He did his duty
- Adrian Collins –
A filthy, shaking hand, caked in the dried blood of his friends, lifted a slightly crumpled lho-stick from a now empty packet and placed it upon dry, cracked lips. He flicked a small promethium lighter once, twice, three times to no avail. A solid round, small caliber, whined by over his head and smacked into the concrete girder that jutted out from the ground some twenty metres away from him.
“Come on, you bastard. Come on,” he mumbled around the tightly wound cardboard filter.
He shook the lighter furiously as the fourth and fifth attempts to light the lho-stick failed. Another solid round whined towards him and then hammered loudly into the red painted ceramite mass he leant against. He turned around and glanced beyond the hard edge of his cover. His dark eyes peered through mangled actuators and pistons and thick armour plates, beyond steel wrapped power cord bundles, and almost blinding showers of sparks that sizzled into pooling coolant and lubrication fluids, and out to the wide esplanade beyond.
Bodies littered the ground like a thick carpet. So thick that piles of rubble stuck up out of them like small islands. They leaned against walls slackly, hung over shell holes in the sides of the double brick habs with their arms or legs dangling in the stiff breeze, and propped each other up on blown-open corridors where there had not been enough room to retire to the ground in the moment of their death. Pieces of them floated in ten-metre deep shell holes where burst water manes had filled the gaps in the bitumen roads.
They all wore guard uniforms. Some wore the dark grey with city camo coloured body armour and black webbing of his regiment, his division even. Others wore reds and greens and blacks. They were light, tan, and dark skinned. Their eyes were closed or wide or almond shaped. Their bodies were all equally lifeless, or on the verge of becoming bereft of life.
The foe were thick amongst them. They wore the leather and light plate armour over black coveralls of the local PDF. The gold dyed aquilas upon their shoulder had had gaudy, eight-pointed stars painted over them in dark red. He spotted one with a gun aimed at him amongst the carnage and ducked back as a rifle boomed and a solid shot clanged into his cover’s leg armour.
Over to his right he heard a heavy bolter team open up. Unwilling to peer around the side of the obstacle again, he imagined the lifeless forms of those men dancing one last gory jig as the heavy shells detonated within their bodies. There was a scream amongst the chugging sound of the weapon, and then silence once more.
He cupped his free hand around the lho-stick and finally managed a flame with the other. The tip of the paper flared a moment and then sucked back through the tobacco. Warmth, gritty and smoky, flowed into his chest. He felt his heart slow. His hands stopped shaking. His mind becalmed. His eyes closed.
Another long drag, another long jet of grey smoke streaming from his lips. His fell upon the fallen Angel before him. Blood red armour with gold trimmings lay still. A blood drip with white wings upon an immense pauldron had been holed by a bolter shell. His fingers brushed the stencilled aquila upon his shoulder as his eyes rested on the moulded gold one upon the chest of the fallen Astartes.
The Astartes made him feel like a child. Not only in size, but like a child looking at a dead father, begging him to get up and protect him from the evil around him. A massive series of interlinking craters stitched their way across that once magnificent armour. Thick, coagulated, clotted blood covered the ground and the wounds, turning the shredded ceramite armour pink where paint had not meant to be.
He took another drag, the head of the lho-stick’s tip coming close to his numb fingers and warming them pleasantly. He remembered tripping on rubble and slamming into the ground as the monster’s cannon sawed through the Astartes beside him, thousands of high calibre, armour piercing rounds shredding the air, and the Angel, above his head.
Once more, he looked around the corner of his red-painted cover. Out there, amongst the thousands of dead, was the monster. It had stood some four metres tall upon thick piston driven legs, its massive girth like a walking tank. Chunky arms spat hails of death from a twin barrelled cannon and a lightning claw had claimed the souls of hundreds.
It was the size of a small bunker, even in death, its adamantium hull painted a scorched black, chains and skulls still swinging in the breeze. Bodies were piled around and upon it, many put there by its horrific fury. Others had fallen using it as he was using one of similar build after its death.
