Krash dropped to the ground next to Rusty with a soft thump. Invisible through the thick smoke, the machine gun mounted on the back of the ork wartruck was still chattering, but not at them.
“Tamarova?” Rusty asked.
“Here, foreman,” the female-half of his least-favorite paring backed into view, lascarbine pointed toward back the way they’d come. Rusty nodded and swiveled is ocular implants down to the field engineer’s bleeding right side. A piece of the flak-plate was missing, but it had saved the scrawny skaggi from an ork bullet.
“Shirt,” Rusty ordred. Immediately, Krash pulled his blouse and undershirt up, keeping his armor on as best he could. Numerous roughly-done tattoos appeared on Krash’s pale flesh. Rusty quickly sprayed the area with a disinfectant coagulant, which sizzled on the wound briefly before sealing it off with clotted blood. Then he ripped open a large, self-adhering bandage infused with a variety of chymicals and slapped it forcefully over the wound in a fashion he knew would hurt. Krash breathed hard, but didn’t give Rusty the satisfaction of a grunt.
“Shirt,” Rusty growled again. Krash replaced his equipment in a few quick movements, “Now, get the Fuck back to the squad where you belong!” he almost shouted. Krash gazed into the foreman’s implants for a moment before Oksana tugged his arm, lopping through the smoke towards the ticka-ticka of Bash’s mulitlaser and the thin sound of Dimitri’s longlas.
“Where are the Stormtroopers,” Rusty buzzed out.
“Still running this way, not as many orks following,” he caught the swagger in Dimitri’s voice, “but still enough for a good brawl.”
“Copy, keep covering them,” he ordered, nearly stumbling straight into Bash’s line of fire through the smoke.
“The smoke’s going to start clearing soon,” Bash warned, keeping his barrels spitting in the area he assumed the target to be in. Gravel splashed up around them as the unseen greenskin returned fire. The big man had to roll quickly to avoid the line of heavy-caliber rounds, and Rusty dove into a roll himself.
“Boz!” Rusty bellowed.
“Here, foreman!” the former-gamma skaggi shouted through the smoke.
“Get over to Zhurov and…” he was cut-off by another burst of ork fire through the thinning smoke. When he brought his head back-up, he heard the growling from behind him and turned to find Bash curled over his leg, now stained bright red through the neat holes punched in his trousers. The big man was yelling through his teeth, but pulled himself half-around to grip his weapon handles again. With a great yell, Bash held down the triggers and let-loose another volley.
“Shit!” Rusty cursed, “Boz! Get over here,” Boz slid-in next to Bash as Rusty did the same. He opened his medikit and started slicing down the pant leg to reveal the damage.
“Emperor’s mercy,” the newly-appointed assistant medic said, “at least it didn’t get blown-off.”
“Clean it out,” Rusty was prepping the ballistic foam injector. Boz did as he was told and irrigated the wound with disinfectant. Again, the tissue sizzled quietly, and Bash roared into his attack. With practiced efficiency Rusty burned-off the doomed tissue, injected the ballistic foam into the wound as both local anesthetic and fluid-sponge, and began wrapping the boomer’s leg.
“How bad,” Bash asked.
“It won’t fall-off, you feel toes?” Rusty asked. After a second’s pause, Bash answered.
“Yah, I feel toes,”
“Good! Then you can still use foot,” the medic had his kit re-packed already.
“Foreman, the stormtroopers made it to the first blast crater, the orks followed but I don’t have shot past the truck,” Dimitri advised.
“Take Krash and Tamarova around to their drop-zone, stay in cover,” Rusty ordred, hoping all of the orks had followed the storm troopers from the other side of the artillery line. He just now noticed that most of the heavy guns had stopped firing from the clifftop.
“Repositioning,” Tamarova replied.
“Foreman! I’m coming around to aid them!” the Father announced, “The Emperor Protects through us!” There didn’t appear to be much arguing with him, and Rusty would rather deal with the remaining orks while the stormtroopers were still in fighting condition.
“Copy,” he acknowledged, “Bash, we have get you to cover.”
“Agreed!” the boomer shouted, they hefted the multi-laser, and Bash tried his damaged leg. With a strained expression, he forced the pain out his mind and was able to put some weight on it, but not much.
“I can walk, but I won’t be running anywhere,” the big man said.
“Good enough, come on,” Rusty said, helping the wounded man redistribute his gear to move effectively with his now-severe limp. The boomer got moving just as Father Volkov appeared from the smoke, materializing like the battle saints of legend with is chainsword held high and his robes flaring around him. The only thing separating him from shrine statues was the improbably shaggy beard.
“We’ll cover you Father,” Rusty said, as another volley of ork fire threw dirt spraying around them all.
“In the Emperor’s name!” Volkov shouted as he sprinted by, followed by an awkwardly running Krylova.
“Boz, help Bash,” Rusty ordered, Bosinov got to it immediately. The four of them made it to the rocks in time to see Krash, Oksana, and Dimitri slip into cover near where the Stormtroopers had roped down. The orks chasing the stormtroopers were still running after them, moving slowly thanks to Dimitri’s intimidating marksmanship.
Bash set his weapon down on the rocks, with help from his squadmates, and he jammed his triggers down. Two orks instantly spun to the ground and the rest scattered about trying to get to cover, “Haha!”
“Zhurov, can you take out the gunner?” a few seconds later, the gunner on the ork truck bellowed his last bellow. There was another explosion from the far side of the truck, and given the debris raining down, it was a second truck being blown apart by the stormtroopers.
“Cover Volkov!” Rusty ordred. With flaming debris raining down, smoke from the grenades still swirling around him, and the roar of the armor battle echoing up from the valley far below, Father Volkov sprinted across the broken ground, yelling the Emperor’s praises all the way in the Litany of the Chain. He came around the shot-through first truck, seeing clearly the wreckage of the battlewagon in which the remaining stormtroopers were taking cover in and firing at the still charging orks. He could hear Reed’s multilaser continuing to fire from the rocks.
The first orks were now getting near the stormtrooper position, Volkov found renewed speed in his limbs. “I am the Emperor’s weapon!” he bellowed, “Death to the Xenoooooooo!” he howled, charging full-speed on a collision course with the lead ork. The towering greenskin roared, changing his own course to meet the priest’s charge. Throwing the added weight of his inertia behind his strike, Father Volkov brought his trusty chainsword grinding down into the ork’s ungainly blade.
The edge of the Priest’s weapon slipped down the ork’s and dug into flesh. The greenskin screamed in rage more than pain, and shoved Volkov back. It swung the axe-like weapon, too high. The priest ducked and slashed out, this time biting deep into the ork’s torso and shouldering him to the rocky ground. The ork let out a death-gasp before lying still, and Volkov raised the chainsword with a victory cry to meet the next enemy, swinging at the next ork just in time to deflect a heavy slash.
Krylova leapt in with his knife flashing, slicing at the ork’s leg. The greenskin swung at the pair of humans again, still roaring. Volkov dodged and jammed his chainsword up into the belly of the great beast. Somehow, it didn’t fall, and the priest had to press himself against the greenskin to avoid its blade. The tactic worked, but Krylova wasn’t so fortunate. He caught the edge of the blow and spun with a yelp to the ground.
“Graaaahhhh!” Volkov braced his feet and levered the churning chainsword through the xeno’s torso, “Dieeeee!” it burst through the side, rattling to full speed again as the ork dropped to a knee. It tried to swing again but missed, and fell back upon its legs, the ork’s torn core unable to support such a massive frame. Hot shot lasfire was snapping the air all around him as stormtroopers fired on their attackers, and his own squads fire was flashing by from the other direction. Another ork tumbled to the ground, and after a few more chaotic seconds, Father Volkov stood breathing heavily, splattered in xeno blood, as stormtroopers and skaggis cheered.
