Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Writing: The Charge of the Danoans, Chapter Two, Part 1

The following is Part 1 of Chapter Two of my second novel submission to Black Library, entitled The Charge of the Danoans.  

Chapter One, Part 1 is located here.
Chapter One, Part 2 is located here.

 TWO

The 11th Regiment of the Danoan Planetary Defense Force, all one thousand of them, marched in ordered ranks into the plaza outside Saint Laurentius’ Cathedral, their boots clomping in impressive unison.  They were impeccably dressed in their pearl grey uniforms, their sun helmets and matching gaiters blinding white in the afternoon sun.  The helmets were topped with tall scarlet feathers, matching the silk sashes about their waists. Their Danoan pattern lasguns had beautiful wooden stocks, the metal fittings polished and gleaming.  At the head of the column their colors snapped proudly in the breeze, white and red and emblazoned with a black Imperial Aquila, flanked by golden stars.

The regiment’s drill was flawless as the reformed their column of companies into two lines of companies in the plaza, facing the cathedral.  The regiment went to order arms, a thousand lasguns banging simultaneously onto the brick pavement.  His back to the tall cathedral, the regiment’s preacher addressed the men, reading from a massive tome mounted on a lectern in front of him.

Standing in a loggia of the planetary governor’s palace overlooking the formation, Captain Gennady Zhzhyonov was not impressed.  For all of their spit and polish, the Danoan’s lack of combat experience was painfully obvious.  They spent half their time practicing parade drill, and the other half with religious services.  Like all good Imperial citizens Gennady revered the Emperor of Mankind, and went through the devotional rites when required.  But as an Imperial Guardsman he believed that his devotional zeal was better expressed in the killing of the Emperor’s enemies in battle than in praying in the cathedral.

Major General Raitev stood to his subordinate’s left, hands clasped behind his back.  The tall general was lean as a rail, and stood with a belligerently wide stance.  He looked down on the assembled Danoans with a critical eye.  Gennady knew him will enough to know what that eye saw.  

Planetary Defense Forces were invariably provincial, undertrained, and hopelessly undisciplined.  Depending on the planet they came from, they ranged from being overweight popinjays playing soldier to the lowest sort of gangsters and thugs.  Regardless of which side of the unworthiness spectrum they came from, they were not the caliber of the Imperial Guard.  

For the most part the Danoan PDF looked fit, well drilled, and equipped with costumes that provided uniformity if not practicality.  But from their attitudes, from the few members Gennady had encountered since his arrival, they seemed more like to belong to the Ecclesiarchy’s Frateris Militia than a PDF.  Their effusive devotion to the Emperor would have been commendable to some, but Gennady found it irritating.  He dreaded if it should ever come to war--rumor had it that relations with the tau were becoming strained, and that a crusade to purge them from sector would be called soon.  Better that than being on the defensive--Gennady would not wager for Danoan’s chances should war come to them first.  

Gennady heard someone walking towards them down the length of the loggia, and the urgent pace set off an alarm bell in his mind.  He turned his head to see a Raitev’s junior aide, Lieutenant Strekalov, approaching rapidly.  He stepped up to Raitev and whispered something in his ear, then handed him a dataslate.  Raitev skimmed it quickly.  He gave Gennady a significant look, and then walked away, Gennady and Strekalov falling in with him on either side and a pace behind.  

Behind his general, Gennady caught Strekalov’s eye and raised an inquiring eyebrow. Strekalov’s return look was ominous.

Something bad had happened.  Something really bad.

The governor’s palace was large and ostentatious, and it took several minutes of walking before they reached the administrative wing, and then up the stair to the council chambers on the third floor.  Upon seeing the general, the plumed PDF guards opened the doors. 

With Raitev taking the lead, the trio walked into the council chamber.  Gennady scanned the faces he saw there.  Commander Martin of the Imperial Navy, sitting alone and sullenly drumming his knuckles.  General Calderon of the Danoan PDF, his entourage of aides hovering behind him.  Commissar Ryzhkov leaned against the wall, arms crossed and glowering out from under his peaked cap.  Several Imperial Guard regimental officers in their varied service uniforms conferred in muted voices.  Planetary Governor Murdanes was surrounded by an ooze of advisors.  Ancient Confessor Isstarius sat slumped with his hands folded in his sleeves, eyes closed in silent meditation, or more likely asleep.

Raitev stopped in his tracks.  “Where is General Medvedovsky?” he asked, cutting off the subdued conversations.

There was an uncomfortable silence.  One of the Imperial Guard colonels shifted in his seat. 

“Riding, sir,” he said.

“What?”

“He acknowledged the message, and continued his morning ride, sir.”

“He received the same message that I did, didn’t he?” Raitev asked, incredulous.  

“Yes, sir.”

Raitev looked about to snap another question, but thought better of it.  “Very well, we shall begin,” he said, sitting down.  The higher ranking officials followed suit, but the room didn’t have enough chairs, so many of the lower ranking officers were forced to stand.  

