|You Only Live Once|
09 Aug 2006
|Garn was a good soldier; he worked hard, did his job and tried not to get in anyone's way. Most of the members of his squad liked him, some just tolerated him, and a few really disliked him. But they were a squad, and their feelings for each other weren't important-- in the turmoil of battle, you protected your squad mate, even if he was a dirt bag.
They hadn't seen much combat: their only experience had been with putting down small rebel groups not even equipped enough to pose a threat to the Imperial Guard's most ragged squads.
Overall, it wasn't a bad deal. Garn enjoyed the prestige of being a soldier-- he was close to retirement and would have a nice pension to supplement his income. Once he retired he could move up north, find a nice girl, have a family, and be a well respected member of the community. He wondered briefly how long it would take once he finished his service in another month, but shrugged it off-- girls liked men who had been in the military.
All of this daydreaming and planning, coupled with the sheer rarity, made it all the more of a shock when they heard a fleet of alien pirates had come out of the warp near their planet. The notice had come in about an hour previously, and Garn was terrified, hoping they wouldn't attack his city. The cruel pirates were known for their swift and brutal attacks on Imperial worlds--descending from orbit like vultures, swiftly decimating the larger cities, taking prisoners, and just as quickly as they came, disappearing again. Unfortunately, Garn realized, his hope was likely in vain. He was stationed in an outpost of the Fifty-Eighth infantry division near the center of the planet's second largest city.
He was silently cursing himself and his patriotic desire to serve the Imperium as his squad was mobilized to counter the first wave of attacking pirates. It had all started because he hadn't been right in the head that day. If he'd been sane, there would have been no way he would have enlisted, he thought. Patriotism was definitely not sane, he consoled himself as the rumbling of the tank's engine echoed in the background. Other things, like having a family, living in a small city, far, far away form this base and evil alien pirates, were sane. He looked around at his squad mates--grim faced and stoic, all of them--they were good soldiers and would fight well. He doubted he would even be of much use to them. He cursed the situation. They probably wouldn't even notice if he escaped. He toyed with the idea--if he escaped he wouldn't have to die for this cause. If he went, he would just be slaughtered mercilessly--or worse: taken as a slave. Then, after he got away, he would be able to get into a farming village to the north, find a nice young woman, get married, and live a peaceful life. He glanced around the dim interior furtively, studying his squad mates' faces. They were all distracted, thinking about what was to come. He decided then: at the first possible moment he would leave, and live out his life in a better place.
They turned to the left and the tank slowed. They must have reached their destination, he thought. He would have to quietly find an exit route without looking suspicious.
The hatch opened with the soft hiss of hydraulics and they rushed out onto the street as the sergeant barked orders. They took up their positions inside the skeleton of a partially constructed building on the right flank of the barricade. There were several other squads in the area, each holding a critical point in the defensive blockade across the street. Perfect, Garn thought, he would only have to avoid being seen by his own squad, then the commissar near the middle of the street, and he would be fine. The pirates had not arrived yet, but would be arriving soon. He started furtively looking for the best way out. Once he found it, he nonchalantly took a few steps back, as if getting into a better position. The sergeant glanced back, but apparently didn't' think anything of it and his attention returned to the ominously empty street.
Garn gripped his laser rifle tightly--his hands were starting to sweat inside the gloves and his heart pounded in his ears. Just as he thought the tension was too much, it happened. A group of small craft came flying down the street at an amazing speed; they were black: covered with sharp edges and sweeping pointed projections. They wove back and forth across the street as they hurtled toward the entrenched guardsmen.
The squads on the street opened fire and were met by a hale of splinter-like projectiles from the pirate craft. Several of the soldiers fell to the ground, pierced by the deadly rain. The commissar barked orders and yelled threats as the guardsmen in the path of attack looked like they might falter.
"Hold! Hold the line you dogs! None of you will be going home if they make it through!"
More black vehicles appeared in sight down the street, each with the characteristic spikes and knife-like edges which identified the pirate ships. These craft were larger with a flat deck on the top, and were filled with alien warriors.
Garn and his squad fired madly at the approaching enemies, but their weapons seemed to have no effect. The soldiers on the street were dropping like flies under the heavy fire. As the dark skimmers swept past, a large group of the pirates sprung from their perches onto the floundering soldiers below. The shouts and threats of the commissar were lost in the alien war cries and screams of pain as the guardsmen were cruelly slaughtered.
