Rewrote much of the story, decided to post the whole thing up here instead of editing everything.
Chapter 1: Chapter 1
Though one would easily forget it when looking at their death toll, it is an established fact the Imperial Guard recruits only the best of each planet, the elite of the elite. The209th Penal Legion, like all legions, works on a different principle; they look for criminals, the worst scum each planet has to offer, born killers who were given an opportunity to do just that and die for rocks nobody wants to bother with, but would look nice with an Imperial flag on them.
We're supposed to die during our service of the Legion, that's the whole point of the thing… In my case, that's starting to take a bit too long.
Twelve years after signing up, I have seen officers come and go, usually on the same day, sometimes for a longer period of time, I've been promoted to every non-commissioned rank and demoted for reasons that went way beyond my limited understanding on social interactions, but I presume most officers don't like having a Sergeant that knows more than they do.
Right now, I'm a Private, riding at the back of a civilian flatbed truck with my autogun on my lap.
From time to time, we get a shipment of lasguns, but they usually end up given to officers or whoever has enough coins to buy them from the quartermaster. I have plenty, but I'm saving them for a new arm.
See, I did a little tango with an ork, ten years ago, and he ripped my hand right off. Later on, they had to amputate the arm bellow the shoulder and not having both arms is a pretty bad thing in the penal legion. Having a friend in the Adeptus Mechanicus, however, has benefits, and Magos Kiliane fixed me up with some large, heavy and ugly piston powered arm. It's rusty, the inner workings are exposed and there are only three fingers, but it's strong and I can crush skulls with it. I like it.
Plus, I'm dead anyway, if this arm can help me serve the Emperor better before someone makes that fact final, then who cares about aesthetics?
The desert is flying by, rocks and dried grass stretching as far as the human eye can see, because the only things on this planet that aren't human, the Shades, only come out at night and don't have eyes like we do.
A kid, just opposite me, fumbles with his autogun, the safety lever off, and the muzzle drifts up slowly, pointing to slip-proof floor, to my crotch before settling on my head in the boy's attempt to unfold his weapon's stock. He yelps when I wrench it from his grasp to pull the rusted butt in position before shoving it back on his chest with a growl.
"Thanks, sir…" The blush on his face tells me he'll be dead inside the week.
Depending on who you ask, I am also a Corporal, though neither my priviledges nor pay grade reflect that. It's recent, a side effect of being assigned as an aide to our new commissar. She's pretty, about my age and with a nasty burn scar spreading from her neck to her ear and stretching its tendrils on her cheek, but below the whole battle hardened look, she's quite pleasant to look at.
I'm not going to tell her that.
She picked me as an aide because she wanted to piss off the Colonel, who wants me dead. No real reason, the kid just got out of officer school and seems to think I've lived too long. The Commissar got here yesterday, on the same shuttle he did, and thinks a man like me can only be an asset.
Odd thing, actually; she knew my name right off the transport and cited quite a few battles I did good in right then in our first conversation, so this was not spur of the moment: The big guy with knives and metal arm has always been her first choice.
In any event, she's now asking for my tactical evaluation.
I've had training over the years, nothing official, but you get all kinds of people in the Legion and some are willing to teach you some stuff for the right price. That's how I learned to read and write, how I learned how to maintain a Lasgun, which rituals have a point in maintaining machinery and other things that would get me shot if the commissar caught wind of them.
So… We have friendlies in the area and they sent us some fresh data about the area, mostly exaggerations and rough evaluations. Imperial intelligence at its finest…
If we forget about the estimates and anything that has a number in it, these reports come down to very simple facts: Big guns guard the stronghold. The big guns were made from scrap and are a threat only to lightly armored targets… Artillery shotguns, got to love that idea, shame they're pointed at us.
Speaking of artillery, there are mortar positions spread across the mountains, guarding the eastern, western and southern approach. The north side is guarded by a minefield, improvised explosives, for the most part. The only way in from that direction is by train.
My evaluation is that if we attack that stronghold head on, we'll get butchered before she has a chance to shoot deserters. She actually smiles at that, sadistic bitch.
But if we capture that mortar position two kliks south, move it east a little to mix things up and rain some phosphorous rounds on the cultists, we could easily go in and mop up the survivors before they get a chance to clear the smoke from their lungs.
"I like this plan…" Not sure what that look is, might be she's attempting humor or farting, "Seems like something the Sisters of Battle would approve of; kill them with fire."
She laughs at that. I don't know whether it's heresy, funny or at all better than a fart. I crack a grin and bring my eyes back on the horizon line, scanning for silhouettes. You get used to it after a while, looking for silhouettes becomes your default activity. Thinking isn't my strong suit, but staying focused and all that, that's my cup of tea. Never drank tea, but whatever.
Some of the new kids give me brief looks, chattering amongst themselves at the back of the truck:
They wonder what I did, did I murder someone? Did I burn something?
Most people here did one of these two, maybe both, me, I killed, burned, raped, tortured, kidnapped, smuggled, poached and jaywalked all before my fifteenth birthday.
My parents were Catachan, see, but they sold me to some gang on Vectis so I could be raised and used as an enforcer, I was not exactly the smartest bugger around, but did a good job at killing things and followed orders.
All they had to do was let the Imperium propaganda machine tell me all about our glorious Emperor, then pretend everything I did was for his glory, and I was sold, quite literally, as they finally ended up making me take the fall for just about everything their gang ever did. I killed them all before surrendering to the authorities.
Mind you, there was only three of them left, and they were all in the same car when I blew it up.
Now here I am, twelve years later, still alive, still killing and not quite as dumb as I used to be.
