|19 Oct 2006, 22:31||#1 (permalink)|
Join Date: Apr 2004
Location: Your computer
Salvation Paid for in Blood
Gliding between the buildings like an eagle hovering in search of its prey, the Hammerhead battle tank was both serene and deadly. Beady eyes flashed and glowed as they observed the ruined street below; the engines whined as it spotted movement, slowly pushing it forwards as it lunged towards the prey. Caught beneath the rapidly descending tank, the lone human was nothing more than an easy victim for an accomplished killer. Ducking and weaving amongst the rubble they did their best to dodge incoming bursts of shimmering energy blasts, although the inexorable advance of the blue-grey behemoth was unstoppable. Finally caught in the open he swung his weapon – a battered lasgun that looked barely operational – towards the beast in the hopes of dissuading it from its meal, yet still it continued; uncaring eyes calculated the volume of sweat on the man’s face to the tiniest degree and exactly measured his speed as he stumbled backwards.
Even at the moment of his death he hopelessly searched for an escape, scaling the walls beside him with his eyes. Head spinning left and right at the looming structures his tearful eyes struggled in vain to find an exit, freedom from the terror and the choking, dusty storm that was thrown up by the screaming wings of the beast in front of him. Throwing down his weapon in what seemed like submission he dropped to his knees, barely giving thought to the cuts and scrapes on his legs as they were torn by rocks, glass and shell casings. It mattered not to the sublime creature, the scourge that cast a grim shadow over his malformed face so twisted by fear, and at once both barrels of its gatling weapons began to spin, swirling the dusty air around them in an empty vortex. In one torrent of crackling, ghostly blue-white balls of energy the soldier was torn apart, his broken body tossed away like the feeble corpse of a hunting bird’s meal; the eagle, satisfied with its kill, began to turn away when the flash of gunfire from a crumbling build caught its attention.
Finally they had arrived – the poor soldier’s saviours, his rescuers, the ones responsible for his life and now the cause of his death – and had set up their weapons in an array protruding like worms from the shattered windows of an equally broken structure. In the shadows figures shuffled and frantically scrambled like ants; some fired short bursts of lasfire whilst others readied the weapons, loading the brutal weapons and feeding them with ammo; checking their snouts the soldiers took careful aim, each one training the crooked barrel and jerry-rigged gun-sight on the known weak spots of the floating beast. It was turning – turning to face them, but it wasn’t fast enough. The gun barrels slowly swung towards the eagle amidst the shards of glass still inhabiting the window-frames – one by one they fell into place – ready to fire – ready to shoot the eagle from the sky – ready to avenge their fallen friend – ready to –
A searing flash of white light illuminated the room, reflecting from the glistening faces, some curved with sadistic delight at the carnage they were about to wreak, others glowing with fear as they span backwards, eyes widening at the sight they saw. The burst of light was followed by several streams of shining energy; with each one another of the guns would swing downwards, clattering on the wall over the roaring blasts of alien gunfire. One by one they fell downwards, toppling from their perches. A cascade of masonry collapsed and fell with them as the entire front wall burst open, showering the gunship with dust and rocks that bounced from it like mere hailstones. Amongst the grimy, grey stone crimson blood and gore-stained limbs and bodies crashed downwards.
The unseen assailants appeared to retreat, leaving not one of the men alive; the air shimmered and rippled for the briefest of moments before finally falling still, the only sound the hideous, grinding snap of bones far below as what remained of the men was crushed beneath a storm of rock.
Slowly drawing the magnoculars away from his pale eyes, the captain breathed in slowly, clenching his fist around the device as he struggled to keep the quivering, shaking limb under control. Clutching one hand to the bridge of his nose he shut his eyes, nodding his head forwards and letting a thin stream of air forth in a weary sigh. Turning and swaying slightly as he dispassionately walked back into the cool shade of the bell tower; inside an overloaded table, like a three-legged mule, straddled an open – and empty – blocky metal weapons chest in the centre of the room. On the far side of the table a door hung loosely from its hinges beside a sagging shelf upon which sat a thick lump of metal and wiring that was efficiently wasting space and was occasionally used as a vox and vox caster; its dials and meters seemed oddly more smug than when he had left. Every floorboard seemed to voice its opposition to the man’s passing most vehemently as he continued from the balcony. The man tossed the instrument upon the mouldering wooden table; the impact left a fresh dent in its festering surface and tore a small hole in one of the countless maps, reports and aerial photographs sprawled out across the desk like a vast expanse, or plateau, of sheer bureaucracy. To the east there was a small mountain of unsigned paperwork; the west was situated a dried up riverbed of spilt amasec, the ground wrinkled and tainted where it had passed.
