Varna unscrewed her water bottle and took a sip. Taking a casual glance around her as she did so. No one was paying her any attention, to busy with their own chores.
Reaching into an inner pocket of her combat jacket, she pulled out a foil bubble pack of red tablets. Releasing one from its cocoon, she hurriedly slipped it into her mouth and chased it down her throat with another tepid sip. Another furtive look and the tablets were replaced within the jackets embrace.
There was nothing illicit about her actions, the pills prescribed as routine by the medicare. That was the trouble, the fact that she had to take them at all.
Varna was currently the only female left within this sector of the war zone. Soot, having been killed by a sniper four days ago, left her the only female amongst the contingent of almost four hundred.
The tablets were a mixture of vitamins, minerals, beta-blockers and contraceptive. Issued to women in the Imperial Guard, one of the tablets main functions was to stop the monthly menses, a physiological occurrence that would have otherwise been difficult to deal with during field operations.
“Briefing in five.” Word was passed along the trench.
A ‘briefing in five’, pondered Varna as she sealed her water bottle and slipped it back into her combat webbing. She self-consciously adjusted her field jacket.
“Whatever for?” She asked of a passing Guardsman.
He shrugged in reply.
“Oh great. It’s rubber head himself.” Everyone turned to follow the speakers’ gaze.
An Imperial Guard Commissar was striding along the trench. Those that did not move to the side fast enough to accommodate his progress, were brusquely shoved aside.
Varna slinked to the side, not wanting to draw any undue attention towards herself, especially attention from the Commissar. With relief, she watched him stop before he approached her section of trench.
The Commissar checked his chronograph and tapped a switch he held in his right gauntleted hand impatiently against his highly polished right boot. The switch lashed out and pointed to a Guardsman.
“YOU! HERE. NOW!”
The unfortunate Guardsman looked to his left then right.
The Guardsman unhappily shambled forward.
Leaning his face slowly towards the Guardsman’s, the Commissar spoke in a quiet voice that defied physics and was easily audible up and down the trench for a remarkable distance.
“You have dirt, and even worse, rust upon your muzzle and breach. DON’T LOOK! You should know the state of your personal weapon at all times. It should be personal extension of your self. Failure to look after your weapon is a failure to look after your self. If you can’t look after your self, how are you supposed to look after those around you and those that rely on you? I wonder what else you have let slip?” The Commissar looked at his chronograph again, “I shall have a word with you later.”
Those that were nearby and could see the rust and dirt on the unfortunate Guardsman’s rifle, especially now that it had been pointed out to them, thought of the dirt and rust on their own weapons. Several moved their las-rifles behind them as inconspicuously as they could.
“LISTEN UP!” A pointless statement as he had the attention of everyone in sight and those in earshot, “It has been decided, that we have tallied here to long. This stalemate can’t -and by my pistol- won’t, continue.” The Commissar paused to let his words and their meaning sink in. “At twenty two hundred hours, the Imperial batteries will rain fire and the Emperors wrath upon our enemies. Our enemies will endeavour to do the same upon us in retaliation. But we shall not be here.”
All the Guardsmen and one woman thought it. But it only takes one to voice it.
The gauntlet and switch whipped round to point at the Guardsman responsible for the utterance. Those that stood in front of him deftly removed themselves from the line of fire that they perceived to be on the impending way.
“No. We shall be over THERE!” The arm whipped round to point out over no mans land. Unconsciously, all heads turned to face the trench wall and berm that blocked the view of no-mans land beyond. “What do you do when you are under barrage? You huddle in your bunkers until the shelling stops and our Basilisks return fire in kind. Well, so does our enemy. NOT THIS TIME!”
The Commissar swept his gaze over the Guardsmen.
“When the shells bearing the grace of the Eternal Emperor sail overhead, they shall act as a divine umbrella to our righteous passage. They shall fall, disseminating discord and bedlam unto their ranks. As the Emperors wrath ceases, we shall fall amongst them with rifle and blade. Each corpse upon your bayonets shall be your offering to the Emperor for his continued guardianship.
The enemy shall rain its punitive fire in retaliation, yet they will only find those lacking the Emperors courage. Weaklings and cowards scared and ruled by their own failings. MARK MY WORDS! THERE SHALL BE SOME AMONGST YOU! Do not stop to help or aid them. For they have fallen out of favour with the Emperor and it is their fidelity to redeem themselves in HIS eyes. His eyes shall watch your every move, your every act. He shall judge your piety in battle. Do not let him down, for I shall ensure that you will not do so again.” He checked his chronograph. “You have one hour. The Emperor protects.”
The Commissar departed, leaving deathly silence in his wake.
The Guardsmen and solitary woman looked around at each other before heading to their retrospective bunkers. An air of anticipation and an equal amount of impending terror settled like a miasma over the trenches.
