As the Shepherd vented fire to curve out of its terminal dive, the backlash began. Fingers of smoke spread from hardened silos deep behind the heretek lines, tipped with nuclear claws. Far out in the storm-tossed oceans, missiles breached from lurking dreadnought submarines and shot skyward. Forty kilometres off the coast of Verlin starport, a lance submersible shuddered to the surface, casting off sheets of water and bloomed pinpoints of killing light along the barrels of its monstrous lance battery.
The lances hit first, raking at the Shepherd’s reinforced shields as it burned voidwards. The bridge lights flickered, and the deck vibrated slightly as something deep within the ship, probably a warp-shunt capacitor, failed explosively.
“I think I preferred it when it was our ground lances firing.” Jeanette’s XO commented as the titan carrier clawed back towards the relative safety of high orbit.
“Thirty seven warheads incoming, captain.” a sensori officer reported, trying valiantly to keep the apprehension out of his voice. “Point defence batteries are standing by!”
Chao and her XO exchanged a look. The turret gunners would have their work cut out for them.
In the end, they didn’t need to fire a shot.
The missiles began to come apart, falling back towards the atmosphere on fiery trails as a dozen dagger-shapes swept past them. The fighter squadron had arced round the heretek-occupied shipyards, steering well clear of the defensive guns, and weaved through the wreckage of the two monitors to unload methodical destruction on the rising ordnance. One by one they picked the orbital rockets apart, the debris of the last one sizzling into vapour against the Shepherd’s recohering shields.
With economical bursts from their directional thrusters, the strike craft regrouped and cut across Shepherd’s trail to form a fan beneath her ventral castles. Their IFF beacons winked on Chao’s warp-sensor hololith, marking them as loyalist mechanicus forces belonging to the errant void cruiser Triumphant Rationality.
+ + + + + +
Objective secured: Reclaim the Ankylon line
The orbital strike had seared away the clouds, uncloaking an inky sky pierced with a scattering of stars and the brighter pinpricks of satellites, shipyards and the legion’s own guardian angel retreating skyward. It had left hell below it; a twisted, vitrified landscape of burned metal and blowing ash. A single skitarius, burned down to bone and bare metal, lurched out of the dustcloud to raise a las-lock towards Rosa with his one remaining arm. He crumpled to the ground before he could fire, and the battlefield was still.
Inside the savaged hull of Aeterna Victrix, the enginseer cuffed away the lube oil that was still dripping onto her bald scalp, and traced a cog-sign over the replacement gasket she had just bolted into place. She hoped Aeterna would forgive her the disrespect of standing before it uncowled, because in the name of speed she had cast off her coolant-soaked cloak and left it crumpled on the mezzanine deck, among a team of servitors who were jetting pale clouds of dioxide into an electrical fire, started by the overloading Reaver cannons. Leaking pneumatic lines hissed Aeterna’s displeasure at her, and the priestess groaned in sympathy as she fumbled her way over wreckage towards a sheared gear assembly.
“Omnissiah, strike that madman down…” she murmured aloud, shaking her head despairingly as she set to work.
“Don’t listen to her, Omnissiah,” an unexpected reply boomed jovially. “She’s a heretek.” The internal vox-cast was scratchy from passing through damaged relays, but still sufficiently loud to make the priestess jump. Her body compounded the embarrassingly fleshy reaction by blushing furiously.
“Princeps!” she blurted, “I…”
On the remnants of the command deck, princeps Phenro chuckled. His muscles were spasming in time to the sparks bursting from his moderati’s ruptured consoles, and his face was striped red by an unattended nosebleed.
“If it makes you feel better, magos Arjani, Aeterna is making her ire at my recent commands quite clear. But she will keep for now.” The princeps rolled his neck painfully. “Another spirit requires your urgent attention. Find the medicus and make ready to disembark.”
“Disembark?” the enginseer repeated as she stroked a soothing hand over the fractured gear assembly. “May I ask why?”
“One of our allied knights has fallen.”
