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Ismail loved staring at the orange sky, laying down on his back. Especially in a hot summer day such as this, when the delicate, sweet smell of the flowers blooming all around him was made even more fragrant, and butterflies fluttered about. He was in the privacy of his “secret corner”, a small grass clearing amidst a flowery meadow, which he shamefully created by virtue of his procrastination. Not his fault the world of Tallarn made such simple pleasures irresistible. That it was also a place where he tended to muse on recent events did nothing to get him back to work. Lately conscription had become a reality, and there were rumours that the Astartes Legions had turned on the Imperium they had sworn to protect. Ismail groaned, shifting on the ground. It was such a beautiful day for such gloomy introspections.
“Ismail, you lazy grox!”, shouted a voice in the distance. The man himself whimpered quietly, and remained still. Perhaps Raoul, the farm's overseer, would not catch sight of him if he let the brushes cover him. The bee-line of trampled vegetation told a different tale. The buzzing bees and fluttering butterflies gave place to a red-faced, panting man looking angrily at him. “Get up! Before I plant you six feet under!” Ismail hopped onto his feet. The man seemed terrified. “What happened, Raoul?” In response, he clutched his arm and all but dragged him along. “As of ten minutes ago, the planet is on full alert!” Whatever remained of good humour in Ismail's heart was quickly evicted by a strong feeling of anxiety. “Traitor Legions, they say! We will be invaded, they say! Oh Throne alive, there come bitter days we must taste!” The rumours were true, it seemed.
Raoul lead Ismail to the nearest army base. Everyone capable of holding a lasgun was to participate in the planetary defence. The time up to the moment he was deployed to defend the closest city passed in a blur of activity, as he came to grips with all that it meant. Now, however, the flow of time had almost ground to a halt, and Ismail was terrified. There was no realistic chance that the farmhands turned soldiers would stand up to the Astartes, and all of the quivering men in his trench knew as much. The outerworldly officers's platitudes sounded hollow to all. Around them, the people hurried to the underground bunkers in a frantic display of disorganization. Soon the exodus clogged the roads and people set upon each other.
In front of Ismail, two families had had their grox carts crash in the rush to get to the bunkers, and proceded to solve their problems by shouting and waving their arms at each other. “Men! Shoot those troublemakers as an example to the rest!” The officer in charge of his makeshift platoon demanded. The Tallarn militia stared at him in disbelief. “Sir? They are our cousins and aunts! You cannot be-” Ismail's stammering was halted by a laspistol aimed at his face. “Something you say, conscript? Get to it!” The officer's grip on his weapon was wavering. His panic-stricken face turned blank, as Raoul slammed the butt of his lasgun into the back of his head. “Foreigners... Come, we now help our people reach safe haven.” No sooner had Raoul said these words, a loud whistling sound deafened out all others. From the skies, what appeared to be meteors rained from the skies. One such projectile landed squarely in the center of the city, suppressing even the whistle from the many bombs crashing down into the surface. A sinister cloud of a dark-green hue expanded from the point of impact. Instinctively, Ismail knew he had to avoid contact with it.
He shouted at one of the women trying to haul an inordinate amount of blankets onto her back, but deaf as he was, he couldn't tell what he had said. The militia opted for dragging the panicking refugees towards the bunkers, as there was nothing to gain in waiting for a bomb to fall on their heads, and no one wished to know first hand the purpose of the sinister smoke clouds encroaching on their position. Worse still, the entrance to the bunkers was clogged by frantic citizens squeezing their way in. The militia had no hope of reining in the deafened and terrified mob, so they settled with shoving as many people in as they could before the smoke reached them. Such an effort was set up for failure. Even as the smoke began to disperse, the citizens furthest from the entrance started coughing convulsively, then dropped to their knees clutching their throats, chests, faces. Tumours grew at breakneck speeds across their bodies, and before Ismail's eyes, they began to fall apart even while alive. The already panicked mob broke into a stampede for the entrance to the safety of the underground, pushing and shoving their way in. The militia's nerves broke, and they too scrambled for the entrance, gunning down whoever stood in their path. Appalled, Ismail tried to shout sense into them, even as he jumped over the corpses of those fallen by lasgun fire. It was to no avail. He was caught in the human wave trampling its way to safety, and unable to prevent any of the atrocities happening all around him.
After seven weeks of anguish underground, the Tallarn returned to the surface. Men vomited as the bunker gates opened, so intense was the miasma outside. Amidst the present was a shellshocked Ismail, whose nausea was the strongest. But unlike the rest of the men, he found himself walking towards the rotting mass of indistinguishable biomatter outside. He ignored the shouts of his companions to return, and did not flinch when they shut close the gates. All he wanted was to return to his secret corner and rest for the final time.
