Friday, 12 August 2016

Confessions of a Tempestus Scion

 His failure to comply with regulation probably saved his life that day.  The Standard Infantryman's Handbook stipulated that a soldier deployed in a combat zone should wear his helmet (and facemask, if applicable) at all times, with the chinstrap fastened firmly, beneath the chin. Trooper Septimus Clegg was well acquainted with regulation, it was shouted at him often enough and his frequent breaches had labelled him a recidivist.

This did not particularly concern Trooper Clegg who agreed amiably that military discipline was a good thing in general but did not necessarily apply to him.  He was currently wearing non standard footwear and in possession of an illegally customised meltagun, which strictly speaking should have been wielded by a specialist grenadier.  But he was big and well muscled enough to pass himself off as a heavy gunner and no one had bothered to check his chit at the armoury yet.  Besides, his Commissar expected the troopers to be self sufficient as well as obedient and full of zeal and often overlooked exotic or custom-built weaponry. In addition to these indiscretions, Clegg’s face mask rebreather was not on his face but stored in a convenient thigh pouch.  Also, the straps of his helmet hung free and unclasped.  This particular rule breach likely saved his life.  It was so hot and humid in the pumping station that he couldn't see a damn thing through the oculars and even if he could, the sweat constantly running into his eyes would have blurred it anyway.  So he had removed the mask and helmet, mopped his face, and only replaced the helmet.  Removing it entirely would render him unable to hear TacCom blathering nonsense and conflicting orders through the earpiece.  A mixed blessing, perhaps.

His unit had been assigned to sweep the old pumping station, west of the city. Several spore pods had slipped through the orbital defence net and landed in the vicinity.  The actual number and disposition was not clear but Command was of the opinion that any of the alien Tyranids that made it to the surface would head for the cover of the massive water reclamation plant nearby.  The vile xenos were becoming savvy to satellite detection and elimination.  Clegg wondered how was that even possible.  Munitorum propaganda said that they were little more than animals. 'Aberrant vermin' according to the data sheets, albeit telepathically linked, space faring vermin.  Since it was not feasible to blow up the entire metropolitan water supply to be sure of purging the menace, they had sent in the troops. One understrength Company had been given six hours to sweep the entire complex which was several thousand square kilometres in area.  A bit of an oversight, that.

So the men had been ordered to search first in squads, then pairs then alone in order to cover enough ground.  At this point most of the under-officers considered the mission tactically unsound, but a sudden casualty or two would allow TacCom to narrow the search to a specific location and thus save time.  Besides, they probably wouldn’t find anything.  The super orbital battle had finished off most of the xenos and only a few had slipped through.  Tyranid threat levels dropped off dramatically if their numbers were diminished.  Break enough links in their ‘synapse’ and they degenerated into confusion and cowardice supposedly.

Clegg was disobeying orders, kind of, by searching the pumping chambers off a long atrium along with Trooper Warburton.  Technically they were split up, overlapping each other and entering alternate rooms alone but close enough to come to the aid of the other if a situation arose.  Turning into the next chamber he came to a halt.  The entire level was dimly lit by emergency lighting and the weak glow of console readouts, but he could see an untidy jumble of machinery on the grating ahead.  It looked wet with oil.  He pushed one of the timed light panels on the wall and the lamps above the consoles flickered into life.  The room wasn't much brighter.  Rows of industrial pipework stretched away into darkness above but the pile of machine parts was now fully visible, and the wet sheen around it looked like blood, not oil.  He approached carefully, levelling his weapon and thumbing off the safety.  It was a servitor. Or what was left of it.  All augmentations had been stripped away with terrible force and he could see recognisable human body parts among the mess.  It appeared to have been partially eaten, bones and all.  Clegg retreated back toward the doorway.  Surely the work of Tyranid xenos, but it was odd. They were supposed to hunt in packs, hordes even, overwhelming their prey with numbers.  This kill looked fresh, so where were they?

