Gabriel Winters rode like the devil himself was chasing him – but it was his destination that really concerned him, not anything that might be in pursuit. Behind and to either side the other riders in ‘Thunder’ ripped through the pre-dawn at full gallop, dodging branches and trees and racing for the northern ford of the Sawflow river. His comm picked up various vox clicks, letting him know where the other members of the 1st platoon were. All around, but mostly to the rear and spread out over a wide front trying to keep up.

Normally Winters would have kept his command a little tighter but tonight he could not afford that. The order had been to secure the ford and every bit of horseflesh the 4th Danika could muster was riding hard for that objective. He knew he couldn’t concentrate too much. The hazard of riding into a pre-set beaten zone for Cult Artillery was too great. Somewhere in the rear there was mech infantry and other recon as well. Sentinels, Buffalo, quads and the rest. Only the quads were even close though, as his horses handled the dense woods better.

“Sergeant” Winters was not what you would want to call a nice man. So much so that even though he should really have been a lieutenant he’d not been promoted. Other than Major Lekcic, who routinely pressed for a proper brevet rank at least, most of the command of the regiment blocked everything including that damn fool Colonel. Ah well, Winters thought, they could think whatever the hell they wanted, at least tonight he’d get his chainsword wet. If the cultists had any sense at all they’d have troops either at that ford or going to it and that meant that Winters was going to get to kill people tonight.

Not that cultists were really quite people anymore of course, but it was close enough for him. They looked like people and they bled like people, even if they didn’t quite die like people. He’d found that out earlier tonight carrying through a charge into one of the perimeter breaches. You could do all sorts of damage to one of those idiots and they’d try and keep fighting as though they couldn’t feel the pain. No screaming or anything similar. They were like Necrons, almost. Hack them down and they’d fall over and then try and crawl toward you or fire their weapons as though half of them hadn’t been cut away. Others might find that creepy. His men seemed to. Winters found it exhilarating. It made them more of a challenge and more interesting, so he’d go with it, even if the lack of screaming made it slightly hollow for him. It was hard to enjoy cruelty when the victim couldn’t properly experience it.

Ahead, the sergeant could hear water rushing. The forest continued to brighten as the sun tried somewhere to heave itself over the horizon. Winters slowed his horse to a canter and then to a walk, those within eyeshot of him following his lead. Finally he slid from his horse and shucked out of his cuirass, also wrapping the dark green blanket from his saddle roll over the bright white of his elite Danikan trousers. It covered like a kilt and he tossed the extra over one shoulder, pinning it to the tie down that normally kept the breastplate in place. Finally he doffed his helmet and pulled a soft peaked cap of dark green material from a saddlebag. This quick change altered him from a bright cavalryman in shining armor to a drab scout, almost invisible in the dimness of the dawn. He was still well back from where the ford was supposed to be when the breaks in the trees revealed thick, surging water, capped with white peaks and filled with whole trunks of shattered trees, rushing downstream at a fast clip. “Throne!” he cursed and triggered his short range vox. “Burlman, patch me through to the commander. He isn’t going to like this one bit.”

*         *         *

                South of Winters’ position, things weren’t much better. Trooper Voor, one of the speeder recon drivers, had already reported the situation back to HQ, but was now circling, trying to figure out how best to reconcile his orders with the situation.

Voor and his gunner, Trooper Makto, rode atop the rare Imperial Guard variant of the Landspeeder. The Danikan style speeder was smaller and lighter than those generally seen in service with Astartes forces. In truth it was little more than a suspensor mounted frame with two large motive jets at the back, a pair of metal seats set side by side and a couple of guns – most commonly a plasma cannon on an upper pivot mount above and behind the crew’s heads and a heavy bolter fixed forward beneath the nose. The crew were completely exposed at the front and had no protection at all save their personal flak jackets. A lot of the troops called these ‘suicide sleds’ but Voor and Makto wouldn’t have swapped places with an infantry soldier for the world. One of the characteristics of Danika which made the world unique was that it still possessed a number of largely automated factories which could be coaxed into life to produce suspensors. Small ones to be sure, but anything operating on contra gravity was a rarity in the Astra Militarum. That was the reason that such ‘sleds’ were often found in Danikan regiments. It was also the reason why individual trooper type ‘Needle’ lascannon and other heavy weapons were in the ranks – suspensor technology made such weapons more portable by a single trooper, even if the amount of ammo they could carry was more limited. Sleds were rare enough that the Engineseers were very particular about recovering wrecks if these vehicles were ever shot down in order to press them back into service with new crews.

Below them, the bridge that they were supposed to secure was – well gone wasn’t quite the right word, Voor thought. It was technically still there somewhere but being under several meters of rushing water meant that it was going to be less than useful. More, a lot of detritus had struck the upstream side of the bridge structure and even if the water were to somehow magically drain away, clearing what amounted to an abatis that would need a lot of work and time they didn’t want to spend. And then there would be the question of how sound the bridge actually was after being flooded.

On the other side of the bridge, they could make out crowds of refugees packing the roadway and stopped by the deluge. Even if the bridge could be made useful, that road didn’t look good either.

