Diplomacy by Other Means (Failed submission completed)

Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim, dark future there is only war.

Diplomacy by Other Means (Failed submission completed)

Postby Bod the inquisitor » Tue Feb 14, 2012 11:00 am

The following short story is one of my submissions for the 2011 BL open submission window. Obviously, it failed the test for the Editor gods of BL towers :cry: but I still enjoyed writing the story and think it’s worth sharing. I hope you all enjoy reading :D Oh I've split it up into multiple posts so it easier to read in multiple sittings without losing your place.

*Part 1*
Vad Halair knocked on squadron commander Fran Higun's door.

“Come,” said Higun, her voice slightly muffled and distorted.

Stepping into the office Halair was struck by how dark it was. A single glow lamp fought against the darkness. Its feeble light barely reached past the confines of the commander's desk, leaving the rooms corners in deep shadow. It was unusual for Higun; who preferred lots of light.

That was not the only unusual thing in the room. A figure sat in one corner, behind the squadron commander, face hidden in the shadows. Only legs clad in neatly pressed naval dress trousers were visible; a single sharp edged crease running down the front conjured up the sights, sounds and smells of a laundry room: all starch and steam. Black dress shoes, polished to the point that they would have sparkled, if there had been enough light for them to reflect it: completed the impression of a naval staff officer.

“Ah Halair, please sit,” said Higun waving vaguely at the chair in front of her desk.

Halair noticed his commander did not introduce the shadow shrouded stranger; it sparked an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“I see you have a training mission scheduled for tomorrow morning.”

“Yes ma'am keeping the hours up, per regulations,” replied Halair, picking up on the tension in Higun's voice he had decided formal address was probably in order.

“Um well it's cancelled, sorry. We need you for something else, a bit of public relations.”

“Ma'am?” replied Halair, that uncomfortable twinge growing stronger, more insistent.

“I'm sure you're aware of the uncommunicative tendencies the damned locals have shown since our arrival. The touchiness they've shown regarding sovereignty of their armed forces and the general progress of the war against the greenskins.”

“Yes ma'am, they can be, somewhat, obstructive.”

“Um seems they’re upset about the length of time it took for us to get here. Some sectors are worse than others and it seems we have one of the worst in our area of operations. They stopped answering hails, unless they’re forceful in nature. Keep saying they have no need of our help. Like their planet isn't at war with the Ork's and hadn't requested imperial assistance. Also in recent days this sector's civilian's administrators and defence forces have started using a strange vox coding that naval intelligence has been unable to break into.” The squadron commander paused briefly, that hint of tension had not left her voice, and she still had not mentioned or referred to the stranger. “So command has decided to send out some messages. Nothing heavy, just fly-bys of major population centres. Remind the locals of imperial power, show the population we're here and in strength, hence why we're sending an entire flight. No need to land: just fly-by this town called Guybo's Landing, across the river and back again. Conduct a little scouting; take auspex readings. No imperial forces have been out in that direction; might be nice to get some up close and personal auspex readings of the territory out there.”

“Okay ma'am, I had planned an armoured attack live fire training mission, I'll need to rearm. Bearing that in mind when do you want us to take off?”

“I've already ordered the rearming, unorthodox I know. So you're to take off as planned but I'm sure you still have plenty to do so I won't keep you,” replied Higun, tension sharpened her voice in an unusual way; more strange behaviour from the commander.

Confused and a little uneasy at his commanders behaviour Halair stood, then snapped off a crisp salute; more for the benefit of the mysterious stranger than Higun. She rarely insisted on such formalities; if you performed your duties correctly. He wondered if that explained Higun's behaviour, had he done or said something wrong. Something that had annoyed his commander and she just did not want to bring it up in front of a stranger. But then, that was not normally her style either.

It did calm Halair's unease that Higun snapped off a quick salute in return. A sure sign that whatever was wrong, it was not something he had done. That just made him wonder was he imagining it all. After all, this was not the first time a mission had been scrubbed in favour of another more urgent one; turning he left the office.

The sudden bright light in the corridor outside hurt his eyes for a second. He spotted Lisdam, nonchalantly leaning against one wall, examining her long thin fingers. She looked up when Halair stopped just in front of her, the smile on her face dropped the instant she saw his; a frown replaced it.

“Something wrong?”

“Um, oh nothing really just a change of plans; we've got a bit of gunship diplomacy work. Looks like command have finally had enough of the local's uncooperative ways,” he tried to inject some joviality into his voice; more for himself than Lisdam.

“Now that's more like it blowing something up to put the fear of the God Emperor back into some locals is always fun,” there was just a little too much enthusiasm in Lisdam's voice for Halair, but he let it ride, this time. Besides, he knew she would not be pleased with the actual mission.

“No Lisdam something a bit more subtle is required. A show of strength is all. Seems command wants this done ASAP so the birds are already being rearmed. You'd best go brief the rest of the flight, while I go figure out how we can get to this town command wants us to re-install some proper manners and respect into.”

