Want to read chapter one of Imperium?

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Warning…Spoilers abound for Conflagration, so don’t read this unless you’ve already finished Psi War Volume 2!

 

 

PSI WAR: Volume 3

IMPERIUM

Chapter One

 

Randall Munroe wasn’t particularly religious, but he believed in Hell.  He had to; he was walking through it.

The darkness was a living thing, closing in on him, barely held back by the infrared illuminators shining from either side of his helmet.  And where the light touched, where his helmet’s thermal and infrared optics could penetrate the inky blackness, it revealed only death.  Mummified bodies sprawled where they’d been killed, in doorways and alleys and stairwells, dead over two years now and mummified by the dry, desert air still filtering down in the ventilation ducts, their clothes still bright and colorful, the cheap flash the welfare class could print free of charge on the public fabricators.

The ventilation still worked, but not the lights, not the water, not the food processors, not the elevators.  There had been millions of people living off the public dole, generation after generation, and hundreds of thousands hadn’t even tried to get out, confident the same nebulous “other” who supplied them with food and water and clothes and shelter would take care of things eventually.  Others had struck out for the surface, sure that the working class would have it better on the levels above ground, or the Corporate Council executives in their penthouses in the sky.

Most of them had died; Trans-Angeles had been a gemstone in the desert, doubling down on the stubborn perversity of building a city of millions with next to no available water sources.  When the reactors and the desalinization plants and the pipelines had run, it had been a miracle of modern technology; now it was a monument to folly, the tomb of nearly fifty million people.  But not everyone.  Some had clung to niches, scurried into corners like the adaptable cockroaches humans were, keeping their heads down and finding food and water where they could.

And others…  Well, the others didn’t have to hide.  Like Dante’s devil, someone ruled this Hell, with an army of demons to do his bidding.  This particular devil was named Ang Hari, Tagalog for “king,” and Munroe had unfinished business with him.

“There’s light ahead,” Korri Fontenot said, her voice a mumble in his ear through the line-of-sight link between their helmets.

He glanced over at her automatically, though she was little more than a faceless suit of borrowed Recon Marine armor keeping her interval ten meters to his right and slightly back in the front wedge of their double-arrowhead formation, only identifiable from the others by how short she was compared to the Tahni warriors surrounding them.

Technically, he was their commanding officer, but you didn’t lead Tahni warriors from the rear, not if you wanted their respect.

And how the hell did I end up leading Tahni warriors at all?

He tried not to stare at them, but the sight of the distinctive Tahni Shock Trooper powered armor made his trigger-finger twitch.

“Hold up,” he called over the platoon net, his voice a surer command than a hand signal in the darkness.

Two dozen tall, rangy figures shuffled silently to a halt and knelt down as one, KE guns going to their shoulders, perfectly coordinated by expert training and unquestioning loyalty.  He hoped they intimidated the enemy because they scared the shit out of him.

Munroe whispered a command to his helmet’s optics via his implant ‘link and the IR illuminators winked out.  Just as Fontenot had reported, there was a faint glow ahead, up around the next intersection, bright enough that his night vision could make out details without the infrared flashlights.  The blood stains on the ground seemed clearer with natural light, the corpses more real, the withered and crumbling trees less shadowy trolls and more pitiful remnants of a dead world.

The glow could have been one of the rats in the walls, the independent survivors scratching out a living down here, but Munroe doubted any careful enough to live this long would have risked an exposed light.  Light and water and food and shelter belonged to the victors, the rulers, and they wouldn’t be shy about it.  If he could see the glow from here, the source was probably still another half a kilometer away…to the right, it looked like.

He moved up to the intersection carefully, his Gauss rifle held at low-ready, with Fontenot just a few meters behind, backing him up without having to be told.  With the return of the light, the ceiling seemed closer, pressing down on them, and he fought back a twinge of claustrophobia at the idea of being trapped down here.  He forced himself to keep his eyes straight ahead, searching out the nooks and crannies of what looked to have once been a shopping district.

More bread and circuses than commerce, he thought cynically.  The shops had sold cheaply-fabricated junk for next to nothing, a psychological tool to make the chawners think they had self-determination.  No one had even bothered to loot them.

“Korri,” he called to Fontenot.  She was serving as his NCO, which felt odd since he’d never been higher than a buck sergeant when he’d actually been in the Recon Marines.  “Leave two troopers at the intersection to watch our backs.”

