Imperator Ajax swung its right arm in a powerful haymaker, lightning cracking in coruscating blue arcs across its fist. The blow connected with the cheek of a Reaver memory-stream inloads identified as Honorum Lustrati. Princeps Kinine Falco doubted the machine still went by that name. The last pict-recordings of Honorum Lustrati existed within the historia-stacks of Legio Implacalis on Antilles. They were dated over ten thousand years ago, during a time known to modern memory as the Horus Heresy. Brother had turned against brother in that bitter civil war, and god-machine had turned against god-machine. Whatever this titan was now, it was clear to Falco it no longer was Honorum Lustrati as it had once been. The Reaver’s armor plating was pitted and wasted in sections, visible evidence of the corruption visited upon it by its masters over thousands of years of darkness.
Falco gritted his teeth and forced as much energy into Imperator Ajax’s follow-through as he could. Plasteel bowed under the force of the blow and sparks cascaded down to land around the feet of both iron giants. Honorum Lustrati staggered backwards as its gyroscopic stabilizers attempted to compensate for the shift in its center of gravity. The Reaver growled, its war horns sounding a wheezing gurgle that might have once been defiant but now only reminded Falco of a dying man’s last gasp.
Imperator Ajax pressed its advantage, reversing the swing to smash in the other side of Honorum Lustrati’s face. The Reaver finally toppled backwards, slamming into an empty hab-stack. The building shuddered, threatening to collapse under the weight of the massive machine. Honorum Lustrati fought back. The chainblade mounted on its arm screamed bloody vengeance and it swung the weapon even as it lost its balance, trying to pierce Imperator Ajax through the gut and claim a killing blow.
Falco anticipated the move. It was clumsy and desperate. Imperator Ajax opened its massive hand and caught the incoming weapon on its palm. Sparks flew and lightning flashed as diamond-tipped teeth clashed with coruscating energy field. Falco closed the Warlord’s mighty fist and squeezed until that spinning saw blade buckled and came off its riders. Imperator Ajax pulled back, forcing Honorum Lustrati to extend its captured arm.
‘Sunfury,’ Falco ordered. Davin Crenshaw sent a ping of affirmation across the manifold. The moderati shifted the Warlord’s massive plasma annihilator and Falco felt a surge of energy in his left arm as it charged.
‘Fire.’ There was no need for Falco to speak the order. Connected as they were through the manifold, the other members of Imperator Ajax’s crew all understood what their princeps wished the moment the thought crossed his mind. But Falco spoke anyway. Perhaps, on some level, it was reassurance that he was still human enough to do so. That he had not yet begun that long descent into madness that every princeps who did not die in battle suffered. The dark struggle that would see him consumed by Imperator Ajax’s machine spirit and leave his body little more than a raving husk. That was the sacrifice he accepted, his part of the bargain that turned him into a god. Despite it all, Kinine Falco knew in his heart it was a bargain he would never decline for any reason.
Imperator Ajax roared. The plasma annihilator discharged, the flare bright enough to activate the auto-dimmers fixed to the Warlord’s viewports. Honorum Lustrati’s arm came apart at the elbow. Plasma fire melted armor plating and turned servos to slag. The Reaver screamed in pain. Hydraulic oil fountained from ruptured fuel lines like blood. Imperator Ajax tossed the severed limb away before reaching for Honorum Lustrati’s battered head. Huge digits, each the size of a cargo-16, pierced the Reaver’s metallic flesh. Imperator Ajax pulled. Princeps Falco put all his effort into ripping his foe’s head clean from its shoulders. Honorum Lustrati wailed. It lifted the thermal cannon mounted on its remaining arm in an attempt to defend itself, but Imperator Ajax pinned it down with the barrel of its Sunfury. Sparks hissed and spat. Metal shrieked as it was torn asunder. Then, with a horrible snapping sound, Honorum Lustrati’s head came free. The titan slumped back against the ruined hab-stack.
‘Engine kill,’ intoned Moderati Crenshaw.
Magos-Dominus Belfield Gott watched Imperator Ajax’s victory play out in miniature on his hololtih display. The titans were little more than dots of green light picked out amongst the wire frame display of Iben Hive’s out-habs by red brackets but, thanks to the combat information streaming in from the Warlord’s data-disseminators, Gott could visualize the fight unfolding as if he stood there himself. He mused on it. He recognized had he still been able to feel emotion, he might have rejoiced at Imperator Ajax’s kill. But the logical side of him reminded him that this victory was but one in a data set where the odds were ever shifting away from Legio Implacablis’ favor. Imperator Ajax and the other Lord Defenders had thus far earned their Legio’s moniker. But if they were not outmatched, they were most certainly outgunned and outnumbered. They were not fighting the engines of Legio Enflax, Omnissiah damn their name, so much as they were fighting time.
