Sunday, April 23, 2017

Mission Report (A2): Smash and Grab

Althea sat in the back of the van, staring at the others through hooded eyelids.  She was pretending to be disinterested, but the pair in front of her were commanding her full attention. She had seen them around the safe house in the two days since she had shown up, but she still didn't really know either of them.
Gustavus had the air of a preacher, quite the opposite of Doc Geryk’s skittish, muffled presence. Gustavus had an ample belly on a thick frame. His voice always seemed to be addressing a throng, even in ‘quiet conversation’. His constant companion, a laudhailer servo-skull, was clearly a redundancy for a man used to pontification in general, and frothing piety at its likely peak. Even his (rarely) quiet attention was potent enough that Althea felt its weight even when she was looking elsewhere. He was larger than life, truly, and seemed almost to speak a different language of humanity than Althea knew; an alloy of simple belief, directness and bombast.
Althea found herself anxious should there be any need to be discreet – she couldn’t imagine this man ever being able to ‘sneak’, and his flamer indicated perhaps a propensity for destruction.
In her experience, men like this led either from the front, or from the back.  There was rarely a middle ground. She could tolerate the rushing immediacy of a combat leader. Vacillating ‘strategists’ never seemed to last long in the boarding parties in the Navy.  You couldn’t trust a soldier, or a leader, that wouldn’t be where you needed him to be. All Navy crews were trained to repel boarders at the drop of a hat (or hatch), and there was rarely time to ‘wait for reinforcements’ or ‘outflank’ in the confines of a voidship under fire. Less still in a landing sortie or dusting off med-evac from a hot DZ. Althea may have spent more time with toggles under her feet than a lasgun in her hand, but she appreciated decisive, trusting leaders.
Lazarus, the last of them, was harder to read than Doc or Gus. His sniper rifle alone suggested a trained eye. His weapon’s condition, impeccable, stood in contrast to a tendency to general scruffiness. He was otherwise happily non-descript; average height, average build, with the new chameleoline cloak Doc had found draped over his shoulders.  He was a bit gruff and didn’t say much. He’d simply accepted the chamo with a grunt, the other three more or less deciding that he could need it to be the ‘eye in the sky’. Indeed, despite his reticence she found she trusted him immediately – a good thing for the gun at your back.
Althea was starting to get over her fear of having betrayed the Syndicate. Sure, her face had surely gone out on the two-face board, and they might even have put a bounty on her, but she seemed to have more resources here. Even though she still knew very little, the demeanour of her compatriots tended far less to the… piratical… than her more recent acquaintances. They clearly had resources, even if they were black bag. Althea knew she was in harm’s way now more than ever, but she was also closer to… something, anything more than the sleepwalking she had called “life” since her accident. Maybe these Or at least get someone to fix her damn eye!
Lazarus and Gustavius were arguing about the approach. Althea was keenly aware that she was the newcomer to the group, and so she was treading lightly until she could read the situation better. The Doc was up front, driving the groundvan. She knew she was a better driver, but she wanted to keep her face out of view in case there were syndicate plotters around. And besides, he hasn't broken an axle - yet.
Althea sighed.  She didn't know why she was in this groundvan, heading off to Emperor knows where to put herself in danger. I left that behind when I left the Navy... Saints and martyrs, why didn’t I just drop that vox out of an airlock...  Except that she did know why she was in the van. She was going to recover Touchstones from a Syndicate stash.
Olivia.  Bitch. Something about her grated on Althea. She sent them out but stayed behind at the safehouse.  She didn't think that Olivia was the voice behind the vox, but she was closer than anyone else there. Though from what she said, maybe not even… something about finding a dying man near the Face. Olivia played things close to the chest. Althea would cooperate until she could get the voice to destroy the tape. And if it wouldn’t, she would destroy the voice.  Or die trying.
The Touchstones were apparently addictive as all cut. She had never Touched. Apparently it made lho sticks seem like smelling amasec instead of actually drinking it. ‘One touch, out of touch’, so the Red Eye’d have it. The skinners lined up for tickets with coordinates and times for the ‘Showings’ like a Ministorum vidlog sermon or something, just for… quietly touching some stone? This was clearly heresy at best, and damned heresy at worst. This was bad news.
Althea felt her patience run out.  She leaned forward and slapped the seat with the map on it. She addressed Lazarus and Gustavius with the certainty that only the young and the mad could muster. “You really want to plan all the details based on the map written by a captive that you’ve been torturing?  We’ll get there and Lazarus can climb one of these buildings to get a good vantage.  Then we’ll improvise.”  That shut them up.  Finally.  
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
They arrived and it looked as if the map had been accurate. There was a roofless bunker surrounded by fences and a field before ruined buildings started to rise in the distance.  Lazarus scaled one of the ruined buildings while they waited for his report. Their target lay under the bunker.
Her microbead buzzed to life. “I got two. Engage? Over.”  
Althea mulls over the question before responding. While she’s thinking, she hears the preacher’s gruff voice “I’ll introduce them to the light of the emperor – I think I can talk our way in, I’m very persuasive.”
This guy was even worse than the Doc. She had been planning on letting the others lead the way. After all, they surely had more experience in these types of situations, but she couldn't. Her voice just came out.
“Absolutely not. This is Syndicate. Nobody knows about it except for Syndicate. Or the Suns they paid off. And we’re almost at the Face – Elevators are the Face, or close enough.  Nobody wanders out here. Lazo, you watch and update. If one of them sees us, take them out.”
“My name is Lazarus.
“I’ll take that as affirmative.”
She led Doc and the preacher through the shattered habs. They got through four rooms and across an alley before one of Gus’ hammers hit a piece of masonry and made a large clang.  They froze immediately.
Gus hiding behind the ruins waiting for the Red Eye to approach.
“One approaching. Suspicious.”
Cut that.
Gustavius turned to them. “I’ll wait here for the heretic,” he grumbled, knotting his brow. Gus pulled his shotgun and huddled in wait.
She led the doc through the hab now to close on the bunker from the far side from Lazarus. As she braced on a window frame to climb through, the cladding she grabbed sprang out as she put her weight on it. It shifted a mass of detritus off the shattered floor above them, and  rubble went clattering forward.
