Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Writing: The Charge of the Danoans, Chapter Three

The following is Chapter Three 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.
Chapter Two, Part 1 is located here.
Chapter Two, Part 2 is located here.
Chapter Two, Part 3 is located here.


Gennady rode in the passenger seat of a small utility two-axle, just one vehicle among hundreds, part of an endless convoy heading west from Panae along the Western Expressway, also known as the WEX.  The WEX was the main road connecting Panae to the small towns and villages along the coast and inland to the plains east of the Marendo Mountains, where a sizable portion of Danoan’s farms were located.  The WEX was usually dominated by cargo vehicles delivering foodstuffs to the growing city, but now it was packed with military vehicles and commandeered civilian transports, carrying thousands of infantry westward.  In the other direction rode the civilians, racing towards the safety of Panae.

The convoy consisted of multiple regiments of PDF troops and a single Imperial Guard regiment, all of them infantry.  No armor and no artillery.  In fact, the armor was on the way, but in another demonstration of its lack of foresight, the Danoan PDF had never invested in tank transports.  The Leman Russ battle tanks of the 19th Danoan Armored Regiment had to drive themselves all the way to the fight.  They couldn’t even use the WEX, as their massive weight and tracks would mangle the road surface.  Driving alongside the road where possible and across country where it was not, the tanks were breaking down and wearing out parts at an alarming rate, causing them to lag far behind the infantry.  While some of the tanks could be repaired quickly, in general the PDF was completely unprepared for this kind of heavy use.  The crews were forced to abandon some of the tanks rather than wait the days necessary for the replacement parts to arrive.

The infantry would be going it alone, and they would make their stand some five hundred kilometers from Panae.  Intelligence indicated that the tau had amassed a large force west of the mountains, and would be making a ground assault up the WEX on its way to Panae.  The plan was to slow the tau’s advance by forcing them to go on line and prepare for a set piece battle.  After first contact, the infantry would execute a planned withdrawal to a fallback position, forcing the tau to pursue and then redeploy for another battle.  Theoretically, the delays imposed would give the rest of the Guard and PDF time to fortify the area around Panae and the entrance to Vasaius.  In effect, the infantry were cannon fodder.

Gennady thought that this forward form of defense was as doomed as the attempted airstrike a few days earlier.  They would stick their neck out only to expose themselves to the tau’s falling axe.  A planned retreat to a secondary position could all too easily turn into a rout, especially by troops seeing combat for the first time.  The tau would advance, almost certainly with combined armor and infantry forces, supported from the air.  The Imperial Guard and their PDF counterparts would face them without armor, artillery, or air support.  It was very possible that the tau wouldn’t even move up the WEX, but cross country, bypassing the blocking force completely.  

By all rights Gennady should be back at headquarters, planning a more reasonable defense and serving as General Raitev’s adjutant.  Instead, fresh after a meeting with General Medvedovsky, General Raitev had called Gennady into his office and told him about his new assignment.

“I am assigning you to the 11th Danaon,” said the general.

Gennady was stunned.  If it came down to it, he would take his lasgun to the front with the rest of them, but he had always assumed that he would do so alongside fellow Novomirskayans.  The thought of fighting with the Danoan PDF appalled him.  

“But why?”  Gennady asked, so surprised that he forgot to say ‘sir.’

“We’re sending out several regiments to block the tau’s advance.  They will set up a blocking position ahead of the tau advance astride the WEX.  They will force the tau to deploy to deal with them.  After making contact, the force will retreat by night to new positions.  They will continue to do so each night, delaying the tau by at least a week.  That will give us time to prepare our defenses.”

“But sir, why assign me to the PDF?”

“The PDF is not ready, captain,” Raitev said with impatience.  “You have something that no one in the entire PDF has: combat experience.  I need you to give them the benefit of that experience.  Without leadership they’re going to collapse.”

Gennady thought that they would collapse anyway.  “Do you want me to advise, or assume command?”

Raitev’s expression softened.  “I want you to use your judgment.”

“Sir, my judgment tells me that whether I am there or not, the PDF will break and be slaughtered.  You know I’m not a coward, sir.  Assign me where I can do some good, not where my death will be wasted.”

Raitev sighed with frustration.  “The PDF will respect you as an Imperial Guardsman.  Your presence will strengthen their resolve.”  

“They already have preachers to do that, sir.”

“You are a combat veteran.  You will give them a different kind of resolve.”  

“But, sir...”

“Enough!” Raitev snapped.  “You are one of my best officers, captain.  Act like it.  You will report to the 11th Danoan Infantry Regiment immediately.  That is an order.”

