''These Colours Don't Run'' is the story of the 707th Gilead Regiment of the Imperial Guard, a regiment composed of conscripted political prisoners (deviant writers, thinkers, speakers, etc.), who are tagged to an invasion of the currently Tau planet, Octavia Prime. Octavia is a much-contested yet insignificant planet but for a holy memorial to the God-Emperor of Man. The story centers specifically on two troopers on the front lines, the bright and irrepressible Joe Thief and the much less ple
Gilead. A small planet on the western edge of the Imperium of Man. It is a pleasant place, if one enjoys temperate weather, peace, and all-round mediocre life-styles. It is inhabited by generally pleasant people who like to leave well enough alone, worship the Emperor daily, work at their jobs, mow their lawns, regularly imprison political radicals, walk their dogs and feed their children. However, it has a nasty habit of shipping off it’s lowest rung as regiments to feed the Imperial Guard, the ever-vigilant war machine of the Emperor and his left-hand of holy wrath that keeps His enemies ever at bay, if at the cost of millions of lives on both sides of the wire.
But this is not the story of that planet. This is the story of another, slightly more significant planet on the other end of the Galaxy, no less of the Imperium or of it‘s actual overlord the Tau Empire. Octavia Prime is like Gilead in many ways, if one discounts the ice-cold rain that doesn’t’t freeze and has since tinted the native inhabitants’ (human and Tau alike) skins blue, for whatever reason.
And that a giant, not particularly pleasant looking yet holy monument to the God-Emperor was built on it’s surface.
And the fact that said inhabitants have a strange affectation for much louder music than on Gilead, which is odd as most Gilead seem to think that their music is loud enough, often exclaiming in a rare moment of emotional viscosity that ‘’this one goes to eleven.’’
Well, that and the fact that Octavia had become a barren, lifeless world twelve times over since the Horus Heresy for all the titanic battles of myriad armies that had been fought over the monument. No, this is the story of Octavia, and the men and Tau who even now fight to, well…keep reading and figure it out.
‘’It’s raining again.’’
Louis Joker, trooper of 2nd platoon, B Company, the 707th Gilead Regiment, pulled his thick, weathered brown trench coat tighter around himself as he felt the first of the ice cold perspiration that so angelically graced Octavia Prime. Luckily for him, the colonial government of Gilead had decided that the deviants, prisoners and criminals the regularly shipped out as fodder for the Imperial Guard were not worth the extra credit or two it cost to extend the courtesy of decent equipment, like helmets, and gave them snazzy green berets instead. Colourful, sure. Sticks out in a crowd, definitely, yet less useful when warding off bloody freezing rain. To top it all off, of course, the miserable bloody planet’s rain didn’t turn to snow when it froze like say, oh, any other regular fucking planet was wont to do, but stayed ludicrously cold and liquid enough to get every corner of the body wet. Bastards.
‘’I hate rain.’’ he grumbled and scratched at the filth that began to collect around the edges of the sneering, high, sharp features that made up his sickeningly pale and long face that was framed by neck-length, wild black hair that was barely kept in check by the forest green cap stuck tightly onto his head. His face was punctuated by a big, crooked nose and had a pair of burning coals for eyes. He knew he looked like angry misery incarnate, though was never clear on why people thought he was such a bad person. Bastards.
‘’Better than shells.’’ the man hiding in the roofless building with him, Joseph Thief, replied cheerfully.
‘’You really need to cheer up, Lou.’’
‘’You really need to die, Joe.’’
‘’Aw, you say that, but you don’t mean it.’’
Louis turned to glare at the other man, barely recognizing the well known round and open friendly face that belonged to his friend of nearly twenty years under a week’s worth of grime. The heavy trench coat that had been handed out in place of flak armour seemed to hang loose on Thief’s scrawny frame, and the green cap on his head that had been handed out instead of a helmet barely held back a shock of brown curls that shadowed a pair of eyes that glinted at the chance to piss Louis off. Bastard.
They were all fucking bastards, the entire regiment. Murderers, thieves, political dissidents, or deviant writers like he and, well, Thief had been. Bastards shipped off to die by a government that felt throwing them into the service of the Emperor was a better decision than filling prisons. The worst part was enough blunt honesty (which Louis prided himself in being able to dish out in the tons) would reveal that it was a better idea, not that it kept him from begrudging them and everyone on Gilead, if not in and out of the Imperium, with a vengeance.
