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Cain's Last Stand (Novel)

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Cain's Last Stand
Cainslaststand.jpg
Cain's Last Stand, 2008 cover art by Clint Langley
Author Sandy Mitchell
Publisher Black Library
Series Ciaphas Cain
Preceded by Duty Calls
Followed by The Emperor's Finest
Released 2008

Cain's Last Stand is the sixth novel in the Ciaphas Cain series by Sandy Mitchell, depicting an event often alluded to the earlier novels: Cain's extremely reluctant participation in the events of the 13th Black Crusade. It was first published in 2008.

Summary

Having reached his second century despite the war-torn 41st Millenium's best efforts to get him killed, Ciaphas Cain is enjoying his retirement, teaching Commissar cadets at the Schola Progenium on Perlia, the planet he is credited with saving eighty years before. But as Cain often quotes to his students, "the past is always with us." As The Despoiler's 13th Black Crusade spills from the Eye of Terror, a splinter fleet aims to invade the planet, for a hidden reason known only to Cain and his close associate Amberley Vail. Elderly, and with virtually no forces at his command except his handful of cadets and the everpresent Jurgen, Cain must defend Perlia in what may well be his final battle.

Synopsis

Spoiler!
This page contains spoilers for: Cain's Last Stand (Novel)


Amberley Vail is pleased to present the latest volume of the Cain Archive, remarking that, while the full effect of Cain's actions during the 13th Black Crusade must remain secret, it would be no exaggeration to say that he may well have saved the whole Imperium from falling to Chaos. On the other hand, his actions may have had other, indirect consequences, which the Imperium has yet to see...

Part One

Since being appointed to the faculty of the Schola Progenium in 993.M41, Ciaphas Cain has come to regard Perlia as a home, though he has been called away more often than he would like; sometimes by the Departmento Munitorum, and more often by Amberley, whose Ordo has been understandably busy, with the coming of the later Tyrannic Wars, among other xenos threats.

With much of the subsector's resources tapped to counter the Tyranids, Cain and the other Schola faculty are often pressed into odd jobs in the system. Currently, he is leading his class of Commissar-cadets to accompany a PDF unit sweeping an asteroid mining station orbiting the planet, which recently broke off contact. Since a splinter of Hive Fleet Kraken was recently defeated near the system, the Perlian authorities are worried there may be some leftover bio-forms aboard the asteroid.

Sure enough, Cain's force stumbles onto a score of various bio-forms, and manage to wipe them out, though Cain loses two of his cadets. After clearing the facility, Cain's nagging sense of unease refuses to go away; it only increases when Visiter, the retired Navy officer from the Schola shows him a Mycetic spore stuck to the outside of the asteroid. The spore surely accounts for the tyranids they encountered, but seems to have arrived after the miners disappeared, and Cain suspects there is something else lurking in the tunnels. Before he can follow it up, however, he is recalled to Perlia.

Part Two

Over dinner with his fellow instructors, Cain reports that he recommended a complete quarantine of the asteroid, but was refused since he had nothing more concrete than vague suspicion. The other faculty members discuss rumors that Abaddon has launched yet another invasion of the Imperium, but dismiss them as far-fetched. In any case, the Cadian Gate is on the other side of the galaxy and there's little they can do to help.

However, the rumors refuse to go away, and the faculty is troubled by the lack of communication from their old superiors. Cain makes a point of lecturing his cadets on the finer points of spotting heretical infiltrators among Guard units. Over a tarot game in Cain's quarters, the other faculty members admit they have been conducting similar drills with their charges, in the event they need to defend the system from an invasion.

A few weeks later, an unexpected guest arrives in-system, Orelius, the rogue trader who unofficially belongs to Amberley's entourage. He invites Cain to dinner aboard his ship, and says they have a problem: one of the splinter fleets from Abaddon's invasion fleet is heading straight for Perlia, bypassing several other inviting and poorly-defended targets. They are about a week away.

