In the grim, darkness of the far future,
there is only war...
Constance floated, nude, in the recovery gel, listening to her breathing in the respirator strapped to her face, and remembered. The nutrient rich, not quitenon-Newtonian fluid supported her as it fed the synth-skin that had been applied over eighty percent of her body. It covered seven holes in her torso that traitor small arms had managed to penetrate the ceramite of her armor, due to it's weakened state. Both legs, that had been badly burned in the explosion that had weakened her armor enough for small arms to penetrate it, were now as shapely and fulsome as they had been before she'd started the battle.
Constance chuckled at her folly, and regretted it as she was still quite sore. Using the helmet as a blast shield to be able to stand on the shape charge and get out of the tunnel before the explosion had leveled it had mostly worked. It had thrown her high enough that the last gasps of a jump pack she had scavenged off a dead Space Marine pulled her clear of the pit and tunnel system that was infested with the chaos spawn that had been leading the people into heresy. It had broken both of her legs and set her on fire, but it got her clear of the nightmare of fire and chaos below. She was alive enough that Sister Melissa of the Order of the Cleansing Water had had enough to 'work on' as she had put it to keep her alive and get her to a hospital ship. Still, the Heretics had been purged, the nameless planet they had been on was once more in the fold of the Imperium of Man, and Constance De La Concordia lived to fight another day for her Emperor.
“I thirst,” she muttered into the mask and the servitor heard, pressing the control to extend the tube to her lips so she could drink. The water was cold, and had the soft, citrus tang of nutrient additives that burned her throat a bit as she swallowed them. Constance was fifty, though the body that floated in the gel didn't look like it was thirty yet; her breasts were still high and firm, her muscle hard and strong from years of training and exercise, and every month she was reminded of her body and it's more basic needs no matter what she was doing other wise. Around her head floated a halo of ebony tresses in the fluid without a trace of gray so that only her deep, endless blue eyes gave away her age as someone far older than the face they looked out of.
In the gel, she hummed her favorite hymn and forced herself to remember every mistake she had made, and the Emperor knew there were many to remember. She remembered realizing they had lost the element of surprise and the sin of her pride deciding to continue with the operation. She remembered her hesitation when she had first entered the city, seeing the terrified face of the little girl and her mother, begging her for mercy. She remembered how heavy the bolter in her hand had felt as she stared into the eyes of a girl, not more than five in the arms of her mother who was terrified of seeing the end of her short life.
She remembered giving the order for the sisters under her command and the guardsmen they accompanied to restrain their hands against the populace, to use mercy instead of purging the heretics with the fire and bolter blasts they deserved. She remembered comforting the guardsman, a girl not yet twenty, as she died, her legs and pelvis destroyed by a land mine, as her cries of not wanting to die became less and less frantic, until they finally stopped altogether. She remembered the rage of her squad mates as the rebel who had planted the mine was dragged before her, and she saw again the little girl and her mother she had spared days earlier. The hymn died on her lips as the first tear wormed its way out of her eye against the gel onto her cheek.
Constance remembered the flash of the muzzle blast in the girls eyes as she executed her mother, and then the girl.
In the gel, Constance De La Concordia, Sister of the Adepta Sororitas, Palatine of the Order of the Valorous Heart, wept for her sins and begged the Emperor to forgive her. Because as she cried, she couldn't be sure if she wept for the guardsman, cut down in her prime in the Emperor's service or the little girl born into a heresy she had no control over, or for herself for not knowing.
Mission of Penitence
Canoness-Preceptor Abigail Winters looked out the window of her office that over looked the convent's ornamental garden. The Convent of the Healing Heart had been established on Banudan for a thousand years, making the buildings old and comforting to the sisters who came here to convalesce and recover from their wounds. Physical wounds, of course, were much easier to heal than mental ones. Abigail, honoring her vow to the Canoness-Preceptor before her, was diligent in the upkeep of the garden, with it's flowers and trees from a thousand different worlds. She found it was of great aide to the sisters whose minds were troubled to sit in the beauty of flowers and reconnect with the life that they fought to protect.
In particular, Abigail worried about the woman she watched now, dressed in the pure white robe of a supplicant, her raven's wing hair setting her apart as she knelt on the earth and tended the rose bush before her. Winters was purposefully ignoring the Inquisitor in her office behind her, a loathsome, oily man with the face of a ferret who still managed to appear to be a boy, wearing his father's uniform. Finally, after many minutes of watching the other woman tend the plant, Winters made up her mind. “She's not ready.”
“Reverend Mother, surely...” the Inquisitor began, but she silenced him with a soft gesture.
“Don't speak,” she commanded. “For two hundred years, I have served here and tended to the sick of body and of mind, and I tell you, Sister De La Concordia is not up to a mission of this magnitude. And if you force my hand, Inquisitor, if you disregard the warnings I give you, all that you fear may come to pass. How will you explain thatto the Inquistorium?”
The ring of boots on flagstone caused a chill to run up the Canoness-Preceptor' spine as the Inquisitor crossed, unbidden, from before her desk to standing beside her at the window. “If you can document some physical or mental defect that makes Sister De La Concordia unfit to serve her Emperor, then I will depart at once,” the nasty little man declared snidely.
“So, either I ruin the record of a Sister with thirty years of solid, meritorious service, or I risk the fall of an entire system because you have fixated on Sister De La Concordia?”
Abigail felt the oily smile on his pinched face. “My conscience is clear. I sought the best sister for this mission and her name was chosen.”
She turned to stare icily at the hatched faced man under the wide brimmed service cap. “If I thought for an instantI could make a case of your being a heretic or a mutant, or a traitor, I would kill you with my bare hands right now.” The pinched smile got wider.
“But as I am alive, you admit my motives are pure and my logic unassailable. The Rite of Selection chose Constance De La Concordia. The Emperor chose Constance De La Concordia. Who are youto defy Him, Canoness-Preceptor Winters?” He clasped his hands behind his back and rocked on his heels. “So, let us go and you can introduce me to the Palatine.”
“Sit,” the Canoness-Preceptor commanded, raising an imperious hand to point at the chair before her desk. The Inquisitor realized the time for pressing his luck had ended, and so bowed before he went to the chair as commanded. “I shall return,” Abigail finished, as she swept out of the room and closed her office door firmly as she did so. “Watch him,” she commanded her adjutant, then tried to dismiss the revulsion from her mind and walked down the tower steps to the cloister and its entrance to the garden. The heavy air of the Convent became light as the competing smells of the flowers and the soft song of birds greeting the Canoness-Preceptor as she walked lightly through the garden, nodding to the Sisters of her Convent as she did so. Finally, her feet brought her to the body of the sister she worried about and she stopped to breath in the delicate perfume of the roses.
“Ave Imperator, Canoness-Preceptor,” the Palatine greeted as she most humbly subjugated her self, kneeling on the soft grass at Abigail's feet.
“Ave Imperator, Palatine Constance,” she replied, then reached down to gently pull the younger woman to her feet. “Will you walk with me, Sister?”
“Canoness-Preceptor, again, and most humbly, I entreat you to grant my request of Repentia, that I may atone for my sins.”
“Do not make me scold you, Constance,” the Canoness warned, taking the other woman's elbow and directing her deeper into the garden.
“Yes, Reverend Mother,” Constance replied, unknowingly choosing, as the Inquisitor had, to use the old title for the Canoness-Preceptor.
For a long moment, the women said nothing, merely walking through the garden slowly, before at last Abigail said, “Mistakes are not sins, Constance. Rarely are we allowed the easy road to atone for them. You confessed your faults to me, and I absolved you of them. We shall speak no more of this.”
“Yes, Canoness-Preceptor.” Abigail took an appraising look of the woman next to her. Winters' hair was white now, and there were lines and wrinkles even the greatest rejuvenation treatments could not completely wash away, but despite that, she saw herself in Constance De La Concordia, and that warmed her heart. She only prayed that the younger woman was as tough as Abigail had been at her age. The Canoness reached into the small purse the hung from her belt and handed something to the younger woman.
“What do you see?”
Constance looked down at the object in her hand and, at first blush, started to laugh, thinking it a child's toy shaped like a bolter pistol. Then the weight of the object in her hand told her it was far too heavy to be a toy. Training took hold and she began to treat the object as if it were a live weapon, and despite the magazine well being empty she pulled the action open to insure it was safe. “What is this?” she demanded.
“It is a Bolter,” Winters declared simply.
“I've never seen one this small!” Constance replied. She found the grip comfortable in her hand and it pointed naturally, as she raised it to look down the sights. “Was it recently found? It's in magnificent condition.”
Abigail's gray eyes found Constance's blue ones. “It's new,” she declared with great weight. It took only a moment for the gravity of the statement to pierce Constance's mind and her eyes went wide with shock as she quickly lowered the pistol as though she had been brandishing a state treasure and looked about to see if she had been seen. She looked again at the device, reading in High Gothic what had been stamped into the steel of the Receiver. Imperial Arms Model of 111 M42and New Atlanta, Thuriaon the other side.
“Do you mean...?”
“I mean, new,” the Canoness told her. “For the first time perhaps since before the Emperor sat on the Golden Throne, a new design has been made into a new device.”
“But...but, surely the machine spirits...”
“I can be sure of nothing,” Abigail told her sister. “Save that what you hold in your hands works. I've fired it myself. It's only forty caliber, not as strong as even our Cherub Pattern pistols, but I can shoot it out of my armor...”
“By the Emperor!” Constance swore softly.
“And it's half the size.” The Canoness sighed and looked away. “Listen to me very carefully, sister. A year ago, Duke Cameron of House Wren, became the Sovereign Prince of Planet Thuria. As soon as the ink was dry on his accolade of principality he began to reach out to members of the Adeptus Mechanicus, to make forge worlds on the moons of Thuria. Thousands, perhaps millions of the Adeptus Mechanicus have flocked to his banner. Now, the Inquisition has discovered that.”
Constance looked at the pistol in her hands, then handed it back to the Canoness who returned it to her purse. “The Inquisition thinks Duke Cameron is a heretic? Why? If he has found a way to coax new designs from the Machine Priests he would be a Hero of the Empire!”
Abigail arched an eyebrow at her patient. “Or a fool, who perhaps thinks he could challenge the Emperor.”
“I heard whispers of problems on...my last assignment...for months before we even began training for our operations to cleanse it, but I've never heard of this Duke Cameron. Suddenly his loyalty is in question because of that device, or is it the jealousy of others wishing his success was theirs?”
Winters sighed and realized why the Rite had selected Constance. “Never forget that Jealousy is the first paving stone on the road to Heresy,” she cautioned the Palatine. “If Cameron's loyalty falters, or, if he is the victim of evil council, he has just developed a weapon that every Guardsman can fire. This won't defeat our armor in a single shot, but concentrated fire...”
Constance crossed her arms over her chest. “I'm not an Inquisitor, I'm a soldier, and arguably a bad one. I don't know that I trust myself to be able to distinguish a heretic from a poorly spoken, but loyal fool.”
“The Inquisition feels otherwise,” Abigail replied. “A rite of selection was preformed, your name was selected. There is an Inquisitor in my office, right now.”
“Canoness-Preceptor, once more, I humbly beg that you...”