The monster had screamed incoherent rage as one of the same size, but painted red, had charged in at him. A machine of untold horror and malice had stood against a machine of regal glory. He’d watched them clash, like gods of war, thundering blow after blow into each other’s armoured plating. Buckling, denting, rending. Until finally, as if in unison, they had dealt each other death blows.
The massive powerfist of the red garbed dreadnaught was still embedded in the sarcophagus of the dark painted fury, jutting up into the sky like a tombstone some thirty metres away.
The guardsman got up into a crouch and turned, keeping low behind the upper corner of the armour plate and the bare brushed steel of the power plant, and pulled his lasgun into his shoulder. He reached out and placed a hand on the creature of legend that had saved his life, albeit inadvertently. Were it not for that machine, and the Astartes that had died here amongst the thousands of guardsmen, that monster and his psychotic worshippers would have put an end to him. There would have been no way he and his squad would have been able to hold the position against such raw power and hate-fuelled fury.
He placed a hand against the armour and peered over the top. A shoulder mounted assault cannon still sat on its shoulder mount, seemingly undamaged despite the death of its wielder, like the turret of a tank. Such a beast of a weapon had surely torn through hundreds of frothing madmen before being silenced. For a moment, one stupid moment, the guardsman considered trying to find an empty shell from this god’s weapon for a keepsake.
Stupid. Don’t be stupid. Pay attention.
Off in the distance he heard the deep thump of artillery. He flinched, ducking down further. There were cries. A massed assault. The resonating clap as a couple of heavy bolter teams opened up, their unmistakable echo bouncing through the streets from a few kilometres off. The guardsman placed his hand back on the adamantium plate before him and looked out once more.
Nothing moved. He needed to get over to the heavy bolter team that had covered him a moment before. A guardsman’s strength was with his squad. He was no specialist. No hero. He was a man with a good enough mixture of guts and stupidity to join the meat grinder that was the Guard. Relative safety was only about a hundred metres away.
He took one more look at the fallen angel before him and then patted the adamantium behemoth that had protected his back the last hour while he desperately tried to gather his courage once more.
The assault cannon cycled up, servos whirring as the arm moved and searched for a target but clanged against itself, its horizontal plane far different to the vertical one it was used to.
The guardsman scrambled backwards, raising his rifle, looking for targets to emerge from either side of the fallen dreadnaught.
“Come fight me, foes of the Imperium!” boomed a voice.
It was grainy and full of static, but the guardsman recognised it. The dreadnaught still lived. He launched himself forwards and slammed into the armour plate.
“My lord Astartes!” he hissed, “Quiet!”
The gun mount tracked down and then up, the piston legs screeched against the rubble ground as the behemoth struggled to move and turn to face him, unaccepting of his fate.
“Scourge!” boomed the vox mount once more, “Chaos filth! Face me!”
“My lord Astartes,” shouted the guardsman, “Please! You’ll bring them back here!”
“Let them come,” came the response, “Brother-Captain Estanian has fought the foes of the Imperium a thousand years and more and I fear no traitor!”
The vox echoed off the walls, louder than thunderclaps to the guardsman’s ears.
“Face me, mortal. Face me and I shall send you screaming to your false gods.”
“Oh, for the love of the Emperor,” he swore, and then did something a moment ago he would have thought sheer lunacy.
He scooted around the ruined leg of the machine, staying low and watching for movement amongst the ruins around him, and slid upon his belly to the vertical eyeslit of the great machine. Grabbing the cloth of his greys and stretching out the aquila upon it he desperately tried to get the great dreadnaught to see him as a loyal guardsman. Above his head the assault cannon whirred and squealed as it tried to draw a bead upon him.
“Brother Estanian, I’m Guard! Guard!” he yelled.
“Name. Rank. Regiment. Serial number,” demanded Estanian.
