No Mask Is Perfect

4.33/5 (3)

‘She came here to beg for their lives!’ the Commissar had chortled with delight.

‘She said that this world could be shared, that they would not trouble us!’ He had spat on the ground. ‘These Xenos… her companion had a bow and arrow – bows and arrows!’ He had doubled over, laughing.

‘Fear not men, this world will be cleansed for the Imperium with our lasguns and bolters! Bows and arrows!’

That was yesterday; the Commissar was now a slurry of flesh on the ground, at the forward base they had been retreating from ever since. The night the Xenos and her companion came to their encampment and were executed, the second patrol had found the first patrol stacked neatly in parts, with a message carved in wood placed atop them:  

‘She had been the most gentle of us, and had begged to give you the chance to live.’

The Commissar had given the speech to them while they stood in ranks in preparation for an attack they knew would come. Most of the men were fresh levies, just out of training; for nearly all of them, they never thought they would be off their planet, much less boarding a ship of the Imperial Navy to be sent to a new world for the glory of the Imperium.

There had been a few veterans – men who the new Guardsmen had been raised to reinforce. The fresh levies had murmured with relief at the Commissar’s encouragement, but Martyn noticed nearly all of the veterans had blanched at the description of what the Commissar had said he’d done to the Xenos.

Martyn was now hiding in a pile of leaves; he’d been running since his entire platoon had been… liquified, by streams of what seemed like crystals, sparkling in the light – they would be beautiful, if not for what they did to the men they reached.

He’d not seen any bows or arrows.

It was strange – the Xenos were tall and slim, and would have seemed almost human if not for the way they moved – and they had come in a strange mix of beasts and vehicles – some atop giant animals, some atop what seemed like flying bikes, some surely within the winged tanks that appeared from nowhere. All had spat forth bright fire that had cut through their steel and armour, sending Guardsmen crawling out of their own tanks, screaming and afire.

Those out in the open were shredded, flensed, by the Xenos weapons – skin, limbs, heads all sliced away to reveal the bone, the muscle, the viscera underneath. As if the Xenos were paring away the shell of men, to reveal that life was a false front worn by what men truly were, what truly lay beneath their skins: lifeless offal and blood.

Martyn would still be running except that he had seen, in a distant clearing, two of the Xenos. They seemed almost to be talking, but could not be, as their lips did not move. He himself moved not at all, and some part of him wondered why he did not tremble.  Martyn felt nothing. You can be so afraid that you pass through fear into nothingness, he realised.

He could not move while the Xenos stood there in the distance, so he did not move.  He wondered about his brother.

The Administratum had come to their hab-unit almost five years past, loudly congratulating their mother at his selection for the levies – ‘you shall bring glory to the Imperium!’ they had said, clapping him on the back.  They had given him only one night to pack, because the victories had been so great they had no time to waste, to exploit the defeats of the Xenos.  Martyn had not understood much then, why his mother’s hands shook. He had not understood why it was that the letters home from his brother had suddenly become much shorter, and stopped containing the stories about his platoon Martyn had enjoyed. His mother’s hands had trembled the first time a letter had misspelt her name, and she had sat for a while looking at the wall doing nothing, before she smiled brightly at Martyn and asked him if he’d like his favourite dinner. She had put on a cheerful face for him, a face she never removed when she knew Martyn was near, though she did not realise that Martyn noticed she never opened the letters again. No mask is perfect. He had read them himself, and they were always about glorious victories. No mask is perfect.  

She had smiled at him, too, when the Administerium had come for Martyn.  She had said to him, ‘you will be safe, and we will be together again, after,’ and smiled and waved all the way as he boarded the transport sent to collect all levies from his hab-block. She had begun to weep at the end. No mask is perfect.

He did not know how she was, now – the Administerium said that while they could send letters back, the ships needed to bring war materiel to the front, and they had no spare capacity. It was better for the Administratum, he supposed, to avoid details like questions and answers, when they could not spell names. He suddenly remembered the time he and his brother had surprised their father and mother with a cake they bought through credits earned from secret extra shifts at the manufactorum – mostly his brother, since Martyn had been too young to earn much – 

Home! Father! Mother! Derryn! He had not felt anything since the killing had begun, but now his eyes filled with tears. He shuddered, eyes clenched shut, trying not to sob, succeeding.

He opened his eyes again.

The Xenos were looking straight at him, though they were far enough they could not have seen him under the leaves, or heard him as he had made no sound.

No mask is perfect, he supposed, as the Xenos shook out from beneath their robes gleaming, glowing blades.

About the Author

W.T. is just a guy in Asia who really likes the Warhammer 40k universe, especially the Eldar. He enjoys writing and procrastinating on work, the two often going hand-in-hand.