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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.

Chapter Text

Did you send me here, Contessa?

That was one of the questions I asked myself nearly every day since I had found myself in the 41st millennium, but I didn’t think she would be that cruel. It might have taken some awful things to do it, but I had saved the world. If I’d known that this would be the brutal result, what would I have changed?

Out of the four girls that Gamma Squad and I had faced in our final exam, only the one I shot in the shoulder survived -- Tessa Avenarius.

Viola Mikelson, vaporized by plasma pistol.

Seline Lorenzi, incinerated by heavy flamer.

Nchoka Idowu, blown up by her own grenade.

I knelt in the Schola’s chapel, before a stained-glass image displaying the golden visage of the God-Emperor of Mankind.

Or did You bring me here?

That possibility was hard for me to consider. I wasn’t even praying in the conventional sense, just reflecting. Even if He could listen to prayers, I imagined he would be much more focused on the guardsmen in trenches or the poor wretches in the underhives than a single progena. There were mentions in scriptures of the Emperor marking and selecting souls for greatness, but I imagined most of that was figurative rather than literal.

There was so little I knew about the millennia between my time and this one. Without Scion and the Simurgh to prevent it, humanity had reached the stars, until Old Night had cut off all the worlds we had colonized. Alien attacks, nuclear war, the loss of Warp travel, AI rebellion, and the sudden reappearance of parahumans (I was not going to call them witches unless I had to). Then from out of the post-apocalyptic remains of Terra came the Emperor, whose powers I couldn’t even begin to guess at, who had launched a Great Crusade to reclaim humanity.

Until his son had turned traitor.

I couldn’t tell you nearly half of the things that had happened since, the countless wars and crusades and skirmishes, the infighting and power struggles and genocides of our own people. But I could list every Ecclesiarch from the past millennium, and I had memorized more than half of the hymns from the Lectitio Divinitatus, and I could shoot a lasgun well enough to kill a charging heretic, and our instructors considered that enough.

I couldn’t even search for the answers I needed. Access to any librarium that could tell me anything of use was heavily restricted, and questions were frowned upon. The Imperium didn’t take too kindly to curiosity, as I had discovered when I received two weeks in a Cell of Penitence for asking if the Emperor was alive or dead.

It was said that the Emperor was immortal, that he had been around since the Golden Age of Technology, even if he only chose to intervene after humanity had screwed the pooch on its own. I wasn’t sure if I believed that; it sounded like the kind of thing someone would make up just to make him sound better. I wasn’t even sure if he was actually a god, for that matter, not that I would ever risk saying it aloud where anyone could hear. Better to go through the motions and keep my life.

A chime interrupted my meditations; the sign that the graduation ceremony would be starting soon. Stretching my stiff muscles, I rose from the kneel, and with a final look towards the Emperor I left the chapel.

~

The ceremony itself was long and tedious. Hundreds of Progena were packed into the auditorium, our full number severely reduced by the graduation exam, listening to speeches. The headmaster of the Schola, a number of instructors, an Imperial Guard general, and some hero Commissar all gave boring spiels about how honored we should be to serve the Emperor by smiting His foes on the field of battle.

It wasn’t until they got to assignments that I actually began to pay attention.

Most of my classmates were assigned to Imperial Guard and Navy officer positions, including Tessa Avenarius. Once that list finally finished without my name being called, I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. If I was going to be entering the meat grinder of the Imperium’s endless wars, at the very least it would be in a better position than that.

Next up was the Tempestus Scions, and I sent a nod to Lucia when I heard her name called. Becoming an elite shock trooper was nothing to scoff at, but I wouldn’t want something with that mortality rate.

When the Commissariat selected their cadets, Carina was one of the ones chosen. I could definitely see her there bellowing orders and shooting soldiers for cowardice.

“Hebert, Taylor. Order of the Argent Shroud.”

The Adepta Sororitas, then. How in the Emperor’s name had that happened? Everything I knew about them suggested that they selected for faith first and combat prowess second, and I was probably the least faithful progena on all of Terra. Maybe I was the exception somehow? The Argent Shroud’s motto was Deeds, not Words. Maybe they cared less about the faith aspect than the other orders? I was a little bit disappointed that I hadn’t shared been chosen for the same Order that my mother had joined, but she wasn’t the Annette Hebert that I remembered. The only closeness I’d get from becoming a sister of the Order of the Ebon Chalice would be in my head.

