“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the Vinri Rocks.” The soft voice, far removed from O’Kita’s abrasive sneer, was calming. “We will be here for some time so I expect due diligence in the stationing of watches. Cadre leaders report to the Orca headquarters for full briefing.”
Dismounting one drop-ship to enter another was hardly the respite that O’Shie, freshly returned to her rightful position as leader of a small Pathfinder cadre, had wanted. The air outside had a nasty bite of coldness to it but it was fresh and good-tasting, not the stale sharpness of mechanically-filtered environments. Seeing the equipment still being unloaded, and some of the other officers in no hurry to enter the field HQ, she edged closer to one of the designated marksmen of her unit – a newly-transferred in recruit probably unfamiliar with the arrangement she had and in need of education. Smoking was a human vice but one some of the less scrupulous Tau had taken to, O’Shie among them. Since it was not done for an officer to have contraband in her personal effects, a simple solution had presented itself. Make a show of confiscating cigarettes from subordinates in front of officers who cared about such things, and enjoy them with the soldiers who didn’t.
In the absence of anyone sufficiently stiff-necked to make a proper search necessary, O’Shie took a more informal tone.
“Anything I need to know about?”
“Sure? It would be easiest if you said so now rather than, perhaps, if O’Kita did a gear check?”
From a pouch on his armour, beneath the repair patches, he pulled a packet of cigarettes.
“I’ll make sure you’re compensated.”
Before she could light one, however, she saw Ta’el, recovered from his injuries, approaching.
“The briefing’s beginning soon, ‘Shie. Hurry up.”
Inside the Orca, Ru’luc loomed over the others; he was tall for a pilot. “It is good you are all here, and indeed it is unusual for me to sortie at such short notice. But this is a mission which could not be delayed and one where victory is imperative. Simply put, you may recall the engagement between the Ork Eradication Army under Shi’vre Qan and these humans.” An image of a purple-armoured figure appeared on the screen. “They had ambushed one of our stealth teams and the rescue mission was a costly one. We believed that the recovery had been complete, and the stealth unit had returned safely, yet now it has come to my attention that the humans captured one of our Air Caste transponders, and is capable of intercepting communications. They are moving the unit through this sector and, to be blunt, we must disrupt the convoy and recover it.”
There was a pause as if he expected a reply.
“My plan is a simple one. The enemy will be divided by the terrain here and so we will attack on two fronts. Commander O’Kita, attack on the left. I will attack on the right, where our infantry will be positioned to capture the convoy-vehicles. Drone units will be in position to provide local air support in areas where the canyon is too narrow for larger aircraft. Questions?”
“Are we not overcommitting to this operation? Your presence, while much appreciated, is-”
“Symbolic, if you must think so.If you have so little faith in my strategies.” That he could respond so promptly, without deigning to look at whoever had spoken, impressed O’Shie terrifically. “Explain why you feel we are overcommitting.”
“We send three ace pilots – yourself, O’Kita and Kai’la – against an enemy force-”
“Stop there.” He had not even asked who was speaking. “Did you not listen when I impressed upon you the importance of this mission? Undercommitting – misusing our forces – will not simply result in the line stalling, but the potential undermining of our campaign. However, as you are clearly concerned, then you need not fight. I will send new orders to your cadre in time and bring one of the reserve cadres to the front.”
In time the briefing ended, and O’Shie was glad to be in the cold air again. She saw the marksman she had approached before talking with the others, and listened from a discreet distance while beginning the process of unpacking gear.
“-took my stuff. I know it’s-”
“Look, consider that an initiation. The fact is she only does it to keep the other officers off her back about contraband in the unit.”
“I don’t get it.”
“You’re properly green, aren’t you? We’ve all got stuff we shouldn’t have; O’Shie has to make a show of doing something about it. So if she can get herself seen taking cigarettes and flasks off us, then O’Kita and the other ones won’t check-” As she approached, the soldier fell silent. “Sorry, sir. Just informing our comrade here about the military principle of-”
“Reciprocity, yes, I’ve heard that one before. Now return to work.”
