Tuesday, 31 January 2023 01:00

Band of Sisters (Part 3)

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A Tale of the Far Future

Band of Sisters


E. E. Nalley


Part 3


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


Chapter Twelve

Morning Glory

It had been too long since Constance had been awakened by sunlight on her face and opening her eyes, she found the Duke had not lied about the magnificent view. Through the rays streaming in the open window, the entire valley was spread out in idyllic greens, browns and blues to rival the poetry the Battle Sister had become fond of over the course of her career. Under her ear, she could hear the beating heart of Cameron Wren which gave a melody of life to compliment the visual feast her eyes were enjoying through the glass. She smiled, feeling the weight of his arm over her shoulders and musky scent of him in her nose and for a little while allowed herself to just be a woman in the arms of her man.

It was a pleasant, pastoral fantasy that rolled forth from her imagination, the simple life of farming, tied inexorably to the cycles of the land and seasons. It was a life of beauty with the birthing of livestock and children and of death, the slaughter of some of those animals in mercy of wounds beyond healing or for need of meat. A life of the exquisite pleasure of lovemaking and the almost unbearable agony of child birth in the ebb and flow of planting, harvesting and surviving. This is a sedate posting, isn't it?She thought to herself. What could be more stable than being a Sister Famula? She let her thoughts drift back to earlier in the morning and their vigorous activities before sleeping and grinned. He certainly knows what to do with a woman.

She inhaled deeply and was surprised to find the aroma of coffee in her nose. Her hand dipped under the pillow she wasn't using, laid hands on the little bolter pistol and she sat up, thoughtlessly nude in a single, fluid motion. The muzzle of the pistol sought a target, but she found only a beautiful silver coffee service sitting on the dresser, opposite the magnificent canopy bed they had spent the night in. There was no clue how it had gotten there, or by whom.

Constance slid from the bed like a cat, padding silently throughout the suite of rooms until she was satisfied they were alone, then took the chair from the little desk, and lodged it under the door handle to hold it closed after she was satisfied it was still locked as she'd left it the night before. “Connie?” his voice brought her back around, to find him pulling on a robe, that also had not been next to hers the night before. “What's wrong?”

“Someone's been in here,” she snapped, clicking the safety back on as she walked over to him.

That amused him greatly. “Of course someone's been in here,” he told her with a chuckle. “But you're probably not used to the realities of nobility and household staff.”

“I can't believe I slept through someone being in here!” she growled, berating herself.

Cameron took that as a compliment and pulled her to him. “Relax, my darling. Every one on my staff is vetted, thoroughly screened and most have been working for my family for generations. I trust them, and you can too, I swear it.”

She scrunched up her face in an inscrutable expression that he found heart melting. “Trust?” she demanded. “I want them to teach my girls a class in urban stealth!”

“I'll see what I can do,” he chuckled then looked at her, still naked in his arms. “You have a tattoo!” he exclaimed. She rolled her eyes.

“Three, actually,” she replied, stepping back and showing him her right shoulder. There, he found a Maltese cross embossed by a red heart. “This is the oldest, my squad sisters and I got matching ones during R and R leave on Reth after our first battle in the order. I was eighteen.”

“It matches the patch on your uniform,” he observed and she nodded.

“For the same reason,” she told him, then some of the playfulness left her demeanor and she looked solemn. “I think there's only two or three of us now, from my first squad, still alive.” She sighed and turned around, displaying her full, pert womanly posterior and, he noted suddenly, a three lobed filigree design in the small of her back. “This was the result of a bet I lost.”

His eyebrows shot up his forehead. “That sounds like an interesting story!”

She grinned at him over her shoulder, her good humor restored. “It is, and I might even tell it to you someday.” Then she turned back and raised up her right foot up onto the bed. It was a rather shameless display and caused Cameron to get a little red in the face until he noticed something around her ankle. Bending over to get a better look, he found that around her calf, just above her ankle a Fleur-de-lis had been drawn on the outside side of her leg and around it, in High Gothic was written Emperor of Mankind. “In some cultures,” she told him, “to wear a chain around the right leg signifies that person as a slave, or as a statement of marriage, depending on the chain and it's materials. Either is true for me, I am the Emperor's slave and a tattoo is permanent unlike a chain that can be broken or removed.”

He chuckled and stood up. “As if I didn't have enough to be envious of him over!”

She reached up and pressed her forefinger into his breast bone. “Envy doesn't become you, your grace.”

“I meant no real disrespect,” he assured her. “As I'm sure you know.”

Her hand went past him and picked up the robe from the bed and pulled it on, much to his well hidden disappointment. This was by far the best light he'd seen her in, and she was every bit and more the promise of her in the darkness had been. “I know,” she told him with a wink and led the way over to the coffee service to pour them both a cup. “The tattoos were a phase I grew out of, but the reminders are constant. I am grateful to you, your grace, for your sympathy last night.”

“Don't do that,” he protested, coming over to take her shoulders in his hands. “Don't shut me out, Connie. If you've decided this isn't what you want, I understand, but let us stay friends, at least.” She turned in his hands and looked at him, her expression somewhat confused.

“Do you mean that?”

“Of course I do!” he swore. “Do you think me a liar?”

Her eyebrows met over her nose. “No, I think you a charming Lothario who got what he wanted and I thought to hide behind formality because I was afraid of being hurt.” Her face flushed and her voice rose. “Emperor damn you, Cameron Wren, you gotto me! A hardened veteran, and I wake up this morning like a dewy eyed recruit fantasizing about having your children! If you play careless with me, so help me, I'll...!”

That was as far as she got before he leaned in and silenced her with a kiss as his hands found her waist to pick her up and sat her down on the dresser to the rattle of the coffee service. Their kiss broke, leaving her breathless and panting and, she noted, her legs splayed obscenely wide in invitation to him. His eyes were laughing at her as he leaned in and kissed her nose. “If you would stop worrying about being hurt for just a moment,” he scolded her. “You might realize you have two hearts in your breast to safe guard, Constance De La Concordia! Yours and mine! Now, what do I have to do to prove myself to you? Shall I have your name tattooed around my ankle?”

The ridiculousness of the situation got to her and she began to laugh, joined shortly by him as she reached over and held up her coffee cup. “What say we start with cream, sugar and that view you bragged about?”

“It would be my pleasure,” he assured her.

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The view, when they finally got to it, was everything she'd been promised.

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Rachael sat up in her bunk, being careful not to hit the bunk above her with her head. The barracks the Sisters had been given had the beds in nooks worked into the bulkheads of the compartment. They were three levels high, with drawers below each bunk and sets of hanging lockers to interconnect them. They were designed to move Imperial Guardsmen into or out of war zones in great need and this room was meant for the command non-commissioned officers of a company and so was nicer than the massive bay the sisters used as a day room that normally would have bunk beds in rows and rows to sleep five hundred men and women.

She rubbed the sleep from her eyes, noting that only herself, June and Eloheim Advance Whitworth were in the room, which seemed odd. They had gone to bed last night, after grueling set of instructions and had expected the rest of the mission to return, but they hadn't. Rachael stood and yawned, her modesty kept by a close tank top that was for the purpose of sleeping or exercise and matching pair of shorts that reached her knees. At least they were easier to don.

Still mostly asleep, she stumbled into the head for the barracks and washed her face. The cold water was brisk and set her heart to beating as she looked up into her reflection in the mirror, still trying to get used to what she saw being her face.

Then the reflection contorted into a mask of rage and shouted, “Give me back my body!”

Rachael snapped awake and sat up so fast in the bunk she banged her head on the set of drawers above her. “Ow!” she yelled, startled by the pain and holding her hand over her head to see if there was blood. Her hand was dry, but her forehead tender where she'd struck it.

“You alright?” the voice of Sister June drew Rachael's eyes to one of the tables in the center of the room, finding her with a hot pot and mug of something on the way to her mouth. Rachael sat up in the bed, still rubbing her head where she'd struck it.

“Nightmare,” she admitted.

The cup went down to the table untasted. “What was it this time?” she asked softly.

“It's nothing,” Rachael started, but June was having none of it.

“Tell me,” she commanded. The new woman gave her a strange look, then shrugged and stood to amble over to the table, turn over one of the waiting cups on the service and help herself to some of the Hospitaliers coffee.

“Have you ever had a dream where you were getting up and going about your day, but you were still dreaming? Then you wake up for real?” She nodded guardedly. “Well, it was that, I woke up, walked into the latrine and was washing my face then my reflection demanded I give it my body.”

“What?” asked a somewhat bleary eyed Ruth from her bunk.

“Yes, it was like something out of a horror holo,” Rachael replied.

“What did it say exactly,” June demanded. Rachael paused in stirring her coffee.

Taking the spoon out and putting it on the table, she asked softly, “I believe it was 'give me back my body,' but I'm not exactly sure. Why?”

TheHospitalierleapt up, her chair flying back into the bunk behind her. From a standing start, June actually jumped over the table and the next thing Rachael knew she had a knife at her throat and her head immobilized in a choke hold. “Ruth, get over here, now!” she shouted.

“Let go!” Rachael shouted, instantly terrified. “What's the matter with you?”

“Kiss the seal of the Emperor of Mankind or I will open your throat from ear to ear!” June hissed. Ruth tumbled out of bed and rushed over, presenting the only thing she had with the Imperial Aquila on it, the bra she was wearing over her breast. “Swear your fealty! Kiss it, so help me!” June snarled.

Rachael puckered her lips and, when given just enough slack in the vise hold, brought her head forward and kissed the Eloheim's breast. “Long live the Emperor of Mankind!” she affirmed. The knife left her throat and her neck was released.

Panting, June dropped the knife to clatter onto the table. “This body was brought through the Warp,” she said in slight apology. “It could have been possessed, that's why the Reverend Mother had me remove Rachael's brain and bury it on Banudan. Still, there was a possibility. Sorry.”

Rachael shook all over at how close she'd come to dying and nodded as Ruth removed her bust from the other woman's face. “No, no,” she panted. “If...if I had been, I would want you to...!” Ruth laid her hand on Rachael's shoulder.

“Nice to hear,” she told her softly. Then she looked back and forth between both women. “Is there a chance that Rachael is possessed, but by Jonas?”

“What?” asked Rachael.

June sat back down on the bench and looked up at the Eloheim. “What do you mean, Ruth?”

Rubbing her hands on her thighs, she got a mug and poured her own coffee. “What if Rachael's soul never departed her body? What if it's still there, but now Jonas and his brain are there with his soul?”

“Is that possible?” June asked. Both women turned to look at the Inquisitor, but she shrugged her own ignorance.

“I'm not a theologian, well, not a theoretical one, anyway. My training was all in practical matters.”

Ruth took a large sip of coffee and mulled the question. “We need test you.”

Rachael sighed and nodded. “Yes, it's probably for the best. We'll have to wait for Palatine De La Concordia to return.”

“Reverend Mother Winter is here...” she started, but June and Rachael spoke in chorus.

“No,” they declared. The two women exchanged a glance, then smiled and Winter gestured for June to proceed. “She's been through enough,” Campanelli assured Whitworth. “Can you imagine trying to test the body of your own daughter and it's not your daughter any more?” Ruth sighed and nodded.

“We'll wait.” She polished off her coffee and then put the mug down. “Meantime, you get dressed,” she ordered Rachael. “I need to give you the crash course in Rhino driving.”

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It was very odd for Rachael to lay eyes on Lucky Forward.