Bastards. This he thought remembering especially the four-week long crash-course in shooting and dying the Gilead training camps had provided he and his fellow incarcerated before being divided into companies, packed into Imperial Navy ships and sent off-world without even a kiss or a bouquet of flowers. After all, he was just one more Guardsman among billions, ready to be sacrificed to an Emperor who cared less for him than he cared for the fungi he was positive was starting to grow in his boot. Not a flame of creativity and ideas among billions if not trillions of individual flames of ideas and genius, but a sack of blood and feces to throw all over the sector.
And they told him to cheer up.
‘’By the Throne, Lou, you hear that?’’ Joseph’s eyes began to widen with a sudden fright.
‘’Maybe. What, pray, is that?’’ Louis replied with scorn.
‘’The crackling noise in your ear.’’
‘’The fuck are you- oh, that crackling.’’
‘’Yes that crackling. Listen!’’
Louis strained his ears to hear what came through his personal com-link. The rain was coming down hard and cold now (bastards), hard enough to be loud. The sound of the Gilead 707th’s colonel sound out in with a wavering sort of calm.
‘’This…s Col….Ran…to all Guard units. Ad…nce, Gilead. Ma…..mperor be wi….’’ the static in his ear died down as it was drowned out by the pounding rain. He felt Muller look across at him.
‘’Well, Lou?’’ Thief pronounced the words slowly. He knew the simple answer to this. The men who had trained them, however short said period was, had been veterans. They’d seen death in the thousands under alien suns and had scared their recruits shitless with tales of being thrown like so many rags at an even less forgiving enemy. Life was short here, and neither of them wanted to voice those few words that meant they had to go out and, in all probability, die in the Emperor’s name.
‘’Well fucking what?’’ Louis didn’t’t want to say it. Nobody asked him to get blown to pieces for the Terra-cursed Emperor and he wasn’t going to as long as he possibly could, that or he’d die trying.
‘’Well…we should go.’’ Joseph answered hesitantly, with grief in his eyes. He was a man who actually enjoyed life, so very unlike Louis, but very much like Louis hadn’t wanted to say it either. To say Thief was braver than him was an understatement not worth repeating.
‘’Shit.’’ was all a slow tremble that was making it’s way up his body would let him say. Both men got up and left the burnt out skeleton of, little did they know, what had once been a very nice house owned by a very nice family who had known nothing of war or misery, and whose blue-tinted skins would have cherished the chance to dance in the ice-cold rain. Yet no more. They headed out into the street which was even now crowding with thousands of other brown-coated, green-capped men heading silently out into the eerily empty streets to their doom.
The Emperor had come to Octavia.
Hand-in-hand with him was his close personal friends, Death and War and Misery, who had long ago slain their sister Mercy and as such showed none to mortals.
Colonel Peregrine Ran looked out through his one organic eye at the advancing waves of the 707th from the height of his command Leman Russ battle tank with pure, blind rage. Rain dripped down short-cut, albino-white hair and onto his scarred face that barely twitched at the extreme cold or showed said rage as he considered the men he’d been assigned to. Close to three years of command and holy battle in the God-Emperor’s name and he was reduced to this. The jittering, whining fools who blundered their way past his tank and into the flickering lights, the booms and the cracks that emanated from downtown Octavia were not warriors. They were barely even criminals, and dressed up not for battle but for parade marching, to boot. They were just bloody heretics, thinkers who thought too much and were deemed not worth the flames of the Inquisition. No, something far more useful was wanted out of them.
Peace-preachers and rebels sent to war in the name of the Imperium against the peaceful ‘’Greater Good‘’ Tau, who slaughtered them in droves. The layers of irony were enough to make Ran smile despite a nasty bout of being very, very angry. Anger at being reassigned from a perfectly fine regiment and prospects of promotion to a weak command going nowhere, angry at the three-pronged invasion taking so long, and angry at all of this damned rain. Angry at how many men he was losing.
Anger at these damned Tau.
Turning to the figure who appeared slowly out of the mess of rubble that the tank had just created out what was once a bank, the grizzled colonel barked in a voice that knew war and a slight technical modification. That particular Tau had wished he’d never been born by the end of his life, or so his screams had told Ran. It was entirely possible that he had been screaming about something other than his very, very slow quartering, it was a thought Ran relished.
