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Title: The Last Ditch
Series: WH40K: Ciaphas Cain #8
Authors: Sandy Mitchell
Rating: 3.5 of 5 Stars
The next extract of the Cain Archive which Amberley Vail has chosen to edit and release may strike her colleagues in the Inquisition as an odd choice, since she is dealing with Ciaphas Cain’s second visit to Nusquam Fundumentibus, before disseminating the details of his first. However, Vail defends her decision by explaining that the first visit, while instructive enough, was nowhere near as significant as this one…
Over a regicide game with Lord General Zyvan, Cain learns of the Valhallan 597th’s newest assignment: their second deployment to Nusquam, being menaced by Orks yet again. Colonel Kasteen and the rest of the Valhallans are predictably excited, though Cain’s enthusiasm for visiting a battle zone (especially one on an Ice World) is as great as it’s ever been.
Cain gets ominous vibes from the Fires of Faith, the run-down merchant vessel commandeered as the regiment’s transport to Nusquam, but the captain, Mires, assures him that the ship is sound.
However, a few weeks later, when the ship translates from the Warp, the poorly-maintained Geller field fails for an instant – just long enough to let a mischievous Daemon slip on board and possess the body of one of the bridge servitors. Havoc erupts, and though Cain, Jurgen, and the regiment’s Chaplain, Tope, are able to banish it, the bridge controls are all but destroyed. Without engine or maneuvering control, the ship has become a deathtrap. They can’t assume orbit over the planet, nor can they slow down enough to dock with any shuttles; and they have nowhere near enough saviour pods to debark the whole regiment.
In the frantic weeks as the ship hurtles toward Nusquam, Mires comes up with a desperate plan: if they can fire up the engines, they may be able to accelerate into a rough orbit. When they try it, however, they clip the planet’s orbiting dockyard, and, instead of achieving orbit, hurtle down into the planet’s atmosphere. By a miracle, they have just enough thruster ability to make a controlled crash, creating a fair-sized lake of boiling water in the ice instead of a smoking hole. The regiment is padded down in the central holds, and survives with minimal casualties, though several of the crew, including Mires, are killed in the crash (saving Cain from having to decide whether or not to shoot him).
Thanks to Nusquam’s freezing temperatures, the ice reforms around the ship quickly enough to stop it sinking into the newly-formed lake. But as the Valhallan proverb has it, “things can always get worse.” As soon as Captain Federer blasts a hole in the side of the hull that will let the regiment out, they see an Ork warband speeding towards them, attracted by the Valhallans’ not-so-inconspicuous arrival. The Valhallans fortify the entrance, but are boxed in, with no way to deploy effectively before the Orks reach the ship. However, Cain sees a downed Kopta crash through the ice, which is still relatively thin on top, and gets an idea.
Unfortunately, having the idea makes him the obvious choice to carry it out. Using the winch from one of the Scout troop’s Sentinels, Cain and Jurgen are lowered to the surface of the ice, carrying demolition charges. Federer has advised them that they need to be under the ice to have an effect, so Jurgen creates holes in a few strategic spots with his melta gun. Just as they are finishing, they are set upon by a stray band of Orks. Badly outnumbered, they commandeer one of the downed Warbuggyz and speed clear of the lake.
Federer detonates the charges to satisfying effect, cracking the ice and drowning nearly all of the Orks. At the edge of the frozen lake, Cain looks into the water and thinks he glimpses something, but it is gone too quickly for him to be sure. He and Jurgen speed away from a group of Orks that escaped the lake, but the pursuit cuts off abruptly. Heading back cautiously, they find the Ork vehicles abandoned, and the orks gone without trace. They head back to rejoin the regiment, but Cain is unable to shake the fear that something else is on the planet that neither the Imperials nor the orks are aware of.
