In Mortem Pace.

“Frakk-Frakk-Frakk-Frakk-Frakk!” screamed Valos as he dived into a smoking shell hole and a beam of green light swept the doorway he had just left. Shards of shrapnel, sticking out like grass from the sides of the hole, tore at his trousers as he slid to the bottom. Next to him was the metallic skull of one of the enemy. Valos swung his left arm in a vicious arc and sank his bayonet into the skull’s eyesocket. He grunted with satisfaction as the green light in the other eye faded to black.

He waited and after a few seconds of silence realised that the enemy probably thought him vapourised by the beam. He could afford a moment to take stock. Fifteen years service in the Force Recon company had made him quick to recover even from as big a shock as watching thirty metallic skeletons materialise in the middle of their position. He was proud of the fact that his men had also recovered quickly, hitting the things with krak grenades, stubbers and even entrenching spades. In under a minute half of the things were down, but so was half the company. He had watched as men were flayed alive by the green beams, screaming as their very molecular structure was disintegrated layer by agonising layer.

It was then he remembered his right arm. There was no need to rip the sleeve away to see the wound, that and his flak jacket had both disintegrated. Luckily it looked like only the top layer of his skin had been burned away. Carrick, his platoon vox operator, had taken the full force of the beam and Valos had only been singed as he ducked under his Sphinx APC.

He would miss Carrick. Though only a young woman she had a knack for knowing what he would ask her to do and was often sending messages before he finished voicing them. She had probably saved all their lives with that last call, the one that kept her by the vox on the Sphinx that second too long. He could hear her now, her sharp tones snapping out…

“Fire mission one alpha our position. Enemy inside the perimeter. Authorisation twelve-delta-gamma-one-five”.

Fifteen seconds later the mortar shells arrived. His entire encampment in the ancient ruins was swept with shrapnel and EMP bomblets. The men knew what to do when they heard the whistling tune of the shells arrival, dropping into any piece of cover they could. The enemy though stayed erect and paid for it. Those that were not cut apart by the flying frag shards attracted the magnetic bomblets.

Valos had watched as a skeletal warrior had been hit by seven of them. They clicked onto his surface plates and as he reached up with his free hand to detach one they all exploded. Small explosions, but ones that held a deadly payload. Each one discharging 400 amps of shocking death.

He blessed the armourers of Mars as the warrior crumpled to the ground. The barrage didn’t get all of the enemy though and with the Vox destroyed there would be no opportunity to send another message. The fight then became desperate, but at least it was a fight that the Jagers could possibly win. Throughout the ruins small teams of Jagers went into their hunting tactica. Distracting the remaining enemy with false calls and baited firezones, one by one the last few enemy were channelled and dispatched. Not without loss though. At least one and sometimes two Jagers paid for every enemy sent back to hell.

Valos tore a small cannister from his belt, shook it and then sprayed his arm with synthiskin. Slowly he flexed the arm, gritting his teeth against the pain that made his whole body shake. If he didn’t flex it the synthiskin would tighten and leave his arm useless. Soon the morphos in the spray took away the pain and he found he could move it reasonably well, if a little stiffly.

From a few hundred meters away he could hear the dull crump of grenades and the hissing sound of return fire. ‘Good’ he thought ‘some of the lads are keeping the bastards busy’. Right, time to get stuck in. He checked his belt, three frag and one krak grenade still hung there. His stubber was gone, and his bayonet wedged in the metal skull. So he was down to ‘Old Faithful’.

Pulling his ancient plasma pistol from her holster he muttered the Prayer of Activation and flicking up the switch cover pressed the plasma initiator. A blue glow began in the plasma chamber and grew steadily. It was slow to start but since he did that deal with that rogue trader’s pet Tau, Old Faithful had never bit him back, not once.

Now he was armed he decided it was time to risk a look out of his hole. From his position he could only see the dead, then around the corner of the Sphinx strode a tall metallic skeleton. This one looked different from the others. Instead of those damned beam guns it held a staff that was topped with a bar of pure emerald light, and around its shoulders hung a tattered cloak of golden chains that seemed to sway in an unearthly breeze.