Reverend Mother Winter had evidently thought ahead that Jonas posing as a Rhino driver would need the Rhino assigned to her and had brought the vehicle along. It had been unloaded from the Saint Arabellainto the shuttle bay that the sisters were using and parked in an out of the way corner.The squat, rhomboid box sat on a pair tracks each sixty centimeters wide, with a sharply sloping nose that was the only thing not particularly boxy about it. It was painted the color of dried blood with the Maltese Cross and Heart heraldry of the Order of the Valorous Heart on its nose, both side doors and the rear. On the sides, at the very front of the nose, the dark red lightened to scarlet to highlight a black Fleur-de-lis next to which, in white the vehicle's name was painted by hand in Low Gothic. Despite its squat appearance, the vehicle was three point six meters tall to the roof, four and a half wide and just over six and half long.

The mud of Goshen IV was long washed off, and it was obvious the vehicle had been lovingly worked over since being recovered. Rachael walked down the side of it, reaching out to touch it as she did so, overwhelmed with an odd sense of deja vuas she saw it 'again' and for the first time. At the back corner, a new drive sprocket had been installed, though there was still a dent from an unexploded bolter round above the track skirt of the vehicle where someone, presumably Rachael herself, painted a bandage and 'Ouch!' near it.

Seeing her sense of humor brought a smile to Rachael's face as she continued to walk around the rear of the Rhino to the Starboard hatch she'd last left in her dream. “This feels so strange,” she admitted as she reached up and pulled the hatch open, looking inside for the first time. It was a cramped little compartment, despite the height of the Rhino, the armor ate into the space a great deal and she was nearly obliged to duck her head to enter it. The interior was a monochromatic off white to trick the eye into thinking the interior was bigger than it was.

There were ten jump seats arranged around the cabin in the most space efficient manner, each with a fold out socket to plug in the fusion pack of a sister's power armor to keep it in communication with the officers running the battle. In the nose, on the left side of the vehicle was a compact, but much nicer chair with the controls for the driver laid in around it. On the right was the platform and the spinning machinery of the pintle mounted gun topside to be manned instead of remotely operated.

Rachael slid into the seat did something of a double take. “It's so big!” she declared, causing Ruth to chuckle.

“Normally, you'd be in armor sitting in it, and that takes room.” She began to point out the small clusters of instruments. “So, it's pretty basic, all conforming to the Standard Template Construct. This is the Vehicle Status display, fuel tank level, oil pressures, hydraulic pressure, pump temperature, things like that. This is the caution and warning center to tell you if something is out of spec or has tripped a fault condition. On the wall, there, are the electrics; cabin lights, exterior lights, infrared lamp and so on.”

“Seems simple enough,” Rachael ventured, drawing an amused glance from Ruth.

“Famous last words,” she chided the new woman.

Rachael shrugged. “So, this...yoke... is the steering?” she asked, indicated the dual control handle before her.

“Much more,” Ruth corrected her. “This is a tracked vehicle, so this is steering, throttle and breaks, all in one. The right hand controls the right track, the left the left. Rotate them both forward, the Rhino goes forward.”

Lucky,” Rachael corrected her.

“Excuse me?”

Winter looked up into her face, an odd expression on her own. “I...I don't know. I just felt really strongly that she...I...called it Lucky, not 'the Rhino'. I, I can't explain it.”

“That's really starting to bother me, Winter.”

“You think I'm not?” she demanded. She shivered and indicated the control. “Sorry, I interrupted you. Please, continue.”

Ruth's glare couldn't decide if it was anger, fear or suspicion, but eventually it passed and her face settled into a more neutral teaching expression. “The tracks can run at different speeds and even opposite directions. This allows...Lucky... to spin in it's own foot print, which is handy in confined spaces, like this hanger. If you press the left trigger on the yoke, it will link the two controllers, then you just turn the yoke as if you were driving a regular car.”

“What's the right trigger for?” she asked, reaching out to get a feel for the controls in her hands.

“It's the push to talk for the Vox thrower,” Ruth answered. “Just the trigger for external and the trigger in addition to that thumb button for the intercom.” Rachael nodded, looking over the controls and then finally back up at Ruth.

“Ok, so now what? Laps around the shuttle bay?”

“Are you mental?” Ruth laughed. “We're on a space ship, right next to the outside hull with doors that open onto space, this is the last place I'll try teaching you to drive!” Rachael frowned, but finally admitted to the logic of it and shrugged. “I just want you familiar with it so the sisters don't see you looking for the first time.”

“Eloheim Advance,” she started, then paused for a long moment before Ruth realized she was waiting for permission to continue.

“Go ahead, Rachael.”

“Thank you, I, I just want to say, I'm grateful for your instruction. My mission is too important to be allowed to fail. I know I can be...headstrong...in going after my goals, but it's in service to the Emperor. I'm sorry for this situation, and I am grateful for any help you can give me to accomplish my mission.” Ruth rubbed her chin thoughtfully, staring at the other woman.

“Don't mention it,” she finally decided. “Go to the ship's barber and get your hair regulation. Either back white...no. On second though, notall white. Get it all your natural color.”

“A...alright.” After a moment, she asked, “Why not...?

“Because I said so,” Ruth snapped.

“Yes, Eloheim Advance.”

Whitworth glared at her for a long moment, then turned back to the open door. She paused in the hatchway and, over her shoulder, declared, “You may address me as 'Sister'.” Then ducked through the hatch in a swirl of the Day Habit and was gone.

For a moment, Rachael stared after her, then, unable to make sense of what she'd witnessed, rose from the driver's chair and made her way to the Ship's Barber, pausing to secure Lucky before she did so.

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With a crew of over a hundred thousand souls, His Majesty's Armed Vessel Vigilant had many compartments that most would think had no place on a war ship. She was equipped with five, one thousand seat theaters for crew recreation, one of which was reserved for the Officers, one was strictly for enlisted persons and the other three allowed mixed attendance. There were stores, selling everything from personal electronics to paper, pens, civilian clothing and everything in between.

As regulations covered every aspect about a service member in His Majesty's Navy, there four separate Barber shops, two enlisted and two officer, segregated by sex. Even the lowest Sister of Battle held the equivalency of a commission in the armed services, and thus were treated as officers, so Rachael took the travel tubes to the ship's central deck that ran the length of the ship, lovingly referred to as Main Street, to get to it. While there were a number of sensitive areas as this was the deepest, and best protected area of the ship, this was also where a number of these service and recreation areas were located so as to be central to the entire crew.

The female officers barber shop held twenty workstations and was busy just about every day of the week. Females being allowed by regulations to wear longer hair necessitated additional accommodation for its care; this included services such as hair dying to any color allowed by regulation. Rachael signed in with the ships' services yeoman at the shop and sat to wait until one of the techs was free.

There were three other female officers waiting, all either engrossed in their data-slates or a hand brain, but Rachael felt their eyes on her as they discretely tried to steal glances at her. Up until now, Rachael's experiences had been exclusively with Ruth or June, but the walk to the shuttle bay and Lucky Forward, had changed that very much. Rachael had felt the deck hands turn to watch her and Ruth go by and this trip to the barber's had been much the same, but more so. Now she had been alone and the stares made her uncomfortable in a way she couldn't really define.

Despite that, she very much understood it, and that understanding terrified her.

One had nearly worked up the courage to try and start a conversation with her on the travel tube, but a glare had made him change his mind. “Sister Winter?” A soft voice brought Rachael's eyes from the studious ignoring of her fellow officers waiting to a naval rating in a utility smock.

“Yes?” she asked and the girl bowed her head.

She was young, probably no older than eighteen and her face was an interesting blend of enough ethnicities that made judging her home world difficult. If Rachaels memory was correct, theprevious port of call for the Vigilantbefore she had picked up Palatine De La Concordia and her mission on Banudan had been the Hive World of Algol. There, she had probably taken on fresh recruits; either voluntarily through Imperial Recruitment offices of people trying for a better life, or as a result of her Press Gangs drawing tithe to the Empire from the greatest resource of a hive world, people. That being the case, every recognized variant and breed of humanity could be found on a hive world, and Press Gangs weren't known for being picky. “I'm free now, if you'd kindly follow me?” Rachael frowned and gave a gesture at the other women.

“They were here before me,” she protested, and that drew all three of their eyes in various expressions of curiosity and disbelief. The rating nodded.

“Yes, ma'am, but you indicated you're getting your hair dye touched up? They're here for other services, I do the hair coloring.”

“Oh,” Rachael replied as she stood and followed the younger woman back through the row of workstations to the one farthest back whose chair abutted a sink with a neck rest carved into it.

“Please sit,” the girl invited as she went to a rack with aprons hanging from it. “I'm Holly, by the way,” she introduced herself. “You'll be refreshing your white dye?”

“Rachael,” she replied as she sat down and the seat forced her to lay back with her head out over the sink. “No, I'd like to return to my natural color, please.” The girl laid the apron over her Day Habit and fastened it to protect it from over spray.

“Oh?” Holly asked as she got a scanner and pointed it at the top of Winter's head to evaluate the color. “Are you leaving the Sisterhood?”

“We,” and that word caught a bit in Winter's throat to say, bringing with it a bit of confusion about what would happen to her after her mission was completed. She realized she had no idea of where the body of Jonas Merle was, or if it was even still alive. That was a sobering thought. “We never leave the Order,” she managed to say, working hard to keep the panic out of her voice. “Why would you ask such a thing?”

“Please, forgive me, my lady. I was under the impression that Sisters wore their hair white to symbolize their purity to the Emperor.” She put scanner down and removed the faucet wand and used it to wet Rachael's hair. “Just idle curiosity, I meant no disrespect.”

Winter thoughts quickly went black, though she managed to master the flash of emotion at realizing why Ruth had ordered the change, and keeping her face neutral. Out loud, she said, “Our Palatine wears her hair her natural color and I liked the idea of it. I'd thought I'd try it myself.”

Holly smiled. “Sometimes change can be liberating, right?”

Inside, Rachael was seething at the back handed insult she had been given, just when she thought she had begun to win over the sister who had been assigned to teach her. However, she realized that Legatine Vander had described Ruth as a 'minder' more than a teacher and it reminded her that she had a long way to go before she could get close enough to complete her mission. In a way, it was the best kind of compliment as it put her back on her guard and made her realize neither Ruth, nor June were her friends or sisters. “Yes,” Jonas replied as she tried to get more comfortable with someone else washing her hair. “Yes it can.”

She smiled to herself as began to embrace this new information as well as her new identity. How often did someone get a chance like this? This was a golden opportunity she would make the most of.

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A bevy of liveried stewards carried the Battle Sisters dress uniforms, freshly dry cleaned and in protective bags to the back of the space craft as Constance and Fiona once more took the seats they'd ridden in on their previous trip in the craft down from the Vigilant. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched the servants come in and out, young, mostly quite good looking, and all male. She wondered about the lack of bio-engineeredservitors on this world and decided she preferred this option to the not quite sentient, but still man shaped creatures. Not as trustworthy, perhaps, but not as disturbing either, and they came without the moral quandary of wondering if a servitor was a biological machine, or purposefully bred human slave. Or both.

She had never been fond of the creatures.

Across from her, Fiona noted her gaze, followed it, then came back to her protege's face.“How did your evening go?” she asked cryptically, though the expression on her face added numerous layers to what was an otherwise innocent question.

