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BFG short story: The Battle of Hasmides

Today's post attempts to answer the question "what would it be like to be a junior officer in the strategium support staff of one of the Imperium's battleships... during a massive fleet engagement?"

It's a question no-one asked me to answer, but I've answered it in prose form anyway, so nurr. I also appear to have illustrated it, because spaceships.


The Battle of Hasmides


Ensign Josselana Brannick was facing a test encountered by many Imperial citizens: keeping faith when confronted with mind-numbing dread.

She glanced up from her work station and stared through the arched windows of the bridge. The spine of the battleship Dammerung stretched away for eleven kilometers. At regular intervals, lance turrets the size of hab-stacks protruded from the dorsal armour. Beyond that, the pinprick lights of the void. Those distant lights usually calmed her, but today, she knew that some of them were not stars. They were the flaring engines of an enemy fleet.

Looking back down at the flickering icons on her cogitator screen, she saw the enemy ships were coming about to face the oncoming Imperial fleet.

The Oberon-class battleship Dammerung of Battlefleet Achernar. In the foreground: the sword-class frigate Rebuke.


Brannick was barely twenty standard years old, and three months into her first posting. She remembered the joy she felt after being assigned to the strategium support staff of the newly-recommissioned Dammerung. That joy now curdled into doubt. The senior officers had been tight lipped on the details, but her signals training meant she knew the signature of an astartes capital ship when she saw one, and right now she could see four.

They were coming on in attack formation, and they weren't alone.

The auspex staff down in the command deck started inloading new data to Brannick’s cogitator. She went to work, flagging enemy contacts and identifying ship classes for the strategium’s hololathe.

Drusor, the young ensign sitting next to her, leaned over and whispered, ‘Why would astartes attack us? Do they think us heretics?’

Brannick didn't look up from her screen as she whispered back, ‘Commissar Okafor’s right over, so we'd know if we'd done wrong. Just do your job.’

New scanning data on the enemy flagship came in. It looked like a modern pattern of astartes battle barge: a monstrously large ship the equal of the Dammerung. Its transponder broadcast its name as the Sigilite's Lie. The name, an accusation aimed at one of the Imperium's founding figures, was shocking to her. Signals from the smaller astartes capital ships started to come in: Lapdog, Wilful Blindness, Sanctimonious. It wasn't her place to withhold information from the command crew, so she dutifully added the names to the information populating on the great glowing hololathe in the centre of the strategium. The names blinked into existence next to the holographic ships in the enemy fleet. Admiral Ortano saw the names and pursed his lips, while Captain Anwar cleared his throat.

Peering at the scans of the vessels themselves, Ortano frowned. ‘Strange that the Word Bearers have such modern vessels,’ he said. Brannick was impressed by his composure, although she had no notion of who these Word Bearers were.

‘Stolen, perhaps?’ Anwar suggested.

‘Hm. How comforting,’ Ortano replied. Anwar offered a rueful smile.

‘The Emperor protects, Admiral,’ Anwar said.

‘As do nova cannons, Nasir.’

There was something odd about the transponder codes, Brannick realised. Junk data, perhaps? Some modest digging made her feel deeply foolish. These were mock names, not the real idents buried beneath them. Blushing, Brannick set about uploading the true names: Monarchia for the flagship, Mortis Lux, Violation of Reason, and Morningstar for the strike cruisers.

Captain Anwar looked in her direction, a disapproving eyebrow raised. She wasn't sure if he expected an explanation, but she had no wish to speak out of turn and besides, she could feel that her reddened face was making no secret of her contrition. She knew Anwar was determined to impress the admiral, and that in turn meant she needed to impress Anwar. Not a good start.

Around the enemy capital ships were shoals of escorts in a profusion of patterns, some new, some old. Many showed fluctuating power signatures and other signs of careless maintenance. Some she recognised as known pirate vessels from elsewhere in the Achernar Sector, others were strangers to the Naval databanks. More alarmingly, though, a squadron of three cruisers shored up the enemy's left flank. This was a major invasion. The opposing fleets were of similar size, and every strategic treatise suggested that such engagements guaranteed heavy losses on both sides.

Brannick reminded herself that the admiral was a highly decorated combat veteran. Perhaps, she hoped, that would tip the scales. He would steer them true.