The sun was getting low in the sky when Gennady’s driver turned off the expressway and headed north toward the 11th Danoan’s position.  The two-axle bounded over the rough ground, tearing up the grass and sending clods of dirt as it made its way behind the regiments forming the defense line.  The expressway itself was going to be held by the 31st Novomirskayan Marksmen, the only Guard regiment in the force.  If Gennady had to be on the line, that’s where he would have wanted to be.  He looked longingly back towards the road.  

Ahead and to his left he could see soldiers unloading vehicles, making stacks of ammunition crates and other supplies.  Other soldiers were carrying them from the supply points to their positions in the trees.   He passed the other two regiments of the Danoan 1st Division, the 13th and 12th Infantry.  On the other side of the expressway, the 2nd Division was undoubtedly preparing their own positions, anchored by the coastline.  The 11th Infantry, however, was dangling on the end of the line, its flank completely exposed.  Gennady was hating this assignment more and more.

The driver slowed down as they approached the 11th Infantry’s position.  He could see the regiment’s command post, a large tent flying the regiment’s colors.  Next to the tent the regiment was gathered in a crowd.  The whole thing.  All one thousand of them.

The two-axle stopped fifty meters short of the CP, and Gennady climbed out, grabbing his ruck from the back seat.  Without waiting to be dismissed, the driver turned around and drove off, but Gennady was too distracted to notice.  

The thousand men were arrayed in a close group, arcing around their preacher, who standing in front to address them.  Most were kneeling except for some at the back who were standing in order to see.  Their heads were bowed and their helmets clasped to their breasts as the preacher led them in prayer.  

Gennady walked slowly towards the mass of men, bewildered.  The Danoans were in their customary pearl gray uniforms with scarlet and white accents.  Gennady felt absurdly out of place among them, even though he thought he was the only one dressed appropriately.  He wore his dark green and brown camouflage battle dress, steel helmet painted green and covered in netting, drab brown web gear, and knee-high black leather sapogi.   He adjusted the strap of the lascarbine slung over his back and waited awkwardly as the preacher continued his prayer.  

After a moment, a man kneeling on one at the end of the front row got up and headed to greet him.  By his shoulder boards Gennady assumed he must be the colonel.

“Captain Zhzhyonov?” the man said, massacring the name.  “We heard you were on your way.  Welcome.”  

Gennady took the offered hand and nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

“I am Colonel Lopes.  We appreciate your coming.  The men will like a Guard officer accompanying them in battle.”

Gennady grunted.  “What’s this all about?” he asked, gesturing to the gathered men.  “What are they doing?”  

Lopes looked surprised.  “On your world don’t your men receive absolution on the eve of battle?  

“Novomirskayans receive absolution by dying in battle.”  He looked the colonel in the eye.  “Your men will be doing a lot of that soon enough.”

Lopes swallowed hard.  “Our faith in the Emperor will see us through,” he said weakly.

“Your lasguns will see you through, if anything does.”  Gennady was being intentionally blunt with the colonel, and he didn’t feel the least bit bad about it.  

The preacher had finished his prayer and had begun haranguing the troops with a sermon against the tau.  His manner was gentle and fatherly while leading the prayers, but now the thrill of his devotion came upon him, and his increasingly expansive gestures emphasized his passion.  The troops hung on every word.

“We will not be facing rebels here, heretical scum who were once human before they turned against the Emperor and were damned forever.  We are facing xenos!  Monsters that have never seen the light of the Emperor, abominations in His eyes, beyond hope of any redemption.

“These xenos, these so called “tau”, are wicked grey-skinned flat-faced four-fingered dirty-hoofed beasts.  They might appear small, but do not let that fool you into thinking they are weak. They have soulless technology that is evil and deadly.  They are cunning and fanatical in their devotion to their obscene religion.  They are possessed of a single-minded desire to crush all humanity to their will.  They will not hesitate to kill themselves if they think they can take you with them.  If they capture you, they will torture you and commit the most foul of heresies upon your body and soul!”

Gennady frowned.  The tau would probably enslave any prisoners rather than torture and kill them, but he decided not to interrupt the speech.  

“You are the last line of defense between these monsters and your families! If you fail in your duty, the vile xenos will swarm over the planet and desecrate it with their presence.”   

That isn’t strictly true either, Gennady thought.  When the tau broke through this line of defense, they would have to get through the rest of the Guard and PDF as well.  But the statement was motivating nonetheless. 