Ignorance isn't bliss, trust me, and even though I still do not qualify for the role of resident encyclopedia, I can think on my feet and would not trade it for anything.
The Commissar stops all four trucks of our convoy and announces that we're going to walk our arses to that mortar position. I want to object, but I like the current shape of my skull and jump off the truck in silence.
We're far off, like, butt end of nowhere kind of far off, but she wants to sneak up on the position.
"Oh, we'll sneak up alright, we'll be ghosts by the time we get there!" That doesn't leave my mouth, but it's painted on my face and she's on me in a tic.
"Something to say, private?" Her breath is sour, but not rancid yet. She's been eating the same rations we do since she got off the shuttle. Soon enough, her mouth will qualify as a chemical weapon.
"Desert is dangerous, Ma'am," I respond, weighting my words carefully, "we'll lose a lot of our Combat capacity on this hike."
Good answer. Or at least, not the bad one, as she takes a step back and actually thinks about it.
Feral orkz, giant snakes, quicksand, meteorites, gigantic sodium patches that will go boom if a single drop of water touches them, the usual.
You ever see a commissar pale? I did, twice, once was when I came back from my tussle with the ork, missing an arm but carrying the thing's lower jaw, second is now.
Nobody warned her she'd landed a job in hell itself, nobody ever tells anyone how skakky this nameless mud ball really is.
"On your record," she swallows, paling even more, "on…"
Sunstroke, not shock. Figured it was too easy, commisars don't go all white at the thought of danger.
I raise a hand and she blinks repeatedly, beads of sweat forming at her hairline and trickling down her snow white face, "Ma'am," I interrupt, "you should really drink some water."
Her mumbling seems to agree with me and she fumbles with her canteen. Empty, of course, she kept using some of it to clean the dust off her insignias.
The other troopers are fine, but they still have water and are not wearing this retarded black cloak with matching hat. I catch her on the way down and drop her semi-unconscious form in the shadow of a truck.
Two of the troopers, Ferenzky and Plato, I've worked with before, they used to take orders from me, when I was a Sergeant. I tell them to get their hides in the lead truck and tell the rest of the kids to set up camp, that we'll Vox in when we've taken the mortar position. Why? I want to be way far away when that commissar wakes up and have a good reason for it. Passing out in front of the troops? She'll need to reassert her authority and someone is going to get shot.
As I already said, I like the current shape of my skull.
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
The ride is uneventful, boring even, the truck's massive wheels carry us over sodium patches and quicksand without the slightest trouble. They were made here by a guy name Mole, because of his face, when he tried to get Killiane in his bed.
Important thing is that, had we hoofed it, at least one guy was bound to let sweat fall off his cheek in the chalky powder and have both legs blown off.
I stop the truck behind a dune, two hundred meters west of the mortar position. It's not tucked on to of some hill, like satellite recon suggested, it's actually dug in at the meeting point of a dried lake and the equally dry river that used to link it with long gone seas. The river snakes around in a W shape and we're at the left edge of it. The mortars are set up on the right one.
Ferenzky has a long-las, only without hotshot pack. He'll do anyway.
"Get on top of that rock," I order, pointing to a big boulder twenty meters back, "see what we're up against."
He nods and jog off, head low. Plato and Ferenzky are good soldiers, it's a shame that one's a con artist and the other a serial killer, but I still respect both more than any law abiding citizen, because despite the rotten cards life dealt them, they still qualify as human beings.
Plato is already checking his knifes, wondering which one he feels like using today. He finally picks a curved one, barely longer than my finger and with lightweight knuckle guards.
He holds it in an ice pick grip with the blade pointing outward. I've seen him kill Orkz with that weapon, and it's not even mono-carbide or powered, he just has incredibly good taste in blades and takes great care of them.
We're up against humans here, not even well equipped ones, so chainswords would be overkill anyway.
Ferenzky calls in. We have at least two sharpshooters covering the next corner and he's spotted a six men patrol walking around the dried bank.
He also warns us of a locust cloud coming in from the south-east. They'll be on us in twenty minutes, so we'd better be in the truck by then.
So, how do I want to play this?
Lasguns are many great things, but discreet isn't one of those, as soon as he'll take out the shooters, the patrol will haul ass to our position and the mortars might even join the fun.
We could just walk up to the edge of the lake and take the mortars, but you've got to wonder, why guard the river bank so much? Because we can't sneak up from anywhere else. I don't see why they reached that conclusion, but it's their turf, so I'll defer to their judgement and play to their rules.
"We'll move in Dynamic," I announce to the troopers, "Kill fast, kill often, stop for nothing."
Six soldiers with sniper and artillery support are impossible for two Legionnaires to take on in a war of attrition, but if we catch them off guard, keep them from reaching cover, our Flak armors will keep us safe from the retaliation, Plato will destroy them in close combat and Ferenzky will mop up anyone we miss.
So it's basically a case of run, gun and try not to get shot.
My marksman takes the shots and both hostile snipers go down. Might be more, we'll find out soon enough.
My boots slide on the gravel as I take the steep turn and almost plant face-first. I stabilize myself with an arm, Autogun held in the off hand. The patrol's point man raises his stub gun, a positively ancient thing he must have found in an equally ancient weapon cache.
I open up first and a single round is ejected from my gun.
I make them, the slugs, I mean, Kiliane showed me how. Ceramite foils over bronze core with polymer tip and iron expansion ring. The thing hits the target three hundred percent bigger than it was when leaving the weapon and acts the same way as a bolt round when inside the target; the bronze expands, explosively shattering the Iron and turning the victim's insides to ground meat.
