Disclaimer: I don't own Warhammer 40K, and would perhaps accidentally without any ill intention put down certain inaccuracies. I apologize for this and would welcome any criticism.
"Standard schooling of 8 years, began vocational training at Port Stymonson cargo docks, no criminal record, outstanding physical parameters…" a flat faced commissar dressed in the Imperial Red flipped through the pages and perused the specifications of a particular guardsman. He raised his scarred eyebrow and looked at the young lad standing before him. This one looks cleaner than the rest. Young, perhaps too young for his squad, and too tender. And they're entrusting a platoon to this whelp. The commissar hardened his stare. The guardsman looked back, betraying no fear or uncertainty. He was ready for any type of judgment.
"Do you understand the vows that you will swear this day?" another capped figure questioned the guardsman. The two medallion crimsons on his chest carapace indicate the length and savagery of the services and tours he had seen. "Do you understand the sheer weight of duty that the Emperor has placed on all of us the very day we are born into this world?"
"Yes, Lieutenant Kunst. Just as the Emperor has adored each and every one of us and sacrificed himself for mankind, so shall we form a bastion of flesh and blood and defend the Empire of Man against the mutant, heretic and alien." the guardsman replied.
"Standard answer, straight from the books." the commissar does not seem impressed.
"Indeed. What say you, guardsman, of duty and faith? Search not in the books, but from your heart." Kunst put forth another question.
"Faith is the purpose of existence, and duty is the action of faith. A dutiful man need not be faithful, but a faithful man is always dutiful."
"Another standard answer."
"My apologies, Lord Commissar Essesohn, such is the limitations of our world. The Ecclesiarchy rarely visit this world to remind its denizens of the importance of the Holy Tenets."
"No, that's good enough. This is the bare minimum of my expectations. The difficulties in these fringe worlds are great, and the burden shouldered by its people is seemingly unfair. You, guardsman, know that the greater the burden, the greater its rewards. To suffer as the Emperor did, that is itself a reward. Do you seek martyrdom for the Imperium?" commissar Essesohn stared straight at the very eyes of the guardsman, expecting him to flinch.
"Yes, Lord Commissar," the guardsman held his ground, "I am prepared to give my life to the Imperium."
"For the sake the Emperor, or the promised pension that your grieving family would receive?" the commissar is very blunt about this matter. "You should have been made aware by your lieutenant that pension is not guaranteed. It is a bonus, yes, and an attractive one, but not every tale comes true. And you should be reminded of that. So, guardsman, what do you serve?"
"I serve the Emperor, for we of Orres Prime venerate him above all." the guardsman said without hesitation.
"It would gladden me more to know that you serve the pension." the commissar's stare grew even harder. "I have seen better displays of supposed faith and fanaticism, only to see it melt into a pool of traitorous muck before the slightest of difficulties. At least the pension is real."
"Lord Commissar, I have searched my heart. It is the Emperor I serve. For without the Emperor, there would be no pension. Without the Emperor, we would be nothing but a wandering blind herd grasping in the darkness, exposed to the evils of the world." the Guardsman hid his fear of rejection well. He knew that he was ordered here for his excellence in training and nominal service. However, he had never expected to be questioned directly by an Imperial Commissar. These men were reputed to eat stones for all three meals, and their hearts are even harder than iron.
"You don't fool me, guardsman. I have executed more men than you have ever known, all of them on the field except for five. You have a wife and a son to join you in a month's time. You joined the guards when you figured out that you need a better paying job. Is that not right?"
"I am asking a question. Yay, or Nay?"
"Yes, Lord Commissar." the Guardsman answered quietly. Lieutenant Kunst looked disappointed.
"So you joined the guards out of love of money, and swallowed the Imperium Tenets as any meat providing cattle stock chew their feed, and regurgitate it out if necessary?"
"No, Lord Commissar. That I say nay." the Guardsman snapped out of his fear.
"Hmph. How do you explain yourself, guardsman? I am willing to tell others that I executed six men off the field, and I am willing to carry that out, too, if necessary."
"Lord Commissar, it may be true that I joined the guards out of necessity, but it is the guards' life and duty to defend the Imperium that taught me the values of faith and duty, and to know our Emperor. In my youth I have prayed for Him to deliver me out of my miserable existence, and when the High Lord called Orres Prime to arms, I was amongst the first to join. The pension was to provide my wife solace in my absence, for I do not wish her hardship. Mercy is an Imperial Virtue, is it not?" the Guardsmaon said confidently.
Lord Commissar Essesohn now turned his glare at Lieutenant Kunst. Kunst bowed his head in a display of defeat. After an awkward period of silence, the Commissar turned towards the Guardsman once more, this time with a softer tone, yet hard enough to cut rock nonetheless. "Guardsman, erase mercy from your misguided interpretation of Faith. Mercy's reward is betrayal. We do not compromise at any cost. I have seen your records. Carefully and to the letter. Feel free to correct me, because I am not an unreasonable man.
