First Impressions

"They teach you everything there is to know about Commissarial service in the Schola,

except how to be a Commissar."

-Commissarial proverb

All things considered, it was a rather unimpressive example as far as Commissarial caps went. Sure, the way the winged skull emblazoned upon its front grinned at any onlookers was slightly imposing, but it was clearly second-hand. The fabric was worn; faintly charred along one side, even, where it had apparently been grazed by lasfire. And it seemed someone had sat on it at some point in the none-too-distant past, undeniably stripping it of some of the dignity expected of such a badge of Commissarial authority.

Her old Schola tutor, of course, would have said that all of the above were signs of 'character'; a certain spirit gained only through years of service in His Glorious Name. A legacy any aspiring Commissar should be proud to inherit; a message that inspired you to go on and perform valiant deeds of your own.

For Kathel, though, it was rather more difficult to get excited. Maybe if the thing hadn't been two sizes too large.

Then again, much the same could be said of the rest of her uniform. Perhaps it was slightly paradoxical, but wearing a greatcoat designed to make her look larger seemed to have exactly the opposite effect. Thankfully, the Munitorum had at least gotten the gender right (which was never really a given with them), so it was only the epaulettes that seemed a bit exaggerated compared to her slender frame; she'd have outright disappeared into the male versions, which appeared to have been designed with six feet tall Catachans in mind.

A Commissar, of course, ought to look imposing and inspiring no matter the circumstances, as she'd been told on countless occasions (the tone of the message becoming more and more insistent each time) back in the Schola. But she wasn't really in the best of places for that right now; being the only passenger in a shuttle compartment meant for several dozen people had a way of making you shrink.

And even if she managed to overcome that issue, it wasn't like anyone was around to witness her being at her most Commissarial and scariest anyway.

The aircraft lurched awkwardly. Caught entirely by surprise, Kathel almost dropped her cap but, thankfully, she had no fellow travellers who might see such a faux pas; rather than risk it again, however, she decided to stop staring at the thing and instead put it back on her head where it belonged.

No amount of looking at the chafed skull grinning at her from its front would change the unpleasant truth, after all. The hat only seemed to confirm what she already knew - her Schola days were well and truly over; after years of doing nothing in particular, the cadets were finally given their sashes and caps, then shoved unceremoniously out the door. And while some in her year may have relished the chance to experience the dark and uninviting galaxy waiting beyond, to her the idea seemed absolutely terrifying.

Not least because while some in her year had had the good fortune to be saddled with things like garrisons or artillery regiments, she wasn't as lucky.

Oh, what she wouldn't have given to be the one who got sent off to watch over a handful of Guardsmen taking shots at the enemy from miles off. A handful of Guardsmen from Valhalla, no less - her own homeworld! Unfortunately, though, that wasn't proper procedure; Commissars were rarely if ever stationed with their compatriots, to cut down on the possibilities for fraternization. So the Commissariat dropped off a hiver to herd the iceworlders and their Earthshakers around, while Kathel?

She'd drawn the short stick.

The very, very short stick of being hauled off to Uskarus II – a remote little agriworld that seemed pleasant enough, until you realized it was being chewed on by a swarm of Tyranids. There, she was to join a regiment whose previous morale officer had been turned into biomass in the opening stages of the xeno assault; a regiment that was still busy fighting those same xenos, no less.

As far as she was concerned, things couldn't get much worse. That was, of course, before she'd stepped on the dingy-looking (what else could you expect from a requisitioned civilian ship?) craft supposed to ferry her to the surface and discovered anew the truth that things can always get worse.

Something about the shuttle's heating insulation must've gone awry over the years; or maybe it was just her, being an iceworlder and thus - inherently predisposed against higher temperatures. Regardless, the Valhallan was practically boiling in her own sweat as they trundled through the atmosphere, her thick greatcoat doing nothing whatsoever to help.

So bad was it that at that point, protocol be damned – if it hadn't been for the crash webbing she was tangled up in, Kathel would've slipped out of the thing in an instant. As it was, she was stuck with the cursed benefit of hindsight, wishing dearly she'd had the sense to put all the space left for her in the dimly lit passenger compartment to use back before they'd taken off. It's not like anyone was sitting in all those empty seats, so no one would've objected to her folding her coat up on one of them.

