Monday, 22 July 2013

Across Phrentis VI with Bike and Boltgun: 01

Chapter 1: The Cruiser Ineluctable

Inside the hall, firelight scattered dancing shadows on the dark-panelled walls, and glistened on great porcelain cups.

“The Emperor is the spring that sustains mankind.”

Six brawny serfs hoisted two great brass urns, sending gallons of water gushing into the ornate cauldron. The aquilas on each side, polished to perfection, shone like mirrors.

“The Emperor is the fire of life, burning with wrath against the xenos, the heretic, the witch.”

With a blinding flare, fire erupted from the grille beneath the cauldron like a dragon’s belch, before settling down into a steady roar. Heat rippled across the room, laying itself like a heavy blanket over the occupants, who bore it without complaint. Within moments, steam rose from the cauldron under the ferocious assault of the furnace, billowing up into the distant arches of the roof.

“The Holy Primarchs are the branches of the Emperor’s glory, and we are their leaves.”

With great solemnity, the Chaplain heaved open the lid of the great chest. The soft, faintly bitter scent of the dried herbs within rose to the nostrils of the nearby warriors. He took up a silver ladle, and carefully scooped a great pile of leaves from the chest.

“In the tumult of war we find our purpose; our blood is spilled for him.”

Despite the heat, the Chaplain showed no sign of discomfort as he stood over the cauldron. The ladle tipped, and the herbs spilled out into the now-seething water, staining it a dark mahogany.

“Ave Imperator!”

As one, the Company crossed their hands in the sign of the aquila, and the shout echoed throughout the hall, rattling the cups on the vast oak tables.

“Ave Imperator!”

At a sign from the Chaplain, triumphant thunder erupted throughout the Chapel as Curate Jakes began to play. Air hissed erratically from valves as he ran sinewy fingers across the ancient ivory, worn smooth by centuries of use. Two serfs pumped furiously at the bellows, trying to keep up with the Curate's exuberant performance, as the voices of three hundred Marines rose in an enthusiastic rendition of “The Inhuman Will Fall To The Emperor's Wrath”. By the time the last echoes of the song had died away, the serfs were red-faced, panting and drenched in sweat. It was, of course, an honour to assist in the worship of the Emperor; but Naphet couldn't help briefly thinking that fifteen verses might have been enough. He frowned, and chided himself for the weakness.

As the singing concluded, Chaplain Granville beckoned to the assembled warriors. At each table, a Marine rose and walked solemnly towards the cauldron, bearing a steel urn marked with skulls. One by one, they presented the urns with a word of entreaty. One by one, the Chaplain took the urns and held them beneath an ornate tap in the form of a howling eagle, filling them to the brim with steaming liquid. He handed each urn back to its bearer with a word of blessing, then filled a final vessel and strode to his place at the high table. The others stood quietly, awaiting his word.

“Our blood is poured out for the Emperor!” he announced, tilting his urn to fill Captain Sheringham’s cup. At each table, the appointed urn-bearer followed his lead. Each cup was filled to the brim, fragments of the blessed herbs swirling gently within. At last, the Chaplain sat, and raised his cup. As one, the Marines followed his lead, smelling the rich aroma of the brew.

“In his smallest finger is strength enough to crush his foes!” intoned Granville, extending his own little finger in the ancient custom. The Chapter did likewise.

“We drink of his strength, and remember our purpose.” He drank. All drank. There was a pause, and then gentle conversation broke out with the conclusion of the afternoon ceremony. At the high table, the officers supped their tea slowly and thoughtfully, musing on the war to come. After a short while, Sheringham lowered his cup and turned to his sergeants.

“Not a bad cuppa. Not bad at all,” he remarked.

“Jolly good, I thought.”

“Well, Brother-Sergeants, the Techmarines tell me we shall be passing Phrentis VI shortly, or at least its Warp-coordinates. Decent little world, rather rustic, and fairly quiet for the most part. They’re having a spot of bother with orks at the moment–”

“Oh, too bad,” said Elsworth. “That’s the fourth world this year.”

“Indeed. The governor called a few hours ago to ask if we could possibly lend them a hand. Seemed like a good sort, sorry to bother us and all that sort of thing, and the whole business is terribly embarrassing for her.”

Phipps handed round a brass plate of wafer-thin biscuits, each embossed with a grinning skull.

“It’s a trifle inconvenient, Brother-Captain. I mean, this business with the uprising is a prior commitment,” he said. “The general is rather counting on us.”

“Yes, quite right, Sergeant. I explained that in the general way we’d be delighted to visit the wrath of the Emperor on the damned greenies, but we were rather busy at the moment.”

