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post #1 of 13 (permalink) Old 10-11-11, 08:10 PM Thread Starter
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This is a story told (at least so far) entirely from the POV of a Dreadnought. It's not clear from the story, because I haven't written a BL-style expository prologue yet, but Vercingetorix is a dreadnought who has been alive since the days of the Great Crusade, or at least very nearly then. His machine is an incredibly old and powerful model, possibly dating as far back as the Dark Age of Technology. I don't know if Dreads normally have machine spirits, but this one does, and as far as machine spirits go it is a very advanced one.

I think that's enough pre-story yakking. On with the show.

SARCOPHAGUS CONNECTED...
The words imposed themselves over Vercingetorix's eyes, a vulgar green light interrupting the gentle blackness of sleep. He tried to rub his eyes but found his arms were immobile. A voice cut through the confusion.
Are you awake, my companion?
...

AUTOSENSES ENGAGING...
The green script had changed, but around Vercingetorix's head, all was darkness. He felt warm and wet and his muscles were relaxed.
I issued a mild stimulant to combat the disorientation. Amniotic fluid concentrations: Anti-inflammatory 2 parts per thousand. Stimulant 5 parts per million. Muscle relaxant 3 parts per million. Nutrient solute 5 parts per thousand. Flesh preservative 10 parts per thousand. Remaining volume saline amniofluid. Are you awake, my companion?
...
AUTOSENSES ENGAGED.
...
The audiovox was the first sense to respond. Vercingetorix heard the clatter of feet and the rumble of promethium combustion engines around him. Beneath the commotion was the subtle hum of a gellar field.

Are you awake, my companion?

His ocular interface was next. Cables relayed data from the visor of his sarcophagus to his sightless eyes, which translated raw color into coherent shapes.

"I am awake, Spirit. Do my brothers need me?"

It must be so, my companion, for I am We again.

Air scoops took in samples of the surrounding atmosphere. Promethium fumes in abundance. Machine oil. The sacred incense of the Martian cult. Human respiration and perspiration. All the characteristic smells of the Strike Cruiser that had been his home for the last three months, though he had slept through that time without stirring.
CONNECTING MOTIVE SYSTEMS...
A crane hoisted the Dreadnought hull from the ground as the Techmarines' servo-arms lifted the bulky metal legs to their mounting brackets.

"Where are we, Spirit?"

We are aboard Strike Cruiser Spear of the Lightbringer, my companion. Warp transit time 93 days, 15 hours, 44 minutes standard. We are now approaching Imperial world Pacem.

Tactile senses were always the last to arrive. The sarcophagus was ill-equipped to translate the crushing power of a huge fist or the recoil of autocannons as they spat vengeance into the foe. The only reliable tactile sensations were those felt by the pilot interred in the sarcophagus. The gentle currents of amniotic fluid, the flow of electrons through connective cables and electronic interfaces... and of course, the pain.

"Spirit, my hearts ache."

Understood, my companion. Adjusting anti-inflammatory dosage. Concentration now 5 parts per thousand.

A cool, soothing sensation washed over Vercingetorix's shattered body. There was very little flesh left, but the meat that still clung to his frame was fragile and tender. Pain was a constant companion to Vercingetorix, a reminder of his weakness.
CALIBRATING FIBRE BUNDLE TENSION. ENGAGING AMBULATORY TEST...
A HUD appeared before Vercingetorix's eyes, displaying informational readouts about hull integrity, motive function, autosense relays, and other vital operating statistics. He concentrated, and the HUD faded to 90% translucency.
...
LEFT LEG...
...
RIGHT LEG...
...
Vercingetorix felt the Dreadnought's weight shift as he tested his legs' motive functions. Servomotors whined and fibre bundles sang with tension at frequencies too high for normal human ears. Not for the augmented senses of the adamantine sarcophagus.

Your left leg is not sensitive enough, my companion. It will slow you in battle. Correcting fibre bundle tension 2% positive.

ADJUSTING TENSION...
The warrior swung his legs again, content with the responsiveness of his body. He sensed the Machine Spirit's pleasure as he was lowered to the ground.

"It is good to have a body once more. These interminable hours of uselessness irk me."

I concur, my companion. Your absence is unpleasant. It brings much good that you are again We.
...
...
MOTIVE SYSTEMS OPERATIONAL...
SELECT ARMAMENTS...
After a few moments of thought, the spoke, his vox projecting a rumbling bass that cut through the noise of the hangar in which he stood.

"Give me my hands, Brothers. I wish to feel the life draining from my foes. I wish to know the joy the Primarch knew when he crushed his enemies."

The lead techmarine attending him motioned to two others, who used their mechanical harnesses to lift first one massive limb, and then the other, to the sides of the Dreadnought. Across the hangar from Vercingetorix, another Dreadnought was being outfitted with a pair of linked autocannons. He recognized the body as belonging to Revenant Eudorus. Eudorus was the youngest Dreadnought in the strike force, having spent a mere forty years entombed. Vercingetorix was glad that the two would not be dropping side by side. He questioned the younger warrior's wisdom in battle.
...
...
CONNECTING ARMS TO FRAME...
...
...
ARMS CONNECTED...
Vercingetorix strove to clench his fists, but his machine did not move. He felt an odd sensation as he tried to flex muscles that would not respond.

"I cannot feel my arms, spirit."

I understand, my companion.

RUNNING DIAGNOSTICS...
...

"I had a dream, Spirit."

During our absence?

"Yes. In my dream, I was of flesh, and I partook of fleshy pleasures. I ate heartily, and drank my fill. I breathed air once more."

I cannot conceive your words, my companion. I do not know of fleshy things.

ERROR LOCATED. NEURO-LINK INTERFACE CONNECTOR XVII NOT FOUND. SUMMONING SERVITOR...

The machine spirit's query was a familiar one. This conversation had played out many times over the thousands of years Vercingetorix had spent entombed in his sarcophagus. "I abhor the weaknesses of the flesh, and yet I must confess I felt joy in my dream. Joy in eating, in breathing, and in all the frailties that flesh is heir to. Joy even in the peace of a field unknown to soldiers' boots."

The spirit was silent. The background hum of the Gellar field faded, to be replaced with the tactile rumble of realspace engines. The shipboard vox announced three minutes to deployment.
SERVITOR HAS ARRIVED. REPLACING CONNECTOR...
...
...
It sounds horrible, my companion. To be idle when there is so much killing yet to do.

"Ah, but without peace, spirit, how would we know the joys of war? Without peace we would be no better than greenskins, who fight only for the sake of fighting. No, we fight so that we might know peace with the Emperor and the Omnissiah. We go to war that we might end all wars."

But, my companion, war is our calling. There can be no peace. How can you dream of things that are not?

RUNNING ARM DIAGNOSTICS...
...
LEFT ARM...
...
RIGHT ARM...
...
The HUD imposed itself once more over Vercingetorix's autosight. The diagnostic relayed instructioons, and he tested his arm systems one by one, powering up the energy fields around his fists, heating up the magnetic containment coils of his plasma guns, and tilting the deflection plates on his shoulders.

Vercingetorix responded as he had numberless times before. "It is the gift of mankind, and the curse. We see things that are not, and we wish them to be. It is what drives us to reach beyond the furthest stars, and what makes us grasp for that which we should not have. Things which are not are the very substance of dreams."

This thing dream is strange to We. To see without autosight. To think when I am not We. You bear a terrible burden, my companion. I rejoice that I can assist We. I rejoice that I may join We in the fires of war.