........................................................................... ........................................................................... ......
The forest was alien, the shapes distorted and unfamiliar, spreading out through the maze of valleys and mountain ranges that covered the planet. Huge trees cut up the sky whilst smaller ferns and vines hid whatever lay beneath. The air was heavy with humidity, warping the numerous cries and groans from the unseen native life that somehow lived in such a place. Unmistakable however was the deep thuds and cracks of a distant battle, bringing quick flashes to the far horizon, it's pattern having no structure.
The midday light made it's way down to the forest floor, lighting up the tranquil scene below. Eight men, each loosely wearing the uniform of an imperial guardsmen, steadily made their way through the tangled undergrowth. They kept silent with one another, seeing no reason to alert the forest of their presence nor having anything meaningful to say. At their backs, the roar of battle continued with uncontrolled ferocity, demanding the men quicken their pace if they wished to be rid of its haunting sound and the memories that followed close behind.
The shadows of the men grew longer as the day aged on. The warmth of the afternoon was short lived, leaving the cold of the evening to keep them company. Feeling such a shift, the men stopped and prepared to make camp. A small fire was soon lit, bringing some warmth to the scene whilst hiding the greater forest around it in pitch blackness. Sentries were posted and the remainder of their meagre rations were shared out amongst the huddle surrounding the fire. Sore feet and cold hands were brought out along with a small sense of comfort.
One man took out a map and after some study, shared the good news with the rest of the group.
“We've walked around 30 km today, damn good considering the terrain and such. By tomorrow noon we should be at the rendezvous.”
“That's where we're meeting up with the other two groups right?” questioned one of the youngest of the group, known fondly as Silver for his white hair.
“If they bloody well made it out that is. We had enough trouble ourselves!”
“Quite Samson, you saw the signal!” broke in the Corporal, a large barrel chested man by the name of Hawkins. “Sure it was damn well chaos that night, but it was our only chance to sneak out. Our section was too busy fending off the raid to notice us.”
“Can you be sure they hadn't seen us? That las-fire was awfully close as we reached the forest!”
“I said shut it Samson!”
The argument began to worsen, the men being mentally stretched from their four days on the run.
Others joined in, voicing their fears of pursuit and the punishment for their actions, eventually leading to their greatest fear.
Silver needed reassurance; “You sure he's dead?”
The others stopped their squabbling to look down at the young man. Hawkins was the first to reply, “As sure as I can be Silver. You put a good few shots into him right Manderly?
“Sure as sure. All right on the heart, not that a monster like him would have one” replied the bony soldier who rubbed a shortened fingers on his hand.
If there was one man these men feared most, even above that of the Emperor himself, was their former Commissar. He was known simply as 'Chopper' by the men for his iconic disciplinary technique using wire cutters, discipline that always seemed lacking in his eyes. That fear had been the one hurdle in their plan, the hardest one of all, but the most satisfying for those who took part.
The reply didn't seem to comfort all the men, some feeling worse off than before. Hawkins felt the need to reassure them “Look, it's been days since we broke out and there's no sign that they're pursuing. We're probably considered missing in action by command. All we need to do is keep focused and reach that rendezvous where we can regroup, restock and move to the next step of the plan. Now let's get some sleep before...”
One of the sentries had come running into the camp, breathing hard and spluttering a warning. “Imperial patrol.... north... 300 metres... about 5 of them....”
Hawkins swore under his breath, motioning the men to get ready. Scrambling to get their weapons, the former guardsmen took their positions, dousing the fire and emersing the entire area in darkness. The noises of the forest could be readily heard now, the wine of the wind passing through the tree tops, the odd call of some strange animal, the men dared not make a noise.
Their eyes adjusted to the murkiness, the five figures emerged, all seeming oblivious of the danger as they walked straight towards the camp. Hawkins saw their faces clearly.
Las-fire broke out from the group, cutting through the small patrol and vegetation around them. The flashes made horrid faces of the shadows, taunting them on as Hawkins fought to regain control. Manderly moved up to check the bodies, Silver was silently crying.
“You wankers! Those were ours!” cried Hawkins as he ran forward to assess the situation. The corpses were twisted at odd angles, but their was no mistaking their identities as members of the last group. Manderly motioned Hawkins to look at their hands, both bound tightly to their unloaded weapons along with tape across their mouths. Shouts in the distance brought Hawkins back into focus.
“They're on to us men! Break camp and move it!”
Having caught on already, most had gathered their equipment in haste, making off into the forest towards the rendezvous. Hawkins took one last look at the corpses of his former comrades, a chill of fear gripping him as he glanced at their hands once more. All were missing their index finger.
