The lead tank rose over the hill and gazed into chaos. Swarms of greenskins had broken through into the dusty valley below; the desperate defenders reduced to shrinking islands amidst the all-consuming tide of screaming beasts. Sensing victory, the creatures threw themselves forward with renewed fury. Grotesque war cries echoed up towards the ridge where the tanks waited, engines rumbling with suppressed rage. A signal was passed down the line — and the war machines rumbled forward until their hidden barrels covered the entire concentrated horde below.
The General smiled and took a triumphant breath – but his final decisive order was suddenly drowned out in a single terrible roar that rang out across the landscape. The ground below shook, and the tanks wobbled precariously. The General cursed and threw out his hand, but it was too late. His vehicles began to slide, tumbling down the slope – and crashing into the carved figurines of the xenos below. The toys swayed, then toppled clumsily onto the dusty floor of the General’s office.
On the floor beside their makeshift battlefield, the General’s son, Ahmed, slumped back onto his heels. His father placed a hand on his shoulder – but only half his mind was on his son. That blast hadn’t been part of the game. General Mansour listened with a frown as the shockwaves reverberated through the thick walls of the fortress that surrounded them. That had been close. Very close.
A single fist knocked once on the heavy iron door of the office. The General rose slowly, his faded uniform crumpled and dusty from the floor. Waiting outside, Lieutenant Zarqa looked immaculate, the perfect toy soldier – it was only her eyes that betrayed her.
‘How bad is it, Zarqa?’
‘They’re coming in numbers sir.’
Mansur took a long slow breath. ‘Captain Abbar has my orders, and my authority.’
He watched her eyes drift past him, to where Ahmed was rearranging the toys amidst their carefully constructed terrain of old books and furniture. He saw the question on her lips and cut it short.
‘This is my personal time, Lieutenant.’
He closed the door on her as gently as he could. On the floor behind, Ahmed was examining one of the squat green models. Another blast echoed through the walls, louder this time, but the boy was distracted.
‘Baba, where do the Greenskins come from?’
Mansur settled himself back on the floor with less pain than he’d expected.
‘Well, they grow — like plants. Or weeds perhaps, always coming back.’
His son thought for a long moment. ‘So how do you stop them?’
‘That’s the trick son, you have to kill them while they’re small. Before they get too big. When they’re small, you can keep them small, see?’
‘What happens if they get too big?’
Mansur paused, and sighed. ‘Then… then you have to burn them, son. Burn the ground. Burn out their roots.’
The boy considered this, then turned back to his toys. It made sense to him, at least.
‘Baba, can I play as the Guard this time?’
Mansur lost track of how long they played. Armies clashed and fell in the buried office at the heart of the fortress, while the walls outside shook and the floor trembled. His son played well, breaking up the Orc charges, dividing and corralling the beasts. Mansur found himself watching the boy more than his own troops. He should have done this more. He should have made time for this.
They were interrupted only once more.
This time Zarqa’s gaze was unsteady. Her spotless uniform was covered in dust – and something darker that glistened in the flickering light. Mansur moved to block his son’s view.
‘Sir, they’re breaking through. They have heavy weapons, and vehicles and there’s just so many of them…’
‘Dead, sir. They got a hit on the command bunker. Mukhtar’s in charge. He needs you sir. We need you.’
Mansur gazed down at his chronometer. It was easier than meeting her eyes.
‘You have a child don’t you Zarqa? In the cadets?’ She blinked at him for a moment. ‘Go find him. Now.’
‘Sir, the Orcs…’
He seized her by the shoulders. Throne, she felt so thin beneath the uniform. How long had they been doing this?
‘This is an order Zarqa. Find your son.’
She’d gone white beneath the dust. ‘Our duty…’
‘Is finished. It’s done, Zarqa. Our duty is done.’ He closed his eyes. ‘Just go. Find him.’
She opened her mouth again, but he was already closing the door. The key was rusted, and his hands shook, but the sound of the lock was loud and firm.
The General wiped his face with his hand, then turned back to his son. On the floor, Ahmed was playing with something new. Mansur picked up one of the models, larger and heavier than the ones they’d been using earlier and ran his thumb over the crenelated towers and squat gun barrels.
‘Battleships, Ahmed? I thought our game was on land?’
‘They’re for the burnin, Baba.’
Mansur’s skin felt like ice.
His son looked up at him, with a frown that looked out of place on his tiny head. A wisp of dark hair hung loose across his forehead. His mother used to have a lock of hair like that.
‘You said…if they get too big, you have to burn the ground. But you can’t do that with the infantry, cos, they’re already on the ground. So, I gotta use the ships.’
The General forced himself to meet the boy’s gaze.
‘What about your men on the ground?’
‘It’s nothing personal Baba. We have to win right? Whatever the cost?’
General Mansur seized his son tightly, as the tears ran openly down his face now. On his wrist, his chronometer flashed red, as the timer hit zero. A new, louder sound began to rumble high above them.
‘Whatever the cost, son.’
About the Author
Benjamin Joseph is a 40k fan, and writer, based in Dubai and trying to find the Grimdark in eternal sunshine.