It was only then Volkov noticed Krylova had never risen. He quickly knelt beside his erstwhile partner, and began to pray. Rostilov jogged-up with Boz on his heels, and Bash hobbled in at the same time Dimitri slowed to halt.
“Good job everyone,” Sgt. Dixon stepped over the nearest ork corpse, “but we’re not done yet.”
Just as he finished his sentence, the collected guardsman became aware of Krash yelling at a full sprint on the other side of the wrecked vehicles. A cannon blast rattled through them.
“What the hell?” Dimitri shouted. They all turned to see Krash and Oksana sprinting headlong from the cliff-base cover toward the firing line, the shower of earth from an artillery shell falling to the ground behind them. Another blast sent-up another geyser of debris almost on top of the pair.
“He’s crazy!” Bash shouted. Dimitri dropped prone with his longlas and traced it beneath the ruined artillery line. Soon, a field gun with a mess of grots about it came into view behind his crosshairs. They were reloading it, having already turned it about to point at Krash and Oksana. An imperial grenade bounced into his scope’s view and exploded behind the grots. One of them went tumbling head over feet away, but the rest were still preparing to fire. What Zhurov didn’t do is pause, thinking about how easy it would be to let fate bring him justice for Marge. He reacted without thought, like any good skaggi, relying on instinct which curled his finger tighter around his finely-balanced trigger, unleashing a tight-beam shot into the loading grot before he could slam the breech closed. The tiny greenskin blackened with heat and collapsed. Dimitri’s next shot killed the last crewman just as Krash and Oksana came upon the field gun.
“Thanks for the assist,” Oksana said over the bead, “Ridgeline clear.”
“We have a bigger problem,” Rostilav was gazing out over the forested valley to watch a great cloud of dust rising in the distance, approaching the main force of Imperial vehicles, “Dixon, where’s your voxman?” The stormtrooper sergeant shook his head darkly.
“Dammit,” Rusty punched the air.
“I fix,” Krash shouted, jogging up from around the wrecked vehicle caked in mud, blood, and smoke residue. Pulling the voxcaster gently from the dead man’s back, he looked through the massive hole punched through the middle of it. He met Rusty’s dismal expression and continued, “This will take time.”
“Forget it, we don’t have time. We need to warn the scintillans. Volkov, Boz, go grab the sled,” he ordered, they ran to retrieve it as Rusty stepped to the edge of the cliff. Dixon understood.
“Grab what you can and get the ropes!” he told his surviving stormtroopers.
“Can you see anything down there, Zhurov?” Rusty asked the hunter. Zhurov stepped to the cliff and swept his scope across the forest canopy below.
“Too much woods in way. I wouldn’t be able to see Bash’s mother through this cover,” he replied quickly, “Dust isn’t moving fast enough to be vehicles, is infantry.”
“Skaggis, we jump down,” Rusty announced. Before he’d even finished talking, Krash and Oksana sprinted past him and flung themselves full-speed off the edge of the cliff.
“Saint Sebastian!” one the stormtroopers yelled in shock, his face paling. Then he saw the operator and his jump-partner activate their gravchutes simultaneously, “You people are insane!”
“No,” Zhurov said, walking up to the cliff edge cinching his longlas strap tightly to his chest, “We skaggis!” he sent a two-fingered salute towards the stormtroopers and tipped backwards over the edge, shoving-off at the last moment into an awkward kind of swan dive. He activated his chute half-way down.
Once Boz and Volkov returned with the sled, they helped load the multilaser onto it. Bash tested his wounded leg again, nodding to Rusty. The stormtroopers were half-way down the cliff-face on their repelling lines when the rest of Delta squad dropped past them in free fall just before activating their gravchutes and landing softly on the forest floor at the base of the cliff.
“Krash, report,” Rusty ordered after they’d landed and unpacked the multi-laser.
“Scouting, clear so far,” Tamarova replied over the bead.
“Delta move up, give them a hundred meters,” Rusty directed. He held back, letting the others get going with Bash’s bad leg while he waited for Dixon’s troopers to finish repelling down. As soon as the sergeant hit the deck, Rusty rose from his cover in the brush.
“Dixon, we should split-up, better chance of locating command,” he suggested.
“Roger that,” Dixon unclipped from his line as troopers arrived at the base of the cliff. Dixon directed his survivors with hand signals to head along the cliff before they turned into the forest. The battered stormtroopers dispersed without a word, fanning out expertly into underbrush and rocks at the base of the cliff. Dixon started after them but stopped short and turned to face the skaggi foreman.
“The Emperor Protects,” Dixon nodded at Rusty before following his men. It was the closest thing a man of Dixon’s pedigree could come to thanking a barbarian. Despite being born at opposite extremes of the Imperium’s wide socio-economic spectrum, Rostilav Norin and Aliard Dixon discovered a reflection of each other in that brief moment. Both men born into a fight for survival, raised from their earliest memories not just to live, but to win. Both men, despite reputations as bilious and misanthropic, had been drawn to lead men to certain death. Rusty returned the nod, following the stormtrooper sergeant with his cybernetic eyes. The sublte click of the microbead transceiver in his ear jerked his attention back to the task at hand.
“Orks…squad strength…setting ambush,” Oksana reported in a whisper.
“Ambush positions, crossfire,” he ordered. The squad was already moving in to position, “Tamarova, location.”
“Game trail, up tree,” she replied. Rusty struggled through the undergrowth, picking his steps. Forests were not built for skaggis. After a few minutes he spotted Father Volkov crouching in the brush. Nearby the wounded Bash was propped against his weapon, and though he couldn’t see him Rusty knew Zhurov was off to his right somewhere. By the time he’d finished easing into his hiding place the foreman still hadn’t figured out which tree Krash and Oksana were perched in.
“Twenty meters…eighteen…fifteen,” Krash began whispering into the squads ears. What was that noise? Orks were loud, but this was mechanical. If it was a tank, there’d be far more noise. He strained his ears, “A walker?” Krash’s supposition quickly manifested, thrashing apart a cluster of shrubs either side of the game trail. It was four meters of grime and rust lashed together with saw blades and ammunition belts. A knot of greenskins flanked its progress through the trees. There wasn’t time to run, it was nearly on top of them now, and as it stepped past a tree, the bark exploded violently near the base of the things “torso.”
Instantly, the behemoth screeched around and let a stream of high-caliber rounds eat through the greenery to Bash’s left. The boomer returned the favor, the ticka-ticka lighting the shadows. The roar of an ork’s confusion sounded the same as their battle cry, Rusty had no idea if they’d sprung the trap or the greenskins had lured them into one. Either way, throwing a grenade seemed like the best option.
Inside the cramped pilot compartment of the Slaughterstomp, Chewtung yelled as he swept the heavy gun back and forth through the trees. Explosions were going off behind and around him and the boys were all shouting. Sneaky pink-skins, not even ork enough to fight in the open!
“Get ‘em! What are you doing! CHARGE!” he adjusted the stream of fire towards the source of the humans’ flash-gun. Another blast rattled the Slaughterstomp. Orks were screaming outside now, in pain this time.
