“Where was the turn? Shit, shit!” Reth constantly repeats the question and assorted expletives in his mind as he frantically reads the markers under his rushing feet and above his head, trying to stay on course.
Running through the tight corridors of the troop ship is by no means enjoyable: There are dangling cables all over, men are coming this way and that (usually carrying something heavy that blocks their vision), and one could easily trip over something and go tumbling down onto hard steel. Running through the corridors is something Trooper Reth never wants to do but finds himself doing quite often because of his affinity for being late to important events; the young man can still recall standing in front of the entire regiment the first day of basic training and getting yelled at by Captain Janik. Reth does his best not to stand out these days, but sprinting through the close hallways sending up a royal racket does not help him in this case. Questions are yelled after him that he half hears; some men have to jump out of the way to avoid the blur of movement.
Above a coming intersection are two signs: One reads Mess Hall D and the other Assembly Hall B. “There! I’ll just follow this way and I’ll get there in no time at all.” Reth does his best to propel himself faster now that he knows for certain where he’s heading.
He rounds the corner and spots the hatchway leading into the assembly hall, but the hatch itself is shut. Through the small glass window Reth spots the men of the regiment—all fifteen hundred of them. In the far corner Reth can see the men of his squad. Sergeant Hall is leaning against his seat with that usual look of disinterest he gets whenever not in a combat zone, Trooper Liam is reading something and Trooper Tur is sleeping with his arms crossed and his head lolled back. Corporal Utz is turned around and talking to a trooper that Reth can’t identify.
“Of course they’re across the entire room, but I don’t think the briefing has started quite yet so I’m in the clear.” Content that he’s safe and sound from being chewed out by that captain again Reth begins to smirk. Immediately after that smirk breaks out on Reth’s face, the booming voice of Commissar Goethers comes from the hall. The large man is calling the regiment to attention; there is a commotion of men standing up straight and a muddled clacking of leather boots together. Colonel Mittvoch enters the room behind the commissar, followed by majors Yevn and Idronemo. “Wonder if there’s a back way into this room? Would I get in more trou…”
Suddenly the hatch that Reth is peeking through opens and Sergeant Marston is looking down at the young man.
“What are you doing, trooper?” the old sergeant asks. The man’s genuine curiosity throws Reth off for a moment.
“I was late and just about to enter?” Reth realizes that shouldn’t have sounded like a question. He tries to cover the fact by smirking honestly, but Reth had never been that good at acting. The sergeant glares at him.
“Get going to your seat.” With that the sergeant steps aside and Reth hurries inside. The sergeant at the door watches the trooper scuttle away and shakes his head.
“At ease.” Goethers’ voice rebounds off the corners of the room, his training giving him a commanding tone. The men of the regiment all sit back down. Mittvoch walks, with the even pace of a military man, over to a large display unit in front of the regiment and inserts a disc into the system. The hologram sputters into life and a large planet begins to hover above the men. The world is covered in green continents with wide swaths of blue ocean; swirling clouds lazily slide across the picture of the rotating hologram. It’s easy to assume that the world is a pleasant place to live.
“Nice of you to join us.” Tur says lazily to Reth, smiling at his remark.
“Not very original, you know.” Corporal Utz retorts.
“Hey, next time we have something important like this, make sure I’m with you, okay?” Reth jabs his finger into Tur’s shoulder to drive the point home.
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll try and wake you from your beauty sleep next time. No promise.”
The colonel allows the regiment to look at the planet for a moment. There is a general hum of talking and hypothesizing about what this campaign will entail. General theories of insurrections against the planetary governor, a heretical assault—one of the more creative troopers attempts to garner a laugh from his squad by launching into a brief theatrical telling of farm animals that have risen up under a banner of hooves. His attempt falls flat. After the murmuring has died off some, Mittvoch clears his throat to stop the rest of the theorizing.
“This is the planet Gaia. As you can see it is a pleasant world not unlike our own. Many countries call this place home and the planetary governor has to constantly walk a tight-rope with all the powers so they constantly play nice.” Years in military service have given Mittvoch the ability to project his voice so every soldier in the hall can hear him clearly.
“I’m sure most of you will understand that we are not here for a vacation,” Mittvoch smiles when a number of groans are heard, some being clearly more audible than others.
"The reason we are here is that there is a bit of a crisis going on at the moment. I know how much that will surprise you all.” A few soldiers chuckle at the joke. “For once, the Guard is going to be subtle instead of crushing everything in our path with artillery and armor.” The men of the regiment suddenly become more awake at the thought of this not being another slog.
“Gaia being so close to the Blake front means that this planet can readily provide a number of regiments for the God-Emperor’s mighty armies—the only problem is that two of the most prominent countries are in the middle of a large spat.” The colonel walks over the projector and hits a button on the side. The picture of Gaia leaves and is replaced with two awkwardly shaped countries. A name is above each of the countries: Witam on the right and Tschüss on the left.
