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THIRTEEN

Pride. Certainty. Excitement. These emotions were uppermost in Nathaniel Winterbourne's mind as he watched his forces ride to battle. Leman Russ Conquerors and Vanquishers rumbled through the wide, fume-choked streets of Brandon Gate's outer fabriks.

Within the star-shaped city, the buildings were fine edifices of stone, steel and marble, but beyond the rarefied atmosphere of the walls, the blackened reality of the industry that lay at the heart of Pavonis reasserted itself.

Tangled warrens of giant, portal-framed hangars, towering ore silos, hammering weapon shops and thousands of kilometres of hissing pipe-work spread out from the oasis at the centre of the industrial hinterlands.

It was, thought Winterbourne, a lousy place to fight a battle.

Tanks were never safe in such an urbanised landscape, where a single infantryman armed with a rocket launcher could disable or kill an armoured vehicle. This landscape was the domain of the foot soldier, but Winterbourne wasn't about to let that fact of war dissuade him from meeting the tau offensive head-on.

The 44th's tanks within Brandon Gate - fifteen Leman Russ Conquerors and half a dozen Chimeras - had rendezvoused in Liberation Square before rolling south-west along the gilded streets of the Via Commercia towards the city's southern gateway. PDF vehicles were assembling at road junctions, as heavy earth movers formed berms of rubble and Lavrentian combat engineers unspooled barriers of razor wire.

Winterbourne had little faith that these PDF units would hold against a concerted push by the tau, but if the enemy reached this far into the city, the fight was already lost. A few outraged civilians argued with PDF officers about the destruction of the roadway, but the majority of the city's populace were barricading themselves in their homes, desperate to protect what few possessions remained to them.

He felt a moment of contempt for these people. Any Imperial citizen able to hold a gun ought to be on the streets and manning a barricade. The Eastern Fringe was no place for shirkers, and to sit idly by while others fought an alien foe at their very gates spoke of the lowest cowardice.

Winterbourne's armoured convoy passed through the Commercia Gate, a solid portal of bronze-sheathed adamantium engraved with the transactions of the founding members of the cartels. An enormous circular tower of polished grey granite flanked the gate. Its curving walls depicted scenes of trade and commerce, and was intended as a monument to their guiding principles of integrity, philanthropy and resolution.

Too bad their descendants didn't match up to those ideals, thought Winterbourne.

Beyond the city, tank squadrons surging from Camp Torum assembled and deployed in the concrete ribbon that partitioned the inner city from the industrial heartland that surrounded it. Much of the region was in ruins, decimated in the fighting during the de Valtos rebellion.

Carried from Fortress Idaeus in a Chimera AFV, Winterbourne had disembarked with his new protection detail and marched towards Father Time.

The scale of it was enormous, and it never failed to amaze Winterbourne that such a colossal mass of iron could even move, let alone fight.

Father Time was an immense Baneblade that had served as Winterbourne's command vehicle since his promotion to colonel.

It was one of the mightiest tanks ever to roll off the Martian production lines, a vehicle so powerful that nothing short of an engine of the Titan Legions would dare to stand before it. Winterbourne's tank was one of a handful of these incredible war machines that could trace its pedigree back to the assembly yards of the Tharsis Montes, its honour roll and legacy of battle inscribed on the inner faces of its turret ring.

A pitiful few of the Mechanicus forge worlds could still manufacture these behemoths to such an exacting standard, their inferior copies regarded by the priests of Mars as second generation war machines at best.

Now, sealed within the belly of his magnificent vehicle, he stared in frustration at the auspex display as it bounced and squalled with interference.

'Can't you clean this damned image up, Jenko?' he demanded. 'Can't see a bloody thing.'

'Trying to, sir,' said Jenko. 'It's all the damned metal structures around us. The composition and conductivity is messing with the returns. There's so much bloody interference, the auspex signal's bouncing around like a sand-raptor on a griddle.'

Despite the tension, Winterbourne smiled at the boy's unconscious mimicking of his speech patterns and colourful metaphor. Father Time's target acquisition officer was barely out of his teens, but the lad could send an armour piercing shell up the arse of an enemy tank before veteran gunners with decades of experience even noticed it. The lad had an affinity with the venerable tank, and that made him an integral part of the crew.

