Slash and Burn
Endless. This thrice-damned forest was fucking endless. Dmitri was staring out of the open hatch at the foliage stretching to the horizon in every direction.
“Heimrocs! Do you fear death?” he heard Rusty bellow from behind him. Why would any of them be afraid of dying at this point?
“We’re already dead!” he shouted with the rest, and being at the front of the line, flung himself from the hatch. He closed his eyes as weightlessness seized his gut, and the blessed wind ripped away the pain and rage and stifling heat, stripping him to his pure skaggi soul. He belonged here. Not on this fucked-up planet, or jumping into this fucked-up forest to cut an airfield of out the trees; he belonged in the sky, on the wind. A skaggi’s soul belonged to the wind. Volkov could call it the Emperor if he wanted to, why not? He reached over and quickly unsnapped his re-breather, the negative pressure tearing the breath from his throat. He pulled back in with all his strength, filling his lungs with cold, dry atmosphere. The wind stretched his skin, howled past his ears through the helmet. He let the wind steel his breath again and fought for another one. He shot through a cloud, water droplets collecting on his visor and in his nostrils and ears, wicking the heat and hell from his skin.
Bursting through the veil he saw endless trees again. He scanned left and there flew a sister skaggi. “Marge,” he whispered, a smile half-forming on his wind-whipped face. His sister turned her unmasked face to look at him and smiled. She waved, angling away from him through the sky. He reached out to her, trying to follow but his gear was weighing him, pulling him inexorably down. Marge shot out her arms and legs and seemed to stop in mid-air as he continued plummeting earthward. Dmitri craned his neck to find her again, but she was gone. He felt the wind grabbing at his pack, trying to roll him into a deadly tumble, and he forced his body forward again.
Something called to him from a great distance. It repeated itself, then a third time, “Dmitri, you fucking lunatic, brake!“ it was his micro bead, Svetlana’s rare voice was practically screaming. He blinked, groping for his control arms. The trees had grown much larger in a very short time. Dmitri’s breathing quickened, trying to pull oxygen in short huffs. He eased the arms down, knowing from keen experience that if he jammed them he’d stall and impale himself on a fucking stick. What greater shame than to die upon a tree? He slowed, but he wasn’t sure it was fast enough.
The trees grabbed up at him; he kicked at a branch and pulled hard against the gravchute arms. He heard the machine whine in protest as he crashed backwards through thickets of leaves. His arm bounced painfully off a thin branch, and he saw the ground a fraction of second before he hit. Dmitri willed his legs to collapse and his shoulders into a roll as he touched down. He just lay on his side for a moment, watching twigs and leaves drift toward him in the shaft of sunlight blazing through the hole in the canopy he’d left. He heard other skaggis breaking through all around him; a huge bang announced the explosive braking thrusters on one of the sentinels.
Dmitri flexed his toes and fingers, making sure everything still worked before rising to his feet and inspecting the newly-installed barrel extension the triplex. They’d fired it several times before leaving Fort Chambers, blowing gargoyles from the towering structures of the city, but this would be the first real test. Everything seemed fine, and he popped the caps on either end of his scope, scanning the area. All clear.
Svetlana came marching out of the brush in a flurry of vines and ferns. She saw him, and Dmitri observed in real time the ability of a skaggi woman’s face to display four expressions in the span of a single second: surprise, concern, relief, and finally undiluted rage. She took three strides toward him and without breaking pace aimed a boot directly at his bad shin.
“Gah!” Dmitri gasped, white-hot stars speckling his vision as he nearly buckled over. Mitin looked as if she was going to strike him again, but instead silently turned and stalked-off toward the rally point. Dmitri remembered to breath, gasping for precious air as his mind fell back to earth to join him, “Okay, maybe I deserved that.” The heat settled back onto his shoulders, the damp, thick air, the soul-crushing reality pressing into him like an akyragh, and he turned his shoulders into Mitin’s wake.
Krash was the last to arrive at the rally point, seconds behind Oksana, “Perimeter clear,” he stated, placing the auspex back in its bag.
“Status report?” Kojomjarov asked in an even tone a few meters away at the center of the clustered platoon.
”Alpha green,” the microbead buzzed, ”Beta green,” it continued, ”Delta green” Rusty stated, ”Epsilon green.” the round completed.
“Platoon all-green,” Kojomjarov confirmed, “Alright, proceed with phase one, Alpha north corner, Beta south, Delta east, Epsilon west, questions?”
”Sir,” Rusty said slowly, ”Where is fourth sentinel?”
“What are you…” Kojomjarov started, “Ahh shit. Did anyone see Delta’s sentinel on the way down?” the silence that answered deepend the lieutenant’s scowl.
“We not get chainsaw either,” Bash looked-up from the gear sled he was unloading, “Just bunch of picts!” he swung them around for the rest to see. Rusty grabbed them, saw that they were orbital surveys, of no particular use to them at all and marked confidential to boot, and immediately handed them over to Kojomjarov. He turned his scowl on them for a moment, thinking, before crushing them into a tight roll.
“Alright. Change of plans, we’re making a triangle instead of a square. Delta, help out Alpha for now, phase two you’ll be digging a fire line between the North and South corners.”
“Yes, sir, “Rusty acknowledged, turning to Volkov, “Father, you know what to do, the rest take turns with the axes. Bash and I first,” he directed, “The rest of you start helping Alpha dig and drag,” he sighed. The skaggis got to work. It was still early morning, and most of the phase one triangle was cleared starting to burn before it got too hot. The work was hellatious, back-breaking, and slow, even with the sentinels’ chin-saws and dragging power. They loved it. After nearly a week, and longer for the rest of the platoon, at base doing patrols and watch rotations, they were glad to have something vaguely familiar.
For many, heavy labor reminded them of childhood and former lives, of the camaraderie of the mineshafts. For others, like Bash and Nastya, the simple, brute task of destroying things, especially wooden things, was its own reward. This mission was also dangerous, they all knew it. Setting a big fire was almost guaranteed to bring the greenskins running for miles around. Kojomjarov certainly hadn’t been a fan of the mission, and he’d had is own way of letting them know in the briefing.
Their job was to clear enough forest to make a reasonable landing zone for drop-ships moving armor and company-strength infantry contingents forward in what command was referring to as an “air bridge”. The plan was to catch the greenskins off-guard and establish a zone of control the generals could exploit while drawing orks from the current front lines, easing pressure on embattled forces trying to hold back to the tide. Hopefully, they’d not only be able to stop the ork advance, but start pushing them back, eventually converging with the deep-forward forces.
It was all very ambitious, and hinged on the Heimrocs finishing this landing zone before the orks arrived en masse to prevent a major landing. Officially, they had four days to clear out the forest, but Kojomjarov was under a lot of pressure to make that less than two, and the longer they were out here, the more likely they were to fall under a major assault they just weren’t equipped to deal with.
Delta had spent the day before spending their thrones in the trade zone. Dmitri had found a crate of some kind of firebombs for sale and lugged the whole thing home. Father Volkov found a flamer attachment for his chainsword, and between him, Dmitri’s rifle, and Krash’s own new weapon the operator had been a busy man in the last forty-eight hours. Rusty was glad for this; an idle Idiot was dangerous.
After a short hydration and meal break, which Kojomjarov all but forced them to take, the skaggis set to work on phase two. This involved digging-out and clearing fire lines along the final perimeter of the future airfield so they could set the forest within ablaze with the heavy flamers each squad had been (supposedly) issued without starting a continent-wide conflagration. With the center of the triangle nothing but charred ruin, still wafting smoke in thin swirls, the next phase was going to be the most dangerous. Rusty put Dmitri and Krash on the perimeter to watch for ork scouts advancing to investigate the abrupt forest fire.
A couple of hours in and they’d managed to clear about half the distance between the north and south corners. They’d traded the heaviest jobs to keep-up the pace, with the exception of Father Volkov. His was the most effective tree-felling device, and as a symbol of his office, he would not part with the chainsword.
Nastya was furiously digging at the front of the line, widening the shallow trench that would eventually pen the raging inferno they intended to create. Her small frame was surprisingly adept at moving a large volume of earth in a short span of time, testimony to her upbringing in the mines. Father Volkov was some meters behind her, singing the praises and inspiring them to greater fervor with his recitations of the scriptures and his uncanny ability to relate any given situation to one of the Emperor’s teachings. The rise and fall of his voice was perfectly accompanied by the rattle and roar of his chainsword as it ate threw tree flesh.
