Short Fiction

The Last Hours of Merrick Dahler

The Last Hours of Merrick Dahler

An unofficial Warhammer 40,000 Short Story
Written by Matthew Tansini
Reading Time: 20 minutes

The cell door opened with a squeal of rusty hinges, and the prisoner looked up, squinting into the light after endless days of darkness. A voice barked from the blinding glare beyond.

‘Merrick Dahler?’

Stood outside the cell was a bored-looking commissar. He was flanked by half-a-dozen thuggish prison guards wearing opaque visors and hefting brutal shock mauls. 

‘What’s going on?’ Dahler asked, his voice hoarse from disuse. ‘Who are you?’ 

‘My name is Davant,’ The commissar drawled, idly flicking dirt off the sleeves of his long coat. ‘And today, Merrick, is a special, special day. Of the criminal filth on Incarcerus, I’ve come to get you. Any idea why?’

Dahler’s heart turned to ice. 

‘No,’ he whispered, shrinking back into his cell like a cornered rat. ‘No, no, I can’t-‘

‘Nonsense,’ said the commissar jovially. ‘I think some shiny metal upgrades and a bit of crude brain surgery would be a marked improvement. Now move it, or I’ll ask these nice men to help you along.’ 

But Dahler wouldn’t budge. Commissar Davant rolled his eyes and sighed. 

‘Meet your death like a soldier or meet it sobbing like a coward, makes no difference to me.’ 

Davant glanced at his escort and made a dismissive gesture towards the cowering convict. The guards were only too happy to oblige. Dahler made to stand up, but was felled by a brutal blow to his temple, as his attackers laid into him with vicious, bone-breaking blows. He went down hard, his own blood hot on his face. Another guard kicked his chest, and Dahler cried out as he felt something snap inside.

‘Enough,’ called Davant, ‘Let’s go!’

The guards hauled the prisoner out of his cell and dragged his limp, bloody form down the corridor, collecting a few other convicts on the way. Images flashed through Dahler’s dazed mind as they took him on his final journey: that fateful night aboard The Fist of Terra.

Kasky, her face battered and her shirt torn, shrieking and writhing as he and Orlock held her down. Angry shouts, the sounds of running feet. Orlock fleeing into the darkness like the vermin he was, leaving Dahler standing there alone in front of the advancing commissariate troops. The humiliation of the trial, years of battle honours and hard-won promotions cast aside and ignored for just one moment of weakness. The plunge of horror in his stomach when the sentence was passed. He had been braced for a firing squad: at least it would be quick. But what he’d been sentenced to would not be quick at all. 

The guards dragged Dahler into the main concourse of Prison Hive CMC1844. It was one of the largest colonies on the penal world of Incarcerus, bigger even than the cathedrals Dahler’s mother had dragged him to in his youth. Its walls were made of thick rockcrete, and the cells rose above him in their unnumbered thousands, eventually disappearing into the ever-present miasma of smoke and indoor condensation. The smells of raw sewage, unwashed bodies and dry blood hung heavy in the air, like the aftermath of a long battle. 

Refuse and human waste pelted down at Dahler and the guards and glass bottles exploded on the dirty floor like grenades. Half a million convicts jeered down at Dahler from the confines of their cells, but not all the prisoners were content to stay there. As the convoy neared the entrance to the access corridors that led down to the dungeons, a dozen men crept from the shadows around them. These emaciated, feral wretches prowled around the commissar’s party, their sunken, hungry eyes looking for weak links.

‘Out of the way, filth,’ ordered the commissar, ‘I’m not going to ask again.’ 

‘They’s going down!’ cackled a skeletal, ragged old man, his face hidden behind a wild, dirty beard. ‘They’s going down, gonna get cut up good!’ 

Davant drew his bolt pistol and racked the slide. The circling prisoners scattered, but the old man continued to dance around them, jabbering and rambling manically.

‘Cut up good! Cut up nice and-‘ 

A single, deafening shot rang out and the convict staggered and fell to his knees. His manic laughter turned to a low, keening moan as he watched his own ruined intestines slip free from the smoking, ragged hole in his gut. One of the guards started to key his vox for a medicae team, but Davant shook his head. 

‘Leave him,’ he grunted, holstering his pistol. ‘The Emperor can decide his fate, and besides, I’ve got a schedule to keep.’

