Monday, 21 April 2014

Across Phrentis VI with Bike and Boltgun: 02

Chapter 2: Ulverthwaite East

After a night of anxiety, prayer and assiduous brushing-up of doctrine, Jettan had felt it necessary to say a few words to the troops. Rousing words were not really his field, which lay more in good sense and resourceful application of approved methods, but no commander wishes to be embarrassed in front of the incarnate death-angels of the Emperor. At this moment, he wished heartily that at least one of the Commissars had survived. He was pale and hollow-eyed, but since this had been his habitual guise for the past month, any slight difference in quality passed unnoticed by his equally haggard troops. Only a handful of guards remained at their posts; the rest were gathered in the common room.

"A few hours come, Ulverthwaite East will be blessed with the presence of five warriors of the Scarlet Hounds. I munnet hardly remind you what an occasion it is."

The crowd shifted with pent-up tension, like a crowd of sheep awaiting the shearing.

"Now, chance we're all fetching to make a good impression, but I know some of you" - with an approving glance at Mocks - " are more well-up on doctrine than how others are. So remember, the holy angels of the Emperor, bless His glorious mercy, aren't some plum-boys on an inspection tour. Certainly you mun be respectful. And if any of them is gracious enough to give you an order, you jump to it like a herd of darvaks was after you! But the point is, first and foremost, they're soldiers. They'll care a sight less for a lick of paint or a salute here and there, than a garrison as knows how to serve the Emperor."

He hoped, devoutly, that his understanding of Imperial protocol was accurate.

"So, we mun have every weapon fit to fire, supplies in good order, no mess to get in the way chance there's trouble. And to top all that, we mun all be on form. We may not have much to show off in Ulverthwaite East, but we've held this place for three months for all that. Let the holy Astartes see that orks or no orks, Phrentis folks know our duty."

There was a slightly awkward silence until the troops realised he'd finished, followed by a scattered chorus of "aye, sir". Astartes or no Astartes, there was simply no energy for great shows of enthusiasm; besides, it wasn't in the Phrentine character to cheer. The faces around the room looked faintly less resigned than had been their wont, but there were still less than a dozen who'd managed a good night's sleep. Much to her surprise, Lillit was one of the lucky ones. Somehow, the news of the Emperor's impending mercy had driven away the cloying weariness and dread of months, and left behind only honest exhaustion; she hadn't even stirred until the klaxon sounded.

They left the hall and bustled off to their various tasks. Mocks was buttonholed by the Lieutenant for a hasty conference on the facilities needed for their honoured guests. Even dehydrated pottage was rationed these days, and the prospect of offering such fare to the holy warriors had tormented Jettan since a doubt crept into his mind in the small hours. He nearly wept with relief on confirming that they were unlikely to expect slap-up meals.

As the sun drew near its peak, and the meagre shadows of early spring grew fat and shy, the inhabitants of Ulverthwaite East grew restless. Vital though their assignments to kitchen, watchtower or repair team might be, they found their attention patchy, their minds drifting from half-peeled swede or shell-mangled wall to the visitors they would shortly receive. Had a commissar been present, they might well have quailed at the sheer number of infractions in need of discipline; mercifully, none had survived the early battles. Lieutenant Jettan fought manfully to keep the troops' shoulders to their various wheels, but even he was somewhat distracted by how to receive such eminent visitors. A number of fresh facial nicks demonstrated the drawbacks of what was termed "field-barbery", the supply of decent razors having long since given out, but he was far from the only one to have made a valiant effort to smarten up. Even Ulverthwaite East itself seemed to have straightened its back. It might be a humble, even downright disreputable fortress, but rarely had its inhabitants looked more stalwart, its armaments better-maintained, or the piles of charred ork skeletons on the perimeter more heartening. Tattered uniforms were hastily patched and darned with whatever could be found, leaving several troopers sporting a daring mix of urban camo-chic and gingham pillowcase that would have had judges swooning in any uphive catwalk show.