Bash was alternately coordinating Mira and Boz to assist moving logs, and throwing his power into the trees themselves. Several meters ahead, Rusty plotted their line and marked trees with a combat knife while cutting away shrubbery and undergrowth for the diggers with the chainsword discovered at the bottom of the sled.
Dmitri and Krash were positioned outside the line several meters, scanning the forest for any indication of attack. Dmitri’s brief freedom in the fall was now a distant memory. His keen senses were attuned to the landscape around him, listening to the little-rocs call to one another high above the tree tops, the chirrupy little creatures that skittered through the branches and loam, and the occasional shriek of a creature he had yet to identify. The swelter of this place had dampened his undershirt despite his labor-rotation’s brevity. He glanced up at Krash in the crotch of two great tree limbs eight meters above him. The lean figure was alternately tuning the fickle auspex and cocking his head at different angles as if trying to hear a distant sound.
Dmitri picked a tooth with his tongue, and moved on with his slow orbit of the work team. The weight of his stomach had lightened steadily since they’d burned-out the center triangle. Each groan and bellow from Volkov or Bash sent his eye twitching. They would be attacked very soon; of this he had no doubt. Every rustling bush drew the baleful gaze of his scope; when the forest seemed to hold its breath he froze in place and did the same, waiting for the woods to tell him it was safe to continue.
His stomach froze into a solid cloud, shooting to his throat. He became a stone, straining his ears, his eyes slowly scanning as they all but bulged from the sockets. Nothing had changed, but everything had changed. Like a rippling wave through the undergrowth, though no leaf-blade waggled nor shadow-creature shrieked, alarm had crashed all around him. The soft click of the microbead nearly exploded his heart.
“Contacts, contact, contact,” came Krash’s too-calm whisper, “Over one hundred…staggered line…in bound west at one hundred meters.” The thrashing of chains, shovel, and salvation had stopped to Dmitri’s right.
“Fall back. Fall back. Fall back, dig in at the clearing,” Rusty ordered. Dmitri’s sweat was cold; he carefully scanned the western arc of his vision as he stepped back as quietly as he could. Within eight steps he was at a full sprint, leaping over logs and crashing through bushes. The chirruping beasts trilled and the howling shriekers cut the forest canopy at the sudden appearance of this mad, two-legged beast appearing from no where and disappearing as quickly.
“Command, Delta,” Rusty called. Dmitri leapt between the twin trunks of a split tree, and the squad came into mottled view through the leaves. Mira and Bash were shouldering heavy bags and the multilaser components. Nastya was putting her shirt back on. He saw Rusty crouched near a tree, lascarbine scanning westward as he bent his chin toward the microbead, “Command, Delta, emergency.”
“Command, here,” Kojomjarov’s voice crackled.
“One hundred orks, inbound west, imminent attack, repeat, imminent attack,” Rusty’s monotone was measured, but severe, his shoulders relaxed and movements smooth. In a flash Dmitri was past the group, Mitin falling into step immediately behind him, leaping logs and dodging vines.
Less than a minute later, the sounds of heavy gunfire echoed through the trees from the north and south. Krash and Oksana briefly flashed into Dmitri’s field of vision before they disappeared again, somewhere to his right, keeping pace. The light brightened ahead, and the acrid smell of their accomplishments filled his nose. Seconds later he and Mitin burst into the clearing at a full sprint, the charred terrain quickly blackening their legs to the knees. The hunter ran directly toward the nearest pile of logs and slid into position behind them.
“In position, covering,” he said quietly into the bead. A moment later, Krash and Oksana up a tree on the perimeter of the clearing. As they neared the top, Bash, Mira, Rusty, and Boz charged from the tree line into the clearing. After a moment of searching, Rusty spotted Dmitri’s position and waved the squad there. A few seconds after, Nastya and Korotich barreled from the woods.
“Idiot, where are you?” Rusty growled. Svetlana pointed at the tree-perched pair.
“Tree, overwatch,” Oksana answered.
“Get down here, Idiot,” Rusty demanded, his scars becoming vivid white as his face flushed in anger.
“No,” Krash answered this time, “better position.”
“No arguing, get over here!” Rusty demanded.
“Why?” Krash’s tone was bizarrely inquisitive.
“Because! Skaggis fight together!” Rusty looked as if he could gnash a tree apart with his teeth.
“We coming,” Oksana resigned. Dmitri saw them both leap from the tree top, slowing their fall with gravchutes, and hit the ground running toward the rest of Delta. Dmitri’s eyes were focused on the tree line, but he heard them both digging their way inside the logs and tree limbs of the woodpile. Mitin shook her head next to Dmitri, and he returned the gesture in the unspoken language they’d developed over the past weeks. It was no where near as close a bond as he’d had with Marge, but it was strengthening.
Only He knew why the Emperor would choose to put such a thought in his head at a time like this, but for the first time Dmitri considered what Mitin’s bond had been to her former squad partner. When she was in Gamma, Mitin and her squad mate had been much more than that. They’d been trying for a child before the landing. Tolinov had died with the rest of Gamma during the greenskin assault on Gamma 29. She had not said one word about it since joining Delta, not one word or expression of anguish. The puzzle box. Svetlana had bought a puzzle box in the trade zone when the others had bought ammunition or weapons.
Dmitri’s time for pondering this had run out. Movement in the trees forced his full attention to surviving the next ten minutes, “Gretchin,” he whispered. Carefully, he shifted the scope along the line of movement. Three, five, fifteen of the child-like monsters were plucking their way to the edge of the trees. Behind them, much bigger xenos moved in the green shadows. He brought his cross hairs over the center mass, raised them to the ugly maw, “distance, refractivity,” he asked, Mitin gave the answers from her magnocular readings. Dmitri adjusted the focusing crystal with a deft click of the knob. He eased the trigger back, and the ork ripped its head up in a roar of outraged pain.
“Open fire!” Rusty barked, rising over the edge of the branches himself and squeezing off a burst at the enemy line. The rest of the squad followed his lead and fired at whatever they could see. Bash’s multilaser chattered madly, nigh-vaporizing half of the grots in front. The greenskins returned fire from the trees as they advanced, but with the skaggis’ strong cover not much got through. The grots were down in seconds, their shrill screams filling the clearing. Behind them orks were now charging out of the woods and into the short span of burnt ground between the stick-pile and the trees.
Krash pulled himself halfway out of the brush pile and threw one grenade, then another, blasting orks off their feet. Still they kept on, scrambling upright and bellowing. Three of them made the brush pile, two flanking left and one right. Volkov howled with laughter as he met the first, nearly leaping over Rusty, Boz, and Mira to stand next to Bash on the still-chattering multilaser that burned away an ork with every burst.
Krash tracked the orks in the trees through his visor. One, three, pinning good option, should have set traps, no time, no grenades, too much too much, too close! The third ork appeared around the corner of the stick pile. Lascarbine ineffective, need larger blast, possible shotgun? Need more power, now four dot eight meters…he pulled the grenade from his webbing and smoothly removed the pin, wind direction irrelevant, “Grenade!” low arc, damn branch!
Rusty found himself exposed to the third ork, and he stood to face him, swinging the lascarbine around and firing a burst. That’s when Idiot’s shout accompanied a grenade bouncing out of the sticks. It landed between the orks and Krash’s hiding spot. Rusty saw Idiot tuck his face into the mud, but his partner wasn’t as quick.
The shockwave and shrapnel cloud ripped into the sticks and stunned Tamarova. Fortunately it cut the ork’s screaming short as it threw its arm and shoulder instinctively into the blast. Rusty flexed his off hand, wondering if he had time to throw a grenade of his own. Too risky, Idiot was stupid enough to throw explosives around right next to his own squad, Rusty was not. The enraged and bleeding greenskin decided on the medic and charged. Rusty raised his roar to match the ork’s and side-stepped the heavy blow.
