Marcus Eddington felt weird.
It was an odd feeling. Everything around him seemed distant. Voices and noises seemed to be coming out him through a filter, making them muffled and distorted. Nothing in front of him was clear. He was dimly aware that someone, Jant maybe, was calling to him and that it was important. His breath was laboured. Almost out of nowhere, he noticed a pain in his side.
The whistle came, as if from far away. Marcus was actually expecting it as it got closer and shriller.
Then a bang. Then he was awake.
They had been speeding along in Whopper VII. After a few awkward and embarrassing minutes, spent separating Jant and Larson, commandeering some spare fuel from the Medusa crews, avoiding the glares of angered officers, they had been able to get underway.
Marcus remembered peering at the Denan landscape. It was desert, brown and golden. The sun beat down relentlessly, the heat oppressing. Some tangled and brittle shrubs littered the sands. Hills formed and faded away as they drove. Marcus was busy scribbling his observations.
Radio contact with the regiment was maintained at a boring, mundane pace. Miner radioed in every few minutes, Jant answered back: all clear, nothing to report.
Marcus noticed that for the first time since he’d meet the three Guardsmen, no one was talking. Jant kept his gaze ahead of him, eyes darting back and forth across the road. Larson, gun resting on the window, stared out at the desert, head looking back and forth. Quietus, above him, swivelled the big gun back and forth, a constant 180 degree patrol.
Marcus felt nervous. The quiet was as alien to him as actual aliens were to these men. He tried to ignore the feeling but couldn’t take it anymore.
Jant peered back at him for a moment distractedly.
“What is it Ed?”
“Eddington. If you don’t mind me asking Sgt, why are we driving so fast?” Marcus gazed behind him, the Tauros creating a cloud of dust. They were moving quite fast, communication over the roar of the engine possible only through a handy radio system embedded in the helmets.
“Aren’t we supposed to be staying just ahead of the regiment?” They were moving at easily 80mph.
“Well, those were our orders” Jant replied lackadaisically, “but Whopper VII wasn’t meant for crawling. We might as well check out the whole route, then circle back. Besides” he added “speed is necessary. Because of the aieds.”
Right, thought Marcus. Because of the aieds. Of course. Wait.
“Ah, Sgt, what in the Emperors name is an aied?” he asked, his voice heavy with foreboding.
Larson piped up.”He means I.E.Ds. Sgt Jant here has never really mastered military abbreviations” he said, a degree of scorn
“Yeah, well, I just say it like its spelled. Why complicate matters?”
Marcus interjected. “I.E.Ds?”
“Improvised Explosive Devices” answered Larson matter-of-factly. “Bombs that are thrown together fast, and placed where they can do the most damage. Heretic and rebel operations always have them. They get some gelignite, some wiring, a radio transmitter system if they can rustle up one, put it on a road and watch some convoy get hit. Annoying little things.”
Marcus suddenly understood why Jant’s eyes had been darting all over the road. “Hard to spot?”
Jant shrugged. “Sometimes. Cultists or rebels or whoever like to hide them. In rubbish, debris, whatever. That’s why we’re driving fast.”
Marcus’ stomach lurched as the Tauros bounded over a bump in the road. “So, what, if we go fast enough they won’t go off?”
He felt a wave of irritation as Jant and Larson laughed at him.
“Of course not, Ed!” said Jant unable to contain his glee. “They’re bombs not sliding doors.”
“So, they go off no matter what we do?”
“And driving fast does what again?”
Larson looked at him like he was stupid.
“What do you think? If we go fast enough we can outrun any explosion. Not so good with the science huh Ed?”
Ed stared back at him, the memory of 6 years of school science flooding through his brain.
“Outrun the explosion” he repeated back, stunned at what he had just heard.
“Yeah” said Jant seemingly confused at Marcus’ tone. “Why else would we be driving this fast? It ain’t for thrills. Guardsmen get that another way” he said patting his gun.
“You…I mean…have you ever actually outran an explosion?” asked Marcus incredulously.
