The goop streamed from the sky covering everything and everyone in a thin tan gruel. The trees were brown, the ground, the vehicles, the weapons, the men. Everything. It was, Griffon thought, like a titanic baby had a terminal case of diarrhea in the stratosphere. Worse it didn’t just look like that, it sounded like it. The sky taking one continuous long wet shit.
At least it didn’t smell like it. Well mostly didn’t. Castillo and some of the other Arty lads had a little bit of meteorology training – enough for long range gun laying anyway – and had told him that it had something to do with some of the orbital strikes that had gone down. They’d hurled all this crud into the air and eventually it had to come down again. Well, here it was.
Without quite realizing why, Griffon found himself flat out in the muck. It took a split second to realize that it had been an instinctive reaction. He smeared enough of the slime off his goggles to see and noted that all the troops in sight were the same, prone, in cover, weapons out. His second realization was that the echoes of the thunderbolt that they’d all reacted to were still ringing through the trees. There was a long moment of quiet, broken only by the whine of turrets on the chimera searching for targets and the continuous drooling sound of the sky shitting on them. There were wet thuds as a few birds startled by the noise tried to fly away and were knocked out of the air by the crud. Keying his helmet vox, Griffon whispered, “What the hell was that – did anyone see it?”
“It’s Harlow, Sarge,” Ariel had gotten his rank wrong again. He couldn’t really blame her. He’d been a senior sergeant in the Raehaniv Regulars for well over a decade, adapting to the lieutenant’s comet was taking a while to sink in, even for him. In some part of her brain, he expected he’d always be ‘the Sarge’ to Ariel Harlow. Right now her voice wasn’t full of combat stress as he’d expect if they were being shot it. It was full of fury. “Phrelian’s dead. Murdered! That son of a bitch killed him!”
Griffon got to his feet, the stiffness of his fifty odd years reminding him that like it or not he’d better start looking into a juvenant treatment if he was going to keep soldiering. Around him other soldiers were rising or breaking cover. None of them were putting their weapons away – which told him Ariel was broadcasting in the clear on the general freq. More than a few were drifting toward the rear of the column.
“Awright you apes, we still have ground to cover. Move like you have a purpose. I know the weather’s shitty, but keep on keepin’ on.” He singled out one of his favorite ne’er do wells, “Wagner – get that weapon pointed at the perimeter and keep moving forward. I’ll sort this out.”
Wagner was a trouble maker, but he wasn’t stupid. “Sarge – if what Harlow says is true –“
“Then I’ll deal with it!” the Lieutenant snarled. “Now get moving. This whole damn planet’s crapping on us and if you don’t get pointed where you are supposed to I’ll figure out a way to put you on latrine detail for it. Move Wags. Your 970 ain’t that big!” The troops got the message and started moving again, in the right direction but weapons safes didn’t go back on and lasguns stayed heated up ready to fire. Griffon cursed under his breath and moved back down the column. What bothered him more than the weapons was the lack of grumbling. Troops grumbled about things. But when they were in a killing mood they stopped grumbling, like the calm before the storm. This was starting to feel like that.
Less than a minute of slogging and sliding through ankle deep sludge and the Lieutenant reached the scene. The last chimera was a hundred yards further on up the path but even over its low growl he could hear the shouting.
“You will get your troops moving, Sergeant or by the Throne I’ll –“
“Go ahead and try it, you son of a bitch – give it your best shot!”
“That’s ENOUGH!” a bass voice shouted them both down. Griffon wasn’t surprised to realize it was his.
Ariel Harlow was a petite woman. Her sandy hair was pulled back into a ponytail and normally she wore a pair of fairly large loop earrings even into warzones. Right now that was all hidden under a brown kerchief that probably hadn’t started out brown and her blue eyes concealed by a set of infantry flash goggles, there to keep the worst of the mud out. Her shotgun was in her hands and leveled. Behind her the rest of her elite squad of former Raehaniv troops crouched in battle stance, weapon safeties off but not quite brought up to the aim point for firing.
The man she faced was quite a sight. He was at least six foot four, middle aged with a rounded face marked by a huge vertical scar on his left cheek. Unlike everyone else, he was a splash of dark and colour against the brown. Long black coat with scarlet turnbacks, yellow piping, the white trousers of a Danikan elite officer, copper cuirass with silver aquila. He had a plasma pistol out, the muzzle still steaming in the damp. Behind him a young trooper stood, pale and shaking, holding a huge parasol over the Commissar to keep the muck off him.
It was the white trousers. The damned arrogant white pants. At first Griffon had thought that they were just flecked with muck, until he realized the specks were red, not tan. That was what brought his eyes to the rapidly disappearing ruin in the muck.