Heads nodded, regretfully.

“However,” continued the Captain, nibbling a biscuit and noting the faint hint of lemon with silent approval, “while we are committed to bringing the rebel worlds back into the Emperor’s peace and showing them the price of heresy, we can’t very well go about letting orks run riot on respectable worlds.”

“Quite right, Brother-Captain.”

“Rather not!”

“Bally greenskins are getting uppity.”

Sheringham dabbed his lip with a vast serviette, removing any traces of crumbs from his magnificent moustache. A Captain of the Adeptus Astartes had a responsibility to reflect the Emperor’s glory, and scruffiness would simply not do.

“The honour of the Chapter is at stake, after all. ‘Not in vain the voice imploring’ calls on the Scarlet Hounds for protection in the Emperor’s name. We of the Third Company are committed to pacifying the Ulcrass system, but the absence of a few battle-brothers would not, I feel, place too great a burden on the rest. I propose to send a strike team to Phrentis VI to deal with their little ork problem, while the rest of us proceed to the war. What say you, brothers?”

The sergeants saw the wisdom of Sheringham’s proposal, and none had any objection to raise.

“Then we have only to select our deputation. The infestation seems to be fairly small, only a few thousand at most. I think five battle-brothers should suffice. A compact team, with transport – they’ll need to cover plenty of ground and we can’t rely on the militia. We’ll send them over by drop-pod as we pass. You all know your own squads – talk it over and give me your recommendations after Vespers. That’s all, chaps.”

He sat back as the sergeants began to discuss the matter, and turned to Granville.

“Another chance to serve the Emperor, Brother-Captain. He honours us.”

“He does indeed. Let the xenos come and meet His glorious vengeance. Phrentis VI will soon be safe again in the shelter of the Imperium.” The question of the expedition settled, Sheringham glanced down at their empty cups.

“More tea, Chaplain?”

“Don’t mind if I do, Brother-Captain.”

***************************************

At the Captain’s command, the Company assembled in the hall once combat drill and Vespers had passed. As Sheringham strode to the lectern, the quiet hum of tactical discussion and impromptu doggerel died away, and the brothers stood to attention, smoothing moustaches and straightening tunics.

“As you are aware,” the Captain began, “the Chapter’s aid has been requested by an agricultural world, Phrentis VI. They are under attack by orks, and seem to be having a little trouble disposing of them. I do not propose to discuss the issue in detail, though I must say that it seems a little careless of the militia to allow themselves to be invaded by xenos savages. However, as they have now seen the error of their ways, and very properly referred the matter to us, we will overlook it on this occasion.”

He paused to glance at Chaplain Granville, who harrumphed a little and raised an eyebrow. Apparently there had been some dispute on the matter, but the Chaplain held his peace.

“Naturally, our existing arrangement to liberate the worlds of Ulcrass from rebellious forces is our chief priority at this juncture. Nevertheless, I have discussed the matter with the sergeants and Chaplain Granville, and we feel that a small punitive force could be spared to clear up this ork business. The Emperor calls us to defend all His worlds, not merely those who have requested aid in an orderly fashion.”

The Hounds assembled before him indicated tolerant agreement, and awaited his next words with interest.

“Five of you will take a little side-trip to Phrentis VI to take in the sights, administer a mild rebuke to the locals for their laxity, and obliterate the alien with bolter and blade in the Emperor’s sacred name. The cornfields of Phrentis VI will drink deep of orkish blood, the populace will see the Emperor’s glory embodied in His servants, and you will have a chance to relax a little before rejoining us to purge Ulcrass of treachery with fire and with steel.”

A few chuckles ran round the hall.

“It has not been an easy choice – many of you have worked very hard over the past months to destroy the enemies of mankind and bring glory to the Emperor’s name – but the Sergeants and I, with Chaplain Granville’s counsel, have selected the five battle-brothers who will make this little expedition. I am sure that the rest of the Chapter will join me in wishing them an enjoyable and educational campaign.” He paused, and glanced down at his data-slate.

“From Squad Budderscombe, Brother Roland Jasper.”

There was a cheer from the squad, near the back of the hall. Brother Jasper gave a wide grin as squadmates clapped him on the shoulder, and strode confidently towards the lectern. “Marvellous! Looking forward to it, Captain!” His vast moustache bristled gleefully.

“From Squad Lexingfield, Brother Quentin Ffaulkes.”

Ffaulkes raised an eyebrow in mild surprise, then began to stroll forward. “Most awfully good of you, Captain, Chaplain” he murmured, as he took his place gracefully alongside the looming Jasper.

