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“Prayer is what separates us from the rest, brother.” Sergeant Uschold gave the faintest hint of a grin towards the rest of the squad as he turned the edge of the cable platform. Uschold’s words were quiet, but Nam could hear the fervour in the voice of the most devout man in the squad.

As the newest member of the squad, Nam was first in line. Stepping to the brink he looked down. The dark streets and alleys of Hive Secundus stretched out in all directions, a dizzying labyrinth, and his heart rose in his throat. Had he folded his chute properly, remembering all the words of the litany? He checked the release again, and tugged the strap holding his flamer just to be sure. Was it too loose?

“By the Emperor’s shriveled left nut, just jump already!” Copeland usually sounded annoyed when he was talking to Nam, but this time it seemed to have a particular edge. This time it was real. Nam felt a flush in his face, and embarrassment made part of him want to slink away. But a bigger part didn’t, and gritting his teeth Nam jumped into the void.

The rush of air wiped away any sense of embarrassment. “Wooohoooo!” he shouted, thrilled as he had never been before. He was flying.

Over his commlink Sergeant Uschold’s voice sounded, “What was that, private?”

“Nam away!” he shouted back. He should have been embarrassed by his late confirmation, but the thrill was too great. He spread his arms and legs to slow his descent as he had in the training jumps, and waited, enjoying the thrill of flying free.

Over the comm the rest of the squad sounded off, “Copeland away,” the big private sounded bored.

“Austen away,” followed by a chuckle.

“Kahler away,” in his quiet voice.

“Turk away.”

Finally, “Uschold away, Emperor preserve us all.”

The six of them plummeted through the dark skies for what seemed an eternity, but was really only seconds. In the streets below sparks of coloured light burst in the darkness, flares lit by the ganger allies. “Drop on the red flare!” Sergeant Uschold repeated the order from the briefing.

Nam eyes fixed on the flare briefly, before a trio of dark shapes hurtled by, buffeting them with the force of their passage, “What in the Eye?” he said.

“Its just the Sentinels kid,” Austen replied, “wait for their chutes.”

Soon after the sentinel’s chutes deployed, opening with a sound like the pop of gunfire. The squad dropped past, the ground seeming far too close for Nam’s comfort. Much closer than the reading on the altimeter showed. 500 meters, “Now!” heached for the release, and for a moment terror consumed him when he couldn’t find it. Then it was in his hand, and he pulled with all his might.

There was a delay that only increased his terror, then he felt his entire body jerked backwards as if by the Hand of the Emperor. He sighed in relief, it had all seemed so much easier in training.

Below sparks of light appeared, which he quickly realized was lasgun fire being aimed up at him. His breath sounded very loud as he watched the altimeter count down, praying to its dim glow that he would not be hit. At twenty meters he tucked into position, and as the final distance counted off a building loomed right in front of him. Despite the surprise he hit the ground in a manner that would have made the instructors on Igneous proud, collapsing and rolling back to absorb the shock, releasing the chute as he did, then rolling back forward to his feet on momentum. Around him his squad mates had done the same and were already at the windows of the building. Ushold gestured to Nam to hurry up, and he rushed over to join them by the windows. Inside figures could barely be made out moving around in the darkness. “Fire!’ he shouted, smashing a window with the hilt of his chainsword.

Nam thrust his flamer through the window and squeezed the trigger. Beside him Austen did the same, and further gouts of flame from the Sentinels lit the building and street in a lurid scene. Inside men screamed and fell in the searing flame, their bodies writhing as they burned. Nam gasped at the sight, shocked to see the men inside dressed in Guard uniforms. He said, “But…they’re Guard.”

“Shut up kid,” the Turk shouted

“But…” Before Nam could complete his sentence the men inside the building opened fire. Two missiles crashed into the Sentinel on their right, knocking it the ground. To their left another fell to a dazzling blast of coherent light. But the squad was fine, sheltered by the wall. Sergeant Uschold gestured for them to move into the building and half of them were through the shattered panes, then the other. Lasguns pocked the walls around them, and more men could be seen lining a balcony on the far side of the room they had entered. No prompting was needed. Nam and the others fired again, dousing the balcony with flame and lasgun fire.

The screams and cries redoubled, but now there were no more second thoughts in his mind. Blood pounded in Nam’s temples as they charged up the stairs to the balcony, the fires that they had lit now licking around them. They burst through a door to find a covered walkway before them, and at the other end a squad of men raised their guns, raining lasgun and plasma fire into their midst. One of them screamed as his plasma pistol exploded in his hand, and Nam was surprised as the Turk collapsed before him, groaning.

Nam stepped over the Turk’s body, turning his flamer on the squad at the far end of the walkway, Austen doing the same beside him. The flames filled the walkway, and the enemy squad turned into dancing shadows in the midst of the fire. One by one they crumpled as Nam watched, fascinated. He fumbled as he replaced the promethium cartridge in the flamer, then his jaw dropped as he saw what he would have sworn was a child of fire, looking down sadly on the bodies. But then in a flick of flame the vision was gone, and he was standing breathing gasps of air that seem to char his lungs with the heat.

Another squad appeared at the far end of the walk, beyond the dying flames. They only fired desultorily, then charged forward, only to balk before the flames. Nam fired again, dousing them with flame so that they too danced and died. Behind them the building was fully ablaze. “No way out that way brothers,” the Sergeant said, looking back. “Into the fire!” And he was off at a run, leaping through the flames. Austen and Kahler followed, pulling the Turk between them.

