“Brothers. This is Fuelling Station Byzantium. Lost to the enemy recently and it will be the site of our counter-attack.” The Chamber Cartographic of the cruiser Sephirot glowed with blue light from the slowly turning map in its centre. “There is but one way to attack a place like this, terrain too dense for a teleport strike. We will land on the ground outside of the station and rush forward to secure enemy communication-nodes, in order to render them blind. Attack in two fronts, I will take the right and Brother Sahaquiel the left.”
There was wordless assent from the gathered elders of the Dark Angels, signalled by the sound of armoured helmets nodding.
“These communiques are not those of the Fallen.” Dreadnought Elijah was incapable of pointing to the documents that flooded the screens, but with thoughts channeled through its communicator highlighted passages in a red that glowed against the surrounding blue. “They are alien.”
“Quite right, brother.”
“The alien dies as does the traitor.” Sahaquiel spoke from beneath his hood. “The alien shelters the traitor, and dies like the traitor.”
“That it does.” Elijah’s voice was completely flat and unadorned. “But it is always for the best to know who the foe is. These Tau are flimsy creatures, like a human but more frail. Is this not correct?”
“That it is.”
“Then we shall break their bodies, destroy their works and bring judgement upon them.”
“Not so fast, noble brothers. We capture their leader. We hand him to the Chaplains. We learn where the traitors hide and we bring justice to them as is our duty.”
“That we do. And thus the plan. Elijah, you will attack at the enemy’s heart, with the Terminators of Brother Germanicus supporting. That will provide the diversionary force under the cover of which I and Sahaquiel will advance. Infantry forces will defend our line of fall back. We will attack the Tau, capture a ranking officer and retreat if the battle does not proceed according to plan.”
“Retreat is not a word Space Marines-”
“Enough, Elijah. Of course our objective is the capture of the station. Yet consider this. Taking the station may be the death of noble brothers of the Deathwing; while it is indeed an honour to die in battle, a well-considered retreat with a Tau prisoner will lead to one of a number of situations. Firstly, the location of the traitor headquarters and information on its weaknesses. Secondly, the Tau’s fury breaking against our lines. We can force them, honour-blind as they are, into attacking on our terms and then destroy them completely as they are leaderless.”
“It is still retreat.”
“Elijah! The Ravenwing are not the Rock’s sledgehammer, not some brute implement to be dashed against foes like you and your brothers in the Deathwing.” The leader of the task force waved the map away with an aggressive gesture towards the Dreadnought’s still form. “You may be an honoured veteran, a mighty warrior, but your understanding of how we war seems to be stuck in the days of the Heresy.”
“Let us not argue any more.” Germanicus had remained silent until now. “Elijah speaks as a Space Marine. He knows no fear, brooks no thought of defeat. For him, eternal warrior, honoured veteran, only in death does duty end.”
“As you say. Prepare yourselves. We attack at the first opportunity.”
“R’in, you show a distinct lack of ability.” Resurgence’s voice was a calm sneer from on high as he watched the new second Crisis team train. “Consider if this were a battle. Two of your unit would be dead. You would be alone and out of position, for what exactly?”
Since his promotion following the destruction of the Necron tomb, he had settled unpleasantly into command, becoming something of a tyrant insofar as the Tau had a concept of one. His response to R’in’s demotion had been oddly enthusiastic, tormenting his former commander with consistent drills and inspections while quite clearly yet subtly showing far more favouritism than any officer should. It was a very human collection of vices, perhaps most clearly shown in his renaming the Ork Eradication Army the Resurgence Army.
Thus it was, while the pilots trained under the sun, he remained with his cadre in the planning room, pausing only from doing nothing to disinterestedly criticise. In another departure from protocol, ostensibly to protect the vital command centre, there were now guards stationed on far more buildings; not just the sentries that were a fact of life on the front lines but automated gun emplacements and stealth patrols.
One such sentry was Shas’ui O’Shie, transferred in a sideways demotion to commander of a Fire Warrior cadre rather than her former position at the head of a team of Pathfinders. From the rusting, scalding metal balcony of the pumping station she was assigned to, she could see O’Kita at his command-console through the impractical vaulted windows the humans who had built this installation favoured. Her gunsight played over his head in an act of imagined sedition that was as un-Tau as O’Kita’s self-importance.
Just the thought of assassinating a superior officer, though, was enough to bring an uncomfortable shiver to her. It was too human a thing to advance yourself by any means other than heroism. If O’Kita felt she would be better-served with her cadre-brothers and sisters here, then she would serve dutifully with them.
Closer to the immense multi-storied monolith that O’Kita was using as his headquarters the Riptide prototype loomed. O’Shie watched it for a while, seeing in the corner of her eye R’in’s team returning from their training.
Then, in an instant, there was activity across the line. Chi’rin’s cadre had reported activity on the flank, enemies approaching the installation rapidly.
