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Angel of fire, p.1
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       Angel of Fire, p.1

           William King
 
Angel of Fire


  To my sons, Daniel and William.

  It is the 41st millennium. For more than a hundred centuries the Emperor has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the master of mankind by the will of the gods, and master of a million worlds by the might of his inexhaustible armies. He is a rotting carcass writhing invisibly with power from the Dark Age of Technology. He is the Carrion Lord of the Imperium for whom a thousand souls are sacrificed every day, so that he may never truly die.

  Yet even in his deathless state, the Emperor continues his eternal vigilance. Mighty battlefleets cross the daemon-infested miasma of the warp, the only route between distant stars, their way lit by the Astronomican, the psychic manifestation of the Emperor’s will. Vast armies give battle in his name on uncounted worlds. Greatest amongst His soldiers are the Adeptus Astartes, the Space Marines, bio-engineered super-warriors. Their comrades in arms are legion: the Astra Militarum and countless planetary defence forces, the ever-vigilant Inquisition and the tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus to name only a few. But for all their multitudes, they are barely enough to hold off the ever-present threat from aliens, heretics, mutants – and worse.

  To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruellest and most bloody regime imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be re-learned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.

  Exhibit 107D-5H.

  Transcription from a speech imprint found in the rubble of Bunker 207, Hamel’s Tower, Kaladon, containing information pertaining to the proposed Canonisation of Lord High Commander Solar Macharius and to the investigation of former High Inquisitor Hyronimus Drake for heresy and treason against the Imperium.

  Walk in the Emperor’s Light.

  When the ork kicked in the door I knew I was dead.

  Half again as tall as a man, with a huge chainsword gripped in one massive gnarled fist, the greenskin surveyed the barracks room with eyes the colour of blood. It threw back its ugly head, opened its tusked mouth wide and emitted a bellow of rage loud enough to wake the dead. It grunted something in its brutish language as if it expected us to obey. We would not have, of course, even if we understood it. We were Imperial Guard, soldiers of the Emperor, and orks have always been numbered among His enemies.

  The greenskin should not have been so far inside the bunker. That fact alone told me at least a company of men were already dead. Hell, our whole army out there in the Hamel’s Tower trench system might be dead for all I knew.

  We had not heard anything from command in days.

  Before I could give any orders, the xenos sprang into the room. Its chainsword flickered, taking off Bohuslav’s arm at the shoulder then removing the top of Alaine’s head, sending brain and blood and bone splattering across the chamber. Behind me I heard seats clattering to the ground and tables being overturned and the confused grunts of grey-uniformed men rising from their metal bunks to confront this sudden horror, the last thing they would expect to meet so deep within the fortified complex.

  The ork took two more steps that almost put it within cutting distance of me. I brought up the shotgun and I pulled the trigger. It didn’t fail me. It never has in thirty years of service. The few brains the ork possessed sprayed against the wall. The headless body toppled over, limbs still twitching, the chainsword still roaring and starting to slither across the bloody floor till it came to a stop, the teeth grinding against the metal leg of a bunk.

  More orks raced down the plascrete stairs into this chamber, chanting their bestial battle cries. Some of them shot their guns into the air with wild enthusiasm. Others waved outsized, crudely serrated blades and axes, roaring with obscene joy in the knowledge they would get to use them soon.

  I pulled the trigger of the shotgun again and sent the leading ork toppling backwards into its brethren. That slowed them down enough for me to ready a grenade and lob it into their midst. I dived, putting myself behind an overturned mess table as the wave of concussion rippled through the chamber. I looked at the rest of my squad. They were mostly just raw recruits, little older than I had been when I joined the Imperial Guard. This was what the proud legions that had followed Macharius across the galaxy had been reduced to. It was a sad thought.

  I shouted at them to get ready. It was pointless telling them to fix bayonets – there was no way this sorry lot would survive any sort of close combat encounter with orks. The ones with any gumption were already doing so anyway. The rest were fumbling with their guns. One or two were struggling to put on their helmets and rebreathers. Andropov was trying to put his boots back on.