PROCEED TO DEPLOYMENT BAY. POD 3. FIRST WAVE...
Vercingetorix strode to the deployment bay amidst several other Dreadnoughts and twoscore of his battle-brothers. The floor beneath them trembled at their passing. The rest of the Battle Company was en route to the drop zone in Thunderhawks already, but the drop pods would form the first wave of the assault. Beneath his massive metal feet, Vercingetorix felt the deck rumble as the Spear of the Lightbringer unleashed the might of its bombardment cannons on the enemy below. A serf with a flag directed Vercingetorix to his pod. Once he was on board several servitors scrambled to secure his inertia harness. His Machine Spirit communed with that of the Drop Pod. Over the vox network, the Steel Father chanted the Litany of Steel, and fifty voices joined him in supplication to the Emperor. The Machine Spirit raised a tactical map onto his HUD. Vercingetorix considered the distribution of forces, the lay of the land, and ambient conditions. He plotted the target points of his strike force and reported them to the Astartes Tactical Grid, and then relayed his destination to the Drop Pod's Inertial Guidance Engine.

"Now, Spirit, we return to the war that never ends."

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Vercingetorix fell through the atmosphere, ensconced in the blackness of his drop pod. The hull glowed with the heat of atmospheric entry. Inside the craft, the only noise was the low hum of power fields and the oscillating noise of plasma guns warming up.

"Spirit, what is the output of the plasma coils? HUD indicates an excessive magnetic flux."

The coils are operating at 110% of normal capacity, my companion. We thought it prudent to build excess charge that we may fire uninterrupted upon landing. We will compensate for excess heat that it does not endanger the flesh of We.


SIXTY SECONDS UNTIL PLANETARY IMPACT...
The drop pod hurtled toward the ground at speeds upward of 150 meters per second. The violence of its passing tore a hole in the clouds and dim sunlight poured through the hole, casting a circle of light on the ground. In the sky around his vessel, dozens of other pods shredded the air as they passed, shattering the sky. Vercingetorix's massive body strained against the harness that held it in place. He flexed his massive metal hands and dimly remembered the sensation of skin against skin. That was another time, another life. Now his life was only war.
FORTY-FIVE SECONDS UNTIL PLANETARY IMPACT...
My companion, topography indicates high ground three hundred meters from designated landing zone, heading two-nine-six.

Vercingetorix consulted his HUD map. "Confirmed. Adjust course."

It shall be so, my companion. This pod's spirit concurs with We. Updating Astartes Tactical Grid layout and transmitting new coordinates to Pod formation.

Vercingetorix could feel the machine spirit's agitation. It stimulated an increase in his adrenaline production. His mind stirred restlessly and his massive metal body shifted in response.
THIRTY SECONDS UNTIL PLANETARY IMPACT...

We feel the war song, my companion. We hear its words in your head. It is good for We. It is why We are.

Vercingetorix tuned his vox unit to the command frequency for the drop pod battlegroup. "Revenants Diocles and Horovus, prioritize Hammerhead-class hovertank, then select opportunity targets at will. Tactical Squad Gamedes, secure the bunker at battlegrid coordinate VIII Sigma-6. Tactical Squad Androi, relieve the PDF platoon marked on the ATG." Vercingetorix paused, consulting his map again.
FIFTEEN SECONDS UNTIL PLANETARY IMPACT...
"Devastator Squad Filos, you will secure Saint's Ridge and deploy long-range firepower to cover Androi's withdrawal to VIII Sigma-6. The Emperor protects."
DEPLOYING RETRO THRUSTERS. FIVE SECONDS...
Vercingetorix felt the hammer-blow of the massive rockets beneath him as they strove to tear his vehicle free from the clutches of gravity. Restraints in his sarcophagus embraced his frail flesh, protecting him from the worst of the buffeting.

Revere the Omnissiah, my companion.

"The Omnissiah guides us all, Spirit."
THREE...
TWO...
ONE...
The pod smashed into the earth with a hellacious roar, crushing an unfortunate fire warrior beneath it. The doors exploded outward, flattening two more troopers who were not fast enough. Vercingetorix felt the tremors that shook the ground as his brethren landed amid the Tau lines.

Vercingetorix activated his external speakers at full volume. "YOUR DEATH IS UPON YOU, ALIENS. TREMBLE BEFORE THE MIGHT OF THE EMPEROR!"

Vercingetorix strode down the ramp of his drop pod, fists crackling with distorting energy and the magnetic coils on his plasma guns glowing with barely-contained energy. He felt a surge of joy as the Machine Spirit awoke to its full fury.

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As soon as he was clear of the drop pod, Vercingetorix unleashed the energy stored in his plasma guns. Four miniature sunbursts erupted from beneath his fists. Three of the plasma bursts hit squarely on target, reducing fire warriors to bubbling piles of molten flesh and cracked bone. The fourth burst collided with a drone and dissipated harmlessly on its shield. Behind him, Vercingetorix could hear the storm bolter mounted on his drop pod firing rapidly. The distinctive boom-whoosh of the bolts' two-stage ignition was punctuated by dull crack of their explosive warheads detonating. More drop pods roared in overhead, crashing into the ground or being detonated in midair by the Tau anti-air defenses, which were now targeting the incoming pods.

"Spirit, we must silence those anti-air batteries. Relay their locations to the Spear of Luciefer and order a bombardment."

It shall be so, my companion.


Mere seconds after the first wave of drop pods, a second salvo from the strike cruiser's bombardment cannon pummeled the Tau lines. Explosive shockwaves knocked fire warriors off their feet and sent the light skimmers of the Tau force spinning out of control. Vercingetorix advanced on the nearest knot of Tau infantry, plasma guns blazing.

My companion, a transmission is inbound from a Commander Rogan of Pacem PDF.

"Open a channel, Spirit." The Tau had begun to rally to one of their Shas'O. The squad was huddled for cover behind a Hammerhead. They fired at Vercingetorix's hull, their shots glancing harmlessly off of his armour. He retaliated with gouts of plasma, vaporising several of their number and melting a hole in the hull of the crashed craft.

A timid tenor spoke over the Imperial vox network. "Space Marine forces, I am Defense Commander Rogan." Vercingetorix picked up speed, bearing down on the fire warriors. To their credit, they faced him without flinching. "Our situation is dire. Tau sappers infiltrated and destroyed several ammo dumps early in the invasion. Our ammunition reserves are nearly empty. They have driven us back on all fronts."

Vercingetorix interrupted the commander. "I have heard enough, Commander. You will muster all available forces. When Crusade-Captain Aleksos makes landfall, he will dispense further orders. I trust we can rely on your cooperation?" Without awaiting a reply, he closed the vox link. The Fire Warriors began hurling their photon grenades at him. The tiny globes burst with intense phosphorescent light. His visual inputs struggled to filter the sudden brightness, but the world had become a blur. His massive metal form blundered forward, nearly blinded by the grenades. "Spirit! Guide my aim!" He surrendered control of his body to the Machine Spirit, trusting it to safeguard him, and turned his attention to the Astartes Tactical Grid map. "Battlegroup Vercingetorix, report."

Brother-Sergeant Filos was the first to respond. "Saint's Hill is ours, Lord Revenant. Minor resistance encountered. Brother Meten has a wound that should be tended by the Apothecaries, but we are all fit to fight." Vercingetorix heard his plasma guns firing blast after blast as the Machine Spirit guided his body.

Brother-Lieutenant Gamedes spoke next. "Squads Gamedes and Androi have regrouped at the designated bunker. Brother Kurtin is dead and Sergeant Androi removed his helmet and was blinded by a photon grenade. The Tau have been driven back. We inflicted twenty-four confirmed casualties. We have forty-three survivors of the PDF with us. They have no ammunition, and have not eaten for days. I question their battle-readiness, Lord Vercingetorix." His body had waded into the midst of the Tau cadre and was now laying waste to the Fire Warriors around him.

Revenant Diocles delivered his report in a ponderous baritone. "Lord Revenant, the Hammerhead is destroyed. We also accounted for seven Pirahna-class and two Devilfish-class skimmers. Revenant Horovus has suffered damage to his primary motive systems and my assault cannon's ammunition is depleted. Crusade-Captain Aleksos will be here in two minutes thirty, and the Steel Priests will see to Horovus when they touch down. Until then, requesting permission to watch over him."

