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Field Test

A Warhammer 40K Fan Story

By Neal LitherlandPublished about a year ago Updated about a year ago 19 min read

Commander Garroskin stood atop the battlements, if the blocky assemblage of ferrocrete could even be called such, and surveyed the battlefield through his binoculars. Lines of trenches surrounded the central bastion, all of them manned by regiments of the guard. Several artillery batteries were in place as well, their heavy barrels pointed out in all directions. In the distance their armor rolled with a rumbling, clanking tread that shook the ground. Huge iron hedgehogs were embedded with their spines facing outward in a haphazard pattern that made them nearly impossible to navigate, and hidden within their shadow were caltrops with hooks to prevent them being torn out once they’d sunk in. Though it was hard to see, he knew there were stretches of razor wire, along with carefully concealed landmines just waiting for an unwary step. Outpost Avernus would be a tough nut to crack, but as an explosion lit the sky and the vox crackled to life he knew the enemy was about to try.

The orks had been circling for days now, looking for a good fight. There had been skirmishes across the region, but every time the fighting had been about to get heavy he’d ordered a withdrawal. Under the cover of support fire his units had retreated, drawing more and more of the burgeoning host away from other forts and toward Avernus. The other regiments had been ordered not to engage, and to only fire if fired upon. Every time that had happened, Garroskin had sent out raiders to attack the orks’ flanks, and to draw even more of them toward his position. Now it looked as if word had gone through the enemy’s ranks that the outpost was to be made an example of by the greenskin bosses.

“All goes as you commanded, inquisitor,” Garroskin said after he confirmed the message had been received. “It looks like we’re surrounded.”

Inquisitor Hargrave hadn’t smiled once since she’d made planet fall two weeks ahead of the rock that had brought the orks to the northern half of the world of New Canaan. But now, in the center of an oncoming storm of blood and violence her lips quirked. Her smile was thin as a razor, and sharp as her high cheekbones. She nodded, the only indication that she’d heard what Garroskin had said. She stood there for a minute. That one minute became five, which became ten. Fifteen minutes after the transmission had been received, they caught sight of the greenskin vanguard.

The invasion force was small, by ork standards. Even so, the host they had drawn toward Avernus numbered in the hundreds of thousands, if not the millions. Wave upon wave of roiling, roaring orks, decked out in garish colors and carrying a wide variety of arms and armor. Through his glasses, Garroskin saw some of the bosses in primitive power armor, haranguing their troops forward. Tanks rumbled across the churned earth, belching black smoke. There were no fighters in the air, thank the God Emperor, but there were occasional roaring speed freaks who soared on rocket packs as they conducted aerial recon of the outpost.

“Lot of orks,” Kira said. The woman was tall enough she could look over the crenelation just by standing up straight. Dressed in dirty fatigues and a tactical harness that held a variety of weapons, she seemed unperturbed by the sight. She loosely held a long las in one hand, the number of hash marks on the stock too many to be easily counted. She’d moved her red bandanna to her bicep so she could comfortably wear a helmet, but that was her one concession to personal protection. The Catachan had been in charge of preparing the battleground for the greenskins, and she had pulled out every trick that thrice-cursed death world taught her before she became part of the inquisitor’s retinue.

“Draw them in, commander,” Hargrave said. “Fire at will.”

Garroskin gave the word, and all hell broke loose. The big guns fired, dropping a rain of artillery into the ork ranks. Light bloomed from the trenches as the sharpshooters began firing, taking aim at the biggest and nastiest of the orks that had gotten within range. Heavy bolters ripped into the enemy, joined by the occasional, blinding flares of plasma discharge. Even the armor joined the chorus, repositioning itself and firing a welcoming salvo from their big guns before rolling back along pre-chosen routes. It was chaos and carnage, and orks died in droves under every wave of fire. For every one of them who fell, a dozen more fought over who got to take their place on the front lines.

What discipline the great horde possessed stretched to the breaking point, and then snapped. As one they raised their battle cry, and millions of tons of pumping muscle and thumping iron descended on the humans who stood defiantly against them. They charged with guns blazing and choppers swinging, each trying to be the first to reach their foes. While most of their shots went wide, and no few slammed into their own ranks, sheer numbers meant the front line defending Avernus wouldn’t last long. And while the passive defenses slowed the onslaught somewhat, and the guardsmen gave good account of themselves, there was no way they would be able to hold out against this force for long, much less carry the day.

