“Supressing Fire! Go! Go!”
T’hara aimed her pulse carbine at the genestealer and pressed the trigger. The Tyranid killer exploded into bits of gore as the grenade launcher did its job. Pivoting on her feet, she fired again and again at the oncoming swarm of flesh eaters. For every one she killed, it seemed four more rose to take its place. Her ammunition was not infinite. Her enemy seemed to be.
This was the second day they had been marooned on this desolate planet. Their Manta, the L’amprey, had been enroute to the world of Ke’lshan Prime to aid in repelling the Tyranid assault along with the rest of the A’ldya Fleet. A mysterious storm erupted from the void, separating the L’amprey from the rest of their fleet. Energies swarmed and surrounded their ship, the very stars went out…and were replaced with horrors undreamt of in Tau philosophy. Creatures straight from nightmares assaulted their craft. Dozens of Fire Warriors died from hull breaches, fearless soldiers sucked out into the evil that surrounded them.
T’hara had encountered creatures that never seemed to die. The most powerful of the monsters tore open a Riptide battlesuit like it was opening a rationpack. Pulse rifles were shook off. The only weapons that seemed to have any effect were rail rifles, and the shooters rarely got off more than one shot before the demonic hordes swarmed them.
T’hara lost track of how long they had been fighting the horde. In the end, it was down to her and fifty seven remaining Tau to somehow survive the butchery. They were reinforced in one of the shuttle bays when, as miraculously as it started… it ended. The energies outside and permeating the Manta vanished. The creatures that had slaughtered her kinsmen were gone. One instant they were there, the next they were not.
Structural integrity alarms blared as the shock of the ending battle ebbed away. T’hara looked to her comrades and, in particular, to Aun’Irid, the Ethereal leader of the Jayn’El Sept. He stood, calm and serene as if they hadn’t experienced pure terror. Aun’Irid was conversing with the Cadre Fireblade. Shas’nel Velk’Han Neran was a legend among Fire Warriors and their Hunter Cadres. Grizzled and scarred, he had been involved in more live fire than any other Tau in the fleet. He tipped his head in reverence as the Ethereal spoke. Once they were done discussing the situation, Shas’nel Neran turned to face the remainder of what was once Hunter Cadre Alpha.
“Mobilize all available weapon pods and board the Hammerhead and Devilfish,” said Neran. “We disembark in thirty detlans.” He spoke just loud enough to be heard. Everyone rushed to fulfill their orders. “Shas’la T’Hara”, said Neran. “You will escort Aun’Irid to his seat aboard the Devilfish.”
“As you wish, Shas’nel,” said T’Hara. Despite the emergency situation they were in, she still took a moment to feel the thrill of being allowed to personally escort their leader to safety. The Ethereal barely registered her presence as she approached him and motioned towards the hatch of the troop transport.
Well trained and efficient to the point of obsession, the fifty-seven Tau were secured aboard the transport and battle tank in a space designed for twenty four. T’Hara looked at the Ethereal who sat securely, the only one not crowded. His face remained inscrutable. His courage fed into her and the others around her. If their leader could stay focused, she and they could do no less.
Neran was the last to board. As he sealed the hatch, T’Hara could see the walls of the shuttle bay fold and collapse around them. Standard Manta protocol would anchor the bay walls around transports like the Devilfish and convert into makeshift drop pods. The Manta was losing structural integrity, emergency forcefields would not hold long. Their only chance to survive was in a drop pod… but would there be a planet to return to?
That was her last thought as she was thrown back in her crash webbing at the release of the drop pod. Seconds later, the L’amprey exploded.
T’Hara heard the order and ducked on instinct. No sooner had she gone flat on the ground then firepower blazed overhead. Tyranids exploded at the crossfire from the powerful Broadside battlesuit. The twin-linked railgun sounded like the heavens themselves had opened up. Seconds felt like an eternity. When the shooting ended, not a sound was made outside of the steam roiling off the Broadside’s railgun. T’Hara looked around herself. The Tyranids, at least this swarm, were no more.