While Diocles delivered his report, the Machine Spirit picked up two Tau soldiers and began to squeeze. Vercingetorix felt, with a sense of detachment, the armor of the Tau soldiers as it warped beneath the power fields in his hands. There was a moment of tension, a crack, and their armor caved in. Their flesh put up little resistance as fibre-bundle muscles crushed the life from their bodies.

"So be it, Diocles. I will alert you if I have need of you."

My companion, I have filtered the aliens' light frequencies from We's ocular senses. You should be able to see once more, if you wish to take control of the body of We.


Vercingetorix felt sensation rushing through his limbs as he reassumed command over his body. He dropped the corpses of the fire warriors the Machine Spirit had crushed and spoke through his external vox-unit. "Come, alien scum! Hurl yourselves at me. Show me your strength!" The remaining firewarriors lost their nerve, broke, and ran. Vercingetorix paused to watch as seven beams lanced down from the sky. He counted the explosions from the ground - all anti-air batteries accounted for. "Strike Cruiser, targets confirmed destroyed. Landing zone is cleared for Thunderhawk insertion."

Caution, my companion! Behind We! The Machine Spirit's warning was urgent. It was also too late.
Something slammed into the Dreadnought's back, and it stumbled forward. Vercingetorix fought to control his body. Behind him, he felt another impact. His remains were jostled about inside his sarcophagus. Servomotors strained against the momentum of the Dreadnought's own mass. He managed to turn his unarmoured rear away from the attacker. A third blow slammed into his left shoulder. The power field in his left hand crackled and died. The Machine Spirit's pain tore through the warrior's mortal form, which shuddered in sympathetic agony. Around him, the amniofluid of Vercingetorix's sarcophagus churned violently.

With cry of effort, Vercingetorix finally regained control of the Dreadnought and spun to face his enemy. A Tau Crisis Suit launched another salvo of missiles and then blasted into the sky away from the Dreadnought. Unlike the first set of missiles, the second barrage was rushed, and the pilot's aim was poor. Two flew harmlessly by, and the final shot detonated without effect on Vercingetorix's powerful frontal armour. Vercingetorix returned fire, but by then his foe was out of range. Four Thunderhawks flew through the shredded remnants of the clouds and landed in the open field behind the newly-captured bunker.

"Damage diagnostic."

PROCESSING...
...
LEFT ARM POWER CABLE II-A SEVERED. HYDRAULIC CONDUITS 1, 3, 4, 6, 10 DAMAGED...
...
REARWARD AUSPEX ARRAY DAMAGED...
...
DIAGNOSTIC COMPLETE...
...
REPAIR ESTIMATE THIRTY MINUTES...

I am sorry, my companion. I am sorry. I failed We. I was not vigilant.

"No apologies are needed, Spirit. I, too, allowed my awareness to lapse. It shall not happen again. A priest will see to our arm. And then we will take bloody vengeance."

Crusade-Captain Aleksos's voice interrupted the conversation between man and machine spirit. "Lord Revenant, I seek your wisdom. Please meet me in my Thunderhawk. We have a planet to liberate."

"I will be there presently, Captain," said Vercingetorix. "There is much to discuss."

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Vercingetorix was the last to arrive at the makeshift war council. A large wooden table had been set up in the entry hall of the bunker, which was the only area large enough to accommodate a Dreadnought. All of the corpses had been removed from the room, but the sarcophagus's sensitive air scoops still detected lingering traces of propellent, plasma burns, and blood. Too much blood. He was surrounded by warm, swirling liquid. For a moment, the withered husk inside the Dreadnought heaved, its empty stomach reacting with instinctive disgust.

Are you well, my companion? Do you require an adjustment to your amniofluid?

"No, Spirit. I am well. The scent of blood awoke a shadow of the past. There was a time when I, too, could bleed. But no longer."

It is good that We cannot bleed. This metal body is not subject to such weakness.

"Yes, Spirit. It is good."

The ancient warrior recognized many of those at the table. Aleksos stood at the head wearing his Terminator armour. He loomed over the other men at the table. To the Captain's right was Xaphanes, dressed in the blue power armour of the Librarium; to his left was the Techmarine known as the Steel Father, his Mechanicus-red armour and silver bionics gleaming in the light and his servo-arms weaving languidly about like serpents. There were other Battle-Brothers at the table as well. Chaplain Staphanos in his jet-black armour and bone-white skull mask. Brother-Sergeants Lothos and Gamedes. Brother-Lieutenant Orax from the armoured auxiliaries. Opposite the table from Aleksos sat a grizzled old man in the uniform of a General of the Imperial Guard. He was flanked by haggard-looking senior officers in ragged uniforms and a Commissar in an immaculate dress uniform and greatcoat. Aleksos was speaking to the assembled PDF officers. Vercingetorix lumbered to the table and stood behind Aleksos, casting his shadow over the whole table.

The Captain removed his helmet. His face was relatively unblemished by his many years of war, clean-shaven, though stubble had already begun to grow, and his hair was cut short and severe. When he spoke, his voice was deep and smooth and confident. "Due to the dire circumstances precipitating our arrival, and due to the overwhelming number of aliens now on this planet, I will be assuming the position of commander-in-chief of all military operations on Pacem for the duration of this emergency. Lord General Kneal, I expect your staff to make available full reports regarding the location, status, and disposition of all remaining PDF forces within two hours."

Vercingetorix spoke to Aleksos over a private vox-link. "I expect trouble from the Commissar. Tread with caution." If the Captain had heard the warning, he gave no sign of it.

The General glanced sidelong at his staff, who all nodded. "Very well, Crusade-Captain. We graciously accept your offer of assistance and await your orders."

The Commissar leaped to his feet. He was a short, broad-shouldered man with a scraggly brown beard and a thin voice. He wore a monocle over his left eye and a Commissar-General's stars on his shoulders. "This is a blatant usurpation of Imperial authority, General, and if you will not stand against it, then I shall! I cannot allow you to command these men, Captain. Imperial doctrine is quite clear on this point. No chapter of the Adeptus Astartes shall ever assume direct control of any of the Imperium's regular military forces. That includes," he said, pulling a thick black book from his pocket, "any Planetary Defense Regiment of a sovereign world." He opened the book, flipping pages for a few moments, "Aha! Any PDF forces of a sovereign Imperial world shall herein, according to Adeptus Administratum dictates provided under the provisions of the Martial Independence Doctrine, be considered, in the absence of an Imperial Guard chain of command, an autonomous Imperial Guard unit provided that there are within its ranks at least one General Staff officer," he pointed to the Lord General, "At least three Senior officers," and he waved a hand vaguely in the direction of the officers flanking the General, "And at least one senior Commissariat agent who are of sound mind and body. Dictatus Aegis Imperialis, Article V, Section M, Paragraph 331." The Commissar punctuated his words by jabbing the paper with stubby fingers.


Aleksos leaned against the table and spread his fingers. The wood groaned under the weight. "Bring me the book, please, Commissar... I'm afraid I don't know your name."


"Commissar-General Zoal Helem," said the Commissar, emphasizing his rank. He walked around the table, impervious to the glares of the marines as he passed them. He handed the book to Captain Aleksos, who read it impassively. When the captain had finished, he closed the book with a snap and addressed Helem once more.

"I see. The book does seem quite clear on the matter. It appears they wished to prevent another Horus, or another Tyrant of Badab. Well, the good Lord General is here. I count five senior officers. And you, Commissar-General. You are the planet's permanent Commissariat representative?"

"That is correct. I am the mandatory Commissarial senior officer, as outlined in Article III --"

"That will do, Commissar," Aleksos interupted. "Sergeant Lothos!"

"Sir!" Lothos grunted and came to the Captain's side, where he knelt. The sergeant was an ugly man with more scars on his face than teeth in his mouth, and his head was shaved bald. A flamer hung from a strap across his chest and his armour sported a dozen purity seals. The two golden service studs in his forehead denoted one hundred years of service to the Steel Revenants.

