Been Around the Block
Part 1: Shadows
I lean on the cold, Durasteel rim of the sink, staring at my reflection in the Mirror. My razor, poised against the flesh of my right cheek, feels dull, cold. I look tired. I am tired. And sick. Sick of everything. I stand, stock still, for what feels like an age. Staring. Unblinking. As I stare, my reflection changes, blurs, into a warped parody of a face. I see dark holes where my eyes should be. My mouth becomes a red slash across my face. Dull horror begins to slide in to my mind. A dreadful fascination, and a question; what would happen if I just carried on staring? I continue staring. The face changes again. Now, it’s not my face, but his. Leon’s. A terrified face, screaming, burning. Flesh blackening, falling off. Then bone. Screaming all the time. A stain on the clean brilliance of the glass. I feel my body swaying, swaying, as though in a strong wind. How long has it been now? A minute? An hour? A day? Or the life age of the universe? Who, what am I? How did I get here? How did it come to this? I don’t know. I can’t answer. Have I died? Was I ever alive?
A muffled sound comes from my right. A minor distraction; I ignore it. Staring. The sound comes again, louder. Irritation comes, now. If I’m irritated again, I’ll find that sound and end it. I bare my teeth. The sound, loud now. A name. My name? My ears tune in.
“Bissette!” A voice. I’m back in the room, my mind wrenched from within the depths of the mirror. I whip around, teeth still bared, towards the voice. A man. A soldier. A soldier I know. Hornett. That muppet Hornett calling me again.
The man called Hornett, who is standing not five feet from me, briefly recoils back, a look of shock on his face. “What?” I ask, my voice a threatening monotone. My anger, very real, is held back on a hair trigger. There he is, standing there, in his black uniform. Black Tunic. Black Jodhpurs. Silver piping. Two silver Lieutenant’s Bath Stars on each shoulder. Lieutenant Hornett. I flex the fingers of my left hand. I’m sick of this man and the constant crap he gives me. My face clearly shows it.
A flash of anger crosses his face. Seemingly emboldened by my lack of movement, he spits back; “That’s Lieutenant to you, Ensign Bissette! He takes a step forwards, the forefinger of his right hand jabbing. Quick as lightning, I make a lunge for him. Didn’t even think it through. Even quicker, a large, burly body comes between us, blocking me and the punch I was in the process of throwing at Hornett’s right eye. My fist goes high, instead knocking Hornett’s black Beret off his head. Large, strong hands grapple with me, restraining me. It’s Jerold Holte, one of the other Ensigns. “Bissette, no, Bissette!” He’s shouting in my ear. I struggle wildly, thrashing in the strong man’s arms. Spittle flying from my lips, I bellow incoherent rage. I can’t help myself. I’m able to wriggle free, launch myself at Hornett. He’s ready. His left fist flashes out, smashing in to my mouth. I taste metallic blood. But I don’t feel it. I fall upon him, grappling him to the floor. My head butts in to his face once, twice. I feel one of his hands grab me under my jaw, forcing my head up. The other flicks up, taking me in the throat. I gasp for air as my windpipe narrows. Heavy weight on my back. Holte again. This time, he takes me in a choke hold, dragging me to my feet. I thrash again, but there’s no getting out of this one. He’s too strong. My sight starts to go dark. Hornett staggers to his feet, his right eye already swelling and darkening . I hear Holte in my ear “Now calm…the hell….down!” My thrashing subsides, then stops. Holte waits for my arms to drop, then relaxes his grip. Hornett fixes me with an enraged glare, pointing a finger in my face. “I’ve had it with this crap, Bissette” He shouts, before storming out of the Subaltern’s dorm, leaving his beret lying forlornly on the floor.
Holte lowers me on to a nearby bench, before releasing me completely. I’m calm , now that most of the air has been choked out of me. I take huge lungfuls of air, trying not to pass out. Holte takes me
by the lapels of my tunic, face incredulous. “What the hell was that, Trafford?” He asks, familiarly using my first name. Not that he’s got a right to. He barely knows me. “Couldn’t help myself. I dunno what came over me”, I admit. “I was just shaving, and I drifted off to Emperor knows where”
I glance around the room. The other officers, all four of them, are stood motionless, shocked. Eamonn Rhodes, Max Dohlmann, Trevor Endicott, Rayner Aust. Just stood there, like they’ve never seen a fight before. They’re all the same rank as I am, but you’d never guess. They’re senior to me, their commissions predate mine. They treat me like an outsider. Like an upstart. Like they’re better than me. Holte’s the only one who’s made any real effort to get to know me since my promotion. I guess he, at least, deserves an answer. “I can’t explain it, Holte”, I continue. “I just find myself, I dunno, drifting away sometimes, these past six months” I don’t mention the face I saw. His face. Holte crouches down in front of me, concern on his big, angular-jawed face. “Trafford, you need to get some help, mate. Book yourself in to sick bay. Get yourself psycho-analysed. Whatever. You lost it, man. You were gone. You head butted Rowley damn Hornett” , he exclaims, shaking his head in disbelief. “And you know where he’s gone. Straight to the Captain.”