Iben Hive would fall. Gott was sure of that. The only remaining question, one that he struggled with as the answer seemed to change with every new inload of combat data, was how much time remained?
‘Magos.’ Gott turned his myriad optics to the robed tech-menial that stood just inside the shadows cast by the hololith.
‘We have received transmissions from Admiral Blackensburgh,’ the tech-menial continued, unperturbed by Gott’s artificial gaze. ‘He has broken through the heretek fleet and has provided us a window of opportunity.’
‘Does he know how long that window will last?’ The tech-menial shook its head. ‘He did not say. But cursory data analysis suggests the probability of success to be ninety percent for the first five minutes, fifty-seven percent by fifteen minutes, and zero-point-zero-zero-two-nine percent by thirty.’
Gott checked the math in his head and, after a moment’s contemplation, found the tech-menial’s appraisal to be within an acceptable margin of error. ‘Addendum: I do not think Heretek Kruel will give us thirty minutes,’ Gott replied. He turned back to the hololith, his mind whirling. Even if the Imperial Navy managed to break through and effect an evacuation of Iben’s highest ranking Magi, there was still the issue of recovering the engines of Legio Implacablis. To lose a demi-legio of titans would be a devastating loss, even for a forge world as prodigious as Antilles. Gott doubted Implacablis’ magos-executors would ever entertain his petitions for support again.
‘What of the titan-arks in low orbit?’ Gott asked. The tech-menial twitched as it accessed the noospheric data network to retrieve the requested information. ‘They remain untouched,’ it said. ‘The fighters and other escort vessels of the Legio fleet have done a commendable job protecting their charges while incurring only a twelve percent casualty rate.’
Gott mused with some mild humor how twelve percent under other conditions might have been deemed a failure.
‘Have they requested aid?’
‘No, Magos. There have been no distress signals, emergency data-flares, or other such calls for assistance. By the numbers it appears as if the Legio is content to fight this war alone.’
‘They just might have to, by the end,’ Gott murmured.
‘Damn jackals,’ Falco spat. He watched another Warhound skirt the edge of his field of vision, the hunchbacked engine ducking behind the cover offered by a multilevel car park. The smaller titans weren’t as heavily armed or armored as Imperator Ajax, but they were quicker by far, and they used that speed to their advantage.
‘Sensori!’ Falco barked. Sensori Vraxus Sartek peered down at his cogitator’s display, bionic eyes following the sweeping arm as it went around and around. ‘Contact lost, my princeps,’ he intoned. He sent the info-packet through the manifold for Falco to read himself, just in case there was any doubt. ‘Predictive cogitations suggest target reacquisition at bearing three-three-nine.’
‘How confident are you in that prediction, Sensori?’
‘I anticipate a probability of success of seventy-two percent.’
‘Very well. Moderati Crenshaw, begin targeting solution for predictive acquisition. Fire on my mark.’
‘Yes, my princeps.’ Imperator Ajax shifted sideways, sidestepping down the empty four-lane street in order to keep its plasma annihilator aimed where Sartek expected the Warhound to reappear. It was one of three remaining in a pack of engines that had started five strong. A long shot kill from Deus Interfectorum’s volcano cannon had severed the leg of one just above the knee, removing it from play. Secutarii titan-guard had swarmed it and finished the kill. The Reaver Ferrus Corpus had used its thermal cannon to hole a second Warhound through its plasma core. The resulting overload and explosion had taken both the Warhound and Ferrus Corpus to an early grave. The names of the Reaver’s crew would be preserved in the Legio’s headquarters back on Antilles, etched on the walls of the Concursus Gloriam where so many other fallen heroes were memorialized.
‘Contact!’ Sartek shouted.
‘Fire!’ Falco replied. Crenshaw complied, sending a starburst of plasma fire screaming down the street just as the Warhound poked its head out from behind the car park. The engine braced, absorbing the first two shots on its void shields. The third shot blew those shields out, and they collapsed with the sound of thunder. The fourth and final shot struck the Warhound in the face, knocking it backwards and sending its legs out from underneath it. Imperator Ajax advanced as the smaller engine attempted to right itself.