One good thing about crewing a ‘suicide sled’, Voor thought, was that the Colonel not only approved of initiative but demanded it. Scouts were expected to react to unexpected situations in ways that furthered the regiment’s goals. Those that didn’t, quickly found themselves back on foot or in an armored box. If they survived at all of course. He didn’t bother with the vox, but gestured to a couple of speeders behind him and pointed in the direction of the road on the other side of the river. Water barriers were meaningless to vehicles literally floating above the ground. As the sleds got close, Voor pointed to his own eyes with his first two fingers, then to the two speeders and finally waved at the crowded road on the other side of the flow. Those two vehicles sped off, clearing the raging Sawflow and angling west, one paralleling the road on the south above the trees. The other on the north side of the road.

Voor himself banked off to the left and one of the remaining sleds kept pace. They’d been by far the first out of the gate and had the fastest vehicles so no one else from the regiment yet had eyes on any of the areas the Colonel had wanted scouted. With the bridge a no-go, at least for now, he’d have to assess the area that they’d hoped to put up a temporary bridge and see if that was still feasible.

*         *         *

                Senekal heaved upward, pulling mounting pegs out of the hard packed ground. Troopers and servitors moved around efficiently, loading equipment and sections of the CP shelter onto cargo prime movers. If this had been a regular deployment he’d have moved around the camp lending a hand where needed. As it was, with possible engagements at any moment he needed to be near comms. The sun was finally up, its orange rays spearing through the airborne dust kicked up by packing, the occasional artillery barrage and moving vehicles.

Lamia’s focus was primarily on her comm gear. Even so she couldn’t help but glance at the Colonel from time to time. Working in the command center she’d seen him often, of course – over the last few months since completing her advanced vox course and moving into the CP, but it was far more common for her to be reporting to and working with Major Lekcic, the XO. The regimental commander was known for his exploits right at the sharp end of whatever was going on. To a Raehaniv like herself he was almost more legend than man. Now she knew a bit more about why. She looked back down to her terminal. “Wait one C4R1, I’ll get him.”

She looked back up to her commander, who was leaning back, stretching out his spine after pulling the last of the stakes. He’d doffed his cuirass and battlejacket first and then had stripped to the waist as the sun had gotten warmer. Sweat ran down the broad muscles of his chest, but while he was in good shape, it was all the details normally hidden by his uniform that caught her eye. “Colonel? Voor’s back on the vox, sir.”

He dropped the last couple pegs into a bag and tossed that at a trooper near the truck before ambling over, picking up his undershirt off a support rail and using it as a towel to remove some of the perspiration. The arm that took the headset from her was corded not only with muscle but with scar tissue. Looking up at him, now that he was close, she could see how much of that there was. Whole sections of his torso had flex ribbons of adamant plating. The flesh it was melded to showed the star shaped puncture wounds of projectile weapons, long ropy slash marks from talons or blades and a few areas of mottled coloring which had probably been burns. This close, she could make out that the commander’s face had similar scarring but unlike his torso a lot of it had been carefully repaired to a large extent. It could be seen, but one needed a sharp eye and had to be fairly near or those marks would be invisible.

“Danika 6 here. What have you got R1?”

Lamia listened on the side earpiece as it might be important to pass on information being reported from the troopers on their speeders at the south narrowing of the river.

“Mostly good news this time, sir. The river cuts through a narrow rock chasm here. It’s still quite a bit higher than usual, and the dell at the upstream chasm entrance is log jammed up badly enough that it’s starting to flood.

“Despite that though, the rock top of the chasm is reasonably flat on both sides and the chasm is narrow enough in a couple of spots to bridge. It won’t be easy and sure as hell will be dangerous, but it can definitely be done.”

“How about access? Are there ways up that can handle vehicles?”

“Yessir, we already checked on this side. There’s an access road. Narrow and unimproved but it can be used. Fairly overgrown but that shouldn’t be a problem. Might have been a logging road once. No way it will handle the superheavies though.”

“Understood. And the other side?”

“I’ve got a speeder on it now, sir. The topo maps look good though and that’s helpful. The whole area on that side of the river is higher, not up an escarpment like on this side. The charts show small towns and other developed areas mixed with the forest and some roads. Enough that something should be able to get us back down to the level of the city on the other side.”

“Opposition?”

“Nothing so far. We might get lucky that way. There are a few areas worth bridging and the one I’ve marked isn’t likely to be seen as the best one. That’s on purpose, sir. I’m hoping if they figure on a bridging attempt, and given that they must have blown a dam or something similar upstream to cause this flood, I’m sure they are, they will definitely try and stop it. With several possible areas, it will take time to decently concentrate forces. If we can get a bridge head across – we can likely hold it. The terrain is suitable.”

“All right. Good job. Keep me posted with any further updates. Danika 6 out.” He handed the headset back to the Vox corporal. “Kinrad, I want you to start wrangling a direction shift,” he said to her, “we’re going to vector most of the regiment to Voor’s crossing area. The bridging unit still up front?”

She checked. “Yes, Colonel. Right behind the various recon elements and a platoon of tanks. The captain said they were needed to keep it from getting shot up.”

Senekal nodded. “And right he was on that too. If something happened to the bridging gear we’d have to build something and Throne only knows what would be going on in the city by the time we got there. Maybe there’d be nothing but cultists and the whole place would need to be fragged.” He sighed, leaning on the vox console with a bit of a smirk. “Let’s try and prevent that, shall we?

He switched topics and almost threw her off, “Any word on that contact code the Inquisitor sent?”

“No, sir. I’ve been sending a request with that contact info and nothing yet.”