“Got it.”  She didn’t call him “sir,” which was probably for the best.

After she’d detailed the rear guard, he led the others down the street past shops that could have reopened with a flick of a switch, their personalized ‘link cases and football jerseys still displayed in the windows.  Only the body of a child curled up in one of the doorways gave a hint that there was anything more amiss than a temporary power outage.  He tried not to look too closely at the dead, tried to let his eyes skim over them; it was the only way he could stay sane down here, or anywhere in this city…or any of the mega-cities.

The light grew brighter, bright enough that he began to feel exposed, though the concealment the dark had given had been illusory, at best, a psychological comfort.  He could see the panels glowing white in the ceiling ahead, a signal to all that they were entering the territory of Ang Hari.  It was both a boast and a warning; the Changed were the ones who controlled access to the power, the ones who decided the living and the dead, and all who approached would be wise to give them their due.

Wonder if he knows we’re coming.  Then a snort, contained inside his helmet where no one else could hear.  He’s a shitty psychic if he doesn’t.

He could hear the lecture replaying inside his head in Kara McIntire’s didactic tone, and he sighed.

Yeah, yeah, I know the Changed aren’t really psychic, it’s a technovirus that gives them the ability to shunt their mental energy through Transition Space and convert it into kinetic and electrical energy in realspace and yadda, yadda, yadda.  If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…

He didn’t need to be a psychic to see the lookout.  The man hadn’t been trained by the military, or else he wouldn’t have assumed huddling in a darkened stairwell would hide him from someone using enhanced optics.  Ironically, one of the first thing the Changed had done when they’d manifested on Earth was to crash the communications and security systems.  It had allowed them to defeat the military and police who depended on those systems, but now their own forces were nearly as blind.

The man had a long gun clutched across his chest, a pulse carbine from the look of it.  Munroe wondered how much ammo he had left after two years…

“Hey Sarge,” he suggested, slowing his pace just a step, “why don’t you go walk down there and attract this guy’s attention?”

“Yeah, fuck you, too.”  She stayed in her position to his right, slowing her pace to match his.

He grinned.

“Okay, plan B then.”

He brought his Gauss rifle to bear in one, smooth motion and touched the trigger pad the microsecond the targeting reticle floated over the torso of the figure crouched in the stairwell to his left.  The stock punched sharply against the padded armor over his right shoulder but before he felt the recoil, he could already see the man’s head disappearing in a spray of blood that painted the walls red.

Anti-personnel rounds were nasty things, tungsten wire wrapped around a frangible ceramic core.  If this had been an operation against a real military unit, he’d have been loaded with solid tungsten slugs, but no one down here would have anything heavier than looted law enforcement armor, and you didn’t want any more penetration than you needed in this sort of close quarters battle.

The body pitched forward, sprawling out onto the walkway as the crack from the round breaking the sound barrier echoed off the façades and Munroe could already hear voices shouting in the distance, the sounds of confusion.

“Move in now!” he barked, breaking into a loping jog along the left side of the broad walkway, hugging the shadows.

Fontenot was repeating the order, but it was already redundant; the Tahni followed his actions rather than the spoken commands, surging forward en masse but keeping their formation.  He could see their IFF transponders in a corner of his HUD, projected over a simulation of the street, far too easy to get distracted by if you weren’t trained to look past it.

The Tahni don’t have all that shit in their helmets, he thought ruefully.  Then again, they’d lost the war, so…  I guess they’re finally getting to invade Earth.  Wonder if they have the concept of irony.

When the attack came, it was sporadic, a spring shower of laser-fire growing into a summer downpour coming from the building at the end of the street, less than a hundred meters away.  The laser pulses crackled with the lightning bolts of ionized air as they passed, the flashes fearfully intimidating but also tactically unsound: they were giant “shoot me!” signs, which was why the military only used them for shipboard Security troops, since there was no air to ionize in space.

It still could have gone very badly for them; the lasers were powerful enough to burn through military armor, if they’d hit.  Some did.  He saw two transponders flash red and one go completely black off to the left of the formation, but by then they were zeroing in on the incoming flashes and it was all over but the dying.  The Tahni were carrying KE guns left over from the war with Earth, electromagnetic weapons like his Gauss rifle but of a different philosophy: they shot tantalum needles at a rate of hundreds of rounds per minute instead of heavy slugs at a rate of about one per second, but the effect was the same against the lightly-armored enemy.

