The small craft bay was bustling with activity. Servitors and chapter serfs were loading ordinance to the hard points of six Thunderhawks when Nihlus Cataran entered the bay at the head of sixteen Terminators of the First Company. The hum of machinery and the babble of voices was drowned out by the cacophonous roar of their footsteps on the rock. All but the servitors turned, at least for a moment, to watch.
The obsidian goliaths were divided into teams of four Astartes, composed of two First Company Veterans armed with storm bolters, one with a the lethal six barreled assault cannon, and the last with a shoulder mounted Cyclone Missile Launcher. Half of the Marines with storm bolters were armed with chainfists. First Captain Cataran was even more heavily armed than his battle brothers, carrying both an assault cannon and a Cyclone Launcher. The power glove on his right hand was studded with digital meltas and boasted a forearm mounted grenade launcher.
Nihlus and his men came to a halt before Toth Arianocus. "Chief Librarian, the First Company stands ready to assist you."
"Thank you, First Captain. Begin loading your men." The Terminators boarded four of the Thunderhawks. Toth joined Nihlus with one of his squads and the Marines settled into their restraint thrones as the aircrew finished the last of the preparations.
"Air to air load out, of course," said Nihlus Cataran.
"Yes," replied Toth Arianocus. "Even optimistic projections will put us within the strike window of Ork fighta-bombas. Which is why we are taking so many Thunderhawks and you equipped your squads so heavily with assault cannons and Cyclone Launchers."
The engines of the Thunderhawks roared as their pilots fed them power and the massive gunships leaped into the air and then into the skies around Mount Dorn. "Any novice could figure out the proper weapon load out," said the First Captain. "Consulting the Codex alone would be enough."
"One does not find a single Astartes bearing both a Cyclone and an assault cannon in the Codex."
"Do you think it excessive, brother?"
"Brother," replied Toth Arianocus. "I am your Chief Librarian. I do not speculate on what you may be thinking when I know the history of your deeds. You carry both weapons because you can manage them and you believe you will need them. Even if it is unorthodox."
Nihlus was silent for a moment. "What do you think is generating the psychic signal brother?"
"There are a number of possibilities," said Arionocus, "ranging from easily dealt with to certain death to the world."
"Well then it is good that there are seven Deathwatch veterans in strike force," replied Nihlus.
"Indeed," replied Toth. "World killers are foes we know how to deal with."
"We are close now," said Toth Arianocus as the Thunderhawks raced over the jungle canopy. "A few more kilometers at most."
"Much further and we would be on the plains," said Nihlus. "Easier to land for us, but for them as well." The First Captain checked the data steams. "Ork craft are descending through the outer atmosphere. They will-"
"Cut speed," said Arianocus. "We're close now."
"I see it lord," said the pilot. He flagged a pict capture in the data stream. "Crater, forty meters diameter, give or take."
Nihlus Cataran consulted the terrain map and then marked a nearby level area. "Deploy the landing zone clearing ordinance here," he ordered the pilot.
"Brother-captain," said Sergeant Vahnhaiz, "augers indicate thirty contacts inbound. Number is increasing. Thirty-four."
"They are not our concern brother sergeant," replied Nihlus. "They are too large to be attack craft. They are heavy landers."
"As you say, brother-captain."
A terrible boom shook the Thunderhawk as a bomb detonated. Ancient trees were snapped liked matchsticks or uprooted and thrown like chaff in the wind. Below them what had been a broad swath of jungle was now a blasted and ruined stretch of ground, strewn with the debris that had once been trees. "Bring us down," said Nihlus.
Four of the heavy gunships descended to land. The other two remained in the air. As the ground approached, Toth Arianocus disengaged his restraint throne and walked to end of the bay. He engaged his magnetic boots and the Thunderhawk shuddered to a landing and retained his feet. The landing ramp disengaged and the Blood Tiger descended, followed by First Company's Terminators.
Fiery streaks could be seeing plunging through the sky overhead. Toth Arianocus paid them no heed and broke into a run, followed by the lumbering warriors of First Company. Tactical Dreadnought Armour granted the wearer numerous advantageous, but speed was not among them.