That order, to activate, had been what Kai’la had been waiting for. After the drama of his promotion, the lustre of fame of being the hero who saved the weapon-prototype from destruction had worn off and military life had returned to normal. But now was his chance to shine.
The Riptide’s control panels lit up and its comforting AI voice promised greatness was imminent.
“Kai’la, XV104, ready to launch!”
“Weapons free.” O’Kita had none of that enthusiasm. Kai’la was a useful figurehead, the everyman soldier who had become a hero, and he had a blind and stupid grasp of tactics that would have suited R’in.
He thought back to a conversation he had had with Ru’luc shortly after his promotion. Sunset had claimed that war was, contrary to perhaps everything he would understand, simply a logic-puzzle to be solved. A puzzle where the parameters changed, where the challenge was as much understanding how each part interacted as how to solve it, but a puzzle.
This was how he rationalised his showing favourites. Each, in turn, would be presented before him and be solved as part of the puzzle. He knew Kai’la’s useful enthusiasm could be relied on as a diversion. He knew R’in was arrogant and needed teaching her limits. It was an unpopular strategic doctrine but it was one he hoped would work.
As the Space Marines closed on the fuelling-station, little of the Tau force was able to respond. They could simply watch and fire futile shots at the approaching bikers, missiles from De’nan’s Devilfish bursting harmlessly in the sand as the black-armoured riders weaved between the explosions. Even Kai’la, standing atop O’Kita’s HQ and unleashing the Riptide’s ion beam at full power, was only able to throw up a wall of shattering fused sand as the Dark Angels slewed out of the way.
Then Sammael’s trap – the true opening salvo – was sprung. While the Tau struggled to gain a hard lock on the approaching bikes, Elijah slammed into their lines in a true battle fury, pushing the drop pod doors open faster than their servos would allow and throwing the twisted metal to one side.
Chi’rin had no time to react before fire consumed him. Had he survived the initial heatwave from Elijah’s twin flamethrowers, he would have seen Germanicus’ Terminators, locked on to the drop pod, round the corner of the building and pour more liquid flame over the stunned Fire Warriors.
Yet, to the surprise of the Space Marines, the cadre held. They did not flee their death, but stood their ground and raised their weapons, forming a firing-line ready to return the barrage with their own.
The blemish on the sky that had been circling bird-like above the station suddenly dived, turning into the flat winged disc of a drone-fighter. As it began its descent, it spat a pair of missiles from under-wing mounts which dived towards a waiting, dust-scarred Rhino and exploded against its armour. The driver-servitor of the transport had not seen the enemy fighter approach and could not track it, the logic-loops this caused in its stulted brain causing the vehicle to suddenly lose power.
As fire lit up the building where Chi’rin had been concealed, O’Shie adjusted her visor to see through the smoke. Heavily-armoured humans. Terminators. She fired and the first two-round burst punctured armour and sent one of the giants collapsing into the sand. The salvo continued, the survivors of Chi’rin’s team and the automated turret beneath her also joining in, and then only two of the enemy remained. There was still a primitive walking-vehicle waiting there, but suddenly a lance of blinding blue energy from the Riptide punched through it and left nothing of the venerable hero of a hundred wars Elijah except a scar on the sand.
O’Kita’s launch, however, had not gone to plan. Sahaquiel’s bikers had closed the distance to the command-centre far too quickly, and they were too fast to target. These were not the slow-moving robots of the Necron but Space Marines – Ravenwing bikers, the aces of their chapter. Only one died from the hail of energy fire his unit laid down, and that would not be enough to deter their charge.
Sahaquiel charged. His bike, and those around him, poured bullets into the enemy suits and he saw their leader stunned and broken by fire.
The first swing of his hammer, strengthened by the momentum a speeding bike gave, smashed the thing’s shield before being met by a chunky, inelegant sword with a glowing red edge.
O’Kita felt a thrill of fear. This Space Marine, this Human, was a strong opponent. The officer. Their commander. His sword met another upswing from the biker, and as their weapons clashed he became blind to the battle around him. Was this what R’in felt all the time? Another piece of the puzzle that was war was becoming clear.
Seeing the fleeing Tau before him, Sammael brought his venerable jet-bike high over the outbuilding and with a hail of bullets from the machine’s prow-mounted storm bolters ripped three of the aliens to shreds. He ordered a charge to finish them, but from nowhere what had seemed only to be a knot of piping suddenly collapsed to reveal a squat concrete-and-metal edifice painted in olive drab. Revealed as such, the turret stood out inelegantly against the ochre desert, but it had enough of an edge of surprise to unfold two missile batteries and swat one of Sammael’s retinue from his mount, the out-of-control bike tumbling over wreckage and the other bikers scattering to avoid crushing their fallen comrade.
