The Canary

Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim, dark future there is only war.

The Canary

Postby J D Dunsany » Wed Aug 26, 2015 2:24 pm

Not posted anything for a while. This is the most recent piece of 40K fiction I've written. It probably needs a bit of polish here and there, but see what you think. :)

“Three for the crow on his blood red throne, four for the man with his staff of bone…”

“Why’s he doing that?”

Forlan glanced up at Gunnarson and then across at Gott, who was, as he had been doing intermittently for the last half hour, muttering to himself in a strange mournful sing-song.

“Throne knows,” he said. “His head’s gone, hasn’t it?”

Gunnarson scowled and hitched his pack back onto his shoulder. He stared at the mumbling Gott. His fellow guardsman was a pathetic sight: uniform stained and creased; the grey skin of his sunken face relieved only by a livid sore at his temple and stray clumps of stubble at jaw and chin. His hands were large and thin, long dirty fingers twitching. Always twitching.

“Yeah,” he said, eventually. “But where has it gone? That’s what I’d like to know. And why the hell didn’t we ditch him at the last intersection?”

“Canaries.”

Forlan turned round to see Dyson emerge from the gloom at the far end of the tunnel, Herrick a few steps behind him. He watched the sergeant approach, noted the grim little smile on his face.

“What are you on about, sarge?” Gunnarson asked.

“Canaries.” For an instant, Dyson’s dark eyes glittered in the emergency lighting. “Little birds in little cages. My uncle told me that, back in the olden days – before re-breathers and air pumps and all that crap – they’d send them down mines with the workers. Help detect pockets of gas, save miners’ lives.” He walked over to Gott who was still hunched against the smooth tunnel wall, singing to himself. “Gotty here is our canary, isn’t he?” He slapped the guardsman on the shoulder. The other man flinched at the contact but it didn’t prevent him from continuing his rhyme.

“Seven for the girl on the crooked way, eight for the name we dare not say, and we start all over again. One for the…”

“Aren’t you, Gotty?”

Gott smiled, then, a gap-toothed broken curling of his lips. His eyes shone, their focus loose.

“Hiya, sarge,” he said, quietly.

Dyson leaned in, patting the thin, hunched man on his head. “You’re a good boy, Gotty. You keep singing for sarge and your mates, eh?” Gott ducked his head in a quick nod. “Good lad.”

Forlan watched the exchange skeptically.

“I’m still not seeing it,” he said.

Dyson turned to him. “Think about it, Forlan. He’s always been a strange one, our Mister Gott, hasn’t he? A bit of a loner… a bit of a quiet one… a bit of a dreamer… What’s the betting that he should have been on a black ship when he was a kid, eh?” He paused and looked around him. The dimly lit tunnel stretched away from them. It was wide enough to take two Chimeras side by side quite comfortably. Somewhere above them an air filter unit wheezed asthmatically. For a moment, Forlan was intensely – and uncomfortably – aware of the seventy metres of rock, earth and habspace above them. Swallowing, he waited for Dyson to continue. “What’s the betting that Gotty here is a freak? A... a sensitive?” The sergeant leaned in and his voice was low and hard. “You know what we’re facing down here. We’ve lost contact with tactical. Throne alone knows where the Colonel is – or even if he’s still alive. This campaign is frakked to buggery. At this point, the name of the game is survival.”

“You’re placing a lot of faith in one shell-shocked guardsman, sarge,” murmured Forlan. He’d tried to keep his tone neutral, but the disapproval in his voice was evident nonetheless.

Dyson smiled. “No, lad. I’m putting my faith in the Emperor and the tough bastards of the fighting Fifth.” He drew back and his expression radiated the grim determination and resolve that had been largely responsible for their surviving the last few hours. “I just want an edge, that’s all.” He nodded to Gott, who had started singing again, his head bobbing. “And he’s it.” He turned back to Forlan and this time his smile was utterly without humour. “And when you see what’s down the tunnel, you’ll understand why we need one.”

*

“Throne of gold!” breathed Forlan.

Beside him, Gunnarson heaved the meagre contents of his stomach onto the blood-smeared tunnel floor. Forlan grimaced and tried to find somewhere to look that wasn’t strewn with human remains. He settled for the back of Gott’s head.

There was no escaping the smell, though.

“... for the snake in the slimy mud, six for the ship on the sea of blood…”

Unless you were Gott, apparently.