“AHHH! ROAAHGHGHG!” he shouted in frustration, wrenching his controls to make the ungainly machine obey him, “WAAAAGHGHGHGHGHGHGHGHHG!” More things hit the shell of the walker, he felt it starting to loose Gork’s, or Mork’s, blessing. Chewtung wouldn’t go without a good fight. He kept firing, and he kept firing until the walker fell over, and even then, as the control box burned all around him and roasted his flesh, Chewtung kept bellowing and trying to fire the gun that had long since stopped working.
Dmitri fired again at the ork trying to crawl away through the brush; he waited for the capacitors, unsure if he’d killed it.
“All dead,” Oksana said over the bead.
“Check and regroup,” Rusty stood-up several meters away. Dmitri scanned behind and around him before standing and walking toward the rest of the squad. He saw Krash and Oksana jump from their tree and approach the ork bodies and burning walker. Bash limped into view.
We’re going ahead to check the area for any stragglers or back-up squads, Krash skagsigned to Rusty. The Foreman nodded, failing to understand why Krash could make so much sense in skagsign yet utterly baffle everyone when he spoke, and the mechanic duo disappeared into the forest again.
Give them a hundred meters leeway, this worked out well, Rusty signed. It was a skaggi “good job” if they’d ever seen one. They didn’t hear anything from Krash or Tamarova, which meant it was clear or they were very dead. They started moving again, but hadn’t made it more than a quarter mile before Oksana came over the bead.
“Contacts ahead, maybe friendly,” she said. Rusty held an iron hand up for them to stop and spread out. Less than two minutes later, “Scintillans, clear to approach.” The squad started moving-up, this hadn’t taken as long as they though it would. Then they heard loud crashing and explosions from ahead.
“Krash,” Rusty barked into the bead, “What the fuck did you do?” The only answer was a brief transmission of unintelligible shouting and screeching steel. The squad all looked at Rusty, “Krash?”
“Is back! RUN!” Krash shouted over the bead. A moment later Krash and Oksana came sprinting into view through the leaves and branches, waving for them to turn around.
“Is back! Is back!” was all Krash managed to shout out.
“Squiggoth! They’re all dead!” Oksana clarified, neither of them slowed down as they passed the squad, running full-out for the cliffs. Dmitri shook off the confusion first and took-off after them. Rusty followed, pushing Bash along on his bad leg as they hop-ran away from the sounds of chaos and death. They all made it back to the cliff face, expecting the massive creature to return at any second and run them into the ground. Mira and Bash actually looked genuinely surprised.
“High-ground,” Rusty pointed at Dmitri, “This way, stick to rocks,” he directed the rest of the squad. Dmitri started climbing the rappelling ropes left behind by the stormtroopers, Mitin right behind him. They started moving through trees again, following the cliff-face, with Krash well ahead with the auspex. Dmitri and Mitin made it to the top in less than five minutes, not bad, he thought. They took a few breaths trying to spot the squad in the foliage below. Dmitri saw them first and gestured without pointing. Mitin nodded and they started picking along the debris-strewn cliff-top after them. They both stopped to scan the forest for any sign that orks were approaching the cliffs. What the hell were they doing now? The scintillans were all dead, even if there were any survivors, there’s no way the skaggis were going to find them without having to fight through waves of orc infantry and a damned squiggoth. He certainly had no idea where they were, there was never a map shown to them in pre-flight briefing, and even then, they were certainly a long ways off to hike it back to base. Good thing they had plenty of rations. Where the fuck were the storm troopers? They had to have gotten a map or something, privliged bastards. Mitin punched his arm.
She pointed down the ridgeline, at a mob of gretchin pulling field guns across the rocky ground to replace the wrecked ones. Damn, he keyed-up his microbead, “Gretchin on the ridge, coming down.” He looked at Mitin and she nodded ready. Keeping himself low to the ground, Dmitri crabwalked to the edge, checked his control arms, and rolled-off. Just over the edge, he kicked-out, pushing himself away from the rocks and free falling a second or two before activating the gravchute.
Mitin followed, and they touched down well-enough after kicking past a couple of branches. The sharpshooters caught-up with the rest of the squad a few minutes later. They continued marching along the cliff edge for about twenty minutes, waiting when Krash directed them to. The heat was growing; they were sweating under the gear and the strain of helping Bash struggle through rough terrain on his wounded shin.
Perhaps that’s why they were surprised when heavily-painted orks came bellowing out of the trees behind them. Well ahead of the of the group, Krash and Oksana’s first indication that something was wrong was additional movement on the auspex from the squad.
“What?” Krash asked the auspex, knitting his brows in a curious expression as he adjusted the settings, “Dis mean…uh oh.”
“Ambush!” Rusty barked over the bead. Then the shooting started. Krash looked at Oksana, they shared the look of dread, then began running back toward the group. Half-way, Oksana cut right to curve along-side of the fight, Krash followed her lead instinctively. Oksana had always been a better soldier than Krash, even in the grip of a zeropyne high or the racks of pre-withdrawal. She proved it here once again, bringing them through the cover to a spot they could cover the squad from without having to shoot through them. She didn’t break stride, even the half-step pause Krash took, upon seeing the war-painted ork commandos overrunning the skaggis. She quickly picked vulnerable targets and opened fire.
The greenskins were already wounded, heavily it appeared. Rusty had even taken down at least one. The rest were still pushing. One slashed across Father Volkov, as usual at the heart of the melee, and cut deeply into his arm. Quickly changing his stance, the wily priest whipped his chainsword up an hit the mark dead-on. With a growing shout of triumph, the Father’s weapon ate the thick neck of the commando leader until the head separated from the body. He held it by hair, kicking the twitching body aside and ignoring the fount of blood drenching him as he held the ork’s head high for all to see. The battle was soon over, all the orks dead or dying on the forest floor. They hadn’t lost anyone this time, a true victory, but Volkov was in bad shape, and no one remained uninjured.
Rusty and Boz went to work immediately, but even the optimistic Bosinov was aware that with everyone seriously injured, more than one might not complete the long march back to base through hostile territory. They still had to decide if they were going to search for the stormtroopers or any other surviving scintillans. After ten minutes or so, their wounds patched as well as the medical team could manage in the current situation, they started moving again. Dmitri broached the subject.
“So…they are all dead, then?” he asked. The squad exchanged uneasy glances. In their state, searching for friendlies could be more dangerous than just getting back as fast as possible.
If not, we won’t find them before they do, Oksana signed, gesturing to the dead commandos.
Bash? Mitin? Dmitri continued around the circle.
I can walk fine, but I’m not gonna be able to keep up on a sprint, the boomer answered.
We have no idea where we are, we need to find somebody who does, Mitin signed wearily.
If we survived there have to be others, right? We’re just going to leave them out here? Boz asked.
How are we going to find them? Rusty asked. Boz looked at Krash, but the mountian man just shrugged. Rusty continued, We go back to base and report. We’re not going to die out here in hot trees. Krash, fifty meters, watch rear and front. Zhurov, rear guard. We go.
After a few days picking their way through the forest, they found the main highway and followed it in to Gamma 29. Dirty, bloody, dehydrated, and exhausted Krash and Oksana were the first to reach the gates. The scintillan sentry stared at him in disbelief.
“Skaggis,” Oksana said loudly, her voiced scratchy from disuse. Delta had not spoken a single word since the last ork battle, skagsign and bead-clicks serving well for the situation.
“You,” the sentry was still shocked, “You’re alive?”
“Close enough, let us in,” she barked.