"Unlike most men we have recruited on Orres, you have showed an unfailing observance to the Duties of Faith, and abstinence from all things narcotic. You have dutifully written to your domestic partner without fail, and have shown an eagerness for learning and education. What is even more considerable is that you never allow the Aquila to stray from your body. In respect of your military duty, you have chosen to stay within the regimental headquarters without petitioning for leave, which is within your rights as a guardsman, only observing the Holy Days to be by the side of your domestic partner, and only to accompany her to the Mass." it was Essesohn's turn to suppress his emotions. He is growing old. And he desires a worthy protégé.
The Guardsman stood agape. It would seem that the guards were spying on him.
"Fear not, guardsman. We only do this to unique recruits. People that we see potential in." Lieutenant Kunst interjected.
"Indeed. Guardsman, Attention!" the Commissar suddenly thundered. The Guardsman reacted instinctively as if conditioned to do so by reflex. He hammered his heels together and stood like the mighty stone pillars that held up the domed roof of the company headquarters. "Remind us of the tenet of Faith!"
"Venerate the Immortal Emperor, for without Him we are nothing!"
"Remind us of the duty of the guardsman!"
"To defend the Empire of Man, to purge the Unclean and the Heretic, the Mutant and the Alien! To live on our feet bearing arms upon the traitor and to die knowing our duty is done."
"Remind us of the failure to do so!"
"Everlasting torment and damnation, for such is the price of the traitor!"
"Lieutenant Kunst, regimental commissar of Orresian 11th will now question. Is this man ready for his promotion as Sergeant? Is this man ready to lead his squad?"
"Aye, Lord Commissar, I swear it by my blood and put faith in the decisions of the company." Kunst replied.
"Then it shall be done. Guardsman, step forward!" Essesohn's voice is unwaveringly strong, like the thunders of Orres Prime during the dark monsoon storms. The Guardsman stepped forward. Lieutenant Kunst presented him with a Ryza pattern chainsword, a laspistol and a worn shoulder plate with an embossed Imperial Eagle on a large ritual tray.
"Guardsman, the moment you march out, you will be a Sergeant. You are a Guardsman until the day you die. I hereby grant you obligatory leave for a full week to be with your domestic partner, and see to it that she gives birth to a healthy child to carry on your name." Essesohn betrayed no softness in his speech.
"Aye, by your leave, Lord Commissar, Lieutenant Kunst." the Guardsman held back his tears of excitement and gratitude and bowed.
The Guardsman walked down the great highway of Hive Tertiary of Orres Prime. The planet is home to no fewer than 120 billion individuals, divided into more than a hundred overcrowded hive cities interconnected by massive dockyards and subterranean flight-ways. Only Hives Primary, Secondary and Tertiary contained a starport or two, and these Hives are clustered at the equatorial latitude in what Orresians call the Central Complex. Everything on Orres Prime revolved around the well being of the Great Hives, and everything in the Great Hives revolved around the never ending business of import, export and distribution of what they call "real food".
"Sarai probably would like some real pickled mustard with Catadolian spices." the Guardsman arrived at a large purchaser's complex located midway in the spire. His rank entitled him access. A store assistant, uniformed in non-functional but decorative clothing, gave her best smile and asked: "Sir, would you require anything?"
"Thank you, young lady. I know what I need. Its…its just huge…" he looked at the stacks of consumer goods - holo-sets, personalized freezers, tanks of fresh water (and extra purification tablets for those in doubt) and toys for children, all underneath a blue sky complete with white fluffy clouds. This was his first time seeing anything like this. Orres Prime is entitled to a disastrous atmosphere. Grayish green blankets of choking moisture bring an almost constant torrent of highly chlorinated and fluorinated rain, a result of the intense mining for Or, something that's valuable for all the other planets and especially the Imperial administrative body. They call it gold, the metal that cannot be corrupted. Mere fantasy. All the gold on Orres Prime is found as a dirty looking raw mess with the consistency of fecal matter. Refinement is a necessary process, and it releases a great deal of halides into the atmosphere. Maybe it was last millennia when it happened, when the halide concentration reached a critical level and initiated the environmental cataclysm. It only took two centuries to complete the absolute transformation of Orres Prime from "verdancy" to a poisonous globe shrouded in a choking halide atmosphere. Not much survived beyond a few base organisms and the ingenious human race. The planet housed too many people and valuable resources to be lost to such minor disturbances as runaway atmospheric toxification, and Imperial builder fleets arrived just on time to accelerate the "Hiving" process. Hive Primary was the first, and housed the giant industrial centers that would spawn all the other Hives. Gold was no longer the major export as Orres Prime became a processing center for numerous raw materials shipped from all other Imperium worlds within five parsecs. And that includes fresh mustards and Cappadonian turmeric. The Agri-Worlds don't like manufacturing on their surfaces. Orres Prime will do all the dirty work for them.
