Friday, February 1, 2013

Writing: The Charge of the Danoans, Chapter Two, Part 2

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

“Captain, xeno warships detected entering the system.”

Captain Borchier looked up from the data slate he was studying.  “Location, numbers and types, if you please, Mr. Akers.” 

Captain Borchier’s command, the Tyrant-class cruiser Kentaurus, sailed fifty-thousand kilometers above the planet’s surface.  Like many ships built at the Arcadia Septimus shipyards, the massive warship was deep grey, the color of weathered shale.  A golden aquila crowned its prow, and her myriad portholes and running lights shone like stars.  

The ship’s interior was anything but quiet.  Thousands of souls lived, worked and died in the mighty ship.  Throngs of gun crews and ordnance personnel toiled tirelessly on gunnery drills, shouting and cursing over the clanging of metal and screeching of hydraulics.  Tech-priests monitored the ship’s machine spirit, their mechadendrites whirring as they performed their rituals on the massive thrumming plasma generarium that was the ship’s heart.  Choirs of preachers sang endless praises to the Emperor, their voices echoing through the nave of the ship’s cathedral.  Servitors with grafted machine parts performed routine maintenance in every passageway with mindless efficiency.

The destruction of the fleet at Anacostia had come as a shock to Captain Borchier.  But somehow the ship knew even before the arrival of the astropathic message.  Hours earlier, a deep, infrasonic susurration that was more felt than heard began pulsing through the ship.  The tech-priests reported power surges, blowing out conduits and power feeds.  There were over a hundred casualties among the crew.  The massive ship trembled with rage.  Captain Borchier was experienced enough to know that the ship was reacting to something, but not what.  So he kept the crew on high alert and waited for something to happen

Despite his preparations, when the news came he was stunned.  Battlefleet Anacostia was the largest fleet concentration in the sector, consisting of some eighty warships, including at least a dozen capital ships.  The entire purpose of concentrating the Battlefleet was intimidation.  With such a large force present, no one would dare attack it, and by extension, the rest of the subsector. 

Borchier could imagine the size of a force capable of destroying it.  If the Battlefleet was truly crippled, then the value of his vessel, already beyond price, had jumped even higher.  His officers, men, and even the ship itself would crave revenge. He could already sense the ship responding to the detection of the xeno ships, its machine spirit humming with anticipation of unleashing its weapon batteries upon them.   Kentaurus wanted blood.  

“Sir, I’m detecting three capital ships, possibly Hero-class, one light cruiser, at least a dozen escorts and transports.” 

Too many.  His force could undoubtedly damage the tau fleet, but they could not win.  It galled him, but Borchier’s first duty was to protect the integrity of his task force, not to lose it in an empty gesture.  Vengeance would come, but not today.

“Bring the ship about.  Set a course for Galin Station, all ahead full.  The rest of the squadron will accompany us.  We are departing the system.” 

“Aye, sir.”  The lieutenant relayed the orders, and the ship ponderously began to alter course.  The other vessels in the squadron began maneuvering as well, their courses converging to escort the cruiser.  Kentaurus shuddered as its massive bow came around, turning away from the tau vessels.  It wanted to stay and fight.   

“Sir, we’re receiving a message from Governor Murdanes.  He’s asking about the enemy fleet.”

Captain Borchier did not reply for a moment.  When he did, his voice was grim.  “Tell him he’s on his own.”

*  *  *

The Vasaius peninsula was roughly oblong in shape, jutting out into a bay that sheltered the Danoan capital of Panae.  Forty kilometers long and almost thirty across at its widest point, its coastline was rugged, with dark basalt cliffs reaching a hundred meters above waves dotted with rocks and jagged pillars.  A ridgeline with peaks up to fifteen hundred meters formed the spine of the peninsula, with many spurs running to the sea.  

Tucked between two mountain spurs, Panae lay on the west coast, close to where the isthmus connected Vasaius to the mainland.  The city was small, home to barely a million inhabitants, but it was on the verge of sprawling up the slopes and around the bay.  The main thoroughfare circled the peninsula, linking all of its settlements, finally exiting Vasaius through Panae and proceeding inland.

Most of Vasaius was covered in thick vegetation that belied the peninsula’s lethal secrets.  Underneath the obscuring canopy there were fifty-six strategically located defense lasers, each capable of threatening warships in orbit.  Panae itself was defended by seventeen of them, ringing the city but also within it, forming integral parts of the city’s architecture.  Hundreds of missile launch facilities were scattered all over the peninsula, filled with weapons including multistage anti-orbital plasma missiles, long range anti-aircraft missiles, and short range anti-ground missiles, designed to attack any troops that by some miracle succeeded in landing.  There were more than two thousand Hydra flak emplacements located around the peninsula, aimed skyward, daring someone to attack.  The bulk of Danoan’s PDF and Imperial Guard garrison were located on the peninsula, carefully located so as to minimize their response time to any possible landing zone.

