(Continued from Part 1)
Fuklaws attachment to the Astartes Hostilitas was met with warranted criticism. What could anyone see in a Commissar with such a horrendous record, and with such a history of irrational behavior? Critics would ask whether his placement influenced the outcome of battles at all, if not negatively. Over the next thirty years, many times would come that the chapters infamous methods would restore unwarranted blame to Johns presence. He would always work within their shadows, incapable of proving himself. This, of course, held no merit to him. He had no use for glory. The chapter leaders themselves protected his worth aggressively, although their defense would never be enough.
The presence of a Commissar within the Imperiums most perfect fighting force was ludicrous enough to lead to skepticism. It was also peculiar enough to lead to rumors. These rumors eventually found their way to Commissar Conrad Raege, who was once more on active duty. When she found the time, and the resolve, she contacted him, when he was within range of basic communication.
Time had been kind to her. Already a century old, she still retained much of her youth, much in thanks to her revitalized career. One of the major turning points of her life had been taking John as a Cadet. Out of thanks, she followed his work. Out of empathy, she understood his failings. Out of longing, she knew of his loss. She still did not fully grasp it, but John remained one of the most influential and important people in her life. Her professionalism masked this, both from others and from herself. Still, from time to time, it would find its way to the surface.
John, she called him.
The Commissar analyzed the image upon the vid screen for a moment, lowering a cup from his lips. He knew the face instantly, yet knowing the woman felt like pulling a memory from a past life. Con He stopped himself. Commissar Raege.
Yes, she managed, the word hanging on her lips. She was nervous, although she did not understand why.
How are you? John?
He withdrew his gaze and took in a breath. It was a year after his new posting. He had already lost his sense of comfort. He scarcely understood the question. I
He said nothing else. Conrad nodded, feeling somewhat foolish for having contacted him. He was not the same man she had trained. It was apparently, immediately. He was distant and cold. He reminded her of herself, decades ago. Although she was nearly twice his age, he appeared much older. His face was ragged with small scars, and scorched by the radiation of alien stars. His face held an ever-present countenance of focus, but also of anger. He had changed so much.
She laughed, surprising herself. You look terrible.
He stared for a moment, a constant frown locked into place. Awkwardly, an old smile returned to him. He was not yet entirely lost. Do I? he thought aloud.
Im sorry. Contacting you so suddenly, I mean. I didnt want to use an Astropath.
I was surprised
being assigned to the Adeptus Astartes.
Yes, he blankly replied. They paused. He cleared his throat, trying to remember his previous life. He felt some measure of accountability to her. There was risk in even sharing this moment. He could not risk involving anyone within his war.
proud of you, John. Youve come a long way.
Youve changed, he realized.
Time has a way of doing that. Youve changed, too.
He rocked in his chair, raising the cup back to his mouth. Yeah, he said, taking a drink.
Do you enjoy it? Your work?
The question took him off guard. Ive never thought about it, he replied, clearing his throat, lowering the mug. I do what I need to do.
Conrads faint smile fell, watching the crackling feed. It felt like watching a recording, oddly. John, she spoke to the monitor, I heard about your
I heard about the attack. On your home world.
He said nothing, still looking away, thinking.
Im sorry, John.
What do you have to be sorry about? he asked, turning to her.
I, she stammered, I didnt mean anything by it. I just wish
She was unsure what she was about to say. She wished she could have been there? She wished he had never left? That he had led a life less like her own? What was he like?
John removed his Commissariat cap, running a palm through silver hair. It was like
Its strange. Being a father.
Conrad had never known romantic love, at least to her knowledge. It was the legacy of her father, a man who had raised her in place of the son he had always wanted. Such feelings were beyond her, at most times. The prospect of having a child was completely foreign to her. The closest she had ever known was her care over those in her command. She wondered if she would be sitting in Johns seat, if their roles had been reversed.
I was so worried. I kept thinking, what if he wakes up one day, and Im not there? And his mother isnt there? He rocked the fluid in his cup back and forth, reflecting. I didnt want someone to find him, hiding in a soldiers grave, like me. I had
I had the chance to give him what I never had.
