Part 2

Heilmit and Koobs took point, rapidly covering and advancing, while I sat in the center with Gustav and Penlan beside me and Baltik taking up the rear. Thankfully, the crashing Valkyrie did not knock out our stairwell and it was clear of Orks so we quickly descended to the ground floor where hopefully the dropship's wreckage should be. "I hear gunfire!" Heilmit said with excitement. If there was gunfire and it wasn't directed at us, then it meant that somebody had to be alive and fighting at the crashed Valkyrie. We found the dropship as expected in the atrium where it had carved out a five-story high hole through the building's façade and crashed through four floors before dropping into the two-story atrium and landing square in the center. It was smoking but there didn't appear to be any danger of detonation aside from the fact that a dozen Orks were firing haphazardly at it. It is hard to describe the sense of relief I felt when I saw red flashes of lasfire coming from the depths of the wreckage and from a quick tally at least three or four shooters were still fighting. The Orks had set up on the far side of the wreckage, some hanging back and firing madly through the smoke, while most of the other Orks were trying to rush in on the wreck and being cut down by concentrated lasfire.

"Set up a defensive perimeter, move, move, move!" Penlan shouted as we rushed into action. The troopers began taking up firing positions behind the wreckage while I scampered overtop and dropped in through the side door (as the Valkyrie was laying on its side).

"I shouldn't complain but what in the warp are you people still doing here?" Cain asked when he saw me drop into the cabin. Aside from a few cuts and bruises, a fine layer of rockrete dust, and a faint smoky scent, he appeared to be okay, which was a lot more than what could be said about two of the troopers who had been riding on the vessel. Jurgen and the third trooper were close by, firing out the Valyrie's back door, but there was no sign of the Major.

"Saving your arse, isn't that obvious?" I remarked. "Where's Broklaw?"

"He fell through the flooring," Cain answered, pointing to the other side door on what was now the floor. The wing of the Valkyrie had punched through the floor, tearing an opening straight into the basement levels. But the debris must have shifted during the crash because the only openings I could see were barely able to fit a person through. "Plus the pilot's injured and he's stuck inside the cockpit."

"Anybody else make it?" I asked before calling Heilmit on the vox and ordering him to work on freeing the pilot. Thankfully, the cockpit was on the side that we had approached so he was able to work free of harassment to pry the cockpit hatch open. Unfortunately, there were no other survivors from the crash and Heilmit's status report moments didn't reassure me much either – the pilot had a badly injured leg so getting him out of here would be difficult.

"I assume you have an escape plan."

"If we can get back to the rooftop, our Valkyrie should still be close enough to pick us up quickly. Otherwise, we just hold the rooftop until help arrives," I explained as I instinctively ducked when a round panged off the metal framework over my head. The Valkryie was providing excellent cover for the moment but we would be surrounded soon if we didn't get moving, not to mention I didn't want to be anywhere near it should a stray round hit a leaking fuel tank.

"Then I suggest we get moving."

Normally, I couldn't have agreed more and I was just as anxious to leave as Cain was but I knew I couldn't leave without Broklaw. When I mentioned that, Cain agreed but was hard-pressed to find a workable solution. Most people would have just cut and run but Cain wasn't like that and he'd likely have us fight to the last man in order to find the major. Upon a closer examination, it appeared as though there would be enough space for me to squeeze through. "You get everybody up to the rooftop," I said to Cain. "I'll go down and find Broklaw and catch up to you guys."

"I can't just let you run off on your own," Cain replied.

"Well unless you've got a better idea or a cutting laser, this is the best option available to us." I had a point and Cain knew it so he ceased his objections and I wormed my way through the gaps in the broken floor. It was an extremely tight fit even for my tiny frame and I had to wriggle my way through broken wood panels, shattered rockrete, twisted metal beams, and a heaping mess of wires and piping. I had almost made it through when my greatcoat got snagged in some of the debris. Of course, I didn't notice the snag until it wound up pulling my coat above my head. "Gah…Emperor's blood, why does this always happen to me?" I cursed as I tugged on my coat.

"Hello? Is somebody up there?" I heard a voice from below. It was definitely the Major.

"I'm coming down Broklaw, just hold on!" I shouted in response as I began tugging harder in hopes of freeing myself. Well, I did free myself but it wasn't in the manner that I had anticipated. The broken rockrete I was using for footing gave way and as I fell I somehow slipped free from my coat. I plummeted the rest of the way, dropping from the ceiling as though the building had spat me out…and landing right on the Major. Thankfully there was no shattering of vertebral columns this time.

"A little more warning next time," Broklaw groaned.

"I'm going to be feeling that one in the morning," I added before rolling off of the major. We slowly got back to our feet, dazed but otherwise unharmed.

"What the hell are you doing down here anyways?"

"Rescuing you, what does it look like?" I snapped. Despite the relief I felt seeing Broklaw alive, the resentment and bitterness from our last encounter was still lingering and I could tell that he had mixed feelings about me being the one to rescue him.

"Just you?"

"Yes - just me. Do you think anybody else's arse is tiny enough to fit through that hole?"

"I'm just surprised you could fit your head through," he scoffed in response.

"My head is not big, my hair is just poofy! It's what you get when you shower regularly Mr Trench Lurker!"

"Golden Throne, you are so damned immature. First I get dragged into this mess because of you and now I have to expect you to help get me out of this!"

"I could just shoot you and say I found you dead," I suggested though even in my anger I would never be able to carry out such a threat. Despite the overwhelming urge at many points in my life, I can't recall any instances where I've shot somebody purely out of anger – survival, interrogation, revenge, yes…but never anger. I've hit people plenty of times in my rage but it's rarely ever elevated above a solid pistol-whipping, which is usually enough to sate my rage. Striking Broklaw, however, did not seem like a prudent move.

"I'd like to see you try," he challenged. But thankfully, before I could do something rash like provoke him further, a loud banging noise from a nearby door drew our attention. At first I thought it might have been something to do with the crashed Valkyrie above us but when we heard that distinct warcry, we knew that we were in trouble. All the shouting must have led them straight to us. "Now look what you've done."

"Me? You're the one who yelled first!"

"Except you shrieked when you landed on me!"

"That doesn't count because you didn't start shouting until later."

Arguing while there were Orks trying to bash their way through the only thing keeping them at bay was not the brightest move on our parts…but passions and heated arguments had a way of overriding better judgment. Fortunately, we both smartened up when another strike against the door almost knocked it off its hinges and it became evident it would not survive another hit. "How about we get out of here, then we can focus on killing each other?" I suggested as I drew my laspistol. He nodded and took his bolt pistol in hand just as the final blow was dealt against the door and it flew from its frame. The first Ork came barreling in just in time to be met by a barrage of lasbolts and bolter rounds as did the Orks who followed close behind.

