A half dozen beige and brown aircraft stood inanimate in the Valkyrie depot at the edge of the airfield, steam drifted off the idling dual Vector-Turbojet engines. Mechanics and ground crews worked on the large aerial transports, repairing and re-arming for their next sorties. Atena stopped as she arrived in front of the final Valkyrie in the row.
Unlike the others it was painted in a stark white, somewhat faded and stained from the frequent dust storms that plagued the planet’s immense southern desert. Like many other medevac transports Atena had seen, each wing was emblazoned with a bright red caduceus. Unlike any other medicae vehicles, the Valkyrie’s nose was decorated more like one of the war planes she’d passed. She admired the silhouette of a helmeted bird brandishing a lasgun and a chainsword in its talons and ‘War Dove’ written below it in stylised Low Gothic text.
She wandered around, ducking below the wing to the open sliding side door. Inside, a man laid on his side facing away from her, his head rested in the crook of his elbow. Atena dropped the med kit on the deck plating and hoisted herself into the compartment. The interior was outfitted with a trio of stacked collapsible cots along either wall, another man lay curled up on the bottom bunk closest to her.
She nudged the man on the floor’s boots with her foot, ‘Sir?’
The lieutenant grumbled and covered his youthful face with his other arm.
‘Lieutenant,’ Atena said, a little louder, nudging him again.
The man in the cot sat up slightly and put a finger to his lips shushing her. ‘Let him sleep. We just got off an eighteen hour shift with a lot of stressful flying. What d’ya want?’
‘Medicae Atena Kaviani,’ she said, pointing to herself. ‘I was just transferred.’
The man nodded, scratching at the long, dark stubble under his jaw. He swung out of the bed and stumbled past Atena to a pair of flight helmets hanging from the wall behind her. He yanked at the embedded vox bead, ‘Zorrah.’
Atena heard a muffled response from the built-in headset but couldn’t make out the words.
‘Hassan’s replacement is here.’ After another muffled response he said to Atena, ‘Captain’s busy. She said to sit tight for now.’ The man sauntered back to the cot and flopped down. ‘You can take any of the other bunks if you want.’
‘Why’s he on the floor?’ Atena asked, gesturing to the sleeping lieutenant.
‘He doesn’t like the idea of sleeping on a bed where someone’s died. This bird’s so old that it’s likely some poor guardsman kicked it in each one of these before making it back to a proper hospital.’ The man grinned and in a harsh whisper said, ‘Jokes on him, people have died on the floor in here too. Don’t tell ’im though, it’s hard enough getting any sleep with the number of sorties we’ve got to fly to make up for all the downed doves.’
Atena unslung her pack and dropped it on the floor, kicking it under the cot across from the one he laid on. She sat down and rested the back of her head on the Valkyrie’s hull.
‘I’m Sehat by the way,’ he said, settling in and sticking a lho stick between his lips.
‘Are you a medic too?’ Atena asked.
Sehat shook his head, ‘I’m a gunner mostly, stretcher bearer second.’ He pointed at one of the two heavy bolters currently stowed away inside the Valkyrie’s cabin.
Atena shifted uncomfortably on the cot’s muted green canvas. ‘How many are left?’
‘How many of what?’ Sehat replied while flipping his lighter open and shut with a flick of his wrist. A sharp snap punctuated each motion.
‘You said you had to make a lot more sorties because of all the downed medevac Valkyries. How many are left?’
‘You’re sitting in the last one,’ he murmured, continuing to flick his wrist.
Atena could feel the colour drain from her face. Her fingernails scraped the underside of the canvas as she gripped the cot’s frame.
‘You’re fething with me,’ she laughed anxiously.
Sehat shook his head. ‘The damn orks love to aim for these things. I don’t think they even know what the white birds are for. They just see a differently-coloured Valk’ and all their guns focus on us.’
‘They think we’re lucky,’ a stern voice cut through the cabin. Standing in the doorframe was a middle-aged woman in a baggy, beige flight suit with captain’s bars on her shoulder. Her sleek, black hair was speckled with greys and pulled into a tight bun. ’If you’re planning on scaring off the medic, at least tell the story right.’
Atena shot to her feet and made the sign of the Aquila, ‘Captain Nassirian, ma’am.’
The captain rolled her eyes and half-heartedly returned the gesture.
‘The Ork pilots think if they knock one of the doves out of the sky then they’ll never be shot down,’ Captain Nassirian said as she jabbed the sleeping man on the floor in the ribs with the toe of her boot.
‘Dammit Zorrah,’ the man groaned and rolled over. ‘Let me sleep.’
