Works of Richard Marsden
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By Richard Marsden
Commissar Loren was many things. He was arrogant, demanding, a first rate ass, and most assuredly dead. He was dead for many reasons, which included his arrogance, demanding nature, and the fact he was an ass, but the primary reason he was a corpse was because there was a hole in his forehead.
"You shot him." Stammered Private Harrens as she staggered back from the Commissar as if at any moment the political agent of the Imperium might stand up again and bellow out their death sentences.
"Well he was going to summarily execute us. If not now, at some other point. And besides, I didn’t shoot him." Tharn smiled displaying a line of crooked teeth and a twinkling gaze which normally won over the ladies but apparently had the opposite effect on Commissars. Cheerfully the PDF soldier crouched low in the shell crater they all shared and clambered over the body of Loren to get a better vantage of what lay beyond.
The sight wasn’t reassuring. There were dozens of crater holes indented across a blasted near lifeless landscape that was dotted with a few trees whose stumps were now splintered and whose leaves had long ago been burnt away. The enemy, were tucked safely behind a pile of sandbags some hundred meters off, their helmets and uniforms identical to that of Tharn and Harrens’ except for a red streak of paint slashed across the Imperial Aquila which was emblazoned on the front of their helms. They were traitors one and all and a far cry smarter than Tharn’s compatriots.
Before the line of sandbags Tharn could make out the twisted corpses of those who had come before him, their hands reaching up to an uncaring sky, their eyes sightless, their kit already looted by the more adventurous of the enemy who had braved going over their own barricades for a few dangerous, if potentially lucrative, moments. Not a pleasant sight and Tharn was completely positive that he and hapless Harrens would have been amongst the bodies if they had carried out the Commissar’s bold command.
Tharn spared a look at the dead fellow and sighed before sending another glance Harren’s way. Poor girl. She was young, pretty, and there was no way he was going to be able to seduce her after what she had seen. At least not anytime soon. The female PDF soldier was still staring at Loren, who in his dirt stained black stormcoat still managed to cut an imposing, if lifeless, figure.
"You shot him! By the Throne, you shot him." The girl’s eyes watered and she looked up in horror at Tharn, she gripped her lasgun a bit tighter so that her knuckles seemed to whiten and her body began to tense up.
Tharn could sense she was thinking about doing something that was technically loyal, but also foolhardy. Tharn could have killed her, he was sure. He had served in Oclia’s PDF for twenty years and seen his fair share of riots, alien raids, and this was his second civil war. He knew war far better than the quaking girl that sat dumbstruck in the crater hole, no doubt drafted to fight in what the Planetary governor was calling, "The greatest and most important conflict in our world’s history", which ironically was what the last civil war was referred to as. Tharn had at his disposal many weapons, and not all of them were in the variety of a Mars Beta Pattern lasgun. He wouldn’t need to shoot the girl.
"We shot him." Tharn declared and then gestured down at the dead Commissar who was obliging enough to regain the girl’s attention.
The girl looked surprised and at Tharn’s gesture she risked a look down to the body crumpled before them, her lips pursed. Fool of a girl, Tharn thought. All he had to do was lift his lasgun and gently squeeze the trigger and she’d be done for. She would be just another body amongst many in the field of combat. But Tharn was no murderer, not in the strictest sense, and he had just begun to use his most favorite of weapons against the girl. Logic.
"You killed him. I saw you. Commissar Loren said charge, and you spun around and shot him. You knew he was a Commissar! He came from behind us. I haven’t even fired this thing yet! I didn’t shoot him!" she held up her untested lasgun to emphasize.
"Quite right. You’ve been tailing me the moment this failed offensive began, hoping that some old beat up soldier such as myself, knows what he’s doing. Let the old warhorse do the killing, you just follow along and when the time is right fire in the general direction of the foe. A good plan. I did the same when I was your age. But back to the point in question, the fact that it was we who murdered this poor sod and not just I."