To those in the know, it is not difficult to guess why: the Shadowlight, the ancient and immeasurably powerful xenos artifact that is still being kept at the secret Mechanicus shrine on Perlia. Abaddon, or someone close to him, has learned of its existence. Unfortunately, its Mechanicus custodians have refused the Ordo Xenos's request to move it off-planet. Amberley is hoping Cain can persuade them, or, failing that, defend the planet and keep the forces of Chaos from getting it.

As an early warning, a small force of raiders translates into the system as they speak, and Cain hastily boards his shuttle for the surface, arriving just ahead of the landing enemy. Cain rallies the nearest PDF units and coordinates the defense, disconcerted to see the attacking forces are much more disciplined than most Chaos soldiers he has encountered in the past. The enemy is routed, albeit with difficulty, and Cain is disturbed to recognize their few prisoners as former PDF troopers of the neighboring systems. Under interrogation, one of the survivors rhapsodizes about their leader, the Warmaster Varan the Undefeatable, who has "set them free" and will soon do the same for Perlia.

It takes little for the PDF hierarchy to admit they are out of their depth, and, with the Governor's approval, brevet the Schola faculty members with supreme command authority. Colonel Rorkins, a retired Stormtrooper commander, is appointed Commander-in-Chief, while Visiter is put in charge of the limited System Defence Fleet. Rorkins plans to make his headquarters at the Schola, which is already reasonably secure from heretic infiltration. Painfully aware that their forces are meagre and their position precarious, no one objects when Visiter says he will prepare evacuation plans, if the worst should happen.

Part Three

When the cadets at the Schola are pressed into service as ad hoc command staffs, Cain has his own prepare intelligence summaries of the Chaos landings, looking in particular for confirmation that they were aiming for the Mechanicus Shrine. During their investigations, the cadets come across rumours of "sand devils" in that area that have been around for generations, and Cain's foreboding increases.

While examining the prisoners' effects, another of Cain's cadets finds a pict-cast of Warmaster Varan orating in a stadium, stirring up a crowd of his devoted followers. Although Varan's audience appears completely rapt, Cain and his fellows find the Warmaster a small, unimpressive and rather ridiculous figure (which will prove to be a catastrophic misperception).

Sister Julien, a retired Celestian, suggests that Cain broadcast a public appeal for the ordinary citizenry to volunteer to assist the PDF, which is critically short of manpower. Cain is skeptical, but does so, and is surprised when literally hundreds of ordinary Perlians step forward. On the pretense of making a tour of inspection of these new recruits, Cain plans a side trip to the Valley of Daemons, hoping against hope that he can grab the Shadowlight and whisk it off-planet before Varan's force arrives.

He and Jurgen arrive alone in the Valley of Daemons, where the hydroelectric dam destroyed during the First Siege has been rebuilt. He is surprised to be greeted by Felicia Tayber, their erstwhile ally from eighty years earlier, and now the senior Magos supervising the research team.

Inside the Shrine, the Mechanicum and the Ordo Xenos' joint project has continued running, since the Shadowlight was recovered from the rogue Inquisitor Killian. The representatives of the two factions do not always see eye to eye, but they are both adamant on one point: the Shadowlight cannot be moved. In the sixty or so years since the artifact was returned to Perlia, they have discovered several more components of the ancient xenos machine of which it was a part, and believe they are close to reassembling a working prototype. The machine is too large to be easily portable, so Cain reluctantly concedes that they must focus their efforts on defending the Shrine.

Returning to the Schola, Cain informs Rorkins and Visiter that he has prepared an evacuation plan to move the Imperial defenders to the Valley in case the capital city falls. After conferring with two of his Cadets, Cain falls asleep in the Schola's buttery over a mug of tanna, and has to be woken up to be informed that the Chaos forces have arrived.