“Yes, um, proceed to medico,” he directed them, stepping over to the base vox to report an unexpected return. The rest of delta squad appeared at the gate, and as a unit they went straight to the mess tent. The scintillans in line for chow stared in surprise as the dirty, torn barbarian-soldiers cut in line without a word and had their trays laden with double-rations by the chattering rattlings behind the counter. After eating their fill, the skaggis filed into the field hospital where they were cleaned-up. There was little more to do with their wounds after Rostilav’s expert care in the field, but they re-wrapped the remaining cuts and scrapes in clean bandages and did full assessments (physical and mental) on each of them before clearing them to return to base population.
They’d barely made it back to barracks before Barksdale was at their door. Boz answered it.
“I wouldn’t have believed it myself you weren’t standing in front of me. I’m still not sure I believe it,” he said, exasperated, “Did you all make it back? I heard you were barely wounded…”
“Now,” Rusty said, stepping into the conversation. Barksdale cocked his head, but Rusty stormed on, “after a week’s time to heal walking through your woods.”
“Well, you’ve eaten and been cleared by medico, you’re due for debrief in an hour,” Barksdale stated, “The Emperor truly protects,” he finished, turning on his heal and walking back to the command bastion before things escalated. Exactly an hour later, after a short nap and in laundered uniforms, delta reported for their debriefing. An hour later, Maj. Scantling and Lt. Barksdale sat back, arms crossed, processing the skaggi account of the mission.
“Let us be clear on one item, at no point after the appearance of the squiggoth did your squad attempt to contact Imperial survivors, or even make it known that you yourselves had survived?” Barksdale asked.
“With what? We not issued voxcaster,” Rusty answered, once again finding the silver lining in the horrific deformities of his face: indiscernible contempt. Lt. Barksdale exchanged glances with the colonel and other command staff.
“You mentioned that Sgt. Dixon also survived the initial fight on the ridge. You had no contact with his team after the descending the cliff face?”
“No,” Rusty confirmed, seeing no need to elaborate.
“You must understand that, in our considerable experience, a single infantry squad surviving fully intact through a battle with not a single other survivor is nigh impossible without more to the story than you have so far reported. An insertion onto a heavily fortified armor position, an encounter with an enemy walker, a squiggoth, and a skirmish with ork scouts, followed by several days without support in lethal bush-country with no navigation equipment; what else can you add to explain how you survived all of this?”
“Survive all dis? We were mission successful! Mission was kill artillery. Artillery was killed. Second mission was support scintillans, we support scintillans till they got all dead. What is problem?” Dmitri couldn’t resist speaking out of turn, “We survived because we are Skaggi, and dead guys were not.” The command staff, struggling with Dmitri’s thick accent, had growing fire in their eyes.
“There was nothing we could do to stop squiggoth, not mentioning all of Orks behind it,” Rusty cut-back in, “we come back. We follow orders. We do duty to Emperor.” This did little to quell the rage in Scantling’s eyes, but Barksdale spoke first.
“Very well, Foreman Norin. We’ve received orders for your skaggis to rejoin the rest of your platoon nearer the front. You have five hours to be on the landing pad, and I would suggest you avoid the Hole during that period. Your service at Gamma twenty-nine has been noted in the official record. Dismissed,” the Lieutenant collected the data slates from the hardwood table without another word. Rusty stood slowly to attention, staring into the Major’s eyes, still reddened with anger he was too disciplined to let escape. The rest of delta rose behind Rusty and saluted before filing out the door. Rusty was the last to leave, holding eye contact with the Major for several long seconds after the last skaggi had gone.
“The Emperor protects he of strong faith,” he recited from memory, barely audible and devoid of inflection, “and so fear not, Guardian of Man, the wrath of an endless void.” There was an additional line to the passage that Rusty left unspoken: Fear always that your soul will be found wanting when only He can save you. Rusty left the room, catching-up to delta as they marched back to the barracks.
“Idiot,” Rusty bellowed. Krash turned reflexively, which drew a twisted grin beneath Rusty’s steel mask, “Go to landing pad and make sure they know we not dead.”
“Okay,” Krash shrugged and broke-off from the squad, jogging over towards the airfield. He slowed as he approached Major Bhatikar’s valkyrie. The pilot was working on his dataslate, seated on a container. He looked-up and stood, face slack with surprise.
“Krash? You’re alive?”
“Yup, we had long way to walk,” Krash said dismissively, “we Skaggis, we not dead till you find the parts. Sometimes not even den!”
“Ha ha, right,” the pilot forced, “Well, I’m glad you made it, we caught a glimpse of what you were jumping into and when none of the battle group returned everyone assumed the worse. You’re lucky they didn’t clean-out your barracks already!” Krash got a nervous look on his face, but it passed without a word. Bhatikar continued, “We had orders to fly you boys back to your unit, I assume those are still standing?”
“Dat’s right!” Krash smiled, “we packing now. I help you put back seats?” Krash reached for the toolkit on his belt.
“No, that’s taken care of. We were expecting our next transport not to have your…tastes. I’ll admit, they gave the old girl a little more pep. It’ll be our pleasure to give you another cruise. We’ll be ready whenever you are.”
“Great, is good bird, will be back soon,” Krash took the pilot’s offered hand after a brief pause, and they shook firmly. With that, the mechanic hustled-off back to the barracks to pack his things. By the time he arrived, half the squad was prepped and cleaning while the other half finished packing gear. Oksana’s bag was already standing ready next to their racks, and she’d already distributed the extra pistols and energy packs to the squad to stow in their bags. Two containers of spare equipment had been partially emptied to make room for their heavier contraband, the items also distributed among the skaggis. They’d done this so many times in their years together it barely required orchestration, and within two hours the entire barracks was scrubbed, swept, and emptied of any trace the Skaggis had ever been there. The equipment of the squad, including those who didn’t make it, was stacked neatly outside the building, watched over by Mira, Dmitri, Bosinov, and Oksana. Krash had gone with Volkov to the base proper, thanking the clergy and the techpriests one last time before making their departure.
Krash let Volkov return to the squad while he went ahead to the landing pad. When he approached, he noticed Bhatikar’s valkyrie was still in the maintenance area, far from prepped. He looked around for the Major or Lt. Kishor, but neither were in sight.
“Hey,” a gruff voice called-out as Krash passed the active landing pads, “Hey, you a novaskaggi?” Krash looked over at the man, who wore a Navy flightsuit. He was standing near the loading ramp of an idling valkryie.
“Yah,” Krash said, “You see Major Bhatikar?”
“Whoever that is, no. You guys are late, where’s the rest of your squad?” the pilot demanded.
“They coming. Who are you?”
“Your ride back to your company. Get on board,” the man was more swarthy than most of the pilots Krash had seen, but naval operators came from all over the Imperium in all shapes and sizes. Krash stepped-up the ramp and took a seat near the door in case the squad made the same mistake.
“Father, where did you leave the Idiot?” Rusty asked as Volkov shouldered his bags.
“He went ahead to airfield,” Volkov replied.
“Let’s hope he didn’t get lost. Boz,” Rusty gestured for his comrade to help him with Krash’s bag.
Delta marched towards the only idling ship on the landing pads, it was clear from a distance Mjr. Bhatikar was not the figure performing checks on the starboard engines. When they got closer, the pilot noticed them and waved them over.
“You are not Bhatikar,” Rusty stated.
“Well you’re delta squad, 3rd company, so what I am is your transport. Your troopers ready, Sarge?” the man gruffed.
“It is Foreman, and we always ready,” Rusty responded.
“Well get your gear secure and we’ll get in the air.” Rusty watched the pilot finish his check and climb into the cockpit of the craft. The navigator was already strapped in, from this angle they couldn’t see his face. Oksana was the first to leave the formation and step aboard, passing Krash who emerged to help haul-in equipment. In a few minutes everything was strapped down to the cargo rings and delta was strapped into their seats.