‘Turbolasers,’ Falco said. Imperator Ajax’s shoulder-mounted weapons swiveled to target the prone Warhound. The traitor machine growled and hissed as it tried to right itself. Falco thought perhaps somewhere in that feral behavior was a plea for mercy. He scoffed. There would be no mercy today. Or any day, for that matter. Falco tightened his hand into a fist and blue-white light illuminated the street as Imperator Ajax fired its weapons, riddling the fallen Warhound with high-powered las.
‘Energy spike!’ Sartek warned. ‘Warhound likely to-‘ An explosion cut the sensori off and the Warhound’s left side disappeared in a ball of fire as its magazines cooked off and detonated. The blast washed over Imperator Ajax, the worst of it fizzling impotently off the Warlord’s void shields.
‘Engine kill?’ Falco asked.
‘Engine kill,’ Crenshaw replied. ‘Three down. Two more to go.’
Torrent of Fire had a reputation, one earned by namesake and preserved by heroic deed. The Avenger-class grand cruiser was a rare beast, and venerable. It was the hero of a dozen campaigns, and innumerable single-actions that left her with a list of victories as long as she was from the tip of her armored bow to the wide engine blocks protruding from her stern. She wasn’t a sleek warship by any means, but she boasted dozens of macrobatteries, their bristling barrels enough to suggest what her role in void warfare was. Torrent of Fire was a brutally heavy hitter, particularly in short range engagements. The weight of her broadside could overwhelm an unprepared foe before they had a chance to return fire. She was a line-breaker, a pugilist, a close quarters brawler, and that was precisely how Admiral Haden Blackensburgh intended to use her.
Another enemy vessel broke apart under the onslaught of Torrent of Fire’s guns. Armor plating drifted listlessly in its wake and atmosphere vented from gaps in the hull like streamers of blood. The dead ship bucked suddenly as its plasma engines overloaded and in the next second it was gone, immolated as its heart erupted through its plasteel skin.
Blackenburgh allowed himself a grim smile. The success of his attack had been predicated on surprise and speed. Thus far, both were working to his immeasurable favor. But time had a way of killing surprise, and speed was of no use when you were surrounded. His goal was to blow a hole in the blockade, and buy the Mechanicus ships in low orbit enough time to escape and jump to warp before retreating again. It felt bitter to him, that he should consign the planet over to the enemy, but that was strategy. If they could get out the techno-magi and the titans, then the Imperium could return in greater strength.
‘Admiral,’ called Kieran Veniss, Blackenburgh’s communications officer. She was a wiry woman, tall and thin enough to suggest one of her parents might have been void-born. Her facial features, however, suggested noble blood. The kind of noble blood that won you a position on a flagship typically reserved for officers with twice your seniority. ‘Incoming transmission from Ark of Antilles.’
‘Put it through, Lieutenant.’ Blackensburgh clasped his hands behind his back as the hologram of a man in hooded robes of blue, red, and silver manifested before him. Only Blackensburgh knew this wasn’t a man. Not in the traditional sense, at least. Around the figure’s neck was a chain, and from that chain hung a pendant forged in the shape of a cog and overlaid with the sigil of the Lord Defenders- a white stone keep protected by a pair of crossed silver axes.
‘Magos-Executor,’ Blackensburgh said diplomatically. ‘I trust you and your engines are keeping well?’
‘As well as ever, Admiral. A titan was not made to gather dust, after all. Their machine spirits need confrontation as sure as you and I need oxygen.’ Rosarius Canberra smiled. It was a fake smile. An engineered smile. One designed to always be friendly and reassuring, just like the rest of him. Canberra’s role within Legio Implacablis was political. He was the Legio’s Magos-Executor. He was the one that met with parties petitioning for the support of the Lord Defenders. He was the one that ultimately decided when and where Implacablis’ god-machines walked. Because of the frequency with which he interacted with those outside of the Legio, and those unfamiliar with the tenets of Red Mars, Canberra still retained a mostly human appearance. His augments were more subtler than those of other Mechanicus priests. But sometimes a keen eye could spy them.
Blackensburgh noted the strange way Canberra’s eyes glowed, even in holographic form. It was the most obvious of the Magos’ alterations, but everything about him was just slightly off. As if he had been built to impersonate a human by something that didn’t fully understand humanity.
