Short Fiction

The Burden of Command

The Burden of Command

An unofficial Warhammer 40,000 Short Story
Written by Natasha Denamur
Reading Time: 18 minutes

It occurred to Nilla, while her eyes detailed the sky above and the seemingly unique and ever expanding cloud, that maybe, this planet did not have any other kind of weather, far from the radiant summers and cold winters of her long since departed homeworld. Some people, wiser or more educated, would likely have been able to tell the sergeant that the heavy cloud formation was like a greenhouse, keeping the planet warm. Thus creating the constant and sweltering heat, they had experienced since touching down three months ago; but they were not present, and it remained a mystery why this place felt like it did.

The Utican’s 3rd armoured regiment, or rather what was left of it, following its previous and disastrous campaign, had been just in time to miss the big battles and the glorious charges that had taken place on this planet, not that the sergeant, or her crew, were envious of those who did. She had seen the survivors; the ones too wounded still to be sent away, stuck in clinics and infirmaries, treated by overworked apothecary staff, who were seldom able to ease their pain and suffering. The sight had caused shivers to run through her body, soon silenced and dissimulated when one of her crew members had called out for her. In the past they had taken part in many similar operations, however unimportant and trivial. But the fickle will of the Emperor – being what it was – meant they would probably do so again in the future. While none too eager for any future conflicts, she particularly dreaded an up close encounter, where the machine they served would not shelter their eyes from the destruction it caused.

Regardless, her fate was now suspended to a simple question: would she ever get away from this place she so quickly learned to hate? The weather was oppressive, the locals worn from seeing so many soldiers from both sides, and the officers left over were largely incompetent, drunks, or just plain delusional. Maybe, she was neither a strategist, nor an analyst of the Administratum; but she could tell when people had had enough of war. The faces she saw every day showed a reality far removed from the one depicted in the dispatches from command. And when command was disconnected from reality… well, casualties racked up amongst the common soldiers.

+++

‘Chief, we have to get going!’ shouted the gunner.
‘I swear she’s deaf at times,’ the driver joked. ‘Give it a go again Jose, she loves your voice!’ nodding to the loader, who chuckled in turn.

‘Sergeant! They’re not gonna wait for us forever, you know?’ The gunner repeated, sliding down the hatch and into his seat.

+++

The voice of her corporal finally broke through her daydreaming, and derailed her train of thought. The man called out to her in a friendly tone, reminding her of the task at hand. Climbing onto the hull of the Regard, her booted feet and gloved hands easily finding their holds on the Leman Russ, she let herself slip down through the open cupola. Giving the gunner a kick on the back of the helmet for his slight and forgivable insubordination, Nilla took her place atop the commander’s seat, inside the turret basket. The engine of the tank roared, the familiar vibration of it shaking her malnourished form. The sergeant pushed her eyes onto the periscope to scan ahead and ensure everything was in order before standing half out of the cupola, as ready as she could be for another day of work. They were escorting trucks loaded with food and supplies for ungrateful locals – all while the guards in the camp suffered malnutrition and diseases – a task usually reserved for more nimble vehicles, though it was not the first time they had had to cover for another crew—a boring, dangerous and unrewarding job, but one that, alas, needed to be done.

+++

‘Alright people, let’s get this going, and smoothly if you would,’ Nilla started, checking the interphone while giving orders, ‘Russel, get us going and keep us in the middle of the road. The rest of you, eyes peeled and onto the tree lines.’ A concert of acknowledgement came back to her.
A moment later, Maude spoke up. ‘Say, with all those trees, you’d think the weather would be better, no? We’re always in the shade, and yet it feels like a sauna in here.’ 

‘It’s probably you juggling around with the shells, Maude,’ Jose said, a snarky smile on his lips, ‘No wonder you’re warm, you’re constantly exercising.’ 

‘And I wouldn’t have to if you didn’t change your mind on what you need loaded every few seconds,’ the loader replied, huffing a bit before dropping the matter – and the shell she’d been holding back in its rack.

+++

Five hours – and several stupid conversations that she would need to revisit – later and they were nearing this day’s destination. According to her watch and previous experience, the trip had taken nearly twice as long as it would have taken a normal convoy – even longer than expected due to one of the trucks getting stuck in a nasty mud patch, had taken them twice the time it would have taken a normal convoy, but they had arrived. A village they had visited what felt like dozens of times before always accepted the supplies with reverence and solemnity; but then asked for more some few days later – usually, under the pretext that cultists had stolen the food, used the drugs, and sometimes kidnapped a few locals. That last bit depended on whether the village elder felt daring enough to push the lie that far. The sergeant didn’t believe him, nor any of the locals for that matter. All of them seemed odd to her, never looking her in the eyes and speaking slowly in quiet tones. What she couldn’t know was that the local nobility, before the uprisings, had a tendency to execute their serfs for the slightest perceived insults. Instilling in them the servile nature and cautiousness she mistook for distrust and disgust. That, combined with legitimate disappearances of people at night, and the pits frequently filled and covered at night in the Imperial camp by supposed soldiers wearing unmarked uniforms, had not helped the relations between the guards and the locals…

+++

‘You know, if looks could kill, I’m sure we’d be dead by now,’ Russel commented as he parked the tank.