“Axiom Worth, corporal, 897th Guthrentine Buffs, GB897467280086-436M41,” said the guardsman, pulling out his dog-tags for good measure.
There was a long silence.
“Axiom… Brother…” the vox conveyed an almost thoughtful voice.
Axiom dared not interrupt.
“You fell at Falk Primus, your armour black as night, yet slashed with the Primarch’s wounds. I mourned your loss a century and more…”
“My name reminds you of a friend?”
“Reminds... Yes. Of a friend. A brother. Long gone. Three centuries he fought by my side.”
Despite the vox, Axiom swore he could hear the pain of Estanian’s words.
“Taken by the… His sanity gone…” Estanian stopped.
Axiom took his opportunity to interrupt, “Captain Estanian. I need you to call in support. Is your short range vox working?”
“Axiom?” said the dreadnaught.
“Corporal Axiom Worth,” repeated the guardsman sternly, “Your vox, lord, can you vox our side? We cannot hold here.”
Estanian was quiet. Axiom could hear the whirring of something mechanical within the sarcophagus.
“Behind me, Corporal Worth. Now,” whispered the vox.
Axiom didn’t move at first. His feet got him moving quickly, however, when the cannon cycled up once more and then blurted out a hail of shells at an unseen target down the road.
“For the Primarch!” Estanian’s vox roared as his cannon screamed again and felled the remains of a building a few blocks away.
Figures emerged, dodging around doorways and fallen walls. Estanian cut them down brutally, but many kept coming.
“Axiom! Brother, with me!” the vox boomed. “Dynan, take your brothers up the right. Bakus, to the skies on wings of flame! Death to the traitors!”
Axiom looked around himself, his hope flaring for a moment as he searched for the battle brothers Captain Estanian was calling to. There was nothing. The assault cannon unleashed another controlled barrage. There were no screams, only wet explosions as men were annihilated amongst shredding rockcrete and pummelled rebar.
Axiom spotted the flanking move almost a moment too late. The foe had cannily seen the dreadnaughts restrictions, judged where the heavy bolter crew to Axiom’s left’s blind spot was and made their move. Axiom dropped three of them with a long burst from his rifle before they spotted him.
“Slay the foe, Axiom! With bolter and blade bring death to His enemies!”
Axiom dropped his clip and rammed in a second one, ducking behind the power plant as the enemy peppered the top of the dreadnaught with hard shot rounds. Unbuckling a frag grenade he pulled the pin and tossed it out, then hunched back down, his eyes flicking left and right for signs of movement as he counted down the seconds.
His breath was punched from his chest for a moment as the concussion of the grenade nearly knocked him flat despite his cover. A hail of tiny steel fragments rained against the ceramite and shredded the air less than a metre from where he crouched. This time there were plenty of screams and pitiful wails. He raised his rifle, pulled it tight into his shoulder with his elbow pulled in against his ribs, and moved out into the open. His first two shots felled a man in foul leathers and black fatigues with a mass of pulped pink and red flesh where his face should have been.
He drilled a few more red hot flashes through men writhing on the ground, desperately grasping at limbs or weapons. They gurgled or died silently, the instantly cauterised holes sizzling and steaming. A shot whined past his head and a second one slammed into his flak vest, but didn’t penetrate.
Ignoring the horrendous impact and the pain of a broken rib or two, he spun and dropped into a crouch as another burst streamed over his head. His lasgun spoke twice and the heretic was punched over backwards with a cry. Axiom rolled and pulled another grenade from his belt as a group of autogun wielding maniacs screamed their hatred at him as they charged.
His arm wound back to throw, he would decimate them with one stroke.
He didn’t have to.
There was a loud blurt, like a thousand tank rounds firing in the space of a few seconds. Then those men simply weren’t there anymore. Arms and heads and chunks of torso still drifted towards the ground. Severed ankles and shins and legs slowly folded and toppled as the impulses that kept them upright no longer made their way down. Axiom stood and gaped a moment before tracking a fleeing foe and landing a headshot to bring him down.