The admiral and the captain discussed the navy's deployment. Orders were relayed to the comms officers and sent out. She watched her screen, checking and double checking that everything had been flagged, even the Trojan, a lone destroyer bearing Inquisitorial idents. It was hanging back so far from the fight as to be irrelevant.

The fleets adjusted their formations as they approached each other. The Dammerung and the Intemperance launched squadrons of interceptors ready to fend off enemy torpedoes and attack craft.

The enemy responded in kind. Where the Imperial Navy launched whole squadrons of interceptors, the astartes launched lone gunships. They were slow, heavily-armoured things by comparison.

The deck plates jolted. Eleven kilometers away in the prow, the Dammerung's nova cannon had fired at extreme range. Brannick watched a blinking rune on the hololathe track as a projectile the size of a small warehouse flew sixty thousand kilometres in under a minute, its fuse counting down. To starboard, the cruiser Pride of Machadon did the same. When the two shells went off, the explosions were visible through the bridge windows: they appeared as two new moons that grew and faded away again. Brannick squinted against the glare.

‘Report,’ Anwar said.

‘They fell short, sir,’ came the reply from the gunnery officer.

Anwar exhaled in frustration. ‘Fire again when ready. Keep targeting that battle barge.’

‘Our macro-cannon batteries won't get through the armour on that thing,’ Admiral Ortano said. ‘Tell Seidel and Makana to bring their squadrons' lances to bear at close quarters.’

‘What about the enemy gunboats?’ Anwar asked. ‘If any of them board the frigates…’

‘Indeed. Have the interceptors move into close support of the frigates, and send the bombers out to the left flank to engage those unprotected escorts.’

The fleets drew closer, and the batteries with the longest ranges started sniping at each other. Ships' void shields flared blue, but the guns gained little purchase at such distances.

Then the lines met.

Brannick's world became a non-stop barrage of information, none of which conveyed the true scale of reality. A battlefield a hundred thousand kilometres across, populated by ships with crews numbering six thousand or more. Macro-cannon batteries operated by toiling gangs of indentured ratings fired shells the size of cargo-8s across the void. Cruisers' plasma drives screamed as they struggled to propel eight kilometers of adamantium at combat speed.

It was the largest naval engagement in the fleet's history, with a thousand personal tragedies and triumphs that Brannick knew were happening all around her, but which couldn't be conveyed by automated messages like +REACTOR OUTPUT OF FRIGATE GARRO NOW LESS THAN ONE PERCENT+

The Garro wasn't the only Imperial ship to be taken out of the fight. Despite the interceptors trying to protect them, frigate after frigate fired their defence turrets in mounting desperation as gunships full of heretic astartes closed with them. The gunships weathered snaking lines of tracer fire, burned through the frigates' hulls, and quietly waited while their transhuman passengers disembarked, slaughtered their way to the reactor, disabled it, and left again. Brannick watched the fleet's complement of armour piercing lance frigates dwindle one by one, and all the while, the enemy's hulking flagship, the Monarchia, flew straight at the Dammerung.

Despite losing over half its escort vessels, the Imperial fleet was acquitting itself well against the enemy. The three renegade cruisers on the right flank had been reduced to shattered hulks, and repeated bombing runs and broadsides had put paid to the shoal of pirate ships. Better yet, two of the Astartes strike cruisers, the Mortis Lux and the Violation of Reason had been disabled, their crews evacuated to the Monarchia and the Morningstar.

Despite these losses, the Monarchia still made straight for the Imperial flagship.

‘It seems they mean to pass us at close range and exchange broadsides,’ Admiral Ortano said.

The Monarchia and the Morningstar fired their planetary bombardment cannons at the Dammerung. Brannick watched in mounting fear as layer after layer of the void shields flared cyan, then collapsed.

Warning klaxons blared as the crew prepared to receive fire.

None came.

‘What are they doing?’ Captain Anwar asked, baffled.

Brannick scrutinised the readouts. The Monarchia was increasing power to its main engines, but not its manoeuvring thrusters. The Morningstar was coming about, firing its retros but not putting any power into its broadside batteries. Frantically Brannick calculated their trajectories, realised what they were doing, and found herself staring slack-jawed at the screen for a moment, then breaking with all protocol by addressing the commanders rather than passing her realisation on to her section leader.

