By John French
The past was waiting when the soldier closed her eyes.
A blink of white just above the trench. Then the blast wave. Sound so loud it became silence. Then the world turning over and over, blurring, shivering in orange and red before she hit the trench wall. A long sliding second. Ears ringing.
The buzz-zip of rounds and las bolts.
Another flash in the air, red, orange, smoke billowing up to smother the dying sun. The air shivering and then the ground rolling like an ocean wave as the shockwave ripped through it. Red mud bubbling up between seams in the trench plating as the blood soaked earth liquified. And the shouting went on, louder than the roar as another blastwave spilled over the trench lip. She could not feel her lasgun in her hands. She needed her gun, needed to get up, needed to stand.
There was a hand in front of her. It was red.
'Medicae…' Quieter. 'Medic…'
Why could she hear that voice?
Then she realised that the red hand in front of her eyes was hers
'Closing in on the drop zone! Two minutes!' The pilot's voice cut the memory away.
She opened her eyes. The amber light of the gunship's crew compartment replaced the remembered blood. The gunship was shaking. She could feel the engines fighting gravity as it cut down through Atoma's thickening atmosphere.
'Pleasant dreams?' The witch smiled at her from across the compartment. The psyker's pupils are ragged bullet holes in yellow irises.
'We have a visual of the drop zone,' came the pilot's voice over the cabin vox. 'Standby for depressurisation.'
The soldier fastened her rebreather mask, hands moving smoothly over buckles and catches. Two of the others were doing the same: the priest fumbling with the catches, the psyker's thin fingers moving like spider legs as they settled the mask over their mouth. Only the ogryn didn't bother.
'You're just going to hold your breath?' asked the witch. The ogryn nodded. The psyker shook his head. 'Amateurs… A miracle if we survive five seconds' The witch looked at the soldier again. 'Cadian, right?' There was mockery dancing in his eyes.
'Depressurise in Three,' said the pilot. 'Two… One.'
The light in the compartment blinked red.
Her hands were red.
She did not have her gun.
'A Cadian without a gun is a traitor to their training!' shouted the remembered voice of her sergeant at the back of her skull. She had been ten. One of hundreds standing on the drill ground while the ice wind spiralled snow from the grey sky. 'A Cadian is a soldier! A soldier is their weapon!'
First lessons, first truths, learned long ago…
But she could not see her weapon, just the wet red of her fingers and the strobing blink of explosions above the trench lip.
'Medicae…' she tried to shout, but the word came out as a gurgle of pink froth. This was it. No rifle. No strength to stand. Pathetic. Loathsome. Weak. Not a Cadian. Cadia had died fighting. A whole world with its death grip still on the trigger, and she… She had survived that only to die here without a weapon, calling for a medic that would not come.
She had been born to fight on a world that existed for war, another daughter in generations of billions who stood on the edge of Hel and said to its horde come no further. People talked about the Emperor's Angels, the Space Marines who brought death like divine lightning, about how they were humanity's shield. They were real, and terrible, and beyond human, but for all their strength they could not shield mankind; mankind had to be its own shield. Armies of flesh and blood and iron and fire. Armies that could shake worlds with their tread and the voice of their guns. Armies that failed in their purpose only because of weakness… the weakness of a last soldier bleeding out in a trench without even a gun in her hand.
Bits of body and armour lay in the red mud around her. A blink before there had been a platoon in that space, orders snapping the air, gear harnesses clinking, message runners trying to force through the press. Now everything was unmoving beneath the churning sky. unmoving and torn and glossed crimson.
She felt something tapping her on the shoulder, slow, insistent. She forced her gaze up. A hand hung from the rung of a trench ladder above her. She could see the numerals tattooed on the digits and the prayer beads still twined in its grip. Blood was dripping from the curled ring finger to tap her on the head.
She saw the enemy then. They were on the lip of the trench above, ragged shapes in mismatched armour, dark and barbed, faces hidden by curtains of chain mail, finger bones tied to gunstocks. They moved quietly, carefully, ghosting down into the trench. She could see the markings of Imperial units under the eight pointed stars scratched and burnt onto their armour.
Weakness… in the end that was the real enemy. Weakness that let a soldier think that they had a purpose other than to fight and die. Weakness that let treachery become betrayal. Weakness that kept her down here in the red mud…
One of the enemy troopers was just two steps away from her. She could see the rust pocks on the shin plate of his armour. Strange… the rust was almost a pattern. The trooper took another step. It had a flamer. Drops of burning, green liquid drooled from the weapon's muzzle. The weapon and the enemy's gaze turned toward her…
She came up off the ground. She did not try to hit the enemy. She went for the flamer. The enemy squeezed the weapon's trigger. Liquid flame joshed down the trench. The rest of the enemy troops were shouting now. The trooper tried to rip the flamer free from her grip. She held on, then rammed the crown of her helmet into the enemy' face. Bone shattered behind chainmail mask. She struck again, and now the enemy was falling and she wrenched the flamer from their grip.
The other troopers were just three paces away, guns aimed, fingers pulling triggers. She looked at them for an instant, saw the tight press of figures in rusted armour and tattered fatigues. Weakness… despair and false hope and the promises of false gods. She triggered the flamer, and the world became bright.
The gunship's assault ramp opened. Air hissed out as sunlight poured in. The Soldier heard the Ogryn gulp a breath of air. Blue sky filled the widening gap. The gunship banked.
'Enjoy the view…' came the pilot's voice. 'Emperor's blessed and most valued world of Atoma. You get to see its best before you get to meet its worst.' Fog lay in a golden shroud across the curve of the ground below. Huge needle hive structures rose from the murk. Each one was the size of a mountain. 'That one just on our left as we come round – that's our girl.'
The hive was suddenly there, close enough that she could see the broken pylons and exhaust chimneys dotting its flanks. Rust and corrosion glittered on its skin.
'Lovely isn’t it?' chuckled the pilot. 'Grand and glorious and rotten in ways it doesn't even know.'
The Valkyrie banked hard. The priest lurched and made a sound as though they were trying not to throw up. Their grip on the grabrail slipped. The ogryn's hand caught the priest’s shoulder and yanked them back from the open door.
'Blessings of the Throne be on you,' gasped the priest. The ogryn nodded. The big-man's face was reddening as he held his breath. The gunship slammed into a spiral and dived. The side of the hive loomed close.
Then the Soldier was down the assault ramp, running through the cloud of rust dust billowing up from the downdraft, gun in hand. Above the light of the sun was clear in the blue sky. Ahead the needle of the hive spire rose to stab the heavens. The gunship rose into the sky. The ogryn drew a breath. The psyker shifted, the priest straightened. The spire rose above them, a crooked finger of metal beckoning. A hatch once used to maintain the hive exterior, sat open just a few paces away. Rust clumped its hinges. For a second the Soldier thought she saw a pattern in the corrosion, three irregular dots, whirling and repeating across the metal. Then she blinked and could not see it anymore.
'Doesn't look much like the frontline of a warzone does it?' said the psyker.
'This is the Imperium of man,' she said, and shrugged. 'Everywhere is the frontline.' She moved forwards