Service In His Shadow

-Ariel Abel

"Like any newly-commissioned young commissar I faced my first assignment with an eagerness mixed with trepidation. I was, after all, the visible embodiment of the will of the Emperor Himself; and I could scarce suppress the tiny voice which bade me wonder if, when tested, I would truly prove worthy of the trust bestowed upon me. When the test came at last, in the blood and glory of the battlefield, I had my answer; and my life changed forever."

-Ciaphas Cain, 'To Serve the Emperor: A Commissar's Life'


I must admit, at first, that the thought of scripting my own memoirs had not crossed my mind until I casually glanced through the pages of the autobiography belonging to my long-time colleague, and Hero of the Imperium, Commissar Cain. These days, it seems as though every guardsman, commissar, and officer who manages to reach retirement with enough of their brain still functioning to string a few coherent sentences together invariably throws together a story and calls it their memoir or autobiography. I never really thought my military exploits were enough of a story to be worthy of telling. Mostly, I think I simply feared they would be overlooked. However, looking back on nearly a century of gallivanting around the galaxy stomping on the heads of heretics, xenos, and unholy terrors alike, I realized there is probably some sort of lesson that could be learned from it all. Somewhere in all the bloody warfare, profanity-inducing horror, closes brushes with the hand of death, and near-blasphemous deeds that made up the clusterfrak that was my career, there is something that can be passed onto the next generation of men and women that somehow make it all seem worthwhile. Damned if I can figure out what it is though.

Maybe those guys at the medicae temple really can do wonders and breathe life back into the dead.

Like any commissar, I have seen my fair share of action and I would definitely say it was an honour to spend so many years serving alongside one of the greatest heroes ever to have blessed the Imperium with his service. If I had to do things over again, I probably would have done it all exactly the same…and probably would have made all the same mistakes. Except perhaps insisting on wearing body armour on a more regular basis.

Reflecting on Cain's words, though, I can certainly say they rang true for me on my first real assignment in service to the Emperor. As a commissar you are generally not allowed to show any sign of uncertainty or doubt. It was a luxury we could never afford and uncertainty would undermine everything we were duty-bound to enact. But when I stepped aboard the Emperor's Beneficence with my first attachment to a front-line Guard regiment, I was so nervous that I was half-tempted to jump back into the shuttle and ride it all the way back to headquarters. Of course, it wasn't a real option to me at the time. I had no desire to wind up standing in front of firing squad or spending the rest of my days trudging through the fields in a Penal legion so I fought down every urge to flee and faced my new assignment with the steely determination that the people of Krieg are known throughout the Imperium for possessing.

As a commissar, there were two things in the galaxy you can always count upon. The first is you were going to piss off a lot of people. Most of whom will be the people you are working alongside and you hope they don't suddenly re-evaluate the worth of your continued existence. Despite this knowledge, I still couldn't help but be surprised when I stared down death, not in the face of the Ruinous Powers or a blasted xeno but the murderous gaze of one of my own troopers. The second is no matter what, you are never a welcome sight, unless perhaps you are the rare exception; some damned hero who has received all the credits and accolades of liberating an entire world all without seemingly breaking into a sweat. Suffice to say, I was not one of those people. My early years of service as a full-fledged commissar saw me sitting behind a desk shuffling datapads as the powers that be declared this was the role that I was most suited for. That was until some bloody fool decided I had some sort of damned potential and felt that it would be in my best interest to go out and foster that potential under the guidance of a real hero.

Between the dozens of scars and augmetics I've collected from each and every campaign and the rude experience each one taught me, I'm still undecided as to whether it was all really worth it. Did my service alongside the great Hero of the Imperium really make a difference or did I just ride his enormous coattail for so many years and the outcome would have been same whether I was present or not?

I guess I'll just have to leave that up to the Emperor's Divine Will…and whoever's reading this.

