Corporal Pak slid into the passenger seat of the staff car with a dull thud.
‘Why the long face, Junho?’ Beside him, Sergeant Major Pan grinned and revved the engine a couple times. ‘Haven’t you heard? Our fearless commissar is taking to the field. Glory awaits.’
‘Throne almighty.’ Pak shook his head. ‘Citation day? Already?’
‘Only once every two months, and yet it’s never far enough away,’ Pan answered, and he threw back the gearshift. The motorcar lurched into motion, and within moments the outskirt camp was pulling away into the distance.
‘Just let him execute me at this point,’ Pak groaned. ‘Hasn’t he gotten enough interviews out of the enlisted men?’
‘Oh, he’s not calling you for an interview. Believe me, he has plenty.’ The sergeant major laughed. ‘Should’ve seen it. I don’t doubt the men are believers, of course. If I did, we wouldn’t be joking about it – but this? All “yes, sir, I was profoundly stirred by Captain Choi’s morning sermon” and “yes, sir, when they told me my patrol route I was filled by the Emperor’s righteous fury” and the like? It was practically parody. Damn good thing the Commissariat doesn’t read the reports too closely, or they’d have had the bastard shot or cashiered years ago.’
‘What a shame that’d be,’ Pak muttered, though he still felt a bit uneasy.
The ride from the section’s camp to the company headquarters was a short one. Pak watched the scattered tents and freshly ploughed fields go by for little more than ten minutes before they gave way to the squat buildings of Eppur village. Moments later, they’d pulled into view of the commissar’s field green tent, standing almost the size of one of the villagers’ huts at the back of a small dirt clearing.
The car skidded to a stop, and Pan threw the gearshift forward. He turned to the corporal as he stepped out the driver’s side door. ‘After you.’ He gave a gesture toward the rippling canvas of the tent entrance. Pak nodded with less than enthusiasm and climbed out of the car, clasping his hands with a low apprehension as he cast a couple sideways glances at Pan. Then, with a heavy sigh, he cautiously stepped forward and slipped through the flap into the tent.
Commissar Huon was a man with a face and build at once skeletal and sagging, like a starving man slowly becoming accustomed to luxury. His uniform was polished and pristine, glinting a deep black against his pallid skin, and his red sash hung bright and immaculate at his waist, though Pak reckoned it was on account of his refusal to take to the field. His tent, similarly, was unnaturally clean, spotless, well-furnished with exquisite cabinets, cushions, and chairs Pak could only guess had been ‘gifted’ to him by locals. Before Pak could consider all the trappings kept in the room, though, Commissar Huon had set down his favoured Tandasian tea and lifted his arms in greeting.
‘Ahh, Junho.’ The commissar had a frustrating way of speaking to all the officers like they were old friends, or close acquaintances. ‘Have a seat. Terribly sorry for the inconvenience – would you like some tea? You too, Haeil, if you’ve changed your mind. It’s Tandasian capitaline. Exquisite blend.’
Pak declined wordlessly and sat, and given the commissar’s disappointed reaction he assumed Pan had done the same. ‘You called for me, sir?’
‘Ahh, all business.’ Huon took another sip and slid a few papers over the table. ‘Well, I’m sure Haeil told you it’s citation day. My superiors expect a report on how I’ve been keeping order in the last couple months. Truth be told, I’m worried I’m running short.’
It took all of Pak’s energy not to snicker at that. He doubted the man had even touched his pistol since they made planetfall.
‘See, normally, Haeil handles discipline, and of course he’s not all that severe,’ Huon continued. ‘So when the time comes, if we’re short on disciplinary reports, I file a couple citations for extreme valour in combat, have a few men praise the Emperor into a vox-recorder, and I can tell the Commissariat that company morale is high and devotion is ironclad. Issue is, they’re getting tired of hearing it, and I’m already on thin ice with them as is. So if you could just sign these forms…’
Pak gave them a scan but couldn’t be bothered to read the minuscule type. ‘Why me?’
‘Well, Junho, it concerns one of yours. Lance Corporal, uh…’ Huon turned the paper around and gave it a squint. ‘Noi, Lance Corporal Noi. The one who was…’
‘In the fight, I know, sir.’ Pak remembered it clearly. Noi had been a good man, but some argument with a local merchant had gone wrong and he ended up nearly beating the poor man to death. Still, one thing wasn’t adding up. ‘But Noi’s been dead for a week.’
‘Exactly.’ Huon smiled as if appreciating his own genius. ‘After the, uh, misunderstanding, the locals were outraged. They demanded an investigation. So I opened one, filed it with the Munitorum. But you and the major vouched for the soldier, so of course I was never going to follow through with it. Now that he’s been killed – by snipers, was it? While on patrol? No matter. The point is the case is still open.’
‘So you’ve decided concluding a three-week internal investigation against an unruly non-com might be enough to appease your superiors.’ Pak sighed. ‘And I take it you need me, as Noi’s commanding officer, to sign off on your results.’