The god machines stood alone on a dead battlefield, shrouded in ash and backlit by flame. Aeterna shook the ground as it marched slowly towards where Rosa stood guard over Ackerman’s unmoving knight, and then stooped to allow its rappelling lines to drop. Hydraulic buffers pistoned a low dirge as it settled.
+ + + + + +
Sinae and Maria strafed and crossed, doing what they did best. Soon all that was left before them were flames twisting in the wind, spewing their black smoke into the darkening sky. The hunting pair advanced cautiously through the wreckage, auspex scanners snuffling for targets. They found none - any heretek forces still capable of moving under their own power had dragged themselves back down into the bunker warren. The question of whether they were withdrawing or simply skulking in ambush was answered when a series of dull thuds reverberated across the battlefield. Dust plumes punched skyward and the ground bowed into sinkholes as the retreating hereteks collapsed the tunnels behind them.
The thunder died away, leaving only a low susurration of sobs and whimpers to fill the night-time air. The ground under the Warhounds’ feet seemed to twitch and slither, the weak spasms of heretek soldiers too mutilated to crawl and abandoned to their fate by their retreating comrades.
On the southern horizon, a hellish glow and a rising mushroom of smoke marked the Shepherd’s orbital strike. Any hereteks distant enough to have survived the hammerblow were reeling away south, and the flyers that flickered in and out of contact on the two Warhounds’ scopes were keeping their distance, covering the retreat rather than swarming forward to enact vengeance. A large factor in the decision were the Hydra batteries now rolling from Ragnarov forge, clanking south alongside the forge guard and Sirenia’s own skitarii to take back possession of the abandoned siege lines.
Screening units of rangers and ruststalkers prowled ahead of the column, blue and green laser-lights hunting for wounded enemies among the wreckage. Every few moments a lasbeam would crack in the night, and the pitiful susurrus of wounded men would reduce. Eventually, there was silence. Nothing moved amid the foetid, corpse-choked trenches, where blood pooled with oil, and fanatical skitarii lay in ripped pieces alongside uncomprehending servitors and ashen-faced forge guard conscripts.
For now, there was nobody left to kill.
And in the sepulchral void above them, the silver spiderwebs of the Perinetus shipyards glowed.
The officers order the Infantry to alternate advances between halves (i.e center left covering fire, while center right advances to next cover, then gets down and covers for center left to advance). When in range of a pillbox or defensive position to the point where too close for suppression from the enemy, they are to hurl grenades and bayonet charge, supported by crusaders.
Spoiler: Left Flank
Infantry are ordered to tie down enemy infantry, keep them suppressed. Kill them if possible, but if not, keep them from assisting the vanquisher. lay down crossfire if possible, advance when able, but do not overextend. Call down mortar targets as they appear
Spoiler: Things I like
I would rather have a russet coated Captain who knows what he fights for and loves what he knows, than he who calls himself a gentleman and is but little else
War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse.
-John Stuart Mill
There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare.
Ten soldiers wisely led will beat a hundred without a head.
It seems like such a terrible shame that innocent civilians have to get hurt in wars, otherwise combat would be such a wonderfully healthy way to rid the human race of unneeded trash.
It is our duty still to endeavor to avoid war; but if it shall actually take place, no matter by whom brought on, we must defend ourselves. If our house be on fire, without inquiring whether it was fired from within or without, we must try to extinguish it.
If a man dedicates his life to good deeds and the welfare of others, he will die unthanked and unremembered. If he exercises his genius bringing misery and death to billions, his name will echo down through the millennia for a hundred lifetimes. Infamy is always more preferable to ignominy.
Spoiler: Thoughts of the day
A broad mind lacks focus.
A questioning servant is more dangerous than an ignorant heretic
A small mind is easily filled with faith.
A warrior's faith in his commander is his best armour and his strongest weapon.
Adamantium walls and plasteel bulkheads may seem formidable, but an unshakable faith in the Immortal Emperor of Man can overcome any barriers.
