The woman had felt each of those fifteen lashes dig into her skin and muscles. The executor, one of the cadet commissars, had been anything but slacking in his task. Biting on a leather belt, her arms forcefully cuffed around a pole, she had managed not to scream or burst into tears. That she was proud of, more so than of her actions during that bloody battle. She had denied that bastard Terea his satisfaction, even though he was sitting in the front row of the podium that housed the officers and other local authorities that had survived the rebellion, smirking down at her with a satisfied grin. She had smirked back… at first. After a few slashes, though, she was just holding on, focused on depriving him of his pleasure, and that she had managed. The man had left the barracks as angry, if not more than when he had arrived, cursing her and the Guard as a whole on his way out.
It was only then that she allowed herself to crumble, a medicae rushing to her side to treat the wounds. The antiseptic burned her, the doctor forbidden from using painkillers and forced to bandage Nilla’s back raw after clearing the wounds, all under the watchful and vigilant eye of the commissar, of course.
‘The point of this is for the lesson to mark you, lieutenant, body and mind. I’m sure you can understand.’
‘Turret, eleven o’clock. Driver, stop us there,’ crackling half covering her voice, Nilla spoke calmly through the interphone of the tank. No reason to panic yet for the Regard’s crew. Unlike the PDF troopers that rushed around trying to find cover following the explosion of the truck leading the column, Nilla’s crew was sheltered from the incoming small arms fire by the armour of their mount. As far as ambushes went, this one was quite pathetic. The rebels had opened fire too soon, wasting their advantage. It made sense. These were people trying to escape the tithe and its implications, after all. Poor fools…
‘Sergeant, whenever you want to silence that stubber.’ Rolling her eyes the lieutenant looked down to her left, catching a glimpse of Maude’s smile and glasses before the breech of the battle cannon flew back and obscured her view with a muffled roar. Eyes moving back to the optics, Nilla smiled at the smoke and rubble falling around the balcony where the stubber had been. A buzzing noise, a red light blipping by her head, and she pushed a button, opening the line of the outside phone that one of the PDF troopers had seized, peeking from behind the Leman Russ. Words, cut by static, a series of instructions, and she gulped down.
‘Alright, driver, get us moving. We’re taking the lead of the column. Slow and steady, we don’t want the footmen to get lost. Everyone else, keep your eyes sharp.’
Exhaling twin plumes of smoke through its exhausts and clawing deep in the mud with its tracks, the tank rolled forward again, passing by the burning wreck of the truck and taking the lead position on the road into the outskirts of the city, local troopers in tow. It was the worst possible way to operate and Nilla knew it. Hopefully the rebels did not.
Cracks in the skies. That was how the flight of Marauders high above their heads looked, like long and thin white cracks in the blue skies above. They probably could have avoided flying over the city, but seeing them again and again was a good way to motivate everyone on the ground, according to what she had heard in the officer’s mess hall. They were a constant reminder of the Imperium’s hold on this world in the same way the Regard was being used now, most of its crew sitting atop its hull and watching over the prisoners. Looking back down over the dataslate she was working on—filling in a requisition report—Nilla shook her head. As if those people needed any more reminders.
‘You know Lieutenant, the more I look at them, the more I feel they’re better at clearing rubble than creating it.’ The voice of her gunner pulled Nilla away from her wandering thoughts, and she once more shook her head to clear her mind. Jose was right. The men and women in tattered apparel working before them were indeed better at clearing rubble than they had been at causing it—even with the hindrance of heavy chains and cumbersome collars linking them to one another.
‘He’s got a point. Then again, they didn’t quite fight, these ones,’ Rigs chimed in, a cigarillo hanging from her left hand, the shaking of it nearly impossible to notice. Nearly. Recognising the small talk for what it was, a way to pass time during a boring assignment, Nilla sighed and took the obvious bait, setting her dataslate aside for the time being.
‘What do you mean there, Private Rigs?’ The grin on the woman’s face already made Nilla regret her question, but it was too late to stop the private from explaining another one of her now-famous theories.
‘Well, see, the ones that fought, they’re dead, aye? We killed them. So these guys, they are the ones that didn’t fight.’ Once again at it with her foolproof logic, The rest of the crew mocked Rigs with boos and laughter alike until the lieutenant sighed and cleared her throat, imposing silence to the merry band before adding, after a few seconds of delay.