The commissar nodded as he sipped his tea. ‘You know, Junho, I’ve always found you a sharp young corporal.’ He gave a gesture of approval so over-the-top it felt to Pak like condescension.
The corporal rolled his eyes and squinted at the summary. ‘“…Approximately two weeks after the incident, important evidence surfaced concerning the circumstances of the dispute between LCpl. Noi and Mr. Ranej… the evidence, which is filed and recorded in detail on the following pages, revealed LCpl. Noi to be the aggressor. He was found guilty of wanton assault and attempted murder against an Imperial citizen, excommunicated, and sentenced to summary execution, but before the sentence could be carried out he was killed by…”’ he trailed off and looked up in shock and indignation. ‘Excommunication?’
‘What of it?’ Huon was too busy pouring more tea to notice the corporal’s expression.
‘The man died with service honours.’ Pak shook his head quickly. ‘You can’t just do this.’
‘Well,’ Huon said, lifting the cup to his pale lip, ‘they might ask questions, true. But if it’s corroborated by, uh… Noi’s, commanding officer, the company commissar, the company sergeant major–’
‘You’re not hearing me.’ Pak slammed the table and stood. ‘The man died a week ago in combat. You can’t just excommunicate him. What about his family?’
Huon looked up in a mix of alarm and unease, the cup hovering in his hand. ‘What about them?’
‘The–’ The corporal groaned. ‘He died a week ago! The report probably hasn’t even hit logistics’ desk yet. You think they’ll file a payout for a dead traitor’s wife?’
Huon set his drink down and looked around like he hadn’t considered the thought. Pak scoffed, shaking his head. ‘Is the evidence even real?’
The commissar didn’t say anything, but that was answer enough.
‘Junho,’ the sergeant major warned. Pak just scoffed again in disbelief and wordlessly walked out of the tent.
‘Pak.’ Pan was calling out to him but he kept walking. ‘Pak! What are you doing?’
Pak whirled around to face the older officer. ‘I am going to speak to the major.’
‘Be reasonable.’ Sergeant Major Pan moved to interdict him, a look of concern on his skeletal face. ‘Just sign the report. Come on, Pak.’
Pak denied him with an outstretched hand. ‘I am going to speak to the major and we will submit a complaint to the Commissariat.’
‘Junho, it’s not worth it.’ Pan stepped in front of him with an almost comical gesture, as though he was a wall between Pak and the commander’s tent. ‘Trust me.’
‘I will submit a complaint to the Commissariat,’ Pak repeated, ‘and if you don’t get out of the way I’ll report you too.’
The sergeant major sighed and looked down. ‘Don’t do it. For your sake.’
‘Really?’ Pak exploded in frustration. ‘Scapegoating a dead man to save face? This is the hill you’d die on? And for him, no less. Aren’t you tired of doing his job while he takes the credit? Signing off on farce interviews and farce reports, and now there he is, pissing on Noi’s grave, and you’re there cheering him on – ’
Pak stopped short with a cry as the sergeant major struck him across the face with his laspistol. He fell to the ground, stunned; his face hit the cold earth. He looked up, started lifting himself from the ground. Pan let him stand, then blinked and let his features soften.
‘That’s enough,’ he said quietly. Pak was too shocked to reply. He just silently pressed on his bruised cheek, throbbing hot against the cool morning air.
‘I don’t think you realise how fortunate you are to be in this unit.’ Pan looked off pensively into the distance, the laspistol still hanging in his hand. ‘I dislike Huon, yes. But I’ve served long enough to see my fair share of commissars, and I’ve seen what they can do to a unit. You ever hear the stories? Crazed hardliners, shooting whole companies worth of men every year? They’re real, Junho, and they’re a good half or more of the ones I’ve served with.’
‘So, yes.’ Pan shrugged. ‘He can cheat. He can lie. He can take responsibility for what I’ve done. Hell, he can get medals for it, for all I care, as long as he stays. Maybe he doesn’t contribute anything but farce reports and that damned Tandasian tea, but you replace him and you’re playing Vostroyan roulette with you, me, and the whole goddamn company. Have you ever seen your own unit taken from you? Heard your commanders meekly bowing their heads to the suicidal orders of an unschooled zealot?’ Suddenly, his eyes fell on Pak’s, and he whipped the laspistol forward. Pak shrank backwards as the barrel scraped within an inch of his face, settling right over his forehead.
‘What about you?’ Pan’s voice was devoid of any uncertainty. For a moment the corporal feared he would be executed. ‘Imagine I have ordered you to lead a platoon in an assault on a rebel town. It is fortified, bristling with guns and artillery. You will lose, and your platoon will die. But I am pointing this gun at you and commanding you to attack. Your men are condemned to death whether they follow the order or not. The only question is which weighs heavier on your conscience. Will you obey, and let their blood stain your hands and their faces haunt your dreams forever? Or will you die here and abdicate responsibility for the slaughter to some less fortunate man? Have you even considered what you would do? I can see that you haven’t.’ Pan jabbed at Pak’s forehead with the pistol, and the corporal winced, squeezing his eyes shut with the force of a servo-clamp. ‘But I am pointing this gun at you, corporal. You don’t have time to consider. Wait too long, and I will choose for you. Which will it be, then, corporal?’
