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The Drop

The ship’s engines hummed quietly as the troop transport prepared to launch towards the planet below. Twenty Imperial guardsmen faced each other from opposite sides of the craft, wearing carapace armor with the Iconian third brigade’s black eagle on it. Each had his mask locked securely in place, both to keep the toxic fumes on the surface of the planet out, and to keep in contact with each other in the fight ahead.

First Lieutenant Damien Saul made his rounds of the cabin one last time to make sure all was ready, and then strapped himself in. They had all done this several times before, but the Lieutenant knew that any failure on his part could result in death for everyone on the mission. When he had made eye contact with each guardsman in turn and received a wordless signal that they were ready, Saul checked his own gear once more before giving the all-clear signal to the pilot.

The transport revved its engines to max and, with a gut wrenching lurch, launched itself out of the shuttle bay. There were a few minutes of smooth coasting, then violent shudders rocked the cabin of the transport as its hull hit the atmosphere. Trooper Esau, apparently having not listened to the warnings about not eating before a drop, started moaning into his comm bead about cramps. His team leader, Sergeant Jacobs, told him to can it.

No matter how long or short a drop was, it always seemed like an eternity to Saul. He had seen more combat in his years in the Black Eagles than he could have ever dreamed of, but the battles themselves were never overly difficult to bear. It didn’t take much to shoot at an enemy, make sure he fell, then find the next one. It was always the anticipation of battle, the waiting beforehand, that got to him.

During combat, there was never enough time to be afraid, or to contemplate one's life passing before their eyes. During the long minutes between launching from the relative safety of a ship and the landing on a planet known to be thronging with enemy hordes; that was when the worries started to creep in. Had he served his Emperor well enough? Was there something he had forgotten that may get himself or the soldiers with him killed? Why had he been chosen as leader for this mission and not someone more qualified?

These questions and more ran through his mind once more, each within moments of the next. Fear and doubt riddled him, gnawing away at his resolve. Then, less than fifteen minutes from the time they departed the ship, they hit the ground and the hatch opened. He unlatched his restraints and sped out of the transport, fear and doubt erased from his mind as the mission crowded out all else.

It took only seconds for all twenty of the troopers to exit the craft, each team taking a sector to scan for enemies. All they saw was a city in ruins. Buildings that once had blocked out the sun now lay toppled in the streets, blocking all passage along many paths. No building stood more than two stories high, in what was once a sprawling cityscape. In some places, the ruble reached three or four times as high as the remaining structures. As soon as it was empty, and the ramp was closed, the craft took off for the skies.

Saul turned to Corporal Nehemiah, who already had his auspex out and was scanning the area; the bleeps and pulses from the gadget a steady thrum. The corporal shook his head to indicate no life signs nearby. A signal from the lieutenant sent the squads moving by teams towards their objective.

Silence wasn’t required on this mission, but none of the soldiers spoke along the way. They could not shake the feeling that this entire city was more of a cemetery than a combat zone. They marched slowly on, weapons at the ready, ears peaked for the slightest indication that there was someone - or something - else out there.

“Sir! I’ve got inbounds!” said corporal Nehemiah loudly, just over three hundred meters from where they touched down.

“How many?” asked the officer apprehensively.

“Too many, sir,” replied the corporal. “It looks like one frakking body on the screen. They’re coming right at us!”

As the enemy’s front line crested the mound of rubble on the column’s right, the lieutenant saw at last what they were up against. Several dozen six-legged abominations skittered over one of the piles of rubble so close together that it seemed like a carpet had come to life and was moving towards them. That is, if carpets were three feet high and had sharp fangs with gobs of saliva dripping off of them. Individuals were hard to make out of the throng, but several elongated heads poked up occasionally, with a row of plate-like protrusions running along the top and down the back of each. Saul noted the lack of shots coming from the enemy and determined these were probably hormagaunts, one of the smaller breeds of tyranids that attacked with claws and teeth, up close and personal.

Hastily aimed shots from lasguns streaked towards the oncoming horde of creatures, and the staccato chatter of an autogun rang out from the line. The throatier sound of a heavy bolter soon followed, as the first team dropped the barrel on a nearby outcropping of rubble to fire. There was no time for orders to be given or followed, but that didn’t stop the lieutenant from hollering at his men anyhow.

