‘Wow. Does this look like anything you imagined it would be?’ she asked.
I shook my head, unsure if the question was directed at me but decided to answer anyway. ‘Not really no, but then I wasn’t really sure what to imagine to be honest.’
‘Yeah… wait. Hang on!’
‘That doesn’t make any sense.’
‘What you just said. I mean, how can something not hold up to what you imagined it would be, if you yourself weren’t sure what to imagine in the first place? That’s like one of those, what do you call it, one of those self-contradicting things!’
I tilted my head sideways to look at the pale, freckled, slightly chubby face of Keelin Ghallagher. The girl frowned back at me in an obviously doubtful manner. She was about my age and one of the five fellow survivors of Slate Town who I managed to convince to come with me to the capital to join the new child program. She had actually been the very first to agree to it.
Mind you there are moments…
‘What are you talking about?’ I asked her, my voice weary for what was undoubtedly going to happen next. I have known this girl and her arguments for years, I knew what was coming.
‘Well,’ she sputtered. ‘What you just said didn’t make any sense, one word denies the possibly of the other, it’s all very illogical you know.’
I rubbed the bridge of my nose and suppressed the urge to groan. If I said something like: That is just the way people talk, this could go on for hours. So, the best thing to do right now was just dissolve the whole argument before it gained any momentum. Today was important.
‘Ah I see. Your right of course. I am sorry for confusing you.’
‘Alright. No worries.’
Keeling grinned broadly at me, then turned her attention back towards our surroundings as if the little debate had never happened. I did my best to ignore the sniggering of my other companions who, except for Arthur, all seemed to find this very amusing. Donnela gave me a wry smile and patted me on the shoulder.
‘Better keep that in mind Eachann, they say that good communication is crucial in the military.’
The laughter started again while I suppressed the urge to sigh. That last joke had not been very funny by any sense of the word, but they laughed anyway, probably because of their nerves. So, if I could help relieve some of that tension by being laughed at a little than that was fine by me. Today was the big dag after all. We were finally going to do it, join up and become real soldiers. And I was not going to throw a fit on a day like this, especially not over something stupid.
I looked the brave four who had come with me from our hometown with a strange mixture of pride and a bit of disappointment. Quite a lot of Slate town survivors had decided to actively join the war effort in one way or another, as many of them had nowhere else to go. But these four were the only ones out of a nearly a hundred people my age who I had managed to convince to sign up with me for this so-called special unit. That stung a bit, especially since none of them had been any of my friends who survived.
We had not exactly been told what would make this child unit special, but I didn’t really care all that much at this point. As long as I got to fight Orks and got to do anything else than just sitting around waiting for the war to end I was content. Heck at this point I would have gone to battle in a bloody pink dress if they had asked me to. As long as I had something to vent my hatred on.
Arthur was there of course, ever since his little wake up outburst we had in the hospital he had stuck to me like glue wherever we went, I had no idea why though.
He did not say much since the initial scream of outrage and when he did speak it was mostly in single syllables or grunts. I don’t believe I have heard him talk a whole sentence since we left the hospital. This wasn’t so strange by itself, as he had always been a quite one but that had mostly been out of shyness, I think. Now it was more like talking to people was a bother and he no longer saw any point in making the effort.
He did not seem all that bothered about his new appearance either and had made no effort to covering up the scar. If you glanced at the left side of his face, he still looked perfectly normal, but when he turned his head you saw it. The skin of his eye ear and lower jaw had been melted away, leaving behind only reddish pink scar tissue. The right eyeball was gone completely and this combined with the way the scar stretched tightly over his face gave him and oddly skeletal appearance.
Though personally I wasn’t all that bothered by his maimed side, it was the unscarred one that slightly gave me the chills. He had changed completely since the attack and not just in the way he looked. At some point during the horrors of the Ork raid something inside him must have just snapped.
He never talked about what exactly it was that had happened to him during that night, but whatever it was it had caused him to go away somewhere, to some hidden place in his head. The doctors had told me that this sometimes happened to people under extreme stress and pain and that often there was nothing to be done about it.
