A violent means to a better end; the more concentrated the application of violence, the longer and better the end result. That was the most resounding wisdom imparted to me from my upbringing. Tumbling through space at the speed of sound in an iron coffin was an outstandingly violent means to an end of the cold walls and stale air of our master’s void ship. As fire washed across the nose cone of our lander and the planet engorged in the front viewport, only a single thought occurred to me: was this a commendation or a condemnation?
I was joined in the passenger compartment of our lander by four others; two gunmen, a tech adept and a woman clad in full plate armour. The first shooter was wiry and run-down, with a ganger fauxhawk that had greyed earlier than his age belied. He was clad in quilted overalls sat underneath a guard-issue flak vest we had been assigned before our departure. My briefing told me he was a gunslinger named Proteus, a man whose past was not his own, the bullet scar on his left temple and barcode tattoo behind his ear confirming he was a mind-cleansed agent. Useful enough in a previous life to have his skills preserved, but not his memories.
The second gunman stroked a long hunting rifle and was the only one in the compartment to meet my gaze. Not a challenging or scrutinising look, but a disinterested, vacant stare – as a child might before understanding the social implications of holding another’s gaze. He sported black dreadlocks on most of his grey skull, the left side of his face singed to baldness by some violent means. He was lean, wearing a black assassin’s body glove that exposed his arms branded with a letter ‘X’. The compartment rattled, and an earring bearing the same symbol caught the light. The briefing told me his name was Mur-X52, which explained the symbology, but I could not place the death cult or assassin temple he would have been from.
The Tech Adept was the closest to a civilian we had. He was silver-bearded portly man into his fifth or sixth decade and appeared surprisingly human for a member of the Cult Mechanicus. He wore their colours but where I expected robes, he wore short, practical garments festooned in pockets for tools, geegaws and miscellanea. The roughness of his fingers and pollution scars on his arms told me he worked with heavy machinery, probably agri, before his assignment to us.
The final person was only thing that gave me cause to believe this wasn’t a mission to rid the Imperium of troublesome agents; a holy Sister of the Adeptas Sororitas. Her plate mail was painted purple with white aquila adornments and the gold sashes of her Order draped over top. She had her nose pressed hard into an almanac of the planet we were just about to be forcibly dropped on, but she wasn’t taking it in, just moving her eyes and turning the pages. I knew what fake studying looked like from my classmates in the Schola. Perhaps the act of reading soothed her. It soothed me watching it.
The compartment was suddenly bathed in crimson light and the lander lurched downwards. A Latirian Guardsman escort in our compartment burbled something into his atmo-helmet vox in a regimental cant. I picked up something about anti-aircraft weaponry. Our ‘brief’ was becoming briefer by the second.
The faceless Guardsman addressed us brashly, saying more with his hands than with his amplified voice. “Straps off! We are dirtbound in fifteen seconds! Hats on asses people, they’ve rolled out the fireworks to welcome us!”
As if to punctuate his charming turn of phrase, a cacophonous explosion rocked the plummeting lander and a sliver of shrapnel punched through both sides of our compartment. Alarms screeched and the light shifted to a more panicked shade of scarlet. The Guardsman knuckled some runes on the rear door’s command slate and the lander shuddered gratefully in response.
The rear of the craft split open, sunlight lancing into the crimson twilight of the cabin. Air and noise exploded into our compartment as the rear doors slowly unfolded, ready to disgorge its precarious cargo. I remember the air tasting like iron, but that could have been the blood from my tongue. Wind whipped around us, tugging at our harnesses and yearning for us to wrap ourselves in its embrace. I checked the straps on my weapons and that there was a round in the chamber. We would be deep striking into the centre of the conflict, so the impatient weapon spirits must be primed for split-second fury. The guardsman gazed out the rear of the lander at the violence that was unfolding on the ground below in the same way as one of my Schola mentors would browse a box of confectionery for the choicest morsels.
An explosion erupted in the sky behind him, casting us in his shadow. He turned to look at us. You could tell by the way he spoke that he was grinning under his atmo-helmet.
“Face first into battle!” He barked as the jump light in the compartment turned the colour of seasickness. “Give ’em hell!”.
And then we fell.