Garn's squad leader ordered them forward to charge into the fray and help their fellow guardsmen. Now was his chance, he thought. The sergeant led the squad out of the unfinished building and into the thick of the battle. As his squad mates charged away he slipped behind a broken support beam and waited until they were at a safe distance, then ran through the construction area to the street on the other side. Here he encountered another pitched battle and turned toward the outskirts of the city, plunging into the maze of streets and buildings. He was lucky, he thought, his squad had been sent to the front line, and since he had made it past the outer perimeter unnoticed, all he would have to do is make it to the edge of the city and he would be fine.
Free! he thought exultantly. No more having to obey officers, no more fear of battle, and most importantly, he would be able to be happy.
The tall gray buildings around him, though dreary, seemed to take on a friendlier cast: they would protect and cover him as he headed to his new life. He walked easier--still wary of the marauding pirates, but aware that he was outside their area of interest. Likely he would not run into any more of them. He began looking for a place he could get rid of his uniform and acquire some civilian clothes.
After a few moments of searching it occurred to him that it would be odd for a civilian to be seen wandering through the streets alone in the current situation. Everyone had been called into the Imperial fortress in preparation for the attack. He paused for a few minutes to think about the dilemma and how would be best to solve it. It would certainly be strange and possibly compromising to be caught in civilian clothes--especially if he were recognized--but, it would be much harder to explain if he happened to run across anyone while still in his uniform. He decided it was less risky to change out of his uniform. After a little more walking, he came across an abandoned clothing store and went in. He was able to easily find something suitable and changed into it. He glanced around the room looking for somewhere he could safely dispose of his uniform. The last thing he wanted was for someone to discover it after the battle was over and then have people looking for him. He decided it would be easier to find some place outside.
He stepped out the front door cautiously with a quick glance around to be sure nobody was coming. After deciding that all was clear he stepped out in order to be able to get a better look at the surroundings and find a convenient place to ditch the uniform and armor. He was still looking when he heard the unmistakable click of a pistol from the nearly silent street to his left. He turned slowly to see who it was while frantically trying to come up with a believable reason for why he, a "civilian," had a guardsman's uniform in his arms.
As soon as he saw who it was all thought of trying to explain himself was dropped. It wasn't that he was scared so terribly that he could hardly think, although he nearly was--it was rather that he knew he couldn't convince the person.
The man standing calmly and silently facing him was an Inquisitor--one of the powerful psykers in the employ of the Imperium to root out heretics, mutants, rogue psykers, and sometimes just the morally corrupt. Their word was law, they went unquestioned, and they had the authority to deal out death with a whim. Inquisitors were usually very calculating men: taking great care in making their decisions and planning their actions--almost as if the weight of the galaxy was on their shoulders. It might as well have been, for with a word one of these men could order the purging of an entire planet. Their perception of a person or group's intent could determine the fate of millions.
This particular Inquisitor was standing quietly and apparently relaxed, pistol in hand at his side, with a questioning, almost puzzled, look on his face. Garn didn't have any idea what to think, other than be scared too stiff to say anything.
"What have you done, corporal?" the Inquisitor asked with a sigh.
Garn tried to say something, give some attempt at an explanation, but only succeeded in stuttering a few malformed words from his trembling lips, "w-w-well-ll, I-I… uh…"
The Inquisitor held up his unarmed hand and shook his head slowly, a slightly pained expression on his face.
"Corporal Sylas, is it? Garn Sylas?" he clasped his wrist behind his back with his free hand and began to slowly walk down toward Garn in a wide circle. "I am disappointed in you. You were so close to retirement, had a good career, and you were known as a good soldier. Why did you do it?"
Garn couldn't think of a good reason, so he simply trembled silently. Life, freedom, starting a family, none of these would make sense to the hardened man before him. The Inquisitor saved him the trouble of answering by reading his mind.
"Yes, those are important things. The Imperium needs good citizens as well who are willing to support it by raising their children to love the Emperor. But, you would have had those things in time. Perhaps you might have perished in the attack, but perhaps not. Fortunately, there were some Space Marines nearby in the system when the pirates arrived, and the attack was halted shortly after you left. But, that does not change what you have done."
The Inquisitor's voice turned hard, and sharp as steel; Garn's trembling changed into shaking.
"You realize what the penalty for desertion is?"
Garn nodded mutely, and felt the blood drain from his face.
"You have committed a grave crime, comparable to that of treason. You did so knowingly and in full control of your faculties. Now you must accept the responsibility, and pay the consequence."
The Inquisitor raised his pistol and leveled it. His face was stern and unyielding, but Garn could still see the disappointment and sadness in his eyes. A single shot rang out in the quiet city, and then there was silence. The Inquisitor stood for a moment more, mourning the weakness and frailty of men, then lowered the pistol back to his side and turning, swiftly walked back toward the city center.