"I hope you know the way out," Broklaw said as we ran past the Orks and into the basement corridors. The passages were fairly narrow, which would work to funnel any other Orks we ran into but that meant there was little cover if they fired back. Even a poorly aimed round would ricochet off the walls until eventually finding either Broklaw or I. There were only sparse piping and periodic luminator orbs to stop any potential bullets and I wasn't keen on leaving my safety to luck.

Trying to remember as much of the building's layout as possible, I unfortunately drew a lot of blanks when it came to the basement. All I could remember were a lot of store rooms, narrow corridors, a few stairwells up, and the fact that it was a lot more expansive than the building above. However, I wasn't about to admit fault in front of Broklaw so I just said as confidently as I could that we should head left. He didn't quite buy it but he probably didn't want to admit he was at a bit of a loss too. So the clueless led the clueless and we hurried down the hall just in case more Orks were on their way. Even as we ran for our lives, we fell right back into our argument – he accused me of being childish, I accused him of being ignorant blockhead. Various insults were tossed back and forth with increasing aggravation and the temptation to give him a swift kick in the nards became almost overwhelming.

Unfortunately, the path I had chosen proved to be an arduous one as several times we were spotted by roving bands of Orks and were forced to change directions. After several unexpected detours, I wasn't sure which direction we were going anymore and I most certainly did not know that we were heading straight into a dead-end, at least not until we hit it.

"Well frak," I cursed when the truth became self-evident.

"Aptly put," Broklaw, for once, agreed. Doubling back, unfortunately, was not an option as Orks became to appear down the corridor. As I started taking shots to try and slow their advance, Broklaw managed to find a ventilation shaft and began prying the cover off. "We can go through here," he said when he finally pulled the vent cover off.

"In there?" I said incredulously. "You're insane." Technically, Broklaw wasn't and he did have the only escape option available. The problem for me, however, was the choice of escape route. For those who may have forgotten, tight, narrow spaces and I did not go well together. I had a slight case of claustrophobia, which was bizarre considering I grew up in underground bunkers on Krieg…but that was the case. I didn't go completely off the rails when packed into a tight space or the back of a crowded chimera but a ventilation shaft was definitely pushing it. However, when a bullet ricocheted off the pipe near my head, my fears began to re-prioritize themselves and suddenly the idea of being stuck inside a cramped space wasn't as overwhelming as the thought of being chopped into squig kibble. "Nevermind, let's go!" I yelped as I dove into the air vent.

It was as tight, dark, and narrow as I had feared but it meant the Orks couldn't follow. As long as I kept my eyes forward and didn't think about walls closing in on me, I would be okay…at least I hoped I would. As Broklaw and I scampered deeper and deeper into the air ducts, the light grew darker and soon I could barely see more than a few feet ahead of me and the only light was what came through small openings in the sides that were too small for us to escape through. I knew I just had to focus on putting one hand in front of the other. If Broklaw said anything I did not hear it as I was too focused on not flipping out entirely. My heart was racing in my chest and my breaths were growing shorter and more rapid. I had to keep it together but I was close to my breaking point. I didn't even realize at first that I was muttering 'just keep moving' to myself over and over again. Unfortunately, fixating on the singular notion of moving forward meant overlooking the small but significant things around you, such as the flimsy grating I was crawling across. A small side vent connecting to ours extended downwards and had been covered only by a thin grating, which broke free and fell the moment I put my weight on it. By some small miracle, the instinctual response to flail my limbs actually helped as my arms and legs pressed against the vent walls and slowed my decent enough that I didn't break my neck when I landed head first at the bottom. However, the new awkward and highly uncomfortable situation quickly made me wish I had.

The good news was that I had managed to find an exit and was now staring, albeit upside-down, out a vent covering that was large enough for me to squeeze through. The bad news, however, was that the awkward position I had landed in had pinned one arm behind my head and the other against my side as well as pinning one knee against my chest. In other words, I was stuck. Not just a little bit stuck but 'they'll find my bones still wedged in this position' stuck.

"Abel, are you okay?"

"Get me the frak out of here!" I hollered back in what was probably not the politest way to respond to somebody's genuine concern. He probably mistook my response as residual frustrations as opposed to what the truth, which was that I was beginning to lose it. Focusing on moving and a direction kept the anxieties at bay but stuck upside-down I had nothing else to think of other than the tiny space I had been unceremoniously dropped into.

"I'll see if I can find a way down. Just stay calm and hold on," he called back. I doubt he realized the futility of trying to tell me to stay calm because I was doing the exact opposite. The echo from his crawling began to grow fainter as he continued on without me, leaving me trapped and alone inside an air vent. My heart felt like it was about to pop out of my chest at any moment and any hope of preserving reputation or dignity went up faster than a grain silo doused in promethium.

"Okay Ariel…just gotta stay calm," I muttered weakly in hopes of delaying the inevitable. Fear and anxiety began welling up and my chest tightened as the pressure started to become too great. "I just…I just need to get out of here. I have to get out of here. I…I have to get out! Somebody…somebody get me out of here! Help me! I need to get out!" As fear spread through my mind like a poison, I shouted, I shrieked, I panicked, and I cried and did anything I could that bore some semblance of escaping, which amounted to kicking at the side of the vent with my only free limb as if I could somehow break the wall open with one foot. Unfortunately, when panic sets in, anything can seem logical in the heat of the moment. As my panic grew worse, the tightness in my chest began making it harder to breath; I was hyperventilating and it quickly felt like suffocation. Finally, after what felt like an eternity too long, I saw boots heading towards the vent and seconds later the grate covering was pried from its holding.

By the time Broklaw managed to pull me free, I was barely able to get any breath in; I was feeling faint and light-headed and was close to fainting. Broklaw kept saying something to me but those moments are hazy at best. What I do remember is that he had his arms around and held me against his chest. I could hear the strong, rhythmic beating of his heart, his deep, slow breaths coaxing mine to follow suit. In what felt like hours (but was actually a little under a minute), my breathing normalized and my heart finally calmed down. Panic subsided and released its toxic grip on my mind. Of course, it was then that the horrid realization dawned upon me that Broklaw had just witnessed his regimental commissar screaming and panicking like a greenhorn. A man for whom I had just spent the last day and a half making his life and career my personal latrine, now had the power to destroy my career as a commissar. Hell, he could get me sent to a penal legion. I just did what I was supposed to shoot other people for doing and now I had to hope that Broklaw didn't feel that turn-around was fair game.

