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Into the Gallowdark Episode II: “In Death, Atonement”

Updated: Jun 26

Thunk. 

Thunk. 

Thunk.

The sound of shovels piercing dirt as two men dig under the midday sun. 

“You ever wonder what it’s all for?” asks the younger one.

“What?” asks the older one.

“All this war, all this death and all this digging.”

“I try not to think about that stuff.”

“The Imperium has been at war for what? 40,000 years? There’s no end. There’s never been an end. So, what’s the point?”

He pierces his spade into the rough dirt and takes out his canteen and takes a drink and passes the canteen to his companion.

“There is no point,” he sighs, “That’s the point. We’re just pawns for the Emperor. Not even pawns. More like ants. On the macro level we might have a purpose, but on the micro, we’re just meat.”

“That doesn’t bother you?”

“What good would it do to get bothered? Men like you and I don’t have the luxury for introspection. Look. You want a word of advice? Keep this sort of stuff to yourself. Keep your head down and keep digging.”

“We’ve been doing this for days.”

“And we’ll keep on doing this for days. Until the job’s done.”

“But the job’s never done. That’s what I’m getting at.”

A Lord Commissar approaches from behind them.

“Why do I not hear any digging?” he asks.

“Sorry sir, just taking a quick break that’s all.”

“I wasn’t aware of any break orders being issued,” says The Commissar.

“Are we supposed to work until we die?” asks the younger man.

“What was that?” asks The Commissar. 

He approaches the young man and gets inches from his face.

“It sounded like insubordination. That can’t be right though, can it? Because if it were insubordination then I’d have to discipline you, and we wouldn’t want that would we?”

The young man stands stern leaning on his shovel looking off into space.

“Stand upright when I’m talking to you, Private!” shouts The Commissar.

The young man does not respond.

“And you,” The Commissar turns towards the older man, “Keep digging!”

The older man does what he is told and returns to his task.

“What for?” asks the younger man.

“Excuse me!?” asks The Commissar.

“What are we digging for? We’ve been out here for weeks just digging and I feel the right to know why. Since we are the ones digging and all.”

The Commissar strikes the younger man across the face with the back of his hand. Because of the heat and his exhaustion, the young man falls to the ground.

“Know your station soldier!” yells The Commissar, “You exist to serve. You serve to exist.” He kicks the young man in the ribs. “Your purpose is to dig and dig you shall. Without question.” He kneels down. “Am I clear?”

The young man groans.

“AM I CLEAR?!”

“Sir, yes sir,” the young man manages.

“It is from dirt you came,” The Commissar spits on the young man’s face, “and to dirt you shall return.”

The Commissar stands up and wipes the dust off his bespoke, tailored uniform.

“I expect double the progress from here on out. I need this dug by nightfall,” he takes a few steps away and without turning back he says, “Or there will be consequences.”

After The Commissar’s visage passes out of sight, the older one helps the young man up and wipes him off and gives him a sip from his canteen. 

“Come on. Get up. Just keep going. That’s all we’ve got. No point in despairing. It will further spoil what miserable lives we have.”

“What’s the point? We’re all meant to die anyway.”

“The point is we’ve got to finish digging by tonight.”

“Or what? We’ll be killed? Is death really worse than this? What are we even striving for? The universe isn’t getting any better. Have you ever wondered if we’re the bad guys? If The Emperor is the problem? What if we stopped fighting? Would the rest of the universe keep on killing each other or would everything stop? It seems to me that the problem is us. If we stopped striving for more and more and more and more, then maybe, just maybe, the universe would be a better place.”

The older man puts a shovel in the young man’s hand and continues digging. The young man takes a deep breath and follows suit. 

They dig and dig and dig and dig and dig in silence until the sun begins to set.

The Lord Commissar returns.

“Inspection!”

The two men line up.

The Commissar paces the edge of the pit the two men have spent the day digging.

“Hmmm,” he mutters.

He turns back to the two men and stops before the younger one.

“Tell me,” he says, “Does this look done to you?”

The young man hesitates. He darts his eyes to his comrade who subtly shakes his head.

“Private,” says The Commissar.

He grabs the young man’s ear and drags him over and hurls him onto his knees at the pit’s edge.