  ‘Get those bloody lasguns ready!’ I shouted as I stood up. I made sure my shotgun was pointing in their direction. ‘At least die on your feet like men. Hell! Shoot well enough, you might not even die today at all!’

  Most of the Guardsmen raised their weapons as if they at least knew what they were supposed to do with them. One or two of them looked completely stunned. It was probably the first time they’d ever got this close to an ork, which is not something calculated to reassure even the bravest. If they did not start doing something soon it would almost certainly be the last.

  ‘You’re supposed to be soldiers of the Emperor,’ I bellowed. There might even have been some foam flecking the corners of my lips. They were starting to look scared of me now, which was good; better of me than the orks. ‘Shoot the bastards!’

  One of the greenskins was still alive even though one of its arms was only holding on by a thin thread of flesh – bloody hard things to kill, orks. It reared up onto its legs and roared something in a language that none of us would ever understand. I aimed the shotgun at it again and pulled the trigger. The blast hit it full in the chest and toppled it backwards. I stepped forwards and brought my size twelve Imperial Guard issue hob-nailed boot down on the fingers of its good hand, snapping them, then I hit its skull with the butt of the shotgun. You’d think I’d have known better by now. It bounced off the thick bony ridges. Hell, it barely broke the leathery green skin.

  I stepped back and put another shot into it point-blank. I could hear more orks chanting on the stairs and I knew that the second wave would be arriving soon. I glanced back at the youngsters who looked to me for leadership and shouted at them again. It was an odd place to make a last stand, a grey-walled plascrete dormitory, bunks lining two walls, lockers lining others, a few metal tables and chairs scattered in the centre. Propaganda posters glaring down from any free space.

  ‘They’re coming! Get bloody ready!’ I strode back over to them, putting myself out of the line of fire. I did not want to get cut down by a hail of lasgun bolts. It looked like we were about to make a heroic last stand down here in the guts of this half-finished bunker in a half-complete fortress on a backwater planet. I had come a bloody long way to die.

  The orks raced in through the door. It was a choke point where they died in a hail of las-bolts, flesh sizzling and blackening as they fell. It did not stop the ones behind. It never does. They forced their way through, pushing wounded aside, trampling on the fallen, desperate to get to grips with us.

  ‘Keep firing,’ I roared, loud as any ork. If the greenskins got to grips with these lads it would be all over for us. ‘You stop and I’ll stick this shotgun up your arse and pull the trigger myself!’

  They kept shooting but the orks kept coming, covering the distance faster than you would believe of creatures so big and awkward-looking. I found myself ducking the power axe of a monster almost the size of an ogryn, backing away as fast as I could. It took another
swipe at me. I felt a wall against my spine and knew I could retreat no further. The axe passed so close I could feel the vibration its blades left in the air. I ducked down beneath the arc of the swing and brought the shotgun butt forwards, aiming for the knee. More by luck than judgement I hit. The ork grunted and fell, kneecap shattered. It still held on to the axe though and tried to hit me with it. I stepped away and shot again. The force of the blast took the creature to the ground.

  I glanced around. It was not going well. The orks had got to grips with my lads, and were tearing through them like a chainsword through a gangrenous leg. I pumped the shotgun and put down another ork but that just got the attention of the remainder.

  The distraction seemed to do something though. One or two of the boys with fitted bayonets tore into the orks with the desperate fury of men who know they are going to die anyway and want to drag something down into the grave with them.

  One ork got stabbed five or six times before it realised what was happening. It bellowed in rage and fury before it fell to be stamped and trampled on. A few more orks poured into the room, slithering and tripping on the corpses and entrails of their kin. I noticed, and not for the first time, that ork blood was greenish and smelled like mushroom steaks back on Belial. I lobbed another grenade into the doorway, just to keep them busy. It took down another group of them.

