About a year after the Gravalax Incident, the Valhallan 597th is deployed to Simia Orichalcae, to defend a vital promethium refinery from a maurading band of Orks. The Valhallans couldn’t be happier, being sent to an Ice World to combat their hated ancestral enemies, though Commissar Cain can’t muster much enthusiasm for either.
Despite his usual self-effacement, Cain is justifiably proud of his efforts to merge the formerly disparate elements of the regiment into a cohesive fighting unit. By now, the men and women of the former 296th and 301st regiments are so tight-knit that he has to deal with a fair share of disciplinary problems arising from excessive “fraternization.”
Cain and Jurgen have some early excitement while riding in the first shuttle heading down, which comes under fire from a stray band of Orks on the ground. A lucky hit from a Rokkit Launcha forces them to make an emergency landing which bloodies their noses but nothing worse. Mistaking the size of the landing force, the Orks come charging in, and are cut to pieces in an ambush.
In the first meeting with the refinery’s administrators, Colonel Kasteen cuts through their bureaucratic meandering and declares the facility to be under martial law, allowing her to dictate the measures for the defense.
After the meeting, Cain pulls aside Artur Morel, a representative from the miners’ guild who has been trying, without success, to get an investigation into the disappearances of several miners in some of the lower tunnels. Kasteen is worried that there may be a cave opening that will let the Orks bypass their defenses, and Cain volunteers to lead the search party, reasoning that poking around a tunnel system will be more comfortable and less dangerous than hanging around on the embattled front lines.
Cain makes his first foray into the caves accompanied by Sgt. Lustig’s squad, and Jurgen. Finding a set of tracks, they follow them to a steep depression, which Trooper Penlan is unlucky enough to fall down. Alarmed, she hears something in the tunnels with her, and Cain, assisting the effort to haul her up, slips and falls into the pit with her. Something big and mean attacks, but Cain is able to drive it off with a flurry of lasgun shots. Wounded but still alive, the beast retreats before they can get a good look at it.
Cain agrees to lead a second team, which still seems like the safer option, now that the Orks are attacking the defenses in earnest. To his surprise, a junior Tech Priest named Logash asks to come along, claiming an avid interest in xenobiology.
While reviewing the tactical situation, Kasteen, Ruput Broklaw, and Cain are alarmed to receive a report from the orbiting troop ship’s sensors: a Gargant is headed their way. It will not arrive for several hours, but Kasteen already knows the 597th has nothing in their arsenal that will even slow it down.
An extract from Lieutenant Sulla’s memoirs reports on the fight at the front lines, where the Orks are attacking ferociously, but being effectively repelled.
Since Penlan is still recovering from her injuries, Cain and Jurgen take Sgt. Grifen’s squad with them, as they pick up the search from the pit where they stopped earlier. At first the tunnels appear to be deserted, but as the squad disperses to check the various exits, Cain hears something coming, and realizes that the beast is burrowing directly through the ice at him. Before he can run it is on him, too close for the rest of the squad to use their weapons, but Cain’s natural reflexes allow him to kill the thing with his chainsword.
Bewildered, Logash identifies the dead beast as an ambull. Native to Luther Macintyre IX, they have been spotted on dozens of worlds, but its native environment is a desert. With a sinking feeling, Cain looks closer and sees no lasgun wounds, meaning they are dealing with more than one such beast.
During the next meeting of the “Committee for the Defence and Preservation of Simia Orichalcae”, Kasteen informs the Administratum and Mechanicus heads of her plan to mine the ice tunnels under the gargant’s path, collapsing the ground under it. Worried about the risk of damaging or destroying the refinery, the Administrator demands that Kasteen come up with an alternative strategy. Kasteen’s curt response is that she is welcome to ”go outside and ask the orks to go away if she thought that would help.” As for Cain’s party, there is a risk of them being caught in the explosion, but Kasteen and Broklaw are reasonably confident that they will be back before then.
