The early morning chill was the only thing that kept them awake â€“ they were out in the field now so they couldnâ€™t cook or heat anything for fear of giving themselves away and cold coffee was worse than none at all â€“ it didnâ€™t really matter â€“ Silas had left his tube of sugar-sub paste in his other uniform â€“ shame. He shivered almost uncontrollably against the sand-bound cold and pulled his coat tighter against his neck; its in-built heating unit probably the only thing that was keeping him both awake and alive.
It was always strange to those not at home in a desert how cold it became when the sun went down; how many travellers who had suffered the fires of the day must have succumbed to hypothermia when the temperature dropped below freezing at night. At this point, it didnâ€™t bear thinking about so Silas pushed it from his mind and focussed on his target.
His attention turned back to the encampment about two hourâ€™s walk in front of them that sat atop a low, flat hill surrounded by plasteel razor wire fences, probably electrified and no doubt trip mines though he couldnâ€™t see them. Through his helmet visor he could make easily make the out the sentries posted around the camp â€“ about thirty of them; of more importance were the two heavy plasma repeater cannons that been set up on low towers that gave them sweeping fields of fire around the entire camp. These hadnâ€™t been factored in nor the fact that the â€˜sizeable forceâ€™ Colonel Parr had spoken of was closer to a full battalion instead of two companies â€“ five hundred instead of two. And Silas had less than eighty guardsmen after his fight for the town of Ashen three days before.
Through their own visors Master Sergeant Oar and Lieutenant Lvov had seen the same things and drawn the same conclusions â€“ they needed reinforcements and air support to even think about an assault.
â€œCaptain Veroâ€? the Colonel began, Silas had never been able to figure out why Colonel Parr insisted on calling him by someone elseâ€™s last name
â€œCaptain Vero â€“ my own scouts reconnoitred that camp only two days ago and they report nothing to corroborate your storyâ€? the emphasis on the last word was noticeable even to Lvov who lay prone some eight feet away, his head turning the other way so to not embarrass his captain
â€œCaptain Vero â€“ you have your ordersâ€¦again. And you will advance on the camp and will engage and will destroy the enemy there. Now I have spent all the time I am going to spend on this matter â€“ see to your orders Captain and return victorious!â€?
Oar and Lvov who had now been joined by the other squad leaders of the company sat in a small semi circle facing Silas â€“ their faces capturing the range of feelings a condemned man might suffer: fear, anger, disbelief â€“ word had spread quickly that much was obvious. A heated but still quietly whispered argument broke out amongst the company leaders about what they should do.
Silas let it continue for a short while
â€œThis is what we are going to doâ€? his voice immediately brought silence
â€œThis sand gets in everything! Curse the imperials for bringing us here!â€?
â€œIt was us who attacked them my lord â€“ we brought the guards divisions to Huronâ€¦â€? the aspiring champion did not get the chance to finish his sentence â€“ his cheekbone smashed in by the butt of the Raptorâ€™s bolter pistol.
â€œDonâ€™t correct me fool! Whose side are you on? Everything is the Imperialâ€™s fault â€“ including this cursed sand that fouls our vehicles and weapons.â€?
The aspiring champion dropped down on one knee, the blood and sagging hole on the left side of his face testament to the style of leadership that this Chaos commander favoured â€“ well, most Chaos commanders favoured. He watched through watering eyes the Raptor commander stomp away, kicking in fury a cultist rifleman who had been asleep viciously in the throat and kept walking as the poor creature choked to death in his wake â€“ his bunkmates watching without feeling.
â€œThat fool will be the death of us allâ€? Keg, the leader of the cultist infantry whispered under his breath as he helped the aspiring champion to his feet
â€œWatch your tongue Keg â€“ I should cut it out for just saying that â€“ you know the lawsâ€? Xenon hissed, but his eyes could not back up what he said
â€œYou should be our commander Xenon; that idiot cost us four hundred men as well as our most of our armour against the imperials at Ashen. And he cost me my younger brother â€“ I tell you this Aspiring Champion Xenon that I did not abandon the imperial guard all those years ago to commit suicide on some flea-infested dung-heap dust-ball for a commander who cannot tell left from right!â€? his voice was at normal level and several cultists nearby had heard him â€“ some stared vacantly and others scurried away immediately to pass on the conversation through the grapevine
â€œLater Keg â€“ somewhere lessâ€¦publicâ€? was all Xenon said before turned and headed for the medical bunker
Keg had joined the â€˜cultâ€™ seventeen years before at the height of the Protean Heresy where the entire Protean system and all of its six billion inhabitants announced their allegiance for Chaos. Keg had been one of the lucky few million or so to escape aboard the waiting Chaos fleet before the entire Protean system was wiped out by an â€˜exterminatusâ€™ led by Inquisitor Gens. He had fought on over thirty worlds against the Imperium and killed or had killed thousands of guardsmen and civilians for his dark masters â€“ though they paid him and his cultists no notice whatsoever.
Recently, Keg had become disillusioned with the â€˜great pleasure and powerâ€™ that Chaos had promised him â€“ he had seen nothing of the sort; only hardship and horrors worse than anything he had ever dreamed. If he had stayed in the guard and not been killed when his system had been vaporised â€“ he might have been an officer by now â€“ at least a Master Sergeant with good pay, a soft bed, proper food (not the refuse he ate now) and probably a nice, round country woman to call his own.
Dreams â€“ he had nothing of sort now. His closest compatriot and the only person he could even remotely consider a friend, Xenon was a disfigured part-cybernetic organism or cyborg who actually had no heart â€“ well not a real one. But it was this same â€˜heartlessâ€™ creature who had shown the most humanity to Keg the whole time he had been a soldier of Chaos and the only person who had any form of â€˜honourâ€™ that a guardsman might recognise. Perhaps that was why Xenon was not commander by now â€“ his apparent human-like weaknesses â€“ mercy and honour. Keg cleared his old, Imperial Guard-issue modified heavy rifle of dust and fell into a day dream about what might have been.
â€œThis dust gets in everything â€“ curse those chaos fools for bringing us here!â€?
â€œTrue â€“ but if it affects us then it affects them equally Lon.â€? Lieutenant Lvov acknowledged the wisdom of Silasâ€™ comment and turned back to cleaning his bolter pistol â€“ pulling out the firing coil that was already coated with Curâ€™s ever-present dark tan dust.
The company had taken twelve hours to travel the two hour distance to close the gap with the chaos encampment, slowly crawling their way behind low rises and down in little ravines to avoid detection. It had been difficult and everyone was covered in dust but they had got there without being seen and had set up camp on the only piece of high ground in the area that overlooked the camp â€“ Silas marvelled at this basic mistake but was happy to exploit their stupidity. Not everyone had had the same training he had had back on Riel â€“ the gruelling two year officer course was one of the most demanding the imperial guard had.
â€œNow weâ€™ve crawled halfway across Cur and have the great high ground â€“ what exactly are we looking for Silas?â€? Sergeant Oar crawled overâ€¦
â€œA weakness Jet, a weaknessâ€?
â€œAnd can you see any?â€?
â€œOne â€“ which is all we needâ€?
END OF CHAPTER TWO