|Submitted By: Date: November 19, 2006, 04:06:45 PM Views: 1966
|Summary: The rain fell. It started slowly, a light mist that permeated everything, soaking the skin without any overly aggressive force. It was shortly after the midnight hour on the fourth day since Obreach Prime had fallen that the rain began to develop some malice. Fat drops plummeted from the sky, ending their brief lives splashing upon the shattered rubble that marked the dead city. They came with the slow, steady pace of one who knows victory is assured, never rushing, but always seeming to form puddles and rivers in a matter of minutes.
Trooper Jarton, declared missing in action after the rebels had struck the Spire, slipped out of a ground floor window. The water pushed his corpse forward, twisting him in the current as it raced down hill. The lasbolt that had killed him had scorched his left temple, had caused his eye to burst with the heat. The water, in its infinite care, had washed away all evidence that he had died a horrible death. No blood stained his face; the mud gathered from days crawling through fields only to die defending the tallest watch tower on the city’s perimeter, was gone. His skin had wrinkled, as all flesh does when exposed to moisture.
The body floated where the river took it, winding slowly down the ruined streets toward the market square in the centre of the city. The square, once a grand amphitheater, with its marble pillars and golden plaques dedicated to the legion of Saints that had died in the Emperor’s service, was now a shallow lake, gradually deepening as the rain continued. It was here that the river allowed the corpse of Jarton to swim, his arms swinging slowly under the waves.
His right shoulder bumped into what remained of one of the pillars, its shattered white girth jutting out of the lake. He rolled lazily, some debris on the shore snaring his sleeve. He began to turn, slowly, until he washed up on the remains of the Governor’s Hall. There he lay, face up, his sightless eye stared at the sky, indifferent to the rain falling onto his face. In his right hand he still clutched his lasgun; in his left was the medallion his wife had given him for good luck so many years before. His helmet was gone, knocked off as he had been blown from the Spire. His unit had found it amid the rubble half a day after his death, deciding that since his head was no longer in the helmet, and it was a Guardsman’s duty to maintain all of his equipment, that he was dead.
They were correct, of course.
And so, for nearly four full days, Jarton had lain impaled on a steel support beam that had been buckled in the explosions. When the rain had fallen insistently for as long as it had, the water had begun to fill the room Jarton had taken for his tomb. The water, in an almost sentient fashion, had manipulated the beam upon which the soldier’s torso was impaled until the angle of the structure allowed him to slip, unceremoniously into the rising pool. His wound had been washed clean and Jarton basked in the room contentedly. The water level continued to rise until it reached the partially blocked window. It was only a matter of time before Jarton was forced by the tide to first brush tentatively against the glassless window before surging out with a fresh supply for the river.
Jarton lay on the artificial shore, the sounds of the continued struggle he was no longer a part of echoing through the ruined streets. Gun shots reported in the distance, their voices carried by the wind. The shouts of desperate men; the screams of the dying; all reached him none were heard. The rain fell heavier as the day crept on, toward its own inevitable end, the fifth day that Jarton had been alone, been lost, been dead.
In the dying light, a scarlet dot flared on his chest. It tracked its way from the wound in his stomach, to his name badge sewn into the fabric of his tunic, to his face and finally it winked out. He would have recognised the light for what it had been, but it, like everything else, mattered little to him anymore.
In a darkened room that once served as a bedroom to a man now dead, four loyal Guardsmen hid. They had scaled the broken stairs of the tower block out of desperation; after the events of the Spire, none of them wished to enter anything as tall as that again. But, hounded by rebel forces for nearly three days now, they had taken the chance and sought the only refuge available.
It had been bad enough that they were forced to climb to such a height once more; the stench of death that hung stale in the air of the building clawed at their throats, wishing them to join the ranks of those gone on before them. The shifting shadows and the ever-present beat of the rain, coupled with the smell of the dead, the smell of meat allowed to spoil, had caused the lowly Guardsmen to believe they had entered their final resting place. They would never get out of this tower. This spire.
The light that had played upon Jarton’s body far below belonged to the targeting sight of a standard issue Imperial lasgun. Trooper Johansson, a man who had befriended a fresh recruit named Marcus Jarton fifteen years ago, crouched on one knee, the butt of his rifle braced against his shoulder and scanned the shores of the lake below. Johansson kept his face as close to the shattered window frame as possible, every breath he took causing a small cloud of dust to rise, the motes catching the rapidly fading light. His helmet lay on the floor, upside down; it had restricted his vision, and that was something he could not afford at the moment.
