Isolated

-Ariel Abel

"A Commissar's life is not for those of weak resolve. Few bother recording the day-to-day hardships and I myself often gloss over the details when recounting my journeys. But I assure you, for every glorious victory there were a hundred nights sitting alone in a tent with only my thoughts and a flask to keep me company; a hundred instances where I felt cut off from my fellow man, chained by protocols and walled by expectations; adrift and isolated amidst a sea of uniforms."

-Commissar Ciaphas Cain

Being on a frontline regiment is more than just a battle against heretics, aliens, or daemonic beings from beyond the borders of reality. It is more than just battling against the elements as you endure endless weeks in sub-zero temperatures or the blazing desert heat or a jungle world that rains enough to make even a fish feel water-logged. Life in a frontline regiment is more than just engaging the enemy and surviving; it's a constant struggle against boredom. Mind numbing boredom that makes it almost impossible to hold onto your sanity. Fighting against enemies, be they human, alien, or otherwise is the easy part: keep your weapon pointed at the baddies and your head down. The elements are harder and more prolonged. The elements effect everything: what you wear; what you carry; how you move, where you move; the visibility; hell even loading your weapon. However, the wonderful thing about shitty weather is that the more miserable the hellhole you're stuck in, the harder you'll fight in order to get out of there. That was always the biggest problem I had with local regiments. While fighting to protect their home provided a sense of motivation but not the uber-motivated, "let's get this fight the frak over so we can get the hell outta here" motivation I wanted from a fighting unit. If I had to fight a war on a desert planet, I'd rather have the Valhallan Ice Warriors than the local PDF regiments. There's nothing like a hot, dry dust-ball of a planet to exaggerate the Valhallan's desire to get "the hell outta here"and back to some place cooler, which for the Valhallans was usually a building with enough air conditioning to double as a walk-in refrigerator.

But the fight to preserve your sanity, your humanity, is far more arduous than any test of survival. Horrible enemies can terrify you, shitty weather can dampen your zeal, and living off ration bars can make even cannibalism look like a plausible alternative. However, unlike enemies or elements, which cease or subside once the worst of the combat is over and you can return to the rear echelons, fighting to preserve your humanity continues even when the gunfire stopped.

The campaign on Magnus Viridis, more commonly known as the Liberation of Magnus Viridis, was my first real taste of life on the front lines with a combat regiment. Before then, the worst I ever had to deal with was an irritable, lecherous supervisor or a recaf machine that I was almost certain was possessed by daemons. The cities and jungles of Magnus introduced a whole new world to me. Unfortunately, it was a world full of backbreaking pain, running like a terrified juvie, painful betrayals, and enough brushes with death to make me think that the Grim Reaper probably had me on speed-dial. In my youthful exuberance, I looked forward to the chance to inject some excitement into my otherwise monotonous existence but, like a 'Join the Imperial Guard' recruiting pamphlet, there were a lot of things that I wish they had told me about before I had signed up.

The weather on the planet alone was difficult enough for me to deal with. While Commissar Cain, the legendary Hero of the Imperium who had now become an unofficial mentor to me, and the Valhallan 597th Ice Warriors had years of experience roughing it in unpleasant weather, I was new to the ordeal. On Krieg, where I grew up, I had spent the bulk of my life living underground or indoors in buildings with tightly regulated air intake that kept temperatures steady and the air slightly humidified. The weather on Magnus Viridis, however, was either hot and muggy or raining sideways. The troopers could get away with skimping on their uniforms when out in the field but a commissar had to maintain a certain level of dress attire and anybody who's worn a commissarial grey coat can attest that the things couldn't keep you cool if they were lined with ice packs. Cain appeared to be the only person in the entire regiment who didn't seem to have much issue with the weather and so I thought that no one felt as miserable as I did. Keeping my mind off the weather was difficult when I didn't have an enemy to fight against or an objective to accomplish, which meant keeping busy whenever possible.

Despite the hardships, our campaign on Magnus Viridis was very successful save for a few minor hitches and a mischievous Eldar who sabotaged our efforts, all while sitting in our mess hall sharing breakfast with us. Somehow, through the clusterfrak that was our campaign, Cain and I had managed to turn the tide of the war and break the back of the enemy resistance (not that I got any credit other than a pat on the shoulder from Cain, which at the time was sufficient for me). But even after capturing both major cities on the tiny, paradise world, we still had a lot of fighting ahead of us. Orks, who had been a wild card through the campaign, began the focus of our efforts. All things considered, though, the campaign was all but finished and we were handling the clean-up effort. Most of the Orks were killed during the final push for the planetary capital when they divided their forces and struck at the Tau lines and the capital city. The Lord-General's intelligence staff estimated there were probably only a few thousand Orks left but as Cain reminded me, the intelligence staff's estimates were about as accurate as blind fire in a sandstorm.

As most of the Orks had moved deep into the jungles, the Catachan regiment was quick to volunteer for the honour of prying the last of our foes out into areas where we could mass our firepower. Textbook hammer and anvil maneuvers. The remaining regiments, including the Valhallans, were left to watch over the cities, which became more or less a vacation for us. But idleness has always been a source of problems for commissars across the galaxy. Less than a week after capturing the capital, Cain and I already had our hands full handling the influx of new disciplinary actions. Due to extensive back injuries I received after falling on a Tau Ethereal I was bedridden for several weeks then placed on light duties till I got my strength back. During that period I offered Cain to take some of his workload…which he promptly took as an offer to take all his workload. I didn't mind the extra burden, as it kept me busy. But I would have liked it if Cain had accepted any of my recommendations. I didn't learn that he was rejecting my advice until Watz casually mentioned a Trooper Koobs, whom I had written down a punishment of 'death by firing squad.' Not only was Koobs very much alive but his escapades (involving three feet of rubber hosing, a pair of rebreather masks, an inflatable grox with the word 'Sulla' written across its back in camo paint, and, of course, a lot of alcohol) had only earned him a few weeks in the mess halls. When I demanded an explanation from Cain, or more specifically asked Jurgen to forward my demand to him whenever the man showed up in his office, the only answer I got was a simple 'I felt it was prudent.' Since Koobs wasn't going to visit my bedridden arse so I could execute him personally, I had no alternative other than to respect Cain's decision.

Even though the war was pretty much over, my private war with my wits was still raging on. Ever since I was shot in the back by my own troops, my anxieties had been grating on my nerves. I began by sleeping with a laspistol under my pillow or occasionally in my hand, which wasn't all uncommon amongst commissars. And that was only when I could get any sleep at all. Things improved somewhat after I had confronted my assailants but weeks later I was still restless at night. My rational mind knew that I had no reason to feel anxious but that invasive sense of dread still lingered. If I could earn enough animosity for an otherwise loyal soldier to shoot me without any conscious effort, then how many more were there with the same thoughts? I knew I could never be as popular amongst the soldiers as Commissar Cain but did my presence create that much hostility? I'd never know. And the uncertainty haunted my dreams. I think its easier to fight an army of Orks than to try to take on my own psyche. I knew how to deal with an Ork but I hadn't the slightest clue of how to take care of myself. A good Kriegan was taught that, no matter the adversity, perseverance and dedication were the only things needed to triumph. I was (and still am) stubborn so I knew I couldn't defeat the situation by simply toughing it out. Compound the issue with idleness from being stuck in bed and my mind was a cauldron brewing with shot nerves, anxieties, uncertainties, and insecurities. While everyone else was in good spirits thanks to a successful campaign and a grateful population providing all the free meals a soldier could eat, I was tired and irritable.

It took almost a month for me to finally regain all my mobility. By that point, I was so anxious to get out of the hospital I was ready to shoot my way out if the doctors had tried to keep me in. I wasn't expecting my recovered mobility to be an instant fix for what ailed me but it was a step in the right direction (sorry about the pun). Unfortunately, I returned to base to find some troops in the midst of a heart-pounding operation of 'polish the chimera to a mirror shine.'