Behind him, Volkov was spraying ork blood through the air and chanting scripture, and even though the priest’s words were unintelligible over the screams of chainsaws, orks, and men his presence encouraged the squad. As long as Volkov still stood, they had a hope of surviving this close-quarters fight. Rusty was just trying to stay out of the way of the damn xeno’s limb-cleaving swings. After an eternal half-minute of desperate weaving and swinging, with stray las shots cutting the air around him and the ork, Father Volkov appeared at his side.
Oksana’s vision refocused but her ears still rang inside the helmet. She shook her head to clear it, firing her weapon in the general direction of the orks on pure instinct. Krash had yelled grenade, she snapped her eyes to him beside her. He looked alright, just flesh wounds. She tapped his shoulder, he looked at her and, though his tinted visor prevented her from seeing his eyes, she knew from the angle of his head he was fine. Her attention went back to Volkov and Rusty fighting the ork.
“…And the Lord Emperor commanded the xeno, ‘Meet now mortality! For your stench shall blight my galaxy no more!’ ” the priest’s chainsaw came crunching down into the ork’s shoulder. Another blast of dust accompanied shot out of the bushes as Krash leveled his new weapon. The ork ignored it. Another burst from Rusty and a slash from Volkov laid it low.
“Foreman!” Dmitri cried from his position, “Big one!” Fuck. He fired, but the giant greenskin didn’t slow his dash. Fuck. Fuck. There was no cover here; this fucking thing was going to kill them all. Dmitri realized he was sprinting, sprinting for all he was worth away from the orks, across the clearing. Something exploded, he heard a woman scream. He didn’t look back, couldn’t look back. Svetlana was right behind him, he could here her breathing. He tripped and jammed an elbow into a half-burnt branch. With a grunt he leapt forward back into the sprint.
Rusty swung around at Dmitri’s cry, and he saw the towering greenskin plowing through the trees straight toward him. He pursed the flesh around his ocular implants in what used to be a squint and sighed. There were more orks behind the bastard. They had to deal with him fast. His left hand shot to his breast pocket, his right into the satchel at his side. He hefted the aged flask full of promethium, and brought his hand-igniter from the pocket. Rusty’s lenses focused on the charging ork leader as flames leapt from lighter to fuel-soaked rag. “Fucking ork!” he shouted, throwing the firebomb with all of this strength toward the xeno.
Shit. The flask hit the ork in the flesh of his leg, refusing to shatter, and was flung by a combination of inertia and wild ork flailing back toward Rusty. No, not directly back. Shit.
Suppress next line, pull, pull, no squeeze! Always squeeze, ohh! Foreman ork, Dmitri not shooting? Why, oh running, good idea, no grenades left time to…
What? Fire! Krash tucked his face down again. Good thing for respir-
“Fuuuuuaghh!” Sana’s curse became a scream to his left as flames drank the oxygen from their hiding spot. Oh no! oh nononononono, fire, out pat extinguish roll roll! Need chymical need medic, need-
“Rusty!” Krash screeched, no panic, no time for panic, get out, fire all around now ork screams, no get out get out get out! He hooked his thin arms through her armpits. She not waking up, she not screaming, smoke inhalation burning lungs no no no pull pull! Med-evac, call for, no vox. Fucking munitorum! No vox, no walker, no nothing, pull pull. Branches get off branches, hate forest! Hate woods! Flying ork? Very big very big, Rusty!
The huge ork leader had cleared the formidable brush pile in a single bounding leap and landed with a triumphant roar right next to the brush pile, less than a couple of meters away from where Krash was desperately dragging Oksana from the fire. Rusty’s breath caught as his throat valve malfunctioned. Half the squad was no longer next to him. Shit, he stared angrily into the xeno’s malicious, smiling eyes, “Boz!” he shouted, not breaking eye contact, “Run!” His apprentice medic scrambled a few steps away and paused. Rusty was staring almost straight up at the ork as it raised a huge shard of steel, bellowing with the sound of a jet turbine.
“Boss!” Boz cried.
“GO!” Rusty answered, and the force of his words sent Boz sprinting for the trees. He had never seen a more courageous act in his entire life. From that moment on, Rostilav Norin would be nothing short of a hero in the eyes of Bosinov. He was certain this was the last sight of his foreman, standing alone before a monster four times his size so that his brothers and sisters might escape.
Go go go, run Sana no die, can’t die, not dead, not dead, Rusty save her, Rusty bring her back, Sana not die! Run, dodge, jump, weave, run, never straight, cover, use sticks run run run faster, hurts, burning, no! Run! Go! Krash could feel her blood soaking through his blouse.
This is it. Rusty dodged the ork’s blow and felt the wind from the passing of the blade, if the sharpened tank-hatch of a weapon could be called such. The medics hand retrieved another fire bottle from his bag. This is my honorable death. He lit the rag and hopped back a step, hurling the bomb at the towering creature. Finally, it has come. He narrowly leapt out of range as the flames bloomed from the shattering glass, rolling up the ork and along the ground. Even if he wanted to run, the ork would catch him. He was surprised how calm this left him. The last time, when his vision went black and his lungs cooked inside his chest, he was afraid. He was angry, in the end, angry that his death should mean nothing after all he had unjustly survived. That he would be another line on the casualty list of a failed mission no one would remember. A forgotten man, like so many billions of others. The ork bellowed rage as flames gripped its flesh, and Rusty side-stepped another tree-felling blow.
This time was different. This time, he would be dead instantly when the monster finally struck him squarely. Rusty took another couple of steps back, his arm lifting one of the tube charges they’d found in the trade zone from his webbing. Delta had fled, his skaggis would live, here, and that is what mattered. They would remember. Idiot would remember, he never forgot anything, as long as this ork died right now.
Dmitri realized he was in the trees again. He felt the burning of his legs, his mind returned to his brain and he turned around to look. Volkov was in the field, running his way. Bash and Mira were struggling to lug their weapon. Mitin was right behind him, Krash was, miraculously, staggering around stick piles with Oksana on his shoulders. He saw the huge ork, the killing ork, and…Rusty? Fuck…fuck, he was alone, and it was on fire. For the briefest ice-bellied moment he thought it was a demon before he recognized what must have happened. Rusty was making a last stand. The hunter dropped to a firing position.
Blink! Blink! Cannot run straight if can’t see, stop sweating so much, stop tears, push push, run, go go need cover, get to trees, put flat, use medikit, will need burn patch, will need pain killer, will need irrigant, what’s that? Oh no no no not now Dmitri, don’t shoot me!
The medic’s hand pulled the arming tape from the charge, and tossed it gently to the charred earth between him and the ork. The xeno bellowed, half-blind from the fire, sending hot wind washing over Rusty. Rusty held his arms out to both sides, regimental hand-igniter still in his hand, and he roared back into the ork’s face. The explosion threw ash and dirt into the air, forcing the air from his chest and seeming to stop time. Rusty staggered back, his ears rang in silence.
What?! The dust fell back to earth in a rapidly accelerating universe. The ork was still on fire, splayed across the top of the brush pile, thrashing in the broken, half-burnt tree limbs and logs. “Fucking ork!” the medic howled, still very much alive, “Fuck!” Rusty saw more greenskins now charging from the trees.
The foreman turned, running after his squad. He keyed his microbead, “Delta regroup! We not done yet!” Dmitri couldn’t believe his eyes as Rusty appeared out of a cloud of dust and ash. The burning pyre of thrashing ork appeared, Dmitri prepared to fire at it again, but the need was past. He watched as Rusty ran after and caught-up to Krash, still stumbling over stubbled ground, covered in ashy dirt with Oksana’s limp body over his shoulder.
Bash and Mira made the trees. Without speaking a word they selected a position and set the multilaser. Bullets started flying through the forest around all of them. Krash and Rusty, both now carrying Oksana, made for the cover Bash and Mira had set behind.
“Boz!” Rusty barked, his assistant was already running towards them. They carefully set Tamarova down and Rusty’s diagnostor appeared. The wheedling, blinking device passed over her chest and head, Rusty pressed the sensor against her temple as Boz carefully removed her helmet. Symbols and patterns materialized on the diagnostor screen and it beeped and hooted quietly. Krash fumbled with his medikit, finally freeing a burn patch and disinfectant gel. He glanced at the diagnostor screen, not fully understanding any of the displays, but easily recognizing that red symbols and hooting alarms were not good.
