Life and Death of John Fuklaw
- "Time forgets the insignificant.”
- “But our God remembers even the smallest of lives.”
The words repeated, urging him to his feet. Yet, his body failed him. It was difficult to think clearly. His vision waned and drifted, dimly lit colors bleeding into one another. He was numb. His ears rang. Sensation was limited to the warmth of his own blood pooling below him, soaking into his clothes, caking with the dirt upon his flesh.
It took a moment to recall where he was, and for what reason he was dying upon unknown earth. His eyes flung open, offering only as much clarity as his age warranted. His body ached, not only from his injuries, but also from the rigors of years of service in war. He was old, and had been dying long before this day. He afforded himself scant seconds to breathe, burning air filling his lungs. He screamed from the pain, his crippled body writhing into his own muddied blood.
Determination, fueled by memories, surfaced and urged him once again. “Our God remembers even the smallest of lives,” he thought. He did not have the right to die – not like this. He had not earned the right. He had never earned anything. His eyes shot open, still blind. His jaw locked; he fought his own body, trying to sit upright. Sharp pain fought back, restraining him, trying to pull him back into the earth. This world wanted him for its own.
Something whispered to him. It was too faint to understand, too distant to combat. With words unheard, the voice of this place offered clearly a refuge from the pain. Lay with me, it seemed to urge. You have offered enough of yourself. Sleep here, in the place I have prepared for you. Rest. Die.
No! he tried to speak. Only silence. The ringing persisted. He arose once more, sitting upright far enough to feel his organs spilling from his belly. His muddied hands grasped to his body, its fingers finding bloody holds amidst his innards. He urged them back into his body. Finding charred remnants of flesh and skin, he folded their remains across the cavity in his torso.
He breathed heavily, the air still scorching his lungs. One of his palms fumbled across the ground, at last finding his leg. He could not feel their touch, but he was certain they were relatively undamaged. He tore fabric from his pant leg, trying to find enough to seal his wound. It was not enough. The world found him once again, tearing him back into the soil, reminding him of his limits.
“Damn,” he spoke, at last faintly hearing his own words. “Not here.”
“You won’t take me here, you bastard.”
“Commissar!” a voice spoke again – shouting – yet muffled.
His eyes rolled, searching for the voice. Briefly, he feared he had at last lapsed into death, and was being called home. “Not yet!” he cried, desperately clawing the earth. It would not take him.
Something took his hand. A faint sensation of warm metal and grains of earth shot down his arm. His head rocked as he tilted to the side, the faded image of a young man presenting itself. “J… James?”
“Commissar! We still need you!” No, he was mistaken. “Damn you, old man!” It was not him. “Get up!” He was not dead, he told himself.
The face of the man hovering above him at last became clear. The sounds of war returned. The pain rained upon him. His body tightened as his hand tightly bound itself to the coiled metal grip. “You aren’t rid of me yet, boy.”
“Sir,” Brother Kaidan Brok spoke, “how badly wounded are you?”
“My coat,” John mumbled. “Tear it. Seal the wound.” He relinquished his other hand’s hold upon his gut, his organs once again bulging through fragments of skin and torn fabric.
Brok, who immediately set to action, bore semblance to a man decades younger than John, himself. As all Adeptus Astartes, he was as near to immortal as men might achieve in life. In truth, he was over thrice John’s own age of 76. John’s aged body had never known care. He may have been capable of Brok’s station of Space Marine as a younger man, but had never had the opportunity to prove as much. He was merely human. Unlike some other Commissars, he had neither the wealth nor inclination to augment his flesh. He was as he was born, and nothing more. Human, fighting alongside immortals.
Commissar John Fuklaw would die today. History would not recall his name. He knew, dying in a pool of his own shattered body, that he would leave a legacy that reflected his life: one of irrelevance.
She repeated the word, nearly spitting into John’s face. Patience was wearing thin for both of them. Neither wished to be here. Neither respected the other. Neither had any choice in the matter.
“Doomed to toil on this damned rock for the rest of your days. Is that what you want? Don’t you want to be more? To be what you’re capable of being?”
He said nothing in reply. The details of why she was upset with him were irrelevant. She was always upset with him.
This had gone on for months now. No matter the pressure she placed on him, no matter the effort she expended in trying to mold him, Commissar Conrad Raege could not produce results. Her duty was to mold this brazen child into a leader of men, a beacon of inspiration to normal soldiers. Something impeded this, and with each passing day, the frustration of not knowing what it was drove her further towards violence.
She paced, one of her hands finding its way to her mouth, wandering upon her jaw as she mumbled to herself. The boy stared back with the same impertinence she had seen on the faces of leery-eyed Guardsmen within her company, months ago. She had killed them for the same look. She had killed them for even less. This, however, is why she was here.
“I can mold a unit on the firing line,” she said, straightening her clothes. “Hell if I don’t wish there were more of you, John. I’d kill just enough to get the message through.”
“How inspiring,” John muttered.
“What?” she said, wide-eyed, approaching. Daring him.
He looked away, pretending to have said nothing.
Now within inches of his face, she jammed her nails into the skin below his jaw. “What was that, John?”
Once again, nothing. Her hand slowly found its way around his neck, clasping just hard enough to be a discomfort.
“You’re a smart boy, John.” He muffled a groan and squinted as the air escaped out of him. “If you have something to add –”
“You don’t learn,” he rumbled through her grip. “Queen of the Kuluthian Boomslangs, 113th. The Legion of Murdering Bastards. You’re a failure as a Commissar.” He tried to tear her hand away from his neck. She increased her hold.
“You don’t know anything about leadership. You don’t know anything about me. Anything about my company, my methods.
“I’ve beaten you. I’ve bled you, broken your bones. I hit you with a fucking car your first day. I’ve done much worse since. Yet, here I am, putting up the same shit you were vomiting in my presence half a year ago. Every day I come a little closer to breaking my promise and killing you where you stand. I’d like to hear your informed, fucking opinion on that.”