“They heard you. I’m engaging.”
She heard a bang.  In the distance she thought she saw a spray of red mist through the bunker’s open top. “Fulfilled.  Acquiring target.”
As Althea burst from the building and started to race towards the bunker, she saw Gustavius step out from behind his cover and shoot the first syndicate ganger with his combat shotgun, pulping her body where she lay in cover from the Sniper.
She heard the Doc running behind her.  She was hoping that the gangers would move out on Lazo’s position and she could circle up behind them and shoot them in the back.  With her long legs, she was much quicker than Doc Geryk and soon began to outpace him, so that as she closed in on the bunker she was very much alone.  A Red Eye jumped through the window and shot her at close range as she closed in on the bunker. She dodged the worst of it, but was seared through the leg, which went numb. She heard the Doc’s laspistol returning fire. He even managed to hit the ganger, but didn’t look like he caused much damage.  If only the doc was still using his bolt rounds.
Her regret didn’t last long as she pulled out her shotgun and downed the grunt. That close, nothing would survive three hits from her father’s shotgun.
The grounds were silent. “Lazo, see anything?”
“Negative.”
The bunker with the casualties littered around it.
“Wait,” she heard Gustavius say, “one second, I’m going to try something.” She heard a grunt and a rock went flying into the bunker. They heard a clank and then nothing.  She peered around the doorway and the bunker was empty, just a rock sitting on the floor. She gave Gustavius a quizzical look as he walked up.
“What?” he shrugged. “I thought throwing a grenade might flush them out.”
“That wasn’t a grenade.  It was a rock.”
“Heretics aren’t that smart.”
They found a hatch and gathered around it.  Gus prepped his flamer and Althea leaned over and pulled the hatch back. She heard the explosion of a boltround and the hatch blew apart in her hand. She felt pain lance through her left arm as she was thrown backwards onto her ass. A piece of shrapnel had ripped through her armour and torn up her arm.
“Cut this!”
Nothing else came out of the hatch.  Doc came around to her and put a med-adhesive on her hands.  It burned, but they started to feel better pretty quickly and the blood stopped.
Gus reached down to his belt and unhooked a grenade and dropped it through the hole. There was a bang and a flash of light as the acrid smoke of a stun grenade floated up through the hole.  Althea looked into the hole and saw a ladder going down a wall. She really hated running point, but she knew it had to be her. Anyone else would have to climb down the ladder, exposing their back to the rest of the room.  She had always been light on her feet.  She gripped her shotgun tightly and leapt into the room below, landing lightly on the floor, her shotgun sweeping ahead of her.
She saw two bodies crumpled on the ground, their chests rising and falling.  No one else. “Clear.”
The others climb down the ladder after her.  She motioned for Lazarus to cover one door, the doc to cover the other and the preacher to attend to one of the bodies. She went to the second body, pulling out her climbing line.
No boltgun. Still rats crawling around here…
The man’s stink assaulted her nose. These Syndicate are repulsive - worse than any she had met in the last few months.  As she reached out to the man, she heard a grunt and the man grabbed her wrist and pulled. Cut it! He was playing dead! “Althea!” She hears Doc Geryk yell.
She may not have been ready for the initial pull, but Althea was nothing if not fast and she did manage to bring her knee up.  She fell down, cracking the man in the nose. She squirmed and grabbed the man’s wrist, twisting it up behind him.  He yelled in pain.
“Doc! Get over here!”
Geryk walked over, pulling out his laspistol.  His eyes were wide open.  Wild.
He pointed the pistol at the man, who stopped struggling.  Althea let go and stood up behind him.
“Get up. Slowly.” she said.
He started to rise, slowly, and then shifted his weight and launched himself towards the medic.  There was a quick flash and the smell of cooked meat flooded the room. The man fell, holed through.
Doc’s twitchy as all cut! No prisoners for the medic I guess!
Althea looked over at Gustavius, who had been watching this entire exchange.  He looked down at the guy crumpled on the ground below him and then back at the man Doc had just shot.  He unhitched his hammer from his belt and raised it in the air.
“Death to the heretic,” he screamed before bringing his hammer down. There was a sickening crunch as the man’s skull went concave.
The casualness of it shocked Althea, but she didn’t entirely disagree with the sentiment. They couldn’t afford another of these thugs waking up as they pressed forward. Tie him up? Cut it – make them pay. She had made a mistake that the preacher would clearly not repeat. The Doc looked like he was going to be sick, and even Lazarus looked uncomfortable.
No time to dwell on it. “Doc, Gus, with me.  We’re going through that door. Lazo, cover the other.”
The men followed her lead. Gus unhitched his flamer and as Althea pulled back the door, Gus fired a huge gout of promethium into the adjoining room. Once the flame had dissipated, they threw back the door and stepped inside.
Miraculously, and unfortunately, neither of the room’s two occupants seemed hurt. There was a man with a lasgun, and then her eyes fell on a cutting plasma rifle, the coil glowing even in the brightly lit room. Light of the Emperor! Where the cut did they get one of those!?
She raised her shotgun but one of the Syndicate beat her to it.  She stumbled as a lasround punched through her armour and scorched her thigh. A streak of plasma went wide, melting their entry hatch.
The plasma gun overheating and exploding. Althea was nearly critically injured.
Gus pulled his shotgun and snapped off three quick shots. The first shot spun him left, sending flak armour flying. The second missed, but the third round struck the right leg, blowing off foot below the flak. The plasma gunner pitched forward from his ruined limb.  He spasmed as he fell, the plasma gun going off as the ground rose up, the barrel melting itself and a moment later the plasma coil overheated and exploded, grounding everyone in the room.
Afterwards, and after discussing with Doc, they figured that a tiny piece of shrapnel had pierced her chest under the flak and come out the other side.  In the moment, all she knew was that she felt a piercing pain before it became very hard for her to breathe.  Doc informed her later that she’d had a pocket of air rapidly growing inside her body cavity.
Althea was still a survivor. Through the pain she did what she always did – focus on the most immediate threat to her survival. Her vision was turning black and she was swaying on her feet, but Althea lifted her shotgun and shot the second Red Eye. The recoil threw her backwards right into the Doc, who grabbed her before she could fall. Just before her vision went completely dark, she felt another sharp pain in her chest and looked down. Doc’s hand was there holding a huge needle which was sticking out of her chest.
