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Heroes and Heretics

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“Squad Gamma will be Hebert, Nokuro, Dardanus, and Santori. Squad Delta, Lorenzi, Avenarius, Mikelson, Idowu. Delta, you’ll have one standard hour to fortify your position, and Gamma will have an hour to plan their assault. Last team standing wins.”

The voice of Instructor Decia rang out over the vox as the transport made its descent through the atmosphere of Ganymede. Yes, that Ganymede, the largest moon of Jupiter. We had been briefed on the site of our mission before the exam: thin atmosphere, rugged and inhospitable terrain. There were a number of hives scattered across its surface, maintained by the Adeptus Mechanicus’ life support systems, but we wouldn’t be going there. Our mission would be conducted in the vast wastelands in between, where a breach in our atmospheric regulator suits would cause death in minutes from lack of oxygen.

According to Instructor Decia, we could still be selected for a placement in one of the Imperium’s elite organizations, the Tempestus Scions, the Adepta Sororitas, or the Commissariat, if we were on the losing side, but most of the losing side would probably be dead.

I was not going to be on the losing side.

~

Reborn. That was the closest word I had to describe what had happened to me after Contessa had put two bullets into my head.

Not on the Earth I knew, but Holy Terra, the heart of the Imperium of Mankind, in the year 975.M41. Some forty thousand years after the world that I had known, long enough that everything I had done, everything that I was, had been long forgotten in the mists of time. I had looked through the Schola’s librarium, when I had been given one of those rare free hours awarded to progena who had distinguished themselves in some way, trying to find any hint of alternate Earths, parahumans, Scion, Khepri. The closest I had found was a reference to a vague myth from the Dawn of Humanity about a Kepre, but without the original text I had no way of knowing how much of my history had survived.

In an interesting mimicry of my first life, my parents were a professor and a dockworker. Sister Annette had reached the rank of Palatine in the Order of the Ebon Chalice before she had retired to teach at the same Schola Progenium that I was now attending; Danny Hebert had managed one of the vast orbital space-docks encircling Terra. Her cause of death was an accident; his was an act of sabotage by a heretic; that was all I had been told before I was whisked away to the Schola to dedicate my life to the service of the Imperium.

But the strangest of all?

I still had my bugs.

~

The other girls in the shuttle had already edged away from the opposing side, and I glanced at my teammates. Carina Santori, Lucia Dardanus, and Akemi Nokuro. I hadn’t worked with Santori before, but both of the others were extremely capable, and I was happy to have them on my side. I knew that our opposition wouldn’t be pushovers, either; you had to be good to get this far.

Soon, the lander was dropping Squad Delta off at their site. As we came in range of the ground, I surveyed the area as best as I could. There were few bugs on Ganymede, just a handful of species that had evolved from the ones inadvertently brought along by colonists throughout the millennia. For the most part, they were big, hardy things, not easily concealed and hard to coordinate quickly. Luckily, I had thought ahead: I had tagged everyone in the shuttle before we left Terra, and there were still bugs in Delta Squad’s suits.

The area they were set to defend was a narrow valley, with high cliffs on either side. Easily defensible with a good line of fire. I could sense the Delta girls picking over a pile of something -- gear? -- before the shuttle was taking off again to deliver us to our own staging point.

Now that the enemy was no longer among us, Lucia dared to break the silence.

“So, planning. We have to assault a fortified position, with no idea what we’re running in to. Anyone have thoughts?”

“I caught a glimpse of the area,” I half-lied. “There’s a little valley with a narrow chokepoint.”

Carina swore. “And they have an hour to cover it in traps.”

“Did you see what kind of weapons they’ve got?” asked Akemi, “Lasguns, stubbers, combat knives?”

I shook my head.

“Probably lasguns,” Carina spoke once more. “They probably don’t want too many of us to bleed out if they can help it. Progena are more valuable than your average menial. If we get shot and survive the atmosphere they’ll still want to give us some sort of assignment.”

I would have guessed they’d give us the nastiest stuff they had, but I still hadn’t gotten a perfect hang on the brutal logic of the Imperium. They were sending little orphan girls to kill each other on a moon in order to graduate into the military, after all. I didn’t even want to think about what the boys were going through, considering the rumors I’d heard that some of them were being scouted for the Adeptus Astartes.

Conversation halted as the transport let us out onto the surface of Ganymede. The ground was a dusty brown broken up by the occasional ice patch, with fewer craters than you would expect from a moon, but all my attention was drawn to the sky.

I hadn’t seen a sky since my first life.