"Feeling a bit better now Ariel?" he asked cautiously as his arms loosened their hold on me.

"I…I think so," I said weakly. It took a few moments for me to realize that I had a handful of his uniform shirt still clenched tightly in my fist but once I did I released it with all due haste. A deep, pervasive sense of shame overwhelmed me. I had stood against Orks, Tau, and traitorous soldiers without so much as flinching and here I was reduced to a quivering mess because of a simple rectangular pipe of sheet metal. "Ruput, I…"

"We should save the talks for later," he interrupted while helping me back to my feet. He had a point, of course, the situation was far from resolved and it was hardly an appropriate time for a conversation that required a more delicate approach. Plus, he might have done that as a favor, to give me time to collect my thoughts for later. "We need to get moving…I'm pretty sure half the basement probably heard you shouting." At that moment, almost as if on cue, a gunshot rang out and a bullet struck the wall just past us – there was always an Ork around at the worst possible. The room we were in was small with only the door that Broklaw came in and a large, heavy door beside us. I drew my laspistol and began firing through the open door while Broklaw slammed the door's control runes and sealed it shut, at least for the moment. Neither of us expected that the door would last long against a mob of angry Orks but it would buy us some time. He hurried to the control panel for the heavier door, which should buy us more time once we got on the other side, but an unexpected bout of profanity brought about a sense of dread.

"What's wrong?" I asked as I rushed to his side.

"You need a passcode to get this door open!" Broklaw said. Sure enough, upon a brief inspection the door's control panel had a numeric keypad, which meant there was no hope of us getting through it in the time we had left. It dawned upon me that we were probably in front of one of the home owner's many vaults and the tiny room we stood in was meant to control the flow of traffic into said vault. If we had merely held our ground instead of closing the door, we might have been able to fight through the Orks but as the pounding behind us suggested, the Orks were now at the door and opening it now would be certain death. There were less than three feet and a flimsy metal door between us and the Orks. It would only be a few minutes before that door gave way and we'd be decorating some nob's trophy rack. I know people often complimented me for having a good head on my shoulders but I wasn't sure if I wanted to have it mounted on the end of a stick. "Well, I guess this is it," Broklaw sighed reluctantly as he drew his bolt pistol and chainsword. "Maybe we'll get lucky and the first one through will have grenades on him we can shoot…"

"At this range, if the shrapnel didn't kill us, the concussive blast would rupture our aorta," I pointed out but drew my laspistol nonetheless. I might as well go down fighting. "I hope Cain and the others have reached the rooftop at least."

"You really think they'd leave without us?"

"Knowing Cain…probably not, even though he should," I sighed reluctantly. With all the rockrete around us, the comm-bead's range was too weak without the assistance of a vox caster. Cain probably thought we were still on our way and would likely hold his ground until they arrived. But that wasn't what was on my mind. "Listen, Ruput…about what happened back on Adumbria…"

"Is now really a good time for that?"

"No but it's probably the only time we've got," I replied. "I just wanted to say that you're right about me not being able to let it go. And…what happened wasn't a mistake. Okay, it sorta was…well, I mean to say is that kissing you probably wasn't the right choice to make but what I felt and why I did it - those weren't mistakes."

"Ariel, I-"

"Please…just let me finish," I insisted even though a part of me really wanted to hear what he had to say before we were killed. "I've always accepted the fact that being a woman in the commissariat meant often attracting attention for all the wrong reasons. I was prepared for that. But that night at the Governor's palace, when I was with you I didn't feel like a commissar. I just felt…honestly, I'm not actually sure what I felt like but…I liked it. And you still make me feel like I'm not just a commissar to you. I guess I should probably also apologize for being a complete bitch to you yesterday…I saw you with that tart and I figured you had moved on and I was just an afterthought to you or, worse yet, that I was just an attempt at bragging rights like some other officers I've met in the past. I guess I'm just horribly insecure about those sort of things…I'm so used to either being ignored or being the center of attention for all the wrong reasons that I just don't really know how to handle the attention I want to keep." An awkward silence set upon the room, except for the constant pounding on the door by the mob of Orks who sought to kill the mood as fast as us. Broklaw and I just stared at each other, both unsure of what to say next. I imagine this was situation neither of us ever expected to be in. "Okay, this is the part where you can talk now," I remarked.

"Oh…right, sorry," he apologized. He seemed hesitant, likely from uncertainty. He probably talked about his feelings about as much as he talked about how the green of his uniform brought out the gray tones of his eyes (okay, I was probably the only person who ever noticed that). "I guess what I want to say is…"

Unfortunately, he was cut-off by a sudden, loud creaking noise from the door. However, it wasn't the door that the Orks were trying to break down but rather the heavy metal door beside us. It slowly slid open and on the other side was him of all people.



My eyes weren't deceiving me – it really was Cain standing on the other side of the vault door, along with Penlan and the rest of the troops. I was about to ask the obvious 'why' but then the other door started to give way and we were all reminded why we were running in the first place. The Major and I pushed past Cain and we quickly sealed the door behind us. The door was several inches thick of solid metal extending straight into the rockrete walls – it'd take some heavy demolition charges to crack through it so we knew we were safe for the time being.

"I don't know how you managed to find us Cain but your timing couldn't have been better," Broklaw said. "But what you doing down here?"

"Well as much as I'd hate to admit it, it wasn't to find you two," Cain said reluctantly. As if to answer the mystery, a loud, heavy banging sound emanated from the far side of the room and Broklaw and I realized that he was actually in the same boat as we were. "Our escape routes were blocked off so we went the only way we could and…well, we wound up here." Without even trying, our two parties had managed to run smack into each other and were now stuck between two mobs of angry Orks inside a vault with only two exits.

"How are the rest of you holding up?" I asked as I looked to the troops behind Cain.

"We lost Baltik when we tried to get to the stairs," Penlan explained. "Other than that we're okay so far." At first I wondered how I didn't notice the discrepancy in the head count but then I realized that I had forgotten to take the Valkyrie's pilot into account, who was currently being laid down against the wall by Koobs.

"Well, we could just wait here until reinforcements arrive," Broklaw suggested. It was true that we had a well-defended position in the vault, not to mention the doors would keep the Orks out for a long time but we had no idea when or if help was coming. And even if it did come, 'help' could be in the form was a several-hundred pound warhead, which wouldn't help our situation very much.