An Empty Mind Is A Loyal Mind
An open mind is like a fortress with its gate unbarred and unguarded.
Better crippled in body than corrupt in mind.
Consider the Predator. Let your soul be armoured with Faith, driven on the tracks of Obedience which overcome all obstacles, and armed with the three great guns of Zeal, Duty and Purity.
Facts are chains that bind perception and fetter truth. For a man can remake the world if he has a dream and no facts to cloud his mind.
Faith without deeds is worthless.
Happiness is a delusion of the weak
Forgiveness is a sign of weakness.
He who lives for nothing is nothing. He who dies for the Emperor is a hero.
If a man dies that another should live, that man's spirit shall eat at the Emperor's table
Innocence proves nothing
It is better to die for the Emperor than to live for yourself.
Leniency is a sign of weakness!
Mercy is a sign of weakness.
No man that died in the Emperor's service died in vain.
Nobody is innocent, there are merely varying levels of guilt.
Only in death does duty end.
Only the insane have strength enough to prosper. Only those who prosper may truly judge what is sane.
Pain is an illusion of the senses, despair an illusion of the mind
Purge those who are unclean.
Sometimes the good must perish so that the rest survive. The lot of courage is to be sacrificed upon the altar of battle.
Survival is no birthright, but a prize wrested from an uncaring galaxy by forgotten heroes.
The common man is like a worm in the gut of a corpse, trapped inside a prison of cold flesh, helpless and uncaring, unaware even of the inevitability of its own doom.
The Emperor will not judge you by your medals and diplomas but by your scars.
Though silver in your palms weighs light
Compared to death by blast and sword,
Do not shy the hopeless fight,
For endeavour is its own reward.
Spoiler: Haven 14th, Cam’s Lot Militia, Cadian 2451st - Baraspine
Railhead exterior, left flank
The frateris went to ground as Matchlock was hit, exchanging fire with the dug-in defenders. Meanwhile the Haven kill team who had infiltrated the neighbouring building made their presence felt, shooting down into the barricades. A heavy whoosh marked a krak missile streaking down to burst just to the right of the Vanquisher’s turret, spilling red flame across the ancient vehicle’s topside. The remote cupola stubber raked a line of holes across the side of the building in response, but couldn’t elevate high enough to threaten the Havenites. As the long-barrelled turret swung right, a kinetic penetrator from Moxie crunched into the tank’s frontal armour, showering sparks and smoke.
Within the turret, staff sergeant Drass heard someone crying out in wet, agonised yelps, and prayed to the God Emperor that it wasn’t his driver.
“Driver, back up, back up!” he yelled into the vox, “They’ve flanked us!”
They were charged with covering the infantry dug-outs, but to remain in this position was death - for them and for the venerable machine they piloted.
The Vanquisher’s engine roared, and Drass’ spirit soared along with it - his driver was still alive, and the Emperor would not let them die today. Smoke grenades cartwheeled off the Vanquisher’s turret and cracked as they detonated in midair. The tank tore backwards, with smoke and flame pouring from its hull. The Patriots in their dugouts yelled in protest.
The militia, seeing a chance to move in for the kill, took it at the shrieking behest of their priests.
The Crusaders went first, burning swords leaving yellow ghosts in their wake. Lasbolts sparked against energised tower shields, or slashed past them to strike shoulders and ankles. One man stumbled as his ablative pauldron soaked a bolt’s energy, another fell with a curse as his foot separated from his leg in a puff of vaporised blood. But the Patriots didn’t see the casualties - they saw an unbroken shield wall with a mob of screaming fanatics close behind, while the world around them came apart from tank shells and enfilading fire. Their captain was bleeding to death in the rubble, hit in the neck by a stray Havenite lasbolt, and their heavy support was rolling backwards, spewing smoke.
“Back!” a lieutenant in a smoke-fouled tarot mask yelled. “Fall back to the rally point!”
The divinatory guard retreated raggedly, some dragging wounded friends, some stopping to throw futile covering fire, some spinning and falling as they were hit.