‘Rigs obviously never heard of prisoners of war. It’s not her fault. She’s still new to this and was busy down in the hull when they surrendered.’ Saying she was ‘new to this’ was an overstatement. The assistant gunner had grown on the crew ever since her first time seeing action a few months prior, and the fact she was still the newest addition to the crew was a blessing Nilla prayed to keep intact every night before going to sleep.
Soon silence grew between the crewmembers again, only broken by the loud rumble of the bulldozer clearing rubble from the street ahead, the clank of chains, and din of tools on rockrete debris. It all gave the woman working on her forms a constant, monotonous background filler, and she made good progress before she was interrupted again.
‘Lieutenant Irae? Ma’am, this gentleman here wants to speak to you.’ Pulled once more from work, she turned around to the voice of Dhanda, the PDF captain. He was accompanied by another man clad in long green robes, holding a dataslate in each of his hands and followed by a servitor scribe. Administratum, from the looks of it. No good news could come from these two, and she further extracted herself from the cupola, dexterously jumping down from the tank’s turret and then hull before saluting the captain. He was a fellow officer after all, despite being part of the PDF, and she had learnt to respect him and his men.
‘Captain, sir?’ She gave an interrogative gaze over them both just in time to see the captain being cut off from speaking by the adept.
‘Lieutenant, the Administratum would like to know why exactly you blew up one of the city’s grain reserves during your last action when orders had clearly been given for you to not damage any critical pieces of infrastructure?’ High-pitched and annoying, the man’s voice was driving nails into Nilla’s head along with his implications. Blinking a few times in confusion, the woman nonetheless replied.
‘Grain reserve, sir? I don’t recall… Oh… That…’ Realisation hit her. The grain reserves… Yes, she could remember, now.
It was like hail. Small arms fire was bouncing off the Regard’s hull constantly, as if the rebels thought they could destroy the tank with their rifles and pistols. A foolish endeavour, certainly, but one that forced the crew to stay inside with their hatches shut and to rely on the limited view the periscopes and armoured vision slits provided. That was something none of them liked at the best of times, nevermind while stuck in a city, trying to manoeuvre a tank through narrow streets and alleys. Nilla had stopped counting Russel’s curses and similarly stopped telling the driver to shut it. He needed a way to vent his frustration, and it was better to do so with words than with abusive pulls and tugs at the transmission box.
Ever since they had entered the city three hours earlier, they had been advancing at a snail’s pace. They were only clearing the outskirts and just now starting to reach one of the first industrial zones, catwalks and other transport belts, giving Nilla a cold sweat. If anyone with a missile launcher was going around over there… Better not to think about that if she wanted to stay sane. Crushing a propaganda kiosk that had been vandalised by the rebels, the tank ground to a halt after reaching a corner.
‘Anyone sees an…’ Nilla’s voice was drowned mid-way through her sentence by the impact of a lascannon shot glancing off the hull of the Leman Russ. The beam of energy had been poorly aimed and—apart from leaving a long, smouldering burn on the upper sections of the tank’s hull before losing itself in the wall of a nearby workshop—had caused no damage. Panic erupted amongst the crew all the same, voices filling the interphone and causing a mess before the lieutenant pacified them with some rough words.
‘Lascannon on our right, in the long warehouse!’ Vincent repeated, now that the channel was cleared. From the right sponson, he had seen the beam of light from the lascannon and was aiming the heavy bolter onto it, a stream of bolts soon lighting up the narrow window he had noticed a few hundred metres away from where they sat.
‘Rus… Jose, high explosive!’ Nilla ordered as soon as she spotted the window. It was the perfect spot for a heavy weapon. The building looked purpose-built to house an emplacement within its thick rockrete walls and narrow openings. Using the hull-mounted flamer would have been better, of course, but there was scant time to turn the whole Regard around before the lascannon could fire again, so the main gun would have to do. The turret swiftly pivoted, gun elevating with a whine from the hydraulic systems.
‘Loaded!’ Shouted Maude, who was soon drowned out by the call from Jose.
‘Fire!’ The heavy silhouette of the Russ barely shook when the gun recoiled, dust kicked from its hull, forming a cloud over it. The shell hit, bouncing on the edge of the window and deflecting inside the building before its timer activated the fuse. Nilla observed the explosion and only after a second of flames continually bursting out of the window gathered something was wrong. The following explosions blew apart the whole building in a series of intense fireballs, vaporising its roof and the metre-thick walls like they were made of paper. While firing the main cannon had not rocked the Regard, this certainly did, sending anyone not in cover flying in the air with how violent it was. Catwalks collapsed, water pipes burst, and a chimney came crashing down on the burning wreck of the warehouse.
