So this was how I was going to die.
It was cold in the chapel, not really because of the weather, but just because the old building was of stone, and no-one came in here during the week. It was the cold of a place that wasn't being lived in. On other days I had been in such places they had seemed welcoming, warm light streaming through the stained windows, lighting up the scenes of saints and miracles with bright colour, like a child's painting, all fresh and new. There had been voices, talking or singing, and movement. They had been alive. The statue of the Emperor standing at the end of the aisle between the low benches had always, to me, seemed to be smiling faintly.
Now it was night, and although this place was in every way identical to those I knew, the colour was gone. The images in the windows were only patterns, etched into grey glass, the saints and miracles nothing but stories, relics from too long ago. No sound but the wind brushing the branches of an old tree against each other outside. Now the statue seemed stern, displeased to see His holy place so empty, devoid of happiness. He had only me to look upon, and I had no joy to offer. Only a few hours, now, before dawn. Then I would be escorted out of the chapel, away from His sight, and moments later my life would end. My only comfort would be that it would be my own hand around the hilt of the blade - my judge had allowed me that small honour. But, somehow, in the cold of night not even that made any difference.
All I could do was wonder what I had done wrong. I had always tried to serve Him as well as I could. What had I done, to make Him turn His back on me?
I was nearing the end of my fourteenth year when I last saw my family. For the last three years, coincidentally from my eleventh birthday, I had dutifully attended the school run by the Missionary, Father Deacis. He was an old man, but he had seemingly boundless reserves of energy. He was never late, never tired. It was rumoured he had been a great warrior in his day - he had a scar running down his face, from just below his left eye right down to the point of his chin, just touching his lips on that side. He had a limp, as well - actually not a limp, but a curious sort of stoop whenever he rested his weight on his right leg, as if he couldn't quite straighten his knee. Rumours abounded among us, the children who were gathered together three days every week to learn from him, about how he had acquired these features. A popular one was that he had once fought a war droid with his bare hands. He had once taken us to Clearsky City to see some of the relics of the Liberation, and one of them was a droid. He talked, at the time, about how such machines had helped bring hundreds of worlds like ours back to the Imperium. The rumour surfaced after that, and some of the new kids were told that he looked at that droid with a funny expression. I was there, and I don't remember that. Father Deacis himself never talked about his personal experiences, in battle or otherwise. For all I know, he used to be a farmer.
The Adepts of our town's Shrine had told all our parents that we would be instructed in the proper ways of the Faith - reading and so forth had been taken care of earlier, although some of us children were still a little rusty on math. Our attendance was compulsory, of course, but allowances were made for the harvest, so no-one really had any complaints. A few parents were heard to remark that it was good we were being taught something useful, instead of lounging around making nuisances of ourselves. I'm not sure if we got exactly what the Adepts had intended - Father Deacis tended to go off on great tangents, sometimes for days at a time, discussing all sorts of things besides the correct prayers and hymns.
"You!" he said one day, when Emile was gazing into the middle distance in the middle of a speech on galactic exploration. He knew each of us by name, but tended to use 'you' as an equivalent of 'wake up' - it meant the recipient was going to be criticised for something. "Why do the great Lords of Terra send out Explorator fleets?"
"Huh?" answered Emile. "I mean," he corrected, as his brain caught up with his mouth, "to bring the light of the Emperor to the lost worlds."
"Young man," Father Deacis said, "do you have any idea how much effort goes into a voyage of exploration? Do you think this is done purely because the Emperor likes having a statue of himself in every city where humans live?" Emile was at a loss, so he went on. "We have enemies in this galaxy," he said, his gaze leaving Emile to sweep over all of us, "even though we sometimes may not realise it. All of you are too young to remember the last time this world was threatened. Some of your parents may not have been born then. It doesn't matter, I don't expect you to truly understand what it means for a world to struggle simply to live." He paused for a moment, then went on.
"We have enemies, and they are many. Some of you have heard of the Eldar? Or the Orks? Let me tell you that, if either of these foes appeared on this world right now, we would die. Yes, I know the Guard would defend us," he said, pre-empting by half a second a rebuttal from a boy whose father was a lance-corporal of the planetary defence force, known simply as the Guard. "It would not be enough. Have any of you ever kicked over an anthill? Did you know, there are such things as soldier ants? There are indeed, fighters whose job it is to protect their brothers, the workers. Did those soldiers stop you from kicking over their hill? No, they didn't.
"And so it would be, if the Orks were to suddenly appear in our skies, landing their ships, charging out, howling battle-cries and laying waste to all before them. Do any of you know why they don't do this? I know you've heard a few things about Orks, surely you know they enjoy fighting? Why don't they come and take this vulnerable little world, if it would be so easy? I'll tell you why they don't. The nearest Ork force to this world is distanced from us by several months' travel at best speed. Suppose they set off towards us right now. That would mean they would arrive here a few weeks before Emperor's Ascension. By that time this world would be ringed by Imperial Navy warships, and its soil would be protected by the Imperial Guard, alongside our own Guard of course. Any greenskin that makes it past the Navy would be so much target practice for the guardsmen." He allowed us a moment to chuckle at the image.
"Now, let me ask you something: could this world, alone, have produced the defences I have just described? Let's assume our invaders were repelled by half a dozen cruisers and their escorts, and one full regiment of guardsmen with their tanks and support vehicles. Manpower? Certainly, it was only five years ago that the Guard provided its best to form the eighty-seventh Brightwater regiment. Tomas, your uncle was one of those who was recruited, was he not? But what will they fight with? The Guard has barely enough lasguns to equip itself, all produced off-world. Those of you who have parents or relatives in the Guard will know that during day-to-day operations they use autorifles. This world can't manufacture heavy weapons, or tanks, or transports. And it has been two millennia since Brightwater had a functioning spacedock, and even then we only built escorts, not cruisers and battleships." He gave us a moment to absorb this.
"We rely on other worlds for our protection. We rely, in the grand scheme of things, on the Imperium. And, lest you be thinking that Brightwater is some sort of drain on the Imperium's collective might, the Imperium relies on us just as much. How many worlds does Brightwater export foodstuffs to? Bri?" he asked one of the older girls.
"Seven," she answered confidently - it had only been last week we had diverged from holy crusades to the distribution of food and raw materials throughout the sector.
"Correct. We could not fight off an Ork invasion on our own, not if we had all of eternity to prepare. And if we, and worlds like us, stopped filling the freighters that come to us with grain and so on, every hive world would starve in a week. This is the essence of the Imperium - together we are strong. This is why we strive to bring the Emperor's light to every lost world. If, tomorrow, an explorer in the Ultima Segmentum, clear across the other side of the galaxy, sets foot on a new world and begins the process of making that world one of the Emperor's again, Brightwater is a stronger world. One day, Emperor willing, every human world will be part of the Imperium, and then," he paused to make sure we were listening, "only then, will we be able to look out at the myriad enemies of mankind confident that we have done our best to prepare for their coming."
He glanced at the chronometer at the back of the hall the Shrine had secured as our schoolroom. "Time to go home," he said, "tomorrow we will examine the wars of faith that occasionally arise from Explorator missions. Dismissed."
It was after three years of this that we were assessed by the Adepts. At the time we thought it was some sort of final examination, to ensure we had been paying attention to what we had been taught. Father Deacis seemed mildly amused to see some of the more ambivalent children suddenly start sitting up and paying attention. But as it turned out we weren't examined, at least not in that sense. The Adepts came to our town, and watched us for a full week, in our lessons, outside during the short breaks, on the weekends when we went to service at the chapel, and when we trained at dodge and highball. They didn't want to know what we had learned - they were interested in what we might, possibly, be of use for in the future.
"Ant, you're next," said Myles, re-entering the schoolroom where the rest of us were reading our texts. He was talking to me - initially the nickname had annoyed me, but after three years it was just a name. One by one we had been called into the small room that served as Father Deacis' office. I heard Myles telling one of his friends as I left that he'd been told he should enlist in the Guards when he was of age. I found Father Deacis not in his usual chair - well, I assume it was usual, I had only once before been in the office - that was when he had taken us all to the City to see the relics, he had told our parents individually of the arrangements for our accommodation so far from home, and they took me along when they met him. Now he was standing in the far corner of the room, among the cabinets which were presumably filled with files and books, as these were also stacked on top of them. In the chair was the apparent leader of the Adepts, a thin man who had been introduced to us a week earlier as Adept Peersan. On his right side was a middle-aged woman with a sharp face who I had noticed among the group.
"Please, take a seat child," said Peersan. I did so, after bowing quickly to the Adept and the woman. I noticed Deacis smiled slightly - some of us had had a hard time getting etiquette right, when he taught it for a week two years earlier, when to bow, when to make the eagle sign, when to lower our eyes and so forth. I had always had a good memory, so this wasn't much of a challenge.
"You are of the Juno family, correct?" asked Peersan.
"Yes sir," I answered quickly. It wasn't often that our family names were referred to in the proper form - usually it would have been simply 'Jun', but presumably the Adept had gotten his information from official sources.