“A number of generations ago, Tschüss was a little on the war-mongering side and conquered Witam along with a number of other countries. The PDF could do nothing against Tschüss’ mighty armor battalions. Fun bit of trivia: The best of the PDF armor were Tschüssian pilots and they abandoned their posts when Tschüss called them home. The governor had to cut a bargain to avoid a lot of bloodshed.” Mittvoch does his best to look into the eyes of as many soldiers as possible. Mittvoch has a tendency to identify with his soldiers; he knows almost all by first name and calls everyone in the regiment friend. Always welcoming and routinely with an open door, the soldiers of the regiment enjoy having Mittvoch as a colonel for his informal and friendly nature.
“Something tells me that didn’t end well.” Tur’s voice is flat, his sense of humor departing when he decided this assignment was going to be a huge hassle.
“The governor allowed Tschüss to keep her conquests under the stern threat that they would not push further—the presence of an Imperial fleet in the area certainly put some weight in the governor’s words. I’m not really sure if the governor was even in contact with the fleet, but you gotta respect a bluff of that level.” Many of the regiment nod in agreement. “I doubt that even our esteemed Oscar has ever bluffed on a scale that large!” A small section of troopers start hollering their disagreement: The card-playing abilities of this one-time con man puts everyone who has faced him to absolute shame. “Before anyone starts wondering or asking questions: No, Tschüss cannot deny the Imperium its soldiers, but Tschüss has a hand in picking who goes and that means they would keep the best at home in case Witam gets any ideas about enacting revenge on a national scale. With guard units stationed there for however long is needed, Tschüss will feel comfortable sending their best and brightest.” Another round of groans start up at the thought of staying in Witam for what could amount to months or years.
“That time of conquest started two centuries ago. As with all conquered peoples those under the Tschüssian thumb rose up and fought a guerilla campaign. The Tschüssian response was suitably evil for an expansionist people: public executions, looting and pillaging, relocations, mass murders are all a good indication of the crimes committed by the Tschüss soldiers.” The colonel notices that a large amount of his soldiers’ faces become very hard now that they know what they’re walking into.
“Tschüss was kicked out of its other prizes over that two-hundred-year span for various reasons. Witam had no such luck. Tschüss was willing to sacrifice the lesser prizes, but Witam was the crown jewel. Rich in farmland and home to many centers of trade, it was simply too valuable to let go of. Because of this, Tschüss applied much more pressure on Witam. This only served to get more people to start fighting back. The invaders only left because a coup d'état called the soldiers home. This era of conquest has now become a mark of distinct shame for the Tschüssian public. The new ruling elite seek to change how the rest of the world perceives them.
“As one can imagine, Witam holds no love for her neighbors. That bad blood is the reason we are here. When regiments of Gaian soldiers were called for, Witam exploded in rage at the prospect of serving alongside their mortal enemies. Now Witam is fighting past barbarism with current barbarism, and the governor has called for Imperial aid to quell the violence.
“This is going to be a rough campaign. No Witam citizen is willing to sacrifice their own but we must preserve order until the situation is dissolved. No matter how long that may take. Tschüssian armor is more valuable than a regiment of loud-mouthed degenerates, it would seem.” A pocket of troopers loudly object their status as degenerates. Mittvoch waves the noise silent.
The colonel continues briefing the men on the more important guerilla bands—Reth takes interest in the fact that the ones headed by beautiful farm maidens are the most deadly and wicked in their treatment of Tschüssian prisoners—and a variety of the tactics used by the partisans. Half of the regiment is to be garrisoned in the capital city while the others will patrol the immediate farmland around the city. A number of other regiments will be out around the country as well but the capital is the priority. Liam jots something down in his notebook when Mittvoch puts significance on a certain group or tactic. Commissar Goethers sits with his arms crossed eyeing the picture presented by the hologram muttering once about how asinine nationalism is. After an hour, the colonel dismisses the men stating that they will deploy within the week.
. . .
“How come we even have to be here? Couldn’t they just create separate regiments out of the separate countries like our world did?” Reth’s question goes unanswered as no one hears him over the general hum of the troops, equipment, and supplies moving into their shuttles to go planet-side. He repeats the question and Utz ponders it for a moment.
“Mittvoch said that this Witen or whatever absolutely hates Thusch or however you call it. I’d wager that was the plan, but when word got out, the radical of Witen chose not to listen to the whole story and just went off. Some pissed off old guerillas or politicians are rallying the people because they don’t want to play nice with their old enemy. That has to be it. You know how faceless mobs can be.” Utz continues talking after this conclusion but he seemingly forgets that he is rehashing what Mittvoch already said.
“I actually don’t, and I think it was Witam and Tschüss.” Reth has to stop for a moment and adjust his helmet. That asshole of a quartermaster promised Reth he’d get a new helmet, but after two campaigns Reth has had to make due with a helmet one size too large for his head. When he’s satisfied, the other men of his squad are well ahead of him.
“So to sum up: it’s just tit for tat. Witam is using this as an excuse to butcher their neighbors. Makes you damn proud to be a human, you know.” Utz is speaking as if Reth had been by his side the whole time. Reth pats his helmet for a moment and thanks it for the first time the two have been together. Corporal Utz is well known for speaking his mind for hours on end—some believe he would speak to a shadow if he thought a person was casting it.
