All comments/criticisms welcome!
‘We are at war with forces too terrible to comprehend. We cannot afford mercy for any of its victims too weak to take the morally correct course. Mercy destroys us, it weakens us and our saps our resolve. Put aside all such thoughts they are not worthy of Inqusitors in the service of our Emperor. Praise his name for in our resolve we only reflect his purpose of will.’
- Book of Exorcisms, The verses of Inquisitor Enoch
INS Blue Bolt
98 982 M41
~ A Quiet Read
Vandemarr awoke with a start, a single sheet of paper stuck to his cheek. He clawed it off irritably – though not so irritably to tear the classified deployment docket – and then strained to hear.
There was a knock at the door – louder, he guessed, than the first had been – and then a muffled ‘Commissar?’
‘Enter,’ he said, clasping and then unclasping his hands on the desk in front of him. The metal door creaked open on its un-oiled hinges, brown from rust, and in stepped a man Vandemarr recognised as Colonel Hasek – the commanding officer of the 427th Farraxian Dragoons. A good man, as far as he’d heard.
‘I’m not disturbing anything, am I?’ he asked. He was late middle age, maybe ten years older than Vandemarr, with a clean-shaven, scarred face and a mop of greying brown hair. He was well built, tall, though not in any way imposing except when he wanted to be. Vandemarr had only seen him once from a distance, at the regimental dinner twenty days ago; an occasion specifically to welcome the influx of new Guardsmen bulking out the ranks.
‘No sir, not at all,’ Vandemarr said, and hastily stood up. ‘Please, have a seat.’
The room was small; a desk, a bunk and a locker making up the vast majority of furnishings. All that remained were Vandemarr’s personal effects, and those were few. Some picts of his parents and himself as a boy, hidden away on a dataslate; a few battered old medals he’d kept over the years from past engagements; a worn, inscribed tankard and a sword, presented to him as a gift on the departure from his first line regiment. Nothing from his time on Gortlémund or the Black Manticore.
‘I just thought I’d come and meet you, face to face,’ Hasek said as he sat down. It was only then Vandemarr realised the man had an augmetic leg. ‘A Commissar as a CO is…something of a rarity.’
For the first time that day Vandemarr became horribly aware of his appearance. His undercoat was unbuttoned revealing a grey smock below, his hair was uncombed and his face was covered in a dishevelled layer of stubble. His boots, unpolished, lay in an untidy pile next to his bunk, and his socks were both holed at the toe.
‘A drink, sir?’ he asked, trying to take the focus off his shabby appearance.
‘Please,’ Hasek replied. Vandemarr grabbed the two tumblers – one dirty from previous use – at the side of the desk, along with a leather-bound flask of ethanec, and poured two measures. He offered Hasek the clean one, who took a sip.
‘Hm,’ he said, smelling the amber liquid. ‘Spicier than I’m used to. But good. Where’s it from?’
‘Gortlémund, sir,’ Vandemarr replied.
‘Ah okay,’ Hasek said. ‘I’ve been once or twice. Kalen Primo, the capital?’
‘I know it,’ Vandemarr said.
‘I seem to recall there being some kind of upset there earlier this year, now I think about it,’ Hasek said, casting his eyes upwards as if searching his brain. ‘A series of trials, or raids maybe?’ He looked back to Vandemarr, raising his eyebrows. ‘Lodges of Guardsmen pledging allegiance to the Tau? Something like that. Rumours, probably.’
‘Trials, sir, yes,’ Vandemarr said, surprised at the notoriety it had achieved. ‘Courts martial. I was on the prosecution counsel for one of them, with Lieutenant Codey. 15th Vargonroth?’
‘Oh really?’ Hasek said, smiling briefly. ‘I don’t know Vargonroth. Did you win?’
‘In a way,’ Vandemarr replied, remembering all too well the look on his junior’s face as he blew his brains out the back of his skull.
The Colonel nodded, evidently satisfied. ‘So you’ve presumably fought line combat before? I mean, Inquisitor MkCormack gave us some details but I haven’t had much time to review them. I thought I’d come and get it straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.’
Vandemarr could tell the Colonel was already wary of him – worried that he might screw up and get an entire company killed.