‘’How’s our progress, Commissar Veidt?’’ Ran called to the figure. He had known Veidt from at least previous campaigns, and also knew the commissar to be a solid man. Ruffled and unkempt, yes. Unorthodox and puritanical, very much so. Possessed of a disturbing calm and faith in the Emperor as well as an equally disturbing wandering left eye that gave the impression that the commissar was always looking skywards as well as at you, even more certain. But someone to rely on when it came to killing.
‘’We push forward, Colonel, by Terra. The vile Tau xeno scum are fleeing for all their corrupted power.’’ Veidt replied in his loud, slightly detached voice that seemed soft yet carried over entire battlefields.
‘’No other reports?’’ Ran had long ago learned not to trust an early victory or his pride in such. Or pride in anything, really. That Tau had taught him that very well. Too well. An ingrained kind of well.
Veidt chuckled hollowly at Ran’s steely monotone that the colonel knew betrayed an undertone of worry. It was not a sound Ran would have prayed to hear again.
‘’Have no fear, colonel, and trust in the Emperor. The enemy is broken and the Imperium is safe once again.’’
Ran reigned in the urge to shout that faith in the Emperor alone was idiocy as he remembered that he spoke to a political officer. Fantastical propaganda was his trade, after all.
As was shooting dissenters.
‘’I have full confidence in the Emperor, commissar, however it probably wouldn’t hurt to tell me if some new trouble has arisen.’’
Veidt sighed. ‘’No, colonel, no other happenings have come forth, as far as I know.’’
‘’Thank you commissar. I’ll ask you to attend to the regiment’s front and oversee it’s advance. The sooner we get to that complex the sooner we can establish a proper foothold in the city and support the other assault elements. From there, on to the Octavian Memorium, in His name.’’
‘’Of course, colonel. In His name.’’ Veidt bowed slightly and saluted with his sword, bloodied as it was by the past six hours of intense urban fighting. In his other hand Ran couldn’t help but notice the peculiar long-barrelled, six-chambered pistol that had been the end of many a Guardsmen and who’s origin mystery had become a thing of legend unto itself, never mind the rest of the commissar. Following his gaze, Veidt’s hairy face that was laced with it’s own plethora of scars, shadowed by his tall commissar’s cap and framed by a mess of pitch black curls (that fit in with his exclusively black uniform with the sole exception of the red sash across his chest) erupted into something that could only be called a smile.
It was either that or the face of Death incarnate, something Ran was not willing to think about at the moment.
‘’May the Emperor’s courage not fail you, colonel.’’ he said before sauntering off towards the front line. Ran shook his head and shivered slightly. Just when he’d almost forgotten what it was like not having to worry about his own side firing him (literally), men like Veidt came along. He shook his head again and smacked in fist down on the Leman Russ’ thick armour, feeling the heavy vehicle kick into gear as his order was heard.
He watched the ruins of Octavia pass him by. Half a mile from the front, which kept pushing forward if Veidt was to be believed, the violence itself had died down and left a kind of stillness to the city. Granted, it was the kind of stillness one frequently found in a graveyard or senior’s home or museum or some equally depressing place, but the gift of having some quiet planetside reminded him of his home on Cadia somewhere, if it hadn’t been demolished already. It was a place he’d thought a lot of during the thirty years since he’d left, despite the veterans’ age-old adage to harden oneself against good memories, since it drove him to defend that long-forgotten place.
For his home that wasn’t his home, Ran would fight.
Not that he didn’t enjoy killing Tau. All the while seeming to forget that fighting had become a euphemism for letting thousands of others die.
Joe hit the ground at the bottom of a deep crater that had been a post office with a hard thud. His side ached, something he barely noticed as plasma fire splashed and burned the spot where he’d been standing not a second before. The longer he stayed alive, the more he seemed to notice that plasma fire was fairly distracting..
Poking his head above the lip of the crater, Joe took aim with his lasgun and fired off a few shots. Out of the smoke of the dying flames licking the burning buildings neighbouring the crater, Joe saw Joker materialize at full speed towards him.
‘’By the-’’ he barely managed to get out before Joker had dragged both of them to the bottom of the crater that was knee filled with dirty, ice-cold rain and filling more still.
‘’By the Throne, Lou, you got my coat wet.’’ he told the other muddy face that was barely human at first glance.
‘’Yunno something, Joe. Say what you will about those xenos, but that plasma fire is particularly distracting.’’ Joker answered in that nasal tone that told Joe he had only thought one word.