“Fall in!” yelled Shas’nel Neran. T’Hara checked her surroundings and moved towards the muster point. They numbered twenty-six now and only the Devilfish remained as a transport. They had lost the Hammerhead and its troops in the landing.
T’Hara joined her comrades as they checked each other for injuries. Medkits were opened and flesh sealer applied. Where wounds were too much for the liquid sealer, micro welders closed slashed flesh. Universal antibiotics were administered. No one knew what the Tyranids were capable of transmitting as far as infections, but no one wanted to take the chance. T’Hara found herself fascinated that their training still held, despite the truth revealed after their landing.
“Have the Pathfinders reported back, Shas’nel?” asked T’Hara. She would never have asked such a question before. If there was information for the troops to know, they would be told. Otherwise, they would not. Now, things were different. Even Neran was not the same leader he had been. In many ways, he was better now. They all were.
“Not yet, Shas’la,” said Neran. Their titles were still automatic, even if their mission readiness was not. Everything had changed when Neran had shot Aun’Irid in the head with his carbine. Correction: everything had changed when they had landed on this desolate, Tyranid infested world. Whatever this world was, it had freed them in every way.
T’Hara understood why Neran had murdered the Ethereal. She would have done it if he hadn’t. She would do it to any Ethereal she encountered from now on. Of course, the odds were against any of them ever leaving this planet alive.
“We keep moving,” said Neran. “Broadside, flank the Devilfish. Crisis Suits, cover our six. The drones saw a fortified base twenty erimans from here. I mean to be secured inside by nightfall.”
The battlesuits lifted into the air as the Devilfish rose on maglevs. They continued onward.
“The Warp. It must have been the Warp.”
Fash’Va, the only surviving member of the Air Caste, consulted his readings in the cramped pilot module of the drop pod. His voice broadcast into the Hammerhead and Devilfish vehicles in the main bay. The holographic display surrounded his head, replaying radiation readings and telemetry that the L’amprey had recorded before and during the attack that destroyed it.
“Explain,” said Aun’Irid. The Ethereal seemed as serene as ever, but T’Hara thought she noticed a crinkling of his brow. A small feature on anyone else, but on an Ethereal it screamed shock and stress.
“Revered one,” said Fash’Va, “Now that we are free of the interference that disabled our ship systems, I can only conclude that we experienced a Warp Storm. That explains the impossible readings we recorded and the sights we saw.”
“Not to mention the failure of our vaunted technological prowess,” said Aun’Irid. “The laws of physics have no bearing in the Warp, or so our research has told us.”
“Nor time and space,” said Fash’Va. “Star chart mapping cannot tell me where we are. Nothing reflects our own stellar cartography. There is no telling how far we have travelled. Or how long.”
“Hmmm,” replied Aun’Irid. “We are adrift. Are there any habitable planets close enough for us to stage a landing?”
“None, Revered one,” said Fash’Va. “I can detect no planetary bodies within a light year. I–”
Aun’Irid looked up at the overhead speaker as if he could see Fash’Va’s face. “What is it?”
“I can’t explain this,” said Fash’Va, all attempts at respect for the Ethereal momentarily gone. “A world has just shown up on my scans. It has a marginal supportable atmosphere…three moons…well, two moons and one that appears to have broken apart. It has just appeared on my instruments. I swear, it was not there a moment ago!”
“Nevertheless,” said Aun’Irid, “It is showing up now. This pod has finite resources. Can we make it to the planet?”
“Yes, Revered one,” said Fash’Va. “That will not be a problem. We are caught in the gravity well of the world. It will bring us to it. My only concern is what angle we enter the planetary atmosphere at. This drop pod is shielded, but the wrong angle will incinerate us.”