After almost six hours, judging by what light there was, Johansson began to hope. Hope that whatever enemies were hunting them had abandoned their search, given their prey for dead. Hope that he might survive this hell hole. Hope that he might be rescued.
And then, his eyes focussed on the opposite shore below, he had spotted something. Something that had not been there earlier. At this distance, in this light, it was impossible to tell what it was. But Johansson was taking no chances; not when he had survived this long. If one of those treacherous bastards was down there, he wanted to know. He needed to know.
‘Sarge,’ he hissed, looking over his shoulder. Sergeant Ryse, a tall man with a scar running from his left temple and terminating at his right cheek, looked up. Johansson saw the flash in the man’s eyes; he too had the same hopes that his trooper had. In his hands he held the radio that could have saved them.
It was dead.
‘You got your binoculars, sir?’ Johansson asked, turning his attention back to the world beyond the small room. The indistinct shape that he had seen was beginning to disappear, fading into the shadows of the approaching night.
Ryse stood, his knees popping. He rolled his head to either side, the joint cracking as the muscles stretched. He reached around to the small of his back and tugged on the metal frame attached to his belt by a small piece of leather. The binoculars fell into his weathered hand. He walked to Johansson, his own thoughts turned to the enemy outside.
‘Here,’ he said softly, his voice akin to water flowing over pebbles. He tapped the trooper on the shoulder with the goggles. The trooper drew his rifle in and placed it against the wall. He accepted the binoculars without taking his eyes from the darkness that had swallowed the lake. Bringing them to his face, he watched numbers flash in neon blue in the upper right corner of his vision. They indicated the distance to the target. The machine spirit contained within the metal shell, a sprite more than a spirit, turned the glass lenses, bringing the image into focus automatically.
Johansson looked down toward the shore, searching for the shape he had seen. Ryse stood behind him, trying to remain hidden within the shadows of the ruin. The sergeant lowered himself so that his mouth was level with Johansson’s ear.
‘What do you see, trooper?’ he asked in a hushed voice.
‘I don’t know, sir. A body, I think. I couldn’t tell at this distance though.’ He continued to search, even the enhanced senses of the machine sprite having difficulty with the darkness. There had been something down there. He knew it.
‘A body?’ Ryse repeated softly. An idea occurred to him. ‘One of ours?’
‘No idea, sir. Maybe.’ Johansson sighed and lowered the binoculars. ‘I can’t see anything with these.’ He handed them back to Ryse and sat down on the other side of the window from his rifle. Ryse straightened, peering out of the window into the rain.
‘Could be one of them, sir,’ muttered Francette in a terrified hush. His eyes grew wide, the dying light reflected from them. He lay on what remained of the only bed, at the back of the room, near the door. The youngest of the group, he had seen his first conflict less than a year prior to the Spire incident. The disastrous battle had all but destroyed the boy’s confidence in his training; he had frozen, a petrified prey-creature before a grinning predator, when three of the rebels had cornered him in the lower levels of the tower. He had been trying to escape, running blindly away from the madness above him. It had been Ryse that had saved him, managing to kill two of the traitors in a brief fire fight with Francette cowering on the floor. The final assailant had turned and run, presumably to bring reinforcements. Francette had gone to pieces: tears running in rivers down his cheeks. He had lost control of himself; Ryse had seen it many times before. When pressed into that kind of situation, raw recruits either remembered their training and survived, or let the fear seize them, freezing their minds. Francette had done the latter. He should have been executed for cowardice.
But Ryse was not without compassion. He would no sooner kill one of his own men than give up on the glorious Creed. When Ryse had walked away, he had ordered the boy to follow him. And so he had, hanging onto the sergeant like a lost child. Now he lay, still unable to hold a gun steady, unable to hold his hands steady. His only contribution to their continued survival was to jabber hysterically or lie silently, rocking. Johansson preferred the silence, although the rocking did make him uneasy. At least when the boy was quiet, the risk of their discovery by unnecessary noise was reduced.
Ryse spared a glance for the coward, contempt evident in his ice blue eyes. Johansson, at least made a good sniper, and Krommer, who sat against the door asleep, was able to remain calm under pressure. Francette served no purpose here – he wanted to quit and go home. Ryse couldn’t understand that; they had fought too long and too hard to desert this planet to the rebels now. He had every intention of taking the fight to the rebels just as soon as the small group could make their way back to what remained of the loyalist army.
He turned his attention to the hidden lake shore once more, his eyes finding it difficult to focus on anything as the light died. The occasional raindrop caught the light, becoming a small beacon shining in the darkness. Ryse watched one flare brightly, spinning on its vertical axis. He tracked it as it fell, gradually fading, only to be consumed by the black beneath them.