“All right, keep it up.” He looked around shaking his head. “Use my local vox if anything else comes up and I’ll come running. We’ve got to move faster. I’m going to have to get them to just leave a bunch of the non-critical stuff. He quickly grabbed his uniform shirt and threw it on, stuffing the soaked undershirt into a cargo pocket on his white trousers. Moving off at a half jog she heard him shout, “What the heck are you loading that for? That’s not combat essential. Leave it!” And then he was out of sight.

No sooner had he gone than the vox crackled briefly. “Gamma-Gary-R3 to Imperial vox cast. Please send unit identifier.” Great, she thought to herself. Someone the colonel needs to talk to and he’s already gone. Even so, she could satisfy that request, and pressed the series of keys to send the 4th Danikan’s Transmit Ident Code on the frequency. The woman’s voice came back almost immediately. “Received. Stand by.”

Great. She thought to herself. Just great.

The reply came quickly enough. “Imperial Guard Regiment – we have your listing as 4th Danikan Imperial Guard – Astra Militarum. Please confirm.”

“Confirmed Gamma-Gary. That is correct.”

“Very well, 4th Danika. Can you state current intention and deployment?”

This, too – was within her normal remit. Coordination with other Imperial forces. Lamia wasn’t sure who this person was she was talking to, however. To be sure the original info had come with Inquisitorial caveat, but she was still required to verify.

“Gamma-Gary, please transmit your unit identifier per standard procedures AMVox2780.”

“Danika – you were given this channel from an Inquisitori-“ Lamia cut the woman off.

“Don’t care, Gamma-Gary. Procedures are clear. No operational intel without a confirmed identifier. Provide that or get off my channel!” While she was doing this, she keyed an alert to the Colonel’s personal vox. He should still easily be in range. There was a long silence on the other end of the comm. She could almost hear her opposite number fuming.

Finally the reply came. “Sending now, Danikan comms.” The ship crew woman sounded furious, but Kinrad knew she was entirely in the right. Indeed that might even have been a test. The data feed came in and she ran it through the part of the Strategium they’d left up for just this kind of coordination. The actual equipment was being carefully loaded into a nearby Ithaca transport and would normally be shut down but this was important enough that the equipment was loaded live and powered up by a pair of husky servitors overseen by one of the Techpriests who fussed like a mother hen over her chicks.

The identifier went into the strategium and sat there. The ‘priests and servitors continued their work while the ID bounced around taking far longer than normal and then finally spitting back out on a screen in the center of her console. There wasn’t much there, but with an Inquisitorial ident she supposed that wasn’t that odd. There was a rosette, confirming the Inquisition connection. There were minimal identifiers. It was a starship, and a small atmospheric one at that. It was armed but there was no indication with what. The clearance was sufficient for their demands and Lamia sent the info, still hoping the Colonel would return.

*         *         *

                Lieutenant Enterr Kant blocked another branch with his arm as the Ithaca continued to press up the narrow dirt track. Only the smaller ones, supple enough not to break, presented a problem for him. The trio of Leman Russ tanks in front of him knocked down the worst of the vegetation and flattened much of the roadway. He stood in the ring mount on the top of the right cab of his transport, keeping one hand on the end of the heavy stubber mounted there. He tried to keep the barrel down so it also didn’t catch on the scrub. He’d have liked to remove and stow it, but that simply wasn’t wise moving through territory which might contain enemy forces, so he tolerated the hassle.

To the right the ground sloped steeply up, so much so that even unladen the Ithaca could not have climbed it. To the left the ground dropped off, equally steeply and both slopes were covered in fernlike trees with fat boles. He was glad of the slow pace when his driver slammed the vehicle to a stop as the Russ just in front also halted. He considered hopping out to see what the delay was, but eventually the huge battle tank in front of him shifted, the commander gesturing for him to remain halted. As it moved and shoved at the vegetation, he could see the vehicle just in front had collapsed part of the road on the downslope side and had slewed, partly over the edge. The tank in front of him moved to stabilize the shifting vehicle by pressing forward tracks against their rear, even as those in the front unspooled a steel cable and started to anchor it to the forward tow hooks. A bit of careful rocking and spinning got it back onto the road, and the convoy continued moving.  Kant had his driver pause and quickly hopped out, releasing the safety clamps on the forward dozer blade and having his driver lower it. Trooper Hidal knew his stuff and quickly shunted the Ithaca right, digging the blade into the slope at an angle, shifting dirt over to the collapsing part of the road and widening the trail at the expense of the slope. The result was a wider and more stable road section, for the long train of vehicles which would have to follow them.

Finishing, Kant hopped back into his command compartment and held on, leaving the safety clamps off the dozer. It might be needed again.

While the Ithaca was lighter than a main battle tank as it had no armor, his and those behind carried an almost equivalent weight in bridging equipment. The hairpin turn just past where the Russ had nearly plunged down the slope required Kant to get out and carefully ground guide Hidal’s turn, not just to get around safely but to avoid tearing up the road too much. A lot of the regiment might need to use it and there was simply no time for more stabilization. As they got around the bend, Kant waved to the driver to keep following the armor and stayed at the turn, overseeing the next vehicles in line as they made their way up. One by one his engineering vehicles managed the bend. Halfway through Sergeant Zale leapt from his own ‘track taking over without a word and leaving Kant to jog up the line past the slowly climbing armor to perform the same process at the next turn.