"I thought Cain only gave you three weeks of motor pool work for your joyride," I commented as I admired the trooper's thorough handiwork.

"He did Commissar," Magot replied from atop the chimera. "But I got another three weeks for…um, unauthorized use of a chimera."

"Joyriding in a chimera is a bit unorthodox."

"The other kind of unauthorized use."

It took me a few moments to clue in on what Magot was implying. Since she was usually quite upfront about her transgressions the vagueness of her answer left few possibilities, mostly the ones that needed the kind of privacy that was hard to get in a barracks. "Well, I imagine the enginseers were rather annoyed with you two."

"The way they got all indignant you'd think we converted the thing to Chaos," she scoffed before apply more cleanser to her rag and returning to her punishment. Since there was little else to do in the motor pool other than watch guardsmen clean or enginseers chanting while rubbing sacred oils on various bits and pieces I decided to continue on my way. Despite having my mobility for the first time in almost a month, I was going to wind up sitting behind my desk if I didn't find a better outlet for my pent-up energy. Cain must have moved his office because I spent quite a while trying to find it. I had always thought it strange that Cain's office was always a difficult task, especially considering that he always suggested I kept my office in an open, easy-to-find location. But then again, I was the one who needed to build a favourable reputation with the troopers. As a whole, the man was rather difficult to find unless you knew exactly where to look, which was a skill that took me a year or two to develop. Corporal Watz, one of my two newly assigned Kriegan aides who often served as my runner, developed a far more effective system for finding Cain. It typically involved his friend Heilmit, my other aide, tailing the commissar.

"Well when you see Commissar Cain, just let him know that I'm out of the Medicae facility and ready to return to active duty." Unfortunately, my lengthy search through the command post for Cain's office, while successful in finding the room, had failed to yield any sign of the man I was searching for. As often was the case, I was forced to leave my message with Jurgen as the alternative of waiting in the room with the aide was a remarkably unpleasant prospect. Some days I wondered if he actually tried to avoid people. I wouldn't have blamed him, however, since carrying a reputation as grand as his entailed an even grander level of expectations. Wherever he went people just expected him to be doing something…anything. For him, the struggle against those expectations was probably as arduous as my own personal quarrels. I wish I knew what kept a man like him going after enduring so much but he never seemed to be around when I wanted to ask.

I breathed a heavy sigh when I stepped out of Cain's office and not just because the air outside didn't flay my nostrils. For the first of many times, I contemplated the value of my presence within the regiment. With the recent victory elevating morale to sub-orbital levels and only drills and patrols to keep the troops occupied, my role as a regimental commissar dwindled to the occasional doling out of punishments. And even then my part in that process felt stymied as Cain had final say over anything disciplinary action undertaken. I had only myself to blame to letting Cain maintain overall authority – I was afraid of the repercussions if I tried to assume more control of the disciplinary process. The troops loved Cain primarily for his relatively loose interpretation of the Imperial code and upsetting that balance could be disastrous for both of us. Whatever recommendation I made, Cain simply knocked it down a few notches on the assumption I was being too harsh. Any other commissar would have felt insulted by another undermining their authority but for some reason I just accepted it as a fact of my unique position working with such a legendary figure. The soldiers would fight to the death to protect Cain and their cushy position with him but I did not know if I held such loyalty in the unit. At times I wondered if returning to my old posting would be better for everybody but I would always dismiss that notion quickly. Despite my growing feeling of insignificance, I had far more in common with the Valhallan 597th than I did back at Commissarial Headquarters. I just wasn't exactly sure what it was.

Of course, I never voiced these growing concerns because I never felt right complaining about personal issues during a war. So what if I felt a little insignificant or under appreciated? I could think of a half-dozen people who had both of their legs blown off and didn't complain other than the fact that some bastard blew their legs off. If Watz could go through life not complaining about the fact that most of his face got burnt off by a plasma grenade, what right did I have to complain about feeling a little blue?

Eventually, I wound up back in my office, settling into my usual routine of sorting and filling out paperwork that would be read by nobody before being stuffed into an archives to gather dust until the Emperor's return. At the time it felt like my paperwork would achieve greater acclaim than I ever would.

Since the amount of paperwork generated by a regiment was enough to keep a team of commissars busy for several hours, handling most of the paperwork for two commissars without off-loading the non-essentials onto personal aides kept me busy for the remainder of the day. My office often doubled as my living quarters and on Magnus Viridis my 'quarters' consisted of a cot in the corner and a folding screen to give me some semblance of privacy. Unfortunately, my degree of pragmatism rarely took things like comfort into consideration. Normally it wouldn't be an issue as I would just tough it out like any Kriegan would when faced with an unpleasant situation but with three gunshot wounds and a broken back, the cot might as well have been made of sheet metal with inch-long bolts driven through it. Hopes of self-medication were as dry as my liquor cabinet, which I suspected was liberated by a certain commissar who felt I would not need its contents in the foreseeable future. After a couple fruitless hours of tossing and turning on the cot, atop my coat on the floor, in my office chair, and even on my desk, I eventually gave up any prospect of sleep. Perhaps I should consider getting one of those sleep inhibitor chips implanted into my brain.

In the meantime I scrounged up what beverage I could in order to keep awake. Being surrounded by Valhallans, all that was available was tanna leaf tea, which I had no qualms about if there was nothing else available. Since there was little else to do at the command post in the middle of the night, I chose a direction at random and just started walking.

With the war over, the streets of Vertens was a much more peaceful environment. It was that quiet lull between the end of the war and the return to normal life, where the streets were still relatively free of civilian traffic but there weren't bomb bursts rattling your eardrums. Power had been restored to most of the city so I didn't have to walk in complete darkness (which was necessary if you wanted to avoid stubbing your foot on rubble or falling into a crater). The only noise that was easily discernible was that of heavy equipment as clean-up crews began working to remove all the wreckages from the streets and clean up the rubble that now comprised almost half the city. There was still a lot of work to be done, exemplified by the wrecked Tau hovertank that was still lodged in the side of a building. My eyes kept to the ground, monitoring each footstep as though I were traipsing through a minefield as well as watching my shadow circle around me as I passed by overhanging street luminators. I stopped at an intersection, not because there was traffic or an obstruction, but merely to pause and gaze at the massive slab of sheet metal that had been laid overtop of a sprawling crater that took up the entire road. Even though it looked sturdy enough for vehicles to use, never mind my tiny body mass, I decided to take the long way around for no reason other than it took up more of the time I needed to get rid of.

I was just about to randomly pick another direction when a peculiar noise in the distance caught my attention. At first I thought it might have been somebody's holo-vid player with the volume too high but after listening for a few more minutes the sound was unmistakable. It was definitely the sound of scuffling, most likely from a trooper who had one too many drinks to celebrate still being alive. I should have left well enough alone but if it was a fisticuffs between some Valhallans and civilians then it would be even more trouble for me down the road. Between the occupation, high demand on available resources, and bombing of the infrastructure, the civilians had enough reasons to dislike our continued presence without adding 'beating up civilians' onto the list. I eventually found the source – a group of four men having it out in the middle of the street. Judging by their movements, all of them were soldiers, which made my job a whole lot easier. Civilians may not recognize the authority of the commissariat but soldiers did, so all I needed to do was snap my figures and get their attention. Of course, getting their attention was a lot harder than you would think. When a two hundred and fifty pound goon is trying to pummel your face in, you tend not to pay too much attention what's happening around. Since all I needed to do was snap them to attention, I simply headed over to the nearest man and grabbed him by the shoulder to pull him off the trooper he was pummeling.

That was a stupid move on my part.

The moment I grabbed the soldier by his shoulder, his combat instincts responded and his elbow came rushing right for me. Were I not a foot shorter than the average soldier, the elbow would've just hit me in the chest and knock me back. Instead, I got nailed right in the nose and onto my arse to the echo of several profanities. It wasn't a light tap either; it was a full-force, nearly-break-your-nose impact that left me dazed for a few moments. It was in those moments that the brutes realized the gravity of their situation.