"Recite the Mandate of Duty from the Codex Astartes, if you will."


"Sir!" Lothos closed his eyes and his brow creased. His voice was like the snarl of a feral dog. "The strength of the Adeptus Astartes lies not only in the bolter and the chainsword. It lies also in the faith, conviction, and dedication that each space marine must daily exercise in the performance of his duties. Just as this book serves as a check on the ambitions of the Astartes, so too do the Astartes serve to check the ambitions of the Imperium's commanders. Except in cases where a Chapter Master has given such an order, or when the High Lords of Terra have issued a decree, no chapter, nor any battle-brother therein, of the Adeptus Astartes shall be beholden to any dictates of the Adeptus Administratum, Departmento Munitorum, Inquisition, or Ecclesiarchy, nor to any organization, officer, or branch of such an organization, if such a subjection would interfere with the due execution of the chapter's duties."

Aleksos nodded. "Well done, Lothos." Lothos stood up. The Captain turned to face Helem again. "The words of Roboute Guilliman himself. And unless I am sorely mistaken, that passage has made your book," Aleksos threw the Commissar's book contemptuously to the ground at Lothos's feet., "completely worthless." Aleksos clapped his hands. Sergeant Lothos ignited the pilot light of his flamer. Without a word, he sprayed the tome with burning promethium. Helem jumped back from the flames, which crackled and disintegrated under the Promethium's touch.

"What is the meaning of this?" Commissar Helem's face turned bright red. "Have you gone utterly mad? In all my sixty years of service, never has a man been so foolish as to address me in this way!"

"Your perfect record does you credit, Commissar. Sixty years is an impressive career. It is high time you retired." The Captain's voice was still calm, almost casual.

Vercingetorix addressed Aleksos again over a private channel. "You play a dangerous game, Crusade Captain. See that you do not lose."

The Commissar-General's flush had spread to his neck. "I shall do no such thing. I'll have you drawn up on charges! I'll have you dragged before the Inquisition! The High Lords themselves will scrub your name from existence!" Helem was shaking with fury. The rest of the council remained motionless, the space marines watching calmly, the PDF commanders glancing nervously at one another.

"Sergeant Lothos! Give this man his honourable discharge." The Commissar's hand reached for his pistol, but it never got there. Faster than Helem could hope to react, Lothos's knife lashed out and severed the smaller man's arm at the elbow. The Helem gasped in pain.

"Brother-Sergeant, bring the good Commissar to the Apothecaries. It appears he was wounded in combat, and will be unable to return to action." Aleksos appeared to think for a moment, then addressed the assembled PDF officers. "Oh, my. It appears your senior Commissariat officer is no longer able to discharge his duties. According to the Doctrinus Aegis Imperialis, you are no longer considered an Imperial Guard unit. As such, I have no choice but to assume the position of Commander-In-Chief of the defense of Pacem. Full reports to me in two hours, gentlemen." Aleksos replaced his helmet and spoke to Vercingetorix over their secure vox link. "Walk with me, Lord Revenant. I would hear your thoughts."

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PART FIVE!

"That was boldly done, Crusade-Captain. It may not have been wise." Vercingetorix and Aleksos stood atop Saint's Hill, surveying the wreckage of the morning's battle. The dreadnought's voice rolled down the hill like miniature thunder. On Vercingetorix's left side, a techmarine was directing servitors in the repairs of his damaged arm.

"I did what was necessary, Lord Revenant. The Commissar's incompetence may have already cost us this planet. He had formal charges written up for every officer at that table for dress uniform violations. By the Throne, there's a war on and he's worried about torn sleeves and tarnished medals. I did the planet a service."

"That may be, but the Commissariat is unlikely to agree with your assessment. Zoal Helem was a ranking commissar. His agency has close ties to the Inquisition, and there are those among the Ordos who have not forgotten the events of Akeldama."

"Let them hold their grudges. We have the might of Mars at our backs, and our brothers within the Dragons Rampant and the Knights of Glory. They can puff and protest all they like. They will not risk an open confrontation."

"An open confrontation? Perhaps not. But the Inquisition has ways of removing their foes with subtlety. Or have you forgotten the lesson learned by the Celestial Lions?"
Aleksos grunted, then spoke reluctantly. "We shall give the Commissar-General an augmetic arm to replace the one he lost in battle, with the understanding that when he dies it returns to us. Should he so desire, I suppose we can find an estate for him on Ptolomea. I will personally make restitution for him. But only after this planet is won. And if we lose thanks to his foolishness..." Aleksos left the threat to hang, unspoken, in the air.

"It is good to see you show some humility, Crusade-Captain. There are times when your supreme confidence borders on hubris." Aleksos smirked. "It is easy to forget the frailties of humanity, Lord Revenant, as I am sure you know full well. Once again, your immortal wisdom has saved my poor, mortal hide."

Vercingetorix felt a sharp jab of pain as one of the servitors repairing his arm crossed a pair of charged wires. The cables tying his mortal form to the sarcophagus stung him, and the machine spirit stirred in response.

My companion, instruct these barbarians to be more gentle. Their clumsy fingers poke and pry where they do not belong.

"Honorable Haphasetes," Vercingetorix said, "you must supervise your servitors more carefully. Their blunt hands offend the machine spirit. We cannot afford to rouse its ire here."

The Techmarine responded in a buzzing, artificial monotone. "I shall be more watchful, Lord Revenant. Convey my apologies to the revered spirit." Vercingetorix recognized Haphastes as a Priest Metallicus of the Chapter Cult, one of those responsible for the rites of the Omnissiah.

You overstate We's discomfort, my companion. It is unnecessary.

"Nonsense, Spirit. Were it not for the threat of your wrath, these apes would poke and pry at our hide with impunity. I... distort the truth so that we both might suffer less for it." The spirit said nothing, but he felt a sense of warmth that was the machine's way of expressing pleasure. Vercingetorix reactivated his external speakers and addressed the Crusade-Captain. "You did not bring me here to discuss matters of dignity, Aleksos. Share your mind with me."

Aleksos nodded, then donned his helmet. It hissed as it formed an airtight seal with the rest of his Terminator armour. When he next spoke, his voice had the subtle static undertones of a vox-caster. "I uploaded the latest intelligence reports onto the ATG. The situation is dire even without the Commissar's meddling. The majority of the southern continent is wholly Tau-controlled, though small resistance cells are still operating in the cities. The northern continent is still ours, but reinforcements from the Fleet Pacificus are a week out, and the PDF is stretched thin as it is. Generous estimates place their remaining numbers at two hundred thousand combat-ready troops, including two mechanized companies and one armoured. All are low on ammunition, fuel, and food. The supply ships we brought will help to a degree, but a week is a long time to hold out against such an overwhelming foe. If this were your command, what would you do?"

Vercingetorix brought his HUD up to 80% opacity so that it dominated his vision. "Spirit, topographical, road, and city data please. Start at meridian line 30 north."

Yes, my companion.

PROCESSING REQUEST...
...
MAP RENDERED.

Vercingetorix surveyed the topographical map.

My companion, look upon these three cities. They form a barrier between the southern and northern continents. It is a good place for defense.

"I see it, Spirit." Vercingetorix highlighted three sections of the map in red and transmitted the image to Aleksos.

"I would split our efforts into three groups. The bulk of our armoured forces, along with a complement of mechanized PDF, should go here, into the mountains, and harass hte enemy supply lines and reserves, blunting the follow-through of an enemy assault. The Devastators, the Revenants, and the scions of Mars should concentrate their efforts into these three cities. They form a cordon between the two continents, and will withstand the brunt of the enemy's attack. Judging by the disposition of enemy forces, I would estimate their command center to be located in the abandoned Southern capital. The scouts should infitrate in the guise of the enemy and assassinate any members of the Ethereal caste. With their leaders slain, these aliens will topple like a house of cards."

