The first sensation that came to him, was that of the terrible scratching in his throat. It felt like someone had replaced his windpipe with sandpaper, every slow breath created a coarse, rending sensation. The next thing he became aware of was darkness. Were his eyes closed? Could they be opened? What would he see if he could? Finally, simultaneous throbbing pains began to reach his brain, from both his left leg, and his skull. His mind went back to some of his more brutal mornings after a rare moment of indiscretion had allowed him to be tempted to one of his more indulgent friend's extravagant parties. But this pain was something far worse, and without the fond memories of fine wine and suggestive smiles from eager young women who saw only his name.
Stirring Alaric tried to open his eyes, the sound of the ocean in his head, almost unnoticeable due to how all-encompassing it was, slowly split into two distinct tones. One was a high-pitched lancing sting that would slowly fade into the background. The other was a low rumble like rocks in a dryer, occasionally flaring in effort. It took time for him to realise what this noise was, it was the sound of an engine.
"He's coming around." Said a vaguely familiar voice from some unperceived face. "You said he wouldn't wake up for another few hours. It's too soon." Whoever was speaking they were clearly concerned. The disembodied voice that responded was a little more detached, almost clinical.
"Let him wake up. Another dose would be unsafe."
"But…" It was at this juncture that Alaric finally managed to pry open his eyes. The world was soft and out of focus at first, nothing but blurred shapes and shifting colours. Eventually however, something approaching clarity began to sink in. He recognised the inside of a chimera, and from the fact he was staring at the ceiling he must have been lying down. Straining to lift his head he almost immediately regretted the effort as something inside his skull throbbed like it would explode.
"Where…" But he did not get to finish his question, as a familiar face appeared over his with one of those empty reassuring smiles that showed just how worried the man giving it really was.
"You are in one of the chimeras. We are on the move. You have been out for hours." It took Alaric a few moments for his sluggish thoughts to fully register who was talking. But that short cut red hair that somehow permanently seemed to be the perfect degree of tousled no matter what happened to it, could only belong to one man.
"Holt. What has happened… why aren't you…" But again the question was never completed, not due to his comrades interruption but rather to the shot of pain that lanced through him and caused him to grimace into silence, screwing his eyes shut as he fought back the sensation.
"Relax Alaric." Urged Holt, with a voice that was more pleading than comforting, his light brown eyes which bordered on the yellow carried the same concern as his voice. "We are out of the pass, having to go at walking pace slowed us down. But the men on the cliffs managed to clear out a few ambush nests before they could attack the convoy. No serious resistance, no vehicles lost. Some of the commanders wanted to turn around, take you back to the hive." Holts firm yet gentle hand on Alaric's chest stayed Alaric's almost instinctive urge to sit up and give the commanders what for at that last suggestion. "But I stopped them. We are pressing ahead."
Holt leant back, a slightly smug smirk passing across his face. "It wouldn't do to let a couple of these primitive brutes turn the two of us around. We have a reputation to maintain!" It was not entirely clear if Holt was being serious or not, it rarely was with Holt. But Alaric was more focused.
"We have a job to do." He emphasised, the pain making him stern. But Holt just gave a scoff and momentarily raised his eyebrows in comedic dismissiveness at the predictability of it all.
"Such a dour man." He teased with a hint of genuine criticism before continuing. "Besides, I can't let us turn around just yet. Not until I have bagged an even nastier brute than you." Alaric let out a repressed snort of a laugh at that sentiment, even cracking a small smile as he lay there before instantly regretting it and erupting in a flurry of hacking coughs. Knowing his friend was out of immediate danger, and trying to keep the mood light, Holt chuckled along at his friend's discomfort, but a slight wince of sympathy behind it all betrayed his sympathy.
"I wouldn't recommend it." Alaric eventually replied once he had regained control. But it did not seem to deter Holt.
"Oh no. And unlike you, I'm not going to be an idiot about it." Alaric just perked his eyebrow at that, but Holt continued. "You see, this is why I'm going to use this." He said tapping his modified bolt gun which was propped in the corner of the room. "Only idiots would go toe to toe with an ork. Even I know that."