The two men in the front seat looked at each other briefly, eyebrows raised.
“Well…not exactly” replied Larson.
“We usually spot them ahead of time, are able to avoid em” said Jant.
“Or some poor bastard sets em off for us” said Larson laughing.
“I see. So you’ve never been able to outrun an explosion yourself?” He was speaking slowly, trying to make sure he was getting through to them.
“…No”. Jant was beginning to look a little concerned.
“Well, I’m obviously no expert with explosive devices Sgt. But…”He paused considering how to put the following.
“Explosions happen at the speed of sound. Unless this vehicle can hit Mach 1 or higher, you can’t outrun one.”
There was silence again, another unnerving moment.
Jant seemed to be thinking, harder than he ever had before in his life. He suddenly turned around to face Marcus, keeping his left arm on the wheel.
“You mean, we can’t go faster than an aied?
“Ah, No I don’t think so” said Marcus quickly. “Ah Sgt shouldn’t you…” he added gesturing towards the road.
Jant continued undeterred. “Cus I’ve been driving these things for two decades and I ain’t never…”
“Sgt, the road, shouldn’t you….”
“No, hang on a second, I mean I don’t think you’re logic carries through Ed”
A banging came from above. Quietus was stamping, quite frantically.
“We’re going real fast, I don’t think any explosion…Quietus would you shut the hell up, I’m trying to talk to Ed!”
Quietus was looking down now, right arm pointing towards the road, stabbing with his finger, a look of vital urgency in his eyes.
“Huh?” said Jant turning his head back to the road. “What are you wavi…”
Looking back, Marcus would describe at as a whoof. Yeah, a whoof. Not a bang or a flash, or a thunderclap. It was a simple as a bunch of air being flung outward at great speed. The speed of sound he remembered, that useless bit of trivia lingering in his mind.
The sound was one thing. The dust was another. It was like an earth mover was flinging the desert sand right into the car. His visor was filled, but he barely noticed, the impact flinging him against the left door.
Whopper VII had lurched. 40, 42 degrees? It didn’t matter. The explosion (yes, that was what it was, thought Marcus drunkenly) had hit the right hand side of the car like a champions punch. Whopper VII lurched, went up on two wheels and stayed agonizingly long at that fulcrum of returning to its previous position or flipping over.
Maybe it was a slight flaw in the “aied”, the explosion not happening with the expected force. Maybe the modifications made to Whopper VII insured it was too heavy to end up on its roof. Maybe the God-Emperor was just looking down fondly on his 4 beleaguered children.
Either way, Whopper VII crashed back to the ground with a crunch, bouncing once before staying on earth. Jant (Marcus presumed it was Jant he wasn’t really paying attention) slammed his booted foot on the brake. Whopper VII slid on the road, if such a thing were possible, turning left and right momentarily, before coming to a stop a few hundred metres from the bomb site.
Marcus was leaning against the door breathing heavily. He clutched his side. Nothing seemed real at that exact moment. It was like he was half asleep, caught between a dream and reality.
Thunk. Think. Think. Thunk, Thunk.
The noises were strange to his ears, accompanied by a slight vibration against his left side. He heard whistles, rising to an ear bursting pitch.
It was like someone had thrown him into a pool of icy water. He was suddenly aware of everything, a sensory explosion.
His right ear rang. His right flank exploded with pain, enough to make him wheeze. He quickly wiped the dust and sand away from his helmet and glanced around quickly. The back seat was covered in sand, which lingered in the air, settling. The door opposite was bent in.
He was dimly aware that Quietus was above him, on his knees, head bowed. Larson was slamming his shoulder against his door repeatedly, the banging loud in the maelstrom. The door finally snapped open and Larson stepped out, gun in hand.
Jant didn’t appear to be moving and Marcus felt his stomach churn. But no, the Sgt stirred, shaking his head like he was just waking up after a long night. He looked to his left, yanked his gun from its holster, a small semi-automatic weapon as far as Marcus could tell.
Think. Thunk. Whirr, Thunk.
