A good soldier obeys without question. A good officer commands without doubt. - Tactica Imperium
The enemy's bombardment seemed to pause time as great beams of light lashed down from the sky, clearly visible even from a distance of dozens of miles, striking the capital city of Sallem repeatedly. Even the Tau seemed to be entranced, as their lightning fast skirmishing halted on all fronts. Soon, bubbles of white light unfolded on the edge of the horizon, fusion bombings having been added to the ion cannon barrage.
Mieza sat in the turret of her tank, out of the cupola, watching the scene in astonishment. The plaza where her platoon was stationed was filled with flashing light. The Inquisitor had insisted that the Tau didn't tend to use this sort of tactic except against the Tyranids, as their strategic thinking required the taking of “garden worlds” without significant damage to infrastructure or ecology. He had clearly been wrong in this case, and fears swole up in the colonel's throat that she and her troops would be obliterated from orbit, unable to fire a single shot in retaliation.
She quickly suppressed this, consciously making herself ignore the possibility. The Tau wouldn't dare fire at her regiment with their own forces so close at hand, and at any rate, the fate of a trooper of the Imperial Guard was to die standing.
“Situation report!” she said into her vox, bringing her amplivisor to her eyes to search for the enemy dreadnoughts that had been advancing before the fireworks show.
“Enemy has eliminated the entire PDF garrison positions at the capital,” reported Captain Klingberg, “Almost the entire city has been levelled, except for the administrative quarter.”
“Xenos bastards probably don't want to blow up the records,” said Girad, cutting in, “The jump infantry fighting on all sectors have broken off and are now headed in the direction of headquarters.”
“All except one group,” Major Kasky corrected, “They seem to be headed straight for you, Colonel.”
Mieza's mind raced. The battle until now had been one of distraction and manoeuvre, but now the xenos were on the attack. One push towards the nerve centre of the regiment and another towards its leader could mean only one thing.
“They're trying to cut the head off the snake,” Mieza said, “Kasky, get your troops in the air, and split them between Girad in HQ and my position. They're going to try very hard to decapitate our leadership. And make sure you aren't with the group that comes to me.”
“Yes, ma'am,” the major replied.
“Mechanised company, get in the way of the enemy forces and collapse the buildings,” said Mieza as she cocked the pintle-mounted heavy stubber beside her, “We need time.”
“Understood,” came the reply from Captain Machel.
The light from the bombardment stopped suddenly, and the streetlights also dimmed to nothing as well. The searchlights of the tanks fired up soon after, but their commanders were spooked, and began requesting information via vox. Mieza peered into the punctuated gloom in front of her.
“The frakkers are already here,” she said, “All of you look sharp, and Kasky, get those troops here now.”
As if to answer the order, a series of hunter-killer missiles screamed over the rooftops and slammed into the sides of two tanks directly ahead of the colonel's position. They impacted with dull metallic thuds before exploding inside, the wrecks of the tanks acting as torches now. Mieza turned her attention past these, and sure enough, the barely discernable silhouettes of a dozen or so battlesuits could be made out, their jet black paint scheme making it very difficult to pick them out. Alongside them were a brace of drones hovering, evidently of the spotter variety.
“Contact front!” Mieza said into her vox, “Far end of the plaza, in between the buildings to the west. All units advance to reliable visual range and engage with all weapons!”
The tanks roared into life, as they moved in a great wave along the kilometre and a half long strip of tiled concrete. Mieza took hold of the stubber, and looked down the sights, searching for a target with the attached spotlight.
She didn't have to wait long. The line of tanks soon opened up with lascannons and heavy bolters, as the darting forms of the battlesuits became more and more visible. They had begun their standard fire and movement.
Mieza put the nearest into her sights and triggered the weapon, which rattled the rounds off with satisfactory vigour. The bullets seemed to bounce off the target however, and it soon repositioned.
“Enemy has shielding,” reported Sergeant Reynolds in the lead tank, “Getting closer.”
