“…and whose idea was it to use a heavy flamer in the presence of so many volatile chemicals?” Lt. Barksdale, their new fusilier liaison officer, droned.
“Mine,” Rusty answered, annoyed. We saved the motor pool didn’t we? The rest of the squad was silent around him.
“Duly noted, Foreman, consider yourselves fortunate that none of them were lit aflame. You’re all reckless, and it makes you dangerous, do you understand what that means for you?” Rusty just stared back the lieutenant with his unblinking machine eyes. After a moment, the lieutenant lost the challenge.
“Adept Antonius is, however, insistent that you be rewarded for you efforts and sacrifice saving what remained of the motor pool. He as given me the duty of presenting you each with the Cog Et Machina, wear it well, Skaggis,” Barksdale handed each of them a small leather flap inside which lay the polished durasteel of the Adeptus Mechanicus medal.
“Further more, in light of the grievous injuries sustained in the battle, and your, again rather reckless, intervention on behalf of several wounded Scintillans, Father Volkov, Lineman Zhurov, Foreman Rostilav, and Lineman Reed are honored with the Medallion Crimson,” He handed a another set of leather flaps out. The ceremony usually associated with the honoring of medals seemed glaringly absent. Barksdale had handed out many over the last several days. He looked genuinely exhausted to Rusty; posture drooped, eyes sagging and bloodshot, certainly his colour was faded. The man was suffering from advanced fatigue and likely hadn’t had much in the way of rest the entire week.
Good, the medic thought. It meant he was actually reading the reports written by other units, and it also meant he’d be less likely to catch the dozens of things the medic did that skirted the limits of regulation. Very good, Rusty glanced across the faces of the new Delta Squad.
He didn’t much care for the surviving soldiers of the now wiped-out gamma squad. He had liked Foreman Leluhka, fucking bastards, she’d been a damn fine leader of Skaggis, and he certainly had no desire to be yolked with responsibility for this lot. He turned his pictcaster-like vision on Krash. Smug little bastard, if he was capable of glaring, and with his warped face he surely wasn’t, he would be. The glorified voxman’s drug-addled partner was a fucking time bomb, too. Tamarova thought she was so clever, but any indoc-fresh medic should’ve been able to spot the signs of stim dependence.
Bash was solid, between him and Zhurov he probably had the most reliable skaggis in the platoon, certainly the toughest. Anyone else would’ve been dead with half the wounds Reed had sustained in the ork assault, and the man could handle a lascannon. Zhurov was precise, but he was stricken by his sister’s death, even now. That could be dangerous, though not anymore so than Krash’s shit, or the bedamned Father’s.
Volkov was a deeply damaged skaggi, in Rusty’s experience, and it wasn’t just the burns and the cyberhand. He didn’t know the details, and didn’t care to, about the priest’s history, but he knew it involved capture at the hands of Skraff. That kind of shit broke a man inside, no matter how whole he looked coming out of it. No one runs into certain death like the priest had done three times in the last few weeks, no one sane. The Scintillan was still yammering.
“…be assisting the brontians with repa-“
“Understood, Sir,” Rusty interrupted. The lieutenant’s eyes tried to widen with anger, but the fatigue weighed them down. He sat down in his chair, staring hard at Rusty, as if it would have any affect. Rusty had stared into the naked eyes of an eldar Warp Spider, for Emperor’s sake, as his severed right arm twitched on the ground next him, this soft-world junior officer was nothing.
“Dismissed,” the lieutenant said, his anger just a thread in the statement. Rusty didn’t bother saluting, he just left. The squad followed suit. They were in no celebratory mood; most of them.
“They give medal,” Krash said, mostly to himself Rusty thought, as they were walking back to the barracks.
“You mean this one,” Zhurov held the Cog Et Mechanicus up, “This one we all got?”
“But they give me medal,” Krash stressed, still admiring the useless token. Rusty had had enough.
“That’s because they don’t know you, Krasheninnikov,” he growled through his machine mouth.
“They give me medal,” Krash repeated, as if this settled the argument.
“He obviously didn’t read your servlog,” Rusty replied.
“Reed, you skindraw?” Krash’s abbreviated dialect irritated Rusty on the best of days, now it was really getting under what remained of his skin.
“Yah,” the boomer replied.
“You skindraw this?” Krash held the medal up, slapping his shoulder with the other hand to indicate where he wanted his tattoo.
“Sure,” Reed replied, happy to repay the mechanic for fixing-up his lascannon. Krash grinned, crinkling the dark tattoos around his eyes.
Another week and no deployment. They’d repaired the damage to most of the base, at least what they had the supplies to handle. They’d also repaired the damage to themselves. The most surprising development had been the warming of relations with the fusiliers on-base. Apparently, delta’s accomplishments had won them some favor, they’d even been authorized some new equipment. If the last couple of fights had shown them anything, it was that they needed something higher volume than a lascannon to deal with orks.
