Lay off! Can’t you see I’m sleeping, boy?
Can’t you see I’m sleeping sir, then.
It seems I already am talking to you, doesn’t it? Well, you’ve woken me up, young one, I might as well. Yes, go on, sit down. What? Oh, just move him, he can’t hold his drink like us veterans! Just push him. There you go. Move the bottles, there we are. Now, to what do I owe this interruption?
I see. This is interesting. Almost interesting enough to interrupt my little soirée in this pleasant drinking establishment – lay off, Terra damn you! Can’t you see I’m talking, you grunt! – Sorry, friend. So, you’re my relief?
Hmmm. Well, good luck, I hope you do better with the One-Twenty-First than I did – or any of my predecessors. We’ve had a hard war, particularly amongst the officers. Yes, I bet they didn’t tell you that, did they? Didn’t you suspect that Under-Lieutenant to Captain was a bit of a jump? Too good to be true? Well, it is.
They’re making us up faster than the sergeants now. See these pips? Brevet rank. I’m only a subbed non-com, and the highest subbed rank left in the whole company. All the officers are breveted non-coms. Sergeants, even corporals, some of them.
What happened? What didn’t happen, that would be quicker to answer. How long do you have? Good. I like a boy who is prepared to at least spend the time finding out why his company is called The Gravediggers. Oh, you hadn’t heard that one? In eight months, our one company’s taken five companies’ worth of casualties. No-one left alive from the original lot.
Well, it started out at the drop zone, as I understand it. In routine, just establishing comms, when a load of those ... traitors ... came waltzing over the crest of that hill. Just firing, they kept firing, kept coming. Nothing we had could get through that power armour. Light Infantry, we were. Well, still are, but then we were fresh. Didn’t have any of the kit and guns we have now; just a lasgun and what we stood up in. It was butchery. Eventually some of our tanks got through and we stung ‘em enough to send them packing, but not before both platoons were wiped out. Yes, wiped out. To a man. Nearly all the officers killed. Captain Justus, he founded the company, he went nearly first. A great officer. Academy man, good family – know General Justus? Uncle and nephew, they were – and Macharian Cross at twenty-four. They said he’d be a general himself, one day; there were a lot of important eyes watching him. First engagement, first charge – just walked into the arms of some foul spawn thing, ripped him to pieces. Claws don’t discriminate between generals and guardsmen.
Well, that all made them sit up back at Battalion. We started getting some artillery through, but slowly. Three attacks were made from that base on the gulley at Delta oh-eight-oh-one. I joined right after the second attack. Same story each time; platoons took the brunt of it. Officers came out the worst. By the time we finally took that damn ditch, there was only one officer left who wasn’t fresh from the academy. Oh, no offence sir, but that’s not what you need to command in a warzone. Captain Siculus, he was a man and a half, sir. Lost an arm on Cadia, fought on Governor’s Square, list of citations that’d embarrass a general. I thought he’d turn it all around. Stop the boys being cut down like wheat every time we charged those damned Marines. And he did, for a while. Always in the thick of it, let the X.O. run the battle while he got stuck in with that ruddy great power claw of his. Killed loads of them, he did, but it was at the relay station this one time when his luck ran out. Charged right into the middle of them, flanks couldn’t keep up, then they were driven back and left him on his own, surrounded. Textbook. The company standard stayed flying in all that melee for what seemed like ages, but it fell eventually. Then the merry-go-round started up and everyone got bumped up one place – that’s where I got my field commission, damn the cursed thing. I’m not an officer, never will be.
Captain Tiarius, he didn’t last long. Fled like a whiteshield in his first charge – most sensible command decision made in the whole war, if you asked me.
We both know you won’t, boy. Reporting to the commissars is just a threat they program into you at the academy, to be replayed when you hear anything true said by a soldier. Can I carry on?