'Hurry it up, lad,' said Winterbourne. 'We can't fight an enemy we can't see.'

'I've almost got it,' said Jenko. 'It's just a matter of syncing our auspex to filter out certain frequencies.'

'I don't care how you do it,' said Winterbourne, 'just get me a clear view.'

Winterbourne's command chair sat high in the main turret, behind the crew of his vehicle: nine highly trained soldiers, hand-picked to serve him on board. The interior of a Baneblade, like any Imperial tank was a cramped, oily, noisy and dangerous place, which had apparently been designed at a time when only midgets and famine victims were picked to be crews.

Winterbourne looked back down at his auspex reader as Jenko said, 'Got it, sir! Signals coming in, sir. Approaching vehicles. Signature matches say enemy.'

Rippling contours of static hazed the auspex panel, but they faded into the background as a host of hostile contacts lit up the threat board.

'Hell and damnation,' swore Winterbourne. 'They're almost on top of us!'

He flipped his toggle over to the squadron vox-net. 'All vehicles, be alert for imminent contact,' ordered Winterbourne. 'Lavrentia expects every man to do his duty. Fight like your fathers are watching!'

Winterbourne switched back to his internal channel and said, 'Raise the flag!'

'Aye, sir,' confirmed Lars, the Baneblade's vox operator.

Though he couldn't see it, a telescoping antenna had just risen from the tank's hull bearing the green and gold banner of the 44th Lavrentian Hussars. Winterbourne knew it was foolhardy to mark himself out, but he would never dream of going into battle without the regiment's colours flying above Father Time.

He leaned forward to stare through the vision blocks above the main gun, seeing a slice of the outside world through the scuffed and crazed armaglass. Darting armoured shapes were moving through the tangled mass of structures ahead. A graceful tau tank slid from behind a blackened refinery structure, and in its wake came a host of skimming vehicles with heavy guns or racks of missiles mounted on their turrets.

'Enemy in sight,' shouted Winterbourne. 'All tanks engage!'

Something slammed down onto the hull of his Baneblade with a resounding clang of metal on metal, and Winterbourne jumped back from the vision blocks in surprise. Incredibly, he saw what looked like a pair of armoured legs, as of some bipedal war machine, and recognised them as belonging to a battlesuit. A flare of blinding light filled the turret as a weapon discharged, and a host of alarm bells began chiming.

'Contact!' he yelled, gripping the commander's turret controls and wrenching them to the side. The metal of the turret squealed, and the motors roared at such harsh treatment. Winterbourne's view spun as the turret slewed around. He felt the impact of the main gun striking something, and when he looked back through the vision block, the battlesuit was gone.

'Get me a target, Jenko!' he shouted.

'Hammerhead, ten o' clock. Six hundred metres!'

'I see it!' said Winterbourne, swinging the turret to bear. 'Acquiring target. Loader, anti-tank!'

'Anti-tank, aye!'

Ancient mechanisms no longer understood by any save the priests of Mars whirred and hissed as they aligned the Baneblade's main gun with the target. It swam into view on Winterbourne's threat board, a brass panel with two enamelled pistol grips to either side.

Winterbourne gripped the handles as a green bulb lit up on the threat board.

'Up!' called the loader. 'Fire!'

'On the way!' yelled Winterbourne squeezing the triggers.

Such was the power of the main gun that even the incredible weight of the Baneblade rocked back under the force of the recoil. Despite layer upon layer of armour and acoustic damping material, the booming crack of the shot was deafening, and acrid fumes seeped into the crew compartments from the huge gun's breech as the spent shell-casing was ejected.

'Got you!' shouted Winterbourne, seeing the tau tank reduced to pulverised metal by the force of the impact.

'Multiple Devilfish,' snapped Jenko, 'on our eleven, twelve and one!'

'Loader! High explosive rounds! Sponson gunners engage!'


The missile arced up, then down, slamming into the thinner topside armour of the Devilfish. The vehicle exploded with a booming crack. Flames and smoke billowed, and the floating tank ground its nose into the dirt as its engines blew out.

'That's for Alithea,' hissed Captain Mederic, slithering back down a slope of twisted metal and crumbled stonework, and handing the smoking missile launcher off to his loader, a new inductee to the Hounds by the name of Kaynon.

