Nathaniel fell, clutching his chest. Liquid dripped from between his gloved fingers, as he doubled over and collapsed into the pristine snow. Aretas jumped over his prone form, as he charged towards the entrenched enemy. Then, a well-aimed hit to the head took him down as well, and he too fell. And yet, more came—all young fresh-faced youths, carried forward with dreams of glory and heroics.
But it was not this tide that broke the defence. As the assault forced the defenders to focus on it, behind their lines another group of youths closed in on the enemy trench line. Though they had to cover a much greater distance than the main force, they were still focussed. They had to be—one careless step, one loud word, could jeopardize their whole mission.
Luck was on their side, and soon enough they entered the trench. The first two opponents were dispatched before anyone knew they were under attack from two sides. Though they fought bravely, the position they chose was impossible for them to defend. One by one, the defending force dwindled to only two youths in a matter of moments, when a sharp voice snapped, “Stop!”
Nathaniel picked himself up and dusted the snow off himself, before marching forward (or doing the best approximation he could manage through the snow) towards Sergeant Silas. He still could not get used to just how giant his mentor was—he loomed over them all, and would have easily dwarfed Nathaniel’s father, who was already a two meters tall behemoth of a man.
“Did you all think you were playing a game?” Silas roared—and he had a magnificent roar, like some wild giant beast. His voice carried far, and made even the most hot-headed novitiates cower.
“No, sir!” the youths snapped.
Nathaniel wondered if the words were directed at him and his theatrics, but the sergeant focused on the team that had been defending the trench.
“You all would be dead,” he growled. “Worse, your deaths would have been meaningless.”
Some of the boys started shifting nervously under the giant’s scrutiny.
“You all ought to know by now that if you make it, if you become Space Marines, you will not die in bed,” Sergeant Silas continued. “But that does not mean you are supposed to carelessly throw your lives away. If you die like you would have died had this been war and not an exercise, you would not only have doomed yourselves, but all those that rely on you.”
He cast his gaze around, meeting the eyes of the initiates one by one.
“You all have heard tales of heroic last stands, have you not?” he asked. “I could tell you to forget them. I could tell you that if you are forced into one, you have already lost. But this would not be true. Sometimes, you will not have a choice. Sometimes, preserving your lives will not be as important as what your deaths will achieve.”
“Merely dying is not glorious,” he continued. “Dying, when your brothers still need you, when the Emperor and his subjects demand your protection, is like betraying them all. You will have squandered the resources that have been poured into you and risked lives that rely on you for nothing.”
“If you wish to be remembered as heroes, you cannot throw your lives away. You have to offer them for something greater. If it’s a choice between letting your brothers retreat and all of you dying, if it means winning a significant advantage over the enemy, then it will be your duty to offer your life.”
“But this?” Sergeant Silas gestured towards the now empty trench. “This was idiocy of the highest order. You would not have won. You couldn’t have won like that, and yet you stayed. You had plenty of opportunities to retreat to a better position, but instead, you chose to play-pretend you’re great heroes enacting your last stand like little children.”
Nathaniel smiled to himself—a small wistful expression, hidden by his helmet. Sergeant Silas had died many years ago, but his wisdom guided him even now. He did not dare look away, lest one of the xenos used his lack of attention and slipped past his guard, but he was doing his best to keep track of the icons that represented his battle brothers on the internal display of his helmet.
His bolter kept barking and each shot met a target. Genestealer hybrids fell around him, their malformed bodies trampled by their erstwhile comrades in their rush towards their target. But even a Space Marine could not stem the tide infinitely. Sheer numbers dictated that sooner or later one of the xenos would slip past his guard, and soon enough Nathaniel found himself backhanding a hybrid with his bolter.
The harm was done, however, and the swarming xenos broke through. Nathaniel activated his chainsword, and fell upon the xenos like an angel of fury. He slashed and hacked tirelessly, but the hybrids kept on coming. Even one like he could not hope to fight them all. Not without his brothers, but they needed to live and fight another day.
The tide surged over him, toppling him, and clawed hands tore off his helmet.
Nathaniel smelled blood and saw teeth, sharp and glinting. Desperately, he slammed his head into the hybrid’s, but as it crumpled over him, another appeared. He spat, a final measure of defiance, and saw its cheek melt as the acid bubbled over the wound. It screeched, as another pushed it away.
Then, there were claws, and pain, and darkness.