Conrad hesitated, nearly paralyzed by the prospect of choosing the wrong words. Even knowing John as she did, she had no experience dealing with such things. It seemed strange to her, that even having not seen him for so long, she still considered him so fondly. It was this fondness alone that gave her the resolve to reach out to him another foreign sensation.
He was like his mother, of course. Ordinary. Like Id hoped.
You wanted a normal life for him.
He nodded. He got one. Thats the kind of normalcy people expect children being murdered by their own people. His voice raised with contempt. What the hell is wrong with us, Connie.
She paused, and then sighed. I dont know, John. Its been like this for as long as I remember.
I keep telling myself
I keep thinking, what if I wipe out the xenos? The mutants? Will there always be heresy? Therell always be men to make mistakes, and therell always be orphans.
Thats just part of the war, John, she said.
John shifted, uneasily. Damn us.
have to do what you can. For what its worth, I went over your progress with the Marines. Its impressive. Even for Marines. Youre doing everything you can.
Thats just it, he sighed, I always should have been. Even now, when any of the Astartes dies while Im with them, on the field, it feels like Ive lost another son. I go through it all over again. James paid the price for my mistakes.
John, you cant
Maybe its for the best.
What? he asked, incredulously.
For James. That he didnt have to grow up in this world.
John hummed to himself, hoping it was true. He was a good kid. Always full of energy. Outgoing. Had a bit of a mouth, though.
Conrad smiled. Sounds more like his father than you claim.
John paused, and then laughed suddenly. It was an awkward, sad laugh.
I would like to have met him.
John held a faint grin, considering this. He would not could not admit it, but he wished that she had met his son. That would be too much trouble for me to handle.
Conrad laughed, smiling as widely as she could recall. She was glad to see the man that she knew still lived on in the Commissar.
A voice interrupted both on Raeges end, too faint for John to hear. Her face straightened to a practice dour expression, immediately. Oh? Fine. Tell him Ill be there momentarily. A door closed. She grinned slightly, now out of public view.
You havent changed that much, actually, John said, placing his cap back upon his head.
She laughed. Im still the same woman, John. Just more experienced.
She cleared her throat. Well then. I should be going. Speaking on strictly professional terms, Im happy to see a former student excel.
Oh, he nodded with a sly grin, on strictly professional terms, Im pleased I had such an excellent instructor.
She put on her straightest face and saluted the monitor. Until next time, Commissar.
Next time, John repeated.
She smiled again. And she was gone.
Will you come home? she would ask.
When the war is over, he would reply.
In past years, he had grown to reconsider this. His age limited his options. Even the Marines began to suggest he back away from certain missions. Retirement was clearly becoming the only option. Still, he continued to fight. Each final mission preceded the next.
Yet, Cassandra waited. She was old, now, her beauty a faded memory. Her body was failing her, she told him. The knowledge led him to reevaluate his career, his choices.
The tragedy of his midlife seemed far away now. The memory of his son still propelled him, yet he knew that his efforts were futile. The Imperium would never be cleansed, and his son would never return. He was wasting his life. What was more, he dishonored his own wife the mother of his son. It is not what his son would want, if he were still alive, he felt. Age had taught him well, if not nearly too late. Still, there was time to pick up the pieces of his life.
Yet, he felt a sense of obligation. He was unsure why his mind lingered upon the war, futile as it was. The answer came a month before he set foot upon his home world. The Imperium was massing an effort to reclaim Nnul. The Marines would assault key installations around the planet. Perhaps solidifying Johns desire was the knowledge that Thadian Detrien had fled here decades ago. Thadian held no great meaning to John, but the significance of killing a fallen Commissar he had known during the most tumultuous time in his life seemed fitting. If he could reclaim his world and wipe clean the memories of the past, perhaps the Emperor would see fit to fashion his flaws to merit, and free him.
He would return to Cassandra. Each would live out what few days they shared with one another. Their love had never failed, as John had never been capable of the kind of love she had for him. Solitude gripped him, even in marriage. It was a remnant of his youth, and a hallmark of his identity as Commissar Fuklaw. After this final mission, the Commissar would die with his final victory, leaving only Cassandras husband. They had little time, yet it was all he could offer in restitution.