"Jun, Antonia," he went on, "born on the fifth day of Nis Thamar, nearing fourteen years ago." This didn't seem to be a question, so I remained silent. "Well, you're older than the Sisterhood would usually consider, but first lieutenant Deacis tells us your knowledge of the Faith is excellent." First lieutenant? None of us had known Father Deacis had held rank. Then this detail vanished from my mind in the face of what else had been said: the Sisterhood! "You perform well in physical contests, too, and tests of endurance," Peersan went on. This was true - having three older brothers will do that for you. I had been vice-captain of the highball team for the last two summers, second to Myles who was tall and fast, and unstoppable once he had the ball in his hands and had got up some speed. I liked the game, but preferred cross-country. I liked letting my mind wander on the long runs.
"You will be trained in the Convent on Delva Four," said the woman, who I later discovered was a Sister Superior. "You will be required to be ready to leave your home tomorrow morning at dawn. Your family has been informed."
That, basically, was it. Father Deacis told me who to send in next, and sent me back out with instructions to return home immediately and make preparations for my departure. I had by no stretch of the imagination truly understood what had happened, but it sunk in as I walked the short distance from the hall to my home, which was not quite on the edge of town. We had learned about the Sisterhood, of course. We had been visited once by a Sister Dialogus, who had given us a brief lecture about the necessity of accurate translation in dealing with non-humans, and those human communities that had been isolated from the Emperor long enough that they had developed their own languages. She had spoken a few words in the tongue of the Eldar, and then told us how many possible meanings could have applied to those few words, and the disastrous consequences that could arise from a mistranslation. And we knew of the Sisters Hospitalier, of whom there were a handful in the City supervising the Adepts who ran the hospitals and trained apothecaries for towns like ours. But we had never studied languages, or medicine, and what little etiquette we had been taught certainly didn't qualify me for the Orders Famulous. Could they actually be considering me for the Orders Militant? They were legends to us, something we had never seen, and heard of only in tales of far-off worlds, fighting in the crusades alongside Titans and Space Marines, and all the other exotic creatures that populated the fantastic myths we listened to and read.
One of the relics in Clearsky City had been a suit of armour, worn by a Sister of Battle over a thousand years ago, during the defence of our world from the Orks. Could that really be me? The women who wore that armour were saints, great warriors. Not me.
I regretted then - I still do - that my mother was away at the time. She had taken a trip to visit some distant relatives of ours in the City, who had just had a baby. We couldn't afford for all of us to go, and they were on her side of the family. It would be three days before she would be back, and our town didn't have any sort of communications equipment like the City did - even if father had sent word to her at once she wouldn't have arrived back before tomorrow night. So he didn't send word, as it wouldn't have done any good, and it would only have preyed on her mind while she was in the City.
But I missed seeing her that last night, before I left. Father was good, but we had never been really close, and he wasn't really the type to get involved with feelings beyond asking if we had had a good day. I think, now, that he may not have been certain how to deal with me, after three boys - he'd worked out how to raise boys, and wasn't quite sure if I should be treated the same, or entirely different, or what. He told me how proud of me he was, and how he knew I'd bring honour to my name and be a true servant of the Emperor. I think he wanted to say he'd miss me, but he didn't. Of my brothers, Franc was away on a training exercise - he was already a junior recruit of the Guard, likely to begin actual training within the month. Gardon obviously knew I was leaving, but didn't seem to behave any differently - he and I had always been competitive, and I suppose he wasn't pleased to see me be selected for something like this before he'd applied for junior Guard. Wane, the closest in age to me, promised to look after my kitten. He'd had a cat himself until the winter of the year before, almost from the day he was born according to mother. And so I came to be standing in the doorway of my home for the last time, holding a bag containing my clothes, and two pictures, one of my three brothers, and a more recent one of myself and my parents - in this one I was holding Jazz, the kitten, who was then only a couple of months old, whereas now he was close to being a cat. My father and brothers stood beside me as the woman I had seen in Father Deacis' office, the Sister Superior, walked the short distance from the auto that had brought her.
"Your daughter is fortunate," she said to father after the four of us had bowed, "she will have the chance to serve the Emperor to the best of her ability."
"None could ask for more, ma'am," replied father. His voice sounded slightly distant, but as I couldn't see his face I wasn't sure. The woman nodded and looked at me directly. Suddenly I felt my chest tighten, and I doubt I could have spoken if she had wanted an answer from me.
"Follow me," she said, and turned back towards the auto. I wanted to stay a moment, but she didn't look back and I didn't want to give her any cause to doubt me, so I followed without pause. I got a glimpse of my father as the auto pulled away, standing in the doorway, watching, then we were gone.
I first set foot on Delva IV, by my count, two weeks later. I learned later that it had been almost a month, due to the difference in time between realspace and the warp, where the ship that carried me and the other potential Sisters had travelled for much of its journey. The auto had taken us to the town's transit station, where we had boarded one of the buses that ran between the towns and the City. Ten hours later we had left the bus and boarded one of the shuttles that ran on rails from Clearsky to other cities, and in this case to the spaceport. I had never been on a shuttle before, but it wasn't much - just a fast bus with fewer bumps in the 'road' it travelled. But the spaceport was something else again.
The shuttle ran down into an underground transit system, where they must have been maintained, but passengers disembarked just before the tunnel began, still in the open. As the Sister Superior and I stepped off the shuttle and threaded our way through the small crowd on the platform there was a rumble from above, growing to a great roar that was louder than anything I had ever heard. I looked up, between the gaps in the rain shelters above us, into the open sky, and saw the corona of a bright light from one side, like the halo of the sun which was setting behind me. Then the sky vanished, first beneath a massive disc of flame and light that was the source of the almighty roaring noise, and then that passed to be replaced by a metal sky, like a building in flight. I stared openly at it as it passed overhead, unable to believe something so massive could possibly fly. It took me a moment to realise that it had gone, and I was again staring at the sky, shading red into night. I quickly looked down to see the Sister Superior standing a few paces ahead of me, her face immobile - not amused, but not really angry either.
"You have never seen an orbital shuttle before?" she asked as I caught up with her.
"No, Sister Superior," I answered. One of the few details she had volunteered during our mostly silent trip was the proper way of addressing the various ranks of Sister.
"They are only one of the miracles wrought by the servants of the Emperor," she said. I hurried to keep pace with her as she led me through the interior of the spaceport. There were no windows in the areas I saw, and as the craft I boarded was reached via a sealed corridor I had no other glimpse of the place. I say 'I' boarded, rather than 'we' - the Sister Superior left me in the care of a Sister who was waiting for recruits such as myself. There were already more than twenty young girls waiting, in a room isolated from the main walkway of the terminal by a frosted glass wall. Some were chatting quietly, some were keeping to themselves. I found myself taking one of the small seats still available, with my bag on my knees, staring at nothing, thinking of nothing. As I had looked around the room and seen no faces I recognised, I suddenly felt tears beginning to form in my eyes. So I sat, and fought them back. After a couple of hours' waiting, and the arrival of half a dozen more girls, we were ushered into the corridor that led us to the orbital shuttle.
We were seated in rows, strapped in securely by the shuttle's crew and told not to try to leave our seats for any reason. Our bags were taken for storage in the lockers, and then the door back to the spaceport closed with a clang and a hiss. A crackly voice told us to prepare for lift-off, and a moment later the deck shuddered and there was a roar from outside, dulled by the intervening metal of the shuttle's hull. I had expected worse than the slight feeling of weight that accompanied our lift-off - each seat had a paper bag attached to its arm, which we had been told was in case we felt nauseous during the trip, but it was really a lot smoother than the bus earlier. I suppose some people are affected differently to others. The girl on my right looked a little pale, and was breathing deeply, steadily, as if trying to calm herself - if so, it must have worked.
After half an hour of non-eventful travel there was a quiet clang, and five minutes later the door swung open again. The shuttle crew unstrapped us and headed us towards the door, which now led to a short passage through which we entered the transport Sacred Star. Again, there were no windows, and so we remained ignorant of what the ship actually looked like. I still haven't seen the Sacred Star from the outside, but I did eventually see others of the class she belongs to. But for the moment the mighty ship consisted of a low-ceilinged chamber containing a handful of men in unfamiliar uniforms - Navy, I guessed. One was speaking to the Sister who had accompanied us as I passed, following the girl in front of me as we were all directed to a doorway to our right by a young Navy man.
We ended up in small quarters, each cabin holding six of us in a space barely larger than my room at home. Two walls were occupied by bunks, three high. The other free wall, opposite the door, was featureless save for a black panel set into it just below the ceiling. As the door behind us slid shut the panel lit up, and turned out to be a screen which now showed the face of a middle-aged man with grey hair, receding back over his scalp. His high collar was visible, telling us he was an officer like the ones we had seen earlier - perhaps the captain, for the collar was decorated extravagantly. He spoke in a bored monotone, as if reading a prepared statement.
"This is a recorded message," he said. "You are being transported to the Schola Progenium Convent on Delva Four for education as members of the Adeptus Terra. Remain in your quarters and rest. You will be notified shortly before any occasion on which you will leave your cabins. When outside your cabin obey all orders given to you by members of the ship's crew, and go only where indicated by those supervising you. That is all."