"Maybe there's something in here we can use," I commented as I took stock of our surroundings. The part of the briefing about the nobleman being an avid collector was a bit of an understatement. The walls were lined with statues, paintings, and various pieces of art that looked about as old as the Imperium. Some were small, simple vases with intricate carvings and paintings along their surfaces; others were towering statues of the Primarchs and the Emperor. Unfortunately, from where I stood the only things remotely close to weapons were some antique lasguns that looked as old as the statues beside them. Even if they did work we needed something with more punch. Where was a damned Astartes when you needed one?

"On the bright side, at least we won't go thirsty," Heilmit commented from the far side of the room, holding what appeared to be a crystal bottle. He stood next to a whole wall that was lined with bottles, which must have been part of the nobleman's supposed vintage liquor collection. "Sweet Emperor, this bottle is older than all of us put together."

"Ace! Crack it open, I wanna try some," Gustav said he tried to take the bottle from his comrade. Thankfully, my aide had better sense than to hand over a five-hundred year old bottle of amasec to an over-eager trooper. I doubt the nobleman would be thrilled that the soldiers sent to save his property helped themselves to some of it but at the same time we were close to dying for it (and some of us already had) so I wasn't feeling any sympathy for the nobleman's potential losses. Plus a bit of liquid morale might be good considering what we were up against. Cain must have been thinking along the same lines because he walked over to Heilmit and took the bottle from him. However, he set it back in its slot and then began to browse through the collection before taking out another bottle and the borrowing a knife from one of the troopers.

"Given the mission parameters, I suspect that help will likely not be coming for us," Cain said as he popped the cork from the bottle using the knife. "I, for one, have no desire to sit down here and wait for what may or may not come. Our best chances are to try and break through the Orks and make for the rooftops as before. I know it's risky but we're just as likely to die waiting down here. So while I think this might be a bit unorthodox, you'll have to excuse me if I plan to have my last call here and now. So here's to our fallen comrades and the hopes that we don't meet up with them any time soon." With that, he raised the bottle and took a quick swig of the contents before handing it off to Heilmit. "Just don't drink too much that you can't shoot straight anymore. Oh…and obviously don't tell the Colonel about this. I doubt she would approve of it."

The drink definitely helped with morale and I was glad to see that the troops were conservative and kept their share to a minimum. We did, after all, still had a lot of fighting left to go if we were to make it out of her alive. It was always important to keep a trooper's mind focused on something other than the prospect of their imminent death but when that wasn't possible, then the next best thing was to give them something that would at least let them feel more prepared to meet their end – hence why the cooks often served the best meal the night before the big offensive.

"See anything useful?" Cain asked me while the bottle was being passed around.

"Not unless one of these statues can come to life," I said with a heavy sigh. I cast my gaze to one statue, that of the famous Primarch Regal Dorn, and wished that we could have a just even a tiny fraction of the strength that he possessed. Just then the general silence (save for the constant door pound) was broken by a sudden crack of ionized air as a lasgun went off. It was a single shot but everybody sprung to attention to figure out what just transpired. The first thought that crossed my mind was that one of our troopers did not have the will to go through with Cain's plan and decided death by their own hands was preferable to the Orks.

However, a few moments later there was a reassuring call from one of the back corners of the room, "Sorry! That was me!" shouted Penlan. Cain and I hurried over to where her voice came from and we found Heilmit and Penlan, both looking thoroughly embarrassed. "S-sorry Commissars. We were just…uh, talking and then…umm…"

"As long as nobody got hurt," Cain said, shaking his head in disbelief.

"Or an eye," I added in a quiet mutter.

"Nobody except that statue," Heilmit said jokingly as he pointed to a large, headless statue nearby. I noticed the statue looked rather odd in the way it was damaged, as the head appeared to have been taken clean off despite the fact that a lasgun didn't possess that amount of power. Cain looked around for the head, which thankfully didn't travel very far. What was most surprising, however, was that it was seemingly intact and upon closer inspection we realized, with great of elation, that this wasn't a statue.

"Golden Throne…" Cain muttered as he looked to the 'statue' that it had fallen from. "This is power armour." At first I had trouble believing it and were the evidence not in front of me, I wouldn't have. But there it was…towering amidst the statues and antiquities was this ancient weapon of war. How the nobleman got his hands on I couldn't say but perhaps during the Golden Age of the Imperium such suits were slightly more commonplace. It was significantly smaller than the kind worn by space marines but it bore the same style of aquila and skull motifs, giving it a slightly regal appearance. Perhaps it once belonged to a Governor or a King.

"Wait a second," Heilmit said, voicing the disbelief of the other troopers who quickly gathered around us. "You mean like…Astartes power armour?"

"It's definitely power armour," I agreed. "But this isn't the kind used by Astartes. This model of armour is meant for normal humans."

"Does it even still work?" Penlan asked.

"Most power armour is older than that bottle we just drank," Cain explained with a smirk. "These things are built to last including the power cells but…does anybody here actually know how to properly operate this thing?"

Quietly, I raised my hand and tried to contain the overwhelming sense of pride I got from being the only person in the room who had any experience with power armour. I'm pretty sure I was grinning like an idiot. "You remember my friend back at the Schola I've mentioned before, Verity? I probably didn't mention the part where she was Adepta Sororitas. After the countless number of times I've had to help her put on her damn suit of training armour, I probably knew the system better than she did. All power armour runs off the same basic operating principles. It'll be a bit tricky to move the pieces without any heavy equipment but if we all work together, we should be able to get somebody suited up in it."

"Well who should get the armour?" Heilmit voiced the question on everybody's mind. However, everybody also had the same first thought and all eyes turned to Cain. He was reluctant at first but it was likely just his modesty and after I reassured him that I could get him properly equipped, he was all for the plan.

Now there were a number of differences between Astartes-grade power armour and standard power armour. Both had similar designs, builds, and ridiculously large pauldrons, but standard power armour wasn't nearly as powerful, bulky, or as durable and it moved significantly slower. There's likely something unique in marine armour that works with the wearer to improve speed and response times, which is what makes a space marine that much more potent than a regular bloke in comparable armour. Despite its smaller size, it still took the six of us a lot of grunting and lifting to get the armour into its base components but thankfully these suits were designed to be removable in the field since it would be very impractical to wear a suit of armour that needed a team of mechanics just to take off.