“Hold!” one of the more level-headed priests shouted as the attackers reached the abandoned barricades. “Not too far, brothers! They still need us here!”
As Moxie clanked forward, hull bolter spitting to ensure the heretics kept running, the militiamen set about tearing down the barricades blocking their entrance to the railhead.
+ + + + + +
“Fix your bayonets!” a priest roared. “Anyone who dies for the Emperor is a hero. Anyone who makes those wretched iconoclasts die instead is an even bigger one. Hit hard and show no mercy!”
“Here we bloody well go.” Janie muttered, and added her primal scream to those of the eager frateris and the stone-cold Havenites as they surged up and over the steps, into the teeth of the defenders’ fire. The hull-down Hydra among the rail cars opened up with a fearsome metallic rattle, sounding like the bursts of an oversized machine gun as it sprayed streams of yellow tracer across the station.
Men stumbled and backflipped as the Hydra flak tank chewed up the entrance way. A melta gunner sprawled, clutching at a leg that wasn’t there anymore and sending his gun skittering across the cracked floor. Another man dived on the weapon, recovered it, and took aim. A searing blast cut over the Hydra’s exposed turret, sagging the barrels and detonating ammunition hoppers in a sputtering explosion. Burning shards rained across the platforms. Lasguns cracked and snapped, picking up the fury of the destroyed Hydra with a vengeance.
For a few terrible seconds the Imperial attackers were being slashed down as if by scythes, but then return fire began to claw and spark against the rail cars, and the defending fire began to fall off as Patriots were hit or driven down by the blistering fusilade.
Lasguns snapped their teeth, grenades thumped, and the disabled Hydra filled the roofspace with belching clouds of black smoke. Commissar Schenke found himself on his back, his view obscured by a wedge of metal embedded in his helmet and visor. A Hydra shell had impacted the ground and fragmented, cratering the concrete and spitting one of its spent shards up into his face. There was blood on his coat, but it must have been someone else’s, because the only pain he could feel was in his ribs from where the impact of his back against the floor had driven the air from his lungs. He sucked a painful breath from the overheated air of his rebreather, and rolled to regain his feet.
“Frell me.” Janie commented on the shrapnel embedded in his mask, as she offered a hand to haul him up next to the wall she was sheltering against.
“Ballistic goggles.” Schenke grinned as he worked the still-hot piece of metal out of his armourglass visor, remembering the poster from their troop transport. Now that he knew he was unhurt, the brush with death seemed almost unbearably funny, and he couldn’t keep all of the euphoria from slipping past his sardonic mask. “They save eyes.”
The vox bead he had tuned to the Havenite frequency was buzzing combat-cant in his ear, and over it he could hear panicked shouts from the defenders as they tried to stem the Imperial attack. Unfortunately, they weren’t the only ones who were wavering. The frateris had been ordered to fire and advance in two groups, a tricky maneuver for combat novices under fire, and after the initial surge the first group had wilted, dissolving into knots of men that clung to pillars and debris a mere twenty metres short of the occupied platforms.
They had been held there a good few minutes by the time Schenke and Janie crawled their way up to the front line, where a pair of militiamen were trying to reload their lasguns with shaking hands. One, a young man with the burly look of a farmhand but who couldn’t have been more than eighteen or nineteen, was trying to force a new power cell into the magazine socket back to front.
“Other way round, soldier.” Janie told him, pointing.
The man looked down, and in trying to turn the las cell around, fumbled and dropped it instead.
“What’s your name, brother?” Schenke asked.
Either Schenke’s coat and insignia were ruined by battle debris, or the militiaman didn’t know what a commissar’s uniform meant, because his expression was more confused than frightened as he answered. “Accolon, sir. Consecrated under the Emperor’s eyes, sir.”
“From Cam’s Lot, yes?” Schenke asked, although he already knew the answer. “What part?”
“Garlan, sir.” said the militiaman, and blinked instinctively as a grenade exploded loudly somewhere off to their left. “Just off the agri sector, north of Balan’s Keep, may the Emperor bless him sir.”