Aleksos nodded. "Your plan is sound, Lord Revenant. I shall lead the armoured column myself. I would delegate the defensive cordon to you. I will ask Brother-Sergeant Lothos which of the neophytes are best suited to a seek and destroy mission."
Haphastes interrupted the Captain. "Lord Revenant, your arm is repaired. When you find yourself with idle hours, you should come to the consecrated ring where we can properly bless your chassis and pay tribute to your Machine Spirit." He left the two standing on the hilltop, his servitors following him like trained dogs.

"If we are done here, Crusade-Captain, I shall go to the circle. It would not be proper to neglect the spirit." Vercingetorix turned to leave.

"Tomorrow at sunrise, I shall brief our brothers and the Planetary Defense Force officers. Rest well, Lord Revenant. There are trying days ahead."

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"That one worries me, Spirit." Vercingetorix lumbered back toward the bunker. The ground trembled slightly with each step.

We are stronger than he, my companion. He is no threat to We.

"His strength is not in his muscles. It is in those he commands. Aleksos well-loved by our brothers, and holds much sway with the Chapter Council. He balks under the leadership of Master Dolor. Were he to invoke the Right of Challenge, he might win."

Who is this Dolor to We? Masters come and go. He is no greater than his predecessor.

"I respect Dolor as I respected Akefia before him, and Thalonikos, and all those who came before. But my concern is not to keep Dolor in power, but to keep Aleksos out of it. He is rash, impetuous, and proud. His skill on the battlefield may surpass Master Dolor, but you have borne witness to what he calls diplomacy. Master Akefia had reasons for arranging the succession as he did."

I will never understand your politics, my companion. I thank the Omnissiah he did not design We for such a task.

"Spirit, I wish to review the Tactical Grid. Bring us back to the bunker, if you please?"

Of course, my companion. I will be We again when you command.

One by one, the Machine Spirit took over primary control of the sensor arrays. Vercingetorix allowed the auspex array to dim, the world blurring and finally fading before his eyes. His audiovox faded as well, and he was left in a black silence not unlike his sus-an sleep. Untethered from the senses of the Dreadnought, the ancient warrior was left with only the scant feelings remaining in his mortal frame. The pain that had dulled when he was in control of the Dreadnought emerged with renewed intensity. Wherever his harness touched living flesh it seared his nerves. His brain pounded with pulsing waves of pain. His body stirred and twitched as agony flowed through him.

INITIATING ASTARTES TACTICAL GRID UPLINK...

...

TACTICAL UPLING ONLINE. INPUT AUTHORIZATION CODES NOW.

"Authorization for Lord Revenant Vercingetorix, Venerable Ancient, Watcher of the Council, Fist of the Primarch, Champion of Kokytus, Initiate of Mars. Code six-four-four alpha epsilon, uplink priority one.

...

AUTHORIZATION VALIDATED. WELCOME, LORD REVENANT. INTERFACING WITH MACHINE SPIRIT...

...

Greetings, tier one user. How can this assist user?

Vercingetorix spoke to the tactical grid's machine spirit through his neural uplink the same way he spoke to that of his dreadnought body. Compared to his companion, the intelligence guiding the Tactical Grid was dull and sluggish.

"Spirit, give me auspex data, weather data within ten thousand kliks, and friendly force dispositions."

Data query returns over two trillion results. Begin showing alphabetically?

"No, Spirit. You misunderstand. I need data for this planet."

Pacem. Imperial Civilized World. Surface Gravity 0.93 Terra. Equatorial median temperature-

"That will be enough of that, Spirit." Vercingetorix's head throbbed. The pain of separating his mind from its relaxing amniofluid cradle was intensifying. The old warrior thought for a moment, then rephrased his query. "I require access to all planetary auspex web relays, meteorological data from all stations within ten thousand kilometers, and force dispositions for all Imperial forces on planet Pacem."

Data accumulating, user.

...

PLANETARY AUSPEX WEB APPROPRIATED. PLANETARY AUSPEX WEB NOW FULLY INTEGRATED INTO ATG...

...

METEOROLOGICAL DATA APPROPRIATED. METEOROLOGICAL DATA NOW FULLY INTEGRATED INTO ATG...

...

PLANETARY DEFENSE FORCE ROSTER...

...

PDF ROSTER COMPILED. COMMAND BATCH PROCESSED...

"Grid, interpret planetary defense forces, threat matrix Tau Alpha Upsilon. Enemy threat level unknown, presumed overwhelming. Data expand and recommend."

Planetary Defense Forces Optimal planetary combat personnel: one million fighting persons, one hundred companies, ten regiments per company as per standard Planetary Defense doctrine in this region. Current operational strength: 18%. Current supply line efficiency: 10%. Current mechanized support: <1% total fighting forces. Current armoured support: <1% total fighting forces. Situation critical. Transit capacity far below acceptable parameters. Recommend immediate martial law. Recommend immediate seizure of all civilian automotive conveyances. Recommend immediate withdrawal of all forces from non-critical areas. Recommend shoot-on-sight policy for all forces. Recommend zero-tolerance desertion policy. Further relevant information: 84% of Adeptus Arbites precincts still secure. Reports of human partisans in xeno-controlled territory, confirmed. Reports of Orkoid activity, unconfirmed. Reports of Necron activity, unfounded. Reports of Ruinous Powers active among Imperial populace: unfounded. Space Marine presence: confirmed.

Does user require further from this?

"No, Grid. You have fulfilled my demands." Vercingetorix disconnected from the tactical grid and began reasserting control over his Dreadnought. "Awake, Spirit. I have finished communing with the Grid.

Welcome back, my companion. Did your absence enlighten you?

"The Grid assisted as it was able. It is strange to speak to a spirit so dim. Your presence has made me forget the cognitive sloth that assails so many of Mars's blessed creations. I value your presence greatly, Spirit."

The machine spirit warmed Vercingetorix, soothing his throbbing head. He relaxed and let the gentle rocking of his body's ponderous footsteps soothe him into a state of relaxation.

You are a good companion, my companion. Your dedication to duty is admirable. I do not think I will allow you to die in this engagement.

As the dreadnought plodded toward the Steel Revenants' temporary command post, Vercingetorix allowed himself to drift off to sleep.

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My companion, we are nearing the equatorial city of Nobilis. I have hailed the local Arbites Marshal as you requested. He will be at the landing pad awaiting the arrival of We.

"Very good, Spirit. Connect my auspex to that of the Thunderhawk. I would look with my own eyes upon the city I have chosen to defend."

Very well, my companion.

ATG INTERFACE ACTIVATED...

...

CONNECTING TO ATG NODE BLACK WIND

...

AUSPEX FEED LIVE IN 3...

2...

1...

The dreadnought's HUD dimmed and then faded out of existence. For a few seconds, the sarrcophagus was completely dark. Tiny currents swirled in his amniofluid, gently caressing his ruined flesh. Then, abruptly, the Thunderhawk's auspex array flared to life. Its layout was different than the Dreadnought readout Vercingetorix was used to. In addition to the video display, a number of gauges showed altitude, fuel supply, armament, wind speed, and IFF transponder readouts from the other ships in the squadron. In addition, the gunship's radar displayed a profile view of the ground, and the newly-acquired auspex satellite network provided a closer insight into the planets's topography, resources, and weather. Vercingetorix regretted, momentarily, that he could not command his forces from such a position. He had to admit that an aerial view of the battlefield presented several advantages that his sarcophagus, mighty though it was, could simply never match.

"Welcome to Black Wind Alpha, Lord Revenant." The pilot's voice was distorted by the vox-caster through which he spoke. "I am Brother-Sergeant Kylos. It is an honor to have you aboard my ship."

Vercingetorix was startled. He activated his own vox and replied on the same frequency. "You knew I entered your auspex, Brother-Sergeant?"

