A Black Cross, short story.
The stratosphere hammered violently against the prow of the antediluvian dropship as it began its descent into the hellfire of war below. A hard angle, shaking, then bursting through the troposphere like a ball of pitch, the small ship banked left with its swarm of sinister drop-craft. Turbulence at this height registered nil, yet the lander shook with colossal force. Searing jets of flame bursting through its hold, scouring its occupants, vacuum-force throwing them from the grievous holes dotting the starboard flank. A shower of steel and organic potpourri plumed onto the enemy below, pink mist blotting out the baleful scourge of a yellow sun.
The Imperial Guard air-spotter shouted in triumph at the burst dropship, fist in the air, zooming his laser-guiding electro-binoculars onto another plummeting craft, too eager to disgorge its foul cargo. The Hydra Flak Cannon emplacement shuddered into life, resuming its hail of heavy caliber fire into the rain of the Mantled Lord’s invasion fleet.
A vox crackle, “Position Three here. The One-Hundred-Twelfth has its batteries crossfiring with the Urdeshi Eighth Flaktanks into the eastern sky over Hill Thirteen. We have concentrated drop formations at icon zero-nine, and icon zero-six-six. Recommending group fire between our emplacements and the Steel Legion artillery, alongside Ridge Sixteen. Commence?”
“Battery three, inform the others to your plan. Commence now, authorization kappa-nine-gamma-five. Ulerich out.” The colonel took a long swig from his vintage amasec flask, leant on his jeweled walking cane, and gazed into the swollen, bristling sky. Many would die today, and many more tomorrow. Such was the life in the Imperial Guard.
* * * * * * * * * * *
A meaty fist thundered onto the hardwood table, displacing the pict-slates and map prints of the invasion and repulsion. Lord General Surdacar was a man of short temper, and shorter bladder control. It seemed ever near-impact caused a cyclonic rush to the personal officer latrines imbedded in the wedge of the strategem, cementing every man present with the belief that doom irrevocably lie ahead in this theater of war.
“We must fall back to a more defensible zone! They are obliterating us, stretched as we are!” The bulky general squeaked.
“That is foolish, general. An orbital drop invasion of this magnitude must not be allowed to land in over-populated stretches of our defense. We must turn and repel. Reinforcements are en route from Badab as we speak, a contingent of Red Talons Space Marines have taken the call. We also have word Marshal Faolkes dispatched a full regiment of Ophelian Stormtroops, alongside a detachment of Adeptus Sororitas of the Order of the Sacred Rose. We have nine days gentlemen..,” Colonel Arunes spoke forebodingly.
General Surdacar ground his teeth at the insolence of being referred to as foolish. The moist breeches wrenched in impossible angles through his guard-issue officer cadre leggings began to smother him as dust shook from the ceiling, another close shelling. He whimpered, glancing to the latrines and the tactical advisors, lost in responsibility of the war or his bodily functions. The advisors turned their heads in unison, guard officers cringing with disgust at the loathsome form of Isolder Surdacar. He scurried to his call of nature in the corner of the bunker.
“Whomever removes him from this place, no matter the means, has my full force and trust behind him. As well as my hearty organs,” joked Arunes. Men coughed and stifled chuckles, holding the laughs in for after a victory of any sort. The gloom enshrouded the room once more, dire faces turned to the tacticians for hope.
“The Mantled One is cunning, using an Adeptus Astartes deployment method to catch us unawares, shocked, and it has apparently worked. Seventy percent of our fronts are in rout, fleeing before the orbital onslaught,” Tactician Alphon stated blankly.
Time passed with Alphon in quiet deliberation with the pair of junior tacticians, nodding at some unheard conclusion and ending the dispute with a firm hand gesture.
“We have concluded a full hold and repel outside the walls, consisting of fresh units. These should allow routed and systematic fallbacks into the city proper. A slow determined rear move should give us time to prepare and activate the shieldwall. Estimations state at least thirty percent of the rearguard forces will be caught beyond the wall. No other strategies will offer better odds in these conditions. Your responses?”
An uncomforting quiet filled the strategem for a moment, as the officers weighed the worth of lives.
“Agreed,” whispered Arunes to the lord general.
Surdacar nodded dumbfoundedly, dabbing his forehead with a silk cloth, “Make haste then, sirs. Operation Stronghold begins right now.”
* * * * * * * * * * *
“What?!” The vox officer bellowed back into his set. He began to shake, despite his will to not, and passed the unit to Sergeant Loel. “This is Loel. What, may I ask, did you do to my vox officer?”