Despite the obvious drawbacks, a few of the less exhausted militia couldn't help thinking that another orkish assault would be perfectly-timed. It would, after all, be highly gratifying to have the blessed Astartes descend wrathfully from the heavens to see them honourably fending off the hated xenos. Thankfully, the local orks refrained from any such activity. As it happens, they had been distracted from the invasion by a personal quarrel that could only be resolved through a reckless and violent race through the ruins of the town they were occupying, followed by a massive brawl over the disputed outcome; but the defenders of Ulverthwaite knew nothing of that.

Inch by tantalising inch, the sun crept unwillingly towards the summit of the sky. At last, Jettan had the klaxon sounded to muster the troops in the yard. Though he didn't think the Astartes would demand a grand welcome, it was obvious that anyone sent to their bunks or common room would only sulk and stare out of the windows. Apart from those left to man the artillery and watchtowers, they formed up and gazed towards the skies. For several minutes they shifted and muttered excitedly, Jettan making no attempt to maintain discipline, before the radio crackled into life. Silence fell as the troops all strained their ears to catch the message.

"Ineluctable hailing Ulverthwaite East. Launch successful, old chap. Expect impact in, oh, call it five minutes. Ave Imperator!"

The next five minutes were, despite strong contention from a recent ork assault and several spectacularly embarrassing personal memories, the longest in anyone's recollection. Suddenly, a black dot dropped into view over to the south, and then came a flare of light and a rumble. Every eye on the base turned to watch. The dot slowed discernably, but was still travelling at alarming speed when it vanished behind a hill. Drop pods could fail, couldn't they? A minute or two passed before anyone remembered to breathe.

"Should we... investigate, sir?"

"No, no," said Jettan, still riding the wave of optimism that had emerged last night. It was a little alarming, but the prospect of someone else taking responsibility for things had lifted a great weight from his shoulders, and he hadn't quite recovered from the shock. "The Astartes have obviously decided on a better landing-spot."

Moments later, there was the distant roar of engines. For a moment images of smoke-belching wartrucks flashed before their eyes, but this was not the unhealthy spluttering of ork technology; it was the hearty rumble of Imperial craftsmanship. Shapes appeared over the ridge of the hill, sillhouetted for just an instant, then vanished again. The roaring grew louder, the troops straightened themselves up in unconscious anticipation, and then a cluster of scarlet shapes burst from a copse and tore up the hillside towards Ulverthwaite East. Sadly, with the gates firmly shut, only the sentries on the wall - a group inexplicably more numerous today - could observe the masterful display of bikemanship and coordination put on by the Scarlet Hounds. Even with Imperial allies so close, they left nothing to chance; any hypothetical ork ambush would have met with instant retribution.

As they entered the final stretch, Hawksworth activated his comm-link.

"Scarlet Hounds to Ulverthwaite East, shake a leg and open those gates," he called. He watched approvingly as the gates began to swing open almost immediately - though barely wide enough to admit two bikes abreast. The planetary defence force were taking no chances, just as they shouldn't. Plenty of sentries on the wall too, and giving them a thorough inspection as they approached.

"I say, they seem like a keen bunch, what?" commented Ffaulkes. "Orks ain't precisely known for impersonation."

Barnabas raised an eyebrow. "And that, young Ffaulkes, is probably why Ulverthwaite East has been holding out behind enemy lines for the past few weeks."

Switching smoothly into single file, they swept through the gates of the base and drew to a halt in the courtyard, before the rapturous gaze of the garrison. Behind them, two loping mechanical hounds slowed and gazed around with gleaming eyes. Other than the rumble of engines, there was silence. The militia stared enthralled at the armoured giants who had appeared before them, resplendent in hunting-scarlet and cream. The avenging angels of the Emperor, in person; and moreover, the first friendly faces they had seen in months. Tarquin saw a few lips move as troopers made the sign of the Aquila. After a long pause - long enough to slightly diminish Hawksworth's earlier approval - the gates began to close behind them, as the ranking officer stepped forward. He gave a salute that echoed across the courtyard, and called "Ave Imperator! L-Lieutenant Jettan, acting commander Ulverthwaite East. You honour us with your presence, sirs."