Back sliding down the rampart, the Guardsman that had attracted the Commissars ire watched his fellow soldiers depart. He thought of his life and the misery that had dogged his every step. He thought of the horror and pain that was looming, the seemingly never-ending cycle of death and violence, of his place in that cycle.
Placing the muzzle in his mouth he released the safety and pulled the trigger.
Pushing open the flak door, Varna surveyed her bunker. Seeing it as though for the first time. The dirt, the smell, and the crude efforts to make it into something it could never be. Entering, the door swinging shut behind her with a scrape, she tossed her las-rifle onto her bed. Rooting around her meagre possessions she accumulated all the food she could find. Ripping open the heat tabs on the rations that had them, she opened the small bottle of Dranian whisky that she had been keeping for a rainy day. There was not much left, but it seemed pointless keeping it when there was a strong possibility that she would be dead within the next two hours.
She took a hefty swig, the black liquid burning a path down her throat. Opening packets, she shovelled the contents down her throat, alternating food between mouthfuls of water and whisky.
Normally fastidious, Varna let the empty packets lie on the floor. A warm glow from the food and whisky emanated from her stomach, permeating outwards to her limbs. You were never sure when your next meal would be and Varna had become used to holding a little back and being in a permanent state of hunger. There were no overweight soldiers in the trenches and Varna revelled in the temporary state of being satiated.
The empty Dranian whisky bottle joined the wrappers on the floor.
Leaning back against the wall, she tried to forget the future and concentrate on the now. Savouring a moment when she was full, content, and hearty, or at least, as well as could be under the circumstances.
The moment did not last. Fear and uncertainty hammered ceaselessly at the edges of her consciousness, demanding her attention. The small respite of peace slowly ebbed away. Sitting up she pulled her las-rifle closer and started to strip and methodically clean it.
Noise was starting to build outside in the trench as restless Guardsmen milled about trying to build up their courage whilst pretending that they weren’t actually quaking in their boots. Varna slipped her flack jacket over her combat jacket; carefully doing up the straps ensuring that she had enough room to breathe. Retrieving an elastic band from the top of an ammo crate, she swept her hair behind her head and fastened it in place. She would have preferred it cut close to her scalp, but that had been a task that Soot had always done and the memory brought feelings she wished dormant. One of the male Guardsmen could have done it, and many would have enjoyed it, but the idea of a male running his hands through her hair was too intimate and sent a shiver of revulsion down her spine.
Hair bound in place, she slipped her combat helmet over the top and fastened her chinstrap, pulling on the straps to adjust the fit. Over the top of her flack jacket she placed her combat harness. Checking that all her magazines were fitted and secured, that she had her first aid kit. Her water bottle she would fill up at the tank outside. She looked down on the whisky bottle forlornly, and then kicked it under her cot.
Slipping her bayonet into its scabbard, she picked up her rifle and without a backward glance, opened the door and headed out into the trench.
Already the trench was clogging with figures, each jostling for position. Varna made her way over to the water butt, pulling out her flask as she went. There was not much water left, the remnants just enough to fill her flask. She sealed her flask and stored it back in its pouch behind her hip.
Spying a gap in the throng, she headed towards it, squeezing past Guardsmen in rampant displays of machismo. Behind, someone tried the water butt. Finding it empty, they swore and kicked it repeatedly.
She turned to glance at the speaker. Not in a conversant mood, she just nodded in acknowledgement.
Silence spread down the trench. It was almost time.
Following the silence, like some dark creature of the type hinted at in the Guardsman’s Uplifting Primer, strode the Commissar resplendent in his battle robes. Stopping he surveyed the ragged Guardsmen stood before him, finding fault with everyone his attention lingered on. A loose strap here, an undone buckle there, incorrectly fitted helmets, weapons not prepared. His voice never rising, but heard by all.
The Commissars uniform chimed and he removed his chronograph and looked cursorily at the dial.
To the rear of their lines emanated a series of dull thuds that quickly gained in tempo. Something whistled overhead.
“MAKE READY!” The trench was briefly swallowed in the sound of las-rifles being activated. The first shell landed upon the enemy lines. “YOUR DESTINY IS IN FRONT OF YOU. YOU HAVE THREE PATHS: THE FIRST, SURVIVAL- THE SECOND, DEATH AT THE HANDS OF THE ENEMY, OR THE THIRD, DEATH AT MY HANDS. DON’T LET IT BE THE THIRD!” The passage of shells overhead was a steady stream.
Behind, walls of smoke from the guns, in front, a wall of death.
“FOR THE EMPEROR!” Shouted the Commissar.
“FOR THE EMPEROR!” Shouted the Guardsmen, and then they were over the top.
From the trench, no-mans land looked deceptively flat but successive bombardments had deeply cratered the land. The Imperial troops skirted the craters when possible, running as fast as they could. No one wanted to be caught out in the open when the enemy guns inevitably answered with a barrage of their own.