“I know”, I reply, holding my head in my hands. “But there’s nothing wrong with me. This has all been going on since Akkadium. It’s just nerves. Combat Fatigue. I dunno.”
Akkadium. Damned Akkadium. I get a flash, a vision of falling, of diving. Of AA fire shrieking past my face. Men being hacked out of the sky by tracer. Screams. I shake my head to clear it.
“Look, don’t worry about me”, I continue. “I’ll go square things with the Captain”, I finish, getting unsteadily to my feet, wiping the blood off my lips with the back of one hand.
“You had better, Bissette”, remarks Aust, now stood lacing up his boot, one foot up in a bench. “I’m growing tired of these outbursts”. I don’t like Aust. Good friend of Hornett. And I hate that plummy accent of his. Man’s an aristocrat, and shows it. “This dorm was perfectly peaceful before you arrived. Now, it’s bedlam.” He leans slightly towards me. “Don’t think you could ever replace Lieutenant Vane, Bissette. You’ve filled a dead man’s boots through sheer good fortune”. In my mind’s eye, I see Vane’s death. Akkadium again. I see the bolter shell, clearly meant for me, instead ricochet off of a piece of rubble. See it strike him in the gut. An explosion. Blood. A strangled cry. Stillness.
“Listen, Rayner”, I reply, staring hard. “I’m really not having a good day. The last thing I need is you balling me out any more than I’m about to get balled out by Captain Vincennes. And we’re Soldiers, Rayner. Harakonis. We fight. We die. People get replaced. I replaced Vane. I know you liked him. I didn’t choose to get promoted. But get used to it, because I’m not going anywhere”. I stand abruptly, making Holte step backwards. I snatch my beret off my nearby bunk, and cram it on to my head, before stalking out of the room. Silence from behind me.
I walk briskly down the corridor, it’s austere metal walls glinting dully in the harsh, electric light given off by the overhead glow-bulbs. I reflect on how much ships manufactured on Harakon differ from the ships of the Imperium in general. I guess because they’re newer. I can’t think of one more than a hundred years old. They’ve got none of the Gothic architecture, spires, domes, or crenellations of some of the much older vessels I’ve seen. Which is just as well, because those old ships really unnerve me. Too big, too venerable, too sad. This one, the Spirit Of Harakon, is less than 20 years old. The Troopship has only been involved in a few campaigns. But it’s seen its fair share of combat already. As I walk, I can hear and feel that the engines are still not powering right. Their beat’s all off. Vibrating like a palpitating heart. The after effects of a strike from the Nova Cannon back on Akkadium. In the six months since that fight, the Tech Priests have been struggling pretty much constantly to fix them. They haven’t managed it, though. The ship can’t reach more than two thirds warp, so I’m told. Plus, we’ve involuntarily dropped out of Warp altogether a couple of times in the last few weeks. The second time was right in the middle of the Van Santen Asteroid belt. Ship was only saved by the port side gunners, who were clearly on the ball that time. Some rapid Lance Battery fire had shot up an asteroid bigger than a titan, which had, apparently, come within two miles of annihilating the ship’s Bridge.
The ship’s crowded, too. More so than usual. As well as two regiments of Harakoni, the 23rd “The Hunters” and my own, the 19th “Helldivers” we’re playing host to two heavily depleted regiments of Elysians. The Elysian 8th “The Swords Of Arrald” and 75th “The Deuces” had been all that had been left when their own troopship, the “Light Of Elysia”, had been destroyed over Akkadium. I’d heard that more than twenty thousand Elysians had lost their lives that day. The 8th and 75th had only survived because they had been the first two regiments deployed from the ship. Their luck had only partially held, though, as they’d really been through the grinder planetside. I sympathised with them. They’re excellent soldiers, and, like us, are one of only a handful of regiments in the whole Imperium specialising in Airbourne drop deployments. I’m glad that at least a few hundred of them made it. For the first few weeks after my promotion, the other Ensigns and myself had had to double bunk with some junior subaltern officers from the Elysians. Not together; the bunks were far too small for that. We’d had to “hot bunk”; take it in turns sleeping.
Also, we have two companies from another regiment I’d never heard of aboard. The “Royal Cazadores”, they’re called, from some planet named Espiritu Santo. Whatever that means. I’ve no idea why they’re aboard; we picked them up on Attu some weeks ago. Haven’t seen any of them yet. But then, I’m not surprised. They’re billeted down in one of the cargo holds, with the cereals and grain, for lack of space.
As I round a bend in the corridor, I pass Hornett, stalking the other way. He shoots me a venomous glance as he passes, but says nothing. He’s obviously just come from the Captain’s office. I stop by the office door, which, unusually, is closed. Captain Vincennes mostly keeps it open. I press the chime button on the door’s left side. “Come”, sounds his gravelly voice from inside. The door slides open, revealing the Captain sitting at his desk, facing the door. Sat in the chair opposite, with his back to me, is what can only be another officer, if his uniform is anything to go by. The man turns towards me, revealing a tanned face, long, black moustache, and what looks like a large, brown coloured Lho Stick hanging out of the left side of his mouth. The Lho stick is giving off an aromatic fume which doesn’t smell altogether unpleasant. He flashes me a grin, revealing two rows of almost perfectly white teeth.
