The Cobra’s Bite

“Until the snake is dead, do not drop the stick.”
-Proverb of the Gyptus tribes, M1.

All that mattered was their survival.

The words of Chapter Master Askook had been fresh in his mind as he had boarded the drop pod with half of his squad. The other half would have been boarding theirs at the same time, on the other side of the ship. The Chapter was dying. Slowly, but surely. They were trapped, cornered, and it would only be a matter of time before they were wiped out. It would take the Imperium time, time and blood, to finally root them out from their bunkers, but it would do so in the end. They had nowhere else to go.

The majority of the fleet had been crashed into the planet to escape the crusade, leaving the Steel Cobras with but a handful of frigates. And those dared not fly for fear of being shot down by the stations the Imperium had constructed in orbit around Tukaroe VII. They were little more than animals in a cage now, awaiting their executioners. It was not an end any of them deserved.

Cheveyo felt the heavy harness drop into position, clamping around his shoulders and holding him in place. He could hear his hearts beating, their tempo slowly building as adrenaline was released into his system. There was going to be a fight soon, and his body was preparing for it. He took deep, measured breaths as the drop pod’s ramps raised up, enclosing him and four of his brothers within layers of metal and ceramic.

“Brothers,” he said over the squad vox link, their signals glowing green on his display. He paused, unsure of what to say. This was not something they had ever prepared for. This was not something they had ever believed necessary. What could he say? They were Astartes. They would achieve their objective or die trying. No other result was possible. “May the Spirits watch over you,” he said finally. A chorus of replies answered him, and he closed his eyes and waited.

Deep below them, in a part of the battle barge that had once been the auxiliary command bridge, sat steelspeaker Sicheii. It had taken over a year to prepare everything for this one moment. Months of work repositioning the battle barge to have it aiming at the sky. Endless hours trapped in submersibles, surrounded by liquid ammonia. It had been a task worthy of legend, all for this one brief moment. All to give the chapter hope. They deserved that much.

Steelspeaker Sicheii was old. Far older than some of his brothers knew. There was precious little of him even left. His limbs had all been replaced with cybernetics, along with his right eye and spine. The legacy of a lifetime of service. Far more than a lifetime, as unaugmented humans measured such things. He remembered serving the Great Eagle alongside his brothers for well over five centuries before their fall from grace. He remembered watching the inductions of many of those who would rise to become company captains in the chapter. He remembered forging the Chapter Master’s armour to honor his appointment, his predecessor’s armour lost along with his body during the war on Garran V.

He was sat in the command throne, directly wired into the Navayo’s systems. He could feel the displeasure of the machine spirit, outraged over its treatment. It was a war ship, it deserved to die in fire, and not be sunken beneath the frigid oceans, hiding like some prey animal. Sicheii soothed it, singing the hymn he had been taught by the red priests in the cant of the steel spirits. They were such lonely things, not at all like the spirits his chapter was used to. Those were wild, free and full of vitality. Those like the spirit of the Navajo…they were cold, distant. Very much like the steel they inhabited.

That is why so few of his brothers heard their call, Sicheii supposed. They were too used to the wisdom of the Fox, or the creativity of the Spider, to truly have a sense for the cold logic of the Steel. Maybe because it was so alien to them – animals had minds, wants and fears. They could be related to, at least on an instinctual level. The Steel though…few could associate themselves with a cold, mindless form. But there were spirits in the Steel nonetheless, and they deserved no less respect than their kin.

He felt the anger of the Navayo fade, replaced by anticipation as the spirit heard his song. It would get to fulfill its purpose once more. It would get to strike at the enemies of the Chapter. If he’d had a mouth left, Sicheii would have smiled. Though the spirits of Steel were much harder to understand and grasp, they did actually have something approximating to emotions. Deep within the ship, he could feel the rumble of machinery, the grinding of gears as ancient system flared to life, drawing power from the reactivated generators.

Sicheii could see the great crane arms moving, stirred into action once more. He could see them swinging down to pick up the drop pods in the loading bays, carefully lifting them and setting them into the chambers of the battle barge’s main guns. Where once there had been engines and turbines, there were now charges. The drop pods had been converted into massive shells, all for this moment. Sicheii could see through a hundred eyes, his augmented mind filtering the information and preventing it from overwhelming him.

“Spirits, guide my hand,” he intoned, his voice nearly silent. There was no one else on the bridge but his servitors, his brothers having departed long ago. He knew none of them expected him to survive. The minute the great guns of Navayo spoke, the Imperial stations would retaliate, raining fire down upon it until it was no longer a threat. A fitting end for such a proud ship. The Steel spirit sensed this, and had accepted it. No…it wanted it. It had lain dormant for too long at the bottom of the sea, slowly being eaten away by the ammonia. A quick death was always more welcome than a lingering one. They were alike in that regard.

His hands flexed as he saw the station, far above. It was like a hawk, endlessly hunting. The ship seemed to hold its breath for a moment. And then Sicheii fired the guns.

The seas of Tukaroe VII roiled and steamed. The great guns jutting above the waves boomed as they fired, the heat they generated boiling the ammonia swirling around them. The barrels glowed in the freezing atmosphere, cracking the rust that had formed from having rested beneath the ammonia seas.

Heavy shells were spat from the guns, ancient munitions stored in the battle barge’s armory. Each one still bore the Imperial Aquila, the gilded emblems flashing as they briefly caught the weak sunlight as they screeched skywards. The thunder of the first salvo had barely faded before the guns roared again. This time however, there were no shells. This time, the guns fired drop pods marked with the hooded serpent insignia of the Steel Cobras.