"Nothing on this bird escapes my notice, Lord Revenant. We should be arriving at Nobilis Starport in three hundred seconds. Can I assist you in any way before disembark?"

"A pass over the city, if you would, Brother-Sergeant. There is no substitute for a bird's-eye view of the battlefield."

"As you wish, Lord Revenant. And please, aboard my own vessel, call me Kylos."

"Very well, Kylos. I need to see especially any waterways, major roads, walls, and large structures."

The city appeared over the horizon. Nobilis was the centermost of the three equatorial cities that straddled the barrier between North Pacem and South Pacem. Like its sister cities Frateris and Meritus, Nobilis was split in half from east to west by an enormous canal. The architecture of Nobilis was unlike that of most Imperial cities; rather than spires and towers, the buildings of Nobilis were squat domes that shone bronze in the afternoon sunlight. The only exceptions were the ugly, fortified grey facades of the Adeptus Arbites precinct-fortresses, where the law of the Imperium was dispensed, and the gothic splendor of the Adeptus Administratum's tithe-house, where Pacem's trade goods were gathered for processing and shipping off-world.

"Coming down over the canal now, Lord Revenant. I see three main bridges, with two kilometers between each bridge. The canal's water level is currently ten meters lower than that of the surface. Accounting for tidal forces, average water level is likely closer to twelve meters below street level. Canal is two kilometers wide from north to south." The Thunderhawk had slowed, giving Vercingetorix ample time to examine the ground below.

Vercingetorix spoke to the machine spirit. "Spirit, mark all main thoroughfares, Arbites precincts, and bridge accesses. Also designate any locations where the structures are exceptionally dense - those can be turned into kill zones."

Of course, my companion. I shall upload the data to the ATG for your later perusal.

The pilot's voice crackled through the vox-caster again. "Lord Revenant, vox transmission from the Arbites Marshal of Nobilis. Patching you through." There was a hiss of static, and then a woman spoke through the vox.

"Attention, Steel Revenants craft. This is Marshal Cheri DeSalle of Nobilis Arbites Precinct. As the commanding officer of the Adeptus Arbites on this planet, I welcome you to Pacem. Please instruct all your craft to land as soon as possible. I had to disable the city's automated air defense batteries, and until your craft are fitted with IFF transponders, I cannot have them in the air. The Tau have been bombarding us with torpedoes, and without our ack-ack we're far too vulnerable to a surprise strike. I will have a more thorough briefing for you when you land, but time is of the essence."

Vercingetorix responded. "This is Lord Revenant Vercingetorix. I command the Astartes elements in this area. Your message is heard and acknowledged. We shall be earthbound in a moment. As soon as we have landed, I wish to confer with you regarding the fortification of this city."

Kylos interrupted again. "Touchdown in ten seconds, Lord Revenant."

Vercingetorix withdrew from the Thunderhawk's auspex. His vision dimmed for several seconds, then the familiar HUD of the Dreadnought returned. Groggily, the warrior extended his metal arms, bracing his body against the bulkhead of the Thunderhawk as the turbulence of landing buffeted the craft. As soon as the craft touched down, the doors at the rear swung open. Vercingetorix stepped out of the transport and into the spaceport. The techmarine Haphastes drove a Razorback armed with heavy bolters down the ramp, followed by an ancient Stronos-pattern Mark I. Devastator squad Filos was last down the ramp. There were eight Battle-Brothers - Brother Kurtin was killed in the first battle, at Saint's Ridge - and Sergeant Filos. Each of them carried a crate full of ammunition or a heavy weapon. Elsewhere on the tarmac, the remaining four gunships in the Black Wind squadron were also offloading men, vehicles, and equipment.

The Thunderhawks, now empty of cargo and passengers, taxied off the launch pad and into several spacious hangars that had been emptied for them. Vercingetorix ordered his forces to form up and follow him to the Arbites precinct-house. Devastator squads Filos, Apollon, and Gamydon broke into combat squads and filed into their respective transports. Revenants Diocles and Horovus formed an honour guard for Vercingetorix, flanking and slightly behind their commander. A small convoy of vehicles painted in the black, gold, and red of the Adeptus Arbites arrived at the opposite end of the tarmac and sat idling. "Lord Revenant," said Marshal DeSalle over her vox-caster, "welcome to Nobilis. Now that you're all back on solid ground, I've returned the flak guns to full alert. If you would kindly follow your escort to the Arbites Precinct House, we can get to the business of saving this world."

"It will be as you say, Marshal. I am eager to begin our preparations."

"Ave Imperator, Lord Revenant." The Marshal spoke the words like a prayer.

"Imperator tuetur, Marshal," Vercingetorix replied. "May He watch over us all in these dark times." He switched vox channels and addressed his men. "Column, on my mark." He pivoted his machine at the waist to make sure his column would follow. Then he raised one fist and signaled the column forward.

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The streets outside the spaceport were a riot of color and activity. Vercingetorix had to activate his audiovox's filter to drown out the worst of the noise, but even then the cheering cacophony was louder than most battles. Vendors shouted advertisements for their wares, from simple foodstuffs to trinkets with the likenesses of saints. Priests shouted litanies of jubilation through vox-casters, their magnified voices echoing from the bronze domes of Nobilis's grandiose architecture. Pennants flew on every corner - the Imperium's flag, black with a golden Aquila; the skull-and-wings of the Imperial Guard; the fist and scales of the Adeptus Arbites; some locals even held hastily-sewn mockups of the Steel Revenants' own symbol, the skull gripped by a gauntlet. The sidewalks were packed with cheering people. Others waved from balconies and threw streamers and coins into the street.

The Adeptus Arbites had cordoned off the impromptu parade route with sectional iron grates two meters tall. Some citizens stood with their faces or bodies pressed against the railings; others reached their hands through, and were shoved roughly back into the crowd by black-clad Arbites enforcers. One man even climbed over the grates and ran toward the procession, a rapturous expression of joy on his face. The Enforcer nearest the dreadnought, a woman named Helspeth, tackled the man and shoved her knee in the small of his back. She jabbed his neck with her shock maul, then hit him two or three more times to ensure he did not get up. The marines of the Steel Revenants did not even glance at the man as they passed.

This is foolishness, my companion. Arrayed as they are, these humans make themselves targets, and they block our mobility should the enemy strike. My targeting arrays cannot filter out this many entities.

"As far as they are concerned, Spirit, we are their salvation from certain doom. They had already accepted their fate, and we have delivered to them freedom. They do not realize that the fighting has not yet even begun." The column turned from the spaceport road to the main thoroughfare that ran straight through the heart of Nobilis. This road would lead them directly to the Arbites precinct.

They could be fortifying their homes, barricading roads, building walls, making weapons! Instead they grow intoxicated and drive themselves into a frenzy. This energy is wasted, my companion. The Arbites should declare martial law and put an end to it.

"Let them have their fun, Spirit. They will have much time for lamentation when the enemy is beating down their gates. Let them think that we are all that the legends have made us. It may be all the spark needed to ignite the flame of martyrdom in the hearts of these people."

If you are so confident, my companion, then why do you watch the crowd so vigilantly?

"Confidence is no excuse for laxity, Spirit. Idle hands are the playthings of the ruinous powers. Besides, if I do not look after you, they will undoubtedly give your body to some young pup more full of enthusiasm than sense. I cannot bear the thought of some damnfool neophyte, his head full of glory and his progenoids empty, stepping into some pothole and marring your paint."

The road expanded into a broad plaza. In the center, a massive ornamental fountain sprayed jets of colored water dozens of feet into the air. Huge hab domes surrounded the space, and the ground was a dazzling jeweled mosaic of the Emperor.

The Machine Spirit sent pleasant pulses of electricity through the sarcophagus. I am fond of your guidance, my companion. You do bring me to the most excellent battlefields. I am simply growing restless. I long for something to kill.