"Oh shit, you just clocked a commissar!" one of the men exclaimed followed by cursing from a second.

"Run for it!" shouted the second, accompanied by at least two people running for the hills. I knew there was no chance I would be able to catch up to them now, let alone figure out who they were, so I made no rush to get back up.

I would have stayed on the ground longer but one of the troopers didn't run off. "Commissar? Commissar, are you okay?" he asked as he knelt by my side. I merely groaned and nodded before slowly sitting up. My first instinct was to seize the trooper by the neck in hopes he was the one who had elbowed me in the face but even with a quick glance I could tell it wasn't him – he wasn't nearly large enough to have been the culprit. I didn't recognize the fellow, not just because he was from a different regiment but also because he was a Kriegan and still wearing his gasmask.

"I'm fine," I insisted despite a few trickles of blood coming from my nose. "I don't suppose you know the name, rank, and company of the goon who did this?"

"I'm afraid not," he replied with a shake of his head. "He was definitely a Cadian though; he wouldn't shut up about how great his tank crew was during the march on Aedans."

"A braggart Cadian…that narrows it down a bit," I said sarcastically, to which the Kriegan chuckled. "Too bad he doesn't stand against a commissar with the same resolve as he did the enemy."

"You could check at the tavern he was drinking at. Somebody there might know who he was," the Kriegan suggested as he directed my attention down the road. "It's about three blocks that way. There's a huge crowd so it's impossible to miss. The owner is giving a free drink out to soldiers so almost everybody off-duty is stopping by."

It wasn't uncommon for taverns and restaurants to give out freebies to the liberating forces, though alcohol was usually a rarity considering how quickly a regiment could drain an owner's kegs. However, if it was just one free drink then the owner would likely make up for the loss with all the subsequent drinks ordered. Unfortunately, it meant I would have a busy day tomorrow doling out punishments to the drunkards. "Maybe I will stop by then. Last thing we need is people thinking they can punch out commissars and get away with it. Thanks for the assistance trooper."

"And thank you for getting those brutes off me," he replied. I sent him on his way while I decided to investigate the tavern that he had mentioned to me. I did not have my hopes set out for deducing who had knocked me over but at the very least I would be able to get a free drink out of the investigation, assuming the other troopers hadn't already bled the place dry. Distracted by my bloodied nose, it wasn't until I had reached the aforementioned location that I realized that I had been led back to the same tavern that I had my first run-in with the Eldar Kael. It had been tidied up a fair bit since my last visit, though glancing back I saw that the same Tau hovertank was still lodged in the front lobby of the apartment complex the tavern resided within. I was relieved to see that it had managed to survive the war and despite the crowds, I managed to squeeze my way in.

The last time I had visited, there were only a handful of patrons, which consisted of a couple of troopers, the owner, and an assortment of loyal patrons who'd rather die with a pint in hand than hiding in a bunker. Tonight was a different story and that quaint and cozy feeling had been replaced with a cramped, heated atmosphere. Several dozen guardsmen were crammed into a space that was designed only to handle about half that number, leaving little more than standing room for the vast majority. I noticed there was an empty space where a table should have been had Kael not dropped a Catachan through it when we first met. Now normally a commissar killed a party's mood faster than a bolter through a flak vest but my arrival went virtually unnoticed by the crowds. I wasn't sure if it was because of my normal propensity for going unnoticed or simply because they were so drunk they wouldn't have noticed me if I had walked in stark naked. Thankfully my small stature made it easy to worm through the crowds over to the barkeep, who was surprised to see me but relieved I hadn't come for a second round of interrogations. I thought about questioning him but I realized between the dozens of troopers passing through and the sheer volume of the background noise, I doubt there was any chance he'd be able to recall one guardsman from the next. In fact, I held little hope in general for finding the culprit; the only people who'd be able to identify him easily would be other Cadians and why would they turn one of their own over to a commissar (a bloody-nosed, hack-off commissar no less). At least I could get a drink, which the bartender was quick to provide. Unfortunately, all he had left was some local brew, which wasn't necessarily a bad thing but I had been hoping for something a bit stronger. It had little kick but did possess a strong, nutty aftertaste and aroma. Were I not in such a surly mood, I probably would've enjoyed the beverage a bit more. In hindsight, perhaps mixing alcohol with my irritable mood was not such a good idea.

The crowd inside the tavern was a good mix of the regiments and it was good to see them intermingling with each other in ways that didn't involve fists meeting faces. Even the Adumbrians, the rookie regiment that gave us so much trouble at the start of the campaign, had been fully accepted amongst the veterans units now that they had been 'properly bled' and the unsavory elements of the regiment had been removed (namely it's commander and commissars). The Valhallans were the easiest for me to spot as they were the reddest troopers around. Since the rainy season ended a few weeks back, there had been nothing but constant sunshine and clear skies, which the pale-skinned Valhallans did not tolerate too well. Every Valhallan girl in the tavern was surrounded by about a half-dozen guys, which was the norm for them wherever they went. A part of me envied them – they had the luxury of being picky, while also having enough muscle to knock back anybody who couldn't take a hint. I had no such luxury in my life. As a commissar I had to maintain a professional distance with the soldiers I worked with in order to maintain my integrity and their trust in me. I was out of luck if I wanted something with stability. But that was life as a commissar – kept out of necessity more than preference, amicable but distant at best, a pariah at worst. Cain was a rare exception but even with his popularity, I don't recall ever hearing of a trooper seriously giving Cain that kind of thought. Regardless of everything else, we were the commissars and there was no getting rid of the sash. I imagined Kasteen and the other officers had similar problems and I wondered if I should seek some advice from the Valhallan colonel.

I glanced around and saw some familiar faces from the Valhallans amongst the crowds. Far off in a booth was Sergeant Grifen, surrounded by a ring of her friends who insulated her from the advances of the other men in the tavern…more for their protection than hers. Elsewhere was Lieutenant Tieberos, a spectacled junior officer who was as uneasy in a heavy combat scenario as he was with the attractive (and significantly older) townswoman who was making a pass at him. Alone in a corner sat Lalee, the archetypical lone wolf sniper who watched the entire tavern from beyond the rim of his stein. He must have noticed me because he nodded when our eyes made contact for a brief moment. I wished I could have gone over to them, say hello and catch up on what I had missed during my bedridden weeks but I knew it would be improper of me. They were all having a good time and my presence would just put them on edge. I was ready to accept that I would drinking on my own when I noticed another familiar face who happened to be a similar situation as me. It was the 597th's executive officer, Major Broklaw. Officers faced a similar problem, though not to the same extent, but nonetheless he looked as though he could use the company where he was sitting at the bar. Commissars worked closely with the officers, so I figured it would be acceptable to spend some time socializing…plus I was willing to bend the rules a little bit for Broklaw. When I first came to the Valhallan 597th, he was there to help me adjust to my new environment and when I lost my eye, it was Ruput once again helping me through the rough patches.

"I hope you're not drinking while on duty Major," I said jokingly as I sat down next to him.

"I'm an Imperial Guardsman, I'm always on duty," he replied. "But Kasteen insisted I take the night off and 'unwind' as she put it. She said I was…sweet Emperor! What happened to you?" It had taken him a few moments to notice that I had my nose smacked in, so it was still slightly red and there were dried blood stains around my nostrils.

"Crap-tastic day," I explained before taking a long drink.

"Sorry to hear that. Nobody told me you were back on duty."

"I just busted out today. I gave the docs an ultimatum – get out of my way or get thumped because I was leaving one way or another. They were rather agreeable after that."

"Glad to see you're up and running again – any longer and Cain would have had to start doing his own paperwork again. It's a shame there isn't much fight left on this planet."

"Mop-up is going faster than expected?" I asked. I was a little disappointed with the prospect of returning to duty to a conflict-less world but hopefully that meant we would ship out soon.