Lisdam's face dropped even further at the news. She really hated this type of mission; she would not get the chance to kill something.
Ordos: Lectorformator

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Re: Diplomacy by Other Means (Failed submission completed)

Postby Bod the inquisitor » Tue Feb 14, 2012 11:00 am

*Part 2*
The familiar vibrations and thrumming noise of the vulture gunships engine transmitted themselves through Halair's seat and headphones. They were comforting sensations, ones that always filled him with contentment. With practiced ease he gently pulled back on the stick, pulling the nose of his bird up, increasing its altitude. Barely a moment later he dropped it again, as the power cables that stretched across his flight path passed beneath the vulture. Levelling off at tree top height he scanned the terrain for that unexpected obstacle. Many an unwary pilot had fallen to such an obstacle. This was flying at its most exciting; it's most dangerous, where total concentration was required. Yet Halair always found it liberating; he only had one thing to worry about, not crashing and killing Sonta Disman his gunner, and himself.

The flight commander adjusted his course ever so slightly to get the little box on his HUD centred again. It showed him the location of his next waypoint, a little copse just big enough for him and his wing, Yoran Isma in Hawk Two to hide behind. Not quite a perfect over-watch position but it would do.

A distinctive tone in his ear alerted Halair to an incoming vox transmission, he glanced at the vox panel; it was coming in on the preselected channel for the flight.

“Flight lead, Hawk Four, acknowledge please,” crackled Shran Jugman’s voice, Hawk Four's gunner. Something was amiss or he would never have broken vox silence.

“Hawk one receiving Hawk Four.”

“Hawk One, intermittent auspex contact two clicks out, moving track, auspex diagnostic in progress,” said Jugman, crisp and to the point, as always.

“Hawk One, Hawk Three, haven't seen anything but we were shifting position at the time,” reported Lisdam. Always on the ball she had anticipated Halair's question. “It could be a scouting party, though they'd have to be people who know what they're doing to fool the auspex like that.”

“Umm, the locals have been fighting the ork's for quite some time, not sure if it would make them that good. Besides, this sector's been quiet for several months now. Never was that active. Keep an eye out and let me know if the auspex diagnostic turns up anything.” replied Halair.

Maglev tracks, the last landmark before the copse, slipped beneath his vulture. It should now be a flat run into the waypoint from here, straight and easy. He scanned the terrain in front of him and was happy to see he was right, there was nothing unexpected ahead.

His mind, with nothing better to occupy it wandered onto the subject of that intermittent contact. Was it the result of a fractious machine spirit or was it something else? Halair was experienced enough never to discount something just because it did not fit, but he was certain a local scouting team was not responsible. Another possibility, the ork's, was even more a non-starter. He did not think the ork's were capable of doing anything quietly; it just did not seem to be in their nature.

It could of course be another imperial unit operating in the area. It would not be the first time the navy had used units of the third of the thirty ninth as decoys. Though it did not explain why only one of his four birds had picked up the contact. It all pointed to a machine spirit problem. It was well known they could be cantankerous, particularly those of more advanced equipment, and the vulture was one of the imperium's most advanced ground attack aircraft. Especially when the operator failed to perform the rituals correctly; though Halair trusted Jugman in that respect, he was a solid crewman.

Halair made a mental note to ask the enginseer's to look at the entire flights auspex's, whatever the result of Jugman's diagnostic run. In his experience it was always better to err on the side of caution when it came to the health of his birds. After all they were what kept him and his crews alive.

“Approaching waypoint 15,” barked the crackling voice of his bird's servitor.

Reducing power and gently tapping the air breaks Halair brought the speed of his bird down, slower and slower, until it had just enough speed to coast into position. The nose of his machine was almost touching the leaves of the trees that filled his vision. Raptors Revenges own nose slid into Halair's peripheral view as Hawk Two slipped into position besides Halair's own bird. It was time for first section to take over-watch duties, while second section moved forward into their next position.
Ordos: Lectorformator

Enter my children,
Enter and join the betrayed,
Enter and leave the light,
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Re: Diplomacy by Other Means (Failed submission completed)

Postby Bod the inquisitor » Tue Feb 14, 2012 11:02 am

*Part 3*
Pushing the throttle forward Halair increased the downward thrust, easing the Raptor's Claw up for another snap view of Guybo's Landing. It was not the ghost town like appearance, or the near deserted defences that bothered him; it was the location of those defences. Two rockcrete bunkers guarded the only road into the town. The flared muzzles of a Battlecannon poked out of each, ready to repel any armoured advance. Secondary armament was provided by quad heavy stubber mounts set in a turret on each bunkers roof. A number of slit trenches with heavy stubber gun pits surrounded the edge of the town, completing the outer defences. It was not strong enough to stop a concerted heavy attack, but it was strong enough to hold off most reconnaissance forces. Heavy stubber's were also mounted on roof tops, on solid tripods they were set as air defence stations. There were also four flak guns consisting of twin linked autocannon. Not as good as the imperial guards Hydra, they could still put up effective harassment fire for any aerial units attacking the town. These defences were positioned so the main strength faced away from the river and the all important bridge, and were pointed towards imperial forces.