It had been a long time since Fiona had seen Constance in civilian clothing and the floral sun dress the Duke, or whomever had shopped for him, had bought for her flattered the younger woman's figure, hair and complexion perfectly. She had to admit, the Duke had managed to put together an excellentretenueand their dedication showed. Fiona wondered how someone could have possibly know the skirt suit she was wearing was exactly to her own tastes. Indeed, none of the sisters had anything but glowing compliments on their clothing gift based on the whispers she'd over heard on their way to the Ducal Estates private space port.

Connie smirked at her, then reached into the bag next to her and produced the little pistol that had brought them here and handed it across the isle to her. “As well as you are probably afraid of,” she said as Fiona took the pistol and swept it out of sight into her own bag.

Certain that they couldn't be seen, her hands asked, Do I need to test you?

Connie sighed and nodded.

“Are you out of your mind?” Vander hissed only just loud enough to be heard. De La Concordia shook her head and stared out the window at the ground crew making the craft ready to depart.

“No,” she replied softly. “We have to know if he was tainted, and if he is, I am now.” She turned back to her mentor, her eyes steely. “I regret nothing, Fiona. I trust you'll do your duty?”

Fiona sat and stared at the woman she thought of as the daughter she hadn't had, fuming that she could be so cavalier so as to put her in this situation. The situation of possibly having to kill a woman more dear to her than her own life. “I had thought you better than this, Connie,” she told her quietly. The blue eyes blinked slowly.

“We had to know, and this will tell us,” she replied calmly. “If I am tainted, your duty will be clear. If not, well, I have enjoyed a pleasant evening in the service of my Emperor and am a step closer to owning the trust and confidence of the house I am charged to guide.” She smiled and looked out the window again. “And my charge is none the wiser for it.”

“I don't want to see you continue to be this reckless, Connie.”

For a long time Constance said nothing. The ship rose up on her suspension field and quickly Dachaigh fell away astern. As the blue skies of Thuria gave way to the endless black of space, she turned back and gave her mentor her most serious expression. “Fi, I need your help keeping my thinking straight.”

“Other than this, I haven't had any cause to doubt your thinking,” the older woman affirmed. Constance wanted to smile, but the expression on her face wouldn't change.

“Reverend Mother Vander, I think I'm falling in love with Duke Cameron Wren,” she whispered.

Fiona sat, speechless at the Palatine's confession, chewing on how complicated this 'simple'mission had become, knowing her protege wasn't given to hyperbole. She sat and thought and in the end decided this was a matter than only faith could resolve. To her protege, she said, “First, you know I'm no longer a Reverend Mother. Second, we have to test you. We'll deal with love when the time comes. Either way, Connie, I'll be there for you.”

“Thank you, Fi.”

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Chapter Thirteen

Testing Patience

The natural hair color of Rachael Winter was a rich chestnut, she discovered, that Holly had matched perfectly, evening the shades with a rich tone and natural highlights. In drying the dye she had teased the locks a bit, giving a full halo that floated about her head like a crown. Jonas looked at the face in the mirror that was both his and yet not and couldn't help but feel a twinge of much repressed attraction at the nearly doe eyed young woman that met his gaze.

Ashamed of his lack of mental discipline, Jonas felt a sudden rush of anger, causing the angelic face in the mirror to harden and the doe eyed girl became a skilled killer who was well trained in her trade and took to it with a passion. For a moment, even he was taken aback, but he mastered himself before her expression could change. There was no charge for the service, but Jonas knew Rachael's stipends were quite full from months in a coma and tipped Holly generously despite that. Jonas knew what Rachael's war face looked like now and committed the feeling of it to his memory to be able to call on it at need. That knowledge was worth more than any coin she could pay to the young conscript.

She wore the new expression on her way back to the barracks of the sisterhood and there were no repeats of the previous journey. While several officers noted the beautiful young woman in the car with them, no one had the temerity to try to approach her this time.Soon she had arrived the troop compartment that had been given over to the mission to find it crowded with young women, other members of the Sisterhood, most of whom seemed to be in the process of changing their clothing.

Conversation stopped as she stood in the hatchway, all eyes on her and Jonas was overcome with a feeling of self consciousness as she had not in years. Before she could say anything, a heavy hand fell on her shoulder and a gauntlet capable of breaking every bone under it gripped just enough to convey that warning. Jonas turned to find Sister Ruth in her armor was who had control of her shoulder, though she was looking deeper into the room. “Sisters! Here is our latest addition, Sister Rachael Winter, the driver of our new Rhino. Get to know her, but go easy. She bumped her head on Goshen IV and she's convalescing with us!”

A series of cat calls was the answer to the announcement as the women in the barracks competed to see who could mock the new member of their ranks with the greatest aplomb. Ruth's eyes turned to look down at Rachael and were hard. “Palatine De La Concordia wants a word with you, Sister,” she declared in a voice that brooked no argument.

Jonas wasn't quite frogmarched to the Palatine's cabin, but it was quite plain she was going whether she wanted to or not. Ruth paused to knock on the hatch and was already reaching for the latch handle when a terse, “Come,” drifted through the metal. The door swung wide to reveal the Palatine as well as her mentor, Legatine Vander, both of whom looked tired and haggard. Constance's ebony locks were drenched with sweat, and a glean of perspiration shown through the peach fuzz on Fiona's head.

Surprisingly, neither woman was wearing some variation of the Habits their order was know for, but both wore remarkable civilian clothing. Despite her worn, exhausted look, Palatine De La Concordia was wearing a sun dress that effortlessly flattered her considerable figure that was covered in tropical looking flowers Jonas didn't recognize. Legatine Vander, on the other hand, looked like she'd just stepped out of a corporate board room in a brilliant white silk skirt suit that announced 'powerful woman' to any who laid eyes on her.

“Sisters Whitworth and Winter, report as ordered, Palatine,” Ruth declared.

The Palatine said nothing, only sitting and evidently recovering from some strenuous activity, so Vander clasped her hands behind her back and walked forward, an arch look of disapproval on her face. She towered over Rachael for a moment, then demanded, “I understand there is some question of your faculty, Sister Winter?”

Jonas licked her lips carefully. “I...I have been recovering from a serious head wound, Legatine,” she hedged. “I think my sisters are overly concerned...”

“You had a nightmare that the real Sister Winter demanded the return of her body?” Vander asked, as if used to making such declarations every day. Jonas new throat was suddenly very dry.

“Ye...yes, Legatine, I had that dream,” she admitted. “But, I steadfastly pledge my undying loyalty to the Emperor of Mankind!”

Vander's eyes narrowed. “We'll see,” she declared ominously. “Arm.” Whitworth's free hand seized Jonas' wrist and forced it and her arm up, and the bell sleeve of the Day Service Habit she was wearing was moved to expose her skin. “Baldermort,” the Legatine commanded.A servo-skull Jonas hadn't noticed floated over, a hypodermic needle clutched in one of its robotic hands.

“Please remain still,” the skull directed needlessly, there was no way Jonas would get his arm free of the grip Whitworth had it in. Ironically, that held the armored sister just as trapped and Legatine Vander's gaze drifted to her.

“And you, Eloheim Advance Whitworth, when you reported you had reservations about Sister Winter that rose to the level of testing for chaos taint, Sister Winter was not in your eye sight. Why is that?”

“I...” Ruth swallowed nervously, then squared up her shoulders. “Forgive me, Legatine, I ordered Sister Winter to go to the ship's barber and get herself presentable and regulation.”

Vander's eyes narrowed, the menace of the expression amplified by the clothing she was wearing. “You ordered someone out of your sight, who you immediately upon seeing me requested she be tested, and not only that, you ordered her to the central deck of His Majesties vessel, where some of the most secure and vital compartments are, to get her hair done?”

Ruth's throat closed dry and loudly as she swallowed. “I...I have no excuse, Legatine.”

The silence drug out such that Jonas didn't even really notice the sting of the needle taking blood, or the wet spray of bleed stop once the needle was withdrawn. Legatine Vander just keep staring at the woman holding Jonas' arm and the silence got heavier with each passing second. “That's two fuck ups in as many days, Whitworth,” Vander finally declared. “Bad ones.Ones that make me question if that promotion was merited. The next one will cost you that stripe you're so proud of, read me?”

“Loud and clear, ma'am!”

“When we're done here, you'll report to internal security and review the flight recorder data of every second Sister Winter was out of your sight and you better pray to the Golden Throne she didn't step a toe out of line!”

“Yes, ma'am!”

“I didn't...” Jonas started, but closed her mouth tight when the laser like gaze of the Legatine returned to her.

“I don't recall asking you a question, Sister Winter.”

Jonas swallowed fearfully. “Sorry, Legatine.”

The Inquisitor who would be a Sister of Battle withered under the icy stare of the former Reverend Mother and for a long moment wondered if his station and commission would truly protect him from the wrath of these women, then the older woman spoke again, with out any of the intensity leaving her eyes. “Baldermort?”

“Sister Winter's blood chemistry scans as normal, Legatine. Within 99.997 percent of accepted human baseline, well within the requirements for your order.” Something about the tone of the hybrid machine slave's voice finally brought Vanders' attention from her two wayward subordinates.

“Something troubling you, Baldermort?”

The servo-skull's electronic voice was matter of fact. “Legatine Vander, I must inform you that Sister Winter'sKirlian quotient is double the accepted human norm...”

“Hold!” Vander shouted and Jonas realized there was the cold steel of a bolter's muzzle against her head.

“Please...” she whispered, her heart hammering in her breast. “...Don't...”

Vander's gaze was cold. “Rachael Winter, you are whisper from judgment, do you understand?” Jonas was too terrified to nod and it took a moment for her force her voice to work again.

“Yes, Legatine.”

The older woman's eyes were as hard as the rest of her visage, as hard as they had been since Jonas had recruited her for this mission and certainly as hard as when she had learned of Jonas desire to impersonate a Sister of Battle and yet, as Jonas felt the terror on her face, looking up into the older woman's eyes, feeling the cold steel of the bolter against her temple, Jonas felt like she saw something like sympathy tugging at the corners of Fiona Vander's intimidating gaze. “What are we waiting for!” demanded Whitworth from behind her.

“You'll wait for my command, Eloheim Advance,” Vander declared.

“The bitch has some other soul riding...”

At ease!” Vander ordered. Fiona actually took a step closer, unblinking and the face of Death and Judgment itself. If allowed, Jonas would have shrunk away, but she was firmly held in place, unyielding. “Who is in there with you, Jonas Merle?” she asked.

“I...I don't know,” Jonas whispered. “I...have had dreams of fighting on Goshen IV. Dreams of events that Sister Hospitalier June says happened to...to her. To Rachael.” She panted after her breath and still Fiona Vander stared at her, stared as if through the veil of death and into her very soul. Then, just when Jonas thought she must break with fear and terror, in the back of her mind a voice whispered, Pain is an ally. Pain is a friend. Pain is truth. Jonas closed her eyes and sighed, strangely at peace. “If I am corrupt, do your duty,” she whispered.

The time drew out, as air filled her lungs and there was still no roar in her ear of Bolter being discharged. The seconds slipped past and she was still alive, still drawing in air to feed the body she had stolen and the confidence that had come with the serenity was dwindling now and an almost annoyance at a decision not being made, one way or the other. Finally, not much louder than a whisper, Jonas heard Palatine De La Concordia's voice, “Put the bolter away.”

