Dassion Way activated the glareshield to dim the cockpit canopy as the bright morning sun rose, threatening to blind him as he flew his lander. It was a small, clunky old Orbital he called Hermia; she barely had enough space in her hold for thirty men, but she was one of the last flyers around these days, something he was very glad of, and so were the others that had been saved by her since the Fall. He squinted as he looked at the auspex reader on the aged control panel and noticed that it continued to blink over multiple moving contacts – it was nothing though, merely the plague twists, who below him moved for cover from the suns rays. Just like every other morning.
It had been another quiet night for him, once more finding no survivors in the city. He switched off his now-redundant spotlights then eased the control stick backwards; immediately the orbital lander ascended away from the confines of the city towers into the light blue morning sky, her engines and machine spirit complaining faintly. As he flew above the remains of Tharius’ towering buildings he felt the tension in his body dissipate – he had been growing so used to the adrenaline pumping in his veins as he worked his way through the maze-like city spires night after night, he hadn’t realised how wound up he was. He aging body wasn’t what is used to be, he mused. Dassion supposed that’s what living here would be like for the foreseeable future: weary, hard and unforgiving. Yet, until he searched everywhere throughout the city, he would not stop. He couldn’t leave anyone else behind, no matter how he felt.
He took one last look at the auspex, which showed nothing but the itchy, slow movements of the dead, and thumbed it to off, sick of it. It was time to go home, he thought, realising how tired he was. With the buzz of danger gone, the heavy weight of fatigue gripped him. His clothes felt dirty with sweat and his limbs ached after hours of being strapped into the cockpit seat. Dassion gripped the control stick and hit the thrusters, feeling the engines of the lander growl as he pushed them onwards. Hermia bucked as he did so, and he could hear the usual groans of complaint from her rusting hull. Even though she had seen better days she still flew true, whatever quirks she had he knew and controlled. She was too much like him, he mused. Older, grumpier and a little cantankerous.
Under the glareshield, the morning sky looked tainted and dull. He felt comforted by the normality of flying through the morning sky until, through the corner of his eye, he saw a bright flash above him. It sparked brilliantly for a second, and then vanished. He turned his head, straining to see what it was. He turned the auspex back on, tuning it to search the sky around, and moments later he found another signal.
Someone had just appeared above the city from orbit. The signal he was getting was strong, and from the looks of it, it was from a large vehicle. Could someone have here his call for help? His old instincts kicked in, however, and he pushed the throttle downward, banking sharply. Hermia complained violently, her machine spirit crying out as she banked so deeply. Dassion hoped he had reacted quickly enough, aiming to drop out of their auspex sights and back into the crowded cityscape below, masking his whereabouts – he knew he was being overly cautious, as this could finally be the rescue force they had been hoping for. But old habits die hard, and he had not grown old in his line of work for nothing. It could be a saviour, but equally it could be something else.
He expertly weaved his bulky lander through the tops of the city, while keeping a keen eye on the new arrival. It descended rapidly toward the now abandoned and fire damaged spaceport, making a navy-like orbital landing. He increased the power to the auspex, the machine spirit hissing through the static, and he saw a grainy pict of the ship.
He knew immediately that it was no navy ship. Maybe it had been before, but not now. Strange looking symbols adorned its hull and weapons bristled out from it wherever seemed possible. There was something ugly about it – as if the usual symmetrical lines of the flyer’s hull were somehow distorted. A bad feeling slipped into his thoughts.
He turned away from the spaceport, and gunned the Hermia towards the distant mountains, and the rest of the survivors.
The hanger bay doors opened, grinding metal on metal as the two of them inched outward like weary, drab, sentinels. Dassion sluggishly walked into the dimly lit building and was immediately met with the barrel of a shotgun to his face.
‘It’s still me, Dar,’ Dassion said. ‘I’m not one of them yet.’
The large bulk of Dar, a down-city ganger, stood at the end of the barrel, his blue mohawk haircut and tattooed face staring impassively back. ‘Yet,’ he answered simply, before taking his weapon away.
Dassion liked Dar, even though the stimm-muscled giant spoke little and exuded a violent air most of the time. Dar understood their predicament; he knew that he would die without the survivors helping each other. A new type of gang for him, Dassion thought. ‘Anyone else up?’
The veteran pilot nodded and moved passed the ganger, leaving him to his guard duty. Ever since the downfall of the city, of the world even, Dassion had hid within the tight confines of an old, disused airstrip – a quiet outpost of the Tharius city limits. His nightly searches for survivors had slowly populated the hanger bay and living quarters. Nine of them lived here now – nine living souls in a planet of terror and death.
Dassion walked past the wall where their reserves of food sat in varying boxes and crates – he had spend days looting the city for every scrap he could, piling Hermia’s hold with random foodstuffs, light-units, clothes, scanners, data-slates, and weapons. Lots of weapons. Amstrung had died helping. Young Amstrung…
The door to the kitchen area opened in front of him, breaking his chain of thought. ‘Dassion, you’re back.’
