Sore, hungry and exhausted, L’mael slumped into the crash seat. Orderlies were loading full body bags into the cargo space at the rear of the drop-ship. Apart from the shuffle of weary sisters and the ‘thump’ and ‘crackle’ of the body bags being stacked, the drop-ship was quiet.
L’mael donned and connected her shock harness. Blood seeped down her trouser legs, congealed on her boots and pooled on the drops-ship floor. Most of the blood wasn’t even hers. Some of it was from other Sisters, some from the Ork horde they were fighting.
The drop-ship filled up with dead and alive, the difference between the two states being whether or not you were in a bag. The last seat was filled and the orderlies left. The drop-ship door jerked shut with a clang that grated on the nerves of all those still alive to notice.
Trembling as the thrusters battled to break the planets gravity well, the interior tilted slightly as one of the thrusters out performed. The assault craft wobbled momentarily as the pilot corrected the discrepancy.
The Sisters of Battle were pushed into their seats as the G-force increased. The pile of dead shifted and compressed. The pressure continued to build adding to the myriad of aches and pain suffered by all. One Sister passed out, bowel and bladder voiding as the containing muscles relaxed.
Still the force continued to build. Some of the body bags ‘spoke’ as air was forced out of lungs and past dead vocal cords, the sound eerie and unsettling.
The engine noise of the thrusters changed pitch as atmosphere thinned and was replaced with vacuum. The pressure on the Sisters also lessened.
As the pressure lessened, there was a sudden flurry of movement as harnesses were released. One Sister made her way to the injured Sister that had passed out and checked her condition. Another two restacked the pile of body bags that had shifted and blocked the aisle.
L’mael retrieved her weapon cleaning kit and methodically stripped her weapon down and started the laborious task of cleaning it. A task that occupied her time till the assault craft docked with the order vessel.
The small assault ship carefully negotiated the small entrance to one of the mother ships many flight decks. As the assault craft waited for the shuttles in front to land, the massive armoured flight deck doors ponderously closed. Seals activated and atmosphere flooded into the flight deck as the last shuttle settled into its clamps.
L’mael and her fellow Sisters waited in respect for the pall bearers to remove the dead first. As the last body bag was reverently removed, the Sisters slowly followed. The bagged dead were laid on gurneys and draped with a shroud bearing the orders crest. Outside the other drop-ships, a similar scene was taking place.
The gurneys were escorted by respectful novices dressed in full ceremonial regalia.
Respectfully waiting for the funeral cortege to depart, the medical staff rushed over with mobile chairs and stretchers. The Sister that had passed out on the flight was laid down gently atop a stretcher as a Medicare inserted an IV into her arm. An orderly approached L’mael with a wheelchair.
Like the pall bearers, the orderlies were Sister Novitiates. It was standard procedure for the Sisters of Battle that all potential Sisters knew fully the dangers of the life they had chosen.
L’mael waved away the offer of the chairs’ use respectfully. There were others who needed its embrace more than she.
The novitiate nodded in respectful subservience and looked for another wounded Sister.
The forced stationary posture in the shuttle had caused her tired and sorely abused muscles to seize and cramp. For the briefest of moments, her ridged discipline slipped and L’mael regretted declining the chair. Her lapse was brief, and aggressively crushed. Gritting her teeth, L’mael limped across the hanger deck to one of the many small personnel hatches leading towards the ships barracks decks.
What the Sisters did next depended on their own rigidly held regimes. For some, Chapel was the first port of call, for some it was the mess, for some it was bed and healing sleep. For L’mael, it was the armoury. There was a small queue outside the armoury that was used by her convent. L’mael patiently waited her turn, her muscles seizing up again.
When it was her turn, she handed over her weapon.
L’mael shook her head negatively. The armourer looked at the weapons number and headed towards its allotted slot. The armourer paid the weapon no further heed. It was a Sisters responsibility to look after her own weapon and report any faults. If a Sister’s neglect resulted in her weapons failure, then she would be held responsible for that failure and any consequences. If she lived.
The armourer came back, calling out as she approached ‘NEXT!’
L’mael was already limping past the last Sister in the queue as the armourer called out.
Sore, stiff and exceptionally dirty, L’mael entered the mess. An assortment of Sisters in various states of dress, cleanliness and condition were milling about. Some waited to be served, some were eating, and others were leaving. Not that hungry, but knowing her body needed to consume something, L’mael headed towards the quieter sandwich bar and ordered a sandwich to go.
The corridors of the order ship were alternately quiet and busy. She paid no heed to other travellers, concentrating on swallowing the tasteless sandwich and placing one foot of the other. L’mael knew the sandwich wasn’t really tasteless, but after the excitement of battle, everything mundane seemed to lack colour and flavour. At least till she came down from her battle lust.
The chapel was quiet, deserted and only poorly illuminated by a few flickering candles. Just the way she liked it. She limped to the front and the altar that was placed in front of a large sculpture of the Eternal Emperor.
With the creak of caked leather, L’mael knelt in supplication, restraining the urge to groan aloud as bruised knees connected with the hard and unyielding marble of the steps up to the sanctuary and altar.
The leather over her knees squelched quietly as sweat and blood was squeezed out onto the polished marble. L’mael, head bent, prayed to her God, the Eternal Emperor.
