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Authors: Dan Abnett

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Legion (4 page)

BOOK: Legion
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‘What do you think?’ he asked.

W
HEN
S
ONEKA WOKE
up, flocks of casevac fliers were dropping into the flame-lit ruin of the basin, wing lamps flashing. The whole night was lit up by the burning doom of Tel Utan.

Soneka looked around, blearily. His hand hurt like a bitch. Air crews were bundling the walking wounded and the stretcher casualties up the ramps of the waiting ships.

Soneka looked up at Lon. ‘How many?’ he asked. ‘Too many,’ said a voice.

Three dark figures stood nearby, like a tragic chorus. They were silhouettes in the firelight, their bolters slung across their bodies, their shawls drawn up.

‘Too many, het,’ said one.

‘We regret their loss,’ said the second.

‘War requires sacrifices. A victory has been achieved, but we take no pleasure in your losses,’ said the third.

‘You… you’re Astartes, aren’t you?’ Soneka asked, allowing Lon to help him to his feet.

‘Yes,’ said one.

‘Do you have names?’ Soneka asked. ‘I am Alpharius,’ said the first. Soneka inhaled hard and dropped quickly to one knee, along with Lon and the other geno men. ‘Lord, I—’

‘I am Alpharius,’ said the second figure.

‘We are all Alpharius,’ said the third. ‘We are Alpha Legion, and we are all one.’

They turned, and walked away into the billowing smoke.

TWO

Visages, Nurth, five weeks later

T
HEY RETIRED, AND
spent the last of the summer at Visages, playing bones and other games, sitting out in the heat. Some of the men rode servitors off into the veldt and hunted big game, while others broke the local livestock, and raced them up and down in the dust.

Visages was simply their name for it. Officially called CR345, or Tel Khat in the local dialect, it was a cluster of dwellings in a northern wadi where the ground was littered with broken diorite heads. Some were as large as tank wheels, others as small as beads. No one knew who had carved the faces, or why they had done so in so many contrasting scales, or why the sculptures had been smashed and the heads alone scattered as spoil.

Nor did anyone care.

There was wine, sent as a reward for their pains by Namatjira, and peck in bountiful quantities, courtesy of the same source.

They diced and raced and gambled, played sphairis-tike, laughed out their pain, and swam in the warm blue pools hidden in the cliff-face caves.

Soneka’s hand healed. Field surgeons had cut back the wound, and packed it with basal sensors and motor plugs so that it could later accept a machine graft. He flexed it every day, and sensed fingers that had been and would be again, interim, phantom fingers.

There was a rumour that the Nurth War was ending and they would soon make shift for a new zone. Soneka didn’t believe it. He sat around in the Visages billet with Dimitar Shiban, a Trinacrian-born het who had been injured the same week as Peto. The flesh of Shiban’s chest and neck was swollen and knotty with buried shrapnel. Like Soneka, he owned a deep hatred of the Nurthene’s weaponised magick.

‘I have been dreaming lately,’ he said one day, as they sat around on an awning-covered terrace. ‘In my dreams, I hear a verse.’

They had each sniffed a pinch of peck from the gold boxes around their necks, and Soneka was pouring wine from a gombroonware ewer.

‘A verse, huh?’ asked Soneka.

‘I’ll tell you how it goes, shall I?’

‘You remember it, then?’

‘Don’t you remember your dreams word for word?’ Shiban asked.

Soneka thought about it, then shook his head with a smile. ‘Never,’ he said.

Shiban shrugged. ‘Fancy that,’ he said.

‘This verse?’ Soneka prompted, sitting back to sip his wine.

‘That? Oh, it goes—

From the hagg and hungrie goblin

That into raggs would rend ye,

And the spirit that stands by the naked man,

In the Book of Moones defend ye!

Shiban broke into laughter as soon as he had finished his rendition.

Soneka looked at him. ‘I know that,’ he said.

‘You do?’ chuckled Shiban. ‘Really?’

‘My mother used to sing it to me when I was a boy. She called it the Bedlame Song. There were other verses that I now forget.’

‘Really? What does it mean?’

Soneka shrugged. ‘I have no idea.’

S
HIBAN

S COMPANY WAS
coded the Clowns, and their banner was a howling skull clad in white and rouge vaudevillian greasepaint. Shiban had been hurt by a Nurthene splinter bomb during a wadi fight east of Tel Utan, and he’d been obliged to leave the Clowns under the field command of his head bashaw, a man Soneka came to know as ‘Fugging Strabo’.