The lack of any military signals also concerned Halair. Did these people not know their planet was at war, a war against one of humanities greatest xeno’s threats, the orks? Running his experienced eye over the air defences, Halair's unease only intensified. Their strength and positioning suggested the town's defenders had some military experience. If that was indeed the case then it begged the question why were their ground defences left so bare, deserted, and perhaps more importantly facing in the wrong direction. These, along with the lack of military vox traffic all suggested an inexperienced lazy command.

Halair decided to try one last time to raise the town on the vox, and not approach unannounced. He activated the vox, punching up the vox channel that should have been alive with military traffic.

“Guybo's Landing PDF. This is Hawk flight of the third of the thirty-ninth MAC commencing a flyby of your town, please respond,” he said, trying to make his voice sound cordial and friendly, despite feeling little friendship towards these people.

He was not surprised when he got no reply. Angry he just managed to stop himself punching the vox panel. That would not do, the machine spirit would surely take offence and he needed his vox in working order. He gently tapped the keys changing the vox channel back.

“All flight, Hawk One, okay nothing for it, we'll have to go wake up some locals and be damned. I can see no reason not to stick to the plan. Hawk Two; keep at least a mile out of the town. We'll fly along its edge and across the river. On for another five clicks and back over the top of the town. If that don't wake them up than nothing short of a mass imperial lander coming down on top of the lazy buggers will.”

With barely noticed acknowledgments from the flight ringing in his ears Halair increased power to the engine, while simultaneously moving the thrust vector control. With a grace that belied the ungainly weight of the vulture gunship it glided up and over the ridge, before dropping down the other side, staying defiantly close to the ground. Its three companions followed an instant later. The pilots of Hawk flight demonstrated an envious synchronization, borne from years of training and combat together. Sweeping down the side of the ridge they used speed as a defence against any foolish enough to attack them.

Just as they reached the bottom of the slope an emergency vox transmission erupted in Halair's ear.

“Unidentified craft, this is Guybo's Landing air control, who and what are you?” Even the crackling vox transmission could not rob the man's voice of its arrogance. It took Halair by surprise, who could he think he was to question imperial forces on a lawful mission? With some effort he managed to rein in his anger at the man's impudence.

“Guybo's Landing air control, this is Hawk flight out of Brymon on a routine patrol of your sector. We are about to conduct a flyby on our way across the river and back again, please, be aware we will be flying over your town on our return journey.”

“I have no record of a request for imperial assistance. We do not require your presence here. You are to turn around and return to your home base immediately. I repeat turn around, you are not needed here.”

“Ungrateful grox fodder,” snapped Lisdam always quick to anger.

“Damn it, that's enough, it's nothing more than we expected,” shot back Halair, glad the whole exchange was on a private vox channel.

“Hawk one, Hawk two, I see bodies appearing on the same roofs as the air defence positions. They're not approaching the guns yet though.”

Halair cursed the fools in the town, they seemed determined to provoke an incident. He glanced at the roof tops; it seemed like half the town had climbed up onto the roofs. Glancing back to his flight path he broke formation increasing his altitude a fraction, just enough to get a clearer view of all the towns roof tops. Halair could not help but curse again as he saw people in military uniforms buzzing around the four twin barrelled flak emplacements. It was not a good sign no matter how he looked at it. Acting on pure instinct he reduced his altitude, sliding his vulture back into formation. His old instructor's words leapt out of his memory; never make an obvious target out of yourself my boy; Halair smiled at the memory.

His pleasant reverie was cruelly broken by the sudden appearance of tracer round's filling the air around his vulture. The deadly light show, zipping through the air like angry supercharged fireflies was made up of 50cal rounds. The pilot knew if enough of the heavy machine gun rounds hit one of his machines, they could all too easily bring it down. It was fortunate that they were not that accurate as anti-aircraft weapons, unless you had a lot of them, which this town did.

Halair reacted immediately with consummate professionalism, won from hard training and years of combat.

“Hawk two, Hawk one, break formation and take out the ground defences along the landward side. The rest of you with me concentrate on the air defences. Execute with extreme prejudice, they have fired upon imperial forces,” he said, with a hint of that all too familiar nervous excitement he always got when first entering combat.

It did not bother him that his orders were a virtual death sentence for anyone on the town's roofs, civilians and military alike. It was expected of him; these people had fired or allowed others to fire upon the true sanctioned warriors of Him on Earth. A treasonous act such as that could only have one out come, death. Besides, Halair knew it was perhaps better these people die under the guns of his flight, than falling into the none too tender hands, of the imperial inquisition.

As the four vultures broke formation, zigzagging through the air in random directions, the four flak emplacements entered the fray. Unlike the guard hydra flak tanks these weapons were unguided, making them less accurate; but no less deadly. Just one good solid hit from a single forty millimetre shell could make an awful mess of a vulture gunship. The emplacements would have to be targeted as a matter of priority; Halair knew he would not have to tell his people that, they were professionals. They had proven that fact numerous times in combat, besides they would never have been allowed to join the ranks of the third of the thirty ninth if they had not demonstrated that fact back in basic training. He switched his vox bead over to the internal system.