“All tanks, continue advance,” Mieza replied, pausing her fire to do so before opening up, “Keep shooting, we need to keep them suppressed.”
Another round of missiles boomed past, striking the rear tanks and disabling them. Mieza barely registered their existence, as Greta triggered the dual lascannons, catching a xeno dreadnought dead on. The flying thing fell to the ground as a shell, smoking and fizzing. The aliens took notice and began to retreat.
“They're running, the cowards!” said Reynolds, “Following them in.”
Mieza began to suspect it was a ruse, but if she retreated, the column would be hit again with the seeker missile attacks that had already crippled a third of the platoon.
“Advance cautiously,” she said finally, “Kasky, I need those Valkyries.”
“We're loaded up and en route now, ma'am,” the Major said, the engines of his vehicle clearly audible through the vox feed, “What are we dealing with?”
“Crisis suits,” Mieza replied, as she riddled the back of a battlesuit with a burst from her stubber, striking it in the back and causing it to fall hard. It started to get back up, but Greta put any idea of that to rest with the main guns soon after.
“Got the frakker, ma'am,” the gunner said cheerily, swinging the turret right to fire at another enemy skulking behind a derelict groundcar.
“Three minutes out,” Kasky reported.
The tanks halted near the edge of the plaza, unwilling to get into the narrow streets in front of them to get to knife fight distances with the Tau but still close enough to see a decent distance into them. The battlesuits were beginning to disappear around corners though, and the instinct to call for a retreat was getting very strong indeed. Mieza continued to resist though, knowing that the reinforcements were only minutes away. Or so she thought.
As the Colonel ordered blind fire into the buildings to collapse them, two huge shadows flew overhead. The Mantas hummed past quickly, seemingly ignoring the battle below them.
“Major, you've got two big ones heading for you,” Mieza said, making the connection, “Break off immediately and divert to the headquarters, the AA there should discourage them.”
“What about you?” said Kasky, realising that he was being ordered to abandon them, “They'll swing your way when they realise they can't punch through the defences easily.”
“We'll deal with it,” Mieza said loudly over her stubber's barking, “You have your orders.”
“Yes, ma'am,” came the answer.
The buildings in front were in a bad way now, but the enemy had completely disappeared and so the firing trickled to a stop as the searchlights swept through the rubbled streets for targets. The tank commanders sounded off that none of them had anything to shoot at, and requested orders.
“Circle the wagons,” Mieza said as she ducked into the turret and closed the hatch, “They're going to assault us directly.”
The tanks on the edge of the formation began to reverse and swing in behind those in the middle, but the Tau seemed to have been waiting for this moment, and the battlesuits cleared the buildings entirely and landed amongst the flanks of the platoon. Most were too close for the tanks to swing their turrets low enough to fire.
The tanks and suits mingled now in utter chaos. Xeno melta weapons triggered, turning weapons, tracks and hulls to slag as the neighbouring tanks sprayed bolt rounds into the suits attacking them. Some of the xenos were even using their power-armoured gauntlets to batter down the thinner armour on the rear of the tanks.
The alien who assaulted Mieza's tank was not so lucky however. Landing directly in front of Greta's aiming reticle, its shield didn't protect against the power of twin lascannons at close range. The middle of the suit practically disintegrated, and the thing fell on its rear sharply.
“Yeah!” said Greta, once again swinging the turret around to hit another target.
“Another one!” Mieza shouted, as an orange and gold headed battlesuit landed uncomfortable close to the left side of the tank, “Alica, left!” The tank lurched as the driver span the vehicle in place, smacking into the battlesuit as the turret swung the same direction to get an angle on the target. Mieza then did the unthinkable, and began to clamber up onto the heavy stubber, fearing that the gun wouldn't move fast enough to catch the bastard.
