Debt of Iron: Education

In my eighth year, Father announced it was time for me to begin my schooling. The crew had been my teachers up until then. Mother had taught me to read at age six. It took a cogitator, the ship’s huge library, and a great deal of patience, but I could read. After being taught the basics, I became a ferocious reader. Mostly on pirates both terrestrial and non-terrestrial, much to Mother’s horror. I devoured books on ship battles and tactics. The heroics of Imperial Navy battles, with the captains stoically guiding their ships to victory against overwhelming forces of Chaos. To this day I can recite the great speech Fleet Admiral Baldor Cimmons gave to the third Agernon Navy after the rout in the Septus campaign that inspired them to rally to victory against the Chaos incursion. By my seventh year, I had read everything in Father’s library and begged Mother for more books at every port we stopped at.

It was during these lessons that I realized Mother was a Navigator. Of course, I had been told she was a Navigator but, as a child, it was a nonsense word as far as I could see. She was Mother and a Navigator. She wore a headscarf to hide her third eye.

Only once had I tried to look under the silk covering. She has been truly angry with me 3 times in my life. This was the first. She was tucking me in one night when I snatched at the band that kept her scarf in place. She recoiled and screamed at me that I was not to ever touch her like that again. She stormed off and I cried myself to sleep. Father came to see me some hours later. He explained that I should never do that again. I know now she was less angry than scared for me but, at the time, it took several days for us to even speak to each other.

I was seven when I read Aarronr’s The Great Perils of Warp Travel: Horrors Within. As an adult and ship’s captain, his description of the perils a Navigator faces while communing with the Warp seem tame and poetic in comparison to the reality I have seen. As a Child, it terrified me that my mother had to fight them. It took my parents three days to understand why I broke down crying every time I saw my mother. On the third day, we transitioned into the Warp and I began wailing like a banshee. The realization that she was something more than the loving figure she had always been hit me hard.

The Ecclesiarch Frablen taught me prayers and a great deal of Imperial History. I loved hearing him talk about holy wars and battles of the Astartes. We would sing hymns to the Emperor’s grace and he would tell of the victories of the Space Marine chapters against the ruinous powers. Through his teaching, I learned of the fall of Horus and the betrayal of Mankind. I miss, in equal measure, his gentle smile and his fiery sermons to the crew.

I knew basic arithmetic and could understand a cargo manifest enough to be sure we had the correct number of crates in a hold. This was a favorite way for Quartermaster Ral to keep an eye on me. He would lock me in a hold with a servitor with instructions to not open the hatch until he returned or I counted out loud the boxes in the hold. It was after Ral forgot me in one of the aft cargo holds for nine hours that Father’s pronouncement about my education occurred.

Father arranged and hired the first tutor on Delmond 9. She was an old, wrinkled, dark skinned savant with long, straight, bone-white hair. Although I was excited as only a child could be on the first day of school, I cannot to this day recall her name. Mother had imported to me how great it was that I was going to start school. She made sure I knew how fortunate I was that Father had the means for a private tutor. The classes turned out to be rote memory and repetition, broken only with the too occasional rap on my knuckles for a mistake or slip of attention. I lasted two weeks of having to sit still and repeat the lessons the old black crow cawed at me before I began disappearing into the ship.

Father, of course, sent servitors hunting for me, but this was my home. I had grown up within its walls and, although my days had been ordered, I still had had plenty of free time to explore. I could avoid them for hours until my stomach protested. Eventually someone would spot me and I would be dragged to Father’s stern words or, worse, to Mother’s stiff hand on my bottom. I would be cowed for several days but then the wander lust would take hold and I would escape. On the last such prison break I headed down into the depths of the ship.

In the sub levels of all Imperium ships, Ogryn abhuman menials cart and shovel promethium ore into the great plasma furnaces that power the ships’ engines. I always found them fascinating to watch and they, in turn, loved having me around. Whenever I visited, the Ogryn overseer would immediately call for a break. They would then produce from their packs an incredibly dense bread that they smothered with honey from flightless bees of their homeworld. The honey is a deep red colour and borders on being almost too sweet. Each visit, with a tenderness that belied their incredible size, a single, different Ogryn would approach me and get down on one knee before me. He would then break off a portion, which would likely have only been a mouthful for him but was about the size of my fist. Almost ceremonially he would silently offer the bread to me and I would, in turn, accept and thank him. At that, his fellows would bellow their approval and begin eating in earnest. I always greedily enjoyed the bread and would sit with him as he ate his portion. Later, I found out that the Ogryn considered it a great honour that the daughter of the Captain ate with them.