"Sir?" the store assistant snapped the Guardsman from his thoughts.
"Oh, I am sorry, ma'am. It's beautiful. Say, do you happen to have pickled mustards and Cappadonian spices?" the Guardsman decided to go straight for the prey.
"Of course, sir. Recent exports of mustards have decreased greatly somewhat. It drove prices down. Even Triple-A export-only stocks lies stacked in the nitrogen freeze chambers." the lovely store assistant continued her smiling. Her job performance is probably rated on it. But it's a good smile and the Guardsman liked it, together with her pampered hair and skin. If only sweet Sarai had all these.
"Here we are, sir. Take your pick. I will be helping other purchasers." the assistant curtsied and hurried on her way, leaving the Guardsman to stare at the sheer variety of pickles. Mustard seems to be in plenty, but there's also stuff they call garlic, cucumbers, winter cabbages and all sorts of privileged foodstuffs he had never seen before. And not too heavily priced either, especially with his new paycheck as Sergeant of the Guards. He should probably buy some for his squad as well. They would love that very much.
The Guardsman, his arms now full from various purchases, struggled down the long alley way garnering curious stares from the Upper city dwellers. Another smiling assistant handed him a basket, and continued with her unending duty of guiding people to where they need to go. The counter lady, also smiling, raised her eyebrows as she aimed the las-browser over the two dimensional barcodes. "You intend to eat all this?"
"No, ma'am. Its for the squad, and my wife as well. She's pregnant, you know, and wouldn't eat anything besides heavily spiced pickles and Cappadonian porridge."
"You're a Guardsman?" the counter lady's smile changed a little. It was subtle, but he saw it.
"Yes, ma'am. My duty is to the Imperium."
The counter lady drew close, and whispered: "Haven't you heard about anything? All the regiments on Orres Prime were raised for only one purpose!"
"I am sorry, ma'am. A guardsman should not expose himself to civilian hearsay and rumors." the Guardsman instinctively pulled away. "I will pay by cash."
"Guardsman, whatever happens, may the Emperor always watch over you." she looked a bit sad.
"And you, too." he smiled, too, and walked away quickly with two large bag-load of purchases. Perhaps she has a lover serving in the Guards as well. Who knows.
There's a transport service exclusively for the uniformed, but it still took him more than an hour to get a ticket. While on the supersonic tube he tried not to look at the others or stir any trouble, given that he's riding with other Guardsmen. Most were recruited from the worst of Orres Prime, gangsters from the undercity who feared no Emperor, dealing in illegal wares, narcotics, abusing themselves and those around them. Regimental command recruited these men nonetheless, and sought to discipline them in every way possible. Those beyond control were granted the "back of the head" in full view of the regiments, and those were considered lucky. High Lord Potemnus VIII made an example of the 37th Company, guilty for engaging in "predatory activities against the civilian". The entire company was forced to "walk the regiments". None of them made it past ten companies, their naked bodies completely lacerated by their own fellows. It was a horrifying experience, but Potemnus made his point.
"Hey, fellow! Guy! What you have over 'ere?" a surly and bald brute towering at a meter and ninety asked. The Guardsman seemed not to notice.
"Hey, Big Scar's talking to you." a smaller framed soldier clad in fatigues enforced the big guy's authority. The Guardsman looked carefully. The smaller one is more compactly built and had corded muscles. His bald head and tattoo mark him as an ex-inmate. This one's probably more dangerous than the giant, and looked oddly familiar.
"Pickles? 'Ere, show me what you got." the big one demanded, smiling menacingly and exhibiting two ugly rows of yellowed enamel. The Guardsman took out a vacuum pack of the spiced cucumbers and tossed it at the giant, who caught it in the air deftly.
"What pickles are these? Ne'er seen them before. You sure they're edible?"
"Guy, you got purples on you? We want to buy a few too." the smaller soldier asked. This request was immediately backed up by subtle change of posture in all the other Guardsmen around him. Potemnus' purples are standard Orres Prime currency, given that Gold has almost no value here, and neither do coins. These guardsmen intend to rob him blind. Some are already reaching for hidden blades secretly sewn into their sleeves and strapped in their gaiters, tricks they have learnt at correctional facilities.
"I wouldn't try anything if I were you, Julius." the Guardsman replied coldly, his laspistol already cocked and its barrel pressing hard at the chin of the smaller soldier, and his other hand holding a combat knife cold on the neck of Big Scar. "Yes, I do know you. The scum of the 27th Company. If you want to walk the regiment I am pleased to oblige you."