Grasping once hand around the rusted cup at the once-bountiful river’s source with quivering uncertainty, the captain took one glance into the vile nectar, eyeing the clumps of corrupted, silvery-brown metal with distaste. Thinking better of his plans he thumped the cup angrily upon the table, repeatedly balling each fist in frustration. The contents almost splashed upwards, but were so congealed that they barely surged or even rippled. The blow, nevertheless, left a sizeable imprint in the table that the thick layer of paper still managed to absorb. Instead of punching the air or the walls, as he knew it would do him no good, he simply kneaded his fists upon the table’s edge, gasping heavily and letting the air circulate through his lungs and heaving chest. Red-faced with anger and fear in equal measure, he eventually calmed himself, whipping off his peaked cap to reveal a head of youthful blond hair for him to run his hand through. This, though, did him no good; his hands were sweating even more than his head, and he decided to don the cap again, settling for wiping both hands on the tunic of his ruffled, dusty-brown dress uniform.
“You know – if I put my hand over my eye like this – and spin it this way – then hold it like this – and then take a look at the pics that downed Lightning got – it doesn’t look so bad. What do you think?”
A gritty picture slid smoothly into his field of view, coming to rest right at his belt buckle. Dim rays of sunlight peered in through a ramshackle roof three storeys above them and continued through broken boards and rotting holes for several more, yet although some were intercepted by the table the captain’s tall, lean form obscured the grimly monochrome photograph. Leaning backwards to let light fall upon the images only made matters worse as the horrific nature of the pictures became apparent; burning bodies, wrecked tanks with ruptured fuel barrels and the distinctly shaped, elegant and aerodynamic hovering vehicles of the Tau advancing through the inferno. Sighing deeply the captain began to yawn, but stifled it as soon as he looked back to the picture, upon which the tiny white flames seemed to leap and dance, the bodies writhe and the Tau advance drift slowly ever-onward. Hurriedly checking over the picture once again he found no trace of such devilry.
“What do I think?”
Looking over the table at his companion, the captain rubbed disgusting sweat away from his own eyes. Olive-skinned with a laconic and lazy expression punctuated by a toothpick balanced between two rows of grimy, yellowing teeth, his lieutenant, Reeds, seemed somewhat out of place within the den of complete madness. He was leaning, almost sprawled lazily, over the unbalanced papers with one hand barely supporting his lolling head, its fingers dug deep into a mess of black hair. The other hand fidgeted constantly, incessantly, with a myriad of discarded toothpicks on the desk in front of him, little wooden foot-soldiers drafted in the war against boredom. A pair of black eyes glinted beneath his brow like dark diamonds that could bore straight through the captain if they could be bothered to.
Reeds spoke again, the tiny spike of wood bobbing madly as he did so: “so, Thorn, what do y – “
Drawing himself up to his full height from the comfortable slouch, Thorn took a deep breath.
“Helgrund – this entire damn city – it’s a lost cause...we’re supposed to be a supply depot, not on the front line...”
As he began to pace his side of the table he continued: “we have almost no supplies in any case, no fresh soldiers – we’re relying on criminals and cut-throats here, for the Emperor’s sake! We have to sacrifice our men just to succeed and when we do we never accomplish anything anyway!”
Accompanying this was a sweeping gesture above the aerial photographs and reports of the wounded, coming to rest of the picture Reeds had skimmed at him: “we’re beset by xeno scum and traitorous allies and all we are is a melting pot of anger, cowardice, fear and chaos!”
Stopping where he was he leant heavily over the groaning table with one hand, gesticulating wildly with the other: “everything’s falling apart! Comrades losing comrades, friends losing friends – everybody’s dying for a goddamn lost cause!”
With a bitter sigh he shut his eyes, drawing away from the table and against the wall, leaning with intense tiredness against it: “we don’t even know what’s going to happen to us in the end...”
Slowly opening his eyes, he struggled to push forth the final words: “you know – Helgrund isn’t a city any more – it’s a goddamn graveyard – and we’re the new tenants!”
The two shared a moment of bitter, hollow mirth, though neither found the joke amusing.
“You want to know what I think? Sometimes...sometimes I wonder if He really cares about us at all...if He’s – He’s just – if He’s looking down on us and laughing – “
Suddenly Thorn’s head shot up, eyes wide and pleading: “ – you – you’ll promise not to tell any of the men, won’t you? I mean, it’s not right...”