He choked against the pressure of her grip, but smiled. “I’ll show you,” he managed to wheeze, “my fucking opinion.” Conrad stammered and recoiled. John’s left hand had suddenly and awkwardly plunged between her legs, invading her femininity. She threw him to the ground. Stumbling.
He had already begun to black out from lack of oxygen, barely feeling her release his throat. He certainly expected to receive the same type of beating he had repeatedly deserved over the last few months. He had accosted her at every opportunity, every day, since they had met. When she pushed, he always pushed back, twice as hard. He never won these engagements, yet neither had she. It was getting both of them nowhere. Broken bones would not be the worst of it this time, he thought. Perhaps this would be the last time, period. He cringed, eyes closed.
Hesitantly, he looked up. She stood, the power fist upon her other hand raised. Her chest heaved as she breathed, using every ounce of her will to restrain a single, head-shattering blow. He had gone too far this time, he knew. She was already on edge.
“What’s… wrong?” John coughed, spitting red flem onto the floor. “I’ll show you,” he said, daring her, trying to break her. “I’ll show you what… Daddy never taught you.”
That would be it, John thought. He knew what he was doing. He knew her history, her vulnerabilities. He wanted her to break. He wanted her to reveal her true nature. He wanted to prove she was incapable of overcoming her faults, her past – to prove that she was just like the rest.
Secretly, he nearly wished she might kill him. He had always hated this world, this life. He was too young when his parents were killed to remember their faces now. He was constantly being shifted from city to city, leaving friends behind. The entire planet’s culture was like this: a loveless and embattled world of orphaned families, ruled by sin and fault.
“No,” she said heavily, the word plummeting like a weight. “I won’t give you the satisfaction. Not this time. You aren’t running from this.”
John laughed once more, unconvincingly. Once again, he had lost. Only this time, she may have won.
She lowered her weapon, pacing in a circle, her eyes wandering as she regained a hold on her emotions. She continued this for some time, occasionally wiping the sweat from her brow.
“Okay, John,” she finally began, “I think it’s time we dropped the act. Both of us.”
“The hell are you talking about, Raege?” his scratchy voice sputtered. She had done more damage than he had realized.
“Both of us know how to hurt the other,” she continued, now more calm than he could remember having seen her in weeks. She continued to speak as she turned to retrieve two glasses from a nearby counter. “No point in it anymore. We aren’t fooling each other. …You know why I’m here. I’m closer to a murderer than a leader, at times. …You’re my punishment.”
He scoffed, watching as she poured water into each glass.
“And you can’t see the good in anything. Or anyone. Especially yourself. You want me to beat you – to kill you. But I won’t. I can’t.”
“You’re full of it,” he said, rubbing his neck.
“This is a world of orphans, John. There are thousands just like you, waiting for the chance you’ve been freely given.”
“I don’t give a shit. I didn’t ask for this. You know that.”
“I know that you don’t give a shit about yourself. I know what goes on in the Schola Progeniums on this world. I know what you’ve lost – what you’ve never had.”
He stared blankly ahead as she spoke. The fight in him seemed to wash away as he realized his teacher would not falter today. This was likely the first time anyone had tried to empathize with him. Conrad could only imagine what horrible memories he now recalled. His limp body hung lifelessly above the floor as his mind wandered. He was small, Conrad reminded herself. Weak, frightened.
“I made a promise that I wouldn’t kill you,” she said, placing his glass onto the floor. She sighed, sitting on the floor in front of him. “When we first met, I couldn’t tell what the General saw in you. Obviously, I know, now. You’re smart, John. Even if you don’t know it. The way you think, manipulate… it’s what we need in a Commissar.”
“You don’t know me,” he said, head still bowed.
“Well enough. You have some talents a man thrice your age would be lucky to have. But you have no confidence… no experience using them.” She sipped from her own glass, considering.
“I know… I know what it’s like not to have a mother. Or a father.”
John looked up, somewhat surprised.
“I was an orphan, in many ways. I just never had the comfort of knowing it.” She looked at him, locking eyes for a moment. “Yeah. I see what the General saw in you, now. And I know why he made me promise not to kill you. Why I was told to push you – harder than I’ve ever pushed anyone.”
“Why,” John blankly stated – less of a question than a statement of purpose.
“We needed each other,” she said, inhaling. “I needed… need, to learn how to lead by example – through inspiration. I’m not the best Commissar I can be right now. And you… need to learn how to inspire yourself. Becoming a Commissar will give you that.”
John drank, considering this. He had never seen her like this. She was usually demanding, apathetic and unrealistic. She nearly seemed admirable.
“I can’t help you, being the way I am now, John. And damn me if you don’t want everyone in the world to hate themselves as much as you hate yourself. We both need a change.”
John suspired, placing the empty glass before him. “What makes you think… you can change me? Yourself?”
“I don’t know, John,” she said with assuredness. “But starting today, I’m going to show you how great of a man you can be. Anything less than giving your all is… it’s heresy.”
“Heresy,” John scoffed. “We’re all heretics, then.”
Conrad laughed, surprisingly. “Maybe so.”
John thought, looking at the empty glass before him – at his own reflection upon its glassy surface. He rocked it side to side with a single finger, thinking to himself.
Conrad frowned and arose, unsure of either of their futures. She had extended the olive branch. It was up to John, now. She had never trained someone like him. It was not just his intelligence, or his tenacity. Candidates for the Commissariat usually folded under a little pressure. Truthfully, John did, too, although in an entirely different way. Threats of pain, even death, had no affect on him. He had been born dead, in his own mind.
She imagined that when she had been told to push John to the limit, but not to kill him, it was known this would happen. It was likely they anticipated that she would have eventually broken her vow and killed the boy. Whether this would be used as an excuse to have her removed from her position, shipped away, or even as a way of shaping her into a better soldier, she could not say. Although it was easy to see the child’s potential as a fighter, no one had seen his soul, until now.