If the thought of freeing herself from the straps holding her trapped in her chair to do that mid-flight had initially crossed the young Commissar's mind, though, the first of their abrupt jerks was enough to chase that particular plan away. The only place that was likely land her in was a coffin, after she'd inevitably cracked her head open on one of the many, many sharp angles lying in wait all around her.

Not the most glorious way for a Commissar to go, especially as it seemed she'd soon have her pick from all sorts of valiant deaths more suitable for her position.

Without warning, the commbead in her ear crackled to life, dispelling at least some of her gloomy thoughts as she recognized the pilot's voice (not that this was unduly difficult, since no one else could have been trying to contact her).

"We will be landing in five minutes at most, Commissar." Being as he was a civilian, the thought of flying with a member of the Commissariat – the full extent of whose powers he probably had only the vaguest idea of – in the back didn't seem to sit well with him. The man sounded tense behind the crackle of the vox; his wording, slightly too formal to be entirely natural, betrayed as much as well. "I thought you would like to know."

For a moment, Kathel entertained the thought of responding in some manner; maybe make a vaguely pleased noise of some sort. However, between the heat and the slight queasiness – brought on as much by their unstable means of transport as by the prospect of landing soon – she just didn't have it in her to switch the vox on.

"...Commissar?" There was a slightly urgent note to his voice now, no doubt thanks to the protracted silence that his words had been met with. Apparently, the pilot wasn't going to leave her alone that easily.

Trying not to think too hard about the fact she'd need to get back on her feet somehow in just five minutes, the young Valhallan brought her hand up to her ear and clicked the commbead. "Yes, I read that. Is there anything else?"

Though she'd tried her best to sound restrained and Commissarial, some of how she felt must've spilled out into her tone, since the response from the man at the helm was remarkably short and flustered, consisting only of a stammered "N-no."

Perhaps he was worried she'd shoot him if he bothered her again, as after that little exchange, silence descended on Kathel's world again (confined as it presently was to the interior of the shuttle, with its unappealingly utilitarian angles and rusty spots that didn't exactly inspire confidence in the craft's integrity). This left her ample time to wonder how, exactly, was she going to motivate anyone to die for the Emperor if she couldn't even motivate herself to answer one lousy vox message.

And, for a more immediate concern, how was it that she intended to get through a formal reception by her new regiment's officers.

After a bit of thinking, though, she decided she could lay that particular worry to rest. After all, this wasn't some grass-green bunch of conscripts she was about to join; these were supposed to be veteran Guardsmen, who probably didn't much care for protocol when it came to welcoming Commissars – particularly freshly baked ones. The best she could hope for was a junior officer or two to shake her hand uncomfortably, and perhaps a trooper to carry her (nonexistent) baggage.

For that matter, what did she know about this regiment she was heading off to? Trying to think back to what she'd picked out of the mind-numbingly dry dataslate provided by the Munitorum seemed as good a way as any to escape those of her thoughts that were less than cheerful in their nature, so the young Valhallan buried her face in her palms and tried to remember.

(Of course, she still had the information dataslate with her so, if she'd really been that bothered about it, she needed only have looked; however, given that this was about brightening the mood, reading what some shrivelled up scribe of the Departmento's had scrounged together would rather defeat the point.)

The designation was the easiest thing to remember; Vanquese 507th Mechanized, her new home regiment was called. As the name implied, it was fully mechanized which, if nothing else, meant she at least wouldn't have to spend as much time walking, which was a definite plus. Mechanization was one of the bonuses of having a heavily industrialized hive for a homeworld, the other obvious benefit being that reinforcements weren't going to run out anytime soon. Vanquo had a population well into the billions, which, truth be told, she found difficult to imagine, but decided to believe what it was the Munitorum had put in their drivel.

Rather less encouragingly, the 507th seemed to make heavy use of that particular 'feature'; with a regiment that was tossed into the thickest fighting as a matter of course, though, casualties were inevitable. And inevitably heavy, as the loss of a good third of its manpower in its current campaign against the Tyranids on Uskarus II clearly demonstrated.

For some reason, Kathel couldn't help but suspect that they'd have been even heavier if the regiment hadn't lost its Commissar right off the bat. At least this way, with no one to threaten decimation for cowardice, when the going got too tough, they could use their Chimeras to do the smart thing by putting as many miles between themselves and the swarm as possible.

