Fifteen weeks into our tale and I’m only just beginning. I warned you all this was going to be a long, long ride. At any rate, let’s see what our heroes are up to this week.
“Five minutes out, Captain,” the pilot announced.
Menzel merely nodded. He was already glad he hadn’t eaten anything before they took off; he knew that, if this journey went on much longer, his meal would be all over the control boards.
“Begin scanning for life signs,” Menzel ordered.
The view screen in front of them went from normal to infrared vision. Menzel could just barely make out the edges of an abandoned town. Good, now we can get this business over with. The town loomed larger, but there still weren’t any heat signatures showing. Where were they?
“I’m not picking anything up, sir,” the pilot said.
“Keep looking. They have to be here.” Besides, isn’t the devil’s work best done at night?
Perfectly formed beads of sweat trickled down off his chin and the tip of his nose. Menzel hated this planet. It was by far the worst experience he’d had in over twelve years of military service. But by doing this one deed, he was practically assured of going back to one of the core worlds for a much better assignment. The desert was too much for him — that, and he wasn’t doing his intended job. Before Helscape, he had been one of the premier interrogators in the Imperium. Now, he was just another intelligence asset sitting in an office. He’d almost jumped for joy when the communiqué had come through for this mission. This was his ticket home.
“Sir, we’ve got a lightning storm approaching from the southwest.”
Menzel snarled. Just what they needed. It never rained here in the Wastelands, but the lightning storms would burn the flesh from your bone. This kept getting better. Not only was it night, and he was out here alone to meet with — well, he wasn’t exactly sure what was going to be waiting for him — but it was about to storm.
“Raise the guards, pilot. I don’t feel like dying tonight.”
Looking to his left, he could already see the crisp bolts stretching up into the skies. The fingers extended for miles above them, blanketing areas of the ground. Electrical charge enlivened the night sky. Menzel knew the storm could be dangerous. The lightning rolled over them, and the pilot screamed. He flipped his visor up and covered his eyes. When the light washed in front of him, it blinded his vision. The effect was nothing less than looking into the sun with night vision on. Menzel had the sense to already have closed his eyes by then.
Another bolt hit, and then another. The chopper shuddered from the proximity, and he heard one of the engines flame out. Menzel checked the distance gauge and frowned. They were still more than three minutes away from the town, nearly an hour’s walk. The chopper was rocking now. Doing what he could, for he was no pilot, Menzel tried to level out beneath the cap of the storm. Another bolt knocked the pilot unconscious and sealed their fate.
“Hey, Skipper, what in the hells is going on up there?” cried the door gunner in the rear compartment. “We’re getting tossed pretty hard.”
“Pilot’s knocked out, and I can’t keep this thing in the air,” Menzel announced. “Brace yourselves for impact.”
If they were going to live, Menzel knew he only had one shot. Every Imperium aircraft came equipped with reverse thrust jets in their bellies. He had to wait until the bird was down to under a hundred meters and then hit the jets. Hopefully, the reverse velocity would be enough to bounce them off the ground with minimal damage — otherwise, they were dead.
His head was pounding, his body aching. He didn’t have to check to know the pilot was out with a concussion. The blast had come just to his left, forcing him to absorb the majority of the blow. Menzel grimaced as the bird rocked again from another blast. The second engine blew out, and they plummeted like a rock. Fighting the G-forces, he pulled back on the stick. Every second dropped them another twenty meters. Only another two hundred to go.
The skin on Menzel’s face was pulled and stretched back from their velocity. Lightning continued to savage the skies, caring nothing for the plight of the four men in the dying chopper. One hundred and fifty meters. It was a shame Menzel didn’t believe in the Gods, though even if he did, there wasn’t any time for it now. One hundred and ten meters. The pilot groaned, his head repeatedly striking the door. He wasn’t going to recover in time to be of any use. Ninety meters.
Menzel hit the thrust jets, and the chopper was thrown into a battle of conflicting forces. The bird rattled violently, spitting out small bolts and rivets from across the surface of the hull. The windshields were bowing out and caving in, and the machine was rattling with the force of a quake. Fifty meters.
A lesser craft would have been rent asunder by now, but when it came to military equipment, the Imperium spared no expense. Twenty meters. Menzel could swear that the thrust jets were threatening to shoot up through the belly of the chopper, and for the tiniest of moments, he felt like he was going to die.
The chopper impacted with such force that the landing gear snapped up through the floor and shot into the ceiling. Menzel instinctively balled up as much as he could as the chopper bounced up, coming down again another twenty meters forward. Electrical systems were shorting out, and he shied away as his windshield cracked, spitting glass fragments at his face. Finally, they came to rest on the desert floor in a smoking heap of metal and flesh.