As customary with any newly arrived commissar, I was met in the hangar bays of the massive troop carrier by the senior officers of my newly assigned regiment. Though there scores of troops and officers milling around us as people and cargo were offloaded in a hurry that I had not seen without a forecast of mycetic spores. Within seconds of meeting them I was glad I had spent my hours in transit reading over my briefing slate, otherwise I probably would have mistook the executive officer for the commanding officer. The first to shake my hand was Colonel Regina Kasteen, who looked awfully young for a regimental commander. Clear blue eyes met my own gaze as we greeted, exchanging names and pleasantries that I felt were half-cooked and fully expected. I could certainly see why some of my colleagues were envious that I would get to work alongside her – unlike most regimental leaders she was definitely easy on the eyes (if redheads were your thing) and probably a decade younger and thirty pounds lighter than most others.

"It's a pleasure to meet you Commissar Abel," were Kasteen's first words to me, followed by a prompt salute and a brief handshake.

"Pleasure is all mine Colonel," I said curtly, wondering all the while just how pleased she really was. If she was being insincere, she did a good job at hiding it. From what I had read and heard, the 597th Valhallans had it made when it came to commissars, in that they only had the one and he was a man reputed to be fair and even-handed when dealing with the troops. Heck, he was probably the only commissar that was generally loved by those he worked with. If I had half the respect he had from his troops, I probably would have at least two or three fewer scars on me. No, make that four. As to be expected, the arrival of a second commissar threatened that cozy relationship and likely scared most troops into wondering if their honeymoon with the disciplinary process was finally over. Just how good they had things I was yet to discover but I would soon realize that I would have a great of work ahead of me if I were to integrate myself into this unit as an effective member. Otherwise, I had little to look forward to other than looking over my shoulder every other minute. Worst-case scenario, though, I would do what I had done so well for the past few years and hide myself in a small office out of the way and did everything I could to make sure I didn't step on a single toe before finding a convenient excuse to get myself transferred back to my old position. At that time, I was no glory seeker; I simply wanted to do my job and get credit when credit was due. The Emperor, though, seems to have a wicked sense of humour.

The second person I was greeted to was Kasteen's second-in-command, a Major Ruput Broklaw. He bore a rather strong resemblance to my father, or at least my last memories of him, with a stern, steel-hue gaze framed by a mop of black hair. His stoic visage was likely built over years of battlefield experience, which meant getting on his good side meant overcoming centuries of ingrained preconceptions of the commissariat and the understandable belief that no regiment would be so lucky as to get two even-handed commissars. As we shook hands, I couldn't help but notice that his calm expression had shifted with a slight emergence of a smirk at the corner of his lip. It took a moment for me to realize just why he seemed so pleased when I noticed that I was starting to lose some sensation in the tips of my fingers.

Golden Throne! The man had a grip like an Astartes, which didn't help that my small hand fit rather tightly into the depths of his palm. He was no doubt enjoying the look on my face as I tried desperately to maintain my composure. Kasteen must've been fully aware of her major's tendencies, as she subtly nudged him before he finally released me. I wondered if Cain had a similar greeting when he first joined.

"Pleasure to make your acquaintance too," I replied to Broklaw, tucking my wounded hand behind my back so I flex some feeling back into it without losing too much face.

As a few servitors were directed to take my kit to my assigned quarters, I was quickly introduced to a few other officers within the regiment, various young but hardened faces of experienced veterans of numerous campaigns. From what I had been told, the 597th were formed from the surviving elements of the 296th and 301st after they were almost wiped out by Tyranids. If one could find a silver lining to that disaster, it was that it meant most of the troopers in the regiment had passed a trial that most other units would have folded in a heartbeat. The officers exchanged curt greetings with me, none of them too interested in getting a feel for who I was, likely figuring there would be plenty of time for that in the months to come before we reached our destination. All of them had the same air of concealed reluctance in their voice but at least their professionalism prevented them from making it obvious, so I was grateful for that.