‘It was a request, on my part, sir, to be given a company of men as a gift,’ Vandemarr explained. ‘The Inquisitor was good enough to organise it for me. The Farraxian Dragoons seemed an ideal choice. They had taken casualties, and needed bolstering. They were heading for Carthage to combat the Archenemy, and I have, to answer your question, had extensive experience on the front lines. In fact I spent the first twenty-two years of my career in combat, sir.’
‘A gift, you say?’ Hasek said, trying nonchalantly to sip the ethanec.
‘Yes sir,’ Vandemarr continued. ‘Myself and Captain August, and a few others, were able to frustrate a Tyranid insurrection on board the Black Manticore. It was heading for Terra, sir.’
‘Good lord,’ Hasek started, Vandemarr guessed involuntarily, for he soon recomposed himself. ‘No mean feat, I take it?’
‘Indeed.’ Vandemarr said. He could forgive the Colonel for prying, but he was irritated that the man so blatantly doubted his abilities. ‘I am a soldier first, and a Commissar second, sir,’ he said, hoping to ease Hasek’s suspicions. ‘I know combat, and I know men.’
Hasek waved a finger at him, draining the last of the ethanec.
‘You Commissars always were straight talkers,’ he said, trying to grin off his embarrassment. His face soon faded to an emotionless blank. ‘Forgive me. The last thing I wanted to do was offend. You must understand that my men come first. So many Commissars are…sticklers for glory,’ he was choosing his words carefully. ‘I have no doubts that they perform an invaluable service for frontline morale, but to see one in command is…
‘Something of a rarity.’ Vandemarr concluded for him, repeating the Colonel’s earlier assertion.
‘Certainly in this regiment,’ Hasek said darkly.
Vandemarr nodded, pretending he’d mistaken the Colonel’s tone.
‘Of course, there is Captain August as well, formerly of the…141st Hussars. He’s your second in command, yes?’ Hasek said, quickly moving on.
‘Yes sir,’ Vandemarr said.
‘A good man? You say you’ve worked with him before?’
‘One of the best,’ Vandemarr said. ‘I met him on Illythia – an agri world in the western Mordant Zone –’
‘I know it,’ Hasek interjected testily.
Vandemarr looked at him in a second of uncomfortable silence, and then continued.
‘He was my guide whilst I was conducting my investigations. As I said, he accompanied me to the Manticore.’
‘Where you destroyed this…Tyranid insurrection?’ Hasek finished for him.
The Colonel regarded him with freshly-narrowed eyes.
‘Quite an illustrious career you’ve had,’ he said, with barely concealed cynicism. There was clearly some contempt gnawing inside him. Or was it resentment?
‘Indeed,’ Vandemarr said again, unwilling to be in the presence of this man any longer. ‘Will that be all?’
Hasek slammed the tumbler down onto the desk and leant forward.
‘Enough with these pleasantries,’ he hissed venomously. ‘I don’t like you, Commissar. I don’t like frag-handed pissants accepting companies of my men as ‘gifts’. I don’t give a crap if you’ve got the sponsorship of some Inquisitor, if you so much as – ’
‘That’s enough!’ Vandemarr said, launching to his feet and knocking over both tumblers and the flask. ‘I am an Imperial Commissar, Colonel! If you value your command and your life, I suggest we end this meeting here, before someone says something they’re going to regret.’
There was a deadly silence whilst both men eyed each other, punctuated only by the deep vibrations of the ship’s engines and the tricking of ethanec as it hit the floor below the desk.
‘Hm,’ Hasek snorted, standing up. ‘I think we understand one another, Commissar.’
He let himself out.
* * *
Clean-shaven, washed and dressed, Vandemarr knocked back another measure of ethanec, then made his way from his quarters towards the ship’s library. It was not the quiet, calming walk he sought – everywhere various people bustled through the cramped passageways. There were three Farraxian regiments on board, the Kareshian Dragoons and Light Auxiliary, and the Kormandolt 3rd armour division – many replete in full war gear and gas hoods, fresh from the training decks. All were moving back to the barracks levels or the various municipal mess halls, for food, five card las and contraband.
