A sharp crack then the whistling sound of escaping air and Commissar Wishart knew that his platoon would be late for the regimental re-grouping on Vorozneh. The troopship twisted and turned, threatening to throw his platoon of Imperial Guardsmen like toys in the cramped transport cabin.
"Commissar, hull integrity breached. The machine-God has been angry with us and we need to land soon." Said the calm voice of pilot Captain Ulna.
"Our fate is in your capable hands Captain. Please get us down swiftly." Replied Commissar Wishart. He gripped the restraining bars tightly as the ship struck atmosphere. Outside, the plasteel view-port had a red tinge as the ship's hull started to heat up. Wishart turned and viewed the platoon, tough seasoned veterans en route to rejoin their units. All were looking worried and many were praying. Coda was the exception, the dim-witted Ogryn was fast asleep after consuming his week's ration in the last sitting.
"Look towards the protection from the Emperor. His reach is infinite and he will not let his loyal Guardsmen die vainly! Faith is all that is required." Spoke Commissar over the din of the screaming, super-heated air outside. "Faith! Let us all remember that the Emperor has not once rejected us. Faith!" Some of the Guardsmen looked up hopefully but a few continued to pray, louder even. The troopship twisted violently to the left and some ammunition crates tore loose from the bindings and bounced around the interior of the cabin. There was a scream as one box connected with a strapped-in guardsman. Then the troopship turned upside down and then righted itself. Outside there was a horrible screeching sound as the air-brakes and retro-rockets were applied. Quietly, Wishart prayed to the Emperor-God for the hundred year old troopship to fulfill it's sacred duty.
"Brace for impact!" Cried Captain Ulna. Seconds later there was a crash and Wishart felt his teeth and brain rattle in his head as the troopship smashed into something. He jerked back and forth in his tightly strapped seat while someone screamed in terror as the ammunition boxes crashed around. The terrible ride ended with a splash. A few moments later Commissar Wishart shook himself free of the restraining straps and tried to stand up. He was bruised, his commissariat cap was knocked loose and he had bitten his lip. Quickly, he hit the com-switch and tried to raise the troopship captain. He was greeted with the hiss and pop of static. Cursing he turned.
"Corporal Toon! Get the men out of here and take all available supplies. No idea if this troopship will explode or sink. Move." Corporal Toon popped out of buckles and started organizing the men. Someone had already started to open the outer-door. Wishart moved towards the front of the troopship and forced open the buckled, reinforced door leading towards the pilot cabin. Inside the cabin, it was all smoke and crackling torn wires. Captain Ulna, helmet-less, was squatting over the still form of his navigator.
"Is he dead Captain ?"
"Yes. So is my co-pilot." He jerked his head towards a seat that had a branch, the thickness of his arm, that had penetrated through the back of the co-pilot's seat.
"We must leave this troopship as a precaution. Standard procedures Captain, as you know. " The pilot nodded and moved out of the cabin, once out of the sky the Commissar was in charge. Captain Ulna grabbed a small pack and then ejected the side escape hatch. Clambering out, Commissar Wishart found himself knee-deep in brackish-water and surrounded by trees. Splashing besides him Captain Ulna stepped back and performed a cursory inspection of his troopship.
"Damage assessment, Captain ?"
"Well, it will take the Adeptus Mechanicus a few months to get this troopship flying once more. The rear control planes have been sheared off, the front-side engine is crushed and the pilot cabin has enough wood in it now to replant Tallarn. It won't explode though."
"Sir! Over here sir." Wishart stepped around the front of the smashed troopship and saw Corporal Toon on the bank of the large water-filled depression that the troopship had fallen into. Sloshing through the water, Wishart stepped up to his Corporal.
"Sal and Ubrant are dead, ammo box crushed them both. Sorokin's broken his leg. The rest have cuts and bruises, nothing too bad. Most of the weapons salvaged but the food supplies were in the bottom cargo pods and they were ripped off during this happy descent. Managed to get the communications gear to work, we can send but not receive. Raxis and Sully are now securing the area. We have set up a small camp half a kilometer from here. Area is farmed sir, there are fields on the other side of the camp. I guess there must be a settlement here." As an afterthought, he said. "Whether 'here' is."
Wishart nodded at the concise report but cursed inwardly, Ubrant was their medical orderly and his men were hurt and shaken. This left seven Guardsmen. It was his job to strengthen then with words and actions.
"We are on an Imperial world, albeit a small one. Send Raxis and Sully to the fields and attempt to locate a settlement. We need shelter. Get a may-day to Uxor Prime and inform then of our situation. Bring everyone else to attention."
