Death through Duty
Holtz looked down at his pocket-chrono, an antique brass device passed down through his family for over two centuries. He flipped open the lid and took a moment to marvel at the ingenuity of the device; surely it was a marvel that something so complex could be contained within such a small casing?
“Half an hour more lads,” he called out to his squad, “Then we can go back topside and Varren’s mob can take over.” His men acknowledged stoically taking neither cheer in the concept of being relieved soon, nor dismay that their shift had yet to finish. Holtz slipped the chrono back into his pocket and stepped up to inspect a buttress that his squad had just installed in the shaft. Nearby, the Hades breaching pod began to slow, drawing the Watchmaster’s attention. The Hades drew to a halt and began to power down, shutting off completely rather than going into idle.
Frowning, Holtz went over to the control panel at the rear of the machine and checked the status display. Muttering a catechism of activation, he began the start up sequence, and then turned to his squad.
“Private,” he said, beckoning over one of his men, “Return to the forward command post and tell Lieutenant Jarl that we’ve reached Combat Range. We’re proceeding with caution and awaiting the order to attack. The rest of you,” he ordered, turning to the remainder of the squad, “Gear up. In lieu of the circumstances, Varren’s boys should be relieving us early, but I don’t want to take any chances. From now on we’re treating the situation as if we were already in battle.” Saluting him to show their comprehension, they set about donning their carapace armour and combat webbing that had been stowed on a flatbed cart.
“Masks on,” commanded Holtz when they were all kitted up. The Hades had now trundled on several yards and Holtz was about to instruct his squad to lay another buttress when without warning the tunnel floor gave way and the breaching pod collapsed into a hole. Snatching up his shotgun, the Watchmaster ran over to the hole and looked down. Below, the Hades was bucking and lurching as its tracks tried to grind down the spoil beneath it and right itself. Holtz swore and turned to his squad.
“Contact!” he cried and immediately they all snapped to attention, bringing their weapons to bear. “Jurg, get back up to the command post and apprise them of the situation. Inform them that we’re heading into the enemy tunnel to do a reccy and that we require reinforcements ASAP.” As if to punctuate his point, a burst of autogun fire lanced out of the hole, peppering the tunnel roof. Holtz stepped back from the hole and drew out a grenade. “Masks on!” he ordered and Jurg sped away to deliver the message. Not waiting for his men to reply, because he knew that all of them would comply without hesitation, Holtz primed the grenade and lobbed it down into the enemy tunnel. Quickly, he fastened his own gas mask and counted down mentally as two of his other men lobbed their own gas grenades at the foe.
The soft hiss of the grenades shedding its contents was muffled by the mask and his helmet, but the screams of the enemy as they choked on the poisoned gas was unmistakable. He gave it ten more seconds for the gas to take effect before signalling the attack. Holtz leaped down into the hole, the gas cloud screening him from view and thumps around him told him that his squad were doing likewise. Raising his shotgun, the Watchman advanced forwards cautiously. A large shape loomed in front of him and a step later it resolved into the blocky form of the Hades which during the opening of the combat had had time to right itself and had began to head down the tunnel towards the enemy. Over the roar of the drills he could discern the sound of bullets pinging off the front. He winced, praying to the God-Emperor and the Omnisiah that the blades wouldn’t be damaged – there’d be Warp to pay if they were.
Crouching behind the pod, he activated the status screen, and selected a manual override, giving him control of the melta-cutters hidden in the nose of the machine. The targeting screen flickered to life, displaying a grainy image obscured by the gas filling the tunnel. A shadow loomed in the fog and Holtz hit the firing rune. Bright white light lanced out, filling the enclosed space like a starburst and screams told him that the blast had vaporized several of the assailants. His squad mates took up position on either flank of the Hades and advanced in time with it.
The gas had begun to dissipate and it became clear that the enemy had retreated further up the tunnel. When they’d advanced hundred yards beyond where the two tunnels met, Holtz called for a halt and switched the Hades over into idle mode. They waited patiently, but no more enemies came. Presently they were joined by a second team of Engineers and a half squad of Grenadiers who were accompanied by Cele, the regiment’s newest Commissar.