“Your faith in the Emperor is your shield!  Your hate is the Emperor’s sword!  Wield it to destroy his enemies!  Do not fear death, for death in the service of the Emperor is the greatest expression of devotion. The Emperor protects!” 

The Emperor protects!” a thousand voices shouted as one, and Gennady jumped.  The solemnity in the faces of the troops had turned to pride and determination. The preacher looked to Colonel Lopes, who walked to the front of the men, Gennady following. 

“Men, this is Captain Gennady Zhzhyonov,” Lopes announced, still destroying the name, “of the Novomirskaya Marksmen of the Imperial Guard.  He will be serving with us.  He has fought and bled for the Emperor on countless battlefields on countless worlds.  He will be an example to us all.  Obey his commands to the letter."

Gennady grimaced at the exaggerated description of his career, but thought that these men needed all the confidence they could get.

“Captain?  Would you like to address the men?”

A thousand pairs of eyes suddenly locked on Gennady, and he barely managed to resist the urge to recoil.  You’re all going to die, he wanted to say.  The tactical situation is hopeless.  You are undertrained, underequipped, and totally unprepared to fight a determined enemy.  You might look impressive on the parade ground, but on the battlefield you will be a disaster.  When you face the enemy, most of you will piss yourselves and cower in fear, while the rest flee.  Some of you might actually fire your weapons at the enemy, but you’ll die just the same.  You are not Imperial Guardsman, and you are going to get me killed. 

“Keep your heads down,” he said.  “Mark your targets, and take your time.  Keep your eyes on the enemy in front of you.  Concentrate on your training, and you’ll do fine.”  Inwardly he prayed that they had training. 

After several awkward seconds, Colonel Lopes dismissed them.  A thousand men stood up and put their sun helmets back on, their plumes raising a sudden forest of scarlet feathers above their brilliant white helmets.

“Hold it,” Gennady ordered, raising his voice.  “Everyone, remove the plumes on your helmets.”

The men hesitated, looking at each other uncertainly.

“Do it!” he shouted.  “Each one of those Emperor-damned things is a target to the enemy.  You might as well paint ‘Shoot Me’ on your faces.  Remove the plumes, now.”

With a reluctant nod from Colonel Lopes and some grumbling, the men began to remove the feathers from their helmets.  

“Next, when you get back to your positions, every man is to grind his helmet in the dirt.”  Again, the men looked shocked.  Deliberately defacing their uniforms was just unheard of.  They’re not getting it, Gennady thought with dismay.  “I want these helmets so dirty that you can’t tell that they were ever white!  The tau--these xenos--aren’t going to care about how fragging ‘splendid’ you look.”  He decided to use some of their own psychology.  “These tau are out to kill you, and if they see you, they’ll kill you.  Dying for the Emperor is good.  Killing for the Emperor is better.  Now get those helmets dirty, and you might live long enough to do some killing.”

That got through to them.  At his dismissive wave the men dispersed, returning to their positions.  

“Is this the regimental CP?” Gennady asked, not waiting for an answer but striding over to the tent.  Colonel Lopes hurried to keep up.  Gennady walked inside, past the crowd of milling officers.  There was an enlisted man was fiddling with a large vox unit on one of the tables.  Another table was covered with maps.  Colonel Lopes followed him in, and the gaggle of officers outside filtered in as well.  Reaching the far end of the map table, Gennady turned and faced the rest of the officers.

“This CP should have better cover.  You need to move it under cover of the trees.  And take that flag down.  If you don’t do a better job hiding this CP, the enemy air is going to trash this place.”

If Colonel Lopes had any reservations with a captain giving him orders, he didn’t show it.  He simply nodded.

“Which one of you is the S-2?” Gennady asked.

The officers exchanged bewildered looks.  

Gennady sighed with exasperation.  “Intelligence officer.  Who’s the intelligence officer?”

“Me, sir,” piped up a young officer with a hint of peachfuzz on his upper lip.

“What’s the latest on the tau’s position?”

“Our best estimate is that the tau are no more than fifty kilometers away.  Their forward units will almost certainly be here by morning.”

Gennady considered that.  He looked at the map for a moment, studying the 11th’s depositions on the map.  “Who’s the commander of L Company?” he asked, placing his finger at the end of the line.     

“I am, sir,” said a stocky captain.  “Captain Salisar, Lion Company.”