“You win, Connie.”
“Excuse me?” She felt hesitant to admit she had heard him speak the words.
“I won’t fight you anymore. I’ll trust you.”
Conrad smiled and laughed, uncharacteristically. It was a strange feeling. She took no joy in the victory – only in the chance to see John become someone special. She was enraptured.
“Glad to hear it,” she said, now trying to conceal her grin. “But one final warning, Mr. Fuklaw.” She leaned close, with as serious of a face as she could manage. “The name is Commissar Raege.”
“Well,” John replied, “Commissar, one final warning.”
Conrad straightened and cocked her head. “Hm?”
“Don’t misplace my trust.”
She paused, sensing the importance of her reply. If she were to change this man, she would have to make an even stronger effort to change herself. With John’s trust granted, she would have to place her trust in him, as well. She replied with conviction: “I won’t.”
“I won’t give up easily.”
“I know you won’t, Commissar,” Brok spoke. “Not unless you wanted to piss us off.”
John’s shredded form stood once again, his torso wrapped with the remnants of his bloodied coat. He hobbled and teetered in place. His lungs were still on fire. Every part of his body urged him to fall back into his own blood and sleep.
“I didn’t think you were so fucking weak,” Brok growled, placing John’s hat back upon his head. “That little scrape wouldn’t phase any of us.”
John scarcely found the humor. The giant of a man towered over him in golden and crimson powered armor, his body – all of the Astartes’ bodies – crafted to border on perfection. Each bore unnatural organs and bones that could see them through impossible injuries. John wore only cloth. He was as mortal a man as has ever existed. “Fuck you, Brok,” he sputtered, faintly audible over the Marines’ bellowing laughter.
The cold tinge of his chainsword found its way back into his hands. His vision held firm – as firm as it would manage in his condition, at his age, upon a battlefield. The world was burning. He could not yet recall what had happened.
“Nearly took a shell head on, you old shit. Just as we pushed them back, too.”
Brok paused. “You that far gone? Heretics! The hell you think we’re here for?”
“Specifics,” John panted. “They’re all heretics.”
“Fallen Guard. Rotting warp spawn. They’re already – ”
“I know,” John interrupted. “I remember now. We routed them.” There was scarcely a trace of the encampment and defenses that had once resided here. The bodies of forsaken men lie flaming, discarded several hundred kilometers away. He had been careless – struck down in the initial rush. The Marines had likely continued fighting without him.
“Fuckers fell back into the city. Going to try to shell us from there, no doubt.”
“Cowards,” John said walking forward, as well as he could. Blood streamed down his body beneath his clothes. He was cold.
“We’re redeploying, Commissar. A med-team on the ship will – ”
“Hell, no,” John spat. “You know what I want.”
The gigantic Marine stomped forward, towering over John, like he was a child. “Listen to me, you batshit old fuck. You’re as close to death as I’ve ever seen you. And that’s saying something. We don’t need your boney ass bleeding all over us.”
“Fuck off, cuntwipe,” John said, the words trailing globs of clotted blood. He leaned as closely to the Marine’s face, which was more near his legs, as he could. “I go where I please.”
“Ha!” the Marine roared. “To hell with you, then! I hope I find you half as funny when you’re rotting here tomorrow.”
Brok stormed away, leaving John, faintly smiling. It was a familiar conversation. He would need to find the strength to move quickly, if he was to catch the Astartes’ Thunderhawk into the city. He may have enough time to have one of the Guard patch him, and a little more to ignore their demands that he not lead the next attack. He could sense death approaching. Its cold grasp had already been escaped once today; escaped countless times before now. Time was running out. Still, he had one final task, he told himself.
One final task, he had told her. This was what was central upon his mind, in fact. It what was what had distracted him from the task at hand. It was why he was crippled, as he now was. He was trapped in that moment.
Yet, this was how he lived. His entire life was subject to the past. His childhood was painted with regret and hatred. These had shaped him. Years later, even after refashioning himself with purpose, he still laid blame to others, and despised the sin that he saw within them.
“Come home, John.”
Why did he not listen, he wondered. The turning point of his life held him to this battlefield, even now. It would claim him, as it had claimed his wife. As it had claimed his son.
“Stay in touch.”
Commissar John Fuklaw smiled, pulling the brim of his black cap down. Both knew this was where they would part ways. Commissar Raege had seen him through much, and taught him more about himself than he ever thought possible, or cared to learn. It was a peculiar feeling, living and dying by the life of another person. They had fought and bled alongside one another. It was a first for him. Stranger still was knowing another person so intimately, especially someone so similar to himself – someone who found true expression equally as distasteful. The trust they had promised to one another had remained firm. This, perhaps, was why he had no intention of ever seeing her again.
“I will,” he lied.
Conrad drew a false smile. Not that she ever smiled. She had trained others. She would train more. They had each fought alongside other cadets, like himself. Still, something was unique about John. She had allowed herself to become too familiar with him. An often emotionally naïve woman, she would not admit to any feelings of familiarity, any more than he would. This was an awkward, confusing situation for both of them. The prospects of what his leaving would mean, she dare not consider. It was for the best.
He stood upon the brim of his transport’s ramp, facing her. “What’re you doing with yourself now?” he asked.
“Ah,” she began, her eyes meandering across the base, “you know. I just came out when I heard you’d been stationed, at last. Not that you’d have ever told me yourself.”
“Training someone new?”
“Yes. He’ll do okay, with the others. Much faster than you. I haven’t had to break anything, yet.”
John nearly laughed. “I’d apologize for all the grief I gave you, but you gave me your share.”
“A fair exchange.” She inhaled deeply, crossing her arms behind her back.
“Well, then, Commissar Fuklaw… I wish you success in your career.”
“Only wish? I thought you’d demand it.”