Station Beta-32 hung in orbit, glittering with a million lights. Another thousand blossomed into life as alarms rang throughout its halls. Cannons moved into position, though they would be of little use against the incoming barrage. There was a flash of energy, and lightning seemed to dance through space as the station’s void shields were struck. They held for fourteen seconds before overloading with a flash as bright as the sun. The lightning faded as the shield generators rapidly bled their excess energy, preparing to repower the shields. The station’s cannons had begun to fire back onto the planet, locking onto the glaring heat signature of the guns below even as they launched another salvo of shells skywards.

Soaring through the exchange, the drop pods crashed into the metal skin of the station.

He felt the impact judder up through his legs into his spine. It felt like any other drop pod landing. An alarm rang as the pod opened; its doors falling outwards like the petals of a blooming flower. Instantly the alarm fell silent, though Cheveyo knew it was still ringing. All he could hear was his own breath as he slapped the harness’ release button, freeing himself from the drop pod’s clutches and stepping out onto the surface of the space station. His breathing was joined by the heavy thud of his footsteps, the magnetic soles of his power armour keeping him anchored to the station’s skin. The rest was silence.

The planet loomed above their heads, a foul cloud already forming over the ocean where the Navayo rested. Cheveyo could see the station’s cannons firing in the distance, belching clouds of gas and flame with each shot. He hoped that SIcheii had managed to evacuate or find shelter, though he knew that practically the steelspeaker would have had little time to do either before the retaliatory shelling began. He still muttered a quick prayer to the Great Spirits to watch over the old man.

“Kagan, can you hear me?” he voxed, hoping his second would hear him. No luck. It seemed like their drop pods had landed to far apart to communicate. Or perhaps Kagan’s pod had been shot down during the exchange of fire. Maybe it had disintegrated against the station’s void shields. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Cheveyo hated not knowing, but there was little helping it. As briefed, he would have to continue on as if his squad had been the only one to make it. He turned to the four other space marines who had been in the drop pod, wrestling free of their own harnesses and grabbing their weapons. “Nawat. Start cutting,” he ordered.

Nawat was their youngest, having served for less than two centuries. He had only recently been promoted from the scout company when the crusade had struck and driven the Steel Cobras from their home world. He carried a bulky lascutter, his other weapons clamped to his hips, out of the way. Nodding to the sergeant, he stepped up and aimed just in front of his heat. A blindingly bright beam sprung to life as he triggered the device, holding it close to the metal to speed up the process. Lascutteres weren’t quick tools, but they were reliable. Besides, the thickness of the stations hull would work against them. Cheveyo wished that he had Kagan and the rest of the squad with him. They would have had two lascutters then.

They stood in a rough circle around Nawat as he worked, staring outwards at the void of space. There was little to no cover for them to take in case of attack, so their best defense was early detection and pre-emptive assault. At least the drop pod provided some support in the form of its automated bolters, endlessly rotating and hunting for targets. Time went on as Nawat continued to cut through. It would take a while due to the thickness of the outer hull, but they would at least be able to breach into the access corridors soon, which would offer greater protection than their current location.

Cheveyo hated waiting. It left him alone with his thoughts, making it more likely his mind would wander. In combat, there was no time to truly think. It was mostly instinct and trained responses coming in flashes in between bouts of considering immediate concerns. “Squad,” he voxed. His eyes darted about, trying to cover the wide stretch of grey metal before him. He couldn’t see any access hatches for defenders to sally forth from, or any automated defenses coming their way. His combat squad’s responses came in one by one.

“Lonato, ai.” Lonato had been an assault marine before being assigned to Cheveyo’s squad, roughly a century and a half ago. He had been part of the Stormfront offensive against Cardinal Richelieu’s crusade against the Steel Cobras, from which but one frigate returned with the devastated remains of Clans Huala and Topo. Though the loss of two clans was a grievous blow to the chapter, their sacrifice had stalled the Imperial forces long enough for the rest of the Chapter to escape into the warp. Lonato still carried a hatchet with the emblem of Clan Topo in place of the combat blades Clan Kabib favored.

“Maska, ai,” said Cheveyo’s designated sharpshooter. Even before becoming a marine, Maska had been a talented hunter with the eyes of a bird. He had been chosen and trained by Clan Kabib, Cheveyo’s own clan, and had excelled as a Scout. Cheveyo had personally requested Maska to join his brotherhood upon his elevation to full marine. Maska had agreed, and Cheveyo had never regretted the choice. The steelspeakers had even provided him with a custom stalker pattern bolter, a variant of the standard space marine firearm often utilized by sharpshooters, with an enhanced range and scope.

“Nawat, ai. We are nearly through sergeant,” reported the squad’s youngling.

“Igasho, ai. Squad is ai brother-sergeant,” finished the acting lieutenant. Though usually Kagan was Cheveyo’s second in command, whenever the marine was unavailable it usually fell to Igasho to act as his replacement. In time, Kagan would have been promoted to the rank of sergeant and granted his own squad, at which point Igasho would have become Cheveyo’s second. It had not been a day Cheveyo had been looking forward to. Though glad for the recognition Kagan would have received, Igasho was too reckless to make an effective second. He was too much of a glory seeker. Another few decades of service would have knocked that out of him, or so Cheveyo had hoped.

