Tauran Disputed Zone
The wind-driven rain stung wildly onto Walters’ upturned face as he huddled in his barely dug trench. The prison guards had driven all of them here, as fodder for the enemy forces, leaving little doubt as to their worthlessness. “The Prelate Protects” was tattooed on each of the men’s foreheads, a sign to remind them of their indoctrination now thrown away by each of their heinous crimes, or at least that was what the Inspectorate had screamed at them before they were herded like cattle to the battle front.
Ex-Corporal Walters spat on the ground in disgust at the memory of the cruelty they had received at the hands of the Church’s enforcement squads. He had little time either for the Glory of the Great One or the fanatical forces of the Church. Personally, being stripped of his rank and thrown into Penal Battalion 3246 was more than enough to occupy his mind at present. He was still unclear what he had actually done wrong; he had neither raped, murdered or plain spoken badly about anyone. Oh, sure, he had broken two of Inspector Wurtz’s teeth, when he had hit him with the laser rifle's solid wooden butt, to stop him from whipping the civilian any further. Possibly the fact that he had given him two new Adam’s apples didn’t really help, but shit weren’t you supposed to protect your own?
He had been extremely lucky, apparently, to not have been summarily shot on the spot by the Inspector, if he could have raised his head above the horizontal that is, but maybe the fact that his troop commander agreed with him saved his sorry ass.
Whatever the reason he had been blessed with two months of rehabilitation in the 3246 for his troubles and was now to be given his glorious moment. He knew that in ancient times this had been called the Forlorn Hope, an opportunity for men to redeem themselves by an act of unspeakably stupid and deadly foolhardiness. Led by an officer who was looking for rapid promotion and arm in arm with men who would either die here today or would rejoin some regiment. They would however always wear the tattoo on their foreheads to remind them of their tawdry past.
Walters spat again and this time his spittle landed on the boot of the hulking brute next to him, a man as wide as he was tall and who looked as though he had probably landed himself in the battalion for all of the right reasons. He grunted and leered wickedly at Walters, before spitting back with a stupid grin on his face.
“Not to your liking, huh?” he grunted again through badly misshapen teeth.
“What do you think?” replied Walters.
“Don’t, just get on with it” muttered the man whose tunic was stencilled with the name Berbatov
It was then the first rocket lanced through the rain and struck nearby their position, Walters heard the crunch and thump of the close impact, followed by the screams of wounded and dying men.
“Ah, crap!” he muttered and dived to the ground, twisting to follow the train of fire of the ensuing fusillade. To his surprise he saw Berbatov, standing where he had left him, calmly squinting into the fiery trail and watching the carnage unfold. Berbatov looked down and grinned at him,
“Lot of folk gonna die tonight, but not me. Stick with me son and you’ll live too.” With that he began a shambling run towards the source of the rocket fire and to his surprise, Walters found himself scrambling to his feet and following, yelling at the top of his lungs.
General Hamner looked over the battlefield from his hilltop vantage point; he knew that many of his junior officers disdained his use of “old technology”. His night vision scope gave him a perspective of the real death and suffering, he could never have hoped to comprehend through the use of the holo-tank in his command post. Tonight many men would die, if only to satisfy the whim of the strategists. The enemy position looked unassailable, and surely was. That was why the penal battalions were being thrown into the fray. He was sorry that Captain Wiseman had volunteered to lead; he was a good man, though young and hungry. Not for him were the political connections which allowed rapid advance, rather he had earned his pips, or so he liked to tell all his avid listeners.
Penal or CF battalions, cannon fodder, as they were better known, were a good way for the Inspectorate to cleanse ranks. Now and again there were a few mistakes made, but not often, and what were a few errors in the overall scheme of the Church’s grand design? He was a little worried about the heretically cursed enemy though. They had received reports of new troops, similar to the Tauran forces but somehow different. Men talked of deformed monsters, almost human animals, who stalked in front of the normal soldiers. They had yet to capture one, but if description was anything to go by, they were facing the worst cross between a dire wolf and some form of ravening lizard. The beasts came in all shapes, sizes and colours but were deadly effective. They had already lost one platoon of Church Guard on night patrol, well not exactly lost, they had found the shredded remains of uniforms soaked in blood, mucus and gore. Already the rumours were circulating through the troops and the General knew they needed a good old massacre in order to remind the faithful of their true purpose.