“Hold check,” the vox crackled.
“Secure,” Rusty answered.
“Prepare for take-off, estimated flight time is a long-ass-ride,” the pilot crackled. Only Rusty and Volkov were close enough to the voxbox to make out the pilot’s comment, they exchanged a dubious glance. Paranoia is the greatest strength of a skaggi, and there’s was pinging wildly right now.
While the rest of the squad, still operating on what little sleep they’d had in the bush the night before, made a reasonable attempt at resting in the roaring cabin, Volkov watched his brothers; his willful herd. Bathed as they now were, wounds addressed by the dainty hands of scintillan physicians rather than Norin’s efficient mechanoflesh, there was no sign of their most recent march through the valley of death. Father Volkov was filled with an enormous sense of pride that calmed his nerves. These men and women were truly blessed by the Emperor, despite the concerning signs.
Foreman Norin wore the title well, but the bitterness of his soul had only deepened in the last weeks. There was still a chance that the fount of hope that was Bosinov could still bring Rostilav into the peaceful light that all in His service should know; but what concerned Volkov more was the opposite, that Norin’s dark moods would erode the blind confidence of the Lineman. Was the loss of his limb so traumatic? Volkov’s sacrifice of flesh had been painful, surely, but he had suffered worse and so had Norin. Loss broke the minds of men from Mordia and Vostroya, but skaggis lived with loss from birth. There was something deeper, or perhaps innate, in the medic that fouled his temper so. The priest was determined to discover it, so that he could be cleansed.
Zhurov, perhaps Volkov’s greatest concern, still struggled with his sister’s death. The hunter’s acid wit had sharpened lately, and he used it with less inhibition than was wise. At least Mitin’s level-headedness, while not sufficiently impassioned, would provide a buttress for his faith until he could rebuild himself. The woman reminded him of seveserre more than a heimroc, rarely making herself known but possessed of a cunning eye for detail.
Bash was, of course, the model skaggi: furious in battle, uncomplaining in suffering, doubtless in his faith and his comrades; strong and tough as an akyragh. He was dozing easily near the ramp, rousing to check his weapons were still safe from time to time. Miranova was much the same. There was no other pair of skaggis he would rather take the field with.
And then there were his wayward children. Volkov could not recall which senior officer had decided to place them in the same squad, but he had never thought it wise that Tamarova and Krasheninnikov should fraternize. Krasheninnikov was certainly faithful, far more than Oksana it seemed, but the thin man was beholden to an addiction. All the seventh had heard of his infamous brush with heresy, for many months Volkov himself had reservations about the Lord Commissar’s decision to stay execution. If it were not for Krash’s effervescent attitude and the fact that even his most dangerous behaviors were always attempts to help his brothers and sisters, the father would still feel that way. Still, there was something incomplete about Mikhail’s mind, or perhaps his heart. He did not respond to the thrill of battle, nor the spectre of glorious death. His detachment and his fascination with technomancy needed always to be watched.
Tamarova was like-wise ill in mind, though she had not always been. Volkov’s duty was to know all of his children, and he remembered what the famous Oksana Tamarova had once been to her station on Novaskag. Legendary Pipeline Patrol captain, she had been a rising star even during the first year of the Cythera campaign. There had been no singular incident, but as that terrible war dragged into two more years of frustration and loss, her star began to dim until she was a streaking meteorite. She became reckless and insubordinate. After the war she was brigged, as Krash had been. Volkov eased his mind with the knowledge that she was still a soldier, in every way. Her insubordination had passed after demotions winnowed her responsibilities to Krash. She was still reckless, but recklessness was far from sin, in some ways a virtue. Her lone virtue, he nodded to himself. She was courageous, and a heretic was cowardly.
Yes, delta squad, even having seen the horror of a Warp Demon, was still not beyond the Emperor’s grace. As they rocketed through the sky the belly of this steel heimroc, he realized the Emperor had not only blessed them, but had now directed them on a new holy mission. They were rejoining their brothers and sisters, ending their exile to an isolated supply base. They had proven themselves worthy in His eyes, and with this satisfying thought the priest drifted into semi-conscious sleep.
“We landing,” Krash announced. Tamarova roused immediately and Dmitri lowered his gaze from the ceiling to look at a grinning Krasheninnikov.
“You have auspex in head? That explains things,” Dmitri shot, leaning his head back again.
“We are, pressure changing,” Rusty grumbled, rolling his shoulders to indicate where this information was coming from.
“Prep for landing,” the voxbox on the bulkhead squawked, confirming it. A few minutes of stretching later, the valkyrie touched down with a jolt and the ramp began to descend, sharp daylight cutting into the dim compartment. With it, a wall of noise and a familiar salty breeze invaded the cabin.
“Ocean,” Rusty droned, an inaudible groan rippled through them all. No one wished to be reminded of Cythera’s bloody islands.
As they carried gear down the ramp, delta assessed their new base. Stonework buildings rose to form the horizon, split by awkward streets traveled by units of guardsmen. They quickly recognized familiar uniforms: Scintillan, Jingkai, Brontian, and Navy security forces. The pilots were already out of their cockpit spinning down engines and conducting post-flight inspections.
“This place is huge, where do we report?” Rusty approached the pilots.
“Don’t ask me, we were never here,” the pilot brushed past him, thrusting a small bag at him, “these are yours.” Rusty looked inside, the bag was full of what looked like drink chits and a fold piece of paper.
“What is this? Who are you?” he demanded.
“You fuckin’ know what it is,” the pilot spat, “and we don’t exist, we never did, understand?” Rusty nodded, and the pilot grabbed his satchel and briskly followed his co-pilot, already almost out of sight.
“Dick,” Rusty replied sub-audibly. He turned and started towards the nearest MP after stowing the bag in his pack. The Naval security soldier raised an eyebrow at the skaggi foreman.
“What’s your issue?” he asked cautiously.
“Where are skaggis?” Rusty demanded.
“Right here, apparently, what’s your problem? Your barracks haven’t changed,” he continued.
“We just arrived from supply base, point to barracks.”
“Alright,” the guard pointed toward a cluster of fortress like constructions, “Your regiment’s housed that way in an old hab, it’s pretty big you won’t miss it. Don’t get lost crossing the Trade zone.”
“Yah,” Rusty was already turning back to his squad. He motioned for them to follow, and they hefted the gear. Fifteen minutes later they rounded a corner and saw a pair of skaggi uniforms guarding the entrance to an imposing, mineral-stained habplex.
“Nice,” Boz remarked.
“Mmm…windows,” Bash was disappointed. Stone buildings held the promise of feeling like home for a change, but windows were a problem. Who would want to riddle their home with vulnerabilities? Why not secure hatches for a quick escape route, or tunnels? Just putting holes in the wall is helping the enemy. He glanced at Mira for reassurance and she was shaking her head with understanding.
“Look what the wind blew in!” one of the sentries shouted as soon as he saw them, “Zuhva get the lieutenant!” The other sentry disappeared inside the building, “Rusty? Is that you?”
“Yah, is me, Tetsi,” Rusty affirmed.
“You tell all about it tonight, we goin’ to have a booming time,” Tetsi slapped Volkov on the shoulder as he passed through the door, “the Lieutenant’s in the courtyard with the others.” Arm clasps and back-slaps were exchanged as the squad passed through, and Zuhva returned with half a dozen more bodies to help lug equipment into the building.
