Today's post is the second of three linked short stories. It follows on directly from the end of part one, The Battle of Hasmides, this time from the perspective of an Inquisition soldier. It's one of those times when the Inquisition has a chance to capture an extremely valuable enemy, so long as they move quickly and take horrifying risks.
Edit: you can read Part 3 here: Heloth's Revelation.
This week's story assumes familiarity with the 40K mythos, but it's not essential to have read the first story. Enjoy!
The Opportune Moment
Inquisition storm trooper Ingvar Almstedt felt a rare pang of nostalgia for Stohlbard. For home. He was sitting in the red-lit passenger compartment of a Valkyrie assault carrier, but he envisioned rain lashing pines; the smell of needles on the forest floor; people sitting around coil heaters, laughing and telling the stories of dead loved ones to keep their ghosts nearby. No one back on Stohlbard would ever hear his story. He was on the other side of the galaxy now, and everything he did was a secret. For his family, his story simply ended with ‘he left twenty years ago.’
All that remained of home were the men in this stupid Valkyrie flying a hundred stupid miles through a vacuum it wasn't designed to fly in so they could get shot up by… best not to think about that until there was no time to think. Better to think about something else. A third equipment check, maybe. Why not? Hellgun power feed… fine. HUD fine. Carapace attachments on tight. Sidearm still there and safety still on, of course. Grenades all present and correct. How about the squad radio? ‘Comms check,’ he voxed. ‘Clear?'
‘Clear as the space between your ears,' Jens said. From their shaking shoulders Ingvar could tell some of the others in the cabin were laughing, even though it wasn't that funny. He laughed along, joining in with the group decision to seem merry in the face of probable imminent death.
‘Poor Ingvar is afraid,’ Tørben said.
‘It's true,' Ingvar said. ‘What if I never spend another night with your mother?'
Laughing, Tørben replied, ‘I forgot you're only attracted to the old and infirm.'
‘You've got me mixed up with Søren.’
Everyone knew how Søren would respond; at this point it was essentially muscle memory. ‘Fuck you.’ And there it was.
Now the squad's laughter was genuine.
‘Are those the only two words you know?’ Ingvar asked.
‘Fuck you,’ Søren repeated, as if casually batting another ball aside.
Ingvar's HUD brought up a notification: thirty seconds to arrival. That probably didn’t mean thirty seconds until contact, that meant thirty seconds until they boarded the Dammerung, assessed the situation, and improvised a plan.
The Valkyrie was swallowed by the Dammerung's aft shuttle bay, and Ingvar felt the battleship's artificial gravity pull him down into his seat. It was a welcome sensation.
Out in the shuttle bay, Interrogator Ashar Lear and the other agents were disembarking from their Valkyrie. Normally the young Interrogator looked every bit the traditional Progenium schooled Inquisitor-in-waiting, all leather coat, jackboots and brocaded tunic; an ostentatious outfit rather at odds with her plain looks. Today, however, she was covered in carapace armour, as were almost all the rest, including the normally glamorous Nadiya Zelenko. Only Sera Jentiva, the assassin, insisted on wearing her signature armoured bodyglove, while Sister Airi had no need of carapace given her Sororitas power armour.
Ashar was talking to a pale-faced naval officer over the dying whine of the Valkyries' engines. Ingvar vaguely wondered if the officer was pale out of fear, or because he was void-born.
Given the relative calm of this shuttle bay Ingvar found it strange to think that he now stood on a battleship that had been boarded on both flanks, and by just about the most dangerous enemies he had faced in all his years with the Inquisition: Heretic Astartes.
They were here to take an officer of the XVII Legion. A Word Bearer.
Ingvar reassured himself that if they'd survived the daemon engine on Samalut IX, they could survive this.
They moved towards the bridge, down broad corridors lined with pseudomarble busts of long-dead navy heroes. Nervous looking navy armsmen crouched behind the statues' plinths, shotguns braced, as if the enemy might spontaneously appear out of nowhere.
In fairness, with this particular enemy, that wasn't out of the question.