Not long after, Akemi’s name was called for the Order of the Sacred Rose. They were renowned for their heavy weapons teams, I recalled. Catching my eye from the a few chairs down, she grinned at me and mouthed Sisters. I suppressed a wince; the last time I had called a girl my sister, she had dedicated herself to making my life a living hell. Hopefully that wouldn’t become a pattern.

Before long, we were all shuffling out of the room, with the location of the rooms where we would meet representatives from our next placements.

A hand on my shoulder stopped me just as I was leaving the auditorium, and I turned to see the aged face of Instructor Decia, her hair hidden beneath a wimple. She had been a Battle Sister once, though I didn’t know what order, and she had taught alongside my mother. “Not quite yet, Hebert. Someone’s coming to see you in the Chapel of Remembrance.”

That was more than a little bit strange. Shrugging, I walked down the empty stone corridors towards the Chapel of Remembrance instead of following the throng of girls going to meet the Sisters of Battle.

If there was one thing the Schola Progenium had plenty of (other than violence), it was places to pray. There were at least seven chapels that I knew of in the sprawling Appalachian complex, and probably a few more that I didn’t, reserved for instructors or visitors. The words Duty and Faith appeared at regular intervals along the walls, accompanied by little shrines of saints and primarchs, votive candles, and incense. It was impossible to go anywhere here without being followed by the stink of incense. Nearby, a servitor was wiping down a statue of Saint Alicia, and I scowled at the lobotomized slave. After living fifteen years in the Imperium of Mankind I still hated the things, and I doubted that would change anytime soon.

The Chapel of Remembrance was one of the smaller spaces for prayer. Nobody could remember who it originally commemorated, but at some point in the past it had been converted into a place of worship for Sanguinius, son of the Emperor who had given his life to allow his father to slay the Arch-Traitor. The altar featured a massive image of the Primarch, thirty feet tall with great wings that reached out onto the other walls and ceiling to encircle the room. The Primarch himself was depicted in a rictus of agony, mortally wounded, with red tears flowing from his closed eyes and blood dripping from mutilated wings. I’d once had a sermon here during Sanguinala about how it was supposed to remind us of the Primarch’s suffering and thus encourage us to reach for the same lengths to show our devotion to the Emperor. Personally, the image didn’t really hit home; the whole room just felt a little bit creepy. Not the most welcoming of places to meet.

I had just sat down on the steps leading up to the main altar when a giant walked into the room, clad in gleaming silver armor, his helmet shaped into the visage of a medieval knight. A Space Marine, one of the Emperor’s Angels. Why was he here? What did the Adeptus Astartes want with me? Following him was a woman in the gothic style of dress that was common among upper-hivers, with the eerie agelessness that I knew signaled Rejuvenat treatment. As the Lady turned towards me, I caught a glimpse of the stylized I pinned to the left side of her robes.

“I sense no taint of Chaos about her, Inquisitor.”

“And is she a witch?”

“The child is not a psyker, Lady Vance.”

“Thank you, Brother Sevrinius. That will be all.”

“Why are you--” I began, before my voice suddenly cut off from within. Was this because I didn’t worship the Emperor? Had they found out somehow? I reached out to all the bugs within my range, beginning to draw a swarm together. There was no way I could escape Terra, but if I was going to die, at least I was going to go down fighting.

“Calm down, dear Taylor,” said the Inquisitor. “You’ve drawn the wrong conclusions. Rest assured that you’ve passed the only test that matters, not that you’ll remember it in a minute or two. Don’t worry, we’ll start our conversation again soon enough.”

What does she--

~

I waited in the Chapel of Remembrance. Whoever had come to visit me, they sure liked to keep people waiting. Who even had the pull to do something like this, anyway? Surely I couldn’t merit a visit from a Canoness. Suddenly, I noticed an odd congregation of bugs in the wings surrounding the chapel. I couldn’t remember calling them, so I ordered them to disperse, idly noting a giant walking through the halls not far from here -- probably a Space Marine here for one of the boys who’d drawn their attention.

The door opened, admitting my visitor. It was a woman, dressed in the Terran gothic fashion, with the kind of eerie ageless face that came from Rejuvenat treatments. A golden, halo-like device curved upwards from one shoulder and down to the other, but it was the tiny pin attached to the left side of her chest that drew the most attention. A little, stylized I.

Inquisitor.

I stood and quickly made the sign of the aquila. “My lady,” I greeted as respectfully as I could manage, while carefully gathering the swarm. Why was she here? Why me?

“Kindly put your bugs away, my dear,” she said. “I’m here as an ally, not an enemy.”