They left the groaning wretch writhing in a widening pool of his own blood as the guards dragged Dahler and the others into an access elevator, which carried them down to one of CMC1844’s dungeon levels. Instead of rockcrete, these dank, gloomy corridors had been hewn out of the bedrock of Incarcerus itself, the murderous logic of the Administratum made manifest: better to work a hundred thousand criminals to death down here than suffer the expense of ordering more surface building materials.

The party travelled through a warren of twisting tunnels and corridors, illuminated by glow globes and flaming torches, before finally arriving at a huge, temple-like room. Waiting for them amidst thousands of flickering candles were several tech-priests, swathed in red robes and clouds of billowing incense. They stood next to an operating table, a cold, hungry slab of steel waiting for its next offering. Hulking Mechanicus servitors approached from the shadows, and the guards threw the convicts at their feet. 

‘This lot are all yours,’ said Davant, ‘May the Emperor forgive their wretched souls.’

‘You and your Emperor can go screw!’ one of the other prisoners rasped, before spitting on the commissar’s polished boots. Dahler tensed as he cowered there, expecting another bolt round,but Davant simply looked at the convict, and after a moment, a humourless grin spread slowly across his face.

‘You know,’ he said, his finger on his chin in a parody of thoughtfulness, ‘perhaps I’ll stay and watch the fun.’

He pointed at the convict. 

‘Do that one first.’ 

‘Analysing,’ droned one servitor, its multi-jointed fingers clicking together. 

‘Compliance,’ said the other. They grabbed the man and dragged him by his hair to the waiting gurney. The poor wretch’s bravado bled away like water down a drain, but his cries for mercy were ignored by the mind-wiped slaves. Dahler felt his mouth go dry as the convict was hauled onto the slab and bound in place by restraining bands that snaked out of the table’s underside. The tech-priests approached, mechadendrites coiling and writhing around their bodies like snakes. They were alien, inhuman creatures, walking on nests of spider legs or trundling forwards on treads. Their glowing, artificial eyes glimmered from under their hoods. 

‘You are to be transformed into a servant of the Omnissiah,’ one said, as the others began their monotonous binary chanting. ‘Give thanks for your chance to repent.’ There was a clanking sound as a huge metal framework descended from the darkness above, bristling with augmetic surgery limbs coiled in on themselves like the legs of a dead spider. One of tech-priests blurted out a line of machine code, and the servitor limbs came to life, flexing and whipping round at their victim. 

Dahler tried to look away, but Davant grasped the back of his head and forced his gaze back towards the table. 

‘You watch,’ he whispered into Dahler’s ear. ‘You watch and see what awaits you.’

The procedure lasted for almost a quarter of an hour, the tech-priests chanting all the while, although they didn’t manage to drown out the screams. The man’s limbs were amputated by gleaming circular saws, the blades cutting through muscle and bone with shocking speed. The candles around them guttered and hissed as they were sprayed with blood and viscera. The convict begged for help, for salvation, then, as whirring drills gouged out his eyes, simply for death. Ribs and organs were torn out, replaced by batteries and cables. Skin was peeled away and thick industrial plastic layered in its place. Bionic limbs were anchored in raw meat and hewn bone, and a pair of augmetic eye lenses were punched into empty, weeping sockets. The convict gagged and choked as a heavy control panel was hammered through the back of his skull.

‘Commencing reconfiguration now…’ 

The man’s body jack-knifed as an arcing flash of electricity burned through his brain. Finally, mercifully, his ruined form became still and silent. The only sounds were the murmuring of the priests and the drip-drip-drip of blood on the stone floor. 

The tech-priests issued another order and the servitors hauled their newly-created kinsman off the table, dragging it away to await further programming. 

The tech priests turned back to Davant expectantly, who jutted his chin down at Dahler.

‘Him next. Make it quick, will you?’

The Mechanicus drones grabbed Dahler and dragged him to the blood-soaked operating table, dropping him unceremoniously into place. The restraining tendrils coiled round him hungrily, and the tech-priests came closer, droning out the same words they had done before, telling him to repent and be grateful. Dahler began to laugh maniacally as his mind started to fray and tear, unable to process the sheer horror of what was about to happen. It was like he’d finally been let in on an enormous cosmic joke, set in motion 35 years ago. The imperium was no glorious harbinger of reason and light, no heroic golden charge against the darkness. It was a soulless meat grinder, endlessly consuming its own loyal people so that it might live through another night. There was no salvation or absolution, nothing but pain, from which even death wasn’t an escape. He felt his frenzied cackling join the mirth of the creatures behind the veil, as they observed their long-awaited punchline play out. But then the restraints tightened further, and the clicking, whirring surgery arms descended from above. Closer, closer…

‘No, no, please-‘

But there was no escape. Dahler’s shrieks echoed around the chamber as a saw carved through his left arm, shearing it off at the shoulder in a matter of moments. He could do nothing but scream as a new limb was hammered and drilled into place, a monstrous mechanical lifting arm with a pincer head. He felt the spiked agony of the nails, the acid fire of his nerves being flensed and relayed. He felt everything.