Delta proceeded through the comfortably narrow corridors to a bright courtyard in the center of the habplex. Two dozen skaggis were waiting for them in PT gear, including platoon Lt. Kojomjarov. Other skaggis were emerging from every portal and passage as the news spread at the speed of thought.
“Rusty!” he roared, jogging over and slapping his hands down on either shoulder, inspecting the hellish burn damage and the augmentations the medic had received since he’d last seen him. He caught sight of the collar device, “that’s right, is Foreman Rusty now. You look much better, brother!” he joked. The lieutenant took in the rest of the squad, noting the missing faces, “I am happy to see skaggis rejoin the family, but sad to see not all who left returned. Father Volkov, a prayer for the fallen.” Everyone gathered around the priest, putting arms around one another in solidarity.
“A skaggi is strong!” Volkov bellowed, his voice echoing off the stone facades into the bright coastal sky.
“Body and Soul!” they answered in unison, the force of their response shaking the ivy and flushing the birds from the courtyard eaves.
“A heimroc is fearless!” he called.
“Facing death!” they responded.
“A skaggi survives!” he called.
“Cold and night!” they responded.
“A heimroc fights!” Volkov’s fire was rising.
“Cold and night!” they replied, the communal fervor infecting them all.
“When a skaggi dies a good death,” he called.
“He rides the tundra winds!” they answered.
“When a heimroc dies with honor!” he called.
“She flies to the Emperor’s Keep!” they shouted.
“We live how we love,” he bellowed.
“We fight how we live!” the yelled.
“In the Emperor’s Name!” they joined him in the last line.
“Seveeeeenth!” Kojomjarov screamed this time.
“Heimrocs!” they screamed back.
“Seveeeeenth!” he repeated.
“Heimrocs!” they screamed, stomping as one.
“Seveeeeenth!” he cried.
“Heimrocs!” they shouted, leaping and stamping down with both feet in a thunder-clap. The were all breathing heavily, some with tears in their eyes as they embraced their surviving family and mourned the dead. In a few minutes, the impromptu ceremony was over, and the lieutenant assigned Fmn. Yukolova to take over PT.
“Come delta, I show you new digs,” Kojomjarov led the exhausted squad up the twisting stairwell to a room that would have been suitable for a family of three or four, “You like?”
“It will do,” Bash stated, eyeing the high window suspiciously.
“Great, you unpack, we debrief tonight, before the stomp,” the lieutenant left them to unwind and returned to his PT. Delta immediately got to work establishing racks and stowing gear, locating what few likely spaces to stash contraband presented them selves. Once unpacked and ready for inspection, they retired to the mess room established at the back of the building. Bash audibly sighed as they saw more appropriately skaggi portions on the serving line. They ate quickly, returning to their quarters for some much needed rest before another debriefing.
“You have everyone’s tags?” the lieutenant asked seriously. Delta had been gathered around the kitchen-turned-conference table with Kojomjarov for the last two hours going over the details of their activity at Gamma 29, in particular the circumstances of each lost skaggi’s death. It was important they be properly recorded in the regimental honor roll. They changed the details for Ty’win and Stenson.
“Here,” Rusty pulled a string of glittering cognomen tags from his breast pocket. He set them carefully in the lieutenant’s outstretched hand, letting the chain slide through his metal hands. Kojomjarov nodded gently and Rusty returned the jesture.
Dmitri couldn’t bring himself to look the lieutenant in the eye. He stared at Rusty instead, as if doing so would transfer the guilt weighing on his heart. Lying to the commissars he could do without batting an eye; but lying to Kojomjarov was like lying to his uncle, or at least a cousin. Before now, he could not imagine a situation he would lie to a fellow heimroc about. The urge to explain their secret allegiance was stronger than ever, and so was his homesickness.
Longing for Novaskag’s empty expanses and scouring winds was something all of them had experienced many times. Indoctrination, the long weeks in the bellies of starships, every time they landed on a new planet that was too hot, too crowded, and too complicated, Dmitri wished more than anything for the simplicity of Novaskag. There were no asinine regulations, no commissariat tribunals, no soft-bellied bureaucrats and weak-willed conscripts. The only nightmarish creatures could be fought with a lascarbine, a knife, and your wits. You did not have to think about demons, no one had secrets; you had two things always: Tundra Law and a job to do. Fuck the Guard. Fuck the Inquisition. Fuck this shitty planet and every one like it.
“Zhurov?” someone said, “Zhurov, you okay?” it was the lieutenant. Dmitri shook his head.
“Yes, Sir,” he hadn’t realized how deep his scowl had been, “I…just want to shoot something. Long flight.”
“There will be plenty of shooting soon enough,” Kojomjarov said, “why don’t you all get some rest. You have not slept since returning from the field, yes?”
“We got some in transit, Sir,” Bosinov offered.
“You sleep. I need you rested and ready to fight anything! Tomorrow you PT and field day, get to know base,” he slapped his knee, “You need to know where you going when you get sentry detail, yes!” the lieutenant ordered. “Before you become too attached to your rack assignments, I have better news for you. Nastya and Korotich are being reassigned to delta to keep you fighting strength maximum! They’re packing gear to move to your quarters now.”
“Enough paperwork,” he collected his dataslates, “Krash, your sardolin is rosined?” Krash nodded, then smiled, “Good! You play the Muska Hop! Go get! Go, you goofy sonuvamoshar!” Krash stood, saluted, and scurried off to unpack his favored instrument.
Kojomjarov watched him go before turning back to the group with a more serious expression, “What did he do?” The rest of the squad exchanged glances in confusion, and the lieutenant’s tone grew more irritated, “Look, you all giving shifty-eyes to each other like guilty tunnel-boys. I know he means well, but if you don’t tell me what he did wrong I can’t do anything to keep him out of trouble. So what did he do?”
“Just normal idiot things, Sir,” Rusty stated dryly, “He drive ore hauler through village, shoot-up motor-pool garage with sentinel guns, stripped valkyrie, and somehow found box of hot-shot packs.”
Kojomjarov let out a sigh, “Yah, normal Krash things. How pissed were scintillans?”
“We able to blame most of it on orks, sooo…” Rusty said.
“That’s good, what else?” the lieutenant insisted.
“He’s getting dangerous, sir,” Oksana said, following Rusty’s lead to allay Kojomjarov’s suspicions, and because she didn’t have to lie to do it, “Our last drop he separated from the squad, he charged a line of field guns next to an ork heavy technical. He was shot in the chest, Rusty caught a round trying to pull us out.”
“A few minutes later, he did same thing. Battle over, we save stormtrooper dicks and then he goes charging cannon without back-up! Grots shoot three shells at them before I can kill gun crew,” Dmitri added, “and he pass-out driving!”
“Well…we all surprised by squiggoth,” Bash acknowledged, everyone nodded.
“Hahaha!” Kojomjarov laughed heartily, delta knit their collective brow with concern, “Krash finally acts like a soldier and you think he is cracking-up?”
“Ha. Ha. Ha,” Rusty started, kicking Boz’s foot. The new assistant medic started laughing, too.
“Haha, I guess you’re right, LT! Maybe we’re overreacting,” he tried. Bash awkwardly joined-in and the rest followed suit long enough for Kojomjarov to stand-up and wave them out the door.
“Alright, skaggis, go join the family in the courtyard, we must celebrate your return and the memories of the fallen,” he ordered, shooing them from the table. They rose quickly, glad to be out of the most awkward position they’d found themselves in since meeting the Inquisitor. As they walked to the courtyard, Mira asked the obvious.