“Bissette”, says Vincennes in a neutral tone. His face isn’t showing any emotion, but the huge scar down the left side of his face is bright red, which only ever happens when he’s really pissed off. Usually, it’s more of a dull, blue colour. He’d picked that up some years ago, on Agrea. Shrapnel from a Frag Grenade had almost sliced his head clean in two; some medical orderlies had held him together for three hours before he could be evacuated for treatment. Although the surgeons had done a fantastic job of cobbling him back up, the scar remained as a memento.
“Not now”, he continues, before I can say anything. “Go and wait in the mess. Come and see me in half an hour”. I start to open my mouth to speak, but he cuts me off with a look.
I turn on my heel, and make my way to the deck below. I find the 19th Regimental Mess Hall, and sit down at an empty table. I glance around. For a hall which can hold the entire regiment, some 2000 men, it’s pretty empty. But then, it’s 21:00; many of the men will be at recreation, or, if they’re sensible, in bed. There can’t be more than a few dozen soldiers in here, sat at various tables in groups of three or four. The room’s so large, I’d have to shout for the nearest soldiers to hear me, even though it’s quiet.
I’m approached by an elderly, white-coated orderly, stained with food from the day’s four meals. “What’ll it be, Ensign Bissette?”, he enquires. I know this man. Have done since I joined this regiment twelve years ago.
“A mug of Chaff, please, Larkin. Stick a couple of extra spoons of Smalt in this one, if you would. I could use it today”, I reply with a lopsided smile.
“I see”, he says, a knowing grin on his face. “Dropped in the crap again, did you?”
“I’ve never climbed out of the crap, mate. As far as I can tell”
“The best soldiers never seem to, Mister Bissette” he re-joins, taking a mug from his metal drinks trolley, before pouring steaming hot, thick Chaff from a large, metal canister. He drops three big spoons of sweet Smalt from a tray into the mug, before giving it a long stir. He hands the mug to me. “There you are, sir. Get that down you. Put hairs on your chest, that will”, he smiles.
“I’m 34, Larkin. I’ve had hairs on my chest. They’ve been burned off a long time ago. They’re not coming back. You know that”.
“That I do, Sir, that I do. But, you never know, do you? I’ve made that Chaff extra strong. I fermented the pods myself, for three weeks! Really gets the flavour going, I find. Try it”, he laughs.
I take a sip. It’s malty, thick, and flavoursome. It’s also rather spicy, almost making me gag. Luckily, the three spoonfuls of smalt quiet the heat a little, preventing me from bringing the dark blue liquid back up again.
“Good, eh?” Larkin observes, watching my face.
“Effing hell! I manage, after a pause. That’s the stuff”
“Glad to hear it, Sir. You take a load off, and enjoy that, now” he says, before he ambles off, pushing his trolley.
I take another pull from the mug, enjoying the drink, and trying to calm myself down in preparation for the crap I’ll be walking into in twenty minutes.
As I gaze into my mug, lost in my own thoughts, I feel a tap on my left shoulder. I glance in that direction, finding that there’s no one there. Turning to my right, I see that the officer I’d seen earlier in the Captain’s office is stood just behind me. The man’s grinning from ear to ear, clearly thinking he’s some kind of damn comedian, having made me fall for the oldest wheeze in the book.
“Can I help you….sir?” I ask in an irritated tone, being in no mood for this kind of crap.
“I doubt it, but I might be able to help you”, he returns in a rich, accented, mellow voice, filled with amusement. “May I take a seat?” he asks, politely. I see he still has that smoking, brown thing in his mouth.
I sigh in irritation, lean back, and spread my arms wide “Go ahead”, I return, in what I hope is an aggrieved tone.
If the officer notices the tone, he ignores it, as he gracefully seats himself opposite me, with another smile. He’s a handsome man, I observe, with a twinge of annoyance. A devil with the ladies, no doubt.
After observing me for a few seconds in silence, he puts out a hand. “Commissar Raul Dregara, 1st Royal Cazador Guard, to his Most serene highness, King Carlos Juan Valdez of Espiritu Santo”, he introduces himself. I reluctantly take his hand in my own “Ensign Trafford Bissette, First Battalion, Company 'K', 19th Drop Regiment, of Harakon”, I reply, in a slightly surprised tone. I’ve never met a Commissar before. I’d seen a few, in action, and had heard of their fearsome reputation, of course.
“Ah”, he says, noting my surprise. “Of course, you Harakonis don’t have Commissars, do you? Goes back to the Hegerion Concordat, no?
“True. Uh…what do I call you?” I answer, feeling a little nervy. These men are dangerous, so I’ve heard.