Pressing forward, Cain’s team encounters several more ambulls (Logash estimates their numbers at around half a dozen), but one of the Troopers, Janny Drere, is seriously wounded. Cain would like nothing better than to use that as an excuse to order the whole party back to base, but Jurgen finds an ork skull among the ambulls’ leavings. The conclusion is unavoidable: whether the orks know it or not, there is a way to the refinery through the tunnels, and the ambulls have picked off a few of them already.
Cain decides they have no choice but to go on, though he divides the squad into fireteams, having Corporal Karta’s carry Drere back to the refinery for medical treatment.
Continuing on with Sgt. Grifen’s fireteam, they find the walls of an artificial chamber, made of strange dark stone and inscribed with xenos symbols. Logash is excited at finding previously-unsuspected archaeotech, but Cain is horrified to recognize a Necron Tomb. Over Logash’s frantic protests, he orders the team to use their demolition charges to seal the entrance to the chamber.
After the explosives are detonated, Cain’s first impulse is to rush back to the surface (followed by the troopship, and then hopefully a whole other solar system) and warn Kasteen of the Necron presence. But finding yet another relic of the Orks, a dropped Shoota, proves that there is still a way open into the tunnels.
Another extract from Sulla’s memoirs relates that the Valhallans are holding the line against the Orks, though not without casualties. After her platoon is relieved from the main defenses, Kasteen, to whom Karta has just reported back, details them to escort the sappers and engineers while they lay the mines in the tunnels, and retrieve Cain’s team, which is uncomfortably close to the planned mining route.
Cain’s team emerges on the surface at the other end of the tunnel, finding tracks that indicate the eaten Orks were Kommandos from the same scouting party, making it more than likely that the main body of Orks doesn’t know about the tunnel. When Logash unexpectedly disappears, they have to spread out to search for him, and see a terrible spectacle: a band of thirty Orks stumbles onto a pair of Necron Warriors, and are almost completely wiped out. The Necrons teleport away, while the remaining orks raise their heads from cover and see the tunnel. Cain orders the Valhallans to open fire, and the Orks are killed, but the team loses one of its own, Trooper Lunt. Cain reluctantly orders Jurgen to incinerate the body with his melta gun, since they can’t carry it back, nor can they leave any trace for the Orks or the Necrons to find.
Heading back down the tunnel, they pass the tomb and are horrified to see that one last ambull has tunneled another entrance into it (before being killed). Worse still, another band of Kommandos stumbles across them, and they kill two more of the troopers before they are dispatched. In the fight, a rock-fall cuts off their original route, and they have to find another way back – unfortunately, the only one available takes them through the now-open tomb.
With only Cain, Jurgen, Grifen, and Trooper Magot left alive, the team enters the Tomb with as much stealth as possible. The chamber is massive, and there are thousands of (mercifully dormant) Necrons inside. They hide when a party of Flayed Ones passes through the chamber, disappearing through a Warp Portal. Wherever they disappeared to, Cain is sure they will be back, and picks up the pace. To their astonishment, they find Logash, who escaped from their party to run back to the Tomb and take in its mysteries – completely oblivious to the danger. Cain is tempted to shoot the Tech Priest on the spot, but Logash pulls an auspex from his belt that allows them to find another fresh ambull tunnel that takes them back to the surface, just in time to meet Sulla’s platoon.
After returning to the refinery, Cain briefs Kasteen and the refinery administrators, insisting that their only option is to evacuate the planet and call in the Navy to obliterate the Tomb from orbit.
Magos Ernulph, the leading Mechanicus representative, objects frantically, saying the Tomb is a priceless trove of technology that must be examined, not destroyed. Cain forms a terrible suspicion, and consulting some old survey reports procured for him by Broklaw confirms it – the refinery wasn’t built over the most plentiful promethium deposits on the planet, making it almost certain that someone in the Mechanicus knew the Tomb was there and built the refinery with the intent of giving themselves just this opportunity.
