Ok, I figure you’ve been strung along this journey long enough. Strap on your body armor and helmet, charge your weapons, and let’s get in the fight. Remember what Custer said in the Civil War: Move to the sound of the guns. Read on, my friends. Read on.
The scenery hadn’t changed since they crossed the river, no matter how far they drove into the desert. Nathan let out a heavy sigh as his eyes roamed the brilliance of the desolate gorge. They’d been locked between its walls long enough for the suns to reach their full height. It was barely mid-morning, and heat was already blazing down on them without remorse. He’d already drunk enough water to fill his stomach and had no desire to have anymore. The only thing Nathan wanted was to be free of this confinement. To take his mind off the boredom, he turned to Xill.
“How long have you been out here?” he asked.
“Just over three standard years.”
Nathan shuddered. His own experiences in the Iraqi desert came back to haunt him. He’d hated the blistering heat and dry winds back then. Helscape hadn’t done much to change his opinion.
“I don’t know how you do it,” Nathan admitted.
Xill smiled, “We try not to think about it.”
Content with that answer, Nathan sat with Xill and watched the menacing crags and outcroppings of the Gorge walls go by. He wondered what was going to happen when they reached this mysterious Hive. His own encounter with the Berserkers was more than enough to stimulate his will to fight. They’d killed his partner and threatened everything he ever knew. This was the only way he had of ensuring his world stayed unharmed. The crisp crackle of gunfire erupted from the head of the column. It was slow at first but soon grew into a terrible noise.
“Ambush! Ambush!” came the cry through everyone’s helmets.
Nathan’s heart leapt into his throat. This was it. There was no turning back now.
Yonash Hosking had never seen the face of death with such clarity before, and now that he had, he was scared beyond belief. His stomach wrenched itself tighter with fear. Their track lurched to a stop as it came under fire. Hosking slipped and hit his head on the side of an ammo can. The machine gunner kicked him away and tried to return fire before they were all killed. Shell casings and hot vapors fell on Hosking’s exposed flesh. Wiping away the trickle of blood rolling down his face, Hosking watched the path of the ion rounds as they penetrated the hull of the captured APC.
Bile flowed from him, spilling down his armor and onto the battle-darkened hull of the track. The smell of melted flesh and powder residue collided into an acrid perfume. This was Hosking’s first taste of combat, and the effects were maddening. The first hint of a killer crept into him, driven into fury by the sights and sounds of so many of his friends dying. Dark forces in his mind slowly took control.
Oddly enough, he liked it. He heard the whispers in those seldom-used cavities of the mind comforting him and urging him to kill and kill again. They burned his soul to the point of agony. Yonash rose to a knee and fired wildly in all directions. He didn’t care what he was shooting at. It didn’t really matter anyway. One Berserker fell, then another. An APC along the far wall exploded, killing all inside before they could escape. The lieutenant jumped from the track. A deep groan from the machine gunner made him look up. A spear had pierced the machine gunner’s heart, and his body slumped over his weapon, bright red blood painting the steel. Madness consumed Yonash, and he ran off into the thickening haze of battle.
“Squaffa! Lieutenant, get back here!” Snake Eyes cried. Hosking couldn’t hear him. He didn’t want to hear.
Xill and Lal-owk were the first to climb up from the hull and add their fire to the defense. Ground forces were already deploying across the Gorge’s width. Snake Eyes knew the infantry lines weren’t strong enough to hold, especially when the Berserkers could pop up from anywhere. He kicked the dead gunner aside and charged the heavy machine gun. Strips of the man’s flesh clung to the barrel. Xill pointed to the sky as Snake Eyes let loose a long burst into a group of charging Berserkers.
Winged Berserkers launched from their hidden crevices and screamed down on the column like wraiths. Using captured weapons, they rained a heavy fire into friend and foe alike. Any advantage the Imperium soldiers had thought they had was fading fast. Seli T’lain was pulling herself up when a Berserker dove directly at her. She was mean as nails and determined not to die here. Using her reflexes, Seli ducked back down into the hole and fired off a half magazine of grenades. The 40 mm shells struck the beast in the chest and exploded.
A short spear splintered against the track’s hull, making Xill roll over and come up firing. He let out one sharp burst, and the Berserker toppled in halves. Lal-owk stood over him, firing into the growing enemy. This was out of character for him, as he was the platoon medic and a pacifist by nature. He watched as a ground trooper let out a stream from his flame-thrower. Even as those dozen monsters died, a hundred more appeared to take their place. The battle was quickly becoming one-sided. Snake Eyes hardly dared to think about surviving.