“She live,” Krash stated more than asked. Bosinov’s eyebrows arched as he shot a glance at Krash over the patient, then to Rusty’s impassive lenses. “She. Live.” Krash emphasized.
“She’s alive,” Rusty nodded after a moment, “She’ll live.” Krash was quiet, Rusty wasn’t looking at him, focusing on stabilizing his patient, but Boz noticed the operator nod once, then stand smoothly, a far cry from his frantic and desperate jerking of a few seconds ago.
“Incoming,” Bash yelled over the microbead, coinciding with the heavy ticka-ticka of his multilaser. The snap of the triplex somewhere behind Boz brought his eyes to the cleared ground from which they’d run, and far across it, a little puff of flame flashed and disappeared in the trees. Greenskins were sprinting pell-mell across the scorched earth toward them, Bash’s chattering fire flashing around them. One spun into the ground.
“Brothers and Sisters! The Emperor has hath saved us from certain doom! We shall yet win this day in His Glorious name!” Volkov shouted, suddenly amidst them again, chainsword held high despite ork fire still slashing the leaves and pocking tree trunks all around them. The priest stepped forward, raising an accusing finger and jabbing it at the lead ork, “Thy filth shall be purged!” As if it understood his challenge, the greenskin bellowed a war cry and redirected his path to collide with the human warrior.
Rusty, satisfied Oksana wouldn’t expire in the next few minutes (at least the narcs hadn’t burnt her system yet), stood to face the next wave of this misadventure. He raised his lascarbine and aimed for the lead ork. A warning bleat answered his squeezing of the trigger. Shit. The last explosion must have shorted the power pack. He let the lascarbine fall to his side on the shoulder strap and drew his laspistol.
Krash stepped calmly into the shadow of a tree, popping open the action of his shotgun, the spent shell from earlier falling to the ground. He pulled another and slid it into the barrel before clicking it closed. Enemy inbound, must hit center mass for most effective damage, and closer the range the better. Sana not die. Orks die. All orks die. He glanced around the tree, few more meters. They will not kill Sana, they will not kill skaggis. He caught Boz’s gaze as he returned to cover, and Krash nodded at him, “They pay.”
Boz didn’t have time to react to such an un-Krash-like statement, as the xenos were upon them. Volkov charged the lead ork at the last moment, throwing his inertia into the chainsword with a shout. Rusty found himself staring down the next in-line, and he leveled the laspistol at its chest.
“Shit!” Rusty swore as a familiar bleat chirped from the laspistol when he pulled the trigger. He all but launched the pistol into the woods as Volkov’s chainsaw buzzed angrily. Rusty realized he was still wearing the spare chainsword at his side. He’d never used one in combat before, but how hard could it be? Thumb switch on, then swing it at a soft spot. It was a world better than a combat knife against these bastards. He pulled it from the hook of his belt and revved the motor to action.
Throom! The leaves exploded between Krash and the second ork. The greenskin roared and jerked as the pellets hit home, but glared into Rusty’s face. With an awkward slash of his own, the medic avoided the ork’s blow. Trying to keep its attention on him and away from Boz, Rusty shouted in reply to its bellowing.
“Shut!” he swung and, to his surprise, hit home with the chainsword, “Up!” he continued the motion, digging the weapon into green muscle, spraying blood and meat everywhere. The ork hacked into Rusty’s leg, but not enough to cause serious damage. It still hurt fiercely, and Rusty brought the chainsword down again on the ork, this time ripping a line across its arm that soon opened to a gash and then a gap as the limb dropped spasming to the xeno’s side. Blood poured from the wound, splashing the leaves and ferns as the ork finally stopped screaming and fell to the ground.
“Faith has delivered us!” Volkov shouted triumphantly over the body of his own defeated foe, “The Emperor’s light shall never cast his devoted in shadow!” Rusty looked around, chest heaving from the exertion of the last minutes. Dmitri’s lasgun snapped and the hunter screamed maniacally through the trickle of bullets still pelting the trees around them. Boz was crouched over Oksana, lascarbine ready, Korotich was next to him. Volkov was standing on the ork he’d just felled, Dmitri was back in the trees acquiring a new target. Bash and Mira were reloading the multilaser. Where the fuck was, ”Idiot!”
Krash didn’t look back, stalking across the clearing in the shadow of the closest brush pile. He had the action of the shotgun open, “They pay,” he answered over the bead before sliding a fresh pair of shells into the barrels.
“Get back here!” Rusty ordered as Dmitri silenced the last of the ork gunfire.
“I will not die in this forest!” Dmitri shouted defiantly at the clearing as he stood, then he turned his face skyward, “Ahhhhhhhh!” Rusty ignored the sound of a helmet striking a tree trunk for now, keeping his gaze on Idiot.
“I make sure,” Krash answered, not breaking his stride.
“Yes!” Volkov smiled, pointing at Dmitri, one boot still firmly planted on the dead ork, “Let the Emperor’s hate flow through you! Let your limbs be a conduit for his rage! The fire of Mankind burns in your heart, Brother! Let it purge your soul! All praise to the All-Father!”
“In the Emperor’s name!” Boz, Mira, and Bash shouted triumphantly with Volkov. Bash and Mira started off after Krash, as did Volkov and Korotich. Rusty waved them on before returning to Oksana and addressing her wounds more thoroughly: severe burns to the left side of her head, the helmet had protected most her face. Her shoulder and back, though, were another story. The burns weren’t the worst of it, shrapnel had embedded itself deep. She was going to need surgery, and she probably had a severe concussion on top of it. He directed Boz to help him irrigate the wounds and remove the biggest pieces of debris, then he smoothed antiseptic gel over everything and stuck burn patches and bandages across what he could. Boz’s medikit was near spent on her wounds alone, and there were still the others to treat.
“No contacts,” Krash reported over the vox. The snap of a lascarbine announced Volkov making sure the huge ork leader was well and truly dead.
“Command, Delta. Center is clear, repeat, the triangle is clear,” Rusty said loudly into the mircobead.
“Message received,” the bead crackled back. The distant sound of weapons slowly died away as the other squads’ fights ended.
“Alright,” Kojomjarov stood, the platoon had regrouped on the clearing and just finished a round of status reports. The sentinels were down, they’d lost a few skaggis, a few more were out of the fight, like Oksana, and everyone was low on ammo and grenades. Though none would admit it, they were exhausted. Kojomjarov continued, looking over his bloody, dirty men, “Thirty minutes recovery, get your wounds checked out, all of you, whether you think it’s bad or not. Eat. Hydrate. Then we get back to work. The wounded need transport ASAP, and we’re not getting out of here until the landing zone is done.
“Krash,” he snapped his fingers to get the operator’s attention. Mikhail was sitting protectively next to Oksana’s supine form wrapped in bandages, “Look at the sentinels, see what you can do. Even if we get one working, it will speed things up. You did well, skaggis, we won, we crushed. They won’t be back for a while, but they will be back, so stay sharp,” he looked around again, then raised his booming voice, “Seveeeenth!”
“Heimrocs!” they shouted as one, then split to their tasks. Krash followed Kojomjarov back to the first blasted sentinel in a daze that didn’t lift until he was within arms reach of the machine. Something deep and instinctive took over, and as his hands ran along the struts and warped metal his eyes focused and his movements returned to the smooth, rapid mannerisms the skaggis were accustomed to seeing from him. Less than a minute later, Krash surfaced from his depths and spoke directly to the lieutenant.
“Will take weeks to fix dis one, Lieutenant. Much broken,” he frowned, “maybe better use for parts; must see others,” he finished, his posture relaxed, his thoughts quite obviously moving on. Kojomjarov walked with him to Beta squad’s battlefield, which he had yet to see himself, and this sentinel was in even worse condition. Kojomjarov felt a pang in his heart as Krash respectfully aided him in removing the burnt pilot from the cockpit.
Charlie’s sentinel brought a glimmer of hope, “Hmmm,” Krash hummed with interest, “Dis one not so bad, power transfer case seems blown-up. I fix two days maximum, use parts from Beta’s, have to patch holes, will need boomers for help moving dze parts,” he reported, standing awkwardly in the shrapnel-peppered cockpit of the tipped walker.