It was a deep blue, far darker than the one I remembered from Earth even though the sun was shining on the ground, with big patches of grey-brown chem-clouds that were probably not unlike the ones that now surrounded the hive world of Terra. What most dominated the sky was Jupiter, and the sight of it took my breath away. If I faced in the right direction, it was all that I could see above me, and it was this more than anything else that really brought home the fact that I had left the planet Earth.

“Snap out of it, Hebert,” said Carina, and my impressions of her finally solidified into dislike. “Gawk at the sky when you’re not weighing down the rest of us.”

“Not all of us can be Upper-Hive snobs,” Lucia sneered at the other girl.

Akemi was looking back and forth between the two with an expression I couldn’t read beneath the face-plate of her suit, but which I guessed was something approaching exasperation. Was this an old argument between them?

“It’s fine,” I muttered. “Let’s focus on the exam.” Rudeness was tolerable; I had plenty of experience dealing with harsh words, and I’d worked with people I disliked far more before.

Our staging point was marked out beneath a cliff face with a handful of barricades, which I figured that we weren’t supposed to leave until the hour was through. In the center was a large pile of gear, probably not unlike the one that the other squad had received.

All of us went to the armaments first. I could see combat knives, lasguns and laspistols, flak armor that would fit over our enviro-suits, vox units, shock batons, and a sizable pile of grenades. Laid out beside them were three weapons I would’ve sworn they’d never give to us: a plasma pistol, a massive chainsword, and a heavy flamer.

The shock baton would have been my pick of choice, but I didn’t know how well it would work through our suits. Instead, I opted for a combat knife. Cutting off someone’s supply of oxygen was brutal, but it was a good way to get them out of a fight. I reflected that the me of the past would have stuck with the nonlethal option when fighting against my classmates, but the Schola had done a good job of beating the mercy out of me. When all that stood between you and getting your head bashed in by the girl you shared a dorm with was killing her first, you tried to kill her first.

Akemi immediately went for the heavy flamer. “I’ll take this, I had the best heavy weapon scores in our class.” That didn’t surprise me in the slightest; Akemi was very solidly built.

“That’s stupid,” Carina immediately interjected. “How in the name of the Throne do you think you’ll ever get close enough to use the thing?”

“We’re in low gravity, I’ll be able to carry it.”

“And then you won’t be able to carry anything else.”

Sensing the start of a vicious argument, I interjected. “They included these as some sort of test. See how there are three of them and four of us? They want us to argue over whether to use them and who gets them.”

Akemi sighed, dropping the heavy flamer, which even in low gravity hit the ground with a thud. “Should’ve known it was too good to be true.”

“Actually, don’t put that back just yet,” I said. “I might have a plan.”

~

It took more time to convince the others that my plan would work than it did to flesh out the rest of the plan itself, but ultimately I managed. Carina was, surprisingly enough, my staunchest ally. She might have been kind of a bitch, but she had a good sense of tactics. Akemi was on board as soon as I mentioned using the heavy flamer, but Lucia was the last holdout, probably more out of dislike of Carina than of the plan itself. If the instructors were watching (which was likely), I was certain she’d gotten points taken off for that.

Lucia and I approached the valley together. I could have put Akemi’s heavy flamer with me on the forward assault, but that would mean putting the two sworn enemies together. I lifted up my auspex, paying some attention to the readouts but focusing more on what I was getting from the bugs in the valley.

Idowu, Lorenzi, and Mikelson had all taken up positions with clear firing lines towards the mouth of the valley, their postures indicating some kind of gun, while Avenarius was scouting from the cliff above the chokepoint. I sent a line of spiders scurrying across the entrance to the valley, noting that the ground appeared to be churned up.

“Possibility of mines at the mouth of the valley,” I reported to Lucia.

“They probably have a low trigger threshold given the gravity,” she supplied. “Best to jump if we can.”

I nodded reluctantly. Jumping was definitely a risk in low gravity. Slow falling speed without a good way to adjust your momentum meant that you were a sitting duck if your opponent knew how to shoot, and I couldn’t trust that any of our fellow progena had anything worse than average aim.

But before we began, I had an idea. Within my range were scorpion-like creatures the size of cats nesting in the cliffs on either side of the valley, and they were already less than pleased about the intrusion into their home. Swarming our enemies wasn’t an option if I wanted to keep my powers secret, but it was easy enough to direct them in subtler ways. A single thought sent one of them across the path my ants had already crossed, while I readied a few more to go harass the other team. The scorpion in the crossing got caught on a tripwire, but if there were any mines then it didn’t weigh enough to trigger them.

“Taylor here, we’re in position,” I said.

