The Greater Good

ONE

Say what you like about the tau, and I’ve said plenty myself over the years, they know how to put on a good war. In fact, if you ask me, they were making rather too good a job of it in the closing phases of the Quadravidia campaign; I’d been expecting a hard fight, having butted heads with the little blue[1] blighters on more than one occasion, but they were giving us a lot worse than that. By the time I arrived in the capital, dodging plasma bolts every foot of the way, our defences were crumbling all over the planet, and it was clearly only a matter of time before they overran the last remaining Imperial enclave altogether.

‘Quadravidia cannot be allowed to fall,’ General Braddick insisted, in flat-out contravention of what everyone crowded into the command bunker beneath what was left of the local Guard garrison already knew to be inevitable, the febrile glow in the depths of his slate-grey eyes making the unhealthy pallor of his skin even more noticeable. You can only substitute recaff and stimms for sleep for so long, and the time to redress the balance in his case was well and truly past. He raised his voice over the distant rumble of exploding ordnance, which, to my distinct and well-concealed alarm, was noticeably louder than it had been that morning. As if to underline the fact, dust motes jarred from some recess near the ceiling tumbled lazily in the shafts of setting sunlight sneaking in through the firing slits. ‘If it does, the entire subsector goes with it.’

Which was why the tau had struck at Quadravidia in the first place, of course, its position at the nexus of several warp routes making it the natural conduit for Imperial military transports on their way to prop up the steadily eroding buffer zone between the two powers.

‘That may be overstating the case a little,’ I said, brushing my sleeve free of the specks which had settled there, and trying not to sound as if retreat was the best option I could think of by a long way. ‘But the general is quite correct in considering the ramifications of an orderly withdrawal.’ Which were more than likely to include a firing squad for cowardice and incompetence, at least so far as he was concerned. Hardly fair, given that he’d hung on grimly in the face of overwhelming odds for months; but someone would have to take the blame for the fiasco, and it certainly wasn’t going to be the morons from the Munitorum who’d sent the Guard in under-strength and under-equipped in the first place.

‘You think we should pull out?’ one of the senior staffers asked, spotting a potential lifeline: if the celebrated Ciaphas Cain recommended turning tail, they could hardly be blamed for following my advice. That was what commissars were supposed to be for, after all, considering the wider picture.

‘I’d be on the first shuttle,’ I said, completely truthfully, with just enough of a smile to make them think I was only joking. ‘But as General Braddick has just pointed out, that isn’t, unfortunately, an option.’ Not because I was having an uncharacteristic rush of noble self-sacrifice to the head, you understand, but because anything larger than a servoskull taking to the air would be shot down by the tau before it had time to clear the pad, and we didn’t have anything left in orbit capable of making warp in any case.

As if to underline my words, and because the Emperor sometimes shows a taste for the dramatic as well as a nasty sense of