Like some of the other stories here, Oversight was written to introduce a newly completed unit, in this case the Battle Psyker squad I’d finished painting. The models, shown below are old Rogue Trader era ‘Sanctioned Psykers’ and the Overseer on old Army trooper – a model so old it’s made of lead rather than lead free pewter. The old GW catalog called the model ‘Trooper Lake’, inspiring me to keep that last name. Bartholomew is taken from a friend’s RPG character in a game I ran years ago.
“Trooper Bartholomew Lake – please rise.
“Are you prepared to hear the judgment of this court?”
Lake got to his feet, his knees shaking slightly. Around him members of his platoon looked on. Carrington, the old brown nose had tears in his eyes! “I am,” he stammered out, knowing full well those might be the last words he ever said. It wasn’t unheard of for Cracken to just shoot men right in the courtroom, even though he rarely did so on the battlefield. Well, if you could call a battered old tent a ‘courtroom’ anyway.
“Trooper Lake – you are found guilty of gambling when under the ban, possession of narcotic substances while under ban, assaulting another member of this regiment, assaulting a member of the Commissariat, assaulting a senior officer, drunk and disorderly conduct and conduct unbecoming a member of the Imperial Guard.
“Many of these charges are severe and two of them, assaulting an officer and assaulting a member of the Commissariat, carry with them summary sentences of death without even recourse to a court martial of this kind.
The huge Commissar stood up, pulling his hat off to allow his completely hairless pate to shine in the reflected light of the sun leaking in through the vents. It had become devilishly hot during the day as the trial had progressed. Hot enough that Lake almost wished they’d just shoot him and get it over with. The other two commissars on the tribunal remained seated and looked rather bored.
“Bartholomew – these are not first offenses and we both know it. The only reason you weren’t subjected to more severe discipline long ago is that you are an exemplary soldier on the field. You are brave, strong, determined and have won far more than your share of awards, each one well earned. I have talked to you. The Colonel has and others.
He sighed sadly. “I should shoot you here and now. I probably would save that the morale of this regiment would suffer by my doing so and it would in no way aid the Emperor’s wars, which it is both of our duties to prosecute. The men like you Bart. Despite your misbehavior. Even your own Lieutenant asked me to spare you, to give you yet another chance in hopes of reforming you.”
Lake’s jaw dropped visibly. Carrington had spoken out for him? Carrington who he’d socked so hard that the medic had to replant a tooth?
“But reality is this – Commissar or no, there are limits to what I may tolerate in the ranks. Men in your platoon are beginning to emulate you, having seen you ‘Get away with it’ for so long. Discipline is breaking down. You leave me only two choices.
“The first is simply to shoot you – but I’ve addressed that. Given the situation the second choice is the better one for me. Likely, sadly, the worse one for you.”
Lake’s stomach dropped into his boots. If he was going to say what he figured he was, then Cracken was right – better that the Commissar just shoot him.
“Ccommisssarrr?” The strangely pronounced word came from the back of the tent. One word from multiple throats, sung in sing-song unison. “What about IE 26943 from the rules of the Commissariat?”
Cracken squinted toward the back of the tent. The sunlight outside was bright and he couldn’t even make out more than the silhouettes of those standing in the back, waiting to hear the final fate of Bartholomew Lake. “26943. Hmmm.” He pondered a moment. “Ah. That’s a rare one. ‘In cases where Imperial interests would best be served, a member of the Commissariat or their representative may take personal oversight of a miscreant.’ Yes, I know that one. It’s the same one Schaeffer uses to form his little gangs of n’er-do-wells.”
“Exxxacttly sso.” The voices were out of synch again and there was movement in the back as a group made their way up the center aisle to stand behind Lake. The trooper desperately wanted to look, but he had no idea what this was about. If he messed this up, it’d be the penal legions for certain and the Commissar was right – that was worse than death. Particularly for a free spirit like him. He had no idea what was waiting behind him, but he wasn’t sure it would be better than a bolt from Cracken’s pistol either.
The tramping boots behind him were perfectly in step. Like a drill team. Or, Lake thought morbidly, a firing squad. They stopped.
Cracken rubbed his jaw, flicking away a droplet of sweat. Both of the other commissars looked a bit green in the gills and suddenly Lake knew why. The hairs on the back of his head were standing on end and, as he looked down, tiny sparks crawled across the manacles on his wrists. Despite himself he whirled and took a step back. “Get away you freaks!”
Seven heads turned to look at him. Seven left eyebrows rose in perfect unison. The psyker battle squad was impressive. Seven men, all of medium height. All had their heads shaved and wore elaborate uniforms in dark blue and white, edged in deep yellow. They wore tall black boots, trimmed to match the uniforms, and short half-capes of purple lined with yellow. Most carried simple laspistols and knives although their leader bore a thumb thick staff of bronze topped by an aquila. Unlike the others he also wore a long, duster style knee length coat of the same violet hue as the capes. “Freaks?” the voices came in perfect synch this time. “We are members of the Adeptus Telepathica, sanctioned as not needing soul binding by the very Emperor of Mankind himself. We have stood before him in his palace on Terra and survived his judgment. CAN YOU SAY THE SAME?”
The tent was gone.