“Good news,” Kojomjarov answered after a couple of moments, his eyes voicing disagreement. The lieutenant returned to the command post in the center clearing to further organize the work teams with the expectation they’d have heavy-lift capability the day after tomorrow.
The next twenty-four hours were grueling even for the hardened minds and bodies of Novaskag. The insects, swelter, the heat of flames, the exhaustion from fierce battle, and the knowledge that more orks were coming in larger numbers all increased the strain. The labor would have been a relief if they could have put all of their energy and attention to it, but with battle so obviously possible before the next tree was felled, they couldn’t.
Dmitri breathed heavily every time an explosion echoed through the woods. To compensate for the loss of the sentinels’ strength, the clearing teams had resorted to explosives and heavy weapons fire to fell the largest trees. As if this weren’t beacon enough for a greenskin, Krash’s unending rattle and clang tolled constantly through the trees, all day, all night, and through the next day. At one point, whether due to sleep deprivation or injury they couldn’t decide, Zhurov and Mitin heard a long string of half-shrieked curses from the direction of Krash’s worksite coupled with a loud, repetitive banging.
“You think he dead?” Dmitri asked. Mitin replied with a barely-perceptible shake of her head.
“Almost fixed,” she said, returning her eyes to the magnoculars.
“Ha, probably right,” Dmitri agreed.
On the morning after the battle, Volkov gathered them all in the center triangle, around a great pyre they’d built of felled trees. Their fallen brothers and sisters were all laid upon the pile, arms crossed in eternal salute. He’d already anointed each of them in the holiest oil of their homeland, promethium. The pyre had been wetted with fuel.
“Heimrocs! Let us pray,” Volkov boomed, and they knelt, heads bowed. He continued, “The Emperor protects us, and we repay Him with our service, and our lives.”
“In the Emperor’s name,” They chanted.
“Our duty begins before birth, our duty continues beyond death. For when our mortal coils are laid low by the enemies of man, our immortal souls live on. The Emperor guides those fallen in service to Him, to His keep, to Holy Terra. Drawn by the Astronomicon through the void of space, the souls of the brave or rewarded for their sacrifice!”
“In the Emperor’s name,” they chanted.
“A skaggi is born into struggle, into adversity. A skaggi is raised knowing he will fall in battle, and no other death will do. Such should be the blessing of every man, woman, and child in the Imperium! For those who embrace a good death will not fear it!”
“In the Emperor’s name,” they chanted.
“This mission will push back the vile xeno, and we were blessed with the duty of its execution,” Volkov produced a Victory Dance from his pocket, along with his hand-igniter. The regimental standard glinting in the morning light. He thumbed the switch and a blue jet ignited the cigar, drawing from it and passing it to the skaggi at the end of their line, “Skaggis, Heimrocs were those entrusted to lead the way, as we are so often entrusted to do,” the skaggis drew from the cigar once, passing it to the next in line.
“You,” Volkov addressed the fallen, “are the finest soldiers in all the Imperium, and let no man speak other!”
“In the Emperor’s name!” the skaggis shouted.
“We free you from the anchors of flesh, brothers and sisters; we set you soaring on the Blessed Wind,” Lt. Kojomjarov was the last recipient of the nearly exhausted tundra-lichen cigar. He drew from it deeply, then passed it to Volkov before exhaling. Volkov took a final draw, holding the still burning cigar high for all of them to see, “Ride it to your ultimate place in the Emperor’s Keep!”
“In the Emperor’s name!” they shouted. Volkov tossed the burning stub into the pyre, which bloomed into bright flame. The wood and the dead crackled and snapped in the heat. Embers swirled like so many stars up above the tree line into the wind. The skaggis remained silent for several minutes, letting the fire’s song fill their hearts. Then it was time to get back to work, lest the sacrifice of their family be in vain.
Halfway through the second night, a great clattering rumble awoke most of the platoon with a start. Only the elated whooping of Krasheninnikov told them it wasn’t orks. A great cheer rose up from the woods as they understood that mechanized limbs were again at their disposal. Krash had worked for nearly two days without rest, and he collapsed into sleep, grease stained and smelling of oil and sweat, lying beside Oksana’s litter in Rusty’s make-shift infirmary. By that afternoon, the landing zone was smoldering, but flat enough for troop transports and armor carriers. Within two hours, the wounded were loaded onto the valkyries bringing reinforcements. The first landers arrived that night, off-loading scintillans and rogue trader companies, and taking the rest of the platoon back to Fort Chambers.
Contributed by Beans
Great wooden doors creaked on rusted hinges as Volkov pulled them open, and entered the vastness of the cathedral. He was immediately greeted with the pungent scent of incense. As the dimly lit antechamber gave way to the open nave he could see the sun reflecting off wisps of smoke rising toward the vaulted ceiling, at least a hundred feet up. A cyber cherub circled overhead, swinging a thurible and chanting a litany Volkov did not immediately recognize. His footsteps echoed throughout the grand chamber, just barely drowned out by the rising tones of hymnal-servitors reciting the chant of manifest glory. Along the walls stood statues of various Imperial saints with rows of candles in front of each of them. Volkov found Deacon Turr, tending one of the shrines.
“Brother, I come before you in desolation, bearing the burden of guilt and of transgression” Volkov announced, kneeling down before the Deacon.
“Whatever do you mean?” Turr replied, obviously concerned.
The Deacon stroked his lengthy grey beard, and stared long and hard at Volkov, like him, Deacon Turr wore his hair short, nearly bald, and also like Volkov, his face bore the marring of many years of conflict. Volkov was envious of the Deacon’s beard, wishing Imperial regulation allowed him to grow one while serving as a drop trooper. Under different circumstances he would have complimented the Deacon. Not this time.
“I have failed in my duty to the Emperor, I wish to perform the rite of self-affliction” Volkov replied
Deacon Turr’s face grew instantly more stern. “Very well then” he began in a raspy tone. “First you must confess to me your sin.” The Deacon placed his hands on Volkov’s head, as he remained kneeling before him. “speak my son…” he said.
Volkov began his confession. “I have faltered in battle, I allowed fear to take me while facing a great Ork leader. I abandoned my brothers and sisters and fled battle. Once I realized the folly of my choice, I steeled myself and returned, fighting hard for my comrades”
“Good my son, The Emperor judges all deeds, and though he is judge, he is also just. In self sacrifice, we may find forgiveness. Rise, penitent, and follow me.” The Deacon recited the formula Volkov had also learned when becoming a preacher.
Deacon Turr led Volkov along the nave of the cathedral, Volkov kept his head bowed in sorrowful reverence, he knew himself unfit to look upon the Emperor’s great works in this state. Whether by design or only Volkov’s imagining, the tone of the hymnal servitors seemed to change, no longer a rising hymn of praise, but now a low solemn drone reverberated throughout the cathedral. The Deacon turned left to one of the cathedral’s semitransepts; halls which broke off from the main nave. Volkov was lead to an alcove in which hung an Icon of The God Emperor in glory. Deacon Turr lit the candles which stood before it, and handed Volkov a wicked looking scourge.
The Deacon continued to speak “Take this instrument of justice, and kneel before The Emperor, your undying Lord. Confess before him your transgression, and pray he may find your sacrifice worthy”
Volkov took the scourge, unbuttoned the top portion of his vestments, exposing his chest and back. and knelt down before the Icon.
“Seven lashes, meditate upon your duty to Him and the transience of the flesh” the Deacon instructed.
With a crack of the whip, Volkov began to flagellate himself. The scourge’s many tiny heads bit into his flesh and stung. “The flesh is weak and mortal” he recited. After striking himself, he fell prostrate before the icon and continued “There is only the Emperor”.
He returned to a kneeling position, and struck himself again, over the opposite shoulder, as before, waves of agony washed over his back and the scourge’s hooked heads tore at his flesh. “Punish the body, for it rebels against the spirit ” he recited, and repeated the ritual, falling prostrate “There is only the Emperor”.
Again, he returned to kneeling, and struck himself with the scourge. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead, and he could now begin to feel the trickle of blood down his back. Volkov gritted his teeth and continued, refusing to cry out in pain. “Naught but duty brings salvation”. With each repetition the pain grew, and with it, his intensity. “There is only the Emperor” again the ritual was repeated, and again Volkov struck himself. The barbs stung, and tugged at inflamed flesh. Short of breath, Volkov still continued.