‘Huh? How’s that?’ asked Caroline, one of the sponson gunners, her eyebrows raised.

‘The driver of the second truck looked at us like we killed his ma or something,’ Jose interjected in the conversation. ‘Probably doesn’t like getting slowed down. Sucks for him, though. He’s stuck with us today.’ 

+++

Regardless, they had not been attacked on the way there, and for now, they could relax. The locals were supposed to keep watch over their villages. New militias had been formed to help secure and pacify the planet now that the greater portion of the enemy forces had been vanquished. Of course, they could not be trusted entirely, so for the foreseeable future, the crew of the Regard would stay in the tank, ventilation shut off to spare the faulty battery she had requested a replacement for multiple times. At least the hatches could be kept open, to somewhat alleviate the stagnant heat, though only their heads would be protruding from the hatches. Nilla forbade them from getting out entirely, but being ‘unbuttoned’ increased their situational awareness enough to warrant the danger it brought.

+++

‘How are we supposed to survive the heat inside this thing?’ Caroline eventually asked, passing a hand over her forehead.

‘Practice… and lots of hydration,’ Vincent replied, handing his canteen out for her to take a sip from. 

‘Also, not wasting breath to ask stupid questions,’ said Russel mocking her. 

‘Quiet you three. And stop bothering her because she’s new. Help her instead,’ said the Sergeant, sighing under her breath. 

+++

And so they waited. Seconds turned into minutes, minutes into dozens and so on. Nilla’s eyes were assessing the outside through the cold and harsh lenses of the vehicle’s sights. Nilla’s gaze followed the steps of a local wearing a basket full of laundry over her head, children running around behind a six legged fluffy creature, a few men stopping by one another and discussing their day. Every now and then, her attention would fall back to the trucks being unloaded, the eight able bodied locals that looked over their crews, and the guardsmen sweating their backs off to carry the crates, bags and jugs around and inside the communal warehouse of the village. Odd that they watched but didn’t help. Making a mental note to ask someone who’d know better about this later, the sergeant continued her cycle of observation, watching scenes that were quite familiar through optics created to help deliver death as cost-efficiently as possible. It almost felt like tagging all those people to her idly wandering mind, the part of herself she often tried to silence, thinking that it was bad luck for them to be observed through this, like this. 

Despite the open hatches, the heat was becoming unbearable inside the tank’s crowded hull, sweat formed on her forehead and dripped down, past her eyebrows and eventually into her eyes, causing her to wipe it away. Under her helmet, her hair stuck to her head like a wet mat on a dirty floor, and a quick look down through the turret basket made it clear that the others were suffering at least as much as she was. Most had dark circles under their eyes, badly shaved beards for the men, a worn down look for all… Repressing a dark chuckle, she realised that indeed, with such “saviours”, the locals would be cautious and rightfully keep to themselves. Regardless, she ordered the engine started, and the ventilation resumed its tedious and endless duty as she passed a hand over her face—a vain task, but one that distracted her from the optics for a few crucial seconds. 

Outside, things had been quiet, guards toiling away as they always did wherever they were sent, the villagers observing those strange men from beyond the great horizon, some even remembering when people from their clans had been called to serve amongst them. When the engine of the tank started, it roared loudly. Plumes of thick and suffocating smoke rose from its exhausts, the machine captivated the attention of all for a few moments. Children stopped playing to look in awe at the colossal machine, and the crewmen disappeared into its turret again to tend to its mechanisms. 

Then all hell broke loose. 

