Lieutenant Sébastien Dembélé did not feel like celebrating.
In the aftermath of battle, even in victory, all he could feel was grief, pain and a deep ache in his soul.
An ancient Terran Warmaster once said that a battle lost is only a little worse than a battle won.
They had won here today, but at a cost. He had lost half his command.
He sat down on a sandbagged wall and placed his face in his palms. He was exhausted, utterly drained. He let his feet hang down into the communication trench, which was now filled with the corpses of both his men and that of the enemy.
The damn Orks had fought well today, and despite being outnumbered and outgunned, they chose a last-ditch charge to a slow death, pounded into the earth by artillery and airstrikes. Not one of them survived, but oh the cost…
He felt the urge to be sick so scrambled quickly to his feet and turned towards the breeze that was blowing in from the south. The air was fresh from this direction, it came from the distant sea and not from the killing fields around him.
“What shall I write…?”, he said out loud.
“You write what you always write… sir.” Came a gruff voice behind him. He turned quickly, shocked that anyone was even in the vicinity. A dirty, bedraggled soldier stood in the shadow of a knocked-out Leman Russ and gave a weary wave.
“Sergeant… Timonen. I did not realise…”
“’Sis’alright Sir. I did not mean to startle you, especially after all this.” The NCO stopped amongst the detritus of the battle field and spread his arms wide.
“I was thinking what to put into the letters, you know, the letters to their kin.”
Timonen stood tall to his right and gazed out across the field.
“You tell them that their boys died like heroes, that they died for their beloved Emperor with a Lasgun in their hand and righteous zeal in their souls.” He laughed, but it sounded gruff and forced.
Dembélé tried to smile back but his facial muscles seemed to be paralysed. He pointed to the body of a Guardsman slumped face forward over a Lascannon.
“How about Candella there? Dear Missus Candella. I regret to inform you that your son was killed in action at, blah, crap-hole on blah-planet. He was a brave soldier and fell protecting his comrades in the finest tradition of the service.” He shook his head at the NCO. “Or shall I say that his weapon jammed and an Ork split him in two with a cleaver before he could fire a single shot.” He stood up and walked over to a young Guardsman lying on his back who appeared to be sleeping.
“And what about young Jorjadze here? Dear blah, your brave son did not die with his spine hanging out of his back after a frag exploded behind him,” he paused. “Thrown by one of his own friends in panic. No, he died leading a bayonet charge against a whole battalion of greenskins.”
Timonen shook his head and then crouched down on his haunches.
“Or Lebona. Decapitated by an Ork boss while he struggled to get up… with no legs. Or…”
“I get the picture Sir.” The NCO interrupted aggressively. “But you will do your duty and do your duty well.” He placed a reassuring hand on the Lieutenants shoulder guard. He paused then looked into the officer’s eyes.
“All these men are heroes, every damn one of them. You will tell their kin that they saved this and helped that and deserved a medal, and you knew him well and he was well-liked, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Because that is what the folks back home want to hear. They are being fed crap back there but we know the truth, but they should never know what happens out here amongst the stars. They must never know about the horrors we endure and the bitter enemies we face."
The young officer smiled. The old NCO was right of course. Yes, his men were heroes and the battle was worth the cost. He would not hang his head in shame and remorse, he would celebrate their sacrifice.
“Very well said sergeant.” He stood up and stretched his aching back. Timonen shrugged.
“Besides Sir, the likelihood is that their folks will never know of their fate anyway. The Administratum mail system would struggle to find the final destination, the math is too complicated!”
They both chuckled.
“A bit naughty sergeant, such things could get you flogged.” Timonen shrugged again.
“Commissar Gaustad is not going to care. He’s somewhere out there in the mud with a slug through his forehead. Now he is a real hero… or was.”
Dembélé decided that the conversation was becoming too risqué.
“Did you come here to find me specifically sergeant?”
“Yes sir,” the old NCO straightened up. “The boys have found a warehouse full of Amsec and are wondering if you would like to join them in a wake?”
Dembélé knew that he should not. Fraternising with the junior ranks was frowned upon. But today?
“Of course. I will just retrieve my hat which I lost leading a charge against fifty-thousand Orks…” They both grinned. He had lost it when a short artillery round exploded behind his trench. “Ah, it’s here, battered, dirty, but still serviceable…”
… We regret to inform you that Lieutenant Dembélé was killed in action during a heroic rear-guard action against a vast horde of xenos …