“Well, I’m a Commissar, Ensign. I fall outside of the regimental rank structure. I am coequal in rank to whomsoever I am speaking, unless I deem it necessary that I become superior. Right now, I am speaking to you. You’ve not yet given me any reason to pull rank, so we may speak as equals. I don’t know you yet, so you can’t call me by my first name. You aren’t both familiar yet superior to me, so you can’t call me by my last name. That just leaves my rank. Call me that” He grins, as though acknowledging the overly complex way he’s just explained this to me.
“Right…Commissar” I reply, slightly cautiously. His familiarity is unsettling. “You can just call me ‘Ensign’, then. It’s a junior officer’s rank, just below Lieutenant. Some regiments call them Second Lieutenants. I don’t know any other Regiments that use it. Just us. Uh…is that alright, Commissar?” I’m still a little nervous.
“Listen, whatever you’ve heard about us, I assure you, it’s only mostly true”, he says, almost reading my mind, with a disarming grin. “Don’t worry, we’re not all trigger happy avengers, nor frothing disciplinarians. Besides, if I can’t relax in the company of a Loyal Harakoni officer such as yourself, where can I?” He smiles again.
I can’t help but offer a small smile in return, despite myself; the man has an almost palpable aura of charm about him.
I also notice that his uniform is immaculate. It’s not the usual sombre black of a regular Commissar, but a rich, dark, lustrous maroon colour. He’s wearing a tunic, fastened by gold coloured buttons with a crest of some kind embossed upon them, and close-fitting dress uniform trousers of conservative cut on his lower half. I note that there is gold piping running up the outside of either leg. He’s wearing dark brown, glossy, leather knee length boots, too. Worn over his Tunic is a dark brown cross belt, also in leather. I see that he’s wearing some sort of cape over his left shoulder, which is Black. His uniform is completed by a Commissar’s peaked cap, also in Maroon, with the symbols and sigils of the Commissariat upon it. Finally, I see that, strapped to his belt, in a leather holster, is what appears to be an Auto Pistol of a kind I’ve not seen before. Overall, it’s a gorgeous uniform which makes mine feel rather inferior.
“You’ve noticed my sidearm, I see”, he observes, following my gaze.
He draws the weapon from its holster, before placing it upon the table. He’s evidently proud of it. I see that it has an odd, almost bizarre look. The grip is wooden, brown in colour, straight, and rounded at the end, almost like a broom-handle. The body of the weapon is gunmetal black, heavily blued, boxy in shape, with a slim trigger, and a rectangular-shaped magazine mounted underneath. The barrel is some 8” in length, with an iron sight mounted at the end. The hammer at the rear has a curious, curved shape to it. Embossed on the body of the Pistol, just above the grip, is a word, which appears to say “Mauser”. There seems to be an inscription, in a language I can’t read, along one side of the barrel.
"May I?" I ask, gesturing towards the Pistol.
"Be my guest, Ensign. But, have a care. It's loaded, and there's one in the chamber. Safety is on. A Commissar's sidearm is always ready." He grins genially.
I heft the weapon in my hand. For an Autopistol, it's pretty heavy. I say as much.
"It's made of Steel. Unlike most other sidearms. Yes, it's heavy, but it's accurate and hard-hitting. I craft the ammunition myself; Nine Millimetre ammunition is practically impossible to come by anywhere. I have been unable to determine what substance was originally used to propel the bullets, and so I use modern propellant. It's almost certainly more powerful than whatever was originally used. Therefore, I have had the barrel and frame reinforced, to handle the overpressure. I tip the bullets with Trillium. They will pierce Carapace armour at fifty paces."
I'm impressed. I haven't ever seen a Pistol like this one before. I look the inscription on the barrel over.
"A mi amigo, el Teniente Coronel Miguel Dregara, por sus años de leal servicio. Gen' Francisco Franco, julio de 1938."
I frown, not understanding the strange language.
Dregara catches my look.
"It is an archaic form of the language of Espiritu Santo, Ensign. The inscription translates into High Gothic as 'To my friend, Lieutenant Colonel Miguel Dregara, for his years of loyal service. Gen' Francisco Franco, July 1938'. I have no idea what it refers to, or who Francisco Franco was. I do know, however, that this weapon has been in my family for generations"
"What do you suppose the '1938' part means, Commissar? A serial number? Surely not the year?"
"I doubt it, Ensign. That would make this weapon more than 40,000 years old, and possibly among the oldest objects in the Imperium. It would be priceless! The very thought!" Laughs Dregara.
I carefully hand the weapon back, suddenly filled with a strange sense of respect and age at having handled it. Dregara carefully re-holsters it.
“What’s that you’re drinking?” Asks Dregara, nodding at my mug.
“It’s called Chaff, Commissar. It’s a popular drink back on my world”, I answer.
“May I?”, he asks again, nodding at my mug.
“Be my guest”, I return, pushing the mug towards him. This should be good. I smile inwardly.
Dregara removes the thick Lho stick from his mouth and takes a mouthful of Chaff. He swallows, with some difficulty. If I was expecting a big reaction, I’m disappointed. The Commissar goes quite still, staring straight ahead, for some twenty seconds.
“What do you think?”, I ask, not without a little amusement. Chaff is certainly not a drink for the faint-hearted.
