The Chimera rattled and shook as it drove across the rugged terrain of the alien planet. Inside, the ten-member squad of Imperial Guardsmen, cradled their battered lasguns between their legs and didn’t speak. Even if they had felt the urge to chat, it would have been drowned out by the vox as it droned on and on in the voice of the company priest, Father Azmos. In an effort to improve morale, he had made it a custom to encourage the troops as they rode into battle. His voice was shrill, a quality not helped by the tendency of the vox speaker to squeak anytime they hit a bump. "The Xeno is an affront to the Will of the God-Emperor! You will be *SQEEE*vincible in battle, for the Hand of the Righteous cannot fail *SQUEEE* smite the Foul and Unclean. *SQUEEREE* not the weapons of the Enemy, for they are frail and paltry before the Might of Huma*SKREET* *SQUEETEETEE* all instruments of Faith, harbingers of the True Way, Soldiers of the Imperium, Immortal forever! Do not *TREEKEEQUEE* are being watched by Him that sits upon the Golden Throne! Show no Mercy to the Xenos Filth, for they have no decency."
Sitting in first position, right behind the crew compartment, Sergeant Titus Harcourt leaned his helmeted head against a steel bulkhead and lit up a short, foul-smelling cigar. Part of him wanted to draw his bolt pistol and blow a hole through the vox, but another part of him was grateful. Azmos’ ranting was the one, sure-fire way to know that there was a firefight in the immediate future. The old fart didn’t toddle out of the command tent to grace the men with his oratory if they were going somewhere to sit on their butts.
Behind him, Harcourt heard the crew talking among themselves, so he stuck his head into their compartment. "What’s up?"
Timins, the driver, looked over his shoulder. "We think we saw movement."
Harcourt perked up. "Where?"
"Ridgeline, sixty meters to our left."
Harcourt returned to the back of the Chimera to find the rest of his squad looking at him. "Kill the vox."
Corporal Bartley yanked the cord out of the back of the speaker, and Azmos’ was cut off mid-diatribe. "Trouble, Sarge?"
"We’re in the Guard, Bartley—there’s always trouble." Harcourt turned and peered out one of the lasgun ports on the left side of the Chimera. Through its tiny lens, he scanned the ridge in question. He saw nothing—just the rocky ground and sparse brush he’d grown accustomed to on this rock. Still, the ridge was a perfect place for an ambush, and if he’d learned one thing about the Tau, it was that they rarely passed up a chance to ambush. He sat back.
Private Wiggins must have read the look on his face. "Oh, crap—they’re out there, aren’t they? I hope it isn’t Kroot."
Wiggins was slapped in the helmet by Roxman. "Kroot is only in the forest, stupid. We’re in the desert."
Wiggins slapped him back. "Who says Kroot is only in the forest? They could go other places!"
Harcout flicked ash at them. "Shut up, both of you! Bartley, run a weapons check. Marco, Terrus, Coleman—man those three gun ports on the right. Wiggins, Roxman, you got those two on this side. The rest of you get ready to pile out."
Everybody got to their positions, and Bartley examined weapons and grenades as he squeezed down the row of men. Harcourt went back to his gun port and watched.
Their Chimera was only one in a group of ten—two platoons of the 5th Arkanian Mechanized Company sent to secure a key hilltop in order to cover the general retreat of Marshall Daquith’s 15th Arkanian Infantry. Harcourt’s squad was second from the end as they advanced over the ground in a spear-tip formation meant to bash through any resistance they might face. So far, they hadn’t faced any.
Harcourt didn’t like this formation. While it might maximize the firepower of the Chimeras to the front and sides, it was also exposing their vulnerable side armor to, say, that ridge on their left. He had told his commanding officer, Lieutenant Reed, this very thing. Reed’s reply had been as expected: "When you get your bars, you can tell me what to do, Sergeant. In the meantime, take your fancy medals and get to your squad!"
At least, from what Harcourt could see, the Chimeras were training their multi-laser turrets at the ridge, so any attack from that angle would be quickly crushed. One shot from that angle, and the whole two platoons would blast it off the map and then…
Harcourt sat back. "Wait a second…Marco?"
Marco’s eye was fixed to his gun port. "Sarge?"
"What’s the terrain like on the other side there?"
Marco shrugged. "Kinda hard to see—too many tanks between us and it, but I think it’s wide open."
Harcourt put it all together in a split second. "Throne!" He popped his head into the crew compartment. "Timins! Get on the vox to the command tank!"
Timins was startled. "What? Why?"
Harcourt ripped the receiver from the unit. "I’ll do it myself! Attention, all vehicles! Expect enemy attack from the right! Repeat, expect enemy attack from the right!"
Lieutenant Reed’s voice crackled over the vox. "Is that Harcourt? Get off the vox before I report you to Commissar…"
Before Harcourt found out which Commissar was going to discipline him, the lead three Chimeras blew up in unison. The crew of Harcourt’s transport watched in mute horror as one of the command vehicle’s turret hurtled through the air and landed with a clang on top of them. Even before the thunderous noise had stopped ringing in their ears, though, the Tau were unleashing hell.