Her lungs flooded with blessed air.  Air that she used in the most natural way.
“WHAT THE CUT DOC!?”
“NEEDLE DECOMPRESSION! SECOND INTERCOSTAL SPACE!”
“You’re trying to cutting kill me!!!”
“You couldn’t breathe! I released the air so that your lungs could inflate again.”
“Get the cut away from me!”
“It’s not uncommon.  You’ll be better now.  But I need to patch up the wounds.”
“Cut you,” Althea protested, limply.  She damn sure let him approach and apply bandages, sang-seal and detox.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Through the haze of pain, Althea watched Gustavius with the wounded gunner. He slapped him to wake up him up and then started asking him questions. The gangster answered, though Althea could hear neither the questions nor the answers, so didn’t know if Gus was satisfied.  In answer to one of the questions, the man pointed towards the room they had left Lazarus covering, but the effort to move his arm caused him to faint.  Gus pulled his Imperial Creed out and started to read the man his last rites, his voice booming in the confined space.
He finished and put the book away before grabbing and raising his hammer.
“No!” Doc Geryk yelled. “Gus, what are you doing?”
Gustavius brought the hammer down in a wide arc.
“Those were his last rites.” He replied.
"What the hell are you saying?"
"I couldn’t risk him waking up - then they wouldn’t have been last rites.” Gus shrugged as if that explained everything.
The Doc was stunned into silence.
Althea levered herself up, wincing. She spoke before the Doc could respond. “It’s done now. Let’s move on. We need to get those Touchstones and get out of here. Neither of these guys had a boltgun, so we need to be alert.”
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
They agreed to split up.  Althea and Lazarus took the doorway in the first room while Gus and Doc took the doorway in the second room.  As they stood outside their door, planning their approach, they heard the boom of a boltgun. Preacher and Doc found the rats!  "We gotta go now!" Althea said, "we can catch them in a crossfire."
Lazarus hurled open the door and was immediately rewarded with a boltgun round exploding beside him, sending him sprawling.
Althea's nerves were too raw to feel fear.  She looked through the door and saw a long hallway intersected by another.  At the end of her hallway, a short man with a grey hat and cloak stood with a smoking bolt pistol. A red dab around one eye, and a flash of red sash at his throat, he snarled.  Althea was on auto-pilot - she fired three quick blasts at the man.  He slumped and his weapons skittered across the floor.
Althea downs the Red Eye as Gus prepares to crack open the other's skull.
She looked back at Lazo and saw him stir. By the grace of the Emperor he lived, although there were just smoking scraps where his chestplate used to be.
I better go take care of this slug. We'll be worse off if he grabs his gun while I'm looking after Lazo. She moved for the grey clad man.
In the quiet after the gunshots, the sounds of yelling and the crash of bodies floated down from the perpendicular hallway.  She heard Gustavius and Doc Geryk yelling and the voice of a third man. There was a loud crash and a holler from that third voice.  
She heard the sound of footsteps and, just before she reached the perpendicular hallway…  a bloody mass flying across her field of vision accompanied by a spray of blood. What could only be a large piece of skull, hair dripping with brain, whacked off the rear wall and landed in an acrid puddle. What the cut have I gotten into?
Focus. She crossed the hallway and kicked the man she had shot.  He winced. His arms and legs were pretty mangled, but he otherwise didn't seem that injured.
"You - where are the touchstones?"
"I dunno cha. We go over there by the hatch," he gestured in the direction of the flying head, "and then they leave them for us." He’s calm.  He must not have seen the head. Or maybe he's high on a touch stone.
"Who's they?"
"I dunno cha."
She pulled out her laspistol. "You don't know?"
"No cha. No idea."
"What do they look like?"
"Never seen em.  Can't go into the room between thirteen chimes and fourteen chimes.  When we go at fourteen, the stones are there."
"Then what?"
"Then we run them to the Showing. Then the cells run ‘em back when they're done."
Fourteen chimes? That's six hours from now, we can't wait. "How do you call for more?"
"You dun' cha. They leave em, we get em. Just like that."
"You must have a way to call for them."
"Nahuh.  You can wait, but they're going to get you first." He sneered through the blood.
"Who's they?"
"They're gonna get you!" He laughed, a clear edge of insanity to his voice.
She pointed her laspistol at his face. He was still on the ground, blood pooling on the floor underneath him. "Who are they? If you don't tell me, I'm going to shoot."
She heard a grunt behind her.  She turned and saw it was just Gustavius and Doc Geryk.
"They're gonna get you! Gonna get you! Gonna get you! He sees you NOW! The Watcher!"
She pulled the trigger. His face melted away.
"Althea! What is wrong with you!?" Doc Geryk yelled from behind her. "I had many more questions prepared! We could have used him as bait! He was more useful to us alive!"
"I don't believe in bluffing," she said. Truth be told, she had never executed a man like that before.  It didn't feel great. "How could we believe anything he said after he called our bluff?" And besides, it seems more humane than Gus' hammer.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Her feet crunched down on the plating of the level below. "All clear!" She yelled.  The others slowly followed her down the ladder.
They were in a room with a narrow passageway into another room.  Even with the glowball Gus had tied around his neck and her special left eye, she still couldn't make out any details in the other room.
A sense of dread was creeping over her. She recognized the feeling - it reminded her of her encounter in the lander a few days ago.
A scratching sound was her only warning as a little lizard-like beast scurried out of the darkness and leapt at her. It was only about waist height and it moved like quicksilver and stabbed her before she could react.  She felt pain on her arm through her armour.
She blocked its next swing with her shotgun, and then swung it around and shot the creature through the face.  Its face pulped and its body slumped to the floor.
A scream tore through the darkness and she saw a large creature flow out of the corner of the room behind the door. It whirled, giggled, and screamed, clearly bigger than the one she had seen on the lander. Three more of the little things chittered out of the darkness at her, more resolved in form. Hideous finned lizard faces and tiny legs with whickering bladed arms. One had tentacles, another spines. The third had an arm much more humanoid in character, but bulky like an Ork’s. All of them bled. They reeked of blood. Althea smelled them, and she knew that they smelled her own wounds, and her pain, and her fear.