Bastards. The thought almost got him killed as another volley of plasma fire hit the buildings around them, narrowly missing the top of his head and burning the top of his cap as well as showering both of the men in charred rubble.
Joe grinned. It was a humourless grin, though one wouldn’t know it by looking at his face, bright as it was. But it was humourless all the same. He didn’t revel in this carnage. None of them did. Well, none that were left, anyway.
That was what got them there in the first place.
‘’Wipe the fucking smile off your face, Joe, that complex still isn‘t taken.’’ Joker cut into his reverie. Joe shook himself to look up at the miles high bombed-out compound that the local Tau garrison had fortified as a strategic location, or some such. For whatever reason, the Imperial forces thought similarly and were driving the Guardsmen towards it, an attack that was piling bodies everywhere Joe looked. It was so senseless. It lacked all meaning. As far as Joe had been told, which was nothing, there wasn’t even anything on Octavia worth the body count on either side, other than a ugly, lead Memorium. The Emperor had found Joe’s personal hell and flung him into it.
‘’Oh shit, here’s the call.’’ muttered Joker. Joe had barely heard him under the raging sounds of gunfire, the thud of cannon fire, the patter of the rain and the screams of the dying.
‘’Ready, Lou?’’ Joe replied. Hell, even his own voice was muffled out here.
‘’Thought so. By Terra, there it is,’’ the whistle was shrill as it rose above the noise of the battle. ‘’Let’s go!’’
For a moment, Joe paused to take a breath. As if watching the world through a filter for a moment, the Emperor who he had loved so much for his whole life had deigned to torture him even further by making him see the world around him fully for that one, single breath. There was a second of quiet that pervaded throughout the streets of Octavia before the charge was tense more than peaceful, a momentary gathering of courage and breath for an almighty shout that would spell death to both sides. A phrase from the back of Joe’s mind, from his days studying literature at the University of Gilead, floated past him. What was it? Oh yes. ‘’The calm before the storm.’’ A powerful phrase. He saw it now all around him. The tensing up of a spring just before it went haywire. The reasoned and logical thought before the ingrained authority’s order to action that pitifully lasted less than a moment.
It was hell watching the thought burn for only that moment. It was hell knowing that in that moment, he was a peace-loving man who had loved the Emperor again. What in His name was he doing in this mud, in this rain, crawling through this rubble?
Then he and every other man of the 707th screamed at the top of their lungs as they stumbled out their cover up the red-stained cobblestone streets towards the complex.
Joe felt his heart pound in his ears and his boots pound the grit hard as he ran. Joker wasn’t next to him, something he only barely registered. Of greater interest to him at the moment were the bodies falling all around him from the concentrated plasma fire lancing out through the windows of the complex. Joe paused to aim and fire his lasgun, the crackle one of many and the lasbolt that soared towards enemy one of withering many. An iron stench filled his nostrils as a man’s head exploded next to him, showering his coat in blood and pink matter. He tripped to his right and sat dazed before picking his discarded weapon up and continuing his run before he was trampled by the mob of people. The crackles and whines continued to sound all around him, mingling with the pounding of his heart to create a pounding in his head that seemed to block out everything except the stench of iron and sulphur.
It wasn’t until he’d reached the entrance to the complex that Joe realized that they were winning. He seemed to remember slipping, but swiftly tried to forget the face of the man who’s intestines his foot had completely severed from the rest of his body. The rain wasn’t in here anymore, so the fire and smoke filled what had once been a room filled with white tiles, making Joe and the men around him choke. But they were winning. There were corpses that weren’t human among the piles of corpses that were.
Climbing the stairs with the rest of the mob, shouted along by men holding swords who he assumed were officers of some sort, Joe kept running. The mob had become a river of humanity, massed along narrow corridors that hunted as one for something that moved but wasn’t dressed in long brown coats or green caps. A particularly vicious volley of plasma fire that spewed from the main hallway on the second floor halted the crowd, dismembering some screaming men (or were they screaming only after they were dismembered?) and completely vaporizing others. Joe flung himself behind a large block of marble that once held earth for plants and peeked his head around the edge of the block. It occurred to him that he was trembling, chest heaving and shuddering, body drenched with sweat along with rain water. His heart still pounded and his bones were beginning to ache with exhaustion.
The few metres between the crater that had once been a post office just outside the shopping complex to the marble block that had once held earth for plants on the second floor had been the longest run of his life.