Breathing shallowly, not wanting to taste the curdled air, Forlan edged forward. The twenty metre section of tunnel directly ahead of them had become a charnel house. Broken bodies carpeted the rockcrete transit lines and the walls were streaked with red-brown stains. He tried not to look too closely, but isolated details seared themselves into his memory nevertheless: a thin flap of skin peeled back from a woman's forehead with almost surgical precision, while the lower half of her face had been brutally torn away; a stomach ripped open with such ferocity that partially-digested clumps of food were stuck halfway up the wall a few metres from it; the largely intact torso of an officer; the slug-like trail of blood smeared on the floor behind him. There was no sign of the poor man's legs.

Forlan looked up at the tunnel roof where metre-long lumen strips fizzed and flickered.

“This... this isn't recent.” Forlan turned to look at Herrick in time to catch Gunnarson straighten and throw the bigger man's back a withering frown.

“You don't...” he said, pausing to spit vehemently to one side. “You don't say.”

“They're locals,” said Dyson. He was further down the tunnel, a few metres ahead of the rest of the men. He held his lasgun tightly in his grip as his gaze swept the tunnel from side to side. “Seventeenth Herenax.”

Forlan was getting used to the view if not the smell. “How long, do you think?”

“Seven for the girl on the crooked way, eight for the name we dare not say, and we start all over again. One for the…”

Dyson shrugged. “Four, maybe five days. It's difficult to tell.”

Shooting Gott an irritated glare, Gunnarson pushed past him and picked his way carefully through the human detritus to join the sergeant.

“If something went through here five days ago... where is it now?”

Dyson remained silent.

“Sarge?”

“I'm thinking. Five days ago we were in Sector 3-A, weren't we?”

Forlan kept his focus on the tunnel walls and floor. Something had taken down an entire platoon of guardsmen without too much difficulty and he wasn't sure that standing around debating last week's troop movements was a particularly clever idea. And he really didn't want to think about what had been happening five days ago, because five days ago he had entertained the very real possibility that the re-taking of Herenax would be a straightforward proposition. Five days ago he had been part of the Fifth Indiran Hussars, a regiment whose martial tradition stretched back over seventeen centuries. Perhaps that tradition was about to end. Perhaps it would end with them.

Uncertainty crawling in his gut, he glanced at Gott.

A thin line of yellow spittle glistened at the corner of the idiot soldier’s mouth.

“Three for the crow on his blood red throne…”

“Shut up,” he whispered. “For the Emperor’s sake, just shut up…”

Dyson was talking. “… is all wrong. This was the reserve line. If there’d have been an incursion, we’d have known…”

Gunnarson was crouched down by the floor. For a moment, Forlan thought he was going to be sick again, but the other guardsman straightened up, something small and angular held between his thumb and forefinger.

“Sarge!”

Dyson turned to look.

“Five for the snake in the slimy mud…”

Glancing around him, Forlan felt the familiar itching between his shoulder blades. This was taking too long. Couldn’t they see that? His gaze met Herrick’s on the other side of the tunnel and he knew that he could feel it too. They ought to be moving. They ought to be moving now.

“What’s that, lad?”

Gunnarson held out the object to his sergeant. The tunnel lumens flickered for a moment and all the soldiers looked up at them warily, even Gott.

“Sarge…” began Forlan.

“It’s organic, I think,” Gunnarson was saying, “but hard… like a thorn… or a piece of shell… or…” Dyson took it from him carefully.

“Seven for the girl… for the girl…”

“Sarge…” said Forlan. “We should…” He paused and turned his gaze on Gott. The spittle smeared his chin. It frothed and bubbled at the corners of his mouth. Forlan thought about what Dyson had said. Canaries. Gott was their canary…

“The girl… the girl…”

“Sarge!” Forlan felt the panic fluttering in his chest. “We’ve got…”

“The girl…”

With a sharp fizzing crack, the lights went out.

TO BE CONTINUED
JDD story of the moment: Glory
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Re: The Canary

Postby Chun the Unavoidable » Thu Aug 27, 2015 8:28 pm

Grimly amusing and quite readable. Dunno what you want to polish, really. You'd better finish this one, old love.
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Re: The Canary

Postby Mossy Toes » Fri Oct 23, 2015 6:05 am

I feel like with a few hundred words of padding and set-up this wouldn't even need to be "finished"--it certainly has an end of sorts, as it stands.

The repeated mnemonic of the song being sung is a particularly engaging piece, in there: the reader trying to catch onto each line as it trickles by, then stilted, stammering...

That said, I've been remiss in my reading and commenting on the 40k fanfic of my long-term forumites for too long, and this was certainly an encouraging short to come back to! Now to scurry back and scry over Chun's "Black Freighter"...
What sphinx of plascrete and adamantium bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination? Imperator!
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