"Sir." Toon then set off to carry out his orders." Captain Ulna walked up behind Wishart and took off one of his boots to tip out the water.
"If you're interested Commissar, we are on Kepler's World. An agriculture colony in the Uxor Prime Cluster four light years from the Imperial supplies depot on Praxis. Sparsely populated. I managed to send a burst transmission to Praxis but not too sure about a reply."
"Like I said, sparse. Didn't get all the demographics before the machine-God left the computers during the smash. I would think no more than ten thousand, planet-wide."
"Technology level of Kepler's World ?"
The men took the news in a mixture of relief and despair. At least it was an Imperial world but they were effectively marooned here. Coda was not too bothered but he did say he was getting hungry. Troopers Raxis and Sully came back from their reconnaissance and snapped crisp salutes to the Commissar. Sully reported what he had found.
"Sir. Located a settlement but we half scared a farmer to death on the way. We saw a preacher and he claims that there is a transmitting station nearby. Guy's nuts though sir." Wishart raised an eyebrow at this last comment but said nothing more. Turning to Toon, Wishart spoke calmly and quickly.
"Corporal, organize the men, we are going to pay this settlement a visit. Someone support Sorokin"
The small platoon moved through the thin forests, Sully in front with Corporal Toon in the rear. Coda easily
carried the ripper gun while Wishart had his bolt pistol cocked and loaded. Signs of human habitation were already evident: there were fields and clearings and cattle grazing contentedly. A windmill turned lazily in the calm breeze and the atmosphere was serene. No-one appeared to be working in the fields and judging from the sun, it was still mid-day.
"Soldiers! Soldiers! We are saved!" Completely confused, Wishart stood in front of the pathetic barrier. He was half tempted to order Coda to walk through this gate when he could see a mass of humans emerge from a large white-washed building. The hubbub and excitement was clear from the crowd. A man, in the robes of the Ecclesiarchy, approached the gate. Excitement clear in his bounding steps.
"We are saved. The Emperor's warriors are here to save us. We saw two before, now we see more. Mighty is the reach of the Emperor. Far is the reach of his hand. Huge is the love he has for his children. Great is -"
"Open the gate." Interrupted Wishart. Some farmers, also exasperated with the preacher reached forward and removed two cross planks and the gates swung open. Wishart moved through and the villagers parted for the armed soldiers and allowed them to approach the church. It was Coda who noticed.
"Where's the Corporal?"
* * *
It bounded away on strong legs and it still tasted the sweet blood and warm flesh. Its enhanced eyes could see in the gloom of the forest and it had tracked the two-legged prey since they came down from the skies. It had seized the opportunity when one of the humans had strayed behind. In two massive leaps it had covered the distance and grabbed its victim. It could still sense the strong beat of the heart and the sound of blood pulsing through veins of his prey. Swiftly it leapt onto the back of the human. He didn't even scream as his neck was swiftly broken and then quietly dragged him away.
* * *
"I think it's the Corporal sir." Muttered Guardsman Chavez bending down and poking the blood soaked helmet with his las-gun barrel. Wishart squatted down and saw that there was some bloodied pulp inside the helmet as well as crimson splashes over the tree trunk. His lasgun was dropped a few metres away. There was no sign of the body.
"Sully, field promotion to Corporal. Organize the men into pairs, include Captain Ulna. Quadrant search, fifty meter radius."
"Yes sir." Wishart turned around to Padre Allerman with a thousand questions.
"What is going on? I want some answers Padre. I want them now." The eager nodding of the wild-eyed preacher did not give Commissar Wishart hope that the explanation would be short.
"It happened three months ago. There was a flash in the sky and we took it as an omen from the Emperor himself. But it was a warning for our sins!" Some of the villagers murmured their disapproval at this but the preacher pressed on. "Then we noticed that many of our animals were afraid of the dark and refused to pasture. Some started to go missing and we put it down to wild animals such as - "
"No animals could have down that to my Bessie!" Interrupted a thick-set farmer. Further nervous murmurs from the crowd as well as agreements. Wishart shot him an irritated glance and the farmer shamefacedly looked back down at his feet.
"Continue Padre." The Padres cleared his throat.
"Where was I?"
"Wild animals." Ventured Wishart helpfully.
"Oh yes, wild animals here are small things Commissar. They can't take cattle nor kill larger animals such as dogs. No, it isn't a wild animal at least not one native to here." Padre Allerman lowered his voice. "A month ago we lost the first villager." There was a strangled cry from a woman who was quickly comforted by others. "Horrible. Horrible. The body was ripped to pieces - his heart eaten and brain opened, blood everywhere." Wishart held up his hand.