“Status report?” asked Cele, fixing Holtz with his steely gaze.
“All quiet sir,” replied Holtz, signalling for Jurg, who had returned with the Commissar and other squads, to take over his place at the Hades’ control panel. “The enemy retreated swiftly after our initial assault and there have been no further signs from them. My estimate would be that they were just worker rabble and not line troops.”
Cele nodded. “Sergeant Varren,” he ordered. Holtz cringed slightly at the misuse of rank designation, but remained silent – the Commissar was young and there was plenty of time for him to learn the intricacies of Krieg hierarchy. “You and your squad take point. Holtz, designate five men to remain here and guard the Hades, then take up the rear. Sergeant Gruber, you and your Grenadiers, are with me.”
Disciplined and orderly, the guardsmen moved out, advancing cautiously up the passage. The tunnel cut straight, not winding once, only deviating as much as could be accounted for by human error, and it was completely deserted, discarded mining equipment and the odd over turned cart or mound of spoil the only indications of recent activity. The advance continued unimpeded. After a while, Cele fell back to converse with Holtz.
“Assessment Sergeant?” he asked.
“Sir?” replied Holtz.
“What do you make of our uninterrupted progress?”
“I don’t like it sir,” sighed Holtz, shaking his head, “I suppose that this could have been an abandoned project and the men we encountered were a rouge or forgotten team, but that’s just too good to be true.”
“Agreed,” nodded the Commissar, “Still, why would we be allowed to advance this far unchallenged.”
Holtz shrugged. “I don’t know how the mind of a heretic works sir. Who knows why they do anything?”
Cele smiled and nodded. “Still, what is your recommended course of action?”
Holtz mulled over the question for a few seconds then replied, “I say we continue to advance. If we turn back now, we’ll have achieved nothing. If we continue, then we may be able to get behind the enemy lines and take out something vital.”
“My thoughts exactly,” agreed Cele.
“Sir!” came a cry from up ahead.
“What now?” muttered Cele advancing to see what was going on and beckoning Holtz to follow him. Up ahead, the vanguard had paused and some of the troopers were looking up. A vertical shaft was thrust up through the roof, its other end concealed in shadows. Holtz drew a data slate from his pocket and punched in some data.
“I estimate that we’re under the enemy’s forward command post,” he said, reviewing the slate.
“What possible use could they have for a shaft in their basement?” asked Cele bemused.
“Sir,” grunted Varren, “This may explain.” He shone his luminator further up the tunnel revealing partially laid rail tracks.
Cele stared at them in confusion. “Excuse my inexperience,” he said, “But what exactly is the relevance of them installing public transportation?”
“Transporting explosives,” replied Holtz, “The tunnel leads towards our forward command post. If they’d reached it, they could have used the rails to easily transport enough explosives to demolish it.”
“Then you think that this shaft leads to their main armoury?” asked Cele, looking up into the darkness.
“Aye,” nodded Gruber. “If we can get up there and plant charges, we could throw them into disarray.”
“Then that’s what we’re going to do,” stated Cele.
“Sir?” questioned Varren.
“It’s too good an opportunity to pass up,” explained Cele, “Besides, it’s too risky leaving the tunnel open and collapsing it is no guarantee that we’ll have stopped them. We’d have to divert extra troops to make sure the tunnel is secure and we can’t afford to draw them off the front lines.”
“Then how do you propose we get up there?” asked Gruber.
“The same way the miners did,” suggested Holtz, pointing to a rust ring ladder set into the wall in one corner of the shaft.
“Surely that’ll be suicide?” sneered Varren. “The workers will have fled up there and there’ll be security teams waiting in ambush. We’d get cut down as soon as we reached the top.”
“Not necessarily,” replied Holtz thoughtfully. “We could use gas grenades. If the first one up the ladder takes a bunch in a satchel, he can pause before the top of the ladder and prime them then toss the satchel over the lip. The grenades should scatter and conceal us as we go over.”