It also occurred to him that the quick and fearful peek around the corner of the slab had been his first clear look at the enemy. A working, partially sane (albeit small) part of his brain noted that the Tau did not disappoint.
They were tall, humanoid in appearance and yet so alien, though this probably had more to do with the orange and black full-body power-suits that they wore. The effect made them see like robots. Graceful, faceless and deadly, especially when paired with the plasma rifles that were as long as the Tau were tall and shot forth fiery balls of death that splashed over and though helpless Guardsmen. More importantly, there were less than twenty or so behind a makeshift barricade of tables and chairs.
The hall was packed tight with Guardsmen.
His wonder at seeing the enemy was immediately thrown aside when above the commotion of people dying he heard the command ‘’FIRE, GILEAD!’’ Limbering up his lasgun, he took aim wildly at a waving Tau and fired, fired again, and again and again, and again, and again. He watched the rest of the 707th do likewise around him as the Tau went down in explosions of liquids and pieces of body armour, crying out in some xeno tongue as they died within a matter of seconds. And like that, the mass of troops were herded up the stairs to repeat the process.
Joe remembered little of it all, knowing by the end of it only that Joker had caught up to him, gray-faced and screaming along with every other member of the 707th. Reaching the whichever floor, the top floor, hell the last floor, the 707th had faced particularly harsh reprimands for their invasion as triggered mines went off, destroying the stairs leading to the top floor and painting the immediate area in stark scarlet. The Gilead had been ground to a halt as they took what cover they could as both sides traded fire. Grenades were thrown on both sides, detonating in flashes of blue or fire and throwing entire buckets of blood to further the redecorating process. Blue plasma clashed with the red lasbolts and threw entire and partially dismembered body parts into the mix. The ledges of the last and second last floors had become killing grounds.
Though most of the 707th couldn’t have been able to tell, the fight lasted for around an hour, with the simple superiority of numbers, and therefore fire, on the Guardsmen’s part overwhelming the Tau defenders who, having blown the only way down and out, could do nothing but die.
And like that, the complex had been taken and the 707th had done their duty to Octavia. And like that, in the smoke and carnage, Joseph Thief’s world crumbled to dust around him.
Ran’s command tank pulled up just in time to see Veidt finish the last of the deserters with his pistol. Ran’s bad mood had dissipated by the time on the ride to the front, and watching Veidt he sighed slightly to himself. The commissar was good at what he did, there was little doubt of that.
Opening his personal voxcom link, he called for a status report from the regimental major, Tate. The bud in his ear crackled with static (though his equipment, and therefore connection, was generally better than any Guardsman’s) as the panting yet still smooth voice came through. Of all the scum that made up his 707th, Ran had found something in Tate. She was a murderer, which was good, and a competent officer to boot, which was even better. That she would give him good news would be best.
‘’The complex is taken, sir. There are a few stragglers, but we’ve more less stamped out any serious resistance.’’
‘’Are you certain, Major? These xeno are cunning, and sometimes fool even the strongest of the Emperor’s warriors.’’ Ran replied. No chances. Not again.
‘’Well, as far as we simple mortals are aware, colonel, significant threat has been removed.’’ Tate replied. Ran sneered at the insolence. It was good in an officer, but it irked the old colonel nevertheless.
‘’I would inspect the objective myself, Tate, as shall Commissar Veidt. Pray for your own sake to He that watches that you are not proven wrong.’’ He disconnected the line. If Tate was going to go anywhere, she was going to have to learn how to fear.
‘’Colonel Ran! You missed all the fun!’’ Commissar Veidt called to the approaching tank. The man looked more terrifying now more than ever, as he was drenched head to toe in blood, his sash blending into his attire more than standing out.
‘’So I heard, commissar.’’
‘’Oh, a bloodbath, Ran! A bloodbath! These vile men purged the place clean in the name of the most holy Emperor, that these vile Tau would learn the true name of fear.’’ Veidt’s voice became even more detached as he ranted on, Ran found, sounding like the voice spoke from somewhere slightly to the left of the commissar. However much he feard the man, however, he didn’t appreciate Veidt’s use of his name.
‘’Tell me, commissar, how many executed?’’ Ran asked pointedly, cutting across Veidt’s diatribe. The commissar’s love of himself was disgusting.
Veidt visibly withered slightly at the mention. ‘’Only a hundred. These men either serve the Emperor too well or fear me too much. They cheat me of my fun, colonel.’’