I knew it was, by home time, well into the evening, but as most of the day had been physically undemanding I found myself unwilling to sleep just yet. My companions were likewise well awake, leading us to talk for some time. All but one of them were a few years younger than I, the exception being Serena, a girl of my age who had lived in Clearsky. I found out she was the daughter of a Major in the Guard, who had been called off-world to join the 87th Brightwater regiment, on the recommendation of a Colonel who had been his commanding officer until the regiment was raised five years ago. Having no other family, Serena had been accepted by the Schola Progenium. Unlike me she didn't have a clear idea where this would lead her. The others were Tasmin, Lasille, Donna and Ursala, all of between eight and eleven years. Lasille was from Clearsky also, and had shared the rail shuttle with Serena. The other three were from various towns across Brightwater - Ursala from one only a few hours from my home, but which I had never visited. They drifted off to sleep one by one, leaving Serena and I to talk for a while until we decided it would be best not to be too tired for whatever tomorrow would bring.
Forewarned by another recording, we were ready the next morning when a man came to escort us to a large room, a cross between a mess hall and a theatre. We were served breakfast - some unidentifiable food which turned out to be bland, but filling enough and not really unpleasant, and then our education as Progena began. We were spoken to by a Sister, not the same one as accompanied us up from the spaceport - I never saw her again, so I don't know whether she remained on the ship, or went back to Brightwater on the shuttle.
Firstly we were told a few details of our immediate future, the conditions we would be living in once we reached the Convent, and what was expected of us. We learned that the ship's warp drive had pushed it from realspace less than two hours after our shuttle had docked - I realised I must have been awake when it had happened. I hadn't felt a thing. As many of the children weren't yet destined for a particular type of service the information we were given was all-encompassing, some of it not relevant to me personally, but I listened anyway. There wasn't much else to do.
One thing I remember very clearly. It was nearing the end of the first day, during which we had not moved from that room - we had eaten in silence at midday, ship's time, which was only an hour away from my own recollection of time according to home. During our meal we had listened as the Sister had read the Emperor's Prayer to us, a longer version than we had previously known, in High Gothic which at the time I didn't understand at all. We were told we would have to have learned the Prayer, in that form, by the time we reached the Convent, and later we were each provided with a copy of it, printed in a tiny book with the Ecclesiarchy's symbol on its cover. But what I remember was something said by the Sister just before she left us to eat dinner and be returned to our cabins.
"Until now you have been servants of the Imperium," she had said, looking out over us all - she had some notes, but had rarely referred to them, and did not do so at all now. "Your spiritual well-being has been left in the capable hands of the preachers and missionaries who have cared for you. That is no longer the case. You are now, each of you, servants of the Emperor Himself. In the months and years to come you will be cared for and helped along the roads your lives will lead, by Sisters such as myself, your tutors and overseers. Your minds and souls will have the best care we can provide. But it is no longer the duty of others to ensure your souls become one with the Emperor when you leave this life. Now that is your duty, and your duty alone. You are His servants, and your faith is placed in Him. And He places His faith in you, and no other. It is your responsibility, above all else, to see that His faith is not misplaced."
I thought about what the Sister had said that night, after Serena has gone to sleep. I had heard much about the Emperor and how He watched and protected us, both in the school and in the services I attended with my parents. But I had never really thought about it until now. While I had been living my life on Brightwater the Emperor, and my soul for that matter, had seemed ephemeral, far-off things that touched me for a second or two as they were spoken of, and then slipped back up above the clouds, safely out of reach of the real world. Now, it suddenly struck me, if my soul was anywhere it was right here, travelling with me. And now there was no-one to look after it but me, until the time when the Emperor came for me. He places His faith in me, she had said. I don't know why, but that struck a chord with me. I was determined, as I fell asleep, that I would be worthy of His faith.
Our education continued in much the same manner for the thirteen days it took the Sacred Star to reach Delva IV. Indeed things were initially not so different after we had been ferried down to the surface, except the rooms were bigger and the students now numbered in their thousands. All thirty of us were placed in the same large room, filled with narrow beds, along with double our number again from other ships that had recently arrived. But as the days turned into weeks our tuition became more focussed. The younger girls disappeared for days at a time, and I learned from Serena, who went with them, that they were being put through exercises, physical and mental, designed to determine what path of study would best suit them. During those times I, and others like me who were already destined for the Sisterhood, attended lessons on the duties and responsibilities of a Daughter of the Emperor.
My clothes were replaced by a short, plain robe, which was comfortable enough, and had clearly been designed to allow maximum freedom of movement. This was necessary, because we were being taught how to survive and endure, as well as the more cerebral aspects of the Sisterhood. At the end of the first fortnight we were drilled from dawn 'till sunset, which took slightly longer than it would have on Brightwater - Delva IV has a twenty-five-hour day - marching and standing at attention, going through endless repetitions of exercises, and circling through athletics courses, much like we had always imagined the mighty Marines doing whenever they weren't fighting on alien worlds. I was exhausted, but some of the others didn't make it through the day - some of them improved, others were redirected into less physical studies, to eventually fill those roles within the Sisterhood that required devotion, but not exertion.
Serena too seemed destined for the Sisters, and as the weeks wore on she was present in more and more of the classes and exercises I was in. Her father had apparently known he was likely to be called to join the regiment, and had done his best to prepare her for the Schola Progenium. The basic elements of military procedure we were taught - advancing, controlled retreat, moving in formation - all seemed second-nature to her. I picked up on it all quickly enough that there was no doubt I would at least continue the training - I mentioned I had a good memory, but it was only now, when we were deluged with information, that I realised how effortless it was for me to remember something - I had only to hear words spoken a few times, or read them two or three times over the course of a day, and they stayed in my head indefinitely, available whenever I needed them. The tutors in faith and philosophy were impressed with my progress through the texts, the basic levels of which I achieved effortlessly. It was just as well - with the demands of the physical training, I didn't have much effort to spare.
But even so I found that I initially preferred the training, during the first few months. They were a challenge, and as had used to be the case, my mind was free to wander during the purely physical exercises. Cross-country figured into our schedule, and I found that the more I practices the better I became, my endurance surprising the Sisters who trained us. I shouldn't make it sound easy, for it wasn't - at the end of every day I was exhausted, and it defied my belief that, as we were crossing the miles of sparse plains that surrounded the Convent, our trainer would often come running up behind me, offer a word of encouragement or correction, and then accelerate away after the distant dot that marked the next girl sweating her way through the course. I never saw one of them break out in a sweat, even when we were all drenched after a long day, and they had been with us every step and faster. Ursala was with us for some of the runs, but that was all I saw of her or the other girls from home aside from the few minutes we had to ourselves at the end of each day. I didn't know what she was being schooled for, and neither did she. Her classes seemed to consist of a mix of endurance and a sort of mental gymnastics that was taught, less frequently, to us all under the name 'meditative prayer'.
I say that I preferred the training initially, but after the first few months I was transferred from the basic theology classes to more advanced ones. My tutors had evidently felt that I was being wasted in what was, for me, simply an exercise in memorisation. They felt that my mind should be as exhausted as my body by the end of the day, apparently, and they succeeded more often than not. But I found myself enjoying these classes - again, it was the challenge.
"Why are we known as the Daughters of the Emperor?" asked our tutor in faith and philosophy one day. A girl who I didn't know, of about my age but not one from my sleeping room, advanced the opinion that we had become Daughters when we were chosen for the Schola - rephrasing what the Sister had told us aboard the Sacred Star, and presumably had been told to her on a different ship on her way here.
"Simple, but correct," said Sister Kristine, our tutor. She had a habit of qualifying her answer when handing out praise - we may have been correct now and then, but no-one had ever managed to be completely correct during all the hours I was in her presence. "But ignore the use of the title," she went on, "and consider the question devoid of context. Are we daughters of the Emperor, in the same way that we are the daughters of our mothers and fathers?"
"Not in the same way," began Raelle, a girl slightly younger than me who had the misfortune to occupy Sister Kristine's attention at the point the question had been asked. The Sister held up a finger, mildly scolding Raelle.
"In exactly the same way," Sister Kristine corrected, "in every way that matters we are the children of the Emperor. Consider this: suppose an otherwise happy couple were separated from their newborn child, through circumstances beyond their control. This child, cared for by foster parents, grows into a healthy, well-adjusted adult. Of which couple is this child the son or daughter of? The natural parents? Well suppose, for the sake of illustration, that the child's natural parents were not otherwise happy - suppose they were delinquent in their duty to their child, and abandoned the child without thought to the consequences. Yet this child, in due course, marries and becomes a parent, caring for a child of his or her own, caring for it as we would hope.
"The delinquent parents are parents biologically only. It is those who take care of a child, raise the child, teach and protect the child, that are the family of the child. Most often it is the child's natural parents who fulfil the greatest part of this. But, if a child is unfortunate enough to be abandoned as we have supposed, and is raised by a couple who offer all that a child may need, that child is absolutely correct to look to those people and call them 'mother' and 'father'. And when that child in turn becomes a parent, it will be to those people that he or she will look, and draw inspiration to be a parent to their own child.
"Now consider the Emperor. He has lived in times so distant they are incomprehensible to us, when our proud race occupied only a handful of primitive settlements on Terra. He has always been happy to share his life with His people, and so more and more can trace their lives back to Him. The Magos Mathematicus can provide numerical, scientific proof that we are all, every single human in this galaxy, children of the Emperor. We need no such proof, for we know it in our hearts, in our blood, in our souls. We are all His children.