The man in front of me has a hole the size of my fist in his chest, but he doubles over and vomits most of his vital organs and bodily fluids in one explosive belch that seem to have been caused by the explosion as much as his body's reaction to it.
Plato's stub pistol barks twice and the cultist's sneaking up on my right loses his frontal lobe.
Dumb skak never had much use for it anyway, tried to summon chaos god Buck Harris because they found some old records in the same cache they found their equipment. From what I understand, which means what I bothered to eavesdrop on, they're wrong and the guy was an actor and a martial artist, nothing more, but their little frakwits band decided to get all violent about it and that means I'm now going to kill the five of them rushing past the bend before me.
I already said it, I'm a Catachan, some of the boys once whipped me a replica of Astarte power armor from resine and scrap metal to give a bunch of whiny civvies a good scare. Two days in the brigs were totally worth the look in their faces.
Same look these guys get now, because not only am I one gakking large motherfrager, I'm also one gakking fast motherfrager and they barely get to take a shot before I'm diving headlong into their ranks.
I'm not stupid, though, I still shoot my gun on the way in. Not sure how many I get, but there's enough blood and flesh and skak around to confirm I hit someone. The girl I tackle to the floor dies before I do anything about it, her chest crushed by my weight. Well, she doesn't die right away, but I register her as dead nonetheless because she simply didn't realize it yet and certainly isn't a threat anymore.
My knife is… Not what you expect from a Catachan; it's thin, double edged and short, meant for slashing and plunging between ribs, not hacking off limbs.
I angle it up, under a soldier's elbow and right into his ribcage, two fingers width under his armpit. The steel stops his heart in the blink of an eye and I rip the blade free, slashing a throat open in the same movement.
A knife flashes in the corner of my eye and I roll away before bringing my gun up. Plato, his eyes are dark, filled with bloodlust, but he recognizes me and the spark fades out of existence.
It's over, everyone else is dead. Ferenzky confirms zero movement and I get him to link up with us.
Nothing to loot on the corpses, their uniforms are skakky mesh armors half rotting away and their weapons are either jury rigged stub guns or shivs. Even the snipers had nothing of interest; they used crossbows with explosive warheads.
Don't ask me why, but Ferenzky decides to loot one.
We disarm a bunch of very sloppy bobby traps and detection systems and reach the mortar camp without a hitch.
The crew is waiting for us, but they are all behind cover; two ducking on the other side of food crates, two are flat on their stomachs, right in our line of fire, and one tried to dig a foxhole in the rocky floor. Plato is on top of the food crates and then, on top of the poor bastards in no time, I brain the guy in the foxhole with a single slug and our marksman deals with the two sleepy heads.
Plan was to move this mortar to another location in the hills, but since there are no hills, we decide to leave it there. As I said; Imperial intelligence at its finest. At least there actually is a mortar in this place.
In the Legion, if you don't know how to use just about everything you come across, you'll die in a month, so although that tube hooked to a bipod looks nothing like what we're used to, the boys quickly get the idea and I get to climb the far edge of the lake with Ferenzky's rifle to direct their fire. The sand crumbles under my boots and I sink to the knees. Pushing with my arms does free me, but now I have sands in my boots and up my sleeves.
Lasgun shouldered, I crawl up the steep slope, the warm cushion of sand begging for me to just take a break and lie down. Seems stupid, but you go for days with little sleep, little food and searing heat, you'll feel like somebody replaced the bones in your body with steel and the floor with one massive magnet. I actually saw guys lie down spread eagle in the desert and stay there until a dune buried them in its warm embrace.
But they were weak, I'm strong, I keep climbing and eventually drag myself on what used to be a beach.
I see the stronghold in the distance alright, barely more than a black dot on the skyline, but the scope makes it a bit better.
It's cracked in the middle and dirty on the inside, but it does the job.
You'll have guessed by now, I'm no crack at maths or physics, but I know better than to just blurt incantations to the mortar's machine spirit in hope that it will magically divert the shells to our target.
It's not heresy, not really, since the whole machine spirit thing came from the Adeptus Mechanicus, not the Emperor. I'd never say that out loud, however. Many people think I'm a quiet guy. I'm not, I have plenty to say, it's just that most of it would get me shot.
When we call in, the Commissar is back on her feet and quite pleased at my initiative. She does mention that she'll shoot me next time we meet, but she sounds pleased. The troops are in position and waiting for us to soften up the stronghold.
Plato warns us that locusts are ten minutes out and I repeat that to the Commissar, who doesn't know what I'm talking about but knows better than to ask about it. We have eight minutes to do as much damage as possible then run back to the truck, best make it count.
"Set it at Four-nine vertically and two-two-five horizontally." These must have actual names, military jargon to make it easier on the grunts, but I don't know it, I just look at that round thing they issue along with our maps, a ruler and a compass, to calculate angles. It rests upright, its base buried in the sand and gold numbers shining through the plastic.
"Set!" Plato doesn't know much either, but he keeps it short, he knows how to make things short and clear.
The shot misses entirely, so much I doubt the stronghold even realizes it was aimed at them. If we had a bird's eye on the battlefield, I could give more accurate instructions, but we must make due with ground perspective and rough estimates.
Phosphorous rounds explode over the target and spray their payload down like an incontinent falcon. How they know when they're above something worth skaking on is beyond me.
Next shot looks dead on target, but once the smoke clears, it's obvious we fell short. The Commissar confirms it on the Vox.
Why isn't she the one directing our fire anyway?
Next round hits and I swear I can hear the wounded scream from all the way over here. Phosphorous shells are nasty, but then, they used it on our camp willingly enough.