“Take them out, men! The God-Emperor take your souls to the warp! Shoot those overgrown grox fleas!” Saul yelled while firing his laspistol repeatedly.

The creatures died easily, but they showed no fear in bounding to their deaths. As more of the creatures died, the guardsmen began forming a line facing the charge. This was a mistake. Not thirty seconds after the initial attack, more of the things charged down the road, from the direction the guardsmen had been headed, and hit them in the side. The first two troopers on that end were overrun before anyone could turn and face that way.

“Fall back! We can’t hold them in the street! Get to the building!” shouted one of the team leaders over the roar of gunfire and squeals of the xenos. He fell back towards a relatively secure looking building, across the street from where the first wave had come.

A second heavy bolter had set up just inside the entrance and was firing from a hole in the wall. Others began using the covering fire it provided to move in and find better protection. The third and final heavy bolter set up in a window near the corner of the building, allowing it to cover several avenues of approach at once. With these two spitting streams of explosive shells at the onrushing enemy, the rest of the guardsmen and the first heavy bolter team were able to make it into the building.

Over the next several minutes, the first wave exhausted itself in a vain attempt to make it across the broad street; the last of the foul alien horde dying less than a meter from the doorway. The second wave lasted longer. The guardsmen on the north corner, the corner closest to the direction of their attack, used the last rounds of their power cells and had to fight with bayonets and rifle butts. Three more of the guard went down before the second wave was killed. It took nearly ten minutes of furious combat to kill all of them, but the elite guardsmen were efficient killers. Saul estimated that nearly two hundred dead bodies lay on the ground in and around the makeshift bunker, and not one of the beasts had turned to run.

That meant more would be coming. Good.

“Hold here, men,” he called out. “We’ll wait out the next wave here, then try to press on.”

With the fifteen surviving guardsmen holed up inside the remains of the building, all that was left for them to do was kill everything that moved and wait. Saul moved quickly from one trooper to the next trying to bolster their morale and checking on ammunition status. Their squad leaders could have done this, they probably already had, but he had to do something to show he was there for them all the way. The Iconian Third had never needed Commissars to keep them fighting; they took care of their own.

Corporal Nehemiah was still keeping an eye on the auspex, and waved to get the Saul’s attention.

“Sir. Looks like we’ve got more company,” he said in a matter of fact tone. “I think there’s at least one big sucker in this group. He’s following a smaller wave.”

Saul slapped a fresh power clip into his laspistol and checked his chainsword for any chunks of ‘gaunt that might gum up the works. Seeing none, he moved towards the direction the attack would be coming from while speaking loud enough for all of the guardsmen in the building to hear him.

“Alright boys, it’s time to raise the body count. I could tell you a lot of things that you don’t give a rat’s hindquarters about to try to get you to fight harder. I could bring up your dear sweet mothers, or the Emperor’s glory, or the pride of the Guard, or how much it means to Uncle Samnite that you signed up. I could, but I won’t. I won’t insult your intelligence. Just remember your training and why we are here. If you make it out alive, that just means you’ll get to go fight somewhere else. If you die, then you’ll get to see what peace is really like in the Emperor’s presence. Save a spot for me beside Him, but don’t hold your breath till I get there. Now… Let’s lock and load!”

It was a speech he used often, but it was effective. With the last sentence, he turned to face outward and triggered the activation stud on his chainsword. The attack came as if on cue. Some of the guardsmen thought, not for the first time, how uncanny the LT’s timing was, but then they pushed the thought from their minds and began shooting at this next wave for all they were worth.

This attack consisted mostly of termagants. Cousins to the ’gaunts they had just fought, but these had a bio-weapon growing out of their middle appendages, one that spat high-speed, short-lived insects that tried to eat through flesh before dying. Fire erupted from both sides of the street as the ‘gants charged in. Whatever genetics gave them the ability to shoot didn’t give them the ability to survive las rounds, and they began dying in droves.

All three heavy bolters were firing full bore, cutting swathes in the oncoming bugs like scythes cutting wheat, the lasrifles and lone autogun firing in an attempt to clean up any survivors before they made it in close. Over fifty of the ‘gants went down in less than a minute. Then the big one reared its ugly head over the growing pile of bodies.