“Be silent!” the Canoness commanded and Constance's mouth snapped shut. She sighed, and let her eyes bore holes in Constance's as she took the younger woman by her arms. “You wish to preform an act of penance, to atone for what you consider your failings, here is your chance. I charge you, in the name of our Emperor that you are no longer a member of the Order of the Valorous Heart. Effective immediately, you are transferred to the Order Famulous and charged to found an Order Minoris on the world of Thuria. You may, in time and with success be promoted to the rank of Cannoness, however in the meantime, Palatine Constance, you will recruit from among the sisters here available for a new posting, or recovering at this hospital who are called to assist you in the establishment of a new order, and released by their sisters from care. Established on Thuria you will watch over Duke Cameron and House Wren. You will ever remind him of where his loyalty should lie, and advise him and his house so that he may become the Hero of the Empire he is destined to be.”
“I am notan advisor, Reverend Mother, but...”
“It is done, Palatine,” Abigail declared. “The Emperor commands and you will obey.”
Constance bowed her head. “I hear and obey the will of the Emperor.”
Abigail let a little smile tug at the corner of her lips as she squeezed the arms of the younger woman. “The Emperor guide you as you guide House Wren. And Constance, if these weapons are being made in large numbers, be certain some find their way into the arsenals of our Order.” She paused for a moment, then smirked. “You wanted to atone, here is my judgment.”
“I'd rather face down a battalion of Orks with just a chain sword!”
“I know,” the Canoness said. “It would be easier.”
Constance swallowed. “So, not only am I to be an advisor, but a spy as well? How many masters do I serve on this mission, Reverend Mother?”
“You serve our Emperor, and our Order,” Winters replied. “That loyalty is most important. Come, I'll introduce you to the little snake that is biting your heel, and make you familiar with the sisters who are here, available for a new posting and can help you.”
Constance was a great believer in first impressions. She had, over her years in the Adepta Sororitas made certain whenever she arrived at a new posting, received a new commander, or any other official matter that her kit was immaculate, that she was early and there was no fault to find with her or those who answered to her. As the years went by, she began to judge her subordinates in the same manner and these judgments began to be born out on the battle field. A sister who couldn't arrive on time for something as simple as a meal would be late to rendezvous in combat, endangering all on the offensive line. A sister who did not look after her gear would always be down for maintenance at critical times. Thirty years had cemented to Constance that the first impression was who a person really was.
She decided she hated Inquisitor Jonas Merle the second she laid eyes on him.
Hated how slovenly he looked in his unkempt and ill fitting uniform. Hated the sneering, lecherous look on his face as she and the Reverend Mother returned to her office, a look many men without the sense to know how in danger they were to wear their fantasies on their face in a convent of Adepta Sororitas. Constance had been his physical equal since she was twelve. With thirty years of killing under her belt, she could coolly murder the nasty little man, while giving a block of instruction lecture to novice Sororitas in Schola on how she was killing him and why.
“Sister Constance,” he had drawled, his tongue too far out of his mouth in an unsettling manner. “It's a delight to make your acquaintance.”
He presented pallid little hand which the Palatine only stared at for a moment, then turned her eyes back to him without touching it. “Inquisitor, it is my duty to warn you, I have a strong feeling I will end up killing you. You may wish to request a different assignment before I have cause to act on my feeling.”
“Er, thank you,” he replied, withdrawing his hand. “It is said that to win the friendship of a Sororitas is the hardest accomplishment in the galaxy.”
“Indeed,” Constance replied with great weight. “You suspect Duke Cameron of heresy? Why?”
“Suspect?'' he asked around his off putting sneer. “The Inquisition suspects all. Only the dead are truly trustworthy.” His beady eyes darted between the Reverend Mother and the Palatine. “I see that Canoness Winters has already briefed you.”
“I have received my orders and I acknowledged them,” Constance replied. “If you have information necessary for me to complete my mission, speak; or not as you please. Withholding it will give me cause to kill you.”
“You require time to recruit your retinue?”
“I will have a team assembled and ready to mobilize within two days,” she declared.
The Inquisitor smiled. “Then we shall speak in two days. You may go, Palatine.” Constance stepped forward, crowding into the little man's personal space, head and shoulders taller than him. Pinned against his chair, he had the choice to sit down and be loomed over, or stay on his feet. He chose to remain standing.
“Never, evermake the mistake of thinking I am subordinate to you,” she declared in a deadly quiet voice. “Untold millions have died because of nasty little men like you and the lies they whisper in the darkness. Walk in the light of the Emperor, or by the Golden Throne I will purge you, Inquisitor, come what may to me and I will sleep well that night.”
“The...the Emperor Protects!” he stammered.
“Yes,” drawled Constance. “Yes, he does.” She turned her eyes to Canoness Winters and noted the little smile of approval on her face. “By your leave, Reverend Mother?”
“My adjutant will conduct you to sufficient spaces as you may interrogate your new followers,” the Canoness declared. “Go in the Light of the Emperor, Palatine.” Constance turned, bowed to the Reverend Mother, and left, the white robes of a supplicant billowing around her feet as she did so. Abigail watched her depart, then turned and fixed her gaze on the Inquisitor. “I warned you,” she declared ominously.
Inquisitor Merle laughed an uneasy laugh. “If she is half as firm with Duke Cameron, my duty will surely be done!”
“That depends on his grace,” Abigail replied slyly.
Even sitting in her bed, Ruth was all but insufferable. Sent to the Convent of the Healing Heart to recover after being wounded, the new Battle Sister had been awarded the rank of Elohiem Advance over the Sisters in her squad for attacking the bunker that had them all pinned down, knowing she would be wounded in the process of it. The garnet that had been inset in the fleur-de-listhat had been pinned to her pillow had pride of place as her two squad sisters entered the ward to visit her. “Oh, what a gold brick!” Mary declared. “One little scratch and she gets promoted!”
With great pride, Ruth polished imaginary lint off the award. “Oh, don't be jealous, Mary. I'm sure you'll measure up some day.”
“Oh, well, somebody had to be Gretchen's brown nose!” Jennifer shot back, managing to put down her friend and their squad leader. “It must be so tough eating ice cream and laying around while we're doing all the work!”
“What work?” Ruth replied with a laugh. “We're all on after action TDS!”
From out side of the ward, Gretchen discretely kept an eye on her squad where they couldn't see her smile at their antics and her pleasure at them beginning to gel as a team. Now they were blooded, the maiden outing behind them where they had found they could trust their training, their gear and their sisters. She was glad that Ruth was the only patient in the ward so they could be loud and blow off the pent up stress of having seen the elephant and come out the other side.
That just left where things were going.
Gretchen was concerned that soon after they'd arrived to check on Ruth on their way to their next duty station their orders had been countermanded and the entire squad had been put on detached service to the hospital convent. Something was brewing and Gretchen was concerned she had no idea what. She noted the sister hospitalier had returned to the desk that she was leaning on and asked, “Ruth's wounds serious?”
The nurse smiled as she shook her head. “No, Sister Superior,” she assured Gretchen. “Elohiem Ruth is fine. In fact, she will be transferred to normal quarters this afternoon, though she'll be on recuperative duty for a few weeks.”
“Thanks,” Gretchen told her.
The nurse looked at her screen and frowned. “Sister Superior? Are you Gretchen Wycroff?”
Gretchen turned to face her across the desk. “Yes? Is there a problem?”
“I have an alert in the system,” the nurse replied. “You're wanted in the administrative wing.” She turned and pointed out the window to a large tower about a third of the way on the other side of the convent. “It's in the tower there, room two twenty seven. It's marked urgent.”
“Thank you, sister,” she replied. With a final look at her squad, she said, “feel free to throw them out if they get too loud.”
The nurse smiled. “They're not bothering anyone.”
Gretchen nodded before she headed towards administrative wing, wondering what was making the butterflies in her stomach so active.
Friends and Enemies
“Here you are, Palatine,” the adjutant declared as she opened the door. “I've taken the liberty of flagging the system to have every sister on TDS report to you.”
“Thank you, sister,” Constance replied as she stepped past the younger Sororitas, and was surprised to find the room occupied. For the most part, the room was empty, a single desk, some miss matched chairs, obviously from Central Supply, a pair of Data-Slates and a lamp for the desk. However, standing at the window looking out over the mountain range the convent was built in was a sister in full battle armor, her hands clasped behind her back.
Adepta Sororitas are already physically imposing; the stringent entrance requirements make them rare specimens of humanity, uniformly tall, their training takes them into the upper percentiles of human ability. Even naked they are tall, strong and dangerous. But a Sister in her armor is an order of magnitude more so. The ceramite covered armor takes the physically imposing women into something all but inhuman. Designed to exaggerate their feminine forms, the armor was both dominating and yet strangely alluring. Most Sisters were over six and a half feet in their armor, which amplified their already great strength and made them able to shrug off damage that would kill a regular human.
The sister in the armor turned from the window, revealing a bald head and eyes heavy with burden and purpose. “Canoness Fiona!” Constance exclaimed, quickly crossing the room to embrace the other woman, armor or not. The armor clad sister of battle gently returned the hug and laid a kiss on Constance's forehead.
“Now, Connie, you knowit's only Sister...” the older woman chided her.
“I don't care what the Prioress declared!” Constance declared firmly. “You are a Reverend Mother!”
A bit of steel entered Fiona's voice. “Palatine, you shame me and my instruction of you...”
Constance took a step back and clinched her fists. “I don't careMother! It was wrong! You were guiltless and they all knew it! And I was even barred from following you into Repentia!”
Fiona smiled grimly. “Well, that was for the best,” she declared. “The Emperor sheltered me, and I am restored.” She ran a hand over her bald head and grimaced. “Mostly, anyway, but I suppose it will grow back. I see now my humbling was all part of the Emperor's plan, so that I would be here, now, when you would need me most.” She came to attention, gave the Sign of the Aquila and bowed. “Palatine Constance, humbly do I present myself for service. Command me and by the light of the Emperor I will obey. If you'll have me.”
“If?!” exclaimed Constance. “Praise be to the Golden Throne that you are here! Yes, Sister Fiona Vander, I accept you into my service and order.” The two women embraced again and Fiona allowed herself to be led to the desk and into the largest of the chairs that was only just up to supporting her and the armor. “Tell me everything,” Constance commanded. “Can I get you something...?”
Fiona waved off her former student's enthusiasm with a soft gesture. “I'm fine, Connie. After the trial I was shorn and divested, thrown in with a group of Sisters Repentia on the Dauntless. We went out close to the Great Rift on some shattered world. I don't know what we were there for, other than to give the sisters and myself an opportunity to die gloriously for the Emperor. I suppose I was lucky, I happened to be in a position to save a diseased little tick of an Inquisitor, Jonas Merle...”
“Oh, the Emperor hates me,” muttered Constance.
“I see you've met him,” Fiona laughed.
“Aye, and threatened to kill him.”
“He does have that effect on women,” she agreed. “Of my sister condemned, only I survived, and only thanks to that little monster. Even though our Mistress of Repentance was alsokilled, the commission had no choice but to reinstate me. So, Jonas received new orders, and we came here. When I heard you were here as well, I saw the Hand of the Emperor in all of this. So, Connie, what does this little Inquisitor want with you?”
Constance reached out and took her mentors hands in hers. “Oh, Reverend Mother I have never needed your guidance more!” The older woman arched an eyebrow at being referred to by her old rank, then decided she would never break her protege of the habit and decided to let it pass. “Your Inquisitor has tasked me with becoming a Famula of the Planetary Governor of Thuria.”
Fiona frowned. “Famula?” she demanded incredulously. “Constance my daughter, you have many talents, but political advice is not one of them!”
“No, mother, this Prince is under suspicion of heresy. He has gathered all manner of Machine Priests to his world, to found new forges on his moons and mother, look...” Constance opened the pouch Canoness Winter had given her and showed the pistol within. “They have createdthis.”