‘’The more to serve the Emperor, commissar, the more to serve the Emperor.’’
‘’Of course colonel.’’ Veidt replied with a heavy sigh. ‘’May I suggest that I see to the fortification of the complex?’’
‘’Of course commissar. An excellent idea.’’ Ran was slightly relieved that Veidt was willing to do the work. Ran had his own business to take care of.
Tau still needed to die.
Louis staggered into the streets of Octavia and came to rest on a dishevelled pile of limbs. His mind was numb, as was the rest of him. The charge through he complex had taken hours…days…millennia? His coat was stained, like all the coats of the 707th were stained, in blood. Louis smirked at the thought. Their rite of passage on a river of blood.
Fucking Imperial Guard, eh?
Unlike most of the 707th, Louis’ senses had stayed sharp most of the battle. He’d listened to the screams. He’d smelt the blood and sulphur. He’d walked over the bodies and pieces of bodies and matter that wasn’t normally supposed to be outside of bodies. He’d seen every man around him, every woman and every Tau go down under fire. And he’d smiled.
Peace-preachers sent to fight the peaceful ‘’Greater Good’’ Tau. Who slaughtered them in thousands, no less. He’d only got it then. Brilliant joke. His name. Joker.
Hearing a crunch behind him, Louis turned slowly. Fuck it, if it was a Tau. He was not moving any faster than he felt like today. He saw Joe walk towards him as the freezing rain died down and the flames in the alien architecture danced in the pools of blood.
Joe was a changed man. Louis could see it in the way he walked. He couldn’t understand, though he wanted to, like he wanted understand everything and everyone, but he couldn’t. No deep well of pessimistic cynicism could help him understand the agony of Joe’s breaking at that moment. No, Joe was far gone.
Hearing another crunch, Louis turned from Joe to see a pile of bodies, human and Tau alike, topple over to reveal a blood-soaked Tau.
The clouds had begun to part.
Joe turned to watch the Tau crawl away from the two men faster than Louis had. He’d readied his lasgun faster than Louis had.
The sun was coming out.
There was a glint in Joe’s eye as he turned his lasgun on the cowering Tau and fit his finger into the trigger-guard. A smile crossed his face.
The rain stopped.
The Tau was unarmed, raising his hands feebly and seemed to wheeze something in an alien language. His message was simple. ‘’Mercy’’.
They were each of them framed by firelight.
Little did the Tau know that Mercy had been slain with the coming of he Emperor. Louis smiled. With the coming of humans. With the coming of humans who believed they were right. The joke in that, of course, came out of Louis’ past as a history student. Humans were never right.
The pools of blood danced.
Joe’s finger closed on the trigger.
‘’Joe.’’ Louis whispered. The crack didn’t come.
‘’Don’t.’’ The crack still hadn’t come.
Joe’s smile broadened.
The sound of the lasgun going off was loud. Louder than anything Louis had ever heard. Louder than the shells dropping, louder than the screams of the dead, louder than
Anything. Major Erin Tate winced as Commissar Veidt shot the second man of the trio he’d picked out as dissenters who had lied to the colonel about the truth of the xeno presence in the complex and were even now possibly vile, filthy and Emperor-damned Tau collaborators. The trooper’s head exploded, sending the green and red cap flying to the corpse’s knees, the rest of the cadaver falling backwards to leak scarlet onto the already bloodstained floor. The next woman, bound and sobbing heavily as her body shook with pure fear and stunk of shit, watched the six-chambered pistol slowly point towards her own head.
Tate stiffened as she tried to compose herself before her turn came. These men had done nothing wrong. If only she could
Find a bloody way out of here. Shas’ui O’Kais had been wandering dazedly through the streets of his assignment for the past hour. Flung out of the North Point Shopping Mall by the explosion that had destroyed the once glorious stairwell leading to the top floor, O’Kais had known that it was this alone that had spelt his survival. The rest of his cadre was gone, and he had ordered the explosives set. It was a minor annoyance that his men were slaughtered, but the dead were weak and therefore worth nothing.
But some Tau, however, still remained on Octavia. The pitch black eyes of his featureless grey face turned towards the Memorium that the humans fought for so viciously. At it’s summit flew the flag of glorious Tau.