Dark purple carapace plates covered its head, back, and shoulders. Four “arms” as large around as Saul’s waist ended with different weapons. Two were claws that looked large enough to wrap around a barrel of prometheum, one ended in a whip-like tentacle, and the last appeared to have grown a sword straight out of the wrist. Standing at well over four meters tall, it stepped over the pile of bodies with ease.

It was not the largest tyranid warrior Saul had seen, but it was large enough to be terrifying. It leaned forward and flexed its arms, roaring a challenge at the humans. One of the heavy bolter gunners responded by opening fire straight at the thing’s head. Rounds ricocheted off of its crest, small explosions leaving gouges in the bone-like plates. The beast turned and charged straight for the crew of the weapon. The smaller ‘gants were still coming, and the other heavy bolters could not be spared to help. Saul knew that if he didn’t do something, the crew would die within heartbeats.

He holstered his pistol and grabbed a grenade from his belt, then ran out the front door, heading at an angle towards the warrior. A foolhardy move at first glance, but Saul needed to get close enough for this to work. He thumbed the switch on the frag grenade and leaped.

Instead of landing on the things back, as he had hoped, the tyranid turned at the last instant to swipe at him with a back-handed blow from the whip-arm. Saul was thrown back first into the wall of the building, but was saved from serious harm by his carapace armor. Bruised and winded, he pulled himself up slowly and looked around for the grenade, which he had dropped when he had been hit.

Before he could find it, the device went off behind the warrior. Its detonation made the warrior pause long enough for the heavy bolter to get a few shots into its torso. The high explosive shells of the bolter pierced the exoskeleton of its chest and burst inside of it. The warrior let loose an earsplitting cry of rage and pain, and then fell to one knee. The heavy bolter team kept shooting and the thing keeled over, dead. It then turned its attention to the few remaining ‘gants.

“Alright,” Saul called out when the last had been killed. “I want status reports from all teams: wounded, ammo, and sensitive items. We’re not out of the woods yet.” A short wait, then the squad leaders came over to where he was standing.

“Sir, first squad, four men down, plus one wounded but ready to keep going. Heavy bolter is down to half on ammo and everyone else has three clips left,” reported Sergeant Vasquez as he walked up to the Lieutenant. He was an efficient leader, but unimaginative.

“Sir, second squad,” Sergeant Jacobs arrived next. “Sergeant Jacobs reporting for Sergeant Levi, the squad is gone, Sir. We’ve lost six total, including the Sergeant and corporal Nehemiah, plus two wounded. I don’t think either of them can keep up. If we cross-load their ammo, that will bring first squad up to four clips, and all three bolters will have sixty percent ammo. Auspex is with Josiah.”

Saul paused in thought. “Why don’t you think they’ll be able to keep up?” he asked.

“Sir, trooper Elijah has lost both legs, and trooper Esau has a bug chewing through his chest. Jones thinks he can get it out, but he won’t be running any time soon. Not with the damage to his lungs.” Sergeant Jacobs knew his stuff. Saul considered making his promotion to squad leader permanent once they got back and received new recruits for him to lead.

“Very well,” responded the Lieutenant. He considered his options for a moment before continuing in a soft, but firm, voice. “Carry Esau between the remaining troops. Two to a man so we aren’t slowed down that much. As for Elijah, you know we will have to leave him behind. No arguments. I hate the thought of it too, but there’s nothing we can do about it. If he’s conscious, give him one of the heavy bolters. We don’t have the manpower to carry it or the autogun anyway. We’ll try to pick him up on the way back. The Emperor protects.”

Sergeant Jacobs bit back an angry reply, realizing the truth of what Saul had just said, but also knowing that there was no chance of Elijah surviving until they came back. He saluted smartly, his jaw locked tight, pain flashing in his eyes, then stalked off to say goodbye to his comrade. Saul watched him go for a moment before turning back to Sergeant Vasquez.

“Keep an eye on him. I think he’ll come through alright, but he’ll need help.” Saul said quietly.

“Whatever it takes, Sir. Black Eagles.” replied Vasquez, who also saluted and turned back to his men.

The remaining troops from first and second squad consolidated into one unit and the two squads continued on. Having to carry the two heavy bolters with ammo, and trooper Esau, meant the squad had to move in pairs. Saul and Sergeant Vasquez, who were the only two not encumbered, acted as point and rear guard. They did not have far to go, however, and soon arrived at their objective without further incident.