Mederic wiped sweat from his eyes as Duken, his secondary shooter, dropped from the edge of the berm to join him.

'Hit?' he asked.

'Yeah,' nodded Duken, 'Sky Ray. It's dead.'

'Outstanding,' said Mederic, slapping a hand on Duken's shoulder, where the insignia of the Hounds, the 44th's scout company, was emblazoned. 'Now let's get out of here.'

'No arguments from me,' agreed Duken.

'Displace!' yelled Mederic, chopping his hand along the length of the berm of rubble. He scrambled along the debris crouched over, knowing that, even now, a tau tank would be drawing a bead on the origin point of their shots. His six-man squad of Hounds needed no instruction to relocate after shooting, but Major Ornella had drilled them in the proper procedures, and the soldiers of the 44th were nothing if not well-drilled.

A blast of ionised air rolled over them as the area behind them erupted with violet fire and a hot, electrical discharge of alien weapons' fire.

'Too slow,' he chuckled as he dropped to his knees, and peered through a gap in the piles of shattered rockcrete and steel.

The battlefield before the walls of Brandon Gate was a hellish vision of shattered buildings, blazing plumes of fire and roiling banks of stinging smoke. Imperial tanks duelled with those of the tau in the warrens of the industrial belt that encircled the city - a raging hell-storm of shellfire and actinic energy beams.

Mederic and his Hounds were right in the thick of it, helping to even the odds by getting around behind the tau. Five other squads were pushing through the ruins to wreak havoc within the enemy lines. Being in the middle of a tank battle on foot was not generally where Mederic liked to deploy, but it was sure as hell keeping his survival instincts honed.

Tanks burned, their crew dead, and dismounted Guardsmen fought Fire Warriors from the charred wreckage of their former transports. This wasn't a glorious tank charge as told in the regimental records, but a down and dirty brawl of armoured units, hunting each other through obscuring banks of black smoke.

The circular tower that had once flanked the gate now lay in pieces before the shattered remains of the great bronze gate and a sizeable portion of the walls. A coordinated missile strike had smashed much of this section of the city's perimeter to ruins, and the tau were pushing hard for the breach.

The 44th were holding firm, with Lord Winterbourne's Father Time in the thick of the fighting, destroying all that came near it with relentless precision and ferocity. The Baneblade was the anchor of the Imperial defence, with the Leman Russ and Hellhounds that fought alongside it like armoured bodyguards.

Tanks fought through the ruins at close range, kills made with snap shots and point-blank volleys that tore through armour and exploded with fractions of seconds between launch and impact. Basilisk and Medusa artillery pieces within Brandon Gate pounded the rear elements of the tau advance, but the gunners dared not fire too close to the walls for fear of shelling their own men.

Mederic saw a scarred and pitted Leman Russ - he thought it was Thunder Runner - sweep past in a blur, quickly followed by the dark forms of Terra Volla and Star of Lavrentia. He had no idea where they were going, but wished them good hunting.

Blinding streaks of impossibly bright light speared from the roof of a nearby ore barn, and Star of Lavrentia exploded. The tank rocked up onto its right track with the force of the impact before toppling over. Bright streaks of ignited air drifted along the flight path of its killers' weapons' fire, and Mederic looked up to see a trio of thick-shouldered battlesuits silhouetted against the smoke and flames of battle.

Each bore a pair of enormous weapons like flattened battle cannons mounted on huge rigs fitted to their backs. They cycled through a sophisticated motion that could only mean they were readying themselves to fire again. Another volley like that and they'd reduce the other two Imperial tanks to scrap metal.

'Targets!' Mederic shouted. 'On our high six! Take 'em out!'

His loader handed him the launcher tube, and he pressed the targeter to his eye, seeing the three enemy units in stark monochrome. He pressed the range-finding stud on the back of the firing grip and was rewarded with a warbling tone in his ear.

'Lock on!' he cried.

The battlesuit in the centre of the group immediately turned its head towards him. The battlesuits' arms snapped up, and Mederic saw racks of warheads cycling in launchers.

'Crap!' shouted Kaynon. 'They made us! Shoot!'

'Clear!'

The missile leapt from the tube, ejected to a safe distance before the rocket motor ignited and hurled the projectile upwards. Two others joined it and slashed through the air on a path towards the tau battlesuits.