Part Four

The invasion commences, with the first wave of Chaos vessels emerging from the Warp blundering into the orbital minefields carefully placed according to Visiter's instructions; the explosions throw them into disarray, and Visiter's few ships reap a heavy tally from them; only a hundred or so assault shuttles manage to make to the planet's surface, where they are quickly set upon by the PDF and the civilian militia, with gratifying results. The second wave emerges more cautiously, and with more success.

By the time Cain reaches Rorkins's command center, things are already looking grim. The Chaos numbers almost exactly match the Imperials' worst-case scenarios, and ground battles are erupting all over the planet. The PDF and volunteers are holding them back, for the moment, but at the cost of stretching themselves almost to breaking point.

By the time dawn breaks over the Schola, the Perlian forces are almost exhausted, when the invaders re-focus their efforts on the capital city, Havendown. If it falls, the consequences to morale could be disastrous, so Rorkins is hopeful that Cain can shore up the resolve of the defenders.

While Cain is (reluctantly) speeding to the capital, Varan's flagship, the Undefeatable takes up orbit over Havendown, and the Warmaster and his elites enter the battle.

In Havendown, it becomes clear that the Imperial defenders are close to being overwhelmed, and Cain sees that the only way of salvaging the situation is to extract the Governor. While they are trying to escape the palace, they catch a glimpse of Varan and his retinue, and come under fire from their own PDF soldiers. Cain loses one of his cadets immediately, while another, Donal, and the Governor are both wounded. Both declare their intention to stay behind and make a last stand, while urging Cain and his other cadets to escape. Cain does so, but not before granting Donal a brevet promotion to full Commissar.

Arriving back at the Schola, Cain is stunned to hear from Rorkins that Governor Trevellyan not only survived, but is broadcasting appeals to the entire planet to surrender and join Varan's glorious cause. At Rorkins's demand, Cain begins broadcasting counter-propaganda, urging resistance, even as the Imperials are evacuating the Schola, now that Varan knows from the Governor where their primary headquarters is. The Chaos fleet is moving into position to obliterate the Schola from orbit, but a sudden kamikaze attack by one of Visiter's ships throws the fleet into disarray, making this impossible. But their respite is short-lived: Julien's scouts indicate the approach of an armoured column.

Cain and Julien lead a small unit in a rearguard action, delaying the column while the evacuation is completed, before hopping aboard the last shuttle to the Valley of Daemons.

Part Five

As the Imperial defenders link up with the Skitarii and Inquisition soldiery at the Shrine, and begin fortifying it as best they can, Felicia announces that they have made a breakthrough: they believe they can "operate" the xenos machine, at least partially, and "shut down" the Shadowlight - since, if Varan has any psykers with him, the artefact's Warp signature may well draw him to their location.

Unfortunately, Felicia has miscalculated: manipulating the controls causes a spike in Warp energy instead of a drop, opening a small warp rift that disgorges a minor daemon. Although Cain and Jurgen manage to dispatch it, and power down the machine, the damage has been done: it is all but certain that Varan knows where they are now.

Heartening news comes from orbit: an astropathic relay station has picked up a transmission of a relief fleet, inbound from Keffia. Now, all they have to do is hang on until reinforcements arrive; unfortunately, Cain reflects, Varan is likely to throw everything he's got at them before then.

While the defenses are holding off the first wave, Cain leads a sortie to link up with some meagre reinforcements being shuttled in from Prosperity Wells. They are attacked by a small party of Chaos soldiers, and Cain is astounded to see Donal among them. As soon as he and Jurgen draw near, Donal becomes disoriented, and explains what's going on: Varan is a powerful psyker, able to control other people's minds, though, from what Donal says, the range of this ability is limited to Varan's line of sight. Although Jurgen's abilities are enough to temporarily disrupt Varan's hold, Donal says that it is too strong to fight forever, and uses his last reserves of control to wish Cain luck in the coming fight, before blowing his own head off.