“I do. I’ve come to…” She paused, thinking. “I admire the methods you’ve developed. If you don’t use them to your fullest, I may just have to beat another lesson into you.”
“Not without a fight you won’t,” he grinned.
“I hate it when you smile,” she muttered, a grin of her own nearly finding its way upon her face.
He nodded. After a moment of silence, she turned, knowing it was the last she would ever see of him. It was for the best, she repeated to herself. Neither enjoyed the vulnerability of being so well known, so easy to dissect. Their weaknesses would each fly away in a few minutes.
She turned, a sour but nearly playful expression on her face. “Connie?”
“Connie,” he repeated, nodding with a smile. “Want to know a secret?”
“I’ve had quite enough of your secrets, Fuklaw,” she said, shrewdly.
“Oh,” he chuckled. “Well, call it a going away present, then.”
“Fine,” she sighed.
“John Fuklaw isn’t my real name.”
She gathered this, momentarily. “What? Why…” He continued to grin, in the odd way he, normally, seldom did. “Well, what is it?”
“I don’t know,” he laughed, as though he found the question to be ridiculous. “The first school I was at was destroyed. Green skin attack, I think. I was nearly a baby when I was orphaned. Can’t remember my mother or father, of course. A few years old during the attack… If any record of my parents ever existed, they went with it.”
She listened carefully, unsure of what to make of it. In a moment, she felt like she was looking at someone other than the man she knew, if only briefly.
“Wandered south, lived on the streets for the next few years. Occasionally, I’d have to run, as the xenos pushed further on. Fairly common at the time, really, to see children roaming freely like that. When I was… seven? Eight, maybe. I got caught up in the middle of a firefight between a Guard company and some feral green skins. Probably should have died. But… I managed to crawl under the body of one of the soldiers. Dug myself down, so I wouldn’t be noticed. The fighting moved on, but I was too frightened to move. I must have stayed there, in that hole, under that Guardsman for at least two days. I finally got thirsty enough to leave, of course. I came back a half week later. Couldn’t really understand why. The xeno bodies were torched… and the Guard was finally picking up their dead. I found that same man I had hidden under, before they could pick him up, too.”
Each paused. “And?” The transport’s engines began to hum.
“And, I… took his dog tags. Couldn’t read, but I knew what they were for. Got picked up, put back in a Schola Progenium. Since I didn’t have any records, could barely speak, they just listed me as “John.” Half-assed paper work. I kept those tags. Once I learned how, I read the name: Fuklaw Varsus. Just another nobody.”
“So, what? You just started calling yourself that?”
“Well,” he replied, his grin still faintly present, “like you told me when we met. It was a good name. It protected me when I needed it, so I took it with me.”
Conrad opened her mouth to speak, but found no words worth speaking. She stared for a moment as the co-pilot approached them both, ready to lift off. The engines picked up.
“Why did you tell me that, John?” she yelled, over the growing roar of the engine.
He tapped his fingers to the frame of the ship, thinking. He squinted as the dust began to rise.
“Don’t know,” he yelled back, shaking his head. He smiled the same fake smile she had grown to hate, one last time. He straightened and saluted as the door closed. His expression retreated. Conrad saluted back weakly, with barely enough time for John to notice. She backed away, and he was gone.
He had always lingered, years behind. Regret and failure ruled his life. No matter the distance he placed between the reminders of his weaknesses, they stayed with him. He buried himself within his work, trying to obscure himself from his own personal war. Yet, the war always found him. His enemy was always astride his steps.
Months became years for John, in a relatively short time. He found that as he led, advised and molded others, his patience for their failures grew short, as well. His patience for his own inability to effectually lead also fell. Although he now understood his own abilities, his own self-loathing had never passed.
Fatalities and lost campaigns became a staple of Commissar Fuklaw’s career. He felt little compassion for his own men. All he could see in them was the child that had hidden under a dead man. All he could see in himself were the men and women that had failed to rescue or teach that child.
The war was unending, he realized. Although he would never admit it, the Imperium would never purge the heresies, mutations and xenos from its midst. Sin would always reside in the hearts and minds of men. This is what made them disposable.
His realism was a destructive and dangerous path. Chaos set its lustful eyes upon his world. His failure to inspire his men led to a ten year siege upon his home. His already low popularity with his commanders plummeted. Near the end, some were already calling for not only his hat, but also his head with it. He served in body, but not in spirit.
He married in the same time. It was a union of convenience. It was his duty to produce more men for the Imperium – more casualties for the war. Cassandra, his wife, had always depended upon others. She was certainly beautiful, but John took little time to love anything beyond. He told himself it was because he so rarely saw her. The war kept him from her, and she could not stand to be without. So, he gave her a child.
It was not until the birth of James that the Commissar realized what it was like to live in the present. He had never known what it meant to love someone, but to be unable to escape the responsibility of that love. His son was his greatest vulnerability, and his greatest inspiration.
“It frightens me,” he would tell his wife, “that I might die, and make an orphan of James, as well.”
It would serve only to complicate his work. The ever-looming doubt of the future clouded his judgment. Without a second thought, he sent children and fathers to their death, that they might persist. The memory of his own childhood controlled all of their lives. Perhaps, he would later consider, this was what had attracted retribution.
The attack came late in the night. John was at home, with his family. He was off-duty again, where he could not cause problems for his supervisors. He had been arguing with Cassandra, again, over the future of his career. She was concerned over the future of her son, and the possibility of losing her husband. He was merely disgusted with his command, yet again. They went to bed angry.
Heresy was upon their door. The forces of Chaos amassed in great numbers and made planetfall in the night. It did not take long for them to overwhelm their targets. Communication fell, and with each passing hour, another hole to the Warp was opened.
John awoke in the same manner the civilians had awoken. The sounds of war were sudden. The city trembled. Having no thought in his mind other than the safety of his son, they escaped their home. The Imperial Guard had lost this planet, his home world. Civilians slowly escaped the ever-growing tide of Chaos. John would not be so lucky.