There did exist patches of open ground on Vasaius, suitable as landing zones for a planetary assault.  Some of these clearings were cultivated or pastoral land, but regardless of the peacetime use, each location was a carefully constructed kill zone surrounded by camouflaged anti-air defenses and pre-sighted artillery batteries.

A planetary assault against the peninsula would first have to survive the long barrage of defense laser fire, each one capable of destroying a landing craft with a single shot or damaging their mother craft in orbit.  The ships would also have to deal with the massive anti-ship missiles launched from the planet, complicating the already delicate landing operations.  Landing craft would have to dodge wave after wave of anti-air missiles launched from the surface, not to mention evading the Thunderbolt fighters and Marauder fighter-bombers, eager to riddle them with autocannon and lascannon fire and even more missiles.  

Approaching their landing zones, the landing craft would have to slow down to make a safe landing, and by then they would be well within the range of the Hydra Flak guns.  Touching down, they would come under fire of the Earthshaker artillery emplacements and heavy mortar positions, capable of destroying the landing craft and anything they carried.  If any landing craft survived this onslaught long enough to disembark their cargo and take off, they’d only have to go through it all again, flying back to orbit to retrieve the next wave.

The troops left on the ground, if any had made it this far, would remain in the open under the constant artillery fire.  Desperate to move out of the kill zones, they would make for the trees, right into the waiting arms of the Imperial Guard and Danoan Planetary Defense Force, with their mortars, autocannons, heavy bolters, grenade launchers, and thousands upon thousands of lasguns.  

To the Danoan planners and the Imperial Guard General Staff, the defense plan was exhaustive in its detail and brutal in its execution.  The normally cool and assured General Medvedovsky had even allowed himself to smile once he had finished reading the plans and gave them his stamp of approval.

The general staff’s tech-priest, with careful consultation of the cogitators and much burning of incense, had confidently predicted a 96.2% chance of complete failure of any realistically anticipated attack.  Some staff officers even boasted that the defenses could repel an assault by the Adeptus Astartes--not that there would ever be a reason for that.  No matter how it was analyzed, it was clear that any planetary assault on the Vasaius peninsula would be extremely costly to the attacker.

But the Tau weren’t going to play along.  

The tau had a plan for the invasion of Danoan, and those plans did not include a planetary assault on either Panae or the Vasaius peninsula.  They had practiced the approach and landing five times over Viridis Sept itself.  Lessons learned during each practice run were incorporated into the plan.  All that remained was to execute it. 

The warships of the invasion fleet deactivated their gravitic wings and soared into Danoan space. Several Kass’l-class escorts detached from the gravitic hooks of their parent vessels and took up covering positions around them.  

The fleet detected the presence of Imperial warships almost immediately, and two of the Lar’shi-class cruisers and two squadrons of Kir’qath escorts were dispatched to intercept.  Upon seeing the Imperials turn tail and flee, the ships were recalled to provide cover for the landing force.
Five thousand reconnaissance drones were launched from the tau warships, spreading out in every direction to arc around the planet, embracing it from all angles.  Each one turned their sensors to the surface.  Planetary defense systems attempted to lock on to the drones, but were saturated by the sheer number of targets.  Danoan’s ground based defenses were designed to take on warships in orbit and descending dropships, not thousands of reconnaissance drones a half-meter in diameter.

Next came several dozen assault drones, launched on high trajectories towards the Imperial early warning satellites, picking them off as their weapons came into range.  Each drone then went into standby mode, powering down and awaiting further orders.  