"Well Garrick and the other Black Watch marines brought down the Ork warboss last week," he explained. "Apparently we missed one hell of a fight but that's space marines for you…always taking the good fights for themselves. With the warboss gone there's virtually no cohesion amongst the remaining Orks and we've been finding whole camps in ruins from the infighting. Frankly, we could probably sit back and let them kill each other if we all didn't want to get off this rock faster." I nodded in agreement, feeling that same sentiment of wanting to be somewhere where there was more action involved. Of course, at the time I didn't realize that the subsequent worlds we would visit would soon make me yearn for these chaos-free moments as well as make my time on Magnus Viridis seem like a pleasant vacation.

The conversation would have continued further but I was interrupted when a young woman suddenly approached us. "Sorry about taking so long Ruput, the line-ups are always huge in the restrooms," she said as she tucked a few loose strands of hair behind her ear. Judging by her neat and tidy appearance, combined with clothes, fabrics, and jewelry that cost more than I made in a standard Imperial year, it didn't take an inquisitor to realize the blonde was some rich, noblewoman (or at least a relative with access to the family account). "Well, I'm all set to leave once so once you're finished we can…oh, who's your friend here?" she asked when she noticed me sitting nearby, her tone distinctly reminding me of a juvie when they notice a stray animal following them around. Perhaps I just had bad experiences with the noble class (but then again, what commoner doesn't?) but it always felt to me that they were talking down to you in one way or another; as if they had to dumb themselves down just for your convenience.

"This is Ariel Abel, one of the Commissars attached to my regiment," Broklaw introduced me, polite, prompt, and proper as to be expected.

"I wasn't aware there were any women in the Commissariat," she commented with a smile that seemed ripe with insincerity. I got the distinct impression that she didn't want me hogging up the Major's time.

In hindsight, I probably could've handled the situation better than the way I did. "And I didn't realize noblewomen used taverns as hunting grounds," I said with a smug smirk.

"I beg your pardon?" she replied.

"It's a tavern full of soldiers – any simpleton could have noticed that from the outside and judging by the low-cut of your top it's obvious you're not trying to be subtle either. So either you're an idiot or you've got a thing for men in uniform, in which case I would suggest that the Major run back to base because he's too much of a gentleman to go into town carrying a prophylactic on him."

The woman turned several shades redder, though I couldn't tell if it was from a mix of embarrassment or anger…hopefully both. Broklaw let his usual stoic guard slip for a moment, briefly looking surprised at my bold remarks before settling himself once more. "Now Commissar Abel, I think you're being a bit harsh…"

"And I think you're being an idiot if you're somehow surprised by all this," I snapped back. "It's probably been a while since you've gotten a leg up so I won't keep you from your…gentleman obligations, so I'll bid you both a good night." I wasn't finished my drink but I had lost my interest in it so I left it on the counter and headed out. I didn't know what came over me but something about that woman just set me off like a promethium-fueled punch to the face. Having shot my only salvation for a decent night in the foot, I figured I should just head back to base before I made my night even worse.

I would have no such luck.

"Commissar Abel!" I heard the Major's voice echo from down the street. "Pardon the tone but what the hell was that all about?" He sounded hacked off and while most officers would never even consider taking that kind of a tone with their commissar, Broklaw wasn't like most officers. He wasn't afraid to speak his mind but unfortunately it was one of the rare nights where I wasn't in the mood to put up with backtalk.

"Don't you have a floozy you should be escorting right now?" I snapped back.

"For the Emperor's sake Abel, she's some noblewoman whose vacation house got leveled by the Orks. She didn't know her way around the city and she needed a place to stay until she could secure a ride back home. All I was doing was escorting her to the nearest inn, that's it!"

"And you really believed all that?" I said skeptically. "I bet the D-cup really helped you're decision-making process."

Broklaw stifled a growl, slapping a palm against his forehead as he replied, "I was just being polite. I wasn't going to say no on the off-possibility that she was just trying to get into my pants. And I certainly wasn't going to leave her with the troops, they would eat her alive and you know it."

"So where is she now if you're so concerned about her safety?"

"I told Tieberos to take her home. He seemed rather grateful for a reason to get out of there." On the bright side, if I was right about the woman then at least the lieutenant had a chance of ending the night on a high note. There was a long pause as we merely glared at each other, scrutinizing the other's intentions thoroughly. Broklaw, always the upfront type, simply asked, "This isn't like you Abel, what's wrong?"

Once again, I should have handled the situation more tactfully. He was being patient and diplomatic and I was being an ass. "Oh, so now you ask but my seven-week recovery everyone just assumes I'm peachy stuck in a hospital bed."

"Is that what this is about? Because we didn't visit you enough in the hospital? Don't be so juvenile, there was still a war going on. We didn't have time for that."

"Now I'm being juvenile, eh?" I snapped. "At least I'm not the one using the nice guy routine in hopes that one day one of those helpless tarts I aid will be so grateful to reward me with a fuck! That bimbo shouldn't have even been worth your time – I thought you were better than that!"

"This doesn't have anything to do with what happened on Adumbria, does it?" What patience Broklaw had with me was rapidly running thin with the meager squabble quickly turning into a heated argument. It was not the kind of argument to be having in the middle of the streets at night but if you hadn't figured by now, I wasn't doing much of that 'thinking' thing. Before I knew it, I was yelling in his face.

"I told you to forget what happened that night!"

"I have; you're the one who seems to still be hung up on it."

"What happened was a mistake."

"Then why are you upset that I've respected your decision? If you want an argument over it, we've got plenty of time right now!"

"That is not up for discussion." Broklaw was hitting too close to the mark for my comfort and I was trying to beat an obvious retreat before I dug myself a deeper grave. "Good night Major. I will see you at the morning briefing."

I turned to leave but Broklaw wasn't content with me trying to cut and run so he grabbed my arm to try and stop me. "Ariel, wait!" he shouted. Unfortunately, my temper was at its apex so the second I felt resistance, I reacted with my first instinct and I spun around and drove my fist into his stomach. The surprise did more damage than the actual force but he backed up, gasping to regain his breath.

"You do not get to address me as such," I growled sternly. I shouldn't have been so harsh but now I was feeling spiteful and ready to show him why you didn't incur the wrath of a commissar. "Major Ruput Broklaw, for assault on an agent of the Commissariat and for conduct unbecoming of an Imperial Officer, you are hereby relieved of duty and confined to your quarters until a more suitable punishment has been decided. Push me further and I will execute you for insubordination, do I make myself clear?"

Broklaw took a moment as if to see if I would come to my senses but he quickly realized that was completely serious. Upfront or not, Broklaw knew that the commissarial card trumped everything in his deck so he backed off. "Perfectly, commissar," he replied with barely contained frustration. He probably counted on the fact that Cain would override my decision in the morning, which would have likely been the case if I had chosen any other day to have been a bitch. It would have saved me a lot of grief if it had been that simple.


I had a long night to not think things over. Of course, I did the infinitely more mature thing and just pretend that everything was status quo (and probably would've clapped my hands over my ears and shouted 'la la la' if anybody had tried to bring the issue). I kept my mind and my hands busy disassembling, cleaning, and performing the various rites of maintenance on my laspistols…about a dozen times over…on both laspistols. I needed a lot of work on my conflict resolution skills. Shooting my problems always seemed simpler to me and it was easier than listening to the truth.

Eventually I managed to get some sleep, albeit it was from passing out at my desk from sheer exhaustion. I was grateful for the rest, even if I did oversleep a bit, but sleeping hunched over a desk was not good on my back. When morning came and Watz woke me up, I needed his help just to get out of the chair. He gave me a bit of a scorning for falling asleep in such an awkward position but I was only half-awake at the time so I barely caught a word of what he said. My mind didn't clear up until Watz was interrupted by a knocking at the office door. He was rather small for a guardsman and his uniform was exceptionally neat and tidy, combined with the dataslate in his hand and I quickly clued in that the man was somebody's runner. "Excuse me," he said politely, "But are you Commissar Cain?"