A metallic echo, something hitting the side of the Regard, and Nilla furrowed her brows, mouth opening as she started to pull on her arms to get back out of the cupola. ‘Wha…’ The rest of her question was drowned in a deafening roar, the blastwave of the explosion slamming her back down on her seat as the whole tank rocked on its suspensions. The tinnitus made it hard to speak, and the others were as stunned as she was, but it seemed they were unharmed. Vincent, the sponson gunner on the side of the explosion, was shouting something and after a few moments his voice got through the haze they all were experiencing ‘I’M FINE, I’M FINE!’ At least the loud shouts helped them snap out of the trance like feeling they had, and, cursing, the sergeant’s eyes returned to the optics, scanning around and growing wide when she saw what the once peaceful surroundings had become. Of the innocent villagers that had been around, casually going on with their lives as best they could, most had disappeared. A few were left here and there, prostrated on the ground with limbs resting at unnatural angles or rolling in pain and trying to crawl to the illusion of safety that their wooden houses provided. The sight was horrendous already, but what truly caused the sergeant’s heart to skip a beat was the fact the labouring guardsmen were now being slaughtered by scantily clothed people who were tearing them apart with vicious blades, hooks and axes, instruments that mere moments before were innocent tools that any village possessed in abundance. The vision of one of the drivers, a tall and broad man that always joked, being killed by one of the villagers who had been overlooking his work moments prior caused Nilla to back her head away from the optics, disgusted and shocked. It made her sick more than angry to see such a gruesome sight, unaccustomed as she was to see violence up close. 

Her gunner, sitting mere inches from her, was looking through his own sight with his mouth agape and eyes tearing up, his helmet tilted sideways thanks to the explosion. The loader was covering his eyes with his left hand, stubbornly looking away from his hatch and blindly shutting it down, while the plaintive tears from others were coming from further down into the hull. They were fucked, and she knew it. Sweat ran cold under the flak vest she was wearing. As hardened as they were, as boastful as they could be, this they had never been prepared for, and this would be their end if they did not act soon and decisively. Training and reflexes would keep them alive, and as she readjusted her microbead in front of her mouth, Nilla cursed internally. She cursed against this outrage, against her superiors, against the cooks who had messed up the breakfast again. She cursed against whoever had decided that she would be sent amongst the stars to die for Him, die in His armies, her hands working on closing the cupola above her head…

+++

‘Close it all down! Don’t give them a chance to toss anything inside!’ Her first words were smooth and commanding, even as she kept on cursing internally, and they at least got most of the crew moving again. 

‘They’re getting closer!’ Caroline shouted. She was panicking, Nilla could hear it in her voice, and that prompted her to focus back on orders.

‘Russel, get us out of here, rearwards. Caroline, Vincent, short burst to keep them at bay. Don’t let them close in on us,’ she kept on speaking, sparing a glance over the still frozen gunner and loader. Giving a serious kick to the gunner’s back, she leaned down and slammed the helmeted head of the loader against the armour and shouted, ‘Snap out of it! Load HE and send it!’ After a moment they finally started moving again, which gave her time to reassess the situation outside. Not great, and some of their foes were openly charging the tank, despite the first shell blowing several of them apart. 

‘Russel! Torch those idiots down!’ The sudden halt in the vehicle’s progression caused the next shell to miss and land in a house, the frail wooden construction bursting out and sending shards of wood flying onto anyone unlucky enough to be near. Soon the hull mounted flamer came to life too, a wave of flame engulfing the foolish fiends that had advanced on them from the front. They were back in business, and might not die yet.

+++

In truth, the crew were all too eager to let their minds go blank rather than keep thinking, busying themselves with the tasks at hand, obeying the orders given to them in their earpieces. Their reflexes and training took over, as they became cogs of a well oiled machine, action replacing thoughts as the Leman Russ swerved and fired its weapons.

Truly, Nilla could not blame them even if she wanted to, oh so dearly. She had to stay alert and think through this all, and in mere minutes, it was over. The cultists had not thought this one through, apparently convinced that a mere satchel charge would take the escorting vehicle out. In all fairness to them, the convoys had usually been escorted by Chimeras, whose thinner armour would have no doubt been unable to withstand the force of the explosion. Yet, in a twist of fate, the Regard had been sent instead, and its heavy weapons made short work of anything that dared to move in the vicinity, be it filled with ill intent or not. The first few that tried to charge it when it became clear that the vehicle and its crew were still alive had been cut down by a hail of bolts from the coaxial stormbolter, Nilla herself squeezing the trigger while her loader and gunner recovered their composure. Others had been smarter, trying to use the cover of the house to flank the clumsily retreating vehicle, only to find that cannon shells and the sponson mounted heavy bolters cared little for wooden walls.