They were standing at an intersection that had been blocked off on two sides by fallen buildings. The way forward was partially blocked by chunks of plasticrete and overturned ground cars. On the northwest corner there was a building that had been destroyed above the ground floor, but the façade had remained intact as high as six stories. The letters “…tmento Munit…” could be made out above the grand entrance.

“This is it: The Departmento Munitorum building for the system. Let’s get in, get what we came for, and get out.” Saul said.

Before any of them could move towards the building, however, trooper Josiah called out a warning. As he was one of the ones carrying a heavy bolter, he immediately dropped the cumbersome weapon and its tripod to begin setting up, rather than bring his findings over to the Lieutenant.

“What is it?” Saul asked, moving to the trooper.

“Sir, I had it set to max range,” said the trooper, as he continued to set up and load his weapon. Josiah couldn’t keep himself from glancing repeatedly at the auspex with a scared look on his face. “We’re in for a biiig wave of those things. Less than one klick out.”

“How big is big?” asked Saul, doing a passable job of keeping the fear out of his voice.

“I can’t say for sure, sir. This thing doesn’t count higher than a couple of thousand.” Josiah had set up his weapon behind a low wall, and was now aiming it out over the lip, in the direction the attack would come from. The beeping of the auspex was a slightly higher pitch, indicating xenos bodies approaching. The rest of the squad had moved into the cover of nearby buildings, and were also setting up their weapons.

“Don’t be a hero, Trooper. If it’s that big, we won’t last five minutes, so it’s useless to take a stand here. Get that gun back up and let’s move out. I don’t want to be out in the open when that wave hits the intersection.” Saul emphasized his words by grabbing the top of the weapon and pulling it off of its tripod, handing it roughly back to the startled trooper.

“That goes for all of you,” said Saul, looking around at the squad. “Get back into cover and set up in the shadows. Get everyone together in one location with at least three walls between us and them, but keep your lanes of fire clear.”

The squad was confused by the orders, but followed out of discipline and faith in the lieutenant. They moved deeper into the Munitorum building, what was left of it, and hid behind large piles of rubble from the floors above. They made to set up the heavy bolters, but a wave from Sergeant Jacobs made them freeze. He was the closest to the doorway, and had a clear line of sight back out to the road. The wave had arrived, and was flowing past the outer door at a high rate of speed.

None of the guardsmen dared move a muscle until the wave passed. They scarcely dared to breathe. Screams from the passing throng sent shivers racing from Saul's scalp all the way down his spine, to end up somewhere around his toes. They stood or lay where they were for nearly ten minutes, waiting and praying for the horde to pass. The horde was moving in the direction of the landing site, and looked to be passing them by, until one stopped.

A passing genestealer paused in its advance and turned its head directly toward Sergeant Jacobs. It let loose an evil hiss and turned into the building. More stealers halted their advance and followed in its wake. Cautiously, the stealer made its way through the rubble in the entryway. Esau, who was delirious from the pain medication he had been given, saw the genestealer and screamed in terror, trying to claw his way up the arm of the trooper next to him.

“Emperor d—n it!” cursed Saul, who then began to open fire with his las pistol. A lucky shot took down the lead stealer by striking it in the eye and frying its brain. The noise brought more unwanted attention from outside, and the genestealers who were already inside were joined by several more. All of the guardsmen began to fire, not daring to hope they would survive, just trying to take as many with them as they could.

Saul glanced around quickly at the nine men still under his command and made a decision. The mission could not be accomplished with the few men he had, and he did not have time to inform higher. His orders had been to get into the basement of the Munitorum building and retrieve both the Planetary Governor, if he was still alive, and the master cogitator for the system to preserve Munitorum records. He had made the decision to bring Esau, and it was his failure that would lead to the failure of the mission, and their deaths.

So be it, he would make every death be paid for in xenos blood.

“Death to the enemies of the Emperor!” he roared, running forward to meet the beasts.

His chain sword whirred to life once more as the genestealers closed in on their makeshift firebase. He began slashing away at the nearest stealer, and soon lost track of time in the ebb and flow of the battle. Only one of the two heavy bolters had been set up in time, so the press of xenos bodies easily overcame the lasfire thrown at it. They fought hand to hand for a few fierce minutes before pushing the wave back just long enough to get the second heavy bolter set up and firing.