The reactive explosion from stellar hot plasma had opened up the young man’s chest like the outer shell of a spent firework. His flak armor hadn’t stopped anything as powerful as a plasma round which had punched right through the breast panels and detonated heart and lungs into superheated steam. Like everything else, the drizzling mud was rendering the smoking red slime of the internal organs a uniform tan. The trooper’s flash goggles were down, hiding his eyes and removing a lot of the expression from his face. The boy’s mouth was open and the goop pouring in was winning the war with the steam leaking out.
Griffon looked up at the 4th’s newest Commissar. “Commissar – Strabo isn’t it?” There was no acknowledgement so he went on. “It appears that there is no action here. I notice that Trooper Phrelian was shot in the chest – the front of his body. That’s not normal for deserters.”
“He wasn’t deserting, Sarge – he was wounded and having trouble keeping up! This –“
“Enough, Ariel. Let’s give the good Commissar his say.” The giant man in the pristine coat said nothing. His face as hard as stone. His eyes invisible beneath the brim of his peaked cap. The silence grew long, just the background of the falling crud from the sky to break it.
Finally the man spoke. “Discipline.”
Raising his hand to prevent weapons snapping the rest of the way up, Griffon stared. “Discipline Commissar?”
“The major ordered everyone to move at best speed and none to fall behind. By falling behind, the discipline of the regiment is compromised.” Strabo, apparently deciding for the moment he wouldn’t need to shoot anyone else, holstered his pistol, ignoring the shotgun still pointed at his head. “This ‘Regiment’ of yours is a disaster Lieutenant. Troops do what they want, their order is poor, their morale too light and their attendance at services irregular at best. This will change. There will no longer be compromises. Things have gone too far for that.”
Griffon shifted through the muck to face the Commissar. “Really? Have you spoken to Commissar Cracken about that?”
The man visibly hardened, something that the Lieutenant would have not thought possible. “LORD Commissar Cracken has allowed this farce to go on too long. He is not here and there will be words on his return.”
“Oh, I imagine there will be.” Griffon pulled his goggles off to smear some of the mud away.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I think you know. You’ve clearly decided that LORD Commissar Cracken isn’t up to the job – but that you are. You, who has been here all of a week and a half.”
“I am a very experienced member of the Commissiarate, Lieutenant. I know my job. I also know when a Commissar with a regiment too long has grown soft and over tolerant. We call it ‘going native’. Discipline suffers when such things transpire.”
Griffon, shook his head. This was nothing new to him. Not after so many years in the Imperial Guard. There were commissars and commissars and this one – this one was one of the worst of his kind. “I see. Well, I’m not too up on the whole Cracken thing myself only having been with the 4th a year now, but I have been in the Guard as long as you’ve been in the Commisariate, Strabo. I think, maybe, I might know a thing or two about soldiering in the Emperor’s armies.”
“You dare –“ Strabo’s hand dipped toward his holster and this time Griffon didn’t bother to wave down the troopers, whose weapons came up dead on line with the political officer’s chest.
“I do,” replied the Lieutenant. “I do. You and I both know what will happen if you push this up the line. The local Commissariate tribunal isn’t quite your sort, thank the Throne for small favors. What’s more, you’re here, right now, alone. I’m not. You go for that weapon and no one will ever find your body out here in this crap. Not that there will be much left to find or anything.” He gestured over his shoulders at Harlow’s squad who had a grenade launcher, plasma rifle and flamer all leveled at Strabo in addition to their lasguns and Ariel’s shotgun. “No, not much left at all.”
Griffon folded his hands behind his back and walked back and forth like a scholam professor giving a lecture. “You see, when you drop to using force – you’d best have more than just some rules on your side. You’d better have respect, acknowledgement of your authority, or superior force. You’re one man, alone amongst thousands who don’t like you or your attitude. The only reason you’re alive right now is a minimal respect for your authority and you’re working on losing that. As soon as it’s gone, you’ll be a steaming mess right next to the man you just killed. I suggest you think hard on that while heading back to that chimera you’ve been bunking in. I suggest also that you clear your crud out of it so it can be properly used for transport of wounded men like Phrelian. Good, loyal soldiers of the Throne who were wounded standing and fighting bravely in the Emperor’s service. Maybe you think keeping your fancy coat clean is more important than their lives, but there are a couple thousand troopers here who disagree with you. So get going.”
The Commissar went first white and then red with fury.“The major will hear of this, Lieutenant, this is not over!” He turned away, trying to keep some shred of dignity intact.
“No,” Griffon said under his breath, “I don’t expect that it is.”