The next few moments blurred together in terrible fury. She felt Gustavius' presence next to her, their shotguns barking into the creatures. She went deaf to her own screams as the Doc fired boltround after boltround (filched from those dead gangers), his arm extended up to fire over their heads into the mass of sucking horror. A few of the creatures reached her and Gus and managed to strike out at them. Her armour largely held up and their shotguns made short work of the creatures. One of Gus’ arms went limp and bloody, his hammer faltered, and she was thankful once again that her father had insisted that his shotgun have a large clip - reloading would have been fatal.
The group faces down the xenos.
Looking back, it seemed maybe that one of the little creatures had been created by the large one, but it must have been hiding behind it and biding its time before striking.
In the immediate aftermath of the bulletstorm, she saw a hatch pop open at the back of the room and some shape rush out of it.  None of the others had seen it, only her low light sensitivity had allowed her to pick up the movement. She rushed to the portal to see if she could spot whatever had just fled their presence, but on the other side of the portal there was only an abyss, stretching for kilometres down to the mines in the face.
"Search the room!  We need to get these touchstones and get out of here before reinforcements arrive!"

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Foray into Age of Sigmar and Fenrisian Wolves

I know this blog is primarily about the grimdark, but I was recently convinced to give Age of Sigmar a try. Made me think a lot about the state of 40K, so I figured I would share my thoughts.