“What is the status of the alien device?” Inside the Valkyrie, Inquisitor Stahl remained an awkward distance from the sealed box, the robed engineers surrounding it anathema to her. “Answer!”
“It is inert. Our computational servitors are currently compiling a simple lexicon of their language in order that we may interface with them as intermediaries to determine its secrets.”
“Do it quickly so we may destroy this as soon as possible. The Astartes may be rather more blasé about alien artifacts than I am, but ultimately this is an Inquisitorial matter and they must understand this.”
“We work at the pace the-”
“Machine God permits, yes. On the other hand I work at the pace the Emperor demands.”
“Pilot!” The constant tossing of the aircraft was interacting poorly with the rich meal she had taken aboard the Krieg Leviathan from which they had set off. It had been entirely worth it, though. The sight of the ascetic general visibly recoiling at what he had perceived as terrible waste, under the auspices of her rosette, had made their respective positions quite clear. Following the eradication of considerable armoured assets at the hands of Eldar trickery luring a column into the path of remnant Tyranid forces, the Krieg were under close observation. “Pilot!”
“Keep this craft steady.”
“There is significant crosswind at this altitude.”
“Then take us lower.”
“That would be- Emperor save me…” His voice tailed off. “Incoming Tau aircraft! Gun crews, ready multilasers. Missiles armed and ready!”
Sirens, the piercing klaxons of missile lock warnings, stabbed at Stahl’s temples shortly before explosions rocked the Valkyrie.
On the ground below, in the path of the diversionary convoy guarded by the Space Marines of the Mind Tearers, the expected air-defence echelon – two modified Whirlwinds and an ancient Contemptor Dreadnought – silently ignored the hails from the Inquisitor. Forward stealth teams, part of Ru’luc’s ambush, had destroyed them.
A single unescorted aircraft flying under unknown markings had been far more suspicious to the Tau than a heavily-guarded column of Space Marines, and it had been easy work for a wing of drone fighters to bring it down.
Stahl was unsure of how long she had been in the wreckage when consciousness returned. The tech-priests were all dead and the device was missing and so she did what seemed right; took her pistol, activated the distress beacon, and waited for rescue.
The Mind Tearers had completed their primary mission – recovering the alien artifact from the crashed Valkyrie. All that remained was extracting it to the designated fall-back point.
From the depths of the canyon’s field of boulders, Ru’luc watched their predictable strategy unfold. The humans clearly understood the value of the package, but seemed ignorant of precisely how far into his ambush they had advanced.
While his own guns were long out of range, he sent slaved firing data to the waiting sniper teams. Kai’la was first to fire, emerging from behind an immense pillar of reddish-grey rock and raking the ground before the enemy leader with a scorching beam of energy. Three of his clumsy retinue of shield-wielding battlesuits were unable to avoid the blast and burnt away in seconds, and the others turned and lumbered out of the killing-ground, moving back towards their lines.
As the enemy turned to return fire, O’Shie received new orders; fire on an enemy recon team out to the far left flank of the enemy formation. Rails bit into the enemy’s armour and as they scattered, they ran straight into an area of loose scree Ru’luc had identified earlier. The ground collapsed beneath the Space Marines and they were sucked into a freshly-opened abyss.
At the opposite end of the formation, O’Kita had detected enemy snipers trying to outflank the Tau line. Their cloaks, lined as they were with some kind of heat-masking coating, would have confused primitive targeting systems. However, his suit’s advanced optics marked them in bright red, and a hail of plasma fire gave little concern to their camoflauge.
“Sunset, this is Resurgence. First contact with enemy at predicted route of advance, enemy marksman team destroyed, moving to attack enemy firebase.”
With carefully co-ordinated jumps, the battlesuit teams Ru’luc had deployed repositioned to weather the enemy return fire. The Space Marines had pushed too far forward and now were almost completely encircled.
