– Red Planet Colony, Remote Sept Ha’Lios –
“Your time here’s almost over, isn’t it?” Shi’vre Ni’sei stabbed the sealed can open and took a long draught of the highly nutritious, balanced energy solution inside. “Where are you going?”
“To join the R’in Expedition. Serving under Shi’vre Qan.” Kai’la turned the small trinket he’d been given over in his hand. “I’ve heard bad rumours about R’in. She serves under Ru’luc doesn’t she?”
“Heard he’s gone… he might have taken a leaf from O’Shovah. The Water Caste he’s with apparently murdered her Ethereal.”
“All you can do is follow orders, Kai’la. Qan is a good officer.” Despite the general lack of variation between individual Tau, Shas’ui Ka’ji seemed to loom over his subordinates. “If R’in or Ru’luc have fallen from the path they will be punished in due time.”
There was a chiming throughout the lounge-like communal room of the barrack complex. “All officers please report to the briefing room.”
Ni’sei and Ka’ji left Kai’la to his thoughts, and he wandered over to the window. Across the dusty red staging-ground sat the modified Sunshark that had transported the package to the base – the package that nobody seemed to be talking about. The tarpaulin covering whatever it was had slipped slightly in one of the windstorms and a burnished bronze gun-barrel peered from beneath it, like that of a Hammerhead tank.
“I would like you to meet Fio’O A’kagi, assigned to the maintenance of our latest asset here at Ha’Lios.” The Earth Caste overseer took the podium from Shas’O A’kar.
“I will be brief here. This is the XV-104 Riptide. It is, simply put, the Tau Empire’s decisive ultimate weapon for the destruction of all threats to the greater good. This one has been assigned to Ha’Lios base for field-testing. Your mission is to ensure its safety. Understood?”
There was no time for questions as A’kar took the stage again.
“Reports indicate the possibility of enemy attack should they discover the presence of the XV104 project. As a result, I am increasing this facility’s standing guard to-”
A quiet, discreet alarm had sounded. A signal for the work of killing to begin.
“Fio’O, is the XV104 ready to activate?”
“In theory, yes. Its pilot is in the hangar and we can begin pre-launch preparations-”
The first reports from the perimeter defence teams were beginning to reach A’kar. The hangar, where the support crew for the XV104 had been, was impossible to save. The pilot was confirmed dead.
Kai’la had seen the first Tyranid spores hit the hangar, and watched as choking bluish vines had engulfed the building. He knew his station he had to report to – the main observation tower – and began to run.
Halfway across the staging-ground, another wave of spores hit the outbuildings of the base, and a choking explosion of acidic slime began to eat at his armour. The vines surrounding the hangar were emitting a highly toxic mist, and his armour’s sensors indicated if he did not find shelter there was a good chance he would perish.
The tarpaulin covering the new weapon caught his eye, flapping raggedly in the spore-cloud, and he had the idea to tear a strip from it to use as a cloak. As he reached for the loose corner, he saw in the corner of his eye another wave of spores and ducked beneath it to shelter from the initial slime-wave.
The package was a battlesuit. Larger by far than even an XV9, inactive. He had had only the most basic Stealth suit training but he had a strange idea that his duty should involve protecting this thing with his life. Despite its immense size, the cockpit was as cramped as any suit’s, and he struggled to adjust his position to access the controls.
XV104 OPERATING SYSTEM: REGISTER PILOT
PILOT REGISTRATION CONFIRM. GOOD LUCK, SHAS’VRE KAI’LA
That was about the point he realised that he should not have done it. The Riptide’s cockpit lit up with grainy displays which quickly filled with dialogue boxes.
MAIN CAMERA: CALIBRATION 10%
“A’kar? I thought you said the XV104’s pilot was-”
“Dead, nobody could have survived-” From the secondary hangar, where A’kar was preparing his Crisis Suit for launch, he suddenly saw what A’kagi was shouting about. The Riptide was half-upright, clearly a pilot inside. “Put me through to the pilot!”
He did not recognise the Fire Warrior inside. After the initial confused shouting, it turned out to be an unremarkable soldier called Kai’la who had taken cover underneath the XV104 to avoid a spore mine, and climbed inside.
“Kai’la? Can you hear me? This is Fio’O A’kagi. What you have done is irresponsible and quite possibly a terrible idea but please bear with me here. The Riptide controls exactly like a Crisis Suit so you should-”
Kai’la admitted he had never piloted one.
“The control levers. Take them. The stand program will engage automatically if you push the two balancer switches in the cockpit.”
As the Riptide pulled itself upwards, and the Tau garrison took their stations, the chattering mass of Tyranids closed in.
From their positions on top of a cluster of oil drums, the two Broadsides laid down steady fire on the approaching horde, telemetry data from the forward sentries allowing for precise missile strikes on key Tyranid targets. With expert fire discipline, shots hit the carapace of a lumbering Carnifex with a cracking, tearing sound and left long seeping wounds in its hide. Bluish gore streaked the ground around its feet, and as it staggered backwards a hail of pulse fire and smaller missiles from the defense forces bit deeper into it.