“Pain is temporary, deeds are eternal” He struck himself harder and harder after every invocation, before reaching the end of the litany. “Accept this sacrifice immortal Emperor, and grant me absolution, for by your blood have you given mankind dominion over the stars”
Volkov fell prostrate one last time, utterly exhausted. He breathed heavily, and blood ran freely from the wounds on his back. Forgiveness was his, as was a resolve to be the instrument of the Emperor that he had been born to be.
Contributed by Zarimas
The cathedral was dark and devoid of activity as Foreman Rostilav Norin entered its hallowed halls. The ceiling cast in darkness and the shadows of the statues honoring the Astartes that saved this world in ages past seemed to come to life from the light of the candles that dimly light the walls, the atmosphere did little to ease the medic sergeant’s nerves. Wandering the halls in a mixture of awe and terror he heard the fervent chanting of the subject of his search.
Father Adislov Volkov knelt before a shrine to the god Emperor, thanking him for protecting his flock during the day’s battle as Rusty approached him. “Rusty my brother, you have come to pray to the Emperor with me!” The priest exclaimed in a mixture of pride and surprise. “This good! You have gone long without seeking his blessing.”
“No Father, I have come to confess.” the medic stated plainly in his mono-toned speech. “Damned machine makes me sound like a servitor” he thought to himself as the priest’s disposition turned from excitement to concern.
“What troubles the mind of my brother?” Volkov asked after a tense moment.
“I failed the men and women under my command today, just as I failed my brothers and sisters on Cythera.”
“Nonsense! We were victorious over the xeno scum! The mission was a gloriously fought success!” the father replied. Indeed the orks had been fought back, the staging area cut and cleared. But more than that had occurred on the field of battle that day that troubled the Foreman.
“I lead us into that field, when those orks came down upon us I realized I had erred, I did not properly prepare for their onslaught and we nearly paid with our lives because of it, Tamarova certainly did.”
“None could have predicted that the xeno fool would kick that fire bomb at Oksana, and in doing so you distracted him enough to let the rest of us fall back, then you light him with the Emperor’s holy flame, blew him off his feet and carried her back to us! We all live to continue our service because of that!” rebutted Volkov. “Besides all of that you stabilized her condition, you said she will live to fight along side us again.”
“She in bad shape father, very bad. I did what I could and she was still alive when we left her at hospital but I am not certain she will fully recover.” Rusty admitted. Emperor knows I certainly didn’t.
Even though Tundraman Tamarova was a drug addled mess she was still family, as every Skaggi was, even her and that technomancy-obsessed idiot Krasheninnikov, and as such Rusty felt guilt over having almost killed her.
“You do more than any one else could have.” The priest responded, then slowly asked. “Tell me Rusty, what truly troubles you’re thoughts? We all know you didn’t intend to harm Tamarova so why feel the need to confess?” Father Volkov knew his squadmates well, and even though Rostilav did injure his squadmate, his family, it wasn’t like the man to come to him to confess, after all Rusty often harmed his family to save them, just one of the reasons the life of a combat medic is a cruel one.
The pair sat silent for some time, Father Volkov returned to his prayer while Rusty was deep in thought.
“Maybe it not something that happen today that I want to confess.” The medic said, breaking the uneasy silence. “Maybe it happen on Cythera.”
The priest knew Rusty had lost his arm on Cythera, and the events that followed, eventually leading him down the path of insubordination, demotions, and nearly a spot in the brig but he didn’t know what had caused him to tread down that path and Volkov knew it was why he was the embittered soul he was today.
“Than tell me brother, what happened on Cythera?” the priest asked, finally about to get his answer to so many questions.
“ I was part of 1st platoon then.” the medic began reluctantly in his metallic voice, devoid of emotion. “We were deploying ahead of the Caidian 15th armored regiment to clear the way to an Eldar stronghold for them……..
“Hiemrocs prepair to drop!” Foreman Leorivikov’s voice was barely audible over the roar of the lead Valkarie’s engines and the brakka brakka brakka of outgoing heavy bolter fire. As the members of Hiemroc 1st platoon Charlie squad readied themselves and eagerly awaited to drop from the heavens Leorivikov recapped their assignment. “Alright Charlie, listen up. Alpha and Beta squads are are securing the highway and clearing any boomer nests they find, Charlie and Delta squads are to scout out roads that lead to the interior of this island and discourage any Eldar who might try to set up ambush, that mean get ready for a hike boys and girls, we drop in 20!” She looked to each member of Charlie squad as they acknowledged their orders, at the green light she bellowed over the rushing winds “Skaggis do we fear death?” “We’re already dead!” they responded as one, leaping from the safety of their steel Hiemroc into the battle below.
The jump went smooth and for now the drop troopers were unassailed, after regrouping and a quick gear check they moved to their objective, a 75 kilometer “road” barely large enough for a single Russ to drive down, worse yet it was settled at the bottom of a crag, likely an old creek bed.
“Lets get to work Skaggis, Nikolav you on point, Twitch you on rear guard, give 50 meters and check quarters, lets move out!” Foreman Alexandria Leorivikov issued her orders with a practiced efficiency and her squad followed them without question. Cool and level headed Leorivikov had earned charlie squad’s respect and admiration, fearless and unflinching in battle the Eldar only strengthened her already impressive resolve. They filed out, focused on their task ask the mid-day sun beamed down on them as they had done so many times before.
The troupe was silent for most of the day, limiting communication to micro-bead clicks and skagsign, common practice while in the field, though not all took to the long silence well, as dusk began to settle in the silence was broken by Rostilav’s assistant. “So Foreman, what we look for out here? I thought we would be fighting not marching.” Maksmilian Mihaylov complained.
“Mak, you ever happy? We fight you whine, we march you whine, we on base detail you whine just like Mordian,” Rudolf Utkin snapped back before Leorivikov could answer. Utkin was a much larger Skaggi, as most boomers tended to be. He and his loader Lineman Anya Krupin had served the squad well but were hot headed and the day’s long march heaving their lascannon hadn’t tempered their moods.
“Enough,” Rostilav stepped in before this ended in a fight, “The last we need is brawl on road to attract the Eldar to us.” The less patching up he had to do the better, these Eldar were brutally efficient marksman and often ambushed unaware squads, Rostilav had seen the carnage far too many times and with them alone it wouldn’t end well.
“Well said Norin, Mak if you so bored why don’t you find us camp,” Leorvikov ended the exchange. The medical assistant glared for a moment between Utkin and Rostilav before heading out.
“What his problem?” Lineman Kaminski asked Rostilav after he was out of ear shot.
“He think he should have been with me when I dropped with the Commissar, but he not ready yet, much to learn, including keeping his mouth shut before Ruddy knock him out.” His new assistant didn’t command the same respect as Medic Alkeav did but it was Rostilav’s duty to the platoon to train in new medics and she had learned quick, a little sloppy with stitches in a fire fight but she moved quick and kept her calm so Rostilav had suggested her move to Gamma Squad after Paternack got picked off by a sniper.
“He might have to learn hard way” the boomer said, cracking his knuckles.
“If I let you he might not remember.” Rostilav joked, Mak was a small man, even for a Skaggi, almost like one of those rattlings they had all seen on the mess lines back at base. The squad laughed for a moment but a click over the micro-bead cut them off.
“Foreman I see something ahead, can’t make out, have to get closer”
“Voices down, Nikolav check it out, but be careful. Ruddy I want you on that ridge to the left, Kaminski, Mihaylov go with him, Rostilav, Sokolov with me on the right, set up a cross fire, Twitch, Petrov, Mak, get back here.” The squad moved into position, a few moments later Mak, followed by Tiwtch and Petrov moved up from behind into position. Some time passed before Nikolav checked back in.
After what seemed like hours a single click came over the micro-bead, indicating Nikolav had discovered what it was.
“What you got Niko?” the Foreman responded in a low whisper.
“Look like bomb, placed under some bolders, look like they set them up to knock mountains down on tank’s heads and block road, can’t find any trace of other activity. Should I attempt disarm?” Nikolav was a talented scout and had made a reputation for himself as an explosive expert, some one had said once that he had to deal with Skraff armed with mining charges back home, maybe that where he got so good with finding and disarming bombs.