“So, when do we tell the new girls?” she stated. Bash looked at her, then at the back of Rusty’s head. The foreman didn’t appear to acknowledge the question, so Bash offered his opinion.
“Tonight, no sense waiting,” he shrugged.
“By Novas, Reed, what if we have to…you know…’ she asked. He shrugged in response.
“Better it is done quickly,” Mitin sighed, everyone glanced back at her petite form, Dmitri included, surprised that she of all people had stated the obvious.
“Do not concern yourselves before the time has come, brothers and sisters,” Volkov offered, “the Emperor’s will decides their ultimate fate, not us.”
Delta arrived at the doorway to the courtyard, where they could already hear the rest of the platoon joking and babbling. Someone was playing tobas, and a couple of people were chanting a folk tune along to the rhythm. Krash scuttled into view as they crossed the threshold, carrying his sardolin case and a huge smile. The only thing that mountain man seemed to like more than playing with tech was playing that damned sardolin. He pushed past Dmitri and Mira, joined Lupinoff at the tobas, and started tuning. By the time the lieutenant joined them, Bash, Mitin, Dmitri, and Bosinov were lined-up seeing who could get the best height on the Muska Hop as Krash vivaciously increased the tempo with each refrain and Lupinoff pounded the tobabs in a sweaty flail.
“Make room!” Kojomjarov shouted, stripping-off his shirt and joining the dance line, effortlessly falling into step, Father Volkov on his heals to keep the lines even. The skaggis of first platoon, third company danced and sang well past lights-out, but here there was no one to challenge them. Sweaty and happy, everyone retired to their racks and slept well. Except delta.
When they arrived back at quarters, Nastya and Irina in tow, they left Boz at the door to stand guard in case anyone came too near. The women didn’t realize anything was amiss until they noticed everyone watching them quietly.
“What’s wrong?” Nastya asked, immediately concerned. Delta had long had a reputation as different, even beyond the platoon. It wasn’t all necessarily a bad reputation, but since she’d been handed the reassignment, Popov had been nervous about this moment.
We have to tell you something, Nastya, Father Volkov initiated the skagsign conversation, seeing a sacred duty in delivering such fatal news, You as well, Irina.
Okaayyy, Nastya replied, glancing around the room. She held her hands out.
We Rusty began, We weren’t completely honest with the lieutenant.
Why would you be? She responded, snorting derision.
This is big, Nastia, Rusty continued, not a hint of humor in his body language, let alone his mechano-eyes or monotone voice, When we were at supply base, we were….recruited.
’Recruited?’ We’re already Guardsmen, she laughed, her smile flattened as she saw no one else was in a jovial mood, even Krash, who was pretending to be busy fixing something.
Now, we’re something else, too, Rusty glanced around the room, We work for the Inquisiton, specifically Inquisitor Tharne of the Ordo Hereticus.
What? When did we get that detail? Nastya signed, misunderstanding.
It not detail, Nastya, Rusty continued, frustrated, this is secret. Nobody know, not even Kojomjarov…especially not Kojomjarov.
What? she was still confused.
We were recruited by Inquisitor Tharne, after Tywin and Stenson were killed by a, he swallowed, an ugly action since his disfigurement, a warpspawn.
What are you talking about? Nastya demanded.
We were getting overrun, Oksana broke in, Tywin…did something. He accidentally summoned a demon. It killed him, and Stenson got caught in the middle. The rest of us barely made it out alive, Rusty was on fire for awhile, the father lost his arm….Vladoff, Yuri, and Kaminev, she trailed off.
You’re saying you saw a Demon? First hand? Nastya said in disbelief, half-thinking they’d all lost their minds.
We didn’t know, Krash flashed from his rack.
We didn’t know it was a demon until the Inquisitor told us, later, Rusty explained, that’s when he told us we could either work for him, or die.
By the Emperor… she started to respond.
Dat’s the deal for you, too, Rusty signed, stepping towards them, determined to be the one to do what had to be done, if it came to it.
Work for someone I’ve never met, or die? Nastia continued, incredulous, By who’s hand?
Rusty let out a tortured, alien sigh from his machine-lungs, By mine. It took a few minutes for the skagsigns to fully sink in. Nastya and Korotich both started and aborted questions a couple of times, trying to decide whether to laugh or cry, fight or run to the nearest bastion of sanity. Questions streamed through Nastya’s head, but her fingers could only twist in confusion. Finally, she managed a response.
We tell…no one? she asked.
No one, not even skaggis, Dmitri confirmed with a finality unsuited for him. Nastia looked him in the eyes, scanned each of delta squad anew, as if they were not the family she had known for nearly a decade. As if they were back at indoc, having their identities broken and reforged.
I guess I have no choice, Irina resigned, I will kill for the Inquisition as I kill for the Emperor.
There’s one, Rusty looked relieved, so did Volkov, Nastya? Are you with us?
The compact woman half-smirked before she sniffed again, trying to buy time, still trying to fully grasp what they were trying to say. It was so…unbelievable. Maybe this would be good, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. If they could do it, she could do it. This was a chance to prove herself, to an Inquistor no less.
“My loyalty is to my brothers and sisters,” she said out loud, “I am with you, until the Emperor claims me.”
“You want me to what?” Irina asked.
“The Emperor demands you be pure in body as well as spirit,” Volkov extolled, “You must at least anoint yourself with the sacred oils each morning, if you will not cleanse your flesh.”
“Why everyone want me to waste water bathing?” she demanded, “at home, no one in my station bathe more than twice a week.”
“We not at your station!” Dmitri demanded, “and I never want to know what life is like there! What I imagine is bad enough.”
“Hey!” she snarled.
“Focus!” Volkov growled, “Purify yourself!”
“Fine,” Korotich relented. Volkov bent to whisper into his pendant, mouthing the words ‘thank you.’ It was still early morning, and already they were arguing. ‘There’s nothing worse than an idle skaggi,’ Lord Commissar Aldonis had uttered many times over fine amasec. With a field day before them, delta was not particularly enthused by the prospects of excitement before nightfall.
“We have orders to carry-out,” Rusty acknowledged their boredom, pulling the bag he’d been given by the pilot from his pack. He opened it and retrieved a handful of the metal chips and the note, holding them so everyone could see.
“Drink chits?” Bash eyed them, “They’re different.”
Rusty unfolded the parchment, there were two lines written on it. Norin could almost read all the words, but he handed it to Volkov to make sure they got it right. The priest stepped forward and glanced at the note.
“It says: ‘You need to get to know the Rogue Traders, this should help you rub-elbows with them,’ it’s signed ‘T’.”
Rusty pulled his regimental hand-igniter from his breast pocket and flicked it to life, holding the small jet of flame to the corner of the paper and letting it burn in his steel hand. He ground the ashes under his boot to destroy every trace. “Like I said, we have orders, though I do not know how we are to accomplish them,” he admitted, “PT uniforms!”
After calisthenics they went for a run around the skaggi base zone. Volkov lead cadence most of the way, but gave the task to Nastya for a while. Her work songs were a welcome change from the priest’s endless variations on Hymns of Enduring Strength. To everyone’s surprise, Krash started belting out each verse without missing a word. Mira looked over a Oksana.
Since when does he pay attention to cadence? she signed quickly, careful to stay in-stride. Oksana just shrugged and repeated the last verse. After their run, the squad returned to quarters and washed down, except for Korotich.