Lake stood in a vast room. A room so vast that the name itself didn’t properly apply. Giant columns stretched upwards a thousand feet or more to support a groined and arched ceiling. The walls were far enough away that the details were lost in the smoke of incense, giving only the impression of giant windows narrow and deep, hundreds of feet high and filled with glowing multicolored glass. Above him, the fan vaulted ceiling of stone was nearly invisible, being hung with thousands of mouldering banners and standards. Once, they must have been brilliant in their myriad hues but now they spoke of faded grandeur and battles fought so long ago that no one even remembered the worlds, much less the battlefields. The room was so impressive it would have brought most people to their knees in awe but it was nothing to the tiny, withered figure atop the high stairs before him.
The dais was filled with machinery – all gold, bronze and copper. It stretched as high as the great ceiling and half as wide as the room. It took a moment for Lake to realize that this gigantic mechanism wasn’t the cogitator of a titan or the power source for a city or some other machine which belonged on such a scale.
It was a chair. All that – all those hundreds of writhing cables and pulsing monitors and crackling spurts of energy. A chair.
In the centre of the great machine was the seat. The scale of everything was so huge that the tiny alcove looked ridiculous until one’s eyes fell upon the tiny, withered mummy which occupied it. Then the power struck Lake to his knees. It was a – presence – like nothing he’d experienced, nor even imagined. He’d heard older troopers tell of surviving the Grand Pavanne of Slaanesh when beating back a warp incursion and had laughed at their descriptions of a force so potent that it subsumed their entire being. How even great heroes fell to their knees before being able to pull themselves together.
Lake understood now. He fell from his knees to his face and every part of his being tried to flow into the floor. The power – the force – there were no words to describe it. It took all his senses simply to cling to his identity. He was sure that men who had not faced death would simply have been blasted apart, their personalities destroyed and their bodies left as naught but empty, drooling shells.
Somehow, through this, he realized he was not alone.
Flanking that thing on the chair were two men in gold and red carrying long pikes. They stood, faces hidden behind great masks, completely oblivious to the power in the room. They were giants. Men of Astartes physique, each easily seven and a half feet tall and broadly muscled.
Custodes, he managed to think. Adeptus Custodes. That must mean that –
Once again the force nearly destroyed him. A moment’s distraction, a moment’s surprise and he was doomed.
There was another in the room. Closer. Just behind where he lay upon the cracked marble tiles. This man had long dark brown hair with a streak of grey from one temple. He was young, carried a staff and wore a long purple robe which swept the floor at his feet. He stood straight and faced the thing on the chair defiantly, leaning forward as though into a strong wind.
There were more. Around them. Bodies. Some were alive, their eyes vacant. Others clearly dead, bleeding from eyes, mouth and nose. One no longer had a head, unless one were to count the sanguine gobbets sprayed here and there.
And then it was over.
Trooper Lake made a tiny mewling sound and shifted, grinding grit into his cheek. His skin coloured red with blush as he realized based on feel and scent that he’d soiled himself. He was glad, suddenly, of his heavy grey fatigue uniform which would hide that. He sat, trying to ignore the squishing feeling around his bottom and not really succeeding. Ice rimed the tent poles nearby despite the hot day and the leader of the freaks – stood impassively, staring down at Lake and ignoring the bolt pistol Cracken had pointed at his head. Mentally, Lake subtracted the hair and added some years and cares. Yes. This was the same man who’d stood in that place he could not really bear to remember. Freak? No. Much more than that. Choirmaster.
“He is unharmed, Commissar Cracken,” the Choirmaster spoke alone as the others stayed silent.
“What. Did. You. DO?” Cracken’s words came out slowly but with great force as though each was a boltgun blast.
“Tested him.” The Choirmaster and his squad looked down at Lake in unison and their next words were from the entire squad, “and did not find him wanting.”
For the first time one of the squad members spoke alone, without either the others or the Choirmaster. His words were hesitant, as though he was unused to speaking, but his voice was still strong. “26943 is only to be enacted when the best interests of the Emperor are to be served. We needed someone suitable for the job.” The squad member stepped forward. His uniform was the same in colour, but alone amongst the squad he wore a long red sash around his waist over the uniform. His skin and eyes were a deep chocolate colour which had not gone as pale as some of the others from their time aboard their naval ship. He held up one end of his sash to show Cracken and, with a start, Lake realized it was the same as the one that the senior Commissar wore.
“You – you were a Commissar?”
“Aaammm.” The Battle squad answered together. Then he continued alone, “I was dutiful and when my talent – appeared – I went immediately to the Inquisition. While I no longer serve the Imperium in the same way, I still serve – and my dedication meant that my status in the Commissariat was never revoked. In their eyes it was much as if I had died in battle.” The squad chorused the next words, “Inn many wayss they were nott wrong.”
Slowly Hieronymus Cracken holstered his pistol. “What do you want him for? He’s no psyker. At least I don’t think he is.”
“No,” the Choirmaster answered, “but to function in battle we require an Overseer. Someone to look after our souls should things go – wrong.”
“You mean someone to kill you.”
“Ttthheeey aree onne and the sammme.”
“26943 stipulates that the penitent be under Commissarial oversight. I don’t think that this is quite what they had in mind.”
The Choirmaster smiled and most of the rest of the squad grinned slightly with the same slightly angled smirk. “No, indeed, but I assure you oversight for his misbehavior will be provided – and his oversight of us when we need him desperately on the battlefield will serve the Emperor.”
“And you want him? Lake? What makes you think a screwup like him is right?”
The Choirmaster’s grin remained but it became very cold as he looked down at Bartholomew Lake. In his eyes, briefly, Lake could see that younger man standing up against what would have killed most men easily and he realized that, while he had not truly stood with the Choirmaster that day, his life had been in as much jeopardy just a moment ago as if he had. “He still breathes. Therefore, he is right.”