Major Hale sighed and knocked back his recaff. He grimaced as the stone-cold liquid hit his tongue and stepped over to the tiny ablutions alcove to pour the dregs away in disgust. Settling back in his chair with a grunt, he tapped a tabac stick out of a battered case and lit it from one of the candles that adorned the desk. He picked up the data slate and read the contents again, skimming over the introductions and catechisms to get to the meat of the text.
WHILE YOUR OBJECTIONS ARE NOTED, MUNITORIUM REGULATIONS ARE UNEQUIVOCAL. CONTINUITY OF COMMAND STRUCTURES MUST BE MAINTAINED.
FURTHER COMMUNICATIONS REGARDING THIS MATTER WILL BE TRANSFERRED TO THE COMMISARIAT AND MAY RESULT IN CENSURE.
He dropped the slate and poured himself an amasec from the decanter. The crystal was scratched from decades of use, and the golden liquid shone wanly in the candlelight, like sunrise through mist. He took a sip, savouring the complex notes. The tabac stick was burning low, so he stubbed it out on the back of the tin. He rubbed his tired eyes with the heels of his hands then massaged his temples with his fingertips. His skin felt gritty, exhaustion making it tender. He opened his eyes and looked at the pict on the desk. Three faces stared back at him. His own much younger face, the old man, and the colonel. They were all much younger then, of course. The image taken just after the muster when deployment held a promise of adventure. The realities of war had aged them all. The eager second lieutenants passing through rank and horror with each engagement. Attrition forcing elevation at a far greater pace than any of them were truly comfortable with. Four years had felt like twenty as the crusade ground on. Four years that weighed heavily until, for the old man at least, they weighed nothing at all.
Hale reached out and picked up the campaign bars that rested against the pict frame. Feeling the rounded edge where steel and adamantium had flowed like butter when the las-bolt kissed them. He sighed again, dropped the medals onto the slate and swivelled his chair around.
The colonel was asleep on the bunk. She always seemed to sleep these days. He envied her that. The terror and loss of the last few years barely touched her. She missed the old man, they all did, she just kept it to herself.
Her new uniform hung in clear plastek on the back of the door. Pressed and perfect, rank and unit insignia shone golden, untarnished by blood or smoke. She’d never wear it, of course; she’d never worn any of them.
It had all seemed so throne damned funny at the time. That night before they shipped off, all those rounds of barcan and amasec. Bragging about the heroes of the Imperium they were going to be. The girls in the bar had lapped it up and when she came and sat on the old man’s lap, he’d joked about bringing her along. She wouldn’t leave the old man alone so Hale just…signed her up. He’d had to fudge a couple of details on the forms, but it was all so hectic no one seemed to notice.
The men found out of course, but they’d played along willingly. Snapping off smart salutes when they came across her in the ship’s corridors. Throwing in references to her valour in after action reports. She’d even won citations for bravery. They sat in their cases on the desk. Untouched and ignored.
It probably would’ve been ok if he’d paid a little more attention to the dates, Hale mused. It hadn’t mattered much when they were middle ranking officers that she had seniority, it was just another part of the joke. But then Colonel Mostrum had met the sharp end of an Ork cleaver, and the old man was suddenly in command, and she was XO.
They should’ve put an end to it then, they’d meant to. He’d drawn up the discharge order himself: Medical grounds, nothing too serious, but she would be withdrawn from active service. They still sat ready to go on the slate, forgotten in the rush for planetfall. Now, it was much too late.
The colonel woke up then. Stretching languidly, yawning widely. She stepped down from the bunk lightly and walked across to Hale. The embedded hololith sprang to life at her approach, cogitators processing her gene sample to unlock the secure data files. A map of the engagement zone hovered above the desk; green topography interspersed with red runes of the enemy disposition. She regarded it lazily then tapped at the eastern flank, the rune expanded with force calculations and estimated casualties. Hale regarded the information with a practised eye, as targets went, it could be worse. It could be much, much worse.
‘Orders received, ma’am,’ he said with a smile and stood up.
He finished the amasec, it really was rather good and straightened his greatcoat. He stepped to the bulkhead and reached for the handle, then paused. He stepped back to the desk and opened a small refrigeratum unit, extracting the canteen, then found a clean bowl.
He poured out a measure of grox milk, and the colonel purred contentedly as he stroked her back, grey fur silky beneath his fingers.
Major Hale left the cabin, casting a quick glance back at his CO as she lapped up her breakfast, and went to prepare the regiment.
About the Author
Andy Clark is an avid reader of all things Warhammer, having rediscovered the setting with the Horus Heresy series. He’s recently got back into painting models after a two-decade gap and wonders why he ever stopped.