The realisation came like a left hook to the face. They were under fire.
Marcus instinctively ducked his head behind the door, stunned that he had left his head exposed for so long. The noises continued, bullets slamming into the Tauros’ armour. Marcus said a silent thank you, that Jant and co. had nailed an extra layer of metal onto the sides.
“Larson!, 4 Tangos, I think, 400 metres” yelled Jant, gesturing with his hand like an axe.
“I got them” he replied coolly. He had dropped to one knee, rifle at his shoulder resting on the hood of the Tauros. He pulled
his trigger. The weapon barked, again and again, kicking back into Larson’s shoulder.
I’m in a firefight, Macrus thought. I’m in an actual firefight.
“Quietus! I sure could use some support” yelled Jant, as he too commenced firing, his weapon quieter then Larson, but firing at a faster rate. He was awkwardly placed, unable to keep his head from being exposed.
Two bangs came from the roof. Marcus suddenly realised that Quietus was still on the gun. Shouldn’t he have been blown off? By throne, how strong was the mute to hang on?
He watched as Quietus got both hands on the controls and swung the gun to the left, peering out across the desert.
“Ed? Ed, you still with us? You better not be dead smart guy!” Jant shouted in his direction.
“I’m here, I’m alive” he replied, feeling his side. No tears were evident in his suit, and he could feel no moisture. “I think I’m ok.”
“That’s fantastic. Sorry to have to pop your cherry like this, but would you be so good as to fire back at these sons of bitches?”
Marcus gazed at him, not understanding for a moment.
“You want me to…”
His sentence was interrupted by a huge wall of sound coming from above. The big gun was firing.
It was a stream of leaden death. The car rumbled with the force of it. It was like an industrial machine, thugathugathug it went, combining with the metallic clink of empty shells hitting the roof.
Marcus suddenly remembered the reason he was here, hitting the red button on his recorder, before pulling the gun from his holster. He felt a wave of revulsion at the weight of the thing in his hands.
“Tango down” said Larson. He had now moved out from behind the boot and was in a prone position in front of the car, firing away at a steady calm pace, oblivious to the sand springing up around him from bullet impacts.
Jant had his door half open, sitting out, firing through the window.
“Keep it up. Can’t risk moving Whopper like this, we gotta drive these fuggers of first!”
Marcus wrapped his hand around the gun, his index finger touching of the trigger. He raised it slowly, pointing it in the general direction of the incoming fire.
He was keenly aware that he had come to a crucial point in his life, a true crossroads. He was about to fire at someone. Another person. So many thoughts were running through his mind. This person he was firing at, were they evil? Did they deserve it? How would he feel after, if there was an after?
He raised his head, risking a glance out. The sun still shone with a bright intensity, but the visor compensated. A while ahead, he could just about make out a couple of figures. He couldn’t make out specific details, but there they were. Heretics. Rebels. Enemies. He could see the muzzle flashes, hear the thunk, the whirrs, so close, so close.
He blinked rapidly, aware of the sweat on his face. He had the gun on the rim of the window. Was it ready to fire he thought? Safety off, clip in? He didn’t want to be a clownish figure, messing this up. Oh throne, could he actually do this? He was scared, or was he? Was it just adrenalin? He couldn’t even tell at this point. Where they the bold, diabolical rebel scum, shunning the light of the Imperium as he’d been told? Or were they, like him, scared out of their minds at what was happening?
The big gun was still rattling away, kicking up plumes of sand ahead of them. Marcus realised the volume of incoming fire had reduced but it was still there.
Jant and Larson were shouting something, but he couldn’t hear. He could no longer see the “tangos” but he knew they were still there. He made his arm straight, gun pointed in what he hoped was the location of those men shooting at them.
He closed his eyes. He couldn’t bring himself to look, to be a witness to what he about to do. He tensed, ready to feel the kick, hear the sound of the death he was sending, flying towards…
The big gun stopped. They all stopped.
“Cease fire. All clear” barked Jant, hand raised in a fist. “Finally got the bastards.”