The enemy reacted first however, and fired its melta into the tracks of the metal beast before it. The tracks melted off the guide wheels, which screeched onto the concrete. Mieza brought her stubber to bear on the assailant in retaliation, and fired. Most of the rounds impacted the shields, and the rest off the hardened armour of the suit causing deep scars in the plates, but the xeno reacted strangely. Instead of opening up with its own array of weapons, it jumped to the other side of the tank.
“It's on the right!” Mieza said, hoping Greta would reverse the turret's direction while she swung the stubber, but the main guns fired at another target that was bearing down on a neighbouring tank.
The alien triggered their melta again, and the second set of tracks were gone along with a sizeable portion of the engine compartment.
“We're on approach Colonel,” said Captain Machel, as Mieza again got a bead on the enemy just as it jumped away.
“Hurry!” she replied, turning her attention to the other targets now, reaping a respectable toll on them at last. Sergeant Reynolds tank swung in beside them, heavy bolter chattering loudly as it reversed into a xeno with a crack. It appeared all the other tanks had been tracked or immobilised by engine damage.
“Reynolds, Machel's Chimeras are nearby, get their attention,” said Mieza, her voice rising in pitch from the effort of dissuading a suit from aiming a missile pod at her with another burst of rounds, “Don't care how.”
The order was redundant, as the surviving aliens jumped away with the precision of professional dancers, and back behind the buildings. Firing stopped once again, and now the sound of approaching tanks could be heard. Captain Machel had arrived with her mechanised company, and Chimeras began to spill troops into the streets.
“Excellent timing Captain,” Mieza said, sighing with relief, “It was a shambles there for a moment.”
“Very happy to assist, ma'am,” Machel replied, “Our troops are conducting sweeps as we speak.”
A squad of troopers ran up to the tank platoon, checking corners and pulling crew out of the disabled vehicles.
“Casualties seem remarkably light,” said Reynolds, exaggerating somewhat but not by much, as the tank crews sounded off on damage and crew condition, “I wonder why.”
The answer came quickly. A flight of Mantas bore down on the plaza from the east, their wings filling the sky above the buildings, coming to a halt above Mieza's original position where the platoon was initially attacked.
The spacecrafts' main weapons opened up, targeting the now-empty Chimeras, which responded as best they could with heavy bolters and autocannons. The infantry scattered into the buildings, as they were targeted by the rotary cannons bristling all over the surface of the enemy ships.
“Disperse!” Mieza said, before hopping out of the cupola to the ground as her crew bailed out for the second time of the campaign, “Concentrate fire on the nearest target!”
The troops did as she commanded, and the nearest ship began to take real damage. The cannons on its left side were crippled by an autocannon barrage, and it flew off quickly to avoid further damage.
The remaining ships however were scything through the tanks, and with the AA still defending the headquarters and unable to get line of sight from there, there wasn't a hope of stopping them.
Mieza banged her fist against the side of her crippled tank, and gave the order.
“Retreat,” she said, unfolding her lascarbine, “Split into squads and get into the streets.”
The troops and tank crews began to comply, fleeing the carnage with enthusiasm. Not all of the groups made it, as they were targeted by ion cannons and pulse weaponry. By the time most of the survivors made it to the buildings, the battlesuits had made a reappearance, attempting to hunt the groups down.
Mieza and her crew ran to the nearest building and hunkered down.
“Major, get an astropath,” she ordered, “We need...”
The Mantas interrupted the order by ceasing their fire. The battlesuits also disengaged, hopping effortlessly from building to building in the direction of their hovering protectors.
“Wait one,” Mieza said into her vox piece, “Enemy retreating.”
“Colonel, you'll want to hear this,” Girad said in response from headquarters, “Switch to the commissarial frequency.”
The vox crackled as Mieza changed channels, but soon a clear voice could be heard.
“This is Inquisitor Talan, to all Imperial forces. By order of the Holy Inquisition, combat operations against the Tau and their native allies are to cease, pending negotiations on the status of the Falasten system. A formal truce is now declared.”