“By the golden throne,” Fiona whispered as she looked at the little bolter. “And it works?”
“Canoness Winter states she fired it herself. Outof her armor...!”
The color left Fiona's cheeks so swiftly, even the scar that ran down the right side of her jaw went white. “My daughter, we are in a mine field...”
“Under orbital bombardment,” Constance agreed.
“Who else knows about this?”
“You, me, the Canoness and the Inquisitor to my knowledge.” Fiona considered this for a long moment, then stood and began to pace. “My gut tells me Jonas wants to falsely accuse the Duke of Heresy, but I don't see how that puts this into his control.”
Despite the obvious seriousness, Fiona smiled at her protege. “At least your gut took heed of my lessons! So, the first step in avoiding a trap is knowing its there. You're assembling a team for this new convent?” Constance nodded. “First, you must steel yourself, Connie and you mustlead. This is your operation. I will assist you as much I can, but your Sisters cannot see you lean on me.”
Fiona smiled and came back over to the desk, gesturing at the slates. “So, let's see what we have to work with.”
Gretchen followed the directions off the wall map into what, to her eyes, seemed to be a relatively unused area of the convent. It seemed to be an odd place to be directing people, but she noted she wasn't the only TDS sister here. Finally, she arrived at the appointed room and knocked on the door. “Enter,” drifted through the door and with a final sigh to order her thoughts, she did so.
Inside, she found, as she expected, a somewhat dusty and mostly empty room. There was a desk, a few chairs, and two sisters. One was wearing a supplicant's robe, without mark or adornment to give any clue as to who she was. She sat at the desk, with eyes that were too old to look out of so young a face which declared she was obviously in command. Her hair was midnight black and was exactlyat regulation length at her shoulders, which bespoke someone with enough rank to buck traditions. Standing behind her was a sister in power armor. The armor was new issue, and very plain, having no awards or rank additions, but the woman in it was older than Gretchen, or the supplicant which also made no sense. She was also bald, which meant she had undergone a Rite of Repentance and lived, which explained why she was subordinate to the other woman, but also made her easily the most dangerous Sister that Gretchen had ever personally laid eyes on.
Not knowing what else to do, Gretchen stood before the desk, gave the sign of Aquila and bowed. “Sisters, I am Gretchen Wycroff, I was told to report here.”
The beautiful woman at the desk consulted her Data-Slate. “Sister Superior Wycroff,” she greeted. “You've been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, and three battle stars, but you don't wear them?” The sister's tone was curious as Gretchen was wearing only the day service habit in red with only the crest of her membership in the Order of the Bloody Rose over her heart. It was a simple, humble garment, buttoning up the front with three quarter sleeves out from under a mantle and a lower section that could be worn as a skirt or culottes which was how Gretchen was wearing it.
Gretchen stood up and came to attention as some sixth sense told her this interview was important. “Yes, ma'am. The Emperor knows what I've done, that's sufficient for me.”
The supplicant's right dark eyebrow rose by itself up her forehead. “You don't think you inspire your sisters in your squad?”
A ghost of a smile pulled at Gretchen's lips. “My squad is...high spirited...without any help from me, ma'am.”
“So I read,” the other woman replied. Gretchen stole a glance at the sister in the power armor, who was watching, but staying silent, then back to the supplicant. “Stand at ease. Your Celestian speaks highly of you and feels you have a bright future in the order. Are you up for a challenge?”
Gretchen relaxed, but kept her posture formal enough to be respectful. “I am prepared to answer the call of my emperor,” she replied. “At the risk of sounding brash, ma'am, I am not here for a career, I'm here to make a difference.”
Constance steepled her fingers as she considered the younger woman. “So, you're on a Crusade?”
“No ma'am. Crusades are beyond my pay grade. I'm here to do my service and, I hope to spread the light of the Emperor to those trapped in darkness. To succor the afflicted and afflict the evil, purge the heretic, burn the alien and destroy the traitor.”
For the first time, the sister in the armor chuckled and spoke. “Sounds like a Crusade to me.”
Wycroff stole another glance at her, then back to the supplicant. “Permission to speak freely, ma'am?”
“Speak your mind, sister.”
“Ma'am, I come from the Schola Progenium, not because I was an orphan, my parents are alive; they didn't want me. My Drill Abbess didn't ride me, she ignored me, because she thought I wasn't worth the effort. She thought that because I had parents, I would fail on purpose to go back to them.”
“But you didn't want to?”
Gretchen fought down her disgust. “They didn't want me, why would I ever want to see them again? I wanted to be a sister, to earn my place and be among those that wanted to be with me! I've had to do more my entire life. When I was brought into the Order of the Rose, when I said my vows, I swore to the Emperor that I would never forget the favor he showed me. That I would comfort those in the same way I hadn't been, and that I would smash his enemies in eternal gratitude for the chance I got to take advantage of. If ma'am, you're looking for reliable sisters to have your back at whatever secret mission you've been given, if I can fulfill that oath, then I'm your girl.” Gretchen licked her lips, gave the Sign of the Aquila again and bowed. “Ma'am, humbly do I present myself for service. Command me and by the light of the Emperor I will obey. If you'll have me.”
The supplicant stood from the desk, came around it, and took Gretchen by the arms. “I am Palatine Constance De La Concordia. Yes, Sister Gretchen Wycroff, I accept you into my service and order.”
Gretchen beamed. “Thank you, Palatine. You won't regret it.” Constance returned the smile and rubbed the girl by her arms.
“I'm sure of it. Go get your squad mobilized. We'll muster to depart tomorrow. Until then, make sure your kits are up to scratch and your gear is ready.”
“And Gretchen?” The girl paused caught a bit off guard. “Make sure you all have your formals with you.” The girl blinked like she'd been struck between the eyes.
“Ma'am?” she asked, confused.
“You heard me, Sister Superior. Make certain you and your squad have your dress uniforms.”
Gretchen left the room, elated, but perhaps more confused than when she entered. Either way there was plenty of time to wonder. For now, it was time to go be an NCO. Constance watched the girl leave and smiled up at her mentor. “Was I ever that young?”
“Younger,” Fiona replied. “But you turned out alright.”
“So, twenty five,” Constance declared after a sigh. “Think it will be enough?”
“The Emperor protects,” the sister assured her. “It'll be enough.”
One of the great joys of being at the convent of the Healing Heart was that it was a teaching convent for the Hospitaller Sisters. As the novices were taught the art of the healer, they were also being taught in the finer points of the Imperial Cult. Worship and benediction was just as important as bone setting and microsurgery. This meant the convent had a gifted choir to sing the evening vespers as the staff and guests of the convent took evening meal.
Constance bowed her head in thanks of the novice who filled her bowl with a simple mash of boiled grains and half loaf of the coarse, whole grained bread that was baked earlier that day. She stared at the simple meal, enthralled by the angelic voices of the choir. Around her, separate from the other sisters of the staff, sat the new members of Constance's little convent, each sister honoring their leader by wearing a simple supplicant's robe, devoid of distinguishing mark or heraldry. She patiently waited until everyone was served and Canoness Winters had blessed the meal before she picked up her loaf and turned to the young women sitting with her.
They were so young, most half or less her age and only Sister Fiona was older. Despite that, she held up the loaf and broke. “Sisters, we come from many different traditions, different orders, with different skills. Like humanity that we protect we are separate and yet we are all human.” She dipped the hunk of her bread into the gruel and took a small bite before presenting it to Fiona. “Now, are one family, one new order, united under our Emperor.”
Fiona took the bread from her and dipped it into her own bowl. “One family,” she declared as she took a bite and turned to pass it to the sister next to her. And so it was passed completely around the table each sister affirming her place in the family until each sister had eaten from the shared loaf.
“I am honored to lead you, in learning or in battle, in peace or war, it is my honor to serve with each of you,” Constance assured them.
“The Emperor Protects,” they replied in chorus.
Constance's smile of contentment was not long for her face, unfortunately. As she turned back to begin eating in earnest, she caught sight of the Inquisitor, Jonas, entering the hall. He was wearing clothing of a more civilian mindset, but at least these seemed to fit him better. A simple shirt and trousers tucked into high boots and a great frock coat over it, the rosette and column of his commission in the Inquisition around his neck and a smile on his face as he helped himself to a bowl and some of the gruel from the fireplace where it was being kept warm before heading straight for Constance and her sisters. “Well, here we are!” he declared, preparing to sit in the empty place opposite Constance and between a pair of sisters. “Ladies, good evening...”
“Move,” ordered Fiona in tone as quiet as it was menacing.
Jonas paused, one leg across the bench, the other still in the isle. “Beg pardon?” he asked, confusion on his face. The oldest sister at the table looked up, her face carved from stone, but she kept her voice low.
“Constance is senior of us, and so across from her is held in honor for the Emperor. You are a guest of this convent, show some respect and learn our ways!”
“But, I have to speak with...”
Fiona's eyes narrowed. “I have asked for your courtesy. Now I am telling you to move. If I stand you will notlike what follows.”
The Inquisitor's face fell, but he took up his bowl again and found an empty place further down the table. Constance sighed as she bowed slightly towards the bowl of simple fare. “Sisters, enjoy your meal,” she ordered quietly, then stood, before walking around the table to the side with Jonas and sitting down, close enough for conversation, but far enough to be safe from food and spills. “Normally, we eat in silence,” she declared. “If what you have to say is urgent, our tradition can wink at it. What do you need to speak with me about?”
His eyes shot over to Fiona who was watching him, then back to Constance. “Ho...how do I know what qualifies as urgent?”
“Is the convent on fire?” De La Concordia asked.
“Are we under attack?”
“Has the Emperor stood from the Golden Throne to call us to his side?”
“Is there some medical emergency requiring action?”
Constance stood gracefully. “Then what you have to say is not urgent and it can wait until after the meal.” She glided back around the table, noting the Canoness' eyes on her as she did so. As she crossed back to her side, and before she would have to turn her back to the Canoness, Constance gave the Sign of the Aquila and bowed before she returned to her place to finish her meal.
As she ate, Constance felt the Inquisitor's eyes on her, but refused to hurry her meal on his regard. She savored the simple, but hearty porridge until it was gone and she had given her bowl and spoon to the Novices who were working KP duty to stand with the other sisters and bow to the Canoness as she stood from the head table, took up her rod and gave her blessing to the assembled sisters. The women stood, bowing until the Canoness left the Great Hall then Constance joined the small crowd making their way to a coffee service that was being uncovered.
A line was established by seniority, allowing Constance close to the head of it, with the other Palatines of the Convent, where upon she drew a cup and added cream and sugar to her liking and returned to the table she and her sisters had eaten at. “Is it ok now?” Jonas asked, indicating the place across the table from her.
De La Concordia allowed herself a ghost of a smile. “We can allow that the Emperor has joined Canoness Winter for cigars and brandy now,” she declared, with a gesture of welcome.
“Speaking of,” Fiona declared as she returned with her own cup of coffee as well as a small cordial and pair of diamond sniffers. She placed an empty beside Constance's left hand, opened the cordial and poured a sample. “With the compliments of His Imperial Majesty and Reverend Mother Winter.”
“Don't mind if I do,” Constance acquiesced, taking up the sniffer and inhaling the aroma. “His Majesty is generous!”
“To say nothing of the Reverend Mother!” Fiona agreed with an appreciative sniff. The two waited until all of their little clutch returned from the service before Fiona raised her glass. “Ladies, His Imperial Majesty.”
“Long live the Emperor of Mankind!” the sisters retorted vigorously.
