Andon's War

According to Finnbury, the squad's Gue'la'ui officer, Fire Caste Command had identified an enemy convoy moving down the road over the Li'ta Gorge. Idly thumbing the safety slide back and forth, Andon squinted over the bridge. Pretty wildflowers liberally dotted the meadows over the gorge, and the long trailing Pila trees painted the rocky face of the cliff with colour, bringing the partisan bittersweet memories of his honeymoon in the Paoldar region of home, of Melissa V.

A detachment of the Partisan Corps had been despatched to rig the bridge with an entanglement charge, then paint the heavy trucks of the convoy for debilatory airstrike. Once the vehicles were disabled with EMP strikes from the supporting Tau bomber wing, the Partisans could take charge of the vehicles and use them to launch a surprise assault on one of the enemy's heavy mobile fortresses that were inexorably creeping across the continent. It was the kind of work Andon and the rest of the veterans had repeatedly undertaken over the hard years of the Melissan Secession. They were experts, of a sort.
A gentle breeze stirred the grasses, releasing a warm fragrance into the air that reminded Andon of the rich, yeasty breads he had baked before the war. It was hard to reconcile the soft terrain and gentle sunshine with the current bitter campaign.

He was that rare kind in the 41st Millennium; a thoughtful man, of optimistic mindset and with a generous – even kind – nature. Nevertheless, like so many in this dark time, Andon held a rifle. The Partisan Corps had become mercenaries after the loss of the failed secession, mostly picking spitefully at military shipping; just another small tick in the hide of the sectorial government, raging but ultimately impotent against the sheer scale of the Imperium. Eventually, their commander had taken payment of settlement rights on one of the worlds of the Drift, a newly-carved chunk of the Brightsword Protectorate. Glad to find a force that could trouble their old masters, many of the old soldiers had gladly – eagerly – accepted their new home, though many still pined for the lost lands of Melissa.
The platoon – Auxiliary Cadre, Andon corrected himself – were positioned loosely across both sides of the gorge. Commander Whip-whisper had issued the Partisan Commandos with stealth cloaks, a little like the cameleoline blanket Andon had slept upon during the Ten Cities Campaign back home. If one remained still, the cloak picked up local colour, somehow bending the light around itself. Young Finnbury had proudly started explaining the tech to Andon once, after the zealous officer had attended an Earth Caste scientist's public seminar. Andon had waved him away, respectfully.

Like many of the Partisan Corps, Andon was profoundly uncomfortable with the Tau's insatiable curiosity, though he would have struggled to vocalise why that was. His education had been curt and basic, traits shared by Padre-Ministorum Omistoff, who had conducted it. The man was squat and heavy, but thickly-built, not fat. A veteran himself, Omistoff's cuffs and beatings grew furious, almost desperate, when his charges asked questions beyond the most practical. Always it had been drilled into the Melissans that knowledge made you stand out, putting you and your family's live and souls at risk.

The practicality and lack of imagination this engendered had stood the Partisan Corps in good stead as soldiers; they had fought solidly as PDF loyalists, then later as dashing rebels, later still as disenfranchised pirates and finally as the First Partisan Corps, one amongst many of the Brightsword Protectorate's Auxiliary Volunteer Forces. Many of the veterans of the Melissan Secession had been unable to settle on their new home, damaged by a decade of warfare. The Tau had well understood the risk of rebellion; and in any case, the Tau had not gifted the land – they demanded payment in service.

The platoon's cultural attaché, a low-ranking water caste who had – to Andon's private amusement – adopted the Low Gothic name 'Sherbert', had woven sweeter words around that demand, of course. In truth, this hadn't been needed. Brutalised by Imperial citizenship, most of the Melissans had accepted the yoke of service as a given toll of settlement. Some had even grumbled that the Tau were weak for phrasing it as voluntary. Formed around a hard core of Melissan veterans, and swelled by a generation of bright, war-hungry youth raised under the Protectorate's promises of a clean, gleaming future, the Corps had proven themselves a versatile and deadly force, well able to adapt to the vagaries of the Drift Front. The Water Caste had skilfully blended the simmering resentment of the veterans with the loyalty of an optimistic and adaptable generation raised under Tau governance.

Sherbert was exasperated by his lack of interest and the seeming close-mindedness of the older humans in the Corps. In part, this was due simply to many of the Partisans' ingrained – and badly hidden – distrust of 'xenos', but Andon did not count himself amongst those. Neither was Andon filled with devotion for the Tau Empire like his compatriot Finnbury; nor did the Imperium evoke the same heat and fury it did in many of his disenfranchised unit. He fought through a sense of brotherhood; for unvoiced and confused loyalty to a memory of a lost wife, for garbled reasons uncertain even to himself.

Martia, the Partisan squad's pointwoman, flicked up her hand in a closed fist to signal the approach of the enemy. A dull chime came over Andon's earpiece, and he tightened his grip around the pulse rifle as he slowly brought it to his bare shoulder. Through the viewfinder, he saw the enemy. He swallowed heavily. This was no mere convoy.

A mass of infantry, clad in muted red fatigues, was fanning out across the meadow. Most clutched heavy Tundrine-pattern lasguns, and wore a variety of thick pot-helmets. Andon picked out plasma gunners, flame-specialists and some weapons he didn't recognise. They moved professionally, sliding from cover to cover in loose groups. Clouds of black oil smoke over the crest of the hill heralded a trio of Leman Russ tanks, and Andon's blood ran cold.

The Partisans had some heavy weaponry, and a number of markerlights to paint targets for air support, but would it be enough? Superstitiously, Andon tapped the wedding band he had on a leather band around his neck, then tucked it down his collar. He drew a bead on one of the red-clad soldiers, and pulled the trigger as the world erupted around him.