Liam walks beside the duo and nods along with what Utz is saying, but he feels a need to add something else. “I’d venture that we aren’t here to stop man from killing man, but because the Imperial Guard needs those Tschüssian tankers in good shape. The crimes of the past being repeated in the present but this time on your own family would ruin the morale of any solider. That being said, getting some Witam skirmishers on top of those Tschüssian tanks is just another reason we’re here. The Guard truly is the master of practicality.” Liam has to adjust his glasses after the theory, his constant head movements causing the spectacles to become loose all the time. It was Tur’s philosophy that Liam was always speaking with his hand motions and head-shaking because he was an exaggerated ass, but Reth believed it was because Liam had been a teacher or at least perceived himself as one.
“Witam has good light infantry now?” Tur asks halfheartedly. Reth knows the scraggly bearded man really doesn’t care but merely asks to humor Liam, who is constantly seeking to enlighten everyone about any and all information. Just more proof of Reth’s theory.
“Maybe if you paid more attention during the briefing you’d know that,” Liam snidely retorts.
“Book-learning was never my thing.” There is a sense of pride in Tur’s voice.
“Book-learning?” Liam says it like he’s casting a curse. “Are you a barbarian or something?” Tur repeats the question back doing his best Liam impression. The fact that ‘book-learning’ and ‘listening to one’s CO’ are not the same thing seems to go right past Liam who feels a compulsion to launch into a spoken frenzy about just how stupid Tur can possibly be.
“Alright you two love birds, enough. I can’t turn my back without you two going off on each other. It’s rather romantic in a way.” Utz’s attempt to calm the men works well enough to cool their tempers, and the two men shake hands to prove all their anger is under the metaphorical bridge. “Good to see my men getting along so well.”
“Come on, you little bastards! Get on board before you’re left on this heap.” Sergeant Hall’s voice can be heard over the general din of the hold. His rough exterior matches his rough intellect and personality, swearing and lewd talk being standard to the grizzled man. Reth and his teammates scurry over to the Valkyrie next to Hall. Reth looks at the ship and swallows hard.
“Never really liked flying.” The thought sits uneasily in his mind as he walks into the beast.
. . .
The capital of Witam is an old city named Dom. The Witam people were beyond proud to have the world’s most prestigious art university in their very own capital before Tschüss waltzed in and sacked it. After the initial invasion, the university was turned into a barrack for the garrison forces and the pieces of art sent back to Tschüss, where they were sold for hefty amounts and hung in homes as conversation pieces. Only after the occupation have new pieces of art been on display inside the building. Most of the art are brutal pieces that depict horrid happenings and man at his worst.
Another landmark that the people of Dom were all too happy to point to was the old Imperial Church in the center of the town. Legend had it that this was the first church on the planet to adopt the Imperial Cult. So much pride and respect was heaped on this minuscule shrine sandwiched between two merchant houses. It was the only building that had never been sacked or touched in any way by the Tschüssian soldiers, who feared the Emperor’s retribution as much as they feared their own country’s secret police. The church was also the first stop when sneaking out of the city through underground passages.
There was also a riverwalk that ran alongside the Janzhich, a major river in the area around Dom that allowed the city to become a trade hub with all the wealth and affluence that status brings. This walk would later be boarded up and policed regularly so no Witam citizens could leave by aquatic means. One of the first bits of rumor that fluttered around the Guard barracks was that the river, though appearing beautiful and clean, held the bones of hundreds of men, women and children who preferred death to conquest; if one were to take a swim or slip in, he would be dragged downwards.
Even after the two hundred years of occupation, the city was still beautiful at times. The boarded up homes and shops quickly left the soldiers’ memories when another building was alive with life right next door. It seemed that Dom and all of Witam simply wanted to forget as quickly as possible that the Tschüssian occupation ever happened.
Many of the troopers took to creating excuses so they could watch the sun set over the river and feel the late fall breeze on their skin. A number of young women who were awe-struck by these brave guardsmen joined in the simple pleasure of a sunset. Dom was a cramped city with thin streets, but the skyline itself had a great visual rhythm.
Reth had been in Dom for a few weeks and was still trying to apply a metaphor to the whole place, but he could not come up with anything satisfactory. His day-to-day tasks were easy enough but leaned toward mind-numbing: wake up for drills, patrol around the city for a couple hours, lunch, patrol some more and the day was done. The regiment enjoyed the quiet of the city but a number bemoaned the boredom.
Here in the walls of the capital Reth couldn’t believe that there were problems with the Witam populace. Tur talked about the ghetto where Tschüssian immigrants and descendants had been relegated, but having never seen it, Reth didn’t believe most of what Tur said.
Reth did pick up one piece of information from Tur however: the monument to the occupation. “Tomorrow I’ll pay the place a visit,” he decided late one evening.
. . .