“…it tastes like spicy, blue ordure, Ensign”, he declares with a sour face, startling a laugh out of me, despite my mood. “What the hell is this stuff made of?”
“It’s mostly made from the fermented seed pods of the Chaff bush, Commissar. The bush’s leaves, roots, stems, everything, are various shades of blue, which is why the drink’s also blue”, I explain. “We often add a sweetener called ‘Smalt’ to it, which is a mix of Sugar and Malt. I’ve been drinking it all my life, but I hear it’s considered an acquired taste to off-worlders”.
“Well, I’ll take you at your word on that, Ensign. But for now, I’m thinking that if I never taste that stuff again, it will be too soon” He takes a metal hip flask from his top pocket, before swigging from it. “To take away that damned aftertaste”, he explains.
I catch a whiff of whatever he’s just sipped. It smells aromatic and sweet, like nothing I’ve smelled before. “So what’s that you’ve just drunk then, Commissar?” I ask.
“We call it ‘Vino Tinto’, or ‘ Red Wine’. It’s an alcoholic drink made with the fermented juice of a fruit we call an ‘Uva’, though others call them ‘Grapes’. It’s not found in many parts of the Imperium, so I’m told. Perhaps you’d like to try it?” He asks, proffering the flask towards me.
I take a sip of the rich, red coloured liquid. It’s like nothing I’ve ever tasted. It’s rich, full-bodied, astringent yet mellow, and strongly fruity. I hand the flask back to Dregara. “That’s the straight goods, Commissar”, I say, with genuine respect.
“Rio Cortez, ’07 vintage. It’s one of the better ones. And, I might add, made by my family. I carry a small quantity of the stuff wherever I go, for emergencies”, he answers with a smile.
We have alcoholic drinks on Harakon, too, or course. But they tend to be very much of the quaffing kind, and certainly nothing, that I’m aware of, approaching the obvious sophistication of the “Wine” I’ve just tasted.
“So! I understand you’re due to receive a ‘dressing down’ from your Captain, Ensign?”, declares Dregara, leaning back in his chair, and abruptly changing the subject.
“Something like that” I reply, morosely.
“On Espiritu Santo, striking a superior officer is a beating offence, of course”
“A beating offence?”
“Yes. If found guilty, the offending party is beaten by his squad-mates, using sticks, for however long is judged appropriate by the man’s commanding officer. Despite how it sounds, the punishment is meant for the entire squad. After all, if discipline and respect among the squad is so low that one of them would strike a senior officer, then, so the reasoning goes, the whole squad deserves a lesson”, he explains, arms spread wide for emphasis.
“It’s up to the Captain, Commissar”, I answer, somewhat tersely. Dregara’s familiarity is beginning to grate on me.
“So why did you do it?” He asks, pointedly
“I don’t see how that’s any of your goddamn business, Commissar” I say, feeling my face colouring. I’ve got a temper. I’ve always had one. I don’t care if he’s a Commissar, now. He’s got no business prying into my head. It’s not like I can drop in any more trouble. Dregara quickly proves me wrong.
His genial expression drops from his face like a rock. He leans threateningly towards me, eyes now boring into mine.
“I don’t care for your tone, nor your crude choice of words.” He says, voice dropping several octaves. “I can assure you, I do not ask irrelevant questions. Nor do I waste my time bandying idle chit-chat with low ranking subalterns like yourself without good reason. Do not take me for some genial, foppish spiv, idly passing the time of day for the good of my health. I am where I am, speaking with you, because I have chosen to be here, and so doing. I asked you a civil question. I expected a civil answer. And I can assure you , Ensign”, he says, leaning so far forwards that his face is inches from mine, “that, despite the fact that a Commissar has no nominal authority over your regiment, that my word still carries significant weight. Especially in matters of discipline, and fitness for duty”. He lets that one hang for a few seconds, before abruptly smiling once more, and leaning back into his chair. “So! I ask again; why did you do it?”
I feel anger and fear rise up in equal measure. What possible reason can this man have to be quizzing me like this? He’s got nothing to do with me. Yet he’s seemingly got me trapped, with some unknown force of authority backing him up. What can I do? I don’t think I can argue. Dregara’s demeanour brooks none of that. I’m not scared of him; I know how to fight. I’m worried about what might happen afterwards. And I can’t very well walk off; he’ll just follow me. And how to frame my answer? I hesitate.
“I….was daydreaming, Commissar” I manage.
“Daydreaming.” He says, in a monotone. It’s a statement, not a question.
“I was shaving. Looking in the mirror. I just…drifted off. I don’t know why. I…saw some things. Frightening things. Lieutenant Hornett startled me. I guess I reacted badly”, I trail off, unwilling to continue.
“I see”. He concludes. “And has this happened more than once?” He sounds concerned. Worried, even.
“Yes”, I answer, honestly.
“For how long?”
“Uh, for some six months, now”
“Since Akkadium? I’ve heard all about that. Your regiment was badly mauled, no? Significant losses?”
“…yes.” I say, my voice catching slightly.