'Move!' shouted Mederic.

He didn't bother handing off his launch tube to Kaynon, but simply sprinted towards the nearest cover he could see. His men followed him, arms pumping as they sought to escape the tau retaliation. The ground behind them heaved as a flurry of anti-personnel rockets slammed into the ground with a roaring string of thudding detonations.

Mederic was hurled to the ground, a drizzle of rock dust and earth falling around him in a rain of debris. He coughed smoke and dirt, and shook his head clear of the ringing echoes of the nearby detonations, rolling onto his back to throw off rock fragments. Behind him, he saw that a pair of his soldiers were dead, lying in mushy piles that were all that remained of their lower extremities.

He looked up to see that one of the battlesuits was gone, but two were still standing. One had lost a gun from its shoulder-mount, but the other appeared to have escaped the worst of the missile impacts. The battlesuits trained their enormous shoulder-weapons on them, which meant that he and his men were as good as dead.

Then, like a long-dormant volcano suddenly returned to life, the top of the ore barn vanished in a searing fireball as a pair of high explosive shells slammed into it, and the unmistakable echo of cannon-fire rolled over Mederic.

He propped himself up on one elbow in time to see Thunder Runner and Terra Volta rumble away, the barrels of their mighty guns returning to their centre positions now that the threat had been neutralised.

'If we get out of this alive, remind me to buy those guys a drink,' said Duken, crawling towards him.

'I don't think they even knew we were here,' replied Mederic, taking the buckled and bloody dog tags from the dead soldiers. Each tag was shaped like the head of a snarling hound, and they were worn proudly by all the 44th's scouts.

'Maybe not, but I'll take whatever help I can get.'

'I hear that.'

'Where to next?' asked Kaynon, shouldering his satchel of rockets.

'We move out,' said Mederic lifting the dusty missile launch tube from the ground. 'They ain't paying us to bring missiles back with us.'


Blood ran down Winterbourne's cheek from where his head had struck the inner face of the turret after a particularly fearsome barrage of fire from a formation of Hammerheads. A trio of hyper-velocity slugs had slammed into the side armour of Father Time, tearing off the side gunner's compartment and throwing the rest of the crew around the interior.

Winterbourne had blacked out for a moment, and when he'd come to, all three tau tanks were dead. Terra Volta had killed the first, Pride of Torum another, and a series of missiles from one of Mederic's Hound squads had taken out the last one.

Spalled fragments from the impacts had shredded his vox-operator and one of the loaders. The interior of the vehicle stank of blood and oil and sweat, and Jenko was now doubling as his link to the rest of his fighting vehicles as well as his target acquisition officer.

'Any word from Uriel?' asked Winterbourne.

'None, sir,' replied Jenko, pressing the sticky vox-set to the side of his head.

Winterbourne swore softly to himself, returning his attention to the threat board.

The battle was a confused mess of wreckage, gunfire, moving armour and explosions. Imperial casualties were mounting fast. It was impossible to tell exactly how many tanks had been destroyed in the fighting, but each loss was a grievous blow. Winterbourne did not relish examining the butcher's bill at the end of this engagement.

Crater Maker rolled past his flank, its battle cannon roaring, and a segment of a milling shop disintegrated ahead of it. At first, Winterbourne thought the tank had missed its target, but then the upper storeys of the building came crashing down on a Sky Ray tank sheltering behind a ramp of collapsed slabs of rockcrete. Gematria and Thunder Runner displaced as their turrets rotated and fired into a mass of oncoming tau tanks, two Hammerheads and a Devilfish.

'Targets right!' he shouted, slewing the turret of the Baneblade around. 'Gunner, high explosive and keep them coming!'

'High explosive, aye.'

'Range two hundred metres!'

'Up! Fire!'

'On the way!' shouted Winterbourne as Father Time shuddered with the recoil from the main gun. The clanging of the breech opening and closing was lost in the deafening roar coming through the breach in the hull where the side gun had been torn off, and Winterbourne knew it would be days before the ringing echoes faded from his hearing.