The liqueur warmed the Palatine's throat and was pleasantly sweet on her tongue, just a hint of syrup and a fruit she couldn't place, but enjoyed. Her mood warmed as well as her throat, she turned to the Inquisitor and declared, “Now, Inquisitor Merle, we are of a mood to hear your less than urgent needs. What is on your mind?”
“Well, I was curious,” he admitted as he leaned in, a hand reaching to an interior pocket of the frock coat to produce a small metal flask that he unscrewed and took a sip of. “Would these gir...uh, young sisters be the command staff for your legion?”
Constance's right eyebrow ascended her forehead. “Command staff? Legion? Are our wires of communication crossed, Inquisitor?”
“Well, surely we'll need at least hundreds of thousands to retake...?”
De La Concorida was not amused. “Retake? Are you planning a campaign, Inquisitor? I have a mandate to go to Thuria and found a new Convent Famulous and these brave sisters have answered my call. These are the extent of my forces for the foreseeable future. Further, I have no intention of pronouncing a Planatary Governor a heretic solely on your say so. So, tomorrow, this convent shall muster on the parade ground and board an Avarus lighter to be shuttled up to the Vigilant, and taken to Thuria. There, we shall disembark and I shall present His Grace with my warrant to found my convent and he will have a choice. Reveal himself to be a heretic, or swear himself loyal to the Emperor and I shall begin to follow my warrant to guide him and his house.”
The Inquisitor paled. “And...if he announces himself a heretic...?”
“Then he will be purged!” the sisters of Palatine De La Concordia announced in chorus.
Constance permitted herself a wry smile. “Right then, right there.” She mulled her liqueur in the sniffer in lazy circles, then took another sip. “One of the virtues of being a warrior, Inquisitor, is the lack of worry about politics, public opinion or the idle gossip of the various noble houses. What's more, I am a servant of the Master of Mankind, so I have no use of sneaking and skulking in the night. I will enter through the front door of his Grace's manor in my armor with my head held high. I might leave on my back, but that does not matter; my duty will have been done.”
“Sororitas!” the sisters shouted.
“And, if he claims allegiance...?”
“Then begins the game anew, Inquisitor. Cat and mouse until I am satisfied of his loyalty.” She held out the sniffer for Fiona to add a new splash. “Or I am satisfied the time has come to purge him.”
“Just make sure you know who is who!” Jonas declared, causing some of the girls to laugh.
“Where is the fun in that?” Fiona demanded.
Constance's smile was evil as she emptied her glass and returned it to the table. “Sleep well.”
Into The Wolf's Den
The deck of the Vigilant trembled as it left the Warp and returned to real space. This caused a thrill of sensation up the nervous systems of any sentient that experienced it, announcing the exit from the madness inducing realm of The Warp, back to Euclidean reality. Constance and her sisters were in the donning sanctum of the ship, set aside for the sisters to conduct their rituals and prepare themselves for putting on their armor. The sisters were all nude, softly singing the Call to Arms as they ritually cleaned themselves, being certain of body, mind and soul, should this be the day they meet the Emperor of Mankind.
The thrill of returning to Real Space was the warning, it was time.
As the klaxon ran through the ship as it prepared for a possible hostile greeting from the systems defenses, the sisters stood from their pails of holy water and blessed sponges. Next to each was the carrier for the armor, part safe to keep it from the wrong hands, part packing crate to move it when not being worn. Constance touched the palm plate that read her bio-metrics, checked for any sign of corruption or taint of Chaos, and when satisfied, unfolded itself to present the armor. First, came the link suit, a body glove that regulated her temperature, housed injectors of stimulants, pain killers and other medications as needed in combat, and served as the interface between her and the armor itself.
The massive Adeptus Astartes, the fearsome Space Marines of the Imperium of Man, were surgically implanted with the Black Carapace, linking the brain of the space marine and his armor, but that technology had been lost. In it's place, the Sisters of Battle wore the body glove. It was a very thick garment, composed of bundles of fibers that could contract, just like human muscle. It sensed when the sister flexed her own muscles and thus augmented her efforts, allowing the Sororitas to compete on the battle field. They weren't as strong, or as fast as a Space Marine, but almost was a very high bar indeed. Donning the garment was like pulling on a second skin, one that was slightly too small and took a fair amount of effort. Once it was on and sealed at their throats, only the sisters' head was exposed.
Constance flexed her hands to be sure of the fit as she recited the prayer of spiritual armor. Next she removed the Battle Habit, a simple gown worn over the Link Suit. It was a tight fitted gown on her torso, made of ballistic mesh to give the critical parts of the Link Suit a bit of further protection, but was mostly serving the primary purpose of the armor, to emphasize that she was, in fact, a woman. The three quarter bell sleeves gave it a bit of dramatic flair, as did the fact that the garment ended at her waist, but the fabric trailed down front and back to a loin cloth in front and a butt cape in back that fell to the back of her knees.
Complete, she stood before the carrier and clapped her hands sharply before extending her arms wide. The carrier, with a whir of servo motors reared up like a snake about to strike, the armor pieces spreading out on their armatures, then they came forward being locked onto each other, over the glove and Battle Habit interfacing with it. Within seconds, Constance was encased with the armor once more the functional equivalent of an armored column from the history texts, all by herself.
From the carrier, she selected a pair of Bolter pistols the grips communicating with the armor to be sure an authorized user handled them, then the grabber field activated and when she touched them to her thigh plates where they stayed without need of a holster. The weapon selected, the carrier wrapped a pair of bandoleer belts around her hips, festooned with magazines for the pistols, then, as an almost decorative touch, it wrapped a Rosarius around her waist, laying her Inquisitorial Rosette on her left hip, showing her rank of the Ecclesiarchy of the Imperial Faith as an Adepta Sororitas; the ivory column rather like a capital I with a skull inset, a warning and her license to kill. Finished, she turned her back to the carrier and it attached the final piece of her armor, the back pack and it's micro fusion reactor that powered the armor.
The body glove contracted a millimeter, almost like a full body hug to complete it's diagnostic and, as she was not wearing a helmet, silently letting her know the armor was ready. Constance touched a control on her vambrace and read the holographic display that showed her all was well with her armor. “Hello, old friend,” she whispered with a smile. “Sisters! Let us show this Duke who the Emperor of Man commands!”
“Sororitas!” the little convent shouted back to her.
They turned and followed their Palatine out of the hatch and towards the hanger deck of the cruiser. Constance heard Gretchen's clear voice begin to sing the Hymn to the Fallen, and at once all of the sisters joined in. As they passed the crew of the Vigilant, the crewmen all bowed, some falling to one knee as they passed, their boots ringing on the armored deck of the space craft as they kept time with hymn. At last, as the final note of the hymn faded into the constant drone of sound on a star ship, they arrived at the hanger deck to find the shuttle was waiting on them already in the launch cradle.
Twenty minutes since the Vigilant had returned to real space and not once had the deck trembled, or had there been further klaxons beyond the original call to battle stations. That was a good sign. They weren't being shot at.
The Sisters entered the shuttle, each settling into the deployment cradle for the armor. While they could still sit in normal sized furniture, just, it was not particularly comfortable. And if the shuttle was hit, the deployment cradle would launch them from the wreck, hopefully before they were killed. The hatch sealed and Constance sighed. “I am the Hand of the Emperor!” she declared.
“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!” her soldiers replied.
“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 shuttle lurched and the floor seemed to fall away from their feet. They were free of the Vigilantand on their way to New Atlanta. As one, the compartment echoed with the clicks of bolts on weapons being charged and safety catches being engaged.
Overhead, the intercom became live and the lights went red. “Ten minutes to touch down, Ladies,” the pilot's voice declared. “Still all quiet and normal.”
“The Emperor protects!” the Sisters replied with one voice. Constance caught sight of Fiona on the other side of the compartment and her mentor smiled. Now it was just waiting to see if the bullets would fly or not.
The floor of the shuttle made itself known under Constance's boots. They were now well and truly in the atmosphere of Thuria and still the shuttle was flying straight and level. In her minds eye, Constance imagined it, an ungainly, boxy looking thing, mostly engine and cargo space with a side by side canopy perched on its bulbous nose, screaming through the air with surprising grace. The glow must be almost gone from the leading edges of the wings by now, and still the ship wasn't maneuvering.
Maybe the Duke is loyal, she allowed herself to hope.
“Thirty seconds!” the pilot warned. “Still normal and calm.”
“Stay sharp,” De La Concordia ordered her convent. “No one will engage before me. If I engage, weapons free. Defend yourselves, but show restraint to those who may be the loyal subjects of our Emperor.”
The engines howled as their thrust was ducted to both slow and support the shuttle. The red lighting shifted to green and the deployment cradles snapped open. Free again, the Palatine rolled to her right, out the opening hatch and out of the shuttle. The pilot had foregone the space port, setting down in the courtyard of the Governor's Palace. Gun ships were orbiting, but so far, the guards were content to stand at attention. Before her, wearing mess dress ceremonial uniforms, but carrying live weapons, was a company or so of Imperial Guard.
Their leader, a captain, got to conversational distance and saluted, all well within form, but the fear for his life was plain on his face. “What's the meaning of this?” he demanded.
Constance pulled the Inquisitorial Rosette on it's lead, away from her belt to brandish it before the guardsmen. From the eyes of the skull, it projected a hologram of Constance's Identification and Warrant, large enough to be read from a hundred yards. “Gaze upon the Daughters of the Emperor, attuned to their duty before the Golden Throne and all those loyal to the Master of Mankind shall submit themselves before us!”
Satisfyingly quickly, the Guardsmen shouted, “The Emperor Protects!” and fell to one knee.
Her heart racing in her chest, Constance looked around the courtyard, but everywhere her gaze fell she saw only guardsmen on one knee, supplicant and faithful. Turning back to the company before her, she fixed her eyes on the Captain. “I am Constance De La Concordia, Palatine of the Adepta Sororitas, here to judge the loyalty of Duke Cameron Wren.”
The Captain saluted. “Palatine, I am Captain Joseph Tanner, faithful soldier of the Emperor of Man, commanding 'B' Company of the 112th Thuria Lancers. I affirm to the best of my knowledge the Duke is the Emperor's Loyal Subject.”
The raven hair dipped in acknowledgment. “Captain, your fealty is noted. Conduct me to the presence of the Duke.”
The Guardsmen quickly formed up into an honor guard, each man removing the power pack from his lazgun and returning it to the bandoleer on their uniform. The Sisters only relaxed slightly, their weapons still on their armor, but within easy reach to begin killing in a second. “Right away, my lady,” he answered and the group were ushered forward, deeper into the manor.
As they walked, Constance sub-vocalized the command codes to the gun ships, that, so far, all was well. This put a halt to the bombardment from the Vigilant that would have started in two minutes, but everyone was still on a dangerously high alert. De La Concordia was very aware, mentally, of the procedures and kept them to mind so that a war was not started by accident. On her wrist, the green tell tale showed her that her suit was still talking to the Vigilant and that the armor cameras were still transmitting without interference.
Captain Tanner lead her up the stairs on the far side of the residence and through a hallway of marble and baroque splendor with paintings of the previous Planetary Governor's sharing historic portraits of key battles in the history of the Imperium of Man in which subjects from Thuria had played a role.
It was mid-morning in New Atlanta, the hallways were full of functionaries and dignitaries, going about the business of governance, all of whom shrank back as the guardsmen with the twenty seven terrifying armored warrior women. The din of conversation died and only the sounds were of boots on marble and the dull clatter of weapons and armor moving against each other. Finally they arrived at the audience hall and, with a gesture from Constance, Ruth and Mary separated themselves from the convent, trotted forward and seized the doors, flinging them wide open.
