Hunting Ground

For this post, I’m sharing a submission I sent in for a contest last year, related to a Warhammer 40,000 game produced by Games Workshop and Behaviour Interactive. It wasn’t accepted, which is fine (and the bald patches from tearing my hair out have almost filled in, so that’s great) but I figure it’s something that might appeal to my readers, whether you know the game or not. Please note that this story contains copyrighted terms owned by Games Workshop, and I make no claim of ownership over any of them. Can’t use it myself, so might as well post it for free!

So, without further ado, here it is!

 

Hunting Ground

by Brett Caron

His palms are sweaty inside the gloves, reinforced weave of mesh hugging tight against his skin. He wishes that he could remove them to wipe the salty moisture away, but he’s in no position to do that right now. He’s too busy trying not to vomit this morning’s nutrigruel across ceramite and durasteel.

Talib Makhar squeezes his eyes shut tightly and prays to the Emperor for safety. He prays for the metal coffin these optimistic Astartes call a drop pod, for it to reach the surface of the planet below in one piece. He’s not sure if he’s more worried about getting shot out of the sky by some xenos artillery, or of the damn thing shaking itself to pieces on the way down.

If the Emperor is listening, there is no sign.

“Be calm, little brother.”

If he were speaking aloud, the Marine’s voice would be distorted by a pugnacious vox-grille, rendering the gentle scolding into a harsh, growling rebuke. But these words are filtered only through the comm channel, the slight echo of the Astartes plate’s internal mic picking up a hint of a sardonic half-smile. Still, beneath the inky black armour and the helmet glaring Talib’s own face back to him in those mirrored lenses, nothing is certain.

The warrior’s name is Halvor – the only name amongst the kill-team which Talib knows. Halvor reaches up with one gauntleted hand; the motion throws his right pauldron into the glare of the red combat lights ringing the bulkheads encircling them. The black wolf there swims in blood instead of basking in starshine. It is the only true colour on the otherwise uniform black of each warrior’s suit, broken otherwise only by one arm sheathed in dull gunmetal.

Talib isn’t sure of the significance of that. He’s been a smuggler a lot longer than he’s been a servant of the Ordo Xenos. Until last week he’s only ever seen Astartes while watching grainy video of combat actions, or the usual Imperial propaganda that broadcasts ad infinitum across every Segmentum claimed by humanity. To his untrained eyes, each of them is a mountain of ceramite and caged violence. They are never motionless, even at rest. Whether knelt in prayer (he has noticed some of them do this far more than others) or endlessly sparring in the practice cages (they all do that), each has an animus which is palpable; they almost ripple with barely restrained energy.

Even now, in the cramped space of the pod, he can feel their power all around him. Unlike Talib, whose single heart hammers relentlessly in his chest with the furor of orbital entry, the Space Marines exude what can almost be called placid aggression. It’s a stark contrast to the thrumming song the friction of the atmosphere sings through their transport, blinding heat playing across the skin of matte black standing between them and the inferno. Each Astartes chants calm hymns to the Emperor in Low or High Gothic, along with a couple of native languages he isn’t familiar with.

The rocket drive at their backs hurls the pod towards the planet at an oblique angle. They approach speeds so ludicrous that Talib wonders if the injection the magos biologis stuck into his veins back on the strike cruiser will be enough to keep his bones from jellying under the g-forces he’s hitting. The heat strips electrons from air molecules; a cloud of plasma obscures the ship in a flare that will either dissipate when the retros kick in, or consume them all.

As it happens, the retros roar to life before Talib can decide which of these he would prefer.

He hadn’t thought it was possible for the shaking to intensify any further, but the stress of braking jets strains the protesting metal to its limit. As his blood pools selectively inside his compression suit, Talib still has room in his fuzzying brain to be surprised when one of the Astartes laughs a craggy chuckle and Halvor howls like a beast. The warriors with him feel no fear.

Talib is sure that the fear has migrated from their souls to his own, finding hooked purchase inside his weakness. His mortal frame is devoid of those genhanced mysteries flushing out the frailty of terror as surely as it erases the flaws of flesh. He feels a warm wetness inch from his brown-skinned nostril to his lips. He smells copper.

Still cradling this dread within him, he isn’t ready for impact.

The drop pod slams into rock with a booming thunderclap, something approaching several tons of explosives going off at once. Forward momentum is deflected by the surface below and his stomach flies up into his throat to match the ship, which skips back into the air amidst a hail of debris. A gaping wound opens in the hull, and Talib watches the sky spin crazily through it. The wind and the tearing rock combine into one horrific din of noise. It sounds like the roar of an angry god, and clutched in its primal embrace Talib mercifully blacks out.

