Friday, December 21, 2012

Writing: The Battle of the T'nar'o, Part 1

Back in 2010 I made several submissions to Black Library, including one short story and two novels, all depicting parts of a large scale war between the Imperium (featuring the Imperial Guard and Navy) and the Tau Empire.

Needless to say they were all rejected--if they weren't, trust me, I'd be blabbing about it.  

Yet, since they were rejected, that means I can post my submissions here.  So over the next several posts I intend to serialize my short story of a battle between Tau and Imperial forces, The Battle of the T'nar'o, and I will subsequently serialize the first three chapters of each of my novel submissions.   Only War chronicles with the political maneuverings that spark a massive war between the Imperium and the Tau, while The Charge of the Danoans focuses on a specific campaign in the early stages of the war.

So without further ado, here is part 1 of the Battle of the T'nar'o.

Shas'ui Doran scanned the sandbar, his blacksun filter allowing him to pick out the bodies of more than a dozen fire warriors, lying immobile on the sand, one of them half submerged at the water's edge.  Beyond the sandbar was the ocean, invisible in the darkness, but the crash of the waves was audible over the noise of the jungle.

To his right, and out of sight behind the treeline, he knew that another wave of fire warriors was preparing to assault the gue'la positions.  Across the river their defenses lay concealed within the thick vegetation.  Behind those trees the gue'la were well dug in--they had to have been in order to have repelled the first assault so decisively.  The blacksun filter certainly helped in the night, but even so, the gue'la were nearly impossible to see.   But Doran could pick up what appeared to be an observation post, and he thought he could see a helmeted shape moving among the tree trunks and gently swaying fronds.  Sighting down the scope of his pulse rifle, he activated his markerlight with a fingertip and lased the enemy position.  On his helmet display he could see the immediate reactions from his teammates as they locked onto the target.

"Two is hot." he subvocalized over the cadre frequency.  He inhaled slowly, carefully regulating his breathing in order to stay calm and fight off the rising tension.  Within seconds he heard the other team leaders call in, signaling they were ready as well.

Shas'el El'cha'ko gave the command, "Attack."

"Commence firing," Doran announced over the team frequency, and the eleven pulse rifles in his team barked simultaneously.  Dozens more shots accompanied them as the other teams began their suppression fire.  Bright pulses of plasma soared across the river in synchronized volleys, slowly diverging into a steady stream of fire, penetrating the trees and striking targets beyond. 

Almost immediately, the gue'la responded, but Doran was sure it was just panic fire, or at best an attempt at suppression.  Red-orange muzzle flashes pinpointed the positions of several dozen gue'la warriors, building in number and intensity as more and more gue'la joined the fight.

Once the suppression from the fire warrior teams was well established, the assault team broke cover and sprinted out onto the sandbar.  Shas'vre Nan'cal's battlesuit followed them, the glow of its engines shining like beacons.  The assault teams got perhaps a third of way the across the sandbar when the gue'la spotted them and began to target them instead.   Las-bolts cracked into the sand around the fire warriors, who were concentrating more on covering the distance than they were in fighting back.  Doran admired the discipline and reaction time of the gue'la forces.  Even though they had come under heavy fire, they had quickly switched targets as soon as the tau plan had been revealed.  Las-bolts were raining around the assault team, many hitting the water and sending up puffs of steam.  The screams over the cadre frequency indicated that the warriors were taking casualties. 

Then Shas'vre Nan'cal opened up with his burst cannon, sending a stream of plasma pulses into the treeline, sweeping it back and forth.  Standing more than twice as high as the fire warriors, the battlesuit made for an inviting target, and many of the las-bolts impacted it.  Every few seconds Nan'cal fired his engines, jinking the suit several meters to one side or the other.  The flares of the suit's engines silhouetted it against the blackness, but it was already visible from the fire blazing from its burst cannon.  Nan'cal was clearly doing his best to attract as much fire as possible in order to keep the pressure off the fire warrior assault teams. 