"Padre, no need to go into so much detail. Please continue."
"We started to lose villagers from the outlying farms and a week later we came here and reinforced our walls. Some braver souls went out to hunt this creature, but none came back. Each night we lose one or two more villagers. We have been praying for our deliverance to the God-Emperor every since. We thank him for the Emperor for sending you and your men. "
Wishart sat back and thought. The press of the villagers around him was starting to stifle him in this church.
Removing his cap and loosening his top collar he turned to the villagers.
"Have you sent for help ?"
"We prayed sir. The Emperor sent you." Wishart shook his head.
"No, have you sent for the Adeptus Arbites or the office of the Planetary Governor?" There was gasp.
"Sir, we are simple villagers but our head man left four days ago to fetch help at the next municipal town."
"Four days? How long does it take to get there?" There was a silence. "Well, how long ?"
"A day." Someone murmured. Wishart shook his head but realized he couldn't expect anything else from simple villagers.
"Padre, one of my men said that you have a transmitting station here. Lead me to it." The Padre smiled and stood up opening his arms wide.
"You are in the transmitting station sir. This church transmit direct to the God-Emperor himself on blessed Terra!" Wishart closed his eyes and sighed. This was getting surreal.
His eyes snapped open when he heard the unmistakable sound of a Ripper gun firing. Bolting out of the church he heard Coda yelling in the forest. There was also the sound of the unmistakable crack of a lasgun firing as well. Wishart pressed the communicator on his lapel and was greeted with the disciplined silence of combat communications.
"Corporal Sully. Report." There was a hiss and pop and then the voice of Sully came through.
"Sully here. We found a blood trail fifty meters away from where Toon's helmet was found." There was a pause and then the snap of a lasgun. "Chavez and Poll have gone missing. Coda smelt something and then started firing at. He's charged off after it. Sir, I think whatever it is, damn thing is smart. It's trying to split us up and take us out one by one."
"Understood Corporal. Give me a rendezvous point and I will meet you there. Collect the men." There was another low hum and then a hiss on the communication band before Sully came back.
"Raxis reckons he might have cornered it sir! Rendezvous at co-ordinates 2-9-4 NE. It's an abandoned church, he thinks." There was another low hum and then a pop. Sully voice sounded a little bit distorted. "Sir? You're hearing the hum and hiss? Guardsman Paz reckons it's a reverse-carrier signal. Someone is listening in to us - we think."
"Understood, all further communications on secure band alpha-two-nine. Meet me at the rendezvous point. Wishart out." Turning around at the expectant faces of the villagers, Commissar called out. "My men have spotted something and think they have cornered it at an abandoned church. I am going to find out what we have." An ashen faced Guardsman limped out with a makeshift crutch.
"Sorokin. Stay put and maintain radio silence."
"Yes sir." Clipping a magazine into his bolt pistol, Wishart swiftly moved off and nearly all the villages followed armed with various farm tools and old snub-guns. There was an unmistakable feeling of vengeance in the crowd that overcame the fear of the past few weeks.
Wishart and the villagers moved quickly through the forest, guided by the villagers and the squad locator on his wrist. The group burst into a clearing and saw Pilot Ulna and another guardsman covering the entrance of an old building. They looked up and grinned, Ulna wiped his face and spoke.
"Bit of a chase. We found Poll with his guts hanging out but tracked that thing to here. No sign of Chavez. We have it cornered but I think you need to see it." Wishart nodded his approval and moved inside, switching on his glow-tube. Only the Padre followed as all the remaining villagers huddled outside. Raxis appeared from the side room, his flamer switched on and shedding some light in the dark gloomy interior.
"I think we've found the creature, sir. Though it isn't some Ork or a wild animal." Raxis turned around and led the remaining party to a dark corner. The sounds of growling were clearly heard. The five remaining Guardsmen formed a loose semi-circle around one corner. All their weapons pointing inwards.
"What the hell is that sir?" Murmured Corporal Sully, gesturing to the form crouching and growling in the corner. Wishart stepped forward with his bolter leading and pointing at the form. It was a man, filthy and long haired and the place stank of rotten meat and dried blood. As Wishart got closer, he realized with horror it was eating and had crammed fistfuls of flesh from the leg of the missing Corporal into its mouth. Utterly revolted the Wishart raised his bolter and paused. The man-thing stared back at him with unblinking eyes, a spark of intelligence still burned in there. It bared it's two fangs and growled as it's muscles tensed. Something about the form was familiar to Wishart; the larger-than-average chest, the input plugs in his neck and chest, the remains of a black body carapace, the size. With a start he realized.