“Ensure it does not,” said Aun’Irid. He leaned back and closed his eyes. His nasal slit pulsed and a small trickle of blood came dribbling down. He dabbed at it with his finger and looked at it thoughtfully, as if it were a speck of dust. He wiped it on his robe.
T’Hara felt a mild buzzing in her head. Shaking it off, she looked back at the Ethereal. He looked pained. Something was wrong.
“Planetfall estimated in seventy-five detlans,” said Fash’Va.
The cave was shallow and cramped, but it was into the base of a small mountain. It would suffice as cover for the troop to get some rest. Gun Drones were deployed as sentries in a constantly rotating perimeter. Sensors lay down on the ground. Whether by foot, air or underground, the Tau would not be caught surprised by any Tyranid assault. The fortified base they had seen was still ahead of them.
T’Hara sat with her back against the cave wall. She set her helmet down beside her pulse carbine and stared at the dim light from the lumiglobe. The others were arrayed much like her, exhausted and eager to get some rest. She couldn’t sleep, though. Her mind was racing.
“Do you mind?” asked Shas’nel Neran. T’Hara motioned for the Fireblade to set himself down beside her. That in itself was a huge change. Never before would he have asked permission. He simply would have set himself down with T’Hara moving if space was required without question.
Neran set his weapon down as he sat cross-legged, his hoof-like feet tucked under him. He looked at T’Hara. “You have presented yourself well, Shas’la.” He cracked a small smile, barely a twitch of his mouth. “Not many can face a Tyranid nest and retain their sanity.”
“I was trained well, as all Fire Warriors are,” said T’Hara.
“Yes,” said Neran. “At least that much is still true.”
T’Hara said nothing.
“I’m organizing the remaining warriors,” said Neran. “We need to retain our focus. I want the remaining Fire Warriors set into two squads, led by a Shas’ui. We have only one Shas’ui remaining.”
“Shas’ui J’harl was killed by the Tyranids,” said T’Hara.
“Yes,” said Neran. “That’s why I am giving you a field promotion to Shas’ui.”
T’Hara turned her head in surprise. “Me?”
“You,” said Neran. “You have what it takes to lead. I am making the two Fire Warrior squads into Fire Alpha and Fire Beta. The Crisis units will be Fire Gamma. Pathfinders, Fire Epsilon. The Broadside will be Fire Omega. I will lead Fire Alpha, you Fire Beta. Effectively, you will be my second.”
“But the Crisis units–”
“–are in agreement,” said Neran. “Will you accept?”
T’Hara swallowed hard. “Of course,” she said. “For the Greater Good.”
“No,” said Neran. “For us.”
T’Hara slowly opened her eyes, ringing in her ears sounding like squealing. She shook her head and saw her comrades coming to around her. Some were not. The Devilfish seemed to have survived planetfall intact. She released her crash webbing and sat up. The squealing was still ringing in her ears. She removed her helmet, thinking it was a radio malfunction. It wasn”t.
The Ethereal, Aun’Irid, was still in his crash webbing. He was screaming a baleful high pitched scream as blood streamed down from his eyes, nasal slit, mouth and ears. She had seen horrors on the battlefield before, but to see an Ethereal suffering so was unbearable.
Her head felt fuzzy as if stuffed with batting. She was worried she had suffered a concussion. Her mind was wandering. Why couldn’t she focus? She must have been hit hard.
The screaming stopped. T’Hara looked over at the Ethereal and saw he had slumped over, unconscious. It was quiet again. The fuzziness was going away now. Everyone was coming around. With the Ethereal quiet, she was able to focus again. Strange, but there it was. She went to the Etheral and checked his vital signs. He was still alive.
She replaced her helmet and grabbed her carbine. The hatch opened. Several Fire Warriors had their weapons trained as Neran stepped inside. The outside terrain was desolate and cold. Neran motioned for the awakened soldiers to exit the Devilfish. T’Hara was the last to step out besides Neran. She looked back at him to see if he was feeling the same as she was and to tell what she had seen the Ethereal suffer through. Neran had a bleeding wound on his temple.