Estanian’s assault cannon had stopped the attack dead. Obliterated it.
There was quiet once more. The ticking of Estanian’s cooling weapon, a light whirring as the dreadnaught’s single remaining arm tracked over the battlefield, the far off rolling thunder of artillery and echoing claps of gunfire, shrieking thunderbolts whipping by high overhead; Axiom’s own heavy and exited breathing. There was nothing more.
“Brother Axiom,” boomed the vox.
Axiom started, but did not bother to quiet Estanian this time. There was no point.
“Alive… brother,” responded Axiom, though the use of ‘brother’ came with a thick edge of guilt.
He was not, and could not, be the brother of Estanian. He was no Astartes. No grandson of the Emperor. He was but a servant. But Estanian was down, wounded, his real brother dead not ten metres behind him. His ability to slay the foe was still unbelievable, but his mind must have snapped or wandered. Axiom didn’t have the heart to correct the space marine.
“Immediate threat level: zero,” came the harsh vox voice. “We have held the line and are victorious.”
“Emperor be praised,” breathed Axiom.
“Report, brother,” boomed the dreadnaught.
Axiom looked around him, feeling a little lost.
“Fifteen, maybe twenty of the foe slain.”
“Are you wounded, my brother?” asked the dreadnaught.
“My armour held,” grunted Axiom. “Though I’m going to have a bruise in the morning.”
“Your armour has encased many heroes of our chapter, brother,” said Estanian. “Though I am surprised to see you in the red once more. It lifts my heart, Axiom, makes me glad that more than just one or two of my brothers can come back from the black.”
Axiom remained quiet. Estanian’s mind was wandering once more.
“The last I saw of you,” reminisced Estanian, “you and the other afflicted – “
“ – were cutting a bloody swathe towards the ork warboss on Dutun Prime.”
“Dutun Prime?” said Axiom to himself, trying to place the name.
Estanian had heard him. “The Dutun campaign? Brother, are you so old you cannot remember that campaign? Ah, perhaps, the Thirst was upon you then. The Rage perhaps. Clouding your memory as the primarch spoke with you.”
“It is strange, brother. I watched the apothecary pull the geneseed from your chest. Watched him harvest your organs. You cannot…”
Axiom heard a vox click open. A few moments later it closed.
Once more the vox clicked open.
“We have held the line against the Chaos scum. I am incapacitated. Sending our position for extraction, brother,” boomed Estanian.
The vox clicked a few more times.
“Brother Axiom stands by me, brother”
There was silence.
Then more vox clicks.
“He has broken free. Free of the Rage. It afflicts him no more.”
More silence, then a final series of vox clicks.
“Our brothers shall be here momentarily,” said Estanian.
Axiom nodded. More Astartes. He felt his spirit lift at the thought. They were gods to him and the men he fought with. They lived for centuries and threw themselves into the very heart of the fiercest of the fighting. They were the warriors of myth and legend, and Axiom had been there to see them blunt the Chaos attack.
With no shots being fired in anger, a childish enthusiasm took over. This may well be the only time Axiom ever got to speak with an Astartes.
“Captain Estanian – “began Axiom
“Brother-captain,” interrupted Estanian. “We have not fought together all of these centuries, resisted the Thirst and the Rage, for you to refer to me simply as captain.”
Axiom’s head dropped a little.
“My lord Astartes, I apologise, but I am Corporal Axiom, not the brother you speak of. I don’t know what the Thirst and the Rage are.”
There was a moment’s silence.
The screaming of turbo-jet engines heralded the arrival of a boxy lander. Painted in red and with the winged blood drop heraldry that Captain Estanian and his fallen brothers displayed, it sent clouds of rockcrete dust billowing out in all directions. Towering over Axiom as its great weight crushed rubble to powder beneath its landing pads, it hesitated only a moment before the ramp smashed down and ten gods of war covered in purity seals and oaths of moment charged out and secured the area.
