Dead Language

‘Hey, lieutenant,’ said Trooper Garn with his usual grin, though he’d been dead two weeks. ‘What’s the good word?’

‘Go away,’ was the response from under the covers. The lieutenant didn’t sleep much anymore. The blankets were a tactical barricade. She stared through the thin fabric into red-lit gloom: there was no true darkness at Firebase Rho. Her bleary eyes searched for movement. The indistinct human shape remained in the doorway. It never came closer on the nights Garn visited her. It stood and watched her back.

Garn wasn’t a bad sort. He had what the regiment called ‘the local look’ – short, stocky, with biceps bigger than an off-worlder’s thighs. A shock of red hair, skin so pale it’d tan even in a voidship’s black belly. Farmer’s sons running from generations of tilling dirt in the provinces. Fleeing sermons of frontier firebrands who spoke of nothing but pain and duty.

The lieutenant had seen a hundred young men identical to Trooper Garn, a thousand. For all she knew, there was a Mechanicus guild that made them. Flesh-filled moulds of eager-eyed boys. An assembly line that ran straight to the front, then straight into the grave.

Not that they had time to dig graves much with how the war was going. Time or bodies.

‘Go away,’ she repeated. The shape didn’t move.

What set Garn apart? Well, he’d known one end of a lasrifle from another. Most conscripts had never held so much as a rusty stub pistol in their lives, but Garn had come from the badlands. Greenskins still roamed out there. Still came out of the caves and dark places with the turn of seasons.

He had an attitude too. Wasn’t afraid to speak back, or speak his mind. That was the Badlands breeding, where doing some fool thing would get you killed. Not whipped by an irate drill sergeant.

She’d picked him out for that. She’d even offered him a corporal’s stripe after Salanca Hill, when he’d reorganised the ruins of Third Squad. He’d turned her down. He wanted to go home when the war was done, he’d said, with a bit of pay in his pocket and a few scars. Plenty of ways to serve the Throne, he’d said. When the fighting was over they’d need bricklayers, not gunmen with embroidered sleeves.

Garn was always looking forward.

‘You know,’ he said, voice as earnest as it always was, ‘It was bound to happen. It’s nobody’s fault.’

But it was. The suns had been blazing that day. The troops had been grumbling. She’d let them shrug off their flak jackets and hazard-fighting gear. Garn had kept his on – no disrespect intended. He just didn’t mind the weight or feel the discomfort.

That was the Badlands breeding again. Tough as they come.

That was why he hadn’t died immediately, the medic told her. She’d been walking on the left flank when it happened. Garn was in the middle, laughing at something somebody had said. She couldn’t remember who. He’d turned her way to share the joke, to pass it down the line.

The Imperium contracted a sub-sector weapons house, Almann-Geraz, for their anti-personnel munitions. Almann were well-known for rugged, long-lasting construction. It wasn’t an idle boast. When the borderworlds had first come under attack, the retreating Guard had sown minefields across strategic locations to deny the enemy advance.

She didn’t have those maps. Whatever those objectives had been, they were gone now, taken by scrub and overgrowth and neglect. The lines had been redrawn so many times – it was bound to happen. Dozens of patrols had walked this route without incident. It was nobody’s fault.

What made the mines so efficient were their directional strips of flechettes. Rather than expending an omnidirectional burst, or a single shaped charge, the ingenious things would only trigger on the detecting face.

The tiny cogitator, the machine-brain of the mine, had seen Trooper Garn a micro-second before the lieutenant and acted accordingly.

She had been looking at him when the ragged metal tore through his vest, chest and face.

‘You have to get up, lieutenant.’

The Firebase alarms were sounding. Another attack. If she didn’t look, it wasn’t real. If she didn’t see, then Garn would be waiting on the firing line with that grin of his.

She let the blankets drop.

She looked at the thing that had been Trooper Garn. The cavity in his chest, tubes and arcane machinery in place of heart and lungs. The ruined lower face, all gristle and gears. The shaved pate of his head, crusted with interface sockets. The milky blank eyes. The uncomprehending stare.

There were a hundred menial tasks on an Imperial base and no troopers could be spared for them.

None of the living, at least.

‘Go away,’ she croaked. ‘You can’t keep coming back.’

The servitor didn’t reply. It never did.

They hadn’t given it a voice.

About the Author

James is a long-suffering tech-priest from Hive Victoria, Australia. Between performing the Ritual of Cycled Power and adjusting for noospheric interference, he has found some small measure of peace in creative writing. Ave Omnissiah!