Survivors and Vengeance

Colonel Nolt tugged on his lapels as he waited impatiently for the Navy's response. He hated waiting like this at such a critical moment. The Navy was sloppy, only good for ferrying the Guard to planets where the real fighting happened. The vox officer returned to Nolt's office. 'Well?' Nolt asked, straightening up. 'What word from the Aramatus?'

'No response, sir, I can't explain it,' said the operator. 'Our relay was sent out, but there was no indication it was received. The astropaths are looking into malfunctions with the relay.'

'Impossible,' snapped Nolt. Covering up his anger, he quickly added, 'Is there any way that you could provide an auspex scan of orbit? Perhaps our communications were disrupted by the storms.'

'We already tried that, sir,' explained the operator. 'We found no sign of the ship or its escort. Meridian's skies are clear. The scan did reveal a residual warp signature similar to the Aramatus's profile, but our auspex signal was too weak to get a full reading.'

Orias Nolt burned. A perfect chance to crush the invasion in its infancy, and the Navy was gone. The Artemians were on the run, and the Orks were rampaging across the north bank, and there was nothing Nolt could do to stop them. A golden opportunity wasted by the incompetence of others. 'Order a full retreat,' he said bitterly, 'We're abandoning the harbor.'

The operator protested, 'But sir, with the 455th scattered, the 31st will have no cover.'

'I know that!' Nolt shouted. He turned on the officer, glowering down at him. 'If no order is sent, they will all perish. Give the order, guardsman. Tell them to regroup ten miles inland, and get whatever relief units you can there as soon as possible.'

'Yes sir,' said the officer. Nolt gave him a curt nod, and the man hurried away. The colonel collected his sword and pistol, and took one last look out over the chaos below. Desperate pockets of resistance were swiftly being overwhelmed by the Ork's shock assault. Waves of xenos aircraft were disgorging hundreds more to pursue the routing Imperials. Orias resisted the urge to lash out. He instead buried his frustration with contempt for the greenskins that had outwitted him, and the incompetents that had abandoned him.

'King's Head!' said Mathis, triumphantly knocking Alek's regent over. 'I win, now pay up. I think you said fifteen thrones, yes?' The corporal held out an expecting hand. Alek cursed under his breath and tossed a handful of coins at Mathis. The heavy wooden door to the parlour creaked open. In walked Kippler, dusting off his uniform and checking his left shoulder.

'I don't know where you found this guy, Soras,' said Alek. He shoved his hands into his pockets, digging for more coins.

'I didn't find him. Take it up with the colonel.'

'Ah, you played fine, Alek,' said Mathis. He flashed a big grin. 'For a beginner, that is.'

'If I'm a beginner, I have no idea what you are,' Alek retorted. 'I'd say I can hold my own against the others, but you just wiped me off the board in fifteen moves. You're not normal, Beryn.'

'Define normal, Alek,' Mathis said.

'Normal' is being able to hold a gun and not break down when the first bullet flies,' said Alek. He raised his right hand, showing off his mechanical fingers. 'Normal is having this happen to you and deal with it the same way you would having a cold. What you're doing is sadistic.'

'It's just a game of regicide.'

Kippler was only half listening to them. He was still distracted by his shoulder. 'Can either of you see if I missed a spot? I don't want any loose strands.' He leaned over the table, showing Alek and Mathis the freshly sewn on chevron.

Mathis ran his hand over the emblem. 'Looks fine to me... Sergeant. Should I start saluting you?'

Kippler looked surprised. 'What? Terra, no. It's a chevron, not a crown. The captain said it's just a formality anyways. A "need to maintain proper organizational structure within the company", he said.'

'Well, congratulations, Soras,' said Mathis. 'You planning on celebrating? Care for a game, perhaps?' Alek silently mouthed 'no', waving his arms theatrically.

'No thanks, Beryn. Lieutenant wanted a headcount, so I was sent to find everyone,' Kippler lit a cigarette, taking a quick drag and tossing the match away. 'Has anyone seen Vornas? I asked Serrt, for all the good that did.'