He was one of life’s cynics, not wasteful of his resources, rather benignly indifferent. This did nothing for the chances of the CF troops fighting below. The General had little intention of amalgamating this rabble back into his real forces and he was silently wishing them a glorious victory and an even more glorious death. Sighing inwardly, he placed the night scope in front of his eyes once more and surveyed the nightmare scene below.
Front Line Assault
“Berbatov, you clown,” screamed Walters, “Where the hell do you think you are going?”
“Over there,” indicated the giant, vaguely waving his meat cleaver of a hand in the direction of the attacking troops.
“Shit!” cursed Walters, “another bloody genius”, and then “Well wait for me, at least you give them enough of a target that they’ll forget I’m here.”
Berbatov grunted, in a sort of muffled laugh and continued his shambling run forward. His rifle was still strung across his back and he had picked up a large chunk of wood from somewhere, which he swung viciously in time with his awkward gait. Walters had his rifle clenched at high port and had little thought of doing anything more than running behind the big man. It was then the monsters appeared and the world went pear-shaped.
Walters slammed into the back of Berbatov as he ground to a halt, and then ducked as the club whistled past his head. Looking around he could see that they were well in advance of their fellow unfortunates and were surrounded by what could only be described as a pack of trouble. The monsters varied between six and eight feet tall, covered in mottled fur and with huge canine teeth and even larger claws, and they had stumbled right into the middle of them. They seemed to be attacking a smaller version of themselves, from what he could see, a twisting writhing mass of silver grey fur and blood. At least three of the larger wolf-like creatures sported wounds and luckily for them they appeared rather occupied. That was until Berbatov roared and charged into the melee, his club whirring around his head. Walters flicked the rifle onto semi-automatic and followed, spraying bursts of fire into the back of the nearest creatures.
He ducked wildly as a huge slashing claw narrowly missed and pumped pretty much the full cartridge into the beast, slamming it off its feet in a bloody mass of destroyed flesh. Walters grabbed the empty cartridge and flipped its identical mate into place, taped conveniently to its twin, and continued firing. The archaic chemical propellant guns were all the CF were given, after all, they weren’t supposed to survive the assault, just die gloriously. However, in this case he was thankful for the oversight. The heavy lead-jacketed bullets tore a swath through the pliant fur covered bodies, cutting a path for him right through the middle and he kept on, in hot pursuit of his idiotic companion, who was laying left and right, crushing limbs and skulls as he moved inexorably forward.
Walters heard the whistle of the razor sharp claws as they barrelled towards his unprotected head and knew that he at least had fulfilled the Church’s wish. There was a blur of grey and he was bundled to one side as snapping teeth rent his attacker. As he rolled to his feet he saw that the victim was now the attacker and was tearing into the throat of a brownish-blue beast with gusto. Then there was a flash of silver and a second beast joined the fight.
He looked for Berbatov and from a kneeling position began to use his ammo more conservatively, driving the remaining wolf lizards from his comrade’s back. His work was so effective that two of the beasts split off from the five surrounding the idiot giant and charged straight at him. He flicked the magazine to fully automatic and let them have it. The first beast, eight feet tall and fully rabid, disappeared before his eyes, but the second, even bigger and even angrier came straight on. He could almost feel its foetid breath on his face when he heard the leaden click of the empty chamber and threw his rifle forward, drawing his bayonet and preparing to meet his death.
Cursing Berbatov once more, he leapt forward to meet the beast, getting inside its claws was his only chance, and ducked his head to avoid the slashing jaws. Again he was blessed by the intervention of the smaller creatures as they attacked the beast from the rear. As the monster raised its head and roared in pain, Walters drove the bayonet fist deep into its throat and chest time and time again. The hot blood poured over his hands, the beast’s feral roar rang deafeningly in his ear and suddenly, there was silence. He stood panting, with the blood-soaked weapon in his hand and stared over the steaming corpse at the two remaining creatures. They stared unwinkingly back at him and then looked around sharply as a whistling Berbatov returned, blood streaming from numerous gashes, but otherwise the total picture of serenity. He swung the club harmlessly around, blood and skin flicking off in all directions and stopped in front of Walters. The giant dropped his weapon and then picked Walters up in a bear hug and swung him round gleefully, like a child at a fair.