Marcus opened his eyes, arm still outstretched, gun unfired. “It’s…its over?”
“Yep” answered the Sgt stepping out of the car.
“Just a handful” said Larson. “Probably a patrol, maybe an I.E.D cell. Knew troops were in the area, prepared an ambush.”
He spat. “Didn’t expect us though. Bastards. Hadn’t even dug in properly. Must be new to this.”
“Yeah, well they’ll never get the chance to know better now” said Jant.
“You ok up there?” queried Larson
Quietus stamped twice. He pointed his finger at his temple, span it around, then waved it off. Dazed but ok.
It took a moment but Marcus realised Larson was talking to him.
“Ah, my side hurts, but I’m not bleeding.”
Larson was checking out the side of the car. “Yeah, it was the impact. Whopper took most of it, your armour handled the rest. Hang on, we’ll get a bit of Morpha into you, you’ll be fine.”
Larson gave him a bemused look.
“Ah, yeah Ed, we won. The scribes of Holy Terra will already be writing epic poems about this glorious victory. About how 3 Guardsmen, a reporter and a Tauros vanquished a horde of rebels 4 men strong.”
Marcus ignored the sarcasm.
“Yeah, but they’re all dead?”
Jant answered. “If not, they’re real good at pretending.” He frowned.
“Technically, we should go have a look but they might have some more aieds around here. Can’t risk it.”
The Sgt paused, rubbed the back of his head awkwardly.
“Huh. I guess you were right Ed. You can’t outrun an explosion. Good to know.”
Marcus could only nod, too tired to exult in being proved right. He’d much rather have been wrong in this case. He lay still as Larson jabbed a small glass cylinder, retrieved from one of the medpacs in the Tauros glove compartment, into his right shoulder. Marcus felt a brief prick, then a slight numbness creeping through his body slowly. Not enough to impair him he realised, just enough to help with the pain.
“We’ll got one of the docs to give you a closer look when we get the chance, make sure you’re not fugged up inside” said Larson returning to look at the damage to Whopper VII. It was incredibly light given what it had driven next to. Just a noticeable dent and some battered rims.
Larson turned to Jant, who was looking under the hood. “Everything ok boss?”
“Yeah. No need to christen a Whopper VIII yet.” He slammed it shut. The radio was chattering.
“Canary, Canary, this is Miner. Interrogative: We hear gunfire, report, over.”
Jant sat inside, picked up the transmitter,
“Miner, this is Canary. Ran into 4 hostiles, possible I.E.D cell. All tangos down. We’re bruised but still running, over.”
There was a pause before another reply crackled through.
“Roger that Canary good job. Ah, you ok to go on?”
Jant offered a quick glance around. Larson looked up from his inspection, nodded once and returned to his work. Quietus,
busy cleaning the dust from his helmet, offered a thumbs up.
Jant looked at Marcus, the last transmission still unanswered. Marcus felt on odd surge of pride. The Sgt was including him in the decision.
Part of him wanted to say “No, Let’s get the hell back to the regiment.” But he didn’t. He felt a mix of anger and…annoyance. He had been shot at! By these rebellious bastards.
He felt alive. Very much alive, the pains in his flank a constant glorious reminder. He had faced the enemies of the Imperium and survived. Maybe the Morpha was talking a little but still…
He had won. He had won his first ever fight. There was only one answer to give.
He nodded, copying Larson’s “well, duh” style response as much as he could. Having achieved a unanimous decision, Jant turned his attention back to the transmitter.
“Affirmative Miner. We are Oscar Mike to the objective. Canary out.”
Marcus Eddington felt weird. He was worried, angry, in pain, a little scared, conflicted. But he felt something else.
Expectation. If this was war, he wanted to see more. It had only been a minute of combat, but he needed to see more, He felt a previously unknown sense of conviction creep up beside him. He needed to see this through, right to the end. He couldn’t go back now.
Within a few minutes, the drops of Morpha easing his pain, Marcus and the crew of Whopper VII was on its way to do just that.