Beryn shook his head. 'It's going to take some work to get those two to see eye to eye.' Nobody had forgotten Serrt's outburst at the station. It was easy to get on Vornas's bad side, and Donovan Serrt had done it in record time. 'Have you checked over by the station?' he suggested, 'I heard we were getting a resupply for Angel Forge. Apparently they've got something special. Jann and Kalan were going there after they got back from visiting Mol at the hospital.'

Kippler exhaled a puff of smoke. 'I was just heading there next. I know that he's still taking things hard, but Vornas needs to stop wandering off like this.'

Alek stood up. 'I'll come with you, I'm not losing any more thrones to this shark. Coming, Mathis?' Mathis nodded and joined them. The three guardsmen stepped out of the warm gambling parlour and into the snow covered streets, heading for the depot.

Temple Hill dominated the north half of Golgotha, the fortress cathedral's walls rising nearly five hundred feet above the rooftops of the spire's surface layer. The 4th Company's billet lay empty during the day as the off duty guardsmen enjoyed their respite. Only a handful of troops remained inside, catching up on some much needed rest. Nearly three hundred thousand guardsmen held in reserve guarded Temple Hill, and the streets were bustling with troopers from hundreds of regiments.

Kippler lead the way down the hill. The wide paths allowed a commanding view of the surrounding spire. From here, he could see the whole of Luesan Island, the massive Greenskin fortresses jutting out of the ground like jagged mountains. Kippler thought of the rest of the regiment, still down there, battling the greenskins. He spotted the Rok furthest west. The Vendolanders and Cadians would be readying for an assault soon, and for once, the 4th Company wouldn't be at the fore.

Kippler was so used to being on deployment that these small breaks left him uncertain of what to do with his time. It had been nearly ten years since he had first set foot on Meridian, and in that time, he had faced near constant conflict. Whether it was rebels, heretics, tyranids or orks, there was always something threatening the sector capital. It was a small wonder that he hadn't gone insane, he thought. Everyone had their breaking point, and he hadn't reached his yet. But right now, he was trying to keep a friend from reaching his own.

Vornas had shouldered Remer's death with an uncharacteristic silence. The large man had never exactly been talkative, but he now rarely spoke to anyone. If he did, it was often brusque, and prone to anger. Kippler had been wracking his brain thinking of a way to carefully support his friend without setting him off. Who knew what might happen?

The trio found Vornas watching the trains being unloaded from an overpass with a few dozen onlookers. Below, Kippler saw what had caught their attention. They were some of the strangest looking tanks he had ever seen. Where the Leman Russ was tall and blunt, these tanks were short and had wide turrets, each housing a high velocity vanquisher cannon. They were unpainted, their newly constructed hulls polished to a mirror shine, even beneath the bleak skies. A column of red robed techpriests and engineseers marched alongside the tanks, followed by a vast chain of Mechanicus laborers.

'What are they called?' asked Kippler. Vornas didn't turn to greet his squad mates.

'Technically, they're Meridian Pattern Mark 1 Tanks,' explained Vornas humorlessly. 'Meant for popping enemy armor. Everyone here is just calling them Dorns. I guess the Cogboys think a smaller tank will fare better in city streets.'

'I thought that techpriests didn't make new machines,' said Alek.

'They don't,' said Kippler. 'It's probably based on some old blueprint they dug up centuries ago.'

A senior techpriest oversaw the offloading. He was deep in huddled conversation with the station foreman. Kippler found that odd. Barring the engineseers attached to every regiment, techpriests rarely consulted with anyone outside the priesthood, let alone a Munitorum supply officer. He just shrugged it off. How the priests worked was their own business.

Later that evening, most of the company retired to their billet. A couple guardsmen had set up a video projector on one end of the warehouse. Kippler sat on top of one of their chimeras with the rest of the squad, watching the film. It was another Gaunt's Ghosts tale, they were popular among the regiment and the tapes kept circulating through the companies.

Kippler whispered to Vornas. "Hey, do you have a minute?"

"For what?"

"Just a talk, Borik. In private."

Vornas grunted, and slid off the side of the transport. He and Kippler walked over to a secluded corner of the warehouse. Kippler sat on a crate of munitions. "So, how are you doing?"

"What do you want, Soras?" Vornas sighed and shook his head. "You want to start playing therapist all of a sudden? I'm fine."