“Check weapons and prepare for breach,” Cheveyo ordered, double checking the magazine in his bolter. It was full. Of course it was full. They hadn’t engaged at all yet. He glanced behind him, where Nawat was finishing his task. The marine leaned back as he finished cutting, the rough circle of metal shooting off as the compartment below vented its atmosphere.

“No contacts brother-sergeant,” Nawat reported, stowing the lascutter away and drawing his bolt pistol. Cheveyo nodded at him and he hopped into the hole. His signal continued to glow green within Cheveyo’s visor. He hadn’t been attacked. Perhaps their landing had been successfully masked by the bombardment after all? Sicheii had mentioned how it was likely that the drop pods would be assumed to be unexploded munitions by the defenders, giving the marines on board time to breach into the station itself and get to their objectives. Only direct visual contact would reveal the drop pods for what they actually were.

“Move in. Breach and clear every compartment as necessary,” the sergeant ordered, and one by one, his combat squad followed Nawat in. They had made it. Now came the hard part.

The ship was dying. Corridors were being flooded by freezing ammonia, and the superstructure was buckling under the onslaught of fire. Normally, a battle barge would have been capable of withstanding such an attack, but without it’s shields and with its hull partially corroded, the Navayo was only barely holding together.

Sicheii would have liked to have fired further salvos at the station, but he knew that any further attack was more likely to kill the marines he had sent up than inflict any actual damage to the Imperials. He had unplugged himself from the command throne and headed for the launch bays, the point at which they had boarded the Navayo. He had left his servitors behind, since they would have only slowed him down. Still, he had made sure to plug on into the Navayo’s communications array, acting as a relay through which the steelspeaker could communicate with the rest of the chapter.

“Delivery complete,” he communicated, his servo arms tearing through any debris blocking his path. He could hear the ship groaning as explosions rocked it. He wouldn’t have minded dying here, along with the indomitable Navayo. But the Chapter Master had been very specific. They could not afford any losses. The main objective of all Steel Cobras was to survive. That was all that mattered anymore.

“Understood,” replied Shipmaster Otetian through the vox. “What is your status, steelspeaker?”

“Withdrawing from the Navayo,” replied Sicheii.

“Do you require assistance?”

“No. Just be ready to move when you get an opening.”

“Understood steelspeaker. May the Spirits watch over you,” replied Otetian before cutting the link. It was best that way. Though the Sekani could have offered some aid, Sicheii knew it was more important for it to be ready and focused on breaking through the cordon the Imperium had established around Tukaroe VII. That was why half a company of marines had been launched into space. To create an opening. And If the Sekani made it through, then it could try to find a way to completely break the Imperial siege before another chapter of Astartes cleared out the remnants of the Steel Cobras.

It wasn’t much of a hope, but it was better than nothing. He felt a tremor pass through the corridor as something gave way in another part of the ship. He could hear gushing liquid somewhere in the distance. He was running out of time. Sicheii ran through the hallways and chambers of the Navayo, his heavy footfalls lost amidst the myriad of sounds now plaguing the ship. Then he heard a screech and skid to a halt. He knew that sound. It was of metal shearing. The entire ship suddenly lurched as the sound became so loud his armor’s autosenses kicked to protect his hearing from the sound. Even so the screeching was deafening.

Sicheii’s servo arms darted out; anchoring him in position as his world suddenly shifted and began to fall.

“Clear!” called Maska.

They had made sure to seal the corridor they had breached to prevent the entire atmosphere in the station slowly being vented. It would have all too easily given them away. But what worried Cheveyo was how the corridors riddling the outer hull of the space station had been devoid of any threats. Apart from the occasional sump rat or automated maintenance servitor, there was nothing in them but the marines. The combat squad had made their way deeper, moving from corridor to abandoned room to corridor, always alert for any potential threats. So far, nothing had presented itself, and they would soon spill into the station proper.

The squad moved into the latest room along their path, scanning for anything Maska may have missed. Traditionally, the least patrolled sections of a starship or space station would be either booby-trapped or have packs of murder servitors endlessly roaming around. And not having run into either had set Cheveyo on edge.

“Brother-sergeant,” said Lonato, indicating one of the walls. Cheveyo focused on it, his helmet’s autosenses scanning and analyzing it. Nothing. He cycled through the various senses available to him before he caught it. Noise. There was noise coming from the other side of the wall. He nodded at Lonato and turned to Nawat.

The marine nodded and hefted his lascutter. The rest of them gathered just behind him, their bolters aimed at the spot he was cutting. The interior walls of the station were much thinner than the thick steel and ceramic hull, so it only took Nawat a minute to cut through, as opposed to the hour it had taken previously. As soon as he finished cutting a large circle in the wall, he stepped back, letting Maska step up, glancing at Cheveyo.

The brother-sergeant nodded, and Maska kicked the circle, sending it flying into the room beyond as he spun out of the way. Cheveyo noticed a million details beyond in a single moment. Red lights flashing. Alarms ringing. Men and women in voidsuits, carrying lasguns. The comfortingly familiar décor of an Imperial installation. And then all those details vanished as his squad opened fire. His own bolter roared in his hands, all of them emptying their magazines into the corridor beyond.

“Maska, frag!” he voxed, feeling adrenaline flood his system.

The marine nodded and unclipped a pair of grenades from his belt and primed them. “Ready.”

“Frag out!” called Cheveyo, and they all stopped firing, taking up positions as Maska pitched his grenades through the hole. It was an impressive throw, both grenades bouncing off the opposite wall and bouncing down either ends of the corridor. Both exploded simultaneously, filling the area with shrapnel. “Move in!”