“You lost someone close to you”. Again, a statement, not a question.
“….screw off, Commissar” I reply, quietly, my eyes downcast. I don’t even care about what might happen next, now. I’m not ready to talk about this. Not by a long shot. If Dregara wants to go bitching to the Captain or whoever, let him. I raise my eyes and fix him with a defiant stare.
He fixes me with a level, appraising stare for a few seconds. I’m sure he’s about to do something dramatic. Instead, he sighs resignedly.
“I thought so. So it goes with those who fight. We strive so hard to maintain our bodies, our weapons, that sometimes we forget to maintain the mind.” He gives me a knowing, sympathetic look. “You should check yourself in to the apothecarium. You need to speak to somebody. You’re no use to anybody, with your mind being the way that it is. Particularly not me”
“What do you mean by that?” I ask, alarmed. No use to him? What the hell?
“I’ve said too much on that score, Ensign. I want to get back to your mental health. You’re suffering, I can see it. Don’t think that I can’t. I’ve been a soldier for more than twenty years. I make no exaggeration when I say I’ve seen it all. I hate to see good soldiers throw everything away by not paying mind to their minds” He smiles. Probably at his own wit.
But now, I’m really confused. Why would this man, from a foreign regiment, with no authority of command over me, care about me, or what’s going on in my head? I say as much.
“That’s for your Captain to tell you”, he replies, looking at his holo watch. “Speaking of which, I suggest you go and see him; your half an hour is almost up”
I check my own watch. Three minutes left. “crap”, I swear under my breath.
“Well, it’s been a pleasure”, he finishes. “Oh, and you can thank me later” he adds.
“For what?” I reply.
“I said at the start of our conversation that I could help you”
“And how have you done that?” I ask.
“You’re feeling a little better, aren’t you?” he answers
Despite myself, I find that I am, in fact, feeling a little better, for some reason. Shaking my head slightly, I leave the grinning Commissar in the mess hall, and make my way up to the Captain’s office.
The door’s still closed. That’s not a good sign. Captain Vincennes tends to keep it open. Reckons it makes him more approachable. I press the chime button at the side of the door again.
This time, the door just opens, revealing the Captain, still sitting at the desk, staring at me in the doorway. “Come in. Sit”, he says, indicating the chair on the opposite side of the desk, where I’d seen Dregara sitting. I do as I’m told.
He fixes me with a level gaze. I can still see that his scar is a ruddy red colour. He must be furious. He’s good though; conceals it brilliantly otherwise.
“So”, he begins, evenly, his hands loosely folded on the desk in front of him. “Would you care to explain why my first Lieutenant has a black eye?”
“I--” I begin
“Actually, sod it. I already know why” He interrupts me, holding up his right hand. “Nothing you can say will excuse you, Bissette. This is the second time you’ve been in here in the past six months now, being spoken to like this. How many times do you think I’ll tolerate this kind of behaviour before I do something drastic?” He asks.
I make no answer. I’ve probably had two more chances than anyone else would have got.
“I’m disappointed, Trafford.” He says sadly, shaking his head. “I promoted you as Vane’s replacement, over others more senior, because I really thought you had something in you. Something to offer, as an officer. The fact that you pulled me down, just as that explosion went off, was just the icing on the cake” He says, with a half-smile that quickly disappears.
I remember a chunk of shrapnel the size of a fist missing his head by inches. Akkadium again.
“But instead”, he continues, “You’ve become an insubordinate, violent thug, it seems. You’ve neglected the men, and your duties. You haven’t bothered to bond with your fellow officers. You disrespect Lieutenant Hornett, your direct superior. You openly brawl with him, going so far as to strike him. And, I might add” he points at me, “You also look like hell. Look at you. Your uniform. It’s unwashed, covered in fluff, shabby. You’re only half shaved. In short, you, Trafford, are a disgrace”.
That hurts. Leroy Vincennes, a man I’ve fought under for five years, has always been an affable, easy going sort. Oh, he’s got some steel in him, alright. Wouldn’t be such a good officer, otherwise. But hearing that, directed at me, coming from him, hurts. It hurts me, not to mention my soldier’s pride. Much more than I thought it would. I hang my head, saying nothing. There’s nothing I can say. He’s right.
“Now”, he continues, his voice softening slightly, “I will put you out of your misery. Lieutenant Hornett has, by some act of supreme benevolence, informed me that he will not be pressing charges against you. I think he’s mad. If it had been me, I’d have seen you broken back down to trooper. Or just shot you down like a Dog”, he expounds, staring hard. I know he means it.
“Obviously, your arse now belongs to him. I can’t say I’m not a little impressed by the way Lieutenant Hornett has gone about that, but there we are. Clearly, he’s more interested in the cohesion of the company than you are. Perhaps you should have thought about that before you head-butted him”
My head hangs even lower. Pride, defiance, anger; it’s all gone out the window. I’d expected a severe punishment. I guess I’d prepared myself for it. Maybe I’d been looking forward to it. Being shown mercy feels much worse, somehow.
“…yes, sir”, I manage to say, meekly, my voice catching involuntarily. My mind’s awhirl.