"But most of our people live their lives unaware of this. You are beginning to realise it, through your tuition here, but the untold billions of humans who do not have this privilege know only that the Emperor is there, and that He watches and protects them. They cannot understand the truth of their relation to Him, as we of the Sisterhood do, and as you one day will. This is no fault of theirs, I hasten to add. It is not easy to comprehend this truth, and we lack the means to bring this truth to the soul of every human in our beloved Imperium. We strive to serve the Emperor and His creation as best we can, in the hope that our efforts will one day bring about his glorious vision, a galaxy in which every human truly understands that they are His child.
"Until that far-off day, we must remember. The Emperor protects us from harm. He teaches us the way to achieve happiness in this life, and the life beyond. He watches us grow, rejoices in our triumphs, and mourns our passing even as we join with him. We are His children, and He is our family. Those of us who understand this are blessed, as you one day will be. And, to remind ourselves of this blessing, that is why we are known as the Daughters of the Emperor. He is our family, all that we will ever need."
As time passed the lessons became more complex. We were expected not only to remember what we had been taught, but to interpret it and anticipate the next lesson. As one tutor put it, we were not led along the path, merely pointed to the start, and gently prodded in the right direction if we strayed too far. We studied all sorts of beliefs in the Emperor, from the highest, most ritualised practices of the Adeptus Terra to the crudest faiths of primitive worlds. Even ogryns, which initially surprised some of us - well, me, and I think a few others as well. But it turned out that the strength of their simple belief was so great we hardly dared hope to one day achieve it. It certainly shamed those of us who had, years earlier, giggled at the thought of these giants with their little books of prayers that they couldn't read hanging by a thread around their necks.
Our training too picked up the pace, becoming both physically and mentally demanding as we learned to think and act as soldiers. We were formed into squads, and battle groups, with some of us given temporary ranks to simulate the chain of command of a real Sisterhood force. Once I was acting superior, and Serena was part of my squad, which was amusing. We equalised a week or so later, when she was put in charge of the simulated section I was a part of. As the weeks passed we were fewer and fewer, thanks to the unforgiving requirements of the training. At the end of the first year our group joined with another we had not previously trained with, which almost brought us back to half the number of girls we had started with. A few months later we merged again, and so it went on, day after day. I won't bore you with the details of everyday training - if you've been there you know, if not it's just so many words.
There were a few moments that stood out, though. Once we were taken by grav shuttle quite a way away from the Convent, into thick bushland, and left with just our robe and a compass, alone with no food, no suitable clothing, and no help in getting back. We had already trained in survival and improvisation, but that particular exercise put it in a whole new perspective. I made it back exhausted and hungry, but not too exhausted thanks to my training, and not too hungry thanks to some local wildlife that wasn't as fast as I was. A few maston skins stitched together helped with the cold, too. Some of the girls didn't make it out on their own, and had to be picked up and treated. It was rumoured that trainees had died in similar exercises, but none had this time, and I don't know whether that was true, or just rumour.
It was almost two years later, when I was nearing my sixteenth birthday, that we first saw the suits. I mean to say in person - there had always been some Sisters in armour around the Convent, going about whatever business they had, but this was the first time we were allowed to train with them. The suit - to give it its proper name, the mark seven slash beta 'Angel' tactical powered armour - is a wonderful piece of equipment. If I had the Emperor's blessing to give out now, it would be to the Magos Technicus who designed the first Angel suit. We knew something of how Space Marine power armour worked - that it was actually plugged into their brain via some sort of special implant. Fortunately - I was a little nervous, to be honest - Angel armour needs no such connection. The inner surface of the suit is lined with rows of tiny bumps that are actually pressure sensors. Once a suit is calibrated to its wearer - ie me, in a process that involved me standing still for eight hours while Adepts fine-tuned the suit - it will be able to detect any movement via these sensors, and the suit will move in such a way as to take the pressure off those particular sensors. It sounds fiddly, but it isn't. Suppose I were to move my arm up: that would press on the sensors on the upper surface of the suit's arm. The suit would register this pressure, and move its arm a fraction to take the pressure off. So long as I keep moving my arm, the suit keeps moving its arm. A properly-calibrated suit does all this so fast it's like a second skin - it moves as I move. Unlike a vehicle it requires no skill to use - at this stage I'd been walking, crouching, ducking, rolling and running for almost sixteen years, and was quite good at it all.
What we wore was not proper battle armour, of course. It was stripped down, with most of the armour gone, and special sections made to automatically adjust to us as we grew. Each of us had a suit of our own, and our lessons now broadened to include its proper maintenance in all those areas outside the realm of the Tech-priest who, with his staff of Adepts, performed all the complicated litanies and repairs that we'd never have managed on our own. We learned how to store the suits in the racks that housed them when not in use, how to prepare them for the battlefield, how to run through the routine checks that told us whether a suit was healthy or not, and how to manage when something went wrong. Some of this involved minor repairs, which we were taught by the Tech-priest himself, under the supervision of our trainers, but mostly it something went wrong in the field it was beyond our abilities to fix it, and training told us how to cope with the disadvantages a malfunctioning suit brought, and meet our mission goals regardless. This training armour had special units built into it that allowed it to simulate common faults, like partial loss of power, or damage to the control nodes, the kinds of things that could easily happen in battle if a shot gets through the armour and hits machine instead of flesh on the inside.
The suits, although not entirely armoured, afforded us enough protection to allow us to use more realistic weapons in our drills. Up until this time we'd been using very low-powered laser weapons, which gave us a nasty sting when they hit but did no real damage - we wore goggles to shield our eyes, which were the only part of us really vulnerable to such weapons. Even so they weren't something to be taken lightly. The first time I was hit, in the arm while I was negotiating a barricade, I thought something had gone wrong and I'd been hit by a full-strength shot. My arm felt sore for days. That was enough to give us a real interest in treating these weapons as the real thing. But once we were in armour we used weapons more like real lasguns, although still not as powerful - they were enough to knock us down if they hit, and if one were to have hit an unarmoured target I don't doubt it would have caused a nasty flesh wound at least.
These were difficult exercises for me, not because of the hits but because of what was happening in my head. Whenever I saw someone go down alongside me, in my mind I had the horrible fear that one day this would be played out for real, and that girl would then be wounded, or dead. And it was worse because I knew, in a way, that I was right - one day it would be for real, and no matter how hard I tried the toughest simulations always took their toll on our simulated squads. It was worse when I was squad leader - I felt I had failed, even when I was noted for having kept my squad more intact than was usually the case. One casualty was too many. Strangely it wasn't so bad when I was the one knocked down, lying in a powered-down suit waiting for the end of the simulation. Unless I had gotten myself hit through some careless error, I didn't feel that I had failed my squad. But more often than not I was the squad leader, and the squad doctrine we had learned was based on keeping priority personnel alive - mission specialists, and leaders. So it was more often than not one of the others who took the fall, and I had to keep going. One time it was Serena who was hit, right by my side as we were racing across a fire zone. I very nearly stopped and went back for her - if another of us hadn't done the same thing the day before, and gotten a full lecture about achieving the mission, I might have done it. It wasn't easy starting the next simulation after that one.
As my sixteenth year came to an end, unnoted by any but myself and Serena, who had extracted the date of my birth from me not long after we were brought to Delva Four, the routine of our lives began to change. We were less and less students, and more soldiers in training. Those lessons that remained in the lecture rooms were no longer about history and abstract philosophy, or the dictates and principles of the Emperor's words. Now, in the lectures, we were taught the faith that would keep us alive, and fighting, when nothing else would.
"There may well come a time when your lives are given in the service of the Emperor," said Sister Kristine, who was still lecturing us in our revised faith and philosophy classes, and now in target shooting as well. "On that day, which may not be far off for some of you, you may wonder whether the service you perform - which may be, in the larger context of the Imperium, not so important that it would go unnoticed if it should be left undone - is really worth the cost of your own life. You must believe that it is. Every task undertaken in the name of the Emperor is worth the most we can give to see it achieved. If the price of success if life, that price must be paid without hesitation." She paused for a moment, looking out over us - it was only when she began tutoring us in marksmanship, when she wore a viewvisor, that we had realised she could barely see with her own eyes. Whenever she looked at us it was with a stare so penetrating that she seemed to be looking right through our eyes and memorising the back of our skulls.
"The service of the Emperor is not a matter of factories and wars. Great men and women have fought across the galaxy in the Emperor's name, and whole worlds have become production houses to supply the Imperium with its essential needs. But the Emperor's work is not done with our hands. It is done in our hearts. Whether our task be the conquest of a world or the writing of a prayer, in our hearts we do His work, and we need know no more than that. The Emperor's work must always be done, in whatever form it presents itself to us. Whatever the cost, whatever the hardship we may endure, His work must be done. The greatest gift we may receive is the Emperor's salvation, and compared to that the cost of our life is a small price indeed."
No effort was spared, however, to ensure that the ultimate price was paid only when necessary, and at as great a cost to His enemies as to ourselves. We trained with every weapon I had ever heard of - autorifles like the Guard at home used, proper lasguns, tasers, webbers, crossbows, railguns, slings, missiles, practically any weapon capable of throwing a projectile further than arm's reach was put in our hands, and we were taught how to put that projectile - whether it be a rock or a warhead - onto an Imperial credit piece at maximum range in poor light, four times out of five. When we could do that, Sister Kristine nodded and introduced us to the next weapon. She could use all of them, five times out of five.