The bridge itself was protected by a full platoon of Navy storm troopers. Ingvar imagined they were sorely needed elsewhere. He followed Interrogator Lear and the others into the bridge proper, and immediately the battle went from being a remote abstraction to a very tangible situation. Right there, out of the bridge window, a barge of cyclopean proportions was crushed up against the port side of the Dammerung's hull. Off to starboard a smaller cruiser, still kilometres long, sat in the void.
An advantage of wearing a closed helm was that no one could see his jaw slacken. Just looking at the vessels gave him something akin to vertigo.
Ashar and the other agents gathered in the strategium behind the bridge. Ingvar and the others quietly listened in. The Admiral, Ortano, brought up a floating wireframe projection of the Dammerung on the strategium's hololathe, and a strategium support officer - alarmingly young to Ingvar's eyes - highlighted those areas where it was believed there were groups of Astartes.
It seemed the enemy’s focus was on disabling the Dammerung’s weapons, which would allow the Word Bearers’ barge and cruiser to fly away without the risk of being crippled. This wasn’t a boarding action intended to capture the ship; even Astartes warriors would need hours to capture an eleven kilometer starship, and with the rest of Battlefleet Achernar coming about as fast as they could, the Word Bearers didn’t have that long. This was a hit and run attack; a boarding action made by way of escape.
With the Navy officers having given them what scant information they had, the Ordos agents’ first order of business was to choose a viable target.
Several enemy groups were discounted immediately as being too large, or accompanied by too many sacrificial cultists for the small Inquisition team to handle, or because the limited intelligence available indicated an enemy psyker or summoned entities.
The eventual target was a group of “ten to sixteen” astartes who had disabled the starboard lance battery and were now fighting their way towards the engine room, presumably on the off-chance that if they could reach it, they’d have a chance at dealing catastrophic damage. The Dammerung's crew were trying to repel them, at appalling cost, but so far had only slowed them down.
This offered little time for planning.
“We'll head in that direction and plan as we go,” Ashar said, then donned her carapace helmet. “Options,” she said over squad vox as they left the bridge. Ingvar had come to like her command style; she was collaborative, but never left any doubt as to who was in charge.
Various ideas were offered and discarded until one of the sanctioned psykers, Padraic Larnock, made a suggestion.
“Astartes may be resilient to physical threats, but they still have human minds, indoctrinated or not. I say we use Agent Zelenko as our primary weapon. Keep her safe at the back until their leader is revealed, then at the opportune moment she imposes her Will on the heretic and compels him to submit, even if only for long enough for us to capture him."
Nadiya sounded alarmed. “I doubt I could compel an Astartes for more than a few moments,” she said.
“So we take the chance to disable his armour's power unit then pump him full of enough chemicals to knock out half the rats in Hive Sejanus,” Agent Dietersmann said, referring to the sedatives they'd brought.
“Good ideas,” Ashar said. “How do we make them happen?"
Planning continued as one of the Dammerung's junior tech-adepts led them through various service corridors and freight elevators. These spaces were empty but for the occasional servitor; it surprised Ingvar that a ship with such an enormous crew could have empty spaces on it, but then they were taking a quiet route, and what was more, he had to remind himself of the size of the ship. It was a city. The teeming thousands of men and women who made up the ship's complement were nothing set against the size of the vessel.
When the Inquisition team crossed a main thoroughfare, though, the sense of emptiness changed dramatically to a scene of utter devastation. Despite the filters in Ingvar's helm the stench of offal crept into the back of his mouth. They had emerged into the ship’s main spinal corridor, wide enough for a pair of eight wheelers to pass each other and several storeys high. It was more like a street in a hive, if the merchant stands were replaced with workshops and mess halls.
It was filled with the dead and the dying. Bodies torn apart by grenades and bolt rounds stretched from one side to the other. Some of them had been crushed, and Ingvar realised it was because the enemy had simply walked over their bodies as they moved aft toward the enginarium. Fear and hate filled him. These navy armsmen had stood and fought, but with shotguns and other basic weapons they had enjoyed little prospect of piercing Astartes plate. They had tried all the same, knowing that if the enemy reached the reactor core they were dead anyway.
