Narl handed them over. The clerk glanced at them before rubber-stamping them with an aggression that a bayonet instructor would have been proud of.
“There’s more of you lot huddled in lounge four.”
“Uh cheers.” Narl dipped his head in thanks as he accepted the return of his papers. Making his way too lounge four, Narl scanned the unit shoulder patches on display as surreptitiously as possible.
Sure enough, a dejected bunch of guardsmen with the same unit patches did indeed huddle in a corner. Joining them, Narl slid his bag under the seat. He said nothing, as misery as pronounced as this group were emanating, did not fuel conversation.
“Yes? And who are you?” The voice would have cut through battle steel.
As one, shoulders slumped lower.
Narl looked around, and then sat to attention as his brain registered the figure in front. Physiologically, the figure stood before Narl was no different to anyone else in the lounge. It just so happened that no one else in the lounge was wearing a Commissars uniform.
“Your pocket is undone.”
Narl sealed the pocket in which he had placed his papers. “Sorry sir.”
“You have not answered my question,” The voice mixed statement and the promise of retribution as one
“Sorry sir. Trooper McClive, sir.”
“I, was not informed of any new postings.”
“It was all a little last minute sir.”
“And that makes it all right, does it?”
“Sit up straight Trooper Baldwin.”
There was a rustle of cloth behind Narl.
The Commissar pulled out a data slate and made a note.
Whatever he wrote, Narl instinctively knew it was not good. The Commissar turned, and without further word, strode away.
Narl raised both eyebrows and –quietly- let his breath escape through his mouth, the reason for the guardsmen’s depression all too evident. Relaxing slightly, Narl slipped into the collective gloom.
The gloom was disturbed an hour later by the public address system.
“FLIGHT 6394, PLEASE MAKE YOUR WAY TO THE DEPARTURE LOUNGE.”
The guardsmen roused as one, collected kit bags, and headed towards the exit. Narl collected his own kit bag and slipped into the group of troopers as a space materialised for him.
Narls group was one of many, though the other troops patches revealed them to belong to separate regiments. The guardsmen from the other regiments joked and shoved each other playfully.
The next room contained rack upon rack of all-in-one over suits.
Narls new colleagues headed for the suits, the rest of the flight headed on through, with the occasional trooper stopping to shove a suit into a bag. Narl made to walk on through as well, yet was stopped by one of his own newly joined unit, with a hand and a shake of the head.
Looking at the suits and at the trooper that had stopped him, Narl spoke. “You can’t be serious?”
The trooper nodded his head “Yip.”
“Bloody hell, I can’t remember the last time I wore one of these!” Nevertheless, Narl removed a suit from its hangar. He couldn’t remember how to wear one, so watched the others donning them.
The details slowly came back. Removing his boots, he opened the watertight zip and inserted one sock clad foot, then the other. The suit was accessed through the chest, with watertight seals at the wrists and neck. He stood up, inserted his arms in the sleeves then pulled the shoulders and neck seal over his head. The seals around the wrists were all right, but Narl hated how the seal at the neck compressed the Adams apple uncomfortably. He slipped his boots back on, leaving them unfastened.
Narl pulled the zip from right shoulder down to left hip, sealing the suit. He felt an idiot and knew he looked an idiot, because everyone else did. He pressed the female connector on the zip onto the male counterpart on the suit.
Making his way over to the racks containing buoyancy harnesses, Narl tried to ignore the mocking looks from troopers not bothering to stop and suit up before entering the aircraft.
“HURRY UP! We don’t have all day.”
Narl looked over and decided there was a God after all.
The Commissar stood at the doorway in a pose that would have been described perfectly as ‘Imperiously’, had he not been wearing a suit like the rest of those under his command.
Narl and his new troop headed through the doors and onto the pocked ferro-crete surface of the landing pad.
“TROOPER McCLIVE! Do up your groin strap.”
With another quiet sigh and equally silent curse, Narl fished between his legs for the errant strap. Grasping tight hold of the flailing strap, he plugged the end into the bottom of the flotation harness on his chest. Connected, he pulled the strap tight, pulling down the webbing straps on his back and the deflated bags on his chest.
The craft on the ferro-crete apron was capable of taking 120 guardsmen, although it would not be taking its full compliment today.
Settling himself into one of the crafts uncomfortable seats, Narl pulled a restraining strap over each shoulder and married it up with the two waist straps that formed a large buckle over his stomach.