She opened her mouth to challenge him but Tharn waved a dust coated hand, "Now now. Here we are in a shell hole, minding out own business. Advancing as ordered into the face of dug in, and might I add determined, traitors. Valiant and brave Commissar Larn here-"
"Loren. Commissar Loren." She whispered and blinked a few fear induced tears from her eyes.
"Hmm? Right, Commissar Loren here leaps into this pit and says, forward! Now in a split second we really had two choices, correct? What were they?"
It was Tharn’s turn to cut her off, "Right. Obey or disobey. To obey would lead to something unpleasant. You and I would be pantless out there, watering the earth with our cold blood. The other option was to disobey. Now then, when you say to a Commissar; I bloody well think not! You go forward! what happens?"
"He shoots you, correct. Quick girl, stick with me and you’ll live out this little insurrection. Now I know that. I know far better than you what it means to disobey an order from a big man in a big black coat with an equally big hat. Thus, I did what I had to." Tharn eased himself up slowly over the lip of the crater for, not a quick glance but a slow one towards the line of sandbags. He needed the enemy to play their part if he was going to win Harren’s over. True to form upon seeing a helmet rise slowly above the crater’s edge, so slow and so careless, someone had to take a shot. The lasround cracked in the distance and Tharn tucked his head back down and pressed his face into the churned up earth. An instant later a red bolt of light spat into the dirt and sent forth spray of debris into the crater. A fine dust settled upon them all.
Harrens shrieked and went flat, and landed atop the Commissar and shrieked again and rolled on her back, kicking away from the body. She grasped her lasgun and then stared nervously across the small confines of the shell hole at Tharn. "But you did it. Not me." She said after a moment of regaining her composure.
"Technicality. See you’re still here. If you were as mindlessly loyal as you should be, then I should be alone in this crater and you should be about twenty five meters outside of it lying face down. But you’re not are you? Here you are shaking and afraid stuck in a dirty hole with me and Mr. Discipline." Tharn rubbed his jaw and felt the stubble of a few days’ growth and felt the dust of his volatile home world’s torn up earth. A look cast Harren’s way revealed her to be stuck in the throes of indecision. The old PDF soldier whispered thanks to the Emperor, and a more private prayer of thanks to the foe for supplying the necessary effects. A few more words of solace and she’d be one step closer to becoming a veteran.
"Now you could shoot me, right? Right here and now. I won’t even stop you. Shoot me and then wait for the second wave to come across. Now, if the second wave overwhelms the enemy, you can then inform them of what happened here. How’s that sound?" Tharn casually leaned against the incline of the crater and rested on his back; he idly lowered his weapon then shrugged.
he girl was young, untested, but not wholly stupid, which is what exactly Tharn was counting on. She shook her head realizing something must be amiss for him to so casually reveal to her a way out of her predicament. She licked her dry lips and adjusted her oversized helm, "You know something don’t you. Why can’t I do that?"
"Glad you asked Harrens. You have a first name?"
"Alyda." She said numbly, her mind still in shock and reeling.
"Alyda. I can call you that?" he pressed on not bothering to wait for her consent, "Alyda, even if you shoot me and confess what has transpired in this hole, it won’t matter. The Commissariat will shoot you as surely as I shot Loren here. You were ordered to charge and didn’t, and you didn’t immediately shoot me. Tsk tsk, very traitorous behavior I’d say."
"I could lie. I could say I shot you because you shot the Commissar, and that he never said any order at all." Feeling herself clever Alyda shifted her back against the opposite incline of the crater across from Tharn and raised up the muzzle of her lasgun.
Tharn smiled faintly and whispered, "You are willing to lie then?"
She hesitated but then nodded and Tharn could see her finger slowly working its way across the trigger mechanism of her weapon.
"Then why tell a lie that has to have two dead loyal servants of the Emperor in a shell hole when we can tell a lie that has but one."