The overwhelming noises – the roar of the engine and tracks churning in the mud giving a constant background to the staccato of the bolters and thunderous outburst of the cannon – gave the crew a strange form of familiar comfort, at odds with the deafened images of screaming victims they could see from their posts. As precise and cold as they were, the sights Nilla had glued her eyes to were transmitting the crude reality of it all; the whole world had become a mess filled with suffering. A cultist trying to force a woman away with him, a basket of laundry spilt in the mud at their feet, was cut down by a hail of wood shards from a nearby explosion. His body was torn apart as if it was paper, the woman he had tried to capture suffering a similar fate. The remains of both had barely had time to touch the ground, when the Regard’s heavy flamer spit angrily, torching a house where a few of the rebels had taken cover. A six legged beast ran out and collapsed metres away from the door, flames devouring its body and fur. The trucks’ fuel tanks started to cook off, when they had not been simply torn apart by a stray burst, and only added to the chaotic mess the Regard was pulling out from at a forced, yet near leisurely pace. 

Mere minutes indeed, and Nilla looked through the optics again at the burning village. Plumes of smoke, dirty and black, reached into the skies above, feeding that omnipresent grey cloud with their dark fingers, as several dozen of lifetime’s worth of buildings disappeared in flame. The warehouse was on fire, as were most other structures, eviscerated by the explosives of a heavy shell or by the many detonations of bolter rounds while an entire promethium tank of the flamer had been spent delivering fiery death and destruction in less than a half minute. Nothing moved anymore, and nothing had for a few minutes now. She hoped the locals had been able to flee, to escape that ambush, but the sergeant knew better than to hope, knew what she had seen happen and ordered. And even as she leaned back into the uncomfortable commander’s seat, letting her eyes adapt back to the interior lighting of the Russ, she felt the weight of guilt fall down onto her shoulders. The air inside was heavy and lined with exhaust gases, the distinct smell of ozone, burnt powder, and promethium, a mix so thick and dense one could taste it, and even see it floating around as a bluish haze in the air. Yet none inside made a move to open a hatch to ease their burden, and while there could be sharpshooters lying in wait, she knew it was not the reason why. A village with its now dead population burned not two hundred metres from the tank, just as the combat’s automatism and adrenaline rush began to recede. The crew of the Regard were left to observe, assess, and realise what had been done; none wanted the smell to impose the reality of it all more than it already did.
Still, the haggard, worn down and near choking sergeant had a headstart in that unwanted and undesirable regard. Nilla had been processing it all ever since it began, unable to afford the luxury to simply act on orders, to simply obey and fight. She knew full well that others should not have to bear that burden if she could avoid it, which prompted her to act again, and speak again. She distributed orders, who was to check the status of the engine, who had to count the remaining ammunition, who had to observe the forest behind them as the tank drove further away from the scene of their misdeeds. Once she had made sure that all were focused and on task, she finally reached for the vox emitter to report it, her voice hoarse with fumes and exhaustion.

Hours later, after the reinforcements had arrived to secure the scene, the tank and its crew were ordered to head back to base. The trip had been odd, to say the least. Nilla had told the driver to shut it after he had uttered a tasteless joke. None wanted to think about what had just happened. Jose was simply staring ahead into the void, and the others were similarly silent for the whole trip afterwards. She had held herself out of the hatch, watching the forests around and the road ahead, her eyes regularly glancing back toward the columns of smoke that slowly disappeared behind them. A whole village was now gone. Tears wanted to come to her eyes, but she stopped them, fighting them with as much fierceness as they had those cultists. She couldn’t afford to break, not only for herself, but mostly for her crew, her people. Old reminders of home, of better times, people she had to protect, shelter and cherish. As much as it ate through her, as much as it built up and threatened to overwhelm her, she chased the guilt away, focusing on the tasks at hand. Keeping watch, making sure it’s safe, conducting them back to base to oversee the repairs and rearming, and then making sure they ate and rested, before reporting. Automatism, reflexes and duties, all to keep her mind busy and away from what they’d done.

 Later on, as night fell over the camp, Sergeant Nilla returned from the captain’s office. Leaning back against the wall of the building, the woman looked down at her clenched hand and the marking of her new rank. The “rightful reward for an admirable job and quick thinking in denying the rebels those supplies,” as the captain had said. Droplets of blood soon pearled through her clenched fingers, the lieutenant insignias as unyielding as her will to protect those underneath her command had been. And as her legs gave out, her body slid down the wall till she sat with her back against it, her blood mixed with the torrential rain that started to fall, easing the skies’ pressure and dousing the earth in freshness and reborn life. The heat was washed away by the rain, turning the soil to mud and making the guardsmen shout happily, yet to the lieutenant, the rain tasted like ashes and fuel.

About the Author

Natasha is a freshly diplomed historian from Belgium, who enjoys exploring fictional worlds when not nose-deep in historical accounts. While her relationship with Warhammer Fantasy and 40,000 has been on-and-off, she appreciates its diversity and often finds herself coming back.