“Good place?” Schenke prompted, handing the las cell back to the militiaman.
Accolon fumbled with the cell for just a moment this time before slotting it successfully into place. “They’ll be having the harvest festival right now, sir. Begging your pardon sir but I never liked the damned carnival. Bloody jesters used to frighten my little brother, sir.”
Schenke laughed. “Picture those bastards over there as a whole pack of jesters then. Here’s what’s going to happen, brother Accolon. In a few moments some Haven guardsmen are going to appear on our right and make a push.”
Janie shot him a questioning look, and he tapped his earpiece by way of explanation to quiet the interruption.
“And when they do,” he went on, “You’re going to run screaming right at those jesters, and instead of shooting back they’re going to shit themselves because they’re used to fighting at civilised distances, not having bayonets in their faces.”
Schenke tilted his head towards Accolon’s fixed bayonet. The militiaman nodded, but looked doubtful.
“Follow me.” Schenke ordered. “And if I get shot follow that man Jurgen. He’s got Guard experience, he’ll know how to keep you alive.”
“You’d better not get shot.” Janie murmured, in Weldar gothic so the frateris wouldn’t understand her.
“Don’t worry.” Schenke replied in the same language. “I’ll be holding you in front of me like a lucky mutant shield.”
Janie stuck her tongue out at him.
To their right, a demo charge thundered. The exterior wall bulged and then fell away like a breaking wave, disgorging smoke, shouts, and the hissing lasbolts of charging Haven guardsmen. A yell immediately went up from the Havenites sheltering among the pillars, and guardsmen broke cover to add their lasfire to the bolts now pelting the enemy strongpoints from the unexpected quarter.
“Come on!” Schenke roared, starting forward and clearing his shotgun’s throat with a blast of scattershot. “Storm the bastards!”
Janie was running ahead of him, a pistol in one hand and a battered old stub revolver in the other, yelling defiance as she emptied both towards the defenders. To their right the veteran Jurgen had also seen the opening, and was urging his own group into the attack. Following their example, the frateris surged forward.
Some of the defenders fired, sawing fans of lasfire across the front of the charging imperials. Others took one look at the horde bearing down on them from mere yards away and broke, scrambling back over their comrades and ruining their attempts to shoot back at the flanking Havenites. By the time the leading chargers were among the railcars, the Patriot defence had already disintegrated.
And so the butchery began.
+ + + + + +
Objective secured: Capture the railway station
Objective secured: Eliminate Patriot AA units
New objective: Pending
By the time the senior officers arrived, the battle had wound down from a screaming, adrenaline-pumping cacophony to a wretched scene of choking dust, charnel-house reek, and the ugly sound of wounded men choking up blood.
It was a sadly familiar sight to colonel Iliana Ketch as she climbed down from the hatch of her command Chimera. The human mind was an adaptable thing, capable of numbing itself to almost any horror given enough exposure. It was easy to tell the queasy-looking frateris newcomers from her own indifferent Havenites, who were grimly standing guard, servicing their weapons mechanically, or even sleeping, exhausted, down in the corpse-strewn rubble.
She started towards the newly captured railhead where the Imperial forces were mustering for their next push. Medevac Valkyries, free to approach now that the AAA threat was eliminated, thwacked overhead as they winched up bloodied and broken men. Cadian tankies were making repairs to their mounts, while an Atlas recovery vehicle clanked and growled as it dragged the burned-out wreck of a Russ away from a ruined church. Another disabled Russ was lying dust-shrouded in the next street, still awaiting recovery.
The heretics had been hurt worse. The twisted wreck of a Hydra in fire-scorched Divinatory Guard livery dominated the centre of the rail station, which was choked with blood and debris. A Haven lieutenant inside saluted Ketch as he saw her coming up the steps, though his attention was on the vox operator imprecating his comms set, pilfered from a Vostroyan company during the voyage to Baraspine.
“Can’t get any frakking signal in this urban jungle.” the operator cursed.
