Hellas Basin was a lost dream, having degenerated from a terrarium to a titanic complex of factories, and now increasingly to a hellish ruin.
Castrmen Orth could not truly bring himself to care, but he suspected, on some level, that he should. Progress was being damaged here, after all. Branthan had correctly observed that such blasted landscapes were useful grounds for experimentation, but there were other wastelands in the galaxy – lots of them. More and more with each war.
The Milky Way galaxy contained a trillion planets, of which only ten billion were easily accessible by the Warp. More than ninety percent of those worlds were dead and useless as anything except weapons ranges.
No, Castrmen Orth did not desire Mars to be left desolate, and in truth neither did Branthan, or even Ferrus Manus. Perhaps the traitor Death Guard did – it had shocked Orth deeply, but narrowly, when he had discovered that some of his cousins had joined in the rebellion – but no one with a claim to the Red Planet wanted anything but the best for it. But sometimes there was no better choice.
And so Orth, along with fellow centurion Uninen Rochaar, fought the penultimate battle of the Martian War, dancing with death and treachery across a craggy vista of oil and metal. They fought in parallel, and an outsider would think they were effortlessly winning every confrontation. That was far from true – though he and Rochaar were synchronized perfectly, and though the battle was indeed going quite well, his still-understrength spearhead was not achieving this easily. Not even close.
Nevertheless, that was part of what made this conflict worthwhile. It was perfection, in the Emperor’s Children sense of the term. Terrible, difficult, and made great by those very qualities.
The other part of why Castrmen Orth was enjoying the battle for Hellas, one quite unrelated to even the fact that they were winning, was that it gave him an excuse to avoid even thinking about Ulrach Branthan. The Captain of Clan Erigez had not lied to Orth; he truly believed that his approach to Chaos was correct. And it did give him and his allies, including Orth, great power.
Only Castrmen Orth did not believe in discarding inconvenient truths, and Ulrach Branthan apparently did; and Cadmus Tyro’s fate was extremely inconvenient.
“We have seen gods’ perfection, so surrender your metal,” the centurion muttered to himself as Rashemion
prepared to engage another splinter of Mechanicum armor. “Aether-flesh is the zenith, and we’ll prove it in battle.”
It did not sound convincing. And as Orth closed his eyes to try and recall the glory Branthan’s approach offered, he instead saw the half-comatose, failing body of Cadmus Tyro, pathetically crying out for more blackfate. The lieutenant had gone on a rampage, shortly before the end. None of them had possessed the heart to kill their battle-brother in those seven minutes, and so his body had done the job itself.
And the issue was, they had followed the decremental regimen perfectly. No drug known to the Imperium had addictive properties as strange as blackfate in Tyro’s case. But Branthan could not afford to move slowly, and did not want to, either. And he had told Orth, before he’d left for Hellas, that his movement was going to go further.
No. No matter. There was no way back, and one would be undesirable anyhow. Ferrus’s position was untenable, and none of this mattered anyhow.
Battle was about to be joined.
Castrmen Orth filtered away his distractions, his doubts, and his regrets. The Martian War would not be won by the weak. No, in this place of abandoned forges, there was only will, certainty, and strength. There was only fire and iron.
There was only war. And, at the center of war, Castrmen Orth, youngest of the Young Squid, Spearhead-Centurion of the Iron Hands.
’s flanking tanks revved up and rolled out of the depression they had been concealed in, propelled in part by a Branthan-designed Warp propellant. The enemy tank, a superheavy so conclusively modified it could have no meaningful model designation, tried to skid to a halt on the ragged ground. In response, the Malcadors to Orth’s sides punched into the enemy tank’s frontal shields. Failing to correct for that, the tank spun in the opposite direction as the driver had planned, and the volley of shots it put out flew harmlessly into the distance rather than hitting Orth’s group.
Mechanicum drivers were supposed to be better than that. No, Mechanicum drivers were
better than that. The tank had to be in the grip of a servitor, or – more likely yet – a simple machine-spirit.
That fact in his mind, Orth ordered Rashemion
to shoot the ground behind the opposing tank – Ultimarket
, the Centurion now read – with a number of its minor weapons, even as the frontal Accelerator Cannon discharged a tunneling density-core shell into Ultimarket
’s rear. The machine-spirit, confused, failed to react in time, allowing another opening for the Malcadors.
It only took seconds after that for the Ultimarket
to be totally crippled. Destroying it would be a waste of ammunition – although with no crew, a tank really did have to be obliterated to prevent it from being a danger. But immobile and bereft of its three main weapons, Ultimarket
would be a sitting duck for a sufficiently large bomb, which Orth ordered in as he drove to the west once more.
trudged on, moving to intercept another – no, that was an artefact. The mop-up was nearly complete. The defenders of Hellas Basin, still with significant forces, had gathered themselves into a defensive ring around Cerulean Core, the last entirely intact forge in Hellas, and the neighboring, abandoned Wrought Axis.