Now the honeymoon was over, though, meaning she'd been sent along to rob them of that particular tactical advantage by replacing her (undoubtedly dearly missed) predecessor. You didn't need to be a genius to see that the Munitorum had made filling in this particular vacancy a priority, what with the haste with which she (and a couple other replacement Commissars) had been flung across the galaxy. Meanwhile, reinforcements that arrived before the campaign was over were likely a matter of 'if', not 'when'.

Throne forbid that a regiment of the Imperial Guard exist for any length of time without the guiding hand of a morale officer to help it along, after all. Unless you were a Catachan (and thus imaginative enough to get rid of Commissars faster than they could be taught) or a Krieger (and thus more in need of holding back than urging onwards), your chances of avoiding that meddlesome Commissarial cap sticking its nose into your business were slim to none.

Her memory failed her beyond those basic details and the interesting point that the 507th was one of the handful of mixed-gender regiments in the Guard. A few names with appended ranks floated about in her head but, seeing as she failed to match them with any of the faces she recalled, it all seemed a bit hazy; vaguely, the young Valhallan could remember that the second in command was originally from the lower hives of Vanquo, which at least served to kindle her hopes for a lacking reception. She could worry about forging some sort of working relationship with the officers later – for now, Kathel just wanted to be left alone to collect herself and to come to terms with the fact she was well and truly a full-fledged Commissar now, with no way back to the comparatively whimsical days of the Schola.

Not that they'd seemed particularly simple back then but, compared to the sinking feeling that was presently twisting her insides into more kinds of knots than an agriworld fisherman knows of, she'd have gladly returned to being hollered at by her tutors.

Unfortunately, the Emperor had different plans.

As if to underline the point, the shuttle lurched awkwardly again, before the unmistakeable tremor of touching down alerted the Commissar that her little journey was at its (unwelcome) end.

"We have touchdown." The pilot's voice in her commbead pointed out what she'd already noticed, engines beginning to power down. That was mighty decent of him - Kathel noted idly in a vain attempt to fight back the apprehension that was starting to set in strong enough to numb her fingers - considering he'd just have to turn them back on and fly right back to his ship as soon as she'd been greeted by her regiment.

Of course, the small courtesy of letting her talk with whoever had turned up to welcome her to Uskarus II without the aircraft's engines howling in the background was offset by the fact he'd just taken her into a war against some of the most dangerous xenos the Imperium has ever encountered.

"I'll have the ramp lowered in a second, Commissar." He announced, oblivious to his fault. If the intonation she picked up beneath the depersonalizing quality of the vox was any indication, he seemed eager to get rid of her and put as many miles between himself and the planet's surface as possible – and who could really blame him? Certainly, the only thing the Commissar herself begrudged was being unable to fly off with him; maybe the cargo vessel requisitioned to ferry her and her colleagues to the warzone had been a bit on the cramped side, but having to suffer quarters that were somewhat too small for comfort was a fate infinitely better than being turned into biomass for the swarms.

Try as she might to assure herself that the Emperor protects (and, should He be too busy, the guns of a mechanized regiment can do the job too), as she freed herself of the crash webbing, the young Valhallan couldn't help but feel her fingers grow ever number with apprehension.

If nothing else though, now that they were back on terra firma and she was out of the entrapments of her seat, she could at least get out of the greatcoat. A slight relief it may have been, but Kathel welcomed it all the same, sighing contentedly and rolling the sleeves of her shirt back well past the elbows before slinging the offending black coat over her shoulder. For some reason, now that she could look at it from the side, the thing looked a bit like the skin of some grouchy large animal – which she guessed wasn't that far from what most Guardsmen considered Commissars to be.

Grouchy, dangerous animals.

The thought made her chuckle. Weakly, but it was a start.

Odd though that may have seemed, the closer she got to actually disembarking, the less it seemed like this was all a horrible misunderstanding that she should run away from. Maybe it was what little the Schola had managed to hammer into her head reasserting itself; maybe (somewhat more likely) just the effect of being on her feet again and moments from stepping on ground that, while by no means safe, at least couldn't open up and leave her to the dubious mercies of a freefall from a frankly unhealthy height. Whichever it was, waiting for the ramp to open, the Commissar felt undeniably better about herself than she had moments ago.