It was a week before the final battle. John, for the first time, sent her a letter of his own accord. It read simply: I have one final task. Im coming home. No longer would he hesitate. No longer would he allow bitter memories to control the present.
They had stopped him as he readied to embark, hours ago. A reply had come. It was another formatted letter, forwarded from the hospital at which Cassandra had often admitted herself. She had thought best to take precautions, as her health had deteriorated quickly over recent months.
Dear John, it read.
Id like to apologize. I never have, for the things I said when you left home, all those years ago. More than that, Im sorry I was never the wife I should have been. You deserved more support than I gave you. I was selfish. Maybe if I had been a better wife, you may have had a better life, and a better career. Maybe then, you would never had needed to leave. Its my fault, too. Youve always shouldered all the blame for everything. I know you dont think much of your own accomplishments, but I do. Youre a great man, John, even if you dont know or accept it. Despite both of our flaws, thats why I loved you then, and continue to love you today. Im sorry I could never bring myself to tell you, but I also know how important it is for you to separate your professional life from your personal life. It troubles you to know someone is out there, relying on you. Thats why Ive told the hospital to keep this letter on file, and to send it to you only once Ive passed on. You dont have anything to hold you back now, John. Ill always believe in you, and Ill always love you. Finish the war, for us all.
The hull of the Thunderhawk jolted and shifted in midair. The heretic forces deep within the city had already redeployed. Imperial Guard clashed with them, as they did across the entire face of the planet. The fighting was nearing its end, after years of prolonged war. The Marines, Fuklaw amongst them, were here to help finish the fight.
The Commissars mind lingered on a memory. His son. His wife. There was only one casualty left. After today, his war would be over.
Old man, one of the Marines shouted to him, amidst a storm of angry voices. You dead yet?
He coughed, feeling blood clots spill into his mouth. The servitor had done as much as it could. He would survive long enough to finish his work.
Dont have the luxury, he said, grinning with bloodied teeth. Just wish this fucking junk pile would land.
Damn this piece of shit, another Marine agreed. I didnt come to this barren rock to pussy-foot around in the clouds!
probably think youre afraid to land, Fuklaw smiled. Waiting for the Guard to clear you a path.
Like hell we are! another Marine shouted.
I can just see them saying that! another bellowed, his hands shaking into the air.
Those little fucks! Now Im pissed!
Curses and declarations of hate rose like a storm within the craft. The Commissar laughed, although it pained him. He could still mold them. His laughter waned. His vision faded.
He awoke to the sounds of battle. He had passed out. The Thunderhawk burned, its nose buried into soil. Much of the hull was torn away. The Marines had wasted little time. Whether they had escaped the craft or caused its descent was uncertain. Both cases were equally likely.
He rose as quickly as his body would merit. His muscles ached, despite the painkillers running through his system. He could feel his organs shift unnaturally within him. He stumbled out of the wreckage, pushing flaming debris to the side. The crash had lost him his weapons. He stared through the clouded air, his vision obscured by blackened smoke and his darkening vision. It was difficult to determine his surroundings, but he could vaguely recall his position.
He was near the outskirts of the capital city, Gheah. Chaos forces had constructed a great number of fortifications within the natural valley that encompassed the city. Great spires loomed in the horizon, tendrils of rotting flesh coursing within their frames. The heretics had not yet had the time to refashion the world to their purpose. In truth, with the Marines now supporting the Guard, who had already done much to retake the world, the battle would be won handily. This was not Fuklaws greatest battle, nor his greatest hour. Having found himself left behind within the downed transport, he realized how pointless his presence upon the battlefield was. He was unneeded.
Why had he come to this place? It was foolish of him. To reclaim his home world? This could be accomplished without his presence. To support the Marines? They had grown beyond his support. Or rather, he had fallen behind. It was unsurprising, given that he was a man amongst immortals. To kill a counterpart in the fallen Commissar, Thadian Detrien? This seemed especially foolish. War was waged across much of the planet. There was no guarantee he lived, and far less surety that he was anywhere Fuklaw might find him. To erase a memory? He had already realized the futility of his final years. His son was gone. He would not bring him back. His wife was now dead, as well. She had, likely, never received his letter. She had told him to continue the fight, not realizing he intended to return home. Was his presence here an insult to her memory? Should he not be living freely, as she had always wished?