Amidst the blare of all the energy weapons firing, another, deeper sound began to pound rhythmically.  A gue'la autocannon began to fire, sending massive gouts of water splashing into the air, walking toward Nan'cal's suit.  He jinked again and brought up his plasma rifle, firing a short burst in the direction of the autocannon.

Doran paused in his fire and focused on where he believed the shots to be coming from.  He could see the muzzle flash, easily distinguishable from the other weapons in use, but the position was behind some extremely dense foliage, and probably several trees as well.  Still, with enough firepower, the trees could be dealt with.  "Team Two, Two leader, change targets," he said over the team frequency, lasing the new target.  With barely a pause, all twelve members of his team redirected their fire, sending their plasma pulses into the autocannon's position. 

Still the autocannon did not let up, and very quickly Nan'cal's luck ran out.  There was a bang and a explosion of blue fire, and out of the corner of his vision Doran saw the suit appear to be falling sideways, an arm missing.  There was a second explosion, and a few seconds later, a third, sending bits of flaming shrapnel high into the air.  Doran pressed his lips together, and continued firing, spraying the trees. 

The infernal autocannon just kept on firing, however, switching targets to the fire warriors desperately streaming across the sandbar.  Some of them were getting close to the far side when the autocannon tore into them.  At the same time, some gue'la had the presence of mind to launch some flares into the sky, brilliantly illuminating the entire river, sending slow moving double and triple shadows from the trees as the flares descended.  Worse, the flares completely exposed the fire warrior assault teams, and they began to fall rapidly.  The autocannon sprayed fountains of water and sand into the air, phantoms appearing and vanishing quickly in the stark white light of the flares.

Despite the best efforts of Doran's and the other fire warrior teams, the assault force was getting torn apart, just like the first attack several hours earlier.  As then, Doran's mood rapidly alternated between anger and desperation.  He willed his shots to hit home and take out the gue'la, but they were just too well dug in and too well protected.  The screams from the downed warriors were getting fewer and far between now, as most of them had been killed, and the few survivors did what they could to just get out of the kill zone.  Several dove into the water, while others crawled on the sandbar or tried to remain still.  When it was clear that the attack had failed, the fire on both sides began to slacken.  The flares petered out, finally being doused completely when they landed in the river.  The darkness descended once more on the battlefield, leaving nothing but the lingering fire from Nan'cal's battlesuit, burning on the sandbar.  For more than an hour after the firefight, there was sporadic shots by both sides as each fired at targets, imagined or real.  It would take much longer for their nerves to settle.

After the attack was over, Shas'el El'cha'ko crisply ordered the fire warrior teams to hold their positions.  Team One's shas'ui made an inquiry over the cadre frequency about making an attempt to recover the wounded, but was quickly cut off by the shas'el with a clipped "Hold your position."  Since then no one had spoke.  The fire warriors were too disciplined for that, but shas'ui could sense that they were very unsettled by the order.  Greater good or not, leaving one's comrades to die was not taken lightly, nor very willingly.

Minutes ticked by, and ever so slowly Doran's heart rate settled to its normal rate.  The thought that some two dozen Fire Warriors, including Shas'vre Nan'cal, a mentor and friend, lay dead or dying out there in the darkness, began to fill him with a quiet rage.  Not only against the gue'la for killing them, but against the shas'el, and ultimately himself, for not doing anything about it. 

The previous campaign against the greenskinned or'es'la was nothing like this.  The or'es'la on Urlas were notorious for not building defenses, preferring to mindlessly throw themselves at their enemies.  In the rare cases where they did have fortifications, more often than not as soon as the Fire Warriors advanced, the or'es'la would abandon them and charge.  Such recklessness could only have one result--mass carnage as the relentless and overwhelming firepower of the tau was brought to bear.  His superiors had warned him that the Urlas campaign was a special case.  After the initial decapitation strikes on the or'es'la strongholds, the or'es'la were leaderless, divided, and disorganized.  Subsequent orbital strikes had destroyed their resupply capability.  Ultimately, the initial strikes were overwhelming enough that the rest of the campaign was essentially a mop up operation.  The length of the campaign was due to the time it took to track down the survivors, not killing them. 