But as the Valhallan proverb has it, "things can always get worse." Before returning to the Shrine, Cain sees movement at the end of the Valley and, through an amplivisor, sees an advancing party of Necrons, confirming the fear that has been nagging at him since the asteroid. Like Varan, the Necrons want the Shadowlight, and whichever side wins, the Imperials are caught in the middle.

Cain can come up with only one option: he transmits a message to the Chaos forces, asking to meet with Varan in person to discuss terms of surrender. Cain has read the warlord well: for all the forces at his command, Varan cannot resist a grandiose spectacle, especially one that shows him humiliating an enemy.

Cain strides out to meet him, alone except for Jurgen, and gets a fresh chill at seeing Varan's escort: Battle Sisters, acting under his mind control. However, Varan is shocked when Cain deviates from the script and says he is there to accept Varan's surrender, not vice-versa. Finding his power unexpectedly nullified, Varan orders his bodyguards to open fire. Cain has only one option: he charges forward, ordering Jurgen to stick close to the Sisters. As he expects, they are disoriented just as Donal was, leaving Cain to deal with Varan.

The Warmaster is no easy target, however, being armed with vicious talons and some kind of sub-dermal armour. But Cain, whose dueling skills have never left him, maneuvers the "rabid little mutant" close to the edge of the dam and tricks him into making an ill-advised charge close to the edge.

Sending the deceased Donal's regards, Cain kicks Varan in the rear, and the self-styled "undefeatable" warlord (whose psyker abilities do not include telekinesis) plummets from the dam, to a decisively fatal landing.

Unfortunately, Varan's death does not break his hold over his mind-controlled victims, and they press the attack. The Imperial defenders are hard-pressed, when suddenly a trio of Monoliths blinks into appearance behind the Chaos forces, and quickly dispatches them with their Gauss weaponry. Cain says they can't stand against the Necrons, and the other defenders are forced to agree with him, and evacuate.

As they are lifting off, Felicia triggers the demolition charges they planted in the Shadowlight chamber as a last resort, but nothing happens; the Necrons have somehow sabotaged the explosives. A few moments later, the Necron force teleports away, and Cain grimly concludes that they have departed with the Shadowlight.

An extract from a history of the invasion summarizes that Cain's defeat of Varan in hand-to-hand combat (captured by a pict-recorder that Varan had brought along to record what he thought would be Cain's surrender) effectively broke the back of the Chaos force, as his subordinate commanders fell to fighting among themselves, allowing the Imperial forces to mop them up with relative ease. At the same time, the arriving Naval fleet comprehensively destroyed the remnants of Varan's fleet in orbit (which the Inquisition is content to let stand as the official record, rather than reveal the presence of a small Necron flotilla that appeared out of hiding and wiped out the Chaos ships).

Epilogue

A few weeks later, Cain watches nervously as Amberley examines the looted Shrine, while a Deathwatch team under her command is sweeping the Necrons' hidden base on the asteroid. Whatever their relationship, she is still an inquisitor, and Cain is painfully aware that he has, technically, failed in the mission she gave him.

However, she concedes that at least Varan didn't get his hands on the Shadowlight. Cain further reasons that the Necrons must have feared the artefact, which is why they stationed that force aboard the asteroid to watch for signs of it. Whatever the Shadowlight does, the Necrons didn't want it used against them, which makes it unlikely that they have any immediate plans to use it against the Imperium.

Amberley allows that his reasoning is sound, but frets about how to explain away the Necron presence when the Naval fleet arrives in-system. With a laugh, Cain says there was no fleet, the reinforcement signal was a forty-five year old astropathic echo - an unexpected event, but one Cain was more than willing to use to force Varan's hand.

List of Characters

Perlia

The Inquisition

Chaos

Continuity

Trivia

  • At the 2012 Black Library Weekender, author Sandy Mitchell described the novel as a deliberate parody/tribute to the British sitcom Dad's Army.


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