Tharn saw her head tilt and Alyda Harrens looked as if she were about to refute him, but the old PDF soldier pressed on, "I’m as loyal to the Emperor as you. If I wasn’t, I’d be on the other end of those yon sandbags waiting for you to stick your head up. But I’m not. I’m in here with you in the wake of a very messy failed attack. Could have shot you dead right alongside him, but I didn’t. Could have shot you dead at any point during our conversation. Even now, girl, before you could even fire off a single shot I could have your own lasgun up against your chin and your throat flattened beneath cold metal. But I’m a loyal servant of the Emperor. I’ve been in the PDF of Oclia for decades. You think anyone makes it this long without having to ermm bend the rules from time to time." He nudged Commissar Loren’s arm with his worn boot.
"Now then, if you really still think I’m no better than them," he looked up and back to where he knew the enemy were still waiting tucked behind their barricade, "Then either make your move or go carry out the Commissar’s orders."
She hesitated and trembled and then, as Tharn was hoping she would, lowered her weapon. "What are we going to do?" the girl said and a few tears ran down her cheeks clearing away the grime. Tharn felt a bit sorry for her, but then reasoned to himself that he was saving her life; that is if she listened closely. Someone as nice as him might not end up sharing a shell hole with her next time.
"We are going to live Alyda. Live so that on some other day, when the odds are right, we can kill the foes of the Emperor and live to tell the tale. Honestly, you think we are any good to His cause if we’re dead? Sure we all have to die sometime, but if we have to die Alyda, I’d prefer we die for something a bit more meaningful than the capture of a pile of sandbags. Agreed?"
She nodded and looked down at the body of the fallen Commissar then back to Tharn with her watery eyes. She opened her mouth as if to say something but then went silent and nodded again.
"Right then. For now we stay here. The second wave will be along shortly. Play very much dead. If they win, they’ll keep pressing on and you’ll do as I say. If they don’t, well then we’ll have to wait for the third or fourth."
Major Understom marched across the battlefield with his personal staff, and PDF bodyguards. The Major had never seen a battle like this before. He had suppressed a food riot in one of Oclia’s larger cities, but he had not seen the likes of an insurrection such as this.
The Major strode over bodies and around shell craters. In the distance he could see a line of sandbags. Some of the sandbags had been pushed over, and all around them the corpses of friend and foe alike lay intertwined in a gruesome and yet glorious tapestry. Smoke roiled across the traitor’s fallen position and the Major could not help but smile. He had ordered frontal attack after frontal attack, sure that the renegade’s barrier could be overrun with blunt manpower and the shining valor of his PDF forces. It swelled his heart with pride to see that he was right, never mind that it took three attempts.
"Lieutenant, how are our losses?" the Major asked, not out of any deep concern for his men’s well being, but rather to see if they could perhaps press on with another series of glorious charges against the enemy’s layered defense network.
The man in the stark clean uniform next to Major Understom straightened and looked over a dataslate, "Reasonable losses sir. You’ve done a fine job of showing these vermin the futility of their resistance. This battle will teach them what happens when one denies the Governor his tithes! If things keep going like this we won’t need to summon the Imperial Guard. One loss amongst our own Sir does bears mentioning. I’m afraid Commissar Loren is dead sir. A remarkable story though."
The Major glanced to the sky and sighed. Commissar Loren was a fine instrument of discipline within the ranks of his PDF. He had beat, shot, and tortured the cowardice right out of his men and his fine, caring touch would be missed. He was one of the reasons his PDF would gladly charge into the face of heavy enemy fire without turning back. "A profound loss. You said there was a story?
"Yes sir. It seems a squad of troopers from first wave actually made it to the enemy lines, and there with the Commissar held off all comers. It was in the confusion of third wave’s triumph that the enemy was able to fell him." The Lieutenant lowered his data slate.
"A pity. So close to seeing victory, and felled at the last moment was he? But, he died in the service of the Emperor! There can be no better end. Oh, any survivors amongst the squad?"
The Lieutenant took up his dataslate once more and scanned it, "Yes sir. Amongst the bodies, we found two survivors. One private Tharn and a private Harrens."
"Fine soldiers. Examples that we need! Our Commissar is dead, but not his lesson. I want those two decorated and their story told throughout the PDF! Let our men know what real soldiers do in the field of battle! Fine soldiers indeed!"