Maska was the first one through, his bolter sweeping one end of the corridor as Lonato followed. “No contacts,” the former assault marine reported. “Which way do we go?”

Cheveyo closed his eyes, recalling the projected map they had been shown during their briefing aboard the Dogrib. “That way,” he said, pointing to his left. Maska nodded and set off, Lonato covering the squad as they piled into the corridor and moved on towards their objective. They moved swiftly, barely stopping.

Sometimes they would come across a group of armsmen mobilised to stop them, but the marines barely slowed, advancing on the humans with a hail of gunfire before crashing through their ranks. Lonato had moved up to act as Maska’s support, leaving Igasho to act as the group’s rear-guard. Whilst Maska would smash his way through the soldiers in his way, Lonato would engage them, his hatchet in one hand and combat blade in the other.

They repeated the process a dozen times, slaughtering their way deeper into the station. Lonato’s armour slowly became caked in gore, its noble brass hidden beneath layers of crimson. Their progress only slowed once they began penetrating the engineering levels, the thick bulkheads requiring Nawat’s lascutter to penetrate.

“Brother-sergeant,” voxed Igasho, his bolter trained on the corridor they had just run through, ready to suppress any enemies that presented themselves. “How much further?”

Cheveyo glanced away from where Nawat was finishing cutting through the latest impediment to their advance. They had yet to encounter any organised resistance, which meant that the other squads must have managed to make it to the station. Or they armsmen could have begun holding back and gathering all their strength for a single overwhelming assault. The marines had only so much ammunition left. Maska had already salvaged a shotgun from the fallen, snapping the finger guard to let him grip the trigger. “Not far. We’ll know we’re close when-” he managed to say before a crack of ionized air drowned him.

A thick beam of light had shot through the door Nawat had just breached, slicing right through him and leaving a gaping cauterized hole where his chest had been. The remaining marines scattered as more beams of light stabbed out from the breach.

Cheveyo knew what weapon could create such an effect. Lascannons.

“By order of High Cardinal Richelieu, you are to stand down and face judgement!”

The voices swam in and out of his memory, distant and faded.

“The Cardinal has forwarded some very interesting reports, Chapter Master. Is it true that the inhabitants of your home world venerate the Emperor as an…animal totem?”

He remembered the voices, remembered the rage they spurred in him.

“Purge the heretics, or face judgement yourself.”

Sicheii snarled and roared as he awoke, fists lashing out to beat against metal. He blinked, lost in time before his memory focused. He was on the Navayo. The ship was lost. He had been evacuating. Then that sound…he had no frame of reference for it, but guessed a major structural collapse had occurred.

His hearts were tagging in his chest as he shoved the memory from his mind. Even after all those years, the memory of that betrayal burned. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, running a full diagnostic on himself. Numbers flashed past his vision. He was pinned beneath some debris. One of his servo arms was non-functioning. His right leg had been speared by a shard of ceramite. He was still alive.

Sicheii groaned as he considered his options. He still had another three servo arms. His legs were cybernetic, so he was spared the sensation of pain. With a detached calm he hauled himself up until he was in a sitting position. The mechanical limbs sprouting from his back hissed as they moved. One gripped the damaged servo arm, securing it. Another spluttered as it ignited it’s plasma cutter and set to work severing the non-functioning appendage. It would just be dead weight. The third swung forwards and gripped the fallen beam lying across the steelspeaker’s legs and groaned as it tried to lift it.

It was surprisingly heavy. Nearly as heavy as Rhino APC. Sicheii could hear other groans deep in the ship, and the rising roar of liquid flooding the corridors. A small part of him felt worry at the prospect of being submerged in the freezing ammonia and slowly dying as his armour froze and broke, suffocating him inside. He forced the emotions down and focused on what he had to do. The broken servo arm was neatly sliced off and discarded, freeing the two other servo arms to begin work on lifting and cutting apart the beam that kept him pinned. It took all of a minute before he was once again on his feet and limping down the corridor.

The shard of ceramite had seriously damaged his right leg, and Sicheii was forced to rely on one of his servo arms to support him. His mind raced as he cross-referenced multiple maps of the Navayo with the data he was collecting. The ship had experienced great stresses, and was most likely falling apart in its death throes. It was getting more and more difficulty to escape. The steelspeaker racked his mind for a way out. The launch bays were too far.

That left him with just one option. He just hoped there was enough energy left in the Navayo to pull it off.

“So what are we looking at?” asked Cheveyo, hunched down in a crouch by the slagged door. Now and again a crack of ionized air reverberated in his ears as a lascannon discharged in response to the blind firing of his squad.

“Rapier. Setup at the end of the corridor in a T-section,” reported Maska, having dropped to the floor just out of the heavy weapon’s sight. He held his scope in his hands, carefully having perched it up on Nawat’s smoking body, its link to his helmet letting him see the enemy without having to expose himself.

Cheveyo nodded. “Can you see the operators?” he asked, glancing at where Igasho had taken shelter, deep in the shadows of an alcove.

“Yes, but they’re with a group of armsmen. Any I shoot will be swiftly replaced,” Maska replied. “Too far for grenades too.”

The brother-sergeant shook his head. “Very well. Snipe the operator. In the time it takes them to replace him, we should be able to close in,” he ordered. They had no choice. They were too close to backtrack now. And although charging an emplaced weapon was often a bloody affair, there was no alternative. He glanced at Maska, who had reattached his scope to his bolter, having anticipated Cheveyo’s next order. “Do it.”