“You shouldn’t worry. We all feel that way sometimes. No escaping it...”
“But – but I’m their leader...I’m not supposed to show any weakness...right?” Thorn stumbled forwards, unsteadily wrapping his fingers around the head of a chair that was no more than a few planks hammered together, splinters protruding viciously at awkward angles.
“I know what this may sound like, but sometimes it’s better to just ignore ‘em – “
Thorn’s head shot up, an incredulous look of wide eyes and slack jaw upon his face; “so you don’t care for their deaths?!”
“Never said that – but ’s’not practical...your concern, I mean”.
“So you don’t care, but neither do you not care? What sort of a stance is that to take?” Lurching around the ramshackle construction Thorn seated himself roughly.
“Safest and sanest one, I guess”.
Wincing as a splinter caught him, Thorn swept the tiny spikes of wood away with one hand, his teeth slightly bared in irritation. Even as he sat down again and again another one would fight through his uniform to impale him; he miserably settled for leaning heavily upon the desk whilst keeping the chair a safe distance away from his body by placing his feet upon it and bending his spine in ways that man was not supposed to, all the while considering at length the benefits of simply taking an axe to the damn thing and throwing the blasted remains from the balcony. With a jolt of his head to keep himself from falling into a sober stupor he took in the mounds and stretches of papers and parchments in front of his eyes, allowing his carefully honed office-instincts to sieve through the top layer and pick out anything of value like a gold prospector. One in particular caught his fancy and once he fully realised its contents he nearly fell from his ungainly perch; a dirty, amasec-stained photograph of a battered Tau tank that looked to have been sheared in half, lying dejectedly in front of what used to be a building. Five men, three women – and what seemed to be a young lady, by the looks of it – proudly clambered and leaned upon the injured beast, giving toothy grins and thumbs-ups.
Slowly placing one hand over his left eye he raised the photo, casually turning it on its side as he did so and then spinning it round a little, speaking all the while; “well, Reeds? Do you think that if I do this – and then this – and then this – that it seems like the entire damn war is going this way?”
An abrupt, sardonic laugh escaped his lips just at the same time as the vox angrily grumbled to inform them of a new message coming through. Both men immediately leaped from their seats, the lieutenant spitting the toothpick onto the floor as he did so, and sprinted towards it, inasmuch as it was possible to sprint to something barely more than arm’s length from Reeds. Slinging headphones around their ears both leaned inwards in a mad rush that ended with both their heads butting for space. Twiddling one of the dials with frustrated impatience Thorn scowled at the cruel thing, a growl emanating from his throat as the knob promptly fell loose. Resorting to slowly, painfully slowly grinding the naked bolt it had covered, the two listened with baited breath to the vaguely melodic crackle of static as it gradually faded, only to be replaced by a young and brash voice so brimming with emergence and energy that it made them both want to claw their ears off.
“ – said, I’m on St. Janus’ street, got the frag out of that massacre as fast as I could! And you know what, I don’t give a damn for the code – those freaks can die in the Warp for all I care...captain, awaiting orders – frag! Here they come ag – “
A dreadful air descended upon the two of them; as they rested their feet upon the floorboards again the slabs of wood groaned in depression. However, the vox’s dials seemed ever more cheerful, even the one that had fallen off. After a brief, motionless moment of emptiness Thorn snatched it up and hurled it from the room, finding the sharp clacking it produced as it rattled down the stairs to be oh, so pleasing to his ears. At that moment the vox chose to anxiously sound again, perhaps for fear of the captain’s retribution.
“ – mperor I got out of that one alive...not too bright, these xeno freaks are. Captain, sir, awaiting orders!”
Reeds cut in, his tone sharp and precise, like a scalpel, cutting straight to the point; “Branistock? You on Janus? Over.”
“ – think so...uh...”
Rolling his eyes, Reeds thrust the scalpel into the conversation’s guts once more; “you think? Location report, now, over.”
“ – worry! I know this city like the back of my hand!”
“You got a tattoo on your left hand. What is it? Over.”
“No time – “
“No checking, over,” the officer cut in, slicing Branistock’s words to pieces.
“ – Damned if I know – ”
The word seemed to drag on for an eternity; Reeds finally answered his own question; “it’s a lizard, over.”
“...And I’m on St. Janus’ Street – ”
St. Janus' Street. Everyone knew where that was.
