Alarms blared in the Thunderhawk gunship. The craft struggled to maintain altitude, steadily dropping through thick, green clouds that were filled with bolts of lightning and drawing ever closer to the barren surface of Taali.
"Pilot," spoke Sergeant Talthor, "what's going on?" Talthor braced himself against the grey steel wall of the transport bay in the back of the Thunderhawk. The lights flickered in the turbulence. His red MK VII Power Armor was covered in black blood mixed with orange slime.
"Pilot?" he said again.
The ship shuddered, forcing the other Space Marines in the bay to reach for their harnesses. Talthor didn't strap himself in--not yet. He was a Blood Angel. And he didn't want to wear his harness.
"Throne of Terra!" said Rumid, a fellow battle brother. He pulled the harness belt tight across his armor. "What did we get into?"
"I don't know," answered Talthor as the Thunderhawk shook again. "The Warp storm must have caught us--" his words were cut off. The Thunderhawk pitched violently, forcing Talthor to cling to a hand hold. He had already stowed his bolt pistol and chainsword before removing his helmet, but he put his helmet back on to check his vox channels. His heads-up-display showed that his vox was fine.
"Pilot, report," he said.
"Sorry, sir . . . a little busy . . . stand by," came the reply.
Talthor cast a glance at his combat squad waiting resolute in their power armor. He dropped his head and cursed their luck. He and his men along with a detachment of several tactical squads from 4th Company had been deployed for the last eight months on Gui IV. An Ork War Boss had taken his WAAGH! for a ride in a Space Hulk. Eventually his band of warriors had come to rest on Gui IV, but not before the Hulk broke up and scattered his forces all over the planet. Talthor, his fellow Blood Angels, a group of Ultramarines, and several Imperial Guard divisions mopped up the disjointed Orks.
The noise of the engines increased while the Thunderhawk continued to lose altitude. Talthor and his squad had been extracted only minutes before, then the ship strayed into a fast approaching Warp storm, or so Talthor had guessed, and been thrown off course to an unknown realm.
"We must be damaged," said Cuen. "The engines don't sound good." The yellow glow from his "eyes" of the helmet illuminated the dim bay. Half the lights had cut out when the trouble started.
"I'm sure we'll get out of this," Talthor said. In his mind, however, he doubted their chances. He looked over his armor, noting the orange mud of Gui IV that was smeared all over it. His legs were coated in the vile black blood of Orks.
Suddenly, a tremendous explosion tore through the Thunderhawk. Talthor was knocked off his feet and slid across the floor to the far wall as the ship began to roll dramatically. He slammed into the side of the bay. Before anyone could call out the floor buckled and split apart. Steel splintered and gave way.
"No!" Talthor yelled, reaching out to his combat squad.
The back half of the transport bay separated from the ship as the storms ripped the Thunderhawk in two. In a second that half of the craft disappeared into the greenish darkness, taking three Blood Angels with it.
Now the ship tumbled rapidly, throwing Talthor from floor to ceiling and back again. His gauntleted hands groped for something to hold onto. He crashed into the roof head first, rolled upright then was dumped to the floor. He found a hand hold on the wall, but lost it when the Thunderhawk flipped again.
The remaining lights flickered and went out, plunging Talthor and the last remaining Blood Angel into blackness. Talthor could hear the ship cracking over the sound of the rushing wind. He managed to get stuck in a corner.
"Kalik!" he said. Kalik was the only Blood Angel left besides the Sergeant.
"By the throne!" came Kalik's reply. "We die for Sanguinius!"
Talthor barely had time to switch his HUD to infrared when the Thunderhawk angled sharply upward. He fell toward the gaping hole in the back. He forced his fingers into the floor, trying to make a handhold for himself. His body slid ever closer to the hole. Pressing hard into the steel, Talthor made a few dimples in the floor, but he could only slow his movement. His feet extended into the darkness. No luck with the floor. Now his legs dangled over the edge. He pushed frantically.
His left hand slipped just as Talthor found a jagged piece of steel to hold with his right hand. Only his upper body remained in the ship. Talthor grunted, straining to hold himself with one hand. His grip slackened. He struggled to keep from falling out. The Thunderhawk started to roll again, but the nose dropped first and threw Talthor back inside. He somersaulted twice before hitting the bulkhead.