Julius stretched out his hand and lowered it slowly. Any guardsmen that have already stood up with their knives drawn proceeded to sheath their weapons. The gang leader was expecting an easy target, not some quick slinger. He used his eyes and mentioned the giant brute to return the vacuum sealed cucumber gingerly. "Everything's settled now, Guardsman. Don't want anything messy here. The 27th is always easy-going."
"We will sit down, quietly. Just to ensure you, striking a superior officer is a guaranteed trip. And don't think that you can break the record made by the 37th. The 117th couldn't even make it beyond the sixth, given that the First Decurions are getting better at what they're doing." the Guardsman still held his laspistol and combat knife tightly. Undercity truce can be broken the moment it is signed.
"No hate here, no bad blood. We're here just to party, a'ight, folks?" Julius squeezed out an awkward smile. A laspistol is exclusive to a ranked professional. A Sergeant, most likely, and an indefinitely tougher target than a simple recruit. Julius abandoned all plans. This is no mid-city small-time aristocrat.
"No hard feelings." Big Scar nodded as the combat knife left his throat. It left a small cut, nonetheless.
"Aye." some others joined it, grudgingly respectful of the Guardsman.
"So, Sarge, is that right?" Julius tried to alleviate the tension.
"That is right, reviewed by Lord Commissar Essesohn." the Guardsman has already put his laspistol back in its ornate leather pouch.
"Hrummph. Essesohn? The stone eater! You're a great man then. We all thought you're easy. You look soft and probably lovely in the rear." Big Scar commented. The tube exploded with laughter.
"Hey hey, now, Big Scar, ain't no dissing our friend here." Julius said. "A toast for sarge, if we have anything to toast with. Long live the undercity!"
"Aye! The Undercity, where the Emperor shows no light!" the men started singing their songs. It's all too familiar for the Guardsman. He knew the song by heart when he scampered down the gullies and twisting streets there as a child.
"The Undercity, where Potemnus ain't got rights!
Where cultists squirm,
Like bloody worms;
Where witches burn,
As the clockwork turns;
Where harlots cost,
A mere five purples!
And it's where the Emperor shows no Light!" the Guardsman was surprised that he actually joined in the song. A few of the 27th gave him friendly punches, and respectful nods after his display of martial skills. As the men went off on more and more seedy and bawdy songs, Julius cocked his head arrogantly and said: "So, Sarge, which company do you slog for?"
"The 97th. Just be glad that if you can make it to the 20th, I am sure Potemnus would pardon you for your titanic displays of endurance."
"Hah! You got humor, Sarge. Ain't many high-gothic speakers like ye with that sense." Julius said.
"I am from the undercity as well." the Guardsman replied.
"You know, we thought you're some middle city bloke that blundered into the wrong tube…until you flashed the double quickdraw trick there. Fastest move I have seen, too. But carrying those large paper bags from the nice uptown stores ain't going to help you, you should know that."
"The Emperor's my shield. I need not fear."
"And now you talk like them, too. Sigh…" Julius patted the Guardsman on the shoulder. "Where you heading?"
"Hive 15, section 109."
"Don't sound too good. Pah, dats the playground of the Farties. Take care of yourself, Sarge. Them Farties just took over the middle low in Hive 15. Dunno how they got themselves some solid sluggers. Hive police initiated quarantine and have requested the Guardsman to enforce a military curfew."
"My day just sounds busier by the second."
"Nah. Dat's our job." Julius said. "We got batons and riot gear in the back…as if those are gonna work. But I prefer the torchlights. Can't wait to set the Farties on fire. But we can't access that until the rendezvous point. They have a lieutenant and his cronies looking after the arsenal. They don't trust any armed guardsman without a commanding officer, bro. They don't."
"Because they think you might rob a good man or two on the way. You're even doing it without lasguns or rifles."
"Hey, life's tough down here. You know that, too." Julius said. "There's 90 billion of us undercitizens on this scummy world. Who cares if one or two gets knocked on the head and his wallet lightened? They're pitting gangs against gangs. Tell you what, the gang war is designed and perpetrated to provide tough and trigger happy recruits like me, Wolfie, Stinker and Big Scar here. No one cares about the undercity besides its ability to feed the guards with cannon fodder. We spend most of the time preying on each other, and looking for a way out. That's our quandary, Sarge. But you probably won't buy this shit anymore, given that they brainwashed you already. Just be glad you're fast and tight. That's some quality all undercitizens respect. Ain't no badge or aquila gonna save you."
The Guardsman looked at Julius. There's no way to rebut this. He was one of the few undercitizens that managed to climb out of the general muck. Julius sounds a lot smarter than he's supposed to.