Copeland grabbed Nam’s arm and hauled him the blaze with a shout of “Right, into the fire.” Together they ran through hell. Holding his breath there was fire all around him, but after only an instant it was gone, and they found themselves in a ruin of a room, the floor all collapsed in the middle.

“Watch your step brothers,” the Sergeant said, and they started to pick their way around the edges. Then from the windows across the room another squad of guardsmen poured in, and before Nam could even blink Kahler went down to a burst of pistol fire, and then he was fighting for his life. He turned a thrust of a bayonet with his vambrace, shoulder checking his attacker into the pit below. Looking to see who he could help he found himself in a whorl of violence.

Austen sent a man staggering backwards burning like a candle before taking a bayonet through a gap in his armour and going down. His finger must have stayed on the trigger as he fell, as his flamer continued to belch fire around the room. In the confusion their enemies tried to run, but in the close confines they were able to quickly finish them off. But now the room was alight as well, and the flames cut them off from Kahler and Austen. Copeland started back towards them, but Sergeant Uschold grabbed him by the shoulder, shouting, “They are in the Emperor’s hands…”

Nam thought he heard a novel hint of doubt in the Sergeant’s voice, and he stepped up to the flames, crying, “Oh lord… oh lord…” Once again Nam he saw a childlike figure of fire gazing out at him, eyes full of sadness. Then it was gone, and he stared deep into the fire, searching, hoping to see it again.

Suddenly he was roughly turned around, “Lord kid, what’s gotten into you?” Copeland shouted, “we’ve got to get out of here!” The big man dragged a reluctant Nam away.

Nam kept looking back over his shoulder to the fire. Was he crazy, or had he really seen it again? What was it?

“Snap out of it kid, there’s nothing you can do for them.” Copeland said, misunderstanding.

The flames were licking at their heels as they ran down a rickety staircase, breaking out through a side door to find a gun team hunkered down before them. In reflex Nam fired, flame bathing the gun team. Copeland hurled his demo pack, and the blast rocked them back on their heels. But the dust cleared to reveal another set of guns beyond the first three, and these new enemies fired through their smoldering comrades, lascannon beams flashing. Looking around Nam found himself alone, and looked across the distance to the guns. It’s too far, he thought, but he started forward anyways. He could see the teams slapping in new power charges, and the guns turning towards him. He raised his flamer, but it was still too far.

Suddenly a Sentinel burst from an alley, its flamer pouring fire into some guardsmen piling from a building before leaping among the gun crews. Nam stopped, watching the guardsmen beating futilely at the steel legs as the walkers feet stamped at them. He stood dumbly for a while. He realized he was at the edge of large square lit by the burning wreck of a sentinel. On the far side he could see the Commander’s gunship hovering overhead, while troopers and some of the ganger recruits moved about. The sentinel was still fighting with the guardsmen, but the result was a foregone conclusion.

Nam turned back to the building he had just left. Fire jetted from the windows and the heat pressed back on him at the distance. He looked for the child, but couldn’t see it. “Why Me?” he shouted at the flames. His squadmates were older, more experienced. Why had they fallen and not him? He picked up a rock and threw it at the building, “Why me?”

“Why not?” said a voice quietly.

Nam spun to find the child by him, no longer flaming, but glowing with a soft light that seemed to sap the anger out of him. He realized that the child was not standing on the ground but seemed to be floating several inches above it. It had to be him. “Oh Lord,” he said, “have you come again?” Nam asked in a whisper.

The child smiled wistfully, “Not yet.”

“Why here then, why me?” Nam realized he was crying, tears of joy streaming down his face.

“Because you are worthy.” The child reached out a hand, and gently wiped the tears from Nam’s right eye. The touch sent a thrill of ecstasy through Nam, and he dropped to his knees. Before him the child raised the hand slowly, and touched his fingers to his lips.

“No one thinks that…” and realizing what had happened to his squad, “thought that.” New tears flowed, tears of sadness.

The child smiled once more, then in a flash of light he disappeared.

Nam merely knelt there a while, sad and confused. What did it all mean? After some time he realized there was a voice on his commlink, “This is command, all units, report in, over.” There was a pause, and then the message repeated, “This is command, all units, report in, over.”

He fumbled with the send switch, then said, “Command, Private Nam, Special Weapons Team Bravo, reporting in, over.”

“Bravo, what it your status, over?”

“Command, I am the sole survivor, over.”

There was a pause on the line, “Roger.”

“What are you telling them a thing like that for kid?”

Kneeling though he was Nam nearly fell over. “Copeland? I thought…”

“Yeah, I know what you thought.” Copeland stuck his hand out. Nam took it and the big trooper pulled him up. “Looks like you were wrong.”

It sounded like the same Copeland, but where was the annoyed tone, they condescending gaze? “But how.”

“I think you know.”

“Come on, the sergeant is waiting for us.”

“What?”

“Yeah him too, he told me to get you back pronto or he’d kick your ass.”

That didn’t sound like the sergeant, “Really?”

Copeland laughed, “Nah, he said some crap about trying to be pious for once in my life, but screw that. I don’t want to have to help the rest of the guys back by myself, so move it.”

“Then too?”

“They’ll live…”

It was all impossible. “What happened Copeland?”

“I dunno kid, you’ll have to tell me.” The big man was very quiet for a moment, then clapped a hand on Nam’s shoulder, “but after tonight I’ll drop with you anytime.”

Korvus 02:54, 9 February 2008 (UTC) Nicholas Cioran

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