"By the Holy Throne." Murmured Wishart. "By all that is Holy on Terra."
"I know what that thing is."
"He's Adeptus Astartes. A Space Marine."
"What ?" This was Raxis the flamer trooper and he took a step back in shock. However, the other remaining troopers all murmured at the impossibility of this.
"That's a savage sir." Muttered Corporal Sully. "I know Space Marines and they don't look or smell like that."
"Excellent observation Commissar Wishart." The voice was from the tall form of a fully-armored Space Marine Captain emerging from the shadows. Flanked by six, equally impressive looking marines. The Imperial Guards sprang into defensive positions and raised their lasguns only for them to lower them after a swift look from Wishart.
"Indeed he," Gesturing with his power-fist, "is our lost brother. He is Adeptus Astartes. We thank you for finding him. We had been searching for our lost brother long and hard." The Space Marines spread out into a semi-circle to either side of their Captain. Without taking his bolter off the growling Space Marine, Wishart shifted his attention to the Captain.
"Elements of 5 Company, 27th Kapellan Greys accepts your thanks." Wracking his brains he could not place this Chapter and the unit markings looked unfamiliar. The Captain smiled coolly and Wishart noticed that his incisors were sharp. Two of his marines then proceeded to move towards their lost brother marine. Wishart did not shift his bolter but kept it steady. He spoke clearly to the Captain.
"You are aware that this Space Marine is to be reported to the Adeptus Arbites and the Imperial Army and Adeptus Astartes Liaison Commissariat on Uxor Prime under Imperial Army Edict 4.3/a and 5.2/c? Not to mention the Adeptus Mechanicus on Mars. He is guilty of murder, cannibalism and worse. He is responsible for the deaths of Imperial Guardsman as well as countless civilians." The Space Marine Captain narrowed his eyes.
"Lexus, Tolen. Stop." Turning to Wishart the captain's voice had an edge of menace.
"Commissar. This is strictly an Adeptus Astartes matter. You are not to be involved so please, let us avoid any unpleasantness and settle this matter quickly." Wishart noticed that apart from Lexus and Tolen, the remaining marines all had their boltguns ready.
"After the murder of the Guardsmen, it becomes an Imperial Army matter as well." Countered Wishart, not budging an inch. "This thing should be destroyed." Some of the Imperial Guardsman murmured in agreement and the atmosphere was tense. The Space Marine Captain was silent for a while, simply staring at Wishart. His eyes were boring into him.
"No Commissar, our brother will not further dishonor the Chapter and the Emperor." Bolter shells tore into the body of Wishart from other unseen Space Marines who had taken up vantage positions on the next floor. Wishart managed to snap off one shot before his body was flung back by the force of the bolt shells and landed in shreds. Raxis, Sully and two other Guardsmen all went down in bloodied heaps but firing. Their blood splashing crimson on the dark walls. Only Coda managed to step forward and fire back with the ripper gun before he too, died. Outside, there were sounds of screaming.
The firing stopped and the space marines spread out into a secure position. Space Marine Captain Callus stepped forward and towards their lost brother. Another Marine bearing the shoulder rankings of a Color-Sergeant followed behind and spoke.
"The Commissar was a good shot. Marine Chin was hit in the head - lost an eye but he'll survive. The ripper gun killed Aslan though. Took his head off. " Callus nodded to himself. The Color-Sergeant continued "At least the Commissar didn't report this thanks to our Tech-Marines. We are safe for now." Callus took out his bolt gun and chambered a round. He pointed it at the feral marine who, realizing his fate sprang up. The Captain fired several times at him, the bolt shells tearing holes into his body. It landed in a pool of blood meters from the Captain. With a sheer force of animal will it rose up and barred it's fangs at the Captain who promptly took the head off with his remaining clip. The Sergeant face was pale and he looked haunted.
"Captain. Will this fate await all of us?" Captain Callus looked around at his Marines and lied.
"No. I have faith in our apothecaries to find a cure in the flaw. It is a race between them and the Inquisition." The Captain turned back to the corpses littered around his feet.
"Burn them. Burn everything. I don't want a trace left." Meltabombs were placed around the abandoned building and he watched as the fire started to consume all evidence. The fire was still raging at the village and the abandoned church when the space marine clean-up team blasted off the planet in a stealth-enabled