Something approached through the haze, its steps casting debris.
He was here to die, he thought. One final casualty. He only wished to see this world redeemed. Knowing it was cleansed, he might gain some satisfaction. Thadian would be dead, wherever he was. The Imperium would give this planet a purpose once again. Somewhere, a mother would bear a child, to be raised by both of his parents. Each would live a normal, ripe life, dying of old age, free of concern for the past and the future. This was why he had come. He would perish on this world, sheltering them beneath his fallen corpse. He would see fit that John Fuklaw would never be born again.
Scalding green clouds billowed. A great shape emerged from battle. Johns vision was too clouded to discern it. Was this enough, he wondered. Was he ready to die?
Upon defiled legs, the mechanized abomination burst forth from the ashes, the rot and the embers. Its metal claw raised, preparing to swipe John from its path. He was not ready.
He was not prepared to die. Not yet.
Something pushed him away. A golden hand locked grasps with the Chaotic engine. The thing howled, the sound of its hand being torn away filling the air. John rolled away, coming to rest in charred debris. Marines descended upon the abomination, tearing it, smashing it. It flailed wildly, already damaged.
Thought you could get away, you fat shit! a Marine yelled, tearing strips of metal and flesh from the monster. Its strained cries eased and fell away, dying at last. It was not long before most of the Marines had their fill of its destruction, and vanished back into the green mist.
What were you doing, standing there like a damned fool! One of them approached, helping the Commissar back to his feet. You want to be dragged along and you pull shit like that?
Lapse in judgment. Their artillery?
Gone. They scattered a few minutes ago. Fuckers are all running around, making us hunt them down. Fight was practically over a half hour ago. Waste of our damn time.
Had he really been unconscious for so long?
The Marine put a hand to his helmet, listening to indiscernible chatter. Yeah, hes here with me. Why? More chatter. The Marine laughed. You actually found the little shit? Ill bring him, all right.
The giant slapped Fuklaw on the back and guffawed. They found that bastard you were looking for!
John shook his head, having trouble thinking clearly. Thadian?
Hell yes. Hiding under some bodies.
Fuklaw thought for a moment, smiling, then burst into a roar of mad laughter. It surprised even the Marine. Show me!
They pulled him up from the ground to face his executioner. The Commissar had told them he had wanted this. It was his last wish.
Neither of the men wholly recognized the other. John was a shell of the man he had been at his prime. Thadian was mutated and malformed, tainted by Chaos. Both hobbled in place, weary from the war. Still, looking into the others eyes, they both knew.
Is this it? Fuklaw asked. What a disappointment.
The creature that Thadian had become grinned, cackling churlishly. Is that you, John?
Fuklaw motioned for a weapon.
Such an honor. Dispatched by an old friend.
Marines stood about, their work finished, as far as they were concerned. They all wanted to see this. They had known of both of their pasts, as it was how the Marines had found John. There was a sense of pride in witnessing the Commissar finish the work that had brought him to them.
They stood within a desecrated chapel, most of its structure and foundation missing or compromised. Some Guardsmen sat upon fallen rafters and within shattered windows. One brought him a chainsword.
Youve no right to talk of honor, John said, examining the blade. You forfeited your own long ago.
It laughed again. It was worth it, I think. History shall recall my betrayal. I shall be loved, forever.
Youre a fool.
Oh? You sought me out, yes.
I will tell you a secret. Puss poured from its body, its stench permeating the air. It closed its yellow eyes and hissed its words: I sought you, too. Since that day. You tried to kill me. They wanted answers. My career, ruined. Yet, I found the adoration I wished with my master. He agreed. He agreed I should find you, kill you. It possessed me, the desire. Thirty years I waited, always eager for a way to find you. Master told me I was not ready, so I wait. Here you are, now. It delights me, knowing you have thought of me as well. That master foresaw our meeting.