Jonas heard the clap of the metal of the weapon against theceramite CuisseRuth was wearing, then a second gauntlet clad hand took her shoulder. Jonas opened her eyes to see the Palatine rising from the chair behind her desk and walk slowly over, an object clutched in her hands that Jonas couldn't make out. Legatine Vander gave way to her and Jonas found herself face to face for the first time with Constance De La Concordia as she and Sister Rachael Winter were the same height. Her face was drawn and a sheen of sweat glistened on her skin as though she had just accomplished some great labor.

“I warned you I might end up killing you,” she said at last, her eyes tired and haunted at once. “You've been given every chance to turn aside, Inquisitor. Yet here we are, with you in a stolen body of a heroine who has given everything in service to her Emperor.”

“My duty...” Jonas started, but the look on Constance's face encouraged Jonas to remain silent.

She sighed, then turned to her mentor, then back. “Duty is the only reason I suffer you, Jonas Merle, and even so it wears thin and thread bare.” She stood up tall and squared herself so that whatever she had done did not lay so heavy on her. Or, at least, did not appear to. “Hold out your hand.”

Jonas felt Ruth's grip shift, but Constance's eyes darted over her shoulder. “No,” she commanded her Eloheim Advance. “Let her decide for herself.”

“What will happen?” Jonas asked softly, amazed she had the temerity to speak.

Constance's voice was flat and dull. “Pain,” she promised.

Jonas swallowed. “And if I re...” her mouth closed on the thought unspoken as the cold metal of the bolter's muzzle was against her temple again. If the Palatine disapproved of her soldier's action, she chose to say nothing about it, making the threat plain.

“Make your choice.”

Pain is an ally. Pain is a friend. Pain is truth.With a monumental effort of will, Jonas forced Rachael Winter's hand open and held it up. Something heavy was placed in her palm, and as promised, white hot agony shot up her nervous system to explode like a super nova in her brain.

* * *

Mary Cotton was in exceptional spirits, and had been since she'd awoke in the arms Douglas Volt, 1stLieutenant of His Grace's 3rdPlatoon,'B' Company of the 112thThuria Lancers. Mary had picked him primarily because she was a tall woman herself and it was rare for a man to be taller than she was. She'd been delighted to learn his exceptional size wasn't limited to his height, planting a silly grin on her face the entire ride back up to the Vigilant.

Not to mention the magnificent generosity of the Duke! Fresh change of clothing indeed! Mary had felt like a princess on the flight back up to their barracks. Blue jeans,she marveled to herself. Real, denim blue jeans? Was the man made of money? Her new treasure safely stowed, she caught sight of the forgotten accumulator coil on the shelf in her locker and considered for a long moment. If ever there was a time she was happy, it was now, so she reached in and pulled out the link suit and her battle habit. The barracks was a little raucous to prepare to don the garments, so, thoughtlessly nude, she strode across the companionway to the little chapel and armory they had set up.

In the sacred space, naked before the image of the Emperor looking down at her, Mary was able to collect herself and turn her thoughts to a more spiritual frame of mind. There was no possibility of battle, so there was no need to ritually purify herself and bathe, but she did kneel before the alter for a time and stare into the holographic face of the man she had sworn to serve her entire life. He was agiant of a man clad in golden armor. With long brown hair, a square jaw, and a stern demeanor.The hologram subtly animated the image so that it was as if gazing upon a living apparition who breathed, blinked his dark eyes and wind moved through his hair.

That accomplished, Mary pulled the Link Suit over her skin, careful to keep her thoughts on the blessings she had received and the happy mood she had started the day in. Once more encased in her second skin, she donned the Battle Habit, whispering the Prayer of the Twenty Steps to Heaven as she closed the tiny buttons up the front of the habit, then prepared physically and spiritually, she crossed over to the niche that held her armor carrier and the icons she had placed over it.

She spent a long moment gazing at the two pictures that were her most precious possessions. “For you, mother, so I am worthy of the life you gave me,” she whispered, unlocking the carrier and standing before it. “For you, father, so I never forget your sacrifice.”

She clapped her hands and spread them wide, letting the carrier wrap the armor around her, sealing the pieces together, until it squeezed her gently in a full body hug. She turned in place to allow it to hang her backpack power plant to the mounts for it on the back of the Cuirass, then it placed her Melta Gun on the grabber pad on her right Cuisse. Finally, the carrier connected the power cables to her back pack and she felt two sharp vibrations on her thigh, warning her the gun was indicating a malfunction. Ready, she bowed before the Emperor and turned her steps to the range to see if her mood did have any effect on the accumulator coil.

Not having Sister Superior Marks with her this time, she set the auto timer on her suit, then returned coil to the gun. The red warnings floating holographically in her HUD cleared and the coil began to charge. The range crew safe behind the blast shield, Mary flicked the safety off and fired three rounds through the gun as fast as the coil would charge. The plasma flashed through three targets and Mary didn't need the timer built into her armor to know the coil was drawing slow, but it was vindicating to see it hadn't changed.

“Point eight four,” she muttered. “Well, well, what do you know? Getting laid has nothing to do with a bad part!”

Once the weapon was cool enough to open, she removed the coil again to make the weapon safe, then dropped it against her thigh so the grabber field could catch and hold it. The coil in hand, she nodded to the range crew in consideration of their service and headed to the ships armory. “Tell me I'm wrong,” muttered Mary darkly as she walked. “Say the wrong thing and find out what happens!”

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It was a motley group that was awaiting him in the library.

Cameron Wren took in the measure of them as he and Henry swept into the room, watching conversations cease as the room turned to bow to him. They were an eclectic mix, but in a way that was something to be expected; the Sisterhood weren't a monolithic block after all, but a collection of individuals cooperating in common purpose. Their choices would be just as individualistic. However, 'common purpose' could not be said of this little crowd which clustered in three groups, ironically by class. There were a clutch of soldiers from his home guard, all somewhat cautiously chatting by the window, concern on their faces that they had been summoned to address some grave matter of indiscretion.

The truth was not terribly far from their worry.

On the other side of the library were members of his household staff, Under Butlers, three Footmen and, interestingly, four maids. The staff were in a corner, furthest from the door, being discrete as their training indicated they should be. In the center of the room, uncaring of any eyes on them, were a pair of young lordlings, both with notorious reputations and ambition of outdoing the Duke from his wilder, younger days. “Lord Masham, Sir Thomas, welcome!”

The two bowed to their liege, careful not to upset the contents of the sniffers each man held. “Your Grace,” they greeted in chorus. With the hour still in the ante-meridiem, it would appear that lust was not the two men's only sin.

“It was an unexpected pleasure to hear from your man Eddington that your Grace requested further company at breakfast,” Lord Masham added.

Duke Wren smiled and made a decision. “Of course,” he replied, all smiles. “I thought we might enjoy a round of skeet this afternoon.”

“We are at your Grace's pleasure,” the knight replied, always eager to climb a rung on the social ladder. Duke Wren's smile would not have wavered from the worst moments of an execution.

“I look forward to it! Forgive me, I have some business with the staff first, you understand.” He turned to find Henry had already summoned a Footman to guide the lords wherever Cameron would desire. “If you'll kindly await me in my study, I'll be along presently.” The two lords bowed and followed the Footman before the door was closed on their backs. “Henry?”

“We're alone, your grace,” the older man affirmed.

Duke Cameron's joviality became serious and he gestured for his soldiers and staff to gather around him. They did so, the two dissimilar groups casting uneasy glances at each other. “Friends, first be at ease, I have no complaint for fault to address with any of you,” the Duke assured them. As they group closed to conversational distance a bit of ease entered them, though they kept their self segregation.

“How may we serve, your grace?” asked the ranking officer of the soldiers. He was a Captain of the Duke's Lancers his uniform proclaimed.

“I want to extend my apologies for broaching so...personal...a topic, but this is a matter of State and it thus requires me to breech decorum,” he told them. “As you probably suspect, I am aware of...your sleeping arrangements, shall we say? Yes, I think that's discreet. I am aware of the previous evenings arrangements.” A murmur ran through the group as concern was draped on every face. Cameron smiled his warmest smile that had served him well his entire life. Holding up his hands he did his best to exude ease and consolation. “No need for concern,” he assured them.

One of the maids curtseyed. “There was no disrespect intended, your grace.”

“Nor has any offense been taken, Abby,” he told her. “Friends, believe me, I find what I must ask as distasteful as you will to hear it.”

“We're at your command, sire,” Bob assured his liege.

Cameron reached out to clasp the Captain's shoulder and let his gaze fall on each of his retainers. “I appreciate that, Captain Tull! So, some of you will likely find the previous evening was something of a...unique...experience. If that bears out, that's fine, I understand. But, in as much as each of you can, if you're willing, I'd consider it a personal favor if you would cultivate the previous evening into something more long term.”

“Sir?” Lieutenant Volt asked.

“Palatine De La Concoridia and her Mission are going to be on Thuria permanently,” Cameron replied. “I know I don't have to explain what that will do to some of the social circles of our world. Politics are down stream of culture. Wittingly or not, you are all involved in one of the major moments in the history of our world.”

The lieutenant's face became concerned. “I hope your grace isn't upset...there wasn't anyway I could have politely declined...not that I wanted to refuse, but...!

Duke Wren chuckled. “Ladies, gentlemen, please, put your minds at ease. I am in no way concerned or upset at the, acquaintances you've made last evening. Far from it, I mean to encourage you, if you are desirous of such encouragement.”

“What is it your grace desires?” Abby asked quietly.

Once more, Cameron smiled and took comfort in the excellent team he had. “If you'll allow me, friends, let me speak more directly and, regrettably, less politely. I'm sure everyone here would agree knowledge is power. Our world is in the sights of some very powerful people and our homes are at stake. I need every bit of knowledge I can get my hands on.”

“You're looking for spies, sir?” Abby asked.

“I prefer to think of it as gossip,” the Duke replied. “I certainly consider you friends and family, so I'm of course interested in the events of your lives.” His tone was soothing and his smile warm. “That's reasonable, isn't it?”

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Sensor Tech First Class Ronald Smith was bored. His Majesty's Armed Vessel Vigilanthad been in orbit of Thuria for the better part of a month, which meant day after day, watch after watch of civilian traffic coming and going in a mind numbing routine. Every now and then there would be a careless freighter or some inquisitive lordling's yacht that would wander too close to the Big V's interdiction envelope which would give a few moments of diversion from the routine. Usually, it only mounted to a stern radio warning to get the interloper to move along, but anything different was welcome.

He sat in a cluster of screens that shaped his console that would have been far too much information for most to absorb, but Ronald had several implants that let him categorize the flow without overwhelming him while a direct connection into his mind let him close his eyes and become the Big V, flying effortlessly through the void aware of the cold on the shadow side of the ship and the warm of Thuria's primary star on the light. He could see in the ultraviolet and the infrared, from radio waves to gamma rays that painted reality in colors and textures the human mind had no names for.

“Ronnie?” Sensor Tech third class Sally Durham called from her station. “Gamma Wave source outside plotted jump point. Spectrograph indicates a star drive.”

“Smuggler, huh?” he asked as he connected the sensor net to his implant.

“If it is, it's a big freighter,” Sally replied. “Bearing 221 mark 15.”

Ronald's mind expanded and he became the star ship as he turned his new 'eyes' towards the indicated direction. There he saw a flash of energy in a wave length no human eye could perceive that heralded reality opening up and a large something leaving the Warp. With a thought, Smith's mind was connected to the ship's intercom. “Con, CIC, new contact bearing 221 mark 15, designate master contact Uniform Kilo 77. Request permission for active sensor, over.”