“Worth a shot,” smiled Cele, “Looks like you’ve just volunteered to be the first man Sergeant Holtz.”
“Sir,” saluted Holtz grimly.
A few minutes later, balanced precariously on the top of the rusty ladder, Holtz began to wonder if his plan had been a mistake. The ladder felt like it could barely take his weight and it was awkward to hold onto and prime the grenades at the same time. Gritting his teeth, he somehow managed to do it and paused for a second to gather himself. There was a soft hiss as the first grenade activated and with a prayer to the God-Emperor, he swung the bag up and over the lip of the shaft, arcing it so that the grenades would scatter.
From up above came the shouts of several people as the defence teams that were waiting in ambush were surprised by the sudden appearance of the grenades. As gas began to billow down into the shaft, Holtz could hear the distinct sound of weapons fire as the Chaos scum unloaded into the fog in the vein hope of taking down the invaders they expected to follow the grenades. From the screams it sounded like this would work in the guardsmen’s favour.
Presently the cacophony of battle died down, and Holtz decided he couldn’t stall any longer. Taking a deep breath, he clambered up the last rungs and up onto the deck of the room above. All around him, wreathed in settling gas lay the corpses of the warriors charged with defending the shaft. Miraculously, they were dead to a man. As he waited for the rest of the strike team to climb up, he surveyed the chamber he’d found himself in.
The walls were bare rockcrete and the floor was covered in heavy metal sheeting. Over the shaft hung the half built skeletal form of a winch, and set into one wall was a set of heavy iron blast doors. When everyone had climbed the shaft, they advanced on the blast doors cautiously.
“Any idea how to open them?” asked Cele.
“Melta bomb?” shrugged Varren.
“Nay,” replied Gruber, shaking his head, “Those blast doors are probably designed to contain warhead detonations. A melta bomb won’t even chip the paintwork.”
“Then wha-” began Cele but paused. As they approached the blast doors they noticed that the doors had begun to grin open.
“Throne-on-Terra!” swore the Commissar. “Quick, find cover!”
“What cover?” asked Holtz, hefting his shotgun and preparing to meet whatever came through the doors. All around, the troops did likewise. A collective sigh was let out when the doors ground open to reveal no one waiting to come through.
“Techno-sorcery,” snarled Gruber, “The doors must be automated.” Disconcerted, they advanced on. Beyond the doors lay the munitions storehouse. Firelight bathed the chamber through acrid smoke; machinery and ammo racks casting hellish shadows on the walls. Slaves scurried around under the watchful eye of whip-wielding enforcers and heretical tech-priests ran hither and thither blessing and re-blessing the machinery. The clamour and din of the daily workings of the storehouse covered the grinding of the door opening, and the men of Krieg did not hesitate to take advantage of this.
The Grenadiers rushed forwards and took up position behind an abandoned cart that was planned for transferring explosives to the shaft room they’d just left, while the Engineers split into fire teams and spread out onto the flanks. Holtz’s team scurried over to the right and took up position behind a stack of crates daubed in vile runes that the guardsmen dared not look at for too long. A door in the far wall opened and a line of carts clattered down it; while a loaded set abruptly shot off, up to the artillery berths or to resupply the trenches. Holtz watched patiently, looking for any weaknesses to exploit.
He watched as a large shell was winched up and swung out towards the carts. Halfway across the room, some of the chains gave, and the shell jerked downwards, the few remaining chains preventing it from falling to the ground. All around the chamber, the heretics came to a standstill, holding their breaths and staring up at the precariously balanced explosive. Without waiting, and without thought for his own safety, Cele broke cover and snapped off a few shots from his boltpistol. The remaining chains snapped, torn apart by the exploding bolts, and the shell fell.