  The room seethed with violence. It was complete chaos with no way to tell what was going on. Smoke filled the air, and the smell of chemical explosive and ripped flesh. Las-bolts winked in the gloom. The air seemed to vibrate with the bull-bellow of orks and the roar of their chain-bladed axes. A head rolled along the floor towards me trailing droplets of blood. Andropov would not be struggling with his boots any more.

  I strode forwards, shouting, ‘Rally to me, men of the Seventh!’ An ork stood in front of me. I smashed it in the mouth with the butt of the shotgun. It spat teeth and made to bring its weapon to bear. Two men leapt on it, clubbing and stabbing. It went down, a huge hand clutching one man’s neck and snapping it. It thrashed around and I noticed the combat knife sticking out of its neck. It kept moving, wrestling with another of my men. I moved around it, unable to shoot without hitting Rostoky. Suddenly it reared up, throwing him to one side as casually as I might have thrown a rucksack. It gave me a clean shot. The shotgun roared. It went down again.

  Suddenly, in one of those strange turnarounds you get in battle, I realised there were only a few orks left standing. No more of the greenskins were flooding into the room. There had not been so many of them as fear had made it seem. I knew then that we might actually be able to beat the bastards, if we were quick and held our nerve. Of course, no one had told the orks that. They fought on as if determined to kill and eat the lot of us, and as if we had no say in the matter.

  ‘Stand your ground, you dozy bastards!’ I yelled. ‘There’s only three of them.’

  In point of fact there were five but why make the odds any bigger than I needed to. ‘You’re killing them.’

  It gave the lads heart. Las-bolts flickered all around and took down another ork. A group of Guardsmen dog-piled onto one of the remaining greenskins and practically carved it to pieces. Suddenly there really were only three. I reduced the number to two with a quick blast from the shotgun.

  The orks stood their ground though, roaring and lashing out with their blades. One of them took out some sort of autogun and snapped off a shot in my direction. I only avoided it by throwing myself flat. When I looked up again, I saw it had taken a bayonet through the neck. I launched myself at it, smashing it in the stomach with the barrel of the shotgun and then bringing the butt into contact with the hinge of its jaw, breaking it. A few heartbeats later it was dragged to the ground and finished by our boys. In another few seconds the fight was over and much to my surprise we had won.

  ‘Well done, lads,’ I said. ‘That’s how orks die!’

  Afterwards we counted the cost. It seemed of the original twenty men who had been with me, more than half were dead and several of those who were left were dying. We patched the wounds of those that we could and the rest we covered with whatever sheets or sacking were available. Most of the time it was with blankets taken from the packs of the dead men themselves. The worst of it was sitting with those who were so badly hurt that they were almost gone.

  ‘Is it true that you were once with Macharius?’ Davis asked. His voice was weak and his brow was feverish. His skin had the unnatural greyish pallor of a man who has lost too much blood. ‘Is it true, sergeant?’

  He was from Dannerheim, one of the worlds that joined Macharius late in his great Reconquest. I suppose you could say that we conquered it although actually what we really did was bring it back into the Light of the Emperor of Mankind.

  I was just sitting with him waiting for him to go, a duty I have performed many times and on many worlds with many soldiers, some of whom were my friends. I could see that he was looking up at the campaign badges on my tunic. They were all there – Teradon and Karsk IV and Lucifer and all those other places that we had followed the Lord High Commander through. I had a badge for all of them. I wish sometimes that I had back the blood and flesh I’d left on their surfaces. He reached out and grabbed my hand. He pressed it so tight that I thought perhaps he was gone but he looked up at me with feverish eyes and said, ‘Is it true?’

  I don’t know why it was so important to him. Perhaps he just wanted to know that he was dying for something, that he was playing some part in the epic of Imperial history. Maybe at that moment in time he saw me as a link to that Great Crusade across the stars that Macharius had led. Maybe he was just in pain and wanted something to distract him through those last few seconds before everything went dark and he walked into the Light of the Emperor or whatever waits for us beyond death.