*

“… keep them off the pod until I can cut him down, Dhamos.”
This is the voice that he’d expected before, deep electronic grating over loudspeaker.

The world grows, fading from black little by little. He can hear bolter fire, a heavy coughing rattle and muffled thumps of mass-reactive rounds detonating within flesh. Naked voices, without the vox of Imperial power armour, howling obscenities torn from hoarse throats. Something about those voices makes his gorge rise, but his thoughts are too thick and muddled to pinpoint why that is.

Talib squints through swollen eyes and the field of raw white scratches feathering his visor. Vision returns in bits and pieces. Nothing seems to make sense – the world gently rocks from side to side, like he’s back home, sailing the waters of his birthworld. The sky is a dull slate grey; along with the wavering ocean of blue and white below, the fog still blurring everything, he might indeed be at sea.

Did the pod miss its mountainous destination? Is it now somehow afloat over the unknown depths of Arkhonan waters?

The world meanders back into focus. Talib realizes with a start that he’s hanging upside down from his g-straps, still inside the drop pod. The cloudy grey sky he’d seen is just rock, the blue ocean nothing but Arkhonan atmosphere.

Before he can groan in pain and embarrassment, a hail of slugs skitters through the interior of the pod. Sparks from their passage arc crazily to his inverted perspective, flying shards of light streaking past his vision. Talib reflexively draws his feet up to his chest and covers his face with both gauntlets, swinging back and forth. A round whines right by his helmet.

Impossibly, he can hear laughter. Again without the amplification of the Astartes’ armour, and again he almost tastes bile at the sound.
“Almost got dat ‘umie git swingin’ around inna muhreenzes drop komit! Hunnerd teef sez I geddum fore da rest of you gitz!”
More laughter amidst the rough buzzing of chainblades and wild gunfire.

Greenskins.

Another long series of bursts from primitive ork guns spits more hot metal at the pod, but the famously bad aim of the brutish xenos sends rounds spanging from dented bulkheads instead of into his flesh. Talib stretches his arm until his elbow feels like it’s about to break, fingertips grazing the familiar, polished wooden hilt of the combat knife sheathed behind his waist. He twists and squirms like a child in its mother’s arms.

His heavy blade slides underneath the g-straps, slicing millimeter by millimeter through the fabric. Talib feels the swell of blood pulsing at his temples. A dull ache fills his head. He saws relentlessly, the tough material designed to hold hundreds of pounds of power-armoured fighter safe at incredible speeds giving only incrementally to the blade’s edge.

Talib winces as more whizzing projectiles soar overhead. Corkscrewing rockets belch dirty black smoke from their tails and careen into the nearby rocks. The pod shudders in the concussion. He smells fuel, then more thick smoke wafts inside. He begins to choke, frantically digging his blade into the strap. Sweat pours down his forehead from the heat of stress and flames both.

A black-gauntleted hand coalesces from the smoke, the cloud itself growing grasping ceramite fingers. This fist tightens around the g-harness, ripping it clear from its attachments in one smooth pull and sending Talib sprawling to the deck plates in a clatter of armaplas, flakweave, and gear.

The Orks guffaw like drunken idiots. Then they charge.

“Waaaaaaaaagh!”

He barely has both boots under him, the ground below aready shaking with the rumbling, freewheeling stampede of xenos. He snatches his laspistol from its holster and thumbs the primer. It hums in his hand, familiar in its heft and balance. Talib turns to follow his saviour; Halvor, already taking long strides to the battle-line and bringing a massive bolter to bear. The wild shots of the mob bearing down on them doesn’t even make the giant flinch.

The Fenrisian rejoins his battle-brothers laying down controlled bursts from behind a loose semicircle of angular rock formations. The rocket-propelled rounds pulp meat where they hit, piercing the roughshod armour plating the greenskins to explode deep in their leathery hides. The explosives gouge deep craters into flesh, but for every round that blows off a leg or takes a head from hulking shoulders two more are simply shrugged off by the red-eyed, foaming monsters.

Despite this, now that he can see the other Deathwatch Talib starts to feel more secure. He shakes his head at the irrational fear that some might not have survived the crash. Of course they have. What could kill an Astartes but leave a mortal alive? They’re all unscathed, keeping the crash site and their charge intact. Against the green tide they are a black-clad levee, thinning the waves to break against them.

Talib lines up his pistol, snapping off a bright red wisp of laser that does little more than singe the brow of a lead ork. He wishes he’d had time to grab his flamer from the drop pod. The beast shakes its head, locks wild eyes on his, and snarls.