* * *
In some ways, Darius Strabo thought, the small dome tents of the troopers were an advantage. He had sent out his orderly, a young former ganger named Aleks from some hiveworld called Lodi, to procure sticks, poles, anything reasonably stout and around six feet long. These they had wedged against the canvas ceiling, just shy of the side panels of the commissar’s wall tent to keep the crud from pooling at the tent roof edges. Without that exercise the tent would have collapsed of the weight long since. As it was the interior resembled an Ecclesiarchal cathedral with sticks for flying buttresses and the commissar envied the trooper’s geodesic domes.
The flap flipped back and Major Lekcic ducked in. No one could really hear any kind of polite scratching which was normally used in the camp in place of the ability to knock, not with the constant crud smacking into the tents with wet plopping noises. Everyone had taken to just barging in and not worrying about the consequences. Lekcic had caught Strabo sitting on his bunk trying to sponge some of the mud off the turnbacks of his coat. “Lord Commissar,” the Major was always formal and correct, something that Strabo appreciated. Alone out of this gang of reprobate recidivists, he seemed a proper soldier. Not for the first time did the commissar wish he’d been the unit’s commanding officer rather than that rogue Senekal.
Strabo nodded in return, gesturing with his chin to a folding chair, which the major settled into. “I heard about the trouble today.” Strabo said nothing for a long time, continuing to brush the material across his knees.
“Nothing to say, my lord?”
“I am sorry, Major. Cracken and the other members of the Commissariate here are native. They won’t back me in a move to try either Harlow or Griffon.” He set the brush down with exaggerated care, his hand shaking with anger. “I should have simply shot them both.”
The Danikan officer sighed. Major Lekcic wasn’t a big man in any company and looked positively tiny next to the giant commissar. His grey field uniform was filthy with mud, which dripped off him onto the floor. Strabo noted that the major lacked the audacious white trousers others of the Danikan elite loved to flaunt. “My Lord, do you know why you were assigned here?”
“No.” his voice dropped to a growl, “I cannot think of a less suitable choice. Were it up to me I would kill most of this regiment, their battle record be-damned. The lot of them are unfit to serve the Emperor.”
The major let out a long breath, thinking for awhile. He leaned his head back to watch the impacts from above on the ceiling. “I requested you, Lord Strabo. Personally.”
Strabo’s eyes narrowed and went flinty. “Do you have some personal dislike for me Major?”
“Quite the contrary. I admire and respect you and have followed your career with interest. I agree with you, this regiment needs a much firmer hand as regards discipline.”
The commissar suddenly stood, turning his back on the other officer. “You had best go.”
“Eh? What? Why?”
“Because I will not be a part of it. I will not execute your Colonel simply to move you up the rank ladder toward high command. Your Colonel is many things, but he is not a coward, nor does he lose the Emperor’s battles. Much as I loathe the man for his cavalier attitude and lax approach, I admire his ability. I will not be part of your coup.”
It was Lekcic’s turn to be stunned. “Is that what you thought? If you were a fellow Danikan I would face you over weapons at dawn for such an insult!” The major took a long breath trying to calm his temper. “You really thought that was what this was about?”
“Throne NO!” he sputtered in anger and righteous rage. “You don’t even know what you are insinuating do you?” He stood up abruptly knocking over the camp chair. “Come with me, now my Lord!” Without waiting for an answer he exited the tent.
A falling clod of goop dropped right down the back of the commissar’s high collar just as he stepped out of the tent to follow the smaller officer, causing Strabo to growl a curse. Lekcic looked behind him to be sure that he was being followed and made his way through the maze of tents and prefabs that sprouted from what remained of the forest floor like a sickly fungal growth. No one had bothered with walkways in this camp. It was too temporary and the ground too soft now anyway, they would just sink into the mud and vanish. The walk wasn’t far and ended at the steps going up into a very small pre-fab not far from the commander’s tent. Senekal’s tent, Strabo noticed, was even smaller and less well-appointed than his own. Not a good symbol of superior rank at all.
Lekcic held his grimy thumb to a sensor which scanned for a moment before bleeping once, followed by the click of the lock releasing. The major pushed the door partly open but stopped, turning and suddenly vary serious. “You value your life, Commissar?”
“I live only to serve the Emperor.”
“Well if you want to keep on doing so, you will never tell of this place. Not what you see inside, not even that you know it exists. Do you understand?”
Strabo had been going to reply with contempt at the melodrama, but stopped when he saw how deadly serious the major was. He nodded, wondering what could be worth such a dire warning. They stepped inside, the prefab’s interior black as the belly of an ambull. The door clicked shut behind them. “Lights, low.”
Around the perimeter of the prefab, and in set places in the ceiling and floor, small bulbs began a dull yellow glow. The ones at the edges were area lights while those in the center were narrow beams. All were fixed on strange artifacts. It was strange, surreal, like a shrine or temple, the artifacts gleaming dimly in the light.
