Lieutenant Thaddeus dropped into the luxurious armchair, the dirt from his fatigues rubbing into the leather from an animal which died centuries before he was born.
‘How was that, eh?’ grunted Major Frenbrook, sat on the other side of a roaring fire. The light reached only a short distance into the room, but Thaddeus knew that he was one of the first to return from the battle. Servants liveried in the distinctive purple and gold of the Denestral Lifeguard regiment stood nervously nearby, waiting for Thaddeus to issue a command. He sent them for a large amasec before replying.
‘Good fun,’ he said with a wicked smile. ‘When the heretics drove the local fodder before them, I thought my cab would stall with all the body parts stuck to the tracks.’
Frenbrook laughed uproariously, and Thaddeus realised that his squadron commander had already enjoyed a few glasses. ‘Don’t be silly young man!’ snorted Frenbrook. ‘I’ve crushed hundreds beneath the tracks of my Leman Russ. Go hard and fast, and you’ll never be stopped!’
A servant returned into the firelight, bearing an exquisite crystal glass recovered by the Lifeguards at the Siege of Ventura, nearly a millennium ago, and a bottle of the finest amasec to be found in this sector. He approached Thaddeus, placed the bottle on an antique table and offered the glass. Thaddeus squinted and frowned.
‘What are you doing?’ he demanded.
A terrified look passed across the face of the servant. ‘Your amasec, sir,’ he stammered.
‘I don’t mean the drink, I mean the glass, you fool!’ shouted Thaddeus. ‘I can’t drink from that, there’s a fingerprint on it.’ He slapped the servant, knocking him over. ‘I’ve just come back from a hard day crushing heretics, and you expect me to drink from a filthy glass?’ He slapped the servant again, breaking the man’s cheekbone. The servant whimpered on the floor until two others appeared from the gloom and dragged him away.
‘Take him to the Commissar,’ Thaddeus commanded. ‘Let him decide how to punish those who fail the Emperor.’ Frenbrook laughed again, as did two others who arrived in time to kick the errant servant as he was leaving.
‘Did you not find enough entertainment on the field of battle, young Thaddeus?’ questioned Captain Forrson, who picked up the forgotten bottle and swigged freely from it. ‘I suspect we’ve won yet another battle honour today.’
‘This is hardly fun,’ protested the notoriously morose Captain Jomore. ‘It’s boring. I could send my chef against this rabble, and even she couldn’t fail to win a crushing victory. The footsloggers could probably do it on their own.’
A chorus of protestations greeted Jomore’s dire prediction, and he had the decency to look at least slightly remorseful.
‘The fabled Napool Riflemen couldn’t find the heretics without following us,’ chuckled Forrson, passing the bottle to Jomore. ‘They can’t even keep out of my way. I’m certain that tedious colonel of theirs will be making another complaint. I got twelve.’
‘Just nine for me,’ said Frenbrook, ‘a single squad which was either too slow or too stupid to move.’
‘Probably stupid,’ muttered Jomore, dragging another armchair in front of the fire. ‘It’s easier to hit them than the local fodder the heretics use a screen. Fifteen for me.’
‘Good work,’ commented Forrson, taking the bottle back and filling the glasses of Frenbrook and Thaddeus, who didn’t notice the fingerprint this time. ‘I’ll have to check the pict recordings, but I’m fairly certain I got twenty plus. I’ll show you all later, but there was a priceless moment when one of their junior officers tried to order me to stop; and waved his chainsword as if to scare me. I think the blade is still stuck in the front of my cab. I might mount it and present it to the Mess!’
Laughter filled the room, and shapes could be seen starting to light the other fires.
‘The Napool colonel must be getting worried,’ considered Frenbrook. ‘She’s taking lots of casualties in this campaign, and that’s not good for her promotion prospects!’
Thaddeus dissolved into a fit of laughter, grinding more dirt into his armchair as he writhed with amusement.
‘What’s so funny?’ asked Jomore. ‘She’ll cause some real trouble if she finds out about our game.’
‘She won’t,’ replied Thaddeus, wiping tears from his eyes. ‘I rolled over one of her heavy weapon emplacements; and she actually climbed on top of my cab in her anger. She stood in front of the pintle-mounted bolter and took a full magazine!’
Cheers echoed through the rapidly lightening room, revealing more of the Denestral Lifeguard. The squat form of the Lifeguards’ commanding officer, Colonel Bellican, could be seen pushing through the officers, accompanied by Commissar Krawten.
‘Thaddeus,’ he called. ‘Where are you?’
‘Sir,’ Thaddeus replied smartly and jumped to his feet. The room fell silent as Bellican approached.
‘Lieutenant Thaddeus,’ the colonel formally announced. ‘When you shot that blasted Napool woman off your cab, you also hit me with your bolter rounds.’ Thaddeus paled as he realised the moral implications of his actions; the code of honour which bound him to hundreds of generations of former Lifeguards was shattered. The others backed away from him as they understood the consequences of what he’d done.
‘Sir,’ Thaddeus stammered, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were in my firing line, I…’
‘Enough,’ bellowed Bellican. ‘I tolerate your game of killing the footsloggers because it is good for morale, but when it leads to you shooting my cab then it has gone too far.’ The emphasis Bellican put on the words “too far” added spittle to the tears beginning to flow down Thaddeus’ face.
‘Commissar, if you please.’
Thaddeus watched in horror as Krawten slowly drew her bolt pistol and levelled it calmly at his head.
‘For the dishonour of shooting at your own commanding officer, I deem you unfit to serve in the Denestral Lifeguards,’ said Krawten, and squeezed the trigger.
About the Author
Mark Butterworth lives and works in the UK.