‘This task is beneath us,’ growled Adalricus over the squad’s private vox channel. With a network plan lit up in faint red lines in his display, he and the rest of Tactical Squad Priscus of the Ultramarines Fifth Company had followed the tunnel deep into the crust of Calth, a repair crew of five with them.
This once verdant homeworld of the Ultramar system had been transformed long ago to a barren waste. The atmosphere stripped away and the sun poisoned, its inhabitants had learned to survive and dwell beneath the surface in great subterranean cities. Strong and defiant as any Ultramarian, the population of Calth had not just adapted, they had thrived; transforming their planet into one of the system’s most productive worlds that was now famed for ship-building. But production had been interrupted by a series of faults on the high voltage power network of Distribution Sector XIV, which had become a great cause of concern. Originally dealt with as any mechanical issue, repair crews had been dispatched to restore supply, only to disappear forever in the black labyrinth of the maintenance tunnels.
‘No task is beneath an Ultramarine,’ replied the Squad Sergeant Priscus firmly.
The detachment of six Marines marched onwards through the tunnel, wide enough for two of ceramite clad warriors to walk abreast. The repair team they escorted were dwarfed by the elite soldiers. Wearing standard issue work fatigues and light respirators, they clutched their phosphorous torches tightly as if they were holy relics of the Emperor and tried not to let imagined threats erode their courage. Weak emergency wall lighting flickered into life to illuminate the way as the motion sensors triggered with their approach.
‘It’s this way, sir,’ called one of the men gesturing to a wide recessed doorway to their left. Hazard markers covered the steel plate, warning of electrocution and death. The man nervously punched an access code on the entry panel as the Ultramarines stood statue-still. With a whirring of chains, the metal door rose upwards, before locking into position with a hiss.
‘Wait here.’ Priscus ordered, instructing two of his squad to remain guarding the repair team as he and three others cautiously entered the vast chamber to inspect the way forward. It was immediately apparent that something was very wrong.
Wild bursts of light illuminated the subterranean compound in strobing flashes, accompanied by the snapping hiss of arcing plasma. Dangerously high levels of voltage were earthing wherever they could, now that the circuits and equipment meant to control and contain them, were severely degraded. A quick scan of the chamber for life-forms confirmed that this damaged array was the greatest danger that the repair team would be facing today. Of the missing repair crews, there was no sign.
‘They probably blew themselves up, sir.’ Adalricus remarked through the private vox channel.
‘Enough,’ replied Priscus, ‘I’d say there’s more here than meets the eye.’
The repair team was ushered in, closely followed by the two that had stood sentry. Any hopes that it was a fuse fault were dashed as the extent of the damage was revealed. Metre thick cables had been torn from the distribution frame of the network junction. Panels had been wrenched off the switch gears by sheer force, and insulator devices had been smashed completely, leaving the plasma to arc wildly around the chamber. The thick stench of ozone and hot oil lingered around them; the floor damp with leaked insulator fluid. A sense of unease descended upon the engineers. The damage here had been done deliberately, and it almost seemed that the array had been pulled apart for its materials.
‘Can you shut it down?’ Priscus asked the repair crew, turning the volume of his external vox up so that it could be heard over the din of electrical arcing and the humming of fans that struggled to keep the transformers cool.
‘Not from here, sir. There’s a switch on that panel, but there’s no way we can get near it with all that going on. We’ll have to switch out from the next junction up to open the circuit and get rid of all of this.’ the chief engineer replied, gesturing to the wild plasma as it leaped about the chamber like blue lightning.
‘How far?’ asked Priscus.
‘In the parallel maintenance tunnel section. About two hours to the north. I’d say it’s...’ a frown formed on his face as the sound of a chain motor stopped him in his tracks. The chamber door was closing sealing their way out.
‘What in the...’ he mumbled, dashing to the keypad to find it ripped from the wall. Dead wires hung from the panel, with no trace of the pad to be found.
Holding his phosphorous torch up, the engineer choked a cry as he saw something terrible on this inside of the door. A spray of dried blood painted the steel plate from top to bottom. A tuft of hair was wedged between the frame and the door, with a curling strip of gossamer thin skin stuck to the bottom edge. ‘Emperor save us.’