Reth had heard the monument was beautiful from assorted troopers in the regiment, but seeing the thing made all those vague descriptions, recalled in a haze thanks to the local liquor and the local women of leisure, simply laughable. In the center is a circular fountain in which a number of marble statues stand. Men, women and children are all represented; each carrying a rifle and a stern expression. In the middle of the statues is a young couple holding high the flag of Witam. The water that surrounded the statue is crystal clear and radiates a few meters from the statues. Inside the fountain are many coins. Reth chuckles and thinks it funny that something as simple as a wishing well can be found dotted throughout something as enormous as the Imperium. Running around the fountain are benches and flower boxes at equal space, to preserve symmetry, boasting beautiful hues and a pleasant odor that Reth can smell from a few feet away. It is obvious that this fountain is a focal point for the city as there a lot of people milling around the fountain even this late in the day. Children run about and parents watch them in their periphery while talking to neighbors and friends. A gaggle of venders are selling their various goods, mostly trinkets that are guaranteed to win the heart of one’s sweetheart.
Reth looks at his watch and decides he has time to relax and enjoy the fountain before heading back to his fellows for dinner. A bench placed next to two flower boxes full of a beautiful red variety that Reth can’t name seems a good spot.
A number of minutes pass as Reth takes in the scene of Dom on a lazy day. Reth is convinced that there is simply a large misunderstanding. Witam is incapable of the crimes laid at their feet. This pleasant square is proof enough of that.
“Are you a guardsman?” The voice is old. Reth turns his head towards it and sees an old man leaning on a cane with a lit lho-stick in his mouth. Atop his head is a purple bowler cap.
“That’s why I have the hat.” Reth points to the one on his head bearing the double-headed Aquila of the Imperium. Reth realizes that was a smart comment and smiles after it to show he didn’t meant anything by it.
“I suppose that is why you would wear it,” the old man grumbles. He stands there for a few minutes. Reth looks around, half expecting the old man to just turn around without further comment, but here he stands.
After those minutes of silence, Reth decides to think of a way to escape this conversation that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Reth decides on the tried-and-true method of looking at his watch and lying through his teeth about an important date. “I’ll pretend I’m to meet with the colonel, that’ll sound official!” The young man’s mouth opens.
“You know, I used to be one of those soldiers up there, a freedom fighter,” the old man begins. Reth’s mouth hangs open for a few moments looking at the man, his elaborate lie going totally to waste now. “I fought in the woods and these streets back in my younger days and up until the end of the war, sixty years of hard fighting and hard living, but it was worth it to see Witam free.” The silence after this lasts for a few minutes while Reth is frantically looking around for an excuse to leave. A food vendor seems a good reason not to talk to this man and Reth’s mouth opens to begin explaining that his stomach is quite empty, but the old man decides to speak first. “I hope you now understand why I must ask you to leave this place at once.”
"Excuse me?” Reth’s voice isn’t angry or shocked, just curious.
“I want you to leave this place. You guardsmen want us to forgive those devils’ past crimes and become comrades with them. I refuse to allow anyone who wants my sons to join forces with the sons of my enemies to be on this ground.”
Within Reth’s mind he is scrambling for explanations or counter-arguments to give the old man, but he can’t settle on any one thing to pin down and retort. Things that Liam talked about swirl in Reth’s head: historical dates and important peoples that won’t help now.
“I’m a simple guardsman, my good man. I don’t want…”
“Don’t call me ‘good man,’ you little shit.” Any pretense of civility has just vanished. The old man seems to be gaining courage now.
“If you’re trying to intimidate me, it won’t work. I am a soldier of the Emperor and you will understand that.” Reth’s voice becomes more firm, doing his best to sound like Hall during training. Something that reassures Reth is that Witam is currently under martial law; the Guard holds power in their hands. This old man can’t do anything against him.
“You want to fight me on this ground?” Reth’s mouth opens in shock at the man’s conclusion.
“I never said anything like that, you old bastard.” The trooper knows that this is for nothing now. The old terrorist’s mind is set: this guardsman will leave at once or will be forced to, consequences be damned.
“I lived and died for this world, my friends and family the same. You do not understand what we fought for here, why Witam refuses with all its might to ever work together with those Tschüssian worms.” The lho-stick in the old man’s mouth is nearly finished. “You guardsmen and the Imperium were not here when our country was torn apart.”
The trooper begins to open his mouth again to shout something else at this retired militant but he realizes that others are circling around. A vendor is now wielding a long knife, a number of men have taken position behind Reth, a woman is shouting for others to come and see the trouble.
With a shake of his head and open palms, Reth walks away from the scene, hearing slurs and curses hurled at him and about his comrades by the people of Witam. The wind continues to blow.
. . .
“You do realize just how crazy this sounds, right?” Utz is resting against the head of his bed while the other men of his team are seated around him. A lho-stick sits in Tur’s mouth.
“It may sound crazy, but it’s true.” The bravado from earlier has left Reth drained and he doesn’t want to argue with Utz.
“It may sound crazy, guys, but I’m really the son of the Warmaster,” Tur chimes in, laying on the sarcasm thicker than usual.