The sharpshooter nodded and took careful aim. Then he gently squeezed the trigger on his bolter and a single gunshot rang out. Cheveyo was already running down the corridor. He could see Maska and Lonato just behind him on his scanner, Igasho far behind. He saw the group. There were twenty enemies. Two teams which had converged on a heavy weapon set up just in case of assault. A lascannon seemed somewhat like overkill, until he remembered what was held in the vaults of the Dogrib.

The Imperials must have been expecting a teleporter assault. It would have been the best way to deliver troops to the station, but with the void shields scrambling their sensors, such an attempt had been deemed too risky. The shields would have had to be taken down completely for any such attack to be successful. So they had settled on Sicheii’s idea of a reverse drop pod assault.

Those thoughts flashed by in the seconds it took for Cheveyo to charge through the surprised humans, lowering his shoulder and slamming it directly into the Rapier. The weapons platform skidded along the floor on its treads. The operator yelped as he was thrown off the machine. Cheveyo’s armour was screaming at him as it was showered with las bolts and shotgun pellets.

He could feel blood running down his side before clotting. He swung out with his fist, pulping an armsman’s head as he jammed his bolter into the rapier’s working and pulled the trigger. The hefty gun bucked in his hands as mass reactive shells chewed up the cabling. The fire raining down on him slackened, Lonato and Maska having joined the brawl as well. His armour was ringing, multiple minor breaches detected. Nothing had managed to get through yet, but the amount of damage it had taken was beginning to show. He could feel it in the way his movements had slowed, the way his armour no longer quite felt like a second skin.

Maska’s knife slashed in all directions. Quick and precise. Next to him, Lonato was a bloody mess, spinning, hacking, slashing and stabbing like a frenzied beast. Igasho was holding back, keeping out of the melee and gunning down any of the warriors who tried to flee. Like a vicious machine, the four marines slaughtered their enemies until they were the only ones standing.

“Tell me we’re nearly done,” growled Igasho, checking his bolter. “I’m down to one magazine,” he stated, eying the wrecked rapier. “And I’m sure they have more of those things somewhere.”

Cheveyo nodded. “True words brother, but we’re where we need to be,” he said, looking about. Mechanicum emblems surrounded them, stamped into the walls and stitched into banners. The door to their left bore the mark of Mars, and he knew they had finally reached their objective – the engineerium. “Come brothers. Prepare yourselves. Our goal is at hand.”

Lonato, now completely covered in dried blood, sliced through the door with Nawat’s lascutter before barging through the whole he had made. He didn’t bother turning the device off, taking it to the nearest piece of machinery he could find as the others followed. The chamber they found themselves in was massive. Easily the size of one of the Navayo’s holds. Esoteric machinery surrounded them, and they could hear the high pitched garbling of tech-priests and their automata.

“Slash and burn,” commanded Cheveyo, drawing his krak grenades as the other marines swept past him, deeper into the engineerium. They would each cause as much damage as possible in their own way. There was no more need to stick together. They had reached their target. Now they would shatter apart inside, each piece inflicting as much harm as possible before being excised.

He scuttled like a spider along the hallway, his servo arms leaving deep dents in the surfaces they gripped to haul him forwards. Sicheii burst into one of the most sacred rooms in the battle barge, looking about as he interfaced with the Navayo. There was still some energy coursing through its system, like the last lifeblood in a dying animal.

It would have to be enough. Frost had already formed over the surfaces in the room, and he hauled himself over to a console to begin inputting commands. His hands fluttered over the keys, data scrolling past the screen at impossible speeds. The steelspeaker blinked, coming back to reality. The data was inputted, and the power was building. He could feel the crackle of electricity in the air, coursing through the ice.

Sicheii moved to the centre of the room, onto a raised dais that could have held ten of his brothers. Ammonia was already beginning to pour in through the doorway, its foul stench detectable even through the filters in his armour. He closed his eyes and began to hum another hymn. This one was not of the red planet. Rather, it was of the home world. The planet they had left behind to face the wrath of the Imperial Crusade.

It was an old hymn, asking the Spirits for aid. To watch over and guide someone. It had been a song that had lain dormant in the deepest pits of his memory, brought out when he underwent the trials to become a steelspeaker. It had been sung to him by his mother. It was so long ago…another lifetime entirely.

His hymn was joined by the rising crescendo of power. Snaps of lightning and the running liquid completed the orchestra. The sounds continued to build until arcs of power played between the metal spheres set into the ceiling and the hissing ammonia below. Sicheii closed his eyes as his voice faded into silence.

“Spirits watch over me.”

Cheveyo was alone. His helmet had taken a stray bolt shell as he had made his way deeper into the engineerium. He knew Lonato was still fighting – he could see sparks and explosions ripping through the cabling sprouting from the generators, along with the unmistakeable flash of the lascutter.

Maska was dead. He had seen a techpriest decapitate him with a deft swing of his power axe on a catwalk far above. Igasho had just vanished. There were alarms blaring everywhere. They had gone on a complete wrecking spree, and it showed. Cheveyo couldn’t help but grin. They had achieved their objectives, he was sure of it. The entire station was in an uproar.