The sergeant major paused, as if to invite reply, but Pak said nothing. He was just shaking, breathing in and out, staring into the orange-black of his eyelids. Finally, after what felt like hours, the corporal felt the pistol retract. Only then did he open his eyes.
‘You can pray all you want, but you will have to make that choice someday.’ Pan lowered the gun, the frightful fire in his eyes extinguished. His voice was relaxed and pensive again. ‘And when you do, you’ll start to see a man like Huon like a blessing from the Emperor Himself.’
Pak looked back to the commissar’s tent in apprehension, his stomach turning, still dazed from the past moments. He shook his head. ‘I can’t just…’
Pan sighed. ‘You’re a good man, Junho, and a decent corporal. But you’re terribly inexperienced, and it shows.’ He holstered the laspistol and stepped out of Pak’s way, sauntering a few steps toward the tent like nothing ever happened.
‘Right then, corporal.’ Pan turned over his shoulder. ‘Looks like you have a choice to make, after all.’
Huon was glancing at some files when the men returned, but he quickly lowered them as they arrived. He beamed over the stacked papers. ‘Haeil!’ he exclaimed jovially. ‘I take it you dealt with the situation?’
Pak fell back into the ivory-plated chair and sighed. Behind him, the sergeant major gave his curt affirmation. ‘That’s right, sir.’
‘Of course, of course. I should have known I could count on you. I always have.’ Huon slipped the files into a small, stained folder and reached below his small, lacquered desk. ‘You’re like a blessing, Haeil, you know that? I’d be lost without you.’ The commissar reemerged, the investigation report limply hanging in his hand. ‘Really, I would. Sometimes I feel like you could handle everything yourself.’
‘Likewise, sir,’ came Pan’s reply. Huon laughed, but no one joined him.
‘You are too kind,’ he said, ‘too kind. Now, Junho…’
Pak couldn’t help but wince as the papers were once again laid out in front of him. He looked up into the commissar’s sallow face and dark eyes, both looking as grave as they possibly could. It was a look so technical and exaggerated it felt like a recital, like Huon had been taught the art of severity but never really understood it.
Pak nodded. ‘Just get it over with.’
The intensity, feigned or otherwise, fled Huon’s face in a moment, replaced by his usual smile as he presented Pak with a pen in his outstretched hand. Pak snatched it.
‘Excellent,’ the commissar said, leaning back in his own well-polished seat. ‘You know, I must thank you, too, Junho. It wouldn’t be possible without you. Well, it wouldn’t be so smooth, at least.’ He let out another unrequited chuckle.
Pak just picked up the papers and scanned for the signature line. He found eyewitness reports, scene investigation records, photo evidence, all things he decided were better left unread. So he pushed through them, trying his hardest not to look, until he found the blank line at the bottom of the conclusion page. Pak uncapped the pen and let it hang over the empty space. He paused.
Even as he hesitated Huon kept going. ‘You know, it’s not so bad in the end,’ the commissar was saying. ‘It’s unfortunate what has to happen, really, but records are just records. The galaxy’s a big place, Junho. Most people couldn’t read them all if they wanted to.’
Pak glanced up in weary exasperation but couldn’t quell his unease.
‘To most people, one soldier’s not much of an issue.’ Huon shrugged and began pouring another cup of tea. ‘Maybe Lance Corporal Ney’s name is a stain in the files, but who’s going to care? They don’t know him. What matters is we do, Junho, you and I and Haeil over there, maybe the major, even.’
Pak swallowed hard and began to quiver. He looked back down at the paper to hide narrowed eyes and a locked jaw. His fists began to ball. The commissar, ever oblivious, sipped his Tandasian capitaline and kept going, his reassuring tone more infuriating than anything else.
‘We remember Mai as he was, Junho, not as the records tell it. And in the end, that’s what matters. So it’s not so bad, really.’
‘It’s Noi,’ Pak grunted.
‘Oh, is it?’ Huon gave a shrug and raised his cup.
Pak’s fists clenched harder than adamantine claws. He closed his eyes, but he still saw clear as day. There it all was, the report, the desk, the commissar’s serpentine face. He almost saw himself. Almost felt it happening. Again and again, he stood, shouted, but no words came out. He dropped the pen and his arm shot downward. He could hear Pan’s voice behind him, crying out some warning or other, but it was too late for both men, too slow for one, too quick for the other. Pak drew his sidearm. He made his choice, abdicated to some other damned corporal – he’d die here, watching the last shreds of colour flee the terrified face. He pulled the trigger again and again and again, that serpent smile reduced to melting flesh and bone toppling backwards into the – no.
He did nothing of the sort.
Instead, Pak just gripped the pen and signed his soul away.
About the Author
Alex Gentem has floated in and out of 40k for about seven years, but is back strong after discovering how to paint properly. He has always preferred the hobby side of the universe to the game side, and as a result has probably spent far longer writing lore documents than he should.