“Battlefleet Anacostia has been attacked by Tau forces,” Raitev began.  By the reaction of everyone in the room, it was clear that many of them already knew.  Gennady had not, and his stomach went cold at the news.  “Commander Martin, what information do you have from the Navy?”

Martin grimaced.  “Not much.  Tau forces executed a surprise attack against Battlefleet Anacostia four days ago.  I don’t have specific numbers yet, but it seems we lost several capital ships.  Casualties were heavy.  Opallios Naval Station has been severely damaged. Astropathic communiqu├ęs are still coming in, but they are fragmentary and confused.”

“What damage did we inflict on the enemy?” asked Governor Murdanes, eager for some good news.

“Nothing confirmed, governor.  Most reports have concerned our own losses.”   

“Are the Tau invading the planet?”

“I don’t think so.  Some of the initial reports seemed to indicate as much, but I would consider them to be unreliable.  Since those reports, there have been no further indications that a planetary invasion is underway.”

“So we beat them off, then?”

Commander Martin glared at him.  “No, governor.”

“Then what are you saying?”

“I’m saying that the Tau came in, smashed the fleet, and left of their own accord.”

“Emperor preserve us,” whispered General Calderon.

“How could this have happened?” Murdanes continued, incredulous.  “This is a catastrophe!”

Martin looked like he was about to strangle the governor, but Raitev forestalled him by speaking first.  “We cannot know how this occurred, governor, until we receive more information.  The best action we can take is to decide what our response will be.”

“In that case I would suggest that we mobilize some more of the planetary defense forces, and augment our training schedules.  To increase our readiness,” said Governor Murdanes, pleased with his contribution.

General Raitev snorted his contempt.  “I’m declaring martial law.”

Governor Murdanes was flabbergasted.  “You can’t do that without...only General
Medvedovsky can do that.”

“Feel free to file a protest.  We’ll get to it once the war is over.  General Calderon,” Raitev said, ignoring Murdanes’ continued spluttering.  “Mobilize the PDF.  All of it.  I’m putting the entire planet on a war footing.”

“Yes, sir.”  Calderon looked frightened, but determined.  

“Do you really think they’ll hit us, sir?” asked one of the Imperial Guard colonels.

“They’re going to hit us hard,” said Raitev.

After a moment one of Governor Murdanes’ advisors spoke, peeking timidly over the governor’s shoulder.  “But why?  We’re just a small colony.”

“The strike on the Battlefleet Anacostia was intended to cripple the Navy, and prevent them from stopping the Tau achieving their main objective,” Raitev explained.  “It was not an isolated attack, but the first shot of a war.  They’re going to hit every colony and outpost along the border.” He turned to General Calderon. “General, what’s the status of the planetary defenses?”  
Calderon was taken aback, unprepared for the question.  “The defenses of Vasaius are formidable, sir,” he said uncertainly.  “I’m confident we can repel a landing on the peninsula.  In that respect, we are fortunate the colony is still small.  The plan,” he said, picking up steam, “was to ring the Vasaius peninsula with our air defenses, withdraw our forces into the cordon, and hold until reinforcements arrive.”

Commander Martin laughed bitterly, earning a worried look from Calderon.

Raitev spoke for him.  “I think what Commander Martin is saying is that reinforcements are not likely anytime soon.  However, from what I have seen, the air defenses for the peninsula do appear formidable.  We shall have to make good use of them.  If the Tau are able to make a landing in the peninsula, we’ll be in trouble.  Only a few regiments of Imperial Guard, the PDF, practically no armor and artillery...”

“The vegetation in Vasaius is too dense for tanks,” said Governor Murdanes, recovered from his earlier shock.  “They would be useless here, so we don’t field them in the PDF.  It would have been a waste of resources.  The money was better spent elsewhere.” 

On scarlet helmet plumes and fancy lasguns, thought Gennady.

Raitev didn’t think the Governor’s statement deserved an answer.  He looked at Commander Martin.  “When is the Conqueror convoy due to arrive?” he asked.  The Dominator-class cruiser Conqueror was escorting several transports to Danoan which were carrying the two hundred and sixteen Basilisks of the 25th and 131st Novomirskaya Artillery Regiments, several squadrons of Lightning fighters and Marauders bombers, support personnel, ammunition and promethium.  All of it would be invaluable should the Tau land on the planet.     

“At least a week,” Commander Martin replied.

“We might not have a week,” Raitev pointed out.

Martin shrugged.  “We can’t control the empyrean.  It’s notoriously fickle here.” 

"Will the Navy be able to hold position in orbit until the convoy arrives?” General Raitev continued.

Commander Martin was clearly uncomfortable.  “It depends on what the Tau throw at us, and how soon.  Right now we have a cruiser, one light cruiser, and a squadron of Cobra destroyers in orbit.  If they send a token force, maybe we can.  But if they come at us with the intention of taking the planet, they’ll come in force.  In that case, no.”

“I thought we could count on the Imperial Navy to protect us,” Governor Murdanes said sarcastically.  “Not cry defeat at soon as things go bad.”  

Martin turned on him, eyes blazing.  “The Navy has its own problems, governor.  We have the entire sector to worry about.  In the grand scheme of things, this planet,” he snarled, “is nothing.”  He stood up and stormed towards the door. 