“Disman, autocan-never mind,” he said. Disman, ever the competent gunner had anticipated his commanders needs and activated the pylon mounted autocannon already.

Slipping under a stream of heavy stubber rounds, he brought the closest flak gun into his sights and fired a quick burst. The heavy solid shot tore through the air, each trailing a green flare and slammed into the gun. It stood little chance; chunks of metal were thrown into the air as the autocannon shells ripped the weapon apart with shear kinetic energy.

Rapidly changing altitude the flight commander fired another short burst at the broken machine and its crew. The crew died, some torn apart by Halair's rounds while others were cut down by razor sharp jagged edged pieces of metal, which had been violently torn from their own weapon.

The flight leader did not get a chance to admire his handy work; several heavy stubber's turned their fire on him. Streams of bright red tracer cut through the air forcing Halair to take evasive action. It took several violent manoeuvres to shake off the gunners. He finished the brief display of aerial acrobatics with a shallow dive and switched back to the nose mounted heavy bolter. It was slaved to the targeting reticule in his helmet display; wherever he looked so would the heavy bolter. Perfect for snap shots at fleeting targets. Ideal for this kind of fighting; where erratic movement was key to staying alive.

In such a target rich environment it did not take him long to find his first victim. He fired a burst the very instant his sight locked onto the small sandbagged emplacement. It was obliterated in a series of thunderous fiery explosions as the mass reactive warheads tore it apart.

Several more snap shots saw more emplacements demolished, killing several civilians in the process. It had not taken long for panic to set in amongst the civilians and some, in their haste to get away from the slaughter, had chosen their refuges badly. They had sought safety in or around the heavy stubber nests, though most, the more sensible ones were trying to leave the roofs tops altogether. It would only prove to delay the inevitable. Halair had seen what the inquisition could do in cases like this; it was not a subject he cared to think about very often.

The flight leader was glad when his train of thought was interrupted by the vox crackling into life.

“All flight, Hawk Four, throne damn it, both surviving flak guns are on me, assistance would be welcome,” stated Gassan.

“All flight, Hawk Three, I'm fully engaged, troublesome nest of stubber's,” replied Lisdam in her characteristic jovial tone. She just loved combat, the thicker the better; more opportunities for glory.

Halair looked out across the town's roof tops. He could clearly see Hawk Four's increasingly erratic manoeuvres through the columns of smoke and dust. Gassan was weaving the Hawk Strike around two converging streams of deadly autocannon fire.

“Hawk Four, flight lead I'm on my way. Hold them a moment longer,” said Halair as he spun his machine around and switched back to the autocannon.

The flight leader weaved his vulture around towers of smoke and dust, using them as cover. Each column hung over the site of a wrecked heavy stubber nest, markers for the Emperor's swift and deadly justice. Bodies lay scattered about those roofs, more civilian than military, not that the observation overly bothered Halair. After all as any good imperial citizen knew, death was the fate for all traitors, it was the Emperor's will.

A stream of heavy stubber tracer cut across Halair's flight path, reminding him there were still a few enemies of the Emperor left alive, and they had not given up the fight, yet.

The bright fierier tail of a missile shot across Halair's vision, before it merged with the closest flak emplacement and exploded. In an instant the flak gun and its crew were reduced to tangled torn scraps. A second later they disappeared as the rockcrete beneath gave way; tumbling the shattered gun and its dead crew into the buildings interior. The flight leader did not waste time wondering which of his birds had fired the missile, it did not really matter. Instead, putting Raptor's Claw onto a course aimed at the second flak gun, he fired a burst before throwing his bird into an erratic manoeuvre. Glancing back he saw the last of the autocannon rounds impacting on the side of the flak guns blast shield, shredding the armours edge along with a crew member; the gun kept firing at Hawk Four.

The vox crackled to life once more with a multitude of curses from Gassan. “All flight, Hawk Four is hit, repeat Hawk Four is hit.”

Halair did not reply; he was entirely focused on the damaged flak gun. Sliding under yet another stream of heavy stubber fire he drew a bead and fired; several direct hits finally put pay to the deadly weapon. A series of secondary explosions completed the guns destruction; he had managed to hit some ammunitions stores. Without pause Halair switched back to the nose mounted heavy bolter, before turning his gaze towards the heavy stubber that had just had the audacity to fire at him. A short burst tore the position apart in a welter of shrapnel and fire.

It was only then that the flight leader looked for his stricken bird. He did not have to look very hard; Hawk Four was trailing a small stream of thick black smoke. It coughed out of one of the wing mounted thrust vector control nozzles.

“Hawk Four, flight lead how's it look?” he asked as the smoke stopped dribbling from the vulture's thruster nozzle.

“Flight lead, Hawk Four it must have been a glancing hit, nothing major though a couple of the nonessential system's are playing up. The Hawk Strike’s machine spirit is a little upset with me it seems,” replied Gassan, her choice of words told Halair all he needed to know.

“Hawk Four, flight lead, okay best you pull back into over-watch, see nothing comes over that bridge,” he said, before switching to the Raptor's Claw's intercom. “Disman, see if you can raise CAC, best report what's happening here.”