“CIC, Con, contact Uniform Kilo 77 acknowledged,” the voice of Chief Petty Officer Gatling drifted impossibly through space. “You catch a smuggler, Ronnie?”

Ronnie continued to stare at the dark object and the more he did, the more confused he became. He hadn't expected an ID beacon on a smuggler, but this had to be the most EM quiet ship he'd ever seen. If Sally hadn't caught their gamma burst from leaving the warp, he doubted even the Big V would have noted it without active scanning. “I...I dunno, Chief, this thing is weird. Am I clear to go active?”

“Stand by one,” the Chief of the Watch replied.

With a thought, Ronnie moved the active sensor array to track the dark unknown in anticipation of the clearance as he tried and failed to glean more information. As he flew through space, a window opened up just above his line of sight as the master telescope tracked in and could give him a slightly better view. “Ronnie, I've got the heat and radiation leak of their drive signature now,” Sally reported.

“Run it through the computer and see if the plant is in the database,” he ordered as he continued to stare at the long, mottled, oblong thing that was falling through space. It didn't look like any ship he'd ever seen, indeed, at first glance he'd have thought it an asteroid if he didn't know better.

“Ronnie, this radiation leak is hot! It's like they're loosing containment.”

Ronnie checked the Geiger sensor and blanched a bit at the reading and was grateful his body was behind plenty of hard shielding. “Shit,” muttered Smith as he mentally keyed his microphone again. “Con, CIC, radiation hazard on Master Contact Uniform Kilo 77, possible loss of containment.”

“CIC, Actual,” Captain Newberry's voice replied. “Ronnie you're not blowing up my skirt for a thrill of going active, are you?”

If Smith hadn't been so concerned, he would have laughed at the Captain's turn of phrase. “Skipper, I...I,” he started and then a new window opened in the ocean of information he was swimming in. The plant signature was in the database. He read the entry and felt his blood go cold. “Skipper update Master Contact Uniform Kilo 77 to Hostile 2748, plant signature matches known Ork Warship! Recommend General Quarters...”

In his ear, Sally's voice was just on the edge of panic. “Ronnie, multiple gamma spikes on same vector!”

“Ronnie, go hot,” the Captain ordered and with a thought, the sensors of the Vigilantwent active, and the young tech's awareness expanded with it. It was as if he was in a space suit, floating right next to the enemy, he watched, ten, then twenty Warp portals open. Then twenty became forty, and forty became a hundred of ramshackle ships that looked more like abandoned wrecks that should be drifting, not warships moving under their own power.

They were monstrous, haphazard creations, built of asteroids and other ship wrecks and pieces, painted with blasphemous symbols and crazed totems. Through their stony hulls he could see improvised weapons, scavenged artillery and ordinance and even the dead zone tell tales of what were likely nuclear munitions. “Emperor save us,” he whispered. “Skipper, it's aWaaagh!”

Still flying through space, Ronnie felt the blast shields begin to snap shut over the portholes as the gun mounts swung open all over his 'skin' and inside him, he heard the klaxon blare and the Captain's voice echoing through the ship. “General Quarters! General Quarters! All hands to battle stations! Rig ship for Battle Stations! All sections acknowledge!”

* * *

Chapter Fourteen
Opening Salvos

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

Jonas clinched his eyes tight against the horrific pain, amazed he was allowed to curl into a ball from what felt as if he had thrust his arm into a blast furnace. He cried and screamed against it, then as suddenly as it came, it went and cold lucidity over took him. For a moment, he thought for sure his arm was gone, burned away from the fiery agony of whatever had been put into his hand and he clinched his eyes tight to avoid seeing the horrible disfigurement he was certain he had. But the minutes drug out and there was neither the blast of the bolter against his temple aerating his brain, nor the rough, strident voices of the women warriors who were his current tormentors.

The longer he lay there in a fetal curl, the stranger it became to him that he was allowed to do so. There was light against his eyelids, more than could be accounted for in the Palatine's dark office, yet his own deep seated fear kept his eyes closed. Slowly, fearfully, he found his other hand free and he fearfully felt about his arm. He could feel his own grip, both in his hand and the arm that was grasped by it. Millimeter by millimeter his hand crept down, feeling for the stump he was certain he'd find, but instead he found his hand, clinched into a fist.

“How long are you just going to lie there?”

It was a familiar voice, light and sweet and higher pitched than any note he could sing. It had been so long since Jonas had anything to sing about. He felt a hand, delicate, slight, but strong gently take his shoulder, not to force him to move, but with compassion. “Come now, Jonas. Open your eyes.”

Jonas turned his face towards the sound of the voice and opened his eyes, only to squeeze them shut with a cry of alarm as the bright, bright light flooded them. Against the spots that danced under his eyelids his mind put together an image, a woman, her head ennobled by a golden halo so bright her features could not be seen and at her back, massive wings spread out and were lit up by the halo so they seemed to glow themselves. “It hurts!” he cried, unable to resist the hand that was gently pulling him upright into a seated position.

“I know,” the voice replied. “Service does that, sometimes. But we struggle through it, for the Emperor Protects.”

With his face turned down, Jonas hazarded squinting through his eyes to find his hands resting in his lap, both present and whole. He was dressed in the Day Service Habit he'd been wearing, but now, strangely it was his male body he saw within it. Next to him, he could see the armored greaves and boots of Sororitas Armor, but it was not the black he was used to, but a white so pure it seemed to glow softly. He looked slowly up the armor to be greeted with a chestnut haired, doe eyed face he was becoming used to seeing in the mirror. “Hey there,” she greeted, offering a hand to him.

Amazed, Jonas took the offered hand and let the woman help him to his feet. “Rachael,” he whispered. “It's you!” The angel smiled at him and opened her mouth to speak, but horrible buzzing cacophony pierced the infinite light where they stood and Jonas was falling. The angel vanished and reality was re-established by the cold, hard deck of the Vigilantand the calm, but stern intonation of Captain Newberry calling the ship to battle stations.

Rachael looked up from the deck, finding her hair soaked in sweat and a small silver box in her palm to take in the shocked faces of the sisters standing over her. It was Fiona Vander to over came her amazement first and turned to the Vox Thrower on the desk. “This is Sister Vander, status report.”

“An Ork War fleet has left the Warp over Io,” the Vox Thrower replied. “Arm yourselves and prepare to repel boarders.”

Before Rachael could react to this horrible news, Palatine De La Concordia knelt down to her, her tired face intense in its focus. “What did you see?” she demanded, reaching out to Rachaels shoulders to help her up into a sitting position. “Speak!”

“I saw her!” Rachael babbled, trying to look down at the metal box in her hand, but was thwarted by the Palatine's hand holding her chin and gently making Rachael meet her gaze. “I saw Rachael! She...she was an angel, beautiful...”

“Palatine, the alarm...?” Whitworth interjected. Constance looked at Rachael for a long moment, then she reached out and helped the confused sister to her feet. She took back whatever she had put into the new sister's hand and nodded, as if coming to a decision.

“Whitworth, turn out the mission for battle.”


Constance allowed her face to become slightly cross. “The entire mission, Eloheim!” she commanded. “The Emperor calls, and the Sisters of Battle answer!”

Ruth braced and saluted. “The Emperor protects! Winter, you're with me!”

Rachael looked back at Constance and somewhat shakily wiped the sweat from her forehead. “The Emperor Protects,” she affirmed and for the first time, she was rewarded with a smile from the Palatine and a reassuring grip on her arm. “I'll do my best,” she swore.

“I know you will.” Constance replied, then she straightened and turned to her Legatine. “To war, Sister Vander.”

“To war!” Fiona chorused.

Rachael quickly followed Ruth out into the corridor and down it towards the bunk room of the sisters. She was amazed to see her pulling off the habit as she ran and despite herself, Rachael found she was too disrobing and not caring if any of the ship's personnel running in the corridor with them saw. After weeks of uncertainty, something truly simple she could do to serve the Empire had arrived.

The two women burst into the barracks to find the mission in various states of undress, several sisters, unashamedly nude stood around a bucket of water and were passing a sponge to each other. The sister with the sponge would declare something quickly, while dragging the sponge over her body, forehead, to arms, then breasts, abdomen and finally legs, then had the sponge to the next girl and run to her bunk and begin pulling on the link suit of her armor.

Ruth and Rachael finished stripping off their habits as they waited their turn at the bucket and Rachael could hear the hurriedly repeated phrase enough to repeat it herself. Ruth handed the sponge to her and she dipped it into the pale of water and ritually purified herself with the holy water. “My mind is pure to the Emperor's Service, may he make my limbs strong to do his will, guard my heart to harden it against my foes and give my legs speed to carry out his truth!” she declared, and saw real approval for her diligence in Ruth's face as she took back the sponge and prepared herself as well.

It was the ritual purification of the Sisterhood, although, the most paired down version of it for use in times of exigency, such as this. Now the Sisters were pure, absolved of all sin or failing and their place by the Emperor in eternal reward should they fall in battle was assured.

Then both women ran to their bunks where their armor carriers were waiting for them. Fortunately, donning the armor was perhaps the simplest uniform she would have to as Sister of Battle. Once she'd fought to get the Link Suit over her skin, she quickly pulled the Battle Habit over it and muttered the prayers for each button up her chest before laying her palm on the carrier to let it identify her. A quick clap of her hands, then her arms were thrown wide as the carrier reared up and encased her in a metal and ceramite shell. There was only a standard Godwyn-De'az Pattern bolter in the carrier that she removed and checked as the robot valet attached a bandoleer of magazines around her hips.

Rachael hung the sling of the weapon around her shoulders so that the bolter hung across her torso, ready to be picked up and put to work in seconds. Finally, the helmet was placed over her head and locked into position which caused the link suit to contract silently hugging its wearing and assuring her it was ready for battle. Before her eyes, the smart glass that sealed the eye holes lit up, giving her information about the suit, her weapons, and once it linked with the ship's data feed, information of the battle space. All floating in front of her vision that would also give her low light and thermal should she need either. She looked up, just in time to see Legatine Vander and Palatine De La Concordia in the door to the barracks, both of them encased in their own armor, the white faced visors with their red eyes of the otherwise black Sabbat Pattern helmets down and locked. “Lock and load!” Vander commanded over the Vox line all of the sisters shared.

Rachael held out her hand to have her carrier place a full magazine of bolts into it, then with her free hand snatched her bolter's action open and locked it in place, then slammed the magazine home into the well. “Fix bayonets!” De La Concordia ordered. From it's frog on her belt, Rachel drew the wicked looking half moon shaped blade, a sarissait was called, that looked to have more in common with an ax than a bayonet, but it locked over the muzzle of her bolter. “I am the Hand of the Emperor!” Constance shouted.

“His will shall guide my aim!” the sisters replied.

Continuing the benediction, her voice rang out, “I protect humanity from Evil.”

“By my might is it purged!” Rachaels voice cried, joining the chorus of her sisters.

“I know only victory and death!”

“Death that walks before me!”

“Neither Taint of Chaos, nor lies of Heresy touch me.”

“I am the Hand of the Emperor!”

