"Lieutenant Junior Grade Heironymous Macharius Ulthar reporting for duty sir!" Lt Ulthar snapped off a parade-ground perfect salute in the doorway. He held his gaze rigidly forward, as regulations dictated, until he realised that no-one was paying any attention to him at all. He hazarded a quick glance around the briefing room. There were three officers there, but none of them looked likely to respond to his salute, or presence. The regiment's armoury officer, easily recognisable by the state-of-the-art bionic interface in place of his right eye, was carefully unscrewing the case on what looked like a Space Marine reactor-backpack. The commissar was oblivious to him, seated with her elbows resting on the briefing table, listening intently to a comlink headset. The colonel was also at the briefing table, straddling a backward-facing chair, flipping through images of planets on the table's holoscreen.
"Colonel de Rosa?" Ulthar hazarded. He snapped obediently back to attention when the colonel looked up at him. There was a moment's silence.
"What?" asked the colonel, then: "Oh, right, sorry. At ease, whatever." Ulthar fell into the academy-taught at-ease posture.
"Captain Bennett recommended me for transfer to your command squad sir!"
"Really? Why, what did you say to her?"
"Captain Bennett approved my application for transfer, sir. I would consider it an honour to carry the regiment's standard in battle sir." The colonel gave Ulthar a long, unconfortable stare.
"You're new here, aren't you?"
"Yes sir! I was one of the transfers from the Eos 103rd Regiment under Colonel Indawe, sir."
"Right." The colonel got to her feet and wove her way around the chairs in the room, coming to a halt directly in front of Ulthar.
"Firstly," she said, "it's 'Demure', or 'Colonel Demure' if you must. I'm only Andrea de Rosa in the Imperial Archives, and that's only because the Archives already have way too much juicy intel under 'Demure' to let me have a regiment of my own. Secondly, no more saluting like that, or you'll do yourself an injury. Thirdly, we haven't had a regimental standard since... sometime around... Site, where the hell did our banner go?" The armoury officer answered without looking up.
"You had the hull-repair servitors tie it like a nappy around the statue of General Diennes on top of Fleet Station Agrippa."
"Yeah, I kinda hoped I was remembering that wrong. Oh well. But," she went on brightly, her attention back on Ulthar, "we could use someone to carry the spare radio. Sound good?"
"Uh, yes ma'am," replied Ulthar shakily. He had had a fairly sheltered upbringing, straight from his father's farm to the academy, and Demure was standing quite close, an her bodice was quite a bit more revealing that standard uniform. He was saved considerable embarrasment when she moved away.
"Tash? Tash!" she yelled, not getting a response from the commissar.
"What?" the woman finally answered, removing her headset. Ulthar heard the strains of heavy-power music.
"New boy," Demure said, pointing over her shoulder. The commissar rose to a regal posture and looked steadily at him.
"Name the three principles espoused in Holt's treatise on armoured warfare," she demanded.
"Um, manoeuvrability, co-ordination and-" he stuttered, dredging the details back from memories of the academy's dusty classrooms.
"Recite Macharius's 'On Infantry' chapter twelve, verse seven, line fourteen onwards."
"Um, that supply lines be, um, properly protected, but in ideal conditions that this protection, um, come from resources that do not compromise-"
"Book of Munitions, 12:72."
"Um, the, um, wargear of the enemy be unto him a curse, for the spirits of the machines be displeased by his arrogance, and-"
"He'll do," said the commissar abruptly to Demure, and dropped back into her seat, replacing her headset. Demure waved Ulthar over to the briefing table, where she had resumed her catalogue of planets.
"Do you know this world?" she asked. Ulthar glanced at the blue-green sphere over the table, and the designation code beneath it.
"Um, it's called Jackal-16, ma'am. Uninhabited, star system charted five centuries ago, but deemed too poor in resources to colonise. Sixteen is habitable, but the sub-tropical zones lack any natural wildlife that could be harnessed to agri-world production, and the cost of shipping a new species is prohibitive compared to other systems nearer source worlds. The star, Jackal, is named for a cnostellation visible from the world where the survey ships originated, about fourteen light-years-"
"Okay, thank you," said Demure. "What did you train for, star-system hitch-hiking without a map? Looks good enough. Site, initiate shore leave protocol."
"Shore leave protocol?" asked Ulthar. He hadn't heard of that one.
"Oh, right, you're new. It's simple. What we do is, slip into orbit of the planet. Then we transmit a message to Fleet Command saying we are preparing to engage the Orkoid infestation on the planet's surface."
"There are Orks there?" Ulthar asked. Demure frowned at him.
"No, of course not."
"Oh. So why are we telling Fleet Command-"
"So that we can take a break for a month, and requisition a bunch of new supplies from stores to replace all the stuff we 'used' while we were getting rid of the Orks."
"Hey," interrupted Captain Bennett from the doorway, "bridge says they're picking up energy reading from long-range scans of the planet. Necrons."
"Aw crap!" exclaimed Demure. She turned to Ulthar. "You know your star-charts pretty well. Is there another uninhabited world this nice anywhere within a week's travel?"
"Um, I don't think so, ma'am. The only other uninhabited worlds are gaseous or hostile environment."
"Nuts. Show of hands, who's not giving up their shore leave just because a bunch of Necrons can't find their own damn planet to play on?" Site, Bennett and the commissar raised their hands to join Demure's. Ulthar hesitantly raised his, not entirely sure what was expected of him.
"Good kid," said Demure. "Now run down to the armoury with Site and help them get the Basilisk... which ones are they? Terminator? Alligator?"
"Masturbator?" added Bennett with a grin.
"Basilisk Eliminator," said Site grimly, glaring at Bennett.
"I'm not familiar with that pattern," said Ulthar as he followed Site out of the briefing room.
"Special design of mine," said Site proudly, "adapted for dealing with Necrons. See, they have one weakness that you can exploit, if you think outside the square. You just have to rig the shield plates up right, and replace everything forward of the cannon position with ceramite..."
"Another squad, thirty degrees!" called Demure. Site gunned the Basilisk's engines, swerving the vehicle around to bring it to face the distant metal warriors. He then scrambled back behind the shield plates, where the massive bombardment cannon would usually have been, and flipped a large red switch on the cobbled-together electro-generator attached to the shield.
Ulthar watched as, just as had happened with every previous squad, the Necrons, still well out of range for their own weapons, lurched forwards, carved a furrow through the grassy field, and finally flew up and smacked with jarring force into the shield plates, where they hung, immobile, while Bennett calmly blasted their cortical centres to scrap with her rifle. When she was done, Site switched the generator off again, and the dead Necrons clattered down in a messy heap of machinery on top of the Basilisk's hull. A pair of servitors lumbered forward to carry them off to join the rest of their army, on the regment's growing scrap-metal pile.
"Big electro-magnet," Site said again, obviously proud of his work. "The thing with Necrons is, they can't take their armour off. And they don't deal well with surprises."