I had been resisting getting into AoS for a long time, thinking that time and money was not conducive to a new system. But someone kept telling me it was really, really good. So I did some research and here is what I found:

First, the general's handbook is awesome in its simplicity. Second, so are the rules. I literally learned the rules by reading them a few times. I have my first game coming up this weekend and will report on how well I retained them. Third, the models are gorgeous and very different than 40K - since I was a bit tired of painting space marines, etc., the prospect of painting something completely different appealed to me. Fourth, I had been watching a lot of battle reports and was amazed by how tactical the game was, even with such simple rules. Finally, while the system is not perfectly balanced and there seems to be OP units, it seems to me at least to be a lot less point and click than some 40K armies.

Ok, so the game system is appealing and the models are gorgeous, but what about the costs? Well, turns out you can build a fun, good AoS army relatively cheaply. The get started boxes are an absolutely steal and you can double up or triple up on them, buy a few other models and boom, you got yourself a 2000 pts matched play army that will do well on the tabletop. Sylvaneth, Seraphon and Ironjawz in particular can cost you ~$400-$500 dollars for a good looking, competitive army. What does that dollar amount get you in 40K? Yes there are start collecting and bundle armies, but they tend to either not have a big discount on them or have units in them that are absolute garbage in game terms in the current meta (looking at you landraider). Finally, I am not even talking about the deals one can get on eBay from former fantasy players who rage quit the game after GW nixed it.

Anyway, I got sold and shelled out for a Beastclaw raiders army. My choice was based on 2 things only: 1) the models are super cool and I had an urge to paint them and 2) the cost was cheap since they are such a low model count army. The only thing I did is get Fenrisian wolves instead of the sabretusks because I hate resin and because the thought of having 10-15 models with only two basic poses was abhorrent to me.

Below are my first painted units. One Icebrow Hunter and two squads of Sabretusks (i.e., Fenrisian Wolves). Hope you like them!








Belisarius Cawl - the Unkillable HQ

As mentioned in my last post, I had a couple of games last weekend against a mechanicum army featuring Cawl. My opponents' list included two rangers units, two Kataphron units (3 models each) with grav, two big robots tooled up for shooting and their accompanying priest, 2 onager dunecrawlers (one neutron laser and one icarius array) and of course Cawl himself.

Overall, while I lost both games, I have to say that my list did better than I thought it would. We tied on the primary in the first game, but I lost on the secondaries. I would have won the second game, but I made a big mistake that proved to be my undoing. Would have won on objectives had the game ended on turn 5 or 6, but sadly the dice abandoned me and it went to turn 7 and I got tabled.

The first mission was kill points based, which favoured the mechanicum. The second mission was objectives based, which favoured me and my heavy obj sec list. I am pretty happy with my list and I am looking forward to playing 6 full games with it at Astro.

One thing that I wanted to share, however, is that Cawl is absolutely unkillable. In the future, I will just ignore him and kill stuff around him. Massed grav armies, Tau and Eldar may be able to put him down, but I seriously question whether it is worth it. For those of you that don't know what he does, here is a good article from frontline gaming (https://www.frontlinegaming.org/2017/03/08/fall-of-cadia-review-belisarius-cawl/).

Anyhow, the games were super fun and I think the list I faced is a very tough match-up for my list, but I still had fun and was within striking distance the whole time. All you can ask for really.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Castellans of the Imperium

Hey folks,

I finally finished painting all my minis for Astro. I am bringing a Castellan of the Imperium detachment with mostly Black Templars on foot. In order not to get wiped out first turn, I took Coteaz and I gave one of the new relics from Gathering Storm to my Marshal (Captain) - Desvalle’s Holy Circle (35pts) – Bearer has a 4+ Invulnerable. Enemy units cannot Deep-Strike within 12″ of the bearer. If they scatter within 12″ of the Bearer, they suffer an automatic Deep Strike Mishap. This means I have a 48 inch bubble (12" radius for the Holy circle and 12" circle for Coteaz with the Grav cents) where it is very dangerous for people to try to alpha strike me. From then on, Celestine tanks wounds for an honest to god assault marines squad with jump packs and a captain with a jump pack. Hammernators round up the list for additional cc threat. Played a couple of games last weekend and did well. I still think top armies will mop the floor with me, but it was very fun to play and suprisingly effective. Also helps that Coteaz makes every unti obj sec (other than the pod). I am practicing this weekend against a very strong list (mechanicum with Belasius Cawl) and will report on how it went. Even if I get trounced, I am just happy that I found a way to make my BTs and assault marines with jump packs work! I am currently working on my nice army list, but below are the photos I took of the minis. Hope you enjoy them

Cheers




















Sunday, April 9, 2017

Mission Report (A1): A Lost Soul Is Pulled Back Into The Struggle

Althea, an ex-Navy soldier and pilot.
This was my first mission in a new Dark Heresy campaign being run by one of the members of Hogtown 40k.  I enjoyed it so much that I got home and wrote up the entire mission from the point of view of my character.  Please let me know if you like it, as this could be the first of many. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Althea looked up at the pict screen and sighed. Life had been so simple before yesterday.  Miserable, yes, but at least it had been simple.  She had been flying shipments for the Red Eye Syndicate for the last two months, ever since she had arrived on Pickman, this slime ball of a planet.  She hadn't asked questions, and they hadn't asked her any. They'd barely even bothered her except for Jarak, that cutty bastard. But he bothered the entire cell, so at least she wasn't getting special treatment. Maybe she'd even started to gain their trust.