Neran pulled his sidearm and shot the Ethereal in the head. “H’Av’Raj’Ikon,” he said after spitting on the dead Tau.
The Devilfish skimmed over the rocky terrain at first light. The remaining Tau were already organized into their new squad formations.
Within the Devilfish, Shas’ui T’Hara conferred with the Warriors of Fire Beta. Six Warriors plus herself. Five of them were male, one was female. T’Hara wondered at the practice of other races not to utilize women in their usual troop deployments. The Tau had no such compunction. Either you could do the job required or you could not. Sex never entered into it.
They were all experienced in warfare, the single woman beside T’Hara having the most field time. Shas’vre Rian’la had experienced Tyranid assault once before. T’Hara had seen her making kill shots with every pull of the trigger. No hesitation. No mercy.
The remainder of her squad deferred to her new field authority without question, even though they were all questioning everything now. Neran had understood what had happened upon their arrival to this world. His quick thinking had likely saved them all, not that they were any better off now.
Neran had been the first to realize what had happened. The strange energies that permeated this planet had caused some kind of neural feedback that drove the Ethereal insane. This feedback had also shorted out devices secreted within each of the Tau, devices they had not known were within them. Neran had felt his give out and using his blade, removed it. His head felt fuzzy then clear as he realized– whether by instinct or intuition–that he had control of his mental faculties for the first time in his life. The Ethereals held the Tau Empire in a psionic grip, bent to their will. Neran didn’t know he was under a thrall until the source of it had been removed. Was it Chaos energy, the Warp that had done this? Neran didn’t know. All he knew was that he needed to kill the source of the mental handcuffs he and all the Tau present had been exposed to. So he had.
Everyone present had similar implants removed to be sure any Ethereal influence was eradicated. They still might be susceptible to Ethereal control if they ever encountered another, but that was a fight for another day. They were cut off from the fleet, stranded on this damnable world. Minds free, but unlikely to survive.
Was this why Farsight had abandoned the Tau Empire? Rumour had it he had killed any and all Ethereals he had been with during the secession of the Farsight Enclaves. Was this why? Had he learned the truth?
T’Hara and the others had all come to the same realization. Aun’Irid had to be killed before he recovered. They were all horrified at the thought of the mental domination they had undergone, them and the billions of citizens of the Tau Empire, both Tau and Gue’vesa alike. The Greater Good was a myth. A lie.
T’Hara pledged to herself that the day would come when she would leave this world and end the Ethereals once and for all.
“All stop,” yelled Neran from the forward bay. “Fire Epsilon has reported back.”
Finally, thought T’Hara. The Pathfinders had returned.
The Devilfish came to a stop as the hatch was cycled open. “Shas’ui, with me,” said Shas’nel Neran as he stepped out. T’Hara followed.
Crisis battlesuits scanned the perimeter along with gun drones. Neran and T’Hara were met by eight Pathfinders, the advance scouts of the Tau military. One of them stepped forward.
“Shas’ui R’jon,” said Neran, “What have you found?”
“Signs of a battle,” said R’jon, “One that did not end well for any of the sides involved.”
“Who?” asked Neran.
“We found traces of Necrons, Terrans, Tyranids and what I can only surmise were Chaos kin.” R’jon handed Neran a datachip. “The battle is over, but they still reside on this world.”
“Then we need to find either the Terrans or the Necrons. They arrived here, they likely have transport off the planet,” said Neran.
T’Hara, like the others, didn’t need to be told more. They had their mission. Survive further Tyranid attacks and any others they might encounter. Find transport off-world. Return to the Tau homeworld. Kill the Ethereals.
They were a Cadre Fireblade, two Crisis battlesuits, two Fire Warrior Squads, a Pathfinder team and a single Broadside battlesuit. However, they were not the Tau Empire anymore.
Now they were H’Av’Raj’Ikon.
The Lost Ones.