Valos ducked down and placing his burnt fingers in his mouth let out a sharp, staccato whistle. Quickly and from three sides of the small square where they had parked the Sphinxes came back other whistles. He listened carefully. Reading the number and pattern of the whistles he determined he had three men from the first platoon, one with a flamer and two from the second, one of whom was walking wounded. Only five left from forty who had sat down in their foxholes that morning to eat their rations. ‘Never mind’ he thought, ‘there’s still a job to do’

He risked another look. The enemy was standing still, right up against the nearest Sphinx its head rotating as if attempting to lock onto the whistles as they echoed around the stones. Valos knew that that would be useless as the Jagers would each have changed their positions by at least five meters as soon as they whistled.

He gave the signal ‘Firebird One’ and rolled out of the shellhole and behind the low rubble of a shattered wall. Above the enemy and to its left he spotted a shadow, made indistinct by cameleoline, detach from the side of a building. A large muzzle emerged from under the cloak and he could make out a small blue igniter flame.

Giving out a whistle of three short pips he rose into a kneeling potion and raised his plasma pistol. There was a roar from the flamer as an arc of promethium engulfed the the enemy warrior. Heavy stubber fire erupted from its right, joined by a patter of ordinary stubber shells, from close by. But Valos did not fire, instead he stared open mouthed as all the shells and promethium stopped dead a meter from the gleaming flanks of the skeletal form.

‘Frakk! A refractor field’ he thought as he hit the deck and crawled as fast as he could into the cover of a sandbagged gun emplacement. Lying across the bodies of two of his men he snapped the periscope of the wrecked autocannon from its mounting and used it to survey the square. He winced as he watched a ball of blue light streak from the enemy’s staff and immolate the flamer crew and exploding their promethium tanks.

The enemy stepped around the side of the Sphinx shielding itself from further fire from the heavy stubber.  As he watched the golden figure pulled a globe from under its cloak and pressed a series of studs. The refractor field flickered and went out, and  the light blade on the staff ceased. A sighing sound made Valos tear his gaze from the square. In his right hand the plasma pistol, Old Faithful, deactivated.

‘Oh sweet Macharius and Dorn’, he thought, ‘the bastard has an EMP generator of its own’. Looking around him he could see the ready lights go out on the stubber magazines of his dead men, his grenades went into safety lockdown with an audible click, and his comm link hissed for second before dying too.

He picked up a track-wrench and hefted it. ‘Heavy enough to crush a man’s skull’ he thought, ‘perhaps I should bash my own head in and save that thing the trouble’. Then he shook himself and returned to the periscope. He was damned if he was going to give in yet, the thing had made itself vulnerable too.

Knocking the periscope a little to one side with his stiff fingers he found himself focused on the open side hatch of the Sphinx APC and looking into a single blue human eye in a mostly blackened face. The tousled blond hair hanging down over the mess of her blasted cheeks identified it as Carrick. ‘She’s alive!’ he thought, and indeed as he stared the eye winked at him.

He realised that the girl was just a couple of meters from the enemy and that she was starting to move. ‘Oh Frakk!’. He cast about him quickly and finding a discarded helmet he hefted it across the square away from the Sphinx. The enemy’s head swung around and it took a step towards the helmet as it hit the ground and then sat spinning in the morning light.

Valos looked back towards Carrick, this time his head above the gunshield of the autocannon. She was now kneeling in the hatchway, her left arm and side a charred mess, she seemed to be struggling with a canvas bag with her right hand. Whatever she was doing the enemy had heard it. It swung about and strode back to the APC.

The next moment remained seared in Valos’s memory for the rest of his life and would bring him awake in the night screaming again and again, “Leah! No! No!”

As the thing reached the hatch, and its sharp metal fingers fixed about her throat, Leading Jager Leah Carrick smiled through cracked lips and pulled the cord on the demolition charge.
————————-

The medics said it was probably the gunshield of the autocannon that had saved his life, if not his left hand. His remaining men had dug him out of the rubble just before the evac Lighter had arrived.

