Prologue: Phrentis VI
Running a scrub-job just before the meal had been a mistake. The acrid tang of bleach hung in the air like temple incense, giving rise to strangled coughs and occasional sneezes. Worse still, it suffused the pottage almost as soon as it was doled out, producing a chemical aftertaste that put a grimace on everyone’s face. Nobody complained, audibly. The wooden expression worn by the lieutenant, and the grimly mechanical way he scooped up his food, was ample demonstration that he wouldn’t make that mistake again. Cutlery scraped reluctantly in mess-tins until the meagre portions had been forced down, and washed down with blissfully-untainted caffeine.
“Knives down,” called the lieutenant at last. “Fane, your squad’s on wet duty. Lillit, ready for patrol in fifteen. Other squads, time’s your own.”
Voices mumbled next door, and the familiar clacking of plas chips on boards indicated that the nightly mullen tournament was already underway. In the porch, squad nine strapped on scuffed boots and shrugged flak-jackets over their grimy daywear. Daver and Mocks crouched in their usual corner, muttering a prayer together before they donned their helmets. Rhythmic metallic noises signalled that Innis was field-stripping his autogun, a patrol ritual that was just the right side of obsessive. The more determined troopers methodically strapped on helmets, double-checked weapons and leaned against the plascrete wall to stretch before the patrol. Others, morale already low, simply fumbled their kit on and slumped on the benches, waiting for the signal. It was a wide-sweep patrol tonight, over the river and three miles round through the sparse coverts of the plain to check on enemy movements. They called the plains Butcher’s Board, because it was flat and you were dead meat. Barely enough cover to hide a shrew, and if the greenskins spotted you, there was no chance of outpacing their Warp-cursed blood-red vehicles on the flat terrain. Two whole squads had disappeared in the last week, and Lillit was beginning to think the orks, dense as they were, had started keeping watch. Still, someone had to keep track of them, or the damn things would be crawling all over the base before anyone realised. Lillit checked her laspistol was still in its holster, and reached for a helmet. In the common room, someone had started playing a squeezebox, and the asthmatic wheeze of the battered old instrument echoed flatly round the stained walls of the strongpoint.
Activity ground to a halt as everyone turned to look at the messenger. Even Daver and Mocks broke off their prayer to give him a startled glance. Patrols didn’t go off. Whether it was raining, howling a gale, or the base came under artillery bombardment, patrols were still on. That and the tastelessness of mess rations – and the benevolent gaze of the Emperor, of course – were the rare pillars of predictability in an increasingly erratic existence. Twelve pairs of eyes scrutinised Officer Doal carefully, weighing up the admittedly implausible chance of an elaborate prank against the preposterous notion of a cancelled patrol. Doal was a precise, methodical and reliable man, but still...
“What’s that, Doal?” asked Lillit at last.
“Patrol’s off,” repeated Doal. “No junkets for you mob. Lieutenant had a comm.”
That alone was unusual. Comm reception had been worse than useless for days.
“So what’s the goss, boss?” said Mocks, running her remaining fingers through scruffy turqoise hair. “Are they coming for un?”
Doal shrugged. “Himself didn’t div. Looked fair gobsmacked though. Just stammered at some plumb-boy on the sweet end and told I to drop the good news.”
“It’s never a rush, then,” said Honnister wisely. “He’d a yakked for all hands if the greens was coming.”
Lillit was inclined to agree. “It’s never... backup, is it?” she said, since nobody else was saying it. It seemed a ridiculous thing to suggest. There was no backup to come, after all. Phrentis VI wasn’t a hive world full of potential conscripts, it was a few billion acres of blackroot, barley and other fodder destined for the next few systems, with scattered farm hubs and a scanty military presence. It’d be weeks before any more troops could be mustered from the north to bolster their lines, and the rest of the local militia were in no better shape than they were. Roving bands of orks had them all pinned down in their bases, and irregular raids were slowly whittling down their numbers. For the last month, Ulverthwaite East base had been behind what passed for enemy lines, leaving them even more isolated and on permanent watch. The disbelieving snorts of at least half her squad suggested they shared her opinion.
The batman seemed disinclined to speculate. “Get back in the common, buckos. Lieutenant’ll most like be bound yon road. Spare your wind, eh?”
For once, a rare moment in interminable hard-pressed months, there was absolute silence in the common room as Lieutenant Jettan appeared in the doorway. No game-pieces clacked, no instruments wrought horrific violence on much-loved tunes, nobody argued or flirted half-heartedly. A hundred and nine militia troopers gave the man their full attention. In the general way, this miracle would have stunned the officer, and he would have been inclined to freeze on the spot, wondering wildly whether he had been afflicted with a sudden mutation by the vile powers of Chaos, or simply forgotten to dress. On this occasion, however, his mind was otherwise occupied. He walked as one in a daze, and wore a look not precisely of triumph, but as a man might who has stumbled at the edge of a precipice and felt a strong hand drawing him back. He looked around the room, feeling an almost paternal affection for the exhausted troopers under his command.
“Yon was the general on the buzzer,” he managed at last. “We’re to lock down for now. Yon said not to waste any lives on patrol.”
“But why, sir?” asked one of the more impatient sergeants. “What’s afoot?”
There was an odd, star-struck expression in the Lieutenant’s eyes as he looked round. “Someone heard us, lad. By the Emperor’s Mercy, someone heard us. There’s a ship just outside the system, heading off to another war, close enough to reach us tomorrow. They’re making a drop at noon – right here.”
A ripple of excitement spread through the tired soldiers. A few began to mumble prayers of thanksgiving – Daver dropped to his knees. Jettan ran a hand over his face, feeling six days of stubble, and silently promised himself he’d shave for the visitors.
“How many, sir?” asked Lillit, eagerly. “With a regiment or two, us could flush this whole region – set up a brave strongpoint-”
“Five regiments!” She grinned fiercely, already anticipating the vengeance they’d wreak on the damned orks. There was a faint cheer, and the beginnings of applause.
He shook his head, absently. “Five men.” The far-off quality hadn’t left his voice.
Silence returned, a little messily, as though it hadn’t expected to be needed again so soon. Jaws dropped, as they are wont to do. So did mugs, aquilas, and other small items clasped in suddenly-nerveless hands. The Lieutenant blinked, as though shaken from a trance by the noise, and stared straight at Lillit. When he spoke again, the awe in his voice would not have been out of place on the lips of the Pontifex in the High Cathedral.