“From the Medicae, Apothecary Barnabas.”

Smiling benignly, the grizzled apothecary moved to join his comrades, giving a dignified nod to Sheringham.

“I trust there will be no call for his services, but protocol is protocol. From Squad Orville, I am proud and gratified to call forward Brother Ilias Tarquin.” There was a sudden outburst of applause throughout the hall, as the Marines turned to regard the Company’s most recent member, who had only left the Scouts a few months previously. Congratulations rang out, and the assembled officers joined in the clapping. Slightly stunned, Tarquin stood staring for several seconds until a friendly hand shoved him forward. He made his way to the lectern to join the others, beaming with delight. Jasper gave him a cheerful wink, and Ffaulkes looked approving.

“I’m sure he will react a little faster when he meets the orks, providing of course that they do not think to compliment him,” said Sheringham, with a wry smile. “And finally, from Squad Rothesay, Brother-Sergeant Alden Hawksworth, who will lead this hunt.”

Heads nodded, as at expectations confirmed. A fist knocked off a sharp salute, and Hawksworth strode briskly up to the front. “As you say, Brother-Captain. Evening, chaps.”

“You start tomorrow. Rest thoroughly, and report to the studium for prep after Lauds.” Sheringham made the aquila, and the Chapter returned it. “Company dismissed.”

***************************************

In the ship’s studium, the archivist had called up reports on Phrentis VI, and the data looped slowly across polished screens. The five chosen marines stood around a vast desk, littered with maps and data-slates, as Lexicanium Porlock ran through the mission parameters.

“As you can see, brothers, Phrentis VI is a temperate world with breathable atmosphere. Here are the key population centres, in red... and the main spaceports and vital infrastructure are in blue. Infrastructure already reported destroyed by ork action is shown in mauve, and is concentrated in the south of the planet. Now, which of you can tell me what class of world this is?” Porlock eyed the group.

“Agri-world, Lexicanium?” suggested Barnabas.

“Indeed. Because, Tarquin?”

Brother Tarquin shifted uncomfortably. “The population is low, Lexicanium... but too evenly dispersed for mining, and heavy industry is centred on spaceports. That implies processing of primary products for export.”

“Good. And therefore?”

Jasper riffled his moustache. “Poorly defended. Militia too dispersed to take a concerted stand. Limited reserves to call up.”

Porlock nodded, and twisted the dials on the cogitator. New patterns appeared. “Correct. This shows the current disposition of the Phrentian militia, and the known ork infestations. You will drop at Ulverthwaite East base, shown as theta blue, here. The area is occupied territory, and securing the base will allow sections kappa, lambda and nu to reestablish contact and lines of supply.”

“Is the base under enemy control?” asked Hawksworth. Porlock shook his head.

“Not as yet, but it seems a near thing. Reports show a garrison from the PDF, reduced to around one hundred troopers. This is the last Imperial-held strongpoint in the district, and with the Emperor’s grace it still will be by the time you arrive. They can brief you on the immediate situation, and you can store equipment there between expeditions.”

“I see,” said Ffaulkes. “We establish contact with the locals, pick up the gen, and use the base as a lynchpin, what?”

“And put some backbone into the troops while we’re at it,” added Jasper. “Do ‘em a spot of good to see the old aquila.”

“Precisely,” said the archivist. “Now, we have only a few hours to prepare, so best turn to strategy and run through the usual analyses. Your contact on the ground is Lieutenant Jettan, the senior surviving officer in the region. Reports have him as competent. The militia are dug in and maintaining patrols.”

“Any gen on the hostiles?” put in Ffaulkes. “Is it a straight swan dive, or will it be a case of ducking archie all the way to the ground?”

“Nothing concrete, Ffaulkes. I recommend standard evasion tactics, though orks are inaccurate marksmen at best.”

Turning back to the cogitator, he slowly coaxed it into displaying the Ulverthwaite district. The machine was not the most reliable, and often a techmarine had to be summoned, but this time it grudgingly performed its duties with only a few flickers and bleeps.

“As you can see, brothers, the base is located in this hilly district, with the nearby river providing water and additional protection against ground attack from the west. The hills are used for grazing beasts, though the flocks are mostly likely badly depleted now. The bridges have been destroyed to impede the orks, but the garrison are maintaining patrols using a Chimera-mounted bridge. They report significant numbers of ork vehicles in the area.”

Porlock outlined the region's geography, and discussion turned to tactical options and strategic objectives. Transport routes must be resecured, airfields and stores recaptured or destroyed, and orks diverted to more expendable regions where possible. The Scarlet Hounds memorised every detail.