Two days later, held upright between the regimental Commissar and one of his Jagers, First Sgt.Valos attended the ceremony in which Leah Carrick became the third woman in her family to postumously receive the Honorifica Imperialis. She had never told him about her sister and her mother, though it made sense now. 

What he would remember most though was the peaceful look in her blue, blue eyes, and her smile, as she pulled the cord…

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Green on Green

First Sergeant Valos of the 121st Carrenian Jaegers dared a quick look out of his hidden rifle pit. Across the river the Orks were wandering through the ruins of the camp hunting for survivors and removing teeth from their own dead.

He slumped back down into the fetid pool of rainwater at his feet and wiped the sweat from his eyes with the edge of his cameoline cape. Only a few hours ago he had dug his platoon in, safe in the knowledge that he was under the protection of the barrels of the Assamti Royal Dragoons mighty Leman Russ Tanks.

It was at dawn that the com units had begun to pick up a steady chant so far down it was practically infrasound. Private Delacroix had immediately translated it. Del was a survivor of the Battle of Helspont and had spent a few weeks in an Ork slave gang before being liberated by the 121st. Only his obvious head wound had saved him from Commissar Rankin’s accusation of cowardice. Now he turned grimly from the com unit and relayed the chant to his Sergeant, “Kill to live, live to kill”.

It was also Del who had identified the Orks that had seemed to almost materialise out of bushes, ditches and the smallest scrap of cover and overrun the Dragoons’ camp. They were Blood Axe Kommandos.

The engagement was over so fast the 121st hadn’t even time to load their Heavy Stubbers or break out the Rifle grenades. Lieutenant Jevais and Commissar Rankin told the men there was nothing they could do and they should remain in the pits, concealed from the enemy. Valos had been allowed to send a databurst containing the engagement report to the regiment’s HQ some thirty clicks to the rear. HQ had confirmed reception of the signal and sent back Standing Order 21 – “Watch and wait for reinforcements, do not engage”.

So there they sat for four stinking hours as the sun climbed high over the scene of carnage.

“Sergeant!” came a hoarse whisper from a private in one of the forward foxholes down near the river bank. Valos poked his head over the parapet and moving a frond of Knife-grass to one side focused his Monocular on the camp. Looking at where the private was pointing he saw a slight movement under the belly of one of the Leman Russ’s closest to the river.

Oh no, he thought, stay down lad, stay down. He willed the young dragoon to remain where he was inside the track bay on the port side of the steel behemoth. But the young man obviously thought he had seen his chance.

Like a Carrenian ferret he crawled his way from beneath the tank and between a couple of his dead compatriots. He froze in a pose resembling that of a man dead and baking in the sun. Two Gretchin wandered past arguing over the thighbone of another. Good lad, thought Valos, if he gets away we will have to think about taking him into the Recon Company.

Once they had gone by, the lad slipped silently on his belly between scattered ammo crates and under a ramshackle Ork buggy. The driver, snoozing with his feet over the side didn’t stir and the lad slithered on.

All along the line of the Jaeger platoon’s rifle pits men stared across the river. Even the Commissar watched, leaning forwards muttering what Valos could only guess was the Imperial Prayer. The whole platoon held its breath at every twist and turn of the lad’s slow journey across the broken camp and towards the river.

When he reached a clump of reeds on the water’s edge, the Jaegers began to grin. All he had to do now was to quietly swim under the water to the other bank, the river wasn’t that wide, a child could do it. Corporal Balkos began to pay out credits to a couple of cheerful comrades in his pit who had obviously backed the right horse.

For several minutes the lad remained hidden in the reeds, seemingly trying to make sense of the Orkish sentry movements. Valos was beginning to like this boy. There was a pattern to the sentries, it was difficult to decipher but Valos hadn’t risen to First Sergeant of a Recon Company without being able to spot such as this.

At what must have seemed to be the right moment to the lad, he pushed off from the bank. As he submerged the Buggy driver suddenly sat up, pushed back his cap and stared at the river. Valos almost panicked. What had the driver heard? The boy had been quiet as an otter. Then he saw it, the bloody heron. It was moving along the bank and had suddenly turned away from its stalking when the boy emerged from the reeds. Emperor’s mercy these Kommandos were sharp he thought. They may be hulking brutes, but they obviously knew their trade. He made a mental note not to express this thought in front of the Commissar.