Thralls, Caleb Mitchell called them, and he guessed it fit.  He wasn’t sure if they’d been taken over somehow by the Changed or just given themselves to Ang Hari out of desperation, but “thralls” was the right word for them.  Not one tried to run, not one tried to seek cover, they simply died in place defending the building, sliced to ribbons by a hail of tantalum needles in just seconds.  Munroe shot three of them in as many seconds and then the fire died down to a trickle again and died to nothing like the passing storm.

The sun didn’t come out from behind the clouds, but the path to the building was clear, littered with thirty dead or dying enemy.  Munroe spared them a curious glance, wondering if, in death, he’d see any humanity behind their eyes.  There was nothing.  They were fat, almost all of them, living on food meant to feed millions but doled out jealously to just thousands…but none of those thousands had come to defend their conqueror.  Instead, they’d huddled in their plastic caves and waited out the storm, seeing which new master they’d have to bow to when the shooting was over.

The building, he could see now, was the Central Trans-Angeles Housing District Police Authority, the police station.  The main holographic display had been shot out, probably over two years ago, but he could see the smaller, two-D stencils on the walls.  It made sense as a base of operations: it had weapons, armor and defensible positions inside.  The downside was that the main entrance all the way to the public relations desk was wide open, with no way to secure it against the outside.

Munroe ducked inside for a few seconds, quickly scanning the broad hallways and nonfunctional information kiosks where citizens had once been able to file complaints on the faint hope that a real police officer might one day look at them.  Cots had been pulled up beside the kiosks, along with plastic totes filled with clothes or food or personal belongings.  The guards they’d just killed had probably lived there.

Beyond the public relations center, he could see rows of offices, the doors open, each turned into living quarters, probably for Ang Hari’s personal guards.  He didn’t figure any of them had been among the sacrificial lambs thrown onto the outer walls to slow them down, but he thought he had a good idea of where they’d gone.  Down the main hallway, past the offices, there was an unmarked, grey security seal, a hatch probably centimeters thick, forged from BiPhase Carbide and strong enough to withstand a kilogram of hyper-explosives.

He nodded in the privacy of his helmet.  It was just the way Caleb Mitchell had called it.

“We have two dead,” Fontenot reported when he came back outside.  “One wounded that’s going to have to be transported out and another with a minor burn who can Charlie Mike.”

Charlie Mike.  Military slang for “Continue the Mission,” but slang from a century and a half ago.  Sometimes he forgot just how old Fontenot was.

He could see the Tahni warriors who’d been cross-trained as medics tending to the one who’d been badly hit off in a corner, guards keeping watch over them as they stripped the male’s armor off and applied smart bandages to his wounds.  The dead…they were standing in place, frozen statues supported by the exoskeletons of their powered armor.

Damned eerie.

“Stabilize the wounded but keep him here for now, until we secure this place,” he told her.  “Make sure to secure the weapons and ammo of the dead and disable their comm circuits.  Tell off a couple troopers to set the charges and we’ll burn them in place when we leave.”

“Roger that.”  He couldn’t see her face, but he heard the distaste in her voice.  He didn’t much care for the idea, either, but it was what the Tahni wanted.

“And detail off a perimeter guard.  I don’t want reinforcements to catch us with our pants down.”

“Teach your Grandma to suck eggs, boy.”

He wanted to laugh at that, but it seemed disrespectful to the dead.  Fontenot wasn’t what you’d call deferential to his new rank.

“Godkiller.”

The voice was deep and sing-song, a Tahni male.  The HUD told him it was Thara-Kan, the senior NCO among the Tahni; he would have led the platoon if they’d elected to bring the full company down here.  Munroe turned, saw the massive Tahni standing back at the intersection, KE gun braced against his hip, eyes invisible beneath the mirrored strip of visor in a vaguely demonic helmet.

His mouth twisted at the appellation “godkiller.”  It was what the Tahni troops called him ever since they’d found out he had been the one who’d shot their God-Emperor on the last day of the war.  At first, he thought they’d resented the fact; the truth was even more disturbing.

“He comes,” Thara-Kan announced simply.