‘You hailed us, Magos-Executor,’ the admiral said. His tone was diplomatic. ‘How can we assist?’
Canberra smiled again. Blackensburgh found he was not getting used to it. ‘My logisticians have analyzed your attack plan and run the implicating calculus of it. We recognize the need to break out from the heretek blockade, Admiral, but…’
Blackensburgh raised an eyebrow. ‘But, Magos-Executor?’
‘But by my calculations, you will not be able to buy us the time we need to disengage the Legio from Iben Hive and evacuate them.’
‘And how much time would you need me to buy you in order to make this a successful venture?’
Blackensburgh grimaced, and he did not care if Canberra saw it. ‘That is a steep ask, Magos-Executor.’
‘Yes. But it is necessary. I cannot allow my engines to remain on Iben unsupported. The loss that would incur would cripple the Legio for decades.’
‘I do not have the ships to-‘
‘I will supplement your forces.’ Canberra gestured to someone off screen and his image disappeared to be replaced with a tactical display of the orbital war. Blackensburgh’s relief fleet were carving a corridor through Ziphion Kruel’s heretek fleet, but it was clear they were woefully outnumbered and a protracted engagement would be to their detriment. Blackensburgh’s gaze fell to the Mechanicus fleet anchored beneath the blockade. Data streams and ident-cards marked out most of the vessels as either titan bulk-carriers or escort craft. The carriers would be needed to evacuate the titans. The escorts were primarily classed as cruisers. “I do realize they may not be visually imposing,” Canberra said, his voice coming from the projection despite his visual absence. “But I can assure you my vessels boast as much, if not more firepower than your own fleet.”
‘What do you suggest tactically?’
‘A pincer, of sorts.’ The display began to shift, playing out Canberra’s strategy even as he proposed it. “My ships will help create the corridor. Then they will help you hold it. My captains have already been instructed to obey your orders as if they were mine. As I will need to focus on the recovery operations, Admiral, I will cede overall orbital command to you. Is that acceptable?”
‘Is that sufficient for my six hours?’
‘Yes, I believe it is.’
‘Shields holding at thirty-seven percent, my princeps!’ Moderati Crenshaw called. Falco gripped the arms of his command throne, just barely registering the information coming to him through the manifold. Imperator Ajax snarled and spat, its machine spirit railing
against the order to retreat. Falco could not blame it. He too felt the hot disappointment of ceding the field to a lesser foe boiling in his chest. But the order had come from Magos-Executor Canberra himself, and there was no disobeying it. Legio Implacablis was to pull back to the walls of Iben Hive and defend the refinery flats to the northeast as they waited for the bulk-carriers in orbit to descend and provide emergency extraction.
‘Understood, Moderati.’ Falco sighed, less in exasperation and more out of habit. He always sighed as he let his consciousness fall deeper into Imperator Ajax. Sometimes it was not enough to command a god-machine. Sometimes you had to become it. Mortal sight faded, replaced with the Warlord’s auspex readings. Ears made of flesh became audio receptors. Vocal chords became a blaring war horn. Hands became weapons of incalculable power. The princeps became the machine, and in doing so allowed himself to range out of his body and see the battlefield more clearly.
The Lord Defenders were on the run. Thirty titans had become twenty, and twenty had become fifteen. Meanwhile, the engines of Legio Enflax had only grown in number as reinforcements from other battlefields had converged on Iben and its defenders. Even now, Imperator Ajax struggled to turn aside the blows from two enemy titans, both equal in stature and class to the mighty Warlord. Imperator Ajax walked backwards through the ruins of the out-habs just so it could keep its weapons trained on its aggressors.
‘My princeps, I do not believe the void shields can sustain another barrage like that!’
‘They will have to, Moderati,’ Falco snapped back. His anger and frustration rippled across the manifold and caused Crenshaw to visibly flinch. “They will have to or we must accept we are fated to die here today. And I refuse to die while running.”
Imperator Ajax snarled in agreement. ‘Steersman, turn us about. Increase stride to ahead full. Trample anything in our path. Your sole objective is to get us within range of the defensive silos mounted on Iben’s walls.’
‘Aye, my princeps.’ Imperator Ajax began to turn, ponderous steps shaking the earth and felling buildings that had thus far managed to remain upright. Falco counter-rotated the Warlord’s torso at the waist, keeping the titan’s weapons aimed where they would be of most use, even as Steersman Vorthax milked as much speed as he could from the engine’s locomotors and Imperator Ajax stepped into the shadow of Iben Hive.