Inside, the hall was a massive rotunda, at the back of which, on a dais, was a symbolic throne for the Emperor, who likely had never sat in it. Below that was a smaller chair for the Governor, but it also was empty. On the level of the rest of the room, before the dais was a desk and chair that had a terminal, data-slates, communication devices and a small crowd around a man just rising from behind the desk.
Like the ripples on a pond after a stone is dropped there were desks laid out around the throne which itself were other desks of the various dignitaries and nobles of the planet as well as representatives of the ordinary people, all turning, some what shocked to see what the fuss was. Constance strode boldly into the room and again held up her Inquisitorial Rosette and a subtle gesture keyed on the amplified speakers built into the armor so her voice echoed like a thunderclap throughout the hall. “Gaze upon the Daughters of the Emperor, attuned to their duty before the Golden Throne and all those loyal to the Master of Mankind shall submit themselves before us!”
The hologram of her and her warrant peered down in judgment of all in the rotunda as, slowly, then with gathering speed the various persons fell to one knee. “The Emperor Protects!” was an uneven chorus that rippled through the room as Constance strode forward, her sisters at her back, weapons in hand.
Constance allowed her eyes to sweep the room as she walked, taking in expressions from confusion and curiosity to fear and alarm, then she fixed her gaze on the man stepping from around the desk. “I am Constance De La Concordia, Palatine of the Adepta Sororitas, here to judge the loyalty of Duke Cameron Wren.”
She had not expected him to be so handsome.
The man was dressed in a tunic of dark blue over jodhpurs that were tucked into high boots that were spotlessly polished. He was fit, with a hint of strength under the tunic with dark hair that was going gray at the temples and clear, icy blue eyes. He had a square, honest face, tanned from time spent in the sun and lined with worry, but not old. It was the mature, masculine face of a grown man with the nod to a rakish youth of a thin, pencil mustache over his lip. “I am Cameron Wren,” he declared in a rich, melodic baritone. “Duke of Thuria and loyal vassal of the Emperor of Mankind.”
He sank to one knee and ritually opened his shirt wide, displaying an impressive chest and his neck in the most humble act of supplication. “If I have offered insult to his majesty, it was unintended. I beg, Palatine, whatever my fault, let me face that correction alone so that my people be spared for we are the Emperor's own.”
Constance towered over the man, surprised a bit at her reaction to him, but she kept her face stern as she brandished the Rosette before him. “Cameron Wren, you are accused of heresy, ambition above your station and conspiracy against the Master of Mankind. If you are guilty, renounce your crimes now that you may be absolved and receive his majesty's mercy.”
“Who slanders me, a loyal vassal to his majesty?” he demanded. “I proclaim my innocence of any fault or treachery against the Emperor, the loyalty of myself and my world to the Imperium, and I will testify with my body in open combat against any who has spoken these lies!”
After a moment of looking into the man's face, Constance made a decision. She lowered the Rosette back to her belt, then presented her left gauntlet and the image of the Imperial Seal worked into it as if a ring she wore over the glove. “If you be loyal, then submit yourself to judgment and kiss the seal of the Emperor.”
Slowly, he took his hands from the tunic and reached out, taking her gauntlet clad hand into his. He leaned forward and kissed the seal, then moved up slightly and kissed again the back of her hand. “If I am to die,” he whispered, “I die innocent and could ask for no more lovely of an executioner.”
Unbidden, Constance smirked as the smile she could not contain wormed it's way onto her face. At least the taint of Chaos had been removed as a possible crime to lay at the Duke's feet. Lies and false loyalty could still be lurking for Heresy or Treason, but the Chaos infected could never bring themselves to kiss the seal of the Emperor. That at least was reassuring. Clicking off the amplifier on her voice, she leaned down and whispered, “You are a single misspoken word from death, and you would play the Tomcat to your executioner?”
He looked up with a grin that he had doubtlessly used shamelessly his whole life. Part little boy with his hand in the cookie jar, part experienced raconteur caught with his hand in someone else's cookie jar; it was clear he was a rake of the first order. “Death comes for us all, my lady, why not enjoy the wait?”
“That quick wit of yours is going to get you into trouble,” she warned, drawing him up off his knees as she did so.
“Or out of it,” he replied, then stood up straighter and raised his voice. “I submit to the Judgment of the Daughters of the Emperor and again state my claim to satisfaction upon whoever has slandered me.”
“So noted,” Constance assured him. “You have an office?”
“It's yours,” he offered.
“Lead on.” As she fell in behind him, she keyed the microphone and sub-vocalized, “Vigilant, condition alpha, one in custody.”
Jennifer clutched the grips of the Bolter tight in her gauntlet clad hand as she and Mary guarded the hallway they had been assigned. The young sister swallowed, her eyes fixed down the hallway, wondering when something, anything, would round it, intent on killing her. “What are we doing, Ruth?” she demanded in a terse whisper.
Her squad sister turned, one dark eye towards her as Jennifer was captivated again by the contrast of her dark brown skin under the bowl cut stark white hair on her head. She licked her full lips and whispered, “I don't know about you, but I'm pissing my pants!”
“Steady,” Gretchen's voice commanded from behind them, “We're Sororitas, ladies, we're supposed to be surrounded.”
The Governor's office sat at the junction of three corridors, this one Jennifer, Gretchen and Ruth were guarding, the main hallway they had arrived down that most of the squad was in a position to hold, and the side corridor with its access to the central stairwell the remaining girls were stationed on, some up the stairs, some down, so they hopefully had a means to escape if they needed to maneuver.
Jennifer was very aware that if the sisters were forced to withdraw, she and Ruth were the furthest from the stairs and that fact itched at the back of her mind.
A door opened, revealing some functionary that it was all Jennifer could do to not gun the hapless fool down by reflex. “Go back inside!” she commanded. The Bolter's muzzle swept the man as he looked like he was about to protest. “Go back inside and stay there!” she snarled. The man went pale and shut the door which would not even slow down the rounds from the Bolter should she choose to fire it. “Gretch, if one more pissant opens a door they're gonna get to meet the Emperor!”
“At ease,” Gretchen's ordered softly. “We're notweapons free.” The Sister Superior made a point to get eye contact with all of her squad. “We trained for this. Loyalty tests are just part of the job. The Home Guard outside didn't have anything that could take the polish off our armor, so every body calm down and soldier.”
“Aye, aye,” Jennifer muttered.
“What if they've got stuff that will take the polish off on the way?” Mary muttered.
“The Emperor handles tomorrow, we worry about today,” Gretchen answered her. “Keep in mind, ladies, if this Duke is loyal this is our new home. Let's not start any incidents before we're moved in.”
“I say we purge them all and let the Emperor save his own,” Ruth declared.
“I'm sure he'll have some choice words for you, Ruth,” Mary shot back.
Gretchen sighed at Ruth's somewhat saucy retort and growled just loud enough that her girls knew she was at the edge of her patience. Silence settled on the squad as they kept their hall secure and Gretchen allowed herself a glance over her shoulder at the door into the Duke's office wondering if the Brass had it easier.
“I want to know who has slandered me,” the Duke pressed as he opened his safe, then stepped back to turn his attention to his terminal.
“You'll have your right to satisfaction,” Constance assured him as Debra, the security specialist stepped forward and began to go through the safe. “Assuming you're loyal, of course.”
“I am,” he declared again. “What is this about, my lady Constance?” His codes given to the terminal, he stepped away from his desk, to make room for the sister who busied herself with copying his files and notes. With three armored sisters in it, even the most spacious of offices seemed cramped.
From her haversack on her side, Connie produced the little Bolter pistol and laid it on his desk, it's action locked open. He stared for a moment, then his tanned face flushed with anger. “This?” he demanded, and for a moment, the genteel veneer slipped and a bit of temper showed through. “This is the prototype I sent to the Imperial Arsenal for bidding! We're prepared to begin production for the Emperor at the first sign of a contract! What more notice could I have offered? It's not a secret! I sent it in myself!”
“Jealousy is the first paving stone on the road to Heresy, your grace,” Constance reminded him. “Did you honestly think an achievement of this magnitude would not hang a target on your back?” His expression was one of grim resignation.
“I hadhoped that I had sufficiently circumvented this by being so forthright.” He sighed and crossed his arms. “My mistake, obviously.”
Constance smirked. “Well, if it is any condolence, if...when...your loyalty is assured, the Adepta Sororitas will certainly be placing an order. A large one.”
“My shareholders will be thrilled,” he replied drolly. “And, what of you, Palatine Constance? Once all is sealed to the Emperor's liking you're off to the next world, the next people whose loyalty are falsely maligned?”
The eyebrow ascended Constance's forehead by it's self. “So eager to be rid of me, your Grace? Just a few moments ago you were willing to die for a few minutes of my company.”
He sketched a most elegant bow, despite the somewhat confined space. “My lady, moments with you are certainly an easy trade for a life time, but my poor heart can only stand so much melancholy of being loved and left behind.”
Constance crossed her arms over the somewhat ridiculously large cups of the armor had worked into it to simulate her bust. In point of fact, they contained reservoirs of nutrient soup for the suit's wearer whose own bust was considerably flattened by the Link Suit. “Does your mother know what a terrible flirt and Lothario her son has become?”
“My poor mother is yet pining for me to settle down and give her the grand children and security of the blood line she is constantly reminding me is my duty. And I note my lady has side stepped my own question.”
“Oh, I imagine you'll be quite sick of me before too long, your Grace,” she replied as she took a scroll from the keeper on her belt and presented it, the official seal hanging by a ribbon from it. Frowning, he took the scroll and opened it to read. “My congratulations, Scion of the House of Wren, your fealty and service to the Emperor have been noted and your House has been assigned Sisters Famulous of this Mission to guide and nurture your House to the greater glory of the Emperor.”
The Duke's gaze held on her for a moment, then he turned back to the scroll to be sure he had not misheard or misread. “Well,” he declared after a long moment as he rolled up the scroll and returned it. “Certainly I can safely declare this the most memorable method of meeting a beautiful woman in my life! Would my lady do me the honor of dinner, this evening?”
Constance allowed her lips to smirk again as the Tomcat came out to purr once more. “I think, your Grace, shall be accepting our invitation to dinner.”
“Oh, I wouldn't miss it for the world!”
There and Back Again
Captain Newberry, the commanding officer of the Vigilant was only mildly surprised that Duke Cameron had submitted himself for judgment, and that the sisters had shown sufficient restraint that he could. In his experience the person being 'tested' failed, violently so and then it was a matter of rooting out those who might take issue with that failure before moving on to the next world. He had to admit, watching the camera feed from Palatine De La Concordia's armor that she was a unique specimen of her order.
He had welcomed the Duke on board and set him up in a guest cabin as opposed to the brig, but neither man was uncertain of how short a leash the courtesy concealed. Still, the Duke was quite genteel about things and was making a great show of putting the best face on an unpleasant situation. He had ordered all planetary defense forces to stand down and had actually echoed the commands with the Captain in the transfer of power. Captain Newberry had needed to refer to the manual for the procedures for voluntary release of power as it had never happened before in his experience. Thus far, it had been a text book operation, the planetary defenses having accepted the commandeering of Captain Newberry and the Vigilant, and not a man had been so much as injured.
Captain Newberry, of course, suffered under no delusion things were settled, this was the point where statistically speaking things generally started getting bloody.