“I’m more concerned why that geezer picked a fight with you,” Liam quickly interjects, clearly wanting to find the answer to this. “I’ve heard from others that Dom has been hospitable, nothing ever like wanting to fight a soldier of the Emperor in the open during the day. That’s tantamount to heresy.”
“He did say something about me being at that particular site. He seemed offended that I even thought about going to the monument, like I’d personally slapped him in the face by just being there.” Reth’s hand moves to cover his mouth in thought but nothing comes to him.
“Maybe he was just super pissed at you for being there. Maybe it’s fine if we guardsmen are anywhere else in the city, but that site is just not acceptable because of what it symbolizes and what the Guard wants them to do in spite of it?” Utz had always been good at hypothesizing solutions to various problems and this ability helped his squad tremendously in times of question. Reth had heard Liam say that this ability was merely an extension of Utz loving to talk about anything and everything. Liam always ends his own hypothesis by saying that if one hits a wall enough times, it will fall over. “I’d be pretty pissed if someone came to our home planet demanding we side with royalists on the site of the Declaration Signing. That’s why our world has split regiments, why those damn blue-coats stay far away from us.” The men nod in agreement.
All of them know that what created their home country was a violent birthing. It was a war between a far-away king and colonials who wanted the right to rule themselves. Hatred of anything royalist runs deep in every man of the regiment, with the exception of the commissar who, like all commissars within the Guard, hails from a different planet and isn’t privy to the personal hatred for royalty that the regiment feels.
“It’s rather easy to understand their position, though, you know?” The other three men look at Liam, who adjusts his glasses preemptively.
Utz reaches in his coat pocket for a lho-stick; Tur offers the corporal his small promethium lighter.
“Have you been to the art university?”
Reth, Tur and Utz shake their heads no.
“I figured as much.” Tur rolls his eyes at the slight. “All the art I saw there was extremely depressing; it depicted man at his absolute worst. Pictures of murder, carnage and Witam burning were everywhere. There was an old pamphlet of the place that showed marvelous pieces of art, though. There were large canvases of great scenery depicting the Witam fields and steppes, an oil painting showing the foundation of Dom with the old king Troiden the Fourth flanked by his hussar regiments, and the adoption of the glorious Imperial Cult by the people of Witam drawn in coal. I would have loved to have seen it all, but now those pieces of art hang in some Tschüssian vault or manor house collecting dust. The new elite may want the world to forgive them, but getting the old families to return art like that will take decades through peaceful means.” After finishing, Liam rummages through his footlocker to find the pamphlet and hands it to Utz. The pieces were indeed superb with extreme detail, but in the washed-out color of the pamphlet, much of the impact is lost to the men.
“Is it really fair to allow a pogrom against a whole nation of people just for some art, though?” The question from Reth hangs for a moment.
“Are you forgetting the reason we’re here? Witam was occupied for close to two centuries. They have their grievances,” Utz corrects the other trooper.
“Yeah, but we haven’t seen anything of Tschüssians getting harassed or…” Reth starts, but Tur shakes his head and interrupts his fellow.
“We don’t really see anything drastic here in the city, but the ghetto is a hellhole. Men and women living in sheet metal homes, none of them are working and crime is rampant.” The tone in Tur’s voice betrays his usual good natured sarcasm—it’s flat and emotionless and, what surprises Reth the most, it’s serious. “When I heard about it, I knew I had to go and see it with my own eyes.”
The men all sit in silence thinking about Witam and Tschüss as a whole. Reth remembers walking to the monument and seeing all the boarded-up homes and businesses that were a result of the occupation. Stories he’s heard about pointless brutalities exacted on the people of Witam during the conquest and occupation, the pieces of art that are gone from Witam, most likely forever, and that old man’s anger about this young guardsman being at that monument. Maybe Witam is justified in their actions against the Tschüssian people, Reth ponders. What can a guardsman do, though? Soldiers don’t question their orders, they follow them without hesitation. The Guard is one of the instruments of the Emperor and His will is absolute and unflinching, but these people resist that.
After a minute, Tur says he’s going to see what Oscar is doing and Utz says he’ll tag along. Liam shrugs, retreats to his cot and starts reading something. Reth continues to think about Witam and Tschüss.
. . .