The red eyes of Constance's helmet gleamed as she gave her troopers a final glance, then turned back to the corridor. “Sisters!” she cried. “Follow me!” As one, the warrior women broke into a run, neatly folding through the choke point of the door without being noticeably slowed as the Sisterhood of the Adepta Sororitas went to Battle.

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If Mary Cotton had been thinking more clearly, it might have occurred to her that neither of the sailors under arms that guarded the Ship's Armory would be thrilled to see a Sister of Battle tromping towards them in full armor. It simply hadn't occurred to her that she should have taken the time to remove it before going to confront the machine priest. It alsohadn't occurred to her that she should have returned her Melta Gun to her armor carrier, which took the disapproval of the sailors into full on fight or flight mode. As they were at the end of a corridor with no exit, they immediately went to fight.

With a shout of surprise, a pair of lasgun rays streaked out and struck the Sister of Battle on her armor, which, fortunately, had been designed for maximum protection, saving Mary Cotton's life. Still, there was a marked heat flash from the strikes, even with the ceramite of the armor defeating them, as the energy was dispersed about her. This made Mary cry out and reflexively stumble back around the corner, out of line of sight. “Friendly!” she shouted while staying around the corner. “Cease fire! Friendly!”

“Hands!” the senior petty officer shouted back. “Let me see your hands!” Keeping most of her body behind the bulkhead, Mary cautiously extended both empty hands out where they could be seen. “Advance to be recognized!”

Keeping her hands out, Mary slowly eased around the corner. “Sister Mary Cotton, Daughter of the Emperor, to see the ships armorer!”

“Why are you armed, sister?” the other shouted, the fear in his voice plain.

Mary looked down, realized she had carried the Melta with her cringed. “Forgive me, Guardsmen, this is the weapon I need serviced. I should have announced myself. The fault is mine, may I approach?”

The senior took more careful aim, doubtlessly at Mary's bare head. “Advance for identification, Sister. Slowly.” he ordered. Mary nodded and, with extreme care, inched forward to the scanner and allowed it to check her. Satisfied, once it cleared her once again, the Petty Officer returned his weapon to safe and shouldered it. “You may approach, Sister, but I must report this as I discharged my weapon.”

Mary walked over to the two sailors and laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. “No, the fault was mine, Petty Officer,” she assured him. “I willso state when questioned, you have my word. Again, my apologies and commendation to you for doing your duty.”

“Thank you, sister. You may enter.”

Before Mary could even think to raise an arm to undog the hatch, the lighting in the hallway shifted spectrum all the way to red and the battle klaxon began to echo throughout the corridors. Mary cursed to herself for not having her helmet and turned to the senior of the sailors. “What's going on?” she demanded. He activated a viewer, built into the alley-cove he stood in and read the display quickly.

“There's an Ork War Fleet over one of the planet's moons,” he told her with remarkable calm for such news. “The Vigilantis moving to intercept, with the Saint Arabella as well.” He looked up, his face ashen. “There's a notation to the call to quarters to prepare to repel boarders.”

“Emperor's teeth!” murmured Mary as suddenly she had ample cause to curse her hurry, her lack of cleansing and not having her helmet. She touched the Vox thrower in the arm of her armor. “Two One, this is Two Seven, I'm at the ships armory, do you read?”

After a moment, Wendy's voice came from the little speaker in the Thrower. “Two Seven, this is Two One, are you armored?”

“Wendy, I don't have my helmet! I didn't purify...”

“Mary,” Marks' voice declared calmly, “The Emperor Protects. Are you armed?”

Mary Cotton swallowed her growing fear and took the Melta gun from the grabber on her thigh and opened it to return the Accumulator Coil and snapped it closed. “Armed and ready to serve the Emperor.”

“Defend the Armory,” her friend and superior officer ordered. “I'll see you at the Throne.”

“The Emperor Protects,” Mary replied and snapped off the line, turning to the two, ashen faced sailors, she smiled and touched each on the shoulder. “Well boys, it looks you're stuck with me for the duration.” She took the Melta Gun in hand and sank to one knee. “Let's be about the Emperor's business!”

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On the bridge of the Vigilant, Captain Newberry stared at the massive holographic table before him. Beyond, at the far end of the bridge were massive Transparent Steel windows, but the Situation Table gave him a much better view of the battle space than his eyeballs could through a window. In one corner, the holographic busts of the captains of the warships in the system he had commandeered were floating, ghost like, awaiting his orders, while he quickly scanned a miniature and not to scale projection of Thuria and it's moons. “We're on full burn,” Thomas Harris was saying, the commander of the Atlanta, one of the two cruisers that were the back bone of the Thuria Sector Defense Fleet. “But we're on the other side of Keroessa, it will be three hours at least until I can get there.”

“My compliments to Commander Moore,” Newberry declared to one of his inter-ship communication ratings. “Have the VACBOSS order the CAP move with us and be recovered once the attack is in space. Get them refueled and armed quickly! Be sure he's prepared to launch as soon as we get in range.”

“Aye, aye, sir!”

Captain Newberry returned to Captain Harris and smiled grimly. “I'm sure there'll be plenty to do even in three hours, Captain. We'll keep them occupied until you arrive.”

“I'll check with my engineer to see if we can get more speed out of her.”

Newberry nodded, then turned to the only woman in the group, the Sister Captain of the Saint Arabella. “Captain Roost, I would like you to feint out in front of us and lay out half of your torpedo ordnance. The Orks will likely clump in the beginning, giving you a target rich environment.”

Captain Roost's hologram turned to the only civilian in the group, Duke Wren. “With your grace's permission, I'll use my nuclear warheads.” The Duke gravely pulled at his chin, then finally nodded.

“Captain Newberry, I give you authorization to use whatever weapons and means you feel necessary to defend us from this threat. I'll have our factories begin production of replacement ordnance at once so have no fear of your resupply.”

Nathaniel nodded and gave Captain Roost a glance of heavy regret. Her image faded as she began calling for the code books to arm her munitions. “We'll make the best fight of it we can, your grace, but I doubt I can prevent Io from being taken.”

“I understand, Captain. Do what you can to keep your forces intact while I mobilize our home guard. They make take Io, but be damned if I'll let them keep it!”

“I'll see that you're kept appraised of the battle.” For a split second, the duke's mouth opened, as if he had something else to say. Captain Newberry waited patiently on the nobleman, but at least he mastered himself, nodded curtly and the transmission ended. He had little doubt what was on the Duke's mind. He'd seen the way he looked at Palatine De Le Concordia, saw the lavish gifts he'd given her clutch of Sisters of Battle and the expense of a private ship to shuttle them to and fro. But the Nobleman realized who it was he had fallen for, and how much her duty would matter to her. Knew that requests of special messages or treatment would be unbecoming and steeled himself to accept the bad of his infatuation that went with the good of the woman's poise and beauty. Nathaniel smiled to himself, amazed that at long last he'd come across a nobleman worthy of the word. “Helm, all ahead flank and give way to the Saint Arabella.”

“All ahead flank and give way, aye sir!”

The Chief of the Watch caught the captain's eye as he turned from his board. “Ship answers all ahead flank, Skipper.” Nathaniel watched the blue white nuclear fire of the Saint Arabella's engines come across his view port for a moment, then turned back to his chief.

“Mike, maneuver us out to port and bring the starboard batteries to bear. Let's protect the Port side so Moore can recover the CAP and get our attack fighters in the air.”

“Aye, aye, Skipper. Watkins, Doyle! Sound the recovery alarm and Z plus twenty thousand kilometers from the orbital plane so our boys are well clear of the Arabella's wake. Helm, left full rudder.”

“Z plus twenty thousand, and left full rudder, aye!”

“Now hear this, now hear this, Alert Two throughout the ship. Prepare to recover space craft!”

“Tommy, let me know the second you've got a firing solution,” Newberry ordered as he walked forward to the front windows, unable to resist the primitive brain that itched to seewith it's own eyes.

“The batteries are coming on line now sir, just a moment.” his weapons officer assured him.

Newberry looked out through the transparent metal for a moment, the reached forward to pick up the inter-phone and held it to his ear. “CIC, Actual. Ronnie how many of the sons of bitches are taking the bait?”

In his mind's eye, Captain Newberry imagined being his sensor tech, so connected with the ship that it felt like his own body, seeing with eyes and hearing with machines that had no human equivalents. Imagined feeling that deluge of information flowing into his brain alone with the sensation of being five and a half kilometers of star ship. “About half the Ork fleet is turning towards us and the Arabella, skipper. They're all over the place, about a third of that mass headed to meet her, but the rest are coming at us, but the other half is almost disciplined, skipper! They're in tight formation and headed right for Io.”

“Just what I didn't fucking need,” Newberry swore under his breath. “Organized Orks. Tommy, what's taking my guns so long?”

“On target, skipper! Firing solution locked.”

“Fire for effect!” The sides of the Vigilantlit up with yellow and crimson fire as her massive broadside flashed silently out into space. Newberry watched them until he could no longer make out the streaks of fire then, after what seemed like an inordinately long pause, brilliant white light blossomed out in space, followed quickly by much more colorful explosions as magazines, engine cores and other elements began to burn in the nuclear furnace he'd lit.

“Con, CIC, incoming fire vectors on the board! Enemy boarding craft mixed with ordnance!”

“Shields up!” Newberry commanded. “Helm evasive Z plus fifty kilometers! Ronnie, vector the sisters to intercept the largest of the boarding craft. Sound intruder alert! Point defense weapons to fire at will!” The Vigilant wallowed as she tried to dodge the Ork's response to her own kinetic mayhem, but she was a big girl and not at all nimble. Her Void Shields glowed up into the X Ray band as some of the incoming fire was defeated and exploded harmlessly hundreds of meters from her hull.

But even on the heavily shielded bridge, the deck trembled as Ork shells struck home and boarding torpedoes managed to punch through her armor. All over her surface, the faster firing point defense weapons spat death in defense of their home and the black of space was lit with explosions. Then, the torpedoes of the Saint Arabella found their marks and for a split second, a new star burned brightly in the sky over Thuria.

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Jennifer Hamilton's heart was beating like a trip hammer as she trotted in the formation of Sisters through the ship's hallways. Everything was bathed in red, like it was on fire and despite her visor being down and locked, she would swearshe could smell burning flesh and in the static that crackled over the Vox Thrower in her helmet, every now and then she could hear the screams of men burning alive. She gripped the pistol grip of her bolter tighter, kept her eyes on the ass of her squad leader and lover in front of her and tried to calm her breathing. Ghostly messages floated over her vision from the Combat Information Center of the Vigilantthat her suit had uplinked to. The sisters were being directed to the starboard flight deck, one of the most vulnerable parts of the ship, and the most likely place the Orks would attempt to board.

She gripped her weapon tight, making sure the safety was on and her finger was well outside the trigger guard so she would not have a negligent discharge and dishonor herself. I can, she scolded herself. I can do this. Gretch is here, WE can do this!

Then to her amazement, she heard the Palatine's voice from up ahead, as clear and sweet as a church bell, unbothered from the run begin to sing. “The Emperor called me to stand on the wall, to defend from the chaos that threatens us all! My sisters before me brought me to the fold, I reap like a scythe in a harvest of souls! I am his hand, and his judgment is nigh!” It was an old marching cadence and the Palatine's voice made a beautiful, Gothic hymn.

Even as Legatine Vander joined the Palatine, the entire troop fell in step as the song forced it's cadence on the Sisters. “No longer with family, to the stars I've been sent, to purge all the heretics who will not repent! I kill without consequence for his word is law! Separating the Righteous as grain from the straw! I rain fire, and death from the sky...”