What I had noticed right from start, when I first deduced that the cabal of officers waiting with feigned patience were the men and women I was to serve with, was that there was a distinct absence of the black and red of the other commissar I had expected to meet. In all honesty, I had not really been looking forward to meeting the legendary Commissar Ciaphas Cain. Despite the stories that he was an amicable man with a fair and just approach to his job, I could not squelch the doubting voice in my mind that some of these stories were a bit embellished and he would take one long look at me and question why in the warp I was being attached to a front line unit.

In fact, judging by the slightly quizzical expression on some of the officers who greeted me, they were expecting something or someone quite different as well. I could tell what they were wondering and I deemed it best to get it out of the way quickly before it became the running joke of my career.

"Your officers are staring at me like a pink-feathered callox is sitting on my head," I stated simply, turning my attention back to Kasteen and Broklaw. "Is there something I'm missing?" The exchange of glances between all the officers was indicative that they were all thinking the same thing, which I could have interpreted as a positive sign of cohesion amongst them.

"The briefing slate said that this was to be your first assignment to a field regiment," Broklaw finally answered, sound more resolute than I would have expected given the circumstances. His prolonged association with Commissar Cain had probably eased his attitude towards the Commissariat. "We were told to expect a relatively inexperienced Commissar and, frankly, we were expecting somebody a bit…um…"

He trailed off for a moment, as though he was looking for the politest way to tell his wife that her dress made her arse look like the dark side of a meteor. I took the liberty off finishing his train of thought for him. "Expecting somebody a bit younger?"

"Uh, exactly Commissar."

"I'm twenty-three."

"Really?" an officer piped up almost entirely on reflex, as noted by the sudden, sharp inhale from the others, including the officer in question. I'm proud to say that a less-disciplined commissar would probably have shot somebody on the spot for that but I managed to keep my temper in check despite an growing urge to thump somebody on the head for that remark.

"It's the hair, isn't it?" I asked rhetorically, needlessly returning everyone's attention to the tied-back locks that I kept secure under my cap. I had no doubt that they were already aware of it but it added a nice dramatic effect, not to mention made me appear more modest about my hair than I really was. In sharp contrast to every other youthful feature, my hair was a hazy mix of grays and whites, mostly white at this point in my life, and this odd colour scheme added ten years if not more to my looks. At best, I looked like somebody who had a bad reaction to a juvenat treatment, not that I ever imagined I'd ever be privy to such expensive drug therapies. Once Kasteen nodded an acknowledgement, the rest followed suit, albeit in a bit of reluctance. They still weren't sure if this was going to trigger some sort of furious response but they were astute enough to know that standing together meant I would have to dilute my anger out over a larger group. Much to their relief, I simply smiled back. "I get that a lot."

I was lying of course; at the time I didn't get very many comments or looks at all, though over the years I would be using that line a lot more than I would have liked. Now you're probably wondering why I never bothered to just dye it over and avoid all the confusion but at that time all my years in commissariat could be summed up by the word 'unrecognized' and it wasn't until my hair had changed that somebody finally started to take notice. Though oddly enough nobody ever second-guessed me when I lied and claimed that my hair had always been that way. Apparently nobody wanted to admit that they hadn't paid any attention to me until my hair took on its unique colour patterns. In my youth, with all the impetuous decision-making that comes with it, I figured keeping it would make it at least a little easier to gain some recognition, even if it was for an entirely piss-poor reason.

When I asked about Commissar Cain's absence, I was reassured that he sent 'his most sincere regards' but that he was unavailable at the moment due to more pressing issues. At the time I figured that this meant he was in a meeting with some high ranking officials and not some card game, which as I was to learn much later in our relationship was probably closer to the truth.

Once the pleasantries had been dispensed with, I was given a chance to inspect some of the squads and platoons that I would be fighting along side of during my tour; if I lived long enough. I gave quiet thanks to the Emperor that I had been assigned to a mixed-gender unit; it was tough enough being a woman when dealing with members of the commissariat but it was even harder to try and instill discipline on unruly Guardsmen when the average soldier stood damn near a foot taller and a 100 pounds heavier than you, a fact made worse by the Valhallans who were naturally tall people in general. It could have been worse, I suppose. I was never really sure what I would have done if I had been attached to a regiment of jungle-giants, better known as Catachans, and, thankfully, I never needed to find out (in actuality, commissars were rarely attached to such units).