This was the first time Nastya had a chance to see the scars that told the truth about delta’s last few weeks. Skaggis were brought-up in tight confines, privacy was not a term they recognized. They did everything together, wash downs included, and so had an intimate knowledge of each other’s health and bodies. A lot had changed in a very short time. Scars were shared by every skaggi, even before Cythera, and were worn with honor. Popov was quite proud of the thin line that crossed her belly at an angle up to her armpit, and the more jagged claw marks on her left shoulder.
They were assessing hers as she assessed theirs, it wasn’t the impolite or lude act it was when scintillans or mordians stared, but one of mutual concern. The only one who seemed to be uncomfortable was Rusty, of all people. His entire body was either steel or gnarled burn scars, and the junctions between the two were still reshaping, red and angry looking flesh sewn and pinned to his limbs. There was no hair to be seen on his chest, arms, back or head, and the worst scarring was a ghastly mimic of his battle-harness. His mouth was a gash filled by ironically healthy teeth and a leathery tongue. Scar tissue was stretched around the ocular implants. He looked nothing like the man she’d last seen aboard the transport ship. He looked nothing like a man at all, and it was clear he knew it.
Volkov’s famous chest brand, however, was displayed whenever he got the chance, and he was bold about the gun-metal hand and the fresh line across his bicep. Dozens of fresh cut marks had joined the dozens of old ones. Krash had many scars, but they were all years old, most of them from before the tithe. Perhaps now that they were in the same squad, she’d finally figure out what the hell happened to him. There was no way a man in his current state would have passed psych, no matter how good he was a fixing vox equipment.
Oksana likewise didn’t have any new scars, but the familiar constellation of her past still forced a certain degree of respect from Nastya. Before the implosion of Tamarova’s career, Nastya had always felt a certain kinship with her. They’d both sacrificed husbands in their service, both had fiery dispositions. Oksana’s tactical prowess had saved a lot of skaggis, not to mention the poor bastards they were always pulling out of the fire during that campaign. When the famed captain had cracked almost a year before the end, Nastya had felt betrayed. A hint of that still lingered, but she was till a sister and Popov had come to terms with it years ago. At least Mjr. Chesnokova had retained Nastya’s admiration as a hero of Cythera.
Buttoning her uniform blouse, she noticed the surgical scars on Dmitri’s leg just before he pulled his trouser cuff down over his boot. He’d never been the most gifted gravchutist; it wasn’t the first time he’d been injured on a jump, but it must have been the worst. The hunter glanced up at her and Popov almost flinched at the darkness there. She looked away. He’d always been kind a moshar’s ass, but there was definitely something a lot darker in his eyes than the last she’d seen him. She’d seen that look before, in other skaggis’ eyes, but not since Cythera. Nastya almost felt bad for Mitin.
She slung her customized lascarbine over her shoulder and checked it a final time as they squad descended for breakfast.
“You keep carbine in good shape,” Krash appeared next to her, “I will fix it up much better.”
“I like the sound of that, what did you have in mind?” she said, well aware of Krash’s talents. He pointed at the trigger assembly and the power-pack.
“I modify tension springs, make action nice and smooth,” he nodded, “and maybe file down retention clips, for faster pack switches, yes? Will be much better, you will like.”
“I definitely like the sound of that,” She smiled, “Where’d you learn so much about mods, anyway?”
“Mostly I take apart and put back,” he shrugged, “I try with Rusty, too, but he too light a sleeper, yes? hahaha!” Nastya raised an eyebrow, what the fuck was he talking about? The mechanic dropped back into line as bravo platoon passed them in the tight corridor. Popov was thankful she didn’t have to figure out how to respond.
The squad ate their re-hydrated breakfast quickly and quietly, and when they were finished, they went to Kojomjarov’s office and found him field stripping his sidearm with his eyes closed.
“One second boys and girls,” he said without opening them. He finished locking the barrel in place and slid the power pack in with a satisfying click. As the capacitor gave its high-pitched whine he opened his eyes and checked his chrono, “Ha! fifty-eight seconds! Okay,” he stood-up behind his desk, “Let’s go to roof and talk about base, yes?”
They trooped up the stairs and filed out onto the rooftop of the habplex, which allowed them to see most of the base walls and the airfield a several blocks away. After a few moments to get their bearings, the lieutenant walked to the edge of the roof and held his arm out to the different areas as he explained them.
“We’re in our own zone here, at the northeast corner of the base. There’s a perimeter wall all around the main base, and the rest of Fort Chambers is pretty well patrolled, but not as defensible. There are still pockets of greenskins out there, and they attack smaller patrols from time to time. That way is obviously the ocean. There’re docks, but nobody use them, we mostly ignore that. West of us are the fusileers, they got fancy stick-n-brick houses, but most of them would burn-up pretty quick if the flamer orks ever got in there,” delta nodded, familiar with the fragility of wooden structures.
“Over there in the middle are the Longknives, you already know they’re good fighters. South of them are the ghostwalkers. That’s the air field obviously, some parts are Navy some parts are the Rogue Traders, so pay attention. this strip alongside the air field,” he swung his hand, “is the Trade zone, Gibrahan’s crew are set-up all along it. I don’t know much about them, and I don’t trust them. They’re not guardsmen, but they’re fighting on our side, so no too many punch-ups, okay? Commissar’s might not be the ones ending the fights, and Major wants to keep dem friendly to skaggis. They have infantry and a whole bunch of battle tanks in there. Don’t worry, this not like before, the tanks are great in field.”
He wrapped up his explanation with a description of their deployments lately, explaining how the jingkai were skilled at hit-and-run attacks that would draw the enemy’s attention and distract them enough for the scintillans and trader factions to force a wedge into their battlelines. The Longknives would go in to clear-out the villages and cities house-to-house with their ogrin, and the heimrocs were usually either dropped into hot-spots are inserted before the main push to create a weak spot the others could exploit. It had been hard fought, but they were holding ground reasonably. Soon, they’d hopefully be able to start pushing the hordes back. All in all, it wasn’t the worst sounding situation.
“The base has plenty of room for running,” Kojomjarov concluded, “I just wish it weren’t so salty-aired. Questions?”
“Where to do rogue traders come from?” Bash asked, suspicious of these not-guardsmen soldiers.
“All over, as much as we can tell. I don’t know too much, we have been keeping distance,” Kojomjarov answered.
“Is there drinking place? We have drink chits left from supply base,” Bosinov asked.
“Yah, there’s many drinking places, but they want thrones, I don’t think drink chits will work there,” he answered.
“What about these? We a few of these, too,” Rusty took two of the unfamiliar coins from this pocket.
“Yah, that’s thrones. Where you get those?”
“From people,” Oksana shrugged. Tundra Law didn’t have anything bad to say about using what you found in the field, as long as no one was using it. Leaving things behind was wasteful, and therefore disgraceful. Kojomjarov didn’t pry, glad to see delta was still resourceful.
“So they are drink chits for Fort Chambers?” Rusty asked.
“You can get other things with thrones,” the lieutenant said, walking back toward the stairs, “like guns. But you need a lot more than two, I think. Don’t get in too much trouble, and make sure your gear is perfect working and clean by lights-out. You’ll be on sentry duty rotation tomorrow,” he disappeared down the stairs.
“So, they are gun-chits!” Krash smiled pointing at the thrones in Rusty’s hand.
“Gun chits?”Dmitri snapped his eyes back to the coins, his face lighting-up with excitement, “Now we have to find gun Hole!”Everyone exchanged glances, “How many is there?” Rusty had gone through them already, and knew exactly.
One hundred each person, he signed. Smiles lit-up all around the roof top. Nastya was now decided that joining delta had been a good move.