“Your company is the end of the line.  Every other company in this regiment--and all the other regiments in this force--have friends on either side of them.  You don’t.  If the tau decide to try to flank us, you’re the one who will get hit first.  Colonel, I propose that we place Lion Company a few hundred meters further north, under good concealment.  They should keep low, avoid being seen and be our eyes and ears in case the tau try something sneaky.”  He deliberately made it a suggestion.  So far the colonel had been accommodating, and he had begun to feel he was too hard on the man.  He’d been throwing his weight around from the moment he arrived, and he didn’t want to completely displace Colonel Lopes from his command.

“I concur,” the colonel replied.  Captain Salisar was nodding in agreement as well.

“What heavy weapons do we have?” Gennady asked.

“Each company has a heavy bolter section and an anti-tank missile section.”

“No mortars?”

“No, sir.”

Gennady’s mouth twitched.  “All right.”  He straightened.  “I want to inspect your positions before it gets too dark to see.”  He picked up a pair of field glasses from the table, grimacing at the polished brass.  

“Very well.  Major Garsis will take you on an inspection,” said Colonel Lopes, gesturing towards a wiry officer standing beside him.

Garsis led him out of the tent and towards the thicker trees to the west.  “I’m the executive officer of the 11th.  It is good to have you with us, Captain Zh...”

“Gennady is fine.  Or just ‘captain’, if you prefer.”

“Gennady,” Garsis said, trying out the unfamiliar name.  “My name is Javier,” he said, extending a hand.  Gennady gave his hand a quick shake and released it, uncomfortable with the familiarity.  Major Javier Garsis was likely going to be dead soon, so there was little point in making friends.

The trees and the underbrush both thickened as they moved farther from the CP.  The PDF soldiers were gathering dead wood and fallen saplings, stacking them into makeshift barricades facing west.  On the other side of the barricades, the trees ended abruptly, a fallow field beyond.

The sight made Gennady stop in his tracks.

“What are they doing?” he asked.

Major Garsis looked at him blankly.  “Making defensive positions.”  

“With sticks?  They should be digging foxholes.”

Garsis was puzzled.  “After their initial attack, we’re going to pull out and fall back to our next defense line, yes?  We’re not going to be here for that long.”

“You certainly won’t be if you don’t make foxholes.  A stack of dead branches isn’t going to stop tau weaponry,” he said, shaking his head.  “If you don’t do better than this, your men are going to get slaughtered.”  When Garsis hesitated, Gennady continued.  “Your men have entrenching tools.  Use them.  They have all night.”

Major Garsis called over the company commander, and ordered him to command the men to dig foxholes.  Gennady added that they could still make use of the gathered wood, laying it over the holes to provide overhead cover.  Runners were sent up and down the line to relay the order. Gennady took a grim breath.  Every new thing he saw had served to worry him further.

Stepping past a squad of men who were now digging trenches with their small shovels, Gennady walked to the front of the line and looked out from their position.  The treeline ended, and farmland extended ahead for over a kilometer, gently sloping downwards to a shallow valley, and then back up again to another treeline at the top of a rise.  To the north there was a small farmhouse, a few outbuildings and a barn, perhaps halfway between the two treelines.  More fields extended north on the other side.  The tau might still try to outflank them, but they couldn’t do it without being seen. 

To the south was more farmland, and far off he could see the dark ribbon of the WEX running westwards and into the distance, disappearing among the trees and gently rolling hills.  Further left was the grey ocean and the knife edge horizon.  The sun had descended behind the mountains to the west, blackening silhouettes against a steel grey sky.   

He raised the field glasses to his eyes, scanning the far treeline.  There was undergrowth, but he could see that the trees were thin enough that tanks and small vehicles would be able to maneuver through them, albeit with some difficulty.  The open ground in front of them was their best asset--if the tau were to attack, they would have to charge straight ahead and right into their guns.  If they weren’t stupid, they’d wait until after a preliminary artillery barrage, and probably an air attack as well--things which the Imperials would not be able to count on.  The PDF were going to get pounded, Gennady thought, but we don’t have to win here.  We just have to bloody their noses and slow them down.  He smiled despite himself.  Tau don’t have noses.

Thirteen hundred meters away, a tau pathfinder lowered his optic and crawled backwards until he was well away from the treeline, safely out of sight.  His fellow spotter did the same.  Not bothering to exchange words, they silently moved through the underbrush back to their waiting scout transport.  

Moving to the back of the vehicle, they went up the ramp and into its protective interior.  One pathfinder kept watch outside while the other went to the communication panel and connected a cord with an induction jack to the side of his helmet.  He made his report, the cord automatically downloading the selection of images he had taken with his optics.  The report was formatted, encrypted and then beamed into the tau communications network.  The network routed it to the headquarters command vehicle of 9 Infantry Battle, many kilometers behind the scouts.  The command vehicle compiled the data with the reports from other scout units, and transmitted the new information to 9 Infantry’s commander, Shas’o Ka’mesa’ko.  