The Inquisition team crossed the corridor in grim silence. Only once they were through into the next section of empty maintenance corridors did anyone resume planning.
Ashar split the team into four groups: the main thrust, two fire teams going down the parallel corridors to prevent flanking, and then two dragoons to form a rearguard and protect young Nadiya, now vital to the plan. When Ashar assigned Ingvar and Tørben to the rearguard his heart sank. He knew Tørben would be feeling the same, but it wasn’t like he was about to ask one of the others to sacrifice their chance at a good saga, so that was that.
Soon he and Tørben were leapfrogging down the corridor, covering each other’s movements, with absolutely no sign of enemy contact. They didn’t need to say anything; familiarity and training, along with the regular spacing of the bulkheads, meant they soon had the timing down. Cover, run, cover, run, all while Nadiya carried on ahead of them, barely looking back, probably doing whatever mental preparations psykers do, Ingvar reasoned. He wondered if she was nervous, but wasn’t about to make idle chat in a combat situation. Besides, he was pretty sure she viewed him and all the other Stohlbardians as staff rather than colleagues. Unlike Ashar and most of the other agents, Nadiya rarely spent time with the Stohlbardians for anything other than combat training; it seemed she felt they lacked the necessary levels of sophistication. Ingvar didn't care; she was young, arrogant, and was too preoccupied with trying to impress her betters while ignoring her juniors: a surefire recipe for solitude. He hoped for her sake that she'd grow out of it.
After a time, they found themselves directly on the trail of the enemy. Initially it was just more ruptured bodies, but then Sergeant Jørgensen voxed “Contact front, five Astartes, bolters.”
Five. A rearguard. From where he was, Ingvar couldn’t see either the enemy or the main Inquisition team; they were all further ahead and around at least one corner. He clenched his jaw and kept looking back the way they had come, staring down a corpse-littered corridor while listening to the snap of hellguns and the distinctive double-crack of bolter rounds firing and detonating.
Nadiya moved up to the final corner, but didn’t reveal her presence to the enemy.
Ingvar thought he heard a helmet-muffled scream, but couldn’t be sure.
“Contact lef--” came Evard’s voice, cutting out quickly. That wasn’t good. That meant the flanking team led by Padraic had encountered the enemy; Ingvar prayed the foe would be surprised by the presence of a battle psyker.
“Larnock, report,” Ashar voxed to Padraic.
The vox was silent.
“Larnock, status,” Ashar repeated.
“This is Larnock. We’re clear, but we need a medic.”
“Acknowledged. Stendahl, see to it. The rest of you, on me.”
It had all been voxed calmly, but someone was hurt. Probably dead. Hold your post, Ingvar told himself. Judging by his body language, Tørben felt the same.
“That’s the last of them. Rearguard, move up,” Ashar voxed.
Despite the plasma and melta weaponry the primary group was using, Ingvar found it hard to believe that five Astartes had just been neutralised. He and Tørben followed Nadiya around the corners.
Four dragoons were dead and Larnock was injured. It was hard to ID the bodies under the helmets, but that was a mercy. Ingvar didn’t want to know. They were still on mission and his discipline was slipping enough already. He told himself it was just tactical information.
Further up, he saw the first dead traitor marine. Even with half his torso melted away by plasma, he was so large that he almost seemed like part of the ship. That body had seen so much movement and power only moments ago, and now it looked like a broken statue stuffed with burnt flesh.
Larnock, bleeding from the arm, was assigned to the rearguard and was waiting for them at the final dead astartes, holding his force axe in his good hand as if the titanic warrior might come back to life.
“Hello,” Larnock said, as if greeting a fellow hiker on a trail. The incongruity of his tone made Ingvar laugh, even though Larnock was clearly in a lot of pain and gritting his teeth through it.
“Well done,” Ingvar said, gesturing at Larnock’s bloodied force axe. “Was it this one?”
“Not this gentleman, no. I believe Sera Jentiva got him from behind. With her power sword, one assumes.”
“Didn’t know she could do that to Astartes as well,” Ingvar said with a wry smile, pushing past the bleeding psyker and moving along down the corridor.