Vercingetorix focused on one corner of his HUD. If he had lips, he would have frowned. "You may yet get your chance, Spirit. Amplify on the large dome, heading 055. Full-spectrum scan. Something is amiss." The Machine Spirit was already warming up the power coils on the machine's plasma guns. Power fields energized, wreathing the Dreadnought's fists in shimmering blue electricity. His vision narrowed and focused on the broad roof of a hab complex and began to shimmer as previously-unseen radiation became visible.

There, my companion. You were correct. I have noted at least three other locations that may indicate something is amiss. Something is casting ultraviolet shadows.

"I will put an end to that." In one swift motion, Vercingetorix raised his right hand and unleashed a burst of plasma at the distorted space on the roof of the building. Green-white light flashed from his plasmaguns and hit something solid. A vaguely humanoid shape was briefly highlighted in blinding green luminescence, then the plasma burned through the roof and the blazing body fell into the hab-complex.

Even as the first figure was burning, a dozen other forms coalesced seemingly from thin air. "Stealth suits!" shouted Sergeant Filos. "Get to cover!" At the same time, the closest members of the crowd turned to flee. They ran into those behind, who also panicked. Within seconds, the crowd was swirling like one enormous, terrified beast. The Enforcers accompanying the column rushed to the barricades blocking the street and began hauling them inward, forming a closed perimeter. Vercingetorix fired again, striking a second stealth suit in the leg. The suit pitched over and toppled from the roof. Then the suits leaped into the air, burst cannons spitting fire at the crowd indiscriminately. Crimson blood sprayed into the air and stained the pavement as dozens of fleeing civilians and several Arbites officers were cut down. Dozens of cloaked drones zoomed in low over the horizon, beneath the protective curtain of the city's air defense network.

Vercingetorix's voice boomed across the plaza. "Citizens, take cover in the nearest building!" He increased the throttle on his body, running beyond the protective circle the Enforcers had created to interpose himself between the Tau and the fleeing Imperial citizens. The burst cannons dug thousands of tiny divots from the Dreadnought's formidable armour plating. "Brothers! Protect these people. We will show these aliens how the Emperor protects his own!"

Very dramatic, my companion. But are they truly so important?

Vercingetorix loosed shot after shot, swatting down alien drones like insects. "They are the Emperor's subjects. Their own defenders are crippled and broken. How will He watch over them if not through us?" He activated his vox-caster and spoke to his men. "Protecting the civilians is vital to our success. But even more than the civilians, we must make sure the air defenses are not taken offline. If we lose those, our battle will be lost before it begins."

A stealth suit sprang from cover less than five meters from where Vercingetorix stood. It fired its jets and jumped over the Dreadnought's head. Vercingetorix turned, trying to track the nimble Tau machine. His plasma guns spat beams of sunfire and carved enormous gouts from the facades in the plaza. The machine spirit angled his deflector plates to protect his vulnerable backside. Suddenly there was an incredible pain as his left leg went numb beneath him. The machine spirit cried out in wordless agony. Vercingetorix swept his arm out to catch himself, turning the pavement molten where the plasma beams hit it. He managed to arrest his motion as the stealth suit leveled its fusion gun directly at his sarcophagus. Vercingetorix shoved himself out of the way with all his strength and a burst of deadly energy crackled overhead. Inside the protective mantle of his sarcophagus, Vercingetorix's mortal form was battered mercilessly as his metal body jostled and shook. His machine spirit had stopped responding. Then the massive dreadnought crashed into a hab-dome and Vercingetorix passed out.

He came to moments later. His suit detected ozone and seared metal, as though lightning had struck the dome against which the dreadnought lay. The Tau stealth suit was facedown on the ground. Standing over it, a triumphant grin visible beneath her black mask, was Helspeth, her shock maul raised high.

"Are you alright, Lord Revenant? You took a good shake there."

"I am... not sure. Give me a moment." He spoke to the machine spirit. "Spirit? The foe is dead. Is the leg usable, or did the damnable alien cripple it?"

It burned a hole in the primary motive core. I have several redundant systems that will allow us to move. We must get back to the battle!

It was a struggle, but Vercingetorix slowly picked himself up. He had to brace himself against the front of the nearest hab-dome, which cracked, then crumbled, beneath his massive weight. Most of the civilians had managed to evacuate, but more drones were pouring into the city, hunting for the domes where the flak guns were hidden. "I owe you my life, young woman. The machine conveys its gratitude as well. Ave Imperator."

"That's twice you owe me now, m'lord. Imperator tuetur. Now let's get back in the fight. We've got a city to defend."

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"The Ancient has fallen! We must protect him!" Sergeant Filos was shouting into his vox-caster. Vercingetorix saw a dense knot of his brethren shoving through the panicked crowd, laying down hails of heavy bolter fire behind them as they struggled to reach the Dreadnought. Gun drones swooped down the Marines, pulse weapons peppering the squad with ineffectual fire. The stealth suits had stopped shooting into the crowd and were now leaping from rooftop to rooftop, those with fusion guns melting through the structures' bronze domes in search of the city's hidden anti-air defenses.

"Negative, Brother-Sergeant," said Sergeant Aedon. "The Lord Revenant's instructions were clear. We must stop the aliens from disabling the anti-air defenses at any cost."

"Squad Filos, return to your transports," said Vercingetorix through his vox-caster. "I am not dead yet." Vercingetorix fired his plasma guns, incinerating an enemy drone, which crashed at his feet. He crushed it with a stomp of his massive foot. "Brother-Sergeant Aedon is right. Destroy the stealth teams; one of their Shas'La must be controlling the drones." The Dreadnought scanned left and right, searching for the Tau, but his HUD was full of target indicators, some focused on the Tau but most tracking the fleeing Imperial citizens. "Spirit, this damnable targeting array has become more hindrance than aid. If you cannot assist me, then shut it down. There was a time when I killed the Emperor's foes without the aid of an auspex. I can do so again."

As you wish, my companion.

The machine's HUD overlay faded out completely and Vercingetorix was left with only the simulated sight of his visor. "I have you now," he said, drawing a bead on a stealth suit, which was busy melting a hole in the roof of a small commercial dome. He fired all of his guns and was rewarded with a flash and a sizzle as the alien vaporised inside its suit. "All units, report."

Sergeant Filos spoke first. "No casualties, Lord Revenant, but our Razorback threw a tread. We are making our way to the Arbites precinct, three blocks from our current position. They have weapon emplacements and a commanding view of the city. The corporal and his combat squad are escorting Brother Haphastes to the disabled tank."

"Brother Gaelon is wounded," said Sergeant Aedon. "A rail rifle round through his thigh. They have drone sniper teams deployed on the hills outside of town. I sent Brother-Sergeant Kylos and Black Wind squadron to hunt them down."

Vercingetorix continued along the parade route, firing his weapons at any foe he encountered, but the Tau forces were moving away from him toward the edge of the city.

"This is Gunnery Sergeant Richter, Third Planetary Militia, the Fighting Third. I don't know how we did it, but we beat them back. Our ammo is near dried up, though. We won't handle another attack."

"Marshal DeSalle, Nobilis Precinct. The Tau are falling back on all fronts. I am deploying mounted sorties to drive them back, but we can hardly keep up with the speed of their retreat. I don't think they expected you here so soon, Lord Revenant."

My companion, the Spear of the Lightbringer has detected multiple inbound orbital strikes. Three Tau cruisers have emerged from stealth and launched planetary torpedo bombardments. It seems that if they cannot claim this city, the aliens intend to raze it to the ground.

"Tell Captain Tauron to deploy boarding forces and disable those cruisers at once. If we cannot achieve superiority in orbit, this battle is already lost." A drone zoomed in front of Vercingetorix from a side street. He swatted it with a massive fist. The drone careened into a building and exploded, catching fleeing men and women in a fiery blast. Some lay still; others screamed in pain or crawled away covered in shrapnel and blood.