The shouting started at around midnight, just yelling that the men of the regiment thought was simply a bad card game wrapping up or the apprehension of some regimental thief, but the shouting wouldn’t end. A few of the troopers thought this was quite comical and lively after weeks of nothing but patrolling a city that didn’t need it. The laughter stopped when sergeants came running in and yelling for the men to get ready for deployment. Flak vests came on, lasguns were prepped and prayers to the Emperor given. Urban combat was never an entertaining prospect—the regiment had never had real urban combat, but their training was intense and any of the men would be lying if they said they had no idea how to assault down a clogged street. Questions were quickly raised about what was going on but none of the troopers had an answer. The sergeants were quick to explain:
Insurgents or bandits or freedom fighters (whatever they called themselves) were inside the city and attacking the Guard and the Tschüssian refugees. Mittvoch was informed of the situation by his adjutant and ground his teeth at the uprising. He had assumed that it was going to be a quiet tour, and this sullied all of that. A campaign without any losses was just too perfect; it seemed that the Emperor wanted to test him and his men. Majors Yevn and Idronemo were called in and informed of the situation, although they already knew from the shouting and vox chatter. The Guard’s response was swift and it was efficient: Squads were deployed to patrol and pacify the streets, shooting any man or woman with a weapon that wasn’t in Guard uniform. The main objective was to hold the perimeter around the barrack and the Tschüssian ghetto and sweep from there. The colonel also demanded to speak with the local police force and the mayor of the city, but after trying for both at numerous frequencies and numbers without any response Mittvoch damned them to hell. Fortunately, Mittvoch was able to contact the other regiments around Witam to inform them of the situation and put them on alert for any trouble that the guerillas were planning—or already enacting. The colonel believed his men were the only source of stability for the entire capital. When Idronemo left the command center, he heard Mittvoch curse the situation and the whole of Dom to hell.
Reth and his fellows were some of the first troopers ready to move out, and as such were given the goal of securing and holding the ghetto along with the rest of their platoon who were already on the way. Sergeant Hall was yelling for the men to hurry into the Chimeras, thrusting his chainsword into the air in an attempt to be inspiring—backlit by the lights of a transport, Hall was a figure worthy of myth. Before stepping into the boxy troop transport, Reth saw Commissar Goethers moving about the assembling troopers, shouting about loyalty to the Emperor and the Imperium. He was exclaiming death to the traitors of Witam, the strength of the guardsmen around him, shouting that the Emperor was watching over them all. Goethers promised faith would protect them surely as it would protect His beloved Astartes. Something that Reth noticed was that Goethers was without the trademark of the Commissar—the black leather storm coat—but he was wearing the peaked cap that made every Commissar appear taller and more imposing. Something else Reth saw was a tattoo emblazoned on the man’s arm, a pair of crossed hammers colored red and the name of his home hive-planet underneath them—Protegard.
Tur was pushing from behind and Reth hurried into the Chimera, finding a seat next to the ramp. The other men of the squad were silent and had stern expressions on, one Reth had seen a number of times: that hard look a man gets when he knowingly enters combat.
. . .
“Not much further now, boys, just a little longer,” the driver hollers back at the men.
“‘Not much further’ and ‘just a little longer’ are the same thing,” Tur ribs Reth, and he laughs uneasily. Reth adjusts his helmet again; the damn thing still refuses to stay on right. Satisfied that his latest fiddling will finally resolve the problem, Reth plops the thing back on his head. A second after the helmet is back on, the men inside the transport are thrown against their restraints as the Chimera comes to a grinding halt. There are numerous groans and complaints about bad driving.
“Get the hell out of this thing, now!” the driver yells at the men, and suddenly there are pinging noises against the side of the transport. The backdoor opens and the soldiers pile out with Hall yelling for them to look for cover.
Reth eyes a scorched vehicle and sprints towards it; he slams into the husk with a loud thud; Tur is close behind and crashes alongside a moment after. A moment to catch his breath and Reth peers over the hood trying to see something. Nothing but a store front with broken windows on the first floor, but for a second Reth spots some movement within the store.
Suddenly, he hears pings against the vehicle he’s crouched against.
The sound of hard rounds impacting metal. “How’d I miss the guns actually firing?” Reth thinks to himself, but is brought back to reality by Tur yelling at him to get down. The two both lower their heads and press their bodies closer against the vehicle. Reth blind-fires into the store, his lasgun barking at the traitors but hitting no-one. Tur also lashes out with his weapon, firing three quick bursts that shatter the only window that isn’t broken.
Sergeant Hall is calling for Utz, Cormac and Green to assemble on him. “Cormac, clear out that pocket of shooters trying to get us and return here quickly.” Cormac runs off with his four men towards an alley next to the store. “Green, I’m with you. We’re moving up towards the ghetto. Marston, Jenkins and Orwell should be there so we need to hurry.” The distinct crack of lasguns can be heard and the pelting against the Chimera stops. “Utz, you’re on point. Peter, you stay near to me, got it?” Hall rests his hand on the driver’s shoulder, who nods in understanding and unholsters his las-pistol. Some shouting can be heard—Cormac has returned and the others are offering their congratulations. “Cormac, you’re on rear. Move out! Death to the king!” The regimental cheer is chorused by the others, but the usual enthusiasm is absent when in hostile territory.
. . .
The squad has been walking the claustrophobic streets for a half hour without incident or contact, but much time is spent on staying put while one of Utz’s boys scout ahead. In the thirty minutes since abandoning the Chimera the men have advanced only a few blocks, the nature of urban warfare allowing only methodical movement. Men inch forward with weapon at the ready and constantly scan for trouble; once in position another guardsman would do the same. Inch by inch and foot by foot the soldiers stalk. Sergeant Hall is proud that his men keep strict fire discipline and that not a stray shot goes off at something small scurrying in the darkness—someone’s pet escaping its home, the sergeant assumes.