“As it happens, however, you’ve not escaped entirely”, he continues, as though I hadn’t spoken. My head snaps up. What’s he playing at?
“There’s a matter that’s come to my attention over the past couple of days, which requires addressing. A deployment, actually. I’ve been planning it out with Major Hobrow, and, together, we’ve worked through the personnel roster. I’d been considering the final officer’s spot. In a way, by coming to my attention today, you’ve volunteered yourself for it. Well done” he finishes, wryly.
“Sir?” I ask, incredulously. One minute, he’s berating me, the next, he’s sending me out on some deployment?
“Don’t sound so surprised, Bissette. You’ve known me long enough by now to know how I operate. I want two things understood, though. Firstly: When you return from this deployment, you will report to the sick bay for psycho-analysis. I believe you’re suffering, mentally, and I think it’s high time you took responsibility, acknowledge it, and get it sorted. Secondly: I will be in command of the deployment. I will be watching you very closely. If I find your performance wanting in any way, then I will be forced to rescind your promotion. You were an outstanding Trooper, you were an excellent Corporal. So far, you’re making a lousy officer. I’ve promoted you twice. I can, and will, demote you if I feel the need to. There’s no need for an appraisal meeting. Your head-butt removes the need for that. Do you understand? ”
That hits me in the gut like a sack of excrement.
“….yes, sir”, I manage, weakly.
“Now, to business. You may or may not have noticed that there’s a planet beneath us” He begins.
I hadn’t. Probably too wrapped up in myself to have noticed much outside of my own mind.
“The ship inadvertently dropped out of warp, two days ago, thanks to the engines malfunctioning again. We’ve come across a planet which, to be blunt, shouldn’t be there. Or, at least, nobody noticed it before now. It’s not on any of the charts, at any rate. It’s got the navigators worried, apparently. Not only that, but we’ve detected some signals coming from the surface. We can’t make them out. They just sound like dots and dashes, so I am told. General Scole has been in conference with the ship’s Captain all day so far. They’ve agreed that the planet needs to be investigated, and the source of the signals found. We’ve been volunteered for it. We’re going to make a landing in the morning. Full briefing at 07:00.That’s all for now, Bissette. Go clean yourself up, get some sleep, and pull yourself together. And that’s an order. Dismissed.”
I stand, and salute. He doesn’t even see; he turns his head away and begins typing something up on his desktop Cogitator. Probably about me.
Been Around the Block
Part 2: Reflections
I leave the Captain's office, the door sighing shut behind me. I stand, morose, out in the corridor for a few minutes. People pass me; soldiers, ship's crew, porters, servitors. Occasionally, I feel their eyes on me. I barely notice. What the hell am I doing? How did it come to this? To me, going from being a "rising star in the regiment" (the Captain's words, not mine) to teetering on the brink of mental collapse and demotion? I shake my head, reflecting on how fast everything's fallen apart. Actually, not quite, I correct myself. I still have my rank. I haven't gone crazy yet. If I don't mess up tomorrow, I might still have a shot at redemption. It's going to be hard. Very hard. But maybe this dressing down was the kick up the arse I needed?
I reflect back on some of the things the Captain said. The part about neglecting the men, in particular. He's right there, too. I haven't bothered to speak with them for...how long now? Weeks, probably. The company went through Akkadium with me. My old squad, apart from poor Rigel, are all still alive. And have I bothered to ask how they are? How they're holding up, recovering? No. I hadn't even thought to talk with them. I've been so wrapped up in myself, my own problems, it didn't even cross my mind. They probably think I'm some kind of arsehole, a newly-promoted arsehole too full of himself to bother with the common soldiery anymore. I shudder at the thought. I've known officers like that before. Possibly being thought of as one makes me cringe.
That's it. I'm doing it.
My head snaps up, I start walking. Not to the crew room where the company spend their leisure time, but back to the Subaltern's dorms to straighten myself out first. No way I'm going to see the men, looking like crap.
I stride back in to the dorm, to find it empty. I return to the mirror and the sink, my shaving gear still on the side. I resist the urge to stare too long into the glass. I don't want to zone out again; I've got a job to do. As quickly as I can without cutting myself, I shave the other half of my face. I look down at my uniform. The Captain wasn't wrong; it does look awful.
Sighing in annoyance at having let myself go like this, I stalk over to the cupboard next to my bunk. Punching the code into the electronic lock, I open it. I've got three other sets of uniform in there. Two of them look as bad as, if not worse than, the one I'm wearing. The third I haven't worn yet. Like the other officers, I've been issued four sets of uniform. Also like them, I rarely wear the fourth set, keeping it immaculate for parades, or more formal occasions. Yes, we have a dress uniform too, but they keep those back in inventory for as a when needed. They're much too expensive to be kept in some grotty locker.
Looks like I've got no choice. I haven't the time to clean my other working uniforms. The fourth set it is, I guess.
Quickly, I strip off my old uniform, making a mental note to have it cleaned and pressed for another time.