“Go ahead, but if you don’t think you can do it leave it, I don’t want the road blocked before we can even report in.” The Foreman sounded leery and Rostilav knew why, until now they hadn’t seen any Eldar activity, or even any evidence that they were here but this proved that they were not only there but had anticipated large scale movement through this pass and if that were the case they might already be being watched, even if they weren’t they could no longer travel on the road in safety.
After a few tense minutes Nikolav came back over the bead.
“Bomb disabled, broke the trip line just in case, shouldn’t be problem.” the squad let out a sigh of relief.
“Good job, regroup. Mak you find us camp?” Leorivikov turned back to the assistant.
“Ya, nice little crag over hill to south, good defensive position, I lead wa.” the sound of an Eldar sniper cut him off and Nikolav’s scream could be heard around the corner. Twitch respond to the sniper before it could disappear, probably the best shot of the squad he hit the foul Eldar in the helmet, it yelped in surprise and fell over the side of the cliff it was standing on top of, it screamed for a split second before hitting the rocks below with a gruesome crunch.
“MEDIIIIC!! GAH!” Nikolav called out over the bead.
“Mak lets go! Move!” Rostilav was already on the road in a full sprint towards his wounded comrade. Turning the corner Rostilav saw Nikolav on the ground clutching his leg, blood already starting to pool.
“Shit Rosti they got me good!” the scout was trying in vain to stop the bleeding and was already starting to loose conscious.
“Mak, cut his pants now! Ruddy get up here and hold him down!” the medic got to work as the rest of the squad rounded the corner.
“Shit….” Petrov said, skidding to a halt in front of the group.
“Don’t just stand there hold him down! It hit the artery hold him still!” Rostilav knew this was bad, he had only a few seconds before the scout bleed to death.
“Ho..how bad is it?” Nikolav was barely able to speak, staring at the squad as they rounded the corner he had seen their reactions.
“Just hold in there brother we got you.” Mak responded, Nikolav was growing paler by the second.
“Keep him up right, pull this tight, tight I said! You need to slow the bleeding.” Rostilav was trying to dig out the damaged artery to clamp it shut, the fast flow of blood making it almost impossible to see what he was doing and the tourniquet wasn’t working fast enough.
“Almost…got it… shit, keep him still!” the medic was working furiously but the blood was making everything slippery and Nikolav was still kicking violently.
“I….I see home, don’t worry Rosti I am ho…….” Nikolav trailed off and stopped struggling going limp in his squadmate’s arms but Rostilav didn’t stop, after another moment someone put a hand on his shoulder.
“He gone Rostilav….” Leorivikov choked out. The medic stopped and looked up to see his brother skaggi staring up at the sky from which they had jumped just a few hours before, all life drained from his face. The medic just stared for a moment, then reached up and closed Nikolav’s eyes. “Rest now brother, fly with the Hiemrocs at the Emperor’s side.” Rostilov pulled back and sat down, blood covering the exhausted medic. No one spoke, several had tears running down their faces. Leorivikov pulled the cognem tags off of their fallen brother and stowed them in her breast pocket before turning to the squad.
“We will remember him but we must move on, they know we’re here now. Mak, you on point, get us to that camp.”
Rostilav had lost many brothers and sister in this conflict but none affected him like those who died from blood loss. Some begged and pleaded not to go, thinking their service not yet finished, a few were angry, lashing out and fighting like an Akyragh until their bodies gave in, but some, such as Nikolav remained calm, at peace. As though they knew it was their time, that they had fought and died with honor and completed their service to the Emperor.
No one spoke the rest of the trip to the crag, they had grabbed what they could and moved Nikolav’s body to a more hidden location for later retrieval. When they arrived the troupe surveyed the crag that was to be their camp, it was small, with an overhang protecting their heads with and excellent view of the road and all approaches. Leorivikov ordered the skaggis to securing the area and prep camp, as they did she got on the Vox and reported into platoon command.
“Charlie to Command.”
“The western roadway has been bobby trapped and is patrolled by snipers, we clear first bomb and set camp for the night.”
“One casualty, Lineman Nikolav, KIA.”
“Copy that, Charlie over and out. Listen up Charlie, the other squads are convening on this road, the others have already been blocked or destroyed leaving this road the only path to the interior of the island, they should be here by morning, until then I want full watch, we’re not letting those bastards prevent us from getting down this pass! Twitch you got first.”
As the Skaggis settled into their bags the skys let loose, drenching the mountains with torrential down poors, thankfully what skills Mak lacked in medicine he made up for in scouting, the overhang kept charlie squad dry and comfortable. As the night dragged on Rostilav was kicked awake by Ruddy.
“Your watch Norin, no movement so far.” The boomer signed as he and the medic swapped places. Rostilav took up watch in front of the overhang in between two boulders with a good view of both the road and the cliff above it, the lightning from the storm the only thing lighting the canyon, the storm was raging on, thunder roared like a battle cannon and the wind howled through the night, reminding him of the open tundra back home. Rosilav’s thoughts drifted to memories of pipeline patrol and the brothers and sisters from home when a swoosh pulled him back to the present.
What in the Empyrean? The medic looked out over the canyon and saw nothing through his visor save the sheets of rain and the pine trees bending in the wind, he had just settle back down when swoosh and again, a scan of the area gave up nothing. Just the wind the medic thought to himself when from behind him, and much closer SWOOSH the medic turned in time to see an armor clad figure standing over Petrov with a drawn blade, before he could react it sliced down onto the sleeping Skaggi, spilling her guts across the ground, Petrov screamed in suprise and SWOOSH the figure was gone, SWOOSH Another appeared before he could move, this time over Mak.
“AMBUUUSH!!!!!” Rosilav roared as the Skaggis reacted to Petrov’s screams of agony, but before any could react the second figure stabbed down into Mak’s chest, the man simply fell back down, never able to raise a defense, and again with another pair loud SWOOSHES the figure was gone, replaced by yet another, this time however when it sliced toward it’s victim the roar of a chain sword stopped it’s attack, Foreman Leorivikov steped in between the figure and Twitch, who was rolling upright behind her. Rostilav started to run to help his comrades when SWOOSH suddenly he was standing toe to toe with a figure, now recognizable as one of the foul Eldar, stunned Rostilav was only able to stare into it’s eyes with seething hate as it’s blade swung up, he dodged left but it wasn’t enough, he barely felt the blade as it separated his arm from his shoulder.
“Rostilav!” Kaminski screamed and turned to run to the medic, as he did another Eldar appeared in his path, then disappeared, leaving Kaminski with a hole in his chest, he fell face first into the mud and never rose.
The medic looked down at the stump where his arm used to be, then to the ground where his still twitching arm lay, then back to the squad. Thing were happening in slow motion, as Kaminski hit the ground Mihaylov moved to assist, but before she could lend aid another Eldar appeared behind her and after a brilliant flash of white light the trooper fell to the ground, blood pouring out of the ground meat that used to be her back. Krupin deflected a blow with her knife only to be run through from behind as another xeno appeared and disappeared. Leorivikov was ready for the next Eldar, as it appeared behind her she swung around with her chain sword, it’s bite catching the surprised xeno in what would have been a human’s ribs, it screamed in pain as the chain sword tore at the alien’s flesh, and it fell lifeless to the ground, another appeared behind the Foreman and she turned again to face her assailant, the holy weapon found it’s second target, ripping across it’s torso, separating it’s legs from it’s body, a third appeared but this time Leorivikov wasn’t able to react fast enough, and it’s blade sliced across her throat, she fell to the ground gasping for air as it stabbed again, killing the now helpless Foreman. Sokolov attempted to get to Rostilav but was cut down by a familiar figure you bastards! Rostilav thought to him self, reaching for his carbine with his reaming arm, the figured disappeared again, then reappeared in front of Ruddy.
“YOU BASTAAAARDS!!!!” Rostilav roared, leveling his carbine at the xeno scum that had just slaughtered most of his squadmates, he overcharged the capacitor and pulled the trigger, catching the Eldar in the back, it spun around in surprise as he pulled the trigger again and again, peppering the xeno with flashes of light, as it fell to the ground it stared at the medic and the medic stared back into the eyes of his foe with burning hatred, the blackness of death slowly taking over his vision……..