As it slumped to the ground semi-dormant, as if licking its wounds and trying to find the energy to stand, the Tau tried to press the advantage with a second wave of plasma and missile fire, but this time it simply turned an armoured shell to the incoming fire and weathered it. Bracing itself on thick legs and digging a spined tail into the ground, it raised a long tendril and spat a hail of thorn-like spines towards the unsteadily moving Riptide.
The toxic needles shattered against the XV104’s shield, breaking apart metres from its hull and falling like a hail of broken glass against its torso. The battlesuit flinched, wobbling on its legs before falling to one knee.
“Kai’la! A shot like that won’t-” The communication line died, the thick fog of Tyranid micro-organisms a barrier to the signal. Trickles of the poisonous payload of the spines misted the cameras of the Riptide and left fizzing, blurred streaks on the displays.
Kai’la realised he had no idea how to fight back and began trying switches within the cockpit. A wireframe of the suit’s systems blinked red, and error messages began to fill the screen.
HEAVY BURST CANNON: AMMUNITION 0/1,499
FUSION TURRET: ENERGY 0%
PLASMA RIFLES: AMMUNITION 0/64
ION ACCELERATOR: DRIVER FILE SYSTEM CORRUPT: REBOOTING 0%
MICRO-MISSILE ARRAY: DRIVER FILE SYSTEM CORRUPT: REBOOTING 0%
He smashed a warning cover over one of the control banks and hit the switch beneath.
NOVA REACTOR STATUS: OPERATIONAL. PLEASE SELECT SYSTEMS
“Weapons! I need weapons!”
RIPPLE-FIRE SYSTEM ENGAGED.
ERROR: FILE SYSTEM CORRUPT. PLEASE REINSTALL.
The Riptide’s consoles suddenly went dead. Another salvo of spines from the wounded Carnifex shattered against it and for a moment it looked like the enormous battlesuit was going to fall.
“MOVE!” Kai’la punched the control panel and as if in response it lit back up again.
XV104 OPERATING SYSTEM: WELCOME BACK, PILOT
A crosshair appeared in the middle of the screen and Kai’la instinctively reached for what looked like a trigger on one of the joysticks. The suit’s shoulder-mounted cannon glowed with a blue light and then spat a lance of energy far wide of the Carnifex, and wide yet of the buzzing cloud of fly-like Tyranids behind it.
ION ACCELERATOR: RECHARGING 01:00:99
As the countdown ticked away second-by-second, Kai’la tried the control banks again to find another weapon.
MICRO-MISSILE ARRAY: AMMUNITION 256/256
Crosshairs lit up the screen and a wall of missiles danced in elegant spirals towards the Tyranids, blasting three of them apart. Kai’la screamed in an incoherent mix of relief and anger, and was about to fire again when the cloud parted and a massive Tyranid, dragging itself through the sky on insect-like wings, began to dive straight towards him. It screamed loudly enough to near-deafen him, and he felt his will to fight draining.
ION ACCELERATOR: RECHARGING #NaN:#NaN:#NaN
MICRO-MISSILE ARRAY: AMMUNITION -65,535/256
TACTICAL COMPUTER OPERATING SYSTEM ERROR
The Riptide’s computer shut down again, leaving Kai’la in darkness as the suit was buffeted by Tyranid shots.
From the command centre, A’kagi was trying to regain contact with its pilot, but the interference was too strong. Instead, using A’kar’s personal channel, she hailed the Broadsides.
“Lay more fire on that flying one!” It was big, with a distended skull to suggest it was a controlling creature or queen of some kind. Rails punched into its head, puncturing the brain-pan and popping a compound eye into a shower of black ichor. Missiles tore its wings into ragged shreds.
In the end it was the Crisis Suits that finished the beast; plasma fire ate its underbelly’s thinner chitin away and in a torrent of entrails it fell from the sky and crumpled. As if to ensure it stayed down, two whole units of Fire Warriors poured rifle-shots into its corpse to make sure it could not stand back up again. The third team – Ni’sei’s – focused on loping Tyranid Warriors that were filling the breach in the alien line. One of them was bleeding from a dozen wounds, but carried on undaunted.
To buy the Riptide time, A’kar rushed towards the breach before the Warriors could reach it; in a hail of fusion fire and licking flame from his suit’s flamethrower he saw a slug-like Zoanthrope vanish for a moment. Then the obscene thing was there again, mocking him, the fire now dancing around an impenetrable bubble of energy it sat within. Its grotesque, bulbous brain glowed with dancing red light and a whip of lightning tore armour plates from A’kar’s battlesuit. Emboldened by this, the Warriors turned and charged towards him, hails of toxic thorns seeding the ground as they bounced harmlessly off his own shield, and it was all he could do to burn the encroaching vines from their other bio-weapons away.
As if afraid of the fire, the Warriors melted away into the enemy horde and A’kar took a moment to survey the situation. The Riptide was finally beginning to reboot, but the furthest perimeter team were reporting Tyranids having breached the base through drains and vents, and they had but minutes before being overwhelmed. First would fall the Fire Warriors of Ka’ji’s cadre, and then the all-important Broadsides.