The sergeant lowered himself onto his haunches. He drew as close to the window as he could and looked out. Ryse tapped a button on the side of the binoculars. He lifted them to his eyes, a thin smile on his lips as the image became brighter, the binoculars switching to night vision. ‘Where’s the body?’ he asked Johansson, not taking his eyes from the scene below. Johansson turned his head to look at his superior officer. He rubbed his hand across his face, closing his eyes. The scene appeared in his mind, the colour washed out by the darkening of memory.
‘About fifteen metres to the right of the Governor’s townhouse. See it?’
Ryse scanned in the direction Johansson had indicated, trying desperately to see something. Anything. The once proud shape of the Governor’s abode came into focus. From there Ryse tracked down to the shore, noting the craters left by indiscriminate shelling an eternity of days ago.
‘You’re sure there was something out there?’
‘Wait a minute. I’ve got something.’ He paused, leant further out of the window than he would have liked, and focussed the binoculars on the thing he had noticed. ‘Yeah, it’s a body all right. Looks like its one of ours.’
‘Who is it?’ Francette asked, sitting up. Johansson peered over Ryse’s shoulder into the gloom, unable to see without the aid of the binocular's machine spirit. Both men ignored the coward, refusing to pay him any more heed than was necessary. Krommer simply snorted and stirred in his sleep, oblivious to the drama.
‘I don’t believe it…’ Ryse said, focusing his view of the corpse’s face. That the soldier had travelled as far as them was astonishing. Ryse thought he had managed to get his small band of soldiers far enough away from the Spire and their failure there that none of the memories could find them, catch them, smother them. He looked up at Johansson. ‘I don’t think you want to see this.’
‘What?’ Johansson demanded, snatching for the goggles that Ryse held. Ryse flinched at the harshness in the voice, its loudness in the still. He moved aside, letting Johansson take the binoculars from him, letting him see for himself that which Ryse had tried to spare him.
There. Lying peacefully. Definitely one of their own soldiers. Johansson allowed the binoculars to settle on the man’s face, the internal workings of the device whirring as the head came into focus. Johansson felt his stomach turn as he recognized the face.
His head refused to believe what his heart knew. Desperately he tilted down the body, looking for the label with the dead soldier’s name on it. If it wasn’t the name he knew it would be, then everything would be fine. His eyes found what he was searching for. A small band of cloth, grey in the darkness, on the right breast. Stencilled on the cloth was the name he dreaded, the name he knew as well as his own.
Jarton. As dead as the city they now stood in. Johansson sat down, boneless, a small cloud of dust rising from underneath him. His mouth worked soundlessly. The binoculars fell to the floor from limp fingers. He felt the tears welling in his eyes.
Jarton. He had known that name for longer than he had known his wife’s. Together Johansson and Jarton had fought in campaigns that had lasted months, years, always by the other’s side. When his helmet had been found in the aftermath of the attack on the Spire, when Johansson had heard it on Krommer’s radio before it had given up, he had clung to the hope that Jarton had managed to escape.
To the officers and commanders, an empty helmet meant a dead trooper; after all, if a trooper returned from service without his helmet, he would be charged with neglect of Imperial equipment. Better not to return than face that.
But an infantryman knew better. An empty helmet meant nothing. It could be that the helmet had been abandoned, its wearer no longer needing it. It would be easier to disappear without something as conspicuous as an Imperial Guardsman’s helmet under one’s arm.
So Johansson had clung to the hope that Jarton had survived, much the same way that he clung to the hope that he himself would survive. With one hope shattered, would the other be able to withstand reality?
Johansson thought not.
He let the tears find him. He didn’t care who saw him cry, was aware only that Jarton would never cry again. The trooper that sat in the small room prayed to his Emperor and God that his friend hadn’t suffered at his end.
He wept, distantly aware that Ryse had crouched beside him and embraced him. There was no demand that he shut up; not order to pull himself together. Ryse knew what the loss of a loved one felt like; had he not suffered the same fate when the Orks had destroyed Balter VI?
He wept for a man that could have been his brother. A man that was, in all aspects apart from the most pertinent one, his brother.
His brother in life, his brother in arms.
They should have been brothers in death.
In a destroyed tower block, not too dissimilar in size from the one that Jarton had never left alive, two men huddled together to share memories of a man they considered a friend, whilst a third watched and another slept.
The body stayed outside. Forever outside. The rain made tracks on his cheeks: the silent tears of a dead man.
Trooper Jarton wept silently, not for himself, for he was now beyond that, but for his friends; those that mourned his passing.
For them, the fight continued.
The night closed in.
And the rain fell.
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