and June were waiting on her. “I need some clothes,” she started, but Ruth shook her head.

“You won't don a single stitch of our clothing until you take the novice oath.”

Jonas rolled her eyes. “Fine, what is it?” Ruth said nothing, but almost casually reached out and slapped her. The blow staggered her, but Rachael was stronger than Jonas had been and kept her feet. “What was that for?” she shouted, but then the sister had her by the throat. For a split second, Jonas considered resisting, but wisely remembered he was facing a combat proven Sister of Battle and realized she was no match for Ruth Whitworth. “I'm...I'm sorry!”

Ruth's dark eyes flashed out of her dusky skin, but she got her temper under control quickly. “Do not evertake that tone with me again,” she declared firmly. “Or even thinkto disparage our traditions.”

“I'm sorry,” she repeated, meaning it a good bit more this time. For a long moment, Ruth said nothing, then reached down and snatched the towel away from her. Being nude, in the large room, made her somewhat afraid and very uncomfortable. “Please, I...”

“Be silent,” Ruth commanded, then, finally, took her hand off Jonas' neck. “You enter our Order as you entered life, naked and helpless. On your knees.”

Jonas almost asked for something to cushion her knees with, but realized in time that would be a mistake, and was able to remain silent. She looked over at June, but it was obvious the Sister Hospitalier had no interest in helping her, so she sank down on to the cold, hard deck plate and looked up at Ruth. The Sister who was removing a small book from a pocket under the Day Habit she was wearing and held it up. “This, is the Way of Tears,it is the fundamental work of the Adepta Sororitas. You will go no where outside your private chambers without it. This is the map of the road of your life from this point forward until your death. You may be sent to other Orders, you may be transferred to other Adepta,but you will never stop being a Sister of Battle. Do you under stand this?”

“I do,” she whispered.

“Do you accept this burden freely, without reservation or evasion, that the Emperor himself hold you to account?”

For a long moment, Jonas considered what she was about to say, then finally understood why the sisters were so particular in their ways. She felt the shame of the body she wore, and what had been given up for her. Looking up into Ruth's face, she determined she would honor the promise she had made to Reverend Mother Winter. She swore to be the best Sister of Battle she could be. “I do.”

Ruth noted the long pause before her answer and her tone changed a bit. “Do you swear to offer yourself as a living sacrifice, offered to the Emperor as he shall will, that you be used in his service?”

“I do.” For a long moment, Ruth said nothing, then, finally opened the book to its first page and presented it to her.

“Swear the oath, novice.”

With a trembling hand, Jonas reached up and took the book from her. She looked down at the passage, framed around the page in art of particular reverence. Carefully, she read the oath, giving it the attention it doubtlessly deserved and, once sure she would not stumble over it, licked her lips and began. “Pain is the sister who fights at my side. Pain recalls to me my wrongs that I might strive in pursuit of penance. Pain insists that I stand my ground, steady my aim and fight on; though my life blood falls like rain to the thirsting soil. Pain is an ally. Pain is a friend. Pain is truth. I will walk all my life in this truth, with pain at my side, in service of the Emperor of Mankind. As the Emperor's Own Woman, So Help Me.”

Ruth drew back her left hand and slapped her sharply across the face with the back of her hand. “That is your oath,” she declared solumnly. “So you shall remember that which you have sworn, with pain you enter the Adepta Sororitas.Rise, novice, and seek your place amongst your sisters.” Jonas rose shakily to her feet and resisted the urge to rub her cheek where Ruth had slapped her. Ruth's gaze was stern. “Normally, ten years would pass from this moment to you being presented to a mission as a Sister. I do not have ten years, I do not have ten hours until your squad mates return from the planet, so it falls upon you to be the most dilligent student in the history of mankind. Read, learn and comprehend quickly!Your 'illness' will cover only so much for so long.”

“Yes, sister, I will.” Ruth glared at her for a moment, then continued.

“What is your name?”

“Rachael Winter.”

“Who is Jonas Merle?”