He had lost his helmet at some point. His mohawk was splashed with oil and blood. The brother-sergeant laughed as he pitched his last krak grenade. It arced through the air and bounced down a vent before detonating. Cheveyo was shrouded in smoke and flame as he leveled his bolter and pulled the trigger. Nothing. He cast the weapon aside and drew his combat blade. Now he would just have to try to kill as many techpriests as possible.
“Spirits guide my blade,” he whispered, leaping off the walkway onto the chaos below. Techpriests buzzed in panic and surprise as he spun and slashed, stabbed and stepped. Armsmen fired at him, but he didn’t care. The Chapter would have their hope.

Station Beta hung in orbit, glittering with a million lights. A million more were flashing across it’s surface, alarms blaring into the void. Other stations were correcting their orbits, moving in to cover the sudden gap in the net that had opened up. They wouldn’t be fast enough.

Like a thief in the night, the Sekani tore free of the planet’s gravity and shot into the void. It passed by Station Beta with barely kilometers to spare, the wake of its engines rocking the installation. Deep inside, the bodies of the fallen Steel Cobras shook along with the halls, almost as if laughing at their victory. Small patrol ships would chase the frigate all the way to the edge of the system before it would make it’s escape into the warp. They would do little more than scratch the paintwork.

Over a hundred marines of the Steel Cobras managed to make it off the planet that day – the majority of Clan Yawa. They had each sworn before the Chapter Master himself to seek out a way to aid their trapped brothers, and to return as soon as they could to shatter the blockade for good. Only twelve would live long enough to see that oath fulfilled.

A look at Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”.

Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal is a Juvenalian satirical essay that was written and published in 1729, and is regarded by critics such as Wittkowsky, Baker and Landa as one of the finest works of satire in English literature. It is widely accepted as having been created to act as a commentary on the state of Ireland during the 18th Century, when British landlords would repossess great amounts of the laborers wealth, leaving them with little choice but to starve.

Many of the Protestant landlords acquired their lands after confiscating them from the Catholic Irish, with only 14% of Ireland left in Catholic hands by the 1700s. Also, an act was passed in 1704 to prevent Catholics from buying land, further crippling the Irish and making them wholly dependent on the whims of the British landlords. Swift never directly draws attention to this, instead focusing on the plight of the poor Irish; he invokes the “melancholy” sight of women and children begging, adding that the mothers “are forced to employ all their Time” trying to find food for their starving infants. Throughout the pamphlet, Swift maintained an air of decency and reason, despite the frankly monstrous notion he proposes: that the poor should eat their own young to survive. Not only does this notion repulse many readers of the pamphlet, but it also effectively symbolizes the Protestant landlords devouring Ireland’s future, by driving many workers into poverty and essentially killing them. The critic Wittkosky also remarks how this satire is “directed against conditions in Ireland rather than against a set of theories and attitudes which rendered such conditions possible.”

The reason for such conditions stems from, what Wittkowsky calls, “a philosophy of economic statism which regarded labor as a commodity” What this means is that during the 18th Century, the state and its welfare were seen as most important, and the plight of the working classes was a necessary sacrifice for the betterment of the state in terms of economy. The prevalent nature of this attitude prevented Swift from criticizing it, so instead he focused on the appalling conditions in Ireland, partly to illustrate the suffering such thinking brought about, and partly due to his Irish heritage. The result is, as Ricardo Quintana puts it, “not only the greatest of Swift’s Irish tracts; it is also the best introduction to his satiric art.”Swift’s fame as a satirist stems not only from A Modest Proposal, but also Gulliver’s Travels, a novel concerning itself primarily with parodying travel fiction, which also contains criticisms of the British treatment of Ireland, and is much more often the target of critical analysis.

As Wittkowsky has stated, “toward the Modest Proposal, a major work by a major English writer, scholars have been definitely coy.” Whilst it is a valid argument that Swift’s work was highly influenced by the context in which it is set, with poor quality of life in Ireland, English exploitation of Irish workers on religious grounds, it must also be remembered that Swift was well-known for his satire even at the time of penning A Modest Proposal, when, as Quintana puts it, Swift’s satire “attained its most perfect expression.” The result of this reputation is that most of the readers at the time knew that Swift’s ultimate purpose in creating the pamphlet was satire, and would have instantly recognized that “a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food,” is a satirical phrase, though the target would have been harder to identify for a contemporary audience, since as Marshall puts it, “by the beginning of the eighteenth century, the view that poverty was caused primarily by low wages had fallen into dis-repute.”. Yet Swift follows up on this remark with a statement that clearly portrays his views and reasoning behind them, in a beautiful remark that is easily recognized as a punishing attack on the landlords of Ireland; “I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.”

This kind of language, an aggressive attack on the roots of Ireland’s problem, makes A Modest Proposal too “alienating to be successful as a hoax”, and Robert Phiddian expands upon this idea, suggesting that “the text does not make a serious attempt to lull us into a false sense of security. Rather, it attacks us”. Due to the satirical nature of the text, it is unsurprising that it does this to the reader as well as the causes of the conditions it is criticizing, making the reader question their own role in such events. A contemporary audience during the 18th Century would be as equally repulsed by the notion of cannibalism as a modern audience, and both would also be expecting the test to be a form of satire due to being penned by Swift. However, a contemporary reader would be far more affected by the criticism on a personal level, most probably being exposed to the plight of the Irish in some form and merely disregarding it, rather than viewing it as a part of history as is the case for a modern reader. This makes the Juvenalian satire much more bitter and harsh to the contemporary reader, therefore making it more effective in conveying the writer’s bitter opinion of the state of affairs.


Is Victorian literature predicated on a fascination with the theme of progress or a preoccupation with notions of decline?