Munroe didn’t have to ask who “he” was.  There was no one else who inspired that sort of awe and respect from the Tahni.  He walked unarmored, unescorted and unafraid, a stocky, broad-bodied figure just a centimeter or so shorter than Munroe’s own medium height but nearly half again as wide.  Dressed in plain, black utility fatigues, vacant of rank or service, he carried no obvious weapons, though Munroe knew that was an illusion.

Caleb Mitchell was a weapon.

“Why didn’t he come in the front with us?” Fontenot asked over their private channel.  “He could have just used his voodoo on the bad guys and we wouldn’t have had to get shot at.”

“We wanted Ang Hari pinned down somewhere he couldn’t slip out on us,” Munroe reminded her.  “If he’d known Mitchell was here, he would have been in the wind.”

The Tahni troops were saluting Mitchell in their way, palms to their chest, coming to attention as he passed.  He returned each salute with one of his own, murmuring something Munroe couldn’t quite catch, possibly in the Tahni language.  Mitchell had a broad, open face that inspired trust, eyes steel blue and…earnest, he supposed.

He wondered what the man had been like, before all this.  Back when he’d been a constable on a remote, Neo-Quaker agro-colony, before the Corporate Council and the Predecessors and the Transformation Virus and what were rapidly becoming known as the Psi Wars.  Had he ever been just a regular guy, someone who didn’t have Destiny with a capital “D” hovering over them like a Sword of Damocles?

“No,” Mitchell answered the question, somehow meeting his eyes even through Munroe’s darkened faceplate.  He was grinning to take the edge off it, but Munroe felt a prickling down the back of his spine at the idea that the man had just read his thoughts.

“No more than you were, Mr. Munroe,” he amended, suddenly standing beside the former Marine as if he hadn’t moved the distance between them.  “We both left behind everything we’d ever known to follow what we believed in.  And we both wound up dealing with that decision far longer than we’d bargained for, didn’t we?”

“Some days,” Munroe commented, not broadcasting it because he didn’t have to, “I regret taking this job.”

“Follow me,” Mitchell told him, striding purposefully past the blood and the shredded bodies, through the open entrance to the police station.

Munroe was about to ask who exactly he meant, but then every single one of the Tahni began moving through behind him and Munroe shook his head and did the same.  The whole thing reminded him of a Baptist revival meeting he’d seen once on Aphrodite.  Fontenot hung at the back of the pack, backing through after the last of the platoon, only the medics and the wounded Tahni warrior left outside.

Mitchell glanced downward at the bedding and personal gear left behind by the dead, a look that might have been sadness or regret passing across that open book of a face.  It seemed strange to Munroe; he’d seen Caleb Mitchell kill with the casual indifference of a big cat, seen him walk past bodies of men and women he’d gutted, covered in their blood and unaffected.  And from what he knew of the man, he’d been a stone killer since the very beginning.  Trapped with a small group of Academy cadets on a disabled training ship during the Battle for Mars, unarmed and barely trained, he’d killed seven Tahni warriors single-handedly.  And that had been before he’d been turned into a physically-augmented special-ops commando by Fleet Intelligence.

“It was also before I could pick up human thoughts,” Mitchell reminded him.  The man’s lips weren’t moving, but that wasn’t necessarily a function of his psionic abilities; he had an implanted neurolink, the same as Munroe, and could communicate with the helmet radios through technology.  “These people, they fought for Ang Hari because their live were empty, because they opened themselves to his influence.  Now, he doesn’t even have to control them.  They have nothing left.”  He shrugged, even though he wasn’t speaking audibly.  “We’ll still have to kill them.”

Mitchell stopped about ten meters from the security seal, hands on his hips as he considered it with eyes of edged steel.  When he spoke next, it was aloud.

“He’s in there.  He has thirty others with him, all armed.”  He looked back to Munroe, a hint of apology in his face.  “I can open the door, but he’s going to send them out when I do.  I could stop them, but I can’t do that and keep the door open against his ability.”

Munroe grunted acknowledgement and opened a channel to the entire platoon.

“They’re coming through when the door opens.  Take up positions back at the corners.”  He gestured to the end of the hallway, where the chamber widened out into the public service area.  There was cover there, some at least; better than Ang Hari’s troops would have.

The powered armor clomped heavily on the tile floor, an off-rhythm drumbeat as they moved into place, an echoing announcement to the people behind that door of exactly what fate awaited them.  Caleb waited until the movement had ceased, until every weapon was aimed downrange, before he stepped into the center of the hallway just behind them, attention focused like a laser on the sealed door.