It took over an hour, but finally his first ‘tracks reached the top. The battle tank platoon had spread out, covering the approaches and the far side of the rocky chasm. Enterr was pleased that the Recon elements had already completed their prep work. A pair of heavy steel cables stretched across the gap, secured on each side by heavy pitons driven into the rock. Their weight caused them to sag slightly in the middle, but given the distance he could tell that the bend was within parameters. There were no ziplines set, telling Kant that contragravity recon had set these cables. Other types of units would have first set a few ziplines to get their crews across to run the cables. Speeder float sleds didn’t need to do that. Kant’s troops were good and Hidal had already wrangled a team together who were pulling composite planking from the racks on one of the Ithacas and bolting it to the cables.

Bridging a river, or other gap was a complex process and differed dramatically depending on the nature of the work required. The type of gap and the length, the stability of the ground, whether the bridge could be ‘floated’ on the material it crossed, what weight it was expected to bear and more – all these played a part in how the process unfolded.

In this particular case, the gap was moderately broad – about 14 meters across. The river was about twenty feet below and surged furiously – both precluding any kind of pontoon support. That was unfortunate as pontoons were much faster and they were in a hurry for several reasons. Adding to Kant’s problems was the issue that this bridge, in addition to being unsupported from beneath, had to bear the weight of main battle tanks.

The last of the engineering vehicles arrived and began to deploy out to work stations. As they did so, a group of Chimerae and Buffalo Transports reached the top. Their infantry quickly hurried over and were put to work on the cable decking which was nearly done. As soon as that was finished, the troops hurried to the other side of the chasm and began digging in and emplacing heavy weapons. The two Buffalos carefully navigated the footbridge, being light enough to do so, ground guided by their squad sergeants. Once on the other side, those units moved off to set up a wider perimeter.

Meanwhile, to the side of the cable bridge, the main bridge was beginning to take shape. Due to the width of the span, no road decking was added at the start – only a single row of trusses on each side and the main support transoms and stringers. Each section of the bridge would be a bit over three meters long and four in width and five of them would be needed to reach the other side. The first would be built flat on their side, sitting on rollers and then a second would be built attached to it, also on rollers. The ‘near side’ would be cabled off to a pair of Ithacas which would roll both sections forward after they were complete ‘nosing’ the first out over the river chasm. A third would then be built and the whole assembly moved forward and as it went further out, the vehicles would provide the necessary counterweight to keep it angled properly – initially slightly upward. The last couple of sections would be built with full double trusses and bridge decking to help keep the weight of the bridge ‘back’ on solid ground as the lighter parts were sent out over the gap.

Chipping in with the others, Kant moved around, giving the occasional order, while helping to carry trusses or banging in locking pins. It was all going fairly well and reasonably quickly until the shells started to fall…

*         *         *

                Alyn Verrus lifted the heavy cable, sandwiched between a couple of servitors as senior Techpriest Kendall locked the end into a port at the back of ‘Dauntless’. For now the huge Baneblade sat, engine running and forward treads edged into the swollen river’s waters. Her guns were trained on the far shore. The worst of the flood had passed and while the river still surged, its initial fury had been largely spent. That made this rare and only occasionally tried crossing possible. Back from the shore his old ride ‘Archangel’ sat, also idling and with guns pointed at the far shore. Unlike Dauntless, however, she was parked side on to the river and the other end of the leg thick cables were already fixed to her rear armor.

Servitors and other Engineseers had climbed up onto the engine deck of ‘Dauntless’ and were adding seals and caulking, waterproofing the massive vehicle. They had started at the front, where much less needed to be done and were now on the final portion of the job. Engine hatches had plastek seals added beneath them. The exhaust ports of the main motor were also being made watertight.

Kendall finished his connection and moved over to Verrus, taking the load of the cable from him with the servo arm attached to the back of his armor. Through the mask covering the lower part of his face, his artificially modulated voice came, reminding Alyn again that the upper part of the techpriest’s face, with its all too human skin and eyes, were not wholly indicative of the cyber organism that all techpriests slowly became over time.

“Leave it Lieutenant,” the flat, mechanical voice grated. “Go aboard and get your crew ready. Be sure to remember to seal your hatch properly. We don’t need another event like in the last training mission.”

Verrus couldn’t help but laugh. “No indeed, Aloysius. No indeed. I really don’t need to get a bunch of water in my tank today of all days when it really matters. You sure that this is the only way?”

The ‘priest looked out over the still savage river. “I wish I were more positive of it, Lieutenant. Dauntless is an irreplaceable asset. We cannot afford to lose her. The indications are as good as they can be under the circumstances.”

“You DO realize that if we ‘lose Dauntless’ it likely means that I drown, right?”

The Engineseer looked a bit startled. “Oh, of course Lieutenant. You are right, my apologies. Trained crews are also quite valuable.”

Verrus shook his head, letting the matter go. The fact that his tank was considered more valuable than he was in the techpriest’s mind didn’t actually surprise him very much. “Don’t worry, Aloysius. I’ll take good care of her.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant.” That, at least seemed sincere.