‘No Faramaz, you need to get the pre-flight ready.’
The lieutenant groaned again as he pulled himself to his feet. He clumsily grabbed a canteen and poured water into his mouth and all over his flight suit before he jumped to the dusty ground outside.
‘Sehat!’ Nassirian growled. ‘Why are you still in bed? Have you gotten the medic oriented yet?’
‘What’s there to orient?’ Sehat said. ‘There’s the medicae supplies; there’s the bolter; there’s the harness so you don’t fall to your death.’ He pointed in an indeterminate direction with each item he listed.
‘I’m serious, we lift off in fifteen.’ Captain Nassirian pulled the lho stick out of his mouth and stuck it into her own. She snatched away the lighter as well and lit the small paper tube before tossing the lighter back onto his chest.
She took a long drag before turning to Atena. ‘Alright, medic…’
Nassirian waved her hand dismissively, ‘I don’t care. I’m tired of learning all your new names.’ She rubbed the bridge of her nose, ‘Have you been in a crisis before?’
‘Yes, ma’am, I’ve served as medicae with the 327th Yazdi since our founding-’
‘I don’t mean in some medical tent ten kilometres behind the front lines. Have you ever had to administer care while making a high G turn? Have you ever had to hang out of the side of a bird firing at enemy aircraft barrelling in at you?’
Atena lowered her head and took a deep breath.
‘Never mind that,’ the Captain cut in again. She took another long drag off the lho stick letting the silence linger. ‘There are two types of people in a crisis, those that help others and those who help themselves. Which one are you?”’
Atena raised her eyes determined, meeting the captain’s stern gaze. ‘I help others.’
Sehat snorted from the cot and chuckled, ‘Wrong answer, bud.’
‘What?’ Atena gasped, exasperated.
Captain Nassirian nodded as she folded her arms and leaned against the hull. The dim amber glow of the lho stick in her mouth illuminated her stress worn face in the dark compartment. ‘It’ll get you killed. I know your job is to save the lives of guardsmen but when the shit hits the turbines, save yourself.’
Sehat sat up and pulled himself to his feet. He took the lho stick out of Nassirian’s mouth and inhaled the last drag. He stretched and took a seat in the doorway with his feet dangling down towards the desert floor. Captain Nassirian followed him and hopped down.
‘Now seriously, Sehat, get her up to speed. I don’t want her jumping out of the bird without a grav-chute.’
Nassirian strode around to the front of the pale Valkyrie. Her sore muscles complained as they dragged her up the ladder into the fore cockpit. Faramaz, her co-pilot, sat in the raised seat directly behind her checking the Valkyrie’s systems.
‘All green, Zorrah,’ the young pilot informed her as she sat down.
‘Any orders called in?’
Nassirian sighed with relief, ‘Thank the Throne.’
‘What’s your read on the replacement?’
He had asked the same question every time a new medic joined their crew since he had been assigned to the War Dove. In those two years there had been eight other medics before the new girl.
‘Same as all the rest, I guess. Beggars can’t be choosers. Were you able to determine why the port engine seemed underpowered on our last outing?’ the captain replied as she looked over the neon green readouts on the consoles around her.
‘An Ork round nicked the fuel intake. The ground crew were able to patch it easily enough. But a centimetre to the left would have killed the entire engine,’ Faramaz said. ‘I don’t think you’re giving her enough credit. Unlike all the others, she actually requested the transfer.’
Nassirian paused what she was doing and turned to face her co-pilot, ‘Really? Do you know why?’
Faramaz shrugged, ‘Maybe she heard rumours about a handsome hot-shot young pilot and she wanted a chance to see him for herself.’
Nassirian rolled her eyes and turned back around shaking her head.
A strong gust of wind rocked the Valkyrie on its landing gear and Atena grasped for one of the many handrails. Sehat looked up from the harness he was explaining how to properly fasten.
‘You know we’re still on the ground, right? You’re not going anywhere.’
Atena felt her cheeks burn with embarrassment, ‘I know, I’ve just never ridden in a Valkyrie before and I’m a bit nervous. I’m not great with heights.’
Sehat pursed his lips tight trying to suppress a smile. ‘You really drew the fething short straw didn’t you?’
Before Atena could respond, the muffled voice of Captain Nassirian crackled over the vox of the helmets mounted on the wall. Sehat handed one to Atena before donning his own and responding, ‘Repeat that Zorrah?’
Call came in, she said. Some Scion officer was injured in the mountains and needs to be extracted. Lift off in two.