"Calling me an idiot now?" Pressed Alaric, with an obvious hint of amusement in his dry, broken voice from a throat that was not yet recovered.
"Well, I always did say you weren't a smart as everyone keeps saying you are."
"Well, I'm not the one lying on a stretcher." Alaric had to concede to the irrefutability of that statement, as misleading as it was. And so instead, fell into a slightly contented silence. He was glad for Holt's company, for reasons he could never adequately explain to himself. Holt was one of those people that should get under his skin, and wind him up no end. But Alaric's spirits were almost always improved by Holt's attitude.
Eventually though Alaric did have to turn back to serious matters. Speaking in a voice that now carried a slightly sinister, broken rasp to it, he asked.
"What are the extent of my injuries?" Mentally he braced himself for a crushing response. The answer came from the medic in the back, who even now was filling out some sort of chart, not even looking to Alaric whilst he responded with a detached air.
"Your right tibia has a bad bone bruise, almost fractured. You have suffered a concussion, and you were lucky to have just that. Your oesophagus and trachea were both partially collapsed, significant blood build up in both your lungs and stomach as well as froth in the former. Corrosive damage to both as well. A good number of your bronchi broke down, mild corrosive damage to your cornea and a case of orrenian poisoning from some airborne toxins." Alaric felt his fingers and toes curling up at the news, he did not quite understand it all but he understood enough to know it was bad. Again, taking a moment to steel his nerves he asked the follow up question.
"What is to be done?" Only to be answered in the same, almost uncaring tones. Though now the medic did at least turn to look Alaric in the eye, all be it with the air of a disappointed tutor driving a point home to a particularly stupid student.
"I have already sucked your lungs and stomach empty of all the contaminants." Tapping an IV which ran into Alaric's left arm he continued. "You are on a drip to counter the orrenian poisoning. This is the last bag you will need. So your organs will not fail one by one. Your cornea's have been repaired with the appropriate salves. Your lungs will be harder to reforge, but with the appropriate medication it will happen in time. Until then you will also need medication to boost oxygenation. Whilst you were unconscious I went in through your mouth and performed some surgery to restore your oesophagus and trachea to the right size but they remain weak. As for your vocal cords, who can say? And your leg I have put in a brace." Handing over a sheet of papers with a list of medications and times the man continued. "Here is your medication schedule. I also prescribe bed rest but…" He gestured about him to the chimera's sealed interior, as if to indicate the general situation. "That's not exactly practicable, and I doubt you would listen anyway. Just try to lie down as much as you can and keep pressure off of it."
Alaric felt some of the tension in him dissipate as his muscles relaxed. Whilst he had not emerged unscathed it did seem as though he would make a full recovery, the great fortune of having access to the best medical treatment money could buy unlike many of the other hive residents who would have just been left as broken shells, or worse had they suffered similar injuries. But that was a thought that did not even cross his mind.
Instead he focused on more practical concerns.
"Holt, how are the men? Strength, supply, morale?"
"We are still combat effective." Began Holt's reply. "1st platoon, heavy weapons section, HQ section and vehicles are all unscathed. Second platoon lost one third of its men to death or injuries too severe to fight. One or two walking wounded. Third platoon lost about a sixth of its men with a similar number of lightly wounded who can still fight." Alaric nodded his understanding, silently grateful for the low casualties. Had that sentinel driver not spotted movement, the situation would have been much more grim. Holt meanwhile continued his report. "Ammunition is plentiful and the reduced speed has increased fuel efficiency. But the cautious advance through the canyon has sent us off timetable. We are catching up some time now on the plains but we are still behind schedule. We are okay for now, but if we slip much further off timetable we are going to have food and water problems." Alaric gave a little disgruntled but resigned moan, he had feared as much himself. These expeditions were always focused more on overwhelming firepower in the battle itself, only leaving the smallest of safety margins for other supplies.