Anticipating an enemy encirclement, Master Hekaton of the Mind Tearers had established a contingency; teleport and drop pod forces were ready to attack where the enemy revealed themselves. The sight of a drop pod burning down from orbit was a reassuring one, a reminder that while the alien might occasionally display signs of low cunning the Imperium would prevail.
Kai’la watched the enemy orbital drop vessel fall, predicting its path. His XV104 had been upgraded recently with advanced motion-predicting systems that permitted accurate ground-to-air fire with far faster reactions than most surface-based defences, and already a firing solution was almost ready.
He aligned the crosshair and fired, the ion cannon’s beam intersecting the drop pod’s trajectory and punching straight through the vehicle. The pod continued to fall apparently unharmed but for a hull breach, but when its doors opened the dreadnought that had been inside took two halting steps before collapsing, destroyed.
Hekaton had not expected such concerted anti-aircraft fire, especially not from an apparently ungainly and ponderous war machine such as the black-and-gold thing standing atop a cliff.
From an escarpment, his Devastators laid down hails of fire from their heavy bolters, aiming to provide suppressive fire on the sniper battlesuit that had revealed itself to try and finish off the damaged drop pod. Its pilot, Mi’kel, felt the rounds hammering into the rock around him, watched his Fire Warrior escort be blasted from their narrow footholds to fall awkwardly against the rocks below.
The right flank seemed most secure; one of his tactical squads, sent to investigate the loss of contact with the sniper team, had reported engaging enemy suits in combat and damaging one of them. Even if the left proved lost, a breakthrough there would allow the artifact to be extracted safely.
The first wave of drone fighters sped between the rocky pillars towards where the heat signature of Space Marine missile artillery had been reported by Ru’luc. Twisting and yawing to fit down narrow crevasses, they were over the target vehicle for barely long enough for guns to aim before looping up to leave only the scorchmarks of a spray of burst cannon fire on the rock and the vehicle turretless at the end of a seeker missile’s smoking contrail.
As the air strike reported successful, O’Kita used the maps of the area his team had to outflank the enemies who had found him. Leaping along the edges of the cliffs his Crisis Suits landed behind the Mind Tearers and eliminated half the squad in a single salvo before disappearing back into the rocks.
The fire of the Devastators had drawn the attention of Ta’el’s depleted cadre; co-ordinating with the other Fire Warriors, and Mi’kel’s suit, he ordered a salvo back at the enemy machine-gunners. Three of their ordinarily-armed escorts fell, but the main force remained unharmed and he steeled himself for another barrage. It came, for sure, but directed at another team; De’nan’s. They were more carefully entrenched in the rocks after information about the Space Marine machine-guns had reached them, and Ta’el was pleased to see only two fall.
Kai’la fired again at the enemy commander, watching as his idiotic companions sacrificed themselves; they stood up to the ion beam, shields raised, taking its force at the cost of their own lives so their commander might live on. It was, perhaps, admirable loyalty – but foolish. A true warrior would stand alongside his men, use his shield to support theirs.
The enemy forces O’Kita was toying with finally fell; another decisive salvo from his retinue brought the last of their number down and the Crisis team disappeared back into the rock-forests.
Ru’luc ached for battle; this co-ordinating role was proving indispensable with his marker-drones picking out targets, but his XV9 was armed to deal with these pathetic human suits and he wished to prove this.
As if he had heard the Tau commander’s wish for action, Hekaton called in the second part of his attack; a Terminator squad fixed onto the damaged drop pod’s locator beacon and stepped from the warp ready to fire.
Unfortunately, Kai’la’s new sensor suite had been expanded with a warp distortion tracker, and as soon as the Terminators were materialised the ion cannon’s beam burned two to ash. The survivors formed a defensive semicircle and killed three of De’nan’s men, but the bite of their attack was gone as the assault cannon dissolved in blue light. Support from the drop pod’s own mounted gun and the Devastators killed four more Fire Warriors, but it was rapidly becoming clear to Hekaton that the battle risked being lost unless he returned to the original plan of breaking out rapidly.