Iben stood like a lonely mountain in an otherwise flat and bleak landscape. Its walls rose around it like a curtain of ferrocrete and plasteel, dwarfing even the mighty Warlord titan that now sought refuge in their shadow. Kilometers thick, the walls were made that much more formidable by defensive hard-points positioned at strategic intervals along their length. Such weapon mounts boasted everything from silos for apocalypse missiles to gun turrets for volcano cannons and plasma annihilators. To assault such a defense was to incur massive casualties. But defenses were nothing without the souls that manned them.
Imperator Ajax shook again as a glancing blow ricocheted off its void shields. Falco gritted his teeth and forced down the pain throbbing in the sides of his head. The shields were close to collapse and if they went down, his engine was as good as gone.
‘Sensori,’ he snapped. Vraxus Sartek whipped around in his chair to look at Falco, ignoring the irate grate in the princeps’ voice. ‘Where is the nearest hive defensive point?’
Sartek quickly scrolled through the manifold data pertaining to Iben Hive. He found the relevant packet and sent it to Falco across the manifold in the blink of an eye. ‘There is an apocalypse missile silo on level 23-B, bearing-‘
‘Feed it our targeting data for Herculean Lance. I want at least one of those monsters off our backs. Moderati, funnel all weapons power into the Sunfury. Be prepared to fire on my mark.’
‘Aye, my princeps,’ came the chorused reply.
Kulgath Rho-Eta never imagined he would bear witness to such an epoch. Kulgath Rho-Eta was not designed to think. He was designed to obey. And so independent thought was the furthest thing from his mind. He and thousands of skitarii like him formed the backbone of Iben Hive’s soldiery, dozens of macroclades loyal to the Magi that commanded them who were in turn loyal to Magos-Dominus Gott. Kulgath Rho-Eta was simply a very tiny cog in a much greater machine. Right now, his function was to man the targeting cogitator of Silo Centauri 23-B. Frustratingly, for he was only somewhat certain it was frustration he was feeling, the war machines of Legio Enflax had remained out of range of his weapon, consigning Kulgath to watch the engine war through the data streams of what little of the hive’s noosphere he could access.
Suddenly, Kulgath’s console lit up with a data inload request. Before he could verify, the request was overridden and the inload initiated. For a moment, Kulgath feared corruption. That somehow the enemy had slipped in through the firewalls and encryption bombs to hijack Iben’s defense system. But as his cognitator chirped, announcing the inload complete, Kulgath could see the authorization code came from a princeps of Legio Implacablis. In the next instant, he realized that princeps had given him positional data for a target beyond the range of his silo’s fire control system.
But not out of range of the silo itself. ‘Blessed be the Omnissiah, for thou hast gifted me with holy purpose.’ Augmented hands danced across the interface panel with a speed only the machine could confer and in a matter of seconds, Kulgath had the targeting information transmitted to his fire control cogitator and then to every other hard point within range. He felt the silo shudder as its doors heaved themselves open, revealing two dozen warheads already in place and waiting to be unleashed. Something in him sent a spark of thrill coursing along his nervous system, but he dampened it.
He pressed the firing stud and unleashed hell.
Magos-Dominus Belfield Gott paused to investigate an abnormality in Iben Hive’s defense protocols. Several hard points were firing without chain-authority from his office. But his concerns were quelled when he saw the stamp of the Lord Defenders upon the request. He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Efficient, yes, but the fact Implacablis’ engines were close enough to the walls to coordinate such strikes meant that time was running out. ‘Magos-Dominus.’
Gott’s attention was pulled from the battlefield by a red-robed tech-adept. Gott recognized him as Esper Thoak.
‘You are the only one left, Magos-Dominus.’ Gott nodded. Thoak wasn’t one of his underlings. Not technically, anyway. Thoak’s fealty was given to Magos Hektaron. She was the overseer of Iben’s plasteel foundries. Her watchful eye saw millions of sets of flak plate shipped offworld to the waiting regiments of the Astra Militarum. Hektaron’s fealty was, in turn, owed to Gott himself. Knowing the woman’s nature, the fact she had sent Thoak to fetch the Magos-Dominus spoke of two things- Hektaron was already aboard one of the evacuation shuttles, and she still found Gott’s influence beneficial to her. The Magos-Dominus felt some amusement at that. The others would have been fine to leave him behind, then sort out a new pecking order.