Pissing off an Inquisitor was a bad idea, but I still didn’t order my bugs to disperse. Something about the cloud from before put me on guard, and I was disinclined to trust anything she had to say if she could mess with my power without me knowing. Was this all a lead-up to arresting me for witchcraft?

The Inquisitor sighed. “Let’s try this again.”

~

If I had a chrono, I would be staring at it in severe annoyance. Honestly, what kind of person would keep a girl waiting so long?

The door opened.

Oh. That kind.

“I am Lord Inquisitor Callista Vance, and I’m here to offer you a job.”

Chapter Text

It wasn’t a bad offer, all things considered.

Spend a few years getting experience with the Order of the Argent Shroud, then I’d get a position in the Inquisitor’s retinue. I’d be working regularly alongside one of the most powerful people in the Imperium, with the possibility of one day becoming an Inquisitor myself.

I wasn’t entirely sure I’d accept when the time came.

Something about Lady Callista Vance rubbed me the wrong way, and it wasn’t just the veiled references to how easily she could have me killed, either.

“You’re quite lucky that one of mine was conducting the check for mutations. The Ordo Hereticus would have executed you on sight, and the Ordo Xenos would be cutting your head open to find out how that Xenos tumor of yours worked.”

It wasn’t until I was in orbit above Terra aboard the Argent Victory that I realized she reminded me of Alexandria. The way she needed absolute control of the conversation at all times. She expected people to obey, and defiance would be met with retribution. Still, she hadn’t yet given me a good reason to stuff a million bugs down her throat, and even if I had I probably would’ve been pulped by one of the Space Marines wandering the Schola before I even left its grounds.

The conversation itself had yielded some interesting insights about how the Imperium worked, though I had left with more questions than answers.

“What do you know about witches?”

“That they’re people with special abilities, that I’m one, and that we’re not supposed to suffer them to live.”

“Correct on two points. You, my dear, are not a witch, and that is exactly why you’ve drawn my interest.”

That there existed a malevolent realm of -- and I hated to even think the words -- souls and magic from which the majority of witches drew their power pushed the boundaries of my disbelief, even if I’d come from a world with parahumans. At least one could scientifically study parahumans, follow the logic of a specific formula to create powers or determine trigger events. If Vance was right, then the Warp was the opposite.

“It’s a realm formed by the collective emotional echoes of human suffering, devoid of any form of internal logic with absolutely no way to comprehend it without trading your sanity in the process. Magic is as good a word as any.”

Something about my scepticism must have shown in my expression.

“I see that look of yours. Well, blessed is the mind too small for doubt.”

That bitch.

Pushing the inquisitor out of my mind, I focused on the present. The arming servitors had affixed the last parts of my new armor, and one of them was presenting me with a helmet. I accepted it from the blank-eyed, lobotomized creature.

As I placed the silver ceramite over my head, a bundle of wires extended outwards and inserted itself into the fresh socket that had been installed just today at the back of my neck. The neural interfacing used by the Adepta Sororitas was nowhere near as advanced as that of the heavily-augmented Adeptus Astartes, but they at least improved the power armor’s responsiveness to movement.

The power pack on my back hummed to life, the frame holding my armor upright retracted with a hiss, and I took my first steps in my new suit of armor. I couldn’t help but feel a little bit giddy as the screens on the inside of my helmet sparked online, targeting arrays and connections appearing whenever my eyes passed over a feature of the room. It was like the first time I had ever put on my Skitter costume, the feeling that I had become something more, someone with power and the ability to use it to do something good in the world.

I was now a defender of humanity.

A rune at the edge of my vision began to glow at the same time that an unfamiliar voice began to speak in my ear. “All suited up, greenie?”

“Who is this?”

“Sister Marcella. You’re already connected to the rest of the squad, see those other runes?”

I noticed the other three runes, one larger than the others, all darkened near the glowing one.

“Yeah, thanks.”

“No problem, greenie. None of the others are in armor right now, so it falls to me to be your guide for now. The Sister Superior will be introducing you to the rest of us in an hour or two, but until then, care for a spar? It’s a good way to get some experience.”

I nodded, then realized that she probably couldn’t see me. “Sure. Where do I go?”

~

The training hall was as large as a football field and vaulted like a cathedral. Stained-glass images of saints decorated the vaults, most in the silver power armor of the Argent Shroud, locked in combat with heretics, mutants, and aliens. Creepy servitor-babies flitted around on angel wings, probably as symbols of purity, but they reminded me more of fat, overgrown flies. I stepped into the room, relishing the clink of ceramite on the ground, looking for Sister Marcella. Some sisters were sparring in full armor, others in almost nothing at all. Others were swinging chainswords at combat servitors, who were covered in whirring blades and moved like something out of a horror movie. Not far from the entrance, a bareheaded sister in armor waved at me.