One of the Hammerheads was dead, ripped apart by the heavy battle cannon shell, its turret torn from its hull and nowhere to be seen. The other was fighting a losing duel with Gematria and Thunder Runner, its engines burning and its hull broken open by armour piercing rounds. The Devilfish had sensibly taken cover and debussed its troops before fleeing from the vengeful guns of the Imperial tanks.

Hundreds of Fire Warriors darted through the ruins, and Winterbourne was forced to admire their courage. Advancing into the teeth of an armoured engagement required no small amount of bravery, and their guns, while no threat to the tanks, were reaping a fearsome tally amongst his dismounted Guardsmen.

Zipping drones sped through the battle, marking out targets for tau support tanks, and the air was filled with sparking las-bolts and solid rounds as Imperial soldiers sought to bring them down and give them some respite from the constant rain of missiles.

Loping Sentinels stalked the rubble and ruin of battle, duelling with agile battlesuits through the fallen remains of the industrial suburbs of Brandon Gate. Though outnumbered, the Sentinels fought hard, their autocannons raking the ground and chewing up enemies with every salvo. It was an unequal struggle, and, together with missiles guided in by the drones, the battlesuits eventually brought them down.

'We can't go on like this,' he whispered to himself, turning his attention to the threat board. The readings were confused, but it seemed as though the two sides were evenly matched. The tau seemed not to have the will to enforce their advance through the gap in the walls, while Winterbourne's force was holding its position without being able to push them back.

It was a deadlock that would only end when both forces had ground each other to dust.

'Sir?' said Jenko.

'This is wrong,' said Winterbourne, 'They're not pushing hard enough, and we're just letting them keep us engaged.'

Fierce yellow light shone through the vision block, and Winterbourne looked out to see the Hellhound Emperor's Light bathing a choked ruin of a processing plant in searing flames. A host of kroot were flushed from their hiding place, and Winterbourne relished their obvious pain. Only a single kroot warrior, one with a flaring crest of red quills, avoided the lethal spray of promethium to vanish into the rubble.

'That's the thing,' he said. 'Take the fight to them. We're just reacting to them.'

'Sir?'

'Damn me, Jenko, but they've got me dancing a jig to their tune,' cursed Winterbourne. 'Whatever game they're playing, they've got us to play along with it. Well, Nathaniel Winterbourne dances to no man's tune but his own. Send word to all our tanks! Full advance! Break their centre and push these bastards back down the highway!'

A nearby explosion rocked Father Time, but Winterbourne felt nothing, having come to that place in a warrior's mind where all fear is subsumed in the utter belief in his chosen course of action.

'All vehicles acknowledge your orders, sir!' shouted Jenko.

Father Time's engines roared, and coughed a filthy cloud of exhaust smoke before lurching forwards in a spray of rock dust. The armoured behemoth crushed iron and stone, churning the ground beneath it to powder on its unstoppable advance. Its main guns spoke with booming reports, each monstrously powerful shell obliterating whatever it was aimed at.

Its array of anti-personnel guns cleared the ground before it in scything bursts of heavy calibre gunfire, driving Fire Warriors before it in a bow wave of terror. Those not quick enough or sensible enough to retreat went under the Baneblade's tracks, pulped by its unimaginable bulk. Nothing could harm so mighty a war machine. The bright streaks of light from the guns of the Fire Warriors were doing little more than peeling the paint from its impenetrable armour plates.

In the wake of the huge tank came the charging armour of the 44th Lavrentian regiment: Conquerors, Vanquishers, Executioners, Hellhounds and Chimeras. Each tank commander followed the example of their leader, driving hard for the enemy lines, their guns roaring in a relentless barrage of shells.

A wedge of Hammerheads sought to intercept Father Time, but Winterbourne's driver saw them coming, and revved the engine as he turned his armoured charger towards them. Hyper-velocity slugs slammed into the frontal glacis of the Baneblade, tearing great gouges in the armour, but failing to halt its advance. One alien tank spun on its axis and fled, but the others stood their ground.

Father Time slammed into the first, its hull coming up as it mounted the tau vehicle. The armour of the alien tanks was strong and light, but it was no match for the three hundred tonnes of a Baneblade. Like a tin can crushed beneath the foot of a soldier, the tau vehicle was flattened in a blinding explosion of flaring electrical discharge.