As in, ‘I hope that fugging Strabo is keeping his head’, and ‘Beloved Terra, let fugging Strabo not be getting my poor boys killed.’

‘You worry too much, Dimi,’ Soneka told him.

‘Oh, so you’d be happy leaving your troop in the hands of your bashaws would you?’

Soneka empathised. Due to the bad mauling the Dancers had taken, the entire company had been retired to Visages, injured and healthy alike. Shiban, however, had been sent north with thirty or so wounded of his Clowns, the rest of the company deemed intact enough to continue operations. Soneka wondered how he would have felt if he’d been forced to leave the Dancers with Lon. He trusted Lon with his life, Shah and Attix too, all the Dancer bashaws. Still, he appreciated Shiban’s edginess.

They were sitting, feet up, under the awning in the late sun of an endless afternoon. They were playing the head game, a pastime of their own devising.

A man ran up the dusty slope towards them, a Clown, stripped to the waist, red-faced and sweating from too much exertion in the sun.

He saluted in front of the two reclining officers.

‘Sirs!’

‘Hello, Jed,’ said Shiban. ‘Let’s see it.’

The Clown, Jed, held out a diorite head. It was chipped and incomplete, about the size of a grapefruit. Soneka really missed grapefruit.

Shiban looked at Soneka. Soneka raised a considering eyebrow.

‘Put it in place, Jed,’ Shiban invited.

The Clown walked across the hot sand in front of the awning, panting hard, and bent down over the line of heads laid out in the sun. They were arranged in graduating size, seed- and pea-sized at one end, fist- and apple-sized at the other. The head Jed had brought was clearly the largest. He set it down triumphantly at the end of the row.

‘Point, Clowns,’ said Shiban.

Soneka nodded graciously.

‘Get a cup, Jed,’ said Shiban, and the Clown ran off eagerly to help himself to the cold wine on the stand behind them.

Shiban took a pinch from his gold box, sniffed, and sat back. He sighed. ‘The lho’s good,’ he said, ‘but I miss the combat fix.’

Soneka nodded.

Shiban had a face like a monkey, with a long brow, a long upper lip and a button nose. His tanned forehead was high, and his long white hair poured down off the back of his head like a cascade. The shrapnel bumps covering his throat and chest were the sort of thing a man couldn’t ignore. The warty mass was quite fascinating. The medics had drained and lanced some of them, but the rest, they had advised, would work out in time. He looked like he had a goitre of blisters.

As he had told it to Soneka, Shiban had surprised a Nurthene war party in the business of planting bombs. During the firefight that had resulted, the Nurthene had set the bombs off, killing themselves and wounding Shiban and his men. Some of that shrapnel was organic. Some of it was Nurthene bone.

‘I hear there’s fighting at Mon Lo,’ Shiban said.

‘I heard that too,’ said Soneka.

Another man ran up. It was Olmed, a Dancer. He held out the head he was carrying.

‘Place it,’ said Soneka.

Olmed took it to the line. His diorite head was bigger than any of them, except the one the Clown had just placed.

‘Adjudication!’ Shiban called.

The Munitorum aide emerged from the cool gloom of the doorway in the terracotta building behind them, a long-suffering look on his face. The hetmen had been calling him outside all afternoon. This time he brought the digital measure without being told.

‘Again with this, sirs?’ he asked.

Shiban waggled his fingers at the row of heads. ‘My dear friend, we value your impartial judgement.’

The aide trudged out into the sunlight and applied the measure to the heads while Olmed stood, breathing hard, watching, his torso gleaming with sweat.

The aide straightened up and turned to face the hetmen, reclining side by side in the shade.

‘Oh, don’t keep us in suspense,’ Soneka said.

‘The head is smaller by eight microns than the head at the line end,’ the aide sighed, ‘but it is larger by two microns than the one behind it.’

Olmed punched the air and did a little victory dance. Shiban tutted. Soneka grinned.

‘Point, Dancers,’ he said. ‘Olmed? Do the honours.’

Olmed nestled his diorite head into position at the head of the line, picked up the head Jed had brought, and threw it with all his strength out into the open field below them, where it was immediately lost again amongst millions of its kind.

‘Help yourself to a cup,’ Soneka told Olmed. He glanced at Shiban. ‘Sundown in, what? Eighty minutes?’

‘Everything still to play for,’ Shiban replied, confidently.

‘I think,’ said a voice from behind them, ‘you have far too much time on your hands.’

Soneka leapt up from his canvas recliner. Hurtado Bronzi stood in the shadow of the awning, smiling at him.