He found himself looking at Mira. She was already suited out in her battered Arbites armour. Every day she wore her uniform, as if she was holding on desperately to her past, or at least to some form of normality. It was funny, each of the survivors had uniqueness to them – the way they dressed, the way they handled the stress, the way they remembered. ‘Yep, I’m back,’ he said.
‘Something,’ he replied. His voice sounded coarse, brittle even. The lack of sleep and water was really affecting him. ‘I need to speak to you. Who else is awake?’
‘Only Vern and Castus.’ Mira Yarni was only in her twenties, and Dassion always felt sorry for her, thinking of how much of life she would not see. He felt as if he had been lucky, living for sixty years, having a wife, a child, but what would she have? A life battling against hordes of undead mutants? At least he had known what a good life was like. He tried not to think such dark thoughts, without much success.
Mira had short, jet black hair that always had a ruffled, used look, and pale, yet smooth-looking skin. She had a slender physique that hid her strength and her considerable fighting talents. He would be dead several times over if it were not for her timely interventions. She had striking hazel eyes that he was sure used to shine with the bright, youthful expectation of life, but they were now haunted, dull - yet somehow still dutiful. He worried, also, that she was taking on the mantel of protector too much, but she wouldn’t let him bring it up in conversation. He made a mental note to talk to her later about it.
‘They’ll have to do.’ Dassion said. ‘Bring them to me in the hanger, and I want Dar in on this too.’
Mira looked quizzically at the rugged pilot. ‘What’s going on?’
Dassion felt the heavy weight of his long night push down on his shoulders suddenly; he felt so tired. But feeling sorry for himself now, during this… this apocalypse would do no good. ‘Honestly? I don’t know. But something is happening, and I want to find out. Just get the others and I’ll tell you all together.’
Mira looked concerned, but didn’t push further and turned to find the others that were awake.
‘I need something to drink,’ Dassion whispered subconsciously to himself, and continued into the kitchen area, looking for something strong to awaken him. What he was about to propose was not only dangerous, but desperate also.
Carson heard the fiery, booming sound of something thundering into the atmosphere above the city. He turned away from the zombies for the first time since daybreak, and looked to the sky. He saw a thin line of smoke of a flyer that had dropped into the atmosphere above Tharius, and from its bearing he guessed that it was heading for the spaceport.
It felt like years since he had last set foot in the Tharius spaceport. Once a place of work for him, now nothing but a distant memory. Yet, someone seemed to be flying into it. Maybe a relief force had finally reached the city? His previous disappointment at missing the lander during the night vanished momentarily, and a glimmer of hope shined within him. Then he remembered his precarious predicament. There was an ancient terran saying about being trapped between a rock and a hard place, and he laughed to himself as he considered how much it matched his situation.
The noise he made from laughing immediately aggravated the plague zombies deep within the shadows, and they emitted a gritty, hoarse growl, bringing Carson’s reality sharply into focus. His jailors waited tirelessly for his flesh, it seemed.
He stood in the sunlight and he considered what to do next. He was out of ammunition for his gun and had no discernable weapon to hand, and fighting his way out with his fists was suicide – as soon as one of them bit you, you became one of them; there was no way he could fend off those hungry, dead jaws with his hands alone. Jumping to safety was out of the question also, being so high up.
What would my father do? he thought with a sudden bitterness. The Imperial hero, Grigarian Leto, would have found a way out of any situation. Even if the dead had risen to claim the souls of the living.
Carson shook his head, trying to clear his mind. The hangover and adrenaline rush of the fighting earlier still affecting him. An idea struck him suddenly. He edged out over the opening the broken window created, and peered downwards. The wind was still strong, but he was able to steadily hold himself over the ledge. He saw the opposite building, many of its windows were smashed and jagged looking also, and the damage caused to it hid the gothic beauty it once held. All of the hab towers in this area where adorned with ancient architechure and stone gargoyles – portaying creative carvings of Imperial heroes and the mighty Adeptus Astartes.
If there were ledges on the other buildings, surely there would be some on this one?
There was. A few feet below the window a ceremite ledge lipped around the building. It was reachable. He could make it. But then what? What would he do once he stood on a ledge hundreds of metres off the hard ground, with no discernable handholds?
He heard a shambling sound behind him, and he reacted cat-quick, turning from the dizzying drop, amid the crackling of glass under him. Quickly, he realised that his attackers were only moving around the shadows and that he was still in sunlight. His blood was up though, and he forced himself to calm down, to breath easy. He was reacting badly to his predicament – he had been for weeks now – and it was starting to fray on his sanity’s edges. Hours ago he had almost died – again – and his situation had barely improved.
He needed to escape. He needed to live.