He had just gotten back into a sitting position when he heard the ship break up around him. Kalik shouted something, but he couldn't make sense of it. A great rending of metal shattered the air, and then the Thunderhawk crashed into the surface of Taali.
**********************************************************Pain was the first sensation Talthor remembered. He was lying on his back. Talthor's entire body hurt. His right arm was twisted awkwardly underneath him. He grunted as he jerked it free. From the elbow down his arm was numb. He started to inhale deeply but coughed instead. His neck was sticky from dried blood.
The skin on his face felt hot. Too hot. He realized his helmet was missing and opened his eyes. Harsh, blinding light forced him to squint. He didn't know where he was.
He sat up, or tried to. A stinging sensation in the back of his neck kept him on the ground. He waited a few minutes to muster up his strength. His left knee felt as if he had run fill tilt into a Vindicator. He clinched his teeth and started to sit up again but failed. His chest was heavy with bruises. Once feeling had returned to his right arm, he propped himself up, then steadied his position with his left hand. Rubbing his neck with his right hand, Talthor slowly sat up.
The first thing he noticed was the sun. It was the size of his fist in the sky, causing intense heat. The sky itself was the clearest blue Talthor had ever seen. Not a cloud anywhere. Orange colored sand dotted by patches of small rocks offered no landmarks of any kind.
He licked his lips and tasted blood. With stunning clarity the events of the crash rushed into his mind. His eyes widened.
"My brothers," he said. His voice sounded hoarse and ragged. He looked all around him. Nothing moved. Talthor pushed himself up, winced and stood gingerly. He paused for a couple seconds until he gained his balance. His feet were numb. His left leg ached. He checked every direction; north, south, east, west. "In Terra's name," he muttered. Sand without end stretched from horizon to horizon. No cities, no farms, no factories, no ship docks, no wreckage from the Thunderhawk, and no battle brothers.
Sweat began to run down his face. He surveyed the ground around him again. He couldn't believe that he was this far away from the crash site. He studied the sand dunes for a moment. Obviously he had been thrown clear of the Thunderhawk. But he knew he had to be close to the site. He looked down at a rock that was half buried in the sand. He kicked it away and watched the sand fill in the now vacant hole.
"Buried," he said and coughed roughly. His throat was dry and uncomfortable. "Must be buried." He coughed again. "Somewhere. Here."
For the first time he examined himself. He stretched carefully, flexing his fingers and gently trying each joint. He could not move his left shoulder without some considerable pain. He guessed that he must have landed on that shoulder. His back was sore, but the power armor appeared to have done its job, protecting Talthor from the brunt of the impact. Even though he was a Blood Angel, he realized he was extremely fortunate to survive.
He started walking forward. His feet sank into the soft sand until his ankles were covered. Talthor continued, looking for any sign of disturbed sand or wreckage. All the ground he could see appeared smooth as glass. An ocean of sand that had swallowed all signs of life. A single shrub was the only apparent vegetation.
He reached the crest of the nearest dune and surveyed the valley below him. He wondered if the ground could bear his weight. The Sergeant knew to be wary of quicksand, but everything seemed to be safe in front of him though.
Talthor walked down the slope. The sand came up to his shins, forcing him to pick his feet up high as he walked. He crossed the bottom with no trouble. Nothing but sand greeted him at the top of the next dune. He shielded his eyes from the sun's glare and looked to the west. Flat sand for kilometers. Talthor didn't even know if he was heading in the right direction. He could very well be moving farther away from the downed Thunderhawk.
A thought struck Talthor. The powerful storms had been gone for quite some time. Hours must have passed since the crash. If any of his men were still alive, no doubt they would have found him by now. Of course, three of them, Cuen, Rumid, and Veks, went down with the back end of the Thunderhawk. They could be kilometers away. Kalik and the pilot were more likely to find Talthor. Well, if they survived the impact.
The pain began to subside into a dull ache. He rubbed his left shoulder, and on a sudden impulse started heading west. The heavy air was oppressive, almost choking Talthor. He needed water soon. His body was capable of going without food for many days, but he could not do without water for nearly as long. Some rations might have come through relatively unscathed in the Thunderhawk. The sooner he could find the ship the better.
He skirted the rim of the dune before reaching flatter ground. After going for several hundred yards he stopped again.