So what if she still felt weak in the knees, or if there was a slowly fading greenish hue to her normally pale skin. In her defence, the flight through the atmosphere hadn't been entirely pleasant. She'd probably be able to hide the unsteadiness well enough - and, if all else failed, the bolter pistol and the chainsword holstered at her sides (both, particularly the former, clearly visible now that she'd removed her greatcoat) would be enough to dissuade any Guardsmen from openly calling her out on those more apparent signs of queasiness.

Finally, with a laboured hiss and some clanging that was a bit on the unseemly side in the middle of a Commissar's allegedly glorious arrival to her new home regiment, the disembarkation ramp started to slide open.

In lieu of a welcome, Uskarus II elected instead to blind her with a flash of sunlight. Used to the yellowish hues of luminator light after weeks spent aboard a spacecraft with no sun to speak of, Kathel's icy blue eyes welled up with tears instantly; she blinked a couple times, shielding them hastily with her free hand.

The first thing she saw of this world that was supposed to witness her baptism by fire was an unexpectedly beautiful sunset. It seemed to pin her down where she was standing, transfixed by the almost otherworldly contrast presented as rays of fiery orange draped over a ravaged countryside stretching out around the rockcrete landing pad upon which her shuttle had set down.

It must have certainly been idyllic once; fields of some crop she didn't recognize swaying gently in the wind with a narrow little road weaving through them and around the hills, to a small township that the Valhallan figured couldn't have been more than a few kloms to the south. Even with the unmistakeable tears of heavy artillery bombardment left by the fighting and the collapsed spire of the town's Ministorum church to remind her that this was a warzone, it felt rather like stepping into a painting that-

Poetry was all well and good but, as Kathel's eyes finally wandered downwards to what awaited her at the foot of the shuttle's ramp, she couldn't help feeling a sickly dropping sensation in her chest, not unlike missing a step while climbing down a flight of stairs. While she'd been busy taking in the rural surroundings, someone else had been look up at her.

Standing in the shadows cast by one Scout and a couple of Command Salamanders there were, in fact, a handful of someones. All dressed in parade uniforms that were as spotless as could be expected under the circumstances, with what was obviously quite an abundance of rank insignia, no less. Their nature, predominantly captaincy studs as far as could be told from where the Commissar was standing, made it abundantly clear – maybe the Vanquese 507th did care about protocol, after all.

After all, why else would a good chunk of the regiment's senior officers and a handful of their junior counterparts have bothered to turn up on a landing pad in the middle of some thoroughly ruined fields.

The small knot of officers certainly presented a rather impressive spectacle, their tense poses as they waited for her to notice them (with commendable patience, it had to be said) radiating a crisp calmness that would have been right at home in a victory parade. Enough so to make the Commissar acutely aware that she herself, with her sweat-drenched shirt and the greatcoat slung over her shoulder, looked less than appropriate. The numbness in her fingers which she'd come to associate with apprehension began creeping in with renewed strength.

Well, to say that the Valhallan didn't look impressive to the Guardsmen below wasn't entirely accurate – but it wasn't exactly the right sort of impressive for an acting member of the Commissariat, and it would only have affected those officers of the male persuasion.

While short by any standards, being only six or so inches above five feet, Kathel was nonetheless athletic (she'd been among the better players of scrumball in the Commissarial Cadets, after all, the sport being about the only thing she was ever any good at). This was all the more obvious now that her coat was gone – and that wasn't the only obvious thing. She was, after all, a young woman in bloom, and couldn't be said to be lacking in such curves to her figure as to make that appealingly apparent.

Only the Commissarial cap perched atop her charcoal-black hair seemed determined to ruin the male officers' gawking by reminding them this wasn't exactly some ordinary decent-looking girl they'd spotted on the street.

Feeling uncomfortably like she'd used to back in the Schola's showers, the Commissar began to realize that she was standing out a bit as she was now – and that it was better to start fitting in as fast as possible, before offense was taken (or, worse yet to any authority she might hope to hold over these people, suggestive whistling ensued). To that end she began pulling the greatcoat back over her shoulders, slowly enough to make it seem like she was hoping no one would notice her awkward attempts at salvaging the situation if they happened at such a crawling, cautious pace. Trying to find some sort of a brighter side to it all only led to thanking the Golden Throne that at least the evening wasn't windy and nothing could knock her hat off to further the embarrassment.