“Inquisitor,” Garroskin said, watching as their outlying armor was overrun, and the first line of trenches filled with vicious hand-to-hand fighting that barely lasted a minute before the orks were already moving to the second line. “I don’t mean to-”

Hargrave didn’t speak. She simply raised two fingers, cutting off the commander’s words as thoroughly as if she’d sliced off his tongue. She glanced at Kira. The Catachan frowned out at the carnage the way an art critic might look at a work-in-progress that showed potential. After a moment she shrugged, the black tattoo on her shoulder of some horrifying creature wriggling as the muscle beneath rose and fell.

“We could wait,” she said. “I’d say they’ve committed.”

“Biscopia,” Hargrave said without looking away from the furious battle below. “Status?”

A figure in red robes glanced up as the inquisitor addressed it. The tech priest had probably been human, once, but it was impossible to be certain of anything beyond that now. A long, metal mask covered its face, the pumping rebreather and half dozen lenses giving it the look of an asthmatic spider. The mobility assembly didn’t help that impression, the six steel legs and mechadendrites working in concert as the Martian scuttled about its tasks like a diligent crab.

“The weapon is fully operational,” the biologos droned, the vox grille in its mask crackling. “No issues detected.”

Garroskin frowned. When Hargrave had arrived, bringing her dark tidings about the oncoming orks, she’d reassured them that she had brought a powerful weapon with her. Something that, once deployed, would destroy the greenskins utterly and completely if they could draw the majority of their forces to a single, physical location. Her confidence had meant the planetary forces had been all too happy to follow her lead, and to redeploy as she saw fit. Her orders had been followed to the letter, and Garroskin had been assigned as her personal aides de camp, as he was the senior officer in charge of Avernus, and he was the most capable of offering insights about the outpost and its surrounding area.

With all the preparations that had been made, and all the assignments that had been shifted, Garroskin had not seen a hint of any sort of weapon. No communications had left from the outpost to remote areas, or off-world. All she had brought was her retinue… the tech priest, the Catachan, and a skinny boy in a too-big greatcoat with a drawn face, and dark, watchful eyes. He had been little more than Hargrave’s shadow, always a few steps behind and to one side of her. She’d never once acknowledged him, though, aside from a single reprimand when he’d stated the trenches needed to be wider if they were going to catch enemy tanks in addition to providing cover. It had been wise advice, but he hadn’t spoken since.

“Krieger,” Hargrave said, her voice cracking like a whip.

The boy stepped forward, striding at a quick march before taking up position next to the inquisitor. He stood with his hands at his sides, and his face forward. He showed no fear at the explosions and battle cries, or at the thunderous guns that sent tremors through the earth. If anything he seemed at-home. Comfortable, even.

“Do you see the enemy?” Hargrave asked.

“Yes, inquisitor,” Krieger said. His voice was clipped, but Garroskin heard it crack slightly.

“I do not wish to.” Hargrave opened a small satchel at her hip, and handed Krieger something. Garroskin watched as the boy unfolded it, and slipped it over his head.

Before he’d been given command of Avernus, Garroskin had spent time all over the sector, and he had fought alongside a dozen different regiments of the imperial guard. He had slain the enemies of the God Emperor alongside Cadians, swapped drinks in the canteen with Valhallans, and traded exaggerated stories of valor with Necromundan Spiders. He’d seen tempestus scions in action, witnessed the march of the Mordian Iron Guard, and watched Elysian drop troops land deep strikes on enemy command outposts. Garroskin had only seen gas masks like the one the boy wore, the dirty white front plate and the black lenses giving it the look of a death’s head, once. Once had been more than enough for him.

As Garroskin heard the boy’s breath rasp in and out, he realized that Krieger was not a name… it was a designation.

Krieger stepped forward, and surveyed the battlefield with his hands resting on the battlement. He stood there, motionless, watching the tide of greenskins roll through the men below, all of them converging on Avernus with the intention of smashing it down to its very foundations. For a moment, everything seemed to hang frozen in the air. The air grew thick and heavy, like the tension just before a lightning strike. The scent of ozone wafted on the breeze… and then it happened.