Fighting the gue'la would not be the same, he had been warned, but only now was he truly seeing it.  This race did not mindlessly charge at the enemy, but also fought with firepower, using the terrain to their advantage.  Their weapons were crude compared to those of the tau, but remained brutally effective.  And their numbers rivaled those of the or'es'la. 

And yet, although he had been fighting them this past day and a night, he had still yet to see one of them in the clear.  He had scene video of them during the briefings, of course, and studied their tactics extensively.  But five minutes of seeing them fight in person was more valuable than five hours of briefings.  Already ideas were forming in his mind about how the gue'la should be fought to ensure victory.

And yet a growing fear inside him felt that the shas'el wasn't learning anything.  The second assault on the gue'la position was sickeningly alike to the first.  'Advance across under the sandbar under cover of the rest of the cadre and assault the flank of the gue'la position by fire and maneuver.'  It sounded good, but was devoid of any meaningful detail.  The truth was that since the position had not been scouted, it was unknown if the gue'la even had a flank on the sandbar side of their position.  Granted most of the gue'la fire had come from upriver, but it was likely they they had forces directly opposite the sandbar as well.  Even Doran felt that he had enough experience to see that the sandbar was a natural place to attempt an assault across the river, and if he were in charge of the gue'la forces, he would have had it well covered.  Indeed, he would have both flanks well covered by blocking forces defending against an inland assault or a seaborne maneuver.  The result of the lack of scouting was that the fire warrior assault never proceeded past the initial stage, 'advance across the sandbar'. 

The lack of scouting seemed to be the crucial factor.  The cadre's pathfinders had been killed when their transport was shot down during the de-orbit burn four days ago, so the cadre had lost its scout element.  Yet some of the shas'ui in the cadre had some scouting experience.  Doran couldn't understand why the shas'el did not reorganize the cadre and form a scout team out of the other fire warrior teams.  An improvised scout team, while not ideal, would have been infinitely better than just throwing the cadre against the gue'la and hoping something broke.  While the rest of the cadre held its position, the scout team could have maneuvered inland, searching for either a better position from which to attack, or bypass the gue'la entirely.  It seemed to be the logical decision to make--and any imaginative commander would have done so. 

The more Doran thought about the shas'el and the decisions he had made, the more his confidence in him had shaken. 

A burst of static heralded a new command from the shas'el.  "Team leaders report to my position." 

"Two," Doran responded immediately, acknowledging the summons.  He switched to the team frequency.  "Shas'la Viorssal, take command of the team until I get back."

"Yes, shas'ui," the fire warrior replied.

Doran took a deep breath and walked backwards from the line, deeper into the undergrowth.  He moved  dozen meters back before changing direction and heading parallel to the line to where Shas'el El'cha'ko was located, behind the center.  He didn't know if the enemy had good night vision capability.  The flares argued against it, but he didn't want to take any chances by walking too close to the river's edge.

Shas'el El'cha'ko was back from the front line, standing on a rock, leaning against the trunk of a fallen tree.  Looming behind him was his battlesuit, its motionless bulk towering threateningly behind him.  The hatch was open, and some of the internal displays were still powered on, providing a dim illumination.  El'cha'ko was silhouetted against it.  As Doran approached, the way the shas'el was posed seemed almost contrived.  His helmet had been placed carefully next to him on the tree trunk, angled just so, and his battlesuit positioned behind him, providing a dramatic backlighting effect.  Once Doran realized that the theatrics were indeed intentional, he was appalled.