"What a fool," he said to himself, realizing his mistake. If he had been thrown from the Thunderhawk before or during impact, he couldn't be that far away. Walking any sizeable distance from his starting point would be fruitless. He turned and headed back in the direction he had come. He had start his search where he had awoken and work out gradually from there.
Talthor backtracked his steps through the valley. Once he reached his beginning point he walked in a small circle pattern. With each lap around the circle he widened it, eventually encompassing a larger and larger area. Sweat covered his face now. The salty liquid stung when it pooled in a gash on Talthor's forehead. He could feel the blood that had dried on his face, but he couldn't do anything about it nor did he wish too. That injury was the least of his concerns.
Ten minutes passed. Talthor was growing impatient. Ignoring the pain, he quickened his pace. The air was thick and still. No breeze offered even temporary relief. His frustration continued. He knew the chances of one of his men surviving lessened with each second gone by.
"Cursed storms," he said. "I should--" he fell into a coughing fit. He cleared his throat. "I should have found them by now." He knew he had to keep going though. To stop searching would mean certain death for his brothers. "I must not fail them." With fresh determination he set his jaw and continued around the circle.
Then he saw it. Off to his right about fifty yards. He ran over. From the distance it appeared to be the slightest bump in the sand. Just a rock. But Talthor recognized the red steel.
A small corner protruded from the ground. He dropped to his knees and began scraping the sand away. He uncovered more of the metal. He got his fingers underneath it and pushed it upward. The edges of the piece poked through the sand.
"Just wreckage," Talthor said pausing momentarily. "The rest of the Thunderhawk should be close by." He dug hurriedly. The disturbed sand formed a dust cloud around him, but Talthor didn't stop. He gripped the steel once more, grunted, and forced the piece free of the sand.
To his disappointment, more sand greeted him beneath the liberated metal.
"In Terra's name!" he shouted angrily before choking on the dust. He drove his right hand into the sand, his fiery wrath and adrenaline masking his pain. Sweat fell from his face, evaporating as soon as it touched the ground.
Movement out of the corner of his eye attracted him. There. Next to his right hand, which was still buried in the sand. The sand was moving, falling into a hole slowly. It wasn't a lot of movement but it was definitely moving. Talthor watched it with furrowed brow. A cavity must be present underneath the ground. A cavity . . . like the transport bay of a Thunderhawk!
New energy surged through his veins. He attacked the sand with both hands, throwing it behind him. At first the sand fell faster into the cavity, but he managed to stop the flow. Soon he unearthed the side of the bay. He scooped sand out as fast as he could. He guessed that the same wind that had torn the Thunderhawk apart had also buried it in the sand. If that was true though, he should have been buried too. He surmised that he'd been thrown to a high spot and escaped the powerful winds.
The Thunderhawk appeared to be on its side, but it took Talthor some time to clear away enough sand to orient himself to the ship's position. He could see inside now, however, the orange sand almost completely filled the bay.
He reached in again and his hand struck something. He pulled at it.
“Kalik?” It was his battle brother’s armored foot. He dug at the sand, uncovering Kalik’s leg. “Hold on, brother,” he said. He grabbed Kalik’s leg and pulled. Sand gave way, revealing more of Kalik’s body. Talthor tugged harder, lost his grip and fell over onto his back. He grunted in pain when he landed. Angered, he got to his feet quickly before clearing more sand. Finally he pulled Kalik free.
Talthor rolled his brother onto his back. Kalik lay motionless; his arms were limp by his side. Fury and grief overcame Talthor. He was too late.
Suddenly, Kalik groaned.
“By the blood of Sanguinius!” Talthor exclaimed. He reached down and gently removed Kalik’s helmet. His brother was breathing, however, his eyes did not open. He held Kalik’s shoulder. “Kalik? Can you hear me, brother?” He bent down and spoke into Kalik’s ear. “I’m here, brother.” A soft groan came from Kalik. His sus-an membrane had put him in a regenerative coma.
Talthor again searched the horizon. Nothing. The sun was stuck in the sky, unmoving and unrelenting. He knew Kalik had sustained massive injuries. He had to get off this planet. But how? Who lived here if anyone? Would they have spacecrafts? He stood and slowly looked in all directions. Sand upon sand upon endless sand was all that met his eyes.