I'm not one to hold grudges, mostly because I kill people who wrong me before I get to have a grudge, but when they do get away with making me mad, it's not a grudge, it's not pet peeve, it's a major psychotic fraking hatred, so all I feel now is the heat on my helmet and the wind on my face.
And a skak-load of satisfaction.
The changes in coordinates are minimal from that point, only enough to make sure we cook anything standing out in the open. We miss many, that's certain, I've been on the receiving end of those shells and they are fairly easy to survive with a good foxhole, but anyone above ground level caught within twenty meters of the blast is bound to feel the heat and maybe loose a few body hairs.
Mine just started growing back.
I used to wonder why even those behind cover got cooked, their burnt corpses fused to whatever they were cowering behind, no matter how thick the cover, now I know; the shells rain fire, they don't explode. Fraking brilliant.
Then the eight minutes are up and the mortar is glowing hot. The guys are not stupid enough to try and haul it back to the truck, but they still bring back ammo crates and water barrels. Having packed the truck full in the minute and a half I take to cross the lake. My metal fingers clasp around the glowing barrel and I bring the small artillery piece with me to the truck. It clatters in the bed and the guys take off as soon as my boot is in the cabin. It's not meant to house three people, so Plato sits on the console with the handbrake stuck up his ass.
He squirms a bit to salvage some comfort and dignity, but we're all crammed tighter than canned food rations, so he quits moving and starts growling.
By the time we reach the others, they're already mopping up and the Commissar is planning our next move.
When she sees me leaving the transport, she just ditches the suite of officers surrounding and praising her and stomps up to me.
The camp burns, giving an all new meaning to the word campfire, but we're moving in nonetheless, fortifying anything that still stands and piling the corpses in a patch of quicksand outside. Somebody asks why we don't put out the fire and I openly laugh at them. Put out phosphorous fire, why not pee on napalm while you're there?
The commissar gives me a once over; I'm covered in mud, blood and bodily fluids, laughing evilly. Her own uniform barely has a dust layer on it. Not sure which one of us should feel bad, but she salutes me first, so I guess she does. Truth be told, I expected a shot to the face.
The officers, a Lieutenant, two Captains and a Major, seem rather unhappy with that, so I quickly salute her back and stand at attention.
"Private Mal reporting in, sir."
I'll be at ease as soon as those idiots there quit looking at me like they want to stab my head on a pike. What's their problem? Did I do their job or something? They're not Legion, that's for damned sure; black uniforms, sparkling new lasguns, a glorious assortment of grenades and knives…
"Damned fine work there, Guardsman, damn fine," she nods to the bunch of idiots and whispers, "But some are unhappy with it."
"They are from the Sixty-sixth Special Warfare, they had troops preparing to take this stronghold, elite troops." I don't like where this is going. "They were about to spring in action when we beat them to it and now their feelings are hurt…" The look in her face says everything about how much she cares, "They want to know who's responsible."
Wow, I didn't expect the good Commissar to throw me to the wolves that easily… But it's not over and she keeps talking. "I told them I was and they asked me to join their regiment…"
Wait, what? Special Warfare? For stealing an artillery gun and using it on some sorry excuse of a fort?
She nods at my doubts, but my part was not the whole operation, she led the troops in the camp and swept remaining defenders in record time, whereas the sixty-sixth's experts said taking this place would require, at least, armored support and elite troops.
There were over ten thousand men camping in the courtyard I'm standing on, all killed by the first few shells. Lucky shots, but still, that's the first time I take credit for a five digit death toll.
"Well, what's the problem? Go for it!" I shouldn't be telling my Commissar what to do, but for crying out loud, she's been given a free ticket out of here!
"They don't want you to come along." It's deadpan fact and I already knew that. Why would they want me to come along? I'm Legion! A waste of skin and time.
Thing is, without me, she most likely would have died in the desert long before this attack could start, she doesn't feel up for it, she's afraid to fail the Emperor.
I shrug, "Then say no." What difference does it make? They were targeting the same fort we were, it's not like their objectives are any more important than ours, they just have better toys.
Ever seen a Commissar smile? Me neither.
Chapter 3: Chapter 3
There's nothing in the whole camp we can burn to make fires, so we all end up in the main entrance's pillbox, clustered around an overcharged plasma torch jacked to a hotshot power pack.
This planet used to be inhabited by humans like us, but they long since turned to something else, something nocturnal and not even I dare go out at night unless it's really important. Standard procedure is to bunker up at night and wait for them to leave. We could take them on, sure, but that would be a waste of men and ammo… Of course, if you're too stupid to pick a decent hidey hole… Well, you were a waste of ammo and gear in the long shot, I suppose.
The pillbox has an opening the width of my head to the front and a man sized hole to the back, but we barricade the entrance with barbed wires and deployable cover before jacking the whole thing to another power pack, which leaves only the loophole, at shoulder height to us and ground level to anyone outside, through which we can see shadows trot by and hear their heavy breathing when they get close. Nothing touches the barbed wire nor the Titanium plate we use as a door, so I suppose they haven't noticed us or aren't stupid enough to try and get in.
Back in the main camp, we have tall walls and fences that let us walk around camp safely, but even then, some creatures slip in from time to time. But this is not the main camp, so everyone is barricaded in the strongest building they could find. Stupid planning, if you ask me, all patrols should be back by nightfall, but I guess the commissar thought we could use the stronghold's defences for the night.
Problem is, the makeshift guns were all melted by the bombardment. That's why the guys of the sixty-sixth were mad at us.
The Commissar wanted to hide in an old pre-fab armory, but I convinced her the pillbox was a better move, so we're all crammed in here, Plato, Ferenzky, Commissar Angley and me. Discussing strategy and geography around the blue flame.