“Be ready,” he warned them.

Munroe loaded an anti-personnel grenade into the launcher beneath the barrel of his Gauss rifle and brought the weapon to his shoulder.  There was a thickness in the air between Mitchell and the door, a tension Munroe couldn’t quantify, something beyond the physical laws his brain had evolved to perceive.  With a shriek of grinding metal, the massive portal began to move, slow and jerky, opening upward toward a niche in the ceiling.

Does it take more effort to move something that big?  Or is it all the same to him?

If Mitchell heard the question, he didn’t bother to answer.  When the gap reached a meter high, Munroe fired.  The grenade hit the floor just inside the seal and detonated with a chest-deep thump, spraying metallic powder ignited by the explosive pulse into spears of plasma that lit up the inside of the chamber, throwing shadows of writhing bodies beneath the rising door.  Human screams joined the chorus of metallic moans and Munroe’s hands went through the motions of loading another grenade without his mind having to give the commands on a conscious level.

When the door had risen another half a meter, the enemy began to pour out from beneath it, rats swarming from a burning ship to drown in the ocean.  Dark blue police armor seemed out of place with long, greasy hair and tangled beards and wild eyes, just a frozen image of a split second’s glance before everything exploded.  The lasers ripped the hallway apart, filling the air with a blazing heat Munroe could feel through his armor, splashing off the walls in gouts of vaporized plastic and metal and Caleb Mitchell never moved.

Munroe couldn’t take his eyes off the targeting reticle of his rifle, but he could sense the man still standing there at the center of the hallway, Christ calming the storm.  Not being immune to laser-fire, Munroe hugged the side of the wall like the rest of his troops and fired off the second grenade.  Plasma flared and tantalum darts sliced through air and armor and flesh and people died.  That was when the first suicide vest ignited.

Munroe couldn’t know that at the onset; there was simply a blast that shook the walls and threw him back off his feet, a light that whited out the filters in his helmet visor and maxed the buffers in the helmet’s auditory exclusion system.  But the helmet had its own combat information processor, running sensor data through a probability matrix and giving him a calm and logical conclusion from the facts it could collect.

“Probable suicide vest,” it informed him helpfully in a bright red text on the upper right side of his HUD.  “Seek cover.”

Really, you think?

Two of the Tahni were down, one of them with his IFF flashing yellow that he had a serious wound, but the bomb had done more damage to Ang Hari’s forces; four of them, including the bomber, were so much bloody hamburger painted over the walls of the corridor.  Munroe felt like someone had smacked him in the head with a baseball bat, but he forced himself to move, rolling over onto his stomach and bringing his rifle out from beneath him.

He didn’t have time to bring it to his shoulder because his targeting systems had found another suicide vest.  The woman who wore it had hollow eyes, dead and uncaring, but she was pushing herself forward through the press of the dead and dying, her thumb on the trigger switch.  Munroe fired one-handed and the stock tried to twist itself out of his hand with the recoil, but the round caught the woman in the chest…and detonated the vest.  Another blast, as loud as the first, but the explosion devastated the remaining enemy, taking most of them from behind and blasting them off their feet.  Munroe clawed his way up to a crouch, automatically pumping round after round into any of Ang Hari’s people still moving…until nothing was.

The hallway was a charnel house, a Grand Guignol crammed into fifteen meters of antiseptic white plastic, covered with the butchered remains of thirty men and women.  In a seeming fit of decency, a haze of smoke tried to conceal the carnage but wasn’t quite up the task.  Munroe thought of a woman he’d seen trying to cover the body of her child after the little boy had been killed in a cartel crossfire in the Pirate Worlds many years before.  All she’d had was the toddler’s shirt and it just hadn’t been large enough…

A figure was stepping through the smoke, through the blood and bone and flesh carpeting the floor, as if he walked through another world and they only saw his shadow.  Caleb Mitchell passed through the open security seal, hands at his sides, face impassive, and Munroe made himself follow the man inside.  He needed to see this, needed to see why it had all happened.

Things squished in wet obscenity under his boots but he refused to look down, just kept his eyes on Mitchell.  The door had opened on the police station’s armory, not a huge room but yawning empty now, the racks picked clean, drawers once filled with loaded pulse carbine magazines open and bare.  Here and there, a discarded water bulb rolled listlessly back and forth on the floor, its rest disturbed by the earlier explosions and the peace of inertia still not restored.  There were a few bodies as well, the burn-throughs in their legs and bellies evidence his first grenade had done its job.  One of them moaned softly and opened his eyes, clutching at the pistol laying on the ground beside him and Munroe shot him through the head.