Off to the right a muted whoosh – THUMP managed to make itself heard above the roar of the engorged Sawflow. Climbing the ladder up to the rear deck of ‘Dauntless’ the superheavy commander spared a glance upstream. A pair of teams were perched in the trees on temporary platforms about 10 meters up off the forest floor. Each pair had a heavy missile tube launcher and these had just been used to fire across a pair of grapnel rockets mounted with light alloy wire. The teams were now winding the cables back trying to keep them out of the river as much as possible and testing them for sufficiently solid anchorage. One came loose from the far bank as the grapnel rocket let go and splashed into the river. That team cursed and began winding the cable back for another try. The other team had better fortune. Their rocket had slammed solidly into a large tree and was firmly lodged. They quickly started tying off their end above the platform and yanked even harder on the wire, both men standing on the platform and putting all their weight on it. When they were confident, they rigged up a zip line pulley and follow on runners to carry heavier cable. As Verrus mounted the ladder at the rear of Dauntless’ hull he saw the lead on the team – apparently a woman from her silhouette – leap off the platform and zip to the other side on the pulley, trailing a second light wire behind her. She braked at the end with real skill and stepped from the air to the base of the tree easily. She didn’t wait a moment before starting to use the light line to pull both the heavy line feeder pulleys and the heavy line itself to her side of the river. While the main bridging work was being done downstream, a light plank bridge on this side would still allow both Buffalo APCs, horses and infantry to cross – necessary support troops for Verrus’ heavy tanks.

Heading to the turret of his vehicle as the servitors and engineseers finished up, he keyed his headset vox, messaging the ranking infantry commander. “Griffon, this is Verrus.”

The reply was quick. “Go ahead, lieutenant.”

“Looks like your troops got a zip across the river. Before you exploit, do you think you can get a platoon across to ensure our passage is secure? I can have Archangel provide support.”

“Already on it, Alyn.” A former Sergeant, Elodar Griffon was nothing if not efficient. “The first squad is getting ready to zip over now. Second and third will follow. I’ve got a couple of heavy teams also setting up on this side for support. Once ‘Dauntless’ is across I will send them over while ‘Archangel’ is being rigged. Any word on ‘Barbican’?”

“Last I heard still broken down a couple miles back. We’ll get the red robes over there for repairs after we’ve gotten across. The Colonel wants the regiment moving and we can’t stop for stragglers and break downs. Even superheavies.”

“I bet Kendall hates that!”

“Oh, you bet.” Verrus had climbed into his turret and was now settling into his seat at the top hatch. For now he still left that open, even as the faint hum of the backup fording motors were felt through the hull. He thumbed a button on the arm of his command chair and the great tank lurched and heaved as it shifted its forward treads deeper into the river. Water began swirling around the tops of the front fenders as he took one last look around. The second group of infantry were starting across the zip line already. He nodded to himself and let his seat slide down into the turret on hydraulics. Before it got too low, he fixed the watertight plastek seal and then dropped the hatch lid shut and locked it.

The inside of the huge tank was painted white and brightly lit by blue white filamentless lamps. While there were some muddy footprints on the steps and no-slip grey decking below, for the most part the interior was clean, neat and polished. Control arms and locking wheels were painted or brightly shining non-ferrous metals like brass or bronze. While the outside of Danikan vehicles might be battered, dusty and sometimes even streaked with oxidation, the insides were always as clean as their crews could make them – especially during garrison, which had been yesterday. Verrus watched out the periscope blocks as the dark waters frothed around and over the hull. ‘Dauntless’ lurched again, shifting over something large and continued to grind over detritus on the river bottom. “Hold together, baby,” the commander whispered, gently patting the inside of the cupola. “Just hold together for a bit while we get this done.” He tried not to hold his breath as the waters closed over the top of the turret.

*         *         *

                “Emperor’s rotting, Throne damned TEETH!” Voor cursed. Next to him Makto winced. When Ramden Voor started with the really blue language, it meant trouble. He made sure the safeties were off the guns. Nervous habit, as he knew full well they hadn’t been on since they’d lifted last night. It was almost full light now, but under the canopy of the fern-like trees, the light was still dim. Voor had them about halfway between the forest floor and the lower leaves. The guns swung to and fro on their mounts, the heavy cannon mounted on the engine frame tracking Makto’s field of vision while the mostly fixed chin mounted heavy bolter moved in response to the joystick in his left hand. In his visor, the cool forest was dark in blues and purples while various warmer life forms showed as red, orange and yellow. He watched those carefully. One blob looked a bit too – still. He gave it a burst and a section of brush was torn apart by explosive rounds, the trees nearby painted an arterial red. What remained had worn some kind of clothing, perhaps a uniform and carried a slug rifle.

“Spotter I think.” He muttered.

“Not anymore,” Voor smirked. “No radio though.”

“I heard cultists don’t need ‘em. Psyker stuff. E’en ordinary folk suddenly tied into the ‘stealer mind net.”

The pilot shuddered. “Ick,” he muttered under his breath.

“Yeah. They look human, generally. But they ain’t no more.”

While they’d been talking Voor had not been idle. Suicide sled drivers learned fast or they didn’t live long and Voor was one of the better ones. As soon as Makto had fired, he’d zipped off in a random direction. Hit and fade. Now the area they’d been in moments before lit with brilliant explosions which tore through the canopy of trees and ripped the undergrowth and tree boles. Even a few dozen yards away and moving fast the shockwave and thunder of the blast slammed the side of the speeder against a tree trunk. Voor quickly used directional thrusters and the residual V to get the bulk of the tree between them and the blast before boosting off again in a different random direction. “R4C1 to command,” he hollered over the hammering barrage, “We’ve enemy artillery near to the crossing. We’ve taken down one spotter but there are likely more. We’re going to locate the battery for you.”