"Now remember Cain, at first this thing will feel like it weighs a tonne but that's just because the power hasn't kicked it. Once it does, the suit will move along with you. It's important to relax and not try to fight against the armour," I explained as Cain lowered himself into the lower half of the armour. It took four of us to get the chest armour in place but that was the hardest part. From there, it was a relatively simpler task of attaching the armour on the arms and fitting the power pack into place. Thankfully, Heilmit had enough technical knowledge to know how to hook up the power couplings. After a few more minutes of hooking, snapping, and tightening pieces into place, Commissar Cain was now a full-armoured warrior…as if he wasn't a fearsome enough warrior as it were. "So how does it feel?"

"It chafes a bit," Cain said jokingly. I signaled for Heilmit to activate the suit's power core and a soft humming sounded as power flowed through its circuits for the time in decades. The ocular lenses of the helmet lit up and after a few moments, Cain began to move. He took a few steps, then flexed his arms and did a few squats. "Feels a bit…sluggish," he reported.

"Slight trade-off for the extra armour and power," I replied.

"Commissar Abel," Penlan's voice called out, drawing everyone's attention over to her. She didn't help much in getting Cain prepared but I hadn't given any thought of what she was doing until then. "I found another suit of power armour!"

While one suit of armour gave us hope for survival, a second one would give us a fighting chance. I was about to follow Penlan to the suit when a thought crossed my mind and I instead turned to Broklaw. "You should probably take this suit," I suggested. "You need the extra protection more than anybody else here."

"Like hell I do," he replied in his typical blunt fashion. "I can take care of myself just fine. If you're so concerned about my protection then you take it and clear a path for the rest of us alongside Cain."

"Since when did you let a girl do all the heavy lifting for you?" I said coyly.

"Since the armour is clearly meant for one," he replied and directed my attention to where Penlan was standing. Hidden amongst the statues was a second suit of power armour but this was a model used by the Adepta Sororitas, the Sisters of Battle. I would have to trim off forty or fifty pounds worth of meat and bone off Broklaw if I wanted to fit him into one of those suits of power armour and even then it would look absolutely ridiculous on him.

"Penlan…you could have mentioned it was a woman's suit," I said as we gathered around the power armour. Adepta Sororitas armour was even more compact than the suit of power armour Cain was wearing but while it lacked the same level of strength augmentation, it did offer just as much protection.

"Heh, now that's craftsmanship," Gustav commented, gawking at the suit's anatomically incorrect chest plate (emphasis on the 'chest' part). Simultaneously Penlan and I reached out and smacked the trooper upside the head.

I was going to suggest the armour go to Penlan but before I could get a debate started there came a loud, grinding noise from one of the doors. At first we saw nothing but soon a circular blade began to pierce through the metal frame, sending a flurry of sparks into the room as it began cutting its way around the frame. We all knew it was only a matter of time before they started to use their brain. "Okay, if nobody has any complaints I nominate Abel to wear the second suit," Broklaw said hastily. "All in favour?" Everybody's hand shot up. "Good - time to get suited up Commissar."

"Fine but if I catch anyone staring I'm revoking weekend passes," I grumbled as I started unbuttoning my shirt. I doubt Cain had any issue about stripping down to his skivvies to get into his suit of power armour but I was far more reluctant to strip down in front of the others. If it weren't for the threat of impending death, I would have argued with them further. With Cain doing most of the heavy lifting, I was able to suit up quickly in the black and silver power armour.

"Did anybody see a helmet for this thing?" Gustav asked as we were making the final adjustments. The Orks were almost through the door so one could understand the sense of urgency he held in his tone.

"I don't think it comes with one," I remarked. I was actually partly grateful for the fact since the last thing I needed was to feel as though I was in a giant, iron sarcophagus. On a better day I would be able to stomach my anxieties for a short period but the incident in the vents had taken a toll on my nerves and I didn't want to test them again so soon. I was almost suited up but unfortunately the Orks were making good progress through the door. The heavy grinder was almost half-way finished but that didn't stop others from grabbing at the cut portions and prying the metal back like they were peeling the lid from a ration tin. As the door began to open up, an Ork stuck his ugly head in as if he could will the rest of his giant body through the tiny hole. The Ork immediately caught an explosive shotgun round right in the kisser. It burst open like a ripe melon full of blood and bone (and brain I suppose…if they actually have anything in there). Heilmit, riding high on his fresh kill, raced over to the door and shoved his shotgun through the opening and fired off the remaining shells into whoever was on the other side. After he finished his assault with a frag grenade through the opening, anybody left on the other side of the door would be thinking twice about trying to bust through.

"Nice work there Spike," I congratulated. Those congratulations, however, were premature as the Orks at the other door had devised their own means of breaching; theirs involved a liberal application of high explosives so we were all surprised when a sudden bang shook the room and the door flew from its frame.

"Hold them off!" Broklaw ordered as the troopers quickly fell into a firing line. Concentrated lasgun fire kept the Orks from pouring in but numbers were on their side. "Help hold them off Cain. I can handle the rest from here." With all the heavy pieces in place, Cain was free to provide support. He nodded and closed the visor of his helmet, which was appropriately decorated with a skull-like faceplate. With chainsword in hand, the armoured Commissar charged into the Ork lines, cleaving through them with powerful, augmented swings. "Okay…I think it's all set to go," he said. The power armour still felt cold and heavy for a moment but as the old power cells began to warm back up, I could feel the load beginning to lessen. After a few seconds, I was able to move easily so I quickly moved to assist Cain. I scooped up the first fallen Ork weapon I could find, which just happened to be a large, two-handed chainaxe, and proceeded to drive it into the first greenskin I could.

I must admit I probably enjoyed the situation more than I should have. However, like a juvie with a new toy, I was experiencing a euphoric rush as I fought through the Orks in the power armour. Though there were still much stronger than me, I was able to hold my own against them in close-quarters, bashing through their defenses and chewing apart flesh and bone. By the time Cain and I reached the breached door, both our suits were coated with blood and ground flesh. Of course, since he had the helmet he wouldn't have to worry about rinsing Ork blood out of his hair when we got back to base (speaking of which, standard Guard-issue degreasing agent works well to get the stink out of your hair, though it'll leave it feeling like dry straw for a few days).

"You looked like you were having fun there," Cain commented.