‘Throne… Keep an eye out for infantry,’ Nilla finally commented, opening a vox channel with the local PDF troopers to advise and see where to go from there. At least the lascannon was neutralised.
‘Yes, we had to destroy the building. The rebels were using it as a fortified position, and we were taking fire.’ With the memories of the fireball and destruction she’d wreaked alive in her mind, Nilla could hardly deny that her retaliation may have been a bit out of proportion. But it had been an honest mistake. Yet the adept before her did not seem to think along those lines.
‘Well then, you should have forced them out of there with other means! The grain reserves are critical for this city to meet its production quotas, especially now that the tithes have been further increased. I will be contacting your commanding officer so that he punishes you according to your failures,’ the adept replied to her explanations, clearly annoyed at her and her audacity to try to justify herself. Similarly, Nilla’s face grew sterner and less amiable, her eyes shrouding with clouds of a tempest to come. Crossing her arms over her chest, the woman tilted her head back a little despite the fact she had to look up at the adept and replied after a pause.
‘I did not know you were an expert on the matter of urban fighting. I thought your expertise was in logistics. Maybe next time you’ll accompany us to retake a city that rebelled while under the supervision of your fellow administrators?’ Her tone was acidic and her mouth was opening again when the captain stepped in and scolded her.
‘Lieutenant! Know your place, you’re serving Him above like every one of us here, so don’t insult the representatives of His Imperium!’ Facing her, Dhanda had used a scolding tone, but his eyes had conveyed a different meaning. A very simple one at that: Don’t. While her annoyance remained marked on her face, Nilla breathed deeply and stopped talking. This was all the opening that the adept needed, though, and he was far less understanding than the captain had been.
‘How dare you insult me! I’ll have you flogged for that, guardswoman!’ Not using her rank on purpose, the fuming man turned around as soon as he was done speaking, the servitor behind him finishing its parchment transcription before it turned to follow its master. Dhanda, meanwhile, was looking at her with sorry eyes and just had the time to whisper before he followed suit on them.
‘Just… Don’t panic.’
Easier said than done. With the captain following the adept and her crew watching from their position atop the Regard, Nilla sighed and turned back to them.
‘What are you all looking at? Focus on the prisoners, and keep watch.’ Scorning them wouldn’t help, she knew, but gawking at her was not something she wanted to see become a habit for her crew. Besides, she now had other concerns, concerns which she grumbled about to herself as she climbed back up the tank to perch herself atop the cupola. At least Dhanda had tried to help her and would further try to limit the damages, something she was thankful for.
The hail had ceased momentarily after the explosion that had gutted the warehouse and levelled everything nearby. Catching their breath with the hatches open, the crew of the Regard was watching the building’s wrecked skeleton burn and smoulder, PDF troopers resting by the side of the tank or in the nearby buildings. A spectacle not too dissimilar to the one that had gotten Nilla her rank, and the woman certainly paled at the memory of that day.
Regardless, there was still work to be done, checks to be conducted, and water to be consumed. All around the city, other columns were pushing further in, breaking the resistance of the rebels anywhere they could be found. The Imperium did not go easy on treason. While ahead of the Russ and its resting crew, the infantry of the PDF was engaged in firefights and recon patrols.
‘Lieutenant!’ A voice she didn’t quite recognise called her, prompting Nilla to turn and look down. The source of the voice was a PDF officer, a captain from the markings, copied on those of Cadian regiments: short black hair, tired eyes. Dropping from the tank, Nillagave him a salute after a second or two of him expectedly waiting, hand falling back on her canteen as she asked.
‘Sir? Are we needed ahead? Another strongpoint to deal with?’ Her voice was getting scratchy, though the water had helped a lot.
‘Worse. The scouts have spotted tanks ahead on the Imperial Plaza. You’ll need to deal with them.’ Dhanda, from his nametag, looked almost bothered to say such a thing, and in turn, Nilla was a bit worried by the news, though she gave him another salute and started to climb back onto the Russ when it became clear he had nothing more to say. Tapping the back of her gunner’s vest to prompt him to slide back in, she followed him in and adjusted herself on her seat, connecting her helmet back to the tank’s interphone.
