After a while, the pounding of the drums creeps under your skin and plays a tattoo on your soul. I haven’t slept for days. None of us have. Reveille, when it comes, just marks the change between horizontal and vertical.
We are in combat order, of course, so reveille is silent, some poor devil creeping round and touching each man on the shoulder. Silent discipline, with half a million shrieking Orks barely a mile away, making enough noise to raise the dead. It’s the kind of damnfool thing the Guard like to do.
Sgt Brodie led the morning briefing, as always.
‘Last letters gae oot at 0700,’ he said. His thick brogue adds a human touch to the clipped, official phrases. ‘Permission tae write after briefing. Task for the day is tae maintain the perimeter. In the event of an attack, we are tae hold position and return fire. Threat level has been raised from ‘probable’ tae ‘imminent.’ If ammunition becomes depleted, no resupply is expected. Our designated line o’ retreat is communication trench Charlie-Kilo-Seven…’
‘Retreat, Sergeant? Where to? We ain’t flamin’ blind, you know.’
The voice, as ever, was Duilich’s. Awkward bastard, but he had a point for once. The stream of fire as they welded shut the gates of the Hive had lit the sky for miles around.
Brodie put his head on one side.
‘Aye,’ he said. ‘They’ve shut the main gates. But the Hive wasnae built as a fortress. There are a thousand holes and crannies tae seal up before its secure. Tha’ will take a while yet.’
‘All the better reason to head there now, then,’ insisted Duilich. ‘That lot out there will roll over us in seconds, but if we can get inside in time, we’ll have a chance to help the defence.’
A ripple ran around the platoon. You could see their relief at hearing someone finally say what they’d been thinking for days. One or two of us, those with a good reason to hold the line, exchanged glances, worried. Most of these lads were hive rats, conscripts who’d rather save their skins today and worry about their souls tomorrow. And at once I knew, with perfect clarity, that this conversation was going on all along the line, between a thousand sergeants and their platoons, forced, at last, to confront the glaring truth.
Brodie was silent for a long time. His gaze swept along the ranks of men, taking in the worried faces, then up at the sheer walls of the Hive, and the dark, swirling sky above.
‘I’ve never lied to ye, lads,’ he said quietly. ‘And I’m no’ about to start now. We’re deid already, we just havnae stopped moving yet. But we do have one choice left to make. How we die.’
He let his words sink in. I watched the hive rats’ faces, saw the embryonic hope fade, stillborn.
‘For fourteen years I’ve fought against scum like tha’,’ he jerked a thumb over his shoulder towards the howling, screaming horde. ‘For ten thousand more, men like me have done the same, for the Emperor, for their salt, and for damn little else. But because o’ them, and because o’ lads like ye, who stood and were cut down in their prime, mankind is still here, and able tae spit in the eye o’ the xeno and the heretic. Now it’s our turn, an’ there’s little we can do aboot it. So look your pals in the eye, and decide. Your names willnae be remembered whatever you do. Neither will mine. Dismiss.’
He stood there, arms folded. One by one, the men trickled away. A few of them met his eye. A few more looked at each other, and nodded. Duilich stood there longest. At last he threw himself down against the wall of the trench and began savagely shoving shells into a magazine for the heavy bolter.
For my part, I climbed up onto the firestep and looked out along the line. The trenches and redoubts stretched out into the distance, curving away behind the bulk of the Hive. Men stood at sentry posts, the occasional messenger dashed between dugouts. But there was no sign of retreat, no bodies of men hurrying back along the communication trenches. No skirmish between deserters and commissars. The Guard went about their day, as the drums echoed about their ears.
In any case, my love, the dispatch rider is about to leave. I doubt I shall get another chance to write. But today I watched the Guard waver, and rally, and make their stand, all without a shot being fired. And I wanted you to see that too. With the Emperor’s blessing, we can hold them long enough for the Engineers to secure the Hive. Stay safe, for the Throne’s sake, and know I love you. Both of you.
I know we weren’t going to discuss a name until I got back. Early days yet, or so it seemed at the time. Still, there’s one name I’d like remembered, so let’s hope it’s a boy after all. Brodie seems a damn silly name for a girl.
About the Author
Daniel Summerbell is a player of Age of Sigmar, and author of Erynost and Other Stories, an accompanying novel to the Realms At War narrative event. This story is his first foray into the 40K universe in over a decade, but he’s always had a soft-spot for the PBI, or whatever they call the Guard these days.