Around the advancing soldiers are signs of conflict in the form of broken windows and pilfered stores, a few dead bodies are sprawled about some discarded goods (looters; it would seem that some were more practical during a time of riot) burning husks of automobiles create the smell of cheap promethium that permeates the air. Clutched between the tight buildings, the men feel packed in and their nerves begin to fray. Their fingers move closer and closer to their triggers at any sudden sound; their wits are on edge and Hall knows it. He starts half-wishing for some sort of engagement to wake him and his men up from this mechanical movement.
Finally Liam calls back to Hall and says he sees a turn up ahead. One way leads to a dead-end and the other down to the ghetto. The men all perk up, knowing that they’ll finally be away from this alley and its shadows that watch their every move. At least in the ghetto they’ll be able to fully engage the enemy. From the distant sounds of las fire it would seem the others have already reached the ghetto. The vox operator also confirms this by the chatter coming through. Heavy resistance is coming into the ghetto and stragglers are still within the walls taking potshots at troopers.
While the other men are excited to be around their fellows and to have a clear enemy to engage, Reth can’t shake this feeling in his gut, that old human survival instinct that just tells him something isn’t right. The windows looking down on the cobbled street from the dead-end are open, and with this odor and noise only a fool would leave them open—or maybe the resident isn’t there and forgot to close them? An open window can mean many things, but in a combat area it could mean a sniper waiting for a target. Reth decides to stick with his gut and walks up to Hall before the men turn the corner.
“Sergeant, I believe a sniper is resting in the building down the dead-end way. The window is open and that just doesn’t seem right to me at all.” Reth does his best to sound convincing and authoritative in front of Hall, who takes it in and scratches his cheek in thought. Hall leads from the front and trusts his men to see him through anything and they trust him. This time is no different.
“Okay, Utz and you three will check the building, but make it quick. That yelling coming through the vox isn’t getting any more calm, but I don’t want to get shot in the back today.” The sergeant pats Reth on the shoulder and sends the other teams into positions covering the street forward and back.
The window is high enough that to see anything directly below, one has to move out of the window and risk exposure; Utz and his men are therefore able to move and enter the building without risking being seen. It’s clear that the building is a store that sells all kinds of baking goods; the place is somehow untouched despite other stores losing everything to looters.
It is Tur that finds the stairs and is the first to ascend. The second floor is just another level to the store.
“Why do you think the store’s untouched?” Tur quietly asks no-one in particular.
“Snipers are here, the guerillas all know it so they leave the building alone. Those looters we crossed a while back probably didn’t know any better and were shot down,” Utz ventures, and Tur accepts the explanation.
Another flight yields the same result: nothing of importance and no sniper. But another stairway leads skyward, and the men ascend without hesitation, Tur cursing his luck at climbing so many steps.
The fourth and final floor is a studio apartment. There are two large windows looking down on the city, one to the north and the other to the south. Reth spots two figures outlined against the night sky by the south window. There is also what appears to be a scoped rifle leaning against a wall. He thanks his cautious stomach for being correct. With a simple sign of two fingers he informs his fellows of what he sees. Utz nods and points to Reth and Liam to take care of it.
Thanks to the spacious nature of the studio, the troopers easily move up behind the snipers. Reth smells that late autumn scent as it comes though the open windows, the odor cutting through the mixture of other smells had once been prevalent.
Liam turns to Reth and nods with three fingers raised—a countdown.
Three. Reth looks beyond the snipers and sees Dom burning, fires are everywhere. This is the first time Reth has seen an orange night. This city that is so old and has been fought over so fervently for generations is ablaze. Suddenly a metaphor comes to Reth, he finally has it. Dom is a phoenix, constantly being reborn in fire only to repeat the process ages later.
Two. Reth notices how small one of the snipers is compared to the other. He assumes he is a young man because of the unkempt hair that every young man thinks is a good style. Is this the son of the older man? Grandson? Fellow freedom fighter? How fervently does he believe in this cause?
One. Reth smells a burning lho-stick, that sweet tobacco scent reminds him of that old man from the monument. The outline is topped by a bowler hat but Reth can’t tell what color it is. The figure begins to turn his head.
Liam and Reth both fire at the same time. The crack of their lasguns are deafening after so much silence. The two snipers slump forward, the younger one falling out of the window and onto the cobblestone street below.
When the four exit the building they are greeted by smiling comrades. Hall calls for the men to double-time it; the vox has just lit up with more traffic. The insurgents are making a fresh push at the Guard units stationed at the ghetto. It’s time for a calculated risk, Hall says. No more slow-go—we run and keep our senses up, he informs the men. They won’t hold without our help, we have to sweep in and hit the attackers in the ass. Over the vox comes a report of a large force of guardsmen being delayed by some rather stubborn traitors; Hall knows that his small squad may be it for a while, so they have to hurry. Before the short sprint starts, Reth looks at the dead sniper now crumpled on the street. On his jacket breast is the symbol of Witam. A single-headed eagle clutching a scepter. The boy’s face is obscured by his long hair.