Yesterday, though, her vox had beeped.  Four years, and it had never beeped. She had never made a call and no one had ever called it.  Until yesterday.

She put aside her lho stick and hit play. The vox spat out explicit instructions.  "Tomorrow, a colleague will approach your cell to buy medical supplies. He must be successful in his mission. Learn what you can." She tried to replay the message, but the vox was empty and had no record of ever receiving a dispatch. She knew what it meant by a 'colleague' - someone else like her; someone else who owed that voice behind the vox.

As she sat on her bunk, her mind swimming under the lho's influence, she was sure she had hallucinated. Thoughts of her special vox lead to thoughts of the Navy. Her mind, quite detached by now, was content to trod the well-worn paths of self-pity until her body finally fell asleep.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The morning chime came too soon. As they were taking breakfast in the mess, the cell started talking about the drop they were going to get on "some junk doc from the skins."  It hadn't been a hallucination. The knot cinched back again in her belly. 

"Why not just avoid trouble and let the guy buy his stuff?" She had asked, feigning disinterest.

Jarak sneered.  "Causo, I say so," he said, waving his right hand with that damn ring on it. Palm in, waving it sort of, like he always did. She knew cut all about it, but it always seemed to stop any argument with the cell when he flaunted it. She imagined she would learn when, if, she became Red Eye herself. They had started to hint that they might make her an offer. She was worried they would. 

Worried she would never get out if she said yes. Worried they would space her if she said no. Or worse, sent to the Pits.

"Oh, will this be like that exchange in Boretonne last month?" she asked. She didn't mind antagonizing him. And it was normal enough that her protests shouldn't raise any suspicions.

"Causo this way, we gots the creds and the meds. This Doc hasn’t got the eye, you see there? No need to go wasting our cargo on this." He laughed at his cleverness and wandered off.  He must really be happy, to not have risen to the bait, she thought.  Cut this! He's gone - now what?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The more she thought about it, the more she realized that changing the odds for the cell was the only way to get out of this without ruining everything.  She used the special vox and dialed the only number that had ever been stored in it. 

It rang and rang, and then beeped.  Figures this cutting voice won't even pick up.  "They're going to try to kill my colleague as soon as he gets here. Please bring backup so that they think twice."

When she grabbed her kit before she left, she made sure to grab the extra credits she had stashed as well as her laspistol and her father's shotgun. It had polished wood panelling and smooth action, it had saved her life more than once during her time in the Navy, and since. She had a weird feeling that she might never be coming back here.

She spent the rest of the day agonizing, and she now found herself staring at the pict screen in the lander while the cell waited downstairs in the hold for the Doc. 

There was Jarak, Wimpy, Busto and Ken down there. Jarak had a chainsword, and there wasn't a lot of space down there for someone to dodge. She had to hope that her message had been received and that her colleague would show up with a small army.

She froze when she saw a small man amble towards the lander. He had a respirator over his face and he was wearing faded fatigues with the regiment and rank badges pulled off.  He looked like he had seen a few battlefields, but his demeanour was far from threatening. Pitiful maybe, but not threatening. He glanced around furtively as he walked up. This must be him. 

She started to panic as soon as she realized that he was truly alone. There was no way a simple medic was going to survive those four in the hold. The consequences of failing the vox had been explained to her. Failing wasn't an option. Not by a long shot. And if she betrayed the Syndicate and they found out, she’d just be dead. If she was lucky it would be quick.

She hit the lander's vox just as the medic reached the ramp to the lander.

"Jarak, there's a problem up here."

"Whassit? Can you deal?"

"I don't think so. You gotta get up here!" Shit. 

She couldn't think of anything else.  She reached behind the pict screen and pulled out the power cord.  The screen went dark.

"What's wrong?" She spun from the screen and saw Jarak at the top of the stairs.  He was not happy. She tried to keep the anxiety from showing in her face. Jarak had his chainsword strapped to his waist and his laspistol tucked into his pants.  Wimpy was beside him, his lasgun languishing against his shoulder.

"Pict screen went dark. I can't tell if the medic is coming."

He gave her a hard stare. "So?"

"So I can't warn you if he's coming." Come on Doc, just buy the stuff from Busto and Ken.  They won't attack you without Jarak there.

His gaze hardened. As if he was trying to read her thoughts. Suspicious bastard. Of course he’s suspicious! Cutty – THINK!

He walked up to the pict screen and walloped it, like he was a trader checking the fat layer on a snagglefish back home. Nothing. He hit the power button.  Nothing.  He started to peer around the side.

Althea stood on a blade's edge. She didn't want to die. And she couldn't fail the vox.  Some things were more important than life.