“Well, battle-brothers,” said Hawksworth. “That’s the mission in brief. Drop at noon planet-time, a few sorties, and back to the capital for take-off.”

Broadly speaking,” said Porlock. “Now, drop-hour is approaching, and you had best report to the armoury. The Quartermaster will be expecting you. Hurry along.”

Leaving the archivist and Chapter serfs to tidy up, the expedition party hastened through the ship, feet pounding on the flagstones. Hawksworth paused by the armoury door, and tugged the bellrope. There was a sonorous clang, and a black-clad servitor swung the door open, bowing low.

“Welcome, Astartes,” it creaked.

In the equipping room, auspices, omnitools, signa and more esoteric devices hung glistening from the walls, while ranks of austere plasteel lockers held standard operating equipment for urgent arming. An archway beyond led to the armoury itself. Quartermaster Fairclough turned to greet them, knowing eyes peering from an ever-impassive face, and raised a steel hand in welcome.

“There you are, brothers. I see the Lexicanium kept you busy. We have selected equipment to suit the mission parameters, bearing in mind that you will be operating in relative isolation.”

“Thank you, Quartermaster,” said Hawksworth.

The techmarine turned to the benches at his side. “I consulted your files to allocate equipment in the optimal way. As it will be a mobile expeditionary force, I thought it best to avoid heavy equipment. You will each draw a cycle from the stables for transport. Brother-Sergeant Hawksworth –” the techmarine indicated an arming-case “– your usual auspex-goggles and Kraken shells. For the Apothecary, of course, a complete narthecium. Ah, Brother Ffaulkes, this should be to your taste.”

He displayed a circular lens with a metal armature. At a muttered command, the armature unfurled itself, then folded back up at a second word.

“Monocular rangefinder-targeter. Compensates for windspeed, gravity, lighting and velocity – yours and the target's. Interfaces directly with your armour, so you can transmit what you see if necessary, and folds out of the way when you don't need it. It comes with a few other tricks too, but the basics should suffice.”

Ffaulkes examined it carefully, before replacing it in his case with the hulking heavy bolter. “Most kind.”

“Brother Jasper, as requested, you are equipped primarily for close quarters. And finally, Brother Tarquin. Since your preferences are not yet established, I have allocated you standard tactical and close-quarter equipment.”

“Thank you, Quartermaster.”

“Your bikes have already been placed in the drop-pods. They have been tuned to your specifications, according to the latest Chapter records. I'm afraid we do not have time for the usual tests, but I am sure they will perform acceptably.”

At the techmarine's gesture, several servitors gathered the arming-cases and carried them away to the launch bay for stowing, rocking on bronze tripod legs.

“Now, brothers, please follow me.” Fairclough led them through a passageway, commenting affably on some of the work being carried out in the chambers they passed: here a servitor refitted with new bionics, there a land speeder rocking in a wind tunnel while a nervous-looking apprentice techmarine attempted to calibrate its heavy bolter. They drew to a halt outside the door of the kennels, its door adorned with recent trophies: skulls, pelts, and a number of xenos weapons, ritually mangled and inscribed with seals so that their taint might not infect the machine-spirits of Imperial technology.

“What ho, brother Kennel Master!” announced the techmarine, pounding the door until the trophies rattled. There was a whirr and it slid open, revealing Kennel Master Thackeray. For a marine, he was hunched and wiry, with teeth crooked and yellow after decades of ritual smoking.

“What ho indeed, brothers. Come on inside.” Beyond the door, there was a small waiting-room, and beyond it a long file of individual cages stretching into the distance. A muted clanking and whining came from within, as the hounds stirred at the presence of visitors.

The marines glanced around with mild curiousity, most having never ventured inside the kennels before. Only Fairclough and old Barnabas were familiar enough with the place to pay it no heed. The stark scents of oil, grease, acid and worked metal rose to their sensitive nostrils.

“Seeing as you will be operating independently of the Company, the officers have decided to allocate you some assistance. Besides, a hunt with no hounds is no hunt at all, eh brothers?” The kennel master grinned. “We spend the night overhauling two of our finest hounds for you. Best to introduce you now, and let them get accustomed to you. The voice-command interface needs some initial calibration to function smoothly, and we wouldn't want any problems in the field, would we?”

He whistled sharply, and two sleek shapes padded eagerly around the corner, with barely a hiss of pneumatic joints. Their eyes glowed a faint blue as they scanned the figures in the room, before trotting to Thackeray's feet. He patted them briefly, then beckoned Hawksworth forward.