The troopers behind him saluted likewise. The keen eyes of the Scarlet Hounds noted the weariness, the patched uniforms, the repaired weapons. On the whole, not a bad showing.

Hawksworth reached up and unclamped his helmet. The troopers made no effort to hide their stares. They saw an unexpectedly ordinary face: mildly cheerful, keen-eyed, reassuring. "Quite," he replied. "All right, you fellows. No need to stand on ceremony. Brother-Sergeant Hawksworth, Scarlet Hounds. Heard you were having a spot of trouble with some orks."

"Ah... yes, sir. Been cut off for weeks, sir."

"Well, we'll have to see what we can do about that. We have some gen from the Chapter, but I'd like to hear what you can tell us before we make too many plans. Mind if we take a look around the base first to get the lie of the land?"

It wasn't really a question, since there was roughly as much chance of Jettan refusing as there was of him sprouting wings, but Hawksworth projected an air of efficient politeness that made the lieutenant feel he was being treated as, if not anything like an equal, at least someone whose opinion was potentially relevant. Considering some of the superior officers he had experienced, not one of whom had been the sons of the Most Holy Emperor of Mankind, this condescension seemed frankly remarkable.

"Right away, sir." Recovering himself a little, Jettan gave the order to stand down. Reluctantly, the militia dispersed back to ordinary duties, although many of those duties happened to involve areas through which the Astartes would inevitably pass. The lieutenant, being no fool, had a pretty good idea this was happening, but frankly the troops had had vanishingly few pleasures in recent weeks, and he was no man to deny them the thrill of observing the Emperor's finest.

In the meantime, the other marines had also de-helmeted, taking the rare chance of fresh air with minimal risk. Before beginning their tour, they took a moment to spin their bikes to face the gate. A few precious seconds could make all the difference in case of a sudden ork raid.

"Fidelis, Valerian - guard," ordered Hawksworth. The hounds obediently assumed watching positions around the bikes, servos whirring as they scanned for signs of trouble. "Ah, Lieutenant, better warn your chaps not to get within ten yards or so."

With a glance at the razor jaws of the hounds, Jettan agreed.

"Now, let's take a stroll, eh?" said Jasper, always keen to be on the move. "Like what you've done with the skeletons, by the way. Put a bit of fear into the bally xenos, that's the way."

Ffaulkes raised an eyebrow. "Orks ain't precisely known for good sense, old chap."

"Well, it certainly can't hurt," judged Hawksworth. "They've no honour, as the doctrine says, so it won't fire them up. Besides, a bit of a tally is good for morale."

The base, as the marines judged it, was not a bad little place. It had held up surprisingly well to shelling and mass onslaughts, though the walls were crudely patched in several places, and in those they found small groups of troopers carefully checking and reinforcing their work. They paused and stood respectfully as the Hounds passed, answering a few questions with commendable promptness and excusable awe.

"I say, I like how they've rebuilt around that ork machine," enthused Tarquin. The ruined shell of a portly walker had been welded into the outer wall, its armoured frame filling the gap that had been torn by heavy cannon. Girders and rubble had been carefully added and infilled with rockcrete to seal the breach, giving rise to a sort of industrial tapestry effect.

"Machine?" prompted Barnabas.

The younger Hound flashed a smile. "Killa Kan, class twelve articulated light assault engine. Honestly, Barnabas, must you play the librarian?"

"Learning is good for the soul, young'un," said Ffaulkes. "Besides, a bit of specificity don't hurt. Good habit to get into."

"True enough," agreed Hawksworth. "When one’s pushing into hostile territory, there's a world of difference between four wartrukks, four killa kans and four zzap guns. But let's not tease the lad."