Thank you. Well, for all that, you were right. They hanged him. Messy, it was. Oh, we’d hanged loads of grunts until that point, but this was a field execution so the commissar ‘improvised’. With a steel tow rope from the transporter. Wouldn’t listen. The colonel came down to see that one – it was the first officer we’d hung. First in the regiment in a long time, so they said. Well, they pulled the lever and down he went. His head stayed in the noose and the body kept on going – you should have seen the colour flush from their faces! Blood everywhere. Some of the guys passed out, but I don’t think anyone was charged. The commissar himself was sick, as I recall. Messy business we seem to have got ourselves into, eh boy!
That’s when the war petered out. We won – don’t let the massacres fool you; we gave as good as we got. By then, it wasn’t so bad. We had artillery then – proper artillery – and carapace, too. They were getting less and less common, more dispersed – and by then I reckon we must have accounted for at least half a legion of the accursed things – plus Emperor-knows how many heretics, sympathisers, collaborators, spawns, possessed... you could follow our progress across the plains by the trail of crucified heretics along the path. Must have been a thousand, at least.
Then, we got Captain Nero. That’s right, he’s a captain now!
I’d heard that too. Apparently not. He’s old comrades with the colonel, he scored him the spot. Who better to lead The Gravediggers than old Nero? St. Gaven Bridge all over again – he could try his hand at getting this company wiped out. Not that he’d have to try. But that little celebrity moment didn’t last long. As soon as higher realised there was no war on, he was transferred out on some special assignment – very hush-hush – and they stick me in charge. On garrison duties. Until they can get an academy officer in to replace me. And here you are.
Yes, in a way it is, I suppose. Not the sort of honour I’d fancy myself, but yes – it sort of is. For a company that was formed eight months ago, we’ve got a lot of battle honours. Two standards already, commendations, medals, the lot. We’re the finest band of marine hunters this side of the Segmentum, if you ask me.
Yes, but at what cost, sir? Not the three hundred dead – I envy them, I really do. Their ordeal is over, now Immortal Heroes in the presence of the Emperor. We have to relive those battles, see those faces every time we close our eyes. I wouldn’t do that for all the medals in Palladia. They should disband the company, if you ask me. We might still be technically alive, on paper, but there’s not a man who isn’t dead in his own way in the company. Everyone who survived the war died at some point. Some when their old pals from the manufactories were immolated from the inside out by some searing warp energy, some when they put a las-bolt though someone’s head to save them from letting ... them ... get their hands on them alive, others when they had to massacre civilians just because the company priest reckons ‘They’ came through that way some time previous...
I survived the war. It just seemed to wash over me. I thought I’d make it. I really did. I was wrong of course.
I won’t tell you what it is. I’m dealing with it in my own way. I’m coping.
I’m not a drunk. I’m just drunk at the moment. Maybe you’re right; it’s not the best solution. But I’d like to see you fight your way through a hell like that, and then I’d be prepared to take a lecture on how to cope from the likes of you. And on that note, I’m going for a walk.
No, you can’t. I meant on my own.
Anywhere! Just not here.
* * *
To the Officer Commanding, 9 Bn, ‘I Praetoriae’.
Addendum to weekly personnel role: explanatory note.
Sir, in light of the last week’s events, I have added the following explanatory notes to the personnel roster. They shed some further light onto the circumstances of our two casualties.
F/Sgt. (Brevet Capt) TIBERIUS, LUTHER
Missing. Last seen, Corporal’s Mess, M42.004/863. From my enquiries, it would appear that a number of records pertaining to disciplinary action taken on a number of tainted children from an outlying village were signed from the clerk on the night of his disappearance. I think it unlikely Capt. Tiberius will return.
Capt. HACARAE, OTTO
Dead. Last seen, Operations Room, M42.004/863. An unofficial verbal note was left with the Coy Signaller in which Capt. Hacarae resigned his commission, then ammending the company roster, signing himself as ‘missing’. Subsequently, a civilian transport bound for the planetary departure spacehead was found having crashed in poor light. Capt. Hacarae’s body was among the dead in civilian clothes.