"If the time comes we will need to call for Valkyrie resupply." Commented Alaric, only to be met with scepticism from Holt.
"You know they don't like landing Valkyrie's out here, too precious, and too vulnerable on the ground."
"They will do it for us Holt." Stated Alaric firmly, his broken voice lending an odd and slightly unsettling weight to his words. Still though, Alaric shared Holt's concern. Unlike his friend he was convinced the Valkyrie would come. But if it was in someway damaged in the attempt, it might cause more harm than good. Was it worth the risk, even for their lives?
Keen not to dwell on that prospect any further he pressed on. "What about morale?"
"The men are in good spirits, for now. A few mourning lost comrades but most high on victory." But Alaric was a little doubtful.
"What of the NCO's and officers?" Holt seemed to pause, as if trying to recollect. When he spoke, he did so hesitantly, as if unsure of his words.
"They were a little quieter." Before perking up with. "But old dogs always are."
"They are worried. Worried about the return trip. Worried about food and water. Worried about the fact the orks set up a proper ambush with anti tank rockets. This was not supposed to happen Holt. We were supposed to drive straight there, clear out some brutes with clubs, spears and the odd salvaged gun, and then come back. This level of organisation and defence is uncharacteristic of the local pale skins."
"What are you saying Alaric?" Enquired Holt with a tone that was part perturbed, part confused.
"That this is not over. We may run into more problems during this journey, and our destination may be more prepared than was anticipated." But his caution was met with a scoff from Holt.
"You've let the old man get to you my friend. You were not this apprehensive in the under hive, and there we were facing an enemy actually capable of thought. Or at least as close to thought as those uneducated dregs could achieve. By the Emperor Alaric. These are the pale orks, mad and strong but barely capable of speech!" But Alaric just replied with a sceptical groan.
"We are agreed on one thing at least. We keep going."
His mind drifted to thoughts of returning home a failure, to how much larger those opulent halls would feel as he grew smaller and smaller, how much more cavernous the echoes would be. He would no longer be able to stride with earnest purpose, but rather creep with timidity close to the shadows. Part of him tried to conjure up the image of his father screaming at him for his failure, slamming his fist on the table, red faced and eyes bulging, but he could not. That would have been preferable. Instead he would return as he left, with no word of welcome, he would not even be invited to report. Both he and his failures would just go unacknowledged by any other than himself. He pictured sitting at the foot of the table, idly moving his food about his plate, whilst his father, mother, sister and brother fresh returned from his ventures, exchanged hearty laughter and earnest conversation.
There was an old phrase amongst the nobility when it came to their sons. An heir and a spare. It made sense, from a dynastic perspective. Heirs had a habit of dying in battle, being assassinated, being struck by illness. It helped to have back up to reduce the chances of the line dying out. It was even a practice Alaric endorsed. But it was rare to have the spare reminded of his status through such infuriatingly passive indifference. Failure here would, he believed, only deepen the apathy. If such a thing was possible. This was not something he could permit. Oh, true, there was the honour of the family to think about, the good name of the nobility and the genuine importance of the mission. But whilst he spoke of those motives, it was this more selfish desire that dominated the back of his mind.
The journey continued for some hours, Alaric doing what he could to rest there on his stretcher, trying to ignore the jolts and rattles of the chimera as its engine belched and the jagged ground beneath took its toll even on tracks. Half of his mind was on how he could bring success, the other half on the consequences of failure. Eventually though the vehicle came to a halt and the engine sputtered into silence. Craning his head back to look at the driver Alaric enquired.
"What's going on."
"Staking camp for the night sir. The men need their rest." Alaric supressed the urge to scald the man, as if he did not realise that the troops needed respite. But he had no wish to appear petulant, or to alienate his troops. Instead he began to stir, knocking Holt who was dozing in the corner with his good foot.
"Humm, huh, what?... I wasn't sleeping!"
"Never said you were." Replied Alaric with a grin. "Why so defensive, guilty conscious?" Prompting Holt to just grumble something unintelligible in response.