Watz and I exchanged glances for a moment before it was silently decided to let me answer the question. "Do I look like Cain?" I remarked. Now the average guardsman might not know one red sash from the next but Cain, being a hero and all, had his face on every recruiting and motivational poster this side of the galactic core. Nobody in the Imperial Guard didn't have at least some sort of mental image of the legendary figure and I was about as polar opposite to those images as humanly possible.

"Uh…no, I guess not but…you are attached to the Valhallan 597th, correct?" What had happened, from what I could quickly piece together, was that the runner had been sent to find Cain and, like so many other runners before him, had absolutely no luck in locating his office. Eventually, after several hours of hopeless wandering, they would stumble upon my office, which had a small sign with the words 'Valhallan 597th' written on it. Because some of the commissars from the Kastaforians were using the same hallway, I had to differentiate mine from the others after troopers kept reporting to the wrong offices for punishment. When I nodded to answer the question, the runner came over and handed me the dataslate he was carrying. "Well then, could you deliver this to Commissar Cain the next time you see him? You'll probably find him long before I would be able to find him." Normally, I wouldn't allow myself to be delegated a task by a mere runner but when I took a brief glimpse at the dataslate, I made an exception and took it from him.

"I'll see to it that this gets into the right hands," I replied and dismissed the runner.

"So what the heck is it?" Watz asked as I leaned back in my chair.

"A message from the Lord-General…looks like something has come up that he wants the Commissar to handle personally," I explained after a quick glimpse over the contents. True, I was technically reading another commissar's mail but Cain has had his mail screened since Perlia so I wasn't doing anything that Jurgen hadn't. Plus it was his fault for making his office so difficult to find. "I'll hand it over to Cain and Kasteen once I've read it over."

"They're still waiting for you at the command post, remember?"

Actually, I hadn't until Watz had reminded me but according to him it was one of the first things he said when he woke me up. Suffice to say, I was out the door faster than you could say 'the Despoiler is coming.'

Technically, my presence shouldn't have been required at the meeting so I imagined Cain and Kasteen were waiting more out of curiosity than a need for my input. No doubt Broklaw's absence triggered some confusion, assuming that the Major hadn't explained it to them the night before, and they wanted to know why their executive officer had been relieved of duty. As I ran through the corridors of the command post, weaving through chatting officers and technicians, sliding over poorly positioned cabinets and crates, and leaping across the hole on the second floor that was left behind when a PDF Leman Russ tank took out a chunk of the building's side. I shaved a few more seconds off my time by exiting through that opening on the second flooring, using the pile of rubble for a ramp and landing in the courtyard with a short drop. A part of me was concerned of what I would tell Cain and Kasteen when I arrived. Explaining the situation in full would be difficult for a number of reasons and I reluctantly came to the conclusion that simply admitting I acted rashly would probably be the better option.

"Sorry if I kept you waiting long," I apologized when I entered the tent Kasteen was using as a meeting room. Since the city wasn't being bombarded by rockets anymore, our forces were able to set up a number of tents outside the command post to help alleviate the cramped conditions, not to mention the ventilation was better in the tents (as the tech-priests still hadn't the command post's central air). There was little in the tent other than a few desk and tables, the central one being used for the meeting. Kasteen didn't look pleased to see me but in her defense it was understandable; Cain seemed indifferent, or at least unwilling to commit to a side just yet.

"Not at all," Cain said politely as he motioned for me to take a seat across from him. "There were some…issues we were hoping you could shed some light onto."

"The Major, I presume?" I asked since I didn't want to waste time dancing around the subject.

"Exactly," Kasteen interjected. "He sounded rather hacked off when he contacted me last night. He wouldn't say why exactly but I would like to get this fixed so I can have my executive officer back."

"Now Kasteen, let us not jump to conclusions," Cain interrupted in a surprising move. "Now we all know that Major Broklaw is a model officer but that doesn't mean he's infallible. Technically speaking, as a fellow commissar I can't overrule Abel's decision once she has made it but in the name of unit morale and cohesion, I'm hoping that Commissar Abel will be willing to discuss the matter with me and we can decide the best course of action if a new course is needed at all." I'm certain that I was more surprised by the decision than Kasteen was but we were both expecting Cain to simply override my decision. The fact that he had overridden so many of my recommendations before left me wondering why he made such an issue of this one but it worried me that Cain, and his ultra-sharp sense of perception, was suspecting something that Kasteen hadn't. "Is this acceptable for the two of you?"

"If that is the decision of the commissariat," Kasteen agreed reluctantly. I must admit that Cain did a far better job of keeping personal and professional opinion separate and were I in his situation I cannot say for certain if I would have made the same call.

When I nodded in agreement Cain turned to Kasteen once more, "If it is alright with you, I would like a moment to discuss the matter with Abel in private." Again, the Colonel reluctantly agreed and seconds later Cain and I were the sole occupants. "Is everything okay Abel?" Cain suddenly asked, his tone lightening from that of a mentor to that of a friend.

"Excuse me?" I said with evident confusion.

"I wasn't going to say in front of Kasteen but…you look like a mess," he explained. Unfortunately there weren't any mirrors for me to use so it was hard for to tell how bad I looked. I could only assume that using my desk for a pillow left my hair matted on one side and disheveled on the other. Judging by my exhaustion, I probably had a blood-shot eye (since one was bionic) and looked paler than usual. "Watz also sent me a message voicing his concern. He said you've been rather…irritable and restless lately."

"Well…I guess I have been a bit cranky lately," I admitted reluctantly.

"Now is the incident with Major Broklaw legitimate or was he the last shove that sent you over the edge?"

"The second thing…" I muttered meekly. Sure I could have argued some legitimacy to the citation but Cain was graciously offering me an easy way out that preserved some of my dignity (at least in front of Kasteen) and I was going to take it. "It's just these past few weeks I've been…"

"Feeling like a useless lump of flesh, stuck in a hospital bed with nothing more than your pain and countless hours to dwell over the mistakes that got you there?" Cain interrupted.

"Does this conversation actually have a point? You seem to know all the answers already," I replied sarcastically, to which he simply chuckled. He explained to me that I was going through the same thing that virtually every wounded soldier went through at one point in their careers. When you worked behind a desk, there was always another piece of paperwork to fill out or another dataslate to review, likewise as a soldier there were always drills or patrols or menial labor to keep busy. For both, being stuck in a bed, while relaxing at first, could grow frustrating when all you want to do is get back to the life you knew (even if it was what got you into the hospital in the first place). He told me that the feelings would pass once the regiment was on the move again and I had more to look forward to than just sitting on my hands all day. I wasn't sure if I whole-heartedly believed him at the time but he proved to be correct as always.

"We'll get you on board the next mission. You just need to get back in the game," Cain suggested.

I immediately smirked and lifted up the dataslate I had been carrying with me. "That might be sooner than you think," I said as I slid it over to him. Curious, he picked it up and began reading it over. He hummed in thought a couple of times, which I always found made him sound like a high-tension power cable, before calling Kasteen on his comm-bead and asking her to return. She was understandably curious about our discussion but Cain quickly steered the conversation towards the message from the Lord-General.

"I think I have workable solution for all our problems," Cain said.

"We're finally being redeployed?" Kasteen asked sarcastically. "So what have you got Cain?"

"Well as you are aware, our valiant efforts on Magnus Viridis have resulted in the liberation of many noble vacation homes," Cain began, spurring more laughter from us. Even the enlisted troopers had been quick to realize that the only reason this planet was chosen was because so many noble houses were petitioning for their favourite vacation spot to be saved. "Unfortunately, it appears one of these innocent homes is still unaccounted for and the Lord-General has left it to us to correct this injustice."

"Seems odd for the Lord-General to be taking such a vested interest in one house," Kasteen commented.

Tossing theatres aside, Cain replied, "According to this, our petitioning noble is an acquaintance of the Lord-General and somewhat of a prominent political figure in a neighboring sector. The vacation home is located on an island several hundred kilometers to the west. It was thought that it was far enough outside the warzone to be safe but he has since lost contact with the people there, several of whom are close family members of his." Cain handed the dataslate over to Kasteen so she could read it over while he continued on. "The brainiacs say it's highly unlikely there is any danger and more likely a mechanical malfunction is preventing communications. Nonetheless, we should presume the worst and treat this is as a rescue operation."