‘So I am. I suppose there is no need for further delay.’ Gott adjusted his grasp on his rod of office. The coils beneath the polished brass head sparked to life at his touch, the item recognizing Gott as its master. Gott often used it as a walking stick, hobbling along at his own pace. The image it created belied the old warrior beneath the robes, and the fact the rod contained a powerful electro-pulse that, in an emergency, could fry wiring and nervous systems with equal ease.
Gott followed Thoak to the flight platform, where an Aquila-pattern shuttle waited for him on the tarmac. The lander thrummed with pent up energy, its engines whining their need for flight. Gott could see the other magi already in their seats. The emergency had meant all retinues had to be left behind, a fact that was sitting better with some than others. Gott couldn’t help but notice the way Magos-Biologis Dennefol’s dendrites twitched as he ran his hand over his axe.
Hektaron fared better, her demeanor as calm and cool as ever. Gott offered her a diplomatic nod, and mused again how she had sent Thoak to find him. Thoak would need to find another means of conveyance off world if he hoped to survive.
A bright flash overhead suddenly illuminated the sky and Gott’s optics automatically dampened the sudden influx of light to his receptors. The sky was full of fire, and criss-crossed this way and that with trails of smoke and exhaust. Something big was exploding. It had to be big for the flare of it to register beneath the curtain of smog and pollution that hung over Iben. Something had happened in the orbital war.
Gott did not dare ponder what it might mean if the evacuation fleet had gone up in flames.
Torrent of Fire was wounded. Admiral Haden Blackensburgh silenced the alarms that continued to blare in his ear as if he needed them at all to remind him of the damage done to his flagship. Half the bridge crew was dead, fallen to the deck or slumped over their overloaded consoles. Starboard shields were down to fifteen percent capacity and port shields had collapsed entirely. Decks twenty-seven to forty-nine were open to the void and macrobatteries were firing at just thirty percent of their effective rate. The cruiser was limping badly, but she was alive. That was more than her challenger could claim.
The destruction of Diablus Divinatus had come as a stroke of luck. While the two cruisers were almost an identical match in terms of tonnage, Diablus Divinatus had both the benefit of being undamaged at the onset of the duel, and a longer reach thanks to her lance batteries. Torrent of Fire had weathered the worst of it, enough to get in close and swing back. Diablus Divinatus had turned hard to port in an attempt to put more distance between the two cruisers, but in doing so had crossed the path of one of her escorts. The lighter cruiser, unable to stop or change course in time, had rammed Diablus Divinatus in her engine block, setting off a chain reaction that destroyed both vessels and severely hobbed three others.
Blackensburgh flipped the vox open. ‘Magos-Executor,’ he said, wiping the blood off his cheek. ‘There is your opening, and your six hours. Make use of it, or die with the rest of us.’
The vox hissed static before solidifying into a voice. ‘-y calculations, the timer still holds thirty minutes, Admiral,’ Rosarius Canberra said. Blackensburgh wasn’t sure if the smug tone in the Magos-Executor’s voice was genuine or simply one of the more unfortunate engineerings that made up the man.
‘Magos, I do not think I need to tell you we do not have thirty minutes.’
‘Have faith, Admiral. After all, the Omnissiah protects.’
Imperator Ajax snarled as the ramp of the bulk-carrier’s prow doors swung open and the ramp extended down. Gantry cranes extended forth from within the vessel’s cavernous maw, ready to assist in loading the remaining god-machines. There were three left- the Warlords Imperator Ajax and Deus Interfectorum and the Reaver Ferrum Questor. Three engines against twenty or more. Kinine Falco brought up the auspex display just to double check. Deus Interfectorum had managed to keep the larger enemy war machines at bay with its twin volcano cannons, but it was only a matter of time before Legio Enflax realized they had such an advantage in numbers that even the Imperial Avengers sortieing from their carriers in orbit to launch ground strikes on the traitor engines would not be enough to stem the tide.
Time was running out. Falco opened a vox-link to the other two titans. ‘Our ride is here, ladies and gentlemen,’ he said dourly. ‘Princeps Vorak, embark first. Princeps Soran and I will cover you. Soran, I take it you are not opposed to boarding Deus Interfectorum last. You have the longest reach of us, and will be able to fight longer without risking letting the foe get too close.’