Slaves screamed, scurrying for cover, and tech-priests wailed out of fear for the damage that could be wrought on the equipment around the room if the shell detonated. Following the Commissar’s lead, the Grenadiers popped out of cover and unleashed a hail of las-bolts into the heretics, forcing them away from the Imperials’ positions. The shell struck the side of one of the carts and rebounded into the floor, but didn’t detonate.
Holtz cursed the impetuosity of the young Commissar – surely he had thrown their advantage away by acting so rashly? Holtz stood up, and came face to face with one of the fleeing tech-priests and without hesitating, whipping up his shotgun, rammed it into the confused once-man’s face and pulled the trigger. Metal scraps and brain matter spewed out and the heretic’s body crumpled into a heap. Holtz’s men leapt up, their own weapons at the ready.
The Grenadiers continued to pour fire into the panicking heretics, and stray bolts frequently struck the loads that they’d been carrying, some discarded, some still clutched in mutated hands, claws and other appendages. Gouts of flame erupted as these explosives were detonated, driving the slaves into further hysteria. Only the enforcers showed any signs of calm, hurrying to the nearest piece of cover and trying to regroup, taking the odd pot-shot with their miscellaneous sidearms, but they were no match for the methodical and experienced attacks of the Grenadiers.
Holtz and his Engineers advanced, their shotguns reaping the frantic heretics like wheat before a thresher and containing them in the fire lanes of the Grenadiers.
More munitions began to explode, and now the detonations of some were tossing the others across the room into the stacks that had so far escaped the growing conflagration and setting them off too. Screeching and weeping the remaining heretics rushed the carts, the first ones there calling out the litany of activation and setting them in motion, forcing the slower and more distant ones to run to keep up and try to board while the carts were still in motion. Predictably, many slipped and fell, getting crushed under wheel.
“Throne!” snarled Cele, switching his target to the escaping carts, “We can’t let them escape.” Spying his chance, one of the last remaining enforcers leapt from cover, his stub pistol barking as he emptied the clip into the Commissar. Cele cried in pain, a lucky shot penetrating his carapace armour in the right shoulder and dropping him to the floor. The Grenadiers scythed down the enforcer with one volley in retaliation for his actions, but a large explosion behind them drew their attention away from rescuing their downed comrade.
Seeing this, Holtz cursed under his breath and rushed forwards, his squad at his heels. The explosions were growing more intense now, and a blizzard of shrapnel and debris whipped around the chamber in the scorching air. Reaching Cele, Holtz crouched down beside him and reached down to check his pulse. He was pale and his breathing was heavy, but he still lived, and had yet to surrender to unconsciousness.
“Holtz,” he gasped, blood flecking his lips, “You must follow that cart – this could be our only chance to strike into the enemy’s HQ.” Holtz remained silent, dragging the Commissar into cover; the Engineer’s forming up around him. A titanic explosion ripped through the storehouse, causing a large chunk of the roof to cave in, crushing three of the Grenadiers, including Gruber. Grimly, Holtz took stock of the situation.
Of the twenty one men who had entered the chamber only seven remained, one of which was severely wounded; of Varren and his men, there was no sign. All around the chamber was coming down and only two routes of escape presented themselves to the Imperials – back into the shaft room, or up the tunnel and further into the enemy base. Knowing that the Commissar was right, Holtz sighed.
“With me,” he instructed the remaining Grenadiers and Engineers. “You, carry the Commissar.”
“Sir?” questioned one of the Engineers, “What do you intend to do?”
“We’re advancing,” stated Holtz firmly.
“But that’s suicide!” protested the Engineer, “This whole place is coming down – if we don’t fall back to the tunnel, we’re done for!”
“Coward,” spat Holtz, “We are of the Death Korps of Krieg! We live only to serve the God-Emperor. We live for nought but Death in Duty!” With that, Holtz spun on his heel and marched towards the tunnel. Spurred on by his rhetoric, less than stunning though it was, they all followed.
“Duty in Death!” cried Holtz, as the tunnel swallowed him up, “Death through Duty!”
“Duty in Death!” echoed the Men of Krieg as they two were swallowed, “Death through Duty!”