The Buggy Driver clambered on the top of his cab and cocked his crude assault rifle while scanning the river and the far bank. The platoon ducked back into their pits as one. Only Valos and the two snipers, secure in their cameoline, remained on watch.

Oh damn! Valos almost swore out loud as the lad surfaced mid-river. Valos glanced down the line and saw Commissar Rankin squatting behind Jonas, the platoon’s master marksman. He couldn’t be serious could he? Please be to the Emperor, let him be telling Jonas to hold his fire.

Back across the river Valos saw the Ork raising his rifle. As he cocked it he suddenly stopped and stared down at his chest. He seemed to try and wipe the small specks of blood off his filthy camouflage tunic as if confused at where they could have come from. Valos knew what they were. The poisoned flechettes of a Jaeger sniper round were now dissolving into the Ork’s bloodstream. The neurotoxins, harvested by the treemen of Arborus half a galaxy away, were already shutting down his major organs. His muscles would be tightening in spasm and his airways filling with thick, black blood as every capillary exploded under the enormous pressure of his frantically beating heart.

As the lad hoisted himself out on the bank, the buggy driver dropped like a stone. Bouncing off the bonnet of the vehicle his fingers spasmed on the trigger firing off the entire magazine of the rifle in one continuous stream of thunder.

Then there was silence. The lad stopped and glanced back at the camp as every Ork in the  camp turned and looked towards the river.

The fool! Valos glared at the Commissar who only now realised what he had done. The young officer actually looked shocked, though he quickly regained his academy stern composure. All along the line the platoon’s veteran Jaegers, cocked their weapons, ripped open ammo boxes and fixed bayonets. Valos was proud of them at that moment. Many men would have tried to flee, use the cover of the high grass behind them to elude the wave of Orks that now tensed ready to spring upon them. Not the 121st Recon though, they knew their enemy and knew it was better to fight and die here than spend days being hunted down like weasels in a bucket.

The two snipers were already plying their trade. Ork after Ork was cut down as they scrambled for their weapons and buggies. It wouldn’t be enough though. Valos had counted over three hundred Kommandos and Emperor only knows how many Gretchin in the shattered remains of the Dragoons’ camp.

The Lieutenant hadn’t given the order for general engagement though. Valos could see why, the Orks weren’t firing back, just taking cover. Commissar Rankin snapped at Jevais demanding he engage. Jevais explained in a low, curt snarl that the Orks were spotting our positions by our fire. If we engaged before they advanced they would pin us down with their heavy weapons and just walk right over us. The sniper rifles had fire suppressors on them and were devilishly hard to spot, our Jaeger stubbers’ muzzle flash would locate us all in seconds.

Valos cradled his stubber and switched off the safety. From bitter experience against the Orks on a dozen worlds the Jaegers had learnt that anything but a head shot from a Lasgun would just annoy an Ork. Their stubbers were loaded with explosive rounds that would leave a ragged hole straight through an Ork the size of a dinner plate. The Recon platoon had modified their stubbers with a double width magazine, it made the stubber a lot heavier but the extra thirty rounds came in mighty handy at the ranges they generally engaged the enemy.

He suddenly remembered the lad. He risked a glance down at the bank. The boy was still staring open-mouthed at the camp as if unwilling to believe his luck had gone so sour. As Valos watched the gunner on an Ork buggy let loose with his scorcher. The lad saw it coming and turned as if to run. The raw promethium ignited as it met the air and the stream of fire danced almost lazily across the river before immolating him. A raw, primal scream erupted from his throat before the hungry flames consumed his twitching body and he fell back into the water.

Valos closed his eyes and muttering the Chant for the Glorious Dead slumped back down into the rifle pit. He opened them to see Del gesticulating at him.

“It had better be news of the GravCav coming to pull us out Del” he said.  Del, holding one of the headphones tight to his head replied.

“No Sarge. It’s strange, spooky even.” Said Del, his voice was quavering almost as if the sound on his com unit was worse than the hornet’s nest across the river.