The 597th establishes its headquarters in the capital city, Primadelving, and gets “stuck in” to the Orks with all the enthusiasm and competence of any seasoned Valhallan regiment. Their success is extremely galling to the PDF and the green companies of the newly-formed Nusquam 1st Guard regiment, who have been battling the Orks with as much enthusiasm but rather less competence. Kasteen butts heads with the Nusquans’ newly-minted Commissar, Forres, who seems determined to prove herself by encouraging her troops to charge the greenskins head-on as often as possible.
Cain smoothes things over by pointing out that the Orks’ numbers have been thinning on all fronts. Since the concept of retreat is anathema to greenskins, this makes it more than likely that they are consolidating for a major push against one of a few strategic targets.
A few days later, the Governor is alarmed when the city loses contact with two strategic sites well behind the Imperial lines, apparently attacked by Ork Kommandos. One of these, Mechanicus Adept Izembard warns, is a geothermal power station that, if left unregulated, could trigger a volcanic explosion within the next few hours.
Since Forres has already volunteered to lead the first wave of Nusquans sent in as reinforcements, Cain can hardly decline the invitation to lead the Valhallan contingent. He tries to make the best of it, flying with Sergeant Grifen’s squad in a Valkyrie to the Shrine ahead of the platoon traveling overland.
When they arrive, the Shrine is deserted, and undamaged to a degree unheard of whenever Orks are involved. Cain is expecting the worst, but the squad double-times to the central control room and Cain starts to manipulate the controls according to Izembard’s directions. But in one corner, the troopers find a heap of gory metal parts, as if something swallowed the Tech Priests at the Shrine and threw their bionic parts back up. In horror, Cain yells for the troopers to get away from the walls, as Tyranids erupt from the fissures.
Cain and the Valhallans make a fighting retreat to the Valkyrie. But instead of ordering them back to Primadelving, Kasteen diverts them to the other strategic objective, informing them that Forres and her troops are also under attack.
The second fight is even harder, since the swarm includes genestealers, but with a little ingenuity on Cain’s part, they manage to defeat the swarm and extract Forres’s surrounded party. With the Nusquans’ Chimeras wrecked, they climb aboard a large cargo hauler and plough their way out the front door.
Driving back to Primadelving, Cain catches a glimpse of a few scattered hormagaunts, led by a Warrior, digging in the ice. Knowing it is virtually unheard of for Tyranids to move in such small numbers, he is worried enough to check it out. Just as they are peering over a snowdrift, the ice cracks, and a Tervigon rises. Cain and Jurgen leap aboard the crawler and speed away, but the vehicle hits an inconvenient crevasse and throws one of its tracks, leaving the Guardsmen no option but to make a stand. Their lasguns are fairly useless except against the Termagants being spawned by the monstrous creature, but Jurgen is able to critically wound it with two blasts from his melta.
In her enthusiasm, Forres charges forward to finish it off, and Cain, keenly aware that all eyes are on him, runs forward to restrain her. He stops Forres from being bitten in half by the creature’s death throes, but falls down a pit in the ice created by its fall. Looking around, he is horrified to see hundreds, if not thousands, of still-dormant Tyranids lodged in the ice. If they all wake up, the Guard will not stand a chance.
Knowing they are outnumbered, Kasteen has already sent astropathic calls for help, but reinforcements from Coronus wil take more time to arrive than they have. Cain adds that he has also sent a discreet message to Amberley Vail, and that a detachment from the Bone Knives Space Marine chapter is also on its way.
Since no Hive Ships can be detected in orbit, where the Tyranids came from is a mystery that nags at the Governor and several others. Magos Izembard announces that, based on his analysis of the specimens Cain brought back, the Tyranids have been frozen in the ice for about seven thousand years – they had no reason to thaw out and wake up, until the Fires of Faith ploughed a boiling hole in the ice. The Tyranids’ current numbers and their likely movements are all but impossible to discern, but one thing he can say with certainty is that they will be attacking Primadelving – the planet’s biggest population center – before long.