For those of you who are curious, at the time of my first tour I was five foot four and 120 pounds of fighting fury, not including pointy hat. I am both shorter and heavier thanks to my many decades of service and numerous augments.

Once again, the level of professionalism extended to me, this time by the common soldier, left me feeling rather impressed. Though not really welcomed by their numbers, I wasn't being subtly pushed aside, though I still suspected that a few of them would much prefer to put a lasbolt in my back just so they could go back to their happy days under Cain's watch. The sight of so many women in uniform left me feeling a bit more comfortable in my surroundings, while the sight of so many tall men left my neck with a slight cramp by the end of the day. Once I had been sufficiently introduced to enough of the troops and been given a few minutes to ramble some platitudes about how I was honoured to be serving with them, I was free to tend to my affairs for the remainder of the day.

Getting settled in my new, temporary home wasn't too difficult; my life could squeeze into a duffle bag to be honest and I don't recall ever having more than a few squares meters to my name for the past decade. The small room I had been given was actually a step up from my previous living arrangements and I didn't have to share it with anyone. Since this vessel was only a troop transport I stowed my bag into a niche in the wall, poured myself a glass of amasec, and declared myself settled in. Several hours and a bottle of amasec later, I found myself wandering through the corridors of Beneficence with a slight buzz that probably would have earned me a reprimand or two if somebody in authority had found out. Not that I was worried about being caught or letting my intoxication show – finding a Krieg who can't handle their alcohol was about as likely as finding an Eldar without an ego.

Still, I made sure to be cautious and kept myself close to a wall or railing at all times. I was curious what other regiments were aboard the vessel. According to the ship's manifest, there were regiments from Valhalla, Kastafore, and Tallarn aboard. I was slightly disappointed there were no units from Krieg aboard but to think that there were was nothing short of childish. This task force had been assembled in haste and no Krieg units were close enough to participate. Our transport was part of a small flotilla that had been hastily assembled in order to respond to a distress signal sent out from a nearby system, or at least that's what I had assumed was the case. We hadn't been formally briefed yet but I had been told that quickly assembling units still fresh from a campaign normally meant that there was an urgent need for troops and no one else was close enough to deal with the call for help. It ranked high on the list of undesirable military situations, just below walking through a minefield while juggling live hand grenades.

My walkabout was mostly uneventful as they usually were. I had long since had a strange habit of taking such long walks through random hallways since I was a youth. Since going outside was never really an option on Krieg so corridors were all I ever had. During the hours where it had unofficially agreed upon to be 'after hours' the hallway luminators were kept at half-power to create a sort of nighttime illusion or just simply to conserve power when 90% of the population were asleep in their quarters. The hollow echo of my footsteps, that repetitive click-clank sound from my boots brought a sense of comfort and familiarity to me. It wasn't rockrete but it created that same, deep emptiness that I had grown to miss since leaving home.

A few times I passed by more secluded regions of the ship where I oversaw why the mixed-gender of the Valhallan 597th was such a welcomed sight by other Guard units. I made sure not to disturb anybody's privacy. Emperor knows it was hard enough for a soldier get some proper…intimacy with others given the hellish nature of their job. Heck, there was a good chance one of the two wasn't going to be alive by the end of the campaign so why ruin their last few chances of indulging in the bliss of such affairs. I might have also been feeling a bit envious of them too. I had never been one to pine over the benefits of physical intimacy but even a stoic servant to His Majesty had needs every once in a while.

About half-way through my walk I was hit by the second half of that bottle of amasec and I started to wonder if my walkabout was going to finish on my bed or if I shouldn't find a nice quiet corner to rest until the corridors stopped whirling. I must have lost focus for a moment because the next thing I knew I was falling headlong towards the steel deck. I don't recall how I manage to lose my footing but I wouldn't be surprised if a Guardsman had left a little tripwire behind just to alleviate some boredom (a fact I confirmed moments later). No doubt a pictcaster was watching my plummet. However instead of crashing face-first into the deck, I was caught in mid-fall by a hefty pair of arms. Instinctively, of course, I grabbed hold of the man and climbed my way up his arm, hand over hand, until I had regained my footing. The fall left a lingering doubt to just how steady I actually was.