"Judging by the Lord-General's description of this nobleman…it sounds like he's more concerned about the recovery of his property than his missing kin," Kasteen remarked as she continued reading the dataslate. "According to this, he also put forth a request to recover as much of his private collection as possible, which includes irreplaceable relics, artworks, and a vintage amasec collection."

"Want us to bring you back something nice?" Cain joked.

"Us?" Kasteen repeated.

"Commissar Abel will accompany me," he explained. "She has been off-duty due to her injury for a long time - she could use the opportunity to get her feet wet again." Kasteen nodded in agreement. "I also recommend that we turn to the 'naughty list' for picking out the team. It will be good for morale to give them an opportunity to put their hands to use other than scrubbing latrines."

The naughty list, as it is commonly called amongst commissars, was simply a list of soldiers that were serving punishments for various minor infractions. In exchange for taking some or all of their time owing away, they would be volunteered for various missions, usually of the dangerous type. In this case, though, it helped keep troopers happy and hopefully helped to avoid future troubles from them. Though it meant mixed squads, unit cohesion was less of an issue with an accompanying commissar. "Not worried about the trouble-makers 'liberating' some of the esteemed noble's collection?" Kasteen asked.

"Well either there was a technical malfunction and everyone there is safe and sound, in which case we simply transport the people out, or the Orks did manage to make it to the island and there won't be any point trying to find survivors." In other words, when we arrived we would find an intact house, a pile or rubble, or a mass of Orks. Whatever the case, we wouldn't stay long…or at least that's what we all thought.

Then Kasteen smiled for some reason, a sort of mischievous smile that made me wary of what she was thinking. "If that's the case, then it won't do any harm to have Major Broklaw as the officer in charge of this mission. He can lead the mission and we can consider his punishment fulfilled," Kasteen announced.

"Splendid idea," Cain replied, at which point I suddenly realized that I had just been walked right into a trap. If Kasteen hadn't suggested it, I had no doubt that Cain would have brought it up. He must have suspected that there was more to my quarrel with Broklaw than I had suggested…and shoving us into the same dropship was going to bring it all to the surface one way or another. He couldn't have known about the mission before I mentioned it so he must have hatched his plan in just the past few minutes. It never ceases to amaze me how the man could devise a cunning plan so quickly and still make it look like he had planned it out right from the very beginning. Of course, I couldn't object to Kasteen's suggestion, not without outing myself. I had no choice but to play along and hope that I didn't end up making things worse between Broklaw and I.


I was given three hours to tidy up, get some food in me, and get organized before meeting Cain and the others out in the courtyard. As per my usual habit, I stuffed a flak vest under my clothing for the extra protection, loaded my pockets with extra power cells, and double-checked that all my weapons were fully charged. My aides, Watz and Heilmit, were similarly prepped but when we headed out I noticed Heilmit carrying an extra piece of hardware with him.

"Since when did you have a shotgun?" I commented when I noticed the new weapon in his hands (his lasgun was slung over his shoulder as a back-up).

"I borrowed it from the quartermaster," he answered.

I immediately shot him a skeptical glare. "Does he know you've borrowed it?"

"It…might have fallen off the back of his truck…and into my hands."

"Sergeant Chekov is going to be furious when he finds out," I said with a sigh. Soldiers had a natural tendency to possessive over their gear, none more so than a quartermaster. I spent a little over an hour arguing with the quarter master just to get my flak vest replaced after it got three holes in the back; officially I wasn't supposed to have had the vest in the first place so replacing it would be against regulations. Fortunately, while I was busy arguing with the quarter master, Heilmit and Watz snuck into the armory and liberated one. No doubt that was the same time that Heilmit acquired his new toy. The things those two got away with in the name 'commissarial delegated tasks' often made me wonder who got the better deal in our business arrangement.

Despite arriving ahead of the three-hour time line, we still wound up being the last party to arrive to the mission briefing. We met out in the open-air section of the motor pool, where scores of chimeras were packed along the walls and there was a constant hint of promethium smog in the air. What caught my eye, and likely those of all the other members of our ensemble, were the pair of Valkyrie dropships that were parked in the center of the courtyard. Given that our destination was several hundred kilometers away and surrounded by water, it made sense that we would be traveling by air but it was a pleasant surprise nonetheless. We could have commandeered some civilian transports or use some smaller, lighter military ships but the Lord-General appeared to be looking out for us…or just really wanted to make sure the mission was a success. With twin rocket pods, two door-mounted heavy bolters, a forward lascannon, and plenty of armour plating, one would be hard-pressed to find a safer means of air transport in the Imperial Guard (speaking from personal experience, if you ever get a chance to hitch a ride on a Thunderhawk, I highly recommend you take it). I noticed Major Broklaw almost immediately, who stood out from the others with his carapace vest and his officer's bolt pistol and chainsword hanging from his hip.

"Excellent, now that the last of us are here, we can get this briefing underway," Kasteen announced when she noticed me and my aides approach the cluster of troopers. She stood at the front with Cain and Broklaw alongside a map taped to the side of a chimera; the map showed our destination along with the blueprints of a mansion that had a basement section twice as large as the rest of the building, though most of it appeared to be storage rooms or vaults. This nobleman must have had one hell of a large collection to warrant so much floorspace. The ranking non-com in the group was Sergeant Penlan, who earned her weeks of extra guard duty after triggering a city-wide lockdown and nearly an orbital barrage armed with only a piece of fresh fruit. She led a squad of five other troopers, which, when combined with Broklaw, Cain, myself, and our aides, brought our total numbers to twelve. I was surprised to see that our regular disciplinary nightmare and biological murder-machine, Magot, was not present but as Cain pointed out to me, if we let her work off her punishments through risky missions, all it would do is enable her. Technically, we could all fit into one Valkyrie but depending on how things developed we could be ferrying back almost twice our numbers in civilians so we needed the extra space.

The mission parameters were fairly straightforward: contact was lost with the remote mansion and we were being sent in to investigate and hopefully rescue the civilians located there. It was unknown how contact was lost and reconnaissance flights detected no movement or signs of unusual activity. Nonetheless, we were to proceed with caution and Kasteen stressed that we weren't about to sacrifice men needlessly for a bunch of civvies who were too stupid to evacuate when given the order months ago. As callous as it may have sounded, if there were too many Orks we were to get the hell out of there and let the navy boys bomb the island into submission. Though not unheard of, Orks weren't known for taking prisoners.

There was sufficient room on the rooftops for the dropships to land and if there was a minor Ork presence (there is no such thing as a minor Ork presence) they had enough fuel to circle above and provide air support. Barring a massive catastrophe, we should be in and out in time for supper. Since we had little more than a location and a few faces to look out for when we arrived, there weren't many questions or areas that could be clarified. Once the briefing was over, Broklaw split the squad into two, giving me Penlan and two other troopers to take on one Valkyrie while he and Cain rode on the second one with the remaining troopers. I breathed a sigh of relief that I wouldn't have to sit in a cramped dropship with Broklaw and for a brief moment I thought that perhaps Cain's devious plan had hit an unexpected bump. But then I realized that Cain would have easily anticipated Broklaw's desire to avoid me as well and it was likely factored into his grand schemes already. I would be avoiding Broklaw but that meant Cain would have him as a captive audience for the duration of the flight, which was a far more troubling thought.

But I knew I couldn't dwell on issues outside my control so I carried on as normal. I was about to head to the dropship when I was intercepted by a Kriegan trooper. At first I thought it was just an accidental near-collision but when he spoke up I recognized the voice and realized this was intentional. "Um, excuse me Commissar...I'm sure you don't remember me but-"

"You're the trooper I ran into yesterday," I interrupted. He was surprised, and probably flattered, but likely didn't know that I was a fellow Kriegan and, as such, identified people more by voice than by face. "I don't suppose you found out who it was that slugged me."