Hard to believe, but it's in the less three digits out there, Celsius. This torch is all that stands between us and hypothermia.
"Are you a Sniper or a Designated Marksman?" Angley is unsure about how she's supposed to see Matthew… I mean Corporal Ferenzky.
Guy is scrawny, pale and seems to be carrying his luggage under his eyelids, not what you'd expect from some dead eyed sniper.
"Ah, no, Ma'am, I'm just a trooper, no specialty."
He's still the best shot I've seen in decades. Not sure where he learnt how to shoot, though, he got here for pretending he could see the future and making quite a fortune in his world's PDF by predicting his comrades' deaths. When his predictions proved right, the Inquisition paid him a visit and he quickly explained it was all a scam.
I'm still not sure it really was.
"I read your file," she tells Plato after a long and awkward silence, "you have a certain... Taste for bloodshed, don't you?"
His smile is eloquent. He's cutting himself a slice of bread using the same knife he took to kill those cultists. He's been with me ever since we came back and I don't recall seeing him wash the blade, an issue I am careful to avoid.
Plato… Plato just kills people. He always have and always will, he accepted and embraced that long ago. I respect that.
Then it's my turn, I guess I'm something special, since she signed me as her aide. She has no question, but feels like she owes me an explanation.
Never though Commissars owed anything to anyone.
"I saw in your interrogation file that you were convinced everything you did under the Red Wolves' order came straight down from the Emperor and that, to this day, you retained a fierce loyalty to Him…"
Obviously, she needs someone to watch her back, she'll pick the most fanatically loyal Legionnaire she can find. Makes sense.
"But I also heard about your loyalty to your men and this is something I was definitely looking for…"
She's sincere, I can't tell what she means by that, but the way she says it leaves no doubt that she thinks she just revealed some big secret.
Guess since her job is to shoot deserters and mine is to keep her from getting shot, that I'd be protective of our men and fiercely loyal to the Imperium would ensure some form of balance .
This is above my pay grade, but then, I'm paid so little, knitting is also above my pay grade.
I don't tell her that.
She's not the only one who thought the pre-fab structure was a smart move and we can hear the terrified screams of the troopers inside, followed by gunfire. Lasfire, actually, so these were members of the sixty-sixth. It ends quickly with the screams turning animal, only triggered by some primitive part of the brain that feels the need to warn the herd of incoming danger.
Angley wants to go help, I tell her, in very simple words, why it's a bad idea: "They're all dead already, if we go out there, we'll lose someone else, guaranteed."
At this point, she knows better than to disregard my advice. We all huddle closer around the torch, as if the heat and light could keep away the monsters lurking in the cold darkness.
Target is a freight train full of artifacts from the dark age of technology, the cultists think they are gifts from their god, the Commissar thinks they are weapons, I don't care, it's not my job to.
The trucks speed across the sand, the head vehicle now packed with weapons and supplies from the gutted armory and our raid of the mortar camp. We're cut off from official supply lines, but the sixty-sixth had plenty of gear for us to burrow and I even got myself a brand new lasgun.
Its previous owner used only eight percent of the charge.
That's, what, thirty seconds of sustained fire at maximum setting?
I, myself, went against the 'lurkers' only once, when I had my arm ripped off, they were drawn by the scent of blood and I was blind as a newborn cub. No moon, just stars to tell you which way is up. I could hear them getting closer every second, expecting cold claws to close around my ankle and drag me off to the night, and finally, I hid in a ditch where I froze half to death while they waited outside. They don't scream, they don't make a single noise; they hunt and kill in silence.
I shake myself. The Commissar sees my shivers and I see actual compassion in her eyes. She can't imagine how I can have survived outside on my own, she probably made up this glamorous warrior thing where I beat my way through with my dead foes' limbs or my own arm. Heh, I guess it's better off that way.
"Target in sight!" Plato roars from the front of the transport, his new Hellgun drawing complex geometric figures on the smooth reddish flanks of the train. He's not just shooting at the thing aimlessly, there are cultists firing at us from the rear wagon's rear and side doors.
The commissar and I are sat at the rear of the truck, so we can be the first to jump.
The driver pulls us up next to the side door and I shoot a cultist in the face before he has time to close the thing on us. Angley takes down two enemies just as they line up a shot at me.
We exchange a single nod and both soar through the gap, except one we missed one bastard and he slams his rifle's butt in my face straight after my boots hit the deck.
I manage to hold myself against the edge of the truck, both foot still in the train, but the guy is taking careful aim at my face and there isn't much I can do.
Angley is busy fighting off a guy even bigger than I am, so in extremis rescue is out of the question. I kick my cultist in the knee and throw off his aim just enough to draw another breath, but he's a step back now and I'm not going to use that trick twice, so I let go of one hand while he's taking aim and draw my sidearm, a stub pistol.
The mesh armor stops the slugs, but the impact still staggers the man, so I fire two more rounds and watch him fall off the opposite door.
Something happens and I'm not sure what it is at first; the train rise or the truck descends and I end up in an involuntary backflip that results in me sprawled in the truck's bed.
The transport is going down a slope and comes back up just as quick. I jump again to find out our Commissar cut her opponent in half vertically. The chainsword is still revving. A tiny part of my brain wonders if she cut him head to crotch or crotch to head. Nobody deserves to have a chainsaw taken to their genitals…
Moving on. We pass six bulkheads and half as many junctions between carts, all filled with crates and not a single living soul. The others are falling in behind us, inspecting the content of a few random boxes.