The lieutenant looked around, and pointed to the building from which Third Platoon had recently ambushed the enemy Vanquisher. “Try from up there. Take cover though - the glass storm’s due soon and it’s liable to blow you away.”
The operator, a particularly broad and muscular man, laughed at the idea. “Blow me away, sir? Ha! There ain’t enough air force in the aeronautica to lift my heavy arse.”
Further in, Ketch’s Havenites were more subdued. They were casting wary glances at a group of storm-coated men with the wireframe eye of the Telepathica on their shoulder guards. They had cordoned off the platform between two fire-gutted railcars, where several of their black-clad comrades seemed to be interrogating a handful of disarmed Patriot prisoners.
Through a bullet-holed and half-collapsed vestibule that had been the station’s side entrance, Ketch saw a group of frateris militia milling around the abandoned Patriot barricades. The defenders had evidently retreated in a hurry, pausing only to strip dying comrades of their weapons before leaving them to the mercy of the religious fanatics. A priest whose face was an eroded mass of scar tissue was leading the frateris in an exuberant prayer extolling their victory, though one or two of the militiamen remained transfixed by the bodies among the barricades.
“It’s not right.” Ketch heard one of them complain. He shook his head at the weapon-stripped Baraspini corpses. “Just leaving them behind like that. They can’t do that.”
A grunt of amusement drew Ketch’s attention to one of the Telepathica soldiers standing nearby. This one had rank studs on his collar, and his face was hidden behind an ugly, square-snouted helmet with glowering red eye-lenses. His hands were folded across the front of his carapace armour, one gloved in leather, the other a matte-black bionic.
“Wait until it is the other way round,” he advised the militiaman. “With the Adranteans snapping at your backsides. Then you will see what men can do.”
+ + + + + +
Outside, cardinal Odervank surveyed the scene, a stark contrast in his gilded armour to the scarred and cratered landscape around him. More Imperial reinforcements were rolling into the forecourt, ready to do the Emperor’s holy work. Three Conqueror tanks with short-barrelled turrets had just ground to a halt beside the Havenite Chimeras, accompanied by a rag-tag group of infantry in black and urban grey. The infantrymen wore green armbands with the Imperial aquila emblazoned over them, many of them stained and ragged. A few of Odervank’s frateris looked at them with bemusement.
“100th Adrantean, the loyal legion.” a pugnacious soldier answered the militiamen’s unspoken question. “And who are you?”
“Brother Durnure.” the leading militiaman answered proudly. “Son of Cam’s Lot, and crusader by the Emperor’s grace.”
“Frak off you silly sod.” the soldier said, flinching away as if the declaration of faith had been some horrific blasphemy.
There was a clank as the nearby Conquerors unlocked their top hatches, and sweating crewmen began to emerge. One, clearly glad to be out of the overheated tank interior, let out a breath as he unbuttoned his collar and rolled up the cuffs of his fatigues.
"Roll down those sleeves, Weber!” a contralto voice snapped from the lead tank, where a waxy-skinned woman in dark glare glasses had just appeared above the cupola. “Your battledress is fire-retardant for a reason!"
Odervank looked again, and saw that the matte-black lenses he had taken for glare glasses were actually a visor-like set of bionics, embedded seamlessly into the tank-commander’s skin. The commander noticed him and thumbed a one-handed aquila in the cardinal’s direction, but at that moment Odervank’s attention was forcibly drawn by a pair of figures crossing the forecourt towards him.
The speaker was a tall man in a battle-stained flak coat and a helmet that had been deeply nicked by shrapnel. His rebreather mask hung down over his chest, the visor similarly cracked. A woman with pallid skin and large eyes trotted beside him, her own mask still intact.
“Commissar Schenke, Callisto 44th.” the man introduced himself without preamble. “Your frateris did well in the attack but you need to get some proper officers for them. They need more than priests.” He pointed back towards where a white-haired man in a ragged Mordian tunic was resting amid the rubble. “That man Jurgen would be a good start.”