There would be masses later which she could, and would, attend, but L’mael preferred the rare chances, like now, where she could speak to her God on a more personal and intimate footing.
L’mael finished the last of her own personal prayers to the eternal champion of man. It proved a difficult task indeed, to rise to her feet from her kneeling supplication. If it was His Will, that she should leave his place of worship on hands and knees, then she would have done so. It was a small price to pay for the chance to continue to serve him. L’mael staggered upright, her vision swimming, the undigested sandwich an unsettled ball in her stomach. For a brief, horrifying moment, she thought the contents of her stomach might rise in this most hallowed of places, the mere thought of such an obscene sacrilege, settled her turbulent gut.
Genuflecting, she turned and headed back up the aisle and discovered that she had not been alone. Sitting at one of the back pews, hidden in the darkness, was another Sister, also clad in blood stained battledress.
The Sister made no sound, but was trembling from bowed head to foot. L’mael had not heard her enter, but she could already have been sitting in the small chapel before she had entered. The black of the Sister’s battledress, easily hiding her in the darkness before L’mael’s eyes had the chance to adjust from the harsh light of the corridor outside to the shadow of the chapel.
L’mael stopped on impulse and all but staggered over to the other Sister, who did not look up as L’mael approached. L’mael placed a comforting hand on the other girl’s shoulder. L’mael was about to remove her hand when the shaking stopped and the Sister looked up.
Gazing into a blood and tear stained face, L’mael realised that the face was as young as that of the novitiates in the hanger bay. Armed with sudden comprehension, L’mael looked for, and found, the mark of an un-bloodied initiate on her battledress. An un-bloodied initiate no more.
Being a Sister of Battle was more than wearing the battledress. It was carrying the burden of knowledge on the soul, the burden of loss on the heart. There was only one person in this chapel that could help with that burden. L’mael glanced towards her idol again, then turned back and smiled in what she hoped was a comforting manner as she let her hand slip from the new Sister’s shoulder.
L’mael turned and slowly made her way back down the pew. As she entered the main aisle, a sound caused her to turn back around.
The Sister was watching her. ‘Thank-you.’
L’mael smiled, nodded her head and walked out of the chapel.
The smell of stale sweat and Ork blood was starting to unsettle her stomach again.
She stopped at the small cell that was her sleeping quarters. It was one of the few luxuries she allowed herself to be given. The majority of Sisters slept in a communal dorm, decorated veterans were offered as small, but private cell in which to sleep and contemplate.
Unbuckling her chin strap, she removed her helmet and placed it on the small table. Her body armour followed along with the contents of her various pockets. She did not even attempt to remove her boots. Opening the door to her small wardrobe, she removed a bag containing soap, abrasive scourers, oils for body and hair along with a brush. She picked up another bag, this one containing a pre-packed towel and a simple linen shift.
Leaving her cell and its tempting bed, she headed for one of the many baths. Several were close to her cell, but she avoided them as she knew they would already contain several Sisters, and it was solitude she was after. L’mael met several Sisters on the way back from their own baths. They gave L’mael a wide berth. It was a purely practical distance, with no insult given and none taken by L’mael.
It was a long trek towards her preferred baths, but the baths solitude made the effort worthwhile.
Dumping the bag with shift and towel in a dry spot, L’mael moved to the edge of the baths and gratefully sunk onto the stone floor. She placed the bag with her toiletries within easy reach of the waters edge.
Now that she was sat on the wet floor with the weight of her feet, she started the awkward task of loosening the laces on her boots. The leather of the boots was soaked and swollen and releasing the laces was only part of the battle. It was a battle she was experienced in and the boots released their hold, eventually. Her socks were next and she wriggled her toes in relief as they finally came into view.
Lying down flat on her back, L’mael unfastened her belt buckle. A sustained wiggle of her hips had her trousers and pants off. She had no energy left to sit up, so she simply rolled herself over into the water.
Warmth that was almost too hot to bear smothered her. Although she was expecting it, she still screamed into the water. The sound of her pain muted to a mere gurgle. L’mael exploded to the waters surface and sucked in a sharp intake of warm humid air. Her body quickly adjusted to the warmth, and her nerve endings stopped telling her that she was boiling to death.
Swimming back to the side, L’mael sat on the submerged stone ledge that ran around the bathing pools circumference, the water level lapping around the top of her breasts. With the water supporting her weight, it was easier to move her limbs. Crossing her arms, she grabbed the bottom of her undershirt, and raised her hands above her head. The undershirt slowly pulled clear of her head and body. Her padded bra followed shortly after. Now completely naked, she leant back against the stone and watched the red in the water flow away from her.
The baths had been built with the intention of holding up to thirty Sisters. Some baths did indeed hold that number on a regular basis, but L’mael preferred the baths that were furthest away from the sleeping quarters and therefore least frequented.
The water that supplied the baths was part of the Space ship’s coolant system. Water flowed in one end, warmed by the reactors, and flowed out the other end in a gentle current. The cooling exit water was filtered, purified and was then pumped back to the reactors to be heated and the cycle started again.
L’mael let the warmth relax her muscles and soften the ingrained dirt from the campaign. She started some mental relaxation techniques, imagining her cares and worries floating away with the tainted water.