A Necromunda short story by Nick Kyme
Hive Primus. Frontier settlement, One True Lode.
Five years ago…
The gate wouldn’t hold.
Barrack knew it with the same certainty he felt about the knot of creeping in the pit of his stomach.
It was only a matter of time before they broke through, the seething mass of faces pressing languidly against the wire-mesh barrier regarding them with sunken, hungry eyes. Once that happened, it was over. No question.
‘Hollard, upper right quadrant… now!’
At his sergeant’s order, the enforcer saw the danger and his combat shotgut barked violently.
A scrambling figure shuddered with the dense shell impacts and slumped in stillness, half-tangled in the razorwire crowning the gate. Its pallid skin was torn away by the scything spirals of ultra-sharp wire, revealing wasted muscle and congealed blood beneath. Hollard’s shotgun had done its work, the climber’s head half-exploded exposing partially destroyed brain and skull fragments.
Barrack eased down, nodding to Hollard with a look part stern determination, part reproach at the enforcer’s laxity. The enforcer sergeant took stock of their situation for the fifth time in as many minutes.
When the neurone plague had swept through the lower echelons of hive city, Barrack had been neck-deep in pacifying a full quadrant gang war. Goliaths and Delaques were prosecuting a turf war with extreme prejudice. It was a protracted rivalry that just wouldn’t lie down and die. Inevitable that it would spill out of the underhive into one of the so-called ‘frontier’ zones, those that rose and fell out of the purview of the Necromundan gangs. One True Lode was primarily a mining settlement, an iron-grey beltway of cold warehouses, prospecting waystations and streaming trackways plied constantly by laborious lode wagons, brimming with ore. It was a community, too, and the miners had families: soot-stained, hard-working men, women and children crammed into dirt-clogged tenements and communal habs. The civilians were Barrack’s first priority. Get them safe and then restore order. Not a doctrine shared by some of his contemporaries, flint-eyed bastards that echoed Judge Traggat’s ‘The End Justifies the Means’ like a mantra to excuse horrendous collateral damage and property destruction.
Three enforcer squads had reacted to the sprawling gunfight and through intimidation and force of arms, pegged the gangers to a sector block light with civilian habitation. Barrack had dared to hope, through tactical acumen, that he had the situation almost under control with two squads readying for an incursion into the two opposite-facing hi-rise ore storage towers where the gangs were entrenched. Then it happened.
It came from the south-facing tower first, the distinctive animalistic tones of a Goliath meathead, brutish and deep. Gunfire echoed from within, harsh and clipped. The muzzle flash was internal; Barrack could see it like a burst flare glowing at the edge of a smashed-in window. They were firing at something inside.
Barrack had checked his squads. No one had made a move. It wasn’t them. He gave a barked order to hold, to stop the incursion team getting itchy feet and going anyway. Then came silence; gunsmoke wafting forlornly from three of the windows. That was when he saw them, shambling through the soot-clogged air, emerging from a grey-black fog. In front of them, heading west, directly towards the enforcers.
Barrack had heard of the neurone plague. He knew what it did to human beings, that it reanimated the victims upon death into horrific unlife. Flesh-eating zombies were the product of crudely-made slasher-picts pedalled to those with a voyeuristic penchant for the macabre. Here, they were real and in their hundreds.
For a split-second that seemed to stretch into minutes, Barrack remembered only silence. The booming retort of a combat shotgun, delivered in slow-motion, had brought him to his senses. Three more blasts joined it.
‘Fall back!’ he had ordered, panic filling his chest like a fat wedge of ice. It was unnecessary. Both incursion teams were breaking ranks and retreating to where Barrack waited with the third enforcer squad, dug in deep behind a fleet of lode wagons and out of the gangers’ firing arc. Squad cohesion fragmented quickly when secondary and tertiary groups of zombies emerged from the north and south, much closer than the others. Enforcers turned rapidly to the new threat at their flanks. One went down to a burst from the Delaque’s tower, a snap shot to the thigh.
Barrack triggered his autopisto
l, strafing the lonely window where the shot had come from and was rewarded with a muted cry of pain. He was about to send his squad in to cover the fleeing incursion teams when a fourth shambling horde of walking dead came from the east. They were maybe sixty feet from Barrack and they had the other enforcers boxed in.
Scrambling to get a better vantage point on the roof of one of the wagons, Barrack had watched as the zombies closed in, his imperilled men converging into a tight ring of barking shotguns.
‘Get out of there!’ he bellowed, heedless of the target he presented to the Delaques. Shots ricocheted off the steel roof of the wagon and Barrack crouched, retaliating in kind with his autopistol, suppressing fire adding to his hopeful salvo from his squad below to keep the Delaques at bay.
‘Get out of there!’ he cried again as the zombies closed, the odd one spasming as it was brought down by a shotgun blast. No more than a drop in a pestilent ocean.
‘Concentrate fire, forge a way through.’ Barrack was desperate now but the ring of enforcers crushed closer. They weren’t listening. Couldn’t listen. The weight of fear pressing on their senses engulfed everything except the instinct to survive, to recoil from horror and the irrefutable evidence of their own mortality.