“Don’t tarry,” Nadiya called, already halfway towards the next junction. Ingvar decided not to point out he hadn’t stopped moving.
+This is Brannick in the strategium. Confirm copy?+ a young woman’s voice voxed over the squad channel.
“This is Lear, I copy. We’ve lost our master vox operator. What have you got?”
So Vidar was one of the four, then. Ingvar faltered in his steps. Vidar had thrashed him at regicide just the other day. Their last match. At least Ingvar had been gracious in defeat. He swept his sights across the target-free corridor as Tørben hustled past. They said nothing to each other about Vidar.
+The crew are still holding against your target at intersection theta-seven. The other boarding parties are retreating, so your target might start heading back your way any minute.+
“Confirm, all other parties retreating?” Ashar asked.
+Confirm all but yours. Thirty-four minutes before the Navy fleet will be inescapable, so your lot are cutting it fine if they don’t want to be left behind.+
“Acknowledged, Lear out.”
They soon reached the junction immediately before theta-seven, and Ashar reformed the team into three groups. No rearguard this time, not with the other boarding parties in retreat. Ingvar and Tørben were assigned to the right group with Ashar herself. She reasoned that with a plan dependent on psykers, having a null in their midst was a bad idea, even with her limiter on. Instead, she would take a team to move along the right service tunnel running parallel with the main corridor.
The left team did the same, but with Jentiva. Both were to remain quiet until the primary team indicated it was time to attack the enemy’s flanks.
Even through several bulkheads, Ingvar could hear the firefight raging ahead. The gunfire was constant, and he could only imagine how many of the ship’s crew had been sacrificed to hold the enemy in check.
The Inquisition team split up, and Ingvar’s group filed into the access tunnel on the right. Tørben took point. It was cramped going; in some places there was barely enough room to fit one’s boot on the deck between the piping and cables, and at times they had to bend double to fit their hellguns’ power packs under the overhead pipes. The corridor was only lit by the occasional red lamp, and Tørben blocked out most of the light. It was all Ingvar could do to avoid tripping, or smacking his gear against the pipes, not that there was any chance of the enemy hearing their approach over all the gunfire.
The heat, too, was almost unbearable in full carapace plate. The air cyclers did a much better job in the main corridors.
They reached the door that would open into junction theta-seven and, presumably, a wall of bullets. Every now and then they heard one bounce off the door. On the other side they could hear bolters, terrified screams, and - for a few moments - the amplified exhortations of a Navy priest. His voice cut off in a distorted cry of pain.
Lars moved up next to Ingvar, meltagun primed. If an Astartes did open the door, they would at least have a chance.
“Engaging,” voxed Sister Airi, leading the primary fire team. Ingvar tensed and untensed his legs like an athlete on the starting line. The volume of gunfire went up rapidly. Frag grenades went off. A faint green glow brightened the corridor as Ashar primed her plasma pistol.
Ingvar stared at the door, daring it to open prematurely, knowing that the supercharged las weapon in his hands wouldn't stop an Astartes quickly enough to prevent his own death. He could only hope his death, when it came, would be swift enough to avoid the hopeless terror he'd seen so many other people experience. It wasn't that he worried people would think less of him if he showed that same fear; it was simply the idea of experiencing it. Of being reduced to animalistic responses, of that being the last thing. In the heat of the tunnel his sweat began to soak his fatigues.
“Flank! Flank! Flank!” Sergeant Jørgensen voxed. Ingvar didn’t have time to wonder why it hadn’t been Sister Airi’s voice, he just thumbed the door activation rune and brought his hellgun up.
It had seemed like the door hardly muffled the sound of the gunfight, but as soon as it was open the noise became a physical, sternum-shaking force. To Ingvar’s right, the ship’s crew were manning an improvised barricade that stretched across the main corridor. Copious casualties had added grotesquely to the barricade. Facing the barricade was a squad of six Astartes taking cover behind four large pillars. One of them had an oversized rotary cannon.
Ashar announced the flanking team’s presence by shooting the nearest traitor in the head. The giant clawed at his melting helmet, trying to remove it as the plasma cooked through into his skull. He failed.
