Sara breathed hard as she struggled to keep up with Dovator. He had been running almost nonstop since they had met in the field a short time ago. She silently wished he would stop soon. Perhaps then she could ask him, politely of course, what he intended to do; Sara still didn't quite understand what the Inquisitor's plan was. "Head toward the capital," he had told the Guardsmen they had passed. "Spread the word to anyone you find."
What about the smoke? Sara thought. How will we see where we are going? Won't the enemy see us first? She berated herself silently for such thoughts. The conditions of the field didn't matter. They were Imperial servants, doing the work of the God Emperor. They could not fail. And yet, the more she thought about it, the more uncomfortable she became. Sara prayed silently, recalling the teachings of her previous master. "The universe is ours to do with as we please," he had explained, more to hear himself speak than for her benefit. "There is no need to fear, for Man is destined to rule the stars." These words had always been an absolute truth in Sara's mind, and yet, despite the strength of her faith, the direness of their situation was obvious. For the first time in her life, Sara doubted the Imperium.
Ahead of her, Dovator slowed to a walk. They were nearing another group of Borglyn's men: five soldiers taking cover in an impact crater. "I repeat: on orders from Inquisitor Dovator, all units rally on the capital!" Sara heard Weiss's voice coming from the crater. She smiled. He had done it! The message was out, and now they would descend upon the capital with righteous fury and liberate this world. Sara's doubts melted away at the thought of Borglyn's men advancing en masse, eliminating all who opposed them. Gradually, her smile faded. The men in the crater remained motionless; for them, the battle had ended some time ago.
Sara turned her attention back to the Inquisitor, expecting him to resume his hurried pace toward the capital. To her surprise, he continued his slow walk toward the crater, his face set. Sara followed him quietly, glad for the opportunity to catch her breath. She studied the bodies of the soldiers as she approached. They looked surprisingly peaceful to her, despite their battered appearance. Their armour was pockmarked from shrapnel, the cloth of their uniforms tattered, their skin blackened, but something about the way they lay there made her believe they had been resigned to their fate. Dovator had reached the edge of the crater now and eased himself down the slope.
Near the bodies and partially covered in dirt, Sara could see the vox-caster. That's what he's here for, she thought. But Dovator had stopped in the center of the crater. He removed his hat slowly and took in the sight of the five soldiers; his expression had changed to one of sadness. Sara watched him carefully, surprised by his sudden change in demeanor.
"I'm sorry," Dovator whispered, bowing his head. He closed his eyes and mouthed a silent prayer to the Emperor. Sara knew he blamed himself for their deaths, wished he had never led them here to fight this losing battle. But what bothered him more than that, she knew, was that this was his personal struggle to redeem his home in the eyes of the God Emperor, and he was slowly losing control over the situation. She hoped he would not lose faith as well. That, she had been taught, could only lead to darkness.
Sara approached the Inquisitor cautiously. She wanted nothing more than to comfort him, but she did not wish to overstep her bounds. Tentatively, Sara reached out and placed a hand on Dovator's shoulder. When he made no move to chastise her for her boldness, Sara decided to push her luck. She took a step forward so her body was inches from his back. "The Emperor is good," she reminded him. "He will guide us to victory."
The Inquisitor hung his head. "At what cost?" he asked no one in particular. "It shouldn't have come to this. Not here." He wheeled around suddenly and his gaze met hers, his blue eyes filled with anguish. He shook his head. "I've yet to see anyone on this Emperor forsaken rock not beyond redemption."
"We haven't reached the capital yet," Sara said, hopeful. "There may be people there who have not turned to heresy. Once we take back the city, they will fight with us and praise the Emperor for saving them. We can rebuild. This planet will be just as beautiful as you remembered."
Dovator forced a smile. A moment later, the Inquisitor's face was once again hard and emotionless. He replaced his hat on his head and picked up the vox-caster, shaking the dirt from it. Dovator set the unit to broadcast and held the speech-horn up to his mouth.
"This is Inquisitor Alexi Dovator," he spoke into the device, his voice cold and forceful. "Advance on the capital immediately. You are to show the enemy no mercy. We will stamp out this heresy here and now."
"We have our foothold," Collins told Kraken matter-of-factly as his men took up positions in the windows. "From here we can cover the advance of the other squads as we push deeper into the city. We'll stamp out the resistance in no time." He smiled, pleased with their current situation.
It was a smug smile, Kraken thought. One that the older lieutenant wanted nothing more than to wipe off the younger man's face with his fist. The enemy had been well entrenched and fought with the ferocity of a wounded animal. The building was well situated defensively; the assault took Collins, Kraken, and their men through a maze of rubble and bombed out houses. They had split into two teams. One, led by Collins, flanked the enemy from the left, hugging cover whenever they could, scrambling through broken windows and crumbling walls as they made their way forward. The other, led by Kraken, flanked the enemy from the right, drawing the enemy's fire as they picked their way through burnt yards rife with impact craters. The skirmish was as quick as it was bloody. The building had been captured, but the price had been a steep one. Seven men lay dead, four of them Borglyn's, their bodies ripped apart by heavy bolter fire and grenades.