"Well, well, that's interesting." The voice is everywhere and nowhere at the same time, "People who aren't complete frakwits," Frakwits? First I heard that insult… I like it. "Think you can crack the labyrinth, make it to the head cart before the whole thing is torn apart? I promise you, you won't regret it."
Not everywhere; in my helmet Vox system.
"Who's this?" I bark, "Identify yourself."
No answer. We'll find out soon enough.
Angley frowns, she didn't hear a thing, but wants to push on as well. So we do. I can see a shoulder through the dirty window of the next hatch. Another one appears on the other side, but just a second. The first one dies when my fist rips through the wall and his ribcage, the second lasts a little longer, long enough to peek out the window and get a glimpse of a bolt down Angley's barrel.
Next wagon feels wrong, and I'm not just talking about the two corpses on the floor, it feels… Purposeful, unnatural. It's a trap, but how exactly? I'm no psyker, I just spend enough time seeing guys blown apart by improvised explosives to feel them coming, like a bad plot twist in some old vids.
The mechanical fingers of my prosthesis rip the lid off a crate and, sure enough, there's enough explosives here to vaporize everyone in the wagon and most likely in the next. I'm no EOD expert, so my solution is real simple; "Run!"
Chapter 4: Chapter 4
"Come on dimwits, let's do this!" The voice is distant, like underwater. Who's screaming? "Get the frak up you lazy bum, come on!" Is it talking to me? What's that accent supposed to be? Cadian?
Am I down? Where… Train… Yeah, the bomb. Who's talking though? Doesn't sound like some new meat nor anyone I know. "You want to see tomorrow, you muppet? Then move!"
I'm moving. Wood and scrap metal fall to either side and are sucked out as I rise. The wagon was cut in half. I'm not even sure it's the same one I was in earlier…
Everyone is gone, but I don't have time to waste with that.
Wind is rushing around me, pushing me back to the gap, and I lean forward some more. It gets stronger by the second and soon all that keeps me in place are my metal fingers, locked around a handle on the floor. Maybe the makers expected somebody would need to hold on to it one day, or it was just made to secure cargo, Imperial thinking doesn't always make sense.
The next handle is two meters further, a meter-long strap already fastened to it. I make the jump, barely, and wrap the strap around my organic wrist.
Four meters to the hatch and the next wagon. Why is it so windy?
The sky is bright orange and my mind takes a second to register; sandstorm. Great.
The prosthesis' fingers dig in the steel floor with relative ease and the pistons drag me forward to a small ridge in the floor, some drainage thing, in case liquids leak, I guess.
The bones and flesh of my fingers groan as hard as I do and let go just as the steel fingers dig in the floor again. This time, the arm gives me all its got and I fly through the hatch like an artillery shell.
The space between wagons is just what you'd expect; railings, stairs to the right and a gap in the middle to let the crew step across the gap or access the locking mechanism that keeps the train together.
I fall in that gap and land straight on the lock, precariously balanced over the speeding desert. There is no wind here, wagon must cut it, but there's a lot of tiny rocks kicked up by the storm and they're mauling my face. Like I said, my balance is precarious, if I shift too much weight forward, I'll ruin it and end up sitting on the rails. Not a good thing when there's still the husk of a cart behind you.
My metal arm clamps around the base of the left railing and drags me back to safety.
Next wagon is pitch black, the windows painted black and the ceiling neon removed, but there's enough light to catch glimpses of cells or cages. No clue what's inside. There's a flashlight on my lasgun, but I lost the thing, so I advance slowly, quietly and carefully, arms held out ahead.
Cold steel meets my organic fingers, smooth and unyielding. My prosthetic arm also rubs against something and, judging from the sound, there are two cages a meter apart.
Hope whatever's in them can't reach out, because that's a mighty small gap to squeeze into.
There's a bottle on the floor. I don't see it, but the sound it makes rolling away leaves no doubt.
The things in the cages stir, sniffing around, growling.
Anyone who tells you they feel no fear is either a moron or a liar. I'm neither. I'm piss scared; cold sweat, shakes, short breath. It overwhelms me, screaming at me to run out of here, to move faster, to do something.
I let all my muscles relax and keep on all of them, I don't want to soild my pants either. Same bottle betrays me two meters further and the things in the cage begin roaring and trashing about, shaking the whole wagon.
What really gets me going is the sound of ripping steel and the wet substance that splashes the back of my pants.
The bulkhead opens, blinding me in orange light, but I don't look back, I jump, slam into the other bulkhead and get in. I'm still doped up on adrenaline, so the surprised cultist that shoves his gun in my face never loses the surprise when I squeeze his arm under mine, break it, snatch the weapon from the floor and fill everyone in the room with lead.
Something rams into the bulkhead at my back, denting it inward, but when I look, all I see is a black shape and talons ripping their way up in the steel.
It's on the roof.
Nothing should be able to hold on in that storm, but who am I kidding, we all know it's right there, and all I have is a skakky stub gun.
Once I'm out of here, I'm buying the biggest, meanest weapon I can find, prosthetic be damned.
The claw marks on the wall indicate there's only one on top of the cart, but there were two cages, so I suppose I'm not going back in the dark wagon… And I can't move forward either, not with that thing waiting for me out there. I can hear it crawling around over my head, waiting. It ripped the cage open like it was made of glass, it can get in here any time it wants, it's just toying with me.
So… That's what being stuck feels like? Can't go back, can't go forward, can't hide, can't fight. I've seen hundreds of rookies with that glassy look in their faces, one I always mistook for their brain shutting off reality a second before the killing blow. Now I know, it's acceptance, peace. I'm going to die. No matter what I do, claws will rip my skin open any second now. It's… Liberating, oddly enough, like the weight of my survival was just lifted off my shoulders. No need to come up with something clever to get out of here, no need to fight anymore. It's all over.