‘Ok everyone, focus. Tanks have been spotted in the plaza, so that’s where we’re going. Russel, have us tread carefully. Jose, you keep your eyes peeled. Maude, load an AP shell. Caroline, Vincent, you keep your eyes sharp, and don’t light up a friendly. Let’s go and hunt some tanks to add to our name.’ Nilla was proud. She had managed to fake the bravado in her voice extremely well. So much so that Jose turned back and nodded at her, almost eager. Maybe she was getting better at all of this… Or she had just gotten lucky. One lucky for one unlucky, then, considering their task.
Regardless of any apprehension or concerns its crew may have had about the task at hand, the Regard once more roared to life, advancing slowly at first but gaining speed on the paved roads of the burning city. Sparks flew, soldiers moved out of the way and the crew buttoned down once more except for Nilla, who kept an eye out on the road and on the footsoldiers around them. The rhythmic shakes and noises were almost reassuring for them all, familiar and well-known after hundreds of hours serving in this machine. The road ahead, on the other hand, was unfamiliar, and the lieutenant had to ask the local troopers for directions again and again, most of them all too happy to direct the Leman Russ and its crew ahead.
Soon they neared the plaza. More than any spoken indications, the noise was a dead giveaway, as was the flow of wounded men heading away from the massive plaza. A fierce battle was taking place ahead, and Nilla’s hands signed the Aquila over her chest as she saw them all, the woman finally sliding back down in the Russ’s turret before adjusting herself so that only her head and upper chest protruded from the tank’s armour.
The prisoners toiled hard and got results. That Nilla couldn’t deny, observing them from her elevated seat atop the Regard’s turret when her eyes were not scanning the buildings around them and in the distance. Despite the chains and their obvious malnourishment, they were clearing the street faster than she had expected them to. Picking through the rubble, planks, bricks and beams, salvaging what they could and tossing the rest in large metal bins. It almost looked like they were used to this. At least this helped with some of the empathy she felt for them. Their only crime was to be stupid and to have followed the wrong misguided fools after all. A dangerous line of thought to follow and one she was thankfully pulled from when Maude gave her a nudge on the shoulder, gesturing toward the end of the street, behind the bulldozer. Captain Dhanda and the regimental commissar were making their way back toward them.
With a thankful nod to the loader, Nilla got up and stretched her shoulders, taking her time climbing down the hull and heading their way. There weren’t a lot of reasons the sinister man clad in black leather would come to visit them, and she doubted this was about the prisoners and their watch. At least she managed not to shake in her boots when she faced the men, standing at attention and giving both of them a salute before putting both hands behind her back. The commissar was the first to speak, of course, but his tone was surprisingly less aggressive than she had thought it would be.
‘The Administratum agent, Terea, filed a formal complaint against you and demanded an investigation into your behaviour and decisions during the actions that took place over the past five days.’ Nothing unexpected there. The fact he warned her, though, was odd. Unlike most cases of Munitorum justice, even. Nilla knew better than to speak if she wasn’t asked a direct question though, and she stood silent, eyes on the captain and commissar. The commissar turned his attention to the street and lingered on the rows of chained prisoners working.
‘This has been the sixth rebellion of this kind on this planet in under two centuries. One would assume that properly schooled, these people would know better by now. Yet each generation continues to do as their ancestors did. Had I the contacts in other organisations, I would have called in an investigation on the administration of this world.’ His smirk was telling but his eyes soon locked on Nilla’s own, brown and dark against her pale blue ones, as he added in a much more serious tone, ‘Fifteen lashes in front of the regiment and local officials. And tell your crew that you have all been nominated to receive a collective Brass Cross for your actions during the final assault. Congratulations, Lieutenant.’
Turning on his heels in a perfect parade ground fashion, the commissar walked away, leaving a bemused Nilla to reach around her neck and rub it idly and perplexedly.
By the time the Regard arrived in the Imperial Plaza, the once grand park and square had been turned into a hellish realm of fire and confusion. Loyal PDF troops and Guardsmen were pouring in from five different streets at once while under fire from makeshift fortifications scattered all across the plaza and on the steps of the local Administratum seat, itself turned into a fortress by the rebels and what PDF forces that had turned with them. With the sun getting low on the horizon and the smoke of the city’s many fires billowing in the skies, the whole area was mostly lit by the firefights and burning wrecks and buildings, giving it all an even more sinister aura. The tank soon came to a halt to assess the situation, and Nilla finally got down in the turret again and shut the hatch. She could not see through the darkness, but the Regard could. With her eyes glued to the sights before her, scanning ahead, she called out.