I havent thought of you in thirty years. The thing recoiled, confused. As far as Im concerned, Im just finishing another execution, of another no-name heretic.
No-name!? it cried.
The Commissar moved forward, limping. The drugs were wearing off. He could tell his internal injuries had worsened. He gripped the handle of the chainsword, feeling satisfaction in the familiar sensation. There was plenty of fight left in him enough for this. Wheres your personal glory now, abomination? You were an insignificant Commissar. Now an insignificant minion. He pressed the chain of the blade upon the creatures skull, the Marines holding him in place. I didnt remember you. And history will forget my name.
No one writes stories about insignificant men. Remember? What does that make of you?
father will save me!
He laughed. No, Fuklaw said, he wont. He pulled the trigger. The weapon bored effortlessly through its body, sawing it in two. The Marines pulled, tearing the thin strains holding the corpse together, flinging the remains away like trash.
Some of the Guard clapped. Others cheered, for the death of a Commissar that no one would remember. The reverie fell quickly, and the men returned to more important matters.
John felt nothing. There was no satisfaction in the creatures death no more than any other, at least. Yet, this seemed fitting. It put his vacancy in perspective. He had lost his place in the world long ago. The pain returned. His mortality reminded him of his promise to this world. He was still dying.
Dont know about you, old man, one of the Marines said peeling strips of the heretics decayed flesh from his palms, but that felt fucking fantastic to me.
I should leave, John replied. His focus had suspended his own awareness. The drugs were fading. He was not long.
The Marine spoke, after a pause: Right. Once we get another
Screams in the distance. Bolter fire.
Astartes! Fuklaw shouted, as loudly as he could. They were already on the move.
Fallen Marines! a Guardsman shouted, racing up the steps to the cathedral. A pocket of them swept in from the A shell flew through his chest. Chunks of meat and shattered bone blew through the air, the bolter round exploding against the ceiling. A wave of cultists quickly followed, swarming in as debris fell from the sky.
Within seconds, the Marines were upon them all. The bodies of their enemies exploded and split like rotten fruit. Fuklaw heaved his weapon to his shoulder and limped vainly into the fray. Although weary, dying from injury, his decades of service did not fail him. The first stroke halved the bodies of three heretics. The second caught between the legs of a surprised servant, his eyes bulging as the Commissars blade ripped through his sternum.
Bolter shells began to explode nearby. A small band of ancient, fallen Marines were using the inhuman men as containment, firing on Johns forces from afar. The members of the Astartes Hostilitas were too preoccupied with misplacing their aggression to notice.
A band of loyalist Guardsmen raced in from the rear of the Cathedral, their lasguns trained on the Chaos meat shields. They could handle this much.
Marines! Fuklaw shouted, pushing his way through the crowd. See those cowardly bastards in the distance! Many took notice, already tiring of beating the life from such puny opponents. Theyre taking shots at us while these little shits get in our way!
A litany of curses followed the declaration. Heretics spilled in the air like waves as Fuklaw and the Marines swam through the tide of blood. With each passing second, the traitors set themselves in position. With each moment, the hail of weapons fire increased.
They emerged from the crowd, and a stray shell clipped the edge of a Marines pauldron, exploding on impact. He fell, unconscious. His fellow soldiers balked before the fallen body, seething in rage. Their lot rarely injured, and scarcely ever died. The thought of the traitorous hands of their enemies having felled a brother in thanks to cowardly tactics pushed them over the edge.
Youll die cowards deaths! one declared.
Ill feed you your own fucking anuses! another exclaimed.
They would not win this way, John knew. Even in righteous fury, they required focus.
Marines! he shouted, at last cutting his way through, what are we!
A storm of bolter fire pierced the air. The sounds of battle were deafening at this range. Always angry! they shouted in unison, the cry crashing through the battlefield, shattering the air. All the time!
A bloodied cloud of dust and red mud exploded behind them as the immortals charged forward. The roar of bolter fire, Chaos mantra and the deaths of Guardsmen and cultist alike were overwhelmed by the howling thunder of the Marines battle cry. They stormed the Chaos Marines position, dodging weapons fire as they closed upon them. As they neared, all the traitors could hear was the faint sound of their own weapons, and a deafening, incomprehensible war cry.