Reed’s cannon had served them more than well fighting the eldar on Cythera, and the rebels here and there before this place, but he just couldn’t get enough shots off to thin the ork masses. So far, they’d only seen medium armor, so there wasn’t much need for that kind of penetrating power anyway. They’d put-in for an infantry multilaser, and to Rusty’s surprise they’d been granted the request. Krash was busy modifying the grips right now.
Rusty’s eyes finished their autodiagnostic, and he could see again. Reed was doing push-ups with his new partner, alongside Volkov and Tamarova. He assumed there was a competition of some kind, or Oksana wouldn’t have involved herself.
Krash’s bunk erupted in sparks, along with a short yelp. Rusty looked over, Krash wasn’t working on the multilaser after all, it was sitting in its open case on the floor. In his hands, a smoking laspistol was still glowing where he’s ruptured a capacitor cell. That’s,
“_My_ laspistol!” Rusty bellowed. Krash looked up, tossing the ruined weapon into his footlocker and retrieving a fresh one.
“No, this your laspistol,” the mechanic grinned. Rusty stared at him. The push-up competition ended with a chorus of groans and one laughing priest. Zhurov walked over, sheen of sweat covering his bare arms and chest.
“Rusty, thought I should let you know,” the hunter started jogging in place, “They’re giving me the sniper test tomorrow.”
“Okay…” Rusty wasn’t sure why it mattered to him. Zhurov was smiling like an idiot.
“Gotta be sharp, sleep tonight, we’ll be back,” he called over his shoulder to Mitin, putting her shirt back on. The rest of the base was strangely touchy about people wearing shirts, especially females, but males, too. Mitin tossed Zhurov his.
“Scintillans,” Zhurov said dismissively. They left before Rusty could respond.
The next evening, Rusty was watching Krash modify a triplex pattern longlas. Zhurov was busy recounting the sniper’s examination.
“It was like a hunting detail,” he was saying, “You run, you shoot, you run, you shoot. It was easy, the targets didn’t even shoot back!” the squad laughed.
“Demetri,” Rusty called, “You let Krash touch your new weapon?”
“He’s upgrading the stock…” Demetri said, Rusty held-up the ruined laspistol he formerly called his own. He tossed it to Zhurov, who caught it with a horrified expression. The hunter immediately jumped to Krash’s bunk, where the operator was just clicking the barrel back into place.
“Just in time!” Krash’s eye tattoos crinkled. Zhurov held the broken pistol in his hand.
“What if this happened to rifle?” he demanded through a tight jaw.
“It not,” Krash shrugged, again holding up the successfully modified longlas. Zhurov yanked it from his hands like a child from an akyrag’s claws.
“What if this happened to rifle?” he pushed the dead laspistol into Krash’s chest. Krash shrugged, and tossed it back into his footlocker, moderately curious how it had found its way out in the first place. Zhurov turned and marched back to his bunk, stowed the rifle in its case, and lay on top of it crossing his arms and staring alternately at Krash and Rusty.
“What’s his problem?” Tamarova asked, walking up to her bunk from the latrine.
“People worry too much,” he shrugged.
“Boz!” Rusty shouted for his medic’s assistant
“Rusty?” he answered from his bunk across the room.
“Get three doses out of the reserve.”
“Roger, that, where’d it go?” Boz asked, rolling out of his bunk and starting for the latrine, where the extra stim doses were stashed.
“Nowhere, I want extra in the kit,” he replied. No one dared touch Rusty’s carefully organized medicae supplies, the only way it would go missing is if someone outside the platoon stole it, and that would be impossible with the barracks constantly occupied.
“Any particular reason we need extra?” Zhurov asked from his bunk above Rusty’s, he was yet again compulsively cleaning the conduit of his revenge, familiarizing himself with every angle and corner of the complex triplex pattern. There were more than a few eccentricities greatly divergent from the lascarbine he’d used since the age of five.
Demetri was drifting into yet another childhood memory, a painfully frequent occurrence of late, of his grand-uncle berating him for holding the weapon incorrectly. He’d been shorter than the carbine was long at the time, but none the less been expected to carry it at all times. It was one of many reasons skaggis preferred the carbine to a standard pattern lasgun. The shorter, lighter construction allowed even children to handle it effectively. The memory was blown away on tundra wind as the door slammed open. Delta squad jerked as one at the startling noise and motion, the source of which was an out-of-breath scintillan private.
“Skaggis! You’re deploying immediately…landing pad…now!” he shouted.