An extract from Jenit Sulla’s memoirs clarifies that the Govenor evacuated as many civilians from the outlying habitats to Primadelving as possible, allowing the Guard forces to consolidate their defence, but the Tyranids snapped up many of the slower-moving ones, and the Orks had, in the meantime, managed to re-group and renew their offensive.
Since many of the civilians are refusing to leave their homes, Kasteen asks Cain to accompany one of the evacuation convoys, hoping that the sight of him will convince the rest of the city that the convoys are safe, and preferable to staying behind and being gobbled up. Cain has no objections to leaving the primary theatre for a few days, even if doing so requires him to ride with Sulla.
As usual, trouble finds Cain regardless of where he is or how he got there. After several hours, the passenger crawler he is riding in is attacked from underneath by a Mawloc, which punches through the viewport nearest to Cain. With a press of screaming civilians at his back, Cain takes the only route he can to avoid being swallowed whole – leaping out of the window a split second before the Mawloc strikes. The Valhallan Sentinels escorting the convoy quickly neutralize the Warriors controlling the Mawloc, but Cain is briefly on his own. Remembering that the beast is vibration-sensitive, Cain improvises: Jurgen tosses him a krak grenade, and Cain shoves it into the barrels of spare promethium lashed to the deck, then cuts them loose. Feeling the thump of the barrels, the Mawloc senses food and swallows them all, just before an explosion guts it. Cain is safe, though exasperated that he is now the hero of the hour yet again.
When the convoy arrives in Underice (the planet’s second-largest city), Cain is looking forward to a few hours, or days, of rest, but is shocked to see a series of orbit-capable shuttles parked outside the city. Sulla investigates, and informs that, since the shuttles were intended to ferry the 597th from the Fires of Faith, the Administratum automatically listed them as lost after the ship was destroyed. But because the shuttles were still parked at the spaceport at Primadelving, the Administratum ordered them to clear off and find somewhere else to be “lost.” As grating as Cain normally finds Sulla’s company, he cannot help but share a moment of rapport with her, as they both mull over the indefatigable stupidity of the bureaucratic mindset.
Sulla brightly informs Cain that she has requisitioned the shuttles, which can take the Valhallans back to the main theatre that very night, without having to waste another long overland journey. Cain tries to sound congratulatory.
Back in Primadelving, the shuttles have greatly speeded up the evacuation, although the Governor is stubbornly refusing to let Kasteen declare martial law and “convince” the last few holdouts to leave the city. On the battlefront, things are steadily getting worse, as the Tyranid swarms attacking the city are steadily becoming both more numerous, and much better coordinated. Kasteen, Broklaw, and Cain speculate that some kind of Node is gradually awakening, allowing the Tyranids to act as one.
Magos Izembard announces that he has pinpointed the exact age of the Tyranid specimens Cain brought back. No one considers this very important, but Izembard begs to differ: the Tyranids’ arrival on Nusquam coincides more or less exactly with the date when the comet responsible for much of the local geography struck the planet – which means there was no comet, and what hit the planet seven thousand years ago was a full-fledged Hive Ship, which is still buried in the ice and has been gradually re-animating since the Valhallans arrived. Based on the progress of the Tyranids’ cohesion, Izembard estimates that they have only hours before the Hive Ship is fully awake, at which point the Tyranids will not only be poised to overwhelm them, but it will send out a psychic call that will draw any nearby Hive Fleets to overrun the entire sector. Cain quails at the thought that, even if they escape the planet, there will be nowhere to hide.
However, he sees an option: a small element of the Imperial forces is stationed outside the city walls, guarding the last functioning geothermal power station on the continent. If they can deliberately induce an overload, of the kind that claimed the other one, the resulting volcanic explosion will destroy the Hive Ship (and the now-all-but-empty city, but that’s unavoidable). Once again, Cain, as the idea man, lacks a plausible excuse to duck the job of leading the force.