We are the unbroken blades! one shouted back, unsheathing a putrid green sword. The rest followed suit. The Marines closed.
Fuklaw fell behind, quickly. His injuries aggravated further. He felt blood begin to spill. It filled his mouth. Even with the drugs, his body numbed and trembled. His bones felt like they were about to shatter within his body. The fire in his lungs returned. His vision waned.
The Marines did not require his assistance. Their intensity and numbers overwhelmed the more experienced fallen Marines. Their armor shattered, revealing vile, bulbous bodies within the shells. The battle cry continued, unabated. The limited forces of the Plague Marines could not match against the ferocity of their furious counterparts. Their bodies bled ooze, resisting death. It served only to anger the loyalists.
The fight moved on. John could not keep up. He had barely reached the first fallen Marines corpse when he fell alongside it. His chainsword lodged into the stained earth, barely supporting his failing body. His eyes rolled. He knew this was his final charge.
It was brilliantly irksome, he thought. He lived a life of obscurity, both of inequity and of his own volition. Would he die a glorious death then, he sometimes wondered. Perhaps in a glorious, fever-pitched battle, he, a normal man by all account, would slay a great daemon, or a prince of Chaos. Perhaps the Emperor would wield him for some magnificent purpose, and grant him absolution. It would be an ironic lesson to creation, that insignificant men may accomplish great things through faith. It would be a testimony to his God, that a boy hiding beneath the dead may, one day, stand atop them. He grinned, the white bone of his exposed teeth drenched in a crimson curtain of blood. It was a final lesson of humility.
He recalled his final letter from Cassandra, in his last moments. It was a simple letter, asking him about his work, of his new experiences. Of course, she had asked him the question. When will you come home? He gave the same response. Yet, that time, she had asked him another question one she had never asked. It had surprised him, somewhat. Still, he had given it little thought at the time.
His replies had, until that time, been simple, matter-of-fact answers to her questions, and the doctrine to which he so dearly adhered. Sometimes, they were no more than a few words. This time, however, he now realized, he had responded with the kind of sincerity he had never exhibited to her.
Is it worth it? she had asked.
Is it worth it? my dear? he replied.
Most men know themselves by their accomplishments. It is how they define themselves, and how they feel that their life has been worth living. I have no such luxury. Such foolishness passed when I took this position.
What have I accomplished? In the Emperors name, I have done great works, although for his sake alone. Without hesitation, regret or shame, I tell you, I have no accomplishments no personal glory.
You must think that amusing. You always found my love for my post, in contrast to my distaste for its faculties, to be as much. I realize that you never agreed with my decision. That, more than our mutual loss, is what drove us apart.
If you could only share my understanding. I am driven by God, fashioned by tragedy to be a perfect servant for his will. Through him, I lead immortals, crafted long before I drew breath, against the very incarnations of sin and terror itself.
How strange a thing, I consider, to lead men so much greater in age than myself, yet with faces that one might mistake for a young man.
Yes, what have I accomplished? How can I know myself by my accomplishments, when all I can see are my failures?
When one of these men dies
I do not witness the passing of an immortal. I see only the face of a young man, looking into the eyes of an old mortal that should have passed from this existence long ago. How might I explain my grace, leading such beings, surviving their great war whilst they give up their lives, than it is but the will of the Emperor?
When one of these men dies
they have the same look in their eyes. No matter how hardened, no matter how many wars they have witnessed, it is always the same look. Save me, they say, that I might persist. Save me, that I might abide in this inglorious world. If I could save them, it would not stay my guilt.
When one of these men dies
I blame myself. I relive the unspeakable, and wonder to myself, what would have his life have been like, if not for my imperfection? Could I have saved him?
I am sorry to worry you. I apologize that I must deny you once again, and reside here, in this eternal war.
Realize, my love, that the man you once knew, died that day. Should I return, you would not know me. I am old, and driven only by my anger. There is nothing left within me but service to my God. He alone crafts my failures to accomplishment, to merit, and to a life worth living.