Cain insists that they all have only hours left; the spike in warp energy caused by the arrival of the Orks’ space hulk reactivated the dormant portal inside the Tomb, drawing a scouting party from wherever the Necrons’ home planet is. Now that their scouts have confirmed the presence of the Tomb, they will be back soon, in force, to awaken it. If the portal is left open, then it could disgorge hundreds of thousands of Necrons into the sector.
But Magos Ernulph cannily seizes on this very point: it would take months, or even years, for a naval strike force to arrive, so the only safe option is for an infantry team to return to the Tomb and destroy the portal, before any more Necrons come through it. Cain is horrified when Kasteen agrees, and asks him to lead the team, but cannot think of any plausible reason to refuse.
Cain is assigned a squad of stormtroopers, and Jurgen comes along as always, while Kasteen and Broklaw are coordinating the evacuation of the regiment. To his consternation, a vox call from Kasteen asks after the whereabouts of Ernulph, who has disappeared – obviously unwilling to leave the Tomb alone.
On the front lines, Sulla is momentarily stunned to witness the gargant being attacked by a flotilla of Monoliths, which begin tearing huge chunks out of it with their weapons.
Making their way to the Tomb, Cain’s team begin exchanging fire with another Necron scouting party; the warriors have started to awaken, thanks to Magos Ernulph and his followers. They find a tearful and babbling Logash, the only survivor of the Mechanicus team, the rest having been cut down. There are enough awake warriors now, and more emerging from the warp portal, to overcome Cain’s stormtrooper escort, leaving only himself, Jurgen, and Logash. Jurgen clears their path with his melta, and they run for the surface. Since the stormtroopers were carrying the demolition charges, there is nothing they can do about the portal now.
They emerge in the tunnels under the main processing center of the refinery, and Cain warns Kasteen over the vox that the Necrons are fully awake now, and on their way. In a sudden inspiration, he realizes they are in a position to open the promethium storage tanks, flooding the underground tunnels. Not only does the flood wash away the pursuit right behind them, but it will (hopefully) do the same job as the demolition charges, once it is ignited. Cain is almost ready to think themselves safe, until they return to the surface just as the (heavily damaged) gargant reaches the Imperial lines. Seeing a tear in one of its legs, Kasteen concentrates fire on it, and succeeds in toppling the war machine. Deciding it is an excellent time to leave, she orders the last company to board the last waiting shuttle and lift off.
From orbit, Cain and Jurgen watch as Captain Federer detonates the demolition charges laid for the gargant, which are close enough to ignite the promethium in the tunnels. The resulting explosion throws up a pillar of flame kilometers high, taking the refinery and the remaining Orks with it.
Cain spends a welcome few days with Amberley Vail, who is responsible for debriefing the Valhallan soldiers about the Necron presence, and swearing them all to total silence. As she is composing her report to the Ordo Xenos, he takes the liberty of ordering a room-service dinner for them. The main course is, naturally, ambull steak.
In a footnote, Vail states that there was no further sign of Necron activity on Simia Orichalcae, though the Tomb was buried too deeply to be certain, and no one was eager to dig down and take a look.
This was a rollicking good read, with plenty of action to keep my attention. Cain once again tries to avoid all the fights and in the process gets right in the middle of them all and comes out looking like a Hero of the Imperium.
The enemies this time are mainly orcs with a side of Necrons. With this series I am learning a lot about other threats to the Human Imperium, as Gaunt and his Ghosts mainly dealt with the Dark Powers and their ilk. Necrons are like Terminators on steroids that are on steroids. It was awesome! I just had them in my head as unskinned T800’s. That can teleport. How scarily awesome is that?!?
Part of me enjoyed this so much that I was tempted to bump this up to 4stars, but on the other hand it IS franchise fiction and as such, it has its own built-in limitations. Maybe if I only read franchise fiction I’d give this 4stars, but since I read Shakespeare and Rex Stout, well 3.5stars is pretty high praise!