“Boss,” said Disman.

Spying movement Halair shifted his gaze and spotted yet another heavy stubber position, he fired a short burst. Changing the height and direction of his bird before the first bolts had even struck their target.

“Line open boss.”

“CAC, Hawk flight lead, we've encountered unexpected resistance, I repeat unexpected resistance.”

Unbidden the memory of the shadow shrouded stranger in Higun's office came to the pilot. He realised that perhaps the resistance was not quite as unexpected as he had first thought.

“Hawk flight lead, CAC, can you confirm, ork's?” asked a strangers voice. It was not one of the third of the thirty ninth's usual combat air controllers.

“No CAC, it's not ork's the locals have finally snapped, I repeat the locals have fired upon Hawk flight.”

“Understood Hawk flight, stand by,” to Halair's surprise the connection was abruptly broken. He did not get chance to mull over that particular oddity.

“All flight, Hawk Two, under fire, I repeat, under fire and it ain't the locals, too accurate and heavy,” a string of curses filled the vox for a second. “Damn it, we're hit all flight, Hawk Two is hit,” the crackling vox distortion could not quite rob Isma's voice of its angry tone.

“Hawk Two, Flight lead, how bad?”

“Right pylon, flight controls are a little sluggish but nothing more,” replied Isma.

“All flight, Hawk Three, Tau, repeat Tau, there are Tau armed forces in the town.” Halair did not have to see Lisdam’s face to know this was a development that pleased his second in command. In her eyes the Tau represented a real challenge, one she would relish, more than the pitiful resistance the town's people had put up.

“Boss, Tau battlesuit, cognitor suggests a Crisis pattern. The autocannon is up and running, warming up the Hunter killers systems.”

“Now that's something you don't see every day. Emperor damn it, it's a Tau Ethereal, I swear it,” said an excited Lisdam.

“Hawk Three, flight leader, vox discipline please, keep track of it we'll attack together, don't get too close.”

“Flight lead, Hawk Three, yes sir sorry sir. I can't wait for long it looks like it's getting ready to bug out,” she said, still excited. It concerned Halair, whenever Lisdam got that tone in her voice, it meant trouble was brewing.

Spinning his bird, Halair increased speed, desperate to get to Lisdam before her more reckless nature took hold. He was just in time to see her let off a burst of autocannon fire into the street beneath her bird. A bright flash then billowing smoke quickly followed, Lisdam had a kill. It only served to increase the amount of fire directed against her machine.

“Boss the hunter killers are awake and I've got a lock, battlesuit, crisis if the cog's got it right,” said Disman.

“Okay, give it to me,” a deep angry sounding rumble filled the pilot’s ears. The missile's machine spirit was awake, hungry and it could see a target. He fired the deadly missile. It shot forward then climbed into the air before diving upon its target. Following its path Halair caught a brief glimpse of the battlesuit, before it was enveloped in a ball of flame, a sure kill.

“Flight lead, Hawk Three, that ethereal is heading for a transport, I need to strike now,” Lisdam was almost shouting with excitement.

The flight leader was unable to reply, he was forced to take evasive action as two lines of burst cannon fire leapt out of nowhere bracketing his bird. All of Halair's attention was focused on keeping his bird alive and in the fight as he threw the vulture violently about the sky.

“Luck of the emperor I was looking in the right direction that time boss. I think we've got Tau stealth suits,” said a nervously excited Disman. “Mark, evasive action now.”

Halair, showing complete trust in Disman, took immediate action, throwing his bird into several sharp manoeuvres. He knew Disman would be firing chaff and flare's to further confuse the incoming missile. Their combined efforts worked, the missile flew wide of the mark. Mistaking one of the clouds of chaff for its target, it detonated into a fire ball that would have easily destroyed Halair's vulture.

“Throne, those things are near impossible to get a fix on boss. All I can tell you is there's three, you'll have to kill them the old fashioned way with the mark one eye ball and some good solid shot, right up the emperor forsaken alien's rear ends. The hunter killer's machine spirits just can't get a good clean lock.”

“Understood,” said Halair, as he began searching for the elusive stealth suits.

“Flight lead, Hawk Three, I can't wait for you. That throne cursed ethereal is about to escape,” said Lisdan, the excitement gone from her voice, replaced by an infuriatingly calm, uninterested quality. It told Halair all he needed to know about her mood; this time he was not going to let her have her way.

He did not get the opportunity. A scream full of pain and rage filled his ears; which only seemed to be enhanced by the crackling static of the vox. It was a scream that told of sanity lost to grief. Halair knew it was a scream full of portents of deadly events.

“Emperor please no, please, not Hydran,” whimpered Lisdam her voice barely heard over the vox static.

“Flight lead, Hawk Four, two broadside pattern battlesuits ambushed Hawk Three. They took a rail gun hit to the cabin, damn lucky to be still in the air after a hit like that.”

“I'll kill um, their mine, those alien scum will die by my hand,” said Lisdam quietly, barely suppressed hysteria edging into her voice. She was losing control, descending into grief stricken madness.