Soran laughed, his voice booming merrily across the vox. Sometimes Falco felt Soran enjoyed the thrill of combat too much. He might have been better suited for a Reaver, kitted out for close combat. He did not remark on what regrets the man might have pertaining to his assigned god-engine, however. He knew, as they all knew, to be a princeps of any titan was a blessing, one that was not spurned for any reason. ‘Here, Kinine, I thought you would want the enemy to close. I know how skilled you are with that claw of yours.’
‘I appreciate the compliment, Seamus,’ Falco replied. ‘You can offer more when we are safe aboard the carrier.’
Vorak snorted. Her tone was thin and clipped. Ferrum Questor had suffered greatly in combat against a pack of Warhounds and their Reaver master. Falco could tell Vorak was feeling it. ‘The carrier is only the first step to safety,’ she wheezed. ‘Part of me would rather die on my feet fighting than wait to see if we are blown to bits in space.’
‘Yes, but that decision is not yours to make, is it Sedina?’ Soran replied. ‘Canberra has spoken! The Legio retreats.’
‘The Legio will return to fight another day,’ Falco said. ‘Now, Sedina, get aboard.’
Belfield Gott stepped onto the bridge of Ark of Antilles, his noosphere offering the crew and ship’s commander the appropriate binaric greeting. None turned to acknowledge him, even as the steady tap tap tap of his rod made its way deeper into the space. Their focus was on the void war, and getting the Legio’s fleet out of orbit where they could safely make a warp jump. Gott paused a moment, curiosity getting the better of him as he dipped into the ship’s data sphere to find just how far they were from salvation.
Twelve minutes. Gott smiled. Truly the Omnissiah was with them. ‘Magos-Dominus?’ A figure called for Gott. He stood at the far end of the bridge, framed by the doorway to the Ark of Antilles’ combat engagement center. The man was clothed in the robes of the Martian priesthood, but if Gott had not been able to read his noosphere, there was nothing from this distance to indicate he was a member.
‘Magos-Executor Canberra, I trust?’ Gott asked, as he drew even with the man.
‘Correct, Magos-Dominus. Glad to see you still alive.’
‘No short thanks to your engines, Magos-Executor. Are we all here?’
‘As here as we can be.’
‘Good.’ Gott stepped into the darkened room. At its center was a large tac-com display, complete with hololith and associated projectors. Around the table stood other members of Legio Implacablis. Their uniforms and rank markings denoted them all as princeps. They were all tired and haggard looking. Mixed among them were the magi of Iben, including both Magos Hektaron and her underling Adept Thoak. It seemed the latter had been lucky after all.
The last remaining figure was a holoprojection of Admiral Haden Blackensburgh. The man had a nasty wound across his brow, and his body sagged with mortal fatigue. To his credit though, he stood as straight and proud as any officer of the Navy. Bruised but unbroken.
He would have made an excellent skitarii, Gott thought as he placed himself between Hektaron and Canberra.
‘Now that everyone is here,’ Canberra began. ‘I wish to extend my deepest gratitude to Admiral Blackensburgh and the Imperial Navy. If not for their sacrifices, we would all be dead.’
Blackensburgh did not reply. He simply inclined his head respectfully. It was hard to tell if he bought into Canberra’s platitudes or not. Yes, an excellent skitarii, Gott thought again.
‘Iben Hive has been lost to us,’ Canberra continued. ‘And with it, no small amount of production value in this sector. I believe we all know abandoning it is out of the question.’ Several hooded heads bobbed in their agreement with the Magos-Executor’s assessment. The princeps remained as stoically silent as Blackensburgh.
‘I have contacted my fellow Magi-Executors within the Legio. Those that are able, will rendezvous with us at Saprasen Prime. Those that cannot are calling in favors to other Legios in order to lend us their strength. When Implacablis walks again before the walls of Iben, our force will be undeniable.’
There was a brief murmur amongst the magi. Canberra let it stew for a moment, sensing their appreciation and awe as their minds worked to imagine what power an entire legion of titans could bring to bear.
‘Admiral Blackensburgh has also informed me that Battlefleet Scrollus will be deployed in support as well. And I have asked the Iron Strykers Astartes Chapter as well as Knight-House Vorthax for aid. Implacablis has worked with both in the past, always to great effect.’
