Standing straight and tall in her long dark coat and illuminated only by the flickering candlelight, to the breathless Sergeant the Commissar appeared to be an inhuman figure sent by the Emperor himself to punish her sins. In the shadows behind her the eagle loomed menacingly, glittering golden in its blood sky. The Commissar’s gaze locked on her frozen Sergeant and slowly began to open her heavy coat. “You will confess.” The thick folds of fabric separated, dark shadows concealing her uniform inside. “You will tell me the truth. You will tell me… everything.” With a deft sweep of her hand, she flung her coat roughly down onto the bed. “You will confess your crimes against the Emperor! You will learn to follow him with true obedience!” A crazed reverence flushed her face as she looked up at the eagle and folded splayed hands across her chest to mirror its wings. “It is only through true obedience to the Emperor that you will ever be free. This misconduct that you think is freedom… it is nothing, nothing in comparison to the true bliss of giving yourself fully to the Emperor’s will.” Her voice rose in passion, resonating throughout the chamber. “Inside the Emperor’s will, you are truly free, for you do not exist outside of him. Freedom from thought, freedom from existence itself!” She seemed to catch herself, turned and lowered her voice back to a cold measured tone. “You will learn obedience.”
With that she turned on her heel and strode across to the locked case. Until that moment the Sergeant had not registered the case at all, so distracted had she been by the fierce presence of her commanding officer. Now that she noticed it, a mix of curiosity and dread knotted in her stomach. Still staring straight ahead at the opposite wall, she could not turn her head for fear of incurring her officer’s wrath, and so instead she glanced from the corner of her eye and listened, her breaths short and shallow. A loud click reverberated, and then another. Catches released, the Commissar lifted the lid with slow reverence. Her black gloved hands lowered into the metal box. The Sergeant fought her instinct to turn and look… or to flee. She tried to slow her racing heart as her superior office lifted out… something. She could not see. The Commissar passed out of her vision, circling behind her. Ears alert, the Sergeant listed to the measured click of metal heels getting closer. Right behind her chair, they stopped dead. Silence stretched out with laboured breathing. A moment passed into eternity. To speak was impossible, but to stay in this silence was torture.
As she felt her stomach turn to nausea with anticipation, something touched the back of her neck lightly. She could not control the surprise that shuddered down her body.
“You sit under the judgement of the Emperor”. Golden candlelight flickered off the belly of the eagle. “You will speak the truth. You will speak and be judged.” Gently, slowly, the touch glided down to the nape of her neck and rested there. “You will… confess.”
A jumble of thoughts and emotions flooded through her brain, memories tripping over themselves to explain the snowdrift of papers around her feet. She closed her eyes against their rising flood, willing her mind to quiet, to make some semblance of sense from the chaos.
Cutting through the mental noise, a change of sensation brought her mind back into her body. The touch was moving around to the front of her neck. It came to rest underneath her chin. An internal battle raged in her mind, willing her to keep her eyes closed in protest, but fear won. She looked up. Above her the Commissar loomed radiant in the candlelight, a nimbus of gold playing about her crimson hair. Even pulled back into a harsh bun, its colour glowed like freshly spilt blood. Something extended from her black gloved hand to the Sergeant’s exposed throat. Without thinking, she glanced down to see what it was. She only got a momentary glimpse before her head was pushed back, but that was enough to see… what? She racked her memories, teasing through for where she had seen such a thing before. That’s right. At a ceremonial parade, much earlier in her military career. It seemed a lifetime ago now, separated not only by the passing of time but also by a gulf of experience and bloodshed that had aged her far beyond those years, and yet the memory came back now in dazzling focus. The gold, the glitter, the pomp and pageantry. She had been young and easily impressed. Seeing those glorious officers decked out in full ceremonial regalia, oh how she had wanted to be among them. One of them. And they had been riding…. such strange creatures! Stomping on four legs, snorting and so… alive. So vibrant, such glossy pelts, nothing like the slow dull beasts raised for food on her home-world. Horses, that was the word. And the word for this strange item that the Commissar held, a word that she had only learned much later… Crop.
Words dropped like stones into the silence.
“It is time to confess.”
She breathed out heavily, letting the memory fade away and her eyes refocus. A strange sense of calm filled her. All her existence was centred on the touch at her throat. All other thought released, set free by the focus of the present. She met the blue eyes without hesitation.
To be continued...