‘Looks like your first flight’s coming sooner than we thought,’ Sehat sighed. He flipped up the cots securing them to the hull.
Atena slammed the sliding side door shut and sat in one of the folding seats behind the cockpit. She tugged at the straps on her shoulder and hip harnesses, quadruple checking they were secure and tugged at the chord that tethered her to the aircraft. She clasped the high altitude rebreather to her flight helmet, checking and rechecking the seals were air tight. Her hand clutched the handhold by her shoulder.
Sehat sat back down in the open doorway, feet dangling out. His rebreather still hung from its hook. Atena watched him admiring the swirl of dust as the aircraft’s twin Vector-Turbojet engines powered up.
Atena stretched to grab his rebreather, ‘Your mask!’ She called out.
Sehat turned and smiled, ‘Don’t need it. I’m used to the thin air and it chafes too much.’
She wanted to tell him how reckless he was, but the Valkyrie’s sudden and powerful vertical ascent almost caused Atena to blackout. The ruddy, brown dust and the airfield receded at a nauseating speed. Sehat cheered and laughed.
Without the rebreather, Atena was certain she would have started hyperventilating.
Captain Nassirian banked War Dove and throttled the thrusters to maximum. The g-force pressed and held her firmly against her seat.
She scanned the overcast skies for any sign of Ork fighters. At this level of visibility and distance the xenos aircraft resembled the ground pepper specs that passed as flavouring on the mush back at the Schola Progenium. She turned War Dove fifteen degrees south-southwest and pulled into a shallow climb.
‘How do you think the medic’s doing?’ Faramaz said over the internal vox.
Nassirian did not respond. Her eyes continued to systematically search the horizon.
Atena breathed deeply in and out trying to lower her racing heart rate. However she could hardly hear her breath over the wind roaring through the open door. Every minute or so she braved a look over at Sehat, but the sight left her dizzy.
The guardsman stood leaning out of the Valkyrie at close to a forty-five degree angle, supported only by the tether and his harness. As the aircraft entered a hard turn, he grabbed the rail just above the door and revelled in his momentary weightlessness, whooping with glee at the top of his lungs. Atena watched the tether twitch under his weight as it pulled taut again. She swallowed hard and closed her eyes.
Nassirian descended as they approached the towering, dark stone crags of the mountains that bordered Maeroon’s southern desert. A bright red lumen indicated the location of the Tempestus Scions’ homing beacon on the other side of the jagged peaks. She fired the reverse thrusters to hasten their deceleration.
‘Call in to let them know we’re inbound. ETA five minutes,’ she instructed Faramaz.
‘20th Deva “Hornets” Tempestus Scion units, this is Lieutenant Faramaz Hayaii of the 327th Yazdi Medivac Valkyrie “War Dove”.’ We will arrive at your location in five. Can you confirm we have a secure landing zone?’
After a brief pause the desperate reply blared in their ears, ‘Negative War Dove! We are under assault. Taking heavy fire. The LZ is overrun by thirty, maybe forty Orks. We’re holding them off from higher ground for now but fighting for our lives here.’
‘Copy that,’ Faramaz answered. ‘We will provide what fire support we can. Hold tight.’ He cut the external vox link and said to the captain, ‘Doesn’t look good.’
‘Indeed,’ Nassirian said. She opened the vox to the cabin crew, ‘Sehat, medic. We’re coming in hot, get ready for a firefight.’
She lowered War Dove’s altitude below the tops of the mountains. The veteran Navy pilot deftly navigated between the imposing stone peaks. Nassirian worried that flying so low, while obscuring them from view of the Orks on the ground assaulting the Scions, could potentially hide incoming fighters from their auspex scanner as well.
Sehat immediately began arming the starboard heavy bolter. Atena hesitantly unclasped her seat restraints. She pulled herself along the handrails towards the portside door. With some force, she lowered the heavy bolter from its stowage and swung it along its boom support in front of the door. With one hand she wrenched open the sliding door which slammed against the frame with a loud clang. The wind whipped and pulled at her fatigues. Her heart pounded as the bare mountain slopes raced by below them.
The Valkyrie slowed as it rounded a sheer cliff face, revealing a large plateau a couple dozen meters ahead. They could see the seething mass of green-skinned xenos attempting to charge up a steep, fifty meter incline as hot-shot lasgun rounds poured down on them. Atena could just hear the Orks’ battle cries over the roaring engines and wind.
A flash briefly blinded Atena as rockets launched from the rocket pod which seemed only an arm’s reach away. When she opened her eyes again the rocket streaked into the middle of the packed Orks. The fireball threw bodies and debris into the air. A second and third blast followed in rapid succession.
