By Sarah Cawkwell
Two night cycles previously – at best guess – half of the strike team seated at a table playing a semi-serious game of Darktown Whist. Others were cleaning and maintaining their weapons, some sleeping, but at least it was all of them. Still together. A unit. A squad. A team. Friends.
Now only four remained and the circumstances were most definitely not conducive to playing games. Strafing gunfire ripped through the ruins of the hab block in which they were taking shelter. Everywhere the sounds of death and dying echoed throughout the blasted streets like a ghastly opera playing to a very small, select audience. The traitors of the Moebian 6th were hammering Chasm Station, but then it felt as though everywhere in Tertium was being hammered. Maybe everywhere on Atoma.
Vox communication with the other strike teams scattered throughout the sector - and worse, with the orbiting Mourningstar - had broken down after a heavy stubber shell had punched through the equipment as well as the man carrying it and they were running out of places to take cover in the long reaches of Ironside Alley.
“Odds not so good this time, Sarge,” muttered Alusha, the team’s demolitions expert. Her long black hair, usually wound up tightly beneath her cap, had come loose and hung in strands around her harassed face. She propped her lasgun on the ground before her and frantically took stock of what explosives she had left in her arsenal.
Sergeant Taril groaned softly, running his hands through his thinning hair. His helmet was long since gone, thrown off by the blast that had scattered the strike team in all directions, apart from Kerrin, whose luck ran out when he’d been too close to the impact to be able to escape the fire and spinning shrapnel. What remained of Kerrin when the smoke and dust had cleared had not been a pretty sight. An even less pretty sight was that of the big Ogryn, Tig, as he had cradled his best friend’s torso in his arms, trying to convince himself that everything was fine.
Kerrin and Tig formed an instant bond from the moment the Ogryn had arrived, newly assigned to the strike team: a big, clumsy mountain of muscle with the flat, blocky features and overly-hirsute body of his kind. He’d come to them comparatively recently. Young for an Ogryn, what he lacked in knowledge and social grace – and by the Throne, he had precious little of either – Tig made up for with single-minded determination, unwavering loyalty and boundless energy. At first the team had only reluctantly accepted his company, but his endless child-like enthusiasm and relentless optimism had quickly worn them down. Within days they had warmed to him, within a week none of them could recall the team without him.
Overhead, a squadron of blunt-nosed, ramshackle attack craft banked sharply to their left with a scream of tortured plasma jets, peeling off in pursuit of the remaining thunderbolt fighters.
Tig hunkered down beside Taril. The Ogryn’s face was distorted more than usual; the heavy brow twisted into an expression of abject misery. He had grown close to Kerrin, a man whose sardonic humour and sharp tongue had savaged the pride of many. Tig was immune to sarcasm and took everything so much to heart that they’d all learned to be careful what they told him to do. He would quite literally follow an order to the letter.
“Fight now, Sarge?”
The bass rumble of his voice began somewhere deep in the barrel chest, making its way through vocal chords far more used to shouting battle cries. He was the brute strength of the squad and little more: not smart enough to be trusted with a firearm, he brandished his serrated-edged war maul with immense pride, hefting the heavy weapon with practiced ease. On the occasions the maul had not been to hand, he snatched up any heavy object and did what he referred to as ‘makin’ do’.
“Rest for a bit, Tig. We need to get our breath back.”
“Yeah,” agreed the Ogryn, nodding solemnly. “Breath gone. Kerrin gone. Bed… gone. Is very sad, yeah? Chasm Station broken. Tig fight now while you get breath back.” He patted his sergeant on the shoulder awkwardly. Taril winced at the heavy-handed gesture but couldn’t hide the tired smile that flickered over his face.
“Stay where you are Tig, that’s an order.” If the Ogryn moved out of cover now, he would attract the attention of recon teams. Even if there were no enemies on the ground within sight, Tig was large enough that he’d be an obvious target for the traitor aerocraft. The Ogryn may have been as tough as a Commissar’s boot, but he was not immortal.
Tig scratched at the back of his neck, dislodging a clod of dirt clinging there from an earlier trip into the mud. “Tig fight,” he repeated, then his face darkened. “Is all Tig can do now. No bed, no Kerrin, no squad if Tig not fight.” His muscles were bunched beneath the surface and his posture suggested that he was ready to burst from cover there and then but Taril put a restraining hand – for what little good it would do – on the Ogryn’s arm.
“No,” he said sharply. “Tig stay.” He loathed talking to the Ogryn like an animal, but it was sometimes necessary. The abhuman understood and obeyed simple commands and it was how most people spoke to him when they deigned to speak to him at all. Even Taril had spoken to him like that in the start. Then he had come to realise that the Ogryn wasn’t stupid, not exactly, he simply processessed the world around him in a different way, and at a different speed. Maybe it shouldn’t have come as a shock, but it had. Over time, that realisation had deepened into understanding to the point that he knew he could rely on Tig as much as any member of the squad. Maybe more so, were he brutally honest.
Fresh explosions rocked the shell of the hab block in the ruins of which they were hiding. Debris rained down on their heads. Sergeant Taril looked over at Alusha and Gorek, the other remaining squad members. They were hunkered down, frantically scooping out foxholes in the debris and making themselves as small as they could in an effort to minimise the chances of being hit by fallen masonry and stray rounds. A spinning chunk of plascrete glanced off Tig’s shoulder. The Ogryn didn’t even flinch.
“We need to move out of Ironside Alley,” said Taril, making a decision. “If we can get to the next enclavum, maybe we can contact the Mourningstar. We just need an opening. If we can hit Burnside, we can keep moving. We just need those traitorous scum to stop raining death down on us for five minutes.”
Tig brightened. “Tig fight now?” His brow unfurled and the slightly off-centre smile suggested how excited the idea made him. Such devotion was in no small way, utterly heartbreaking. His willingness to die in service to the Emperor was commendable of course, but Taril was old-fashioned in wanting to very much keep as many of his squad alive as he could.
But things were as bleak as they had ever been; the Emperor would understand.
Sergeant Taril reached out and clapped Tig on the shoulder. “In a minute, Tig. Just wait a minute. Alusha, Gorek, when we get an opening we’re falling back, double time, for the Deadside Drop and we do not look back. Is that clear? Whatever else happens, keep moving.”
Gorek nodded. Alusha murmured her understanding. Tig was already getting to his feet, showering Taril in particulate dust. Not for the first time, the sergeant felt the guilt and shame of the way some treated abhumans. Like idiots. Like fools. Expendable. They were not. They were both more and less than the common soldiery and there was purity in their service.
“Tig fight?” The big Ogryn beamed happily at Taril who, in that instant, hated him for it. Just for a moment he considered giving different orders, but strategic options were limited and half-remembered regulations from before his time aboard the Mourningstar gave clear direction for such scenarios. He released his hand on Tig’s shoulder and nodded sharply. Any sorrow would have to wait. It would probably have to wait a very long time.
“Yes, Tig. You fight, my friend. If you can, meet us in Enclavum Baross. But now… get out there and make those karking traitors hurt. That’s a direct order. Emperor be with you.” Tig’s rumbling, infectious laughter slowly grew softer as he set off at a loping run towards the enemy. Taril knew there was no way in all the Imperium’s million worlds that he’d ever see the Ogryn again.
“Emperor be with you,” he repeated in a low, grim voice.
And may he forgive me.