The new report completed the picture, Ka’mesa’ko thought as he studied the images on his display and read their annotations.  He sat comfortably in the cockpit of his command battlesuit, locked into the cradle of his Orca utility transport.  Unlike most Orcas, this command variant carried his battlesuit and those of his bodyguards, several drones, and instead of the usual complement of fire warriors on foot, it was packed with communications gear.  The Orca travelled at a sedate pace eastwards along WEX, lost among the other vehicles in the column.

The reports showed that the gue’la had set up their defense line across the WEX a ways ahead.  All of the reports indicated that the entire force consisted of infantry preparing hasty positions.  No armor, and that was good.  His battle had a full contingent of armor, and even his two infantry contingents had an armor cadre each.  They would be able to break through a line of infantry easily enough.  

Ka’mesa’ko’s scar began to itch, and he reached up and scratched it.  

Years earlier he had served the Greater Good as a young shas’ui, leading his team of newly bonded fire warriors against the green-skinned or’es’la.  Early on the campaign, the tau’s heavy firepower proved insufficient to stem the green tide, and the or’es’la threatened to overrun their positions.  A massive or’es’la, one of their leaders, came right at him.  He wounded the beast with a burst from his carbine just as it swung its brutal chopping weapon.  The steel slammed into his face and chest, sticking fast in his helmet and body armor.  His optics went offline and he saw nothing but black.  

Unsheathing his bonding knife, he blindly stabbed with it.  By sheer luck he managed to embed it in the hollow underneath his opponent’s chin, up and into its brain.  He jerked the knife around, trying to withdraw it for another stab, but it remained stuck.  The beast bled, collapsed, and died on top of him, crushing him beneath its weight.  

Seeing their leader go down, his bonded teammates were enraged, giving them the moral courage to repel the assault.  Afterwards it took four of them to heave the body of the huge monster off him, and later, it took the earth caste engineers and medical technicians to cut him out of his armor and attend to his injuries.  Amazingly his injuries were not life threatening, and he was scheduled for reconstructive surgery for his damaged facial bones and broken ribs.  Fully lucid, he decided to allow the surgery, but refused any cosmetic restoration.  

The cut had landed just outside his left eye orbit, shattering the cheekbone and bisecting his jaw, and left a broad scar across the center of his chest.  The cheek and jaw bones had been functionally repaired, but a permanent groove in the bones remained.  His teammates gave him the name Ka’mesa’ko that day.  Scarworth.

Years had passed, and with them his team had dwindled in number as one by one they gave up their lives for the Greater Good, until he was the only one left to make shas’o rank.  His scar and his bonding knife were all he had left of them.  

Now the commander of an entire battle, he led a force of fourteen hundred and nine fire warriors, and with them their formidable striking power.  He rested his chin in his hand, fingers fitting into the notches in his cheek and jaw as if they were made for them.  It was time to address his contingent commanders.

He leaned back in his cockpit and switched to the command channel.  Quickly, his display showed images of his executive officer, his three contingent commanders and the commander of his scout cadre.  

“We will deploy for an attack upon the enemy’s right flank.  Our fellow fire warriors of 2 Battle will attack their left.  48 Battle will form the reserve.    

“Shas’vre,” he said to his scout cadre commander, “you will mark the enemy’s positions for the initial strike.  Once the battle commences, 3 Armored Contingent will lead the attack in the center, with 1 and 2 Contingent to each flank in support.  The enemy is estimated to be a pure infantry force, entrenched in hasty positions.  Battlesuits are to be equipped with anti-personnel loadouts.  The attack will begin at dawn.”  

“Shas’o, you do not mean to flank them?” asked 3 Contingent’s commander.  “We can easily bypass this force and go straight for the capital.  The reserve battle can deal with this enemy force.”  The commander of the armor contingent was a student of maneuver warfare, and he was eager to demonstrate his skills.  His ardor was commendable, but this was not the time for subtlety.

“No, we are not going to bypass them, Shas’el.  We are going to break them."

And that concludes my second submission to Black Library.  As with Only War, I had started work on the following few chapters, and submitted a complete outline to go along with the first three chapters.  Also as with Only War, the story was rejected, and as such I shelved the project and have not looked at it since.  If you have gotten this far, thank you for taking the time to read it.

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