‘Sixty seconds,’ the lieutenant spoke over the vox.
‘Sixty?’ I said to Obed, my loader.
‘Until the next wave,’ he stared at me aghast. The next wave out of how many? I had lost count, or perhaps I had never counted at all. I could not remember a time before this, when we weren’t under attack. Perhaps unending combat had an amnesic effect, a fog of war like the curtain of smoke and dust from earlier battles that surrounded our position.
‘Fifty,’ she added.
‘Come on Seth,’ Obed kicked the ammo crate I was sitting on, ‘we need to change the belt.’
I rose and stepped aside while Obed found the next belt for our heavy bolter. My attention drifted to the medics carrying away the wounded guard. One fallen comrade, whose legs and torso had parted ways, seemed to stare at me from lifeless eyes. Those dark orbs were like portals to another life, to another time, with no fewer horrors than this one. But his haunting face: I knew it from somewhere.
‘Forty seconds,’ the lieutenant cried, ‘steel yourselves: we must hold the line until reinforcements arrive.’
‘If they are even coming,’ Obed muttered.
I sat behind the weapon and quaffed a mouthful of water while Obed fed the belt in. Turning the flask around, I ran my thumb across the worn imperial aquila. It matched the emblem hanging over the entrance to the administratum building behind our defensive position. Unlike the other structures which had joined the ruined skyline, the administratum building was untouched and defiant, standing proud against the red matte sky.
‘That’s it,’ Obed slapped the heavy bolter, and I pulled back the slide to send the first round into the breech. ‘Now we wait,’
Heavy footsteps approached from behind us. A looming figure had assumed position not ten paces from our emplacement. He was clad in a black leather great coat. Only a steely grimace could be seen in the gap between his tall collar and the peak of his cap. On his chest was the symbol of the Officio Prefectus, and in his right hand was a loaded bolt pistol.
‘There will be no deserters either,’ the lieutenant boomed, ‘twenty seconds.’
‘They lie. Relief isn’t coming. It’s the commissar’s pistol or the enemy’s talon,’ Obed whispered, ‘what will you choose?’ He slapped me on the shoulder, and I feigned a chuckle.
I glanced down the line of emplacements to our left and our right. At least half of them were unmanned. Many of the weapons had been damaged beyond repair, cleaved in two or corroded by an acidic ichor. Yet it was not this observation that troubled me but the arrival of a pair of guardsmen to operate a vacant position two places down the line. One of them looked exactly like the deceased who had stared at me mere moments before.
‘More logs for the fire, eh?’ Obed’s comment broke me from my stupor. ‘Are those our reinforcements?’
‘Ten seconds. Do not forget your prayers to the God-Emperor.’
My heart was pounding and the sweat caused my collar to cling to my neck, choking me. I looked dead ahead. We should have been able to see the enemy, but the dense smoke was limiting our visibility.
‘Incoming!’ the lieutenant screamed, ‘weapons free!’
Immediately the sky was darkened with the silhouettes of countless winged creatures clad in chitinous armour. I pressed the trigger down hard and gritted my teeth. The sky ignited as a dozen heavy bolters began their percussive beat. Winged silhouettes, too many to count, weaved to avoid our fire. Half of them were shredded in mid-air. Yet for every fallen beast, there were two more to replace them. On the ground were hundreds of galloping hormagaunts, charging forward with talons raised high. Behind them their kin opened fire. There was a buzzing past my ear, like that of a flying insect. A moment later I heard something strike our defensive shield and fall to the ground. It was a black-headed spiny beetle with a barbed tail, dead from the impact. Others like it were boring into the gunner on the next emplacement. He screamed and clawed at his face, before keeling over the sandbags.
The enemy was closing.
I stole a glance at the unmoving commissar and wondered why he didn’t aid us.
‘I know what you’re thinking,’ Obed shouted, ‘his bolt round is mighty tempting right now.’ He was wrong. My thoughts were preoccupied with thinning the enemy’s ranks, but they had more bodies than we had bullets.
Further down the line a pair of lone gaunts leapt over the sandbags and drove their talons into a guardsman’s skull. His partner immediately ran away, but he didn’t get far, stopped dead by a bolt round from the commissar’s pistol. He said nothing. His pistol had spoken for him.
With two heavy bolters out of action, it seemed the horde of nids was about to envelop us. To our right, another team became overwhelmed by a pair of gargoyles. Fearing the same fate, Obed made good on his earlier wish and fled. I heard another crack from the bolt pistol and the dull slap of Obed’s corpse on the ground.
For Obed, I yelled my throat hoarse, emptying every round into the approaching tidal wave. And when the heavy bolter was empty, I picked up my lasgun and continued firing. It seemed that we were the last ones, I and the commissar.
‘Enough,’ he raised a hand and the world froze, a rending claw inches away from my face. The city and the nids melted away. I wasn’t in the battle anymore: I was in a laboratory, restrained with cables entering my skull. Next to the commissar was a servitor, with an all too familiar face.
‘His memory blockers will wear off in a few minutes,’ the commissar said. ‘He passed his first exam. He may yet be of some use to the Ordo Xenos.’
About the Author
Matthew’s students say his Chemistry lessons are interesting and amusing. When he’s not teaching, he’s painting 40k miniatures and posting photos of them on Instagram. He enjoys reading and writing fiction (particularly the dystopian genre) and playing board games and video games. He lives in Manchester, UK, with his wife and three kids. If any of them become vaguely interested in what he does, he will die happy.