Then, with one voice, the mission took up the chorus and their voices echoed through their helmets, and the steel of the Vigilantherself as though heaven itself had opened and a troop of angels were descending to battle evil itself. “And I've given up husbands, parents and life, to basque in the glory and strength of his light! Neither Chaos, nor Xenos or heretic blight, shall triumph against our Emperor's might! I burn with his wrath calling you to atone! I protect all humanity, with my sisters alone!”

Time came to an eerie plateau as over the klaxons and alarms, everyone within ear shot of the sisters stopped and stared, jaws hanging open, awe struck as the Sisters sang on their way to war. The voices were glad, triumphant, eager for the opportunity to do their Emperor's will and wherever they passed, spines stiffened, resolve was cinched and every sailor went about his duty or took up a makeshift weapon and fell in behind the sisters with fire in their bellies to defend this, His Majesty's Ship.

Then, ahead of them, there were different cries; the keen of men and beasts in pain, the staccato burning hiss of LASGUN fire and the thunder of makeshift Ork weapons. “Live and free,” the Palatine's voice whispered over the Vox and as one, the mission clicked the safeties off their weapons, then completely without fear, they stepped over the barricades the deck hands had hastily erected out onto the flight deck itself.

“For the Emperor!” the Battle Sisters cried and the formation broke into a flood of black armor, red battle habits flowing behind them, then nothing but the roar of Bolters. Jennifer found herself in what was easily the largest open space she'd seen thus far on the ship, dozens of times larger than the little shuttle bays the mission had been given use of. It ran for a kilometer in either direction, scattered around a clutch of the kinds of vehicles you'd expect to find on a space port. Fuel trucks, tugs, forklifts and crash wagons.

She wasn't sure if she was glad or downhearted there were no fighters or bombers present.

She ran as fast as her augmented muscles would run after Gretchen who was firing her bolter off to her left as she ran towards a big tender of some kind that would give cover. Jennifer turned herself to find, a hundred meters away was a pile of boarding torpedoes and still flowing out of them like a green river were the deformed, muscle bound horrors that men called Orks.

They wore patchwork bits of armor and metal, some had Space Marine helmets with the face plates carved off, forced down over their misshapen heads like grotesque bullets, while others pressed everything from pots and pans to nothing at all on their heads. They flowed like a humanoid wave over everything in their path in a demented frenzy to reach the humans and kill them, heedless to risk or wound.

Jennifer held her bolter up and its trigger down. It roared and bucked in her hands, like an animal itself. Only the augmented strength of her power armor allowed her to control it as it spat self propelled miniature explosive missiles into the nightmarish wave and the explosions drown out the cries of the Orks as they were pierced by the shells, then blown apart from within. The sisters had all laid down withering fire into the mob as they found cover and began to reload.

As she pushed a fresh magazine into her own weapon, Jennifer saw sweet, reserved Melody Harris leap onto the top of an empty munitions truck, then brought the heavy belt fed Storm Bolter she carried to bear. The multi-barreled cannon spewed out liquid death and the sister raked it like a hose over the Orks who were butchered and cut down by the dozen.

“Cover me!” a sister near Jennifer yelled, and Hamilton didn't think, she acted. She broke out into a trot with the other sister who was leading a pair of men from the flight deck crew that had followed the sister's song. Jennifer burped the Bolter sparingly, holding her fire only to those slavering monsters that headed towards them. Then she realized they had taken refuge in the shadow of a fuel truck and the other sister was laboring with a heavy flamer.

The two deck crewmen frantically attached the fill point of the sister's flamer to the truck, and slapped it's valves open. Then, right as Jennifer's bolter locked open, her magazine spent, the flamer roared and a tongue of white hot plasma was hurled into the mass of Orks.

The screams were inhuman as the monsters flailed, their eyes melted as they staggered into friends, spreading the fire even further. Bile rose up in Jennifer's throat as she got a grenade from her belt by feel and hurled it. The explosion killed a dozen, flinging bits and gore through the air and forced more of the Orks into the flames. She watched the hell for a moment, the bodies writhing in the flame and she was glad her visor was down and locked so she couldn't smell the stench of burning Ork.

“No mercy!” Legatine Vander's voice echoed through the deck as Jennifer reloaded and got her bolter going again. “Let them burn! Herd them together!” Like her sisters, she used the rounds to push the Orks into the cone where the flamer and their dead kinsmen would light them on fire as well.

No one shot the flaming bodies of the Xenos filth as they burned, letting the flames be their purification and death.

Then, as suddenly as the battle had started, it was finished and all the Orks were dead and burning. With a Herculean effort of will, Jennifer kept herself from throwing up and heedless of who saw her, embraced her lover, armor to armor and through the metal of her helmet, Jennifer heard Gretchen's voice, “You're safe, baby. You did it. I told you you could!”

Jennifer's cried silently, glad the visor of the helmet hid her face from the jubilant deck crew that crowded around the warrior women, congratulating them on their victory.

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Chapter Fifteen
Expanding Actions

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

As much as Constance wanted to let the men enjoy their victory and celebrate the triumph of good over evil, in her heart, she knew the battle was likely only just being joined and was far from over. She unlocked her visor and swung it upward, bearing her face, much to the shock and awe of the deck hands around her who now were getting out handkerchiefs, rags or anything else they could cover their mouths and noses against the putrid stink of burning Ork. “Fiona, give me a head count,” she commanded, then turned to the men and raised her voice to shout. “Deck Cheif?!”

A stout looking rating, likely a career navy man detached himself from a group and ambled over with a salute as he did so. “Master Chief Farns, your ladyship. At your service.” Constance smiled at him and gave a gesture over her shoulder at the burning mass of Xenos invaders.

“Master Chief, have some of your pit crews double up with some of my sisters for protection. Make sure that filth are all dead and let's get this wreckage clear so we can get this flight deck up and running again.”

“Aye, aye, ma'am.”

“Watch out for boobytraps!” she called after him, then turned to greet Fiona who had one upped her by removing and carrying her helmet and was leading a Sister Superior by her armor. “Legatine?”

“Short one sister, Palatine,” Fiona informed her crisply. “Mary Cotton was at the Ship's Armory getting her Melta gun serviced when the alarm came down.”

“I ordered her to stay there and defend it, Palatine,” Wendy Mark's voice declared from under the helmet. Constance nodded absently.

“Good thinking, Marks. I want you to send three of your squad, take one of these pallet jacks. Have them collect up Cotton, then get a resupply and back here on the double. Make sure everyone is fresh up. This fight isn't over yet.”

“Yes, ma'am,” Wendy replied at once, then spun and strode off, calling for members of her squad to report.

“Wycroff!” De La Concordia called as her other Sister Superior was within shouting distance. The young woman turned and the Palatine pointed to a small alley-cove near the main hatch. “Have Campanelli set up a triage station there. Have her deal with the bumps and bruises here so the ship's sick bay isn't overwhelmed.”

“Yes ma'am!”

Vander chuckled and leaned into discretely observe to Constance, “Well, this is an interesting morning, isn't it?”

De La Concordia led the way over to a ship's inter-phone, but gave her mentor a wry smile as she did so. “Oh, I'm on pins and needles to find out what we're doing after lunch!” She keyed it on and punched in her codes to identify herself. “Bridge, Palatine De La Concordia. Starboard flight deck is secure and repairs are underway.”

With a burst of static, the bust of a portly rating appeared who nodded gravely at the Sister of Battle. “Palatine, that's good news. What's your status?”

“I have four Sisters out getting us reloads and I've set up a triage station for walking wounded with my medic here on the flight deck. Boarders have been repelled and we're in the process of clearing out their wrecks and bodies.” The hologram nodded again.

The man snapped his fingers and made a gesture at someone outside the range of the camera's view. “I'll have someone from ship's stores get you some medical supplies. We've got a report of a boarding tube strike not far from you. Probably a near miss from the lot aiming at the Starboard Flight Deck. Do you have people you can send?”

“Any idea of numbers?”

The Chief of the Boat looked away at a read out the holographic camera couldn't pick up. “No, just multiple calls for help. Deck thirty one, frame sixteen. Can you assist?”

“I'll send who I can spare,” Constance replied. The hologram clicked off as Constance and Fiona shared a grim look. “Wycroff?” she called, bringing the squad leader trotting up. “I want your squad to share ammo with Whitworth, Winter, and Harris. Get them topped up. We have a call for help from Deck thirty one, frame sixteen. We'll resupply the rest of the girls from the ammo I have coming. Get them on that call.”

“Yes, ma'am!” Gretchen saluted and trotted back to where she'd been organizing her squad, her hands silently calling them to gather. She let her own bolter hang as her free hand began pulling a spare magazine from a belt pouch. “First squad, listen up! Whitworth, the Palatine wants you, Winter and Harris to answer a distress call, Deck Thirty One, frame sixteen. Girls, every body swap magazines with them, so they're at a combat load.” She pointedly handed her Eloheim the mag she'd taken from her pouch and took the empty Ruth handed her.

“Any idea of how many we're up against, Gretch?”

The Sister Superior shook her head. “The Emperor Protects, Ruth.”

Ruth drew her lips into a thin line and shook her head. “Copy that, Sup. Let's go, ladies, the Emperor is calling.” She pointed at Gretchen. “See you at the Throne, Sup!” then she pulled her face plate down and three departed at a trot.

Gretchen sighed as she watched them leave. “See you at the Throne, Ruth,” she whispered.

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Mary Cotton flexed her hand around the pistol grip of her Melta gun, and for once, deeply regretted being designated a heavy weapons specialist. On the face of things, having the Melta was a good thing, it was powerful, technically an anti-vehicular weapon, though she had dialed the capacitor down to it's lowest setting, she still had to be extremelycareful about what target she picked. While even a grazing shot would be lethal, she wasn't entirely sure how much armor was between her and the ship's outer hull. A misplaced shot could open up a hole through the ship, right out into space. And, of course, she'd left without her helmet.

Which meant she might have to dropher primary weapon and go hand to hand with Orks.

It was an outcome that was absolutely unappealing. She knelt before the two ship marines, making sure they had unobstructed lines of fire with their LASGUNs and licked her lips as she waited for the last battle of her life to start. Every now and then a crewman would run past the opening, which made her very conscious of her trigger discipline and made sure her finger stayed off that trigger while she waited.

“I don't want to die.”

The whisper was almost lost to the klaxons and the dull roar of men defending their ship, but Mary's hearing was excellent. She smiled as she kept her sights just below her vision. “The Emperor has plans for you, sailor,” she declared with the characteristic faith of her order. “Whatever it is, stand tall! You are humanand we are in the Emperor's hands. There's nowhere I'd rather be, boys, than right here with you two.”

“Do you want to die, sister?” he demanded, his voice hoarse and trembling.

Mary gave an exaggerated shrug that would carry through the armor. “I didn't wake up this morning thinking how amazing today would be if it was my last,” she told him and the Petty Officer shared her humor and let a chuckle escape his stoic wait for the war to start. “But you know what, sailor? We aregoing to die. Sometime. Today, next year, next century, we allhave a date at the Throne. Me? If we are going to die, I want to die for something. I want my first words to him to be, 'Master, I died defending your people!'”

“Damned right,” the Petty Officer declared. “Preach, sister.”