He zipped off again, barely registering the Command channel’s response. He needed to make distance from this barrage hunting him as well as find the attackers. He darted the sled through a thin part of the canopy, the crew ducking their chins to let helmets and visors deal with the foliage impacts. Above the trees he opened her up and headed further west. Flickers of flame and puffs of destroyed flora gave away at least one of the arty positions. Worrying that they might have AAA, he nudged Makto who aligned the main plasma cannon on the flashes and sent an info pulse to the CP strategium. This would give them a line, starting at the speeder’s current position and continuing out to whatever the CP estimated the range of the enemy arty at. Turning the sled, Voor opened her up, running straight south. After a minute or two he slowed and the gunner needed no signal to send a second pulse, generating a second line from their new position in the CP’s cogitators. Where those two lines crossed would be the firing battery – enough for counter battery fire or other measures as long as they did not move.

The sled pilots boosted again, searching in case there were other batteries.

*         *         *

Enterr Kant drove his men harder. For some reason the barrage had lifted briefly. While they had been working during it, there was no question it was much harder. Fortunately the battery never got properly zeroed in on the bridge itself. Work had been slowed greatly and a few of the Engineers had been injured by shrapnel or concussion, but so far there had been nothing critical. He’d sent the injured back partway down the slope and out of the beaten zone where the medics had looked after them. A couple had even returned, a few bandages added to their look but ready to get on with the work.

Suddenly a new night fell over the work area. With it – the shell impacts ceased although Kant could hear them nearly as loud not far away. Stunned he looked up shocked to see a slender, needle-like starship with massive drives at her stern hovering over his bridging zone. The shelling was no longer hitting his work area, instead the explosions were smacking against the star ship’s void shields, causing them to flare a dozen meters above her hull. The ship was sleek, clean painted black, red and gold and marked with the =I= of the Inquisition on the side of her hull, etched in a complex bas relief just forward of her side hatches. Small for a void craft, she was perhaps a hundred and fifty meters long. He could make out her name in gold lettering on her bow. ‘Nachthexen’.

Quickly he set his vox for short range and beamed a signal to the ship. “4th Danikan Engineers to ‘Nachthexen’. Thanks much for the assistance!”

The answering voice was silken and decided female. “Most welcome, Lieutenant. We can’t stay overlong so please make as good use of this time as you can.”

“Absolutely, ma’am. Wilco. 4th out!” He turned to his men, who were all gawking at the starship – much the same has he himself had been a few seconds earlier. “C’mon you grunts! Get back to work. You act like you’ve never seen a starship before.” He leaped from where he’d been standing and aimed a half-hearted kick at a private’s backside. “Let’s go! We gotta bridge to finish!”

*         *         *

                Senekal hung onto one of the overhead supports of the Ithaca containing the strategium and comm units. He’d patched in his headset vox to the net and watched as Corporal Kinrad, herself properly seated on the transport’s bed on a fold-down bench, brought up a holo display of the bridging area sent from Kant’s team. The display showed the Inquisitorial Corvette hovering over the area as Kant worked. Another feed, this one from ‘Nachthexen’ showed Kant’s bridging team moving the advanced portions of the bridge out over the gorge. The infantry and some of the tank crews had joined in and the bridge was coming together in record time.

On the other end of the strategium, toward the front of the Ithaca’s bed, Daan Mallory was keeping track of other inputs. For him, the second bright line from Voor’s speeder was exactly what he was waiting for. Carefully running the calculations for the triangulated spot where the lines crossed, he worked in curvature, wind speed, planetary spin, atmospheric density and other factors, optimizing them for Castillo’s platoon of basilisk artillery which had moved from its garrison point early and was now set up at a ‘leapfrog’ firebase halfway to the Sawflow river. Again, his pre-planning had paid off, as he had sited several of these spots over the last few weeks and worked out the best ballistics for them. Now he sent a series of calculations to the artillery lieutenant who, unlike the fixed Earthshakers still back at the base covering their advance to the river, was actually in range to perform a counter battery mission on the enemy gun site Voor had located.

The calculations were for a series of 8 shells per gun, fired very quickly at different arcs. From a pre-sited spot such as Miguel occupied, his guns in precise positions, this would allow the eight shells from each gun to describe different arcs, the first ones fired higher, the last ones fired flatter and with different powder charges. The result would be all 24 shells hitting within a few seconds of each other in a 40 meter sheaf. Nothing within that was likely to survive.

Castillo would then immediately drive off to a different pre-sited spot a few hundred meters away and, using the second set of calculations sent as they moved, do the same thing again. Those on the receiving end of the Lieutenant’s barrage would not be likely to continue to cause issues for the 4th’s advance.

Of course – that might or might not work and there might be other batteries. There was still work to be done if the crossing was to be a success.

*         *         *

                No matter how many times they had practiced it, Verrus hadn’t liked it. What’s more, in practice it had often gone wrong. Nearly as often as it had gone correctly.

Verrus continued to dislike things today.

He trusted his driver, but the rest of the crew, himself included, were simply required to sit and hope that things went properly. They could not help in any way. Until they cleared the water they were effectively helpless. ‘Dauntless’ driver, Will Burk, was a good man and had been handling the huge super heavies for years. The main reason Alyn worried is that Burk worried and disliked these activities. Making sure that the intercom was set to driver only, he whispered quietly, “Will – how goes?”

“You know, eltee – normally I’d tell you not to bother me, but this mess. Shit, sir, I’m driving with my butt.”

“Vision block covered up?”

“No, sir. Not covered, but might as well be. The water is so full of crap all I can see is silt. I mean, the ol’ girl always kicks up a lot of crap, but usually the current is enough to carry some away so I can see something. With this flood, the water literally may as well be mud.” He paused as the huge tank shifted, bumped over something big enough to not be crushed by her considerable weight, and then moved on again. Verrus felt like the tank might be angling upwards. The other bank, he hoped.