It took several hours for Talthor to unearth the cockpit of the Thunderhawk. To his dismay he found that the cockpit had been crushed upon impact, cutting the pilot in two. He left off digging at that point, and built a makeshift shelter out of some scrap metal to keep the sun off of Kalik.
Scrounging around in the Thunderhawk’s bay that was still half filled with sand, Talthor found his bolt pistol. He held the weapon up, inspected it, and clipped it to his belt. The gun wasn’t loaded and all the ammo was missing, so Talthor knew the pistol was useless. He had to find some ammunition for it, even a single clip would do.
He opened an ammo locker, but it was empty. Grumbling, he tried the next one. The door was jammed. He punched it, smashing the handle to bits. The door still didn’t open. Talthor grabbed it, tore it from its hinges, and tossed it over his shoulder. This locker was empty as well.
He stepped backward into a foot of sand. He began kicking with his feet and moving the sand toward the back. He kicked a metal object and stopped. Plunging his hands into the sand, he found the handle of his chainsword. It would be an extremely useful weapon in an unknown environment like this. He brought it out of the sand.
The chainsword was bent in the middle at a ninety degree angle. Disgusted, he flung the weapon out the back of the Thunderhawk. He grumbled. Nothing seemed to be going right. He looked about the transport bay, but he didn’t expect to find any rations. Thunderhawks were designed to get Space Marines from their strike cruisers to planets quickly, or from point to point on a planet. Staying in the craft for long periods of time was not the original purpose or intent of the Thunderhawk.
A couple of storage compartments that had spilled open attracted his attention. He picked through the contents. A few tools, scrap parts, and a stray combat knife. His knife was still sheathed on his power armor, but Talthor knew a second knife could come in handy. After placing the knife on top of the compartment, he stooped to take a last look for anything valuable. He spotted a canteen, snatched it, but found it had been split open. No water was left inside. Another canteen lay in the back of the compartment. He shook the bottle and heard water sloshing. He eagerly unscrewed the top, brought it to his lips, and stopped.
“My brother,” he said lowering the canteen. Kalik needed the water more than he did. Talthor exited the Thunderhawk. He walked up a small slope and came to Kalik’s position at the “shelter.” The shelter consisted of nothing more than a sheet of metal sticking out of the sand, but it provided shade for the badly injured Kalik.
The sun was still hot as ever. Talthor noted that the sun didn’t appear to be getting lower on the horizon. He guessed that the planet’s rotation was abnormal, giving it longer days. Abnormal rotation would explain the desert as well.
Talthor knelt next to Kalik. His brother still had not spoken a word. He was in dire condition, but Talthor was no Apothecary. If he was, he could have Kalik walking by the end of the day. Now he just had to hope his brother could hold out until Talthor could get him off the planet.
He carefully raised Kalik’s head. Kalik’s breathing was labored.
“Drink, Kalik,” he said. He pressed the canteen to Kalik’s mouth. The bottle had only enough water for a few swallows before it was dry.
Talthor examined Kalik’s face. Kalik’s helmet prevented any cuts, but the color was draining from his skin. Kalik’s normally healthy, dark complexion was pale and starting to turn ashen gray. Talthor knew Kalik had sustained critical internal injuries. Although his power armor was intact, Kalik probably had some broken bones and bleeding organs. The armor would have already injected chemicals to stop the blood loss, but those stimulants were meant as a stop-gap.
Kalik stirred then groaned.
“Easy, brother,” Talthor said. “I’ll get you out.”
Kalik was one of the last original members of the tactical squad Talthor had been given command of some twenty years ago. The others save one, who had been moved to another company, had been slain in battle or succumbed to the Black Rage. Both of them had fought with distinction on Hive Helsreach during the Third War for Armageddon. Talthor was not going to let Kalik perish from something as inglorious as a Thunderhawk crash.
Talthor stood and started moving toward the Thunderhawk when he felt the ground tremble under his feet. At first he thought nothing of it, but the shaking continued. He stopped. Far in the distance the sand was moving like a river.
“In the Emperor’s name,” his words trailed off. He took several steps in that direction, his right hand already reaching for his combat knife. He didn't draw the weapon, however, choosing to wait for the disturbance to show itself.