‘Can we hurry this up?’ called Davant, shouting to be heard over Dahler’s howls. ‘I have a report to file. Can you at least shut him up?’

The restraints on Dahler’s forehead tightened, and he felt a vicious, blinding pain in the back of his head. 

‘Coming online…’ 

Dahler thrashed mindlessly as strange new electrical impulses fired through his system, and his new bionic arm whirred and growled.

‘Commencing reconfiguration now…’

In the midst of his agony and terror, Dahler realised that this was it. Not the glorious, heroic death he’d imagined for himself, one that earned immortal honours to be inscribed on the steps to the Golden Throne itself. After everything he’d seen, after all the horrors he’d faced, all the triumphs he’d been a part of, this was to be his end. His soul would be immolated and purged from his body, and he would be reduced to nothing but a mind-wiped slave, to be worked without respite until his corpse finally rotted away. He could do nothing but watch, a spectator to his own annihilation as the saws and blades came down again to take his other limbs, to peel away his face.

Suddenly, there was an almighty crash from above, strong enough to send dust trickling down from the ceiling. The surgery table rattled as a second impact boomed around them, and the chanting of the tech-priests faltered. The candles dotted all around them were extinguished as a blast of wind suddenly ripped through the surgery chamber, plunging them into darkness. Davant’s irritated voice snapped out as he issued orders to the guards.

‘What the hell is going on? Find out, Go!’ 

It was as though the Emperor himself had saved him. The surgical blades, mere inches from Dahler’s face, powered down and pulled back, and then his restraining tendrils loosened and went slack. Dahler tensed, but didn’t move. Was this a trick, some sick game of the commissar’s making? Dahler listened, trying to ignore the agony that wracked his body. Davant was busy shouting and cursing at his cronies, and the tech-priests were skittering around nervously, blurting to one another in anxious-sounding machine-code. No-one was paying any attention to him at all.

Like a caged animal scenting a chance at freedom, Dahler ripped himself free. He tore off the lax restraints and dragged himself off the surgery table, collapsing onto the floor of the chamber. He splashed down into a pool of blood, and his augmetic arm bounced on the floor with an almighty ‘clang’.

‘No!’ he heard Davant shout. ‘Don’t let him get away!’

Beams of torchlight stabbed through the darkness, illuminating swirls of dust and flashing steel. Dahler heard the sounds of booted feet approaching, and a huge hand closed around his throat, hauling him to his feet. There was the tell-tale whine of a pain goad powering up, and Davant flinched, feeling his chance of escape slip away. But as he flinched, his augmetic limb came to life. It lashed out wildly, moving with a mind of its own, and there was a scream and the sound of crunching bone as it knocked the guard off his feet. The hand round Dahler’s throat vanished as more thunderous impacts crashed down from above. A breach alarm started to wail around them. A dozen metres ahead, an access corridor was suddenly illuminated, painted deep red as the emergency lighting system finally kicked in. 

The sound of gunfire rent the air, and there was a yell of anger and pain. Muzzle flashes split the blackness in a jerky snapshot sequence, and Dahler ducked as he felt a bolt round miss his face by inches. The last remaining prisoner had thrown himself at the commissar, sensing his own chance at freedom in the chaos. Davant was bigger and stronger, but the convict was feral, his dirty fingers gouging at the commissar’s eyes, his rotten teeth sinking into Davant’s cheek. 

‘Get him off me! Get him off!’ 

Dahler ran, dodging round flailing tech-priests and bewildered guards as he staggered into the access corridor. He ran as fast as he could, ignoring the dizzying pain that seemed to engulf his whole body. He took turns at random, not thinking about where he was going or how lost he was becoming, not thinking of anything other than getting as far away from that hellish chamber as possible. 