"What can I say? It's nice not being the runt of the pack anymore," I replied with a slight chuckle. Suffice to say, I felt empowered in my new armour but I needed to make sure I didn't get too cocky. A solid hit to the chest from an Ork could still split the armour open like an overripe melon

"Well enjoy it while you can," Cain replied as he motioned for the others to mobilize. "It's time to get out of here. Heilmit, you take rearguard; everybody else – follow me!" Troopers Koobs lent support to the wounded Argentus while the others kept a tight formation. Cain and I, of course, took the lead and now that I had the opportunity, I exchanged the chainaxe for an Ork heavy machine gun. I had always prescribed to the credence that one should always make their arguments from a safe distance. No sooner did I pick up the weapon than an opportunity to test it presented itself. A handful of Orks came rushing from down the corridor so I leveled the machine in their direction and let loose a flurry of bullets. The damn thing was loud enough on its own but the corridors only amplified the near-deafening roar. But it got the job, despite its crude appearance. It was amazing what a bit of aiming and firing in short, controlled bursts could do. Billions of lives have been saved because Orks have never figured that out.

"Not that I don't appreciate the firepower but could you warn us next time? I can barely hear enough as it is," Broklaw remarked as we resumed our march. We met little resistance on our escape from the basement. A few stragglers attempted to hit us from the rear but Heilmit and Gustav did a superb job watching our backs.

The stairwell, however, was when things got ugly. Thus far the basement kept the noise level contained and most likely did not even realize we were all down there. The stairwell, however, transmitted the sound of our guns and swords (okay, mostly my gun…) up through the building. We only reached the main floor when Orks started pouring into the stairwell. "Up the stairs, double-time!" Broklaw ordered as Cain and I became the new rear guard. One reoccurring feature of large stately homes are long, wide, sweeping staircase and this mansion was no exception. The stairs were easily wide enough to let three to four Orks up at a time, so the two of us began a frantic battle to keep them at bay. Luckily, having the uphill advantage meant the dying Orks were literally falling atop of their brethren, slowing their advance as a whole.

"I'm going to run out of bullets sooner or later," I shouted, spraying bullets indiscriminately into the advancing Ork mob. At such close range, I couldn't miss if I was firing behind my back with one hand. With the Orks in the back pushing against the ones in front of them, Cain had little trouble dispatching the Orks that approached as they had no room to back off in order to avoid his powerful, broad sweeps. I don't believe I had ever seen anyone remove so many Ork heads as on that day.

"What did you say?" he replied, not surprisingly unable to hear anything over the roar of our weapons.

"I said I'm going to run out of-" There wasn't much need to shout at that moment since the gun did exactly as I had feared. It fell silent as the last of the bullets had been fed through. Undeterred by the half-dozen bullets wounds, the Ork in front of me tried to take advantage of my sudden ammunition shortage. Thankfully, big, heavy Ork weapons can also double as clubs and I began bashing his skull in with all my might. I was able to keep the next few back as well with my improvised club until I was finally able to steal one of their chainswords.

My skill with the chainsword left a lot to be desired, according to all of my tutors. I was lacking in many of the essential fields such as strength, range, precision, offensive techniques…in fact, the only reason I didn't fail was because I was at marginally above average in defensive techniques. Of course, as every sparring partner I had took an aggressive stance because they knew I sucked, I had to develop good defensive posturing. It was the only way to save myself from a lot of bruises (both physical and mental). Those defensive skills came into play in the stairwell as I dodged and parried attack after attack from an overly aggressive opponent. I got hits in where I could but for the most part I just kept the Orks at bay. Cain did most of the killing, parrying and counter-attacking with the degree of ease that came from his level of mastery. He even had time to kill the occasional Ork that I was dealing with, striking from the side when the Ork was too focused on me.

"Are we there yet?" I asked rhetorically as I parried an Ork's axe and then planted my boot into his face.

"We'll get there when we get there," Cain replied before kicking an Ork off the end of his blade, sending the next few tumbling back under the weight of the corpse.

Suddenly, our comm-beads crackled to life with the reassuring sound of an incoming signal. "This is Celeste to ground team, do you copy?"

"We hear you," I replied before blocked strikes. "We're advancing up the northeast stairwell but we've got a lot of Orks on our arses."

"Affirmative, I have you on my auspex scanner. Fire coming in danger close," the Valkyrie pilot replied.

"She wouldn't…" Cain muttered.

"I think she's about to," I replied.

She would and she did. The wall on the floor below us suddenly blew apart as rockets hit the lower sections of the stairwell. It chewed up the stairs on the floor below us but the weakening walls on our level became cause for concern. "Time to move!" Cain shouted as he took me by the arm and pulled me along. We raced up the stairs as the walls next to us began to crumble and the stairs started to break apart. I felt the steps beneath us give way and the cascade of wood, plaster, and rockrete almost swallowed us whole. Somehow, we had managed to jump at the last possible moment and grabbed hold of a solid ledge. The two of us dangled above a three story drop though Cain had hit the ledge at chest level and at least had both hands to keep him steady; I, on the other hand, dangled from only one. Stupidly, I glanced downwards and memories of my previous fall came flooding back to me. It was a long, long way down and the thought of another fall was extremely unnerving. There were a few Orks who survived the rocket barrage but they were trapped on the lower floors and could do little more than yell angrily and shoot the occasional horribly inaccurate round at us.

"I'm not sure if I should thank the pilot or shoot her," I groaned as I struggled to pull myself up. Were it not for the added boost from the power armour, I doubt I would've had the strength pull myself up with one arm.

"We'll thank her if we live through this, otherwise we make it our last standing order to have her shot," Cain suggested half-heartedly as he helped me up. The others had already reached the rooftop by the time we arrived, though our ride to freedom was still circling overhead.

A great sense of relief overcame us all as we rushed onto the rooftop and signaled for the Valkyrie to land. "I can't believe we actually made it!" Gustav cheered as the Valkyrie passed over. "You know, for a second I thought we were all going to die down there." Unfortunately, those would be his last words as his chest suddenly exploded in a burst of blood and viscera, splattering against Heilmit who happened to be standing close by.

"Sweet Emperor! They killed Gustav!" Penlan shouted.

Heilmit leveled his shotgun to a target at the far side of the rooftop, shouting, "You bastard!"

Our mystery sharpshooting Ork had finally shown himself – a large, hulking nob carrying an equally large rifle in his arms. The manner in which he darted from cover to cover, firing rounds at us sporadically to keep us from getting a fix on his position reminded me more of a commando than an Ork but there are always the occasional outliers. I found it rather peculiar that something so large could be so difficult to track but every time I took my eye off of it, the Ork was somewhere else when I looked again. "Celeste, we're taking heavy fire. We need air support!" I voxed as I took cover behind a gargoyle statue. A round that blew apart the head of the statue prompted me to keep mine down lest I share a similar fate.