"You okay there ma'am?" the man said with a hint of concern.

"Just surprised," I replied, trying to maintain my composure. Glancing up, I discovered I was staring at the chest of a man in a commissarial great coat. I had to crane my neck further back to find the man's face. No doubt I had the expression of a gaping inbred hick when I realized that I had fallen into the arms of the one man on the ship I was actually trying to avoid.

"You must Commissar Abel, if I'm not mistaken," Cain said, picking my cap off the floor and handing it over.

"How did you guess that, sir?"

"It's the hair."

"Oh, yes sir…I get that a lot," I answered as I fitted my hat back into place. The first thing about Cain that struck me was just how frakkin tall the man was. He was probably quite used to towering over people but in my case that distance was quite dramatic and all of a sudden I felt very, very small. "I had been meaning to arrange an appointment with you so we could discuss how to best share responsibilities." It was a complete lie, actually, as I was quite comfortable with keeping out of sight for the next few months. I dreaded the thought of what our first encounter may be but I knew if I wanted to forge an actual career out of this experience I was going to have to face the legend eventually. Shuffling datapads may have been rather dull and tedious but unfortunately it had become a comfort zone for me. And in times of nervousness I would instinctively find myself pining to be back behind my old desk again.

"There's no need to rush things Miss Abel, we'll have plenty of time to get matters settled out," Cain reassured me, almost instantly alleviating my initial concerns that he would be bothered that I hadn't sought him out sooner, though it hadn't occurred to me that he hadn't been making any effort to find me either. "I must admit I was surprised to hear that another commissar was being attached to the 597th."

"Commissar-General Higgins thought it would be a 'smashing idea' to 'fostering my inner hero' with some of your inspiration," I explained, for some odd reason making sure that I had accurately mimicked the Commissar-General's goofy accent when quoting his explanation to me. The stories of Cain's sense of humour proved to be true, at least, since he seemed to smile at my impromptu impersonation.

"As I recall Higgins is a hard man to impress, you must have done something quite spectacular to get his attention." The deeds that brought me to the 597th may have been praised by many but the thought that the legendary Cain himself might share those sentiments did bring a slight fluster to my face…that or the amasec was coming in for another attack run.

"Yes sir. Maybe when my head is a bit clearer and I get my Warp legs I'll share it with you over some amasec."

"I'll break out my best bottle," he laughed as he gave me a hearty slap on the shoulder. I lurched, the corridor violently whirled and I proceeded to throw up all over his boots.

Now either Cain was a man of infinite patience or somehow the thought of me sitting pathetically at a table cleaning vomit and bile off of his boots like a juvie being detained by his tutor left the commissar feeling sympathetic to my plight because despite my best efforts to assume responsibility for my actions, he would have nothing of it. He insisted that I was not the first commissar to do something stupid after drinking far too much, like meandering into an enemy's encampment, and I should just put the issue behind me. I got the feeling he was trying to placate me for some reason; perhaps the last thing he needed on his hands was a commissar slowly self-destructing from their ineptitude. Or perhaps he knew you can't palm off your paperwork onto a commissar that can barely keep their head together, let alone administer disciplinary actions. However, if his intentions were to keep my self-criticism from tearing apart the last vestiges of confidence I had, it worked.

Contrary to what the general image is of commissars, we are people just like everyone else and are prone to the same faults that plague the common soldier, medical orderly, librarian, or a data-shuffling clerk. Cain reassurance, or I should say repeated reassurances, were enough to force my mind back into focus on the important matters at hand, which at the time were getting into my bed and passing out, neither of which proved to be very difficult.