Halair knew he had to act or he could lose more than Hydran, but he had no idea what to say. What pearls of wisdom could he offer the grief stricken pilot? After all this was the first time he had lost someone from his own flight. Yes, he had seen ground forces lost, even members of other vulture flights, but never one of his own people, he had been lucky like that, until now. The flight leader just did not know what to say, he did not know what words would bring her back from the brink.

“All flight be aware, Sky Ray, repeat Sky Ray. For throne's sake, no Hawk Three. No,” said Jugman, almost shouting the last bit.

Looking around Halair saw the anguished Lisdam throw her vulture into a power dive, driving her machine at the two Tau battlesuits that had taken her gunners life. Halair's heart sank.

“Missile launch, missile launch,” shouted Jugman, a hint of desperation in his voice. He, like his flight leader knew there was nothing anyone could do now; Lisdam's survival was in the hands of the Emperor.

Halair hated the feeling of helplessness, a part of him knew he was about to lose another colleague and friend to the enemy. There was nothing he could do and he knew it, though that did not make it any easier to accept. Part of his mind demanded action, demanded that he take charge, after all he was an officer in the Emperor's Imperial Navy. Halair knew it was his pride talking and tried to ignore it.

Unable to watch he turned away as the Tau missile struck Lisdan's vulture, turning it into a flaming wreck in an instant. Perhaps it was a quick and clean death for Lisdam, but only the Emperor knew.

The flight leader did not see the burning machine crash into a building destroying two heavy stubber nests in the process. It was a fitting epitaph for the crew of Hawk Three, to die in service to the Emperor in such a way that their very deaths killed his enemies.

A Tau stealth battlesuit flashed into view and the grieving pilot seized his chance for retribution, his chance for revenge. He fired a short burst with the autocannon. With a precision a sniper would have been proud of the armour piercing rounds hit the alien machine's strange angular head. It exploded and the machine fell to the floor, immobile.

“Boss, those other two stealth suits are withdrawing,” said Disman, sounding a little withdrawn and subdued.

“Throne damn those suits, get me a lock on that damn Sky Ray Disman, it’s payback time. Besides that's the most dangerous asset the Tau have in play.”

“Yes Boss.”

Another Tau battlesuit, moving along one of the towns roads slipped into view as Halair turned his vulture towards the Sky Ray. He snapped off a shot, but he was pasted the machine before he could tell if he had hit it. A stream of heavy stubber tracer fire flying across his flight path, reminded Halair there was more than just the Tau to contend with. He switched back to the heavy bolter and searched along his flight path for one of the emplacements. It took mere seconds to find one, and even less time to destroy it. Three more quickly fell to his heavy bolter. It went some way to quenching his thirst for retribution.

“Now boss,” said Disman almost whispering.

The flight leader did not need another invitation, shifting the vulture's flight controls in one smooth motion he pushed the machine higher into the air. At one hundred and fifty metres he heard the distinctive voice of a hunter killer missile. It was loud, insistent, like the missiles machine spirit knew some of its own had been destroyed and like its human controllers, it desired revenge. Halair gave it the chance to seek that revenge.

At the very instant he fired a warning alarm spluttered into life; the enemy had a missile lock of their own.

“Throne damn those alien scum, these Tau are quick,” muttered Disman half to himself as much as a warning to Halair. They both knew what that insistent tone meant. “Missile launch, incoming, incoming,” he said his usual business like manner beginning to reassert itself.

Halair spotted the enemy missile as it arched high into the air. It passed his own, close enough that he half expected the two to collide, they did not.

“Boss,” there was a clear questioning tone to Dismans voice. Without actually asking he was asking, why are you not taking action?

Shaking himself free, of the stupefied spell of inaction cast upon him by the sight of the twin trails of smoke: Halair took action. He threw the Raptors Claw into a series of rapid violent manoeuvres, praying the machine spirit would not take offense at his actions. All the time he watched the missile coming, watched it heading straight for his machine.

Just at the last minute, when Halair was resigned to dying he made one last desperate twisting manoeuvre, the g-force pushed him into his seat, setting off multiple warning lights and alarms, each telling him he was pushing his bird to its very limits. It worked; the Tau missiles guidance system was thrown off target. Halair affectionately stroked the side of his cramped cockpit.

“Thanks old girl,” he whispered. It was not a mechanicus sanctioned prayer of thanks to a machine spirit, and not one he cared to use in front of any enginseer. It was his personal thank you, thank you and I appreciate your forbearance.

However, the job was not yet done and Halair knew it. Cutting power to the thrusters he dropped altitude, it was dangerous, reducing his room for manoeuvre but there was a chance he could lose the missile amongst the buildings.

“Err boss, its turning on us,” said Disman, the gunner knew Halair was aware of that fact he was just talking because it was his way ... his way of dealing with the tension. Some pilots would not have liked it. They would have found it distracting. Halair found it helped; reminding him that his life was not the only one at risk.

Dropping down between the towns buildings Halair began a race for life, twisting and turning randomly about the man made canyons.

“Talk to me Disman, call it out.”

“Boss, hundred above and six hundred out, damn these things are fast.”