While the left sleeve of the coat proved easy enough to slip her arm back into, the right turned out to be far more treacherous. It certainly didn't help that, with all the intent staring from the lower end of the ramp, her fingers only seemed to grow less and less responsive. Feebly, Kathel's right hand pawed at the fabric a couple of times, failing to find any sort of an entry point; for a few tense moments, she couldn't help imagining the right sleeve had somehow been sewn shut, her overactive imagination proving the traitor despite the fact there wasn't even the slightest chance of that being the case.

Finally, though, her hand found what it had been looking for and dived in. She could only hope the Vanquese officers hadn't heard her sigh of relief as it did. A careful glance over their faces revealed they were still simply staring at her, dispassionately but intently. Whatever signs of amusement or annoyance as may have been there had been wiped clean now that she looked a bit more like a Commissar and a bit less like some ordinary citizen of the Imperium who'd gotten hold of a funny hat.

Her boots thunked ominously as she descended down the ramp, the dignity and authority of the sound undermined somewhat by the debacle moments prior. Worrying clangs and crackles from the shuttle engines seemed to punctuate her footsteps. The faint, but unmistakeable stench of frying electronics was on the soft evening breeze, its connotations clear – everyone here would try their darnedest to be as far away from the thing as humanly possible when it attempted takeoff.

"Commissar Sharpe," His voice commendably businesslike for the uninspiring display he'd just had to witness, the Colonel made his presence known, stepping forward and saluting with the unfettered confidence of someone who was familiar with formal situations, inside and out. "Welcome to the 507th."

Resisting the instinct to follow his lead and salute back by remembering she wasn't actually part of the chain of command and thus – not supposed to do that, Kathel nodded, feeling as if she looked a bit more lost than she would've liked to. "Colonel Hofler." Thankfully, her mind at least managed to match the name and rank to the face now that she was witnessing him in the flesh.

The Colonel was much like she'd seen him in the dataslate, a rather appealing gaunt face that was ruined only by the unseemly burn mark under the left of his two dark brown eyes. In the flesh, Arthur Hofler turned out to be a bit shorter than the Valhallan had expected, only an inch or two taller than herself; in fact, a lot of the officers gathered there seemed a bit on the short side compared to the people she was used to seeing in the Schola. What he lacked in imposing physique, though, the Colonel made up for with his air of easy comfort and, somewhat unusually for a Guard commander – a sort of polite curiosity, as if he was determined to listen to what you had to say no matter how boring it all was.

All in all, nothing the young Commissar couldn't have expected, now that she remembered Colonel Hofler was of aristocratic descent. Regardless of how competent he actually was as a regimental commander, at least he managed to look the part, his uniform looking as spotless as though it was fresh off the hanger and every bit a second skin to him.

"My second in command," Hofler motioned towards the woman standing next to him, directing Kathel's attention from himself. "Major Mewsen."

If the intention behind promoting those two had been to have a commanding officer and his second who looked as much unlike one another as they conceivably could, then mission accomplished, the Valhallan noted as she returned the brashly red-haired Major's salute with another nod. Mewsen was the lower hiver she remembered, the very same who had so catastrophically failed to live up to her expectations of a lacking reception; for once in her life, the Commissar found herself greeting someone who was of level height with herself.

That was where the similarities ended, though, as Nellie – an inappropriately soft name for someone of such sharp features – and her ponytail of red seemed to contrast with the pale Valhallan's charcoal black as much as they did with the Colonel's own neatly trimmed dark brown hair. And while there was nothing off about her uniform per say, she didn't look half as comfortable in it as her commanding officer – and, for another thing, certainly far less interested in the Commissar, if the sceptical glint in her steely blue (almost grey) eyes was any indication.

Apparently, she was less willing to overlook the greatcoat debacle. Or maybe she just held a grudge over being dragged all the way out here in the fields just for one lousy member of the Commissariat.

Colonel Hofler didn't allow the nearly palpable tension hanging between his second in command and the new regimental Commissar to dissuade him from continuing with the introductions, disregarding Mewsen's mistrustful glares entirely. Apparently, having gotten into the mindset of a courteous host, there was no knocking the man out of it, even when the vast majority of the captains and the odd lieutenant assembled (probably there to fill in the vacuum left by officers that had met much the same end as her own predecessor, Kathel guessed) gave her much the same look, with the notable exception of one captain – who looked vaguely amused, which still wasn't the reaction a Commissar should've been looking for – and one lieutenant, who seemed a bit uneasy. Although, with how worried the woman seemed, it could just as well have been because she suddenly found herself needing to use the bathroom as because of the member of the Commissariat present.