“I don't know anyone named Jonas Merle.” Ruth's gaze was fierce as she studied Rachael's face, then finally nodded slowly in satisfaction. She made a gesture to a neatly folded stack of clothing on the bed.

“This is a Day Service Habit. If you are not in your armor, and another uniform has not been mandated, this is what you will wear. It matches the one I am wearing.” She pointed to the patch on the sleeve of the red gown of a white maltese cross with a red heart embossed over it. “This is the symbol of the Order of the Valorous Heart. It is worn on my right shoulder because I saw combat with that Order. Yours is like wise as you were a member of the Order of the Valorous Heart. Your left shoulder is bare because we are a new unit and have yet to recieve our healdry. The Way of Tears, will explain these symbols to you. I expect you to have them memorized and understand the symbology of this uniform the next time I see you.”

“Yes, Sister.”

Ruth raised her hand, but didn't strike as Rachael flinched and cowed before her. She flexed her rigid hand to point at her. “My rank is Eloheim Advance. You have not earned the right to address me as sister.”

“Yes, Eloheim Advance. I'm sorry, I am trying!” Ruth sighed and her scowl softened just a bit.

“I... can...respect you're willing to go to this extreme for your duty, Rachael. I detest the manner you have choosen to do so, but this dedication you possess will help you through what will be the shortest, and most rapid indoctrination in this order that I am aware of.” She sighed and stepped back. “Get dressed. We have some time before lights out that I will instruct you with.” Rachael nodded, and stepped over to the table on the far side of the ICU room where June was sitting, watching. As the young non-commissioned officer walked over, she took the carafe of coffee off the warmer and poured her a cup.

“Thanks,” Ruth declared as she sat down on the bench opposite the healer and took a welcome sip. They watched the novice woman self consciously try to begin to dress under their gaze for a moment. It was quickly appearant she had no idea what she was doing.

Finally June turned to ask softly so her voice wouldn't carry, “She seems to be genuinely trying.” Ruth shrugged her indifference.

“I don't care,” she growled. “She knew this would be hard, and she chose to be short with me, if she keeps showing me attitude, she'll find out how hard I can ride somebody.”

June's eyebrow arched. “Sister Winter, come here,” she commanded. The new woman came over, the bra she was fighting with in her hands, but her groin was covered.

“Yes, ma'am?” she asked, hesitantly.

“Did you know what would happen to you?” the Hospitalier asked. “That you would be...using...the body of Reverend Mother Winter's daughter?”

Rachael became distraught, trying and failing to hide her emotions. “NO!” she protested. “I thought they were just going to, I don't know, implant breasts or, something! I neverthought...” June stood and took the bra from her hands and wrapped it around her torso with the clasp in the front.

“Do it this way, then spin it around, until you get used to it,” she told her, giving Ruth a significant glance.

“Thank you, sister June.”

“You're a fool,” the Hospitalier replied. “Did you think even castrated and emasculated we'd let you in our order?”

“I have to do my duty to the Emperor!” she declared, vehemently, while getting the straps around her shoulders and her breasts into the cups. “I know you don't believe me, no one does, but that doesn't matter.”

“Cut her some slack,” June ordered the Eloheim, then turned back to Rachael. “And you, don't you dare slack off for a second. Come, I'll show you how to put the habit on.”

“Thank you, sister.”

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It was well past midnight when Constance and her troopers bid farewell with the Duke to the last of his guests. That accomplished he smiled and bowed to the assembled mission. Before anyone could speak, he announced, “Ladies, if you will permit me the honor, my staff has prepared rooms for your to take your rest, and I will be delighted to have you remain as my guests until the morning.”

“Your Grace?” De La Concordia, started, but he just smiled and held up his hand to gently interrupt her concern.

“Fear not, my dear Palatine. You'll find everything you need, including a fresh change of clothing for the trip back to the Vigilantin the morning. Please, allow me this small token of welcome to our new neighbors.” The dark haired Palatine looked at him askance for a moment, then finally nodded her acquiescence.

“Alright, your grace,” she replied. “My mission and I would be honored to accept your hospitality.”

His grin went from ear to ear. “Excellent! Right this way, ladies.”