"Oh, that? No. I didn't have any luck with that," he said reluctantly. I quickly got the impression that wasn't the reason he had sought me out. "But I overheard the briefing and I was wondering if you needed an extra gun. With the Orks in the densest parts of the jungle where the tanks can't traverse, my regiment has been sitting on its hands for weeks now." I could whole-heartedly understand his frustration; as part of an armoured regiment, he would be left to guard the cities and highways from an Ork threat that had long since backed away from attacking populated areas.

"What's your name?" I asked.

"Trooper Gustav," he responded. I knew there was something familiar about his voice beyond just our random encounter the night before but it hadn't crossed my mind that he had come from the same clone stock as Watz and Heilmit's former crewmate. The familiarity was nice even though this was technically a different person from the Gustav who died saving Commissar Cain. I figured if the guy went through all the trouble to find me just to volunteer for a mission, I may as well give him the opportunity.

"Very well then," I said before turning to my aide. "Take the afternoon off Watz."

"As you wish Commissar," he replied before heading back off. Handling more of the administrative stuff than his younger counterpart, I figured that Watz deserved a little break from his duties. It was no mystery that he did not enjoy the whole 'fighting and dying' aspect of Imperial Guard life so he jumped at the opportunity to sit out a mission with as little enthusiasm as he could keep from slipping out. Now I will immediately point out that Watz was by no means a coward or incompetent in a firefight – when given the order he would fight enemies that would make most soldiers think twice. Hell, he once fought off a guant using an empty rocket launcher and that was after firing it at point-blank range into a carnifex. Watz simply had his own set of ambitions, most of which involved retirement.

After Watz handed his spare ammo over to Gustav and gave him a friendly reminder that a painful death awaited him should anything happen to me, we got boarded the dropship and got settled in. "Hello Sergeant," I greeted coyly when I stepped onto the Valkyrie. Penlan immediately froze in her seat when addressed as though I were some sort of voracious predator ready to pounce at the slightest movement.

"H-hello Commissar," she replied, smiling as calmly as she could. We hadn't spoken or even been in the other's presence for more than a few moments since Penlan's clumsiness cost me my eye. Clearly she hadn't forgotten the incident either.

"Feeling good today?" I asked.

"Y-yes, Commissar."

"Good. That's very good," I nodded and continued on my way. I could have made her sweat in her boots a little more but the reaction I got was enough payback for me. I had gotten over the incident so perhaps Penlan would be able to let go of it too. Besides, I couldn't have Penlan glancing over her shoulder out of fear during the mission.

Along with my aide, Gustav, and Penlan, my half of the team also included Troopers Koobs (whose antics I mentioned earlier) and Baltik. I remember Baltik mostly because his placement on the disciplinary list was rather uncharacteristic of him. Normally he was a model soldier: efficient, brave, dedicated, and disciplined. His only vice, which we discovered recently, was a somewhat of an unchecked libido. It would have gone completely unnoticed had his latest sexual escapade not been interrupted when the husbands returned early. The ensuing fistfight forced Cain and I to take disciplinary actions against him.

Following advice from Cain, I sat in the seats closest to the cockpit, which were sealed from the passenger compartment but there was an intercom to allow easy communications between the two sections. The others clustered closer to the main door and I noticed that even though I sat at the far end, Heilmit immediately went for a seat next to Penlan. Judging by the sergeant's reaction, she seemed equally enthusiastic about the seating arrangement. As long as they remained focused on the mission I didn't care what they did in their spare time. The engines began to roar to life as the pilots did a quick vox check (which I overheard having switched to their vox channel). As the ship lurched upwards, I knew that we had just past the point of no return and if I had any lingering doubts about the mission, they wouldn't do me much good now. I could have probably jumped out the side door and landed without breaking anything but I was blissfully unaware of what was waiting for us so I merely made myself comfortable and listened to the inane pilot chatter during our hour-long flight.

I had a copy of the original mission briefing on a dataslate so I occupied myself with reading it several times over in hopes I could tweeze some new information out of it. Alas there wasn't anything that I hadn't read over before – names and descriptions of people reported staying at the residence (or at least the important people as I doubt that many rich people would be in a house together without a dozen servants at their disposal); descriptions of relics we should secure if possible; and a request to minimize property damage sprinkled a dozen times throughout the length of the briefing. Clearly, the man who sent this request in did not deal very much with the Imperial Guard, who basically made it their credence to flatten first and conquer later.

The flight was fairly quiet, in which I mean that very little happen. It was far from actually being quiet; between the churning of the engines and the two pilots having peculiar arguments over hypothetical battles between individuals who've never met and usually lived in entirely different centuries.

"Listen, O'Malkan has a recorded 110 duels, which he not only never lost but also never got injured," Argentus, the pilot of the Valkyris that Cain rode in, argued over the vox.

"O'Malkan spent most of his years fighting heretics who could be considered in the same category of swordsmen as a butcher," replied Celeste, the woman who piloted the craft I rode in. "Gaunt was ten times the swordsman." The two argued like a married couple and always about the most trivial of things, including a long one argument about how proper nouns shouldn't be allowed in games of Dictionarium.

"Okay then, well how about this: who'd win in a duel between Cain and Gaunt?"

"Now that is completely unfair," Celeste protested. "Don't make me choose between them."

"That's just cause you've got the hots for both of them."

"It's not my fault they're both dreamy." I imagined Cain was listening in as well and getting a kick out of the conversation, though he was probably used to such talk. The banter carried on for a few more minutes before Argentus, who was in the lead ship, announced that we were a few minutes from our destination. Troopers who had been slouching lazily for the ride immediately sat up straight and began performing final checks on their equipment. Though all signs suggested an uneventful mission, they were preparing for the possibility of off-loading under fire.

"There's our mansion," Argentus remarked. Unfortunately, from inside the cabin our only window was through the side doors, which were opened as our vessel slowed for its approach and the door gunners took their positions.

"Now that is big," Celeste commented with an impressed whistle. I managed to catch a glimpse as the ships circled above. To me, all ridiculously large mansions looked the same so what I saw didn't impress me that much. It had the usual sprawling gardens with trees and statues decorating the grounds; a massive stone pathway led from the exterior walls to the white-stoned stairs at the front; and a large domed capped the rooftop over the atrium with an angelic statue at the very peak. It had all the usual gothic symbols and decorations so to me it felt like any other Imperial building…just a whole lot bigger. "Don't see any signs of movement," she added.

The Valkyries circled above several more times, drawing closer with each pass. We figured if there were any Orks down below, the sight of two Imperial airships would draw them out in a heartbeat. The same would be true for any survivors but we saw no sign of life of any kind. The ships continued to slow down with the lateral thrusters firing up to provide lift and we were soon hovering about twenty meters above the rooftop. I unfastened my harness and carefully headed over to the side door to get a better look. While we saw no major structural damage on our first pass, I hoped a close inspection would provide more clues as to what happened. "Abel," Cain called me over the vox, "look over there at the southeast corner."

Following Cain's direction, I leaned out of the side door slightly to get a better look as our Valkyrie passed by the southeast corner. The first thing that caught my attention was the building's communication array. At the very top, I could just barely see that somebody had used the main relay dish for target practice. It was subtle – several fair-sized holes through the array with minimal damage to the surrounding structures. It was the kind of damage that would disable the array but would have been hard to see from a recon plane. "You think it could have been Orks?" I asked.

"Can't be," Celeste interjected (apparently Cain had not switched vox channels so we were still using the pilot's). "If there were Orks, that building would be riddled with holes."

"Nonetheless, take us in slowly and be careful," Cain instructed. "Broklaw's team will land on the southern rooftop; Abel's will use the northern and we'll rendezvous inside."

"Affirmative," Celeste acknowledged. "Making our approach."

I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. "I don't like this…something doesn't feel right," Cain commented idly, perhaps without even realizing he said it over the vox. At the time, I merely chalked it up to his usual cautious approach but as I have since learned, Cain's instincts were often on the mark.