‘Everyone ready?’ Simple enough words, tension present.
‘All fine here,’ Russel replied while checking the gearbox and its gauges.
‘Ready to engage, chief,’ Jose added, following the driver, his own eyes locked onto the sights of the main gun.
‘Ready left’ and ‘Ready right,’ Vincent and Caroline chimed in. Maude said nothing but was already standing by the breech with a shell resting on her leg, well in view of the lieutenant. That was everyone.
‘Let’s go then. Russel, follow the left. Avoid the park. First, stop near that burning truck, fifty metres,’ she ordered, and the tank rolled forward at a low speed while behind it infantry advanced. Reaching the wrecks, the low resolution of their imaging equipment protected the crew from the gruesome sight of the torn bodies cremated inside, and they scanned again and found their first target.
‘Tank, 18 degrees. Line it up.’ Pulling on his commands, Jose did just as he was told and lined the barrel of the Leman Russ on the target, giving a second for the onboard auspex and cogitators to correct any possible errors and further refine the solution, before he pushed the button.
‘Fire!’ The breech flew back and Maude quickly slid another shell inside as soon as the spent casing had been ejected, while outside the rebel tank stopped moving. A second shot—and impact—followed in on the first, and this time the tank caught fire, flames surging from its hull.
‘Target dealt with!’ Jose’s voice boomed, and already Nilla was scanning for another target. A series of trenches dug in an embankment of the park caught Nilla’s attention, busy raining fire on the infantry progressing through the vines and bushes.
‘Russel, turn right and hose that trench down. Jose, keep scanning.’ The driver was quick to do as told, the whole tank turning around in a loud and obvious creak of metal grinding on stone pavement. Loud enough to attract the attention of a few of the rebels busy repelling the infantry. They turned and started to alert their squadmates, just in time for the Regard’s heavy flamer to spit out its tongue of liquid flames. It drenched them in burning prometheum, sticking to them and filling the lungs of those that had not been hit directly with foul air, depriving them of oxygen. Its work achieved, the weapon fell silent again and Russel focused back on his main task, just in time for a nearby explosion to rock the Russ.
‘Contact! Enemy tanks, ten o’clock!’ Nilla’s shout forced feverish actions on the rest of the crew, the gunner swivelling the turret around while Maude rammed a shell through the breech and locked it in place. The lieutenant was ignoring this all, though, focused on her optics and the enemy: two enemy tanks, a Leman Russ and a Chimera. The latter was less dangerous, and Jose was sharing that opinion as he adjusted his aim.
‘Locked… Fire!’ Deafening as it was, the detonation of the cannon didn’t phase anyone in the Regard, too focused on their tasks to even truly notice it, a habit born of drills and battles alike. Nilla’s task at this very moment was guiding the fight, and since Jose had so elegantly slammed a shell in the turret of the enemy tank, she voxed in their engagement with enemy armour, eyes still glued to her optics and able to see the return fire headed their way. Lascannon, from the hull of the disabled Russ.
The red beam of light travelled in a mere instant, hitting the Regard on its exposed right sponson and melting armour, bolter, and spall protection in a fiery explosion that left a smouldering mess. Caroline shouted, jumping back and hitting her head on the turret’s basket, but there was no time to care for her potential wounds when the lascannon was loading back up already.
And so despite her shouts and scramble to get the start of a fire under control, Nilla called. ‘Again! Hit the hull!’ Simple instructions really, but harder to follow when the Chimera accompanying the rebel tank started to fire its multilaser at them, liberally soaking the Russ in beams of light that, while not a serious threat, certainly made the task of the gunner a whole lot harder. The added stress of the constant pinging of shots hitting the armour and the smell of the burning paint and fittings sneaking in through the ventilation combined to make the atmosphere inside of the Russ more tense than it already was, and Nilla slammed her feet on the back of Jose to urge him to act, a wholly unnecessary motion that nearly made the man miss his next shot.