Most of the watchpoints were still intact, with crews ready to swing heavy mortars and autocannon into action at a moment's notice. Two had been reduced to useless rubble, and makeshift towers of girder and crate assembled to compensate. Elegance had very clearly not been the first thought in anyone's mind; they resembled something that a clumsy but enthusiastic child might construct on a rainy afternoon, but when Ffaulkes gave one a tentative shove it didn't budge. The weary crews turned to salute as the marines passed.

"Alright, eyes on the horizon, chaps," said Hawksworth quietly. They turned hastily back to their viewports. "All quiet?"

"Aye, sir! Nary a wink on 'em, sir."

"Glad to hear it." The group strode on. The bridging-Chimera was briefly inspected, and the lamentably-depleted armoury. Superhuman eyes noted approvingly that debris, corpses and ammo casings alike had been removed, leaving no obstacles upon which a hasty foot might slip. Even the shell-holes in the yards had been crudely patched to keep it level. Rubble from destroyed structures had been scavenged for barricades and bracing materials. Jettan, giddy with proximity to sacred power, waxed lyrical on the attacks they had repelled and the orders in place, and met with approval. Sharp ears and tactically-minded brains drank it in, missing nothing. A few minor improvements were recommended, and subordinates immediately dashed to and fro to obey. They paused to inspect a bayonet drill in the rear courtyard, and tactfully refrained from discussing the likely effectiveness of bayonets against a screaming horde of orks; all things considered, the troopers were really giving a thoroughly respectable performance, no doubt aided by the authentic orkish weaponry and clothing they had added to their training dummies.

Satisfied with their inspection of the defences, the Scarlet Hounds headed into the keep itself. It was a remarkable coincidence, observed Barnabas with an inward smile, that so many of the inhabitants had floors to sweep, messages to deliver, and other errands that brought them into the hallways at this time.

“The armoury is getting close to the bone, sir,” said Jettan, with the regretful note of a butler obliged to inform the household that supplies of canary are running low. “I reckon we can hold out another sennight or two on what’s here, if the greenskins don’t let up. It’s frags as are getting scarce, mostly.”

“Yes, they would be, with orks. I can see we shall have to buckle down to getting those supply routes restored, and the tooter the sweeter.” The amount of ammunition that had been expended was mute testament to the garrison’s tenacity. All in all, a pretty stalwart little band, thought Hawksworth. The marines followed Jettan into the briefing room to get the latest information and plan their operations.

Ulverthwaite East stood atop a rugged hill, looking out over the plains. A river curved round to the west, its foaming waters and steep banks guarding the base from that quarter. Several smaller hills nearby held the shattered remains of outposts and bunkers, broken by the relentless ork assaults. After the death of Captain Barnes, Jettan had pulled all the survivors back to the main base to concentrate their strength. Small groups of orks regularly prowled the ruins, spying on the base or seeking loot. Sallies kept their numbers down, but there was no way to retake the area.

Below the base, rolling fields spread out to the distant horizon, broken only by patches of woodland and occasional hills. Until the orks came, it had been a very picture of pastoral bliss: gene-spliced crops rippling in the breeze, vast agricultivators sputtering across the landscape, and the homely scent of promethium smoke from the processing plants drifting on the breeze. The sort of world the Imperial Guard dreamt of retiring to once their decades of service were over, to raise pigs and smoke pipes on a rocking-chair overlooking the fields. Now whole swathes of the crops were flattened by vehicles or shredded by shellfire, and fumes belched from ork camps in the ruins of agricultural buildings. It brought a tear to the Imperial eye, and a sense of nausea to the loyal stomach.

“Whereabouts are the orks concentrated, Jettan?” asked Hawksworth, casting a gimlet eye over the huge map spread over the briefing table. “As you’ve been running patrols, you must have a pretty good idea. Our briefing on the Ineluctable was short on detail.”

“Well, honoured sirs, seems as how there’s a few clusters. A fair number have been bivvying in yon generator station.” He tapped the map where an industrial-looking compound stood, a few miles distant. “Happen they’re looting the place. Over west they’re roving all about on vehicles, and we’ve not been able to get far enough to find the fuelling station. Most like it’s near Machine Tractor Station 366, or maybe Airfield Scarwick over yonder – there’s hangers and fuel tanks at the both of them.”