Menzel coughed and called back, “Is everyone all right?”
“Jenner’s coughing up blood. Probably got some kind of internal bleeding.”
“Who’s the medic on board?”
“He is, sir.”
Damnation. Half of the crew was injured, and he desperately needed to get to the town before the other party left. A small part of him told him to stay and look after his men, but the rest condemned his frail thoughts. His mission was being mandated all the way from Imperium Command. That left little in the choice of decision.
“Sergeant, do you think you can keep him alive long enough for a rescue bird to get here?”
“I’ll do my best sir,” came the crackled response.
“Good. It is imperative that I complete this task, and I have to go in alone. Keep him alive as long as you can. I’ll radio base and give them our coordinates. Also, the pilot has a minor head injury and I don’t know what else. I’ll be back as soon as I’ve finished up there.”
He had to kick his door a few times to get it open. Menzel slid from the ruined bird, never having been so happy to have his feet on solid ground. Sand swirled at his feet, though the storm had passed. The town of Helgscroft was still close to three kilometers away. That was a lot of ground to cover in the night and the deep desert. Grabbing his pack and canteens, Menzel hit the distress beacon and began his trek to the town.
Helgscroft was once a thriving community and a pleasurable city to visit. Once, but long ago. It was now reduced to mere ruins from time and the elements. It was also the perfect place for the business being conducted tonight. Menzel watched the town from the nearest ridge. He only had normal binoculars now; the other set had been damaged in the crash. So far, it looked like the ruins were empty, but instincts told him they were there. Common sense was enough to dispel the notion he was alone.
He caught the slightest flicker of movement just to the right of what looked to be the meeting building. Whatever it was, it was gone before he had a chance to adjust. Experience told him that it was the opposite party letting him know they were still there. Menzel collected his thoughts and began the last few meters into Helgscroft. Night was getting darker, showing him that there was plenty of night left. Shadows would normally be a hazard, but both parties had agreed on meeting like this.
“Stop where you are, fleshling,” came a deep voice from the darkness behind him. He had reached the spot where the movement had been and now could go no further. Menzel knew he was surrounded and could be killed in a dozen different ways. Even with that knowledge, he’d felt more fear from the crash than he did now. He knew he wasn’t going to die; both parties had too much going for them for that to happen.
“You know who I am,” he told his captors. “I have been summoned here to meet with your leader.”
He caught a foul curse from one direction and a series of growls from another. “This way, fleshling.”
Menzel turned and followed the darkened figure deeper into the ruins. Though he still couldn’t see them, he knew the others had fallen in alongside and behind them to ensure nothing went wrong. He was impressed by their thoroughness and military ability to keep unseen. They were living up to how they were described perfectly.
“How long have you been waiting here?” Menzel asked.
The creature in front of him kept walking. Menzel could make out long horns atop his head and what looked to be plates running down his spine. He had a short tail that continually swayed back and forth and was completely muscled. He was naked, covered only by the waist-length hair trailing down his back. When they reached the end of the road, the creature stepped aside and pointed.
“In there, fleshling.”
Menzel tried to get a better look at his captor’s face when he walked by, only making out the vile tint of deep crimson in his eyes. The door slammed shut with a heavy creak and a cloud of growing dust. Menzel choked at first, and then began to breathe normally as the dust died away. The room was cluttered with the decaying wood of furniture, most of it unserviceable. Cobwebs and dust several inches thick completed the gloomy look. From the far side of the room, he heard the rustling of robes and heavy footsteps.
“You’re late, Captain Menzel of the Imperium.”
“We ran into some unexpected difficulties. I trust that my unfortunate delays have not afforded you the opportunity to change your mind?” Menzel replied to the shadowed form.
“Perhaps. We shall see.”
Menzel stopped when a dozen paces separated them, and he still couldn’t discern anything about the being before him. This was the first time he’d been in a situation like this, and he didn’t really care for it. Too many things could go wrong, and no one would even be the wiser when they came to collect the body.
A sudden fit of laughter caused him to step back.
“You wish to see what you don’t want to? Come, then, fleshling. I invite you to see into the horrors of human imaginations.”
A flame sprung from the tip of the stave he was carrying, and Menzel was able to see exactly what was confronting him for the first time. The level of malevolence emanating off the Berserker far exceeded the images he had pre-formed in his mind. Unsure what he truly saw, Menzel stood silent. Evil in its purest form looked deep into his eyes. The power coming off the Berserker made his knees tremble and his heart flutter. It was an image etched into the eternal recesses of his mind. And in that one instant, Smythe Menzel knew he would look into that bitter face every time he closed his eyes.
“Tell me of this agreement your silvered soldiers wish to make with my people.”