Halair did not reply he had seen something, something he could use, a wicked looking smile flashed across his face. With gentle touches of the throttle and air breaks he bled some air speed, just a little, just enough, he hoped.

The building that blocked the street grew bigger and bigger dominating his view ahead. It was a large building with its own genetorium: exchanger’s pumped heat into the air above the roof big metal tubes with fans were mounted on the top.

“Twenty above and three hundred out, the damn Tau know how to build um don't they boss,” said Disman, no hint of panic in his voice, despite the fast approaching promise of death.

Then rapidly and with supreme efficiency Halair worked the flight controls and with almost perfect precision his vulture leapt into the air, up and over the building in front of him. He smiled as he saw the yawning man made chasm the other side. Spinning the vulture, he dropped it down into that protective cover. The enemy missile slammed into the building which he had just hopped over. Confused by Halair's rapid movement, it had lost its lock upon the Raptor's Claw. Its alien machine intelligence sort to regain a target lock only to find not one but two possible targets, it had a choice to make, it made the wrong choice, just as Halair had gambled it would.

Windows shattered; smoke, flames and dust billowed out, a second before a secondary explosion tore the heart out of the building. Without knowing it Halair had just dealt a devastating blow to the defenders, he had just taken out the town's main military control centre.

Unaware of the fatal blow he had just struck the pilot turned his attention back to the Tau Sky Ray. Using the burning building as partial cover, he popped up above the roof tops, spinning in place; he turned the nose of Hawk One towards the river and bridge. Halair wanted to see the destruction his missile had wrought upon the Tau.

He spotted the alien machine sitting on the ramp leading up to the bridge. Just in front of the vehicle the pilot saw a blackened pit dug into the road; his first missile had missed, falling short slamming into the ground so close the explosion must have rattled the vehicle. Though that thought did nothing to soothe the burning knot of anger growing in his mind.

Sitting in plain view its sensory array and missiles were pointed away from Halair's position. That just made him angrier, the arrogant Tau thought he was dead and were looking to bring down another of his flight. It only added fuel to the fire of anger that began to fill his mind. Instead of letting it consume him, burning away his rational mind, Halair marshalled the anger, used it to strengthen his resolve and determination to kill the throne cursed alien scum. That old mantra drummed into every good Emperor loving soldier of the Imperium came to the fore of his mind, suffer not the alien to live. A smile totally divorced from any signs of happiness crept across his face.

“Got it boss.”

Halair fired, tracking the missile determined to watch it strike home. It climbed high into the air, reaching the zenith of its climb it appeared to pivot on its own axis, then fell upon the alien vehicle; a fiery tailed comet, carrying the promise of an explosive end for the machine and its foul alien occupants.

For a moment the Tau vehicle seemed to sit there, immobile, lifeless, like it had accepted the fate the Emperor had so obviously set for it. Halair wondered if the near miss had damaged the vehicle somehow. Then it burst into life, the turret slewed around facing Halair and a second later a cloud of small glittering objects appeared ahead of the machine before it suddenly reversed, travelling almost it’s own length. The aliens were trying to fool the missiles machine spirit; they were trying to get it to attack the cloud of metal. The flight leader realised that was how they had avoided the first hunter killer. It did not work this time.

The imperial missile struck the Tau machine just in front of the turret and exploded tearing a huge hole in the top of the vehicle. It set off secondary explosions that ripped the vehicle’s body apart throwing chunks of metal in all directions. Then the turret toppled forward, falling onto the shattered remains of the main body. A moment later a final cataclysmic explosion obliterated the Sky Ray, throwing a massive column of flame and smoke into air.

Halair, his anger abated only a little, turned his vulture away from the burning vehicle, and searched for more targets. An insistent beeping noise started in his ear; he ignored it, he was still driven by a desire to kill, to kill in the name of Him on Earth.

Movement in a small square drew his attention; a flick of a switch armed the heavy bolter once more as he spotted a squad of Tau fire warrior’s racing across the open ground. In their midst was the very thing Lisdam had become obsessed by, an obsession that had gotten her and Hydran killed, the Tau ethereal.

Impulsively Halair squeezed the trigger and sent a long burst at the formation. He missed the ethereal but did bring down three of the fire warriors. One, having taken two of the heavy bolts in the chest no longer had a torso, its arms and head where blown clear of its legs.

He fired again, the nose mounted heavy bolter fired five rounds, then fell silent, its ammunition store spent. Halair muttered a string of curses.

The Ethereal disappeared into the gaping mow of a Tau devil fish transport followed by the surviving fire warriors; the transport was moving before it had even closed its loading ramp.

“Oh no you don’t, your mine!” whispered Halair to himself.

Just as he was manoeuvring his vulture to go after the escaping alien, three streams of burst cannon fire cut across the vulture’s nose, all from different positions. The flight leader took the hint and peeled away his anger finally under control, for the moment.

As Halair calmed himself he finally acknowledged the incessant beeping in his ear. Someone from CAC was trying to reach him.

“Hawk flight Lead, I’m busy” he snapped.