The next few weeks, I made sure to give Cain a wide berth, not out of fear but because I needed to make sure I had fully recovered before attempting to muster my way back into his little world. I kept content with various little bits of paperwork, which Cain was kind enough to send my way (whether to help my fragile ego or just to free up his time is anyone's guess). Contrary to how I may have painted myself thus far, I was not some bumbling fool with barely enough confidence to keep my eyes at head level. Back in my cadet days in the schola, I was the very picture of confidence. It was easy to stay confident when your life wasn't hanging in the balance or you had a team of equally-armed fellow cadets backing you up. I also had the confidence that comes from years of hard work, dedicated study, and fending off randy, hormone-driven cadets with a large celibacy stick (also known as a shock maul).

By the time I crossed paths with Cain again, I was beginning to feel like my old, confident self again. It was many weeks later, which had given me time to better acquaint myself with the soldiers in the regiment and I slowly started to feel like I was a part of the unit, albeit still a carefully watch part, but at least I wasn't getting the cold shoulder (no Valhallan pun intended). I was certain my doubts would return once we hit our destination, some backwater planet called Adumbria, which was about to become the unfortunate face for the fist of the Chaos worshippers' insanity. I had hoped my first campaign would involve something a little less terrifying but when I thought about it…everything out there had the potential to be terrifying from the green oceans of an Ork horde to the awe-inspiring and trouser-soiling might of Tau and Eldar technosorcery (and, according to Cain, a few other things that I was not privy to but should thank the Emperor for every day I remain in blissful ignorance). Adumbria presented an interesting challenge, and not just because the Lord-General had the task of defending a whole world with only five regiments and whatever effort the PDF could muster up for us (which usually amounted to being more trouble than it's worth). An invasion from orbit meant there was a lot of ground to cover and a serious lack of troops to do it with. The fact that the bulk of Adumbria's population resided in a narrow band of hospitable temperatures meant that there were few solid points of defense outside the polar band. Our forces would likely be stuck in reactionary mode, which any intelligent officer can attest to is as bad as letting the other guy have the first shot in a dueling match.

"She assaulted another soldier!" I reasserted, responding to Cain's surprisingly indifferent reaction to my report about a fight that had broken out on the recreation deck, one of whom was a Corporal Magot from our unit. "She pummeled him half to death."

I sat in the small room that passed for his office, opposite for the great commissar who seemed more interested in sipping on his bowl of tanna leaf tea than continue this discussion with me. Getting to the commissar had proven to be a challenge in its own right, as he seemed to have strategically designed his work arrangement to make only the more staunch of audience-seekers remain. When I first came I had been told by the commissar's aide, an oddity of a man called Jurgen who had a bouquet of an Ork's armpit, that Cain was busy. Despite being told to simply come back another time, I insisted on remaining in the anteroom until Cain became available. The odour alone was enough to dissuade most people but thankfully I had my gasmask with me (all natives of Krieg tend to carry theirs around, regardless of where they are) so I was prepared to wait it out. It was only until Cain summoned his aide for a fresh bowl of tanna did I discover that the man had scarcely been busy at all! I should have known that his avoidance was not directed at me personally, but I felt insulted all the same.

"Quite spectacularly if the reports from the witnesses are accurate," Cain replied, sipping his fresh bowl of tanna casually. I had approached Cain originally to consult his opinion on the matter before assigning disciplinary matters myself, as I had been the first commissar on the scene of the incident. Instead, though, Cain asserted his seniority and took the matter completely out of my hand. "Nonetheless, I stand by my decision."

"A reprimand and return to duty?" I asked rhetorically, nearly spilling a few drops from my own tea bowl that Cain had been so civil enough to offer me, despite my earlier temperament. My first impression of the drink were poor, though according to Cain that was to be expected, but I kept hold of the bowl and continued sipping on it occasionally simply to remain polite. "Sir, you're basically letting her get away with assault. How does this instill discipline? This is practically a dereliction of your duty."