Some part of me wants to curl in a ball out the corner and sleep, wait for it to happen, just let it end. I want it to end. Not my life, I still want to live, but I'm tired of fear, tired of always fighting, every minute of every day, and the fact is, it's all I'm ever going to do, even if I make it out alive.
What's the point? Why should I go through the pain and effort of thinking a way out if it's all going to repeat itself tomorrow?
Because I have nothing better to do.
Just a whisper in the back of my brain, it feels warm. Nothing better to do? It makes some sort of sense, I suppose; Is oblivion better that pain? If there is nothing in my life worth living for, then there's nothing worth dying for.
That makes as little sense to me as it does to you, but, somehow, these thoughts feel right, strong. I've got nothing to lose, my end will be gruesome, that is a given, but I can still decide if it will be worth anything, and while I still draw breath, there is still hope I can end the pain, find something that makes me want to keep on living.
I'm alive, I can be whoever I choose to be. The Penal Legion holds my body captive, but that's just a concept, words, there are no chains, no walls, just paperwork. I can turn this around. No one leaves the Legion unless it's in a body bag, but I will, because I'm alive and I will not give up.
It burns, I always associated this warm feeling to the Emperor's presence, when I prayed to Him or killed His enemies, but it's not, it never was, it's me, all me, the Emperor never gave me strength, I gave it to myself. There's a saying in the Legion, 'Faith can get a warrior through the fiercest battle.' It's wrong, Determination can get you through anything, Faith is just the motivator, determination on command, and it's nothing compared to what I'm feeling now.
It's all good and nice that I got my nerves back, but what now? That thing is still going to chop off my head at the first chance I give it.
The bodies littering this wagon carry no real weapon, but one has a magnesium flash bomb and another some mining demo charge, same type they used to blow up the other wagon. What should I do with these? Not enough firepower to blast this whole cart, but probably enough to split it from the train itself.
But my job is to secure this train, if I break away, well, the train leaves and I stay behind. Surely the boys left on the trucks will be coming in soon, I just need to break the inertia and get moving again before I'm flanked.
Maybe I can trap the thing, set the charge and wait until it moves in for the kill… No, it could break in from anywhere.
Place the charge on the roof and blast it off? With me in the same room? I could survive, but I doubt I'd keep all my parts.
Then I leave the room. There are large sliding doors on either sides of the car, I can get out through these… And get blown off by the wind? Even if I found a good grip, used my prosthetic arm and kept very close to the wagon, the wind must be strong enough now to rip the thing off my shoulder.
Maybe I can slow the train down a bit… I think every car has its own brake system and if you activate some emergency thing, you can cause all of them to switch on.
A quick look around kills that plan. Come on! I don't have all day! I need something now, there's two of them and I know the position of only one, the other could be sneaking up on me at this very moment…
Of course it is. No way it just waited in its cage for me to backtrack! I ran away, it is a predator, preys don't go back where they know a predator lurks… I almost didn't.
I need light. I have light! If I dismantle the flash charge and keep only the magnesium, it should provide a minute of light, maybe more, I'm not sure how quickly it burns on this planet…
Then, there's one last hick to my plan; the mining charge is slaved to a detonator that now lies shattered in the pockets of a bullet riddled corpse. My bad. The five second fuse that used to be rigged with the flash bomb could do, but seeing as five seconds fuse last only three seconds… Well, I'll just have to move quickly.
There's barely any crates in here, but I stack enough to reach the ceiling with relative comfort. The creature walking around the roof is digging its claws in, just like it did with the wall, but the roof is too thick for them to go through. I still feel the tremors just over my fingers, though, and that feels quite wrong to me.
Charge set. Get clear.
Before entering the dark wagon, I take a second to shatter the window and peek in the poorly lit interior. Four cages, not two, all ripped open. A single beer bottle sits on the dirty floor, discarded and lonely.
That insignificant thing is the cause of my current problems. Funny, isn't it?
Inside the wagon, I find a cattle prod jacked to a high-grade power pack. This thing can kill an Ogryn if you insist long enough.
I'm not fighting Ogryns, but these things ripped right through a Special Warfare Guard platoon, so I'll take whatever I can get. The five seconds fuse goes off at four, though it felt like a full minute, and I come out ready to kill, trembling like a leaf.
I always get the shakes before a good fight, though I won't find one in this smoking shell of a train wagon, the docs said it wasn't fear, that my body showed no sign of anxiety. I never said it was fear, a horse that gets agitated before a race isn't scared, he's not even anxious, he's just ready to do what he's made to do.
Something jumps off the overhead car and lands right behind me, but I whack it across the head with the prod and sprint across to the next bulkhead. What? You expect me to take on something that can wipe out a whole platoon? Frak it, I'm just going to reach the locomotive, stop this thing and smoke signal the Legion. Our trucks can't be far off and I doubt they'd just abandon their mission like that.
The crates and barrels fly by for at least eight cars without a hitch outside the occasional guard and mutant I need to whack. Why they all just stand at their posts mindlessly and never call for reinforcement, that's a mystery I'd love to see solved, but something tells me all the answers are in the head car. If not, then whoever's hacking my Vox will be, and he better have answers for me.
My arsenal remains as skakky no matter how much I loot from corpses, but I still acquire a healthy supply of grenades, dynamite and cocktails. The ones that set people on fire… Then again, I've seen quite a few people get drunk and pass out in camp fires, not to mention the questionable local brothels, which makes tender bits feel like they're on fire…
I usually stay clear of places like that, too many bad memories from my days in the gang come up when I'm around these, I prefer a good bar and beer goggles, so long as I leave before the effect wears off, everyone's happy.