Nameless fallen men – of Chaos – found them. The Guard fought them back, easily, with few causalities. Yet, James numbered among them.
It was the memory that fueled John Fuklaw’s personal war to this day. It was why he stood amidst the ashes of his own home world, thirty years later, dying. Yet, he was not here to reclaim a home.
Without looking up, John continued putting on his boots. “What do you want?”
The man’s foot stepped squarely within John’s view, invasively. “Commissar Thadian D’etrien.”
John paused. Another watchful eye sent to keep him under supervision, no doubt. “Why doesn’t my Inquisitor come, himself?” he spoke, pushing the fabric of his pants leg into his boots.
“I don’t think it’s really come to that, Commissar.”
“With the way I’ve been coat tailed the past half year, it wouldn’t surprise me.” He arose, seeing the face of his most recent counterpart for the first time. He did not know him. His face was smooth, handsome and untouched. His clear, unwavering green eyes shone past the brim of his auburn cap. It was a stark contrast to John’s own sharp, worn appearance.
“It’s not as though you aren’t gifted, Commissar.” John cleared his throat, his cap in-hand, observing the close distance between them. “Excuse me.” Thadian backed away, motioning to the door.
“We weren’t certain where to find you. You’ll forgive me, but I spoke with your wife at your home before coming here.”
“I’m never home,” John said, bluntly.
Thadian laughed. “I didn’t think of you as so forthcoming.”
John exited the barrack living quarters and into the long corridor leading to the armory, with Thadian close behind. “I didn’t realize I was famous.”
“Well,” the auburn man replied, “it’s more infamy, wouldn’t you say? I’ve heard a lot about you, especially after you lost Nnul, your home world, to the heretics.” No response. The two continued their march to the armory. “You were already losing too many men, to say the least… according to some. Now they say you’re abandoning your post altogether, charging into the front lines.”
“Well within my bounds, Commissar,” John interjected.
“Yes. I suppose that’s one way of inspiring your men. Yet, you aren’t leading them, are you? Maybe it’s all politics, but I was told you were a mad dog. Fighting just to fight.”
“It is all politics. It’s always politics.”
Thadian chortled. “I’ll give you that. But politics or not, it’s still part of the job. They want you gone, John. And they’re going to get it.”
Nothing but the sound of footsteps, down the empty corridor.
“This engagement today is just a formality. It’s why they’ve pushed your company to the front lines. Apparently, there’s a Marine chapter sending some units in, as well. They want to make a show of things.”
“And that’s why you’re here?” John said, finally turning. “Giving me fair warning to die in glorious combat? To give glory to the Emperor?”
“I mean no offense, Commissar,” Thadian blankly spoke, “but I’m not here to keep you in line. I’m here as your replacement. At least this way, your career might have had some meaning.”
John inched forward, uncomfortably close to Thadian’s face.
“The fuck do you know about meaning?”
The two stood, silent. Fuklaw stared up at the man, his nose barely reaching Thadian’s chin. At last, Thadian backed away.
“I may not look it,” he began, “but I’m an older man than you, John. I actually have the money, and the reputation, to pay my way to a longer life. I’ve seen my share of life and death. And I’ll tell you this much… Time forgets the insignificant.”
“Let it forget. I’ve no use for glory.”
“Why? …Why, John, are you so mad at the universe?”
“Because the universe is filled with nothing of merit. Who would be worthy of recognizing glory in this life? Real glory? It’s not you, Commissar. It’s not me.”
John continued, followed closely behind.
“You think I don’t know that, John? It’s our job to see the worst in others. Most of us are orphans. We grow up disappointed. There’s nothing of merit in the universe, yes. So why not have a game of it?”
“The hell are you talking about,” John flatly replied.
“We’re all we have. Ourselves. Our personal glory, for whatever it’s worth. When we die, that’s it. We only leave stories of ourselves. And no one writes stories about insignificant men. They write about legends. Wouldn’t you rather live as a legend, than die a martyr?”
They stopped, having reached their destination.
“I may not be perfect,” John said, “but… that sounds a lot like heresy to me.”
Thadian smiled back, laughing. “And what would you know about it?”
“Yeah, Thadian. I’m a mad dog. I grew up hating the flaws I saw, just like you. I hate heresy. I hate how it took my son, and left his grieving mother – a woman I can’t even look in the eye without being reminded of how I can’t bring him back. I hate how it’s going to kill me on that battlefield today. That’s why I destroy it, anytime I see it. Heresy and I are well-acquainted. And you know what? The more I think about it, the more I see it, fucking everywhere I go. And the more I look at you, the more I start to believe that you’re full of heresy, too.”
Thadian rolled his eyes and tipped his hat. “Well, I – ”
“Oh, I’m not done.” John smiled, his white teeth filing into his lower lip, exposed by his leathery, tanned skin. “We both know there’s nothing worth saving in this life. I get daily reminders. I’m looking at one right now. But the one thing that keeps me going, is knowing that the Emperor is watching, crafting my mistakes, my flaws, into something worthwhile. It’s the most basic thing they teach us. The most basic of comforts. That’s the meaning in life, Thadian. Time forgets the insignificant. But our God remembers even the smallest of lives.”
Thadian winced and nodded, without reply.
“Keep that in mind when we’re together out there today. You want to replace me after I die? Then you’d best stay behind this mad dog. Because if he turns around, he might just see something worth his bite.”
The Commissar donned his cap, and left Thadian to his defeat.
No, he was not here to reclaim a home. He was here to claim a single life. He was here to kill a memory.
His ruined body lay within the belly of the Astartes’ transport. A servitor worked swiftly to repair his already obsolete frame. He had been obsolete for years. They had tried to force his retirement nearly a decade ago. He had refused, of course. They urged him, instead, to at least undergo Juvenation treatments. He refused this, as well. Even if he had felt worthy of living beyond his years, any finances he possessed had gone to his wife.