‘My lords, the Monarchia means to ram us; the other is angling for a boarding action,’ she called out. Anwar shot her an angry glance to silence her uninvited input. She transferred her trajectory calculations onto the hololathe for all to see.

Admiral Ortano stared at the projection with obvious dismay. He had crushed the enemy fleet for highly favourable losses, and won a great victory, but now this.

‘Hard a-port,’ he commanded.

‘It won't matter,’ Captain Anwar said, looking out of the windows at the rapidly approaching battle barge, now visible to the naked eye. ‘Their barrage slowed us down, and we haven't the turning circle to get out of the way.’ He activated the intercom. ‘All stations, this is Captain Anwar. Brace for impact, and prepare to repel boarders!’

As if, Brannick thought, one can repel boarders such as this.

To the techmagos senioris, Anwar said, ‘Raise the command deck void shields. We can't have them teleporting onto the bridge. And Mr Vaso,’ he said to the gunnery officer, ‘Tell the turret gunners not to fire on the ship itself, it won't do anything. They should save their shots for boarding craft.’

As Anwar continued to bark orders at his crew, there was little Ortano could do but watch the enemy close with them. To Brannick he seemed like a man who'd shifted from being the conductor of an orchestra to a passenger on a shuttle coming in for a crash landing. The boarding action would be decided one way or another long before the victorious Imperial fleet, scattered across the operational area in between burning hulks and debris fields, could come to the Dammerung’s aid. Rumour had it that Ortano’s original commission, in the Gothic Sector, had been stripped from him after he’d allowed his flagship to be boarded by enemy forces. She wondered if those forces had also been anti-Imperial astartes. Did they have some vendetta against him? Had he doomed them all with his very presence?

She pushed her insubordinate thoughts aside and tried to focus on populating the hololathe with information as it continued to come in from the fleet, but the thundering of boots on the deck made her look up again. Navy stormtroopers, a whole platoon of them, had entered the bridge. Their officer set about deploying her troops to repel any boarders that managed to reach the command deck. Brannick was glad she was sitting down. It helped conceal how much she was shaking. Even in these circumstances--no, particularly in these circumstances--she wanted to make a good account of herself.

‘Admiral?’ Captain Anwar said nervously. The tone of his voice shook Brannick further.

When Ortano replied he was clearly trying to sound calm, but his voice wavered. ‘Indeed, Yasir, I see them,’ he said.

The Monarchia was coming in on the port side at full burn, while the strike cruiser Morningstar moved more cautiously to starboard in preparation for boarding. Brannick gripped her station and braced for the impact.

A jagged blue ellipse formed around the prow of the battle barge as it penetrated the Dammerung's shield envelope, and then it struck. The impact shuddered up the length of the ship. A number of bridge officers were thrown from their chairs despite having been braced. The lights flickered. The Monarchia had impacted just behind the Dammerung’s prow, and its own prow now began to grind down the port flank, crushing cannon housings, mangling the entrance to the launch bays, and finally lodging itself against the lance turret mounts. The two ships became locked together by inter-twisted slabs of belt armour. The distant groans of the hulls sounded like a wounded leviathan.

The Monarchia connects with the Dammerung as the Morningstar prepares to board the Dammerung's starboard flank.


Ortano, recovering, switched the hololathe over to a view of the ship. Brannick quickly linked in the alarms being triggered by automated systems and by the crew. The port flank of the battleship lit up with depressurisation alerts and system failures. Moments later came the first notification of a point of enemy ingress. A small red dot on the display, just aft of the third macro cannon on the starboard side. An innocuous symbol, blinking steadily. It meant the Morningstar had already launched its boarding party. Seven kilometers away, some nameless crewman had found the nearest terminal and managed to send word in the midst of a firefight between ratings armed with shotguns, and astartes warriors in full battle plate.

The second point of ingress was the starboard flight deck. Brannick called up the vid feed from the hangar. All she could see was smoke, backlit by staccato flashes of automatic weapons fire, and the hazy silhouette of an Astartes gunship that seemed to have landed on, or possibly through, the interceptor that had been parked on the deck.