I didn’t know why Arthur had decided to come back to the realm of conscious thought when he did, but he must have left some parts of him behind on that hidden place. You could see it in the way he looked at people, his face as hard as marble and his eye as cold as ice. Nothing of the old sweet shy cry-baby was left it seemed. Or perhaps it was more the case of him having lost all his fear of the world around him.
It wasn’t just me though, he also unnerved the rest. Donnela, my new girlfriend, and her sister Treasa, had at first been happy when I told them Arthur would come along with us to the capital. But now they tended to avoid him as if they were afraid he might bite them or something. Treasa had even gone as far as to complain to me and ask why I have brought him along at all? That had been a hard conversation.
Keelin was probably the most comfortable around Arthur. She generally tended to act perfectly natural around him and seemed to be on some kind of personal mission to make him laugh. The thing I always liked about her was that none of her attempts appeared to be forced. It was all just something she really wanted to do. Not that she ever had any success in her quest for cheerfulness, but that is beside the point really. The fact that she was trying at all to be generally kind to almost anyone despite everything that happened was a trait I greatly admired about her. I sometimes wish I could be like that.
The five of us had just stepped out one of the many buses that had been used to drive what I guess are about a few hundred people my age, from the capital of the Stormlands to what we had been told was one of the norths greatest training facility’s: The Crow’s Nest. It had been a long and noisy ride and I was happy to finally get out of that tin can so I could stretch my legs and look around a bit.
Like I said before, I was not sure what to expect when they first told me about this place but the images my brain had been cooking up beforehand weren’t anything like this. The only thing I could image was something like the old sports field next to my school. But even while I was looking at it, I still could not figure out why the warp they called it The Crow’s Nest in the first place.
This didn’t look like my old school at all. Mostly because the schools that I know of weren’t surrounded by four-meter-tall iron fences with barbed wire and regularly placed machine gun towers, although there are stories about certain boarding schools. Also, most schools don’t cover as much ground as small city, because the Crow’s Nest certainly did. When I first saw it in the distance, I mistook it for just another village. Except that most villages have acres of farmland surrounding it instead of open rocky fields and aren’t completely made out of low, cuboid, office blocks. At least, that’s what they looked like. Some of them did kind of look like my old school though.
We, meaning the five of us and at least six hundred other volunteers our age, were standing around on what appeared to be a main square of some sorts, paved with cobbles. Probably the central square if I had to guess. The building behind me was larger than the others and decorated with ornate buttresses and flags of various provinces. It might as well have the words: ’This is where the boss works’, written above the door.
Soldiers were standing at attention in a long line at the edge of the square, surrounding it. Each and every one of them looking intently at the even growing group of people. They were unarmed, but they were obviously there to keep an eye on us. Can’t say that I would blame them, because there is nothing capable of causing trouble like a group of nervous, anxious, bored teenagers.
There was a wooden stage in front of the large building, like the once we used to build for bands to play on during the annual festivals. Only this one is much larger and decorated with flags.
‘I think that’s where we are supposed to go.’ I said gesturing.
‘Perhaps someone will give a speech or something.’
‘Really.’ Treasa said in a mocking tone of voice. ‘By the stage, we would never have thought of that. Good thing you are here.’ Only her sister laughed at that. Keelin always knew the difference between laughing with and at someone.
I chose not to reply to her comment and headed straight towards the makeshift stage and the crowd that was already forming around it, with Arthur in tow. At that moment I didn’t really care if the rest would follow me or not. The crowd got thicker the closer we got but none the less I manage to find us all a spot close enough to at least see the stage clearly. And then we waited.
They did not keep us long. Shortly after the last bus had left, the speakers on the podium let out a sharp drum beat followed by what sounded like a few sharp blasts on a trumpet. It would have been more impressive with actual musicians there, but as far getting general attention, it did a good job.
A small group of people, about five of them, walked out onto the stage. I didn’t know much about military ranks and uniforms but judging by how neat and well decorated theirs were with various shiny bits and the stiff way they walked, it kind of reminded me of my old school’s head teacher. At the time I could make an educated guess that these must be at least some of the people in charge of this place.
The most elaborately decorated one of them all, a man in his late sixties if I am any guess with a bristling silver-grey beard and hair, stepped forwards towards the microphone and addressed us all in a raspy but still somehow strong voice.