Another murmur. ‘Rest assured, my fellow magi, Iben Hive will be ours once again, and restored to the glory that is rightful of any bastion of the Omnissiah.’ Canberra bowed his head reverently and made the sign of the cog. He smiled inwardly as Gott and his magi vocalized their approval. Even with all their augments and advantages, the priests of mars could be played as easily as any mortal crowd.
‘Query: How soon?’ Canberra turned his gaze to the female magos beside Gott. ‘Clarification: How soon will we make our return?’ she asked again.
‘Rough estimates indicate our return to Iben to continue this war will be no sooner than four months away,’ Canberra replied. “And that is if all goes well in preparing.”
‘And if not?’
‘Then I cannot say, Magos.; Canberra tilted his head slightly, a human gesture more than a machine one. ;Is there something we need to account for in the timing that we are not aware of?;
‘There is not.’ All eyes turned to Gott. The Magos-Dominus waved a dismissive hand. ‘Magos Hektaron is simply overzealous to reclaim what is ours, isn’t that right?’
Hektaron nodded slowly. ‘Yes. Apologies.’ Canberra looked from Magos to Magos, his eyes narrowed. ‘Very well. If there is nothing else, I suggest we all retire. We will be making the jump to warp in-‘
Ark of Antilles shuddered suddenly as a warning klaxon sounded. Blackensburgh’s holoprojection fizzled and disappeared. The shuddering turned to a harsh vibrating and then a sudden lurch before fading back to an eerie stillness.
‘Now,’ Canberra said. ‘I believe we have all earned ourselves some rest.’ The gathered magi nodded, and one by one began to file out of the room to go their separate ways. Gott was last, loitering to thank the princeps, all of whom had remained silent during the debriefing. Then he too disappeared to make himself comfortable somewhere in the bowels of the ship.
Canberra waited until he could no longer register Gott’s noospheric presence before turning to his princeps. ‘Princeps Falco,’ he said. ‘Your actions were exemplary. All of yours were. There will be commendations for all crews and engines. I have already approved the addition of new kill markings for Imperator Ajax, Deus Interfectorum, and Ferrum Questor.’
‘Our thanks, Magos-Executor,’ Falco replied. He was tired, and sorely wanted a bath and some sleep. But he knew he would have to wait just a little longer. ‘It was still a bloody day. We must atone for that. With your permission, I would like to in-load the combat data into the simulation chambers as soon as possible for study.’
‘Of course. I am sure the Princeps Senioris will be most pleased with your enthusiasm to learn from your mistakes.’
‘Before you go, Kinine,’ Canberra said, placing a hand upon Falco’s shoulders. ‘When you interfaced with Iben’s defenses, did you happen to notice anything suspicious?’
Falco raised an eyebrow. ‘How so, Magos?’
Canberra smiled. ‘This does not leave this room, do you understand me, princeps?’ He looked between the three. They nodded. ‘Gott is hiding something in that hive city. I want to make sure it is worth sacrificing engines for.’
‘I am afraid, Magos-Executor,’ Falco replied. ‘That I was not focused enough to root for secrets in their data network. I was otherwise preoccupied.’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘But I can have the data packets transferred to you from Imperator Ajax’s memory core for study, if you wish.’
Canberra smiled. ‘I wish, Princeps Falco. I very much wish indeed.’
Kulgath Rho-Eta never imagined he would bear witness to such an epoch. Kulgath Rho-Eta was not designed to think. He was designed to obey. And so independent thought was the furthest thing from his mind. He and thousands of skitarii just like him.
As Kulgath made his way through the ruined streets of Iben, only one thought occupied his mind. It was not the destruction of the heretek machines that haunted the dark streets and narrow alleyways. It was not his own self-preservation. It was not retribution for the destruction of his missile silo or the wall it sat upon. He only knew the driving impulse as the Omega Protocol. Data-traps in his mind engaged it under certain conditions, the worst of which was the occupation of Iben Hive by forces deemed a threat to the city’s leading magi. Those magi were gone, to where Kulgath knew not. It did not matter to him. It did not matter to the Omega Protocol.
The only thing of importance now, to Kulgath and the thousands of skitarii scattered throughout the crumbling ruins of Iben Hive was the protection and preservation of Primary Vault 009.
And whatever lay within.
About the Author
Greg Williams is a historian by profession. He has been writing for over a decade and has been involved in the Warhammer hobby for even longer. Greg writes primarily as a hobby, but does have professional aspirations. He has been published previously by the Jack London Foundation and Cold Open Stories.