"Confirmed but I have no gunners or rockets left; going in hot," she replied. All she had left was the lascannon, which wasn't exactly geared for hitting individual infantry, regardless of how large they were. Still, she circled overhead and fired several blasts at the Ork, failing to hit but drawing his attention away from us. The Valkyrie had to pull off when the Ork fired back as Celeste knew all too well the rifle's sheer power. "I can't get a clean shot. You need to take him out ASAP because we're running out of time."

"You blew apart the stairwell, we don't have to worry about Orks assaulting us from behind," I replied.

"I wasn't referring to the Orks," Celeste said. "Navy's inbound with bolts and marauders and you're standing on ground zero. I can't promise that they'll wait for us to clear before the bombs drop." While Celeste seemed rather enthusiastic towards the idea of bombing the mansion back into the Age of Strife, I had trouble sharing that passion.

"So much for minimizing property damage," Cain commented. He sounded as warm to the idea of being bombed by the navy as I did. We didn't fight through armies of traitors and xenos just to get frakked by our own side.

I thought it bizarre for the navy to be responding with such force so quickly, especially over a mansion full of Orks. My curiosity didn't need to wait very long to be sated as Celeste was more than willing to keep up appraised of the situation. "I voxed a sit-rep back to my commanders and they believe that sharpshooter Ork is a high priority target."

"Wait, you mean they think this greenskin is Mad-Frak Edpoppa?" Cain replied. The sudden, exploding helmet of one of our troopers seemed to demonstrate the point as well as dropping our numbers down to eight (Cain, Jurgen, Broklaw, Heilmit, Penlan, Koobs, Argentus, and me for those of you who have lost track). Since the name didn't ring a bell I asked for a bit of clarification. "Mad-Frak is one of the last remaining chieftains of the Ork horde. We've been hunting him for weeks but he doesn't stay in the open very long. His death would throw the Orks into disarray." While I had always been fully prepared to lay my life down in service to the Emperor, I would prefer my service record to end in something a bit more dignified than 'scattered across several acres by naval bombing.'

"How long do we have?" I asked.

"ETA is ninety seconds," our pilot replied. Cain and I exchanged glances, both of us thinking the same thing – we needed to get off the rooftop now.

"Then swing in to pick us up now!" Cain shouted as he motioned for the Penlan's attention. "Grenade that Ork."

Penlan nodded and shouted the order to the remaining troopers. Unfortunately, after so much fighting and running, there were only a couple left. But Cain wasn't expecting a few frags to take down an Ork of that size but they did serve his intention. The blasts kicked up a cloud of dust and smoke, providing enough of screen for Cain to charge from his cover straight to the Ork position. Realizing that Cain intended to keep the Ork preoccupied so the Valkyrie could get into position, I followed after him in order to lend my support. Up close, the Ork was much larger than I had previously thought and it used its rifle to block Cain's initial strikes. Mad-Frak managed to push Cain back in order to buy enough time for it unsheathe a pair of heavy-duty cleavers. I joined Cain in his offensive, flanking to the Ork's left while Cain pressed from the right. But Mad-Frak was as coordinated up close as it was at a distance, using its superior reach and heavy blades to keep us from getting in close. Were we not clad in so much power armour, we wouldn't have had issue sliding past the Ork's unwieldy attacks. We had no choice but to keep pressing using strength and numbers.

Meanwhile, Celeste brought the Valkyrie around and dropped her in low in a clearing on the far side of the rooftop. Cain shouted for the others to head for the Valkyrie, which they did with great reluctance, unwilling to risk leaving Cain or I behind for the bombs. As selfless as our actions might have seemed, I doubt either of us were planning on sticking around for a front-row seat of the bombing.

"Our turn now," Cain said. Since the Ork had done such a superb job of keeping us at a distance, it was easy for us to disengage and make a break for the Valkyrie. At least, that had been the plan but at that exact moment I over-extended my attack and Mad-Frak knocked my chainsword aside and put a boot to my chest. Even with the weight of the power armour, the Ork knocked me off my feet as though I were still a featherweight. When Cain made his sprint for the Valkyrie, I was still on my backside. Cain probably didn't realize I had fallen over but I wasn't going to shout for assistance – I couldn't jeopardize Cain's safety because of my mistake. Panting and cursing, I scrambled to my feet and ran for the Valkyrie with a giant, angry Ork hot on my heels. I could see the Valkyrie ahead of me with everybody inside shouting for me to hurry. Cain had just hopped on board when everybody's expression suddenly paled.

"Grenade!" Broklaw shouted. My eyes followed his gaze to the Ork stickbomb that was bouncing past me. I only had time to throw my arms across my face before the grenade detonated and I was thrown to the ground once more. Thankfully, the power armour withstood the blast but I was still left stunned and disorientated on the ground. A piece of shrapnel had also grazed my forehead, leaving a long laceration that bled profusely across my face. Clearly, whoever had convinced the Adepta Sororitas that they didn't need helmets had never suffered a head wound before or else they wouldn't have recommended something so blatantly stupid. I would bet a year's salary that traumatic brain injuries are responsible for the majority of casualties amongst the Sisters of Battle.

When I was able to clear the blood from my eyes, I saw the Valkyrie drifting closer to my position. My head felt numb but I had enough sense, or at least survival instincts, left to know I needed to get back to my feet. Mad-Frak, however, was intent on finishing me off. The Ork loomed over me with a cleaver held high but just before it could bring the weapon down, Mad-Frak was hit with a heavy slug and staggered back a few steps. Heilmit readied his shotgun and fired a second slug, striking Mad-Frak in the chest and knocking it back further. Unfortunately, when my aide tried to fire again, nothing happened and he frantically rushed to reload his weapon. The shots slowed the Ork down but it also pissed it off further. It was about to rush for me again when Broklaw suddenly leapt from the Valkyrie, landing on the massive Ork and driving his chainsword deep into its chest. The Ork bellowed in pain and rage, struggling to keep its footing as the blade chewed up its organs. The Major then gripped his chainsword firmly and threw all his weight into driving the blade downwards. He gutted the Ork from sternum to groin, spilling blood and viscera across the rooftop when he drew his blade free from the greenskin. There was no time to savour the victory, however, as Broklaw helped me back to my feet and we rushed onto the Valkyrie.

"Hold onto something, this is going to be close," Celeste warned us as she pushed the engines to full throttle. We pretty much flew straight up, putting as much distance between the mansion and us as possible. She was just in time, too, as the first wave of air-to-surface missiles struck the mansion and the surrounding landscape, blanketing the area in explosions.

"Have I ever mentioned you fly-boys are frakking insane?" I remarked after realizing how close we were to being reduced to smoldering debris.