‘Get us out of here!’ shouted a panicked technician, as he saw what his leader was looking at.
‘Step aside,’ commanded Priscus, as Emidius raised his bolter to blast a hole through the door. The Ultramarines stood between the repair crew to shield them as Emidius fired another three times; the deafening shots echoing throughout the chamber. The blasts tore a hole through the plate; the edges curling outwards and glowing red. The repair crew gaped anxiously at their way out as the edges of the hole cooled; wondering what had caused the malfunction.
A blur of movement from outside was their only warning as with a guttural roar, three crudely-made weapons were pointed into the chamber and released their deadly charges. Two of the repair crew fell screaming to their knees as they were engulfed by flames, another convulsed as bullets punched through his flesh.
‘Ultramarines! To me!’ called Priscus, three of the Tactical Squad lowering their stance to rest on one knee, the others aiming above them. As the chief engineer and his surviving technician ran to find cover, the Wardens of the East March greeted their visitors with an Ultramarian welcome. Bolter fire blasted the door to vapour and the wall around it to powder, as they fought to secure the exit.
‘Orks,’ confirmed Priscus through the private vox channel, ‘Adalricus, you got your battle after all.’ The Ultramarine grinned behind his helmet as finally he was able to perform his duty.
‘This is more like it, sir!’ Adalricus replied, as he took the head off a xenos with a precision shot from a plasma gun; a hot mist of green pulp spraying the wall of the tunnel behind the felled ork. More greenskins rushed in to take the place of the fallen, crudely built weapons blasting back at the Ultramarines. ‘At least we know what happened to the network junction. And the repair teams.’
Priscus nodded solemnly, risking a glance back at the two surviving engineers. The flames and discharge shots from the exchange of fire drummed a pattern of light that danced with the flashing plasma, whilst the chamber roared with the noise of battle. The engineers were crouching down, hands over their ears, lacking the comfort of audio-filters. The Sergeant turned back to the fight, but as his head turned, his auto-senses flared a warning of movement from the back of the chamber. With gravity, he realised the situation was escalating with a swathe of green skinned xenoi poured in through a damaged carrier duct.
‘Emidius, Nicon, Sisera! To the rear! We’ve got company.’
The three Ultramarines turned, their targeting reticules flashing as the enemy mass was calculated. ‘Sergeant, I count forty six, and more are coming.’ Nicon reported through the closed channel.
The front lines of the ork mob began shooting at the Ultramarines with a mismatch of weaponry. Curiously decorated with blue paint and horned skulls on their armour plates, the horde looked as if they were wielding the contents of a scrap yard bashed together to serve their destructive purposes.
‘Hold them off Nicon, whilst we clear the exit.’ Priscus replied grimly, holding the line with Adalricus and Cassian, who dodged a poorly aimed slug. The Ultramarine took aim and replied with his bolter. The shot hit home, disintegrating the creature’s top quarter and half of its face in an explosive burst.
Behind them, Emidius picked out individuals, taking out any with the wits to pose the most threat. Some of the mob looked larger, others had heavier weapons, and he was taking no risks. Sisera nodded to him and then readied himself like a great cat in tall grass, viewing the enemy not as something to be feared, but as a herd of stampeding beasts and he the predator. Aiming low, he picked out targets near the front of the approaching mob with his bolter which slowed the charge a little as the orks behind stumbled to get past their fallen. Sisera stood behind them, aiming over their heads; target areas calculated in milliseconds to cause maximum damage. Dozens of xenos exploded in showers of green pulp. As the murderous tide of orkish fury charged towards them, the three Ultramarines unleashed the wrath of Ultramar. But it was not enough.
Priscus and his line held the doorway as orks threw themselves forwards with gun and axe and flamers. Adalricus swerved with a jolt as a shot struck his shoulder-plate, he and Cassian streaked with carbon from flamer fire. Slowly the line edged backwards into the chamber towards Nicon, Sisera, and Emidius; the enemy was numerous and for every one felled, another took its place. Although Ultramarines, oldest and most glorious of all the chapters, they were still few against many.