Inside the cockpit, Kai’la was again given the honour of seeing through the Riptide’s eyes. The Carnifex was reknitting its shattered flesh and broken bones, and he knew he had to do something. This time, he aimed the ion cannon carefully, fighting the uncalibrated aiming controls, and watched as a wide blue beam cut first through the brute’s armour and then splashed through four more of its buzzing escort.
“All units, danger close!” A Razorshark fighter flew almost at right-angles to the ground between the oil tanks, firing whirling, bending beams of light into the encroaching Genestealers. With the support of the Fire Warriors, more of the insect-like creatures were cut down as they emerged into the open, and then the Broadsides fired, hails of micro-missiles bursting into the horde as rails tried to pick off the biggest of them. Yet there were too many. Ka’ji and his team laid down perfectly-drilled fire to the last moment, until the Genestealers were over their barricade and their claws were biting through Tau armour and bodies.
It was not enough. Even though the weaker, lesser creatures died in droves to pulse fire, there was a bigger one leaping from tank to tank, hanging from walkways and dodging the shots to plunge down and grab the distracted Tau in its claws. Ka’ji was last to die, not seeing the thing appear behind him from a broken pipe and pull him inside.
Yet even as that massacre occurred, the rest of the line seemed secure. The Crisis Suits continued to fire on the Warriors as they were caught between a wall of missiles on one side and the fire of A’kar’s cadre on the other. Although the Zoanthrope’s shield stayed up, its clumsy lightning was no longer a surprise to A’kar and he danced around it to keep the thing distracted.
Kai’la thought he had mastered the Riptide’s systems. He lined the ion cannon’s reticle up again on a big Tyranid, a snaking mass of tendrils emitting the choking, corroding smoke he had sheltered from in the first place. Again the beam burned across the ground, and the thing vanished in the light along with a few of its chittering, scuttling retinue.
That confidence meant when the computer failed again and the suit fell silent, it did fall down, improperly braced and off-balance as it had been recovering from the recoil of the shot, and when it finally rebooted the damage control system indicated several of the hydraulics in the left arm were damaged.
Ka’ji’s death, perversely, was the salvation of the Broadsides. With markerlight support from the next squad down the line they were able to pour rails into the big Tyranid as it fed, and it could not survive the barrage.
The Razorshark continued its attack run, dancing beams burning through the Termagant carpet, with a follow-up barrage from the Crisis Suits picking off two of the stragglers.
A’kar’s duel with the Zoanthrope finally came to its conclusion as the thing turned its attention to Kai’la in the Riptide. Distracted, he was able to close in and take its head off with a point-blank fusion blaster shot. The Warriors, now bloodied and dying, lumbered up the cliff-face where he had retreated after killing the Zoanthrope, and braved the wall of flame in a display of blood-crazed fury. Before their wound-slowed claws could bite, however, he turned to the only real survivor that could have posed a threat and jammed his still white-hot fusion blaster into its eye, firing again and again until nothing remained.
Kai’la had seen the Zoanthrope, moved too slowly to fire the ion cannon at it and watched the beam burn a glassy trail in the ground around it, deflected by its shield.
Yet its lance of psychic force was itself deflected by the Riptide’s shield; this time the computer did not fail.
NOVA GENERATOR: ACTIVE
RIPPLE-FIRE SYSTEM: ACTIVE
MICRO-MISSILE ARRAY LIMITER RELEASE
This time the salvo of missiles was a veritable storm; explosions tore into the scattered, confused Termagants and left barely any alive. Like the wounded animals they were, they dispersed, and Kai’la thought the battle over.
Yet the last surviving Gargoyle darted between the incoming missile-trails and Kai’la saw it closing fast. The Riptide’s left arm useless, he brought the unloaded burst cannon up and swatted the thing to the ground with the massive cluster of gun-barrels.
The Tyranid wave was broken against the Tau battlesuits. Those creatures that remained were leaderless and easily run down.
Kai’la climbed, bruised and weary, from the Riptide. The immense battlesuit was stained with Tyranid gore, its paint corroded away by acidic venom. Steam skirled around the ion cannon’s barrel, and two of its knot of cameras were shattered.
“I do not know who you are but you are a hero of the Tau.” A’kagi saluted. “A’kar informs me you had no formal training.”
“That is true.” Kai’la was unsure of what to make of his fate. “I simply did not wish to see a vital piece of military equipment lost.”
“Such noble sacrifice will not be forgotten by the Fire and Earth castes. It is a breach of protocol, and Aun N’oa opposes it fiercely, but you will be promoted to Shas’vre and given command of this XV104 unit once it has completed testing. You will take it as a gift to Shas’O Ru’luc and fight under his command.”
Kai’la saluted awkwardly and looked over the battle-line. It was a swamp of bluish gore and strange alien flora that had sprouted in the wake of the Tyranids.
“Shas’O… I had… not fought this foe before.”
“They are worthy of respect. They cannot be reasoned with and they fight well.”