The Next Chapter

Living on an agri-world located on the far western edge of the galaxy had never been easy. Not only was the sector the scene of much conflict throughout The Great Crusade, the location brought its citizens into contact with xenos on an all too regular basis. These frequent incursions honed the local defenders into a force to be reckoned with, and created a sense of pride which cemented the protectors into some of the most tightly-knit units serving the Imperium of Man. But fighting xenos and pirate raiders was a very different prospect to fighting other forces from within the Imperium. Although the planet of Skogsund had avoided much of the bloodshed during the Age of Strife, the many accounts of Remembrances were graphic regarding the barbarism of inter-human conflicts. Such accounts continued to plague the troubled thoughts of Vox Trooper Lars Lierdal as he huddled for warmth in the cramped chillness of a forward operating post on the eve of 005.M31.

‘Kaf?’ asked the sergeant, holding up a battered steel flask.

 Lierdal took a grateful swig from the proffered flask. The bitterness of the lukewarm kaf made him gasp as it reached the back of his parched throat. Nodding his silent thanks, he passed the battered flask back to the sergeant, glad of any distraction from the dreary tedium of the waiting.

He checked the vox again, trying to control his frustration at the lack of messages. With nothing to do, he let his eyes wander, glancing around at the other Imperial Militia Troopers crowded around the small open brazier in the centre of the bare ferrocrete room. The faces of the others betrayed little emotion, although they were much quieter than usual, a sure sign of the underlying tension. Only Lieutenant Henriksen, their newly-appointed officer, seemed to be content and unconcerned after the rigours of their arduous day.  

‘What?’ Henriksen demanded, returning Lierdal’s look with a disdainful glare. 

‘Nothing, Lieutenant,’ replied the trooper softly. 

‘Really?’ mocked the officer. ‘You’re sure you don’t want to enlighten us all with your thoughts?’

Leirdal sighed. ‘It’s just that we wish we knew on which side we are going to fight.’

‘I’ve told you all before,’ Henriksen raised his voice bullishly, ‘our High Command knows best. Whether they resolve to side with the Emperor or The Warmaster, it’ll be the right decision. We will fight against whoever they tell us, and believe me, the High Command knows best!’

The other troopers remained sullenly silent, unwilling to enter the debate that had been going on for many moons across the whole planet. As low-ranking troopers, they knew better to openly question an officer concerning command decisions, especially an officer such as Henriksen. The Lieutenant was an off-worlder, an Imperial Army Officer seconded to the intemperate world of Skogsund to learn about sub-zero soldiering and survival. He had no understanding of, or interest in, the culture and nature of the Skogsundians he now commanded. For him, the planet was nothing but an icy stepping stone towards higher command. 

The Lieutenant took the stoical silence of the men as a challenge, and snorted loudly with contempt. ‘Listen to me: you men are just simple Imperialis Militia soldiery, the lowest of the low. Your job is to follow orders, nothing more, nothing less. Leave the decision making to the High Command; they have some of the best minds in the Imperium and think on a truely universal scale. They’ve fought every known alien species in every known sector. All you men know is this miserable backwater, how can you possibly understand the magnitude of what we’re now involved in?’

‘This ‘miserable backwater’ is what we call home,’ Lierdal retorted fiercely, ‘and we’ll fight to the last to defend it!’

‘Yeah, right,’ Henriksen scoffed. ‘And how long do you think you’d last against a well-drilled Imperial Army Regiment, or a handful of Space Marines?’

None of the troopers deemed to answer, they did not need to. The record of the Skogsund Imperialis Militia since its inception three centuries earlier was exemplary. A planet which survived wholly on its copious harvest of specialised timber, it was neither strategically important nor commercially crucial. But its location on the sparsely populated southern edge of the Segmentum Pacificus made it a magnet for attacks from a regular host of renegades, pirates and predatory xenos. As a result, the troopers clustered into the grim bunker were a tough and experienced clique, raised on an unforgiving world which bred a stock of sturdy and tenacious people. 

‘I asked you a question!’ Henriksen barked. ‘Anybody?’

Lierdal looked slowly around the damp grimy interior of the chill room, silently musing that even the most junior trooper, Solberg, had seen more action than the churlish off-world lieutenant. The livid scars that criss-crossed the nineteen year-old’s face served as an obvious reminder of that.

‘We’ve seen plenty of action here, lieutenant. Our generation has seen this planet attacked by Orks, Eldar Corsairs, and Enoulians,’ replied Lierdal.

‘Minor raiding parties,’ countered Henriksen.

‘You wouldn’t say that if you were here when Warboss Badtripper paid us a visit,’ protested Lierdal hotly. ‘Forty ork landers flew in to disembark a full clan attack just over a year ago. We fought them for two months, and ten thousand Skogsundians died. But we finally routed them, without any help from your Imperial Army. Everyone in this bunker fought throughout the whole engagement. Except you.’

‘What in the warp’s name do you mean by that!’ demanded Henriksen.

‘I think you should give us some credit. This unit was sent to fight a concentration of Orks which had overrun some of the large logging camps in the north. Heavily out-numbered and out-gunned, we took the fight to them, striking hard from the forest on hit-and-run raids which cut into the foul heart of the warband. We were able to use our native forests to our advantage, living off them, melting into them, and all the time inflicting a steady and relentless toll on the vicious greenskins. It was the type of asymmetrical warfare Orks hate, and eventually we broke the warband’s fragile morale, forcing a chaotic retreat. But it cost us dearly.’

‘And yet you’re still all here,’ retorted the officer.