The swarm of orks merged as the tide of green pushed through the doorway to the chamber. Priscus and his men now stood with the second party, their hulking forms the only thing between the repair crew and a quick and brutal death. Closer they came, surrounding the Ultramarines. Any thoughts of victory or even escape were now distant.
‘I never asked your names,’ said Priscus over the bellowed challenges and mocking shouts of the primitive enemies, as he looked down upon the frail engineers.
‘Harker sir,’ replied the chief engineer, ‘and this is West.’
‘Are there any other routes out of here, besides the door?’
Harker shook his head with a sigh, before bursting into a fit of laughter. ‘We’re all going to die, aren’t we?’
Such defeatism would surely resign a man to his fate, and Priscus wondered how it felt to give in to terror. ‘Whilst we stand, we fight. Whilst we fight, we prevail. Nothing shall stay our wrath.’
He turned back to face the enemy, firing back at the orks with his bolt pistol, and knew he would continue to do so whilst the Emperor gave him strength.
‘Wait. I have an idea.’
The Sergeant turned to face West, replying, ‘It had better be good.’
West shrugged and pointed to a meter high platform beside the network junction. ‘If we can make it over there, we might have a chance. Not a good one mind, but it’s worth it.’
West nervously explained his plan to the Sergeant. ‘Near to the switch gear. There’s an earth loop built in to the floor. Like a Faraday cage.’ Neither Priscus nor Harker commented on the mention of ancient technology, but both wondered if West was losing his mind as the technician continued, ‘Standing there, we’re safe from the arcing, which we could use to our advantage. Look at the floor.’
Priscus and Harker looked at the cavern, and noticed fully that it was not only insulator fluid that was spilled onto the floor. Pools of brackish water filled dips in the uneven floor, streaking about by the movement of the enemy.
‘Get moving. Now!’ ordered Priscus, summoning his squad to cover their manoeuvre.
Tightly grouped, the Ultramarines charged towards the network junction, heads held low in a bid to avoid the plasma shooting out of the broken equipment. The orks swelled forward to meet them. Emidius threw himself into the enemy, drawing his combat knife as he hacked into armour and bone. Sisera followed suit, hacking and slashing at throats and faces, or lunging and plunging his blade through weak flesh. The two Ultramarines fought tirelessly as their bodies were pumped with combat stimulants by the power armour protecting them. Their courageous charge thinned the enemy in the path to reach the platform.
The engineers ran for their lives, as the Ultramarines thudded in a slow jog beside them, firing at any orks that dared a direct attack. The enemy swirled around to hem them in further closing up the way forward. In a blazing burst of fire-power, the Ultramarines broke through the final line of greenskins, and they were through, clambering up onto the platform.
Finally reaching this position of so-called safety, West screamed, ‘Shoot it! Shoot it with a bloody missile or something!’
Priscus followed his gaze to a tank resting above a transformer array, as orks closed in around them. Plasma crackled above, sending fingers of blue lightning leaping at anything metal in the chamber, which included the weapons that the orks were holding; the subjects of its interest juddering in spasms as their bodies were charged with thousands of volts. Priscus finally understood.
Taking a frag grenade from his hip, Priscus pulled the pin before lobbing the device at the equipment. With a shuddering boom, the frag hit home, ripping through the last section holding the network junction together. The repair crew threw themselves down as the humming transformers burst into flames. Fire tore through black smoke, and plasma exploded with blinding fury throughout the chamber. Protected somewhat by their ceramite plate armour, the Ultramarines still ducked instinctively. As their photolenses adapted from the flash, the full extent of the electrical explosion was revealed.
All around the chamber lay partially cooked ork corpses. Some had exploded. Some had been ripped to pieces. Others still convulsed as crackles of electricity snaked about them. The network junction was silent; a smoking ruin of twisted steel and charred cables. The stink of ozone was replaced with the bitter tang of an electrical fire tainted with the reek of dead orks.
A single gunshot broke the silence with a crack, and Priscus fell to his knees.
© 2015 Pollyanna Jones