1. The Longest Breath
The second naming of Shas’O Ar’sho Ka’kaushi Ken’soo
The rain came down.
To describe it as such is inadequate - the water fell from the sky as though a massive ocean had leaped from its basin and failed to learn to fly. The deep cuts into hard earth with their steep sides carried it away quickly, carved by millennia of this same phenomenon for this very purpose. The rounded peaks between were porous stone, only the hardest material capable of withstanding the erosion. Its every crevice was packed with the hearty grasses that thrived between the hot days and the wet deluges.
The night was dark save for breaks in the roiling clouds, tendrils of clarity opening and closing rapidly in the sky. The system’s bright white star shone brilliantly off the planet’s silvery twin moons, proving brief beams of light dissipating in the countless liquid beads.
The massive Broadside battle suit lay in an uncanny position, forward upon the backside of a hill, resting on one great arm propping up the gargantuan rail rifle held in the other. Nearly every system was powered down, from weapons to environmental controls. Even the onboard artificial intelligence was dormant, leaving only a single monitor and passive sensors operational.
Every foe that he faced before now had fallen to the technological might of the Tau Empire. The earth caste made great machines of war, constantly advancing, constantly on the pinnacle of their scientific understanding. Every move they made increased the deadly efficiency of their weapons.
This foe had been at that game far longer. Searing beams of light cut through the best Tau armor as though the fire warriors were wearing dress cloth. They moved quickly, and they saw everything on the battlefield. Even landing a hit seemed an impossibility, and skirmishes had proven that the hits by all but the most powerful weapons were largely ineffective. For all their experiences and wonders, the Tau found themselves outgunned and outclassed in every engagement.
He had been in the spearhead detachment at the center of the day’s battlefield, thrusting north into their foes in an attempt to overwhelm their moving lines with a Mont’ka blow. It had been a gross miscalculation - the enemy lines were no more vulnerable in transit than entrenched for battle. Many enemy war machines had been crippled, and it appeared that losses were heavy on both sides, but the Tau were scattered and broken. Shas’o B’tara had been slain and the remaining forces were attempting to move south to regroup.
The enemy’s own losses had been the greatest they had yet suffered in this conflict, and most of their forces stayed to consolidate and reorganize - but they did not need to retreat to do so.
Slow in the heavy battle suit in this terrain, cut off from the main of the Tau forces, his Tal’lisera brothers both dead and he himself likely surrounded, he was resolved to ending his life with honor. For all the technology of his opponent, a hypersonic round from his main gun was still devastating, and he would visit that devastation upon them until his dying breath. His name no longer mattered, as none would speak it again - with his life he would purchase every moment for his retreating brethren.
The sound of the water on his armor drowned out any other noise. Passive visual and heat sensors gave him a forward view over the hill, but he was blind otherwise. He would need a glint of armor in the dancing moonlight or the warm glow of a vehicle large enough to pierce the cold rain to identify a target.
For his part he hoped that the minimal systems and severe weather were enough to mask him from the enemy. Likely they were not expecting anyone to strike them after their victory and in this weather, but he had seen what happened when they were underestimated.
His breath was slow and shallow, his watchful gaze on the lone monitor was absolutely unflinching. Through countless generations the patience and will of the hunter had evolved in his caste to create the greatest predators on the plains of Tau.
The sun would rise on his location within the dec. Despite the short night and conditions he was surprised the enemy had not moved sooner. Perhaps the water and darkness had deterred them, or perhaps they had already passed him by unnoticed.
Lying in wait he saw faint shimmers in the distance as moon-beams made their fleeting appearance. His hand twitched where it had lain, manually igniting his generator and particle accelerator. Within seconds the systems were charged and the other systems began reinitiating in their preset order. He made miniscule adjustments to the rifle’s aim, manually sighting the weapon, his predator brain perceiving the strength and direction of the wind against the whipping rain.
Predator I will be today, and you will be my prey.
Another twitch and thundering crack that would match the bellows of lightning during a heat storm on Sa’cea. There was no such phenomenon on this planet, and the enemy would no doubt notice the noise right after they witnessed the great light of one of their number exploding from the force of impact.