Caleb Mitchell didn’t turn at the interruption, his attention focused on the slight, frail, skeleton of a man huddled in the corner.  He looked startlingly young, no more than his twenties Munroe thought.  Even with the anti-agathic treatments everyone received on Earth and the Core colonies, you could tell if someone was actually young or just old inside a young façade.  There was something about the way they held their eyes.

His face was sunken, dark eyes buried in their sockets, long hair colored magenta and pulled into a ponytail falling halfway down his back.  His clothes were clean and new but ill-fitting, custom-made for someone else and probably stolen; it had the effect of making him look even younger, as if he were a child wearing hand-me-downs.

Who was this kid?  One of the thralls?  Or some innocent who’d been dragged down here for sport? Or…

“Randall Munroe,” Mitchell said, “may I introduce you to Ang Hari.”  There was a sneer to his voice, a tired cynicism.  “The king.”

Munroe had known it but hadn’t wanted to believe it.  This was the fiendish warlord who’d been responsible for the deaths of tens, possibly hundreds of millions of people?  This was the victor who’d come out on top of all the Changed on the North American continent?  This was the man who fifty or sixty people had just thrown their lives away to protect?

“It was the Ghosts,” Mitchell answered the unasked questions.  “They drove the ones mad who weren’t already mad to begin with.  It didn’t take much.  This young man,” he waved at Ang Hari, who was clutching his knees to his chest and staring at Mitchell with unabashed terror, “was already adrift, with no purpose to his life, no sense of worth…and then he was granted godlike power.”

The big man shook his head.

“It would have made him a nightmare without the Ghosts.  But with their influence…”

Munroe knew the Ghosts was what everyone called the Predecessor AI who’d been lost in the level of Transition Space Mitchell called “the Network,” what the Changed accessed to attain their power.  They’d lashed out at any human who’d entered their domain and tried to force them into a systematic destruction of human civilization.  And it had almost worked…

“You purged the Ghosts, though,” Munroe countered, trying to grasp what he was saying.  “Shouldn’t he be…normal again?”

“I got rid of their influence, but he still remembers everything he did, all those millions of people he had murdered, or starved, or forced out into the desert.”

Mitchell stepped up to the boy, standing directly over him.  Ang Hari flinched away, squeezing his eyes shut as if he couldn’t accept the truth that the big man represented.

“What do you suppose that might do to a person, Munroe?”

He didn’t answer; he hadn’t the slightest idea.

“Restituto,” Mitchell said softly, crouching down next to Ang Hari.  Munroe thought he was saying something in another language, but gradually realized he was saying the young man’s real name.  “Restituto Soberano.  Can you hear me, Restituto?”

Mitchell reached out, put a hand on the boy’s shoulder.  Ang Hari tried to pull away, but Mitchell was far too strong for that.

“Are you still in there, Restituto?  Speak to me.  It’s not too late.”  Mitchell put his face only centimeters from the younger man’s.  “You’ve done terrible things, but it wasn’t you.  They whispered in your mind until you couldn’t shut them out any more, until you couldn’t help yourself.  Don’t let them steal what’s left.  I can help you.”

Restituto shook his head slowly, his eyes not focusing on Mitchell’s, even though they were so close.

“I could have fought them,” the little man contradicted him, his voice soft and childlike.  “They didn’t take me anywhere I didn’t want to go.”  He finally seemed to meet Mitchell’s gaze.  “I’ll do it again; it’s who I am.”  A muscle in his cheek twitched and Munroe thought he might have smiled.  “Kill me.”

Caleb Mitchell hadn’t seemed to move, but between one eyeblink and the next, the talons implanted along the bones of his forearm had slid out of their housing and through the synthskin flaps on the back of his right wrist and through Restituto Soberano’s temple, into his brain.  The monster who’d called himself Ang Hari died with a last hiss of breath, slumping back into the corner.  Mitchell’s talons slid out of the younger man’s skull with a scrape of metal on bone and Ang Hari’s head flopped backwards against the wall, blood pouring silently from the wounds above his ear.

Mitchell sighed, still staring down at the dead man.