A hammer slammed into the ground, shaking the very earth. Soil flew up, spraying outward as if an orbital strike had crashed right into the greenskins’ flanks. Thousands of them were dead in an instant, while hundreds more flew through the air, bellowing from splintered bones and torn limbs, digging furrows through the ground when they finally landed. Tanks that had been caught in the strike caught fire and exploded, their ordinance flying in all directions, ripping even more holes in the enemy’s ranks. The sheer violence of the strike was enough that it slowed the ork’s charge. Some milled around, confused as to what had just happened. Others stumbled, trying to run around the flattened, bloody ground as if they might dodge a similar fate. Fights broke out as suddenly every one of them wanted to be standing somewhere else.

Krieger drew a deep, rattling breath, and continued his work.

More great impacts smashed into the ground beyond Avernus, each one larger than the last. They sent rivers of blood into the dry soil, the pressure of the strikes igniting munitions and causing chain reactions as fuel fires burned through the enemy force. One moment the orks were roaring, rampaging, shooting, and hacking. The next they were dead and dying, crushed flat or blown to pieces by the shock wave. Some leaped into the trenches, trying to avoid whatever it was that had turned the battlefield into a meat grinder, but with their reduced numbers they were cut down by the guard. Kira put her rifle to her shoulder, squeezing the trigger whenever one of the speed freaks drew too near to their position, sending the orks crashing to the ground with neat, burning holes in their heads. Krieger didn’t move a muscle, but a wind began to buffet him. A wind that had no natural origin, and which brought with it the cold, sterile smell of the void. Forks of lightning flicked over and around him, leaving scorch marks on his coat and the ferrocrete where he stood. If he noticed he paid them no mind. He was utterly focused on breaking the back of the assault that had dared show its face to Avernus.

Garroskin tore his gaze away from Krieger, and risked a longer glance out at the battlefield itself. The mayhem wrought by the invisible assault was having a noted effect on the battle. The orks, who had come with nothing but bloodlust on their minds seemed to realize they’d run into a situation they weren’t able to overwhelm with sheer numbers. Some tried to push the assault forward, but it was a trickle compared to the ocean that had previously run toward their walls. A trickle that the artillery emplacements, land mines, and ranked fire of las guns was mostly able to handle. As the advance stalled out, another ground-shaking strike landed. It flattened several hills, and debris flew out in what looked like a kilometer-wide radius. Stones and gore rained from the skies, joined by jagged steel, burning scrap, and splintered bones. Tanks leaped into the air like toys, falling on their sides. Half the trenches collapsed, the carefully-laid support lumber snapped like toothpicks. Even the outpost itself shook, several cracks appearing in its foundations.

Krieger let out a harsh breath, and bent forward. The wind that had swirled around him abated, the snapping sparks of electricity vanished, and he fell like a puppet with its strings cut. Garroskin managed to catch him, getting a shoulder up under the boy. Krieger’s breath rattled in his mask, his chest rising and falling rapidly. Biscopia lifted their data slate, watching as figures and charts fluctuated. The tech priest’s lenses whirred and shifted to follow all of the information being fed to them.

“Inquisitor,” the biologos said. “The subject-”

“Do not distract him, Biscopia,” Hargrave said, gazing out at the battlefield. She frowned at the smoking craters, and the sheer destruction that had been wrought in no more than a handful of minutes. She watched as the last of the front line assault died under the guns of the guardsmen, and the rest of the horde retreated as fast as their legs would carry them. It wasn’t as fast as they might have gone, running over the shattered stone and broken bodies of their former comrades, but it was fast enough to make it clear there wasn’t any fight left in them. The inquisitor turned, and leaned down until her face was even with the boy; the weapon she’d brought to New Canaan.

“Get up, Krieger,” she said, her voice an iron fist in a velvet glove. “There are more of them.”

“Inquisitor,” Garroskin said, but Hargrave ignored him.

“You know what you did, Krieger,” Hargrave said, her voice barely above a whisper. “The Emperor knows. He is watching you. He’s waiting to see if your heart is truly pure. If your world, if your people, can truly redeem themselves in his eyes. To see if you are willing to do what is necessary to defeat his enemies.”

Krieger jerked, as if every word driven into him was a dagger. Garroskin tried to hold him, but the boy shoved himself back to his feet. He stumbled, grabbing hold of the gap in the stone. Hargrave watched, her face impassive as Krieger pulled himself to his full height, supporting his weight on his hands. His breath tore in and out of his throat, the mask making him sound like an engine trying to shake itself apart. The wind returned, buffeting all of them like a gale. Electricity sparked from him, burning patterns around his hands and feet. Hargrave grinned, and the expression was full of such cold malice that it sent a shudder through Garroskin’s marrow.