He didn’t have time to admire the ball of flame, registering the sight of his victim’s comrades in the glow quickly before sliding backwards down the hill. He headed east along the bottom of the narrow crevice, one hoof on each side of the ravine to avoid being swept away by the running water. The huge rifle barely missed the walls as he moved. The hard wet surface made it difficult to maintain balance, even with the AI back online.
Several hundred meters from his last firing position he scrambled up the far side where the ravine made a sharp right turn. He swung around, putting his suit back in the prone stance and cut his systems off once again.
He saw nothing on the sensors, but he knew they would come. His prey were smart, keeping their weapons offline as they moved, careful not to give off enough heat in this deluge to expose their position.
He saw the sudden glow of heat from more than a dozen sources at once, their weapons primed as they approached the hill from where he had destroyed their associate. Their vehicles had a master of gravity beyond that of the swiftest Tau designs, but the quality that allowed them to move above this rugged terrain unhindered also gave him a target much larger than he needed to strike accurately at this range.
Again his systems initialized. They came online too quick for his prey to notice as their attention was focused on where they expected him to be. The accelerator charged more quickly in the cold conditions, and he loosed shots as fast as the immense weapon would allow. Two more prey were destroyed before they could react, the remaining members of the formation turning towards the cracking sound.
It was clear their first inclination was to charge towards the source of fire, from their assault on that position to their immediately turning towards his fire. He fell three more in the time it took them to source his position, and the remnants quickly decided it best not to take this predator head-on. They scattered down into the ravines on either side of the hill before him for cover - those who chose the south side remained in his sight long enough to become but smoldering, twisted wreckage.
By his count there were still four of these vehicles left, and he did not know if they had summoned more forces.
They would try to come at him from his flank, keeping their cover in the next ravine to the north until they could come within range. There was no time to reposition so severely again, they were too close and too swift.
He strafed right, moving for the corner that matched the one in the ravine he had run through earlier. As soon as his rifle cleared the wall he fired again, his prey clustered into the ravine for cover became easy targets as they raced towards him. Those behind had time to hastily return fire, but they did not find their mark before he found his.
It was fortunate that he would not consider retreat, because now that battle was engaged he would not have the time to do so. Those small vehicles were the quickest unit he had seen deployed on the battlefield, but none of their equipment could have been classified as “slow”.
He lumbered up the next peak to the north, the advanced sensors of his suit’s array piercing the veil of the raging rainstorm.
Several more units were moving on his position. He would not outrun them, and they had certainly spotted him - his superior range would serve him well.
His prey’s own armored walkers, more nimble than his, ran from peak to peak in the northeast.
He didn’t even think anymore, he just moved, strafing to his left while unleashing his weapon. Three more torn apart. Some tried to return fire, others delving into the ravines for cover. At such range they were not accurate through the walls of water coming down, but he had not yet missed a single shot.
One tried to hop quickly over a peak into the next ravine, the teeth of the hypersonic rail round smashing it before its feet ever hit the ground.
He continued his strafing towards the west. He was passing the point where he had originally fired from, continuing up towards the small peak a few hundred meters further on. His shots were finding homes among groups of infantry, even the impact into the stone around them throwing them through the air. He could not see them in the darkness, but his sensors told him that they had ceased trying to gain ground against him.
Enemy missiles lit up his display from range in several directions, no doubt tracking his active sensor sweep and heat signature from this range. After dispensing so much carnage his weapon would not cool in time to avoid further detection.
He switched the sensors back off, leaving him nearly blind again. He slid backwards, the hooves of his suit struggling to keep traction as they landed in the rushing water of the ravine. He leaned the suit forward, his right hand holding the rifle out wide as he rested the left against the forward wall. He directed his shoulder-mounted plasma rifles up and to his left, lighting up the side of the peak.
Moments later explosions caused the peak to rain shards of hot rock down on him, some missiles falling for the hot diversion. The rest caught the far side of the peak he was leaning against, and he could feel the rumbling from their impact even in his insulated cockpit.
The wall collapsed, weakened by the onslaught and falling under his immense weight. He scrambled to keep his feet as he trudged through the debris, gaining entry to the next ravine without having to clear the peak and returning his systems to active.
His prey may not yet know he had entered a new vein, and he took the time to move back to the east before coming up once again.