Neither hungry nor in the mood to bond with his new company – the 9th, Vandemarr moved through the hordes of unruly Guardsmen and ship hands, using the schematics bolted onto the walls for guidance. It took him fifteen minutes to reach the library, through the most populous parts of the ship. The corridor leading to it was wide, maybe ten metres, and ran through the exact centre of the Blue Bolt. Had he wanted to continue through the library, he would eventually reach the chapel, and beyond that the stairs leading to the officer’s quarters, embarkation level, and the bridge.
But he didn’t. A few hours of solitude and quiet reading would calm his nerves.
He continued down the corridor, pushing open the two large wooden doors that constituted the library’s entrance at the end, and was greeted by a vast chamber, stretching, he guessed, all the way up to the embarkation deck a hundred metres above. All around, thousands of books and dataslates were ranked in colossal cases, each one lined by a score of ladders and servitors. Ahead was a set of stairs leading to a gallery, which contained glass cases and statues exhibiting trophies of war and artefacts millennia old, and high above, a myriad of flags were draped, each one representing an Imperial Guard regiment billeted on board.
‘Whoa,’ Vandemarr gasped. Such a wealth of knowledge – uncountable tomes of history, accounts of great victories and crushing defeats, and the minds of some of the most brilliant men and women in the Imperium poured onto paper and slate. One couldn’t hope to get through it all in a hundred lifetimes.
After half an hour of searching, he’d found an appropriate volume, and settled down at a wooden desk slowly succumbing to centuries of dry rot. But mere minutes after he’d sat, a slow creaking issued from the other side of the bookcase, rhythmic like footsteps, and incredibly annoying.
‘Hello?’ he called out slowly, his voice startlingly loud against the silence of the library. Even the ever-present rumbling of the engines was absent.
The creaking abruptly stopped. Instantly, Vandemarr brought a hand to his side and slowly unbuttoned the holster there, leather-gloved fingers tracing the grip of his compact autopistol.
‘My name is Commissar Albrecht Vandemarr,’ he said, lifting the pistol from its holster and bringing it into a two-handed grip. ‘If you’re trying to surprise me, you’d better have a very good reason.’
He trained it on the corner of the bookshelf, and slowly advanced, feeling his pulse rate increase.
‘Come out, slowly, and you will not come to harm,’ he lied.
Seconds later, the pistol was knocked from his grip, and strong, gloved hands grabbed him from behind. Two more men appeared from round the corner – gas-masked, wearing the dull brown uniform of the Kormandolt 3rd division, and crashed into him, pinning both of his arms to the desk.
‘Damn you men!’ Vandemarr roared, lashing out with his feet. He hit one of his attackers in the groin, and then again in the face as he fell to the floor, feeling the rebreather smash into the man’s nose and mouth through the cap of his boot. And then a knife was produced, and pressed against his neck.
‘I know who you are, Albrecht Vandemarr,’ one of the men above him snarled, his voice muffled and unrecognisable from the gas hood. ‘I know all about your little excursions.’
‘Let me go now,’ Vandemarr growled, ‘and you may die quickly.’
‘Shut up,’ the talker said, though the man next to him briefly hesitated with the coercion in the Commissar’s trained voice. Vandemarr took the opportunity, freeing his right hand and punching away the knife in one quick movement. Then, throwing off the punches of the talker, he struggled up from the desk and brought his foot down on the man’s instep. The knife wielder, still clutching his forearm where the Commissar had fractured it, was punched in the stomach for good measure.
‘Kill him!’ the talker shouted frantically as Vandemarr dove to recover the pistol from the base of the bookcase, and the knife wielder moved to grab the blade; but Vandemarr was quicker, and turning on his heel, fired a healthy burst into the man’s torso. His eyes widened behind the lenses of the gas hood, and he let out a strangled cry as the bullets tore into him, spraying the surrounding books with blood.
As he collapsed, Vandemarr rounded on the talker; but he had already gone.
‘Schtan,’ Vandemarr muttered, jogging to the central aisle of the library. There was no sign of him anywhere, and a twenty minute search of the area only confirmed this.
Whoever he was, he had effectively vanished.