"Hey, I'm not the one that jumps out of perfectly good aircrafts," Celeste replied.

"Nonetheless, thanks for not bailing out on us," Cain interjected.

"Well there's no way I was going to leave my good-for-nothing husband behind – he still has to make up for forgetting our anniversary," she said.

"Gee, thanks…glad to know you care dear," Argentus groaned in response.

The original may have turned into a complete catastrophe but the death of Mad-Frak Edpoppa meant one of the last organized pockets of Ork resistance had been wiped out. Whatever survivors remained would spend more time fighting for leadership than giving us trouble, which would allow us to focus our efforts on rooting out the last remaining Ork chieftains. Despite the after-action reports submitted by Cain, Broklaw, and myself, the Imperial Navy still insisted on taking credit for killing Mad-Frak, as well as bailing our arse out of trouble. Celeste was the only part of the Navy that actually saved us but her commanders wouldn't let a tiny detail like that stand in the way of them taking credit for the operation. Despite arguments over the glory, Cain and I made sure to put recommendations for Celeste to be given an accommodation for her actions. She was awarded the Wings of Sanguinius, which I'm told is a high honour within the Imperial Navy.

Of course, even with the victory most people were quite unhappy with the way the mission turned out. Kasteen was understandable hacked off about how the Navy was so casually prepared to bomb her executive officer and commissars. Lord-General Zyvan was supposedly furious with his intelligence officers and the next time I saw the Lord-General, he had a new set of officers with him.

Unfortunately, Cain and I weren't allowed to keep the power armour we had commandeered for our escape. No sooner did we strip it off was it carted away by a dozen techpriests that looked like they were about to pop a fuse in glee at the thought of handling such technology. Cain and I weren't disheartened by the loss; as far as either of us was concerned, we were better suited for fighting in our commissarial garbs than lumbering around in giant suits of armour. Plus I still maintain that I looked absolutely ridiculous in power armour.

I was ushered off to the medicae station the moment our Valkyrie touched off at base so a medic could stitch up my forehead. Scalp wounds are rarely that threatening but do they ever bleed. I was still cleaning the blood off my face when Cain caught up with me outside the medicae station. "Feeling better?" he asked as he approached.

"My head still kinda hurts but it's nothing a glass of amasec won't cure," I replied. "At least the scar won't be too visible." The two-inch laceration ran about an inch past my hairline but given how thick my hair naturally was, it wouldn't be visible to anybody who didn't know what to look for already.

"Hear anything about Argentus?"

"A few broken bones but nothing serious," I answered. "He'll get to enjoy a nice vacation in the hospital in the meantime."

"That's good to hear."

"Why do I get the feeling you're not here just to check up on our injuries?" I asked rhetorically.

"I wanted to make sure that things are okay between you…and the Major," he said cautiously while both of us subtly scanned our surroundings to potential eavesdroppers. "Have things been resolved?"

"Yes…well, um, most of them, sir," I said after nodding.

"Good. I hate to see two capable officers squabbling over trivial matters."

"Likewise, sir," I agreed.

"Excellent," Cain said as he turned away, "you two have a good working relation. I would suggest you not let such things go to waste…because you never know what's around the next corner." Cain headed off, likely to get a drink or a nap, leaving me with me lingering thought as to just how much Cain knew. Looking back, it was probably far more than I gave him credit. At the time, it didn't matter because if he had cause for concern he would've voiced them rather than leave it to my discretion. As for the Major, once Cain had left, I ventured off in search of Broklaw.

Broklaw wasn't hard to find as he was already toiling away on an after-action report in his quarters like any diligent officer would be. While he hadn't been waiting for me, my arrival did not come as a surprise to him. I was, as usual, nervous and found myself struggling to find the right words. "I'm pretty sure you know why I'm here," I said and immediately mentally kicked myself. Honestly, was that the best I could come up with?

"I have a fairly good idea," he said as he rose from his desk. He was being cautious – he knew the difficulties I was having and wasn't trying to put pressure on me before I was ready. Some days I wondered if I would have been better off if he had been a bit less of a gentleman and forced the issue. I shut the door behind me but didn't move from my spot, save for leaning back against said door. I tried to keep eye contact but when he stepped closer I found myself staring into his tunic more than anything else.

"Broklaw…uh, Ruput…" I began slowly but slowly finding words coming more easily. "I'm not exactly sure how to phrase this so I'm just going to say it – I care about you…a lot. I've never been the romantic type or one to believe in love at first sight but after today I'm reminded of what happened on Adumbria. Maybe it's just my naivety speaking but the truth is…I've fallen for you. I fell for you back then and I've just been trying to push those feelings aside ever since. That's why I kissed you back then…and I know you feel at least a little bit the same way about me."

The sigh that followed likely tipped off Broklaw of what was coming next. "I sense a 'but' coming," he said, stoic as always.

"Remember what I said on Adumbria afterwards, aside from the several apologies? You are the second-in-command of an Imperial Guard regiment and I am your commissar. We…can never be. It would violate the office of the Commissariat, the Imperial Guard codes of conduct, and it would stain the entire regiment. I can't maintain an objective watch over the regiment if I'm sleeping with one of the officers. For Emperor's sake, I was ready to sacrifice every soldier on that Valkyrie on the slight possibility I might be able to save you. You jumped out of a Valkyrie onto a building that was going to explode to attack an Ork that could have snapped your neck with a flick of its wrist. As much of a turn-on as that was, you can't go around playing heroics like that when it could get everybody killed. We…we just can't – there's too much at stake for us to indulge in our personal feelings. I'm sorry Ruput…"

Not surprisingly, Broklaw's expression was unchanged but I suspected I might as well have put a bolter round through his heart. "I understand," he said quietly, which was as close to a display of emotion as I would get from him.

"And listen, I completely understand if you ever want…ever need somebody that is more available…somebody that can give you the things I can't. I won't stand in your way."

"And if I don't want anyone else?"

"Then…maybe one day when I'm not your commissar or I've got a better grasp on my judgment and feelings...we can try to make something work…but until then we have to keep things professional. For everybody's sake."

I knew Broklaw was just as divided as I was. The officer in him knew what I said was true but that didn't make it hurt any less, not when people like him make so many sacrifices without asking for anything in return. It would be hard, if not impossible, to put my feelings aside entirely but if I didn't stop things now, then I would completely compromise my judgment and integrity. I could jeopardize a mission or get somebody killed. Though it would hurt us both, I couldn't forsake my duty and everything the Commissariat stood for. And that's how I made the worst decision of my life and I did it for the all the right reasons…