His thoughts were interrupted by the crack of lasgun fire in the adjacent chamber.  'Warburton!' he barked into his headset, 'Respond!'.  Nothing except static came back.  Clegg dashed back into the atrium and through to the adjoining chamber, scanning left and right frantically. No sign of Warburton.  He hesitated, but could see no danger ahead, just the cool glow of workstation lights illuminating faded pipes and apparatus further back in the gloom.  He advanced as quickly as he dared, past rows of machinery, ducts and ventilators that could be concealing anything.  Nothing.   He called out to Warburton again and his own voice startled him. 

The clatter of metal and plastic directly behind sent him whirling around, diving for cover against a column.  Warburton's lasgun lay in plain sight about 20 feet away. Heat wisps still drifted lazily from the muzzle. He had walked past the spot only moments before.  There was nothing above, no sound or sign of the soldier.  In years to come, Clegg would caution his men, “Lictors only make a noise when they want to be heard. Fear and misdirection. Better look over your shoulder.”  At this moment, however, he could only stare dumbly at his friend's weapon which had inexplicably appeared behind him.  The lights suddenly went out.  They had probably timed out due to inactivity but the coincidence gave Clegg a surge of panic.  He braced himself to sprint back out of the door.  Whatever was in here, it was best dealt with in the open.

Something smashed into the back of his head and sent him reeling.  His helmet was ripped away violently.  Had it been securely attached to his head, he would certainly have followed it into the embrace of the creature behind him.  Instead, he fell forward, instinctively turning to face the threat and bringing the meltagun to bear.  Fingers tightened reflexively on the trigger and a liquid stream of superheated gases erupted from it.  The entire chamber was flooded with light for an eye blink.  His assailant was thrown into sharp relief, too many arms splayed, tentacles where a mouth should have been. Its body was transfixed by the molten beam of light spewing from the heavy weapon.  The remains of the helmet were crumpled in one massively clawed hand.  The room went dark again and he heard rather than saw the thing slither, bonelessly down the pipework like puppet with its strings cut.  As his eyes re-adjusted, he registered the remains of the monster on its back, twitching on the grating.  It was almost torn in two at the midsection, front mandibles questing weakly like antennae. He was dimly aware that he had soiled himself again.  Not the first time in his career. He tried to regain his composure, climbing slowly to his feet. Damn Spooks! Sneaking up on you like low born hivers.  He laughed weakly.

The sonorous boom of the meltagun in close confines had alerted his comrades and he heard the sound of raised voices and booted feet approaching at a run.  Armoured Scions filed into the chamber and swept the room systematically, torch beams probing the gloom.  He stood numbly, watching the still writhing corpse.
Trooper DaCosta sauntered over to him. ‘You OK, Clegg?’
‘Yeah.  Where’s Warburton?’
DaCosta eyed him sombrely. ‘Stuffed into the pipes, up there.’ he replied, prodding the dead alien with the toe of one boot. ‘Like a damn mountain leopard storing its cache up a tree.’  The massive, cauterised hole in the alien thorax was leaking yellow fluid which steamed into the air, despite the heat.  ‘What is that stench?’ he wrinkled his nose in distaste.  
 ‘They smell worse on the inside’, said Clegg by way of explanation, acutely aware of the current state of his undershorts.
DaCosta continued his grisly probing and then suddenly stopped and backed away.  ‘Its not poisonous is it?’ he enquired, ‘you know, like spores or something?’
Clegg considered this.  Most of the useful information he had learned of the Tyranid menace was either by word of mouth or at first hand.  Imperial propaganda newsreels mainly concentrated on individual heroism and the incompetence of mankind’s foes.
‘Not sure’, he replied. 

They regarded each other wordlessly for a moment, then both troopers put their rebreather masks back on.  Clegg looked incongruous without his helmet but it couldn’t be helped.  Better to be safe than sorry.  Maybe there was something to regulations after all.