The Monarchia now launched a horde of troops. A motley collection of skiffs, gunships and assault pods swarmed across the mangled field of metal plates wedged between the two ships. Insertion points began to spread across the hololathe much like the damage alerts that had preceded them. The red dots multiplying across the flickering outline of the Dammerung looked like a fast-spreading rash on a diseased body. There were so many that any notion of centralised command dissolved. From the reports coming in, it became apparent that there were two types of boarder: fanatical humans who threw themselves with suicidal rapture at the navy personnel, and transhuman legionaries who went after ship systems. One by one, they were disabling power lines, manoeuvring thrusters, and weapon systems.


Garbled reports started coming in from several locations of monsters materialising to assist the invaders. Ortano and Anwar exchanged a knowing look.

Watching the situation unfold on the display with fatalistic acceptance, Ortano said, ‘They'll abandon this attack as soon as the rest of the fleet can come about and engage. Ensign, how long will it take for them to reach us?’

Brannick ran the numbers. ‘The light cruisers can be here in twenty minutes. The line ships will take thirty.’

‘Tell them to make haste, and--’

‘Incoming transmission,’ announced the comms officer. ‘It's the Trojan.’ The lone destroyer, far astern. Brannick saw it had engaged its engines for the first time in the battle.

The hololathe shifted to a projection of a man wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a high collar, around which hung a rosary-pendant bearing the sigil of the Inquisition.

‘Admiral, I see you took my advice to keep the enemy at arm’s reach rather literally,’ the man said.

‘Inquisitor, there was--’

‘Is your aft dock clear?’

Ortano glanced questioningly at Brannick; she checked the pict feed. Aside from the captain's pinnace, the aft dock was empty. Brannick gave Ortano a nod.

‘It's clear,’ Ortano told the Inquisitor.

‘Good. I have dispatched a boarding party led by my interrogator. I expect you to offer her your full support; we may yet turn this situation to our advantage.’

‘We will of course assist as best we can, Inquisitor Drake. What do you propose?’

‘If we can capture one of their officers we might learn where they plan to strike next. It's a tall order, but entire worlds are in play. The chance must be taken.’

It had not occurred to Brannick that an Astartes could be captured, much less beaten in combat. That the Inquisitor thought it possible was both encouraging and frightening, for if it was true, at least one thing she'd learned in school was a lie, and if one thing wasn't true, what about the rest? What if everything she had been told was a lie?

‘Ensign Brannick?’

Captain Anwar's sudden presence at her console startled her.

‘Captain?’

‘You've read the enemy well thus far. Do what you can to analyse the data. Talk to Lieutenant Holt in comms; see if you can pinpoint some of these enemy officers before the Inquisition team arrive, or at least give them leads. I'll do the same.’

‘Yes, Captain.’

Anwar turned and went back to the hololathe. Drusor leaned over to her and whispered, ‘Nicely done.’

Despite the pressure, despite the dire situation, despite the appalling cost of failure, Josselana Brannick smiled.

+++

If you enjoyed this loose fictionalisation of in-game events, you may be pleased to know I'm working on two more short stories that tie into this one. The next story, still in progress, is from the perspective of an Inquisition storm trooper with the unenviable task of helping to capture a live Word Bearers officer. #bracing #ballsofsteel

Edit: both stories are now available:

Comments

  1. I may be biased but I very much enjoyed this loose fictionalisation of in-game events.

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  2. So much suspense! But I fear the final goal of the inquisitor doesn't care to kmow if the battleship will survive or not....
    A really cool story, it just reminds me how 40k universe is great, and how most rules and support from its company is quite the opposite.

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    1. Thanks Major! I can't imagine how you could possibly have such a cynical view of the Inquisitor's intentions ;)

      Sorry to hear you're not loving GW's output at the moment; I've been enjoying their output despite the ways in which it doesn't always line up with my personal preferences. I guess that's what house rules and homemade content is for, eh? :P

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  3. Very well written, liking this so far. I would like to see more of your BFG stuff! I remember your posts re. a BFG narrative campaign..

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    1. Thanks, that's kind of you to say :)

      Yeah we could have made a lot more posts about the BFG campaigns we've played, but narrative posts like this one take a lot more time and effort than our regular posts. I do enjoy writing them, I just have to balance the time needed against my other obligations. It's why these days I try to commit to writing fairly self-contained things so that I don't promise the beach and deliver a grain of sand. :P

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