I immediately regretted letting those words slip. When dealing with other commissars there were lines you weren't supposed to cross and I had just taken a spectacular running jump clear over it. "I hope that wasn't an accusation Commissar Abel," he answered slowly and deliberating while letting a hand fall onto the butt of his laspistol, "because an accusation like that isn't one you should be tossing around lightly, especially to a senior commissar." He shot me what I would later learn to be his 'second-best intimidating commissarial glare.' Worked like a charm might I add, and I commenced beating a verbal retreat as though Horus himself was after me.

"I-I apologize commissar, that wasn't what I meant to imply. I just...I fail to understand your reasoning sir."

He smiled at me again, as though letting me know that he never really intended to carry out the implied threat moments ago. I was strangely reminded of my cadet days again and I got the feeling Cain was turning this into some sort of lesson for me. "Ariel, there's more to being a commissar than fancy hats, red sashes, and blasting holes in undisciplined guardsmen. Our job is to maintain the efficiency of the unit we're attached to as well as their morale. Pouncing on soldiers for every little infraction might maintain efficiency but it won't help morale in the long run. They'll respect you…but they'll also fear you and when troopers start to fear you more than they respect you…well, that's when black crosses start to happen. I'm sure you know all too well about that."

That's when the lights clicked on and truth dawned on me. He must've been combing my background files and found that little note about my father whose illustrious career was capped when a guardsman gave him a reassuring pat on the back with a shotgun. For the longest time I had held a grudge against the common soldier for his death until I eventually grew old enough to come to the realization that it wasn't entirely the soldier's fault. My dad was a colossal asshole. His combination of absolute devotion to the letter of the law and his violent temperament guaranteed him a sudden, violent and well deserved death. I had vowed not to make those mistakes when I joined the commissariat but over the years I had somehow convinced myself that those tactics had merit.

I once mentioned to Cain that he would make a quality tutor when he got tired of being a front line commissar and he laughed at it for some reason, as though I had missed some big joke.

"I don't plan on enrolling in the same retirement plan but this job presents a huge challenge. It's not exactly easy to inspire discipline when most soldiers take one look at you and can't decide whether to feel sorry, protective, or aroused."

"Is that why you still carry around the breather?" Cain asked, referring to the gas mask that hung loosely from my neck. True, I had donned the apparatus when confronting Corporal Magot. When you didn't have size on your side you had to turn to whatever advantages you can get and the de-humanizing effect of a black polymer mask with black, mirrored lenses was quite effective.

"That and the old saying about how you can take a girl out of Krieg…" I replied, tugging on the mask almost entirely on nervous reflex. "How do you do it Sir? You make it look so easy."

"Cheating, deception, trickery, manipulations, running in absolute terror and lying about it afterwards." I burst into a hearty laugh at his answer as the thought of Cain the Hero running away from a horde of xenos with his arms flailing at his sides rushed through my mind like a refreshing morning breeze, scattering my gnawing anxieties. I had to set my tea on the desk before I risked spilling the contents. "Ariel…I've looked through your old records, you were a bright student and a promising commissar who, for some reason, disappeared into the cracks of the beaurocratic administration. If you really want my help, you're going to have to trust my advice when I give, no matter how absurd it seems at the time."

"Sir, yes sir."

"Good," he said, reaching over and sliding a few dataslates over to me. "My first piece of advice is fill out these forms for me."

Once again I wondered if his help came from a sincere desire to see me succeed or just so he could have an unofficial underling to palm some of his work off to. True, he had his aide for much of that but any kind of form that needed commissar's attention could easily be diverted over to me. It was a small price to pay if he held up his end of the bargain, so despite the lack of seriousness in his tone, I took the dataslates from him and told him I'd have them finished before the day was over.

Catching another waft of Jurgen's pungent odour, I was half-tempted to fit my mask back on but stern resolve kept it where it was. I got the feeling I would be hanging around Jurgen a lot and I had best get used to him so I wouldn't gag on the battlefield. His malodorous aide mentioned something about a Commissar Beije and judging by the barely audible sigh I imagined that this Beije fellow was about as welcomed as an Ork fart.

"Old friend?" I asked.