Yet, despite his CO’s unhelpful kick, his expertise showed as he did land a hit, and a solid one at that. The shell went through the frontal armour of the Russ and found its way into the ammo racks of the rebel tank, flames engulfing it before explosions forced all its hatches out and sent the turret flying up into the air. It was a messy kill but also satisfying relief for the crew of the Regard, and Jose’s roar of pride was saluted by cheers from the rest of the crew.
As if on cue and understanding that engaging a full-on tank with a glorified machine gun was not the best of ideas, the Chimera started to retreat before its crew realised the mistake in doing so. As brave as their first idea was, when faced with near-certain death, they broke down and tried to flee, abandoning the vehicle and gunning for the nearby streets. In doing so, they were cut down by bursts of heavy bolter and the fire of the PDF infantry that had finally caught up with the Regard.
By then the rebels manning the trenches and blockhaus covering the park were in a full-on debacle, the tide of the battle turning decidedly. Yet even with those first lines on the run, the fire from the fortress was enough to pin down the Imperials, streaks of lasers and bolts alike raining down and forcing them to seek shelter in bushes or in the newly abandoned positions. Not an ideal situation and one that Nilla would soon remedy.
‘Suppress their heavy weapons!’ A simple call, one that would nonetheless keep the crew busy for a good few moments as the lieutenant started to go through the vox frequencies to coordinate with the nearby forces. With the frequent thundering of the battle cannon drowning her voice every ten or so seconds, she worked things out with the officers of the PDF. All the while the Administratum seat was being reduced one shell at a time, destroying heavy weapons and firing positions alike in a methodical manner. Cheers and shouts came on the interphone of the Regard every time a larger explosion rocked the building, and before fifteen minutes had passed most of the resistance had been silenced. A good thing that, as the Russ was by then entirely out of shells.
‘Forward! Keep up the suppressing fire. Let’s end this!’ Once more simple orders, but Nilla could not summon the strength of mind to utter more complex ones. The Administratum seat’s upper levels had caught fire from both the earlier airstrikes and the tank’s gunnery, yet bolts and lasers kept coming in from the lowest, mostly intact, levels, breaking the darkness of the night and lighting up the devastation around it. If the rebels wanted to keep on fighting, the worn and near-deaf lieutenant would allow them to.
For the last time that evening, the Leman Russ advanced. Smoke rising from its disabled sponson, the hull dented and burnt out by hundreds of impacts, the lumbering machine rolled on. Its tracks broke down the pavement and fine marble steps, barbed wires soon entangled in the links and dragged behind it like a bridal veil as the Regard went through the barricades blocking the last steps, opening a path for the PDF troopers accompanying it and firing its remaining heavy bolter on the building to force heads down. Grinding to a halt, the tank stood still for a few seconds, its crew busy in its blisteringly warm and cramped insides.
‘Come on Russel, get to it!’ A shout on the interphone, Nilla’s voice coarse and rough with fatigue and smoke inhalation, and the driver did just that. As fire started to bounce off the bruised form of the Russ again, the heavy flamer jolted back to life, incinerating the closest rooms and any who dared standing inside in a blinding show of light and rage. This—combined with the PDF troops closing in on the building—proved to be the final straw. Minutes later, the rebels that remained inside tossed their weapons out and started to surrender, fleeing the flames and smoke of the building while carrying their wounded.
Every breath was hurting. And not the good kind of hurting, like that coming from a workout or along with the satisfaction that came from the knowledge of work well done. It was a very rough kind of hurting, reminding itself to Nilla with every step she took, with every breath she sucked in through pursed lips. Everything was hurting and standing at attention in the middle of the barrack’s parade ground did not help this fact one bit. Under her clothes, freshly washed and ironed out to be as proper as those of a tank crew could ever hope to be, she could feel blood seeping from the torn skin and bruised flesh of her back. It soaked the bandages, threatening to spill down her back further and pierce through the khaki of her uniform, leaving behind marks much like the lascannons had with the Regard’s armour.
Sadly for the lieutenant, it seemed the commissar was content with prolonging his speech, making it last with the approving gaze of the colonel and other officers watching over him. A beautiful piece of spoken exaltation, honouring values like sacrifice, initiative and skills, abnegation even. Odd words coming from someone who had mere hours earlier announced to an assembly gathered on the same ground that the very lieutenant he praised now was to be flogged for disobeying orders. She could hardly forget his expression as he had shared a few words with her following that excruciating gauntlet.