The ground gave way beneath the flamethrower man, and he disappeared as spider-like arms reached up for him. His fuel tank ruptured below the surface, and the ensuing explosion sent shockwaves across the battlefield while spitting gouts of fire from several different holes.
“We’re not going to make it!” Lal-owk howled.
Klausky clasped his hand over his friend’s shoulder and nodded. “Keep firing and everything’s going to be all right.”
The primate tried to swallow, to find some measure of control, but he drank only dry air. His body hair was matted down from sweat, and his heart was beating faster than ever before. Lal-owk kept up his fire until someone told him to reload. He was scared to death, but determined not to die.
For the first time in a brilliant military career, Joneth Pierce was caught by complete surprise. This wasn’t supposed to happen. His seniors in Imperium command insisted. The developing scene left him in awe. Never before had an enemy been able to anticipate him so well, and his troops were paying for it. A part of him stood in praise of the Berserkers, but the rest stood ready to commit brutal murder despite his orders. Old, honed instincts kicked in. There could be only one way through this scenario.
“How could you know?” he roared to the skies. The twin barrels of his ion rifle were glowing to the point of melting.
Bodies rose and fell in waves. Some were the genetic nightmares, but most belonged to his pride and joy. Pierce could feel his blood boiling and the intense pleasure it brought him. This was the one act he’d been bred for. Generations of warrior bloodline had culminated with this. His well-conceived plans may be finished, but they left him with room for one final act. Redemption. His driver was dead, and his hover jeep knocked out of the battle by a captured rocket fired in the opening stages of the attack. Pierce and Gladak made their final stand against the roiling hordes. Suddenly, the outcome of his glorious campaign was in question.
The engine burned uncontrolled, threatening to blow the fuel tanks and take the whole damned thing apart. Gladak was on the hood tossing incendiary grenades into the mass of Berserkers. Body parts flew apart, melting as they drifted. A troop of frightened soldiers tried to run out the back ramp of their track before it exploded, but a handful of the winged monsters soared down upon them. The explosion killed them all.
Pierce’s first barrel stopped glowing and melted to slag metal not long after the battle began. He ignored it and proceeded to burn down the second barrel as well. “Come on, you bastards. Come and get me!” he screamed at them.
Gladak reloaded during Pierce’s raves. With any other man, he would have been afraid, but Pierce always knew what he was doing. A rock upon which the waves of an ocean crashed and broke. Each and every time they had gone into combat Pierce was the guiding light that saw his division leave enemies shattered on the field. Never before had the 76th lost ground. Gladak ground his pointed teeth together. Pierce was not the stolid figure he’d always believed. Faith shaken, the division adjutant turned away from the enraged general and went back to the battle. There would be a moment of reckoning once this affair was ended.
A pair of tanks roared by. Rounds from a captured APC shredded one track which ground the tank. The track exploded before the monster could sight in on the second tank. Pierce was laughing now, deep and bordering on insane.
A Berserker leapt through the flames and tackled Gladak before he had a chance to see to his commanding officer. Neither expected the inhuman strength of the other as they grappled and rolled across the blackened vehicle. The Berserker managed to move his face in close and started snapping at Gladak’s neck. The dragon pulled his arm free and delivered a series of quick blows to the monster’s ribs. Gladak reached down and pulled his boot knife while the monster buckled just enough. They rolled once, and then again, and Gladak stabbed the tempered steel through the Berserker’s throat, ripping the vocal cords out and severing the jugular.
Spouts of dark blood jetted through the Berserker’s hands. Gladak snarled as he thrust into the Berserker’s heart and kicked the body away. Behind him, Pierce wrestled the rifle from his driver’s convulsed fingers and continued to reap vengeance on his name. One monster after another fell, and still hundreds more rose from the piles. It was then Gladak that first saw the hopelessness of the situation and began to act.
Mnemlath licked the first taste of human blood from his claws and felt its enraging power course through him. The soldier’s twisted body lay looking up at him in pure fear. He had thought to make a stand with no more than a steel blade. It was his last mistake. The Berserker tore the head off and threw it into the retreating fleshlings. Despite how well the battle was going in their favor, Mnemlath was here on a mission. There was one man out there that had to die today, and the Berserker wasn’t going to rest until he fed on the body. Until he found Aradias Kane and finished what he had begun so long ago, Mnemlath would continue to kill.