Rapid fire multilaser beams cut through smoke and aliens with equal ease. Tracer rounds from Sehat’s heavy bolter danced amongst the Orks as they fled.
Atena armed the massive gun and aimed at a pack of green-skins charging for cover and pulled the trigger. The recoil from the first burst nearly knocked her off her feet. The boom support did not provide the same stability as the tripods she had trained on. By the time she regained her bearings, Atena had lost sight of the Orks she had fired on. She dug in her heels and fired on the next target she saw as the Valkyrie slowly pushed in towards the stranded Scions.
It took the Orks half a minute to come to bear on their new threat. By then, Atena could make out well over a dozen dead xenos scattered across the plateau. They returned fire wildly. A rocket arched harmlessly below the War Dove and hard rounds failed to find their mark.
Atena acclimated to the bolter’s violent kick just as the remaining Orks dispersed, retreating out of sight.
The Valkyrie floated over the ledge. A pair of soldiers in black carapace armour waved their arms directing the aircraft as it gently set down on the small ridge.
Sehat lowered the rear ramp while Atena folded the cots back down. They carried the stretcher between them as they ran out to meet the beleaguered Scions.
To Atena the encampment of around fifteen Tempstus Scions was a truly sorry sight. Of the men and women who survived, only about a third looked as though they could walk unassisted and all of them looked injured to some extent. Atena and Sehat approached the one soldier giving orders to the others regarding evacuation priority.
‘Major Watcher?’ Atena asked.
The Scion shook their head and gestured towards a bald, middle aged man lying propped up on his elbows next to two unconscious soldiers. As she got closer to the major, Atena could see the man’s left leg had been severed just below the knee and a deep gash split across his scalp which, although it had stopped bleeding, looked infected.
‘Finally,’ he barked as he noticed Atena and Sehat making their way towards him. ‘Medic, take Gorsund first, she’s in a bad way.’ He nodded to the soldier on his left. She was pale and the bandages wrapped around her throat were drenched with blood but she was still breathing shallowly.
Atena nodded and they laid the stretcher next to the wounded woman.
Nassirian craned her neck to watch the wounded get loaded into the cabin from the cockpit. ‘That’s four,’ she mumbled to herself as Sehat and the medic exited the ramp with an empty stretcher.
She switched on her vox, ‘Medic, I’m going to need you to pick up the pace. It won’t be long before the Orks are back in larger numbers.’
I’m sorry ma’am, the medic replied, but many of them are severely injured, spinal injuries, third degree burns. Moving them too quickly can cause them even more harm.
‘Is the major on board at least?’
No ma’am, he refuses to be moved until the rest of the injured are loaded in first.
‘Golden Throne!’ Nassirian exclaimed, turning off the vox. ‘She’s going to get us killed.’
‘What does she expect us to do? Kill the people we’re trying to save!’ Atena growled.
Sehat pursed his lips and avoided making eye contact with Atena while they cautiously shifted a man with burns covering the back half of his body. Atena could tell he agreed with the captain, everything he did seemed rushed. She scowled and grit her teeth as they lifted the man.
‘For a medevac pilot she doesn’t seem to give a feth about the people we’re trying to care for,’ she grumbled.
‘She does,’ Sehat said, panting as they sped walked him back to the War Dove. ‘But making sure we live another day gives us another chance to save more folks, ya know? I trust her, she’s kept me alive this long.’
Over the hum of the idling engines, an erratic buzz began to grow and echo across the plateau. Narrisian scanned the auspex displays but saw nothing. She frantically examined the sky, ‘Are you picking up anything?’
‘No,’ Faramaz replied.
She craned her head nearly all the way around to see a pair of pepper-like specs of Ork planes emerge from over a mountain crest and dive towards them. Their soot stained red hulls coming into view as they closed in on the War Dove.
‘Sehat! Get the medic inside! We’re leaving fething now!’
The captain powered up the engines and the Valkyrie rocketed into the air like a white Deathstrike missile.
Atena and Sehat collapsed along with the man in the stretcher they carried as the Valkyrie screamed upwards. The view of the valley below shrunk away in the still open ramp.
The medic could feel consciousness leaving her from the high gravitational forces. The handrails of the stretcher slipped from her weakening grip. The stretcher and injured Scion skid across the deck towards the open ramp which snapped Atena back to attention.
She dove after him, her fingers managing to wrap around the webbing of the man’s carapace armour. The two of them continued to slide towards the rear of the climbing plane’s cabin. Atena rolled herself around, stuck out her legs slamming into the hull to brace them.