Slicing and dicing the conversation, Reeds removed anything unnecessary and continued; “never mind. Observe the enemy, over.”
“ – but what do I do if they see me? What do I do?! I mean, I’m no good with a long-las; only Moore was and – and – he’s – wait!”
Another great silence filled their minds, although it was soon filled with the sounds of puffing breath and stumbling feet.
“Wait! I thi – oh...God-Emperor have mercy...so – so many – ”
Thorn’s mind coursed with sudden urgency; his teeth chattered upon the micro-bead as they frantically formed words, sending each one into the device as fast as humanly possible; “whatdidyoujustsay?”
“There’s – there’s a whole damn – convoy of them!” Branistock’s voice was muffled for a brief moment, as the crackle of static returned, before continuing, “Hammerheads, Devilfishies, whatever they are – twelve, fifteen maybe – moving – right towards you – “
His voice hoarse and strained, Thorn struggled to comprehend the sounds that were echoing inside his ears; “what? What...else is there? Over...”
“ – n foot – at least twenty, maybe thirty – “
“Damn! But use the code next time, Branistock, over and out.”
Jerking away from the vox, untangling his headset as he shot towards the table, Thorn desperately searched for something ancient – something strange and exotic and nearly forgotten. Reeds gave one last order to Branistock before hurriedly joining the captain on his own side of the table. Sweeping away sheaves of papers like some vengeful god lusting for destruction, Thorn frenziedly pushed, pulled, shoved and prodded his way through the mess, creating a small hole on the centre of the table. Soon a scarred and wrinkling map was visible, marked with fading red and blue in insane patterns, that might once have been called strategies, moving always towards victory. They seemed utterly alien to the two of them now, but nevertheless, the officers had a use for the damn thing now.
Drawing a fragment of pencil from his pocket, Thorn scribbled manically over the map, calculations playing out inside his head as fast as they appeared on the paper. Speed, distance, time...time, that was the key. Frantically he completed the illegible sequence of numbers, stuttering at his result as his entire body froze up.
“Thirteen minutes, four seconds. Thirteen...” collapsing backwards like a toppled statue the defeated man slumped into the chair, his eyes sinking into his skull like dogs turning tail and running.
Lunging forwards, Thorn pounded his hands on the edge of the table, eyes bulging forwards; “d’you really think we can move all the wounded in that time? Well? Face it, Reeds, we either get everyone who can walk out of that – that implacable machine’s path or we stand here – and die here!”
“Hm?” snatching up the meagre excuse for a pencil Reeds let it dance elegantly in his hand, a silvery-grey path following its every move, “they’re not going to fly directly over here. Too exposed. Lightnings, Marauders, Valks – they’d be on the bastards in a flash and those freaks know it. They’ll hug the ground; that means roads. Best roads go this way – and then here – but that’ll take at least half an hour. They’ve got foot soldiers searching buildings too. Fifty five minutes.”
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|19 Oct 2006, 22:33||#2 (permalink)|
Join Date: Apr 2004
Location: Your computer
Re: Salvation Paid for in Blood
Thorn gave no more than a glance at the graphite-marked route Reeds had planned; leaning his elbows upon the dense layer of papers, the captain let his head sink into the weathered palms of his hands before breathing a sigh; “do you really think so?”
“Ye – “
“Not that it matters anyway...it would take hours – perhaps days – to get the wounded men to safety. And we don’t have that long – not when they’re out there, coming for us – coming to kill us...no, we can’t just run.”
Once again, Thorn’s face snapped upwards from his hands, but this time his face was pleading for Reeds to stop the madness; sweat lined his face as he spoke; “are you...you’re mad, aren’t you? Attack? Us?”
“We have Harth’s squad – “
“ – We need them here – “
“ – Jenal’s squad – “
“ – those two won’t do much – “
“ – Gruss’ squad – “
“ – Gruss? How many – “
“ – and Renne’s squad. Uh...there’s Sergeant Gruss, Corporal Farak and some civvies.”
“Let me guess...the draft? How many more graves shall we need to fill because of that damned thing?” despite his grumbling Thorn’s face had brightened slightly; he looked normal, healthier and less absorbed by morbid fantasy.
“Better than having no men. Anyway, they have six – no, five and a half – men. Well, four and a half men and one woman – “
“Who’s the ha – “
Thorn’s face became stern and stony; “oh...you shouldn’t joke about that, Reeds.”