Harcourt had been right about the attack from the right. It was classic Tau misdirection and distraction tactics—offer up an apparent threat, and then hit you from behind with the real killers while you were looking the other way. He didn’t have time to gloat, though. In the seconds that followed the initial strike, pulse rounds started ripping holes in the Chimeras lining the right flank. The crew of Harcourt’s Chimera started yelling at each other. Timins began to turn right along with the rest of the column to face the incoming fire with their thicker armor, while the gunner, Avery, fired off the multilaser seemingly at random. He kept yelling "I can’t see them! Where they hell are they? I can’t freaking see them!"
Harcourt lunged back into the infantry compartment. "Bartley!" He yelled, "Pop the hatch. We’re bugging out—I want a triangle spread. Roxman! Wiggins!" He pointed at the heavy bolter and ammo they had slung between them. "Screw the tripod on the big bolter. We’re gonna be hoofing it, and fast!"
Wiggins gasped. "But sarge…"
Harcourt slapped him on the helmet. "Shut up and move, soldier!"
Bartley grabbed hold of the door lever and yanked. Before he got it open, though, a flurry of blue-white pulse rounds burned through the Chimera’s back armor like so many hot coals through a paper screen. Bartley’s arm evaporated in a pink mist, and the three guardsmen right behind him died instantly. Their flank armor did nothing but save the lives of the men behind them as the Tau ammunition punched right through their ribcages only to be stopped by the second layer of armor on their backs. The remaining five squad members besides Harcourt froze as they rubbed the blood from their eyes and tried to get the terrible screams of Bartley out of their heads.
Harcourt yanked Marco to his feet and screamed in his ear. "RUN!" He then planted a hand in the middle of his back and pushed him through the door, shouldering past the dead men and the writhing corporal.
The hatch of the Chimera burst open, letting in hot dry air and blazing sunlight. More pulse rounds zipped by, but they were aimed more at the tank than the men getting out of it. Still, Harcourt threw himself into the dirt along with the rest of his squad. The six of them were all dismounted now, and lying on their faces. Around them, absolute mayhem reigned. Of the ten Chimeras that had once made up the convoy, only three were still operational. Those that were still mobile were confused and failed to coordinate their fire. One peppered the ridge on the left with multilaser and heavy bolter fire, while the other two blindly strafed the apparently open ground on the right where bursts of concentrated pulse fire continued to tear up the sides and rear of the crippled Imperial transports. The squads that had made it out of the burning Chimeras were, likewise, without direction. They had scattered from their ruined vehicles and were shooting in every direction. Lasguns cracked, heavy bolters thundered, and grenade launchers thumped but nobody was hitting anything but dirt.
Harcourt ordered his men to lie still and hold their fire, knowing that the enemy was going to engage whatever units it considered a threat first, and then work on them later. This would buy him a few seconds of time to come up with a plan, at least. He brought himself up to a crouch and put his field glasses to his eyes just as another Chimera exploded in spectacular fashion somewhere behind him. The Tau on the ridge looked like they were a small team of eight or so firewarriors, armed with the distinctively long and boxy pulse rifles he had learned to dread during his time in this theatre—powerful, accurate, and long range. With the advantage of cover and higher ground, out-shooting them was going to be nearly impossible. The others—the invisible ones striking from the right—were harder to nail down. He tried to focus on any spot where a burst of pulse fire came from, but found the space empty as soon as he managed to look. He’d heard of these things, but had never had to deal with them—some kind of
Tau power armor with an integral camouflaging unit that made them almost impossible to see. ‘Stealths’ or ‘Ghost-killers’, as they were called.
Harcourt grimaced. "Fabulous."
When he hit the dirt again, Wiggins shouted in his ear over the noise of the battle. "We can’t just sit here! What are we gonna do?"
Running his options, Harcourt came up with a long shot. If they stayed here, they were dead eventually. Sooner or later the Tau on the ridge would notice them through all the smoke and dust, and blow them to hell. The chain of command seemed broken to pieces, and repairing it so they could make a concentrated assault was impossible without a vox—which he didn’t have. That left him and his five men to break the enemy, and there was only one way to do it. They had to cover sixty meters of steep, open ground and engage the Tau up-close.
"Okay, here’s the deal—we’re taking that ridge, got it? We gonna cut off to their right, we keep low, and nobody shoots until I say so. The rest of the guys are putting up an awful show, so hopefully the xenos won’t notice us until we’re close. Everybody fix bayonets, and have a grenade ready."
Roxman and Wiggins exchanged glances over their heavy bolter. "What about us?"
"Roxman, can you fire that thing from the hip?"
Roxman—a big man—blanched at the idea. "What am I, an Astartes?"
Harcourt grinned. "I’ll take that as a yes. Wiggins, keep close to him, and remember—no shooting! Squad, move out!"