Fracking black-clad vulture. He was right though, in a most insufferable way. This had been a lesson, and she would remember it—though she was not sure what to make of it even now, hours later while waiting in line with the rest of the crew. Sweat was visible on her forehead despite the fair weather of this late afternoon, her muscles tensed and her body still in shock from the trauma that had been forced on her, her teeth clenched hard under pale lips.
Finally, the man finished speaking and moved down the podium, accompanied by the colonel and an aide carrying the medals. Leisurely slow, they made their way to the six crewmembers and paused in front of them. The salute nearly forced tears in Nilla’s eyes, but she contained them, though her hand was noticeably shaking as she held the pose. None could miss it, but none commented either. Instead, the colonel moved his hands and pinned the simple brass cross on her chest, slamming his fist into the honour as if to push Nilla down. Nodding after a second, appreciating the lack of reaction—bar for some wincing—he moved on to Jose and the others, treating them similarly and congratulating them one by one.
After a few more moments that felt like hours, all was said and done, and the crewmembers and other attendees were dismissed following yet another round of salutes. The crowd broke into smaller groups, some going back to their duties while others made plans for the few moments of free time they had following the ceremony.
Nilla, meanwhile, was fighting to stay upright, helped in this by her fellow crew members. Two of them moved to her sides, helping her stay up as she walked to the infirmary to get her wounds treated further, the rest following along out of respect more than duty. None spoke, and all harboured sinister faces, though, until the lieutenant finally broke the silence, speaking through clenched teeth.‘Come on people, a bit of cheer. We’re all heroes now, more so than usual.’
The obvious joke, coming from her, got a few chuckles out of the others and soon comments and jokes were flowing as she sat on one of the beds that dotted the infirmary’s main room. She preferred that over the dark, angry faces she had seen moments before.
Joking and teasing each other with stupid jests and nicknames, the crew of the Regard was giving the medicae a hard time as they treated the wounds of Nilla and Caroline. Finally injecting the lieutenant with some painkillers now that the commissar wasn’t around to threaten them, and checking the bandages covering the burns on Caroline’s arms, the medics eventually pushed the group out after sternly explaining that this wasn’t a circus and that they bothered the other patients waiting for their care and rest.
It was on the way back to the barracks, Nilla still held up by Maude and Jose, that the group stumbled upon PDF troopers that had been looking for them, Dhanda at their helm and grabbing their attention with a friendly wave.
‘Lieutenant, soldiers. I know you’ve been officially decorated… and then some when it comes to you personally, lieutenant, but my men wanted to express their gratitude all the same in a more personal way.’ One of his troopers stepped forward and presented his knife, an almost straight blade made of darkened steel, as Dhanda continued.
‘Gifts. For helping us retake our capital without suffering more losses. It’s not much, but probably still more than these,’ he said, designating the medals on their chests with a nod.
And, in a much less ceremonious way than when said decorations had been gifted to them, the crew received blades one by one with only token protests. Nilla was kept as last this time around, and the captain eventually stepped forth and untied his own blade from his belt, presenting it to her with a faint grin.
‘It’ll live longer than the pain, Lieutenant. And so will you and a lot of us, thanks to you. I wish I could have spared you the lashes still, but at least you’ll heal and grow from this, I have no doubts about that.’
The gesture was odd, but even with painkillers numbing her mind, Nilla could tell this meant a lot to these men and was a genuinely friendly and probably rare gesture. Understanding that, she did her best to take the knife, more akin to a curved shortsword really, and held it up for a few seconds. Giving the man as solemn a nod as she could produce, she eventually replied as her hands moved to tie the weapon to her belt.
‘It’s appreciated sir. I… will make sure that we keep these sharp and take proper care of them.’ What could one say when offered such a gift? Nilla did not know, but it seemed her answer had been good enough for the captain, who soon gave her an entirely unregulatory accolade, or as close to one as he could without hurting her wounded back at least. Straightening, the man readjusted his turban and smiled at her and her crew as he spoke, his expression turning to a joking one about halfway through his sentence.
‘May He guide you to His side and to victories again. And may you never let a pencil pusher lecture you about your success either.’
About the Author
Natasha is a freshly diplomed historian from Belgium, and she reads and writes a lot in her free time, exploring any universe and lore she gets a liking for whenever she’s not nose deep in some historical accounts. She and Warhammer (both fantasy and 40.000) have a bumpy relationship, but she always comes back to it for some reason, probably the diversity and intricacy of it all.