|"Staggered line! Advance!" Falconius whispered into his throat-mike.|
“Staggered line! Advance!” Falconius whispered into his throat-mike. He stopped and let his men pass ahead of him as he counted them off. Nine others. Together since indoctrination, with ninety-four combat missions, thirty-two fronts, nine theaters and two warzones to their credit. They had pulled one other screaming from smoldering shell craters on Khellan two years prior, spend six weeks behind the Ork lines on Piscina before that; Falconius himself had taken a bolt round to the gut there and nearly paid with his life for the privilege of living to tell the tale. Twenty insolent rebels with lasguns led by an egomaniacal defector would be swatted aside as a bear bats a wasp from its head.
They began to run, their objective clearly marked by the lamps set up around their objective as the rebel engineers examined it. They were so careless; they hadn’t even deadened the lamps after the sun had set. A hot fury burned inside Falconius as he peered through the magnoculars, observing their actions. They would pay for violating the machine-sprit of the venerable battle-tank. But that would come in time. Their mission was to silently gather as much information they could as to how much these rebels had learned of their prize.
* * *
“Who goes there?” A sentry’s voice rang out into the air of the young night. Emperor's teeth! This mission was blown already, and Falconius knew it. He silently cursed his own indiscretion and unholstered the stub pistol from his thigh. Neither replying to the challenge nor waiting for their corporal’s order, the remainder of the squad wheeled to face. The sentry was killed upon the spot for his vigilance. He crumpled and fell to the floor, but the scouts were already on the move, putting as much distance as they could between them and the last vestiges of the stealth demanded for in their mission briefing.
Two more of the sentries came running over to investigate. They ran straight past the scouts, running past them at a distance of less than ten feet. The scouts' camelioline cloaks protected them from sight, and each of the sentries received two prompt shotgun slugs into their unsuspecting backs. That was it. A drowsy and ageing klaxon stirred into life somewhere, and began to drone out a warning to everyone within a league.
This mission, thought Falconius, just got interesting.
* * *
He looked down to see crowds of his men gathered around the tank, arguing with one of the engineers. “You there!” he selected an unfortunate victim, “What are you all doing here? There’s an alarm on, you fools!”
“We received orders to return to the tank, sir!” replied the sentry, sullenly.
“I gave no such order! Return to your posts at once, before I have you all hanged!” He screamed, his complexion reddening rapidly.
“Very good, sir.” They looked at each other, then began to disperse back to their patrol routes. No sooner had the first squad left the security offered by the halogen lamps around the tank and wandered into the blackness, then a volley of boltgun shots rang out into the night. Flirus stopped and turned to where they had last left the light. “There!” He cried, “Point the lights there!” As quickly as the hefty service lamps would allow, they turned them over; their bright beams pointing out into the night.
Then suddenly, a clank of metal on metal was heard on top of the engine deck. The sound of the object rolling down off the back of the tank and dropping onto the floor followed. “Grenade!” The cry went up, and the men who were left around the tank scattered like terrified sheep. Flirus ducked behind the safety of the gantry wall just as it detonated, sending shards of metal flying in every direction. As the ringing in his ears faded, he could discern the screams of wounded men. He pulled on his cap and stood, rather shakily, and made his way to the ladder leading down to the tank park.
* * *
|Falconius himself leapt onto the ladder leading up to|
the main gantry
He reached the top, and the first thing he saw was a pair of boots. Looking up, he saw the face of the shocked rebel commander. Before he could act, one of the boots kicked sharply out at his face and sent him reeling, clinging onto the ladder with one hand. The commander stepped up, bringing his laspistol to bear.
Without even pausing to think, with his free hand Falconius grabbed the shotgun strapped to his chest and swung it upwards. He squeezed the trigger, and the colonel’s blood-curdling cry was lost in the furore of the shotgun discharging. Regaining his composure, he climbed the ladder followed by the two of his men. He stepped over the colonel’s body, the shoulder and neck pulverised by the close-range shot.
The beacon de-activated, the tank secured and the guard dead. A failure by the terms of their objectives, and Falconius knew he would pay with his stripes for it, but thirty more rebel scum were dead, and the tank would soon be back in the expert hands of the Palladian Guard. Success enough for him. He looked down from the gantry at his men as they ran their checks over the machine.
As one looked up, relaying the information from the data log, his face suddenly froze, eyes fixed on something behind Falconius. He realised, and wheeled on the spot with his stub gun at the ready. But for the first – and last time that night – the rebel was ready when the scout was not. He was not quite dead, and every last vestige of life in Flirus' body was expended in raising his sidearm. A laspistol bolt seared out of the weapon and hit Falconius as he struggled to stay upright. There was a pause. One of Flirus' hands fired two more shots into the staggering marine while the other desperately and hopelessly tried to stem the flow of blood from his own fatal wound.
The scout staggered backwards until he came against the gantry wall. The colours and lights of the setting began to swim as Flirus collapsed in front of him. A scout had scaled the ladder and climbed onto the gantry, and after the dying rebel managing a brief and feeble, “Death to the False Emperor … ” a swift and crushing boot to his face put a decisive and gruesome end to this, the last chapter in the history of the capture of the laser destroyer.
Still stunned by the impact, Falconius began to breathe heavily. His comrades gathered around him, and one quickly detached the bulky shoulder pad, and then tore open his uniform with the knife.
The laser bolt had just burned its way through the bulky carapace armour but the layered underflak had dissipated most of the energy. He was left with a painful bruise and a deep burn that would scar horribly. Falconius was lucky; despite all the odds in their favour, the training, the experience, the equipment - it was all down to where that shot landed. Sheer luck.
Falconius surveyed the scene. "Survival is a matter of luck," he mused under his breath.
Just ask Colonel Flirus.