“Well spit it our man! I haven’t got time for your theories about voices in the empyrean!” said Valos sharply. The other three men in the pit jumped at his tone.

“Its the Ork chant Sarge” said Del. “its being jammed and another chant has replaced it.” He thrust the headphones at Valos who waved them away.

“You know I can only speak three words of Ork and you are going to hear all of them if you don’t get on with it!”.

Across the river he could hear buggy engines firing up. Obviously the sniper fire wasn’t proving as effective a suppressant as he had hoped. They had perhaps a minute before the Orks crossed the river and rolled over them in a frenzy of blood and choppers.
 
“The chant Sarge, the chant has changed to ‘Eat the Ork'” said Del as he pressed his right ear back against the phones and began to repeat the words again and again. Cradling the stubber across his lap Valos rubbed his ears.

“Say that again Del. Eat the Ork?” said Valos. He looked at the com unit operator who was now rocking back and forth on his heels in time to the chant. “Are you sure?”

He didn’t need to hear the answer. He stood up in the pit and stared across the river. All around the camp the Orks were looking at each other in confusion. They were even ignoring the continued patter of fire from the snipers. One or two were rubbing their ears.

Far above him, Valos could hear a growing whining sound. Oh Hel, not again! He turned to face the Lieutenant. Their eyes met. Only Jevais and Valos were old enough to remember Gros Point. As one they began bellowing for the men to take cover! The cry of “Incoming!” leapt along the line and thirty-two men began to try and crawl through the bottom their rifle pits. Only the Commissar remained erect.

Valos screamed at him, trying to overcome the growing whine from above.

“Get down, get down!”

The Commissar glanced at him. “Why?” he mouthed. Valos couldn’t believe the Commissar didn’t recognise the sound. What did they teach them at the Academy, except how to execute a shell-shocked guardsman?

It was too late; Valos dived for cover as the first Drop Pod hit the ground to the right of the camp. Valos counted nine more impacts before there was a moment of grumbling quiet. The platoon were showered in flaming debris and dirt, almost burying them in their own little graves. Jaeger Crebbs began to uncurl and made as if to look out of the pit.

“Get down lad, its only just about to start!” Valos said. “Don’t move until I give you the order, understand!”.

The Jaeger nodded and burrowed deeper into the collapsing wall of the pit. Despite his own words Valos had to watch this and carefully raised his own head above the parapet.

All the platoon’s cover was gone, blown away by the drop pods’ landing. In its stead were the glowing forms of the pods. As one the explosive bolts of the ramps cracked the melted seals and they fell with an ear-numbing crash. Almost before they had landed giant, green armoured forms were sprinting out and forming into firing lines around the pods.

From one pod an enormous figure ducked through the doorway and lumbered down the ramp. A dreadnought thought Valos. He had never seen one before but he had heard of them. His old captain had called them ‘walking coffins’ and explained they each held the remains of a great hero of the Imperium. Even death shall not claim them, thought Valos, remembering one of the chants he learnt at boot camp.

Valos regained his senses and had barely hit the pit bottom when the whole camp seemed to disintegrate as the pod’s deathwind missile launchers fired their payloads and cleared the LZ of every unarmoured figure. It was then that Valos remembered the Commissar. As the explosions ceased he risked a glance at where he had last seen Rankin. He was in time to see the Commissar’s legs standing alone on the edge of his rifle pit, no body, no head, just the legs. As he watched they slowly crumpled and fell on top of the huddled Jaegers below.

While not attached to the reckless fool, he still muttered a simple blessing on the passing of his soul to the Emperor’s grace. After all he had tried to save the hapless dragoon, even if he might have got the whole platoon killed doing it.

Tracking his eyes back across the river to the camp he could see that the only things still upright were the seven Dragoon tanks, the Marines and a group of Ork Bosses in their thick armour. All about them were the mangled corpses of Ork and dragoon, mingled with the wreckage of a dozen buggies and the Dragoons’ support vehicles.