They were off, skulking past the flaming wrecks of their platoon’s transports as fast as they could go without running upright. Then they were out in the open, running at the firewarriors on the ridge at an acute angle. There were no battle cries, no shouted prayers to the Emperor, no proclamations of Humanity’s superiority—all in all, it was the kind of advance that Father Azmos would find reprehensible and unbefitting a soldier of the Imperium.
But it worked.
The Tau didn’t notice them until they were less than ten meters away. As soon as the first of their cyclopean helmets turned their way, Harcourt drew his chainsword and shouted. "Fire!"
There could be little doubt that, in a contest on a firing range, the Tau pulse rifle was superior to the Imperial lasgun in every conceivable dimension. However, when firing automatic weapons at less than ten meters, the importance of the quality of a weapon is replaced by how quick one is on the draw. With surprise on their side, Harcourt’s men won hands down. Roxman squeezed the trigger on the heavy bolter slung at his side and, struggling to hold on to the massive gun, sprayed enough explosive shells to explode two Tau instantly. A grenade from Marco knocked another one off its hoofed feet, and Harcourt himself killed two with a pair of bolt-pistol shots to their heads. The return volley from them was less accurate, but was enough to reduce the bodies of Terrus and Coleman to amorphous lumps of flesh scattered across the ground.
A second later they were in the thick of a melee, and Harcourt lost track of his men. He swung a his chainsword through the pulse rifle the first Tau put up to parry before putting another bolt through its midsection. Spinning past that one, he caught another Tau’s neck with a backhand swing, decapitating it. A third hit him in the face with his rifle butt, causing him to stagger to one knee. Before the Tau could bring the weapon to bear for a close-range shot, though, Marco shoved a bayonet into the firewarrior’s side. Harcourt got up to find no more opponents standing—they had the ridge.
Harcourt nodded at Marco as the private wiped the deep blue blood off his weapon. "Squad, sound off!"
"Roxman…" Roxman’s voice was strained. Harcourt spun to see him down on his back, clutching his shoulder.
Harcourt dropped to his side. "You hit?"
Roxman was gritting his teeth through the pain. "Naw…yeah…I dunno. Damn big gun."
"I didn’t see him get shot or nothing." Wiggins said. "He just fired the big bolter for a second and then dropped."
Roxman nodded. "Yeah…damn thing knocked my shoulder outta joint. Throne, it freaking hurts!"
Harcourt laughed. "You’ll live. Wiggins—get the big bolter set up and throw some covering fire for our guys down there! Marco, feed for him."
They nodded and set about their tasks, while Harcourt took another look over the battlefield. It was then that he noticed it was strangely quiet. All ten Chimeras were burning heaps at this point, and dead guardsmen lay scattered all over the ground between them. If any more Tau units were active, they weren’t shooting. Harcourt swore. "We’re in for it now, guys. It’s just us."
Wiggins swallowed hard. "There’ll be reinforcements, right?"
Harcourt nodded. "Yeah. If we can salvage a vox from down there, we can get on the horn to command, and they’ll pick us up." He then added, to himself, "I hope…"
After a few hours, nothing happened. Harcourt guessed that the Tau had decided they weren’t worth the ammo and moved on. When it was dark, he went down to the ruins of their convoy and dragged a functional vox back up to the ridge. Flipping it on, he switched to the proper emergency channels and transmitted a standard encrypted distress call. There was no answer. He tried again—still no answer.
Harcourt flipped to several other channels, trying to pick up any Imperial signals at all. There was nothing. No friendly vox traffic at all.
"What does it mean?" Roxman asked, his arm in a sling.
Harcourt shrugged. "It’s bad, whatever it is. There should be somebody in range—I mean, the navy at the very least. I can’t seem to raise any ships in orbit."
It was early morning when, at last, the vox crackled to life. It was not what they had been hoping:
"Attention, Soldiers of the Imperium of Man. If you are receiving this message, it is because you have been stranded in the sovereign territory of the glorious Tau Empire. Take heart, however, for this is not a death sentence. We bear you no ill will for your deeds in the service of your Emperor, and, in fact, we salute you as noble warriors. However, we cannot allow your aggression to continue. Please surrender yourselves to any Tau Military unit you come across, and you will not be harmed."
The calm and cheerful voice continued for some minutes, informing them how to properly surrender and where to find various major military installations across the planet. It then repeated itself, over and over again.
All Harcourt could manage was a simple, heartfelt, "Son of a bitch!"
Wiggins shook his head. "It’s a lie, it’s gotta be a lie. They wouldn’t leave us here, would they?"
Harcourt shook his head. The delaying action…the lack of Imperial traffic…the fact that the Tau were broadcasting the location of their military bases. I could be a trick but, deep down, he knew it wasn’t. He silently cursed that bastard Father Azmos for all the ‘invincible’ crap, and said, "No, boys, they left us all right. Sounds the big boys upstairs just had enough of these blue weirdoes, and forgot all about us."
Four hours later, a Tau Devilfish APC zoomed overhead. Harcourt, cigar in his mouth, was the one to wave it down.