Leirdal sighed. ‘There are sixteen of us here. The platoon’s original compliment was fifty. We lost our long-serving officer and sergeant, both shredded by the vicious saws of a Killa Clan. That was before Trooper Solberg managed to destroy it with a magnetic mine, and gain his scars as a reward. One of our detachments got shot to pieces when caught in the open by Ork Shoota Boyz, and the rest were killed during our numerous strikes. We took heavy losses, but the losses only served to strengthen the resolve and experience of us who remain. We’re not the bunch of novice greenhorns you think we are; the Skogsund Imperialis Militia are a force to be reckoned with, and we pride ourselves in being able to defend our planet without Imperial Army assistance!’

‘So, you’ve fought a few Orks,’ Henriksen spat, red-faced at the arrogant impudence of the lowly trooper. ‘But the question I actually asked you was how long you think you’d last against the Imperial Army or a Space Marine Legion?’

Lierdal paused, realising he was on thin ice, and not wishing to enter into any further debate with the idiotic officer. ‘Not long, I suppose. Sir.’

‘You suppose right!’ Henriksen bawled. ‘None of you have even been off this planet, so you’ve no idea of anything beyond it. I could tell you stories about the glorious Imperial Army and unstoppable Space Marine Legions that would blow your tiny minds!’

None of the platoon responded, all of them avoiding eye contact with the officer in case he took it to mean they wanted to listen to the same old rhetoric he continued to churn out. None had any time for the off-worlder, whose presence, part of the Imperium’s ongoing token backing to the Imperialis Militia, was both unwelcome and unnecessary. The fact that he was a poor officer and ineffectual leader only compounded the underlying dull feelings of resentment all of the platoon felt. But what really irked the huddled Skogsunders was that Henriksen had no idea who they were expected to fight, and did not even seem to have an opinion or preference.  It was a topic frequently debated by the sixteen remaining members of the platoon when out of earshot: which force should the planet side with. None of the troopers actually had any strong feelings either way: their planet was a backwater in the Imperium, and both the Emperor and the Warmaster seemed equally distant and abstract. Which personality actually ruled the Imperium from far-away Terra seemed somehow academic in the chilled woodlands of their home planet. As long as there remained a buoyant market for lumber in the hives of Imperial Worlds, that was all that really mattered.

‘Lierdal, get some logs and then go check the vox for messages,’ ordered the sergeant, eager to end the dangerous altercation which could end with the trooper’s execution. 

Lierdal nodded and gathered an armful of rotten wood from the log-pile before laying it in the spluttering brazier; the temperature would soon plummet and it was already icy in the dingy redoubt. He then returned to the entrance passageway, where the platoon vox set sat charging, and sat cross-legged on a low pallet. Donning the battered headphones, the trooper thumbed the worn power-switch and started to scan the channels. Static and interference were his only reward, but the vox helped to take his mind away from the aimless waiting, and he felt he might just get lucky and pick up a signal giving some clue as to what was happening.

Blanking out the tinny hiss and crackle in the headphones, he shifted to a more comfortable position on the broken pallet. The automatic channel search continued to scan the frequencies, allowing his mind to wander back and forth over the countless possible futures that fate had in store for him, his platoon, and his planet. Holding out against off-world Imperial Army units would not be an issue; the Imperialis Militia veterans could play cat and mouse for months in the harsh environs of Skogsund, waiting for relief. But where the relief would come from, and in what form, was another thing. A full scale assault from an Astartes Legion would be something else. Although he’d never seen a Space Marine, he well knew what they were capable of. The nearest he’d been to a Space Marine was prising off a battered Astartes shoulder guard from an Ork Wartruk the platoon had ambushed and destroyed the previous year. The Wartruk carried a variety of grisly trophies bolted into its shoddy plate, but the bright yellow of the Imperial Fists armour had immediately caught his eye. The military capability, fire-power and logistics support of the Astartes made them virtually unstoppable, and against such forces Lierdal knew they stood no chance. 

Although acknowledging that Henriksen was right in his aspersions about how they would fare against a Legion, what the officer failed to comprehend was the fact that the men did not care who they sided with. All they cared about was Skogsund, their home, and something they would fight for until their last breath.

He jumped as a burst of binary in his headphones interrupted his thoughts. The static announced an incoming multi-channel communication, and he sat upright, holding the headset tighter to his ears so as not to miss anything, desperately hoping for news. The binary spluttered noisily out to be replaced by the grim monotone of the Planetary Governor. He listened intently, his mind digesting every syllable of the same old words they had been fed for weeks; duty, loyalty, responsibility and obligation. Finally, the verbose governor reached the long awaited conclusion, the closing sentence which would determine which side the planet would fight for; the Emperor or the Warmaster.

Lierdal sat transfixed as the communication ended, the terse diction replaced,  once again, by hissing static. With the rhetoric of the chosen side still ringing in his ears, he let the battered headphones clatter down to the dirty floor.

‘Lierdal!’ Henriksen shouted. ‘Was that a message?’

The trooper did not answer. Instead, he rose slowly from the wooden pallet and picked his way deliberately towards the seated officer. The Lieutenant looked up expectantly.

‘What is it?’ sneered the officer. ‘Ork got your tongue?’

Lierdal deftly unclipped his side-arm holster and withdrew the ugly pistol, calmly sighting down the weapon at the dumb-struck Henriksen. The gun barked and the round smashed through the officer’s forehead, the force flinging him backwards like a broken marionette in a spray of bone, brains and blood. Without a second glance at the twitching corpse, the trooper unhurriedly holstered the smoking weapon and turned towards the others.

‘Enough with the same old words,’ he announced, the ghost of a smile playing across his bloodless lips. ‘It’s time to write our own chapter.’

About the Author

After thirty years at sea, Ross Baxter now concentrates on writing sci-fi and horror fiction. Married to a long-serving Norwegian ex-employee of Games Workshop who got him hooked on 40K, and with two Anglo-Viking hobbyist kids, he now lives in Derby, England.