“You could get a good look from this peak, surely?” said Ffaulkes, pointing at a tall drumlin towards the two sites.

Jettan winced, but recovered quickly. “Aye, sir. We made a few ventures out that way, but it’s flat ground and sparse too. Swimming the tarn here cuts the distance, but it’s a deathtrap if owt gets a sight on you, and they race all over the plain most nights. Cut it which way you choose, the orks have all the cards.”

“No luck, then?”

“Lost thirty-four in three sallies, sir.” He looked grim. “But of course, sir, if you’d have us try again-“

“I see. No, the lives of the Emperor’s servants are not to be thrown away. We’ll think of something.”

Tarquin was bent over the map, reading the contours. Once a Scout, always a Scout.

“I say, brothers, what do you think of this?” His fingers traced a long, arcing route around through thickets, curving eventually back towards the hill. “Fifty miles. Too far for a foot patrol, but the bikes could do it in an hour or so, and plenty of cover on the way.”

“Promising,” declared Ffaulkes, flipping down his monocular to magnify the details.

Jasper twirled his moustache, thoughtfully. “Bally good thought. Mind, in that sort of turf there’s better than even odds of running slap into some greenskins, which ain’t precisely Codex.”

Barnabas nodded. “True, brother Jasper, but we have the advantage, do we not, of both speed and surprise? They will not be expecting the Astartes.”

“Besides, it’d be a damned shame for Erudition to stay clean all mission!” grinned Jasper.

“Know anything about this terrain, Lieutenant?” asked Hawksworth.

Jettan nodded politely. “Aye, sirs. Rough scrub for the most part, but nice firm ground. Farmers leave scrub round the fields so’s the nattergobs have somewhere to nest. They keep pests down and seed the crops nicely. Eh, but that’s by the by. Some of our troops were for trying that road, only there’s Howett Bluff right across, sithee.”

He placed a gaunt finger on the map where contour lines converged like riders closing on a fox, lazy slopes transforming into a sheer drop some hundred feet high. The cliff cut right across Tarquin’s route a little way from the goal, stretching well into the open plain to either side.

“With ropes a patrol might be down quite smartly, but by my reckoning it’d be nigh on two hours on the road back. With orks on their tails, most like, I didn’t think it work the risk. Besides, we’d be short-handed for four days or thereabouts, and no way to know if they’d be back at all.”

Hawksworth nodded. “I’m inclined to agree. However, the Scarlet Hounds and the Imperium’s finest power armour shouldn’t find it too challenging a climb, don’t you chaps think?”

“Rather!”

“Scarcely worth troubling about.”

He nodded. “Very well. In that case, we’ll set out on a reconnaissance sortie at dusk, to limit the chance of long-range sightings. We’ll leave the bikes at, ah, Howett Bluff, with the hounds to guard them, and proceed on foot. Tarquin, plan the route and a couple of reserves in case of surprises – let’s see what they taught you in the Scouts. Ffaulkes, look over the sentry posts and batteries. Barnabas, I imagine you’ll be in the infirmary?”

The apothecary inclined his head. “A little outside my field, but tending the Emperor’s troops is a worthy duty.”

“Indeed, and good for morale. Jasper, close-quarters drill with me until None – these are orks, after all. Lieutenant, I suggest you get some rest. Consider yourself off-duty until we’re ready to depart. You look fit to drop. In fact, give a general order – anyone short on sleep is to retire immediately. Just keep the walls and artillery crewed. Ulverthwaite East is safe enough for now.”

They signed the Aquila and marched out, leaving the exhausted Jettan to relay their orders. Always mindful of responsibility, he ushered several dozen gratified troops into their barracks before returning to his own quarters, where he sat down to remove his boots and promptly sank into the heady, unshakable sleep of utter exhaustion. As the sun began its long, ponderous descent to the horizon, the soft murmur of lieutenantly snores rose from an open window and drifted away on the breeze.

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