“Good fight” he laughed as he dropped Walters to the ground, “who are your new friends?” With that he picked up his club and once more began to walk towards the enemy lines, without a care in the world.
The general saw the CF battalion decimated before his eyes as the ravening hordes streamed forwards. Laser rifle fire did little more than infuriate the packs of creatures who charged onwards. The Tauran infantry behind them laid down an incredible barrage of fire and the Church troops wavered, turned and then ran. They were lost, he saw Captain Wiseman intent on trying to rally his troops, fall beneath the jaws of at least three of the wolf-like creatures. His men waited no longer and charged back towards their own lines, flinging their rifles and equipment to one side in order to lighten their burden.
Then the Inspectorate-led Church troops opened fire, cutting down the remnants of the CF forces, whose only escape had always been in death. The Inspectors and their men lasted little longer as the enemy hordes over ran them. General Hamner spoke briefly into his communicator and the firestorm began. He saw the full effects of the aerial bombardment, followed by that of the ground artillery. The enemy forces were swept away in their thousands, but still they came on. Calmly the general turned toward his command post, signalling his orderly to call for his transport as he spoke once more into his communication device. There was a muffled roar and the ground opened up in front of the advancing troops, bathing them in white hot fire. He had saved the plasma charges until last. They may well have wiped out his own troops, but the area had been sanitised. He looked up as his ride arrived and waved to his command staff as he moved towards the aircraft. He took one last look through his night scope, surprised to see movement on the plain below and even more surprised to see fresh troops pouring out from the hillside fortification. He shrugged and strode into the aircraft, this would now be a cleansing operation and the next call would not be his.
Front Line Assault
Walters groaned as the world once more turned the right way up, he didn´t know what had hit him, but it hurt. He spat mud and stones from his mouth and groggily looked around. To his left, Berbatov sat on a rock, staring out across the plain and picking his teeth. He heard a muffled whining to his right and found one of the creatures pawing at a clump of shattered earth. Crawling closer he could see one bloodied paw sticking out of the ground. The grey furred beast looked at him and whined again, and shrugging, Walters unclipped his bayonet and began scraping at the loose earth. Personally he felt it was a waste of time, but he had nothing better to do right know and it at least gave him something to concentrate on.
As he worked away, he gradually uncovered a foreleg and then the head, but he knew he was too late. The animal’s head was bent backwards at an unnatural angle and was bathed in blood. Its twin whined again and Walters continued, until the creature was fully exposed, what was left of it that is. Where the earth had been shorn was also where the creature’s torso ended and Walters backed away as the grey wolf moved forward. The animal began to howl and in that moment became no longer a tainted beast to Walters but one more soul in torment and he shuffled forward again to sit next to the beast, mumbling nonsense soothingly. The heavens opened again and there they sat, incongruously as one in the midst of a man made chaos.
Berbatov looked over and was struck by the scene, he was a simple man given over rather too easily to the baser pleasures in life, but he was unswervingly loyal. He had seen something in Walters and saw it again here. A man who was unafraid to risk himself for a companion of whatever sort. He had been right, Walters would do. With that, he turned round and watched the remnants of Tauran and human forces struggling to survive amidst the inferno caused by the plasma charges. They were safe for now, but soon they would come again, he thought and then grinned; more to kill and maim, just as he liked it.
K´san was alone, more alone than he had ever been in his short but violent life. His pack-brother lay dead at his feet and he knew he would soon join him. The human at his side was strange, he had fought well, saving them once and then fighting with them as a pack against K´rasa. The larger of the two humans had also fought and had celebrated with this one their victory. They too must be pack, but he was different, he had vengeance to fulfil. Soon, no doubt their paths would part, the humans joining their own to fight against the Lord’s Army. He knew he could not join them, not with their filthy false God’s Priests. His life would not be worth seconds if he followed them, as he should to repay his blood-debt. Soon he would add that shame to his others and turn back towards the fortress and the death that awaited him there.