She had a split second to decide. This was a rickety old lander, and it wasn't that farfetched for a cable to come undone.  But it was a little rarer for it to spontaneously happen when the ship was landed. And rarer still for a competent pilot not to check. That said, she was smarter than Jarek, and she still thought she could talk her way out of it. It wouldn't be easy, but she could play up to his ego and smooth it over.

But some part of her knew that her time in this Bitrunner was over. She wanted to slink away, Syndicate or no, but Jarek was a cutty bastard - real scum. She’d seen him on leave. She’d seen the haunted eyes of the girl he’d cut.

And she knew it had never really been a choice for her.

She swung up her father's shotgun and fired it straight at Jarek's head as he stood.  He was caught completely by surprise and although she saw blood splatter, he was still standing. Cut these new eyes! I still can’t shoot straight!

She felt a searing pain in her side as Wimpy’s lasgun scorched through her own ex-navy flak armour. Just below her ribs. It was only after she felt the pain that she also heard him yelling at the top of his lungs for Busto and Ken.

Althea was far more afraid of Jarek. She knew she could handle Wimpy if Jarek was gone and her window of opportunity before Jarek started to retaliate was shrinking fast.  She squeezed off two quick shots straight into Jarek's chest. 

His chest disintegrated and the wall behind him was suddenly painted red. 

Just as Jarek's body started to crumple, she heard two earth-shattering booms. Bolt fire. She hadn't heard that since her Navy days, not since the Implacable Servitude had gone down with all hands. All hands but me!

Just as she was turning to deal with Wimpy, she felt a sudden dread seize her.  The cockpit seemed to bulge around her, and turn… somewhere. She could feel the taint of the warp. She looked back at Jarek's corpse and saw red. A spill of black and red came up from Jarek’s fist - clenched in hatred, even in death. It soundlessly burbled and rippled, pulling itself inward, but growing quickly. Shrieking began as limbs, scales, and what she could only describe as a lizard head turned its hateful dim eyes upon her.  Dread fill her and she shrieked as it darted towards her.

She jumped back and barely evaded its claws. She swung her shotgun up.

Before she could pull the trigger, she felt and then heard a huge boom and the creature recoiled back.  Whoever had the boltgun had fired at it, and hurt it. A piece of the… thing… blew off and sort of, splashed onto the ruin of Jarek.

From this range, it was nearly impossible to miss. Her shotgun barked twice and the creature vapourized. There was no corpse as such, just a smear of ichor, now indistinguishable for the most part from Jarek himself. An awful lot of mess, to be sure. Not so bad, eh?

She turned and saw the medicae beside her as he lowered his bolt pistol. He mumbled something indecipherable from behind his respirator. She raised an eyebrow. He reached up and took off his gas mask.  "Hi," he said. "You must be the ‘friend’ I was sent to meet.  My name is Geryk Soll." His eyes darted everywhere.

"Althea," she said. "Thanks for helping." She glanced around and saw that Wimpy was nowhere to be seen.  "We have to get out of here before he brings backup."

He nodded and holstered his bolt pistol before reaching into his jacket.  He drew out a vial and gathered some of the creature's essence (probably some Jarek too!) into the vial before stoppering it and putting it back into his jacket. He was muttering to himself as he did it, but Althea couldn't make out the words.

Althea wanted nothing more than to get off of the lander, but she had been fending for herself for too long not to take advantage.  She walked over to Jarek's corpse and grabbed his chainsword before securing it to her waist. No need to waste good gear.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

They trotted down the stairs into the cargo hold. 

Althea saw blood everywhere and the corpses of Busto and Ken laying on the ground.  Ken was missing his entire chest and Busto was headless. Althea felt a twinge of sadness.  Busto had been a good guy down deep, and she was sad to see him go. A few choices made differently and he never would have wasted his life like this. The same could be said of me. She shook her head. Later.

"You have the medgear you needed?" she asked.

"Well no," he said. "I had my hands full misleading and obfuscating those scoundrels. I do think I was quite successful." Soll grinned. His eyes did not.

"Right, well, why don't you grab it quickly and let's get out of here." Althea glanced down the open ramp…

"Well I don't know where it is," Geryk said.  "As I mentioned, I was too busy."

"Cut that." Althea spat on the ground. "Let's find it! Fast! You search in that crate and I'll check here."

After a moment of rummaging she heard him say "Excellent! Yes!".  She didn't find any med supplies in her crate, but she did find the packet of creds they were going to use to pay her for the piloting. She said nothing and pocketed the creds.

She was itching to get out of there, but there was still a lot of cargo in the hold and opportunities like this were rare.  She couldn't quite figure out whether to flee or keep scrounging, so she decided to split the difference. Maybe I can ransom myself to the Syndicate… when this is done.

"Geryk, keep looking for valuable gear. I'm going to go see if Wimpy got backup."

She padded over to the lander's ramp. Before she could peer outside, she heard hurried footsteps and low urgent whimpering. They didn’t call him Wimpy for nothing.

She padded softly back in the room just as Geryk was withdrawing an archaic looking pistol and a shimmering handful of what could only be cameoline.  "We've got company," she whispered.  "Take cover."