Remember always, my dear, how I am stained by his blood.
He had always loved her. Even decades ago, he had loved her. It was this name that clouded that realization. It was the fear of vulnerability, and the pain of loss that consumed him. She had always seen this, he realized. She had always loved the man he truly was, even as he told her that man was gone.
She had gotten his letter. Perhaps it had not been the one he had intended, but with his final reply, John had shown her how he cared, without having ever realized it. He was certain she had read it, between the lines: I have one final task. Im coming home.
Is it worth it?
He now understood the question.
John looked out over the battlefield, one last time. His muscles were rigid, stiffening as his raised his neck. Flickering red streams of blood poured from his wounds, his jaw. He could feel the warm fluid coursing down from his nose. He was drowning in death, having resisted it for so long. The Marines, he saw, stood above the shattered, decayed remains of their enemies. It was raining. All were safe.
This was enough, he felt. They turned to retrieve him, removing their helmets, asking him something. He could not hear them. They could see he was leaving them.
Something moved, behind them. A body arose, its spoiled form gripping a weapon, teetering.
John could not speak to warn them. Clots of blood choked him. He could not lift his arms to point.
He had only one plan. Releasing his grip upon the chainsword, he fell to the earth, palming the mud. He could scarcely see, keeping what remained of his vision trained on the rising Plague Marine. At last, he found it.
The massive bolter pistol of one of the heretical giants. Its taint scorched his hand as he took hold of it. Resisting its disease, he grimaced as he tilted the weapon into the mud, angling it. With his arm laid across its frame, he found its massive trigger with the palm of his hand.
The Marines at last realized what was happening. The Plague Marine took aim. The Commissar fired.
Pain vanished from his body. Perfect clarity. His vision cleared, and his hearing returned. The heretic stooped to the ground, moaning unintelligibly. The shell exploded within his gut, sending flaming chunks of the necrotic vessel flying.
Is it worth it?
John hesitated, then looked to his right arm. The recoil from the weapon had sent it flying, carrying some of Johns body with it.
He felt the rain upon his skin, upon his head. His cap lay on the ground, covered in his blood. The Marines rushed forward. His every sense blackened. He fell. The world vanished. It had taken its prize. The final casualty.
Is it worth it? he considered.
She had asked the question not of derision, but out of hope. She wanted to believe. She wanted to believe that her child had not died in a purposeless world. She wanted to know that the man she loved fought for an obtainable future, free of despair, grieving mothers and frightened orphans. Was the world worth dying for?
Was it worth it? he felt a voice call. It boomed, radiating his mind with light. He understood who asked him, and why.
Yes, he answered. To save all your children.
The presence laughed with pride, warming him. There was no pain. His life had not been in vain, or without significance. His war was finally over.
A story well-told.
Conrad exhaustedly walked dark, emptied halls, documents in hand.
At 130 years old, Juvenation treatments could only carry her so much further. She looked to be in her mid-40s, by natural reckoning. Her hair grayed in places. Now a scholar, she spent much of her time teaching, although from time to time she would be needed back on the battlefield. Life was simpler now, although age brought with it new complications.
The lifestyle of her youth seemed so far away these days. She was different, in many ways. No longer did she so brutally shy from relationships, nor distance herself from those for whom she cared. She was more acclimated to the needs of others, and had grown to understand her own emotions.
Certainly, she was thankful for her time in this life. She had grown considerably as a person, although not by her own merit. She had others to thank for this.
Today, she lived for one of these. More than any other, John Fuklaw had made her a better person. There was little she could do, in her own mind, to repay this. As far away as they had often been, he affected her life daily. Even now especially now he affected her.
They had rushed him off-world as quickly as they could, they told her. The damage was too extensive. He had lost too much blood. This is what they told her.
That was a year ago. She had never known the kind of grief she had felt at the news of his death. She understood it better than she would have, years before then. It changed her.
It was good, she thought, for him to have died so quickly after the loss of his wife. She had never known her, but she was certain their relationship had been closer than John ever let on, or understood. She felt a combination of sadness and envy. It was romantic, in a way. She scarcely understood romance, but it seemed romantic to her, regardless.