El'cha'ko looked up slowly, the eye contact being the only form of acknowledgment.  The rest of the team leaders were not long in coming.  Once they had all arrived, the shas'el spoke.  By the postures and exchanged glances of the other shas'ui Doran could tell that El'cha'ko's show was not lost on them either.

"I have decided that we shall hold our position here," the shas'el began.  "The gue'la will not be able to tolerate our presence in such proximity to their lines.  They will be forced to attack us, and when they do, we will crush them."

There was silence for a moment, and Doran shifted his weight uncomfortably. 

Team One's shas'ui cleared his throat, and spoke up.  "Is that wise, shas'el?  We have no idea of the true size of their forces.  For all we know, they could have an entire regiment of troops over there."

"Nonsense.  Estimates of the enemy strength on the entire planet is no more than a regiment.  As such there is no way they would deploy their entire strength here."

The shas'ui boldly did not back down.  "And why wouldn't they be able to 'tolerate our presence'?  We've attacked them twice to no good effect.  There's no reason for them to attack--all they have to do is sit tight and let us beat ourselves to pieces on them.  Alternatively they can just sit and wait for our supplies to run out."

"There's no reason to assume their supply situation is any better than ours.  With a whole regiment on the surface, in fact it's probably even worse than ours."  Doran couldn't figure out how that was even possible.  Along with the dropship holding the pathfinders, the supply ship had been destroyed as well during the landing.  The fire warrior teams hadn't eaten a thing in nearly three days.  The gue'la had been on the surface for at least a week, before the tau had even entered orbit.  Uncontested, their forces had plenty of time to land supplies.  The shas'el was just dismissing their arguments out of hand.  It occurred to Doran that much of the reason for the shas'el's irritability was caused because he simply did not know what to do, and he was too proud to admit it.  He had expected to sweep over the gue'la and crush them with a minimum of effort, and when that plan failed, he could think of no alternative.  Or at least, no alternative that would permit unqualified success.  Doran stopped short of assuming that El'cha'ko was seeking his own glory.  For some reason it was more palatable to assume that the shas'el was merely ignorant rather than selfish.

"This is mont'au, shas'el,"  a new voice growled from behind Doran.  Shas'vre Nan'cal walked up to the gathered officers, his armor dirty, his face cut and bruised.

El'cha'ko looked up, and his expression was dangerous.  "Excuse me?"  He seemed more irritated at being addressed in a such a fashion than relieved that his second in command was alive.

"Shas'vre!" Doran blurted, running to clasp Nan'cal's hand.  "You made it!" 

Nan'cal grimaced. "I did, yes.  Which is more than I can say for my team."
"It is good to see you back," said El'cha'ko in a tone that was intended to be placating, but instead fell flat.  He pushed off the trunk he was leaning against and brought himself to his full height.  As if annoyed with his previous statement, his voice hardened.  "Now explain your outburst, shas'vre."

Nan'cal ignored the command.  "Are you planning another futile attack?" he snarled.  Such a comment was practically insubordination, and Doran's skin prickled at the rapid escalation of tension.  The other team leaders stiffened. 

El'cha'ko inhaled deeply, readying himself for a fight.  "The cadre will hold its position until tomorrow night."

"And then what, attack again and throw away more lives?"

"No.  The gue'la are certain to attack us tomorrow."

"Are they indeed?"

"We have the advantage at night due to our superior technology.  As such the gue'la will not risk an attack until morning.  When they do, our firepower will annihilate them."

"And if the humans have armored vehicles?"

El'cha'ko dismissed that with a wave of his hand.  "Unlikely.  Vehicles are practically useless in this environment, especially primitive ones such as theirs.  If they are so foolish as to have any, we will simply outmaneuver them.  And in addition from my battlesuit, we have the explosive charges."  Each team was equipped with a single contact mine that could be attached to a vehicle or structure--one of the few pieces of equipment they had managed to salvage from the landing.  The mines were primarily intended for use against static targets--using one against an active vehicle was another thing entirely. 

