Working On It
There was just enough light to see the creepers and tree roots at his feet. With that alone he could tell it was midday. A chime in his ear, linked to the chrono in his artificial right eye, went off as if it needed to reinforce the fact. Yet another thing around clambering to be heard, seemingly for nothing else than to prove its usefulness just by existing.
Far, far, above him, light tenacious enough to filter through the worlds perpetual cloud cover and interlacing cloak of treetop branches scattered through the second watch fog and illuminated the small, slightly portly, gray clad form of Taloquius Stern as he waddled uncertainly out of the Administratum dormitories. He scowled, scribbling down a few notes about aberrant relative humidity, how the ground needed to be cleared of debris again, and a request for the floodlights to remain on at midday, before picking his way through the tangled roots at his feet and beginning the search for his quarry. His jaunty, bright red, quill pen rarely stopped its scratchy monotone while he directed it to mark the paper and imprint quick efficient script.
The chrono display in his eye twitched slightly, doing Emperor knew what recalculation, while it made a point-oh-oh-three second correction. The thing hadn’t quite figured out how to keep time on the wildly spinning ball of rock, mud, tree roots and things trying to kill him that Taloquius had found himself on. Currently the seven point-two-three-eight hour days and six point-oh-oh-four hour nights forced it to recalculate slightly every two or three hours. Another note went on his pad.
A flare of orange, mixed with actinic yellow off to the right lit the scenery in a fire hued glow as one of the Arvus orbital shuttles began vertical ascent. The small craft, along with two companions in transit, was making the sixth personnel run of the day. The turnover rate might have horrified someone from a cushy civilized world, but it was all nothing but numbers to a scribe. It did make that scribe a little nervous seeing the two heavy anti-aircraft turrets swiveling around atop the southern defense center. That such an array of firepower was under the direction of a group of people only slightly more reliable, to his refined sensibilities, than an annoyed ork, did nothing for the man’s nerves.
The entire tableau vanished quickly into the murk and haze, at least, when the Arvus lighter gained enough altitude to ignite its main jets and launch itself up into and through the high jungle canopy some hundred and twenty meters above. Taloquius could swear he saw a couple of burning sticks and leaves flitting down from up there, but he put it off as nerves. There wouldn’t be much effect on the compound, even if one of the lighter pilots decided to ram one of the trees that produced the canopy. The things were wider around than the Arvus was long, bigger even than the phaeton pattern modular buildings that the compound was made of.
Picking his way across the so called parade grounds, really just the clear space between the barracks and command areas, the scribe found his way onto the main road through camp, avoiding the footpaths past the guard posts on the East end. He could hear the occasional snap of a long-las out towards the plateau cliff in that direction. That made it seem like the most likely place to find the base commander under the circumstances.
Through the scribes right eye all manner of facts and figures superimposed themselves on his vision. Unbidden the caliber, reach, and threat rating of the base auto cannon turrets scrolled past, just in case he wasn’t fully aware of what an entertaining splat mark they could make him into with a single shell. The likelihood of his meeting one of the planets indigenous beasts, a somewhat moot point counting the massive perimeter fence that surrounded the high plateau compound, and what each could do to him in a dreadfully small number of seconds, followed close behind, trying to match his morose mood. Planetary data categories trailed those. Segmentum Obscurus, Sector: Abidel, Sub-Sector: Ristan, System Designation: LV-776, System Name: Gentarus, Planetary Designation: Prime, Planet Class: Death World...
Taloquius cut the data feed with a quick twitch of his head. As if he would be found… well, dead… on a Death World. Timor, a native of Catachan, in Barrack three, considered the designation, while deserved for normal citizens, almost laughable compared to the Death Worlds he had been on. Apparently the last place he‘d been, some comely destination named Burnscour of all things, made this place look like a vacation world. He seemed to miss the horrible diseases, invasive parasites, invisible predators, and consistent downpour the acidity of fresh vomit which made that sparkling paradise feel more like home. To each their own, as long as everyone **** well knew his own wasn’t anywhere near a place like that.
A slight movement caught his attention, to which Taloquius’s artificial eye suddenly clicked to dark sight. Spinning for a moment as he went half blind and half blazingly bright monochrome, the dizzy scribe caught himself with a huff and tried to work the last dozen meters or so out with one eye closed and his depth perception gone to hell.
Before him, originally hidden in the midday malaise, were a trio of men. One was someone new, a property that made him instantly annoying, which Taloquius didn’t recognize. That one, on the right, was laying down and sighting in on the long-las the scribe had been hearing. On the left was manservant Wassily, called such apparently because just being a manservant wasn’t enough, his name had to be a bastardized version of the word vassal in an old version of Low Gothic, just to remind you. The servant was kneeling beside his master, holding a tray of drinks in one white gloved hand while caringly drying his master’s sweating brow with the other in its equally matching white glove. A glance down at his own, slightly disheveled, plant stained robes, made the scribe wonder just how he kept white gloves under such conditions… to which his eye began a readout of a number of local bleaches and cleansers that was hurriedly dismissed with yet another annoyed twitch. The third figure, in between the other two, should have been the entire focus of Taloquius’s interest in the first place.
“ HA HA HA!” the man in question blurted out to the annoyance of the sniper beside him, “You almost had it that time! Crikey but that was a fast one!”
Sitting on his haunches, the man, the legend, the rather annoying, Adolfus Zaband, drew his own massive gun up and took aim with it for barely a second before letting fly. Unlike the long-las the other sniper was using, Adolphus’s “Absolution” sniper rifle only made a soft crack when fired. It took only a moment for the prone sniper to look even more annoyed.
“And that’s how you do it!” Adolfus crowed.