Cain and Jurgen lead a combined unit of Valhallans and Nusquan Rough Riders mounted on Bikes through the tunnels, fighting off any Tyranids they encounter. But soon they find their way blocked by a Hive Tyrant, accompanied by a full escort of Guards. Under its direction, the Tyranids in their path are as impassable as a wall, and the force at the power plant, being led by Forres, is blocked off. At first, Cain is tempted to call off the mission and run back to the shuttles, but he sees a group of Pyrovores in the Tyrant’s escort, and inspiration strikes. The Guard re-target their weapons, and rupture one’s stomach, causing a chain reaction as its contents burst into flame and ignite the other Pyrovores, immolating the Tyrant and its Guards. Unfortunately, there is now nothing stopping Cain’s force from pressing on.
Arriving at the power station, Cain links up with Forres and they disable the station’s safeties and set demolition charges to induce the explosion. But as they are about to evacuate, they are attacked by a fresh wave of Tyranids, led by a Trygon that burrows out of the rock walls. The Trygon is killed, but a rockfall traps Cain and Jurgen in the power station, with Forres and the other Guardsmen on the other side. Grimly, she confirms that they can’t tunnel them out. Cain tells her to evacuate with the others, even as he hears yet more Tyranids speeding towards them.
Cain and Jurgen pick up two fallen Bikes and take the only exit available: the tunnel made by the Trygon. This is a near-suicidal risk, but for Cain the choice between certain death and near-certain death is always an easy one. Relying on speed and his natural sense of direction underground, Cain leads Jurgen on a snaking path away from the station, and finds a surface exit, emerging into safety just before the tunnel belches flame from the volcanic eruption. Cain and Jurgen turn and see the Hive Ship’s death throes as it is caught in the explosion.
Cain and Jurgen pick up their bikes and prepare for a long, cold drive to Underice, but it turns out to be unnecessary. Cain notices a transport circling overhead, and signals it. When the ship lands, he is surprised to recognize it as a Thunderhawk gunship; the Space Marines have arrived at last.
He is even more surprised when the ship whisks them into orbit intstead of reuniting them with the regiment. Above the planet, they see Amberley’s private star yacht orbiting alongside the Marines’ Strike Cruiser.
Cain’s debriefing with Amberley is a pleasant affair, accompanied by a change of clothes, a hot bath, and a gourmet meal. Over dinner, Amberley questions him closely about Izembard’s findings, and is deeply troubled. The Imperium’s first official contact with the Tyranids was in 745.M41, while the more complete records maintained by the Ordo Xenos suggest contact with Tyranid bio-forms as far back as M35. But the Hive Ship on Nusquam has been there for at least a thousand years longer, which raises the disquieting possibility that the Tyranids have penetrated much farther into the galaxy than previously thought, and there is no telling how many other hidden hives are scattered around, just waiting for another fleet invasion to awaken them. Cain tries to minimize the blow, reasoning that the chances of another major Hive Fleet invasion are minimal (adding ruefully with hindsight that he was wrong not once, but twice over).
Amberley asks him if the 597th needs him back right away, and he says no, they will likely be engaged in cleaning up the remnants of the Tyranids and Orks on Nusquam for several months. With a smile, Amberley says Cain (and Jurgen) should be able to help her with another “little problem” she has…
Vail ends the narrative there, deciding that Cain’s response was both irrelevant and unfit for publication.
Orks and tyranids. Lots and lots of both. Mayhem and death. Lots and lots of both. At this point things kind of feel old hat. Cain and the 597th have faced both in large numbers and while the setting has changed here, it felt like a retread.
I say that like it’s a bad thing and sometimes it is, but these WH40K books are franchise fiction and as such there is a formula and the writers stick to it and it works (most of the time. Series like the Horus Heresy that go on for 50books without a resolution, well, that’s just a money grab). I enjoy the badguys getting slaughtered and I enjoy the close shaves and I enjoy the action.
I only have one more Ciaphas Cain novel left (there is one more after that but I can’t get a hold of it) and then I have two random Warhammer 40,000 standalone novels and then I’ll be done. After that, I think I’m going to take a break from WH40K and use the time to investigate to see if there are any other characters/authors I might want to try.