‘Close the door!’ she shouted into the vox over the howling winds. Her muscles and joints burned as she strained to support the Scion’s weight.
Sehat crawled to a panel, slammed the ramp controls with his fist and collapsed. The ramp inched closed until it sealed shut with a dull clang. Atena slumped over, and let the man slide from her grip, panting. On all fours, she crawled to the front of the cabin. With one shaking hand she clasped a handrail and with the other she struggled to secure the tether to her harness. Sehat stumbled over to her and gave her a hand.
‘You’re crazy!’ He shouted at her with a huge grin. ‘You’re going to get yourself killed.’
Tracers from the Ork planes sailed over the War Dove’s cockpit like shooting stars. Captain Nassirian used the vector engines to jink left and right to avoid the xenos’ fire but did so sparingly to not throw the passengers in the back too hard. The hull of the bird shuttered as it was struck by half a dozen thumb-sized solid rounds.
Nassirian cursed under her breath and throttled up into a steep climb to clear another cliff face. The Ork pilots kept pace with their crude machines. Scores of rounds ripped jagged lines of impacts as their guns chased after the white medevac Valkyrie. She knew the heavily armoured transport could not outpace the primitive, yet nimble Ork fighters.
She fired the vector engines shunting the Valkyrie higher in altitude in hopes of causing her pursuers’ engines to stall. However the auspex showed both planes continuing to gain on them. War Dove was nearly thrown into a spin as a trio of rounds clipped the tip of the port side wing. Nassirian fought with the control stick to maintain their stability and keep from crashing into the mountainside. She growled a curse. She knew the Valkyrie’s plating could only keep them alive for so long. She had to lose them.
‘Faramaz prime the rocket pods to fire,’ she said into her helmet’s internal vox. ‘Sehat, medic, strap in. I hope everything’s secured back there!’
Nassirian counted out two seconds in her head to give them time to hopefully secure themselves. Then she hit the reverse thrusters, stopping the War Dove hard into a hover. The two Ork jets blurred past in red streaks, one after another. Faramaz squeezed the firing stud, launching half a dozen rockets into the tailfin of the trailing Ork plane. The scrap metal that made up the jet’s hull crumpled and torn into a fireball. The remainder of the aircraft soared into the gentle slope of the mountain, carving a trench into the loose gravel below.
The second Ork jet disappeared from view and the auspex around a rocky outcropping. Nassirian used the vector jets to spin War Dove in place and took off headed north. She continued to fly low to stay out of sight. Their auspex would be useless but she knew the Ork pilots relied solely on sight so they were hypothetically safer as they headed back to the airfield.
Atena had barely managed to buckle the harness on her seat when the Valkyrie came to a sudden halt. She screamed at the top of her lungs as her body was crushed against the hull by dramatic change in G-forces. Her vision went black again and only came too from the screams of pain from one of the Scions strapped into the cots. Her chest felt tight as her heart raced.
She looked over at Sehat. The front of the man’s beige flight jacket was stained with vomit but he was giggling.
He looked back at Atena with a smile. ‘Been a while since Zorrah pulled a hundred-zero!’
Atena stared at him, her head still spinning. And she felt sick as the aircraft spun in place. She peered out of the small view slot of the side door to try and understand what had happened and get her bearings.
‘What – what happened?’ she mumbled.
‘The captain slammed on the brakes to get away from the Ork jets and we’re headed back.’
‘Wonderful,’ Atena sighed. ‘I was worried she was going to abandon the others.’
‘Oh no,’ Sehat shook his head. ‘We’re headed back to base. This is our chance to slip away, we can’t outrun those fighters.’
Atena had stopped listening to what Sehat was saying and had activated her internal vox. ‘Captain, this is Medicae Kaviani-’
I know, medic, what do you want? Nassirian spat back at her.
‘We need to go back and grab the rest of the injured Scions. We have enough room to transport the rest.’ As she spoke she moved over to an unconscious guardsman who had lost a lot of blood and administered a plasma drip.
Not going to happen. The Ork fighter is either still patrolling the area searching for us or headed to get reinforcements. Either scenario means we likely won’t make it back if we stop to pick them up. We have the major, we’re heading home, we live to see another day, and that’s final.
Atena gritted her teeth and crouched to check on the Scion on the cot below the man she had just treated. The woman screamed in agony, her spine had likely been severed and she was secured to a backboard. Atena injected her with painkillers as she cursed the captain in her head. She turned to the soldiers secured to the cots behind her along the opposite side of the cabin. Private Gorsund, who Major Watcher had put ahead of himself, was beginning to regain consciousness and looked confused trying to feel around but was limited by the restraints.