Orth gave orders for his forces to arrange themselves in the lull. As far as the Mechanicum defenders were concerned, the battle was about to become a siege. The shields that covered their two forges, when they were fully active, would combine with the weapon emplacements to make an unstormable fortress. The Iron Hands had the capacity to bring it down, of course, but that would take months – long enough for the Noctis Labyrinthus battle to conclude.
That would not be an apocalyptic outcome. But neither Orth nor Rochaar wanted the glory of the Young Squid to be usurped, even by the Primarch. They would win in Hellas on their own merits, and not via the surrender that would inevitably come after the Order’s defeat in Tharsis.
And so Rashemion
rode onto a platform that had taken on the appearance of a parapet, or perhaps merely a balcony overlooking a titanic pit – a pit to whose other side lay Cerulean Core. It was not impossible for the battalion to cross this hole, but it would take too long and be too risky to give any meaningful blow to the traitors. Similarly, going around would give the Order of the Dragon too much time to regroup. The siege was inevitable, and not in Castrmen Orth’s power to stop.
Fortunately, he was only here to watch.
From the sky above Cerulean Core, a rain of iron fell. Astartes usually descended from the heavens via drop-pods; but the circumstances were different here. From this distance, they looked like strange, obsidian-black cubical and polyhedral toys, descending on vast parachutes. They slowly penetrated the force fields protecting Cerulean Core and Wrought Axis from the bombs above, forcing the rogue tech-priests to calculate and recalculate all the inevitable configurations of their doom. They glided down on winds that would be far too weak to protect them anywhere on Mars – anywhere on Mars, besides the dense-aired center of the Hellas Basin. They released their parachutes, and one by one, smashed into the forge complexes. The weapon emplacements within Cerulean Core fell silent, one by one, taken apart from the back. Adepts ran around like so many rodents, tiny dots even to Orth’s enhanced sight, barely even noticed enough to be gunned down. And then, with fire and iron, the spearhead’s guns turned on the supports of Cerulean Core, and then the scene was an orderly column of black tanks riding out of a crumbling forge. From a distant tank, Rochaar noted his admiration, along with a pair of snide tactical remarks. Orth merely offered his congratulations on battle’s end.
Cadmus Qevpilum had returned to Mars.
The communications channel sprung open, and Orth saw the face of his brother Centurion. Qevpilum had eschewed a helmet for the moment, though with his cybernetic ears and jaw, that did not make him look any less impressive.
“It’s good to be back in known space,” he commented. “So what would you have done without my convenient presence?”
“Gotten someone else to parachute in,” Rochaar said. “Probably on drop-pods. Now that
would be interesting to see.”
“The machine-spirits would be outraged,” Qevpilum noted, and then he laughed. Orth couldn’t help but smile at his friend’s return, himself. “You won’t believe how good it is to be among you again, against enemies I can shoot.”
“Right,” Rochaar said, “about that. If I may ask, what happened
Qevpilum looked pensive, at that, and hesitated before replying. “We failed. And not because we were weak, but because we were strong.”
Rochaar shrugged. “We all have had our defeats, whether true or relative. The important thing is that they are minute relative to our victories.”
“Yes,” Qevpilum said, “but this seemed like more.”
Rochaar repeated his previous gesture, this time in a more relaxed manner. “Deduce the necessary tactical lessons, but don’t imagine that this invalidates Legion doctrine. Besides, losses were not apocalyptic, I deduce?”
Orth mentally disconnected. Rochaar’s interrogation of Qevpilum was good-natured, but he suspected that it would not change Qevpilum’s opinion on anything. Because unlike Rochaar, Orth had read Qevpilum’s report on the Pyrrhian incident.
Cadmus Qevpilum had seen, there, the weaknesses of the machine. Orth knew that this posed a crucial opportunity to convert him to Branthan’s faction, and indeed that he needed to do just that, for the sake of the Legion. But he didn’t actually want to.
In large part, it was simply that he didn’t want to lose his friend, in the way Tyro had been lost. He wanted Cadmus Qevpilum to live, or failing that, to die in war in a fashion befitting a Space Marine. If Strigeus, or Ousautro, suffered Tyro’s face, Orth would feel regret. But if another of the Young Squid did….
And even failing that, there was the risk of falling in fraternal conflict, because Branthan’s path was dangerous in so many other ways. Sometimes Orth wondered just how much the Captain of Erigez knew about the undercurrents in the Legion, and to which extent he knew the danger he was in. Not that Orth could precisely quantify it himself, but he had tried to several times, and had concluded it was desirable to reduce it significantly.