And of course we trained with bolters. The 428/Mars-alpha pattern explosive bolt rifle slowly became our standard weapon for all but live combat drills, and I certainly came to respect it - although, to be honest, I later preferred the Mars-gamma that's been issued to the Astartes nowadays, and is slowly being issued to the Sororitas as well. The first thing that struck us was the noise of the thing when fired, as Sister Kristine demonstrated the standard bolt shell. We all knew, from stories, about how they roared and rattled and so on, and I was expecting something a little more than the dull 'whump' as she squeezed the trigger and the shell almost lazily flew out of the barrel. Then, barely half a second later and just as we'd stopped being tense, there was an almighty crack, followed by a boom as the target mannequin was reduced to burning debris. That's the strange thing about bolters, they're not really rifles at all - more like a hand-held rocket launcher, where the rocket fires just after it leaves the barrel propelled by a tiny ignition charge. We'd thought the autorifles were loud, but I don't doubt that we'd all have been deafened within a week if we hadn't had protection from sound dampers, or armour.
And the kick of the thing - it's entirely unlike a rifle there as well, because there's a double recoil, first from the ignition charge - I called it 'tiny', which it is, compared to the main burn, but it's enough to knock the gun out of your hands if you're not ready for it - and then the shockwave as a micro-missile lights up barely a metre in front of you and hits you with all its backwash, half of it spilling back down the barrel. We learned how to angle slightly up just as the bolt ignited in front of us, so it flew straight but didn't put its wash back into the weapon. The training guns we'd used had mechanisms inside them designed to simulate the kick of a bolter, but it's not the same.
We trained with more advanced weapons as well, meltaguns, grenade launchers, flamers - they're a lot more complex than people think, by the way, they're more like a liquid cannon than a simple flamethrower. Ursala was still with us occasionally, when whatever schedule she was following meshed with ours, and she seemed to be a natural, earning the singular honour of being told she was 'not bad' by Sister Kristine - as close as our tutor ever came to praise without an attached criticism. She trained with all sorts of weapons, everything we had learned and then some, from bows right up to strange Mars-manufactured creations that had one of the Tech-priest's Adepts standing alongside at all times - even a few weapons that I didn't recognise, and later realised were of alien design. Some of them I still don't know.
And more often we were left alone, too. I don't mean we had time to do with as we pleased - that almost never happened - but we were given texts to study, copy or translate, and left to do so while the Sisters spent their time teaching the younger girls who were arriving, just as we had a lifetime earlier. Or it would be endurance exercises, where we were simply told what to do and left to it, leaving the Convent at sunrise and not seeing a Sister again until sunset when we returned, exhausted. It may seem strange, but it became very important to us to have these times to ourselves, even though we weren't doing anything different than we had been earlier. We felt like people, not children, and to speak for myself, I was suddenly proud of what I was doing. Before it had been simply a case of doing what I was told, but now I felt that I was making my own choices, in a strange way that had nothing to do with actually having a choice to make. The lists of 'thou shalt not' that had been drilled into us were suddenly, inside us, replaced with 'I will not'. It made no difference, but it made all the difference in the world, too.
Eventually we left the Schola Progenium. This was not the end of our education, but it marked an important turning point for me, for all of us I believe. When we had arrived, two and a half years earlier, we had been children, nothing more - human potential waiting to be. When we left we were, however naive and inexperienced, soldiers and believers, holy warriors who asked nothing from life. You may have heard the common mis-quote: 'we ask nothing but to be allowed to do the Emperor's work.' Not true, really - we had been taught to endure any hardship, that much was true, from the most basic living conditions to the horrors of the battlefield, so far as that could be taught without experience. But being 'allowed' to do the Emperor's work? No, as we left Delva Four we had become people who would not ask even that - we would do the Emperor's work, and be damned to anyone who stood in our way. We were becoming Sisters of Battle. So we thought, anyway. Every newly-trained group of novices thinks this, so far as I know, and they all learn the same way we did that the Schola is a place where children are prepared for the real lessons up ahead. Well, there doesn't seem to be any place other than the battlefield where it is possible to learn those lessons, so you'll have to forgive a handful of hopeful young girls who thought they knew what a Sister of Battle was. But we would find out.
The Holy Sentinel was not a large ship, its passenger quarters being on the cramped side, but those few of us who boarded her found the accommodations more than we had hoped for. Sleeping on the cold stone of the Schola's floor, with only a thin blanket beneath you, makes even the roughest shipboard bunk seem a luxury. There were fifteen Sisters on board, and about that number again of crew, women whose devotion came from the Sisterhood but whose training was of the Imperial Navy. Then there was this small, wide-eyes group of novices, five of us, who were addressed by the Sister Superior who commanded the ship's Sisters as soon as we had left Delva orbit. We weren't told much, initially - we were novices in the care of the Order of Our Lady of the Rose, a subset of the Order of the Bloody Rose, and we were to shut up, do as we were told, and keep out of the way. That was our introduction to service in the Sisterhood, so far as I remember - there may have been a few more words here and there, but I doubt it. The next day, after we had jumped to warp on our way to the Administratum world Central, we began training with the Sisters themselves.
I had wondered what would happen while we were on board ship, for Central was over three weeks away, even for our fast ship, but it turned out that we wouldn't be wasting our time. The one area of the ship not built to a scale slightly smaller than apparently necessary was the training deck, in constant use whenever we were in transit, which was often. Ships such as the Holy Sentinel are built to be almost constantly en route to their next destination, where they remain only long enough for their cargo of Sisters to disembark, administer the purity control tests that are the life's work of many orders like ours, and take whatever action is required. If the tests are positive then we leave again, confident that we leave behind us true servants of the Emperor. If the tests are negative, we cleanse - detain, incarcerate, or just plain exterminate the deviants. I didn't really understand what this meant until the third world where we put into port, after Central and its nearby asteroid colony of Longreach, a large moon known to its inhabitants as Redsky. The name's origin was obvious to us as soon as we set down - the moon orbited a gas giant with a very diffuse upper atmosphere, that actually enveloped the moon itself. Day and night the sky had a reddish haze to it, as if it were being seen through a thin film of blood. We landed at night, and the stars were twinkling like rubies.
We split up and administered the tests, which consisted of genetic scans, interviews conducted under hypnosis and serums, data analysis - the material for this was relayed to the Sentinel, where its crew processed and returned it - and checking and re-checking seemingly of every word or deed spoken or done in the place in living memory. How Sister Superior Monikka, who led my team personally, kept track of it all I couldn't understand. She seemed to be able to merely glance at a page and recall every detail, right down to a tiny ink-stain on its corner that a normal reader wouldn't even have seen.
It was approximately five hours after we had landed and entered the facility - a monitoring station for local shipping, watching and reporting on the 'mining' of the gases in the lower atmospheres of the gas giants that populated the system. The Sister Superior had, after the preliminary tests, sent all her Sisters off individually to conduct the full range of tests, assigning the novices to some of them as observers and assistants wherever necessary. I was in the company of Sister Melany, a tall woman whose pale skin looks positively white against the red of her armour. As a novice I wore plain robes, not so different to those of a Progena - we still trained in armour, the same suits we had used at the Schola, but until we had finished our term as novices we wouldn't have the opportunity to wear real battle armour.
Sister Melany was finishing her assigned tests, genetic screening for the most part, when I heard the soft tone that indicated a communication. Melany's armour, of course, had all the usual voice channels, and she spoke quietly, to the Sister Superior I assumed, for a moment as I busied myself returning the screening equipment to its cases, making sure each piece was correctly disassembled and touched by the Mars seal that accompanied each case.
"Follow," Melany ordered just as I had finished packing the last device away. I hauled the various cases up by their straps and lumbered after her as she quickly made her way through the facility, never pausing, never looking anywhere but ahead. I caught up with her as she stopped outside the door of an office, one of dozens of tiny work-spaces in the lower floors of the building we were in. Nothing that I could see served to identify this room from any of the others. Melany touched the entry panel and stepped through the door as soon as it swung open. By the time I came to stand in the doorway she was half-way around the desk inside, drawing a slim tube from a pouch on her belt as the menial inside the room began to stand. I saw his mouth form the first syllable of 'praised,' as in 'praised be the Emperor,' the standard greeting the menials used when confronted with one of us. Melany had come to his side in two quick steps, her free arm going around his neck, the other pressing the tube to his skull, just above and forward of his left ear. There was a brief sound, between a hiss and a whirr, and when she released him he slumped back into his chair. I saw a red circle on his head, neatly cauterised, where the tube had touched him. We had learned how to operate the variant on the apothecary's carnifex that we used, and I had recognised it as soon as it appeared in Sister Melany's hand. I had never seen one used before.
She took a step back, and her hand touched her armour, on her chest just below the neck, and her shoulders - the sign of the Imperial eagle. Without thinking I copied the motion - it had become almost instinct for me to do so whenever required. To be honest I couldn't have consciously thought about it to save my life, then. Melany said a few quick words under her breath, and led me away, back through the corridors to where the Sisters were converging, their tests complete. Half-way back I began to comprehend what had happened, and I began trembling. I'm sure Melany saw me, but she made no comment. On the shuttle trip back I made myself think of nothing beyond keeping my hands from shaking as I sat as still as I could in my seat, listening to the dull, familiar sound of the shuttle's engines.