“Those green bastards aren't getting by us,” Mary declared. “If they come around that corner, we're going to stack their bodies up until we close off the corridor. The Emperor Protects!” Out of the corner of her eye, Mary saw the sailor stand up a little straighter and pulled the LASGUN tighter into his shoulder.

“The Emperor Protects!” he declared to himself and Mary allowed herself a little smile.

“Yes, yes he does.”

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Captain Newberry strolled across his bridge, conscious of his poise, keeping his spine straight and his step measured. His crew was good, well disciplined, but it could all fall apart if they got the idea that he was at all worried. He had to project confidence now, that the Orks were already dead, they just didn't know it yet, and his own certainty that hewas going to be the agent of that death. He arrived at the damage control station, a little workspace of three sailors and the Chief of the Watch coordinating the defense of the interior of his ship. “Chief, how are we doing?”

“Palatine De La Concordia reports she's repelled the boarders on the starboard flight deck, skipper,” the Chief told him, his heavy set and ruddy face worried, but his emotions were under control. “They've begun damage control and clearing off the boarding tubes to get the flight deck up and running again. She's set up an aid station and I have some medical supplies headed there now.”

“Outstanding, Chief,” Newberry complimented his old friend. “By the throne I wish I had four sets of those sisters. What other damage?”

“We've lost four point defense weapons out of action and there's a fire on the gun deck at battery twenty, but it's contained. The only other bit is an odd strike at Frame Sixteen, probably a near miss from the docking bay action. The Palatine is sending sisters to intercept.”

“Get that fire out and keep me informed.”

“Aye, aye, skipper.”

The Captain strode back to his Situation Table, calling out orders as he did. “Helm! Rudders amidships. Maintain this course so we can recover and relaunch the CAP. Tommy what's the status on our reloads?”

“Gun captains reloading now, sir!” his weapons officer assured him. “Same target package?”

Newberry's eyes swept the holographic display of the battle quickly, trying to take everything in. “No,” he snapped, coming quickly to a decision. “Give me a concentrated broad side at this clump that's threatening the Saint Arabella. Once those are in the air we'll start worrying about our own defense.” He reached overhead and pulled the inter-phone from its cradle and keyed it on. “CIC, Actual what's the status of the Dahlonega?”

“Con, CIC, Dahlonegais on full burn, from the night side of Thuria. Estimated firing arc in eight minutes.” Ronnie's voice sounded distracted, doubtlessly the boy was all but overwhelmed with the amount of data pouring directly into his mind from the Vigilant's myriad sensors and antenna.

Newberry's eyes stared hard at the board and the mass of ships that floated above it. His fighters were still far enough from the Ork warships he was fighting that his guns would only have clear coverage for two salvos at most. And that did nothing to soften the invasion that was already starting to lauch ordinance at Io. He made a decision and clicked the line to a new channel. “Tower, Actual.”

“Actual, VACBOSS, go with comm.”

“George, I want you to vector the attack fighters away from the group coming at us. Have them soften up the invasion force.”

There was a long pause only broken by the sound of the Commanders teeth chewing on the tobacco of his cigar. “Aye, aye, Skipper.”

Newberry hung up the phone and turned deeper into his bridge. “Tommy, bring the port batteries on line as well. After this broad side, they'll be coming to bear. Helm, stand by for one hundred and eighty degree roll.”

“Port batteries online, aye!”

“Sir, helm answers ready for maneuver.”

Captain Newberry looked out the window of his bridge and clasped his hands behind his back. “Tommy, these bastards have intruded into human space. Explain the error of their ways to them.”

“Yes, sir!”

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Rachael trotted after Ruth, in the middle of the three Sisters the Palatine had sent this way to answer the cry for help. Her heart was beating in time to the distant thunder of weapons that were echoing through the ship's corridors. For most of the trip, her mind was spinning with fear that this was how Constance De La Concordia planned to be rid of the Inquisitor in the body of Rachael Winter. But, some sense she had no name for told her these were the fighters the Palatine could spare. The Flight Deck hadto be held, and she needed seasoned fighters to be able to do that.

The cold fact was that Rachael Winter was expendable, when balanced against an entire solar system.

A staccato burst of thunder sounded from just up ahead, much closer than the others and under it, the high pitched squeal of human beings being murdered. Ruth raised a fist and sank to one knee, which Rachael awkwardly imitated. Then Ruth's voice whispered in the private channel the three were sharing. “Melody, do you have a camera disk?”

“Yes, Eloheim.”

“Throw it,” Ruth ordered, making a blade of her fist and using it to point at the wall at the T junction where it could look around the corner. Harris laid her heavy bolter on the ground to free both hands to dig into a pouch and removed a disk about ten centimeters across and sharply threw it at the wall.

“On the way,” she grunted as the disk hurled through the air, but instead of bouncing off the wall when it struck, it stuck fast. A small picture super imposed itself in the corner of Rachael's vision showing a corridor of horror. Now they had horrific sights to add to the horrific sounds. Ten meters down the hall was a little cluster of sailors who had LASGUNs and were desperately firing down another hall. The space between the sisters and the sailors was a diorama that explained their desperation. The lights were flickering on and off as several had been damaged by weapons fire. The hallway was spattered in blood and viscera while severed limbs and corpses were littered like a ghastly abattoir.

Rachael's stomach heaved in protest and it was only with great force of will that she didn't throw up into the helmet. “Let's go!” Ruth shouted, then stood and came around the corner, yelling, “Friendlies! Friendlies!” Winter was only just able to stagger to her feet and ran after the Eloheim, picking her way through the carnage; amazed that she didn't loose her footing on the blood soaked deck plates.

Ruth's gestures told Rachael to go past the clutch of defenders, then she began to fumble at a grenade on her belt. Rachael threw herself across the opening, over the heads of the squatting sailors who's faces were awestruck at the three sisters that had come running into their midst. Down the hall, in the strobing lights, she got an impression of the edge of something that had forced its way through the ship's hull. The seal foam in the walls had instantly sealed around this new protrusion into the ship, keeping the atmosphere inside. Around the opening was an ugly, swirling mass of green horrors and the flashes of weapons fire ather. She felt a pair of impacts, then the deck was under her shoulder and she was rolling to be sure none of her was sticking out to be shot at.

The display in the helmet assured her she was fine and the armor had saved her life. Ruth's grenade bounced off the walls down towards the Orks eliciting a brief squeal of surprise that was suddenly cut off. A tremendous explosion trembled in the deck under her feet, drawing her eyes down. There, next to her foot, was Holly, the hair dresser, or, what was left of her. Her torso stopped just below her rib cage and her left arm and lower body was missing. Through the blood spatter on her face was a look of profound confusion, as if she was trying to understand how and why she was dead.

A wave of grief and deep, endlessrage washed over Rachael. Consumed by emotion, she screamed in incoherent anger, then snapped the safety off the Bolter and whirled around the corner, heedless of danger. There, laid out like a tableau before her, the grotesque, hyper masculine and misshapen forms of the Orks were just pulling themselves up from the grenade and turning to see the Sister of Battle before them. Winter pulled the bolter up against her gorget to brace it then held the trigger down.

The bolter roared and bucked in her hands, but the armored gorget and the bolter had actually been designed to fire this way which made the weapon surprisingly easy to control. She raked the stream of death at the invaders, watching their bodies explode and fly to pieces flinging blood and viscera everywhere. Then the bolter locked open on its empty magazine.

Then, to her horror, the Orks, the ones still alive anyway, turned to her and started to chantand cheer as if they were excited to see her. “Dakka! Dakka! Dakka!” they chanted, then their own weapons started to come up. “Dakka! Dakka! Dakka!” Winters frantically thumbed the magazine release and fumbled for a fresh magazine from her pouch. “Dakka! Dakka! Dakka!”

There was a flash and something hit her hard in the torso, picking her up off her feet and flinging her backwards into the wall. She bounced off it and fell hard on the pile of bodies, behind the sailors, next to Holly's corpse where she'd started. “Winter! Stay down!” Ruth's voice shouted in her ears over the Vox. “Harris! Do it!”

With the high pitched whine of its barrels spinning up, Melody came around the corner, pointing the spinning death machine at the foes of men and held down the trigger. The screams of the sailors holding their ears was drowned out by the roar of the heavy bolter as they flattened themselves away from the sound.

Down range, the carnage that Rachael had caused was outshone by an order of magnitude as in three seconds, five or six times the number of rounds Rachael had fired cut down the Orks. Melody came off the trigger and ducked back into cover, letting the barrels spin down. The quiet that settled was strangely loud, but was quickly filled by the moans of the wounded and the dying.

Rachael's eyes filled with tears as she once again took in Holly's confused face. They were squeezed out by her eyelids closing off the red tinted sight through the display and rolled down her cheeks as she stood. Promptly, her sinuses closed from her tears as she picked up her bolter and finally got a fresh magazine loaded, but her eyes were so full of tears she could barely see, so she unlocked the helmet and swung it up so she could dry her eyes. When she could see again, she found Ruth's face before her, her own helmet up and, beyond her, were the amazed sailors, sitting stark and unbelieving that they had lived. The Eloheim Advance followed her gaze to the corpse, then back and in a tone that was almost humane, Ruth asked, “Did you know her?”

“She's...she's everyone,” Rachael replied, as she took a final look on the girl who had set her free and whispered a prayer for her soul to find its way quickly to the Golden Throne. “Everyone,” she repeated softly.

“I know,” Ruth told her. Her dark face was lightened by her bright, white smile and a squeeze of Rachael's shoulder in encouragement, the she turned to the sailors and became steady and professional. “Who's in charge here?”

“You are!” one of the sailors declared, but another sailor stood, not much older than a boy, but between the blood on his face and the years his eyes had aged in minutes, he was heart breaking to look at.

“Midshipman Peter Tanner, at your service, mum,” he declared in a sweet, clear voice that should have had him singing in a choir, not fighting for his life on a warship. “I took command after the death of Lieutenant Masters.”

“Mister Tanner, are their other hostiles to your knowledge?”

The boy looked down the corridor at the mangled corpses of the invaders, then back at the Sister of Battle. “I...I can't be sure, mum. Lieutenant Masters organized a resistance to this boarding and we fought them back here to the tube, but I can't be sure of their numbers.”

Ruth smiled at the lad and laid a hand on his shoulder. “You've done admirably, Mister Tanner. Winter? Escort Mr Tanner and his men down there and make sure that tube is empty and the invaders are all dead.” The boy sighed and kept his composure with admirable courage.

“Do you want prisoners to interrogate?”

Whitworth chuckled and shook her head. “There's no interrogating Orks. Mind your steps and be sure they're dead.”

“Yes ma'am.”

Ruth pulled her helmet visor down and keyed on it's Vox Thrower. “Palatine, this is One Alpha.”

“Go with comm, Alpha,” the Palatine's voice replied through the static.

“Palatine, we've neutralized an enemy boarding party at Frame Sixteen, but there are numerous ship casualties. Requesting reinforcement and medical assistance, over.”

“Alpha, what is that status of your task force?”

“All sisters in the fight, ma'am.”

“Are you still taking fire?”

“Negative. All visible enemies down, ma'am, but I'll need reinforcement to sweep for stragglers and saboteurs. Ships counter boarding party commander unsure of the numbers he faced.”

“Understand your situation, Alpha. Consolidate your position and stand by for further orders.”

One Alpha, standing by.”


To Be Continued
Read 711 times Last modified on Monday, 30 January 2023 20:09
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