“You disappointed?” Munroe asked him, not trying to hide his thoughts.  “Did you really think he’d turn?”

“I’d hoped one of them would,” the big man admitted.  “I suppose I was kidding myself.”

“He’s the last, right?  The last of the Changed on Earth?”  He eyed Mitchell sidelong; the man couldn’t see it through his helmet visor, but Munroe figured he’d know anyway.  “You’d be able to tell if there were more?”

“He’s the last.”  The big man flexed the muscles of his shoulders, as if he’d finished a hard job.  “There’s not a trace of the Transformation Virus on this world.”

He walked out of the armory with a quick pace, as if he found the place suddenly distasteful, and Munroe struggled to keep up.  The Tahni under Fontenot’s command had already policed up their wounded and began giving them care, and Mitchell stopped at both of the warriors being tended to and said something soft and incomprehensible in Tahni before moving on.

“Let’s get everyone out of here,” he decided.  “Back to the surface, back to the shuttles.”

“Are we going to rebuild here?” Munroe asked him.  “Make it the new capital of your Imperium?”

Mitchell winced at the word.  Munroe knew he hated when people called his Emergency Provisional Government “the Imperium,” but the Tahni had started it and no amount of lecturing would dissuade them.  It had come into common use through sheer, cussed, alien stubbornness.

Besides, “Emergency Provisional Government” is a fucking euphemism if ever I’ve heard one.

“No, we don’t have the resources or the people to even think about rebuilding the infrastructure here.  It’ll take years, maybe decades.”  He motioned above them.  “I’ve got relief crews landing now, with Savage/Slaughter troops for security.”

Munroe grunted at the mention of the mercenary unit.  If the Tahni had become Mitchell’s personal Marine Corps, then Kel Savage and Vontez Slaughter’s guns for hire were the new army; the mercenary force had quadrupled in size in the last two years, running under a long-term contract that made them a de-facto part of the armed forces.

“They’ll set up refugee camps on the outskirts of the mega-cities and send drones in to announce that help is available.”  He tossed his head, a Tahni gesture he’d seemed to have picked up with the aliens constantly around.  “They’ll coordinate with the smaller towns who weren’t affected as much and we’ll see about getting the refugees parceled out to them.”

“We’re just writing off Earth?” Fontenot interjected, disbelief strong in her voice.  But there’s still all that industry in orbit and out on Jupiter’s moons.  A lot of it was automated, it should still be running, even if the Changed…”

She trailed off, leaving the words unsaid.  And they were hard words to say, Munroe knew.  “Even if the Changed had killed everyone in the orbital colonies, on Luna, on Mars…”

Billions of people, trillions of dollars, decades of work and resources, all gone in months.

“The production facilities are there,” Mitchell agreed.  “And once we get the wormhole jumpgates cleared of the debris from the wrecked gate stations, we’ll get those resources moving out to Demeter, where we have the people to put them to use.”  His face turned hard, like he had to steel himself to handle the facts.  “There are less than a billion people left alive on Earth, and a good portion of the survivors aren’t trained in anything useful.  Honestly, I expect most of the ones who are will wind up emigrating to the colonies eventually.”

Munroe shuddered involuntarily, as if someone had walked over his grave.  Earth was his home, all their homes when it came down to it.

“We won’t forget her,” Mitchell assured him quietly.  “We’ll come back when the time is right.”

“Sir!”

Munroe and Mitchell both turned at the word, at the human voice and the sound of running footsteps coming back down the avenue from the emergency stairwell.  Munroe recognized the man immediately, a lanky, awkward red-head in a blue Fleet uniform.  Commander Craig Zimick, the pilot who’d flown their lander, was older, seasoned, and not given to overreactions; the fact he was sprinting through the halls of the fallen city alone, gasping for breath was cause for concern.

“What is it, Commander?”  Mitchell had answered before he’d had a chance, sounding suitably imperial, Munroe thought.

“We couldn’t get a signal this deep,” the pilot explained between breaths, bent over, hands braced against his thighs.  “Had to run down…”

Mitchell’s face went stiff and ashen and Munroe knew he’d sensed the man’s thoughts, close to the surface as they must be.

“What the hell is it, Commander Zimick?” Munroe demanded.

“It’s the Syndicate,” Mitchell answered for him, his voice grim.  “They’re hitting the Periphery.”

 

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