He was used to the scrutiny. His entire career had been the same: full of others demanding that he step down, that he back away. In those days, however, it was due to the failures of his mind. Regardless of their reasons, he considered himself accountable only to his God. He alone was capable of true judgment, true grace.
The war was never over. His war was never over. And no matter the distance he placed between his vulnerabilities, there were always casualties. Yet, there was only one left. Only one man remained.
The last man to die, he had come to know on the day he had joined this post. Nearly thirty years ago, the Astartes Hostilitas had witnessed what was meant to have been his final battle. Certainly, it had been.
“Time forgets the insignificant,” he had said. It was true. Time had not only already forgotten John Fuklaw, but had never known him, either. Even in infamy, he was unknown. This was for the best, however. In John’s experience, famous men rarely accomplished as much as the men that fought for them. This was his place in the universe – fighting for the greatest of men, the only great man. Insignificance served him well.
After today, the men that fought alongside him may grieve, in their own way. Yet, their relationship was too tumultuous, too professional to be close. This had suited John perfectly. Immortal, they would soon forget a small man from a short time.
After today, those that supervised his actions may rejoice, having at last ridded themselves of a man of great merit, but of troubling consequence. Yet, they, too, would soon forget. Most considered his career from thirty years before a failure. Due to his placement within a Marine chapter, any triumph or great victory would be placed at the feet of the Marines. None considered his station relevant or necessary, save the Marines themselves.
After today, history would not recall the name of John Fuklaw. The man with a stolen name would vanish from record, leaving only the broken body of a young man amongst immortals, too old to equal their youthful strength.
It worried him, to know that they would be without his advisement, his leadership. Yet, he secretly knew this was not his true value to them. This was not why he was hand picked from the battlefield, in such an unnatural manner. It was his nature they valued.
After the loss of his son, though he still placed no value on the lives of his men, he dared not lose any of them. Any fallen child or father upon the battlefield was a testament to his failure as a father, as a protector. Each soldier that sustained his worth to the Throne was his son, and he their protector.
Though incapable of pleasing his superiors, one of the greatest achievements in John’s life had been his short, chaotic campaign following the loss of his home and son. Placing himself in harm’s way, he had led his men to victory, at no expense to any of their lives. This was overlooked due to his fanaticism, and his previous failures. The Marines took notice, however.
He did not truly lead them. A Commissar held no authority over a Marine. Certainly, he was capable of directing their wrath; manipulation – now leadership – was one of his greatest talents. This was not the greatest amongst his abilities, however, as he would soon prove. It was the reminder of his insignificance that truly shaped them.
This small, mortal man, they realized, who fought alongside immortals, possessed greater spirit than any of them. He equaled their anger and challenged their worth on the battlefield, despite his mortality. Despite his flaws of body, his flaws of character shone brightest, amidst both of their infamy. Even now, dying within their vessel, silent, he inspired them.
“Old man,” they jokingly called him. In truth, he was a child in comparison, in their eyes. Witnessing his slow death over the past years was enough to drive them, if they should ever fail. Beholding his death, this day, enraged them. This child amongst them would die standing, vigilant for the fight, still waging the war. What had they accomplished in comparison, gifted as they were? What right did the enemy have to take his life? Who was the man to have done this to him? None would survive the day. John’s body would lead the charge. He had already won this battle.
It was the war that he alone could finish. One last casualty, he reminded himself.
“Only one man should die today,” he spoke, thirty years prior.
In what John had thought to be his final battle, Commissar Thadian had reminded him with these words. As had been the case in every engagement of that small campaign, no one within his company had died that day. This was in part to his own abandon, but likely due to the intervention of the Marine chapter he would soon join. The victory would not be enough to save his career. Certainly, the very internal affairs that accosted him proved to be the arbiter for his introduction to The Final Casualty of his personal war.
“And I’m told that man is you.”
The heat from the barrel of Thadian’s bolt pistol had been hot enough to burn John’s skin that day. They stood upon a pile of charred, unrecognizable bodies; none were human. He had expected this treachery.
“Nothing personal, I assume?”
Thadian laughed. “I haven’t the luxury. I’m in line for your job, after all. Still, orders are orders.”
John’s mind lingered upon the words. He could smell something in the air. He tasted a bitter taste. He could hear it in Thadian’s words.
“Only one man should die today. Isn’t that what you told your men? Isn’t that what you expected? Wished for?”
John removed his hat. Both knew he would not try to escape the sentence. “Yes,” he replied. “I want to be with my son.”
“Then,” Thadian spoke, “don’t fail him again.”
The weapon shifted in Thadian’s hand, the sound of his gloves grating upon its surface as he prepared to fire. It did not belong in his hands, John knew. He understood what he had sensed around him. He knew what poison dripped from the Commissar’s words. It was corruption. It was a hunger for power.
“Heresy,” he seethed.
John turned, facing down the barrel of Thadian’s bolt pistol, its heat striking him in the face.
“What?” Thadian reviled.
“What of it?” Thadian replied, growing impatient. “Spill your final words and be done.”
“Surviving this day… failing to give you, or the brass the satisfaction of my death. That’s no failure. Not to my son.”
“Are you finished?” Thadian muttered.
John placed the Commissariat cap back upon his head, tugging it firmly into place. It would not come off again. The two locked eyes briefly. It was long enough for Thadian to suddenly realize his error. He was not staring at the same man.
John’s arm fired to the sky, knocking the pistol out of Thadian’s hold. His other fist found its way to the Commissar’s face, planting him squarely into the bodies below. He fell with him, collapsing both hands around Thadian’s neck.
“Heresy!” Fuklaw growled, his hands acting of their own accord, crushing the man’s windpipe without hesitation. “I hear it on your tongue, you miserable fuck! I can see it all over you!”
Thadian’s reach was not far enough to retrieve his weapon. He was not strong enough to overpower Fuklaw’s hold. He tried to wrap his own hands about his attacker’s neck, but the strength was not with him.