Wendy leaned in close to Mary and whispered, “Now I regret saying goodnight to our dance partners!” Mary looked at the Sister Superior sidelong.

“Then you should listen a bit and not talk so much, 'Supe!” She declared with a grin on her face. “Doug told me twenty five rooms had been done up special, on the Duke's say so, so I had the heads up this was coming.”

Wendy scowled at her. “Is this how you repay my generosity, Cotton? Rubbing my nose in your good fortune?” Mary, however, never stopped smiling.

“Why, 'Supe, would I do that to you? If you think so, be sure to ask Bob how he knew where your room was when you see him again.”

“I take it all back, Mary, you are a true friend in need!”

“You're welcome.” The rooms were as magnificent as the rest of the Duke's residence had been, and the women entered the rooms with delight at their various decor, until at last only Cameron and Constance were standing out side the room he was indicating for her. She led the way inside and held the door for him in invitation.

“I don't think anyone will scandalized if you care to come in for a moment or two,” she said with a sardonic smile. “I have yet to compliment you on this marvelous accommodation.”

He inclined his head in gratitude. “I did try to save the best for last,” he assured her, stepping in. Once the lights were up a bit he crossed the room to the far wall and drew back the curtains revealing a balcony. “The view is quite spectacular in the morning. I usually take my coffee here. If perhaps you'd join me in the morning, I'd welcome the company.”

“Your rooms share this balcony?” she asked, coming over to stand next to him.

“Mine are next door,” he told her with a wink. “Through that door, to be precise. This apartment is normally given to the Gentleman of the Bedchamber, as a sign of faith and trust.”

She glared at him side long. “Isn't that a wonderful coincidence?” she asked, eyebrow arched. He held his hands up in surrender.

“Come now, Constance, I have been rather plain, haven't I? And amusing innuendo aside, I meant what I said about things not changing between us, regardless.” She smiled and reached up to pat his cheek.

“You have been, my dear Duke, as was I earlier.” She sighed and shook her head. “I must confess, your pursuit caught me off guard. Oh, I've enjoyed the attentions of loyal gentlemen in my time, but truth be told, I've never really been in a relationship. I always considered myself married to my Order. If I thought to fulfill my duty to the Empire and bring a new subject into the world, I always assumed I would take a sedate posting for a decade or two. Then I'd find some willing Emperor's man and with the blessing of my Canoness-Preceptor have my child or children. I honestly hadn't even considered it important that they have the same father.”

He smiled and crossed his arms. “You and I are of a kind, I think, Constance. Or perhaps two sides of the same coin.”

She laughed and nodded. “I think you may be onto something, Cameron. And as we are alone, my closest friends call me Connie.”

His heels clicked together and he bowed. “I am deeply honored, Connie,” he declared, savoring her name in his mouth like a delicacy. As he had with each sister of her mission, pointed out the bell on the wall. “If you need anything, my servants will attend you, just press the call there. And I hope you like the clothing, as I depended on my staff for the fashion. I'm just glad your order does allow the possession of civilian clothing.”

“Do I want to know how you acquired all of our sizes?” she asked archly. “And I'm sure they're lovely.”

He smiled a sly smile. “It's good to be the Duke,” he told her with levity. “As I said, my rooms are just through there and if you need anything, don't hesitate to come to me, and I look forward to our morning coffee.”

She stepped forward and reached up, placing a hand on his chest. “Would I terribly confuse you if I asked you to stay?”

He blinked several times in obvious surprise. “I would certainly admit to confusion,” he admitted. “No disappointment, but certainly confusion.”

She smiled thinly. “Perhaps I am being selfish, but, it has been a long time, for me. I was, in fact, rather severely injured on Goshen IV and I spent two months on Banudan at the Convent of the Healing Heart to recover.” She sighed and looked him in the eye. “If I am taking advantage of you, say so,” she commanded, then the look of the commander faded and a somewhat melancholy woman stood before him. “I meant what I said earlier. Both in that you were rather exactly how I like my men, and that commitment like mine must be earned. I just...would very much like to feel another human being right now and remember why I took these vows.” She looked up and he found he didn't really know what beauty was until that moment. “I want to remember who I protect and why.”