“Gear and clear!” Rusty bellowed in his voxbox monotone. The squad immediately scrambled into a flurry of activity. They always kept their armor and gear laid out for quick assembly, one of the many lessons learned on Cythera, and it was the matter of a moment before they were fully strapped together and formed-up. They jogged the half mile or so to the airfield, where the pair of Navy valkyries and a vendetta already roared at idle.
Zhurov saw Sgt. Dixon’s stormtrooper squad circled at-ease around Lt. Barksdale near the vendetta. The skaggis jogged to a halt as Barksdale was speaking.
“…Penned in by ork armor. Artillery on a ridgeline is bombarding them from above…”
“Nice of you to join us,” one of the stormtroopers whispered as Barksdale continued. Zhurov held-up a middle finger until the stormtrooper acknowledged it with a superior chuckle.
“…Dixon, you have overall command, Delta squad is going to drop with you from Mjr. Bhatikar’s valkyrie. Mission gear has been loaded onto your aircraft, soldiers. The primary objective is eliminating the artillery threat on the ridge, whatever other assistance you can provide the men on the ground is secondary. Emperor’s Blessing,” the lieutenant finished.
“In His name!” the stormtroopers and skaggis responded, competing for volume. They broke into a run simultaneously, making for their transports. Seconds after they thundered aboard, Mjr. Bhatikar increased power.
”All hands clear!” he shouted through the voxbox above the forward bulkhead. The valkyrie began its unsteady rise into the sky, skaggis holding-on to the ceiling loops in the stripped-down compartment as Rusty opened the supply crates.
“What the…” the first crate contained only a pile of dress uniforms, huge ones fit for ogrin, “typical.” He moved on to the next, instead of what he assumed to be promethium, it was an industrial barrel of concentrated acid solvent.
“Emperor damn it all,” he was about to throw his hands up when he noticed another, smaller box wedged between the crate of uniforms and the bulkhead. He pulled it free. There was a clearly recognizable Inquisitorial seal on the lid.
“What’s that?” Boz asked.
“Let’s find out,” he undid the clasp on the front, and opened the lid; the contents shed a gentle blue glow on the bulkhead behind him. “Whoa…” as the squad gazed expectantly, Rusty gingerly lifted a plasma pistol from the case, an actual paper note was attached to the holy weapon. “You read Father?”
“I do,” Volkov responded, stepping solemnly to the front of the cabin and accepting the note from the foreman. He held it aloft, in both hands as if it were a pronouncement from the Emperor himself. He read aloud in pulpit fashion:
“Delta squad, do not perish, I will have need of you soon,” he let his hands drop, “It is unsigned, though I think we all know from whom this blessing comes. Thank the Emperor for this fortuitous gift on the knell of this holy mission. Truly, we are his chosen this day!” the squad placed a fist on their chests in one-handed Aquila salutes, perfunctory as it was. Volkov rarely had such an opportunity to extoll the Allfather’s providence.
Krash had moved ever closer to the weapon, his jaw agape and eyes wide in wonder that he was being given this most beauteous marvel of the Omnissiah. Before he could accept his right, Rusty jerked it away from him.
“Oohh no, not you,” Rusty admonished. Krash reeled as if stung.
“But I am expert!” he cried out.
“You are a tech-heretic! I’ll be damned if you touch a sun gun!” Rusty roared.
“I’m the best shot,” Zhurov said, stepping forward. Rusty handed it to the hunter.
“But. I. Am. H’Expert!” Krash shouted, the first time in a long time anyone had seen him shout in anger. Rusty just pointed to Krash’s position in the drop line. The mechanic stared unnervingly at Rusty, who stared just as unnervingly back.
“Burn the note, Father,” Rusty ordered, not breaking eye contact. The priest did so immediately, reciting a prayer of thanks to the Allfather. Most of the squad chanted along with him, eager not to strike the match that would set off the powder-keg of the two. Krash and Rusty had the most checkered pasts in the platoon, if not the company. Rusty’s fall from grace after frequent insubordination, apparently thanks to bloodlust, combined with the accusation against Krash he’d just made, of which many rumors circulated years after the fact, made it disturbingly likely either one of them could kill the other in cold blood.
The tension was actually broken by the telltale tinkling of incoming fire on the outer hull. Almost simultaneously, the deck began to pitch and yaw beneath their feet.
”Standby for evasive maneuvers!” the voxbox scratched, barely audible over the engines. The skaggis gripped their ceiling straps tightly to avoid slamming into one another or the bulk heads, it mostly worked. After a couple of queasy minutes of evasive flying, the yellow lamp above the bay door flipped on.
“Heimrocs! Do you fear death!” Rusty bellowed, his voice clear and alive over the muffled weapons.