Finally, Dahler slowed to a stop. He cocked his head and listened intently. The shouting and gunfire had long-since faded away, and the only sounds he could hear were his own ragged breathing and the thundering of his heartbeat. He collapsed against the wall of the corridor and slid to the damp floor, sucking in the musty air. Something had happened in the prison above, an explosion or accident of some kind. Whatever it was, Dahler didn’t much care: he was blood-soaked and wounded, but he was alive, and he was going to try to stay that way for as long as possible.

He had never been this deep into the prison. The emergency lights down here were few and far between, and the walls and floor were damp and mouldy. There were crates of abandoned equipment and broken machinery stacked in haphazard piles all around him. Dahler looked down at his new arm. It was a monstrous thing, made of greased pistons and battered iron, hanging down almost to his knees. He wondered briefly how old it was and how many other poor souls had to endure it being nailed into their soft flesh. He tried to move it, but this time it was to no avail. His other hand tentatively reached round the back of his head and touched the control panel anchored there, its sharp rods spearing into his brain. He had been saved by the smallest of margins. Another fraction of a second and the surgery would have been complete. He had to find a way out of here before the power came back on, and the control panel booted up again.

Suddenly, there was the sound of movement in the darkness ahead. Dahler crouched down and picked up a rusty wrench. Focussing his hearing, he realised that he could hear other sounds as well, a wet tearing and snapping, together with a strange, low growl. There was an agonised groan, and then something emerged from the gloom in front of him. 

It was a man, clad in prisoner fatigues. He was crawling on the floor, as though each metre was a monumental effort. He dragged himself into the light of the emergency glow globes, and Dahler recoiled: the man’s body ended at the waist in a mass of ruined meat and torn entrails. His face was lacerated and shredded, but his one remaining eye stared wildly at Dahler, filled with nothing but pain and terror. The man opened his mouth to speak, but something reached out of the darkness, something with long, pale arms and grasping claws. The hand thrust into the man’s exposed intestines and pulled him, shrieking, back into the blackness beyond. 

Dahler smelt the sudden hot stink as his own bowels emptied themselves. The wrench fell from nerveless fingers, and he fled back the way he had come. From the darkness behind him came the sounds of ripping flesh, and as he ran, cries and howls started to echo down the corridors and walkways from the prison above, melding together with sounds of gunfire. Not just an accident. An attack. An invasion. By them. 

Dahler came to a doorway, an entrance to a rusted spiral staircase. He took the steps two at a time, his legs burning with the effort, the taste of acid mixing with blood in his mouth. After several minutes of fevered climbing, he reached the top of the stairway and came to a halt, panting and cursing. The way ahead was blocked by a door. It was made of iron and steel, and looked like it could shrug off a round from a Baneblade. Dahler hammered at the door, but it didn’t even budge.

 Low growls and barks started to come up the stairway towards him. He’d seen those things before. If you saw one, that meant there were a hundred more closing in that you didn’t know about. They were hunting in the darkness beneath him, coming to feast. He roared in desperate frustration, shoving at the obstacle with all his might. Suddenly, his augmetic limb came to life once more. It mimicked Dahler’s true arm, rising up before hitting the door like a sledgehammer. With desperate fury, Dahler brought it crashing down again and again. After a minute of sustained punishment, the door started to dent and buckle, before finally splitting from its hinges. With a final strike, Dahler sent it crashing backwards. The blood red of the prison’s emergency lights flooded in around him, along with desperate screams and echoing alien shrieks. Dahler walked forwards slowly, feeling his mind fold in on itself as an apocalyptic scene met his eyes.

The stairway had brought him up into the main prison once more, and he was back on the main concourse of CMC1844. The towering hive structure he had travelled through only a short while ago was almost unrecognisable, transformed into a blood-soaked abattoir. On the levels rising above him, Dahler could see the strange xenos creatures, thousands of them, in a multitude of vicious shapes and sizes. Dahler watched in horrified awe as they tore through the prison like a hurricane, ripping men and women apart with single-minded savagery. There were staccato bursts of gunfire as the guards tried to stem the alien tide, but Dahler knew it was no use. Whatever these creatures were, they were unstoppable. 

‘You!’

There was the sound of a bolt pistol being primed, and Dahler looked around to see Commissar Davant, approaching unsteadily. The commissar had evidently survived the chaos of the dungeons, but his face was a torn and bloody ruin, the flesh rent down to the bone by his attacker’s desperate efforts. Davant aimed his bolt pistol, ignoring the carnage that seethed and boiled around them. 