Walking up beside the three men Taloquius gazed into the distance, trying to figure out what the crowing hunter was talking about. He had deftly learned to ignore the utterly irreverent attire self assured base commander Adolfus was wearing early on in their time together. Why the man always decided to wear a sand yellow top and shorts with a bright red scarf seemed to have something to do with an old Terran tradition known as Sah-Fah-Ree. Whatever it was at least Adolfus didn’t wear the silly pith hat anymore. Maybe the way the whole thing stood out against the traditional dark forest camouflage worn by the others in camp was the point, or maybe the man was just mad.
There was a shill sound and a distant cacophony of chirps out in the forest. Taloquius froze as he recognized the noise.
“Are you using the pita-wings for target practice?” the scribe said, hoping they didn’t notice his shuddering gulp right afterwards.
“Right on, perfect for target shooting!” Adolfus said, still in that crowing voice.
“And they don’t mind this?” the scribe asked in a hopeful tone.
“Oh no, it totally buggers them off.” Adolfus laughed, just before something too fast to catch sight of but chirping like a banshee rammed into the perimeter defense beams and burst into a fiery crisp, “See?”
“Uh huh… I see that.” Taloquius returned with a nod then added sullenly, “Wish I hadn‘t, but…” Maybe the man was just mad indeed. The scribe took and unhurried step to the side, away from the snipers, just in case.
Scowling, the other sniper sighted in again. His eyebrows quickly raised near to his hairline and he hurriedly took another shot between the beams of the perimeter fence, then another. The rate of fire sounded a little too panicked for the scribe’s tastes. That banshee chirp was back, and this time either it had found an echo chamber out past the compound, or there were a dozen of them.
“Don’t rush. Don’t rush.” the base commander said, this time in an almost soothing tone. The facial expression on the other sniper dropped like a stone, probably along with his opinion of the base commander.
Looking out into the gloom now even the scribe could see about seven of the tiny, twenty-five centimeter across, little death dealers screaming in on them. The small avians, pretty much just the local songbirds, looked innocuous enough, in opposition to their deadly reputation.
The las toting sniper managed to score a direct hit on one, sending the little thing tumbling end over end into the perimeter fence and bringing an appreciative shout from Adolfus before the other six buzzed up over the glowing beams and came in for the kill.
Taloquius confirmed his hypothesis that the unfamiliar sniper was not a local. The scribe and the other two locals on site already had their hands over their ears. While it meant nothing to him, being mostly an Administratum drone, Taloquius at least recognized the firing solutions scrolling past his right eye optics when he saw them.
Either the speed of the base defense system was the most frightening he’d ever witnessed, or the thing had already been tracking the birds and was just waiting for them to get over the fence. It didn’t matter really. Six birds, all tiny targets, vanished in a simultaneous blood spray. The four, Echon Pattern, Mark III Assault Stubbers, mounted atop the heavy bolter tarantula sentry guns by the guard posts behind them, made more than certain of that.
“Well! I think I could have gotten three myself.” the base commander crowed, standing up and walking away from the other sniper as Wassily carefully daubed bird viscera off the more important man’s clothing. That leaving the new man, splashed with blood and some innards, and still carrying his long-las, might have been a bad idea apparently never occurred to the pair. Taloquius, thankfully clear of at least that new and wondrous set of laundry challenges because of his foresight in sidestepping, wasn’t so sure. He kept an appreciable distance between himself and the target… err… base commander, just in case.
“Right you are sir.” Wassily pointed out.
“Practice, practice, practice!” Adolfus called back, then looked over to the scribe, “You wanted something Inditor Stern?”
Glancing back to make sure no one was getting shot today, at least not here and not someone, namely him, who wasn’t supposed to, Taloquius gave a curt nod, his jowls bouncing with the motion, and paused in scribbling notes on his pad. He may have stopped jotting because he was about to be serious. He may have stopped because talking, jotting and walking over the root tangled ground was too much for him to do all at once. Whatever the reason it truly got the commander’s attention.
“I must, I believe, express my… reservations, about upcoming assignment omicron dash oh four four one.” the scribe pointed out, using the Administratum record code for what he had to do instead of saying the whole thing outright, “Well, above and beyond the complaint recta nine nine seven I already filed.”
“Well, I guess that’s because you’re just not a people person!” the commander blurted with a smile and then quickly stabbed a thumb towards himself to punctuate his adding, “Like me!”
“Quite…” Taloquius returned, his blasé facial features doing their best impression of crouching dumbass, hidden cringe, “I’m more concerned about having me posted to Barrack seven.”
“Oh! Not very manly.” Adolfus replied with a pout, “Not scared are ya?”
“Sir, I’m a scribe. I don’t fight. I write things down for you. With a pen.” the slightly flabby, robe clad man said with no hint of irony or sarcasm, “I get to do scared. It’s in the job description.”
“True true!” the commander replied with a hint of wonder in his voice, “Y’ve got me thar, but it shouldn’t matter. I’ve got a good feeling about this one.”
“I’m supposed to make light of the fact that you’re throwing me in with a group of random killers, none of whom know anything about each other, forcing us to work together, and giving us the one barrack in the place that no one has ever survived being assigned to…” Taloquius Stern said in a droning monotone, “…because you have a good feeling.”
“Yep!” the taller man said with a bright smile that just screamed crazy, though like a loon or a fox, it was too early to tell, before he looked up to the sky and added, “And you better be quick about it too!”
The midday gloom was brightened by the burning light from one of the Arvus lighters, just returning from orbit. The scream of its straining engines cut across the entire compound as the little shuttle came in hard, burning away some of the foliage above. Even with the extra yellow and orange engine glow, Taloquius looked somewhat more pale than usual.
Pointing up at the small, horribly wobbling craft the base commander gave the scribe a grin that would have looked better splashed across the face of a fiend as he called out, “Because here comes the first batch now!”
To be Continued