And now, Branthan was prepared for the address that would finalize his potential suicide. Orth was a Space Marine, and felt no fear, but Branthan’s attitude went beyond that. Perhaps it was the aether-flesh?
As Orth refocused, Rochaar grunted in frustration. “Please, Cadmus. We are warriors, after all. Space Marines.”
“We are not merely Space Marines,” Qevpilum said. “We are Iron Hands. Friends to Mars, in every decade – except, apparently, this one. No, Rochaar, I do not deny this war is necessary, but –”
“But nothing,” Rochaar insisted. “Pyrrhia has shaken you, Cadmus. I recognize that. But you yet have time to redeem yourself, and put it behind you.”
“If we forget our defeats,” Orth noted, “we will only repeat them. Legion doctrine is ever-changing, Rochaar.”
Rochaar shrugged. “I am willing to change, but not to be
changed, at least not by my enemies. But you were right to retreat, Qevpilum. That incident was unwinnable.”
“Warp powers might have won it,” Orth observed.
Qevpilum shrugged. “Some other Legions might have been able to penetrate the traps, with severe losses. Perhaps Bylomic and myself will try again, when we are more prepared. But the given engagement was, indeed, unwinnable – I have calculated as much, since. Don’t worry – I am not sinking into melancholy over that.”
A screen flickered.
“Branthan is addressing the Legion,” Rochaar observed. “Since when has he replaced Ferrus?”
And then the body of Captain Ulrach Branthan, flanked by two other captains, filled a side screen. Orth kept the main link open, keeping a close eye on Cadmus Qevpilum’s reaction.
“Brothers,” Branthan declared. “Our great Primarch, Ferrus Manus, has risen from his madness into the light – or so it seems.
“And yet the turmoil within his soul has not truly ended. That much was proven by his very first order upon awakening, when he nonsensically denounced Chaos, the heartstone of the new Imperial Truth! Yes, brothers, our Primarch is undeniably gone. We must continue the work of progress without him. I, and those who agree with me, will no longer hide in fear of a ghost’s wrath. The Legion, and Chaos, will endure!”
And then Branthan mercifully cut out. Orth winced for the third time at the speech. It was simply too aggressive, ruining too many friendships. The Legion was still too loyal, by and large, for something like this to stand.
Qevpilum’s reaction was a perfect demonstration of that: he was staring at Branthan’s vanished face with open mouth, cheek-gears grinding in incredulity. Rochaar, by contrast, seemed to seriously contemplate the statement before looking straight at Orth.
“The scariest thing,” he observed, “is that Branthan is not entirely wrong. The second-scariest thing is that this is the Astarte in charge of our blockade.”
Qevpilum disconnected. Orth was not sure precisely what was going on in his brother’s head, but it was not anything sympathetic to the cause of Chaos.
“I’d have thought Ferrus would reply,” Orth said.
“He will, soon enough,” Rochaar guessed. “Branthan presumably used Chaos to interfere with the voxnet. But I’ll say, Castrmen – if you’ve got a half-strength version of this, I’m in. Otherwise, I really don’t want to be with you when the Gorgon tears you into pieces for treason.”
And Rochaar disconnected as well. Orth cursed, then cursed again. Branthan had doomed all of them with his fanaticism, and not even in an interesting way. With a groan, the centurion climbed out of the cupola and sat himself next to a rusty spike, at the crater’s edge and a hundred meters away from Rashemion. His feet dangled off the rim, and his gaze was turned inward.
Castrmen Orth was still sitting, holding his head in his hands, when the vox from Ferrus Manus himself came in.
Frowning, the centurion accepted it. His allegiance with Branthan’s faction was only technically a secret, after all.
“Lord father,” he said.
“Castrmen,” Ferrus replied, with a note of kindness that Orth had not expected to hear at this point. “So, what did you think of that speech?”
“I truly believed that Branthan was doing the best for the Legion,” the centurion noted. “Until now, I – I did not realize how much it was weakening the Legion.”
“It is doing so indeed,” Ferrus said, with surprising calm. “More than you think – a fair portion of the Legion will side with Branthan, even now. Others will leave, in fear for their heads, but be at the ready to betray my trust a second time. But that’s not what you referred to when you said it was weakening the Legion, was it?”
And the pieces for how to get out, and for how to redeem himself in the Primarch’s eyes, fell into place in Orth’s head, even as he commented on Tyro’s sad fate.
“And he will not be the last,” Ferrus Manus confirmed. “So. Spearhead-Centurion Castrmen Orth. Would you keep an eye on Branthan on me, and ensure he doesn’t do anything even more stupid?”
Orth could not agree fast enough.