"No you're not, you look terrible," said Kippler. "I'm not here to make you feel better. I'd be lying if Remer's death didn't hurt me either. But I want to know if this is going to affect your duties. You're still a soldier. But you're also my friend. I don't want to get another man killed because his head wasn't on straight."

"You don't need to worry about me, sergeant," said the grenadier darkly. "I'm not going to die before that bitch does. Nothing would piss her off more."

"The Commissar?"

"Who else?" snapped Vornas, "You were there, you saw what she did. She left Remer to die, she put a frakking gun to my head. No, it's her fault, and she will pay for it. I will kill her before some Greenskin does."

"Keep your voice down," hissed Kippler, anxiously looking to see if anyone heard. "Vornas, what would that solve? You'd be executed. Is that what Remer would want?"

"Who cares what the dead want," lamented Vornas, "Remer is dead. This kill will be for me."

'So let me get this straight. You think that you cannot die because your friend hasn't died yet? And that every injury he takes just lets you live longer?'

'That's right,' said Remer. 'Alek has been shot, stabbed and had his fingers slashed off, and he's still alive. Therefore, I'm still alive. Last count our squad was at, we were up to ten years or so before we can even think about dying.'

Valeris was rummaging through a container marked with the Imperial aquila. She and the trooper were scavenging supplies from an abandoned depot. Remer had been planning to make the journey back to the surface, once she awoke. With several broken bones between them, they stood more chance moving together than alone. 'Well, have you thought of contacting them, then? Chances are they think you're dead. Here, grenades, how many do you want?' She showed the trooper a handful of explosives.

Remer looked at them. 'Take four each,' he said. He pried the lid off another crate and continued talking. 'Well, I would contact them if I had a way. As it turns out, two tons of rockcrete is a bit more than a vox bead can take. Oh, I tried to find a replacement, but it's hard to get anywhere with half your body bashed up and half a million greenskins wandering around.'

Remer's eyes lit up and a smile crossed his face. 'Aha!' he exclaimed. Digging into the box, Remer pulled out a servo skull. The probe's skull was etched with holy writ and various blessings, and its optics glowed red as Remer flipped the switch. The servo skull levitated off his hand, eyeing them inquisitively. "Useful little buggers. When you don't have Kippler's eyes on hand, these things will do in a pinch."

"You speak highly of your friends," remarked Valeris. After catching his stare, she quickly added, "not that there's anything wrong with that. I'm sure you wish to see them again."

"And you don't want to see your friends, flygirl?"

"Not really," she admitted. The attrition rate of new pilots was horrible. Inexperienced wingmen didn't last long. Friendships were nonexistent when they could be snuffed out in an instant.

"Fair enough," said the trooper with a shrug. He didn't press the subject, which Valeris appreciated.

Valeris finished loading up on supplies. Her mesh webbing was laden with explosives, ammo packs and dry rations. It was much heavier than her flight jacket, and with her leg still in a splint, she balanced unevenly on her good foot. Surprisingly, the flak carapace Remer had found for her was much lighter than she had expected. She was developing a grudging respect for the infantryman's endurance.

Leaving the stockroom, Remer activated the servo skull. The device flew up several hundred feet, disappearing between the maze of interlocking walkways and building foundations. Remer flipped open the hololith receiver rigged to the probe. A hazy picture slowly phased into view, a map of the servo skull's path towards the surface.

Remer traced a zigzagging line along the areas charted by the servo skull. "This looks promising," he said brightly, "It'll be a long trek, but we should be able to make it in a day or two. After that, it's just a question of getting back to command and telling them I'm not dead. Then we'll find a way to get you back to your squadron."

"Then let's go as soon as we're ready," said Valeris. "It stinks down here."

"Hey now, at least you were asleep for a few days. I've been breathing this rot for over a week. Never thought I'd miss the smell of Greenskins." A distant clatter echoed through the undercity. Somewhere far off, something cracked, and the telltale sound of gunfire pinged off of metal. The hololith chart suddenly froze. No more data was being sent from the probe, and an error message appeared on the receiver. Remer stared up into the rafters. "Then again, perhaps I haven't missed it all that much, after all."