Finally, about two wagons before the end, I come across an actual fighting force, but shock denies me the element of surprise. Those things look half way between normal humans and the mutants chasing me. Some have two arms, a few have three, all of them are hunched and snarling, razor-sharp fangs and sickly yellow eyes… Their eyes… It feels like all the malice, all the evil in the universe is focused in them.
"Move!" The voice yells in my ears, "Show me how you dance, meatsack!"
The stub gun is useless against the flak armors on these things, so I club one across the face with it, toss the weapon at another and draw my knife, holding the cattle prod in the off hand.
The mutant holding my weapon dies before the flash, but he's the only one, the real killing begins only after the magnesium charge on my chest goes off. I had to prod myself to set it off, but it was just a gentle touch…
Still, when sound and images return, I'm slouched on my right knee with smoke rising from the flak armor's plates.
Around me, the mutants are roaring and clutching their heads in pain. Good guess on my part; nocturnal, very vulnerable to bright lights. There's four of them left. I club the closest with the prod, crush his knee cap on my way across, stab another in the throat and use it as a meat shield against the barrage of autogun fire from the remaining hostiles.
Bullets that go through his armor are too damaged and slow to go through mine, but the others don't know that and as soon as the shooting stops, I let the sack of ground meat in my arms slouch to the ground.
I have his autopistol now, holding it in my steel hand and using the flesh one as support, knife still held in its fingers. I find that I miss my real arm, the nerves, the balance and the dexterity. The steel one is strong, but it's attached to my body, which isn't as strong, meaning I'd need to augment my whole bone structure to use the mechanical limb to its full potential.
Like those cog-head freaks.
There are crates in here too, plenty of space to hide, which is precisely what I do, though not from sight, creature like these can probably track by smell alone. No, I'm hiding from the shrapnel of my frags.
Body parts, blood and pieces of armor fly all over the room. Flak armor is meant to protect from flying debris like this, but in such close quarters, and not from four hand grenades going off at once.
Killiane won't like it, I damaged a lot of crates, but then again, when is Kill ever happy about anything?
Something wraps around my ankle, just like I'd feared in the wagon with the cages, but now it's different, I killed five of these things and they killed zero of me, odds are in my favour.
The first stomp breaks the mutant's wrist, the second crushes its rib cage and the third breaks its spine. The dozen that follows is just meant to stop the corpse's twitching.
Next wagon, I frag first and enter second, with similar results and minimum fuss.
"Ah, Theseus!" the voice speaks in a sophisticated tone, before reverting to the old drill-instructor routine, "Took you long enough! Now get in here and kill that moron before he calls hell down on this skakhole."
That moron greets me with electric arcs lashing from his fingers and ramming my chest like a direct hit from a gakking grenade launcher. I reply with a burst of autopistol fire that rattles his chest and perforates the delicate purple robes he wears. He looks human, but his eyes… Skak, they're not human. Just looking at them makes me feel weak, it makes me want to put the gun on my temple and squezze the trigger. I put the gun against the side of my skull, but flip the safety on as well, earning only two dry clicks. My knife was not meant for throwing and only the handle hits the sorcerer, but it's bulls eye on his forehead.
His eyes flare just a second and the safety comes off, followed by a single shot that splatters brain matter on the floor.
Interesting fact; I lost my helmet somewhere along the ride, can't remember when, why can I still hear that voice?
"Because you're mad... Seriously, you have a chip in your brain… Ex-slave, am I right? I'm interfacing with it."
I think a sentence and wait for an answer. A whole minute passes that way before I hear the voice again.
"Are you constipated or something? What is that face?" This time, it fills the room, not my skull, and I pinpoint its source to a skull with a metal rod stabbed in it.
Talking, telepathic skull?
Chaos! Throne of terra, I walked right into a Chaos altar!
The gun in my hand finds its way to my chin almost on its own and I'm tightening the finger around the trigger, coming to term with the end of my life, when the human skull jumps off the… What's that? A cogitator? Why was it jacked into the train's cogitator? More importantly, why is there fire coming out of its neck? Servo-Skull… An odd, ebony-black model, but bearing the sign of the inquisition…
"What do you think you're doing?" It sounds distressed, but the mocking undertone remains. It really doesn't care if I live or die.
"You're in my head, you manipulate my thoughts, I won't let you!" The words come out on their own. I really ought to squeeze that trigger before it sways me, but as I keep saying; I love the current shape of my skull and would much prefer it remains airtight…
"You stupid peasant, I am an advanced piece of machinery, not some chaos spawn, and I have a task for you, straight down from the inquisition."
And I'm Leman Russ. "The inquisition wouldn't need a legionnaire; they would never even acknowledge my existence!"
"Except you got the men they sent in killed the other night, remember? That leaves you and the cultists." The voice is mechanical, genderless, not evil in itself and that gives me pause. Surely the archenemy would sound malevolent in some way… Right?
"Okay, what do you want?" I tuck the gun in my belt and look the mechanical skull in its gleaming red eyes.
"I will spare you the details, just do what I say when I say it and everything will be fine. Stop the train."
I shoot the console, but that doesn't work. Pulling the big red lever next to the driver's seat does, however, as evidenced by the dashboard rushing up to meet my face.
Of all the last thoughts a man who's seen what I've seen could have, "Woops." Is the one I pick. Go figure.
Last edited by JonasGrant; 02-14-13 at 04:30 PM.