Somehow the lone shot from the bolt pistol was louder than the battle raging around them. Almost instantly, the self-propelled round pierced Trooper Rangod’s neck in the small gap between his flak-vest and helmet. Not that the standard issue flak-helmet would have been able to withstand the mass-reactive shell, but it stayed remarkably intact in the red cloud of pieces of skull and brain matter, as the head it was protecting so poorly exploded from within. Leksija Zhukova had drawn her weapon and shot in one fluid motion. Poor Rangod had not made it ten yards from the line.
Smoke was drifting from the barrel and a smell like charcoal was in the air as the headless torso fell to the dry ground on this barren wasteland of a planet. The Junior Commissar still held the ornate bolt pistol outstretched and swept her gaze over the remaining squad of Genoran Regulars. Her black coat and polished cuirass set her apart from the troopers in their drab fatigues. So did her stern face and, in one case, bladder control.
“The holy Emperor’s punishment will be delivered today!” It’s a skill to have a voice which commands authority while remaining calm, and one Zhukova had mastered. “You’re either the instrument of His wrath,” pausing a calculated moment, “or its victim. Rangod made his choice, when he declared he knew better than the infallible Emperor, who for millennia has guided the destiny of billions in His eternal vigil against the darkness that seeks to deny humanity its birthright, and defied His will that this world shall be cleansed of the foul xenos.” Rangod’s headless corpse lying in a large pool of his own blood had a way of visualising consequences not even an oratory skill so fine as Zhukova’s could easily match. “The xenos is a mindless brute, incapable of thought, and we purge the galaxy of its filth because it is our right. But where the beast is merely ignorant, the traitor forsakes the Emperor’s illumination; and shall be met by the same fate. I am His will, and He shall not be denied today!”
Her reinforced boots drew a metallic echo from the bare plasteel floors of the forward operations centre. As a Junior Commissar, she had been allocated small quarters in one of the standard hab-containers reserved for line officers and members of the Departmento Munitorum. Even after a long and hard fought battle with the Orks, Zhukova walked the corridors with the demeanour ingrained to her in the Officio Prefectus: Back straight, chin up and slightly stretched out. She opened the door to her sparse chambers with a press of her thumb on the gene-coded keypad. The meagre furnishings, a retractable cot, a small writing desk and chair, a thin locker without enough hooks, were bolted to the floor or walls, so they did not make a mess during drop-deployment. A lumen strip in the ceiling provided sterile illumination and no personal items gave anything away of Leksija Zhukova. Rangod was standing in a corner, waiting for her.
Zhukova did not look at him, his fatigues drenched in blood around his neck. She turned to the locker and neatly draped her coat and hat over a mahogany hanger, unclasped the straps securing her cuirass and secured it with her weapons in a small cabinet within. Rangod did not say a word. They never did.
“You have been found wanting in your service to the Emperor, Trooper.” Zhukova said, as she closed the locker. Finally she turned towards him, looking at the face she remembered so clearly. “Your life? What is your life against the whole of humanity, Trooper? Nothing.” Zhukova stepped closer, a fire lit in her eyes. “You mean nothing to Him, Trooper, nothing!” She was inches away from Rangod who stood there immobile like a statue, shouting in his face. “You are but a drop of oil in His grand machine, beyond your service you are useless to Him!”
Zhukova’s lips were trembling, her face red-hot.
She turned around towards Trooper Herkrad, standing in the not-so-far corner of her quarters. He had betrayed the Emperor on their last deployment to Callax IV, wearing the grey-white winter fatigues instead of Rangod’s olive camo.
“No, you serve His will or you die, that’s your simple Imperial Truth right there!”
Zhukova was screaming now at Herkrad; and Mallod, Donan, Gassod and all the others. With every turn she faced another traitor and her voice was becoming hoarse from dismissing their accusations. At last she rounded on Jessup, who stood there on the granite floor of the Schola Progenium, still clutching the forbidden tome, clothed in the same scant tunics she had worn that day. Zhukova looked closely at Jessup, probing his youthful face for the fear that writ his features when the Drill Abbot selected her from the group of students and handed her the bolt pistol she still carried today.
“We are one in Him and nothing we hide is beyond Him. If we falter in our devotion but for a second, our place among humanity is forfeit.”
Zhukova couldn’t remember if she had spoken or the abbot.
Orks are terrible shots, but there were many of them. So many. Projectiles of a myriad of calibers were impacting all around them, many hitting the sturdy barricades erected by the imperial sappers. But the weight of fire had steadily withered them down and Zhukova’s squad had already lost six men. Yesterday’s stalemate had only delayed the inevitable, as the full strength of the Ork Waaagh was now closing in on the remaining forces of the Astra Militarum. Zhukova knew that air support was unlikely, as she continued to put shot after shot into the Ork horde. As the first brutes stormed the barricades on the left of her squad, Zhukova saw Trooper Gerrand losing his nerves and turning to flee. She took down another Ork about to leap her position, before she spun around for the Guardsman and shot.
Imperial Truth was submitted to Cold Open Stories‘ latest Warhammer 40k contest, themed “Beneath the Mask”.
This story is creative fanfiction. Warhammer and all related subjects are registered trademarks by Games Workshop Limited