The infantry had taken the opportunity from the missile barrage to move forward once again - he took the opportunity to unload from their flank, white-hot plasma and impossibly fast metal both tearing them apart. They managed to score hits against his armor, warnings of penetration ringing out but nothing critical had yet been struck.
He stopped when all lie cold. He needed more prey.
More prey presented itself. The heavier vehicles that had fired the missiles earlier had reacquired him, and they set off another barrage, closer this time. He fired his plasma rifles directly at them now, striking some but not enough. He leaped forward and to the right as hard as he could, narrowly avoiding most of the missiles. One detonated immediately off his shoulder, knocking him hard to the right in his jump.
The impact of the huge machine being thrown was more than it was designed for. The plasma rifle on his left shoulder was inoperable and leaking hot plasma. His right shoulder and elbow joints were damaged and the servos could not move.
He ejected the faulty rifle as he came back to his hooves, catching it in one swift motion in his left hand as it fell and throwing it as hard as the suit could muster straight into the air. As it climbed he switched all of his sensors off once again, and grabbed the underside of the heavy rail rifle still lodged immobile in his right hand.
He came over the next peak as the plasma rifle exploded, its massive energy discharge momentarily lighting up the dreary night sky. He flipped his sensors back on, finding prey barely meters from him.
He created rain of his own as plasma bursts rang out at point-blank range. The enemy’s advanced sensors that had been so desperately searching for him in the dark had been blinded by the bright light. They never saw the predator strike.
Able to aim the rifle only with his left hand, he found two more of the same a short distance away, moving erratically as they surmised his ploy and scurried blindly. Their great size gave him no difficulty is finding his mark.
A great beam of light came across in front of him from the north and east. The peak he had used as a diversion earlier caught the brunt of the great weapon and utterly exploded. Heat alarms went off even though it was meters away, and it took some moments for his sensors to recover this time from the intensity.
Facing the source of the beam he found a colossal mechanical walker several times the size of his own in the distance. It seems honor had finally found him.
Diving into a ravine again he moved west several meters, then shut down several systems, including active sensors once again. At this range he would not give his pray any more target than he had to.
He knelt there for several seconds. He held the rail rifle under the flowing water to cool it quickly, though he could not do the same with the plasma rifle. The peak behind him to the east exploded as the gargantuan walker blew away the terrain.
He moved back over the peak, hopeful the depowering plasma rifle would not give him away. He cut everything except the passive visual and heat sensors again as he made his way smoothly to the front of the small hill. He planted himself there in the cold, dark, soaking night. He heard the rain, and he saw the great beams lashing out, searching for him.
He stood patiently in that grass. The largest prey moved towards him with surprising agility. He could strike from here, but his next shot would be his last and he must assure it would penetrate the vitals.
His breath was slow and shallow, his watchful gaze on the lone monitor was absolutely unflinching. He was the predator. He was the hunter on the plains and no prey would withstand his strike. He breathed out slowly, insuring the longest breath of his life would steady his attack.
One last beam of light and he relit his weapon. The sudden burst of energy from his systems was spotted immediately, and his prey shifted. His prey had too much time between firing cycles, he would strike first. His timing was perfection. His aim was of the hunter incarnate. With a single twitch of a single finger the head of his prey was removed with one final crack of thunder.
It stopped. His prey had died without returning the honor. He began to scan the horizon once again and his suit fell sharply to the left. The AI warned him his leg was missing as he crashed to the ground, trying to catch himself with his left hand. A bright twirling light came forward and his rail rifle was cleaved in two. He fired at the assailant with the remaining plasma rifle but it quickly darted out of his field of fire. With one working arm and his remaining leg he tried to reposition himself, swatting out at the tiny creature that had crippled him.
He was on his back now, a precarious position he could not wright with the loss of mobility. His sensors went dark - his system reported them destroyed. Above me. Without time to think he overloaded the remaining plasma rifle. His armor took the brunt of it, designed to withstand exactly that charge but barely. The force propelled him off the peak and he could feel the weightlessness until his armor came crashing down. His power was out completely, and the shock of the impact threw him hard in his cockpit. With dizzying pain he was tossed in the darkness of this tomb for what seemed like forever, gripping to life with everything he had left.
(to be continued…)