She was about as tall as I was, olive-skinned, with a prominent aquiline nose and a silver fleur-de-lis tattooed on her right cheek, and her dark hair was cut in a short bob. I noticed that most of the Sisters I could see seemed to be on the taller side -- better reach for combat, maybe? My height wasn’t going to be as much of an advantage here as it had been at the Schola, or at least not during spars.

“You’re Marcella, then?” I asked.

“Marcie when things are casual, but don’t let the Sister Superior hear it. She gets touchy over the oddest things, Emperor bless her heart. Ready to test out that new armor of yours?”

I nodded. “Weapons or fists?”

“Just fists for now. Don’t want to leave you too scratched up before you meet the rest of the girls.”

Both of us took ready positions on opposite sides of the mat, Marcella taking a moment to put her helmet on. I realized with a moment of sadness that my new freedom of expression wouldn’t extend to my hair. It had only just reached past my chin from the last time they’d shaved it back at the Schola, but I’d be wearing my helmet into combat for the foreseeable future. Getting a power-armored fist (or a bullet) in the face was low on my list of priorities.

I pulled my arms up into a cautious guard, uncertain what kind of opponent I’d be facing. I could only guess at her fighting style by judging her personality, which from what I’d seen so far was a kind of vivacious energy. I prepared myself to counterattack, nearly certain that she’d make the first move.

My guess was correct, as Marcella closed the distance quicker than I’d have expected an unaugmented human to move, aiming a sweep at my legs. It was telegraphed enough that I should’ve been able to dodge it, but I stumbled as my boot caught on the edge of my habit, the stupid skirt tangling between my legs. Who designed this thing?

My opponent, on the other hand, moved with a grace that could only have come from endless practice. Even as my armor whirred into action, compensating for my loss of balance, her fists were already snapping into motion without any warning wind-up.

Unused to my new proportions, I wasn’t quite able to get my helmet out of the way when I ducked, and her fist slammed into my forehead. I flinched instinctively, but the power armor handled the blow much better than I expected, just a dull pressure that wouldn’t actually have moved me.

The targeting runes in my helmet highlighted her lower right quadrant as an opening in her guard, but I ignored it. Everything she had done so far was designed to take advantage of the newness of my armor -- this was probably another trap.

Emboldened by my new capabilities and my understanding of her plan, I sprang into a counterattack, feinting high then aiming a similar leg sweep at Marcella. If nearly every punch was just going to be absorbed by the armor, then my best bet at winning would be to make her lose her footing like she’d almost done to me.

Unfortunately, she was better than I was at fighting in power armor, and with a neat backstep she avoided it.

We exchanged a round of punches, each of us either blocking or tanking the other’s attacks without faltering. I was getting better at figuring out which blows to avoid and which I could just shrug off -- a missed punch of hers that landed in the crook of my elbow had hurt a lot more than I expected, but it felt like I could block for days without my forearms getting sore.

The responsiveness of my armor surprised me, too. Instead of moving my arm which moved the armor, it moved with me, my thoughts directing it almost like a second skin. Each punch flowed in a way that it had never had when I sparred with Brian all those years ago.

Marcella finally broke the stalemate that we’d been locked in. She ran at me, and I prepared to block a haymaker or a leg sweep, but she caught me off guard. Instead of either of those moves, she body-slammed me, using her side in a way that allowed her to keep her footing as I went down to the ground. I tried to struggle upwards, hindered by the bulk of the enormous battery on my back, as Marcella slowed down from her run to a normal pace, then pulled the helmet off of her head, revealing a thin sheen of sweat on her face.

“Call it there?” she asked.

I tried to get up one more time, then sighed, realizing I’d need someone else’s help to get back to my feet. That seemed like a pretty serious tactical oversight from whoever designed this armor -- there had to be some way up that didn’t involve another person, right?

“Alright,” I answered, accepting my defeat. The strength and durability of my armor were nice, but there were tricks and tactics to fighting in it that would only come with practice. I could see now why Marcella had suggested this, and I was determined to get a rematch or two later. Better to work out my issues now than on a battlefield.

She knelt down by my side, the joints in her armor creaking. “Don’t take it too badly, Rosemary did the same thing to me back when I first started out. Here, you need to rotate this way…”