Carson sucked in a deep breath of air, and stood. He holstered his gun and looked around for anything useful, finding only the damaged bottles of wine scattered across the bloodstained floor. He ran a hand through his bushy hair absentmindedly, while looking into the shadows. Only death stared back, with a dark glare.
Carson bent over and picked up a bottle. ‘Frak you, and your dead, bloody stare,’ he said, before throwing the wine bottle at the nearest zombie. It broke over the undead being, and it grunted, before continuing its servitor-like vigil.
Carson shook his head, and turned his back from the dead, ready to take a perilous leap of faith to live.
If it worked, he could escape and travel to the spaceport, and be saved. But only if it worked - and his chances were slim at best, considering what he was considering to do – dangle over an almost certain-death drop; walk along a thin ledge; break into a zombie-free hab; find his way out of the plague ridden building, then find a way to the spaceport and, finally, be saved.
How hard could it be?
Carson gripped the frame of the window, his muscles straining as he tried to hold himself up at the same time, while missing the razor-like teeth of glass that edged the broken frame with his hands. Fear rippled through him as he hung over the long drop, a now constant companion. In his minds’ eye, he imagined missing the ledge below he intended to land upon, and falling heavily onto the solid ground below.
Away from the deathly stench of the zombies in the hab, Carson now caught a whiff of the air around him, the slight breeze of morning air making him think – his memory grasping at something new to him for an instant. The air that swept past was so fresh, so new…
All his life Carson had been used to the smells of a vibrant, busy city. He used to taste the chemicals and pollutants in the air. It was part him. But now, after weeks of silence, Tharius seemed to change – the fumes and smog had lessened. It was refreshing somehow. However, the deep smell of dead tainted the same air moments later. It was as if he could taste the God-Emperor’s dream of life momentarily, then it was stripped away with the smell of decomposition. Some, he remembered, embraced that smell in the early stages of outbreak, seeing it as a beneficiation of the Emperor – as if the smell of a corpse resembled His Unliving Soul. They were the first to die. The fanatics. The faithful…
His arms burned, and he was pulled out of his reverie. He had to let go. He forced himself to look downwards, hopefully finding a glimpse of the ledge below. He saw it and without thinking, dropped to the ledge metres below. The impact jarred his legs, his knees buckling in pain, and he gripped the sides of the building with his hands, looking to steady his landing…
It worked, and he held his balance on the ledge. The wind rippled across his body, his clothes billowing in the air as it became suddenly stronger while he held on to the side of the building. A determination took hold of him and he focussed on his balance and grip. Ever so slowly, he moved sideways, imagining the platform holding the gargoyle below. That was the plan – to move towards the gargoyles and climb down over their stone, lifeless effigies. Finally he made it to one, and with total relief, he cuddled a stone replica of an Adeptus Astartes, a Space Marine.
The sun dipped behind a cloud in the sky. Darkness snatched away the light, and dullness covered the city.
A shrill screeching vibrated across everything.
Carson panicked suddenly, thinking one of the zombies from above would nimbly jump from the ledge and attack him from mid-air. Seconds slipped away and nothing happened. He took hold of his senses, ignoring his fears and crept across the statue, looking downwards at the next one – some form of Tech-priest by the looks of it – and considered his next move. Realising that there was not much else to do other than climb down, he gripped hold of an arm and descended further.
He dangled over a cracked window and it exploded outward ferociously with a crash, making him cry out sharply with fright. He immediately caught a glimpse of what turned out to be one of the living dead. It tried desperately to claw at him, craving his flesh, as it crashed out of the hab along with hundreds of shards of glass. He felt it grab hold of his legs with its rotting hands, even as the needle-like pinpricks of glass caught him. One bite and he could turn into one of them, he knew, and so he kicked out violently, his thoughts whipped blind in pure terror at the idea of his life being literally eaten away from him. The heavy weight of the zombie vanished, but in his fearful state, he lost his grip and fell.
Instinct took over and Carson’s mind succumbed to panic and confusion as he watched the building blur before him. His hands fumbled for a handhold, and somehow he caught hold of the tech-priest gargoyles leg, momentum flinging his body roughly into the side of the hab building. Pain flared around him as he held on, trying desperately to steady himself. Moments later, he scrambled up to the thin platform that circumvented the building, and lay across it, catching his breath and sucking up the pain.
He opened his eyes and looked up at the sky, just as the clouds parted and sunlight broke out once more, and he remembered all-of-a-sudden the flyers he had seen a few hours before. Now was not the time to give up or become a frightened foul. He had to focus. He had to remain alive.
Carson controlled his breathing, steadying his nerves, and ignored the throbbing pain in his limbs. He turned his head downwards and looked at the not-too-distant ground, and saw his recent attacker splattered upon the hard ceremite.
That was not him. Not Carson. He had survived again. He hoped it would be something he would continue to be good at until he was able to escape this hellhole, this dead city. He signed deeply, and readied himself for the next step of his downward journey.
The sun cast haunting shadows across the desolate city, and the wind calmed to a whisper.