‘No one escapes the Emperor’s justice!’ he spat, but before he could fire, the rockcrete beneath their feet split and cracked, before suddenly exploding upwards as something huge tunnelled up from below with a terrible, shrieking roar. 

The monster was enormous, dwarfing the two men as it emerged into the concourse and reared up to its full height. Its long, serpentine body was the size of a battle tank, bristling with chitinous armour plates and massive, scythed limbs. Davant started to blast at it with his pistol, screaming rabid, maddened defiance as his rounds sparked and bounced off the thing’s thick hide. The leviathan turned with inhuman speed for something so huge. It bore down on the hapless commissar, and its bladed mandibles opened impossibly wide. Davant had just enough time for one last, terrified cry, and then he was gone. 

The monster lifted its enormous head, sniffing and growling as it slithered towards Dahler. Its limbs flexed and reached out to claim him as the fell thing opened its terrible mouth once more. Dahler could hear Davant’s horrible, muffled screaming still echoing up from its gut. He backed away, up against the concourse wall. Risking a glance around, he saw an access entrance just a few metres away. He dived for it, moving aside just as the huge creature’s immense bone scythes tore through the rockcrete where he’d been standing. The monster’s roar of frustration thundered after him, but Dahler didn’t look back. CMC1844 was doomed. The whole planet was doomed. The only way to survive would be to get off Incarcerus itself.

Dahler fled through the deserted, blood-stained corridors of the prison. The screaming was constant now, echoing around him as the unseen monsters continued their butchery. Dahler’s shoulder was a raw stump of agony and the back of his skull throbbed with pain around the crudely fitted control panel. His new augmetic arm jerked around erratically, making him stagger and curse.

Finally, he found the guard’s quarters, their heavy blast doors open and unguarded. The commissars had long since fled and the rooms were in disarray: furniture and cogitators lay smashed and broken under the dim emergency lights, half-buried under a mass of prison paperwork. 

Suddenly, there was a cough from behind him, and Dahler whirled round. Huddled against an overturned desk was a cadet commissar. His young face was gaunt with pain, and his hands clutched at the bloody hole in his gut.

‘They…they left me…’ the cadet gasped. ‘Norten, the senior… said there was no space…’

‘Where are the ships?’ Dahler asked tersely. 

‘A hangar back there, transports…’ The youth looked at him with desperate, pathetic hope. ‘Please…please don’t leave me here…’

Grunting, Dahler heaved his augmetic arm around, its pincers closing around the cadet’s head. The boy shrieked and struggled desperately as his skull cracked and his eyeballs popped. Dahler increased his grip, and the cadet’s head burst in a shower of bloody bone shards and brain matter. Dahler looked down at the ruined corpse and smiled.

‘The Emperor thanks you for your service.’

Dahler rolled the cadet over and pulled the long commissar coat off his shoulders, before shrugging it on himself. A convict with a stolen transport wouldn’t get far, but a cadet commissar making a heroic escape? No one would suspect him. He could find that bitch who’d court martialled him and mete out his own justice.

Dahler arrived at the hangar entrance, but as he reached for the door release, the main ceiling lights switched back on with a series of dull bangs. There was a hum from all around as the prison security systems came back to life.

‘Commencing process now…’

Dahler froze as a voice droned from the control panel bolted into his skull. It had come back online along with the rest of the prison systems. He started to tear at the crude implant, but his body went into spasm as an agonising bolt of electricity burned into the meat of his brain. His vision flashed, and his mouth filled with blood as he bit off his own tongue. 

And then it was over. Dahler tried to move, but his body wouldn’t respond. He screamed silently, raging and clawing in vain within his mind. But his body was no longer his own, now slaved to instructions that would never come, from masters that were already dead. 

The lights above him flickered, and Dahler heard something else: the skittering of bladed limbs, and the chittering of needle-sharp fangs. He couldn’t run, couldn’t even fight. He felt long, inhuman fingers curl round his limbs and throat, and watched the reflection in the blast port as the monster from the darkness of the dungeons drew itself up to its full height. But he could do nothing, nothing to save himself. Dahler felt claws puncture his skin and slide beneath it, ripping and tearing him asunder. As the creature started to peel off his scalp and face, Merrick Dahler couldn’t even scream.

About the Author

Matt Tansini is a civil servant who lives in London with his partner. He has been writing for several years, focussing on sci-fi and horror short stories. Matt is a long-time fan of all things 40k, from the books and video games to the good old-fashioned miniatures. For the Emperor!