‘Greetings all who volunteered themselves for this great project. My name is General Whitestone and I must admit that I am proud to see that so many of you were willing to join the fight against the Orks ahead of time.’
There was a general cheering and whooping from the crowd at this but Whitestone raised a hand and it quickly died down again.
‘The reason why you have all been allowed to join the fight against the Orks two years ahead of time is related to what will make the company you will all be part of so special. It has until recently been considered highly classified, but I will now inform you of its nature since all of you have a very important decision to make. One that will influence the rest of your lives, however long it might be, greatly and I will personally see to it that if you have to make a choice like that at your age it will be a well-informed one.’
There was a stream of murmurs after this and I could hear Donnela and Treasa ask each other astonished questions, but the noise died down quickly when the General continued. ‘You are all no doubt aware that five months ago after decades of silence the Star Empire of Mankind has finally contacted Gregoria once again. The ship that they sent, called The Scream of the Void, is currently stationed in high anchor, orbiting above our atmosphere.’
I found myself nodding even though there was absolutely no reason to. We had all heard the news when that ship arrived, something that would probably go down in history as one of the most significant events in recent history. Perhaps even a tipping point in the war. It was the day that fundamentally proved that we were not alone out here between the stars. Some people had started to believe otherwise. They said that the grand imperium of man and its god emperor had been nothing but pious story’s made up by the priests to keep us in line and loyal to the church.
War could do that to the way people thought about things. Especially since all the secrets of making contact with the forces beyond the stars had died together with the capital. Gregors Fall, once the mightiest city on Gregoria. A place of legend. But according to the stories, it had been whiped of the face of the earth in a single day.
The vessels arrival had been a moment of great hope and celebration for our entire world and its people. At last, we all thought, the Emperor has headed our prays and has sent its mighty armies to cleanse our world from the Alien plague. That story about the great golden man who looks out over humanity from beyond the stars, that the priests kept going on and on about was true after all. We are not alone in this universe after all and now this war is finally over!
You can imagine how much it stung when we heard that: no this was not the case. It must have been what a farmer feels like when after months of praying for rain a dark cloud finally does appear on the horizon, then only let out a few measly drops before dissipating again.
Only a single ship had come to aid and this was not a humongous war cruiser, capable of levelling entire cities from orbit and filled to the brim with well-trained soldiers and powerful war machines. No. The Scream of the Void, though well-armed, was relatively small as far as imperial starships went and it didn’t carry any soldiers or tanks. No instead it carried priests, priests and scribes.
A week after the ships arrival there had been a planetwide vox-broadcast in which the people from the Imperium would speak to us all. I still remember that day quite fondly, how the entire family was all huddled around the caster in the deep of night all still in our sleeping clothes. The air was so thick with tension and excitement you could cut it with a knife, a very dull one even.
And then the voice had come, deep and booming even over the crackling vox. He was Bishop Orrin and he told us many things about who they were and were they were from. They told us tales about the Imperium, about the great galaxy-spanning empire of mankind and about the god that rules it. It did exist, despite of what some people had begun to claim to contrast it, and we of Gregoria were a small part of it.
But then they told us that even though they were here to guide us through this darkness, and no other help would come. Because, the entire sector of imperial space in which we lived had been overrun with a massive greenskin invasion on a galactic scale and all the local forces of the Imperium had been stretched thin to fend them of. They had no forces to spare for this world.
Bishop Orrin also said that that we had brought this upon ourselves. We had failed to live up to one of the God Emperor’s most sacred decrees: Suffer not the alien to live.
When the Greenskins first landed upon our world all those years ago we could have annihilated them with ease. But instead, with our Governor gone, we turned upon one another In a greedy game for power. With the capital destroyed we all wanted to be the new rulers of the world and both the leaders of north and south Gregor believed they were the rightful heirs.
They started arguing with one another and argument quickly turned into conflict which turned into war. All but ignoring the infestation of greenskins right under their noses. After all, there were so few of them. What harm could they do? They don’t even have any weapons of vehicles, only rubble of the old capital. What a bunch of complete idiots those leaders must have been. Yes, I know I’m writing from hindsight here but come on, those xenos just blasted the most powerful city on the planet the planet to dust and you still underestimated them.