“Flight lead, CAC, can you please confirm the makeup of the opposing forces. Is the town receiving assistance from outside factions, repeat is there assistance from outside forces?” It was that same unknown voice as before.

It was a strange question and one that Halair had not expected. Why would they even ask about outside forces? So far he had only told them the town’s military had attacked. It sent his mind into turmoil for a moment, until the memory of that strange figure in Higun’s office came to him again. They must have known all along, or at least suspected. If only they had said something Lisdam and Hydran may still have been alive. He would certainly have gone about the whole mission in a different way, a way that may have kept them alive.

“CAC, flight lead, the Tau have just revealed themselves, I’ve lost one bird and-” the connection went dead.

The smoking trail of another missile caught Halair’s attention a second before it disappeared behind some buildings near the bridge.

“Scratch one Broadside battlesuit, I hope it was the scum that got Hydran” said an excited Gassan.

“All flight, Hawk Two the town’s defences are now down to around ten to fifteen percent of original strength most of that is clustered around the bridge. This one’s nearly over guys,” said Isma.

Just as Halair was about to reply that insistent beeping started again, this time he answered straight away, he wanted answers.

“Hawk flight lead, commander Higun, let the Tau go pull out of the town and take up over-watch. There’s an air strike coming in, you just watch and make sure they do their job. You read me Halair?”

“Ma’am, they killed Lisdam and Hydran we can’t just bug out, we’ve got them on the run for thrones sake.”

“Just get your collective arses out of there pronto, let our colleagues in the fast jets and heavies do their job, they will not wait for you. Besides the third of the thirty ninth is going to war and we need all the birds we can get alive and well, that’s your priority, got that, flight commander.”

“Ma’am, yes ma’am” said Halair, the tone of his commanders voice alone told him he had no other choice. It also told him she did not like the orders any more than he did. It did not help appease his anger.

“Hawk flight, flight lead, we’ve been ordered out, the fast and heavy jockeys are coming. Pull back to the ridge line south east, immediately. Don’t stop to pick up any souvenirs people, bug out and quick” he said.

The order left a bad taste in his mouth. The Tau where running and it would be a simple matter to punish them hard for what they had done. Now they’d be long gone before the big stuff arrived, it just did not seem right to Halair.

Never-the-less he, like the rest of his flight turned and slammed the throttle up to full power. It did not take the three vultures long to reach the ridge line they had left earlier. Hawk Four had started trailing smoke from its damaged thruster nozzle again; leaving a near perfect little trail all the way back to the town’s edge.

All the time Halair’s mind churned with a thousand questions, he knew he would probably get no answers to. He could not shake the impression that he and his people had been used, used as live bait in a bigger game. In his mind, though he did not quite want to believe it off Higun. But command had to have known what he would find in this warp cursed place, and sent him in anyway. How else had they known to have fast air assets ready to attack the town?

Yet again the memory of that quiet shadowy figure in the corner of Higun’s office came back to him, that and Higun’s unusual manner. He knew in his heart that his commander could never have set him up like that, none of the third of the thirty ninth commanders would do such a thing. It could mean one thing; some outside agency had ordered it, whoever they were and why they had ordered this mission was another mystery altogether. One Halair was not sure he wanted to delve into.

The flight leader’s thoughts were interrupted by the vox.

“Hawk flight lead, Thunder flight, we’re inbound, hope you’ve got all your people out of the way.”

“Thunder flight, Hawk flight lead, we’re clear,” replied Halair, careful to keep his tone neutral. It was not this unknown pilot’s fault that Hawk flight had been used as a pawn in someone else game.

“Acknowledged, hawk flight lead, enjoy the show.”

Looking up, Halair was only just in time to see the two thunderbolts coming in following the line of the river, heading straight for the bridge. He watched two oblong shapes detached themselves from each of the imperial fighter bombers, diving towards the bridge. They detonated on impact, obliterating two whole sections of the bridge in an impressive thunderous firestorm. The remaining spans hung in the air for a moment, defying gravity and the laws of science; then collapsed into the river kicking up huge sprays of water that a moment later collapsed back into the turmoil below.

“Thunder flight, Hawk lead four impact detonations all on target the bridge is down, an impressive display there,” he said, he always admired a job well done and the thunderbolt pilots had certainly done that.

“Acknowledged Hawk flight lead and thank you, but the shows not over yet look up, May the emperor watch over you,” replied the unknown pilot.

Halair looked up and saw an even more impressive display of imperial power, an entire squadron of marauder bombers were approaching. They were flying at high altitude in four lines of four aircraft, straight over the city. The first bombs struck the edge of the town reducing the buildings there to burning piles of shattered masonry and kicking up thick clouds of smoke and dust.

As Halair watched the destruction began to creep deeper into the town, he realised this town had been marked for destruction. This was more than mere punishment; this was a demonstration, a warning. It was a simple lesson; if you turn or allow those around you to abandon the emperor’s light, then imperial justice will find you. It will be swift, brutal, for you, and your family.
Ordos: Lectorformator

Enter my children,
Enter and join the betrayed,
Enter and leave the light,
Enter and forever join the ranks of the damned.

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