“Here, boys, this is your master for the present. Brother-Sergeant, would you read this aloud, while they attune to your voice?” He handed Hawksworth a battered data-slate, which displayed the words of an old hunting oath.

Hawksword recited the oath briskly, with the ease of long practice, and returned the slate to Thackeray. The hounds moved across to him now, and and sniffed faintly at his palms.

“Excellent. They should follow your instructions now; your helmets are already linked to their vox receptors. They are some of our faster cyber-hounds, built for patrol - they should have no trouble keeping up with you. You know all the command-words, of course. This” - he pointed at the smaller of the two - “is Fidelis, and served well in the Harrying of Tarthorak, as Barnabas will remember.”

The hound whined gently at the sound of its name.

“The other is Valerian, whose jaws have felled a hundred savage kroot.” A splendid centurial seal stood out darkly on the hound's flank, engraved with an image of Saint Valerian atop a mount of xenos.

“Not bad,” allowed Jasper. “Agile little bugger, your kroot.”

“Quite.”

They tarried just long enough for the hounds to register each of their scents, then hastened to finish their preparations. There was little time left before the drop; just enough for a brief meditation before they donned their armour. Tarquin was still somewhat awkward in the procedure, but the chapter serfs gave respectful assistance when needed, and soon all five were ready for battle. Helmets in hand, they strode proudly to the launch bay, where the captain and chaplain waited to see the off, along with a number of other battle-brothers. Groans and hisses already rose from the drop-engine, as servo-motors built up speed. Their drop-pod projected from the worn surface of the bay, ready to sink into its launch tube. A second drop-pod, with bikes and hounds stowed safely, was already chambered for launch.

“There you are, brothers,” called the captain. “Best hurry now. Just a few minutes now until drop.”

They stood at attention beside the pod while the chaplain led the congregation in a brief hymn, followed by the Oath of the Hunt. “Emperor, who most gloriously bestows His might, guide our eyes to the trail, our aim to the target, our blades to the flesh...”

Before they entered the pod, Captain Sheringham turned to a nearby serf and retrieved a leather-bound object. “Brother Jasper... in consideration of your recent actions, the Chapter grants you the great honour of wielding Erudition.”

“Emperor's mercy!”

Ignoring the exclamation, Sheringham handed his bundle to the gratified marine.

“Do look after it, won't you? It is a Chapter relic, after all. Honoured Brother-Captain Gillingham carried it six hundred years ago. But I'm sure you remember your history lessons?”

Jasper avoided the questioning eyebrow, carefully unbinding the sheath and drawing out a gleaming power-axe, its shaft inscribed with the names of its eminent wielders. His own glinted new-cut amongst them. After a few reverent moments, the relic was resheathed, and the expedition took their places for launch, donning their helmets as the servitors strapped them in. The leaves of the pod folded closed around them, and it sank – or perhaps lurched – into place with the angry screech of metal on metal. The voices of the engines rose to a chorus of bestial howls as hell-red figures glowed inside their helmets, counting down... 8, 7, 6, 5, 5, 5, 5 (the cursing of the techmarines and a ritual kick to the machinery were barely audible), 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 –

The engines fired as the Ineluctable passed over the launch coordinates, and the pods erupted out into space. A sledgehammer blow sent the marines' senses ringing for several moments, then relative peace. There was a small chance the pod would burst in the vacuum of space, but that was small concern in sealed armour. Re-entry was a larger concern – the temperatures could theoretically roast them inside their armour, if the pod's thermal shielding failed – but the rattle and roar that signalled it passed without incident, and the warning runes flared only briefly. Readouts flashed rapidly across their vision, giving geographic readings, accuracy predictions...

“Not a bad trip so far,” remarked Ffaulkes.

“I call it cushy,” said Jasper. “D'you remember the drop on Moggantsar?”

The absence of stratospheric haemovores was certainly a pleasant contrast, and there was no sign of any anti-aircraft fire from the orks, though the pod followed an evasive pattern just in case. In minutes, the trip was over and a final warning flared up: Brace for impact, immediate. Braking rockets flared, or at least most of them did, subjecting them to forces that would kill any unaltered human, and slowing them to a non-lethal velocity for impact. After a few painful seconds they felt the final thunderous shock as the pod slammed to a halt, burying itself nearly two feet into the soft loam of an abandoned field. They were barely six miles outside the drop zone; another triumph for Imperial technology!

Many miles overhead, engines flared into unwholesome light as the Ineluctable dropped back into the Warp, heading for the Ulcrass war.

No comments:

Post a Comment