Everyone knew he was up to something. Lupern had to be the one to do the right thing. It’s just who he was. There are so many good men and women out there, bleeding for the Imperium. He knows the Imperium is the greatest empire the galaxy has ever seen, and that’s because humanity works together. ‘They look up to me,’ he thought. ‘It’s my responsibility.’
Lupern first noticed Rakan acting strangely when he caught him sewing extra pockets into his coveralls.
‘Keep your nose out of my business or I’ll break it,’ had been Rakan’s reply when Lupern had asked what he was doing. He was such a rude man. Not like his daughter, Nalia. She’s so sweet. Growing up in their family must have been what shaped her into such a lovely young woman.
Only ten families shared the habitation chamber, so they were really more like one big family. Bunks a full stride apart; blankets replaced less than a decade ago; the gentle drip from the leak worn by acid rain in the ceiling lulling them to sleep every night. Lupern wakes everyone before shift to lead the morning prayer session.
Life is perfect.
Lupern watched Rakan closely over their next few shifts on the Kalmite crystal scaling lines. But keeping his eyes on his duties, of course. Wouldn’t want to slip up like Ol’ Velnua. She’s still crying around the hab about the burns. He’d tried to help her, to cheer her up. ‘You can still work. You’ve still got one good eye, can’t hurt that bad.’ She’s another rude one. Cleaning and inspecting the crystals for imperfections is serious work, but fulfilling; the eighteen hour shifts just flying by. A slip of the chisel while removing the volatile crystal from waste rock can be catastrophic. The Imperium depends on the opiate it synthesizes to keep soldiers on the battlefield. It’s an honour to serve such a noble goal.
Rakan hadn’t been coming home with the rest of them at the end of shift. Peculiar since most spent their leisure hours sleeping or enjoying the fine rations they were provided. Lupern decided it was time to find out what secret was being kept from his family.
Once the shift had finished, Lupern hid under an engine tarp, heart pounding at such flagrant rule-breaking. Sure enough, Rakan soon skulked from the factory floor into the refuse bay.
Following him, Lupern found him shifting through an offcuts drum.
‘Rakan! What are you doing?’ Lupern demanded.
Rakan was startled, and he whispered to keep quiet. ‘Listen here, you bootlick,’ Rakan began, Lupern bristled, but was rudely hushed once more.
‘It’s not a big deal, jus’ been leaving a few decent crystals to get later. For Verna. You see how much pain she’s in.’ Rakan opened his palm, revealing a scattering of crystals, which he then placed into the hidden pockets.
He’d planned it all out! Like a devious criminal. Lupern could hardly believe he was looking at the same man he’d known for years. He’s probably sending them off the gangs to get made into illegal stimms, like the newsfeeds talk about. Bringing stimms and gangs into the family, it’s selfish.
‘I’ll give you my week’s rations to keep quiet.’ His voice edged with pleading, ‘Just keep your mouth shut.’
‘Alright,’ said Lupern. ‘After all, what’s family for?’
Lupern sat straight in his chair, grinning broadly.
“That’s why I brought this to you, Supervisor Hering. Just doing my part.” Lupern finished.
Hering motioned to the guards to come closer. “Fetch the prisoner,” he commanded.
The office was silent for a time as Hering leafed through dataslate reports. Lupern sat quietly, unsure if he was meant to have left, but nonetheless enjoying the soft chair and the fire’s warmth baking the cold from his bones. He could get used to this.
When the door swung open, a manacled Rakan was dragged in, flanked by two guards. His face was bloody and he had a limp. Supervisor Hering slid a package across the table with a curt, “Good work”.
“Sorry it had to come to this old friend. But I had to do the right thing,” Lupern said, pocketing the envelope.
Rakan spat blood into Lupern’s face. “You make me sick” He hissed through broken teeth.
Lupern wiped the blood from his face, and smiled sadly. “You’ll get what you deserve”.
Lupern wove through tight alleys on his way back to the hab, as lumens ached to brighten the fog. Rancid, stinking rain fell softly onto his jacket. Vagrants with missing limbs sat sullenly in corners, sick with hunger and cold. Their beds had been given to those who could still work. Lupern didn’t see them, or pretended not to. He whistled a little tune. He might treat himself to that extra ration he earned for being such a good citizen. He’d offer it to share with Nalia. “She’ll appreciate that. She’ll be all alone now, someone should be there for her. Take care of her. Hold her pretty hands,” he thought, licking his lips.
All his habmates were standing around the door when he arrived home, waiting for him.
He opened his arms in greeting. “No need to thank me. We’re all a family here.” he paused.
“Where’s Nalia?”, he asked, as the door slammed shut behind him.
The extra rations in his pocket did nothing to slow the sharpened screwdriver working its way into his kidneys. He saw Nalia’s pretty hand holding it tight. Her sweet mouth twisted into a snarl.
As he sunk to the ground, into the growing pool of his own blood, Velnua loomed closer, crushing his fingers under her boot. “You’ve always been a rat,” she said, delivering a kick into his ribs that bounced him off the door. Faintly he heard the rest of them jeer and laugh.
“Awwwwww” she cooed, standing over him. Lupern could see her one good eye glinting as his vision faded. “Can’t hurt that bad.”
About the Author
Jenny Strath has previously written for Cold Open Stories and is the author of “The Consuming Gaze” and “The Good Citizen”. A lifelong lover of fantasy/science-fiction, horror and gaming, she found her home in Warhammer. Based in Melbourne, Australia, her other passions include history, heavy metal, high heels and her Alaskan Malamute, Fenris.