‘Hurt, you old bastard!’ Soneka cried, embracing his friend. ‘What the hell are you doing here?’

‘A matter of twenty crowns and interest growing,’ Bronzi replied, grinning.

‘This is Dimi Shiban,’ Soneka laughed, gesturing across at his companion, who was rising to his feet

‘I know Dimi Shiban,’ Bronzi said, embracing the Clown het and slapping his back. ‘Zantium, eh?’

‘I seem to recall you being there,’ said Shiban. ‘How’re you doing, you fat fugger?’

‘Well, well.’

‘Have some wine,’ Soneka offered.

‘Oh, all right,’ Bronzi replied. His armour was caked in dust. He yanked off his cape and his webbing, and sat down.

‘So, this game? It has rules?’

‘Many, many rules,’ said Shiban.

‘And there’s money at stake?’

‘Money and wine,’ said Soneka, pouring a glass for his old friend.

‘Two teams,’ said Shiban, ‘Clowns and Dancers, five men each side. They scour the fields and bring back heads. The heads go in a line, by size. Retrievers win a cup of wine for each head. Incentive, you see? Sundown ends the game. Team with the largest head in the row wins.’

‘So just get your boys to roll in one of those big buggers,’ Bronzi said, pointing at the boulder-sized heads resting in the sand a hundred metres away. ‘Game over.’

‘Ah, but this is a game of finesse,’ Soneka said.

‘Really?’ Bronzi smiled, sipping from his wine cup.

Shiban nodded. ‘If a team brings in a head that is demonstrably smaller than the largest, but larger than the next in line, the larger head gets thrown out.’

Avery broad grin spread across Bronzi’s face. ‘A game of finesse indeed. Who’s winning?’

‘I am,’ said Soneka.

Bronzi took out his purse. ‘Four crowns on Shiban by sundown,’ he said.

S
ONEKA WON THAT
day’s head game in the very last minutes before dark, when Bashaw Lon casually wandered in with a head that displaced the Clowns’ latest triumph. Lon bent his back and cast the Clowns’ usurped head back out into the field where it had been found. Bronzi lost his four crowns. According to the rules of the game, Shiban bought wine for both teams.

‘So what are you really doing here, Hurt?’ Soneka asked, later on.

‘Let me see that hand of yours,’ Bronzi replied, and studied Soneka’s wound as it was displayed. ‘Hnh. You’ll be good.’

‘Hurtado? I asked you a question.’

‘I got a furlough,’ Bronzi said, sitting back in the still of the evening. The air went cold very suddenly after dark on Nurth, closing in like lapping black water. They huddled in around the lamps and the peat-fired heaters. ‘Five-day pass, signed by Uxor Honen herself. Just wanted to come check on you.’

‘That’s not it,’ said Soneka.

‘Why is that not it?’

Soneka smiled, and waved to Lon to bring them a fresh bottle. ‘Since when did Hurtado Bronzi not have a secret agenda, huh?’

‘You wound me, Peto, you wound me. Can’t I come here selflessly to look up an old friend and enquire of his welfare?’

Soneka stared at him, a wry smile on his face, waiting for the punch line.

‘All right,’ Bronzi admitted, ‘there
was
something else.’

‘Excuse me, het?’ a voice cut in. They looked up. A Munitorum aide, the very same aide whose time and patience they had abused so thoroughly during the afternoon’s game, was standing beside them. ‘Yes?’ asked Soneka.

‘The staff medicae apologises for this interruption. Sir, there is a dead Dancer she would like you to identify.’

C
ASEVAC HAD BROUGHT
the corpse to the cold store at the far end of the Visages camp. The cold store was a long, mud brick building throbbing with refrigeration units. Soneka and Bronzi wandered up in the chilly dark, aware of the stars draping overhead like dust on a desert shawl.

The frozen, stiff bodies of geno dead were piled up inside like firewood. Each one was wrapped in a plastek shroud. Pairs of bare, pallid feet stuck out of the ends of the stacked shrouds, decorated with toe-tag labels. The hets walked in past them, ignoring the gross stink of embalming chemicals.

The corpse in question was waiting for them in the next room. Not yet preserved, it was laid out on a stainless steel gurney, with drip-trays slotted in to catch the noxious seep. It had been dead in the desert for several weeks, and it had bloated. The face was lost in one raw, black graze, the uniform frayed and faded, the torso limp and slack where gut gas had previously bloated it.

Soneka and Bronzi stood in the chilly light, and shivered as they regarded it.

BOOK: Legion
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ads

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