For the better part of an hour, he fought with himself on whether or not to lower the alert level onboard. If he took the ship from battle stations, the crew would relax. They would breath a collective sigh of relief and possibly, miss some minor indication of a betrayal from the surface that would cost all of them their lives. On the other hand, he could keep them on combat status, a hair trigger from explosive violence and someone might make a mistake, or an innocent navigational error be interpreted as an attack and tens of thousands of innocent lives might be lost.
In the end, he decided to follow Palatine Constance's example and brought the ship down to tactical alert. Enough tip of the sword to respond quickly, hopefully enough restraint to stop a mistake that would lead to tragedy. Satisfied he had done what he could do, the captain left his bridge to go have a word with his steward. He, evidently, had a dinner party to plan.
Jennifer sat in the day room, an ammunition locker that had been given over to sisters for their use, stocked with reclaimed and donated furniture from around the ship. It was so that the Sisters of Battle could have a place to relax and unwind, which was what Jennifer was trying to do, staring at a data-slate, trying to concentrate on the biography of Saint Mina, but found she had read the same sentence five times. With a sigh of suppressed temper, she dropped the slate to the little table before the over stuffed chair she was sitting in and took her temples in her hands. “Buy you a drink?”
Jennifer looked up in surprise to find her squad leader, Gretchen, sitting in the chair next to hers, a bottle of beer on the table next to her slate. “Sister Superior?” she asked guardedly.
Gretchen brought her own bottle to her lips and took a sip. “We're both off duty, Jen, it's just Gretch.” Jennifer reached out and took the bottle, finding it icy cold to her touch, and a soothing, vaguely wheat taste as it washed over her tongue. She couldn't quite suppress a grimace at the bitterness of the beer and Gretchen smiled.
“Third or forth,” she admitted. “I think. I've lost track.”
Gretchen's bottle tipped up into her mouth again. “You'll learn,” she declared around her sip. “Took me forever to like coffee.”
“Coffee is proof of the Emperor's love!” Jen retorted as she forced herself to take another sip, which was not quite as bitter as the first had been. “Listen, 'Supe, I know I fucked up, today...”
“I didn't have to write any reports,” Gretchen replied. “I call that a win.” She paused as she took a sip of beer to examine Jennifer's face. It was a bit Tomboyish, more square than oval and she still had the bowl haircut of having graduated from being a novice, died white to symbolize the purity of her vows and soul. Many Sisters continued to dye their hair white, but Gretchen liked that their Palatine wore her natural hair color and decided to do the same herself. She already dark roots beginning to show under the milk white. Jennifer was still staring at the floor, but in reality someplace deep in her mind, the bottle clutched loosely in her fingers. “Something you want to talk about, Jen?”
The blue eyes came up, a haunted expression behind them. “How bad did it get for you guys, 'Supe? After I got separated, I mean?”
Gretchen shrugged a little dismissively. “Oh, we had a interesting dance with a Leman Russ the traitors got a hold of, but Ruth was the only one injured, and not badly. Why?”
Jennifer's face turned back to the floor. In a dull voice, she said, “When that wall collapsed, I tried to make my way around it, but the rubble was impassible. So I went out east, but the further out I went, the worse it got until I had completely lost sight of you guys. Eventually, I linked up with a Sister Hospitaller named Melissa. She was moving across the battlefield looking for wounded and so I figured I could do some good keeping her alive to help others.”
“I read your report, Jen,” Gretchen told her softly. “You did fine.”
The bottle tipped up for a long swallow and this time Jennifer's face didn't grimace. “After an hour, there was this huge explosion and out of this collapsed section of road comes a Sister clinging to the jump pack of a Space Marine. I had no idea how she'd gotten it off one of the dead Space Marines, or got it working, but it was the most hardcore thing I'd ever seen. She couldn't hold onto it for long, but it got her out of the depression before she lost her grip. She fell about ten feet from us, both legs broken, out cold and covered in some nasty something. I almost threw up from the smell, but nothing bothered Melissa. She just got to work on her while calling in an evac.”
Her face turned up to Gretchen, pale and almost vacant. “That's when this squad of possessed Heretics found us, or caught up to us. I think they were chasing Palatine De La Concordia. Have you ever fought possessed, Gretch?”
“I was there, Jen.”
“Yeah. They, they just keep coming, you know? I shot them and the Bolter blew them to pieces, and...and the pieces would keep coming...” She paused and took another sip. “Palatine Constance had a bolter/flamer combo gun, still attached to her armor. I grabbed it and...” She took a drink and whispered, “Humans smell terriblewhen they burn.”
Gretchen reached out and put a consoling hand on Jennifer's shoulder. “Don't think of the ones you had to kill,” she told her earnestly. “Think of all the ones you saved by rooting out the Chaos and destroying it.”
“I was back there, Gretch,” Jennifer whispered. “This morning? In the hall, and the door opened; it wasn't that beautiful hallway. It wasn't a cushy office and some idiot in a suit, it was one of those monsters dressed up like a human wearing someone's skin and I could smellthe bodies burning...” Gretchen took the beer from her squad mate and gathered her into her arms in a fierce hug. Her shoulders shook and Jennifer started to cry. Gretchen gently stroked her hair and let her sister cry.
“I'm here, sister,” she whispered in Jennifer's ear. “I'm here.”
From her kit locker, Constance gazed at her neatly folded Day Service Habit and wished she could wear it. It was a simple, humble garment and that matched her desire to be simple and humble, but, alas, it was not suitable for a formal dinner with both the Captain and the Duke. Fortunately, it was not so formal as to demand her dress uniform, so, with a sigh of regret, she dug deeper into her locker to pull out her Convent Service Habit. It was the more formal version of the Day Service, intending to give the impression of a Sister in her armor, it was in three layers, like the armor it affected. The base as a simple, black body suit that was close fit for her arms and torso, but in culottes below. Over this was the red Battle Habit with it's bell, three quarter sleeves and loin cloth bottom. Finally, there was a sleeveless black doublet in velvet that buttoned up the front with a high, rounded mock turtleneck collar to imitate the gorget of her armor.
Around her hips, at the bottom of the doublet was a Rosarius and Inquisitorial Rosette that hung at her left hip to denote her rank and warrant. Normally, on her left breast would ride the white Maltese Cross and Heart indicating her membership of the Order of the Valorous Heart. These had been moved to the bell sleeves of her Battle Habit, under the fleur-de-lis of the Adepta Sororitas to show that she had seen combat as member of that Order, but her Mission and Order Famulous had yet to receive it's official heraldry from the Convent Sanctorum on Ophelia VII, which was her Master Convent.
Finally, there was the collection of Medals and awards she had earned over the years. There were many tears fallen over this collection of precious metal and simple cloth, but there were happy memories as well. Certain of everything being in it's place by a final check in the mirror, Constance sighed and left the small, but coveted single cabin the Captain had given her and directed her steps towards the Wardroom.
As it happened, the door to Duke Cameron's cabin opened just as she was drawing abreast of it and the Duke himself stepped out. As he was still a 'guest', he had been allowed to have his valet pack some changes of clothing for his stay aboard the Vigilant and was dressed in the green frock coat of Thuria's Home Guard detachment. It was certainly not in want of braid or medals, but was not as garish as some versions Constance had seen. In fact, she thought the jodhpurs and high boots the uniform seemed to favor let him cut quite a dashing figure. He caught sight of her and gave another of his elegant bows. “My lady Constance, a pleasant evening to you!”
Constance allowed her self to smile and preformed the Sign of the Aquila. “May the blessings of the Emperor shine upon you, Duke Cameron.”
“Humbly, my lady, I beseech you for the honor of your escort to dinner.”
De La Concordia glanced at him sidelong but took the elbow he offered with one hand and the pair continued their journey. “I presume you were loitering in your cabin hoping to catch me as I came by to pry information about your Loyalty Test from me?”
The Duke had the grace to be self deprecating. “Am I so obvious?” He chuckled and made a dismissive gesture with his free hand. “Well, I am understandably curious.”
“Your unflinching cooperation stands you in excellent favor, your grace,” Constance allowed. “I imagine the outcome to be to your liking, but we must still observe the proprieties.”
“Of course!” he acquiesced. “And in expectation of such golden outcomes, I already have my command staff looking for a suitable place your Mission can headquarter yourselves.”
“I'm glad the circumstances of our meeting will not strain our relationship unnecessarily.”
The Marine, not an Astartes, but an Imperial Sailor Under Arms, standing guard by the wardroom door came to attention as they approached, then opened the hatch for them. Inside was Captain Newberry, looking very impressive in his Navy Uniform, not as dressy, perhaps, as Duke Cameron's but then, Duke Cameron didn't have a hundred thousand crewmen at his beck and call presently.
Nathaniel Newberry did.
The Captain was in the process of pouring himself a glass of tea from the small beverage mess to the side of the room as the stewards were still laying out the table. “Why Captain, you've out done yourself!” Cameron complimented, but Captain Newberry was nonplussed.
“Merely a trifle,” he retorted, sketching a shallow bow to Constance that she returned with a curtsy. “My lady must forgive us for being such terrible hosts.”
“I wouldn't dream of holding such honest effort in the service of the Emperor against you, Captain,” she replied. “In point of fact, I must agree with His Grace that you set a magnificent table.”
The Captain's great handlebar mustache twitched in what might be considered a smile. “I'm sure the men will be gratified by your delight, my lady. Here, allow me,” he stepped over to the foot of the table and held out the chair for her. Constance allowed herself to be seated, then turned her goblet over for the steward to fill with ice water.
“Will your officers be joining us, Captain?” she asked, noting the table to be quite small, and had only three place settings.
“Unfortunately, no, my lady,” Newberry told her. “I thought it best, considering where our conversation may drift, to keep the fewest ears in the room.”
“A wise precaution,” Cameron declared as he took the place at Constance's left hand, leaving the right for the Captain. “So, tell me, what of the rest of the Galaxy?”
“Oh, about what you would expect,” Constance replied. “Wars, rumors of wars, famine, deprivation, with little pockets of hope and good living.”
The goblet of ice water stopped halfway to the Duke's lips. “Oh, surely all is not so hopeless?”
The steward wheeled out a dish of salad and began to fill bowls. “His Grace has the benefit of living on a relatively remote world in a peaceful sector,” Captain Newberry declared, taking up the pepper mill and offering it first to Constance.
“Four months ago I was fighting a Chaos Cult on a world that looks very much like yours from space,” Constance said as she worked the pepper mill over her salad. “Have you ever had the misfortune to meet someone Chaos Possessed, your grace? They consume their victims from the inside out, knowing all of their memories and thoughts so that they can taunt and twist the knife to loved ones they murder and befoul. Wearing their loved ones' skin and face to torment them with the very love of their victim. They can only be killed with fire.”
The Duke's face paled a bit. “I...I had the fortune to give my two years of service in the Naval Forces.”
“Local?” Newberry asked. “Of course, lucky.”
Wren's chin rose a bit. “I did my duty and was ready to fight...”
Constance picked up a roll and began to butter it. “Have you ever seen what a bolter does to a man, your grace? We flame the possessed because the bolter will blow them into pieces, but the Demon that has possessed them can control every little piece of viscera. Little bloody bits of human, trying to force their way down your throat to choke you to death.”
The Duke kept his composure with remarkable aplomb. “I see I am in the presence of heroic veterans of our Emperor. I hope you will both forgive me the tragedy of my birth.”
Constance took pity on the Duke, laid her fork down and reached out to put her hand on his. “Your pardon, your grace, I hope you'll forgive an old pair of war horses a bit of hazing.”