“Commander,” General Raitev said quietly. 

Martin paused at the door.  “My apologies, General.  The Navy will do what it can.  I need to get our fighter squadrons on alert and confer with the captain of the Kentaurus.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”  He shoved the door open with a bang and walked out. 

Gennady watched him go with an ambivalent mixture of sympathy and disgust.  Clearly the Navy’s pride was hurt just as much than its fleet.  But no matter his personal feelings, Commander Martin had no right to walk out on a superior officer like that.

“Commissar Ryzhkov,” prompted the governor, “Shouldn’t you get him back here?”  Murdanes was taking Commander Martin’s departure as a personal insult.

Commissar Ryzhkov swivelled his head ever so slowly and fixed the governor with a gaze of steel.  “Shut up,” he rasped.

General Raitev ignored the exchange.  “Colonel Palakon,” he said to one of the Imperial Guard officers, “Tell me about the readiness of your regiment.”

For nearly an hour the officers discussed the details of mobilization and the ultimate distribution of troops.  Most of Danoan’s twenty million inhabitants lived on or near the mountainous Vasaius Peninsula.  Those that lived elsewhere on the planet were in small, isolated settlements that were not worth defending.  The capital city of Panae lay on the coast, near the isthmus that connected Vasaius to rest of the continent.  A planetary assault near to the peninsula would be problematic for the attacker, as the concentrated air defenses that ringed it could be brought to bear against any landing force.  The plan of defense was to hold the capital, and if it was seriously threatened, pull back all forces into the peninsula and hole up behind its defenses until reinforcements arrived.  General Raitev suggested an immediate evacuation of Panae so as to strengthen the peninsular defenses.  PDF General Calderon was concerned about the logisitics of such an evacuation, while Governor Murdanes objected on the grounds that the capital city, with its multiple cathedrals and monuments to the Emperor, should be the focus of any defense.

The meeting was wrapping up when the council chamber’s door opened.  The room fell silent. General Georgy Georgievich Medvedovsky strode into the room with easy confidence, carrying his riding crop under his arm.  He was wearing his polished brown leather cavalry boots, peaked cap, and a double-breasted riding coat over a high-necked sweater.  Attending him were a pair of servo-skulls, constantly watching him with their pict-recorder eyes, buzzing about to record his every move from dramatic angles.  

Governor Murdanes perked up at his entrance.  “General Medvedovsky, praise the Emperor you have arrived.  Battlefleet Anacostia has all but been destroyed, and the tau are sure to come here next!”

The General halted, turning to regard the governor with aplomb.  He said nothing, and that prompted Murdanes to continue.

“And I must protest, general.  Before he left, that naval officer dared to say that the Danoan Colony was insignificant in the grand scheme of a war.” 

“Nonsense,” said Medvedovsky said crisply.  This planet is the lynchpin of the entire subsector.”  Murdanes sat more upright in his seat, pleased with his vindication.  Medvedovsky walked around the table toward the empty chair left by Commander Martin, the other officers awkwardly maneuvering to get out of his way.  He sat down and crossed his legs, looking at the expectant faces with regal benevolence.  

“General Raitev,” he said.  “Please bring me up to speed.”

“The tau have attacked Battlefleet Anacostia.  Damage has been severe.  I have declared martial law and ordered the mobilization of the PDF.  We were discussing details of the defense.”

“Quite right,” Medvedovsky approved.  “Holding this planet is paramount.  Despite the setback suffered by the Navy, I am convinced they will support us.  We must do our part and defeat any attempt to take the planet until the relief force arrives.”

“You don’t think the Lord General Militant will abandon us, do you?” asked Governor Murdanes. 
“Commander Martin sounded less than confident of the Navy’s ability to provide us with reinforcements.”

“Of course he won’t.  The Lord General Militant is on Arcadia Prime, far from here.  My command is the tip of the spear.  From my position here, I believe that I have a better understanding of the necessary strategy for prosecuting this war than the Lord General Militant.  He will act on my recommendation.”

The General’s statement seemed to soothe Murdanes, but its casual arrogance raised eyebrows around the room.  Gennady was not privy to all the politicking of the Arcadia Sector’s General Staff, but he knew that the present Lord General Militant was a political appointee and a career staff officer.  Medvedovsky, on the other hand, had been a fighting man from the start, and while his persona was flamboyant and pompous, he had the combat experience to back it up.  Even so, Gennady didn’t think the general’s combat experience made his lecturing any less tiresome.

He endured Medvedovsky’s pontificating for another two hours, listening to him regally tout his command’s importance to Imperial strategy.  Governor Murdanes and his aides were mesmerized, listening to every word with rapt attention.  Confessor Isstarius snored quietly.  Gennady was itching to leave--there was far too much work to be done to sit around talking.

The door opened and a staff officer walked in, urgently making his way toward General Medvedovsky.  Others moved aside as the officer maneuvered through the crowd to Medvedovsky’s side.  He leaned close and whispered breathlessly in the general’s ear.  What he said made Gennady’s stomach go cold again.

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