An idea had formed in Kai’la’s mind. The Ravenwing were too densely intermixed with O’Kita’s cadre to permit an ion-beam attack, and so he did something illogical.
The Riptide smashed into the bikers bodily, embedding its gun-arm in the sidecar-fitted weapon specialist and opening fire with a spray of missiles and plasma. Point-blank like this its subsidiary armaments could come into their own, dense curtain-fire massacring every biker in moments.
“Your assistance is welcome, Shas’vre. That was superlative marksmanship.” Kai’la fed on praise, O’Kita knew. He believed himself a hero, and feeding that belief drove him to ever-greater feats. “Move to support infantry elements.”
A second drone-fighter dived to follow the first, missiles destroying the stunned Rhino as its passengers bailed out. With impossibly-fast movements, the two aircraft split up to rake the Space Marines from two directions, dipping vectored engines to weave between ruined spires.
The turret’s moment of surprise was over and Germanicus’ unit, those who had survived O’Shie’s counter-attack, found its structure no match for their thunder-hammers. As Sammael finished off Chi’rin’s cadre, the infantry supposedly forming the rearguard tried to form a kind of defence against the drones that surrounded them. Bolter-fire scored the skies, chasing after the aircraft and finding nothing there. It eventually became clear why; each drone was fitted with a stealth generator which, rather than bending light around the craft like a stealth armour’s did, projected sensor-images of fake craft to distract enemies.
Cycles Four and Five
Emerging from the wreckage of the missile turret, the two Terminators suddenly came under fire from the second gun-emplacement, positioned to support it near O’Shie’s squad. Rotary cannons spun up to firing speed and in a hail of shots first one storm shield then the second was breached, and the last two members of the Deathwing squad fell silent.
Fire from Kai’la was suppressing the surviving bikers well, O’Kita felt. They were slaloming to avoid the beams that scored across the ground, sometimes drawing near enough to O’Shie for pulse-fire to drive them back, and one of their number had been destroyed. Yet the heavy weapons, the supposed decisive single strike that would lay waste to all in the way, were completely ineffectual. They had done nothing since destroying the inelegant walker of the Space Marines. There would come a time when such distractions were not enough, and it looked to be soon.
Yet this entire engagement was ultimately only part of O’Kita’s plan. De’nan’s cadre had rushed forward, missiles raining down on the enemy infantry as they tried to fight the drones, and their numbers had been suitably thinned. Already the Fire Warriors began taking up positions to trap the enemy in a crossfire as they drew round to the supposedly abandoned Tau HQ.
As Sammael dodged another beam, and saw the turret dug as it was into the ruins fell his Terminators, he realised the enemy would carry the day. His infantry rearguard reported heavy Tau air support and long-range missile-fire forcing them back step-by-step from their objectives, and so retreat seemed the only option before he was encircled.
Elijah and Germanicus had scoffed at the idea that retreat would be an option, but as the Ravenwing disappeared back into the dunes it seemed more than prudent.
“New scars, Resurgence.” Ru’luc smiled at his new field commander. “I trust the humans were not too problematic?”
“Losses were quite acceptable. We eliminated a significant proportion of their force.”
“Indeed. I suspect had R’in led this mission, losses would have been higher. Chi’rin’s cadre was an unfortunate sacrifice, for sure, and I am to understand one of your retinue was incapacitated?”
“I lost contact with Ta’nel during the melee. I am assuming him dead.”
“Your practicality is a shining example of my doctrine, O’Kita, but be mindful of your reputation. The Ethereals are not ready for the lessons we have learned and our methods seem… inefficient.”
The headquarters fell dark again.
At some point in the melee, Ta’nel had been thrown from his suit and dragged somewhere by a fleeing biker. From that moment there was little he actually remembered save perhaps the encroaching enemy.
His new surroundings were brightly lit, far too so to be Necron ruins, and far too extravagant to be planetside.
“Tell us of the Fallen.”
“What are they?”
“You know. You command forces in this-”
“I am Shas’ui Ni’kei Ta’nel. Sworn protector of the local commander O’Kita Resurgence.”
Murmuring from the hooded figures.
“The Fallen, alien, are the human masters your commanders serve.” Ta’nel’s self-preservation instinct was drowning his loyalty to Ru’luc in the blinding light of the Dark Angels’ interrogation chamber. “Tell us all you know of them.”
“I have never been allowed to see them. All I know is they are controlling the commander.” There was a movement of blades just out of his vision “The ice planet! The ice planet! That’s where Ru’luc is!”
“Who is Ru’luc?”
“You know nothing, do you? We are but the vanguard! The main force is with Ru’luc and the humans!”
“He speaks the truth. Do we have need of him still?”
“Before this battle, alien, a venerable soldier who your kind killed with a shot to the back told me something. He told me that the alien dies easily, like the traitor.”