"Raptors three and four, get airborne," Nihlus ordered. "We only need one and two on the ground." He was running full out after the Chief Librarian, who was now near the edge of the clearing and dangerously ahead of the warriors of First Company who were to be his bodyguard and support. The problem was that the Chief Librarian didn't appear to share his priorities.
"Follow me!" Arianocus over the vox. "Time is of the essence!"
Nihlus growled as he crashed along behind the Chief Librarian. Underbrush was no obstacle to a Terminator. "Wait. Our duty is to safeguard you."
"Our duty is the secure and neutralize the beacon," Toth replied. "And we have little time for either. Now is not the time for caution. Even so, I am unlikely to be taken unaware."
There was more than a little truth to that and even if something managed to ambush Arianocus there was only a slight chance it would be able to prevail over the Chief Librarian before the First Company intervened. It was, however, not the way that Nihlus wished to conduct the operation. Unfortunately, in these matters the Chief Librarian's will was second only to that of the Chapter Master.
No dread foe appeared to strike at the Blood Tigers with alien witch craft or fiendish xenos weaponry. Arianocus slowed to a walk at the lip of the crater. Around him were the remains of the trees and the earth uprooted by the impact. Below him, about ten meters down, was a lump of red-brown rock half buried in the earth.
"There it is," said Arianocus. The Chief Librarian began to descend as the Terminators caught up with him.
"Heavy weapons, around the rim," ordered First Captain Cataran. "The rest with Toth." The Terminators obeyed, taking up stations where they enjoyed good fields of fire and protection from the crater's lip.
"Iron," said Toth Arianocus. "They've encased it in iron slag so it would look like an asteroid and then they fired it at the planet in such a way that they knew it would survive. Perhaps a stasis field protected the interior. This is it."
He turned to the chainfist armed Terminators. "Cut it free and down to size. Quickly and carefully. It is of paramount importance that we learn who is behind this."
"Chief Librarian," said Nihlus. "Take cover. We have Ork fighta-bombas inbound."
"Brother Captain, due your duty," said Toth Arianocus. "I will do mine." The Chief Librarian raised his hands to the sky. Lightning crackled around his psychic hood and dome of cerulean light encased him and the Terminators engaged with the capsule. "Continue Brother Sergeant."
The rest of the Terminators watched as the black specks in the sky began to resolve themselves. The rim of the crater provided good cover, cover that the nearly invulnerable Terminators scarcely needed but were not going to turn down. Targeting beams and scanners hummed and probed while weapons were raised and aligned according to targeting data. Behind the black specs were engine flares of descending heavy landers. The Orks were coming in force.
The specks resolved into aeronautica as a roar shook the forest. The Thunderhawks flew overhead, climbing to meet the Ork craft. On board serf pilots fed power to the engines as gunners stared at targeting arrays and brought live weapons to bear. Blinding shafts of light split the air as the nose mounted turbolasers fired. Three Ork craft blossomed into flame and came apart. Pieces tumbled from the air.
Underslung missiles leaped from mounts under the Thunderhawk's wings and streak towards the Ork kill-craft, drawing contrails of smoke through the air. A barrage of rockets were fired back, hopelessly inaccurate at this range. More Ork craft were blasted from the skies and the turbolasers fired again. The Orks had lost a dozen craft, but kept coming. None of their rockets came closer than five meters to a gunship and most smashed into the jungle below where they detonated with loud booms. One struck the crater nine meters from a Terminator, who did not so much as sway from the force of the explosion. Another struck the kine dome projected by Toth and detonated harmlessly.
Above the Astartes the gunships and fighta-bombas closed. Bolters opened up and slug throwing weapons in a variety of calibers answered. Bolters shells tore crude Ork craft apart and slugs filled the air but rarely struck their targets. Those that did were mostly flattened or deflected off heavy armour. Missiles and rockets were fired as the craft closed. More Ork craft were shredded or torn from the sky, but they didn't go alone. One of the Thunderhawks had the misfortune to catch two Ork rockets to the cockpit. The gunship fell from the sky and left a trail of ruin nearly a kilometer long on the plains beyond.