Lars sprang from the doorway and fired the meltagun at another nearby marine. Firing from the hip he dropped his aim, melting the marine’s leg and the deck plating behind it. Ingvar brought his gun to bear even as the marine fell to the floor, scoring glowing lines across the Astartes’ armour with his hellgun. It clearly did some damage, but not enough to stop the crippled marine raising his bolter one-handed and putting a shot right into Lars’ unarmoured neck.
On the far side of the junction, the other flanking team stormed in and opened up with the volley gun and the plasma gun, overwhelming the marine with the rotary cannon. The traitors, now taking fire from all directions and clearly knowing that they were too big to fit in the access tunnels, made to withdraw through the primary team. They started to move at speed, and even so, returned fire at the flanking groups, no longer concerned with the armsmen still pouring small arms fire into them.
In making his failed attempt to save Lars, Ingvar now learned that he had made a mistake. He barely even realised what had happened as he fell to the floor, and then, as he looked at the stump where his right foot used to be, realised with horrifying clarity that his boot must have come out from behind the doorway when he leaned out to shoot. In that brief moment, one of the traitors had seen his foot, calculated the increased probability of a bolt round penetrating the armoured boot rather than a carapace-lined arm or helmet, and hit said boot while firing from the hip.
Ingvar knew he only had a few moments before the shock would render him completely useless. Even as he tried to rouse himself to move out of the way, or attack, or something, Tørben fell on him and rolled off. His left arm had almost but not quite been blown off at the shoulder, and was flopping around by one of the carapace straps. Tørben’s heart was pumping gouts of blood out of the severed artery. There was no saving him.
Looking back into the junction, the other flanking team were in a similar state. Half of them were on the floor. Steinar and his plasma gun had been a primary target. Ingvar had to assume the Astartes would make similarly short work of the primary team, even if there were a lot more of them. This plan had had always been near-suicide, but at this point Ingvar felt the cost was so appalling that it had to succeed.
Ashar advanced into the junction, diving behind one of the pillars as the glow returned to her plasma pistol. The nearest marine brought his bolter to bear and fired at the pillar, pinning her in cover. The other marines were already mostly out of view, having moved off into the corridor where the primary team were.
With a cry of pain, Ingvar crawled out the doorway on his knees, launching himself along with his left foot, and made a skidding grab for Lars’ meltagun.
He grabbed it and put a shot straight through the nearest marine’s centre mass. The traitor’s breastplate sloughed off like lava, and he fell. Ingvar pushed on, and Ashar emerged from behind the pillar. She overtook him quickly, and fired on a target around the corner. She took several bolter rounds to the chest and was knocked from her feet, though it looked like the carapace had absorbed the worst of it. Ingvar scrambled to the corner and slammed up against it. On instinct, he went to steady himself and put some weight on the foot that didn’t exist any more.
He screamed and fell to the floor, swore, and rolled over so that he could fire the meltagun prone at… whatever he’d see down the corridor.
It was a strange sight.
There were a number of figures moving towards each other, but in the middle of them all, a cloaked traitor holding a thunder hammer and a plasma pistol was walking towards Nadiya. She had steadied herself against the wall, and where her hand met it, frost was spreading. The traitor’s gait was slow, almost robotic. Reluctant, even. He let go of his hammer.
Ashar, back on her feet, came racing past Ingvar with her power sword drawn. Several traitors saw her and turned to fire.
Ingvar brought the meltagun up. He could only stop one of them, or so he thought.
To the traitor on the far side of the corridor, the sight of one of his brothers reduced to molten slag changed his priority from the woman with the sword to the injured soldier with the meltagun.
It was not a careful shot, but a wild burst. Some bolts detonated against Ingvar’s armour, others found the joints. His legs and right arm were destroyed from the inside as shrapnel from the exploding bolt rounds tried to escape the confines of Ingvar’s armour. As his heart spasmed and then gave out from the shock, the last thing Ingvar saw was Ashar’s power sword driving into the power unit of the traitors’ leader.
Through the shock, the pain and the panic, Ingvar hoped he’d done something.
Not that his family would ever know.
+ + +
Edit: you can read Part 3 here: Heloth's Revelation.