"Not old enough."

"I think one of my old tutors mentioned something about an over-pious little squelch named Beije. Do you remember a commissar by the name of Hashmyn?"

"Hashmyn…yeah, I remember him. He's a tutor now? I figured that drunken womanizer would've been shot for cowardice by now. Does he still carry that obscenely huge pistol around?"

I grinned knowingly, sliding my laspistol from its holster and letting it drop onto the desk with a resonating thud that knocked Cain's empty tanna bowl onto its side. A look of surprise managed to crack through his usual composed façade, gazing at the sizeable weapon as though the Emperor himself had dropped it off. "Sweet Emperor, I've seen Astartres carry smaller guns than that."

He exaggerated, of course. The laspistol was about the same size as a hellpistol but packed a lot more punch thanks to the hotshot power packs installed. The extra cooling cells and its reinforced barrel may have added a lot more weight to it but I had grown used to its bulk so I was able to wield with the precision of a marksman, which I happened to be. I explained to Cain that my tutor was so willing to part with his prized custom laspistol not only because I was one of his favourite students, for reasons I wasn't too fond of but wasn't going to turn down all the perks it gave me, but also the best shot in the entire schola (at the time at least). It had enough power to punch a hole through an Astartes or at least in theory it did. I wouldn't get an opportunity to test that claim out for a few more years.

"Bloody heavy piece of hardware you have," Cain remarked, holding the weapon carefully, scrutinizing every little detail. It may have not been the most elegant of weaponry with capacitors and reinforced plating mounted across its frame almost as crudely as an Ork shoota but what it lacked it aesthetics it definitely made up for in power and reliability.

"That's cause it's so full of His Divine Wrath, sir."

"And a few extra discharge capacitors by the looks of it. Seems a bit unwieldy if you ask me. What are you going to do when an enemy gets in close?"

"Kick him in the nards sir? It used to work well with cadets"

He chuckled briefly before handing my laspistol back. "Don't think that'll work on an Ork."

"Well I do have my other laspistol too," I explained as I took my second pistol from its holster on my left hip and set it down on the desk. Unlike my obscenely large hotshot laspistol, my standard laspistol had a much smaller and more familiar build. If a fight ever started getting ugly I was fully capable of using both at the same time. I had a chainsword too somewhere in all my kit, though even Cain had to smirk at the thought of little old me trying to swing one of those things around for longer than a few minutes. If I wanted a real chance of having any stamina with that weapon I'd need a lot of practice. Fortunately, there were always these long trips through the warp to kill time with.

Though I had barely even made it half-way through my bowl of tanna, I had decided that now was as good a time as any to excuse myself and return to my quarters to start on the work that Cain had so unceremoniously dropped onto my lap. Before I could say my good-byes, though, Jurgen emerged from the anteroom once more, followed by a young woman in a Guardsman uniform. I took quick notice of the flash burn across one of her cheeks, using it as an easy point of reference so I would remember the trooper's name, a Corporal Penlan as introduced by Jurgen.

"Sorry to interrupt Commissars but Colonel Kasteen sent me to get you," Penlan explained after snapping a prompt salute to us both. Before she got to her message, though, her eyes fell on my laspistol sitting on the desk. She let out an impressed whistle, muttering something that sounded like 'shady' as she picked it up. I could vividly remember sharing the same sense of awe and intrigue the first time I saw a laspistol my father had casually left upon his office desk. I can even remember his exact words when I picked it up – 'don't touch, you'll take your eye out with that thing.'

I wish somebody had told Penlan that, especially as my 'standard' laspistol wasn't quite standard after I had significantly lightened the trigger pull. With the crack of ionized air, the last thing my left eye saw was a blinding flash of red as the lasbolt ricocheted off the walls, flooring me instantly. The next few minutes were a bit of a blur to me, though I do recall an inordinate amount of profanity and panicked shouts for a medic.

And with that, my participation in the Adumbira campaign came to an unceremonious end. That and I got my first of many scars serving under the Hero of the Imperium.