Because after all, as long as Tau remained, they would fight for the Greater Good and stand. These foolish humans might come with all the weapons in the universe and they would outlast them, for the Greater Good knew it’s servants of peace. O’Kais hefted his plasma rifle, feeling it’s familiar weight in his hands and twisted his thin, lipless mouth into a smile. Those colours, those colours marked on his armour and the armour of his dead companions, the colours that still flapped above the ruined remains of Octavia D.C., those colours
Didn’t run. Not these Tau bastards could, Ran thought to himself. Dying, dragging themselves to some kind of illusionary sanctuary beyond where they lay now, the Xeno filth wasn’t going anywhere. Well, his bolter pistol said as much, anyway.
Looking down into the lifeless, mechanical masks the damn things wore, the old colonel couldn’t help but smile. The Tau ambush that he had wiped out his regiment, destroyed his throat and face as well as having demoted him to lead degenerates had not left a positive impression upon him. Which is why the smile on the mass of scars that was his strong-jawed face only widened when the click, kick and splash of blood and brain matter warmed the sleeve of his coat. He always had his revenge. Sure they were cripples, but a Tau was a Tau was a Tau was what Ran always said.
Click, kick, splash.
Click, kick, splash.
Click, kick, splash.
Click, kick, splash-
Ran whirled around as he felt something round the corner of the local drug store. Facing him was a Tau holding a charged plasma rifle. The two recovered from that ever so amusing moment of surprise at a sudden encounter and brought their weapons to bear. They stood close enough that ran knew they would be firing point-blank, spelling instant death for whomever shot last.
His finger tensed on the trigger, and he waited. One of them would make a mistake. One of them would make a twitch in the wrong direction and end this. Ran settled his body slightly. It had been a long time since he had killed something in battle, and the feeling of a fair fight was good. Steadying his breathing, he felt drafts waft up into his nose and into his lungs, his finger ever tight on the pistol in his hand. The once separate stench of sulphur, smoke and blood had mingled with that of shit and piss and other fluids the dead let loose to make a mix horrible beyond words. Ran’s face didn’t move while his innards twisted around themselves in revulsion. The battlefields were different from the inside of a Leman Russ. In all his twenty-six years he’d never seen this with his own eye.
Keeping his eyes trained on the equally motionless Tau, the periphery of his vision wandered to encompass what effused the smell of Octavia. Buildings of an alien design yet innocuous purpose burned in the sunlight of the pleasant day the morning had turned out to be. Beneath them cooked the charred remains of the product of the 707th’s charge through the streets to the complex that had been their target. Smoke rose into the sky, thick and black with the fat of flesh. It hadn’t occurred to Ran just how loud the roar of the flames had gotten now that the rain had died down. Or how pitifully quiet the cries of the dead had gotten. His boots had become as soggy as his sleeve with the blood and fat of the bodies around him. No birds chirped as they had done in long-lost Cadia, not that the peace of this rubble brought forth those memories. No, his home was gone, Ran realized.
His home was here now.
The truth was different from the inside of a Leman Russ.
High above him flapped the regimental colours of the 707th Gilead from the roof of the compound. Across the city from that flag flapped a flag bearing the colours of Tau, the same O’Kais fixed his eyes on. The abrupt halt to his blundering through Octavia’s streets had allowed him to see what was all around, in, above and below. Looking across the few feet that separated the Shas’ui from the colonel, the two officers locked eyes. There, Ran saw what he was sure was in his own eyes. A certain level of fear, possibly some disgust and a joy at being alive.
But most of all, true understanding.
The two soldiers lowered their weapons slowly. They stayed facing each other a moment longer. In all the years he’d spent dreaming about Cadia, Ran had never known a peace like the one he saw in that Tau’s eyes. Never known someone who had understood everything he had as completely or as simultaneously. And as quickly as the two had begun their confrontation, it ended, both of them moving slowly off in different directions.
Shas’ui O’Kais never made it back to the his people’s hold on the Memorium, however. The Tau had taught Ran that lesson well.
Tate shut her eyes closed, tight. Not that she could have seen much anyway. Eyes were filled with tears. Nose was dripping snot. Pants were full. Body shuddered. Heard a click somewhere above her head. A few inches, a few miles? A galaxy away? By the Emperor each was not enough to keep her head from exploding, painting the hard-earned compound with her brains, sprayed all over the place like Foster’s. Sprayed all over her like Foster’s.
But the bang never came.
‘’Attend to the major.’’ Tate heard. A soft voice, a hard voice. Whose voice?