Axiom watched the red armoured warriors in absolute awe. Their movements were smooth and well practiced. Their alertness, incredible. They were the apex predators of the battlefield, and all around them were mere game.
The thudding of armoured boots down the adamantium ramp brought his attention back around. Three more Astartes walked down towards him; one in gold, one on white, and one in red with boxy bare steel trimmings. Where the others that had disembarked had ignored him completely, these three were intent on him and Estanian.
The one that approached at the head of the trio had massive golden angel’s wings arcing off the wide air intakes of his boxy jump-pack. They reached up to the sky smoothly, auto-reacting to the appearance of space above the towering warrior. Axiom felt his mouth drop as the glowing green eye lenses regarded him from underneath white pearl angels wings engraved on the brow of the golden helm.
Axiom fell to his knees, level with a pair of brutal hunter’s claws and the golden greaves topped with ruby blood-drops and pearl wings.
“My lord,” was all he could bring himself to utter in the face of such majesty.
The Astartes walked to stand so close that Axiom could have reached out and touched the red painted boot. Axiom started to see his hand was already making its way over to do so of its own volition. The Astartes took a step back.
He heard the snap-hiss of seals releasing.
The voice was quiet, yet baritone in its deepness. Like watching a picter of a mountain slide with the volume turned most of the way down. Axiom felt the air tremble within his chest, though if it was the sheer timbre of the Astartes voice, or his own rushing mix of adrenaline and fear and awe, he could not tell.
He stood. His eyeline came up just under the pectoral muscles carved into the warrior’s ornate cuirass. He looked up into a face both aquiline in its beauty and granite-hard in its regard of him.
The Astartes’ companions walked past them both. The one in white went straight to the fallen Astartes Axiom had been sitting near earlier. A device encasing his right fist began to whir and built to a shrill cry as the Angel leant down towards his fallen brother. The second was trailed by lifter servitors and a caterpillar-tracked flatbed headed for Estanian.
“Look at me,” the deep voice of the captain grumbled.
It took considerable effort for Axiom to force his gaze upon the captain, to look into those eyes.
“What did the venerable brother Estanian say to you?”
Axiom gawped a moment, uncomprehending or just unable to speak.
The claws moved a little in annoyance. It was the only sign, but it was all that was needed. Axiom looked back around behind him at Estanian’s back. There the Astartes in boxy silver lining on his armour was linking long mechandrites from his vambrance to holes in a small opened panel in the underside of the armour.
“Mortal, I have neither the time nor patience. Tell me now; verbatim.”
“He thinks I am one of you, though I have tried to correct him, he will not listen to me. Perhaps he’s wounded. In there. He killed the monster out there in single combat. I’ve never seen anything like it – “
“Stop. You’re babbling. I care not for the details of the battle. What did you discuss?”
“He told me of past glories, called out for Astartes I think must be long dead. He is very old.”
“And that is all?”
“That is all I can think of, lord Astartes. We were attacked. I guarded his flanks while he fought.”
The Astartes stared hard at Axiom and then looked over the guardsman’s shoulder. “The venerable brother Estanian is well over a thousand years old. His mind wanders.”
Axiom turned to see Estanian lifted by servitors onto a tracked flatbed to be moved back into the thunderhawk. The things that warrior must have seen. The battles he must have fought in. Axiom’s mind swum in a sea of awe.
He turned back to speak, the Astartes in the golden armour had already turned away and was walking back to the mouth of the waiting gunship. The squad he had brought with him also began to file back in. One of them had picked up the fallen Angel over his shoulder. Axiom noticed a new hole punched into his chest, clean through what remained of the breastplate.
Watching the Astartes leave was like the end of a wonderful dream. Like watching beings of myth and legend. They had stepped out of his childhood martial fantasies and into reality and were about to fly right out again in just one day. Would he remember every detail? Would those that were not here believe him that this even happened? That he spoke with the grandsons of the Emperor? All of a sudden, he wanted just one last look, one last word, one last anything.