Father treated his abhumans with the most respect I have ever seen from any ship’s captain. He often said his bribes of honey and flour, that had to be imported from their heavy gravity worlds, were more than covered by his men’s simple loyalty. I still love Ogryn bread and honey and make it a habit of visiting the men below when duty allows. I chuckle a little each time my savant brings up the cost at our budget meetings.

This day was no different and, after eating my fill of the sweet bread, I waved goodbye as the men returned to their tasks. I ventured further into the ship. To the great heart of the ship, its ancient Geller Field generator. My genetic code granted me access to areas that should have been off limits, but my parent’s oversight worked to my advantage that day and I was present for something few have ever heard. High above on one of the walkways that overlooked the slowly turning gears and core of the ship, I sat and listened to the servitors begin to sing.

The Geller Field generator had several dozen servitors: crawling over it repairing, floating above it measuring, doing minor repairs or just simply watching it. Their individual tasks were not discernible or even needed while the ship wasn’t in the Warp and so they slowly began. At first it was simple binaric chatter between them, but it slowly started to harmonize and song began to fill the space around the generator. The song rose and fell in great waves. Sometimes the entire choir in perfect harmony, while other times a single soloist would emerge and carry the melody as the others hushed. The song’s beauty boggled my young mind and I have never heard anything quite like it since. I sat down and lost sense of time there above the great machine.

“It is very beautiful when the Omnissiah blesses us with its divine grace, isn’t it, Meredith Van’Elsan?”

I do not remember Tech Priest Xan coming up behind me or know how long he had been there, but I was startled by his low tinny vox-enhanced voice. I do remember not being able to respond to him. Although I was a child, I marveled at the pure beauty of it.

Tech Priest Xan was our main enginseer. If he stood upright on his two mechanical legs he was an imposing seven feet tall but the hunched form of him came only to about five. He had two extra arms, one equipped with a manipulator claw and the other a set of fine tools on four constantly moving tentacles. His right arm was completely mechanical and similar to legs in design. His left was still human from the shoulder down from what you could see. He once confided that he still liked to run his hand over a finished project and “…feel the realness of it.” A Martian saying I am sure, although none have ever said it me again. The hood of his red Martian robe was always drawn up. From what you could see, his head was all cybernetic except his left eye. A single servitor always accompanied him, the simple machine usually floating beside him. Now, its aged brown skull floated on the other side of me, silently watching me with one baleful red glowing orb and a dry empty socket.

Tech Priest Xan sat down beside me, swinging his mechanical legs out from the walkway and causally rested his arms on the low guard rail.

“They are not exactly singing to each other, or even a singing a song. The binaric code that they are sharing together is simply harmonizing,” he continued.

“Much of the binaric of Mars has this hidden deep within its code and only on rare ocassions does it form. All tech priests see it as the will of the Omnissiah. It is its way of pointing out that we should be mindful of the real world.”

“What do you suppose the Omnissiah is trying to tell me, Meredith Van’Elsan?” the tech priest mused.

We sat and silently listened for an hour more until it finished and the chattering turned back to random code. I knew the priest was going to take me back to my father. After such a shared experience I was unable and unwilling to try to escape. We had shared a private, beautiful thing. My young mind was still full of the wonder of it as we walked the halls back to the bridge where Father was.

When we arrived, I was expecting Father’s anger but, before he could raise his voice Tech Priest Xan stepped forward. Without any explanation, the Tech Priest informed my father that he would be taking over my education and that I was to report to the main engineering offices tomorrow at first bell. Tech Priest Xan then promptly turned and left the bridge. It was the only time, to my knowledge, that someone other than Mother had completely left Father without words.

“Well,” Father said a minute after the Priest had left, “young lady you had best go take your punishment from your mother and then get to bed. First bell is much earlier than you are used to.”

Author: Grixtius

The Unpainted One. Unwilling Champion of The Grey. Some say that when all is paint he will still have an army unfinished.....

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