General Hamner looked down on the devastation; he had little remorse over his order to blow the plasma charges. He now knew that they had two choices; planetary bombardment or planetary bombardment and sending in further troops. To him, he would rather just continue striking the planet until it was a cinder, but he knew that many of his more zealous colleagues would want to return and “recapture” the world for the Prelate’s Divine Glory. He had actually become bored with this world and wanted another one to play with. His communicator pinged and he heard the detail of survivors left fighting on the planet, now he would have little choice, but to risk more of his troops, fighting for who knew what. He sighed and turned to look at the remaining battalions left to him, sorry that they were not CF troops. These were real soldiers he now had to waste on this useless planet, or did he? He noticed that there was movement on the battlefield and on zooming his screen he could see that some CF troops had survived. Maybe he could send in the last remaining CF units, with weapons, fail miserably and then wipe out the planet. This needed to be thought about carefully.
Church Fleet Command
Looking at the planet below and studying the incoming reports from the battlefield, General Hamner once again shook his head. He could not understand why anyone would want to fight over this insignificant ball of earth. Prelate save us, the planet didn’t even have an official name, only a number. His fleet had been directed to a real battlezone, but urgent information had reached them and they had dropped out of fold-space directly into this conflict.
No-one could convince him of the reason behind the enemy forces' determination to garrison this world, nor why they were stubbornly defending the remains of the fortress below. He had requested orders from the main fleet, but the only reply had been to stay here and fight. He had wanted to obliterate the planet directly, but he had been denied the right of doing so. Within his forces, he apparently had sufficient resources to cleanse this world, according to command and therefore that was his job.
The bald truth of the matter, was that General Hamner was neither well thought of nor particularly necessary to the war effort. His main regiments were mixtures of various worlds and specialties. He had used what little political influence he had to take this command and had convinced himself that the Prelate had chosen him personally to smite all Tauran-led forces with a righteous wrath. The penal battalion had been added, or rather transhipped during the short rest stop the fleet had taken and again he took this as a demonstration of how well thought of he was.
In total he could count on two infantry battalions, including the penal battalion, an artillery regiment and a light tank regiment. Nothing of any note, but at least something.
With the loss of the majority of the penal battalion, he had already proven that the fleet staff officers were correct in their assumption of his incapacity to command and had helped remove a thorn in the side of High Command.
He decided to once again request instructions, as he could not see the necessity of wasting any more of his crack troops. His decision taken, he left the bridge and made his way to the communications room. He would wait a while longer, the ground bombardment had appeared to have stalled the enemy troop movements and the criminals below, would either die for the Prelate’s Glory or he could clean up the remains of this mess once he had received further orders.
Walters felt much better this morning, he and Berbatov had managed to re-equip themselves splendidly from the corpse-strewn terrain. He had managed to appropriate a long officer’s greatcoat and cap, nice leather boots and had found a serviceable pistol, a sword and plenty of ammunition. His companion had recovered a new laser rifle and from somewhere had found a huge halberd. Probably from one of the Tauran forces, but he had an inane grin on his face and now and again swung the weapon, delighting in the sound it made as it cut through the air.
Berbatov seemed to have accepted that Walters would make the decisions and trailed along behind him whistling tunelessly. The alien ranged in front of them both, almost like a hunting hound. Suddenly it appeared and growled quietly, both Walters and Berbatov stopped and looked at one another questioningly.
“I think your puppy’s upset!” chuckled Berbatov
“Yeah, but about what?” asked Walters.
“Don’t ask me, I’m just the hired help,” and pointing with a grubby finger at Walter’s greatcoat, “you’re the officer.”
“Ha, bloody, ha,” responded Walters, “let’s follow him and see what he’s found”.
“Yes, sir!” replied the huge man and swinging his halberd round his head once more, shambled up the hill.
Walters was the last of the group to reach the crest of the hill and joined the other two behind the sparse cover afforded by some tumbled rocks. In a small clearing amongst the devastation below he could see four or five soldiers, hunched about a makeshift fire. Their equipment was strewn haphazardly around and they looked as though they were waiting for their end.
“Huh” grunted Berbatov as he stood and ambled down the incline, his halberd resting against his shoulder. Walters watched him go, and then with a disgruntled sigh followed.
“Oy,” shouted Berbatov as he neared the group, who were apparently unaware of his approach. “On your sodding feet, there’s an officer present.”
Walters started in surprise as the soldiers hastily scrambled away from the fire and rushed to their weapons, before coming to a stop as they noticed the cap and greatcoat. Now, he had to follow this charade through, and cursing a leering Berbatov, he drew his pistol and strode towards the group.
Guest post with D.P. Prior
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