  ‘Yes, son, it’s true,’ I said. ‘I was with him on Karsk IV and I was with him on Demetrius and I was with him in a dozen different places.’

  ‘Was he what they said he was? Was he a saint? Was he the chosen of the Light?’

  I laughed. It was either that or cry. He looked up at me with such pain in his eyes that I stopped.

  ‘Why did you laugh?’ There was an intense edge to his voice now and I could tell that he was close to passing.

  ‘No,’ I said. ‘He was not a saint. He was a man – a very great man and in some ways a very wicked one.’

  His face twisted. I could tell that this was not what he wanted to hear. But what else was I going to say? It was the truth, and one of those things that Macharius always demanded was that we speak the truth to him and of him. Of course, like every other man, he often did not want to hear that truth when it was spoken but one of the things that made him what he was was the fact that he asked that it be done at all.

  The boy looked disappointed and I cannot really blame him for that, because I was denying him his last wish, an affirmation of his belief in saints. Once they may have walked the world, once they may have stood by the side of the Emperor, perhaps out there in the darkness between the stars some of them still exist. The universe is vast and contains many strange things and I have not seen everything.

  All I know is that Macharius was not a saint. He was perhaps the greatest general since the time of the Emperor. He was capable of great kindness and great wickedness but what man is not, given the opportunity? And opportunity was a thing that Macharius had a lot of.

  I looked down at the boy, but his eyes were wide open and he was staring at the ceiling with that unblinking look that told me that he would not be closing them again himself. I reached out with my left hand and shut his eyes for him. I looked around at that chamber, full of the dead and dying, and I thought about Macharius, and about all of the others who had followed him and his great strange crusade to the edge of the known universe.

  I thought about the Lord High Commander and I thought about Ivan and Anton and Anna. I thought about people I have not seen alive in three decades – I thought about Tiny and the lieutenant and
the Undertaker. I thought about the fact that I had almost died today and that sometime soon I was certainly going to, and I decided that I needed to get it all down. I needed to leave what I knew so that someday it might be remembered: the truth about Macharius and Drake and their holy war to reclaim the galaxy, the truth about what they were like and how they died.

  So here I am with this data-slate, making this recording. At least, it’s something to fill the time until the orks come again.

  For me it all started on Karsk IV. This is how it was…

  One

  From the top of Flamestrike Ridge I could see all the way into hell.

  On the horizon, chemical flames erupted from newly born volcanoes. The molten rock of the lava lakes churned around islands of accumulated ash. Big, leather-winged predators drifted on thermals above the infernal pools. They might have been birds or bats or some mutant harpy out of ancient legend. It was too far to make out the full, ominous details.

  Even at a distance of several Gothic leagues I could smell the brimstone on the wind. It made me cough and left a sulphurous taste on my tongue, adding its own special tang to the already acrid air of Karsk IV.

  Off to the south, along the ridge-line, a battery of Basilisks pointed their pitted gun-metal snouts at the sky. Their crews had set them up according to the proper rituals and were traversing their weapons through ninety-degree arcs. I half expected them to start lobbing shells at the bubbling tar pits to test their accuracy.

  ‘I don’t think we’ll be going that way,’ said Anton, squinting in the direction of the flames. He leaned against a massive orange boulder at the same angle he had propped his lasgun. He had lost weight and looked taller and skinnier than ever. His grey uniform hung loose on his body. Huge sweat circles stained his plain dress tunic under the armpits. His rebreather dangled around his neck. His helmet was tipped back, showing the scar he had picked up on Charybdis. It had been sutured badly and the remnants of the scabbing puckered the flesh in small ridges so that it looked like a centipede crawling across his forehead just beneath the skin. Anton had acquired many interesting scars in his career as a soldier of the Emperor, some of them in his mind.

 
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