Rather than continue to attack the shas'el's plan, Shas'vre Nan'cal attempted to present an alternative.  "Instead of waiting for the gue'la to attack, I believe it would be prudent to withdraw from this position.  We can reconnoiter the ground and gather intelligence while avoiding contact with the enemy."

"No.  If this campaign is to succeed, we need to clear the way for the rest of the contingent.  Skulking around among the trees does not constitute clearing the way."

"Shas'el, we have suffered nearly forty percent casualties, and the enemy still has us at arm's length.  With the forces at our disposal, and without any better recon, we simply are not going to break through their line here.  We need to explore the area--why not try to flank them inland?  At the very least we need to gather information to present to the rest of the contingent, or otherwise they'll come in as blind as we have."

"My orders were to capture the spaceport if practical..."

"It's not."

The shas'el glared at him.  "...and if not," he continued, "to hold a position near to it."

"The situation has changed.  We were given those orders under the assumption that we had the full complement of the cadre.  We're down to six fire warrior teams and one battlesuit.  We need to preserve the force that's left." 

"I have preserved a force back at our landing zone.   That's why I left them there, to brief the reinforcements when they arrive." 

"And we haven't communicated with them since we departed. They have no idea what's going on here."

"Are you suggesting we flee in the face of the enemy so as to inform them?" El'cha'ko sneered.

Such an unimaginative insult left Nan'cal temporarily nonplussed.  "No, shas'el.  I am suggesting we maintain a scout element in close proximity to the enemy.  We pull back the majority of the cadre to recon the area, and send an element back to the landing zone to update them."

"Unacceptable," El'cha'ko declared.  "You would have me scatter my warriors to the winds.  If, despite the attacks we made this night, we maintain our position, the enemy will be cowed by our determination, leading them to believe that our position is unassailable.  They will not dare to attack."  The shas'el spoke as if his declaration made it inevitable.

"Now you mean to bluff them?" Nan'cal asked.  Doran sensed a note of resignation in the shas'vre's voice.  He was losing the argument.

"Yes.  And if they are stupid enough to attack, we will lure them into a killing zone of our choosing, and destroy them."  As he continued, his speech accelerated with excitement.  "If they attack, they cannot make use of their heavy weapons, and be unable to make use of static defenses.  They will need to advance, and when they do, they will be vulnerable.  Like the patient hunter, we will wait, and then unleash our attack when they are most exposed.  We will crush them," he said, clenching his fist, "and we will be free to advance on to the spaceport."  The shas'el was no longer was looking at the shas'vre, but over his shoulder.  His eyes were unfocused, looking way too far ahead. 

The sight made Doran feel sick.

El'cha'ko looked Nan'cal in the eye. "Therefore, you will hold your positions," he said, addressing the group of officers.  "We will destroy the enemy tomorrow.  La'era, you are dismissed."  His tone brooked no argument, and to emphasize the point, he picked up his helmet and turned his back to them.

With some hesitation, the officers turned and headed back to their squads. 

Walking back to his unit, Doran considered the options.  For the first time in his life, the idea of following orders left a bad taste in his mouth.  Doran had no personal fear of death in combat--he did not want to die, but had always assumed it would happen in battle sooner or later.  But he did assume that his death be in the service of the greater good.  And despite his best efforts to see the shas'el's point of view, he could not see the greater good being served in holding this position.  If the cadre stayed, there was a chance that the enemy would not counterattack, but more than likely they would--at least to probe the tau defenses.  And when they saw just how weak the Tau forces were, they'd attack in force.  And that would commit the cadre to fight it out.  Based on the way the enemy dealt with the tau attacks earlier, Doran felt they had more than enough to defeat the cadre. 

But if the cadre fell back, they could leave a scout team to keep an eye on the enemy, and wait for the rest of the contingent as the shas'vre said.  That made sense.  Tau lives would be saved, and in the end, that always was a primary factor in the greater good.  He could not try to reason with the shas'el directly--if the shas'vre failed to convince him, what more could he do?  Shas'vre Nan'cal himself seemed resigned to obeying the shas'el's orders.