The loping gait of other orks tramples their fallen packmates underfoot with grotesque crunches. When they’re impossibly close, a sea of churning green all crude, waving blades and spastic muzzle flashes, Halvor tears his helmet from his face and a glimmering axe from his belt. Talib watches the haft slide through gauntleted grip until the Wolf grasps it far down its long handle. A hazy aura of energy springs into life around the rune-scribed head.

Halvor raises a bearded face of sandy blonde bristles and scarred, tanned flesh. Charms and runes dangle from braided leather straps woven through the tangles of his hair as he leans into the charge of the orks with a deep roar that rivals their own. The first ork to clear the rocks leaps right over the boulders at full sprint before the kill-team can get their chainblades to bear. It’s almost as tall as an Astartes in full plate, even though orkish posture is as hunched as a lifelong scrivener. Spittle flecks from sharpened tusks, trailing past a buzzing chainsword as tall as Talib himself.

Halvor watches his prey hurtle towards him. Talib could swear a fanged grin crosses that bearded face. At the last second, the Space Wolf unceremoniously sidesteps the ork and clubs it to the ground with an armoured fist. When the seven-foot monstrosity tumbles to the stone, Halvor lines up a heavy chop of his power axe. The beast’s head rolls away, still cursing, too stupid to know it’s dead.

Then the orks are on them.

The kill-team is somehow quick enough to prepare their blades before the remaining greenskins are on them. The revving of chainswords announce themselves to their orkish counterparts. The lumbering green brutes attack with sheer ferocity, each almost as strong as an Astartes and maybe tougher. But the Deathwatch are more than brutes, more than most Astartes. The Deathwatch know their enemy better than anyone – and they know how to exploit them.

An ork with a hacked-off arm lies prone, giggling insanely and snapping off shots at Halvor’s back while he fights the others.

“Oi Wolf Boy, iz dat all youze got? Gonna take more’n dat to drop a proper Nob like me! You-“

Talib burns a shot into the back of the animal’s braincase, shutting it down. He reminds himself that it’s not an animal, it’s a fungus. Sort of.

He searches for another target. The whirling melee between giants is too fast to get a clear shot, not without risking one of the Deathwatch. Instead, a target finds him.

Talib is peripherally aware of the laspistol being knocked from his hand even as a thudding impact to his chest sends him flying four meters away, skidding roughly across the rock. He gasps, the air outside his mouth refusing to enter his lungs. A hobnailed boot stomps into view, the ork prowling closer to his prone form.

Almost curiously, it picks him up in one beefy paw and stares into his face. If he could breathe Talib would gag at the thing’s foul breath. The ork shakes him once, like a rag doll.

“Wutz wrong, ‘umie? Yer big Spayz Muhreen palz let you get ‘urt?”

This one seems brighter than the rest. He might be the leader – he’s bigger and darker than most of the others. Orks only respect strength and cunning; they break easier if their leadership is removed.

From a pouch at his waist, Talib palms a cylindrical object. The Ork laughs in his face. More drool splatters the metal caricature of a massive lower jaw which encircles the creature’s head, a sign of prominence in their culture.

He thumbs a button on the canister.

If he felt like more of a hero, or had any breath in his lungs, Talib might whisper something clever to the alien first. Something about ‘xenos filth’, or the ‘light of the Emperor.’ But Talib isn’t a hero. And he has enough contempt for the barbaric aliens that wasting words on his attacker never really occurs to him.

Instead, he shoves the krak grenade into the leader’s mouth, kicks off his chest with both feet, and takes cover behind the smoldering drop pod.

A wet thump precedes the coat of brain and skull matter which paints the rock face all around. Talib rises, noticing that the sounds of fighting have ceased. He clambers over the small hillock of the ork’s body and rejoins the Astartes.

Halvor clasps his hand in a warrior’s grip.
“I saw you take down their champion, little brother. I didn’t think you had it in you – but you got it in him, didn’t you?” Orkish blood glistens on their midnight plate, but it’s only the uniform gunmetal arms which shine red with alien death.

If someone had told Talib all he had to do was shove a grenade down an ork’s gullet to gain the respect of a Space Wolf, he’d have asked which way to the ork – and then run in the opposite direction.

Talib lets the kill-team secure the perimeter and returns to the drop pod for his equipment. His master sent them here to find the ruins of another xenos breed entirely – the greenskins are incidental. They’ll need the modified auspex within the pod to track down the secrets that the Ordo seeks.

But Arkhona holds many secrets. If the Inquisitor is right, there could be millennia of mysteries here. He only hopes none of them kill him before he finds the one he’s looking for.

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