Even so the Sisters must have known that we had such a reaction - from the eyes of a couple of my fellow novices I knew I had not been the only witness to an execution, although we never talked about that first time. Nor was our shock brought to the attention of the Sisters in any significant way, but nevertheless the next time we were assembled in the Holy Sentinel's briefing room for tuition Sister Superior Monikka made sure to address the point.
"There are three enemies whose presence we detect, and whose threat we eliminate," she said. "Firstly, there are those whose character is of a nature prone to straying from the Emperor's way. These are not malicious or evil people - most likely they simply have not been taught correctly, and lack faith in Him. Their existence casts more shame on us, His servants, than on they themselves, for it is we who have failed when a child reaches adulthood without faith. Every effort is made to correct these people, so that they may find the faith that has eluded them." She went on to describe the methods by which such people we educated - sermon and prayer, hypnotic suggestion and psycho-training, and in the most extreme cases the attention of Confessors.
"Then there are those whose soul is impure. They cannot be saved by normal means, and so must be erased. No amount of education or instruction can hide the stain of darkness on a deviant soul, and it would be foolish of us to try. But even so there are ways such unfortunates can serve the Emperor. Many are turned into mechanical servants, servitors, so that their body, untouched as it is by the impurity of their soul, may still perform some small service. Some are suitable for the fate of sustaining the Emperor in His vigil on Terra, where the untamed threat of their impurity becomes an asset to Him, akin to the ways of drawing power from such seemingly wild forces as atomics. Those who are suitable, we send to serve the Emperor in these ways, in the hope that their service may cause Him to look favourably on their souls when they come before Him to be judged for their sins." There were no servitors on the Sentinel, but we had seen them on occasion at the facilities we visited.
"Finally there are those whose bodies are impure, the mutants. They cannot be allowed to taint our proud race with their presence, for mutation is deviation from the sacred form of the Emperor himself. These unfortunates are truly cursed, for their souls are often noble, trapped inside a shell unworthy of them. But, to our shame, we cannot erase the deviance of the mutant, and there is no way for a noble soul in such a being to be freed of its curse. These poor creatures we release from their mortal bondage, in the hope that the Emperor will look kindly upon their souls when divorced from their malformed bodies, and grant them the honour of purity in death which they were denied in life."
I suppose it made sense in a way, but it was cold comfort. The privations of the Schola had taught us, among other things, to take rest wherever we could, regardless of the circumstances. But I lay awake that night for a long time, silently wishing and praying that, against the unrelenting realities of the galaxy, there could be a better way.
Time passed, and we grew used to the necessities of our task. After many such purity control inspections it was decided that it was time for the novices to learn how to be the hand that delivered the Emperor's mercy to those whose deviance called for it. Forgive me if I don't discuss it at length - it was one of the hardest things I have ever done, that cold, clinical duty. I felt shamed then, as well as almost physically sick. The nausea passed, with time and experience, but the shame never went away, not for as long as I performed that service. I felt it every time, and after every time I prayed that I would never become so used to it that I did not feel a thing.
This was not the only possible outcome of our inspections, though. Four months after we had begun our term as novices we were diverted to a small farming world known as Daylight, where deviance had led to rebellion faster than our Order had been able to detect it. There were already three ships like ours in orbit when we arrived, and we were told we would be participating in cleansing only - the majority of the work had been done, in battle, before we arrived.
Our first assignment was to contain and eradicate a small rebel compound on the outskirts of a town. We had landed a few klicks from the place - they had no heavy artillery that could have hit us at such range - and moved in, fifteen of us, three novices and twelve Sisters under the command of Celestian Theresa. The other half of our number were performing a similar duty a dozen miles from our location, which I later learned was an almost unnecessary operation - intelligence had overestimated the forces there, and Serena told me later it took barely ten minutes for them to be overcome and eliminated. Our target, however, turned out to be more significant.
It was as we were moving in from the established perimeter that Celestian Theresa got word a cult leader was thought to be in the compound. His elimination became our highest priority - what had led him to flee here we didn't know, for he was apparently important enough that almost two hundred well-trained and well-armed followers died to cover his escape from the one major city on Daylight. Their sacrifice had not been without its cost to our Order either.
We picked up our pace, moving in to surround and secure the compound as quickly as possible. Trip-wires and alarms were being located and disabled as we went, but either something was missed or, more likely, we were simply spotted by eye, for suddenly we were ducking under a hail of fire from the windows of the buildings. We returned fire as best we could - we couldn't make out our targets save for the muzzle-flashes of their weapons. I was armed, as a novice, with a pistol which lacked the range needed to trouble the rebels, so I devoted my attention full-time to scanning for trip-wires and other hindrances as the Sisters at my side let their bolters speak for us. A large shell - a heavy bolter, or perhaps an autocannon - exploded against one of them, a young Sister named Annebell, and I had a sudden recollection of the battle simulations on Delva Four. But Sister Annebell barely broke her fire, rolling and firing from the ground for a moment before regaining her footing.
With our superior armour and firepower we soon entered the compound itself, and the fighting became house-to-house as we cleared out one building and moved to the next. In those conditions the rebels were unable to bring much firepower to bear on us as any one time, and the danger now lay in surprise attacks. There was no lack of these, as the rebels were fanatical. I saw one leap off a roof at Sister Melany, a grenade clutched in his hand. She spun and blew him out of the air in mid-jump, turning her back as the grenade in his lifeless hand exploded harmlessly as his body landed, thrown back by the bolter's impact. He can't have been older than twelve.
Slowly the compound was cleared, and the outlying buildings burned to the ground. We had taken a few casualties, but no fatalities. There remained only a single building, a two-storey farmhouse that had been converted into a bastion of sorts. We reformed into two squads of five, with one novice being left outside to stand over the wounded - apart from one who had a concussion from a near-miss from a grenade, they were awake and capable of defending themselves, albeit without moving, but a wounded Sister was never left alone while a guard could be spared.
Sister Annebell led myself and the two other Sisters and one novice accompanying us into the building, timing our entry with that of the second squad led by Celestian Theresa. Gaining entry was easy - we simply blasted a hole through a non-supporting wall and walked in. There were surprisingly few rebels inside, it seemed most of them had joined the defence earlier, and died. But there was one moment when we had to fight.
We were on the upper floor, clearing out room after room, when they ambushed us. The walls were thin wood only, and two rebels with heavy rifles opened fire on us through a wall to our side before we reached the door to their room. As we turned, Annebell and Melany firing, a double-door to our right opened to reveal half a dozen rebels who fired without pause. A shot grazed my arm, but not badly and it only gave me added incentive to shoot into the mass of people as the Sisters turned to do likewise. It wasn't so hard to kill in battle as it was when we were conducting the tests - although we had attacked, it almost seemed self-defence.
The three Sisters quickly disposed of the ambushers, with a little help from myself and Jacquelin, the other novice with us. Annebell waved us into the room out of which the first attack had come, which seemed clear through the gaping holes left in the wall by the exchange of fire. She and the other two Sisters started moving towards the room from which the main attack had come, wary of further surprises. I entered the side room first, and forgot everything I knew about cleanse doctrine for an instant. For all I know I might have died there, from that shock, but for a strange chance.
The walls were painted red, strings of arcane symbols smeared in blood, the floor and ceiling likewise. There were tall candles, knocked over by the firing, and a sickly smell in the air. The purpose was clear - a sacrifice had been made. Details aren't necessary, except to say it had been recent. A man in long, flowing robes still stood over the body, a blade in one hand, his eyes turned towards me - at the time I was terrified, but in recollection I think I surprised him as much as he did me. He dropped the knife and his other hand went to his belt, my hand was raising my pistol, far too slowly it seemed, and then there was a crack from the boarded-up window and the man jerked and fell to the ground. It was so quick that I fired a bolt shell into the space where he had stood before I realised he had fallen. I then looked at the window, of all things - fortunately Jacquelin hadn't had such a shock, having followed me, and was covering the man in case he was still alive. The window was, as I said, boarded over from the outside, and only thin, grimy strips of light filtered through it. One of these now had a single, tiny dot of pure sunlight where a bullet had passed through, without so much as fracturing the window glass beyond the perfect round hole. The shot had caught the cult leader in the head, at exactly the point where the carnifex is used, and killed him instantly.
Thankfully Annebell had returned by this stage, and we quickly left the room, trying not to breathe the air or touch the floor. I spent a moment being sick in the corridor outside, trying to stop ghastly images of the room from playing through my memory. Melany offered me some water from her flask, which I gratefully accepted, and we left the building. The attack was over.
We left Daylight the next day, the last of the rebels having been killed or, in those cases where they were merely deluded rather than truly deviant, captured for trial and re-education. A curious footnote to that one day on that world, which I learned some time later, explained what had happened in the compound. When the cult leader had fled the city he had been followed by an assassin, a trainee from the Vindicare temple whose presence had already done much to disable the rebellion by removing those leaders who contributed the charisma that brought ordinary, decent people to mistakenly defy the Emperor. The trainee tracked the cult leader to the compound, and killed him from almost a mile away, firing one shot only through that boarded-up window. The assassin's name, I later found out, was Ursala.