The only alternative was to disobey the orders.  But that was outright mutiny. That was mont'au, and out of the question.  While he felt that the shas'el was undoubtedly wrong, a mutiny in the face of the enemy would surely result in the cadre's outright destruction.  But his sense of responsibility continued to nag at him.  He needed guidance.

"Viorssal, the team is yours," Doran said to the team.  "I'll be back shortly."  Doran took a few steps away and opened a private frequency to Shas'vre Nan'cal.  A few minutes later Nan'cal showed up behind the cadre's position to meet Doran, out of earshot of the others.

"Something bothering you, shas'ui?" asked Nan'cal in a low voice.  He leaned against a tree.

Doran was nervous, and he paced back and forth.  "Yes, shas'vre.  The shas'el's orders, they...concern me.  I mean no disrespect," Doran hurried on, "but I find myself doubting the wisdom of his decision."

Nan'cal grunted noncommittally.  "Go on, shas'ui.  What about his orders do you find unwise?" 

Doran plowed on, the words pouring out.  "Our orders were to take the spaceport, or hold a beachhead on the planet if that was impractical.  Losing our pathfinders and most of our heavy equipment on the drop made it impractical--all the more so when we plowed into them,"  he said gesturing vaguely towards the river.  "When the rest of the contingent arrives, then we can take the spaceport.  But for now, I think it's best to keep the cadre intact so that it remains useful once the contingent arrives.   If the shas'el is so intent on getting closer to the spaceport, the least he could do is attempt to bypass the gue'la position inland.  But staying here?  I just don't understand it...  I don't see how it serves the greater good."

Nan'cal paused a moment before he spoke.  "The gue'la are in a strong position, so I don't think they will give it up to come after us.  If they wanted to counterattack, they likely would have done it immediately following our second assault.  So holding this position isn't as bad as it might seem."

"Do you really believe that?  We have no idea how many of them are over there.  And despite what the shas'el says, they very well could have tanks."

"True, but they also don't know how many of us there are.  Much of warfare is bluffing.  If they see us hold our position, they will be hesitant to attack it, figuring us to be stronger than we are.  But if we pull back, they'll interpret that as a victory, which could induce them to pursue."

Looking at it that way, Doran could see it made some sense, but it still felt wrong.  "Even so, the shas'el's actions concern me.  He thinks the gue'la will attack.  If they don't, I am afraid he'll force the issue and order us to attack again.  I don't see how he is serving the greater good."

"The greater good doesn't mean the same out here on the front lines as it does at home." Nan'cal raised his hand placatingly.  "I don't mean to insult you, shas'ui--I know you've served on the front lines for years.  But fighting or'es'la is not the same as fighting the gue'la.  On Urlas, we fought the with a constant advantage, in both numbers and materiel.  The or'es'la were leaderless and disorganized, and for the most part on the run.  It's easy to congratulate yourself when you are winning.  Here, however, we are fighting a determined enemy who isn't as tactically...blunt as the or'es'la.  The greater good becomes less clear when things do not go as planned."

Figuring out the greater good was easy...provided you were winning.  Doran never considered that as soon as things went sour there would be different opinions on what it was.  The lack of unity of purpose was something he had not experienced before.  "Then what is the greater good from the shas'el's perspective?" Doran asked.

"Victory,"  Nan'cal snorted.  He paused, rubbing his chin.  "But sometimes the greater good is unachievable.  In those times we have to strive for the greatest good we can achieve."  He looked Doran in the eye.  "Within the parameters defined by his orders, the imaginative warrior can determine the greatest good possible, and effect it."

Stay tuned for Part 2...


Werner Fernando Oroxon Ramirez said...

im intrigued with your project, I hope to read the rest soon.

P.D. the second part is great.

Dan Eldredge said...