Thick, fyceline laced smoke from a thousand guns obscured the dawn light. Though it was morning, it was difficult to tell. Sporadic artillery flashes could still be seen on the distant horizon, followed seconds later by the rolling crash of firing. The bombardment had lessened to merely a numbing constant. Distant muffled explosions punctuated the staccato bursts of heavy stubbers and the snapping crack of lasfire.

The attack in this sector had failed. They’d taken the first line, he was sure. But they hadn’t broken through.  Even from his supine position in the shell crater, he could see a small knot of guardsmen, slowly dragging autocannons and heavy stubbers on wheeled carriages through the cratered mud of no-man’s land, to reinforce the advance force and hold the line from a counter-attack. He shifted slightly, trying to get comfortable. He winced from the pain, the heavy stubber round had taken him in the stomach, during the advance to the first line. His squad were caught in the open near the wire. A star shell had lit them with that eerie too-bright white light that made the night into a hellish day. He had been gut-shot before the wire had even been breached. A dead man, left behind as the assault continued. He’d lain in the crater all night, listening to the sounds of the attack. The crump of grenades and the crack of lasfire had soon been replaced by the struggle of close combat with knives, clubs and entrenching tools. It had quietened in recent hours, he knew that was a good sign, but the sporadic firing told him that it was not over.. He winced again, coughing. Blood wetting the inside of his rebreather mask. He knew he was dying. He had no qualms about it. Dying for the Emperor was what he was made for. That was the duty of the Death Korps, after all. They were all dead men. He just wished he’d had the chance to make it to the enemy trench.

Another knot of figures came into view. Man-machine servitors in the red robes of the Adeptus Mechanicus accompanied an officer in the trenchcoat and rebreather of the Death Korps. He was a tall figure, a heavy gas-cloak worn over his right shoulder partly obscured his armoured breastplate, simply decorated with a ribcage pattern of polished bone. His helmet and shoulder-pads were white, with the blood-red symbol of the medicae corps emblazoned on them. The knot of figures stopped, then disappeared from view. They were gone from his sight for some time. The sky brightened a little as morning broke, weak sunlight barely managing to pierce the smoke-shrouded sky. Just as he was beginning to wonder whether he had imagined the figures they reappeared once more, silhouetted against the brightening sky above the lip of the crater.

The dark coated figure moved closer, seeming to catch the movement of the lone guardsman. He beckoned for the servitors to follow and stepped into the shell crater, carefully picking his way around the filthy green-scummed water. The figure came to a halt before him, tall boots blackened with mud.

‘Guardsman, you are wounded.’ It was not a question. The voice was steady and without emotion. The empty, black eyes of an expressionless skull-mask regarded him coldly.

‘I am, Sir.’ He replied, moving his bloodied hands away from the wound. ‘Gut shot.’ Blood oozed over his trenchcoat, darkening the sky-blue to an ugly purple.

The skull-masked figure nodded.

‘Your complement?’

‘Complete Sir, 4 full las-packs. I did not see the enemy.’

‘A pity.’ The voice was still flat and without inflection. It may as well have been the voice of a servitor, though it didn’t have the mechanical edge. He was not sure the skull-masked figure was capable of emotion at all.

‘Your name and unit, Guardsman?’

‘RK95376. Guardsman. 5th squad, 9th platoon, 493rd Siege Regiment.’ He recited it by rote. Like a prayer. One of the servitors scribbled with a quill-arm on a parchment roll across it’s chest. The scribe-servitor clicked once it was complete, and the roll extended with a whirr. The lower end of the parchment dangled in the muddy water at the bottom of the crater.

‘You have been entered onto the roll, Guardsman.’ The skull-masked figure said. He reached down to his belt. ‘Your duty is done.’

RK95376 closed his eyes. Breathing deeply with a wince of pain. That was it? His duty done? Years of training, and four months in transit, to have his duty done in his first hours of action? He looked into the deep black eyes of the skull-masked figure as the Quartermaster removed a laspistol from its holster, aiming it at his forehead.

‘Guardsman RK95376, I grant you the Emperor’s Benediction. Go with peace to rest at His side.’

The pistol fired, the sharp crack of the las-bolt swallowed by the chatter of autocannons and the rumbling of distant shells.

The other servitors descended like carrion-eaters onto the now motionless body of the guardsman. Stripping it of all material that may be re-used. Las-packs, grenades, rebreather unit, helmet and webbing. Within a minute the lifeless guardsman had been stripped of all but his blood-soaked fatigues. The rest had been reclaimed for the war effort. Such was the Krieg way.

The scribe servitor took note of Guardsman RK95376’s equipment, marking only his issued fatigues as unsuitable for recovery. It clicked once more, the roll of parchment whirring again as the scribe made its record.

The quartermaster re-holstered his pistol, stepping out of the shell-crater and making his way to the next, as he made his slow, steady march across the shattered battlefield.

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