She had arrived to her destination without realizing it. She had feared this day.
Yes, she replied, the sound of her voice echoing down the halls. I was told to give you these?
Ah, the man replied. Yes, thank you. Weve been short-handed, especially on night shifts. I apologize for the inconvenience.
Its fine. Ive traveled this far, already, she said, smiling briefly.
Yes, well, he said, coughing, I was told youve visited several other times. And paid for most of the expenses?
All of them.
Hm. He placed the documents into a tray, upon the door they now stood beyond. Quite a story, this one. Before you go in, keep in mind hes still under observation.
Yes, she said, exhaling, straightening her clothing.
That is what they had told her, at first that John had died. In truth, he had lapsed into a coma. And by some miracle, he had survived long enough to receive treatment.
She entered the door, nearly blinded by the moonlight entering the hospital room. John lay sleeping, as she had often seen him this past year. She had visited him more often than she would admit. It was foolish, she thought, to travel so far, to visit a comatose man. He would never awaken, they had told her. They had been wrong before.
She sat upon the foot of the bed.
He stirred, opening his eyes.
John looked into the face of the first important person in his life. Unlike before, he knew her instantly.
He laughed. You look terrible, he whispered.
Shut up, she smiled. Do you feel okay?
He shifted uneasily, atrophied from a years sleep. Ive felt better.
She exhaled, having felt as though she had held her breath for ages. He had awoken a week ago. No one was certain if he had sustained brain damage, or if he even remembered who he was. She was relieved beyond words.
You made me worry.
Oh? he asked, surprised. Only you?
Who else do you know? she scolded. Big, sweaty, three-hundred year old men?
Maybe, he replied, trying to sound droll. And, how have you been?
Ive, she began to speak, interrupted by her own laughter. Stop asking me foolish questions.
Why? he asked, smiling.
It makes me wonder if you really did sustain brain damage.
I didnt, he laughed. Just a simple man, is all.
She rolled her eyes. Youve been anything but simple. Tiring. Frustrating.
Johns eyes wandered to his prosthetic limb. It was simple enough, a mere facsimile of a real arm. Not meant for combat. Was this your doing?
She hesitated, knowing his loathing for physical alterations. Yes.
He hummed to himself, laying his head back upon his pillow.
left you the money youd sent her over the years. But with you in a coma, there was no way to
You paid for it.
All of it?
He closed his eyes, still easily exhausted. Surprisingly, he did not complain over her effort.
What happened out there?
They wouldnt tell me anything. On Nnul, I mean.
Did we retake it?
Yes, she nodded. They started recolonization three months ago.
Ah, he breathed. A pause. He reflected on this with some matter of satisfaction.
Well, he replied, I saved someones son.
And a Commissar died. Thats all.
The two sat in the moonlight for some time, in silence. The sound of footsteps would occasionally echo down the empty halls. It was a great deal to take in.
They wanted to know, she spoke, clearing her throat, if you wished to
return to duty.
He shook his head. Like I said, a Commissar died. I left my regrets out there. I wont go back to them.
She nodded again, and quickly turned away, covering her face.
She choked, and then coughed. Y-yes? she replied, hiding tears.
Im sorry I didnt keep in touch.
Ah, she began, tracing a leg across the floor, its all right.
No, he said, pulling himself up. I wasted a lot of good years, afraid of losing what I had. Because of that, I ended up losing everything. Im sorry.
Conrad watched him for a moment, thinking. She would have to make the same decision. She rose from the bed.
Get some rest, John. Youre still not well.
Ill be back soon. She smiled, reassuringly. Im sorry, too.
We have a lot of catching up to do.
He grinned, lying back down into bed.
And youre going to start undergoing Juvenation treatments, she chided, a smirk upon her face. John grumbled, for show. I put a lot of money into your health, John. I own you.
Thats a pleasant thought, he thought aloud, ironically.
She laughed, like a younger woman. Good night, John.
The door clicked shut. She would be back, soon.
John fell asleep, dreaming of tomorrow.