"I'll be up on the roof," the veteran told the other lieutenant, looking for any excuse to be rid of him, even for a short time. "Get dug in. We'll hold here for the time being."
Kraken had met Collins a short time ago while searching the field for some sign of Dovator and the others, and he had already developed an intense dislike for the man. 'Man,' Kraken thought as he climbed the ruined stairwell. More like 'boy'. This one's as green as they come and thinks he's Lord Castellan. Was I ever this bad when I first got my commission?
"You there! Come with me!" Collins had shouted when he spotted Kraken across the field. 'You there'? Kraken remembered thinking, taken aback by the arrogance in the other's tone. Already frustrated by the direness of their current situation, it was all Kraken could do to refrain from laying the younger officer out for the slight. There's more at stake here than my pride.
Once Collins and his retinue had closed the distance between themselves and Kraken, and the younger man realized who he was talking to, he stammered an apology and saluted crisply. "Never salute a commanding officer in the field," Kraken chastised the younger lieutenant through gritted teeth. "Unless you're trying to get me killed."
"No, sir! Sorry, sir!" Collins started again. "Inquisitor Dovator sent me to collect anyone I could find and press forward to the capital." He rubbed the back of his neck and nodded toward the ragtag group of two dozen soldiers assembled behind him. "These are all the men I've come across so far. It's a mess out there, sir. I'm hoping the Inquisitor was able to get the word out, otherwise we're on our own assaulting that city."
They had met two more guardsmen after that and sent ten of the men further across the field to continue spreading the word while they turned toward the capital. Establish a foothold, rally Borglyn's troops as they trickled into the city, and press forward with a concentrated assault on the governor's palace. The plan was simple. Executing it, however, was another matter entirely. Everything hinged on them having the numbers to mount a successful attack under a hailstorm of enemy fire. Kraken hoped the ten men he had sent out would return soon, with at least double their number in tow. Finding Dovator wouldn't hurt, either.
Kraken pulled a pair of magnoculars from his jacket and scanned the surrounding city. To the north east, he could see Gaea Prime's Imperial palace. Its west facing wall was barely standing. Large holes blown into it in several places gave it the appearance of a hive. That's our way in, Kraken thought, scanning the roads that led to the palace's west entrance.
Craters riddled the wider roads, and make shift barricades were strategically placed between them, most likely from an earlier assault. As promising as the cover was, Kraken knew that the enemy wasn't fool enough to leave them there for the taking. He brought his magnoculars back to the western gates. The fortifications were heavier behind the gates, but Kraken couldn't make out any gun emplacements. Unless... Something caught the lieutenant's eye and he scanned the top of the building. Snipers. Of course... Without tanks or snipers of their own, Kraken knew they would be hard pressed to make it up that street without suffering significant casualties.
Kraken took a deep breath and headed back down the stairs. Two of Borglyn's men manned a heavy bolter, positioned in one of the windows to cover as much of the street as possible. Four more men had taken up positions behind some rubble, covering the only other entrance to the building, while the rest huddled together in the middle of the room, checking their gear in silence.
The veteran found Collins sitting in a corner, fiddling with a damaged vox unit they had recovered on their way into the city. "Anything yet?" he asked the younger man.
"No, sir. Nothing but static so far," Collins replied. He cycled through the frequencies to no effect before putting the unit down in frustration. "I have no idea how to work this thing," he said unhappily, leaning back against the wall.
Kraken smiled. He had spent enough time around Weiss to learn a thing or two. He had never been particularly good with technology, but Kraken was always loath to turn down a free lesson, even if the subject matter didn't particularly interest him. "Give it here," he said. "Let me see what I can do."
The buildings on the outskirts of the capital loomed ahead of Weiss. The tall spires of the gothic architecture shooting up from between bombed out buildings reminded him of the hull of an Imperial cruiser, only uglier, if such a thing were possible. The tech adept had never been one for appreciating architecture, unless the finished result had some sort of movable parts or flew through space. Buildings were just too static. All they ever do is stand there... and fall down when someone drops bombs on them, Weiss thought as he reached the outer wall of the capital, Lucia a few paces behind.
The wall lay in ruin, large chunks of rockcrete blown out of it by ordnance from an earlier battle. The tech adept moved cautiously toward a mound of rubble to his right, crouching in order to stay out of sight until he knew what was on the other side. He climbed slowly up the pile and peaked over the top. Before him stretched a wide street. At its end, several hundred metres away, stood the twisted barred gates of Gaea Prime's Imperial palace.
"You don't happen to have any magnoculars on you, do you?" Weiss whispered to the psyker huddled behind the rubble to his left. "I'd bet anything there's a gun emplacement at the end of that street, but I can't see anything from here."
"Shit..." he heard Lucia mutter.
That made him smile. When they had first encountered Lucia two years ago, she had been the most mild mannered, polite young woman he'd ever had the pleasure to meet. Now she talks like Kraken. He wasn't entirely certain that was a bad thing. It adds character, he thought. And besides, the two of them are practically glued together. It was bound to happen sooner or later.