Careful to approach Danoan from the side of the planet opposite Vasaius, the warships began their descent.  Passing below geostationary orbit, they fired their main drives on a vector carefully calculated to continue to descend, while remaining well below the horizon of the peninsula.  
By now, datastreams were pouring in from the network of reconnaissance drones, including high resolution maps of the entire planet’s surface in multiple wavelengths, reporting on vox transmissions, energy signatures, population centers, and defenses.  These were run through the fleet’s analysis systems, comparing them to pre-war intelligence.  Preliminary analyses vindicated the plan of attack.  More detailed campaign simulations were initiated immediately, so as to refine options in case something went wrong.  
The Kir’qath-class escort Men’siet was tasked with neutralizing any nearby surface threat.  This side of the planet was sparsely populated, with no settlement exceeding a few thousand inhabitants.  The only worthwhile targets were communications hubs and a single early warning sensor site.  The Men’siet powered up its railguns, locked on target, and systematically fired volleys of massive kinetic rounds through the atmosphere, annihilating each target one by one.
As the carriers descended below one thousand kilometers altitude, the landing operations began.  Launch bay doors opened, and squadrons of multiple types of craft disembarked.  First were the fighters, plunging towards the atmosphere to sweep the area and make absolutely sure there would be no opposition for the landing.
Following them were transports, which would be working long and hard for days to come, shuttling load of troops and materiel to the surface.  The larger transports were Type 31 Combat Transports, known to the gue’la as Manta Missile Destroyers.  In truth, the Manta was both a transport and a miniature warship.  Armed with heavy railguns, ion cannons and seeker missiles, it could also carry the better part of a standard tau hunter cadre. 

In greater numbers were multiple versions of the tau utility transport craft, all codenamed Orca by the gue’la.  Most carried some combination fire warriors, drones, battlesuits, and supplies.
The fighters coasted unpowered, their launch trajectories allowing them to conserve fuel for when it would be needed.  They hit the atmosphere at a shallow angle, decelerating rapidly in the thickening air.  Gliding thousands of kilometers, their ultimate destination was on the opposite side of a mountain range several hundred kilometers away from Vasaius.  Their descent profiles had been carefully calculated to keep them out of line of sight from the planetary defense systems.
Based on data from the reconnaissance drones, a suitable landing zone was chosen for the tau staging area, consisting of a large clearing in a valley protected between two mountain spurs. All the landing craft rendezvoused at this location, disembarking their cargo and returning skyward.
The first wave of transports brought down a security element consisting of battlesuits and fire warriors, which took up positions to protect the landing zone.  An earth caste engineer contingent followed soon after, drones and construction vehicles pouring out of the transports.  Air caste fighters patrolled overhead.  
The earth caste engineers and their drone assistants assembled pre-fabricated factories, while other engineers began leveling the landing zone with their construction vehicles.  The displaced soil was carried to the factories, where the raw material went in, and a form of concrete came out.  Pre-invasion analysis had predicted the composition of the local soil, and determined a formula for producing a concrete to pave a landing strip capable of handling transports.  Unfortunately Danoan’s soil composition was different than predicted, and the resulting concrete was not as strong as required.  The engineers adjusted the composition and mix ratios, and the problem was corrected, but not before the timetables were set back hours.  
The tempo of arriving transports was also too aggressive, and they could not be unloaded before each successive wave arrived.  The concrete landing strip’s purpose was to facilitate the unloading process, and the delay in its construction compounded the delay.  Here the training exercises proved their worth, and the commanders were able to adapt to minimize the problems as mere inconveniences in an otherwise flawless operation.
The initial Imperial response was panic.  The navy had left orbit.  The reconnaissance satellites were destroyed, and the planetary communications network was down.  Before all the sensor systems went down, they learned that the tau were landing beyond the mountains, beyond the reach of the defense lasers.  The tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus were attempting to repurpose some of the anti-ship plasma missiles into ballistic missiles, but their re-consecration rituals would take far too long.  The ground forces were all concentrated in and around the Vasaius Peninsula, and would take days to get into a position to attack.
General Medvedovsky’s charisma forestalled Governor Murdanes’ talk of surrender.  While General Raitev and the Imperial Guard colonels began work on a revised defensive strategy, Medvedovsky revealed his plan for a countermove.

The only viable option was an airstrike.  Commander Martin strenuously objected to the idea.  He had only one squadron of Thunderbolt fighters and one squadron of Marauder Bombers under his command.  They would be far better served defending the capital and the peninsula, under the protective bubble of their air defenses.  Medvedovsky’s proposed mission would send them hundreds of kilometers away, with no hope of support, to attack a tau force of unknown size whose location was uncertain at best.  The risks were extreme.  General Medvedovsky heard his objections and dismissed them.  The beachhead must be struck, he argued, and their operations delayed.  If the tau were able to consolidate their position, they would be able to amass a large ground force and attack the capital quickly.  Medvedovsky needed time to prepare the defenses to repel a ground attack.  Every effort must be made to stall the tau until the Imperial Navy returned with reinforcements.  Martin’s two squadrons, Medvedovsky ordered, would engage in raid after raid against the tau forces, harrying them and slowing them down as they advanced.  For his part, Martin was convinced that their first raid would probably be their last.

Stay tuned for Chapter Two, Part 3...

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