She peered around one side of the doorway to the lander's entrybay and saw Geryk take up position on the other side as he refastened his gas mask.

The footsteps stopped at the base of the ramp and she heard someone yell "Sun Guard!  Surrender now!"

Cut that! Sun Guard here?  She didn't know if the Sun Guard were raiding the Red Eyes or coming to reinforce them, but she knew one thing - Sun Guard didn't take prisoners. Not for long, anyway.

A small object was lobbed up the ramp and rolled into the entryway. The room was flooded with smoke and Althea started to choke.

Every day she cursed the accident that had taken her left eye from her and the crude implant which had interfered with her optical nerve. Since that day, scar tissue had turned her eyesight into a crude shadow of its former self, like her hands were spiting her by pulling just ever so slightly up and right whenever she needed straight!.

That day though, her implant surely saved both of their lives. Her right eye was blinded, but the bionic left eye could see through the smoke and saw one of the Sun Guard rush their position.  She fired twice at him and hit him once solidly in the side. He was far enough that his armour was able to absorb most of the impact, and he barrelled right into Geryk.

She still couldn't see out of her right eye, and she was coughing as she choked on the smoke, but through her left eye she saw two other Sun Guard walk up the ramp toward the entry bay.  They weren't taking cover, obviously relying on the fact that their quarry would be blinded.

She squeezed a shot at them from around the door and missed. Damn your eyes Althea.  They raised their weapons and unloaded at her position.  Debris flew as the doorway absorbed most of the impact, but a sharp pain in her side told her that not everything had been stopped.

Her right eye still couldn't see anything, but they were clear as day through her left.  She thumbed her shotgun into rapidfire and started to fire at them as quickly as she could.  Her first shot went just wide of the guard's head.

Not for the first time in her life, and hopefully not for the last, she felt as if the God Emperor himself took a direct interest in her fate.

Her next shot must have hit one of the guard's spare ammunition clips or grenades. That guard's body was torn apart in a vicious explosion. His companion might as well have been wearing a paper bag for all the good his armour did him and he dropped to the ground. Or, half of him did.

The explosion knocked the first Sun Guard and Geryk sprawling. Althea stood up, and swung her shotgun up. The two men were still struggling on the ground and it was going to be hard to shoot one without hitting the other.

She heard Geryk yell "don't shoot!" through his gas mask. In retrospect she should have just used her shotgun, but Geryk's imperative was ringing in her mind so she dropped the shotgun and pulled out her laspistol. 

She had never been a good hand to hand fighter nor was she particularly tough. She had long ago realized that guns were the great equalizer. Many opponents would easily overpower her, but a shotgun is a shotgun, and any finger will do.

She pressed the pistol to the back of his head and he stopped struggling with Geryk.

"Get up." He did so, slowly. 

She looked over at Geryk and gestured him to stand up too. Perhaps it was pure luck, but somehow he sensed her distraction.  He turned and knocked the gun from her hand.  It went skidding across the floor.

He unhooked his shock maul and bludgeoned her as she dove for the pistol. Her vision nearly went dark as pain shot through her. She slammed into one of the crates.

She looked up at him as he advanced.  He raised his maul for another swing but all she could do was watch him as she tried to will her limbs to respond. Luckily for her, although the guard had forgotten about Geryk, Geryk hadn't forgotten about the guard. 

Just before the guard could swing, she heard the boom of a boltgun and his head suddenly ceased to exist. 

She closed her eyes in the sudden silence that followed, barely staying conscious.

"We've got to get out of here," she muttered.

"I'm a medic! Calm down! Let me look at you…"

"I'll survive," she rasped, slowly pulling herself to her feet.  "Let's get out of here before more of them come."

"How? I saw too many people on our way in for us to leave without a single person seeing us. "

"I saw you find a chameoline cloak, right?"  She had known Ken owned one. 

"Yes, but only one. Not sized large enough to hide both of us." 

"Maybe there will be something in that last crate." She limped over to the final crate and started rummaging.  She didn't find any clothes, but just as she was about to give up she felt a latch and a false bottom gave way.

"The Sun Guard armour!" Geryk practically yelled.  He was pointing down at the body of the man they had just killed.  His head was missing, but his armour otherwise looked in pretty good shape.

"Great idea," Althea said. "Can you take it off him for me? I might have found something here." She dug inside and found a large power pack connected to one of the most ornate laspistols she had seen. Cutting yeah! Jarek and those rhinoxes had a hotshot laspistol?! She hadn't seen these in action since her navy days, but she had once seen one of these burn right through three men in one shot. She put it in her kit bag and slowly rose, favouring her right side.

"Okay, I've got it," Geryk said.  "Maybe I should wear it and you be my prisoner."

"Wimpy is still out there, which means we need to assume that the Red Eyes will be closing in…  I need the armour." She saw a surprisingly intact helmet at the bottom of the ramp.

"And besides," she added, "that only happens in the vids. In real life, single guard escorts do not march prisoners out of active crime scenes. They run and get help. Now help me into this suit and let's get out of here. I need to get as far away from the Syndicate as I can. Who even ARE you people?"


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