‘’Know that the Emperor holds mercy as well as wrath. Nurtures as well as destroys. There is compassion, love and understanding in his eyes as well as anger. Look on your major as one blessed by the Emperor’s love, and remember his act of kindness in this hell-hole.’’ the voice ranted on. Tate could have heard more, but didn’t. She was blacked out by then.
The Tau slumped back against the stack of bodies he’d been leaning on and died.
Joe’s smile disappeared. Louis noted that it disappeared so thoroughly that Thief had even started to cry. More than cry, really. Sob. Like a baby. It was something he’d never seen in his bright and cheery friend.
He was coming back. Not too far gone then.
Louis reached out gingerly. The exhaustion was wearing off, funnily enough, and his mind was slowly coming back into focus. Sleep would be nice. But sleep wasn’t coming, so he had to make do with just a breather. Bastards. His hand touched Thief’s back, drenched in rain, blood and sweat as it was, and patted up and down lightly. He was not good at this, to say the least. The last time he had tried to comfort someone had been when his last girlfriend’s dog had died. Louis hated dogs. Sufficed to say, he had been single before being imprisoned.
‘’Hey, Joe…it’s okay?’’ he said, his previously wavering voice coming back to him along with his mind.
Thief kept crying.
‘’Oh for fuck’s sake, Joe, stop crying, will you?’’ Louis gave up.
Thief stopped crying. He looked up at Louis, his eyes bright with tears still.
‘’You remember that girl of yours, the one Miranda and I introduced you to?’’ he asked, his voice still wavering.
‘’I do, as a matter of fact.’’
‘’What did you tell her again? When her cat died.’’ Thief’s voice had calmed down to a monotone.
‘’To stop fucking crying over a dog. It was a dumb shit in the end anyway.’’
Thief chuckled hollowly.
‘’The idiot had it coming. She sounded like she’d fucking lost her child or something.’’
Thief only nodded. Looking down at the Tau he’d shot, he shook his head and sighed. Looking up at the sky-scraping building that flew the green and red colours of the 707th, he took a deep breath.
‘’Come on, Lou. They probably want us back in there.’’ he said calmly after a while.
‘’Yeah.’’ Louis answered. He released his own inward sigh. Thief wouldn’t ever come back, it looked like. A peace-preacher couldn’t come back from something like this. But he wasn’t gone either, which was a comfort.
Louis made a face. More like a plague. The bastard.
The next morning, Colonel Peregrine Ran walked alongside Commissar Veidt as the two inspected the grounds of the captured shopping mall (this they’d figured out after having found an entire building dedicated to clothes). The sounds of shells became more distant as the hours went on, but both men knew it was only a matter of time before the 707th were expected to get on their feet and pushed towards the front again. But this had been their blooding.
Ran’s boots crunched at the cobblestones that were beginning to appear as the Guardsmen on duty cleared corpses away. Others, who lounged about in whatever shelter they could find to sleep before the next attack was ordered, shuffled out of the two officers’ path with furtive glances of awe thrown in Veidt’s direction. Ran’s stroll was non-communicative as ever, but his ears were sharp, being the last feature on his face that hadn’t been torn away and he’d heard parts of the grapevine. Veidt’s miraculous sparing of Major Tate, with the Emperor intervening on her behalf and jamming Veidt’s holy pistol of vengeance that they had all seen kill hundreds flawlessly.
It all made Ran shake his head disappointedly. These were supposed to be intellectuals. Looking back at Veidt’s already fairly unpleasant face stormy with wrath. He was a political officer, after all, one that dealt in death and lies.
Not to mention that his curious pistol only had six chambers.
That last made Ran smile and distracted him long enough to ignore the datapad that sat on his office table in the command tent that a small detail of the surviving men had set up. Across it’s small screen ran the names of a full quarter of the originally twelve-thousand strong regiment under the heading ‘’Dead.’’ Below that list was a longer one under the heading ‘’Wounded.’’
Two entries in that list, in red, were the names Louis Joker and Joe Thief.
Colonel Peregrine Ran looked up into Octavia’s sky and saw, as had that now headless Tau, the two flags of two empires facing each other across a city who’s streets were deluges of gore and shit and piss that flowed between the flotsam of bodies and ruined armour units. A city who’s structures were charred black by flames that licked out into the bright morning sky, the smoke no lighter than it had ever been. He sighed heavily.
These colours didn’t run, Ran knew. They never did.