“I can’t see anything either from up here, but it does look like it’s getting a little lighter. Still silt, but maybe silt with some light shining through.”

“Sure hope so, sir. I know they say that these tanks were designed for this, and I get that we’re too heavy and too wide for a lot of bridges, but this wading thing really sucks. I’m really glad that one of the umbilicals from ‘Archangel’ is air.”

Verrus chuckled remembering the Techpriest only barely considering that the crew had any value in comparison to their war machine. “I’m somehow sure that, as comforting as that is to us, Kendall would be more concerned with the electric power flowing in to drive the wading motors. After all without those he’d have to fish his tank out of the drink!” Both crewmen chuckled. That had happened a couple of times. Suddenly one of the forward vision blocks showed sunlight glinting on brown water. “One of my blocks is clear, Will. Ease her speed down a bit.”

“Aye, sir.” The huge tank, already not moving very fast, slowed even more.

Verrus peered out the vision block, which was still half submerged in dirty water. “All right, bring her right a bit.” Burk increased power to the left track, pivoting the huge vehicle slightly to the right. “All right, good. Easy for a bit.” A pause. “All right, gun it!”

Will fed full power to the wading motors and the huge tank surged forward, the turret fully breaking the surface and the forward hull now awash. The tank rocked, slid a bit and then the tracks, pressed through the bottom silt to bedrock by the vehicle’s huge weight finally caught and the giant battle tank heaved itself out of the river like a Brobdingnagian sea lion beaching itself. Will kept the engines going full and the tank put a bit of distance between her stern and the river, finally stopping about half a tank length out of the water. The crew started cheering as Verrus popped the hatch and tried to quiet the butterflies in his gut.

So far, so good he thought. Now to bring over ‘Archangel’.

*         *         *

                The sun came back out just as the other end of the bridge thunked solidly a couple of meters onto the rocks of the far side of the gorge. The men ducked instinctively as ‘Nachthexen’s’ engines fired and the corvette raced away across the sky, first horizontally and then standing on her tail and really cutting loose. As she reached the peak of her arc, she cut her engines and slipped down on her tail a bit before sliding downward, the nose falling until it pointed back at the ground. As the nose fell into line, a pair of energy lances flashed downward from the prow tearing a glowing hole in the jungle below. The ship dropped, swooping out of the dive like a bird of prey, weapons firing into the jungle at different angles.

It was a helluva sight – but it wasn’t getting the bridge finished. Kant hollered at his troops to get back to work. Now that the bridge structure spanned the gorge, additional supports and stringers could be added to the part they had needed to keep light while ‘nosing’ it over the gap. That was the primary job and after that, decking would need to be added and secured. Kant wanted this bridge done, secured and as much of the regiment across as possible before things got messy again. Infantry and Buffalos were no longer waiting, negotiating the suspension cable bridge already or, where stuck until their transports could cross, jumping in to help with the bridge construction. The design was simple and even with only minor direction most troops could carry braces or decking, hammer in pins and generally speed things up.

In under an hour the first of the battle tanks was rolling across the bridge and Enterr Kant was getting his bridging unit ready to move across in case other areas needed spanning in enemy territory beyond.

*         *         *

                Voor dodged and weaved as Makto fired both weapons on the speeder. The main enemy artillery parks were broken up and now they were working the ‘edges’ picking off troops, transport, light armor and the occasional AAA emplacement. A pair of other sleds had joined in, following Voor’s lead and while they had to be cautious, they were wreaking merry havoc in and around the bombardments from both distant artillery and the starship above.

Makto ripped another burst out from the heavy bolter, chopping half a squad of cultists into chum as they tried to set up a mining laser. As expected, while cultists would occasionally retreat, they would not ‘break’ per se. Their link to the ‘stealer hive mind controlling them prevented that. However they would retreat in order to fall back to better positions or to disengage from untenable fights. So far the ‘stealer cult hadn’t taken to throwing them away in massive wave attacks, although they’d been told that could happen. Voor lifted the speeder up and over the canopy, marking this site for distant attention in a wide sheaf and looked for other areas of heat concentration. The recon elements were making quite a mess of the traitors. Oh yes they were.

*         *         *

                Finally Gabriel Winters was getting what he wanted. He’d been happy to volunteer his troop as security for Verrus’ tank. Presently she was static at the waterside while ‘Archangel’ imitated her river crossing. The cultists came boiling down the slopes and through the gap the trail ran through like ants out of a hill. Emplaced Danikan infantry opened fire in disciplined barrages. Mortar shells and explosive rockets broke up clusters of troops or dropped on those trying to emplace heavy weapons. ‘Dauntless’ opened up with a huge roar of cannon and heavy bolters. Explosions tore the trees apart as her shells impacted, the hull mounted demolisher cannon actually ripping a whole section of the top of the ridge away. As the leaders of the swarm grew closer fire slackened a bit. The attackers surged again, this time into the killing fields of explosives set up on the forest edge. Shaped charges dropped trees among them, flechette mines sent buzz swarms of razor edged airfoil shrapnel scything through them. A few other mines dispersed anti plant gas, dissolving much of the cover the cultists could have used.  The attack paused – not due to morale, but to physics as the attackers gathered themselves to their feet and prepared to continue forward. Perhaps they were fearless, but their bodies were not impervious to concussion.