There was a fair scattering of large rocks before we reached the open area of the valley entrance itself, so we had cover before we committed to the assault. Once I received the signal from Carina and Akemi, we would make our move towards the valley.

“Just a minute, we’re almost in range,” came the reply.

Sure enough, I could sense the other pair of Squad Gamma closing in on Mikelson’s location. Just as she began to turn in their direction, I sent the fly that was lurking in her suit flying into her eye. Mikelson began smacking at her face, and then both she and my fly ceased to exist.

“This is Carina,” came a voice over the vox. “We’ve eliminated the target. I don’t think the plasma coils can manage another shot in it unless I want to risk an overheat, though.”

“That’s fine,” I replied, “Don’t risk blowing yourself up.”

“You’re not the leader here,” she snapped back, but I could still sense her tossing away the plasma pistol. A moment later, they were in position.

Reattaching the vox unit to my belt, I turned to Lucia. “You ready to go?”

At her nod, we charged.

~

Back in the valley, I gave the signal to my scorpions. The girl farthest to the back had been laying down in a sniper’s position, and she suddenly found a scorpion crawling across her hands the same instant that Akemi and Carina jumped off the cliffs. With Ganymede having about a fifth of Terra’s gravity, I was confident that they would make the fall without serious injury, delivering the heavy flamer right into the middle of our opponents’ position.

At the same time, Lucia and I were crossing the No Man’s Land between the rocky outcroppings and the valley as quickly as we could. She was wielding the chainsword and a laspistol, and bulked up with as much of the flak armor as we could spare. As the rain of lasgun shots from the remaining two girls focused on her, I knew I’d made the right call. Nobody wanted to face one of those in melee without a nice layer of power armor in between.

As soon as I could see heads poking up from their barricades, I began to return fire with my own lasgun. I’d gotten pretty good at running and firing thanks to the bugs that helped direct my aim, but I still only impacted rock. A scream rang out from the back of their position -- probably thanks to Akemi’s flamer -- and one of the girls spun around, allowing me to score a hit on her shoulder.

If nothing else, she was brave -- despite the hole in her suit, she kept firing. Her life depended on it. A shot in the knee abruptly ended Lucia’s charge, leaving just me against two opponents, one wounded.

Thankfully, Lucia and Akemi pulled through for me; I heard the fwoosh of a heavy flamer, and suddenly I only had one opponent left to contend with. Deciding that I was the lesser evil, the last remaining girl on Squad Delta -- Idowu, I noted idly -- charged me.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t take advantage of her now-exposed position, because I had just reached the minefield. Tossing my gun aside, I leaped.

Almost as soon as I was in the air, I realized I had miscalculated. I hadn’t been able to put as much force into the leap as I would’ve liked thanks to the effect of low gravity on my stride, and I wasn’t going to clear the minefield. I fell, bracing for a grisly end as both my feet approached the ground, and...

If I weren’t in the middle of a fight for my life, I would’ve laughed as I hit the ground. There were never any land mines! It was a bluff to make us jump in low gravity or waste time trying to get around them.

Instead of focusing on that, though, I scrambled to the side, narrowly avoiding a swing from Idowu’s combat knife.

Drawing my own, I eyed my opponent. Idowu was smaller than me, but not by much, and I’d drilled against her plenty. She was fast, but her speed was hampered by the low gravity. She aimed what I could tell was supposed to be a feint, but overcompensated. I swiped at her with my knife, then aimed a punch at her face.

The punch didn’t impact with as much force as I would’ve liked, but she was forced to block my knife with her off-hand, puncturing her suit and leaving a nasty wound that quickly covered the tear in blood.

She was on a timer now, and we both knew it.

Instead of surrendering, she decided to try to take me down with her. “This is for taking last week’s free hour, you bitch,” she snarled, drawing a grenade from her belt with her bloodied hand and yanking the pin.

I’d just avoided one grisly death, and I wasn’t very eager to experience one for real, this time. I directed all the insects in her suit to her injured hand, having them all bite and sting her at once. The sudden pain made her drop the grenade instead of throwing it, and I leapt backwards, praying to the Emperor with all my heart that I made it far enough this time.

There was a burst of heat, a boom, and then silence as I was splattered with bits and pieces of my former classmate.

I stood there, feeling the wetness drip down from my ears, trying to catch my breath and slow the racing of my heart and looking at the spot where a teenage girl had just tried to suicide bomb me.

I stood there until Carina and Akemi joined me, the former with a number of lasgun holes seared into her suit and the latter covered in ash and soot, until Lucia managed to hobble over with her injured leg, until enough of my hearing returned to catch Instructor Decia’s voice over the vox congratulating us over our victory.

We had won.