Atena’s eyes widened as she realized, ‘Captain, that’s the thing, Major Watcher isn’t on board.’
WHAT? Nassirian screamed into the vox. WHY THE FETH NOT?
‘We left before we could get him in because he refused to get on before his Scions.’
And I told you to ignore that and load him in any way!
‘Well, ma’am, regardless we are still short one Tempestor Prime.’
Nassirian let out a steady stream of curses. After a moment of silence, Atena felt the Valkyrie turn back south.
If and when we make it back to the airfield, medic, you and I are going to have words.
Nassirian switched off the vox and growled. Whether or not the medic had left the major off the War Dove intentionally, which the captain suspected she had, or had failed to load him quickly enough after Nassirian had given the order was irrelevant at this point. If they returned to the field hospital without the major and any of the surviving Scions reported that she had left without him, Nassirian knew she would find herself at the wrong end of a commissar’s pistol. Either way, if they went back to pick up the others or turned for home, the medic had lowered her chances for survival.
‘I really don’t like this new medic,’ she said to Faramaz.
‘She sure does seem to have a death wish,’ he laughed. ‘Fuel’s at just over fifty percent. So, if we can avoid another chase or dogfight we will be able to reach the LZ and back to the field hospital with some to spare.’
Nassirian had not listened to the co-pilot’s response while she navigated through a section where the canyon narrowed. The signal from the Scions’ beacon still came through strongly. They thankfully had not veered too far away from the landing zone during the chase. She took a couple deep breaths of the chill compressed air coming through her helm and increased the throttle to make the trip as quick as possible.
Faramaz called back to the Scion squads over the external vox, ‘Apologies for the “Kriegian Goodbye” and the engine backwash earlier, Deva units. War Dove is returning to retrieve the rest of the wounded. ETA three minutes.’
After a moment he told Nassirian, ‘It’s showing that their vox unit has received the message but I’m not getting a response.’
Nassirian grit her teeth and pushed the throttle to its maximum. Pulling back on the stick, the Valkyrie pulled up over the lip of the plateau. An undulating layer of green and black covered the cliff just below the ledge where the Scions had taken refuge. As they pushed in closer, she could make out a handful of Scions struggling to fight back the vast tide of Orks. She estimated there were at least four times as many Orks assaulting their position as before.
‘Open fire,’ the captain barked.
Half a dozen rockets launched from under the white Valkyrie’s wings crossing the distance in less than a second. The eruptions threw the Orks not incinerated by the rockets’ payload onto their kin crowding the base of the cliff. But as the smoke cleared, Nassirian could make out a score of Orks cleaving through the imperial defenders.
‘Golden Throne…’ Faramaz whispered. He had clearly come to the same conclusion as she had; they would not be able to scare them off with firepower as they had before. ‘We won’t reach them in time.’
‘Medic, Sehat get ready to repel the fethers.’
Nassirian powered the vector engines forward, coming in low over the narrow ledge. The wash of the engines keeping them aloft forced many of the xenos warriors back.
The side door slammed open again and Atena swung the heavy bolter around. Unlike before, the haze of dust kicked up by the War Dove’s thrusters obscured the battlefield. A pair of gigantic Orks charged toward the aircraft as it hovered less than a meter off the ground. Atena wrestled with the bolter as it kicked forcefully with each round. Her first shots dug into the dirt in front of the bounding xenos. Leaving her finger on the trigger, she pulled her aim up. A trio of rounds struck the lead Ork in the legs and torso, dropping it to the ground. Two more rounds levelled the second.
Atena scanned the dusty landscape for more hostiles. A shadow waded through the tan and brown vortex and she pulled the heavy gun to bear but quickly stayed her finger. The black-clad Scion emerged clearly into view supporting one of their comrades on their shoulder. Atena nervously pulled on her tether before hopping out to meet them.
Even the short distance to the ground left her heart jumping into her throat. Despite this she sprinted to the two soldiers.
‘Where are the others?’ she shouted over the wailing engines as she grabbed the injured soldier under the arms.
The Scion pointed to a collection of boulders to their left. Another figure clad in dark carapace armour stood atop the largest one, firing into the distance at an enemy Atena could not see through the dust storm. She nodded and said, ‘Help me hoist him up into the bird and I’ll have the pilot swing closer to pick up the rest.’
