The sound of thunder echoes across the ruined carcass of a once great city.
It is not thunder borne of natural wind currents and the weather, but the kind that is made by men and their machines as they attempt to kill each other by any means at hand. It drowns out the real thunder, which strikes impotently in its wake, unable to raise a noise that can compete with the constant booming and low reports of shells landing on buildings and people.
It cannot quite drown out the rain. It drizzles down in a constant desultory stream, turning the ground into mud and pattering softly off armoured shoulder pads, helmets, and the blocky outlines of siege engines. The barrels of the engines sizzle as the water comes into contact with hot metal.
It cannot quite drown out the screams and death gurgles of men who whimper softly for their mothers in craters scarred into the ground. They drown as the holes fill with water and mix with the blood of men who are slowly dying within them.
It cannot quite drown out the low, booming voice that stretches out across the plain.
The voice comes from an old man. He is in the centre of a cluster of men and women, the crowd looking up at him with respect and awe in an ardent wish that he will set things right. He bears innumerable scars, taken honourably over many years of service. He has a black leather jacket, and the peaked cap of the commissariat. He is a commissar of the God Emperor of Mankind, and he is the stern guardian of his Regiment.
One eye of his is closed, the scar running down his craggy, yet kindly face through where his eye used to be and continuing down to his teeth. They are still white, for he has never indulged in Tajii juice, and he looks down at his flock as they seek solace in his word and the embrace of the Emperor. His other eye has seen much. He has seen good men and women die in front of him, ripped apart by bullets and shrapnel. He has seen men bravely defy creatures and abominations of the warp that he would have gladly admitted he would have fled from in terror. He has seen men, gripped in the panic of misguided fear, shake their heads at the mere sight of him and turn around, routing abominations and xenos scum in the Emperor's name, ashamed by their temporary lack of faith in the Emperor's righteousness.
He looks down from the ammo crate he is using as his step at his regiment. He knows all of them by name. He has worked with them, lived with them, taught them the glories of life in the emperor's service and that to turn away from his light was the worst crime imaginable. He knows that most of them will be dead by the end of the day, and the prospect fills him with both sadness and joy- for they are good, honest men and women who have served the Emperor well, but how could someone not envy a man who has died in service of the Emperor?
"Comrades," he starts, his voice choking slightly with the conflicting emotions. "I know that many of you are afraid." He sweeps his gaze across the milling crowd, seeing the fidgeting borne of nervousness more than cowardice. He counts himself lucky that he has only had to execute a handful of men whom he had not been able to convince to turn around in his entire career. He notes, wryly, that the women in the regiment remain still and calm. his mouth twitches up slightly. He has never had to execute a woman under his care.
"Afraid not of death, I know," he continues, "but on whether you can do your duty in the sight of the Emperor, and of your brothers and sisters of the regiment. For some of you, this is your first taste of combat, and you do not know whether you will break, whether you are a traitor to your emperor."
He spies a young man, almost a boy, looking apprehensively at him. The old man knows this young boy well. He is no doubt worried that he will let his squad down, let his family down, let his Emperor down, the worst disappointment of all. He has seen that look before. He has calmed it, often with a cup of caf and a reassuring hand. He has done it with humour. "Let me say first, that it is not your duty to die for the Emperor!" He pauses a moment, waiting for the confusion to settle slightly. "No! It is your duty to make the fething rebel scum over there die for him!" He points toward the front as the regiment lets forth a rousing cheer, laughing and smiling at the small joke.
"Let me say that you will not break!" he bellows, sweeping his hand to encompass them all. "Let me say that You will find the courage and strength, given to you by the Emperor, to cut down his foes in divine righteousness!" He motions his arm again toward the distant thunder of the battlefield, in the cityscape a mere few streets away. His voice rises to a fever pitch. "You will know the joy of striking down the foes of mankind! You will know why you are a servant of his Imperial Majesty!"
The regiment screams its approval. The old man steps down from his box, his work complete. He has only now to shepherd his flock through the battle to break the rebel defences.
The rain never stops. it patters softly on a leather jacket, soaking through the cloth to mingle with blood that is even now staining its inside lining a dark, lurid red. The old man rasps out a breath, knowing that he is breathing his last few.
He is inside a crater filled with the remnants of his regiment and broken masonry, the mud mixing into his wound and making it septic. The least of his problems. He looks up at the young boy next to him, furiously loosing a barrage from his lasgun over the lip of the crater. It was the same boy he had noticed before. The old man is proud of the lad. He has not broken.
He looks around the shellhole. The captain is all that is left of the officers. She swears loudly at her subordinates, while casting a worried glance over at him every now and then, wondering if he is still alive.
He hears, with fading hearing, the screams and shouts of his regiment, caught in a trap by a huge mob of gibbering rebels and cultists and things. The creatures of chaos swarm over the lip of the crater, throwing themselves at the last few guardsmen still screaming oaths of defiance. The guardsmen swipe with rifle butts and pistols and knives, but there are too many. The old man sees the captain cry out as some mutant's claw impales her torso, flinging her aside like a toy. He sees the young boy look despairingly at him, looking for guidance, even as he jabs his rifle into a mutant's face and squeezes the trigger. He cries out in surprise as something stabs him, and he falls, his face within inches of the mortally wounded commissar.
The boy opens his mouth, his helmet uncovering a wave of dirty blonde hair as it rolls off. "Commissar," he rasps softly. "Did I do OK?"
The old man fills with pride.
"My son, you did fine," he whispers, and watches the boy smile softly in contentment, even the light fades from his eyes. The Commissar feebly holds up his laspistol and begins firing at the mass of bodies now swimming hazily in front of his eyes. There are shrieks of pain and anger as the rebels reel from the unexpected threat. They turn on him, and the commissar notices one of the last guardsmen alive throws down his rifle and scrambles to the lip of the crater in abject terror. The laspistol in his hand quivers, then pans and fires one last time.
He has missed the deserter.
As his vision fades to black, with blood maddened rebels and chaos scum reaching out for him, the old man can only watch helplessly as the craven coward slips unpunished over the lip of the crater.
He has failed his duty, and failed his Emperor. The commissar whispers one last litany of despair at his failure, and then the creatures are upon him.
Overhead, the sound of thunder never stops.