The Fortress of Iron squatted on top of the mountain like a skull driven onto a spike. It was the shape of the ant-likehead of Ghast Number One: its mouth a doorway big enough to fit a tank, the radio masts a pair of huge antennae rising above the gun emplacements that served it for eyes.
Praetorian assault-lieutenant 28935/H, Stormfist Legion, snarled into the polar wind as he lumbered across the snow. The cold stung his lattice of facial scars, but to flinch would have been to show weakness. And weakness, of course, deserved death.
Captain 948356/B awaited him at the doors to the citadel beside a writhing coil of bio-wire. As the lieutenant ran up, a succession of muffled explosions rippled from inside the fortress like great belches. The Earth-scum had laid plenty of bombs and the drone clearance teams were still finding them
‘Ak nak!’ 28935/H bellowed. ‘All hail mighty Number One!’
The captain nodded. He was slightly over half the praetorian’s height. ‘All hail our glorious leader. Are the humans dead yet?’
28935/H swallowed hard. ‘Almost, Captain. We have them trapped in the Museum of Puny Human Artefacts. As soon as we gain access, they will be annihilated.’ 948356/B shivered and pulled his leather coat tight around his meagre body. ‘What are you waiting for? Lead me to them!’
They slogged their way across the compound. The museum loomed above them like a corrupted Greek temple. Huge pillars clustered around the doors. Above the entrance, a bas relief showed Number One stamping on the great buildings of Earth, his heel grinding the head of the Statue of Liberty to dust.
Ghasts swarmed around the building, flies on carrion. Trenchcoats and stercoria flapping, the ant-men rushed about yelling threats and orders to one another, pointing and saluting. One praetorian unit had shot its weakest member and, now that rigor mortis had set in, was using him as a battering ram against the service door.
‘We have made all efforts to break into the museum,’ 28935/H snarled. ‘Superior Ghast construction hinders our efforts.’
‘A feeble excuse,’ the captain replied. His breath hissed into the cold air. ‘Failure to crush these Earth-scum immediately will result in you being relocated to the delightful snow-capped mountains of the M’Lak Front!’
28935/H saluted very quickly. He could have easily pulled his master’s head from its narrow shoulders but, without a command to do so, he was powerless. ‘We shall double our efforts,’ he promised, pulling his gun and shooting a minion to show that he meant it. He paused, and a rare moment of curiosity passed through his reinforced skull. ‘Captain?’
‘Is it true that Isambard Smith is inside? The Isambard Smith? The one who assassinated indestructible Number Eight?’ 948356/B ignored him.
‘Because, I was thinking. . . Number Eight was genetically perfect – all the posters say so – and if you can kill something that’s genetically perfect. . .’
‘Lean forward.’ The praetorian leaned. ‘Bit closer. I can’t reach.’
28935/H almost bent double. ‘How is this, great one?’
‘Perfect.’ 948356/B slapped him across the jaw. ‘Never think for yourself!’ he shrieked. ‘Now smash your way in and slaughter them!’
In the cool dark of the museum, under the glow of Florence Nightingale’s lamp, Major Wainscott gathered his men. The Deepspace Operations Group loaded their weapons under an exhibit entitled Puny Humans Tolerate Illness.
‘Pay close attention,’ Wainscott said, stroking his beard. ‘We’ve got two minutes at most before those ugly bastards bash their way inside. The charges are laid, but we need to get some distance. Smith, how’s our transport?’
Isambard Smith took his mouth away from the siphon and said, ‘Nearly done,’ and got a spurt of petrol in the face for his trouble.
‘Excellent. We’ll go out guns blazing. Susan, you and the chaps’ll be on top deck.’
His second in command pushed a fresh power-pack into the top of her beam gun. ‘Right.’
‘Now, where’s that damned alien. . . ?’
‘Greetings!’ Suruk the Slayer strolled out of the dark, past a model of Louis Pasteur Failing To Develop A Deadly Viral Weapon. Suruk opened his mandibles and smiled. ‘Apologies for my lateness. I was distracted by Feeble Bladed Weapons of the Stunted Himalayas. I trust I have not missed any of the carnage?’
Smith spat out petrol and stood up. ‘We’re all set. Let’s get loaded up. We’ve only got half an hour to meet up with the ship.’
‘Well said,’ Wainscott replied. ‘Hop on, men! And hold on tight!’
© Toby Frost 2013