There aren’t many people alive today who still remember those days and how the north and south used to hate each other so much. But in the end, they didn’t stop fighting one another until years later when a huge fleet of ramshackle Ork ships, (the once that float not the once that fly) came over the horizon from the remains of the old capital and attacked both continents in a great wave of green bodies.
This, claimed the priest, was the great sin of our ancestors, and the only way we could redeem ourselves was by cleansing this world of the alien taint ourselves. Or something like that at least. Long story short, they were just here to watch us and see if we were feeling guilty and resentful enough while remain loyal to the imperial faith.
Talk about a disappointing kick in the teeth. One that especially stings because a small part of you feels that you deserved it. Mind you this didn’t stop me from cursing that priest to the warp and back, but still.
‘The Scream of the void did not come here to liberate us from the Orks as many of us had hoped,’ General Whitestone continued. ‘has none the less been a great help in the war since. From orbit it has provided invaluable strategic insight about enemy locations and defences. The scholars working under Bishop Orrin have provided us with valuable information about the enemy that even we did not know yet, as well as being a great reinforcement for morale. And most of all, though the vessel is no true warship and has only a limited supply of ammo, what fire support it has been able to provide has been of great value in the war effort so far. But the greatest help it will be able to give Gregoria is the reason you are here. Namely in strengthening our soldiers.’
I raised both eyebrows, what the warp did he mean by that?
‘The Tech-priest, the true technological masters of the imperium, know countless great and powerful secrets, some that a primitive world like our own can’t even begin to imagine. There are Tech-priests aboard The Scream of the Void and they have come to share once such a secret with us.’
‘They can make you,’ he gestures broadly at all of us, ‘into better soldiers than you can ever hope to be on your own. Bless you with the powers of the machine that go well beyond the limited abilities of a mere human. They can make you faster, stronger, capable of hitting a bird in mid-flight with nothing but a thrown rock!’
My mouth dropped open. What? That is what they meant by special regiment! I just thought we would be a test show the world that young people could fight just as well for the sake of their world. That now was the time to cross that line in order to win this war. Not that we would be made into something as ridiculous as super soldiers, there had always been stories about the impossible skill of the Tech-priests but this was something strait out of a comic book!
‘But,’ Whitestone’s face darkened at this point, as if he just smelled something rancid.
‘this gift cannot be bestowed to fully grown man and woman, only to the young. So that is the decision you are all going to have to make.’
He gestured towards two large buildings on the right side of the plaza, clearly marked with the large numbers One and Two.
‘Those that join the first regiment will receive these enhancements together with one and a year and a half of the best training we can give you. You will be a fighting company made to give Orks hell and hurt them where they need to be hurt the most.’
‘If you do not want this, which is something I fully understand as it is a heavy and dangerous responsibility after all, you will join the second regiment and learn to be a support unit for the front lines. Providing crucial things like supplies, medicine and rations to the fighting man and woman until the time has come for you to receive the rest of your training into full soldiers.’
‘This is a big decision that will influence the rest of your lives so take your time and feel free to ask for further information at any of the stations. But keep in mind that once the decision has been made, there is no turning back.’
And without uttering another word or as much as nod in our direction he turned left and walked of the stage. Talk about dropping the bomb.
Arthur gave me one vaguely questioning look, tilting his head in a microscopic beckoning gesture and then walked off towards building One without as much as a single glance back. Message clear. I made to follow him but felt a tug on my arm.
‘Where are you going?’ Donella asked staring at me intently.
I couldn’t just walk off like that; the building is not going anywhere soon and these girls came all the way with me. At least I should properly say goodbye, I owed them that much.
‘Well I can honestly say I did not expect this when I first read that recruitment poster all those weeks ago. But for me the choice seems quite clear. I came here to kill Orks! I’ll understand if you don’t all feel that way but keep in mind that even if you choose the second option you will have to fight eventually.’
‘Are you nuts?’ Donella’s eyes were so wide I could see the white all around them. ‘You’re just going to leave us behind and let a bunch of off-world freaks do whatever they want your body?’