The pair set about donning their equipment again. For Holt this just meant slipping on his mask and helmet, but for Alaric it was a much more considerable task as most of his equipment had been removed for his treatment. Alaric had to remove and then reapply the brace to get his legwear on, but keen not to aggravate his injuries he tried to keep his injured leg as straight as was possible, creating a semi comedic scene as he struggled with his clothes.
"Need some help with your trousers there Alaric?" Enquired Holt with a grin was broad as a particularly satisfied and extremely fat cat.
"Never say those words again." Replied Alaric flatly, but the fact he stopped struggling and just held out his leg gave his real answer. With dignified silence, and an undignified smirk Holt helped his old friend into the heavy, hardwearing fabric and secured the braces once more. It said something of the relationship between these two comrades, that the men outside would never know anything of this.
Eventually, with much uncomfortable struggling, Alaric at last secured his final pieces of gear and checked the seals on his mask. Holt for his part, reached over and opened the door, with the hiss and crack of pressure seals. Alaric emerged to see a dimming world, basking in an almost throbbing crimson glow as the planet's ominous and bulbous red star sunk below the horizon. It's last rays of light twisted and corrupted though the haze of the polluted atmosphere. The column had come to rest on a small, rocky rise. It was a good spot, with decent elevation and clear views all around, although the many boulders and rocks littering the blistering red ground did give him some pause. Still though, they had an abundance of such things themselves and even now many of his men were pilling these into primitive walls, under the stern instruction of their sergeants.
Meanwhile, many others had erected tarpaulin tents over the backs of their chimeras, sealed tightly to the ground, giving the men a little more room to eat and sleep. None the less, Alaric would be making sure everyman slept in his gas mask tonight. To improve matters still further, the spot they had chosen had good natural defences, in the form of a toxic, oozing river that was so teeming with nebulous taint that parts of it had formed a thin, pitch black crust which floated on the surface like the cracked skin of a lava flow. This ooze crawled along in the shape of a C around the rise as the deeply unnatural river snaked past the high ground.
The scene was given a somewhat homely atmosphere by the sound of a slightly out of tune guitar with strings just a little too lax playing idle melodies from somewhere up above. As it turned out one of the sentinel pilots was sitting cross legged atop his walker, strumming away, almost lost in his own little world. Alaric pondered on that curiously primitive instrument. It had seemingly been around as long as humanity had, no one quite knew where it came from. It had just always been there and whilst instruments and music came and went, most a thousand times more intricate and subtle than that, the guitar was one of those human legacies that just seemed to endure. An invisible, semi amused, smirk manifested under his mask. If they could show half the inexplicable resilience of that simple instrument, they might just survive.
Walking to the edge of the camp he came to a stop beside the Lieutenant of the first platoon.
"How's the leg sir?" Asked the officer with an air that made Alaric's injuries seem about as significant as wet weather. Then again, that was just the restraint of the officer class.
"Barely feel a thing Lieutenant." Lied Alaric, but at least it was more of a dull throbbing pain now, rather than a sharp and lancing one. "Thank you for asking. Do you have the rotor for watches and pickets drawn up?"
"Yes sir, I have already distributed it amongst the sergeants."
"Very good. Make sure the men only unpack what they absolutely have to, and repack it as soon as they are done. We might need to move off in a hurry." Alaric's easy air concealed not just the pain he felt but also his concern.
"Very good sir." Before pausing and enquiring with a little more concern in his tone. "Do you anticipate another attack?"
Whilst the lieutenant asked this question Alaric brought his magnoculars up to his eyes and began to scan their surroundings. From what he could tell, nothing was amiss. No movement, no creeping shadows, no sign of something lurking behind a rock. But something itched at the back of his neck. It was that odd feeling you got when you could have sworn someone was watching you even when you were alone in a room with no windows. Without looking back to his Lieutenant he answered in slightly hushed tones.
"I don't know Lieutenant. But I do know, we aren't alone out here."