Below him, Weiss could hear her rummaging through the pack she had grabbed back when they searched the ruined tanks. They hadn't exactly had the time to prepare their gear before charging headlong into the fields. They would just have to make do with whatever they could scrounge up along the way. If the fires, scorched earth, and impact craters they had crossed were any indication, their chances of finding new supplies would be slim.
The tech adept slid back down the rubble and crouched down next to Lucia, sliding the vox unit off his back and resting it between his knees. He looked over at the psyker as she pulled the magnoculars out of her pack and handed them to him. She reached back into her pack, pulled out a canteen and quaffed from it. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she held it out for Weiss to take.
"Thanks," he said, taking the canteen from her.
"What's the plan, Weiss?" she whispered as he took a sip. "I haven't seen any of Borglyn's men anywhere, Dovator's run off to Emperor knows where, and Kraken..." She closed her eyes for a moment and looked away. "We don't know where anyone is."
"We'll find them," Weiss reassured her. "Don't worry. Dovator knows what he's doing." Or at least he's really good at making it up as he goes along, he thought, deciding it better to keep that part to himself. "And Kraken... Well, you and I both know he's one tough son of a bitch." That got a smile out of her.
He handed the canteen back and picked up the vox, flipped a few switches and brought the speech horn to his mouth. "This is Weiss. Does anyone copy?" He waited a moment for a reply. No answer. The tech adept adjusted the frequency and tried again. "Does anyone read?" Static. And then -
"Weiss? Is that you?" Kraken's voice crackled over the comm, startling the tech adept and bringing a beaming smile to Lucia's face.
"Yeah, it's me," Weiss answered. "Good to hear your voice, Kraken. We're approaching the palace, but we might be pinned down. Hang on, let me check..." He crawled over the rubble again and brought the magnoculars up to his eyes, scanning the end of the street. He swore. "Two heavy bolters and one lascannon, south gate," he reported.
There was the sound of footsteps, followed by a long pause. "I see them," Kraken said at last. "I want you to advance two blocks and then duck into the first building on your right. I'll lay down some covering fire. We'll link up further into the city."
"Copy that," Weiss said as he slung the vox unit over his shoulder, clipping the speech horn to the front of his flak armour. He glanced at Lucia, and the psyker nodded her acknowledgement. "We're ready when you are," he reported as the two climbed up the rubble. They stopped just beneath the lip, making sure to stay out of sight. "You'd better not miss."
"We won't," came the reply. Weiss could hear Kraken's muffled voice issuing orders to his men before falling silent for a moment. "Go, now!"
Weiss bounded over the crest of the rubble heap and raced toward the building Kraken had told him about. Maybe they won't notice us, if we're quick, he thought. He could hear Lucia's footsteps pounding on the pavement close behind and prayed she could keep up. He knew she wasn't the fastest sprinter, but this time, her life depended on it.
An explosion ripped a chunk from the corner of a nearby building as the heavy bolters opened up on them. Another made a crater a few feet to the tech adept's left and still he ran forward, shells exploding all around him. "Where the hell is that covering fire?" he shouted to no one in particular, instinctively covering his head with his arms.
Suddenly, the air exploded in a hail of lasgun fire, coming from some ruins several streets off to his left, flashes of red converging on the gun emplacements at the end of the street. The heavy weapons went silent. Weiss hoped they would stay that way. Just a bit more...
They reached the ruined building and Weiss took a hard right, dashing down an alleyway. On the side of the building, he could see a broken window, not too far off the ground. "In here!" he shouted as he leapt through the opening, landing hard on the floor. He heard Lucia come through right behind him and felt remnants of the shattered glass rain down on him.
Weiss lay on the floor for a moment, catching his breath. The room was dimly lit, the only source of light filtering in through a doorway at the far end. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, Weiss climbed to his feet and brushed himself off.
"Are you okay?" he asked Lucia, holding out his hand to help the psyker up.
"Yeah, I think so," Lucia replied. She took Weiss' hand and gained her feet. "I guess we'll hold here until... Oh."
Weiss followed her gaze to the far end of the room. Six guardsmen had taken up defensive positions in the door way, blocking out almost all of the light, their weapons trained on the Weiss and Lucia. The tech adept scanned the room, looking for cover. It was mostly empty; all the furniture had been shoved to one side, forming a barricade against the main street, leaving a large, empty space between Weiss and the guns pointed at him. Weiss reached slowly toward the laspistol holstered on his right hip. Maybe, if luck was with him, he and Lucia could take them all down before one could get off a shot. "Get ready to do some damage," he whispered.
"Stand down," a voice called from beyond the doorway. The guardsmen exchanged uncertain glances, but kept their lasguns trained on the two intruders. Weiss' fingers brushed the grip of his laspistol. He could feel the psyker tensed beside him, ready to attack.
"I said, stand down!" the voice called again. The guardsmen lowered their weapons cautiously and moved forward into the room slowly, clearing the doorway to make way for the speaker. A silhouette wearing a wide-brimmed hat entered the room. The light from the doorway gave the figure a brilliant, almost ethereal aura. "They're with me."