“Hey, I wouldn’t have said it if he had his legs blown off or something like that, but admit it – “
“No, damnit!” there was a sense of authority in the young man’s voice that smashed Reeds’ opposition like a hammer striking glass.
“There are...well, there are some things you shouldn’t joke about, Reeds.”
“...Sorry,” was the first word that broke the silence, “sir.”
Shaking his head apologetically and wiping the sweat from his brow, Thorn let his unmoving visage melt; “no – no, it’s just – the heat – and the war – it’s just all getting to me.”
There was another silence, swiftly broken by more words fleeing from Thorn’s mouth; “so – well – Gruss’ squad.”
“...Six men, mostly non-standard equipment – “
Thorn groaned. They both knew what that meant.
“ – three wounded in the temp hospital, five dead – out there.”
“Right. Gruss’ squad.”
Thorn’s contemplative face burst into violent and angry life; “six?! Six damn people? By the Warp, against that many of the enemy they don’t stand a chance! What are we thinking?!”
“Well, I was thinking about that time we met those girls fr – “Reeds gave a little laugh at Thorn’s twitching face and continued in a more appropriate manner, “explosives, Thorn. Lots. Whatever we have.”
Raising his right hand to his mouth, a calm and thoughtful look descended mercilessly upon Thorn, “I think...if we can get them whatever’s not rusted or leaking – and they find a way into the sewers – they might be able to – “
Whipping his shaking left hand towards the pencil, Thorn’s imagination ran riot, full of explosions and bombs and those hovering tanks crashing and burning – the enemy with them. Grabbing it from Reeds’ fingers he planted crosses on the diagram, each one corresponding to a location within the man’s mind; the streets and buildings fractured and then blossomed upwards, rupturing and exploding in plumes of fire. Battered by the blast and the sheer force of rubble striking them, the floating beasts span and crashed, each one’s death marked by a bright burst of light and sizzling flames. Foot soldiers clutched their rifles before being torn apart or crushed or hurled away – all dying. The scene was bloody, horrific and absolutely necessary. Yes, it would be amazing, a grand spectacle.
A word floated into his muzzy brain.
There it was again; “Thorn...”
Sharply drawing him back to reality, the disembodied voice spoke again; “um...you know...”
“...I don’t think we have that many explosives,” Reeds’ dark eyes glowed although his face remained stoic, “twenty may be a bit too much, sir.”
Taking in the scene before him, Thorn felt a relieved laugh rising inside his mouth; it quickly sank back into the murky depths as he considered which of the swarm of crosses were worthy targets.
“I think...here. And here too.”
“Set them beneath this road, too.”
“That should be enough – here, as well. Right then.”
Reeds drew back from the table, a look of concern flashing across an otherwise lazily amused face; “wait...you said sewers, right? Nothing we have can go through – how far are they down?”
Thorn’s mouth contorted to form a mischievous, yet lopsided grin; “oh, not that far, I should expect...the Governor didn’t think it fit for mere peasants to have the pleasure of a proper sewage system, when they hadn’t earned it, according to him – it would be too much work to dig that deep.”
“That fat son of a – “
“ – So it won’t be too hard, I suppose.”
A dark look took hold of his bright features; his head leaned downwards, his eyes wavered, his cheeks seemed to grow more gaunt; “but, even then...how many casualties can we expect?”
Reeds stared deep into him in single dreadful pause, dark diamond eyes piercing him before the lieutenant gave his answer; “I’ll go brief them. Not much time to spare now.”
Nodding faintly, Thorn dismissed Reeds, who let the pencil slip between his fingers, plucked a toothpick from the table and sauntered – or perhaps leaned – his way out of the room, carelessly tapping his knuckles on the horribly scratched surface of the door as he left. Thorn glared at the vox for a few eternal seconds – that damn pile of scrap hated him, he knew it – before turning his attention to the photograph he had snatched up earlier. Nine men and women...one was missing. It had been taken in a time that seemed oh, so long ago, when they had enough soldiers to form proper, organised squads and people still knew their loved ones – their innocence – their peace – when they still knew themselves.
Thorn raised his hand to his forehead in a stiff salute.
Sorry about posting this in two parts, but the maximum character limit on this forum is 20000, which this exceeds by a little bit. Anyway, suggestions and criticisms would be good, particularly on the vox conversation and character development. Oh, and I'm aware that the ending of this part is rather poor right now.
Anyway, I have numerous other writing projects that I need to work on, so this may not be updated at all. As a result, the title wouldn't really make sense - just as it must do right now.
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