A few more seconds and the shotgun blasts stopped. He lost sight of his stricken enforcers in the throng of rotting bodies. They were dead. He was certain of it. They would come for them next.
Barrack had half-climbed, half-vaulted from the lode wagon.
‘Full retreat,’ he ordered breathlessly.
And as they fell back, the screams of the Delaques a shrilling chorus as they too were overwhelmed, Barrack did the only thing he could. He herded up as many civilians as possible and got the hell out.
* * *
One True Lode sat in artificial basin, a smooth oval of clustered buildings and pipes connected to the upper echelons of Hive Primus via a series of cast-iron bridges. Every bridge, leastways those that still stood, was barred by a gate. One of those gates was now all that stood between them and a grisly death. It also meant that Barrack’s only possible egress was closed to him and all the unfortunate bastards trapped with him.
‘Shall I signal for an extraction, sir?’ Madden grunted in Barrack’s ear. The heavy-set enforcer brandished a broad suppression shield meaningfully, eyeing the frantic civilians packed around them with undisguised contempt.
‘Remus has the flares primed and ready.’
Barrack’s response was curt.
Madden was insistent, but careful to keep his voice to a low growl.
‘Sir, the gate won’t hold. And if just one of those flesh-eating scavvers gets in here we are severely scavved.’
Barrack turned on the enforcer at once, fixing him with a gaze of steel.
‘Negative, enforcer. We hold out for reinforcement.’ Barrack turned his attention to another enforcer, part of a ring of three surrounding him. ‘Has Whiter managed to raise any more units?’
Whiter crouched next to a damaged lode wagon; sat on rockcrete blocks, its left-side track system a twisted mess of metal. The entire ironyard was littered with them. Little more than a flat plain set into a thick t-shape, they’d arrived at the ironyard through its east entrance and quickly sealed it. The west exit sat opposite, on the horizontal bar of the ‘T’ blocked by wreckage, while a long vertical canyon peeled off south to the bridge. It had been Barrack’s hope that the south exit would get them out of One True Lode. Instead, it brought them to the zombie hordes and nothing but desperate hope. It was a shitty place to make a last stand, little better than a mech-graveyard littered with the metal husks of wagons and loaders. A pity none of them were functional or Barrack would driven right through the gate and ground those rotting scavvers into bone and viscera.
‘Nothing,’ Madden replied, turning his gaze from his sergeant to Whiter a vox-phone cupped over one ear spitting static. ‘There’s been nothing for hours, not since–’
‘I know, Enforcer.’ Barrack recalled their last communication with the sector command bastion all too readily. He had no wish to hear Madden reiterate it, the screams echoed loud enough in his memory.
Barrack, as of this moment, had eight men left in his command. Madden, Whiter and Remus stood alongside him; the latter maintaining a tight cordon with suppression shields; Gantt and Fulcard roamed the crowd, trying to maintain order. They were easy to spot. Like all the enforcers, they were encased head to foot in thick, black carapace. Stout shoulder cards and half-face combat helmets stood them a good foot above even the tallest civilian.
Three more enforcers: Hollard, Damrod and Lenk were on active-sentry at the gate, shooting or bludgeoning any flesh-eater that tried to get past the wire. Lenk was the squad’s weapon specialist and stood in a ready-position, the igniter on his flamer burning white-hot. They lost, Vaggler in the flight to the ironyard. A roving pack of plague zombies, a splinter of a much larger horde had caught them unawares en route to the ironyard. Barrack had executed the poor bastard himself. A mercy killing.
Barrack forced his attention away from the memory and back onto the ground. Soot-streaked faces regarded him, the stony expressions of men and women with nothing more to give and everything to lose. Some were weeping plaintively, mumbling prayers to whatever gods were listening. There were children and the elderly, dressed in little more than threadbare rags, hands and feet black from disturbed sootfall. Fear clung to them all, that seething mass only made dissimilar from the flesh-eaters by their beating hearts and flowing blood, like a palpable fug. Barrack thought he might choke on it. They were so close to breaking point.
A commotion erupting at the edge of Barrack’s peripheral vision got his attention. Some of the mine workers were shouting.
‘He’s got it, he’s got the plague,’ someone said.
‘We gotta scavvin’ kill ‘im!’
‘No,’ came a woman’s voice. ‘He’s having a seizure, nothing to do with the plague. Don’t you touch him you bastards.’
Barrack saw Folcard step in to restore order but the panic was already spreading like fat ripples in a sump pond.
‘Clear a space,’ said Folcard. ‘Clear it,’ he said again when no one moved.
People were moving back. The ripples became a wave.
Barrack saw someone brandish a crete-pick, intent on burying it in Folcard’s back. Barrack was about to shout a warning, when Folcard turned and downed his assailant, shotgun butt exploding his nose in a cloud of gore and bone.
‘Stay down!’ he warned, turning back.
The woman was screaming. Barrack couldn’t see why but saw Folcard stoop, heard him shouting.