The Victorian era was a time of great change – technology was advancing rapidly, and changes in society soon followed. It was a period of time that many saw not only as the dawn of a new age, but the death of an old one as well. The most prevalent themes one could argue that emerged in the literature of the time were those of progress and decline: progress on a technological and scientific level, and decline on a moral and societal scale. Yet as with many notions being developed with the advent of the 20th century, nothing was truly clear.

As the last completed era of English literature, which ran for as long as the reign of the Queen who gave it it’s name (1837-1901), the Victorian period was marked with a rapid rise in population (London itself rose from a population of 2 million to 6 million in just over sixty years), and industrialization was running rampant throughout the British Empire, particularly the British Isles themselves. In it’s wake came prosperity for a fortunate few but misery for many more (factory owners as opposed to factory workers). Charles Dickens is one of the most well known authors to deal with these issues, in works such as Oliver Twist and Hard Times.

Probably the most famous of Dickens’ works, Oliver Twist is the story of an orphan struggling to survive in Victorian London, witnessing it’s crime ridden underworld as well as achieving the possibility to progress in his social station and find acceptance and a family. The novel was published in 1838 and was most known for it’s unromantic portrayal of criminals and their lives. Throughout the novel, Dickens offers a grim look at the London that has arisen in the shadow in industrialization, such as how orphan children were considered by society:

“he was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once- a parish child- the orphan of a workhouse- the humble, half-starved drudge- to be cuffed and buffeted through the world- despised by all, and pitied by none.”

Orphan children were often put to work in order to support themselves, and child labor was an issue that many contemporaries of Charles Dickens highlighted. There was no service in place to care for such outcast children, leaving them to be exploited by others, as portrayed in the novel by Oliver’s association with Fagin and his gang. This is similar to the rather grim viewpoint portrayed in Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop, in which he writes:

“Thus violent deeds live after men upon the earth, and traces of war and bloodshed will survive in mournful shapes long after those who worked the desolation are but atoms of earth themselves.”

Yet throughout the novel there are also rays of hope, showing that Victorian sensibilities and values have managed to survive through this time of change, and that the decline so feared by many is not as inevitable as thought. The story of Oliver Twist, though mired in satire and the grim trappings of industrialized London and all of it’s exploitation and misery, is at heart a kind of fairy tale – the main character remains virtuous despite the evil around him, and is ultimately rewarded for it. On the way to this ending however Dickens takes the opportunity to explore the kind of life an orphan would have in London at the time.

Though the view that society was in decline was a commonly expressed sentiment in the Victorian era, the general theme of Oliver Twist (of an orphan achieving a family and increasing his social standing) is ultimately that of progression and hope. This is reinforced throughout the novel by the notion of love and caring, simple human virtues that persevere even in the face of cold and unfeeling industry:

“my heart is set, as firmly as ever heart of man was set on woman. I have no thought, no view, no hope in life, beyond her; and if you oppose me in this great stake, you take my peace and happiness in your hands, and cast them to the wind.”

“The persons on whom I have bestowed my dearest love, lie deep in their graves; but, although the happiness and delight of my life lie buried there too, I have not made a coffin of my heart, and sealed it up, for ever, on my best affections. Deep affliction has but strengthened and refined them. ”

Both of these segments are said by different characters, yet both exemplify the same good nature and morals that many Victorians feared were declining. We can see further examples from the contemporaries of Dickens, such as Elizabeth Gaskell. It is interesting to note that the Victorian era did see the rise of female writers such as Elizabeth Gaskell, as well as the Bronte sisters and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. This alone is an interesting indication of progress from the previous era’s when women writers were widely looked down upon. Indeed, many of the women writers during the Victorian era utilized pseudonyms to get their works published under male names (such as Currer Bell in the case of Charlotte Bronte when publishing Jane Austen).

Gaskell is most widely known for her fourth novel, North and South, published in 1855, which deals with industrialization in a much more direct manner than Oliver Twist – dealing with the relationship between workers and industrialists from the industrialist viewpoint (having already dealt with the viewpoint of the workers in Mary Barton, published in 1948). The novel itself is primarily based around the relationship between Mr. John Thornton, master of Marlborough Mills and Margaret Hale, an outside observer to the clash between workers and Thornton, resulting in a strike that severely damages Thornton’s wealth. Like Dickens’ Oliver Twist, North and South shows a celebration of a personal victory happening despite the society around the characters – though the living standards have declined (a surprisingly large amount of characters die in the book, from overwork to cotton dust inhalation), industrialists are still people who have compassion and can work with the workers beneath them to make improvements in Victorian society. Margaret is the virtuous female who represents the changing woman in Victorian Britain, becoming a regular factory worker alongside the men, but still exemplifying wisdom and a stoicism that was highly valued by the contemporary readership:

“Loyalty and obedience to wisdom and justice are fine; but it is still finer to defy arbitrary power, unjustly and cruelly used-not on behalf of ourselves, but on behalf of others more helpless.”

One of the truest reflections of attitudes at the time – combining the traditional Victorian values of loyalty and obedience with an intolerance for the unfairness that had arisen with the industrialization of production, putting many people out of work and forcing them to move to the cities in search of jobs, resulting in the rapid urban growth of the era and the exploitation of many workers by those who owned the workhouses. It is also key to note that during the Victorian era, there was a major shift in regards to the notion of childhood. Rather than being expected to work and act like adults as soon as they were able to, the idea that childhood should be a time of joy and innocence began to emerge. This change was mostly brought about by social reformers and philanthropists, driven by the Christian values prized in society, and reacting to the phenomenon of children working in dangerous factories. As the idea of childhood developed, it gained widespread support eventually leading to such legal measures as the 1833 Factory act which banned children under the age of 9 from the workplace. This increased amount of freedoms for children resulted in a progression in the notions of parenthood, as is stated by Mr. Hale in North and South to his daughter Margaret:

“a wise parent humours the desire for independent action, so as to become the friend and adviser when his absolute rule shall cease.”