He smiled and inclined his head. “The fault is mine, my lady. In my eagerness to endear myself to a pair of bonafide war heroes, I misspoke. No man can truly desire to see what you both have, but I hope you can admit that every man feels the zeal to do his duty.” He picked up his wine glass that the steward filled for him. “In fact, I raise my glass to the both of you and am thankful to have such paragons here to test me.”
The Captain's mustache twitched and humor and he hid it behind his napkin. “You may thank Palatine De La Concordia for her remarkable restraint.”
“Among many other virtues,” the Duke added as he raised his glass again.
“Your grace is completely without shame,” Constance scolded.
One of the great luxuries of the Mars-Class Cruiser, to which the Vigilant belonged, was that they were general purpose vessels, meant to operate independently or in small task forces for long duration. As such, they had a bit of everything, fighter wings, assault craft, ship to ship weapons, ship to surface weapons and, interestingly enough, a library. The small collection of books were backed up electronic storage of just about the collected wisdom of mankind, but that there was actually a section of books was a fact the crew were quite proud of.
Having bid goodnight to her fellow diners, Constance had not felt particularly sleepy and, to keep her mind from other idles, she decided to go to this library and accomplish some research. Her palm print gave her access to the room, which was dark and seemed to be made of darkly stained wood book shelves. This was on the outer edge of the ship, and huge, peaked Gothic windows of transparent aluminum. Thuria was a magnificent view out that window as the ship had settled into a Geostationary orbit above New Atlanta. Night had just fallen and the city was lit up in the shadow of the Terminator.
Despite the windows, it was one of the most heavily armored areas of the Vigilant.
Constance walked over to the window, captivated, by the view until a deep, somewhat electronic sounding voice asked, “May I help you?” The voice had a clipped, precise accent and it's High Gothic was flawless. She turned from the window to behold a servitor, a Servo-Skull, floating on its anti-gravity field at conversational distance. It was a human skull with heavily modified cybernetics installed to it, with a single red electronic eye. From the bottom, where the jaw would have been hinged, a parchment roller had been installed and two small robotic arms clutched an ink well and a quill. Carved into the forehead of the skull was the Aquila and 'Faithful Servant' in High Gothic.
“You are the librarian?” she asked the hybrid device.
The skull dipped slightly on its anti-gravity field, perhaps its version of a bow. “I am Baldermort, your humble scribe,” the voice replied from the little speaker in the nasal cavity of the skull. “How may I be of service, my lady?”
“I wish to know more about House Wren,” she told the mechanical slave. “Specifically, how long they have been in control of Thuria and the service record of His Grace Duke Cameron.”
“It was the painting on the wall,” the skull replied in it's melodic voice. “The painting of his ancestor, the Illustrious Agand Wren, who had inspired him, who had cast the long shadow the boy stood in. For in the Thirty Eighth Millennium of Man Agand had come to Thuria to claim a wilderness and build a home for his family. The boy had lived his entire life in the shadow of the Great Man who had conquered a world, heard stories and lessons of battles won and dangers braved two thousand years before his birth. Yet he was stymied, held back from anything more adventurous than attending to the call of nature by himself. He yearned to prove himself, to step out of the shadow of his great ancestor, only to be coddled and protected; safe and sound, far from harm. 'He was the heir,' he was told, time and again. 'He must not allow accidents to happen.'
“Of course, he grew restless, chaffing under so contrived and controlled an existence. He rebelled in the only manner and place left to him, the bedroom. He carved a swath through the ladies of noble birth and less than alike that was legendary. In the end, he earned a reputation of a philanderer, but this too was hushed up and winked at. Cuckolded husbands and enraged fathers who had to smile and bow to him. His 'service' to the Empire was a bit of theater for public consumption that even he recognized; still he did his duty with an exactness and diligence that was grudgingly congratulated. Then, his duty done on paper, if not in fact, he was released from service, he took up the reigns of power and perhaps finally, realized just how much truly rested on his shoulders.”
“Yet, under the brow of the man, the just and fair minded ruler that Duke Cameron has become, there was always the boy, who looked up at the painting and dreamed of being worthy of the very blood that flowed through his veins; worthy to be immortalized in his own painting for those, not yet gotten or born to look up to one day and admire. End quote.”
Constance felt her eyebrow ascend her forehead. “Are you always so theatrical, Baldermort?”
If possible, the electronic voice sounded just a touch smug. “In the pursuit of service to the Emperor's Faithful, no race is too tiring to run, my lady. The above quotation was from The House of Wren: The Official Record by the Adeptus Administratum. I would be honored to transfer a copy to your Data-Slate.”
“Please,” she ordered. “Now, I would like to see the Duke's service record.”
The holographic projector in the left eye lit up and displayed the file to float in ghostly green before her. “It is an exact, if short record, my lady,” the librarian replied. “His Grace served the required two years in the Imperial Military, attached to two vessels of the Thuria Sector Defense Fleet, the cruisers Atlanta and Dahlonega. He requested transfer to any Imperial Fleet vessel and was denied six times, twice to be transferred to any infantry unit, both denied. He served as Weapons Officer on the Dahlonega and the Executive Officer of the Atlanta. Both commanders commended his work and his zeal to do his duty.”
“Is it just me, Baldermort, or does this record seem uncommonly short and sanitized?”
The skull was quiet for a moment. “I note it has exactly the correct number and length of documents for a military record.”
“Yes, but no attached letters from commanding officers, no notations to personnel, no attached reasons why the requested transfers to be denied.”
“I should think such reason to be rather obvious, considering.”
Constance rubbed her chin in thought. “Maybe. How long would it take you to interface with the Administratum and request a full copy to compare to the local?”
“I should have information for you by ships morning, my lady.”
“Thank you, Baldermort. I would also appreciate your discretion in this matter. Please come directly to my cabin with your results.”
The skull's blank face could not convey expression, but its tone of voice changed slightly to do so. “You distrust the ship's internal communications equipment, my lady?”
“I'm old fashioned,” she replied with a gesture at the ink well and quill in the grip of the Servo-Skull's arms. “Surely you can appreciate that?”
“Of course. How else may I be of service?”
“No, that's all for now. Thank you.”
The skull dipped on it's field again. “I have been Baldermort, your faithful scribe.”
The air of the arena was filled with shouts, screams and cat calls of the assembled war bands. The raucous cheers and vile leers were equally ignored by Shanaz as he doggedly blocked Grends blows, taking everything the big chief could fling at him. The make shift arena's air was thick with the stink of so many Orks, the smell of blood, viscera and urine as Shanaz continued to draw Chief Grends after him, throwing up a muscular arm to block the chief's blows and always smiling. Shanaz could see the chief's temper starting to rise as his blows were blocked, but his challenger refused to swing a blow of his own.
For his part, Shanaz was focused on the chief, ignoring everything else so that he could keep the big Ork from landing a solid blow; to continue to wear him down. The Gretchin and Snotlings were screaming, to say nothing of the Orks from both Grends war band and Shanaz's own, but Shanaz was a veteran of thousands of duels and he knew how to defeat an opponent bigger and stronger than he was. Not that Shanaz was small, by any stretch of the imagination. He was, in fact, as tall and nearly as wide as a Space Marine, between seven and eight feet tall, with hard, leathery green skin which was crisscrossed with scars, pockmarks and even a parasite or two. His massive physique was even more impressive for the hard, extremely muscular and solid frame. His arms are long and heavily thewed, knuckles almost scraping the floor as he lopes around, and his gnarled hands end in taloned fingers capable of tearing an enemy's throat out with ease.
First one, then a second of Grends blows missed and the war boss roared in frustration, but Shanaz could tell, it was time. Suddenly he lunged forward, easily side stepping Grends reflexive punch and sent his massive fist crashing into the War Chief's jaw. It broke with a thunderous snapand sent teeth and broken tusks flying into the crowd who gleefully grabbed and clawed at them. The right was followed by a left that hit like a meteor on the other side, breaking the jaw again. Blood and spittle were flung and Grends destroyed jaw hung by the muscle and skin of his face like a gristly, gaping grin as he roared in pain and outrage.
“'ere we go! 'Ere we go! 'Ere we go!” Shanaz's followers began to shout as he stepped into his opponent's guard and began to punish ribs and soft tissue alike with his gnarled, calloused fists. Hearing these ribs snap and his follower's chants spurred Shanaz on as blow after blow rained down. Grends stumbled, his nose a hopeless ruin, one eye swelling shut and his jaw drooling blood and spittle as he fell back onto his ass, gazing up at his death.
Shanaz saw fear in Grends' one remaining eye as he reached down and picked up his victim by the throat. Holding him up high, Shanaz roared in triumph as his name was chanted by every Ork in the arena, then he held out his knee and brought Grends down onto it with all of his strength. The War Chief's spine snapped, echoing in the sudden silence and his last cry of pain came out a drowning gurgle as his lungs filled with blood. “I am Chief!” Grends roared as he dumped the body of his foe into the dirt of the arena and beat his chest with his own fists.
“War boss Shanaz! War Boss Shanaz!' the Orks chanted as he reached down and ripped his dying foe's head from his body with his bare hands and held it aloft.
“Shanaz is War Boss!” he roared at the crowd. “And Shanaz says we go to fight!”
Swords, axes and bare fists beat on shields and armor as Shanaz reached into the corpse of Grends to soak his hands in his foe's blood and smeared it across his chest.
“Shanaz! Shanaz! Shanaz!” the Orks chanted working themselves into a frenzy for the coming battle.
It wasn't as easy as merely decapitating the former chief of Grends' war band, nor had Shanaz expected it to be. Grends' lieutenant hadn't bothered with a formal challenge, but had just launched himself at Shanaz. The new War Boss hadn't bothered with subtle for him, merely catching an arm as he fell and threw him to the ground. Then, held down with one of Grends' feet, he pulled his challengers arm off and beat him to death with it.
Two others started forward, but the band's collective consciousness had decided Shanaz had won. The two last hold outs of Grends were seized by the Orks around them and pulled apart. Shanaz thumped his chest a final time, then turned and shuffled out of the arena stretching his neck to loosen the muscles tense from the battle. He caught sight of the chief Gretchin of the now Late Grends and ambled over.
The Gretchin are smaller and less tough than their larger Ork brothers, with bald, bulbous heads and huge ears and noses and long, grasping fingers ready to steal anything not nailed down. This particular one had been Grends' favorite, and wore ridiculously ragged bits of a uniforms and braid ripped from fallen foes to show off his status. “Start the movers,” Shanaz ordered it. “We go to war.”
“'Er, 'ere we going, Boss?” it had the temerityto ask.
Shanaz plucked a dagger from his belt and hurled it at the map of the local area of space, sinking into the moon of a human world he had long desired to ransack. “There,” he growled at the Gretchin. “Full speed!”
“Tally ho!” the Gretchin declared, scrambling to obey his new leader.
“This is notwhat we were supposed to be doing!” Jonas Merle thundered, his face flush with anger and his gestures wide and sweeping. “ Cameron Wren is a traitor!” he shouted, bits of spittle arching from his lips and Constance was glad the desk in her quarters was between herself and the enraged Inquisitor.
“So you keep saying,” she replied evenly. “And yet I find no fault with His Grace, or his actions.”
Behind her, she felt Fiona cross her arms and frown. “The records prove the Duke sent in the pistol to the Imperial Armories, where it disappeared. How did youget it?” Almost reflexively, Jonas reached for his Rosette to brandish his authority.
“Do not dareto defy the Inquisition...!” he started, but, Constance merely reached down to the Rosarius around her waist and pulled up her own Inquisitorial Rosette.
