Endless, precise formations of Guardsmen marched below, the earth trembling beneath the tread of their boots. Banners snapped majestically in the wind at the head of their columns, while cheering crowds lined the edges of the triumphal parade.
It was all for Captain-General Orphael van Stael. Yet he felt nothing.
Not long now, he reminded himself. The collar of his immaculately pressed uniform felt constricting at his throat as sweat beaded his forehead. Not long, then this will all be done.
He wiggled his toes inside his boots, polished to a mirror surface. The sword and bolt pistol at his waist – priceless family heirlooms inlaid with gold and jewels – shifted with even the slightest of movement.
A titan’s horn rang out in the distance. A dozen voices barked in response, tiny and pathetic after the god-machine’s call, and the sea of guardsmen crashed to a halt in thunderous unison.
Van Stael wheeled away from the celebrations in a single swift movement. His boots clicked as he snapped to attention.
Governor Syvar Ossa shuffled towards him across the parade square. The click of his cane on the marble floor echoed through the newfound silence, the sound transforming each second into a torturous eternity.
Patience, van Stael told himself. Patience.
‘People of Absolution Prime,’ croaked the governor as he came to a stop, his words echoed by a dozen vox-speakers. ‘We are here to celebrate a great victory.’
A deafening cheer erupted from the crowds at this.
‘And we are here to give thanks to Captain-General Orphael van Stael,’ droned the decrepit Governor, his next words drowned out by the roar of a passing squadron of Thunderbolts.
Van Stael felt grateful for that. He didn’t want this. He didn’t want to hear this. He simply didn’t deserve any of this.
He knew he should be grateful. He knew his chest should be filled with pride.
But he was empty.
Van Stael looked down at his son. The faint blip of a dozen life-support machines echoed from the cramped walls. Each beep told him his son was still alive. Told him his son was still suffering.
He forced himself to take in every detail. The grey, lifeless skin. The mask of scars, craters and burn marks. The shallow rising and falling of his chest, each movement reopening another bloody welt. The faint grimace of pain permanently etched across his face.
You did this, he told himself, even as his mind kicked back. There’d been no time to evacuate those troops already engaged. His decision had saved the lives of tens of thousands, soldiers and civilians. Perhaps millions.
Yet this felt like nothing more than a paper-thin excuse. There was no getting around what he had done. There was no escaping that he had approved the use of the Virus Bombs. That he had accepted the sacrifice of those guardsmen fighting on the front.
It was the only decision he could have made. The enemy had moved too quickly. They’d washed past the defences in a tidal wave of horrific blend of human and xenos forms.
He’d needed to do something. He’d needed to buy time. He’d needed to turn the tide – and that tiny fraction of soldiers engaged in fighting had seemed a small price to pay then.
And yet, now that he saw the cost with his own eyes, now that his son was paying the price, he wasn’t so sure it had been the right one. He hadn’t known his son was there. What kind of father would have made that choice? He felt a twinge of guilt then. What kind of commander could sacrifice so many so casually? What kind of monster did that make him?
The beeping of the life-support machines, usually so rhythmic and consistent, changed, drawing van Stael from his reverie. The machine sounded almost frantic. Almost panicked.
Yet as he looked down at his son’s face, he saw – for the first time in weeks – a measure of peace. It was almost the face of the son he knew. The son he had held as a baby. The son he had laughed with. The son he had nursed when sick. The son he had watched graduate from the Officer’s Academy mere months ago.
He knew he should do something. He should call for help. Yet, even as the beeps grew faster, then steadily died to silence, he found himself rooted to the spot.
His son was dead. Because of him. But no tears welled in his eyes. No screams ripped from his throat. No heart crumpled in his chest.
Slowly, almost lazily, he turned and looked out from his son’s private Officer’s Suite and into the ward beyond. Row upon row of beds stretched out before him, each bearing another soldier he had put there. Another son or daughter he had condemned to a slow, agonising death. Their bodies eaten by the horror he had unleashed.
He knew this was just one such ward in the hospital. Which was just one of many across the entire planet. He knew the thought should disgust him. Should make him feel sick.
And yet he felt nothing but emptiness.
What kind of man was he? he asked himself. Was he truly alive anymore? Yet he already knew the answer. What kind of life was one without love? Without fear? Without joy? Without sadness?
No, he was something less than human now. Some shell of a thing. Some remnant. Something broken beyond repair.
With that thought, he reached down and drew the bolt pistol from his belt. He felt its rich leather grip in the damp palm of his hand. Felt the cold of its muzzle against his temple. Felt the resistance in the trigger as he squeezed.
About the Author
J. S. Savage is a teacher in the UK and has been an avid of all things 40k and Warhammer Fantasy since he accidently found his way into a Games Workshop store as a young boy. When he was younger, he was a keen writer but has only just started up again recently. Between work and being a parent, he doesn’t get nearly enough time to paint, read and write as much as he would like – or as much sleep as he needs!