The sand shifted crazily until suddenly a bulge came to the surface. Dark purple skin appeared. Talthor tensed, ready for action. Tossing soil in every direction, a massive head seven meters in length arose from the ground. The square angular head looked reptilian in appearance, its scaly skin gleaming in the sun before the monster opened its mouth, revealing hundreds of teeth. Its snake like body remained mostly in the ground, although the beast was still twice as tall as Talthor.
The monster hissed but Talthor stood his ground. He pulled his combat knife from its sheath. The weight of the large blade felt good in his right hand. Watching the dark eyes of his foe, he started circling to his left.
Then the strange creature attacked, lunging at him with its mouth opened wide. Talthor dove to one side and barely had time to get to his feet before the thing came again lightning quick. This time he jumped to his left and rolled to his feet. He dodged a third swipe when the monster stopped his attacks. Talthor waited, knife at the ready.
The beast pushed itself farther out of the sand, now "standing" eight meters tall. It hissed again, louder, moving easily in the sand while keeping its eyes fixed on Talthor.
The Blood Angel waited for an opportunity to strike. Before the chance came, however, the monster was upon him. Talthor jumped right, left, somersaulted underneath the beast's head and slashed out with his knife but missed. He sidestepped another blow--the monster was fast. He dodged again, timed his thrust and buried his knife up to the handle in his foe's neck. He pulled back quickly before the monster could react, orange blood spewing from the wound.
The beast pulled away in anger before setting its gaze upon Talthor again. Unfazed by the injury, the giant creature threw itself at Talthor. The Sergeant's blade found the soft flesh of the monster twice in quick succession. He raised the knife to plunge it into the top of his enemy's head, but his foe rammed into him and sent him sprawling.
Sharp discomfort surged through Talthor's left shoulder when he hit the ground. He ignored it and moved out of the way of another strike. Standing to his feet, he was about to swing his knife again when the monster caught him with its nose. He tumbled backward before hitting the side of the Thunderhawk with a thud. His right arm flailed and his knife flew from his grasp.
Talthor got to his knees, scrambled over the Thunderhawk's fuselage and dove off the other side just as the beast crashed into the ship with its mouth open wide. The razor sharp teeth ripped into the metal with tremendous force. While Talthor recovered his weapon, the monster tossed aside shards of metal from his mouth.
Without warning, the beast disappeared under the sand. Talthor watched it burrow in the ground. The earth shook as it drew closer. Talthor moved away, but the beast followed. He waited, then the monster vanished completely, leaving no trace in the sand. Studying the ground carefully, he circled slowly, wary of the beast appearing suddenly.
Minutes passed. Still he remained on edge. The sand was quiet and unmoving. Talthor ignored the sweat running down his face, focusing on the ground. At last the threat seemed to have left him. He exhaled. "Cursed beast," he said, sheathing his combat knife. "Come again and you will taste of my steel."
Walking back to the Thunderhawk, he scoured the inside of the ship again for anything of value. He was pleased to find three clips for his bolt pistol, however, he didn't find any water. It was then that he heard the low whine of an engine. An old one. Simple gasoline.
He sprinted from the Thunderhawk, shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun. He looked intently in the direction of the sound. There. A small vehicle. A dune buggy of sorts, which wouldn't be a bad method of transportation. He smiled. Someone did live on this wretched rock.
Talthor grunted as he struggled to push Kalik's large armored frame up the slope. He normally would've carried his brother, but doing that wasn't an option due to the sheer, near horizontal ascent necessary to scale the base of the peak. He forced Kalik onto a ridge before digging his armored gauntlets into the hard rock and pulling himself up.
The last several hours had been fruitful. Talthor had followed the dune baggy back to a small village, where with some difficulty he had ascertained the location of a "ship dock" from the native tribesmen. Many of the locals were terrified at his presence, although a few them managed to give him the information he wanted. Apparently he wasn't the only "man from the sky," as those people called him, that was on this planet. Briefly Talthor had hoped his brothers were alive, but he had a feeling that something sinister awaited him. He was about to find out what that something was.
Talthor rested for a moment, looking about for any signs of life. The tribesmen had pointed him toward this small mountain. They said ships came and left from here occasionally. He hadn't seen any so far. Maybe ships had never come to this planet at all. The locals could have deceived him.
He studied the harsh face of the mountain in front of him. He guessed he had about 100 meters to go to get to the top. He spied another ridge to climb to and hefted Kalik over his shoulder again.