I paused for a brief second then nodded. ‘If it means that I can help rid Gregoria of Orks better than any other and stop more villages like ours from being burned down? Then yes!’
‘Don’t give us that grox shit.’ Treasa calls out. ‘You’ve said yourself you just want to kill as many Orks as possible so you abandon Donella and me after dragging us all the way here to this madhouse. You warped bastard! What kind of boyfriend are you?’
I looked at her for a brief second trying to control my anger, then I smiled.
Yes, you are right. Part of the reason I’m here is because getting payback against those things is all I can think about really. I won’t deny that. But don’t go blaming me for you being here, you are here because you had nowhere else to go. Simple as that.’
I turned towards Donella. ‘And you are mad because you think the person you have been relying on for support is walking away. Nothing more. This is my choice and you two can learn to walk on your own damn legs for once.’
‘Fine you stupid brute, go get killed! See if we care.’ Her sister sneered. ‘Our best friend Keelin won’t abandon us!’
Keelin, who had been quietly staring at the sky during our little argument, suddenly looks down at the two sisters.
‘That’s the first time you have called me that.’
I never would have imagined that the always cheerful Keelin could sound so cold.
‘As far as I know best friends don’t make fun of one another behind their backs,’ she said with a chilling smile on her face. ‘You two are a real pair of suckerfish you know that? Come on Eachann, let’s go!’
After that the two of us walked after Arthur into building one without looking back. I know a lot of arguments can be made both for and against what I did, and some of you reading this might think that I am a bit jerk for leaving them behind like that. You are free to do so of course, the last thing I will say about that whole affair is that in my experience good relationships are not supposed to end with you feeling like a large weight has just been lifted of your shoulders. So there is that.
This was a mistake.
As I was lying on the cold metal table staring up aimlessly at the dark ceiling above, that consensus was one of the few clear thoughts my drug-dazed brain managed to put together. This had been a mistake.
The room we were all lying in was only very faintly lit but none the less I could tell it must have been huge, the size of a sports field perhaps. I am not sure how many other people must have been there lying on tables. A hundred maybe? Perhaps more, I couldn’t even lift my head to check.
After a period of time that somehow simultaneously managed to feel like an eternity and the blink of an eye (don’t ask me how, I was drugged and kind of loopy at that point) a door opened and people entered. The way they walked sounded downright bizarre though: many of them had heavy stomping footsteps, others had something like loud clicking skitter. I’m quite sure that one or two rows to my left one of the figures rumbled by on what I thought were small tracks.
My drug dazed mind could note these things but beyond that, didn’t really know what to do with them. I couldn’t draw much of a conclusion from them other than a vague sense of: That’s not right!
One pair of heavy stomping feet stopped at my table and through the daze I could see a figure leaning over me. It looked strange, dressed in robes whose colour I couldn’t really make out in the twilight, it had an inhuman stillness about its posture like a statue and what I could have sworn were glowing lights underneath its hood where its eyes should have been.
I can assure you that at this point my brain was really trying its best to be scared but it somehow just was not happening.
A light next to my table flicked on and I managed to wince and groan a little as my eyes burned. This must have startled the creature because it let out a rasping breath and stepped away from my table. Then there were a bunch of metallic clicking sounds as it stepped back, before it let out a horrible series of screeching noises that sounded like a haunting combination of radio static and nails over a chalkboard. A second later his call was answered with an equally horrific sound from somewhere far away in the room to my right.
As the figures made teeth wrenching pleasantries with each other I managed to squint open an eye and look at it. The robes as it turns out were a rusty hue of crimson, I didn’t take too much not of this though for I was too buzzy paying attention to its face. For what I could see, the things jaw had been replace with some kind of grill. One of the eyes looked like a telescope lens and the nose had been cut off. The remaining flesh was an unhealthy shade of grey.
I would have screamed if I could and given the time, I might have but then a metal tentacle appeared out from somewhere beneath the robe and stabbed me in the neck. It must have had a syringe or something attached to it because what remained of my consciousness rapidly began to fade. The last though I had before it all turned black was that this really had been a mistake!