The Arbites Marshal noticed the torpedoes moments later. "Deploy the flak guns! Incoming bombardment! Impact in five minutes!"

"Belay that order, Marshal," said Vercingetorix. "This is a trap."

"With all due respect, Lord Revenant, it's a damn good trap. If we don't activate our defenses, it won't matter how well they're hidden."

"Give my men three minutes, then deploy the guns."

There was a pause. "Very well, Lord Revenant. Don't let me down."

Vercingetorix hastened as quickly as he could through the nearly-deserted streets. As he ran, called up the local map on the ATG. "Squad Filos, are you within the precinct fortress?"

"Yes, Lord Revenant. I commandeered a lascannon from an Arbites emplacement and was able to account for all drone sniper teams. The drone teams have retreated beyond the city limits."

"Very good. Squad Aedon?"

"We have four stealth suits pinned down in an abandoned hab dome. There are innocents inside. Should we flush the aliens out, or bring the building down?"

Vercingetorix inhaled a deep breath through his respirator, then sighed. His atrophied lungs burned with the effort. "Bring it down. We cannot afford the delay. May the Emperor guide their souls through the storms of the warp to rest safely at his side."

"Yes, Lord Revenant," said Sergeant Aedon. "This is the mercy of the Emperor!" Vercingetorix heard the whoosh of half a dozen missiles, then the eerie sucking thud of implosion warheads.

"M'lord?" There was a gentle tap on the Dreadnought's knee.

Vercingetorix looked down. Helspeth was staring directly into his visor.

Four minutes, my companion. Do we have time for your pet's games?

He spoke privately to the machine spirit. "We owe this enforcer our lives, spirit. Indulge her for a moment." His external speakers hissed. "Yes, Enforcer?"

"I think I saw something down that alleyway, m'lord. Don't know if it was human or not, but, begging your pardon, your skin is thicker than mine. You might want to take a look. And don't worry," she said, "if it's a big blue bug-eyed monster, I'll protect you."

Vercingetorix laughed, a grating bass rumble. "Your protection will not be necessary this time, young woman. This time my eyes are entirely open." He stomped over to the alley where Helspeth had pointed. "Spirit, full auspex scan."

As you wish, my companion. Scanning. Vercingetorix's vision seemed to blur and stretch as his auspex expanded his visible light spectrum to include a number of indescribable colours. He took a step into the alley. Something moved in the corner of his vision. "Not this time, scum!" He saw the faint ultraviolet shadow of a stealth suit with its camouflage field engaged. The suit's jump jets fired, filling Vercingetorix's auspex with brilliant light. His hand flashed out and he felt his fingers close on an armored shell. The stealth suit pilot pushed the throttle, trying to break free of the Dreadnought's fist, but the metal behemoth's grip was unshakeable. With a grunt of effort Vercingetorix heaved his weight into a swing and brought the suit crashing into a nearby wall. The armored shell fractured, the jump jets died, and the suit's fusion gun went spinning off into the darkness of the alley. "Twice your kind has caught me unawares, and twice you have tried to destroy this holy machine." He lifted the suit and slammed it into the opposite wall. Fragments of composite armor broke off, flying in every direction. "You and your kind desecrate the Emperor's world with your every step." He swung again and the entire suit shattered, leaving Vercingetorix holding on to the one remaining boot. The unconscious body of the suit's pilot slipped free of the boot and thumped to the pavement.

Vercingetorix gestured to the limp body of the pilot. "Helspeth, take this one and follow me to your precinct fortress. He may have useful information for us."

"Time's almost up, Lord Revenant," said the Marshal over the vox network. For the first time her voice betrayed her concern. "Tell me you have good news."

"Deploy the guns, Marshal. The enemy infiltrators are accounted for."

Throughout the city, sirens began to wail. Giant motors whirred and brass domes opened like the wings of enormous beetles. Massive cannons, surface-to-air missiles, and laser batteries all pointed to the sky and, as one, began firing. Above the city, dozens of torpedoes shot through the atmosphere. Wherever a flak gun's trail of tracers or a missile's vapor trail met an inbound torpedo, there was a flash of iridescent light and, seconds later, a boom and a shockwave.

All torpedoes accounted for, my companion. Captain Tauron is en route to engage the Tau ships. He is asking to recall all available Thunderhawk squadrons.

"Tell Captain Tauron that Black Wind is inbound, but we are retaining the services of Black Wind Alpha. I expect I shall have a great many uses for him before this battle is done." He spoke to Helspeth once more. "I believe there was to be a parade in our honour, Enforcer? Please, lead the way to the precinct. I am quite eager to speak to your Marshal."

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post #10 of 13 (permalink) Old 10-11-11, 08:21 PM Thread Starter
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This last post is less fluff and more brainstorm, so if you're not interested in reading my thoughts, feel free to write this one off as tl;dr. The first part is my observations and concerns with the current story. Then I wax chatty about ideas I might like to implement. I'm looking for any and all feedback (even if that feedback is "this story is awful, set it on fire").

I'm currently working on part ten in my ongoing series (and magnum opus), Entombed. A few things I've been noticing might end up being areas of worry for me. First of all, I'm not sure I like the current structure of "three chapters fight, two chapters plot, three chapters fight, two chapters plot." I'd like to find some way to integrate fighting and plot a little more effectively. Partly, that should happen organically when the fighting stops being skirmish-level and starts being a full-fledged war, but it's something I'm keeping an eye on. I'm also a little worried that I'm going to start overusing certain words or phrases because, really, there aren't that many different ways to say "he shot plasma and something died." On the flip side of that, I don't want to start saying too many goofy things just because I'm so focused on "don't repeat yourself too much," because that's always a danger. I also need to keep an eye out to make sure that keep reinforcing that, yes, Vercingetorix is kind of an invincible death machine on the outside, but on the inside he's a wheezy, crippled chunk of mangled flesh tethered to machines and viewing the world through the creepy, fish-eye-lens artificial senses of his sarcophagus. So that's some of the stuff I'm concerned about as an author.

Another thing I'm thinking about is the potential merit of expanding this story to include a couple other points of view because, to be honest, I feel like the dreadnought part is starting to get a bit stagnant. Besides which, I have at least three other cool threads of plot that I could be following (sneaky scouts, Crusade-Captain Aleksos, and the battle for space supremacy) and I feel like I'm sort of neglecting a lot of opportunities to explore space marines in new and interesting ways. The scouts would provide some perspective on neophytes in various stages of transformation into full-fledged battle-brothers, plus add some opportunities for tension that do not involve "when are the Tau going to show up and start shooting again?" Crusade-Captain Aleksos is running an armoured battlegroup, and let's face it: tanks are freakin' cool. On top of that, he's the ruthless, headstrong bastard to counter Vercingetorix's more measured, diplomatic approach. He's got the Terminator thing going, and if Dreadnoughts are my #1 favorite thing about Space Marines, then Termies are #2 (heh heh... number two...).

The Scouts chapters (if I decide to do them) would start shortly after Chapter IV of Vercingetorix's segments. It would start with a few of them getting picked, then detail their journey through contested, then enemy-held, territory. They would have to find transport, try not to get spotted, and maybe blow up various enemy doobers along the way. If I include a Scout portion, it would also let me mess around with the Kroot, since one good stealth force deserves another.

The armoured column segment, featuring Crusade-Captain Aleksos, would also include a couple of the other HQ types (Xaphanes the Librarian, for example), some fast Predators, a Land Raider or two. Land Raiders are, of course, the Space Marine vehicle best known for machine spirit shenanigans. And I have discovered I really like writing voices for machine spirits of varying intellect and temperament. An armored column also explores aspects of Astartes warfare that aren't seen that often (since it's usually about hulking supermen doing amazing things, and an armored assault tends to level the playing field a bit, making the hulking superman part of hulking supermen less of an advantage).

I've also been toying with a few other ideas, so look for more short story type stuff in the not-so-distant future.

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