In a deathly quiet voice, she said, “You forget, Inquisitor, I am also a member of the Adeptus Ministorum, Ordo Militant and commissioned within the Ordo Hereticus. So put your Rosette back on your chest, lower your voice and address me as at leastyour equal, if not your better, or by the Golden Throne you will discover what a bolter does to a man first hand. I have spent thirty yearsbattling the Emperor's enemies, how many battlefields have youwalked?”
The red drained out of the man's face and swallowed carefully. “We...we all serve the Emperor, in many ways, in many duties...”
Fiona rolled her eyes and snorted, “Coward,” under her breath, but loud enough that her Palatine heard it and chose to over look it.
“Now,” De La Concordia declared evenly. “With that settled, let us move on to the Emperor's business. You charged our order to root out Heresy in House Wren, and thus far, I can only report there is none in evidence. In point of fact, I find House Wren has been steadfastly loyal for more than two millennia! I have found a world studiousin it's commitments to the Empire of Mankind and actively attempting to do more with efforts and collaborations with other loyal organizations to improve our war material against our enemies. If you have evidence of treason and heresy, bring it forth and let us see it!”
“I cannot...” he started and this time Constance rolled her eyes.
“So you have none!”
Jonas became more firm. “No, I am oath bound! I cannotspeak of what I have learned!”
Constance drummed her fingers on the desk. “And I am not willing to execute what appears to be a model subject on your say so! Stalemate.” She sighed and turned over her shoulder. “Sister Vander, kindly inform the convent to prepare to disembark the Vigilant. We have tied her up for too long as it is.”
“Palatine,” she replied as she made her way out.
“You're giving up?” Jonas demanded.
Constance sniffed and stood from the chair. “No, I am carrying out my mandate to found a convent Famula. Searching for corruption and guiding House Wren is a part of that mandate. Unless you can give me proof, my hands are tied.”
“What can I do to convince you?” he asked after a long moment of thought. “That does not violate my oath?”
She resisted her impulse to be flippant, and actually considered for a long moment, finally coming to the conclusion that her original response was actually accurate. “Nothing,” she declared firmly. “I see nothing to validate your accusation and I am unmoved by claims of confidential evidence I must give weight to sight unseen.”
“Then I must go with you,” he declared.
“You take your life in your own hands, then,” she told him. “I can conceal your identity here on the Vigilant, but only a fool would not be able to see who had slandered him with you accompanying us. What's more, the Duke has a right to seek redress against you. I won't shield you from the consequences of your actions.”
He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “What if...what if he wasn't able to see me?”
The Palatine frowned. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“What if he couldn't see the Inquisitor standing out in a group of Sisters Sororitas?”
Constance crossed her arms in annoyance. “The Duke is no fool, Jonas.”
The Inquisitor's face went cagey. “Of course, of course, but is he so vigilant that he can pick out one sister among many?” Seeing the confusion on her face, he pressed on. “I could hide in plain sight, as just another sister of your convent. There's enough medical technology on board to...”
Constance's hand whipped out with the speed of years of training, giving him no time to react. Her attack was instinctual, however, merely an open handed slap instead of a closed fist, which saved his life. As it was, the slap left a mark on his face and landed with sufficient force that he stumbled and fell to the deck. Towering over him, her face was flush with suppressed rage and now her fists were clinched. “Do not dareto give voice to the blasphemy you indulge in that foul mind of yours!” she hissed. “Allow you to disgrace a habit, to dishonor my convent with your mockery of our vows and traditions all so you can continue to slander a man I suspect more and more is entirely innocent? I will kill you with my bare hands first!”
“I am within my rights and the powers of the Inquisition!” he pleaded. “I am allowed to don anyuniform of any organization to root out the Emperor's Enemies!”
“The Mandate of the Adepta Sororitas is bound by the Order Passive!” Constance snarled. “The Ecclesiarchy is forbiddento have men under arms! I will not allow you to disgrace us in some kind of vulgar...charade!”
The Inquisitor scrambled to his feet. “I am bound by my oath! I have the right and power to don any uniform, to purport myself as a member of anyorganization to fulfill my mandate! You may not deny me under the law!”
Constance clinched and unclenched her fists for a long moment, then with a voice tense and taunt with the effort of restraining herself, she pointed a finger like a bayonet and commanded, “Do not move, from that spot until I return.”
That dealt with, she whirled out of her quarters with all the fury of a hurricane. As she made her way through the ship, crewmen scrambled to get out of her way until she arrived at the ship's communication center and pointed at the senior tech. “You! Stay where you are! The rest of you, clear this compartment!”
“Aye, aye!” the crew acquiesced, scrambling over each other to obey.
Alone with the now very nervous Petty Officer, Constance dogged the hatch shut and secure before she ordered, “I want a secure link to the Order of the Healing Heart, and I want it without any record or transcript. My authorization code is...”
The young woman nodded eagerly. “I understand, Palatine. One moment.”
With an effort, Constance reigned in her temper and laid a consoling hand on the tech as she worked. “Forgive me for my fit of temper, Petty Officer. My ire is not with you.”
“Thank you, Palatine.” She looked up, after checking in her instruments, her face a bit worried. “We're too far for real time communication, I'm afraid. If you'd like to record your message, I'll send it. And I'll see to it the reply isn't screened or recorded when I bring it to you.”
Constance smiled at the younger woman. “Your diligence honors me. Proceed.”
She took a pair of ear plugs from the carrier on her uniform and put them in. “I won't be able to hear you, so just touch my shoulder when you're done, Palatine. The camera is right there. Recording...now.”
De La Concordia sighed to order her thoughts and then looked directly into the indicated lens of the camera. “Reverend Mother, Greeting. This message should be encoded Security Able Seven, I repeat Able Seven. I send you this in request for guidance to resolve conflicting directives. The Inquisitor whom you assigned me to assist now seeks to don the habit of a Sister and pass himself off as one of us to hide while he seeks proof of Duke Cameron's treason. I must inform you, my own investigations exonerate the Duke and House Wren. I have found nothing but exemplary service and loyalty. The Ordo Hereticus does give him the right to purport himself as a member of any organization, but by pretending to be a Sister, he violates the Order Passive. I do not, myself, have the authority to deny him, but I cannot risk a crime that may dishonor our entire order either. My instinctive reaction is to kill him, but I will take no action without your direction. I remain, your obedient servant, Constance De La Concordia, Palatine, Adepta Sororitas.”
She touched the Petty Officer on the shoulder and the tech worked her console. “I'll have your answer as soon as it comes in, Palatine.”
Ruth sat at the table and stared at the collection of parts on the top of it. She had them all laid out, just like the diagram she had been taught how to field strip and clean the bolter so long ago. She picked up each piece, gently wiping away what now was only imaginary grime as she tried to come to grips with her reaction to the extraction of Duke Wren. It bothered her how...tense...she allowed herself to use the word to describe how she had felt in the hallway. She put the bolt carrier on the table and contemplated her dark brown fingers next to the shiny metal.
She sighed and frowned, her thoughts deep inward. It bothered her how tense being in that beautiful hallway in her armor had made her. She hadn't been so wound up charging that tank the heretics had gotten a hold of. It was remarkably straight forward; weapons free shoot at them, they're shooting at you. Everything that wasn't a Sister or one of the Guardsmen with you was a target.
It was simple.
It was everything that extracting the Duke had not been. Hold your fire, defend yourself, but don't start it, the civilians were to be protected, until they weren't. Till they tried to kill you. You didn't know who was who or what was what until you were already taking fire. And Mary had been right, they were giving them time to go and getthe toys that could cut through their armor.
Minute after minute after minute until someone could pop around a corner with a heavy bolter or a recoil-less rifle or something worse that if it couldn't defeat the armor might still kill her just from the transference of force. “Fuck this shit,” she muttered, picking up the bolt carrier again and making sure the firing pin was springing properly before mating it up with the bolt and stuffing them back into the receiver. With sharp, practiced moves she had the bolter reassembled and checked that the hold open was working on an empty magazine.
Straight forward soldiering was easy. Here's the target, guns free, go and accomplish it. Ruth worried she wasn't up to this kind of might be/might not be kind of war.
“Attention on deck,” someone ordered from behind her. Ruth returned the weapon to the table as she stood and turned to find Sister Vander in the hatchway. She pulled the hatch shut and came into the day room more fully. Ruth fought to keep the frown off her face, as here was yet another example of what weirdness this assignment was about. As an Elohiem Advance, she should outrank Sister Vander, but she didn't doubt for a moment that was nothing like the reality of things. Sister Vander was Palatine De La Concordia's second in command in all but technicality.
It wasn't that Ruth didn't likeSister Vander, it was obvious she was Ruth's kind of Sister. Go out, purge the heretics and be done with it, that was the kind of service Ruth expected. Of course, she had been through and survived a rite of repentia, which made her the most bad ass Sister Ruth knew of. She wasn't able to give it further consideration as Sister Vander was speaking. “Sisters, Palatine De La Concordia has ordered me to instruct you all to pack your gear and prepare to disembark. Our mission is starting now.”
“When are we leaving, Sister?” Mary asked her.
Fiona shook her head. “Unknown. Probably tomorrow after breakfast as it's after dark local on the planet. Get your gear prepped and stand by for further orders.”
Finally, Ruth made a decision and stepped forward. “Sister Vander?”
“Yes, um, Ruth, wasn't it?”
“Yes...ma'am,” Ruth replied. “I was wondering, is our entire tour going to be wondering when the population is going to start shooting at us? Are we going to be walking around with targets on our backs, or do we get to be proactive at all?”
Vander smirked. “You looking to get into combat, Ruth?”
Ruth shrugged. “Combat is simple. The enemy is in front of you, your sisters are next to you, do the job, take the objection, move on.”
Fiona walked over to conversational distance. “I understand your situation. Unfortunately, things aren't always cut and dry. As the servants of the Emperor, sometimes we get handed hard missions, with objects that aren't as simple as take the objective. Palatine De La Concordia is never the less confident in all of you to do your duty.”
Ruth forced a smile. “Yes, ma'am, thank you, ma'am.”
In his quarters, Cameron Wren stared at the hologram of Constance De La Concordia. It was her official photograph, wearing the same habit she had worn to dinner the night previous, her hair about her face, a face set in what most soldiers in official photographs called their 'war face.' It was a blank, unemotive expression, unsmiling, looking directly out at the viewer, meant to convey a sense of seriousness and resolution. Even in so official a document, in so staged an expression, it could not hide the fact that she was a very beautiful woman, but that was only the superficial level of his attraction.
Cameron Wren had known many beautiful women.
The record was remarkable as he read it, as it was good to have friends in strategic places. A friend in the records division had acquired this particular record and his major domo had smuggled it up with his clothing on a data-slate of 'important documents' that required the Duke's attention. Now his impressions from dinner were firmly re-enforced. Constance De La Concordia really wasa heroine of the Empire. She had fought for thirty years on planets across the galaxy.
Not just in simple terms of combat, either.
Twice she had been reprimanded for 'excessive concern' of local inhabitants on world's she had fought on. Constance was something of prodigy, a tactical genius who had a reputation for taking difficult assignments and accomplishing them in unconventional ways. She was neither a martinet, nor bleeding heart, but a woman of conviction who understood who she was fighting for.
Cameron smiled, she was, in many ways, ideal.
He reached over to the communications panel his quarters had and in a few minutes was speaking with his Major Domo. “Henry, yes, everything's going well. I expect to be home tomorrow, probably around lunch time. Have your people found a suitable place for the convent? Excellent! I want you to arrange a formal ball. A sort of homecoming ball. Yes, I'll leave that to you. And spare no expense, Henry, I want to make a very favorable impression.”