Then, just when the Valhallan thought their introductions were done with and she could perhaps crawl somewhere to sleep it all off (not that she felt particularly sleepy but, seeing as it appeared to be evening, it was perhaps better to start adjusting to the day-night cycle of Uskarus II as fast as possible), the Colonel motioned towards one of the Salamanders. "And this is Trooper Derichs," He pronounced as a showman magician would the name of his most impressive trick and, indeed as if pulled from a hat, a man with the unmistakeable bearing of the common Guardsman emerged from the vehicle's shadow to salute her.

All things considered, Kathel wasn't really sure how she'd managed to miss him; among the parade uniforms of the officers, Derichs' kit stood out like an Ogryn in a fancy dress party. Then again, perhaps it had been thanks to that same getup that he'd slipped past her notice, the muted greys of urban camouflage which coloured the knee-long coat that he wore underneath his flak armour merging almost seamlessly with the patterns of the Salamander behind him.

"Ma'am." The trooper saluted rigidly, somehow endeavouring to open his mouth entirely without dropping the unlit lhostick in its corner.

Seeing the questioning look in her eye, Hofler smiled faintly. "Trooper Derichs will escort you to your quarters, Commissar, and help you familiarize yourself with the regiment for as long as his services are required. That is to say, serving in the capacity of your Commissarial aide."

"I see." Kathel eyed Derichs up and down. Very much the ordinary specimen of an Imperial Guardsman; from the shadow of unshaved stubble over his broad chin, to the lhostick in his mouth (though the fact it wasn't lit was maybe a bit unusual). A couple inches shorter than what you might expect but, if her reception was any indication, all Vanquese tended towards that, which of course meant that she and her paltry five feet and six inches would fit right in. If it hadn't been for the fact the Munitorum barely even knew what planets its Guardsmen came from, let alone how tall the regiments were on average, she might've even suspected this to have been an intentional decision.

For a moment, the Commissar wondered if saddling the man with being her aide wasn't some sort of a punishment – perhaps he'd been given the choice between that and cleaning the latrines. If that were the case, at least she could take heart from the fact that the average soldier of the regiment seemed to prefer carrying a Commissar's bags to scrubbing the lavatories.

"Baggage, ma'am?" Derichs broke her considerations, eyeing the open ramp to the shuttle suspiciously. If he'd feared being buried under a mountain of packs, though, then he would be glad to see her shake her head.

"None to speak of, I'm afraid." Well, that wasn't the whole truth, but what possessions she'd brought along with her fitted into the inner pockets of her greatcoat. She wasn't going to trust her only packet of tanna leaf to anyone else, in any event, since the Throne only knew when she'd get the chance to refill her stocks, and the three dataslates she had on her weren't exactly heavy lifting. And while the first two were nothing special, being respectively the Munitorum brief on her new regiment and a comprehensive list of infringements and their appropriate punishments (most of those being the unimaginative yet unsurprising 'summary execution'), the last she would rather not have trusted to anyone else, either.

A Commissar wasn't exactly supposed to carry around corny romantic novels, after all. But, while Romielle and Julian wasn't exactly a literary masterpiece, something told her that, if she lived long enough for it, all those lengthy and well-detailed intimate sequences might help ease the pains inherent in her off-putting and ultimately very lonely position.

With her introduction to the regiment thus concluded, the officers began to slink back to their vehicles, the vast majority in the small knot of men and women looking as though they had some reservations about the newest addition to their regiment, Major Mewsen most obviously. Kathel didn't really feel like she could blame them; herself, she certainly didn't feel entirely uplifted by the experience, enough so to begin pointlessly ruing the heroic nature of her father's death that had landed her a spot in the Schola.

As Derichs brought the Scout Salamander apparently slated for her transport to life, almost in unison, the engines of the shuttle sputtered into action. Closing, the disembarkation ramp hissed angrily, sending a slightly painful pang through the Commissar's chest as it took with it her only remaining lifeline with the rest of the galaxy.