Behind him, Winters could see some of his troopers edging their mounts forward, the warhorses champing at the bit, eager to get into the fray. He held his arm out to the side, palm backward. “Wait for it!” he yelled. One trooper’s mount reared a bit and he fought it back under control.

To his right, Lieutenant Griffon rose half out of his foxhole, booming loudly with the kind of voice only first sergeants ever had. “Troopers – ready!”

There were faint clicks as final energy clips were slotted into place. “Take aim!” the guns came up to shoulders. The cultists started slowly forward again, shaking off the impact. “First rank, FIRE!”

Lead Danikan soldiers opened fire, at this range their lasguns mostly spitting at full auto burst. A few of the heavier models salvoed more slowly but with more precise aim, those more powerful bolts destroying torsos with steam explosions as body fluids super-heated into expanding steam. Lighter bolts spun targets around, destroyed faces, punched holes in lung cavities or tore open abdomens. Again the weight of fire slowed the advance and again it petered out as the weapons ran out of ammo. Just as the enemy started to regroup, Griffon’s voice thundered again, “Second rank, FIRE!”

As one the troopers who had just fired dropped to their knees or into foxholes and started to change magazines. The other half of the platoon now opened up at full fire, tearing more holes into the attackers. Just as that fire began to peter out, Winters whipped his arm forward. “CHARGE!”

The elite cavalrymen gave their horses their heads and the squadron roared forward. Lasers flickered out from the unit from pistols fired from offhand even as the unit’s explosive hunting lances came down like a cascade from left to right, falling into the horizontal rest position with a precision that would have done a drill team proud. Winters’ targets had been the huge hulking mutants following the main attack. Clearly larger, tougher and harder to kill, these were an ideal place to strike. The lances drove deep into purplish mutant flesh, detonating to send chunks of flesh in all directions. Monsters fell and Gabriel tossed aside his now useless lance shaft, drawing his chainsword. One of the creatures had survived and now drove some kind of powered mining hammer into the barrel chest of one of the warhorses. The energy blast tore the animal in half and severed the cavalryman’s leg above the knee. The sergeant drove the tip of his chainsword into the spine at the base of the thing’s huge skull and it dropped like a puppet with its strings cut. Laughing maniacally he rode into the surviving cultist troopers, lopping off limbs left and right, his horse screaming, its eyes shining and ringed round with white as it reared and kicked, smashing the enemy to mush with iron shod hooves. This was the life!

Off on the right flank, a Buffalo wheeled APC they’d gotten across on the plank bridge, roared around behind the cultists. Its twin auto cannon thudded shells into strongpoints as the driver used the heavy grille on the front to knock the enemy over and grind them under the huge roll flat tyres. In the center, ‘Archangel’ reared out of the water. Even before actually getting ashore her crew opened up with their heavy bolters, the rounds tearing off the plastek covers over the muzzles and ejection ports. One of the ports didn’t clear and that weapon jammed, but the others continued to fire.

Suddenly, as quickly as it began, the attack was over. Cultists faded away pouring out continuous but undisciplined fire as they went, and then the fire stopped and they were gone. The forest was suddenly nearly silent save for the ticking of cooling metal and the occasional cry from a wounded Danikan trooper calling for a medic.

Winters cursed and shot a wounded cultist in the back as he tried to crawl away, letting his mount stomp another into paste. That had been fun, but over much too quickly for his liking.

*         *         *

                Senekal listened to his vox headset which he’d slaved to Kinrad’s master vox set in the cargo Ithaca just behind him. He was riding in a Buffalo with the rest of the Bloodcoats, the APC bumping along over a rough forest road, making its way to the bridge Kant’s engineers had gotten operational. He had to admit that Artan had chosen Kinrad well. She handled the back and forth of incoming reports with the calm skill of a veteran, despite being fairly young. The colonel chuckled to himself wondering if she’d have been his type when he was younger. Probably not but it amused him nonetheless. He’d always admired competence.

The tone of the reports changed swiftly. All across the front the attacks were being swiftly broken off, the cultist armies fading away like mist in the sun. The coordination was little short of amazing. He’d heard of this, but never seen anything quite like it before save when fighting Tyranids which were, of course, totally inhuman.

He broke in on Kinrad’s report taking. “Danikan 6 to Danikan HQ – can you put me through to that ship, please?”

If the corporal was surprised she didn’t show it. “Affirmative Colonel, wait one.” There was a brief pause of static. “I have ‘Nachthexen’ on the line, sir. Go ahead.”

“Danikan 6 to ‘Nachthexen’ – thanks for the assist. Looks like the attack has broken off.”

The woman’s voice from the ship was short, throaty, efficient. “Affirmative, Colonel. Common cultist tactics. We’ve seen this before. When the realized they weren’t going to stop you getting across the river, they disengaged rather than waste troops in a fight they couldn’t win. They’ll try again. Perhaps before you get to the city – perhaps once you’re there.”

Senekal nodded, thinking. “We’ll keep scouts out – can you provide additional sensor support?”

“We can and will, Colonel. Do hurry. I’d really like to get the Inquisitor out of there. Right now I don’t dare brave the city’s defenses. I won’t be of much help if I’m shot down by a defense laser.”

“Understood. Whatever sensor support and indirect fire you can do for now will have to suffice until we’ve dealt with any defenses.”

“Or our team has, Colonel. I’d not count out Inquisitor Jones yet.”

“No, Inquisitors do tend to be tough individuals. Danika 6 out.”

To be continued…