Below the aerial battle, chainblades revved and cut. The powerfield encased blades easily sliced through the iron of the capsule's outer layer. Auspex returns showed a hollow space beneath the outer layer, probably a gap between where the exterior shell connected to the protected contents. This made the cutting job relatively simple. Sparks flew as chunks of the outer surface fell away in chunks, revealing oval pod three meters and one and a half meters wide at its widest point.
"This is not," said Brother Sergeant Kilsbach, "Imperial technology."
"Gaun," echoed Brother Malsbar.
Toth Arianocus moved closer to get a better look as the Thunderhawks and Ork kill-craft passed through each other and circled around for another path. Secondary weapons barked and sent streams of lethal tracer shells as the craft maneuvered evade the other's fire and to bring their main weapons to bear. Four Ork fighta-bombas broke from the scrum and pointed their noses at the Marines below.
"Incoming," announced Nihilus as he checked his targeting data. The Orks had yet to enter optimum range. Cannons on their noses and wings winked and tore the ground. Rockets corkscrewed the air. Behind them another Ork craft fell from the sky, trailing smoke. Rockets struck the crater wall, blew apart the crater rim in two places and scourged the jungle. Assault cannons howled back, carving lines of fire into the air. Lines converged on one craft, cut its wings, and sent in tumbling end over end to blaze a line of fire through the trees. Missiles flared from Cyclone launchers, blowing out the engine of another fighta-bomba and sending it crashing into the jungle two kilometers behind the Astartes. Another took a direct hit to the fuel tanks and exploded.
The last shrieked over head and passed. Nihilus called out "mine." His assault cannon roared briefly. The Ork, pulling up on the stick, flew his wing into the burst of fire. The combination of the stresses on the kill craft and the shell damage was enough to sever the wing and send the fighta-bomba into a spin from which is could not recover. Two more Ork craft fell from the scrum, which was nearing effective range. "Fire at will," Nihlus ordered.
"There is something-," Toth began and then cut short. There was a panel on the top of the pod. A touch of telekinesis pulled it off. Revealed beneath it panel of alien controls and displays below a green armourplas window. Wired into place on the other side of the screen was a brain floating in bath of liquid.
Assault cannons and Cyclone launchers roared, striking at the Ork fighta-bombas from a new angle as bolters, turbolasers, and missiles from the Thunderhawks tore at them. Bracketed kill craft were blasted to pieces and others were struck from an unexpected angle as they tried to evade ground or aerial fire. They did not fall alone. Another Thunderhawk fell from the air, smoke billowing from its engines.
The eyepieces on Toth Arianocus's helmet glowed orange and the liquid inside the pod bubbled and frothed. "It is dead," said the psyker as above him the Orks decided they had taken enough loses and began to break away. Fire chased them and two more tumbled away to smash into the ground.
Nihilus watched the sky. "The first of the heavy landers have grounded," he said. "Orks will be disembarking and," he gestured with the hot barrels of his assault cannon to the craft descending from the sky, "more are on their way. We should not take the time to load it. We cannot spare it. It is dead. Mission accomplished."
"No," said Toth Arianocus. "Haul it to the landing site and load the pod. I will make the time." The bubble of telekinetic force dissolved and the Chief Librarian began walking up the side of the crater, toward the edge of the jungle.
"Throne take all psykers," Nihilus cursed softly, after turning off the vox pick ups. "You heard him," he yelled loudly. "Pick that accursed thing up and haul it back to the landing site!" It was easier said than done. Terminator armour provided the superhuman Astartes with immense strength, but was not designed with hauling heavy burdens in mind. Chainfists gauged crude hand holds in the side and four Terminators, two on each side, began to haul it out of the crater.
They were almost at the clearing when they saw it. The sky behind them glowed a dull orange, light from the ground reflecting off the clouds. A hot scorching wind blew up from the south with luminous flares climbed into the sky above the plains. A pillar of fire roared toward the sky and then died down. It was followed by another and then a third.
Ten minutes later Toth Arianocus walked into the clearing. "Get us out of here," he ordered.