“The taint is on you! I smell it!” The grip tightened. Alien blood covered Thadian’s body. His face contorted, pale and wrinkled with cowardice. The beauty of his purchased youth vanished slowly. His eyes bulged and his skin flushed to a faint blue. His inhumanity welled to the surface. “You’re like them!” Images of that night. “Exactly like them!” The heretics that had killed him.
“J-John,” Thadian choked out, imploring him. He weakly beat his hands against Commissar Fuklaw’s body.
“Did you enjoy the game, you bitch!? Here’s your personal glory! Where’s its meaning now!?”
Both men lay entangled, one dying, the other awakening from a birth that had begun with the death of his son. Only one man need die today, the world called; it yearned for another death – another corpse for the pile.
“You’ll die like them!” Thadian’s eyes rolled. His body began to fall limp. “Insignificant!”
He could not hear the footsteps approaching.
A voice roared. It was incomprehensible to John.
With amazing strength, the two men were torn apart. Fuklaw found himself tossed away, like a rag doll. A golden-bodied giant stood between the two. One of the Adeptus Astartes.
The giant bellowed for an explanation. The words faded, unimportant. John calmed. The memory faded. Thadian would not die that day. None would believe he had defended himself, especially considering both of their statuses.
Yet, the incident was suppressed. Someone did not want difficult questions asked concerning Thadian’s motives, John assumed. He was in line for termination, regardless. Yet, the order never came. Instead, remarkably, the Marines had taken notice of his actions that day. Whether by his own merit or by mere providence, Commissar Fuklaw retained his life, his career. He would later be told that his actions, similar to the Marines’ own, were disrespected, and his recruitment was a smack in the face of the internal affairs of that world. Far more likely was the possibility that a deal had been struck in the dark offices of unseen players, in what Thadian called the game. Heresy had indeed laid its hand upon that world. Thadian himself, he would learn years later, had indeed fallen to Chaos, in the pursuit of immortality. He would flee to the nearest bastion of Chaos: John’s old home world. Both Commissars would vanish from that planet, never to return.
Riding above the ashes of his home world, he reminded himself that he was here to claim a single life. He was here to kill a memory – the last that controlled his life. Thirty years prior, only one man had needed to die. And one did. As John had tightened his grip upon the face of corruption, the child that had hidden beneath the body of an insignificant soldier named Fuklaw at last died. In its place, a man driven only by hate and anger – possessed only by the need to wage his own private war against the universe – realized his existence.
Commissar Fuklaw was the child of John and Conrad’s union of self. He was the legacy of an unknown soldier. He was the regret of a dead son.
This was the final casualty of his war. The last man John would see die, would be the one he held accountable for all of his misfortune. The final casualty of his war would be the man with a stolen name. Commissar Fuklaw would die here, and leave nothing but the memory of an orphaned child. This world would claim them both. And time would forget them all.
“You can’t leave!”
“I have to leave.”
Cassandra stormed the confines of their home, already nearly in tears. She had not seen her husband in months. Ever since James’ death, the two had rarely spoken. Although it pained her, she knew why. She understood how deeply he had cared for him. By comparison, she understood the fabrication of their marriage.
She had lost much of the beauty of her youth. The pain of their mutual loss, and the agony of her own slow demise had aged her considerably. She pulled at the tangled mess of red strands that had once been beautiful, flowing hair. Her eyes sagged. She shook.
“Why… why can’t you stay here? Why can’t you retire? We can move away from here, forget about the–”
“Don’t be stupid!” John shouted. She had always been naïve. She failed to understand the world. She was as common a person as he had once been – the sole reminder of his past life. “They’ll kill us both if I stay here. We don’t have the money to escape.”
He was dressed informally. They had already taken his uniform. He carried little with him. He was already prepared to leave. She only need understand, he told himself.
“This is the only chance either of us has.” She found little to say against it. She was lost in his world, but she did understand. She did not accept it.
“When will you come back? We’ll have the money, eventually. When?”
Both knew the answer. “I have to do this.”
“It was my fault. It was– …I have to do this.”
“John. …When will you come home?”
“…When the war is over.”
“This isn’t happening.” She fell against the wall, her head rocking from side to side. “This isn’t happening.”
“I’m sorry, Cassie.”
“Damn you!” she said, starting to sob. “You aren’t sorry! I hate you!”
She cried. John felt sympathy, but knew she was right. He found no reluctance in escaping this. There was nothing for him here. Even if he truly loved her, this would only be another vulnerability, another chance for him to make a mistake that could make him accountable, once again.
“You… may not know me,” she stammered through her tears, “but I know you. You never loved me.”
“No!” She slammed her open palm against the wall, knocking a frame from its mount. “No, you never cared for me! You knew what I was like! You knew I would marry you!”
“Then why did you do this… why did you do this to me!? Why did you give me a son!? Why did you… Why did you?”
“Cassie.” He held her, luggage still in hand, his embrace cold, discomforting. “I am sorry… about James.” She buried her face into his chest, sobbing without control. “I couldn’t save him. I couldn’t…”
“You took my life!” she screamed, beating her hand into his chest. “You’re taking it again!” She paused, breathing heavily. Her hands wandered, remembering. They found themselves tracing the contours of his aging face. “Don’t go. Don’t lie to me.” She raised her head, looking him in the eyes. “I know,” she spoke, carefully, “you’re trying to bring him back.”
John inhaled sharply, faintly trying to pull himself free. She held firm.
“You can’t bring him back, John.”
He sneered, breaking himself free. She was no longer his wife. Just another victim. “To hell with you.”
“Give me back my son.” A pause. “Give me back my husband!”
He turned to the exit. He had said all he could say, and more than he should have said. He had failed her, as he had failed James, as he had failed himself. The door swung open. The cold night air struck them both.
“John?” she called, turning. “John! …John, if you leave, don’t bother ever coming back!”
