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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