A pretty powerful piece. Dragging the farmhand from such a gentle, idyllic scene to the forefront of the horrors and desperation of war in so short a space of time really makes them hit home, and makes the ending that much stronger.
Another really strong effort. You've managed to construct a real sense of fear, and although I'm not entirely sure whether these guardsmen a more afraid of the enemy or their own Commissar! A great effort, though.
I'm not really sure I can separate these two. Although... I think Andy_G's has that little bit more of an impact, so I might give this round to him. A great effort on your part though, Rangarkash, the closest of the round thus far!
Rangarkash - 3/5
Andy_G - 4/5
Both stories were good, I found Rangarkash's the stronger thank's to its almost surreal quality, whether created by Ismail's fear or his peace of mind. Andy_G's piece was of almost equal merit, however I found it a little difficult to put into perspective with the lack of main character.
"Take their gold, burn their homes, kill their familes and enslave their souls. Show them no mercy...oh and could you post these letters while you're out?"
-Malekith, Witch King of Naggaroth.
Rangarkash: I was a little amused by your farmer's unique turn of phrase in the beginning, but overall very well done. I really liked Ismail coming full circle, but I didn't really get a sense of these people being more Tallarn than simply ordinary Imperials. I do like that you did your research when you placed the story in the Horus Heresy era, what without any deserts. Well done.
Andy_G: Another really good story. Good description of the comissar's impact on the group, and the ending bit with the missing fingers was the icing on the cake. Can't really find too much to not like this story, if you could have gone on longer then it would have been perfect, we didn't have too much time to dwell on the former guardsmen's situation.
Rangarkash - 4/5
Andy_G - 4/5
Rangarkash: I thought the piece really summed up the 40k universe as whole, horrific foes bringing out the absolute worst in humanity as it struggles to cling to life whilst the odd hero is powerless to really make a difference. The description of the virus bombs actually made me feel nauseous but I thought the ending was a tiny bit abrupt. Great peice on the whole though.
Andy_G: It took a little while for me to peice together that the men were deserters but when I did, it really gave a twist to the story. There was a real sense of fear amung the troopers but I could really imagine them as a squad on the run. I loved the ending with the finger but agree with Marius, a tiny bit more about the deserters fate would have been perfect.
Rangarkash - 4/5
Andy_G - 4/5
Your friendly neighbourhood gargantuan creature
Wow- every set of entries I read gets better and better! You guys both did a great job. I have to commend you both for having excellent formatting in your stories, and for using all 1000 words to their full effect. Your stories felt so much longer than many of the others, just because you didn't waste words, and every sentence was worth reading and committing to memory. I feel like this Ladder idea might be a bad idea, because there are some great writers who are getting bumped down into the bottom rung when they should definitely have stayed up top- as much a testament to their talents as a chance for other writers to improve before meeting them again.
As for the individual stories-
Ragnarkash - you're story terrified me. I have to admit that nuclear fallout and biological warfare is one of the greatest fears I've ever had. If I had to complain about your story, I'd say that I wish you could have made the effects of the virus bombing even more disturbing, to really hammer the point home. I like how Ismail is carried along as a passive observer to the horrors around him. Walking off to find solace in the end is a bit of a cliche, although it is definitely an effective one in this story. You dodged a bullet there- any less well crafted and I'd have hated the ending. I think to drive home the catastrophe theme a bit more, you could've really twisted Ishmail's thinking, turning him from a tender-hearted reluctant farmboy-turned-soldier, to an empty and bitter shell of his former self. Great work all around, excellent story and you definitely caught the theme of Catastrophe.
Andy_G - Your story is the first small-scale catastrophe that really felt noteworthy. All of the other stories that focused on more personal catastrophes didn't set the scene or build up the characters as well as you did, leaving an empty "well, who cares" feeling at the end of it all. Yours is different, and your sheer skill is the only reason that your catastrophe holds up against Ragnarkash's planet-wide devastation. Still though, even with your skill, it doesn't feel as tragic- I think you may have actually lost that when you said that the arriving group was missing their trigger fingers. It's as if your squad of renegades actually escaped a trap, rather than suffered a catastrophe - has the Commissar survived and caught up with the other group, punishing them and then using them to ferret out their comrades? You did an excellent job conveying the frayed nerves, the brutality of their environment, and their struggle to survive- I only wish that you had used a massive catastrophe as the backdrop for this, thereby handling the theme better. Perhaps they were just loyalists struggling to survive after nuclear holcoaust, hence the cold and the darkness. Or maybe they were fleeing a horrible Tyranid landing. You crafted an excellent story, but this was a tougher match up than I think anyone anticipated.
I've got to give the edge here to Ragnarkash, by the smallest possible margin.
Ragnarkash - 5/5
Any_G - 4/5