He stepped outside, into the listless world. He did not stop.
“John, please! Don’t go. I still love you!”
He walked away, leaving her to cry in the doorway to their home, alone. It would be the last time they would ever see one another. The years would pass. She would write, and he would answer, on occasion. Each time, she would ask him the same question. Would he come home? The man she loved had died with their son, he would tell her.
What he would not tell her was the story of how, after he had left that house, he would find himself in a local bar, washing his problems away. Very nearly, he had nearly accepted the consequences of returning to her. He would die with her. They would be reunited with their child. They would perish with their sorrows, and the war would end for them all. Providence did not allot such a fate, however. Stumbling from out of his hesitation, the Marines had found him.
Time would forget Cassandra, as well. In time, she overcame her sorrow. She learned to live alone, and to be her own person. Yet, there was never an official divorce. Neither would give up the memory of the one that they loved. She would keep their home for his return, and love her husband, until the end of her days.
Fuklaw’s 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 chapter’s infamous methods would restore unwarranted blame to John’s 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 Imperium’s 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… can’t complain.”
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.
“I’m sorry. Contacting you so suddenly, I mean. I didn’t 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.
“I’m… proud of you, John. You’ve come a long way.”
“You’ve changed,” he realized.
“Time has a way of doing that. You’ve 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. “I’ve never thought about it,” he replied, clearing his throat, lowering the mug. “I do what I need to do.”
Conrad’s 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.
“I’m sorry, John.”
“What do you have to be sorry about?” he asked, turning to her.
“I,” she stammered, “I didn’t 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… It’s 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 John’s seat, if their roles had been reversed.
“I was so worried. I kept thinking, what if he wakes up one day, and I’m not there? And his mother isn’t there?” He rocked the fluid in his cup back and forth, reflecting. “I didn’t want someone to find him, hiding in a soldier’s 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 I’d hoped.”
“You wanted a normal life for him.”
He nodded. “He got one. That’s 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 don’t know, John. It’s 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? There’ll always be men to make mistakes, and there’ll always be orphans.”
“That’s just part of the war, John,” she said.
John shifted, uneasily. “Damn us.”
“You just… have to do what you can. For what it’s worth, I went over your progress with the Marines. It’s impressive. Even for Marines. You’re doing everything you can.”
“That’s just it,” he sighed, “I always should have been. Even now, when any of the Astartes dies while I’m with them, on the field, it feels like I’ve lost another son. I go through it all over again. James paid the price for my mistakes.”
“John, you can’t… Maybe it’s for the best.”
“What?” he asked, incredulously.
“For James. That he didn’t 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 Raege’s end, too faint for John to hear. Her face straightened to a practice dour expression, immediately. “Oh? Fine. Tell him I’ll be there momentarily.” A door closed. She grinned slightly, now out of public view.
“You haven’t changed that much, actually,” John said, placing his cap back upon his head.
She laughed. “I’m still the same woman, John. Just more experienced.”
She cleared her throat. “Well then. I should be going. Speaking on strictly professional terms, I’m happy to see a former student excel.”
“Oh,” he nodded with a sly grin, “on strictly professional terms, I’m 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 John’s desire was the knowledge that Thadian D’etrien 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 Cassandra’s 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. I’m 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.
“I’d like to apologize. I never have, for the things I said when you left home, all those years ago. More than that, I’m 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. It’s my fault, too. You’ve always shouldered all the blame for everything. I know you don’t think much of your own accomplishments, but I do. You’re a great man, John, even if you don’t know or accept it. Despite both of our flaws, that’s why I loved you then, and continue to love you today. I’m 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. That’s why I’ve told the hospital to keep this letter on file, and to send it to you only once I’ve passed on. You don’t have anything to hold you back now, John. I’ll always believe in you, and I’ll 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 Commissar’s 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.
“Don’t 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 didn’t come to this barren rock to pussy-foot around in the clouds!”
“They… probably think you’re 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 I’m 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 Fuklaw’s 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 D’etrien? 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. John’s 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, he’s here with me. Why?” More chatter. The Marine laughed. “You actually found the little shit? I’ll 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 other’s 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.
“You’ve 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.”
“You’re 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 haven’t thought of you in thirty years.” The thing recoiled, confused. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m 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. “Where’s your personal glory now, abomination? You were an insignificant Commissar. Now an insignificant minion.” He pressed the chain of the blade upon the creature’s skull, the Marines holding him in place. “I didn’t remember you. And history will forget my name. …No one writes stories about insignificant men. Remember? What does that make of you?”
“My father… father will save me!”
He laughed. “No,” Fuklaw said, “he won’t.” 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 creature’s 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.
“Don’t know about you, old man,” one of the Marines said peeling strips of the heretic’s 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 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 Commissar’s 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 John’s 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. “They’re 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.
“You’ll die cowards’ deaths!” one declared.
“I’ll 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 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 Marine’s 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 Emperor’s 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. I’m 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 John’s 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. We’ve been short-handed, especially on night shifts. I apologize for the inconvenience.”
“It’s fine. I’ve traveled this far, already,” she said, smiling briefly.
“Yes, well,” he said, coughing, “I was told you’ve 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 he’s 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 year’s sleep. “I’ve 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?”
“I’ve,” 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 didn’t,” he laughed. “Just a simple man, is all.”
She rolled her eyes. “You’ve been anything but simple. Tiring. Frustrating.”
John’s 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.
“Your wife… left you the money you’d 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 wouldn’t 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 someone’s son.”
“And a Commissar died. That’s 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 won’t 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.
“I’m sorry I didn’t keep in touch.”
“Ah,” she began, tracing a leg across the floor, “it’s 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. I’m 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. You’re still not well.”
“I’ll be back soon.” She smiled, reassuringly. “I’m sorry, too. …We have a lot of catching up to do.”
He grinned, lying back down into bed.
“And you’re 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.”
“That’s 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.