An unofficial Warhammer 40,000 Short Story
Written by Bennett Woolley
Reading Time: 5 minutes
[Journal Entry: Commissar Yorke – Aboard the Caput Inter Nubila]
One of my duties as regimental commissar – and by far the one I least look forward to, in all I am tasked to do – is formally recording the dead.
Quite often we aren’t even entirely sure someone has died. The vast majority of us don’t get graves or memorials. We don’t even have bodies to bury. Sometimes we find scraps of uniforms or trinkets, dog tags if we are exceptionally lucky. More often, we aren’t gifted the time to search.
We have become so beautifully, brutally efficient at destroying one another, that there’s simply no way of identifying exactly who was in a set location at a set time, if the unit was killed.
I say killed, I say died, I do not say destroyed or wiped, because these were our people. They had lives, thoughts and hearts all their own. And now they are ragged screams on the wind, or grit beneath our boots.
With only other guardsmen and officers left to remember them.
And when we are killed, and those around us, it ends. Ends with us, the stories of all we remember. We become strings of data and lists, beamed off to some central bank, for what true purpose, I’ll never fathom. I don’t try to.
Why even pretend that each soul matters to the sightless machinery?
Seven hundred and eighty-five. How many of the 183rd have died on my watch? Most of them young, some of them frightened, all of them believing they ultimately could make a difference.
The population of a small town, a village… The changes that many souls could have brought to a world without war are staggering.
But also irrelevant, now.
And I sit, and I fill out each stub of paperwork that represents one person’s life.
And I then step to our chapel of rest, and the thin shroud of detachment that I could so briefly pull around myself, falls away.
It’s an old place. A place for our men to pray for the dead, seek peace, and reflect.
Between candles, small tokens litter every surface. On the many ledges, tables, tucked away in the corners. Dog tags are the least of it; buttons, pocket books, small carved figurines, pocket watches long since stopped…
At first glance it may seem disorganised, cluttered. But then you recognise that a lone brass button or torn sergeant’s stripes may be all that returned of an entire squad. All someone had a chance to snatch in their grief, before moving on.
Many pieces now faded beyond recognition, fabrics and colours I cannot even guess the origins of. In one corner, I recognise a cracked lens from an Astartes helmet, the amber glass a point of reflected light.
Perhaps he once fought alongside us, or maybe it was someone’s good luck charm. We will never be able to ask.
There are notes and prayers, seals and candles. So many candles. There must always be light.
It’s my shared duty to maintain this chapel, and I must know which items may be cleaned and moved to the upper shelves, and which are recent, living memories.
Captain Gaskell took me through this when I first arrived. I remember.
A commissar’s hat and sash on the front table. Recent. I stooped to look over them, and Gaz turned his face from me. The only time he wouldn’t meet my eye in our years serving together.
They belonged to the man who came before me. There’s always someone who came before.
And I enter each name into the book of remembrance in the chapel.
A book of remembrance. One. There’s a back archive, a doorway behind a faded curtain, a chamber, as big as the chapel again. Dating back centuries before us. Each page listing the name, rank, age, and a small space for personal comments.
I try to remember what I can about a soul when I fill the entries. But many, many of those spaces remain empty in the older books. Time, knowledge of the person, or compassion are scarce resources in our time.
Sometimes, I read through those older books, see the handwriting of those before me. Tasked with the same duty. Priests, captains, commissars, aides. Occasionally fellow troopers when a deployment has gone so terribly wrong, that all involved were lost.
Sometimes, when a whole squad or platoon is killed, there is space left beneath; a prayer, an epitaph beneath entries, all penned by the same hand.
But as we come closer to the present, those are less and less common. Space is no longer provided. Wars became so grossly efficient, that entire unit losses became mundane, expected.
Sometimes, the pages are torn away or defaced where a soul was later found alive. They’re not frequent, but they exist. I find myself dwelling on those the longest. Wondering how that small victory must feel.
I find many pages where entries have been smeared, blurred, by escaped grief dripping onto the pages. Carefully rewritten when the parchment was dry once more.
The handwriting tells me so little of who left these marks, and it’s somehow most hard for me to picture a Ministorum Priest in tears.
But then, I suppose they must care for those in their charge, just as much as the rest of us do. It’s probably even harder for folk to imagine a commissar weeping. But when it’s quiet, and there’s nobody here but myself and the ghosts I commit to ink, it is near impossible not to.
The books at the very back of the archive are little but leatherbound dust, now. The covers held together by the sheer volume of those pressed against them. Once when curious, I drew one out to read which regiments travelled aboard the Nubila.
The lives held within it evaporated into the air as I breathed upon the pages.
Did their contribution to the Imperium matter?
We have to believe it is so.
About the Author
Benny is less popular online than their cat, but is working on it. Comic artist, machinist and general tabletop hobbyist, they somehow still find time to smear words and images together on the internet.