“Dear lady,” he told her, taking her into his arms and gently pulling her against him. “I know of no greater honor that can be bestowed on a man. I am at your service, for whatever you need.”

She smiled and reached up to take his face in her hands and drew him into a kiss. As their lips parted, she whispered, “I was hoping you'd say that.”

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Whatever had been stored in the town, there had been plenty of it. The explosion reduced ruined buildings to fiery muddy hole and the blast wave actually knocked Tamura on her back, much to the surprised amusement of the squad. There were a chorus of startled exclaimations over the vox thrower between them, until they regained their wits and firmly praised the Emperor for his generosity. “The Emperor Protects!” the squad declared, then helped each other to their feet. Rachael had several hands clap her on her shoulders and buttocks, welcoming her into their circle.

They had shed blood together as sisters.

“Winter,” Sister Superior Lang commanded, the visor on her helm swinging up to reveal her grinning face. “Nice work, girl. You can shoot with us anytime.” Rachael sheepishly accepted their accolades, despite herself feeling more than a little elated at the accomplishment. “Tamura, next time save some for the rest of us, eh?”

“Sorry, 'Supe! Got carried away!”

“Alright, ladies, lets get back to it. We still have a mission to do!” The squad fell back into their road march order as Rachael swapped the magazine in her bolter for a fresh one and dug into the pouch of loose rounds hanging off her belt to replenish the spent one as she walked. The mud on the road made the going tortureous, sometimes slick like oil and slippery, others like half dry cement, sticky and unwilling to give up their boots. It made the march anything except pleasant as they made their way across the battlefield.

There was a ruddy glow of fire on the horizon as what was left of the Capitol and the Chaos spawn within it were put to the torch. There was the distant echo of guns and explosions, but nothing close enough to worry about. For most of an hour it was just fight your way through the mud, keep an eye out for danger, and try to get to the way point hovering in front of you in the optics of the helmet.

Finally, they got to just below the crown of the ridge that would overlook the way point. The squad silently changed from the column to a line of battle, and crept up the ridge as quiet as Death itself, power armor or no. “Well,” whispered Joan's voice over their private line. “Won't this be fun?”

Rachael looked down the ridge through the optics of her helmet and felt her heart fall into her stomach. A make shift landing site had been set up that was being defended by what looked like an understrength company of Chaos possessed, but that was not the worst of it. There were several cargo containers set up like a supply dump containing who knew what and walking around behind the soldiers were three traitor Space Marines. Their armor were covered with blasphemous symbols, so they were not newly fallen, and crazed.

These had embraced their treason and heresy and were likely in complete control of themselves.

What was worse, all three were wearing their helmets which meant just setting off the supply dump wouldn't kill them. Unless there was something capable of exploding so powerful it would kill the sisters as well. Joan eased back down from the ridge as the sisters looked to her as they held their silent conversation over the vox thrower. “Lewis, Hunter, you two have the Meltas, it's on you two to crack those marines. The rest of us have to get you girls close enough to do it.”

“Or the marines close enough to us,” Tamura, replied. “We've got a pretty good position here, 'Supe. I can rake that line and probably take out most of the light infantry.”

“No good,” Hunter countered. “You blow Chaos possessed to pieces, you're just multiplying our problems. We've got to get down there and get them burning.”

“We try to rush that line and those Marines will chew us up and spit us out,” Rachael opined, then took out a hand brain. “Can anybody see the code numbers on those containers?”

“Why?” demanded Joan.

“If we know what's in them, maybe they go 'boom!'” Winter told her with a grin.

“I've got eyes on 'em,” Lewis chimed in. “Hazmat code 1138.”

Rachael punched the numbers into the hand brain and began to giggle. “Ladies, the Emperor lovesus! Listen to this! Ethyldichlorosilane, causes serious bodily harm, corrosive in liquid or gas form, highly flamable and explosive under most ambient tempratures. Explosively reacts with water and releases hydrogen chloride and phosgene gases when burning! Vapors heavier than air, so all the nasty should stay down there.”