“I blacked out, we must have killed them all, after last one die none returned. Twitch, Ruddy and I only survivors, they able to slow my bleeding and carry me till they find Alpha squad, the rest you know.” Rusty finished with a sigh, the memories of Cythera were a hard thing to visit for all the Hiemrocs.
Father Volkov was silent for a moment, absorbing Rostilav’s account of that night, finally he responded.
“You say you failed them, but from what you say you fought until you pass out, why you blame self?”
“I heard those damned Eldar coming, and didn’t warn them.” The medic stated plainly.
“Did you know what you were hearing? I didn’t know that the Eldar could just….appear out of no where.” The preist countered.
“Why you think I so paranoid now? I question every noise, too many good Skaggis died that night because of my inaction.” Rusty snapped back
“Is this why you wish more to kill than to save? Why you were charged with insubordination?” The priest asked.
After a pause the Medic-Foreman responded simply “I make promise to fallen brothers and sister to avenge their sacrifice, I intend to keep that promise.”
You really must leave, soldier,” the nurse standing at the door had progressively increased the insistence of her demands, and had Krash bothered to acknowledge her even he would have noticed her impatience, “She needs rest, so do the others in the ward.”
“You are making all dze noise,” Krash shrugged, not looking up from his centurion board.
“I’ll have the MP’s escort you back to quarters if you’d prefer,” her tone had suddenly become overly sweet, and when Krash finally looked at her, the soft smile and crow-footed eyes were almost genuine. Krash stared into them for a few moments longer than necessary, then began packing away the centurion board.
The weather hadn’t improved much since they left. Cloudbanks occluded the sun in sudden, unpredictable shifts. There seemed to be a constant breeze pushing dust and garbage in circles throughout their fortified section of the city. The sun was setting over the rooftops of Fort Chambers, casting pink and greenish-gold shadows on they sky. The strange light was a reminder of how different this place was from Mikhail’s home.
He would work on the last of the laspistols. They would need the thrones before their next deployment, and it would give him something to do with his hands. Also, working on laspistols helps, it was a good thing, a useful thing for the skaggis. There would be enough time before the next deployment, Krash knew, that he’d run out of things to do to lascarbines and laspistols. That’s when helping the skaggis was not helping the skaggis. That’s when he tried and they yelled, because they have regulations, and because “this not mountains, this not home, this not tundra law” as if he didn’t know this place was not beautiful Novaskag.
Deep down, though perhaps not very deep, Krash was afraid. This was the first time since the long, dark transit that Oksana had not been nearby to guide his impulses. The others didn’t know what it was like, those weeks alone with nothing between you and the empty black void but a single sheet of transteel. The stars were so bright, too bright, too many. They return you back into the squad for a training exercise or ceremony, knowing the whole time the commissar will be watching you like a seveserre; that your squad mates are nervous around you, that when it’s over you will be put back in a cell with nothing but a primer you cannot read.
“Krash, where you been?” Czerkov called from the doorway.
Keeping Tamarova company, yes? Lieutenant was looking for you,” the short skaggi with a single eyebrow smiled. Krash nodded and smiled back, waiting. “Hey, we heard how you fix sentinel out there,” Czerkov continued, “is good job.”
“Got lucky, had parts!” Krash grinned triumphantly. Czerkov patted him on the back as the operator passed into the barracks. He’d start with the actions on the laspistols. This pattern was so stiff, made for soft-bellied conscripts who white-knuckled everything. After that retainer clips had to be filed down and the switch adjusted a few millimeters up, again things designed for soft-bellies so they didn’t accidentally drop a power-pack in the middle of a fire fight.
“Idiot, where you been?” Rusty droned as Krash entered their quarters, the foreman slipped into skagsign, We have meeting with Inquisitor. Krash’s eyes widened, this was good news, they would have something to do, maybe more thrones, or more tech.
You know where this is? Rusty held up a scrap of parchment with a number and letters on it. Krash stared blankly, so Rusty signed it out, is a building number, and I think street name. Krash looked intently at the letters, they seemed familiar.
Base map! he signed excitedly, then turned around and stepped quickly out the door. He was tracing fingers around the dirty, faded map posted on an old kiosk beside a park-become-parade ground when the rest of the squad caught-up.
“Idiot,” Rusty wheezed impatiently, “You think he meet us someplace like this?” Krash ignored him, and Rusty was too tired for his aloof games, “You know this place or no?”
“Look,” Krash left a finger on a thin black line with letters riding it perpendicular to the ground. Volkov bent in.
“Ahhh! You do well, Brother Krash!” he announced, wincing as he bent upright. The name on the map matched the name on the parchment.
“Okay, we going back into trade zone,” Rusty stated, then signed to them out of general sight of passersby, keep your eyes open, we don’t want anyone following us. Split-up, going in as a squad will draw more attention.
The squad had been wandering the streets around the target for several minutes, split into pairs and individuals and maintaining a chain of visual contact. Rusty had spotted the warehouse wearing the matching number, but the whole area and lack of lighting made them all uneasy. Rusty wanted them to make absolutely sure no one had followed them to the largely industrial and abandoned area of the trade zone.
Finally satisfied, the foreman flashed a sign at Volkov across the street and down the block, who flashed it behind him without looking. Around the corner, Dmitri and Mitin spotted it and passed it to Bash down the street behind them, and so the signal passed to the rest of the squad. In another couple of minutes they’d met in the shadow of the warehouse near the main entrance. Rusty looked to Krash, hunched over his auspex adjusting the antenna. The mountain-man held-up a single finger.
Cover the corners, go in cold, just be careful, Rusty signed. They nodded acknowledgement.
Rusty was the first through the door, the others close behind him, spreading away from the doorway quickly on instinct. The only thing they found inside was a lone man, wearing no particular uniform, sitting comfortably at a table with a single lamp on it. He had dark skin, not like any of the Imperial regiments they’d encountered on the planet thus far, but he was well groomed and possessed of a manner inconsistent with the rogue traders. Krash and Dmitri noticed stummers arrayed around the room, several of them. This man had resources. There was a steel case on the table, next to a portable, orbital-grade antenna dish.
“You satisfied with the neighborhood?” the man asked, indifferent to the volume of his voice.
“Can’t be too careful,” Rusty droned.
“Good,” the man said.
“We weren’t expecting to find…” Rusty glanced around again.
“Me?” the man asked, holding his arms out and laughing, “He doesn’t make a lot of personal appearances,” the man gestured to the case and the antenna, then, without warning, a massive pistol appeared in his hand, “Identification time,” his smile evaporated.
The skaggis twitched toward their weapons, but eased their hands to the inquisitorial seals under their blouses. Once they’d all produced them, the dark man re-holstered his weapon and smiled.
“Alright then,” he spun the case toward him, opened it, tapped a series of keys and held a ring to the encryptix port. A moment later a pair of lights began to glow and the antenna shifted minutely to acquire whatever signal had been preprogrammed into it. The man spun the open case toward the squad, and the top half blazed to life as a pictcaster image of Inquisitor Tharne.
“There you are,” he said curtly.
“As requested, sir,” Rusty said respectfully.
“I had need of you, only to discover you’d been ferried off to be lumbermen. I need you to investigate something,” the Inquisitor stated, the skaggis waited. “You’ll be returning to Gamma twenty-nine. I’m curious as to why you were there in the first place. I’m curious as to why two squads of drop-troops and a handful of ogryn handlers were dispatched to such a pointless location, and I’m especially curious as to why Sgt. Dixon’s storm troopers were there. You are going to sate my curiosity. You’ll be deploying back to Gamma twenty-nine tomorrow, the orders have been written and are being delivered to your lieutenant presently.
“Take care you don’t arouse too many suspicions out there, it won’t due for you to be killed prematurely. Questions?” the inquisitor asked. Rusty was too dumfounded to have any, they’d just been reunited with their brothers and sisters, now they were being split-off again, back to the place that had eaten half of the skaggis that went there.
“Good. Start with Colonel Mann,” the screen went black. The dark man closed it gently, collapsed the antenna, and sat back in his chair. The skaggis exchanged glances after a moment, then filed out into a light drizzle that had begun in the few minutes they’d been inside. They split-up again without a word, signed or otherwise, and returned to quarters with a sense of disappointment and dread.