“What is this, Major? Some kind of shrine? Do you plan to murder me here, for if so you will find me quite unwilling to die!”
Lekcic ignored him and stepped past. “A shrine. No. And yes. This is no place of worship or servitude of the divine or of dark powers. Neither, as you have already noticed, is this a place of veneration of the Emperor.
“Look carefully, Commissar. What do you see?”
Strabo turned to the first object, the nearest one to his right. Iron circles, mounted on an ancient wooden staff, so old it had turned entirely black. It took a moment to realize that these were manacles, but that the chain had been cut, apparently by a power weapon. The next object was a reliquary, holding the bones of a tiny human, clearly a child albeit more than a babe. Next one was a whip of braided wire, the handle severed and mounted. Broken weapons and implements of torture, mutilation or bondage made up most of the display. Some were primitive, others highly advanced and a few perhaps even archeotech. All had been rendered useless. Broken and mounted. There was an obvious theme but he didn’t understand it. What’s more, nothing was new – all this was ancient beyond imagining. As he stood in the center of the small room he felt the weight of the place, pressing down on him. The implements of harsh control broken and defeated. This was not an Imperial place. Not a place where the Aquila ruled. This was a different place, a Danikan place. A place of freedom no longer denied, of harsh authority overthrown in violent revolution. He had never felt anything like it.
The major simply stood by the door, watching. “You understand now, don’t you? Why your approach will never work with them?”
“I don’t understand. What are these? What do they mean?”
“I think you know. If not the specific history, at least the moral and ethical line that they take.” The major walked slowly around the perimeter of the room, circling the Commissar. “This is why the men of Danika need a different hand, from what you normally use. No one knows where these come from or even what heroes fought for them, but all regiments have a shrine like this. All regiments that went out from the world of the Morning Star. If these artifacts are lost, the reconstituted regiment which bears the previous regiment’s number will move mountains to recover them if they can. Some of course have been lost forever. It is said that they are old – dating even to the time of Old Night before the Great Crusade. Perhaps it is true, who can say? But the message is this, Danikans will never be slaves to anyone. Not to man, nor beast, nor superhuman nor God. Not even to the Emperor. Serve with honor, courage and devotion, that yes. With bravery and gallantry too. But never mindlessly, and never as slaves.
“It is in our blood, displayed all around you. We were slaves once and we recall the pain if not the where and the why and we respect these relics and what they mean. These spaces, are Danikan only. Not only do others not come here but even those melded with our regiments, like the Raehanivs, do not know this place exists. Perhaps someday, if they adopt our world, maybe. But perhaps not even then. The Colonel would kill me for showing you this.”
“Because you are right. This regiment is too wild. Always has been. One can love freedom and honor and still appreciate good order and a sense of protocol. That’s why I wanted you here, Lord Strabo. To help me bring the 4th back to where it should be. To counter the wilder elements. “But I cannot do that, sir, if you are dead and dead is what you will be if you continue your behavior. The men and women of Danika value their freedom too much. They serve the Imperium out of Duty and Honor, but they will kill before they serve out of fear. Shooting Phrelian didn’t have the effect you wanted. It didn’t make the regiment fear you more than they fear the enemy, it just made them hate you more.
“It is true, that this regiment isn’t what I want it to be. Their parade ability is terrible, their attitude far too casual. But where we differ in many ways is in respect for their ability. You mentioned earlier how much you respect the Colonel, even while disliking him. However you haven’t even really met him formally. I respect the Colonel too. Very much so. I not only respect him, but I like him. He’s very likeable. He isn’t the kind of officer I wish he would be – he’ll never be on time with or up to date on his paperwork nor does he bother with many of the smaller details of the regiment that I wish he would. Even so, I have no doubt that he is a better commander than I am. The men love him while they will only ever tolerate me. They obey my orders because they know that he will back me up, but I’m very careful to never give an order he won’t back up.”
The little major walked to the center of the room where a giant stand of some kind, part icon, part standard, sat. It had pieces of archeotech mounted on the edges facing in like a crown of thorns and some kind of symbol, extremely defaced and no longer legible, at its center. Something about it was disturbing to look at – like it radiated hate and anger, but at the same time it was scorned and disdained by those objects around it. The air nearly hummed with the strange balance of unseen powers. Strabo moved closer. “You can feel it,” he muttered. “The hate, the contempt.”
“And the sadness, the bitterness, the loss and betrayal. They are all there if you stand still long enough. It is this ancient and lost history which gives the men of Danika – and the women now too I suppose much as I dislike that – their ability to stand against anything in battle. It is not what you and I would think of as a proper kind of soldiering. But remember, Lord Strabo, there are many kinds of discipline.”