The second vehicle fired one last shot before attempting to escape, but its crew's bravery had cost them their lives, and Father Time slammed into it side-on. The Hammerhead flipped onto its side, and was driven before the Baneblade for ten metres before finally going under the leviathan.

It was a glorious charge, but not one without cost. Steppe Hunter, the ambush predator that had broken the enemy line at Charos, vanished in a searing fireball as a close range burst from a battlesuit blew out its fuel tanks and ignited its magazine. Crater Maker took a direct hit that tore open its armour and killed its engine. No sooner had the crew bailed out than they were set upon by a host of kroot warriors, led by the red-quilled leader that Winterbourne had seen earlier.

The kroot ripped the crew of Crater Maker apart, but as they completed their slaughter, a lone figure in the black robes of a Mortifex emerged from the fire of battle with an enormous eviscerator held out before him. The howling priest hacked into the kroot, but was soon lost to sight amid the smoke and confusion of the armoured charge.

Winterbourne's charge was driving the tau back, but the aliens were making them pay a fearsome toll in blood for every metre reclaimed. A second line of tau tanks rallied at the south-eastern reaches of the burning ruins, and, as the Imperial tanks drove towards them, it was clear that it would be a bloody business to push them from these ad hoc redoubts.

Then the first of the tau tanks exploded, a searing lance of bright laser energy sawing through its vulnerable rear armour and detonating its energy core. Explosions mushroomed from the ranks of Fire Warriors, and stuttering bursts of perfectly coordinated gunfire brought down those few battlesuits still standing.

Emerging from the flaming wreckage of the tank assembly yards, the Space Marines came with fire and thunder. Whirlwind support tanks rained volleys of rockets down on the tau, while a trio of Land Raiders smashed into the rear of the tau formation, their side-mounted lascannon arrays tearing through the armour of the enemy tanks, and blitzing storms of bolter-fire adding their horrendous accompaniment to the battle.

Behind them came the Space Marines, warriors in ultramarine whose weapons were hymnals to war and whose gold and blue flag was a beacon of righteousness among the slaughter. Mighty Dreadnoughts stomped through the wreckage, weapons blazing and power fists crushing the life from anything that could not escape their inexorable advance.

Caught between two such implacable foes, the tau broke and fled for the safety of the highway south, but it was an illusory safety.

Shredded in the deadly crossfire, only two-dozen enemy vehicles survived to reach the highway, but within minutes they had been bracketed by artillery fire and reduced to blackened hulks littering the roadway. Their crews burned to death or scrambled from their blazing vehicles, only to be hunted down and killed by the pursuing Space Marines.

The engagement ceased to be a battle and became a massacre.

Lavrentian and Space Marine forces linked up in the glare of a burning weapons shop, the flames lighting up the sky with a hellish orange glow. Father Time, battered, gouged and war-scarred rumbled to a halt with a sigh of its engines, and Lord Winterbourne climbed down from his commander's hatch.

The colonel of the Lavrentians was smeared with oil and blood, but his eyes were bright and his stride sure as he marched over to meet the leader of the Space Marines. Like Winterbourne, Uriel was streaked with blood, though little of it was his own.

The two leaders met and shook hands, each man pleased to see the other alive.

'You're a damn welcome sight, my friend,' said Winterbourne, rubbing his hands on his uniform jacket in a vain attempt to clean them.

'As are you, Nathaniel,' said Uriel.

'A decisive blow, wouldn't you say?'

'The victory was decisive, yes,' agreed Uriel, 'but I do not believe this assault was ever expected to take and hold Brandon Gate.'

Winterbourne ran a hand through his hair and nodded. 'I know what you mean, Uriel. As fierce a fight as this was, there was no heart to it. They came with plenty of armour, but there weren't enough forces to hold an entire city.'

'Exactly. It fits with what we saw at the Shonai estates. This has all been part of the tau's attempt to decapitate the leadership of Pavonis. Communications have been disrupted, the governor has been captured, and they have tried to kill senior figures of the planetary leadership.'

'So this attack was what, a diversion?'

'I think so,' agreed Uriel. 'A blow to weaken us and divert our attention from where the real hammer blow will fall.'

'Olzetyn,' said Winterbourne.

'Olzetyn,' agreed Uriel.


TWELVE | Ultramarines 5. Courage and Honour | FOURTEEN