She and the Scion lifted the injured man high enough for him to grab one of the handrails allowing him to pull himself the rest of the way into the cabin. Atena leapt up and pulled herself into a seated position on the ledge with her legs dangling in the air. She reached back down and helped pull the other man on board.
‘Zorrah, bring us down fifteen meters to our left. Major Watcher and the others are by those boulders.’
Got it, was the captain’s only short reply. Atena was shocked she had not argued with her on this too.
War Dove drifted towards the area the Scion had indicated and gently touched down. Sehat’s heavy bolter chattered as he struck down more Orks continuing to pursue the Valkyrie. Atena and the Scion who carried the injured man sprinted into the cover between the large boulders. She could see now that the survivors had moved most of the injured into this crevasse. Behind a curve in the stone the major’s head peaked out.
‘Thank the Emperor,’ he gasped. ‘You had us nervous there that you might not come back.’
‘Wouldn’t dream of it,’ Atena called back.
Atena and the uninjured Scion loaded the nearest wounded soldier onto the stretcher and sprinted back to War Dove. Sehat stood in the opposite doorway, rapidly reloading his heavy bolter. Over his shoulder Atena saw a score of Orks charging towards the Valkyrie. She called out to the Scion who had been aiding her and pointed towards the encroaching horde. The man brought his hellgun to his shoulder and fired a pair of bursts, felling the two lead xenos.
‘How much time can you buy us?’ Atena shouted to Sehat over the Orks’ resonating war cries.
‘I don’t know,’ he squealed. ‘They’re coming at me so fast, I’m barely hanging on. We’re out of missiles and Faramaz is doing his best to hold them off with the multilaser, but it sounds like the barrels keep overheating.’
The Scion stepped forward and laid a hand on Sehat’s shoulder, ‘Leave the bolter to me. No offense, but I think I’ll be better able to keep them at bay. My comrades and I have been pushing them back for this long with little more than our rifles.’
Sehat pursed his lips and gave the Scion a hard look. A loud clang filled the cabin as a round ricocheted off the roof above them. Atena and Sehat flinched but the Scion had already taken up the bolter and began firing at the assaulters. Every round finding its mark, shredding limbs and torsos as they erupted within the Orks’ flesh.
Sehat sighed and grabbed the stretcher without any further protest. Atena led him to the shelter where the injured storm troopers were hunkered down. Upon returning, Atena realized far fewer of the Scions remained since War Dove had left and returned. Major Watcher had dragged himself to the mouth of the gap in the rocks, his plasma pistol hummed as he kept watch over his two remaining injured soldiers. Another Scion stood covering the other approach to the gap, dried blood adhered her hair to her face and a brown stained bandage.
‘We need to hurry it up, medic,’the major growled as they approached. Atena opened her mouth to apologize but before she could Watcher shouted over his shoulder. ‘Hollary, grab Xans and follow the medics with Perez.’
‘Sir, I think you-’ Atena began, but the major interrupted her.
‘My soldiers go first, then me.’
His expression told her that it was not a topic that was up for debate. Atena nodded and set the stretcher next to the injured soldier the major had indicated. As she and Sehat cautiously lifted and slid the man onto the stretcher, Atena heard Hollary grunt as she threw the other man over her shoulder.
The winds began to pick up, filling the air with even more dust. The grains of sand stung the exposed skin along her throat and wrists. The adrenaline of the battle had finally worn off and Atena struggled to hold up her end of the stretcher. Her boots felt like they had been filled with rocks. Drops of sweat streamed down the lens of her rebreather’s goggles, her uniform clung to her sweaty back, and her breathing was laboured.
Despite her injuries, Trooper Hollary easily outpaced the pair of stretcher bearers. She laid the man down inside the Valkyrie before pulling herself aboard. Almost immediately she raised her hellgun and began firing at the incoming tide of Orks over her fellow Scion’s shoulder. Atena’s muscles strained as she lifted the stretcher higher into the aircraft. With the cabin getting full and all the cots occupied, she and Sehat set the stretcher on the floor where she had found the co-pilot sleeping earlier that day.
She peered between the two scions firing out the side door. A mound of Ork bodies littered the ground about thirty metres out from the War Dove. Only a scattering of Orks still attempted to assault the Valkyrie. Atena stepped forward to thank the Scion who had taken up the heavy bolter when she felt her boot tread into something wet. The floor around the soldier’s feet was covered in a pool of his blood.
‘Golden Throne…’ she hissed. ‘Sit down, let me patch you up. Where were you hit?’