“Emperor's eyes, what are they using this stuff for?!” demanded someone.

“Who cares,” Joan snapped. “Visors down and locked, ladies, we don't want to breathe any of that! Tamura, give me a nice long burst so those heretics know where we are. Hunter, you and Lewis be ready!” The heavy bolter Sister made sure of her weapon, then nodded at Joan. “Throw it!

“The Emperor Protects!” the squad shouted with one voice as Tamura ran up to the crest of the hill and leveled the belt fed heavy bolter. It roared, spitting lines of tracers so fast it seemed to be a continuious beam of light. The container buckled under the blows of an unseen fist, the burst in a bright red orange fire ball that climbed up into the sky like a small mushroom cloud. The entire camp was engulfed in the fireball and dozens of sympathetic detentations went off like the largest Empire Day Celebration this world had ever seen. A few of the militiamen who were furthest from the initial blast staggered from the flames, completely engulfed in fire themselves and fortunately far enough away that their screams did not reach them.

None of that mattered, because striding out of the blast, like unstoppable levithans came the Traitor Marines. They were walking, as if contemptious of the Sisters of Battle. Tamura brought the stream of bolters down to rake one, covering him in explosions. Then one of the bolter rounds found a weak point in his armor and blew his right arm off. Immediately, the remaining Marines decided to take the threat seriously, taking up their own bolter rifles and firing.

Two rounds found Tamura's heavy bolter, destroying it, while a third clipped her armored shoulder pad and knocked her backwards. “Now!” Joan shouted and the rest of the squad opened fire. Most concentrated on the wounded Marine, but Lewis's Meta blast caught him as well. The squirt of super high temperature plasma pierced the weakened armor effortlessly, plowing a fifteen centimeter hole through the chest of the armor, and then the reactor backpack behind it. The little fusion plant imploded as it critically failed and the Marine was reduced about a fifth of his mass in the resultant explosion.

The destroyed armor fell over, its occupant very, very dead.

Hunter's blast was low, blowing the leg off of her target, but, that didn't take him out of the fight. Far from it. The remaining traitor began to run at the ridge, a bolter in one hand, a chain sword in the other. Rachael's bolter locked open and she frantically swapped the magazine as Lewis, next to her, was chanting, “Come on, come on,” over and over at her Melta Gun, waiting for the coil to recharge for another shot.

Back in the fight, Rachael concentrated her fire on the wounded Marine, who was stillcoming, who she hoped she could remove from the fight. “Got it! Eat this, Traitor!” Lewis shouted, as she stood, but at the last second, the charging Marine revealed he had a jump pack on his armor and shot up into the sky. Lewis' shot missed, while Hunter's blast entered the lame Marine's helmet and exited his groin.

“Shit!” Lewis shouted right as the Marine came down on her, chainsword first. The Ceremite dented, then gave way as the Marine, his armor and entire weight came down with it, shoving the weapon into Lewis' stomach. The Marine needlessly reved the motor, spraying blood and vicera everywhere, but Lewis was long dead at that point. Rachael spun, trying to bring her rifle up, but the Marine back handed her with his own bolter knocking her ten meters sideways and the breath from her body.

Seeing Tamara struggling to rise, the bolter came back around and roared, the explosive rounds hammering into the heavy gunner until her armor failed and one exploded within her. Tamura's body fell in two, uneven pieces with a cloud of cooling blood where she had died. The Marine tossed the bolter aside and pulled his sword out of Lewis' corpse. “Ready to die, corpse whores?” he shouted.

Gasping after her breath, Rachael realized she had landed not far from where the impact of the Marine had flung Lewis' Melta Gun. She scrambled over to it, right as the coil finished charging. Rachael got her hands on it and frantically aimed it. The flash of the discharge was bright and over came the filters on her helmet for what seemed like a life time.

 

To Be Continued
Read 600 times Last modified on Wednesday, 18 January 2023 02:27

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E. E. Nalley
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E. E. Nalley
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