Fast Fiction

Red Lines

Red Lines

An unofficial Warhammer 40,000 Short Story
Written by Hal Wilson
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Now:

To serve in a squadron is to live an entire life in miniature. You join like a child, with all life open and waiting for you. You start out, and learn, and grow weary, until the hourglass of youth is running dry – like a fuel tank on the red line. 

Wing Commander Bree Salt, Imperial Navy, reefs her Lightning fighter into a tight, sweeping turn. She steals a glance out of her cockpit glass, trimmed with a filigree of ice. Beyond, she sees the ochre, filthy earth – and the toxic shoreline of a violet sea. 

And there! She finds her quarry: the Hell Talon fighter, as sharp as its namesake and as ugly as a rusted nail. Her face is a rictus grimace under the chafing flight-mask, and she wills her flesh to endure the heavy hand of g-forces on her chest. The Hell-Talon is diving, faint contrails tracing its wingtips through the robins-egg sky. She has to follow.

He is running. He knows he is alone now; he knows that Salt has sent his wingman crashing some thousand feet below. Why would he linger, and thereby push his luck?

Salt scans her runes and instruments. 

And she sees the red line: one-two left in the tank. Just twelve-hundred pounds of refined promethium. At full burn she will race through it at 200 pounds a minute, as with a river at full flood. 

Six minutes’ flight time. 

Enough to make him pay. 

+++

Then

The wedding is a Spartan affair, held in the shadow of the crossed wings of Lightnings. There are no bouquets, no champagne toasts. The Group Captain is witness; the ground-crew audience offers applause with grease-stained hands. 

But the ayatani priest is resplendent in his green silk as he blesses them in the name of Saint Sabbat. And, with a grandfather’s gentle motions, he begins the handfasting ceremony. Binding them under scarlet cloth, blessed at the Holy Balneary on Herodor, their clasped hands forming a single red line.  Salt kisses her husband for the first time. 

He wears his gray-drab flight suit and a typical, cheeky grin, as though he can hardly believe his luck. And this is a man renowned for his luck. He scored his fifth kill only last week, despite enemy rounds lodged in his avionics compartment. In his flight-suit he wears his charm: a golden pin, describing a lightning-bolt motif. The same motif is painted on the flank of the aircraft behind the ayatani. 

Salt beams to the audience. The Squadron is her life, and through it she has purpose, love; a future.  

+++

Now

Salt brims with lunacy; her blood is up and her heart strikes at her ribcage like a prisoner at his bars. 

The only sound in her ears is the straining, shuddering metal around her, and the sucking hiss of the oxygen valves in her flight-mask. And her vision, greying out under the mounting crush of g-forces, is a tunnel’s glimpse ahead. And at its mouth is the growing outline of the Hell Talon. 

He is turning now, pulling into a spiralling descent, and Salt chases without thought, even as the fuel vanishes from her gauge like blood from her own veins. Her auspex has lost its stabilisation: the hard manoeuvring to get back onto the Hell Talon’s tail has upset its reference platform. Without it, she has no bearings, no ranges. 

With rapid motions, she cues the last heat-seeking Skystrike missile on her under-wing pylons. 

Her headphones remain silent: she has no growling target-acquisition tone. 

Electrical malfunction, maybe. 

No matter. She will eyeball it. 

They are going down ever-faster, passing fifteen hundred now, and the ochre deck is calling to her. These lower altitudes guzzle fuel like a drunkard, and her wings start bouncing on mad eddies of air. But Salt hangs on, gasping for every breath, tensing with every muscle, until she has the Hell Talon just a quarter-circle turn ahead. 

All else falls away. Her entire being settles behind the gunsight. 

The red line of the target pipper stretches out, lackadaisical, until it almost touches the Hell Talon. 

She resists the urge to pickle the firing stud. She waits until the bright reticule slouches further up. 

She fires. The entire Lightning shudders from her sudden release; the lurid red tracer appears to bridge the sterile space between them. Most arc behind, harmless. But the cannon fire marches along the aft quarter of the Hell Talon, step by voracious step, consuming the Archenemy aircraft. It lurches, like a man suddenly unsteady on his feet, and a jet of vapour appears, like steam from a kettle. The fuel-vapour erupts with the cruel kiss of flame, as if by magic, blinking into a blood-orange flash that splits the Hell Talon apart.

Salt watches the burning debris, fluttering away from her starboard wing like so much old confetti. 

In the privacy of her flight-mask, she offers a prayer to the God-Emperor. 

And a curse to the traitor she once loved. 

She had seen it, before the very end: the golden-lightning motif, inscribed on the Hell Talon’s wing. 

Flushed with sweat, she eases back in her seat. But there is no time to lose: she takes the Lightning onto a southerly heading, bringing the nose up to regain some altitude. It is a long way back – and she will need every pound of fuel to cover the distance, like a runner on the marathon’s final stretch. 

And then, at that very moment, her engine splutters and dies. There is a silence more total, more complete, than she has ever known: the loneliness that only these barren, empty skies can provide. 

Salt checks her fuel gauge in disbelief. But all she finds is a single red line.

About the Author

Hal Wilson is a member of the Military Writers’ Guild and specializes in using fiction to explore future conflict. His published stories include finalist contest entries with the U.S. Naval Institute, West Point’s Modern War Institute, and War on the Rocks. He lives in the United Kingdom, where he works in defence.