. . .
Hall’s men arrive shortly after the full force of guardsmen is bearing down on the insurgents. Evidently, that force of traitors had been dislodged early. Commissar Goethers is first to the front with his bolter raised calling the soldiers of the Emperor to defend His subjects from the traitors of Witam. He punctuates each phrase with a bolter round fired at a charging insurgent, the ancient weapon being a gift from the Commissar he trained under. Goethers is sure to stand in the center of the battle felling as many traitors as he can. While other soldiers look for cover the commissar chooses to stand in the center of the storm, demanding the enemy fire at him. Major Yevn makes certain to be seen by his men as well, leading from the front firing his las-pistol and swinging his chainsword.
Hall is right that his squad would be attacking the traitors in the rear. The squad rounds a street corner and sees a number of traitors charging at the ghetto. With such confusion, the squad manages to fire for a few seconds before any of the attackers notice the shots coming from behind.
“Is it just me, or does it seem like these bastards have no idea what they’re doing?” Reth has to ask Utz to repeat himself, the question being lost as a grenade goes off close to the two men. Reth shrugs his shoulders and continues firing into the mass of people. After the skirmish, Reth supposes it was because most of the old guerilla fighters had no idea how to fight in urban combat, having learned all their trade in the wilderness of Witam. He also believes that these veterans let their courage get the better of them, the simple truth that wilderness combat being nothing like urban fighting was seemingly lost on these old hands who led the people.
The traitors wither against the wall of Guard fire. Still, there are those that rally the populace to fight, demanding that they stand strong.
This lust fades quickly, however, in the face of an Imperial Commissar who refuses protection and continually preaches the Emperor’s wrath on any who turn from Him. Goethers proves that His wrath is direct with each bolter shot. The death delivered onto the people by Chimeras and guardsmen who take pride in their marksmanship also dissuade many.
Against the three squads sent to the ghetto the traitors may have run them over through sheer numbers alone but now that the full might of His Imperial Guard is present the Witam people are shot down like animals and start to retreat en masse. The guardsmen fire at the horde trying to avenge their dead. Yevn allows this slaughter without a second thought. Any Witam survivors found are summarily executed by Goethers who shakes his head at every single one whispering about their lost cause. The dead fill the streets for days afterwards as the only people capable of moving these remnants are the Guard and they are caught up with defeating pockets of resistance throughout the city. The monument that Reth visited is the last stronghold to fall and only after Mittvoch clears the use of light artillery. That pretty park that made so many so proud of Witam is now a warzone with corpses and holes everywhere. The statue in the center of the rebels who fought against the Tschüssian oppressors is exploded by a direct hit from a mortar.
. . .
Tur was right about the ghetto, Reth noticed. It was almost comical how sad it all looked compared to the rest of Dom, a hyperbole of depression. Sheet metal houses stacked on top of each other, leaking pipes, remnants of urban conflict in the form of random bullet holes were everywhere, but Reth wondered how many were old and how many were recent. The Tschüssian people suffered the most that night. Before the first guard units showed up, the Witam traitors were having a field day butchering the Tschüssians in the ghetto. Some were refugees and others were people that had lived in Dom for generations and were merely thrown in with the others. Those that survived half-spoke, half-wept about executions, lynchings, theft and murder committed by jovial attackers.
This was a black day for Gaia and the Imperium knew it. Witam was to be annexed by Tschüss and three other neighboring countries. The Munitorum wanted to guarantee that nothing like this would ever happen again so two measures were taken.
The first move was to turn Witam into an absolute police state. New PDF units were drawn up by a spirited recruitment campaign. No one questioned why the bulk of these PDF units came from Tschüss. The governor promised Tschüss and the Munitorum that a PDF soldier would be posted in every single house if need be.
The second was a demand that a percentage of the remaining traitors be conscripted into a new penal legion. Additionally, a new penal legion was also to be created every five years and Witam would have to constantly supply their own for these legions. Redemption through bloodshed Goethers remarked after hearing this news.
Mittvoch smiled when he heard that Witam was to be no more. His adjutant heard the colonel say that this place didn’t deserve its independence after this bloody display: any traitor to the Emperor or his servants deserved nothing, Mittvoch declared.
News of Witam dissolving once again was lost on much of the Guard on Gaia, since they were elated just to hear that this campaign was over. While not successful by any means, the campaign was played up to be one with parades through the numerous capitals of Gaia full of marching troopers and gleaming tanks. Tschüssian armor units were sure to take the front rows of any given parade. The days of Tschüss conquering its neighbors were over the new leadership declared. Tschüss fights for the God-Emperor of all Mankind and the Imperium now and forever.
It took a while for word to spread throughout the regiments that most of them were being sent to combat some threat on the eastern edge of the Imperium. A race of aliens that are afraid to fight, so they said, always running from the field with nary a shot fired. A race of decadent aliens and human defectors who played up collectivist ideals to appeal to the weak-minded, so the rumors stated. Reth made sure to question Liam about what he knew about the Tau.