Authors: Dan Abnett
Tags: #Warhammer 40k
It is the 41st millennium. For more than a hundred
centuries the Emperor has sat immobile on the Golden
Throne of Earth. He is the master of mankind by the
will of the gods, and master of a million worlds by the
might of his inexhaustible armies. He is a rotting carcass
writhing invisibly with power from the Dark Age of
Technology. He is the Carrion Lord of the Imperium for
whom a thousand souls arc sacrificed every day, so that
he may never truly die.
Yet even in his deathless state, the Emperor continues
his eternal vigilance. Mighty battlefleets cross the
daemon-infested miasma of the warp, the only route
between distant stars, their way lit by the Astronomican,
the psychic manifestation of the Emperors will. Vast
armies give battle in his name on uncounted worlds.
Greatest amongst his soldiers are the Adeptus Astartes,
the Space Marines, bio-engineered super-warriors.
Their comrades in arms are legion: the Imperial Guard
and countless planetary defence forces, the ever-vigilant.
Inquisition and the tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus
to name only a few. But for all their multitudes, they are
barely enough to hold off the ever-present threat from
aliens, heretics, mutants—and worse.
To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold
billions. It is to live in the cruellest and most bloody
regime imaginable. These are the tales of those times.
Forget the power of technology and science, for so much
has been forgotten, never to be relearned. Forget the
promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim
dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst
the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and
the laughter of thirsting gods.
“Strong men have conquered the land, Bold men have conquered the void, Between land and void lies the sky, And only the bravest men ever conquer that.”
—from the dedication to the
Hessenville Aviator Scholam, Phantine
“I give you command of the air. It is up to you how you take it.”
—Warmaster Macaroth, dispatch
to Admiral Ornoff, 773.M41
“We had planes. We flew them. They had planes. They flew them. There was some shooting involved. All that mattered, really, was who was still flying at the end of it.”
—Major August Kaminsky (73 kills),
six weeks before his death in 812.M41
“I intend to get out of this alive if it’s the last thing I do.”
—Commander Bree Jagdea, at Ouranberg
Over the Makanites, 06.32
In the side rush of dawn, the peaks glowed pink, like some travesty of a fondant celebration cake. Hard shadows infilled the cavities like ink. Streamers of white cloud strung out in the freezing air three thousand metres below.
Hunt Leader was just a cruciform speck in the bright air ahead. He started to turn, ten degrees to the northwest. Darrow tilted the stick, following, rolling. The horizon swung up and the world moved around. Slowly, slowly. He heard the knocking sound and ignored it.
At least the inclinometer was still working. As he came around and levelled the column, Darrow reached forward and flicked the brass dial of the fuel gauge again. It still read full, which couldn’t be right. They’d been up for forty-eight minutes.
He took off a gauntlet and flicked the gauge once more with his bare fingers. He felt sure the lined mitten had been dulling his blows.
The dial remained at full.
He saw how pinched and blue his hand had become, and pulled the gauntlet back on quickly. It felt balmy in his insulated flightsuit, but the cabin temp-stat read minus eight.
There was no sound, except for the background rush of the jet stream. Darrow looked up and around, remembering to maintain his visual scanning. Just sky. Sundogs flaring in his visor. Hunt Three just abeam of him, a silhouette, trailing vapour.
The altimeter read six thousand metres.
The vox gurgled. “Hunt Leader to Hunt Flight. One pass west and we turn for home. Keep formation tight.”
They made another lazy roll. The landscape rose up in his port vision. Darrow saw brittle flashes of light far below. Artillery fire in the mountain passes.
He heard the knocking again. It sounded as if someone was crouching behind the frame of his armoured seat, tapping the internal spars with a hammer. Pulsejets always made a burbling, flatulent noise, but this didn’t seem right to him.
He keyed his vox. “Hunt Leader, this is Hunt Four. I’ve—”
There was a sudden, loud bang. The vox channel squealed like a stabbed pig.
The world turned upside down.
“Oh God-Emperor! Oh crap! God-Emperor!” a voice was shouting. Darrow realised it was his own. G-force pummelled him. His Commonwealth K4T Wolfcub was tumbling hard.
Light and dark, sky and land, up and over, up and over. Darrow choked back nausea and throttled down desperately. The vox was incoherent with frantic chatter.
“Hunt Four! Hunt Four!”
Darrow regained control somehow and levelled. He had lost at least a thousand metres. He got the horizon true and looked around in the vain hope of seeing someone friendly. Then he cried out involuntarily as something fell past his nose cone.
It was a Wolfcub, one wing shorn off in a cascade of torn struts and body plate. Flames were sucking back out of its pulsejet. It arced down and away like a comet, trailing smoke as it went spinning towards the ground. It became a speck. A smaller speck. A little blink of light.
Darrow felt his guts tighten and acid frothed inside him. Fear, like a stink, permeated the little cockpit.
Something else flashed past him.
Just a glimpse, moving so fast. There and gone. A memory of recurve wings.
“Hunt Four! Break! Break and turn! There’s one right on you!”
Darrow leaned on the stick and kicked the rudder. The world rolled again.
He put his nose up and throttled hard. The Wolfcub bucked angrily and the knocking came again.
Throne of Earth. He’d thought his bird had malfunctioned, but it wasn’t that at all. They’d been stung.