"Hey, did you see something move?" the door gunner standing next to me spoke up. Unfortunately, I had been surveying the hundred or so windows that had a line of sight on us so I failed to catch any glimpse of movement. I was about to ask for clarification but that soon became pointless as the gunner suddenly exploded in a spray of blood and fleshy bits.

"Golden Throne! Break left! Break left!" I exclaimed as the sudden burst left me staggering back into the relative safety of the armoured cabin.

"What the frak just happened?" Celeste bellowed.

"Your starboard gunner just got fragged," I replied. She understandably let out a long string of profanities as the Valkyrie pulled away from the building as swung to bring its weapons to bear against whoever had fired upon us.

Just then, a lightning-like sound cut above the engines, followed by a bang and a thunderous crackle. It was the unmistakable sound of a high-powered laser weapon, though definitely not as clean or refined as an Imperial lascannon. The vox channel suddenly became flooded with flying jargon and the pilot's gunship training kicked into overdrive. "Argentus, report status and contacts" Celeste asked, trying to stay calm but failing gradually.

"Impact on port winglet no effect on controls," he replied. "West side of main structure, Gunner confirm."

"Confirmed west side dome framework," one of the door gunners answered. The two Valkyries continued pulling back from the building, which unfortunately obscured my view of what was transpiring.

"Movement," Argentus called out. "Confirmed greenskin."

"How many do you see?" Cain asked as he was stuck in the same windowless boat as me.

"Single contact I say again Single," his pilot replied. "Turning to engage; visual; going hot" The Valkyrie opened fire at the dome, pelting it with several volleys from its lascannons and rocket pods. I wasn't sure if they were aware of it but I knew for certain that whoever killed the gunner next to me was not using any sort of energy weapon, which meant there were still enemies unaccounted for (one of whom was a very good shot). "Breaking left; clear of target, Celeste confirm strike."

" Negative results, target visible, commencing run; going hot" Celeste replied.

"Roger, turning left climbing to cherubs 1, watch for wires on exit " Argentus announced. Somebody probably should have interjected at that point, especially Cain or myself, but as far as we were aware, there were only a couple of Orks to deal with. Surely a few Valkyries would have enough firepower to handle them. The other Valkyrie pulled away, circling the rooftop and waiting for its turn to lay down a hailstorm of bolter rounds upon the Ork. Cautiously, I once more leaned my head out the side door and could look ahead to see what was happening overtop of the mansion. The level of profanities skyrocketed once more and in the distance I could see gunfire coming from the rooftops. "Shit! Where did all these Orks come from?"

"Cut the chatter and report" Celeste shouted.

"Multiple greenies; east rooftop, rolling in astern; visual; going hot." he replied before strafing the rooftop with rockets. In hindsight, I should have realized that a pilot's definition of 'a few handfuls' was quite different from a soldier's. For them, a dozen Orks was hardly a concern when you had eight dozen rockets at your disposal but the same number was very problematic for a single squad of infantry.

"Uhh…Celeste," spoke the other door gunner in our Valkyrie, "We got multiple greenskins visual, 5 o'clock treeline; engaging." And as if to accentuate his point, small arms fire began to ping and clang off the hull while his heavy bolter responded in kind. Looking down I could see a dozen or so Orks running out of the forests firing their guns wildly at us. I promptly tucked back into the cabin – their crude guns wouldn't hurt the vessel but I didn't want to be the unlucky bastard who stuck their head out the window and catch a round. I quickly ordered Gustav to take the heavy bolter, knowing his clone stock's propensity to stand and fight when most would duck. He was eager to please and joined in on raining explosive-tipped death upon the Orks.

"Remind me to thank the intelligence staff for their excellent report. Report ammo status and fuel remaining when able," Argentus remarked as his Valkyrie performed another lateral strafing run against a pack of rooftop Orks. "Seventy percent remaining with one plus 35 fuel. I got…20 mikes. Rolling in, going hot." As I peaked out, I saw the Valkyrie suddenly become barraged with heavy weapons fire, including several lascannons. Smoke began billowing from the starboard engine and another explosion stuck the port side, silencing the heavy bolter there.

"Break right! Break right. Get the frak outta there Argentus," Celeste ordered as she closed in to fire a salvo of rockets in support.

Someone called out "Power loss number two thruster, check for fire" followed quickly by a statement of staggering clarity, "we need to be elsewhere." I was still leaning out the side door when a shot struck the side of the cockpit, shattering one of the windows in a very unsettling show of glass and blood.

"Seph? Seph! Shit…my co-pilot been hit," Celeste explained as the Valkyrie spun about to try and protect the cockpit from more ground fire. Whoever was behind the sights of that weapon was not just an extremely good shot (which is virtually unheard of for an Ork) but was packing serious firepower to punch through a reinforced cockpit window.

Just then I heard that lightning-like crack again but this time the following explosion was significantly louder. Concern overrode my sense of self-preservation and I took the chance to glance out of the cabin once more. What I saw left me speechless: the other Valkyrie's starboard engine was spewing flames now and the ship began to lose altitude and bank to the side. The pilot's shouts of distress were equally discouraging. "Fire number two! Brace, brace, brace!"

Were it flying horizontally at full speed, a single engine could keep a Valkyrie airborne for a fair amount of time. However when they are low, slow and heavy, the loss of an engine meant losing all lift on one side of the ship. As the Valkyrie vainly tried to claw its way back into the sky, it began rolling onto its side. The lift from the port thruster pushing it laterally and once the ship had rolled ninety degrees it fell like a dropped anvil. It crashed into the mansion dome, sending up a shower of rockrete and dust as it cascaded through the floors and walls. It disappeared from sight as it was swallowed up by dust and the surrounding building but no subsequent explosion tore through the building, which meant that the fuel tanks hadn't erupted…yet.

"Broklaw…" I muttered weakly as the gravity of the situation began to sink in.

"Shit!" Celeste cursed. "Okay this has gotten personal." And to emphasis the point, another salvo of rockets streaked towards the building. "Commissar…we need a plan and we need it fast."

We had lost one Valkyrie and potentially everyone on board and I was riding in a damaged Valkyrie that had already lost half its crew. Officially, the orders were to pull out if resistance was too heavy but I couldn't abandon the others when there was still a chance they could be alive. Even if it were a slim chance, Cain and Broklaw were far more vital to the survival of the regiment than anyone aboard my Valkyrie.

"Cain's ship just went down," I said as I turned to the other troopers. Everybody gazed at me in shock, mouths open but words failing them. "Standing orders are to pull back and abandon the mission but…I'm not going to shoot anybody for wanting to disobey that order. What say you guys?" They said nothing. There were no needs for words as their faces hardened with determination and each one gripped their weapons firmly in preparation. It was unanimous thankfully so at least I didn't need to feel bad if any of them died because of my next order. "Okay Celeste, take us in hard and fast. We'll tap off and you pull out to a safe distance. Wait for us as long as you can but if you can't get back to base as fast as you can and get some reinforcements down here."

"Roger that," Celeste replied. She sounded just as eager to launch a rescue as we were, though her reasons were unknown to me at the time.

The engine's kicked up, almost knocking me off my feet as we accelerated towards the mansion. She emptied salvo after salvo of rockets as she attempted to clear off as much of the northern rooftop as she could before bringing us down. There were still Orks advancing towards the Valkyrie when it finally came to a halt. The door gunner started cutting them down with ease. "Okay people, let's hit it!" I shouted as I leapt out the side door. I made the mistake of not looking before I leapt, I hadn't realized how high the Valkyrie was until I fell about five feet to the rooftop. Penlan and the others followed close behind, firing their lasguns and shouting encouragement as we pressed forward. Between our concentrated lasfire and the supporting heavy bolter, the Orks remained Orks on the rooftop didn't last very long. We made good progress across the rooftop, reaching the stairwell as our Valkyrie lifted off. We were officially on our own now, surrounded by Emperor knows how many Orks to rescue comrades who we weren't even sure were still alive. Once again, I was failing Basic Planning 101.

To be continued...