She helped ease the man to the ground and propped him up against the cabin’s hull. Atena grabbed gauze from her med kit and pressed it against the gaping wound in the man’s stomach. Sehat quickly resumed control of the bolter and resumed firing. Atena had begun securing the bandage when he laid his hand on hers to stop her.
‘Get the major,’ he said between strained breaths. ‘I can manage.’
Atena stared at him for a moment, then reluctantly got up and hopped out of the War Dove once more.
Her entire body ached. Atena panted with every step, her heart thundering in her chest. When she reached the gap in the boulders Major Watcher had managed to stand on his one foot supported by the large rock. He fired his plasma pistol as fast as the plasma coils could charge. It was then she heard the Orks bellowing from around the other side of the boulders.
Atena ran up to Watcher, ‘Let’s go major! You’re the last one.’
‘They’ve flanked around and the whole mob of ‘em are coming up through this way,’ he roared. ‘You won’t make it back dragging my ass along. Get the others out of here and I’ll hold them off as long as I can.’
Still struggling to catch her breath, Atena knew it was true. Several rounds struck the dirt and stone nearby. She could finally see the green-skinned xenos pushing their way through the maze of rocks. Watcher fired again, melting an ork’s head. Its body was trampled by the onrushing horde of its kin.
‘The Emperor Protects,’ she whispered to the Tempestor Prime.
‘The Emperor Protects,’ he whispered back.
Atena forced herself to sprint through the pain. Trooper Hollary helped to pull her up into the Valkyrie’s cabin and slam the sliding door behind her.
‘Where’s the major?’ Hollary asked, her face looked grim as if she already knew what Atena was about to say. Atena simply shook her head, unable to bring herself to lie to the woman.
‘Zorrah,’ Atena stopped as her voice choked. ‘Get us out of here.’
Without a word, the War Dove took off vertically then steadily climbed into the sky. Atena gripped tightly to the handrails after she strapped the Scion who had taken the gut shot into her seat.
Outside the narrow viewport in the door, Atena watched the bright, blue flash of plasma bursts streak towards the crowded group of orks. Major Watcher, despite missing a leg, had somehow climbed on top of the largest boulder. She looked on in horror as a pair of orks dragged the Tempestor Prime from his perch into the mass of green-skins. Flashes of plasma continued to erupt from the pile of flesh and rage for another few seconds until War Dove pulled out of view.
Atena slumped to the floor, giving into her exhaustion. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. She tried to wipe the tears from her cheek but bumped her rebreather, so Atena just sat with her legs pulled into her chest and rested her head against her knees.
Atena slumped against a crate outside the field hospital and let out a heavy sigh. The hot breath hung in the cooling evening air. She stared off across the airfield; the shadows of the pre-fab buildings had gotten long. She reached up to undo her hair bun with a wince brought on by her sore joints and muscles. Her long, wavy, dark brown hair flopped in front of her face and she ran her fingers through to try and break apart the sweat soaked tangles.
Footsteps crunched the rough soil behind her and the captain’s voice called out, ‘You have some fething nerve.’
Atena turned to see the slightly older woman pulling her flight jacket over her jumpsuit, a lit lho stick dangled at the corner of her mouth. Nassirian folded her arms across her chest and leaned against the crate next to Atena.
‘Disobeying an order… I could have you shot by a commissar for that,’ Nassirian mumbled through her half pursed lips.
‘Good luck finding one who’d actually do it,’ Atena replied, her voice barely over a whisper. Nassirian gave her a confused look. ‘The commissars know better than to execute a medic. Once word gets out they killed one of the few medics trying to save the lot of hopeless guardsmen, they generally have an “accident” before the next day’s over.’
‘That so…’ The captain trailed off.
‘Yeah but they find other ways to punish us,’ Atena continued. ‘I mean it’s how you ended up stuck with me in the first place. Besides, you don’t have to worry about me acting like a hero again. I think I learned my lesson.’
‘Wait, your file said you requested the transfer?’
‘Sort of, it was either that or they’d make my life back here a living hell,’ Atena said, nodding her head towards the hospital.
Nassirian took the lho stick from her mouth with a smirk.
‘What’d you – nah,’ she chuckled and shook her head. ‘Well maybe being a hero ain’t so bad. Even though we were too late to save the major, you were at least able to rescue the rest. Just don’t be stupid.’
The captain offered Atena a drag from her lho stick but she shook her head.
Nassirian smiled, ‘Get some sleep, Atena. We lift off as soon as refuel and rearm is complete. You had a good first day.’
‘Thanks,’ Atena smiled back. ‘Good night, Zorrah.’