Although dazed the Orks had begun to clunk slowly towards the nearest drop pod. Heavy weapons fire from the Bosses spattered across the marines’ armour although only one fell, his legs torn apart through his ceramite plating. Valos was just beginning to wonder when the marines would return fire when the sound level increased exponentially.

The armoured Bosses were bathed in flamer fire, which only served to silhouette them and drew the bolter fire from the massed ranks of marines. This seemed to have little effect, just chipping off loose pieces of plating.

The bolter fire stopped. The Orks sensing some small victory roared their crude challenges and advanced as fast as their piston-enhanced legs would carry them. The lead Ork had almost reached the marine line when he suddenly stopped. A hole the size of a truck tire had appeared in his chest. He toppled slowly forwards still waving his huge power claw in the air. In the next few seconds five more bosses were sliced to pieces by unerring lascannon and meltagun fire.

Then all that was left was the Kommando Warboss. His armour glowing under the impact of a dozen lascannon strikes he was still upright and defiant.

“Humies!” He roared. “I am Dagon da Bloody-Clawed! I am death, fear me.”

From behind him came a quiet, yet penetrating, vox-carried voice.

“I know who you are Dagon.”

The Warboss whirled around. Valos was stunned at the speed the armoured behemoth could move. Twenty paces away was the dreadnought.

“I am Hieros of the first company of the Emperor’s loyal Jagged Edge Marines and we have met before.” Said the vox on the dreadnought’s shoulder.

The Warboss hesitated, his two power-claws clicking open and shut as if impatient to get to work.

“I don’t know any humie called Hieros, you are no-one!” he said.

“Yes you do. I have been following you since the day you took my arm at Kalados.” Came back the metallic voice. “And now it ends!”

Before the Warboss could reply the dreadnought opened fire with its Autocannon. Where the lascannons had merely seemed to scratch the Warboss’s foot thick plate the autocannon hit the same spot, just above the breastplate again and again and again.

Valos couldn’t believe the rate of fire. The Warboss though quickly recovered from the shock of being hit and began to move forwards against the constant hammering of the autocannon shells. He leaned into the fire and foot by foot he advanced, power claws swinging wide of his body as if to help him balance.

Valos glanced at Hieros. Behind his hulking form three marines moved forwards and replaced spent ammo packs with rhythmic precision.

Still the Warboss advanced, and still the constant stream of shells hammered into his neck plating. Dagon had to lean precariously forward now to advance.

Just as he came within range of the dreadnought the autocannon fell silent. Flailing wildly the Warboss was unable to remain upright and slammed into the ground at Hieros feet. The dreadnought leapt forwards onto the prone Ork’s back.

Before Dagon could react Hieros ripped off the Ork’s power plant and backplate with one sweep of the dreadnought’s powerfist. The Ork roared and bucked his entire body, but just wasn’t strong enough to lift his own armoured bulk and that of the dreadnought, not even with his titanic muscles.

Slowly Hieros swung his autocannon around, pointed it between his feet and emptied the entire magazine into the Warboss’s unprotected back.

Stepping down Hieros wrenched the Ork’s head from his body and held it aloft, a grim trophy to a great victory. Turning slowly so that all the assembled marines could see the head he spoke.

” I am Hieros of the clan Gehenna! Master of the Slith Spear, hunter of the Jagged Edge! Hear me my Emperor and be proud!”

“Be proud!” Came back the cry from ninety marines.

With that they turned and began clearing the fringes of the camp.

“Thank the Emperor, it is over” said Valos as he took off his helmet, leaned his stubber against the pit wall and reached for his canteen. His men began to poke their heads up and clear their pits of debris.

Suddenly a tall green armoured figure stood up from beneath a scorched clump of Knife-grass not six feet from Valos’s rifle pit. Behind it several more figures, in lighter armour but with the same savage heraldry, got to their feet. Valos dropped his canteen and could do nothing but stare like a slack-jawed recruit. The green giant turned to him.

“It is never over my son. This planet is still tainted by the Ork and you may well yet find peace in the Emperor’s service.” said the giant and he turned to the others. “Eat the Ork!”.

“Eat the Ork!” they replied, and moved off towards the camp.
© Craig Cartmell Page 1 1/13/2009