As soon as the last trooper was on board, the four turbines powered up. The craft trembled on its legs for a minute, before rising gracefully into the air. When the landing struts were clear of the ground, the turbines tilted slightly in their mounts and the craft started to move forward as it continued to rise into the air.
The journey, as journeys went, was remarkably peaceful and Narl found himself nodding off on more than one occasion, each time being awoken by riotous laughter from the guardsmen from the other regiments.
Narl had expected the Commissar to step in, but he seemed quite content on making the lives of Narls new unit a misery.
Turning his gaze back out the window, Narl felt a moment of poetic indulgence at the expanse of glittering blue sea below. He felt the corners of his mouth curl up in the start of a smile.
Narl would have leaped out of his seat had his four point harness allowed him.
The window instantly went red and something rattled along the outside of the fuselage. The laughter inside the VTOL died instantly.
“What in the name of the Emperor was that?” Someone shouted from further down the craft.
The overhead speakers crackled into life. “Please return to your seats. Unfortunately we have experienced an avian strike. As a precaution, we shall be returning back to the landing pad. The Emperor protects.”
The VTOL tilted slightly to one side as the pilot started the turn back. There was a resounding crack that resounded through the length of the passenger area and the fuselage down one side reverberated under impact.
The craft lurched heavily to one side, throwing Narl against his seat restraints.
Those further down were not so lucky. Not strapped in, and in some cases, not even seated, troopers were tossed around like rag dolls, injuring themselves and any one they collided with.
“Bloody hell! Where did that pilot get his licence from, the side of a ration pack?”
Something did not look right at first glance, then Narl realised that a long strut of metal had pierced the side of the fuselage, decapitating the two troopers who had been sat there.
The guardsman next to Narl followed his gaze. “What a way to go, death by turbine blade.”
Narl turned to him “Is there a good way to go?”
“QUIET IN THE RANKS! HOODS” The Commissar stepped in and took charge.
The guardsman next to Narl immediately pulled open the Velcro pocket on his left leg and pulled out the hood contained within. He had it on before Narl had even got his own pocket open.
The speaker squawked again “BRACE FOR IMPACT“
The voice of the Commissar cut through the rising panic. “E.B.S.”
The guardsman ripped open the pouch on his chest and pulled out a mouthpiece. Inserting the mouthpiece, the donned the attached nose clips. Narl followed suit.
“BRACE FOR WATER IMPACT” Reiterated the commissar.
Moving his legs together, Narl tightened his harness, removing all slack and placed the back of his head against the seats headrest. His hands grabbed the edge of the seat to either side of his legs.
Complete panic had taken over the front of the VTOL aircraft. Some troopers were ripping open bags in which they had packed their survival suits. Some, who had no survival suits, saw the suits being produced from luggage as a means for their own survival. Frantic, desperate fights broke out.
Narl watched in sick horror, jaw grinding on the aqualung in his mouth, as a suit was torn in two, the possessor of each half donning the useless parts.
In another fight over a suit, a knife was produced, raised, and plunged. When it was raised again, the blade was red.
The attention of the panicking troopers quickly moved to the suited troopers restrained by their harnesses. Desperately they moved towards them.
In such close confines, the discharge of a las-pistol was almost deafening. One of the lead troopers in the impromptu mob doubled over, legs buckling as his chest-caved inwards.
“BACK IN YOUR SEATS NOW!” The voice carried the full weight of the Commissariat, backed with lethal force and the ability to use such lethal force. As if to punctuate that fact, the pistol discharged again. The guardsman next to the first target dropped as life departed.
The rest of them weighed up the chances of rushing the Commissar.
The aircraft smacked ungainly into the surface of the ocean. Everyone not strapped into a seat, was knocked to the floor. Bones could be heard breaking in the cacophony.
The voice of the Commissar, calm as ever, cut through the cries of panic.
“Mark your exits and stand by for EBS deployment. Remember, deep breath THEN activate the red button. DO NOT INFLATE YOUR BOYANCY AIDS UNTIL YOU ARE OUTSIDE. Is that clear?”
A few voices acknowledged with “Yes, sir”. Narl was one of them.
The aircraft settled in the water, bobbing up and down on the waves, the fuselage groaning audibly under the alien stress.
There was a grinding sound as the wing weakened by the turbines self destruction, bent under the pressure from the waves. With the loss of one stabilising wing, the aircraft dipped sharply in the direction of the failed wing.