“For the Emperor!” the boy screamed. “For Krieg!”

A crack ripped through the air like thunder. Outpost Avernus shook, and ferrocrete snapped off, falling to the ground in thick chunks. The wind raced out in all directions from Krieger, flattening everything that went before it. The trenches and emplacements were safe, but a roiling tide of bodies and blood marked the wave of Krieger’s mind. The orks roared and fired at it, as if their weapons could kill the death coming to claim them. The tide rolled over them, adding them to the butcher’s bill. When it was done, and nothing moved between the trenches and the horizon, Krieger sagged forward, his head on his arms. He shook, though whether he was weeping or it was merely spasmodic twitches of an overworked nervous system Garroskin couldn’t tell.

“Biscopia,” Hargrave said. “Tend him. I want a full report as soon as you’re finished.”

“Yes, inquisitor,” the tech priest said, scuttling forward on their steel assembly. Kira leaned her rifle against the wall, and took Krieger in her arms. The boy didn’t have the strength to fight, even when Kira slid her fingers under the gas mask to remove it. Bloody tears ran down the boy’s cheeks, and his nose ran with blood as if it had been broken, or something had ruptured inside him. It was a martyr’s face.

“Commander,” Hargrave said, immediately snatching Garroskin’s attention away from the boy. “With me.”

Hargrave led Garroskin to the other end of the roof. Krieger was sitting, his head lolling as the tech priest ran scans, and attached nodes to him. Kira had removed the red bandanna from her arm, and was carefully wiping the blood away from his face. Hargrave gestured over the battlements.

“Look out there, Commander,” she said. Garroskin did as he was bid. He saw his men cheering, their weapons held high. “What do you see?”

“I see guardsmen that didn’t expect to see another sunrise celebrating a new lease on life,” Garroskin said. When Hargrave’s expression didn’t change, he added, “I see a victory.”

“The first of many,” Hargrave said. “When your commanding officers ask what happened here, you are going to tell them that we deployed a unique form of orbital targeting weaponry. That is the reason we needed all of the orks to converge on this one location, and that is why we couldn’t have any reinforcements come on the enemy’s flanks. They would have been in the blast zone.”

Garroskin glanced back at Krieger. The boy’s eyes had rolled back down from his skull, but he still looked dazed. Kira held a canteen for him to drink from while Biscopia held his wrist and touched his neck, checking vital signs along with his brain wave patterns. The commander turned back to the inquisitor.

“With all due respect, inquisitor, the boy is a psyker.” Garrosin said. “The Imperium has been fielding them for centuries… why lie about this?”

Hargrave’s expression didn’t change. Her stance didn’t shift. Despite that, Garroskin had the sense he had just put his hand in the lion’s mouth. Or maybe his head.

“That boy is a genetic anomaly, Commander,” she said. “He was rejected. Deemed unfit for service. It was only by accident that I happened to be on-hand to stop him from being used for nothing more than target practice.”

Hargrave turned and looked out at the battlefield. She watched the guardsmen set fresh perimeters, looking for comrades, and occasionally putting a las round into the body of orks that were still twitching. She raised her eyes to the charnel field beyond, and took in the ocean of blood that had been spilled. Spilled at her command, by a boy barely old enough to shave.

“He can win battles, Garroskin, there’s no doubt of that. His strength grows a little more every time I push him.” Hargrave shook her head slowly before she fixed the Commander with her gaze. “But if we can pinpoint that anomaly, and engineer it to happen again, and again… they could win wars. Entire crusades, even.”

Garroskin felt icy fingers run down his spine. All he could see in his mind’s eye was a firing line of gas-masked psykers, their minds exploding outward with the regularity of a metronome. He imagined entire battle formations being torn apart without a single trigger ever being touched. Cold sweat trickled from his temples as he asked himself what a company of men like Krieger could do. A regiment. An army. Hargrave nodded.

“You understand, Garroskin,” she said. “Now, if you would, get on the vox and order the flamer teams out to scorch the earth. There’s a lot of ground to cover, but we don’t want the greenskins taking root if we can avoid it.”

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About the Creator

Neal Litherland

Neal Litherland is an author, freelance blogger, and RPG designer. A regular on the Chicago convention circuit, he works in a variety of genres.



Blog: Improved Initiative and The Literary Mercenary

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  • Maria Luna Celeste3 months ago

    Loved this so much! Loved the coldness of the Inquisitor! And the Tech-Priest was so rad! Loved their description and form!

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