‘Get away from her. Back away.’
Someone grabbed Folcard’s arm and he shrugged them off; another he headbutted to the ground; floored a third with an elbow smash. Standard-issue riot-ready carapace splintered bone upon impact.
Barrack looked at Madden and Remus.
‘Get in there.’
But Folcard wasn’t looking in their direction. He’d got spun in the scuffle and was facing Lenk.
‘Lenk,’ he roared, using his shotgun like a baton to fend off the most belligerent attackers.
Barrack saw Lenk move from the gate even as Madden and Remus advanced, shoving their way through the frightened crowd, unhitching shock mauls. He saw the crowd throng around the weapon specialist, pressing against him and trying to put distance between themselves and the ‘infected’ man. Lenk took a hit from his blindside and staggered. He blocked a second attack with his flamer and took down his assailant with a vicious punch.
Above the chaos, Barrack heard Hollard at the gate and saw the wire-mesh bowing inwards dangerously.
‘Lenk!’ cried Hollard, chambering another round into his shotgun and discharging blast after blast into the horde swamping the bridge.
It all happened at once, in agonising slow-motion.
Lenk about-faced, something fluid glinting off his black armour.
Madden and Remus, smashing skulls, converged on Folcard.
Gantt was pinned, trying to work h
is way through the packed throng.
The glimmer, Barrack realised, was fuel. The flamer’s promethium tanks had a leak.
Lenk reached the gate, straining metal like a protracted scream.
Even as Barrack bellowed a warning, Lenk pulled the trigger…
For a split-second the igniter fired, blue and loud. Then the flame caught and was fed across a glistening trail to the tank.
Barrack was pitched off his feet, floored by a concussive shockwave. Lenk died instantly in the explosion, burned alive in an instant.
The blinding blast of flaming chemicals billowed outward, killing thirty or forty civilians too close to run, too packed to even move.
Shaking his head, a persistent ringing in his ears, Barrack got to his feet unsteadily to see a thick cloud of smoke rolling back. In its wake he saw Folcard dead, the enforcer and those around him shredded by shrapnel. Dozens more wallowed in the outer circle of the blast wave, ears bleeding; some unconscious, maybe dead.
Then Barrack saw the gate, torn apart and gaping, blackened metal bent outwards like the broken limbs of a corpse. Fear filled his stomach, so heavy it was like lead. Fear of the knowledge that now they were surely dead. Nothing stood between them and the flesh-eaters.
Damrod, injured and dazed, was brought down by the zombies before Barrack found his voice.
‘Enforcers fall back to me!’
Hollard was already dead. His fire-scorched body swept up in the blast wave and tangled up in the razorwire.
Madden and Remus were back on their feet, making inroads through the clamouring civilians. The zombies churned through those nearest the gate like an inexorable meat-grinder and hysterical panic fed outwards like a contagion.
Barrack’s gaze went to Whiter. The comms-trooper looked pale like his namesake, buffeted by civilian survivors trying to get away from the terrible apparitions advancing upon them.
‘Whiter,’ Barrack shouted, getting the enforcer’s attention, ‘high ground.’
Barrack led the way, climbing the metal ladder affixed to the side of the lode wagon quickly. Whiter followed closely behind, then Madden, then Remus. Civilians came in their wake, obviously seeing it as a chance to forestall being cannibalised. Madden smashed a reinforced armaplas boot into the first one that showed his face and sent him flailing back into the crowd.
Barrack was about to chastise him when he realised they had no choice. They’d be overrun and engulfed in seconds, likely swept from the roof. Instead, he turned to Remus.
‘Fire the flare,’ he breathed. ‘Fire it now.’
Remus did as ordered, taking a black, metal tube from his webbing and screwing it carefully into his sidearm. From a secondary pouch he drew the fat incendiary capsule that would ignite the flare and boost it into the false firmament above them.
Before the last terrible communication they’d received from sector command, Barrack and his squad had caught fragments reporting that Gauntlets, two-man enforcer speeders, were held in a circling pattern to extract surviving units. In their flight to the ironyard, he’d seen the red lights of one speeder winking like tiny beacons in a sea of black, high up near the ceiling of the hive level. Gauntlets were light, armoured, hover-vehicles with a ten-man maximum capacity. Barrack had held off calling them in because he wanted to save the civilians in his charge, not abandon them to their fate. He’d lived in hope that help would come. But help was all but gone and with it died his goal of rescuing anyone but his team.
Remus took aim and sent up the flare. A second’s delay and it exploded in a bright, yellow-neon flash. Before it died, Barrack saw the zombie hordes lit up in gruesome animation: huddled in groups feasting frenetically on their kills, dragging down screaming victims, staggering in shambolic parody of life. Averting his gaze, he saw that some of the crowd had managed to get on another of the static lode wagons, using picks and shovels to fend off the dread creatures clawing up the sides to taste their flesh.
‘How long?’ Barrack asked Madden.
‘Three minutes,’ the enforcer replied, discharging his combat shotgun over the side of the wagon.
Three minutes. It felt like a lifetime.