“We’re already dead!” they shouted at the top of their lungs, even Krash. The bay door began to groan open, wind-roar instantly overpowered all sound. The forest below seemed oddly serene for the battle they knew raged seconds away. Behind them, the second valkyrie’s hellstrike missiles rocketed forward just as the light turned green above their door.
“GO, GO, GO!” Rusty bellowed. They ran down the ramp and leapt, immediately activating the gravchutes, for they were mere dozens of meters above ground traveling at just under attack speed. Rusty’s eyes whirred, scanning the chaos and carnage below. A line of ork mortar trucks, field guns, and a hulking battlewagon dominated his view. Littered along the line were a few smoking pock marks and a great blast corona around a flaming pile of wreckage; given the size, it had probably been a second battlewagon seconds before. Thank the Emperor for the Navy.
The gravcute was whining under the stress the medic was putting it through, but it only had to last him a few more seconds. He saw Zhurov land perfectly on three point. Practice paid off; the hunter had been doing a lot of training jumps from the make-shift training tower near the airfield.
Volkov hadn’t improved much, though. The priest tumbled to the ground as his gravchute stalled a few meters from touchdown. He looked alright. Impatient fool. At least he was already up.
Rusty landed heavily, too, his new parts were heavier than he was accustomed to, but nothing seemed damaged. Bash’s multilaser began firing from his left, blasting apart the crew of the nearest field gun. Further away he saw stormtroopers roping down from their hovering vendetta, Empyrean they’ve got jox. They were already taking heavy fire from ork rocket troopers in the artillery line.
It looked like he was next. The nearest truck backed out of position and turned to face the skaggis. He could almost hear the gunner’s laughter as a large-caliber weapon spit automatic fire at delta squad.
“Get to cover!” he growled over the bead, bending low to avoid the zipping rounds spraying dirt all around him. Suddenly a pillar of smoke appeared near his feet.
“Pop smoke!” he caught-on to the plan. The fire kept-up, he continued to stumble nearly blind and doubled over, but he could feel the rounds parting the air. He could see Bash clearly, though he needn’t have. The heavy Ticka-Ticka of the multilaser clearly placed him nearby. Smoke flashed brilliant red as lasers sped off blindly toward the ork truck.
“Krash, position,” Rusty demanded over the bead, hearing what he thought was small-arms fire from his right, and a lot of it. There wasn’t an immediate response.
”In cover with Volkov,” Zhurov’s voice answered instead, from the other other end of the battle line.
“Copy,” Rusty replied. Dammit, “Tamarova, position,” he asked again.
”Busy,” came her terse repsonse, speckled with the enraged, impish screeching of a gretchin-class ork and a laspistol shot.
”Damn you, Krash!” he growled, turning around and sprinting all out in the direction of the first field gun nest, or at least his best approximation through the haze of smoke grenades.
“Rusty? What are you doing? Get to cover!” Bash yelled over his gun.
“I can’t!” Rusty barked back. He burst out into the open, seeing first Krash and Tamarova covering behind the field gun from a half dozen grots, then turning his gaze left in time to see the truck’s main gun swivel towards him. Shit.
The rounds flashed towards him, and he sprinted like a madman. Something hit him like meteorite, sending him sprawling into the dirt. It took two long seconds to realize he wasn’t dead.
“What the fuck are you doing, Idiot?” he gasped over the bead.
”Me? You’re idiot, idiot!” Krash snapped back, a lasgun shot ceased the gretchin’s screaming, and a smoke grenade bounced into view, spewing blessed cover between Rusty and the truck’s bite. He noted with satisfactions how much damage the multilaser was doing before the smoke obscured the field again.
”Rusty, stormtroopers are in trouble,” Zhurov’s voice followed another explosion from the down the artillery line.
“Cover them,” Rusty ordered, pulling himself along the ground as the ork gun continued to fire. He heard the longlas’s distinctive SNAP, a little higher and thinner than a carbine’s due to a more tightly focused beam.
”Copy,” Zhurov said. A grenade blast returned the crawling foreman’s attention to Krash’s position ahead.
“Krash?” he asked.
”That was us, second gun crew’s on the move,” Oksana said calmly.
If I die rescuing him, I’ll kill him myself, he continued pulling his half-machine body along the ground until he could see the heretic and drug addict huddling behind a cannon, and the ork truck still unloading into the smoke where Bash’s shots were coming from. The truck’s front end was so mangled it was a surprise it was operational at all. He could hear the raging battle echoing off the ridge far below him, between the light mechanized scintillans and what had looked like a mass of bastardized chimera that could only have been the orks’ plunder turned against the Imperials.
They’d silenced half the artillery line in the first few seconds…but delta was divided by a killing field, thanks to this idiot, and the stormtroopers were apparently running from half the orks on the ridgeline. This was not going well.