“I asked you a question!” yells The Commissar, “Does this look done to you!?”

The young man remains silent.

The older man stands with his head down.

The Commissar draws his heirloom bolt revolver. He runs his fingers over the bejeweled handle and along the artisan metalwork with silver and adamantium inlay. 

“Earlier today you wanted to know why you were digging this hole,” says The Commissar, “Would you like to know?”

He cocks the hammer of the revolver.

“We are waging a campaign against the Orks on this planet. And there have been many casualties.”

He paces back and forth.

“And we need somewhere to put the bodies so that we do not spread contagion.”

He stops behind the young man.

“So, we dig mass graves.”

He points it at the back of the young man’s head.

“We are all cogs in the machine spirit of The Empire. And if one of those cogs gets rusted or wears down, it is my duty to replace it.”

He fires.

The young man’s body crumples to the ground on top of The Lord Commissar’s boot. He kicks the body into the pit.

“In life, war, In death, peace. In life, shame. In death, atonement,” he says.

 

---

           

A desolate world. A desert landscape. Wind sweeping over the dust-ridden crags. A trench stretches halfway across the planet.

He breathes deeply. 

There is shaking all around him and all he can hear is his own breathing. He knows there is movement, that there is a world out there, but all he can feel is spinning and numbness. His brain is on an endless loop, stuck on the feelings of dread in his stomach. 

He is lying in the mud. He’s been there for weeks. The corpses of his former comrades are piled high a few yards away. It is like this for miles.

He looks up into the sky.

Bolts shriek overhead. Missiles. Debris from nearby explosions scatters on his helmet.

If he squints he can see the space battle in orbit through the sunlight.

He turns his head to face forward. After a moment the blackness in his vision clears, and he sees a hand fall on his shoulder. But he does not feel it.

A well-dressed Commissar kneels before him. 

The Commissar’s mouth moves but he hears no words, only the endless ringing of tinnitus in his ears. A continuous high-pitched tone steadily rising in intensity along with the feeling in his stomach.

The Commissar slaps him across the face with the back of his hand.

“Pull yourself together conscript!” he says, “We’ve got a war to fight.”

The Commissar pulls him to his feet and puts a lasrifle in his hand. He is standing in a line of other guardsmen. All under armed and under armored. Every member of the Astra Militarum knew it was their purpose to die in service to the Imperium. And die is what they did best.

The Commissar draws his ceremonial power saber and raises it into the sky. A fearsome and futile gesture. “Charge!” he yells.

For a moment, they hesitate. A young soldier stands shaking in his boots. The Commissar immediately turns and shoots him in the head. His body falls limp into the mud.

He, again, raises his saber. “For the Emperor. Charge!!”

The guardsmen yell with fear-mustered courage as they scamper over the sandbagged crest of the trench into no man’s land. 

The Orks, too, charge.

Both sides rush to make as much ground as possible.

The Commissar orders the guardsmen to halt into formation.

“Front line, kneel!” says The Commissar. “Fire!”

A hail of lasfire lights up the field of battle. The Orks don’t even seem to notice. They simply keep coming.

“Fix bayonets!”

The guardsmen obey.

“Fire!”

Another volley of las pours into the Orks advancing line taking a few of them out. But not enough.

“Ready! Brace for charge!”

The guardsmen plant their bayonets into the dirt hoping to pierce an Ork with its own weight.

The Orks fire their sluggas as they near charging range. More than half the guardsmen fall before the two sides even clash.

Then an aerial bombardment rains down on the frontline killing guardsmen and Orks alike.

It becomes chaos.

There is blood and death and pain everywhere. The sun is blocked out by the dust and smoke and a disorienting haze settles on the battlefield.

He claws his way through the cratered landscape trying to simply survive. He sees The Commissar pinned beneath the severed power claw of an Ork Nob.

The Commissar calls out “Private!”

He crawls over to the Commissar’s side and bumps into the heirloom bolt revolver with his left knee.

“Dig me out, Private!”

He picks up the pistol and cocks back the firing pin with his thumb and aims it at The Commissar.

“You insubordinate piece of shit!”

He fires through the left breast pocket of The Commissar’s uniform.

“In death, atonement,” he says.

 

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