The enemy were fully committed, Ru’luc saw, and he had the fight he had been looking for. The Terminators were clustered together post-warp, and he selected the heaviest weapon the XV9 could bring to bear. A crystal dart shot out closely followed by a searing white beam and there was a starburst-like explosion which sent sun-hot beams burning into the Terminators, melting two of them instantly. The survivor recoiled damaged from the blast, and combined fire from the surviving Fire Warriors finished him.
Then one of the drone fighters suddenly slammed into a rocky outcrop, its sensors clearly damaged by something, and it struggled to maintain altitude. Falling into an emergency standby mode it hovered listlessly above the battlefield engaging targets of opportunity and conserving fuel. As it chirped sensor data to local forces, it drew O’Kita into a firing position from which he could annihilate the surviving Devastators.
On the edge of the firing line, O’Shie could see the enemy leader approaching. A salvo of sniper fire from her team pinged into the rock around him and then one of the rails cracked his armour, leaving a trail of blood flowing down the purple plate.
Hekaton recoiled from the hit, his body already reknitting the wound. The snipers were out of range but he could see Tau infantry moving to surround him and poured burning fuel from his wrist-mounted flamethrower into their lines. All but one burned, but the survivor was stupid enough to stand and fight rather than run in the face of holy judgment. As the Space Marine brought up his chainsword, he failed to see the XV104 taking a firing stance on the cliff.
Kai’la saw only one target of opportunity, lit up by O’Shie’s markerlights and Ru’luc’s drones. The margin for error on this shot was essentially nil.
Hekaton was burned away instantly when the ion beam, fired at full power, scored a vast line in the rock beneath him.
Stahl realised no help was coming; the battle-lines had moved on from the crash site as first the Mind Tearers had clearly recovered the artifact and not thought to check for survivors, and then been driven back by the Tau. The beacon’s power source would stay active for some time, though, and there were many supplies she had recovered from the wreck.
Indeed, it was hardly different from the time when Eldar pirates had waylaid that landship and she had been ingloriously stranded in the middle of the desert, and she laughed at the thought. An Inquisitor would have times of bad luck, it was simply a reminder that the Emperor’s enemies were always watching, and his servants had to be more diligent.
“You all performed admirably in your roles. Losses were well within acceptable bounds.” Ru’luc smiled broadly at his assembled staff. “I hope this allays any doubts you may have had about the need for overwhelming force? Is our combat doctrine not predicated on the precise application of heavy firepower at strategic points?”
“That it is.” O’Kita saluted his superior. “If I may ask, where to from here?”
“I spoke to the former Commander Firebrand recently about the nature of the Necron. It is time we took the fight to them once again. Their numbers are heavily depleted after Vogler’s recent overwhelming counter-attack. Furthermore, reinforcements are en route to the system; I have arranged the assigning of an Air Caste ace to this front in order to provide heavier support to our drone elements.”
There was a general murmur across the room.
“Listen. For too long, I feel, I have remained out of this fight. This is not an insult to any officer here, for you are all heroes in your own right, but it is a simple statement. I will be taking a more active role in operations now, and together we will destroy all the enemies before us. Are there any questions?”
Outside, O’Shie found herself again helping her unit prepare earthworks. In the absence of builder-drones (those that had been spared were occupied repairing damaged battlesuits) the Fire Caste were pressed into service doing menial work.
“Sir?” It was the sniper. She had a feeling he was the one who had wounded the Space Marine captain. “I’d like to say I’m sorry… for what I said. I guess I didn’t understand the situation.”
“It is fine.” On an isolated bluff with only her unit for company she could smoke openly with them. “Congratulations for wounding the enemy general, incidentally. Fine marksmanship.”
He blushed and looked away.