We returned to Delva Four only once, a little over a year after we left as novices. We didn't see the buildings of the Schola Progenium, for we landed instead at the separate port attached to the Convent itself, the base of operations for our Order. Four of us had returned to become Sisters of Battle. The fifth had achieved that rank by tradition, a month earlier - her ashes were returned to the Convent to join the tens of thousands of Sisters who had already given their lives in the service of the Emperor. The service which gave her the title of Sororitas was performed by Sister Superior Monikka on the desert world Horizon. She had earned the title, and would greet the Emperor with humble pride.
The ceremony for us was longer, and it didn't strike the same note for me as that little group of fourteen standing in the open desert, around the funeral pyre of our friend. This ceremony was long and tedious, consisting for the most part of people preaching sermons that we had heard a hundred times already. Our only involvement was to stand at the appointed time before the great statue of the Emperor atop his great eagle steed, recite a litany we knew by heart, and be marked as Sisters. This was done by Sister Superior Monikka herself - she knelt by our side as each of us stood at the altar, and pressed a tiny sphere to our skin, just below the ankle on the outside of the right leg. It was instantaneous, leaving a tiny fleur-de-lys atop an equally tiny rose - the Sisterhood and the Order of Our Lady of the Rose. I had expected it to hurt, but it didn't, rather it was like touching ice, and a chill ran up my leg. Then more sermons, and we stood patiently in line as the words washed over us. I, and I think the other novices also, we remembering other words from the past year.
It had been noted by Celestian Theresa that Serena and I worked well when placed in the same squad - we had a way of knowing what the other was doing, a sort of unspoken communication that is worth gold to a fighting unit. She presumably passed this observation on to Sister Superior Monikka, and from there it went to the Order's administration staff, for we were both assigned to the Saint Valkyrie, a vessel much like the Holy Sentinel except that it was not currently home to any novices. Its duties were much the same also, but as we carried more fully-trained Sisters - twenty-four in total - we were more often sent to combat zones. The other difference was that, as Sisters, we were entitled to wear battle armour. When I first saw my suit it gleamed with the same light that my child's eyes had given the old armour among the relics at Clearsky City. By the time we reached our first port of call, an asteroid colony a week's journey from the Delva system, our armour was fully calibrated and ready for action. But it was three weeks later, on Oriax Prime, that we first fought.
The battle bore no relation to our usual task of ensuring purity among His servants - a band of Orks had crash-landed and were raising hell in the technologically-backward provinces on the planet's smaller inhabited continent. We were the closest ship, so along with an Imperial Guard transport that had been ferrying new troops to a front line several systems distant, we were diverted to contain and eliminate the aliens.
This proved none too difficult, for initial reports had overestimated the number of survivors from the crash - the Ork ship had been a big one, but had landed badly even by Ork standards and killed the majority of the troops on board. When we arrived almost simultaneously with the Sword of Faith, the Guard ship, the Orks were instantly fighting a losing battle. We moved in from the south while the Guard deployed east and north, using their greater numbers to prevent the Orks from moving away from the coast to the west, while our greater mobility and endurance allowed us to strike directly at the surviving leaders, breaking the army into scattered fugitives who were easily disposed of. The fighting might have been intense, but our battle plan had fortunately been ideal for the situation, and the Orks behaved exactly as we had expected them to. Our firepower hit them right where it hurt, and they never managed to mount an effective defence. The leaders were killed leading a weak counterattack, and all that remained was to cleanse by fire the area the Orks had occupied for any length of time.
Something happened on Oriax Prime, though, that struck me as odd. It was after the end of the cleanse, when we were returning to the nearest landing facility to rejoin our shuttles. We rode in three Rhino transports, with two of us on the running boards of each vehicle, one on each side. With no enemy left there was no reason for this, but it was important that the villagers we passed, who had lived in fear of the Orks, could see the faces of the people who had fought for them. Vehicles were just things, and not really enough to instil confidence, but seeing a human like yourself, knowing they have fought your enemy and defeated him, does a lot to restore the confidence of a community, even if that sight is only a glimpse as the Rhinos passed through on the main road.
There were small crowds on either side of the road as we passed through the villages, cheering and singing hymns. One figure caught my attention, though, in a small township only a few klicks from the base where the shuttles were waiting. He wasn't really distinctive in any way, but his expression marked him as different to the crowd - they were relieved, but he was merely watching us. I noticed, after this caught my attention, that he was wearing as different style of clothing to the people around him, and I wondered if he was not a local. His right arm was raised - most of the crowd were waving and so on, so this was not unusual, but there was something on his hand that glittered in the sunlight. As we passed I got a closer look, when it caught the light at just the right angle - it was an Imperial eagle, hanging from a chain which he held in his hand. I watched him, curious, as we left him and the rest of the crowd behind, and at that moment he saw me, and turned slightly as my vehicle passed. His eyes widened, and he began to gently push his way through the crowd, weaving between the people in front of him. He broke through the front line as we left, still looking at me, and although I couldn't hear his voice over the noise of the engines, I was almost sure his lips framed the syllables of my name. I tried to place him in my memory, but so far as I knew I had never seen him before. This effort of recollection had caused me to look down for a moment, and when I looked back he was gone, hidden in the dust thrown up by the tracks of the Rhinos. I wondered who he was, and if I had imagined the shape of his mouth as he called out. I told Serena of it later, but she was on the other side of the Rhino in front, and had seen nothing.
It was two months, and many battles, later when the incident was brought back to my mind, in the worst possible circumstances. Our small force was repelling an attack on a neighbouring hive from a well-equipped tech cult that had arisen in the neglected Golem Hive of Vallat Two. We were in two groups, Sister Superior Helenna and her squad protecting a fuel pipeline in a valley adjacent to where I was, under the command of our overall leader Celestian Superior Ilen, helping to defend a maze-like power relay station. The squads were not organised as they usually were, for the defence of the relay needed those like myself, who at least understood the basics of the machinery we were fighting amongst, and would know when a piece of equipment was too valuable to risk firing near or using as cover. All the non-technical Sisters, including Serena, had been assigned to protect the pipeline, which was a simple, straight-forward defence. We fought inside the relay for five hours before finally forcing the techs to flee from it. When we were finished we learned that Helenna's squad had stalled a major attack at the pipeline, facing overwhelming numbers of techs who hoped to break into the hive itself. Helenna and her Sisters had faced the army down, and forced them to give up their element of surprise and over half of their fighting troops - and in the process, had been completely wiped out.
If we had fought on, perhaps it wouldn't have been so difficult, but with the techs' long-awaited attack finally made, and defeated, the situation was considered safe to hand back to the planetary defence force. So we returned to the Saint Valkyrie, and set out for a rendezvous with a nearby Sisterhood transport carrying new troops for our suddenly empty ship. Even when we were back at full strength, the ship still seemed empty. No, I seemed empty. Serena had been a constant, from that first night aboard the Sacred Star. I loved her - I had never had a sister, but she was a sister to me as truly as if we had shared blood. Without her I suddenly felt very alone, and homesick not for Brightwater, or the Convent, but for her, because she had been there in every place I had felt I belonged.
It was the night after her service that I had the dream. I had cried, silently, as the flames took her to the life beyond, and in the slight chill of the ship's night I still felt the warmth against my face. After lying awake for a long time I eventually fell into a light sleep, sadness and loneliness still preying on me. Normally when I dream it makes no sense - random images from reality, shuffled and distributed in a bizarre experience that is all strangely disconnected from me. This one was different - as I opened my dreaming eyes I knew what was happening, and I was entirely myself, not just a pawn of my unconscious mind as it sorted through miscellaneous memories. I was in a place where there was only light, and I felt like I was floating. Initially I thought, somehow, I was just dreaming clearly for once - often in my dreams I fly, like swimming through air. But I dismissed the thought immediately, for the very fact that I was thinking coherently told me that this was no mere dream. Then a shape came into focus in front of me, blurring out of the light as if my eyes were a lens slowly being turned. Serena reached out towards me, an expression of hope on her face. I took her hand without hesitation, drawing her close to me, and then I was no longer there, but looking on from afar as she moved forward, and my arms around her became the silver wings of a great eagle, wrapping around her body as if to keep her safe. I looked up, past the eagle's head, to see a golden figure riding its back, a young man with an old man's eyes, a handsome face with so much wisdom it seemed that he had seen all the galaxy had, and understood. I woke up, and two things stayed with me from the dream besides the images - I no longer felt lonely, and I knew somehow that the eagle had been the one I had seen, glinting in the sunlight for just a second, that day on Oriax Prime.
I was changed the next day, when I woke from a trouble-free sleep. Colours seemed more vivid, sounds were sharper, voices almost melodious. I almost couldn't help but stare at the stars, for we were in realspace at the time, shifting position to catch a different warp flow to the one we had been following. I had the strange feeling that, somewhere just beyond the steelglass viewport, every star waited for me to reach out and touch it. And the people around me were different - suddenly I understood them in my heart, as well as my mind, and when they spoke to me I knew not only their words but the feelings behind them. I suppose I should have been concerned, or wondered what had happened to me, but it felt like the most natural thing in the world.
Celestian Superior Ilen noticed the difference in me, and not long after assigned me as assistant squad leader to Sister Superior Fionne, who had joined us after Vallat Two. She remarked, once or twice, that I seemed well supplied with self-confidence, and indeed I did feel confident. I knew my abilities, and exactly how far I could push myself. Most importantly, though, I believed in myself. If I had to liken the feeling to anything, it would be to the time at the Schola when we began to be given tasks to complete on our own. I said that this made me feel like my duty was my choice, and again this was the case, but so much stronger. I now felt that, whatever the hardships I faced, simply living was a gift that carried enough joy to overcome any sadness. I make it sound so intense, and it was for a while. Eventually I came to terms with this strange shift in perspective, but always there was this little gem of wonder, astonished at the beauty of the galaxy. I don't think it will ever fade.