The constantly changing situation had led to a decline at first, with parents sending their children to work in the dangerous factories simply because the children were expected to work, and the parents themselves had worked when they had lived in the rural farming communities. However such a practice was of little use in the industrialized cities, which all too soon became overcrowded. Still, many Victorians looked to the future with a resolute stoicism that has come to exemplify the people of that period, a trait that is clearly present in all sympathetic protagonists in the novels written during Queen Victoria’s reign. In North and South this trait is clearly one valued by the narrator, as they state that “the future must be met, however stern and iron it be.”

It ought to be mentioned though that there is a dark side to this widely accepted notion of stoicism and forthrightness, which is portrayed by Charles Dickens in his novel Hard Times. The novel begins with a bold speech stating:

“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

Since the Victorian era was an age of scientific discovery and progress (boasting such people as Charles Darwin, Alexander Melville Bell and Charles Babbage), and new labor laws introduced compulsory education for children, a great focus developed on developing knowledge to continue the trend of scientific progress. Some however feared that there would be a focus on knowledge at the expense of traditional values and compassion, a reflection on the loss of jobs to machines, of industrialization taking over not just livelihood but even thoughts. This fear was also presented in Hard Times, as a consequence of the fact based education:

“You have been so careful of me, that I never had a child’s heart. You have trained me so well, that I never dreamed a child’s dream. You have dealt so wisely with me, father, from my cradle to this hour, that I never had a child’s belief or a child’s fear.”

The loss of basic humanity in the face of machinery is also reinforced as a theme in the novel by the narrator pointing out that whilst it is easy to measure productivity, it is impossible to use that same knowledge to judge a person’s character:

“It is known, to the force of a single pound weight, what the engine will do; but, not all the calculators of the National Debt can tell me the capacity for good or evil, for love or hatred, for patriotism or discontent, for the decomposition of virtue into vice, or the reverse, at any single moment in the soul of one of these its quiet servants, with the composed faces and the regulated actions.”

From this it is clear to the reader that Dickens values moral integrity, like any Victorian gentleman would, and is warning of the potential costs of embracing industrialization without considering the consequences – in this case making people cold to each other, and jeopardizing simple interactions. This can be linked to the concerns regarding anonymity in large cities, a result of the rapid population growth, as expressed in Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. In the novel, the main driving force of the plot is the mystery surrounding the identity of Lucy Audley, a governess from the country who is actually a murderer who disguises herself as someone else in the large community that is the city. In a typical community a lie such as that would have been figured out swiftly from the correlation of information between the various members. However, a city lacks the communal ties of a smaller settlement such as a village, allowing criminals to more readily flourish in the proverbial shadows – similar to how Fagin’s gang manage to evade capture in Oliver Twist. In this manner, darkness can also be claimed to be a motif of Victorian literature, specifically relating to the decline of morals, and the most often cited example of this is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. A famous example of a novel dealing with the theme of imperialism and colonialism, it comes across at first like a story of adventure (which were popular at the time), detailing Marlow’s journey up the Congo in pursuit of the mysterious Kurtz. It can be more accurately described as a deconstruction of the popular fiction of the time, actually focusing on the “unspoken” elements of adventure novels, as pointed out in Heart of Darkness itself:

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”

The novel makes much of this premise (the reality of things as opposed to the romanticized view many Europeans held), as it was a common belief at the time that European settlers were providing indigenous cultures with progress in the forms of social reforms and greater scientific knowledge. Conrad instead writes about a fictionalized version of his own experiences to show how this is not what was occurring. The novel primarily shows how the stations (outposts in remote regions) are subverting their purposes, and rather than being a “beacon on the road toward better things, a center for trade of course but also for humanizing, improving, instructing” is instead a place of savagery and oppression. Yet Conrad takes measures to ensure that this is not seen as the fault of the natives corrupting the sensibilities of the white settlers, but is rather a flaw in the human soul itself, the proverbial “darkness” within. The most striking display of this notion is right at the end of the tale, when Marlow looks out over London:

“I raised my head. The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky–seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.”

From which it is clear to the reader that for all the veneer of civilization that Europeans wear, at heart they are like all men, and just as fallible, if not actually more corrupted their ideals than others.

The Victorian Era was a time of great change. A new century was dawning, and technology and science were progressing at a rapid pace. The blank spaces on world maps had been filled in, and the world was fully in the grasp of humanity. And though knowledge had progressed, many feared that it had gone too far, and that society had to progress before it could fully harness and use what it had discovered. Instead, it seemed as if society was declining, the traditional norms and values of the Victorians slowly giving way to the efficient and mechanical minds of businessmen seeking to increase profit, as well as the desperate workers beneath them who lost ties of community and became anonymous within the giant cities. In addition to this, more and more people came to question what few beliefs had carried over from previous times (such as the superiority of Europeans) and how true they actually were, championing progress towards more modern thinking and understanding regarding issues such as racial and cultural identity. In the end, it is perhaps best to say that Victorian literature was obsessed with the notion of an ending, and a new beginning.