“…retr.! We….lord! I…eat, a war…tan coming over rid…twelve!” The distant corporal screamed amidst the static of machine-noise.
“Repeat corporal, your breaking up!” Loel growled.
“I said retreat sir! Confirmation three-six-alpha of a warlord-class battle titan rounding Ridge Twelve! At least three warhound-class variants have been sighted as well! You should see it from the bunker by now, sir!” Boomed the voxcaster.
Sergeant Loel looked back to his vox officer, who was crying onto a torn and burnt old picture. He took a step over, viewing a frayed image of a beautiful woman holding two small children, all in the arms of vox trooper Miles Lloyd. He looked up from his sorrow, tears pouring down his neck. His face grimaced with despair.
“Miles.. You..you are from a small village on the north front of Ridge Twelve, correct?” Loel said softly.
Trooper Lloyd tried to speak, but only a grunt and a dry heave came out. He began to shake again. “Yes sir. My wife.. kids...All under the feet of the Adeptus Mechanicus.”
“Miles. Miles, my friend. We have to get everyone out. The enemy must have heard about Operation Stronghold. They are rushing at us now.” Loel spoke. He reached out and gripped the trooper’s shoulder reassuringly. Miles nodded grudgingly and picked up the vox unit, relaying fallback codes to the entirety of the bunker complex.
Sergeant Loel hustled to the hatch, looking back at Lloyd. “Colonel Ulerich is above us, directing the retreat in person. I will return in a moment. We must speak. Make me proud, Miles.”
Vox Trooper Miles Lloyd took a deep breath. He took a long, dark look at the picture of his wife and children, now in the Emperor’s embrace. Up it came, forced to his lips in deep sadness and sorrow, tears streaming and disfiguring the colors. In one swift stroke, he crushed the memory inside his trembling palm and threw it into the row of candles on the small altar to the God-Emperor he erected the night before.
“For the Emperor…” He swallowed his tragedy and adjusted the vox dials.
* * * * * * * * * * *
The defenses were centered around Hill Eleven, rolling out in one hundred and eighty degrees down the forward ridge, with artillery stationed on the rear side. From the cockpit of the enemy fliers, Hill Eleven looked like a giant light show, blazing in all direction. That was about as close of a view they risked. Hill Eleven was death, as was her ridge, thanks to the effort and command of one Colonel Jons Ulerich. Not a single enemy unit made it onto or past Ridge Eleven until well after Operation Stronghold took effect. Men died. Heroes were born and lost. Hope, though, lingered like an old canine unwilling to growl it’s last.
Sergeant Loel ran amidst the raised concrete defenses of Hill Eleven’s surface, dashing to Ulerich’s command bunker. When he arrived, he found the old fool had removed the roof section and stood on a raised dais, surveying and commanding from his eagle eye view. That damn cane was in his hands again! It was said a High Lord of Terra himself gave it to the old bastard for some act Ulerich did during his honor-visit to our sacred homeworld. He spotted Loel enter the bunker and make the sign of the aquila.
“Colonel, vox reports titans rounding the next ridge over. Operation Stronghold is a go. What are your wishes?” The sergeant yelled over the cacophony.
“Sergeant. I want you to empty the bunker and fall back to Treida City. Command wants a large rearguard and I plan on being with my men until death takes me.” The colonel replied. He flinched around at the sight of the warlord titan rounding the ridge, colossal weapons vaporizing anything in their path.
“My first point of order for this operation is removing that damn walking fortress from this world and our beloved Imperium.” He turned to the trooper at the comms. “Get me McHellar on the vox. I have a little coup that might just save us time and lives.” Ulerich took a quick slug of amasec and squinted at the sunlight, glaring off the broad chest of the Adeptus Mechanicus death machine. In his genius, or madness, Ulerich keyed the vox to a quiet blanket broadcast, to hopefully get the attention of the crew of the machine coming at him.
“Welcome, friend. You in your armor and me with my hat and cane, shall dance.
Before the hour ends, we shall see who’s blade is the sharper.” He tossed the mic down and limped with is cane, over to his print-out of the hill and her ridge. He passed his fingers down one area in particular, a wolfish grin beaming from that weather-beaten face of his. “Oh, and Loel. Let the front know to brace themselves for tremors. That mammoth will be kneeling in obeisance of the Emperor shortly.”
Ulerich caught sight of a blinking star in the waning daylight., hoping it was the Mantled Lord himself aboard some gargantuan battleship.
“You’re next,” he said with pursed lips. He gripped his cane tighter, hoping he had the chance.