Thoughtfully, I look at my clean uniform, hanging up on the door of my locker. It's certainly one of the smarter regimental uniforms I've seen. The tunic, of a modern, conservative cut, trimmed in silver piping , fastened with silver buttons, goes well with the black breeches. I look at the silver piping running down the outer legs; it isn't frayed at all; that's usually the first part of the uniform to become worn. I unclip the single, silver Bath Stars denoting my rank from the shoulders of my old uniform, and dog them to the new. Strangely enough, my black beret, of which I have only one, is in pretty good condition. But then, how much wear is something that just sits on one's head really going to take? I check the smaller, silver coloured Bath Star mounted on the brow of the Beret. It, too, is pretty much fine.
I can see my reflection in it. Odd. I look much older in this reflection than when I first caught sight of a newly promoted me, only a few months ago. When the pain of loss was still newer, keener. When I still thought of....of him as still being alive. I remember when I first met...him. We'd been partnered up in unarmed combat training, all those years ago, back on Harakon. On "Jubilee City", the orbital training facility. He'd broken two of the fingers on my left hand, before I'd laid him out with a straight right he hadn't seen coming because he thought he'd won. I catch myself half-smiling at my reflection. That's the first time I've done that in a long time.
I examine the thought, handling it carefully, like a live grenade. No. It's not safe to mess with too much. Certainly not now. I banish it to the back of my mind. The half smile slips from my face. Not now. I turn towards the full length mirror I keep hanging on the inside of the door of my locker. Funny. I actually look pretty good, now. Uniform clean. My angular face shaven. Sandy hair neat under my beret. I almost look like I've pulled myself together. Almost. I still have dark circles under my eyes. Nothing I can do about that now, though. At least my black Leather boots look ok. They're tough things. Short of stepping on a Frag Mine, nothing is going to ruin them. I pull them back on.
I close the locker door, and turn on my heel to leave the dorm, still (mercifully, perhaps) empty.
Striding out into the corridor, I see it's as busy as ever. A hive of activity. I don't know why, but the sheer number of people who can cram in to a ship this size always surprises me. How many? I'd heard that a fully manned ship of the "Majestic" class, like this one, can accommodate more than 90,000 crew and soldiers. I'm guessing that the ship is holding at least a third more than that, now, what with the Elysians, the Royal Cazadores, and the new Harakoni recruits aboard.
I'd forgotten about them. Harakoni regiments only ever reinforced themselves from Harakon itself. Unlike most other Imperial Guard regiments, who often replaced losses from any nearby world. There was a whole arm of the Harakoni military, known as "The Promissory" whose job it was to monitor the whereabouts and status of each Harakoni warship and battle group. Even a deployment of company size was monitored. Losses were reported back to The Promissory, who would replace them in due course, using the fastest ships they could lay their hands on. These ships are known as "Lighters". I don't know why. I'd been shuttled out to the Spirit Of Harakon on a lighter myself, with forty others, all those years ago. Along with...him. The ship has been my home ever since.
As far as I know, there are only about twelve of us left from that intake. Three of them are in my old squad. Tessar. Aurochs, Stenson. We've been through a lot together. A pang of guilt strikes me that I've been neglecting them this long. I should have done better.
Not to mention the nineteen new recruits who have been inducted into my company, company "K", to replace our most recent losses. I haven't even met them yet. The other Ensigns, Lieutenant Hornett, the Captain; they would have made a point of going to introduce themselves on day one.
Not me, though. I cringe inwardly again. Of course they'll know that there's an Ensign who hasn't bothered his arse to meet them yet. What must they think of me?
Mentally, I kick myself. I won't make that mistake again. I hurry my pace.
I stand in front of the doors of company K's Crew Room.
My hand goes towards the activation panel which will slide the durasteel double doors open. I hesitate, psyching myself up.
The "Crew Room".
An incongruous word, conjuring up images of a small, enclosed, cosy space for a few mates to sit around a blazing log fire, quaff ale , and tell ribald, improbable stories of battles and conquests with women.
While this was partly true; the room is indeed designed to be as comfortable as possible, it's anything but small.
It's rectangular in shape, some 250 feet long, and 100 wide. The whole company, 300 men, give or take, can be accommodated here. There are Ten more rooms like this along this section of corridor, five to a row, opposite each other. There are sliding doors between the Crew Rooms, so that, if need be, the rooms can all be opened in to one another. The men's bunk alcoves line the walls on either side of the room, with recreational items ,tables, equipment racking and the like in the space between rows. The men spend most of their down time in their Crew Rooms, when they aren't in the mess, training ,or out on deployment.
They are rowdy, lively places most of the time. It's this aspect of the room I'm about to enter that's got me most worried. That, and the reception I'm worried I'll get. I almost don't press the button.
I'm just thinking about walking away when I notice some troopers from company "L", from the Crew Room next to ours, come around the corner in the corridor and see me by the door. I can't not go in now; It'll look pretty gutless if I'm seen hesitating to go in to my own company's Crew Room. The men rip off casual salutes towards me as they approach, which I resignedly return.
I press the button, and the doors open. I step through them into whatever awaits.