Something struck him and he took a step forward. “My lord Astartes?”
The figure in gold ignored him and kept walking.
“When he thought I was brother Axiom,” said Axiom, feeling the words spill from his mouth despite being disregarded, “He said that I survived the Thirst and the Rage. I know not what it means – “
He stopped mid-thought as the figure in gold turned around, those hard eyes narrowed right at him.
* * *
“Sir, there are more over here.”
“Damn, must be most of C company out here by the looks of it. Reckon they’ve been wiped out to the man, sir.”
“There’s a few squads of the Fornian’s in there too, sir.”
“Must have been quite a fight. Bodies two, three deep in some places. Gave them a right bloody nose at this here esplanade. Yes sir, a right bloody nose. Close to a thousand of the buggers put down by my reckoning, sir.”
“Traitor Astartes walker, thirty metres to your right there, sir.”
Clovel massaged his tired eyes with a dirty thumb and forefinger and sucked in a deep breath. The air still stank of cordite and blood and human rot. He hated this part. Picking up the pieces after the battle. Collecting the tags. Adding the names to his regiment’s already incredibly long honour roll.
He stood and watched his men pick through the bodies, breaking dog tags off chains and tearing out the death receipt from bloodied Uplifting Primers to help record the dead. They each carried a felt bag, already bulging with the weight of over a thousand tags. His regiment had suffered heavily.
It took his men over an hour to find and collect all of the tags and death receipts that could be salvaged in the area. Clovel knew many would be missing, their bodies obliterated or detatched from their tags. ‘MIAAD’ he would be writing in fresh Primer death receipt papers – Missing In Action: Assumed Dead.
“Count?” he called out.
“Just here, or total, sir?”
“Three hundred and forty-two, sir.”
“Five hundred and seven, sir.”
“Four hundred and twenty-eight, sir.”
“Two hundred and ninety-nine, sir – wait, three hundred. There’s one of our boys right behind you there, sir.”
Clovel spun around. Sure enough, one of his men lay behind him. A corporal by the pips on his armour. The colonel frowned. Where most of the casualties exhibited the horror of their last moments - dead eyes wide open, limbs splayed or severed, bodies torn – this man looked like he had been placed down quietly, almost reverently. His arms were flat and straight beside him, palms in against his thighs. His rifle had been placed upon his body with the butt resting upon his sternum and the barrel facing towards his toes.
The guardsman looked like he was asleep. If not for his deathly pale pallor and the four stab marks through his carapace vest, Clovel would have sworn the man was in peaceful slumber. The colonel crouched down, his eyes closing on those perfectly aligned stab marks. Each one was about the length of his index finger and upon closer inspection the cloth and carapace around it was slightly burned and the flesh beneath was cauterised.
“You know him, sir?”
Clovel shook his head, “Someone ran him through with a power blade. Four times. One would have done it, straight through the heart. Complete over kill.”
“Can’t expect much finesse from the enemy, sir.”
“The wounds are almost perfectly spaced and aligned,” mumbled Clovel to himself.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Clovel, reaching into the man’s shirt neck and grabbing the tag, “Hell of a way to go “
“He did his duty, sir.”
Clovel smiled without humour, his eyes going to the sky above where an immense battleship was pulling into low orbit to wipe this city from the face of the planet. A few weeks later a Mechanicum land-plane would use an immense plasma cutter to flatten the war-torn landscape, then a mass lander would drop in a billion-odd tonnes of rebar and concrete to build a foundation.
Within a year or two settlers would walk into the first few levels of a new hive and nobody would know that – he paused to look down at the tag - Corporal Axiom Worth had died along with another one thousand, five hundred and seventy-six men of the Guthrentine 897th on this very spot.
Clovel stood up, handing the tag to one of his aides to be dropped into a felt bag.
“He did his duty. Now, we can ask of him no more.”