This story is another entry for the 900-1100 word short competition, and the theme this month is "atonement." I've got a few other ideas up my sleeves, so we'll see how those play out. Enjoy
“What the hell
is going on?” Colonel Chafen demanded, “Where are my boys?”
His query went unanswered, his words hanging in the air. All eyes in the room were cast upon the pict viewer, all mouths agape. The Veskassian 28th Light had disappeared five minutes before, the column of men charging into the awaiting maws of the city before them. Wide, gaping streets had swallowed them whole; no flashes of explosions had hinted to close quarters fighting, no vox signals had revealed their very existence.
His regiment of nearly ten thousand men had vanished as a fiery mushroom cloud rose from the centre of the settlement. Even in the situation room thirty kilometres away, the blast had been colossal. Tremors had rattled the Leviathan, scattering men and toppling equipment in its unrelenting fury.
“Dammit, I will have you all skinned
if I do not get a status report!” He could feel his ire rising with the panic that had already built. Luckily, the threat shocked the staff officers into action, sending men running back to their vacant stations. Were it not for the strain in the shouts across the room, it may have seemed to be business as normal.
“Sir,” a lieutenant called from his console, “Valkyries report that they’ll be doing a flyover in two minutes, call sign Gryphon Six Five.”
Chafen knew, deep down, that the reconnaissance was unnecessary. The blast had been tremendous, an atomic weapon of untold power. Already, the millions of tonnes of dirt and debris that had been cast into the atmosphere were wafting downwards, inexorably giving in to the will of gravity. Irradiated dust particles descended in tainted clouds, obscuring the view of the city with their poisonous haze.
No man could have survived the detonation, not unprotected and on foot. His outrage began to fade, the heat of his temper cooled. Despair filled the gap it left, as he felt his soul and spirits plummet. His stomach seemed to pull downward, his entire gut was sinking.
His men, his beloved regiment, was gone. No, not gone, obliterated
. Clearing his throat, he spoke again, “Thank you, lieutenant.” The sound was barely a whisper, the voice of a man who has lost the only thing he ever held dear.
This is my doing.
The thought abruptly burst into his mind. I could have prevented this.
“Birds are on station now, sir,” reported the lieutenant, interrupting Chafen’s reverie.
His attention was once again on the pict-screen hanging on the wall. The sudden bustle ceased as the Valkyrie’s optics attempted to penetrate the miasma. Switching to a thermal view, the image suddenly cleared into a decipherable picture, interrupted by specks of white hot dust.
The vista it revealed was utterly devastated. Buildings were shattered and burning, husks of what they had been. Twisted debris littered the streets. Scantly recognizable ground-cars protruded from buildings, where they had been hurled in the shockwave. Lumi-posts were melted and slagged, lining the thoroughfares like beacons guiding the aircraft to disaster.
What he wanted to see, yearned to see, was absent. The only movements were the flames and their shadows, dancing in the wind.
“Two Eight Base, this is Gryphon Six Five,” the pilot’s voice crackled from the vox-unit, “auspex readings are negative for life signs.” He paused, knowing the implications of his next word, “they’re all gone, sir.”
Nodding slowly, Chafen closed his eyes. “Send my regards to the pilot. I will be in my chambers,” he croaked from his parched throat.
With that, he turned and left, leaving the other officers behind. This is my fault, this is my fault.
The thought kept repeating in his mind, a broken pict-reel stuck on the same image.
He knew it was true; the Lord General himself had recommended an orbital strike to annihilate the Chaos forces barricaded in the town. But hubris, damned hubris
, had led Chafen to insist on a ground assault.
“My Lord, the Twenty Eighth can take it, send us in,” he had said. There was no finer light regiment in the entire Imperial Guard battle group. He was fiercely proud of his men, his
boys. There was no fortification too secure, no enemy too equipped to resist the Twenty Eighth. “My boys will cleanse the heretic scum.”
The Lord General had lifted an eyebrow at this, “Colonel, of this I have no doubt. However, our intelligence in the area is bollocks at best. Are you ready to gamble your regiment on that?”
Confidence had filled him, “Sir, if anyone can crack that hellhole open, it’s us.”
“Very well then, be prepared to attack at dawn.”
The memory plagued him until he reached his private quarters. Upon entering, he sat down at his desk and stared into nothingness, unable to shake the truth: he had knowingly sent his men to their deaths. There had been no chance, no possibility of fighting back against a weapon like that. He should have listened to the Lord General, should have swallowed his pride and his boys would still be alive.
A soft chime sounded at his door.
“Enter,” he called. What now...
The portal hissed open to reveal a courier. “Dispatch from the Lord General, sir,” the young man said. He marched to the desk and saluted smartly before placing a large yellow envelope onto its surface. Without waiting for an acknowledgment, the messenger about-faced and departed.
Chafen sighed wearily and grabbed for the package, surprised at its weight. Grabbing his combat knife, he cut the top of it open and reached inside. His fingers closed around something cylindrical and cold.
He removed the object from the envelope. An autopistol. A small note was tied around the grip. The sinking feeling in his gut intensified as his heartbeat hammered in his ears. He unfolded the note and read it.
You have failed your men. You have failed me. Atonement is in order.
On the bottom of the scrap was the mark of the Lord General.
Realisation swept over him. He had committed a mortal sin through his pride, and cost the God-Emperor thousands of his sons. Unworthy of the Emperor’s light and grace, there was only one thing left for him to do. He had to offer penance... with his regiment destroyed, his career in ruins, there was but one thing left to offer.
, he thought, I’m sorry.
He closed his eyes and smiled sadly as a single tear slowly ran down his face.
The barrel was cool against his temple, soothing and placating his despair.
“God-Emperor, forgive me.”
The shot echoed throughout the chamber.