But this was not the only change that had come over me, as I was to discover. That discovery came almost a full year later, when the Saint Valkyrie came to the aid of a freighter that had been damaged and forced to put down for repairs, and been unlucky to have caught the attention of a band of the strange machines known, to those who give them names, as Necrons. At the time I was well on my way to becoming a Celestian, and often given charge of a squad when we deployed ourselves in small groups. We landed behind the freighter's position and discovered that a recon attack had already struck - there were wounded who could not be moved, else they would almost certainly die. Knowing the main force of machines was barely an hour away we prepared to defend the grounded freighter.
They came at sunset, stalking over the brown-tinged grass, faster and surer than any Imperial robot. They wasted no time, but immediately began firing their strange weapons at the freighter's hull, weakening its side. We returned fire, felling some, but even when one was badly damaged it often stood back up and resumed its attack as if nothing had happened. One who had strayed into my sights lost an arm without even acknowledging the damage - it simply kept advancing slowly, firing as it went, until my next shot caught the side of its head, spraying tiny pieces of metal into the air. It continued on a few steps, still firing, then suddenly its legs collapsed under it and the metal warrior vanished like a mirage.
Even with our best efforts, and the assistance of the healthy and walking-wounded among the freighter's crew, the machines made it inside the freighter. I heard over my comm that they had breached the hull and entered, and immediately fell into the plan that had been made for this eventuality - myself and a handful of others would leave the firing to our Sisters and fall back to the improvised medical bay, where the badly wounded lay. I arrived first, with Sister Superior Fionne on my heels, to see two of the machines entering from the hole torn in the medbay's wall. Both raised their weapons, aiming directly at the nearest of the frightened, half-conscious crew. Fionne was not yet in the doorway, and I could stop one of them at best. I had seen in previous engagements what the Necron weapons do, flaying their target layer by layer until nothing remains. Worse, when their target has been unable to fight back - injured on a battlefield, or unconscious - they seem to take much longer, as if given the leisure to take their time while the victim screams for as long as he has a throat.
Some instinct rose up in me, overriding my training and giving me instructions from somewhere a lot deeper inside my soul than the tutors of the Schola Progenium had been able to reach. My bolter clattered onto the floor as I raised both arms, hands extended towards the two metal demons, fingers splayed, palms down. Something passed through me, like a shiver but warm instead of cold, and the Necrons were hurled backwards, crashing into the back wall of the corridor they had broken in from. Such was the force of the impact that their bodies fractured along the joins in their casings, and they crumpled to the ground as mere collections of machinery. I wondered what on Terra had happened to them, and at the same time heard Fionne's intake of breath from behind me - she had turned the corner just in time to see it. I turned to her, baffled, to see her hand unconsciously making the sign of the eagle, her eyes wide, staring at me.
I was taken into custody and questioned extensively, about practically everything that had ever happened from the moment I walked into Father Deacis' office in the school at home to when I saw Sister Superior Fionne behind me. I saw no-one familiar to me, only an Adept who I learned later was from the Inquisition - not an actual Inquisitor, but skilled nonetheless. I told it no differently than I do here - it never occurred to me to lie, not to a servant of the Emperor. Again and again we went through it all, in order, randomly, under the influence of serums or hypnosis, even in all the languages I had learned besides basic - High Gothic, and Lingua, the semi-universal language of traders and colonists around the isolated but mineral-rich border worlds. I was fortunate - the Adept was sufficiently convinced that I was telling the truth that he did not resort to any more extreme methods. There was one other person who visited me, a tall man who looked to be in his mid-twenties, but had a network of wrinkles around his eyes. He sat across from me and looked into my eyes, and I felt a slight pressure in my head, like the beginnings of a headache. He said nothing, merely sat there, looking at me, for almost an hour before looking away, standing up and leaving.
Then I was transferred to a Sisterhood compound on Haldron, the nearest outpost to the unnamed world where we had fought the Necrons. My trial happened there, but I saw none of it - I was left alone, aside from the silent servants who brought my meals, until a verdict had been reached. I entered the trial chamber with a Sister on either side of me, armoured and armed - Fionne to my left, Ilen to my right. My judge was a Canoness, whose name I never learned. She looked down at me, and spoke in a deep, resonant voice.
"Sister Antonia of the Order of Our Lady of the Rose. You have been charged with deviance from the sacred form of mind, body and soul as laid down by the almighty Emperor of Terra and the Imperium. The court have heard evidence from Adept Scorthus of the Inquisition, and Primaris Toldra of the Adeptus Astra Telepathica, confirming that you have been cursed with the taint of witchcraft, that brand of mental aberration that cannot be turned to the Emperor's service. The decision of the court is in accord with the sentence dictated by our Lords on Terra. At dawn tomorrow you will be taken from this place and your life will be ended, thus removing your tainted soul from the Emperor's mortal realm. This court has also heard testimony from your fellow Sisters, who speak highly of you. In recognition of your service to the Emperor as a Sister of the Order of Our Lady of the Rose, the extinguishing of the tainted flame that burns in your heart will be done by your own hand, wielding the blade which you have used in battle against His enemies. The court is humbly hopeful that, by this final act of service to the Emperor, your soul will be cleansed in the life beyond, and take its place at His side. Until the time for the sentence of this court to be carried out, you will pray for guidance and forgiveness in front of the statue of our almighty Emperor in His chapel here. May His hand guide you in your duty tomorrow. The court is ended."
That was it. I already wore the ceremonial robes due to those whose lives will be given in the Emperor's name, so I was taken directly to the chapel, and left alone there, waiting to die, and asking Him why He had cursed me. I thought of my family - they would be told only that I had died in the service of the Emperor, with His hands guiding mine. And I thought of Serena, and wondered if I would see her in the place beyond. My gift now a curse, it felt strange - still I felt, despite everything, that I was blessed with the experience of living, but I reasoned that this was a delusion brought about by the taint that had marked me, from the day of my birth, as a deviant. For the first time since Serena had gone, I cried, my shoulders shaking as I knelt on the cold stone floor.
There was a sound behind me, but I was beyond caring. It was only when a hand rested on my shoulder that I registered the presence of anyone else. I looked up to see the strange, wrinkled face of Toldra, the Primaris psyker who had examined me. He raised his finger to his lips.
"Shhh," he said, "no tears now. This fate is not yours. Come with me." He helped me to my feet with gentle, but surprisingly strong hands, and led me towards the small door to one side, at the back of the chapel.
"Wait," I hissed, "I can't leave. My sentence, I have to..." he again raised a finger to his lips, for silence on my part.
"Sentence passed by a court. Not by Him. If you are His servant, follow." I honestly can't recall what I said, but it must have been something about the Sisters standing vigil outside the chapel, for he answered: "They will remember nothing. Minds clouded, see nothing for long enough." We hurried through the door, past the two Sisters who, it seemed, were completely oblivious to us. Once we were lost in the darkness of the grounds the psyker spoke again.
"Listen, quickly," he said, "not much time. Ilen a friend, she know I'd help. You have great work to do, Emperor's work. Not time to die for you, time to live. You go to the eastern gate, guards are away from there now. Take what you find there, then go. Far away as you can. I can cloud minds, but not for so long. Don't get caught. Go out there," he said, waving a hand vaguely towards the stars that glittered in the pre-dawn sky, "there's a life there for you. His blessings be with you."
"Wait," I whispered as he turned to leave me, "what's happening? What's this Emperor's work I'm supposed to do? How will I know?"
"Your life is Emperor's work," he said. He said another word, which I didn't recognise, then he was gone, picking his way between the darkened trees back towards the chapel. I stumbled down the hill towards the east gate, which had been the way I had entered the grounds. The guards were indeed gone, and there was a long box resting on the ground. It opened at my touch to reveal my armour, its usual red covered by an inconspicuous grey. Uncomprehending, I put it on - it had been fully primed, and only took a few minutes to be made ready. There was a wide cloak beneath it, which I wore over the top of the armour and backpack - that I was armoured was still obvious, but the style of armour was not, and I imagine I appeared not so different from a trader or explorer. Lastly, tucked into a small pouch in the bottom of the box, there was a tiny silver necklace ending in a closed locket. I opened it, and in the dim light from the double moons I saw the faces of my brothers and parents, reproductions of the photos that I had had to leave behind on the Saint Valkyrie.
I closed the box, and pushed it out of the path, then looked further down the hill to where the city lay. At its centre, several miles from where I stood, Haldron spaceport gleamed in the night, shuttles and transports lit by floodlights. As I watched another landed, the noise of its engines only a whisper from so far away. I whispered a prayer as I jogged down towards the low buildings at the edge of the hill, hoping that the Emperor would watch me still. Among all the sudden uncertainty and unfamiliarity, I somehow had the feeling that I had made the right choice. I wondered, as I slowed and walked between the buildings, pulling the cloak's hood well over my face, what the meaning was of the strange word Toldra had said. He had spoken it like a name, as if it referred to me: 'Sensei.'