Darrow leant forward against the harness and peered out of his cockpit dome. The aluminoid skin of his right wing was holed and torn. Hell’s-teeth, he’d been shot.
He pushed the stick forward to grab some thrust, then turned out left in a hard climb.
The dawn sky was full of smoke: long strings of grey vapour and little black blooms that looked like dirty cotton. Hunt Flight’s formation had broken apart and they were scattering across the heavens. Darrow couldn’t even see the bats.
No, that wasn’t true. He made one, bending in to chase Hunt Five, tracer fire licking from its gunpods.
He rolled towards it, flipping the scope of his reflector sight into position before resting his thumb on the stick-top stud that activated the quad cannons in the nose.
The bat danced wildly across the glass reticule of the gunsight. It refused to sit.
Darrow cursed and began to utter a prayer to the God-Emperor of Mankind to lift his wings and make his aim true. He waggled the stick, pitching, rolling, trying to correct, but the more he tried, the more the bat slipped wildly off the gunsight to one side or the other.
There was a little smoky flash ahead, and suddenly Darrow’s Wolfcub was riding through a horizontal pelt of black rain.
Not rain. Oil. Then debris. Pieces of glittering metal, buckled machine parts, shreds of aluminoid. Darrow cried out in surprise as the oil washed out his forward view. He heard the pattering impact of the debris striking off his nose plate and wing faces. The bat had chalked Hunt Five and Darrow was running in through the debris stream. Any large piece of wreckage would hole him and kill him as surely as cannon-fire. And if so much as a demi-mil cog went down the intake of his pulsejet…
Darrow wrenched on the stick and came nose-up. Light returned as he came out of the smoke belt, and slipstream flowed the oil away off his canopy. It ran in quivering lines, slow and sticky, like blood.
Almost immediately, he had to roll hard to port to avoid hitting another Cub head on. He heard a strangled cry over the vox. The little dark-green interceptor filled his field of view for a second and then was gone back over his shoulder.
His violent roll had been too brutal. He inverted for a moment and struggled to right himself as the mountains spread out overhead. That knocking again. That damn knocking. He was bleeding speed now, and the old pulse-engines of the K4Ts had a nasty habit of flaming out if the airflow dropped too sharply. He began to nurse it up and round, gunning the engine as hard as he dared. Two planes rushed by, so fast he didn’t have time to determine their type, then another three went perpendicular across his bow. They were all Wolfcubs. One was venting blue smoke in a long, chuffing plume.
“Hunt Leader! Hunt Leader!” Darrow called. Two of the Cubs were already climbing away out of visual. The sun blinded him. The third, the wounded bird, was diving slowly, scribing the sky with its smoke.
He saw the bat clearly then. At his two, five hundred metres, dropping in on the Cub it had most likely already mauled. For the first time in his four weeks of operational flying, Darrow got a good look at the elusive foe. It resembled a long, sharp, elongated axe-head, the cockpit set far back above the drive at the point where the bow of the blade-wings met. A Hell Razor-class Interceptor, the cream of the Archenemy’s air force. In the dispersal room briefs, they’d talked about these killers being blood red or matt black, but this was pearl-white, like ice, like alabaster. The canopy was tinted black, like a dark eye-socket in a polished skull.
Darrow had expected to feel fear, but he got a thrill of adrenaline instead. He leaned forward, hunched down in the Wolfcub’s armoured cockpit, and opened the throttle, sweeping in on the bat’s five. It didn’t appear to have seen him. It was lining up, leisurely, on the wounded Cub.
He flipped the toggle switch. Guns live.
Closing at three hundred metres. Darrow rapidly calculated his angle of deflection, estimated he’d have to lead his shot by about five degrees. God-Emperor, he had it…
He thumbed the firing stud. The Wolfcub shuddered slightly as the cannons lit up. He saw flash-flames licking up from under the curve of the nose cone. He heard and felt the thump of the breechblocks.
The bat had gone.
He came clear, pulling a wide turn at about two hundred and seventy kilometres an hour. The engagement had been over in an instant. Had he killed it? He sat up into the clear blister of the canopy like an animal looking out of its burrow, craning around. If he’d hit it, surely there would be smoke?
The only smoke he could see was about a thousand metres above in the pale blue sky where the main portion of the dogfight was still rolling.
He turned. First rule of air combat: take a shot and pull off. Never stick with a target, never go back. That made
But still he had to know. He
He dipped his starboard wing, searching the peaks below for a trace of fire.
Darrow levelled off.
And there it was. Right alongside him.
He cried out in astonishment. The bat was less than a wing’s breadth away, riding along in parallel with him. There was not a mark on its burnished white fuselage.
It was playing with him.
Panic rose inside pilot cadet Enric Darrow. He knew his valiant little Cub could neither outrun nor out-climb the Hell Razor. He throttled back hard, and threw on his speed brakes, hoping the sudden manoeuvre would cause the big machine to overshoot him.
For a moment, it vanished. Then it was back, on his other side, copying his brake-dive. Darrow swore. The Hell Razor-class were vector-thrust planes. He was so close to it that he could see the reactive jet nozzles on the belly under the blade-wings. It could out-dance any conventional jet, viffing, braking, even pulling to a near-hover.