Saul had to admit that the Tyranid’s wave tactic was overwhelmingly effective on open ground. No sooner had one wave gone down beneath a hail of fire, than the next wave was already scrambling over the bodies of the fallen. It was less effective, however, when determined guardsmen were holding a small area with limited access.

With only nine soldiers, he managed to hold off no less than seven waves of between fifteen and seventy attackers each before some of the larger species came to the fore in the battle. Sergeant Vasquez had fallen beneath one of the waves as a dozen gants grabbed him bodily and tore him limb from limb in their eagerness to absorb his biomass. Esau had done his best to get out of the kill zone, but had succumbed at last to blood loss whilst firing his lasrifle at anything that hissed or growled, sometime during the third wave. One of the heavy bolters ran dry and its gunner was killed shortly thereafter.

When the first of the warriors strode into the building, pushing aside larger chunks of debris and the bodies of its smaller kin trying to get at the guardsmen, there were only three troopers plus Sergeant Jacobs and Lieutenant Saul left. The warrior roared a challenge at the humans, much as the one before had. Saul did not even wait for the remaining heavy bolter to open fire. He hefted a frag grenade, thumbed the activation switch, and threw it straight into the gaping maw of the beast. It exploded on impact, taking half of the things head with it. The body fell to the stone floor, filling part of the gap it had made in the wall of corpses.

The last heavy bolter ran dry soon after the warrior fell, and Josiah was also killed. A gaunt used its powerful hind legs to launch itself over the pile of bodies surrounding the gun and onto the guardsman’s back where he lay. Its scythe arms sliced downwards and across, bisecting the guardsman in a spray of blood that sent droplets to the far walls of the room.

Saul saw this and rushed forward, a cry of revulsion on his lips. He chopped the thing’s head off in one gore splattering swipe, then turned towards the next attacker. Saul was beginning to tire, and he knew he could not keep it up for much longer. He paused in his killing to look around at the last two standing besides himself. Sergeant Jacobs was fighting like a man possessed. He had removed his bayonet from his rifle, and was firing the rifle from the hip with one hand, while stabbing and slicing with the dagger in the other. Numerous bodies and body parts lay at the soldier’s feet.

Trooper Solomon, a quiet soldier that Saul never seemed to notice much, had dropped his rifle and was fighting on with two bayonets. Of medium build and undistinguished features, it was a mystery to Saul how he had survived this long. If he was not sure that they were going to die, Saul would have considered recommending the trooper for a promotion. Instead, he cleared such thoughts from his mind and turned back to the fight at hand, losing himself in the battle once more.

The veteran officer only lasted a few moments longer. One of the genestealers Saul was trying to fend off thrust an arm out, plunging its claw into his unprotected throat. A warm spurt of crimson gushed out of the freshly opened wound. With a soft gurgle, Damien Saul breathed his last then fell to the floor. As he fell among the bodies of his foe, the incredible form of a hive tyrant stepped into the building and roared deafeningly.

Noticing that the lieutenant had fallen as he turned to look upon this new threat, Trooper Dimitri Solomon reached up to his throat and activated his comm bead.

“Condition Black... Make it rain,” was all he said.

Then, with a calm detachment Interrogator Dimitri Solomon dropped one of his bayonets and pulled an ornate plasma pistol from the small of his back. He fired several expertly aimed shots into the torso of the beast, causing it to roar in pain and anger and turn his way.

“It has been an honor working with you, Interrogator,” said Sergeant Jacobs, who had been part of the Interrogator’s team for over a year now.

“And with you, Sergeant,” replied Solomon, staring straight into the face of the oncoming tyrant. “The Emperor guide you home this day.”

With that, the first flashes of orbital bombardment flared, as the blasts struck the remains of the building. Interrogator, bodyguard, and hive tyrant were incinerated in less than a heartbeat, but the rounds continued to land for several minutes. When the last of the explosions had died away, there was no trace of life within a kilometer of the Munitorum building.

The Inquisitorial strike cruiser, Gift of Hope, turned slowly away from its orbit of the planet and out into the dark recesses of the Imperium.
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