New cover, Glory Boy on special, other things…

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I am less than a month from publishing Seeds of Gaia and I have a new cover I like better than the last concept.  Tell me what you think.

seeds of gaia cover 2 resized and adjusted small

 

 

Also, my military SF novel Glory Boy is currently on special for 99 cents for a limited time, for anyone who might not have read it yet.

 

A note on my plans following Seeds of Gaia.

I’m sort of at a crossroads here, and where I go will depend on the response to Seeds of Gaia.  At this point, it’s a one-off stand-alone, but the universe it builds is pretty interesting and rife with possibilities so there may be more books in that world and with those characters depending on how well it does.

I have been writing basically a book every two months for two years now and I don’t know if I can keep up that pace forever without going nuts, so things may slow down after Seeds of Gaia.  Again that depends on how well it does and how much demand there is for a sequel.

Sample from my new book

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I have officially started writing my next SF novel…or re-started, given I wrote about 20,000 words of it nearly 20 years ago.

Here’s the first iteration of the cover (it will probably be re-done a few times.)

Seeds of Gaia Cover

 

And here is the unedited text of the first chapter:

 

 

Chapter One

The fabric of spacetime writhed in birth agony and delivered the sharpened wedge of a starship. Fusion flares lit at the spacecraft’s drive plates, sending it desperately lurching away from the already-closing rift in space and the looming mass of Alpha Centauri A at a punishing five gravities of acceleration. The reason for its haste emerged from the awful nothingness of Transition Space a hundred thousand kilometers closer to the star: a naturalistic, predatory shape bristling with weapons pods and fitted with massively outsized fusion drives.
Deep within the pursuit ship Raven, encased in the gelatinous fluid of an acceleration tank, Captain Samuel Avalon watched his prey through a neural feed from the exterior sensors. With a thought, he called up the intercept course his navigator had already plotted, watching the animated line overlay itself on the sensor image of the fleeing bandit.
Estimated intercept time? He asked, his implanted neurolink relaying the question to the navigator’s g-tank.
One hour at maximum g’s, came the immediate reply.
Execute.
Sam felt his chest squeezed by a giant fist and remembered to whisper a prayer of thanks to Gaia for the blessings of oxygenated biotic fluid. Without the g-tanks, twenty gravities’ acceleration would have ruptured his organs and left him choking in his own blood.
Bandits increasing acceleration to eight g’s, his weapons’ officer announced. They really don’t want to talk to us Sam.
Devon, Sam called to the navigator, can we still get them before they reach the antipodal Transition point?
Not at this rate Sam, the woman replied. He could almost see her shaking her head. Our only chance is if they don’t have g-tanks. They won’t be able to keep up this sort of acceleration long without em.
We can’t chance that, he decided. They’ve already killed three freighter crews…we can’t let them do it again. Arvid, he addressed the weapon’s officer, take out his drives. Make it clean as you can.
Launching.
The Patrol cutter shuddered as the flattened dart of a missile detached itself from the outer hull, maneuvering jets kicking it away from the cutter before its drives lit in a flash of annihilated antihydrogen. The missile streaked away from the cutter as if the ship were standing still, accelerating towards the fleeing bandit at over a hundred gravities.
Throttle us down to one g and let’s get out of these tanks, Sam declared. The missile would stop the bandits or it wouldn’t—there was no point in wasting fuel to be there a few hours sooner.
He felt the pressure ease from his chest and almost immediately the fluid began draining from the g-tank. Taking a breath of air for the first time in over an hour, he gagged, choking out the remains of the oxygenated fluid from his lungs before it had a chance to evaporate. The last of the fluid drained from the tank and then the seal broke, letting in a rush of cold air that sent him into involuntary shivers.
The others were stumbling from their cabinets as he made his way out of the g-chamber and into the communal shower. Sprays of warm water erupted from the walls, scrubbing the dried biotic gel from his skin and hair as the rest of the ship’s crew filed in behind him.
“The hunter-killer should arrive on target in less than a half hour, Sam,” Devon told him, leaning back to let the streams of water at her close-cropped hair. She had an athlete’s physique, but after two years of serving with the same crew, Sam hardly glanced at it anymore.
“Do you think we can get a clean hit?” Carlos, the ship’s medical officer asked her as he moved into the shower.
“No way of knowing,” she shook her head. “The bandit ship is a freighter hull, but you know how they chop those things up. They could have a shitload of armor or they could have stripped off most of their shielding to mount weapons and fuel pods.”
“Why worry about those SOB’s?” Arvid muttered. “They knew what the risks were when they decided to work for the Consensus. Damn Earthers are getting what they deserve.”
“We worry about those SOB’s,” Sam fixed the smaller man with a glare, “because they are human beings, just like us.” The others fell into embarrassed silence, not meeting his gaze. “Get dressed and get to the control room.”
Sam turned and walked through the warm air of the dryers, trying not to look back at them. He knew he was hard on Arvid, but they couldn’t let themselves become like the Earthers, couldn’t allow themselves to have such disrespect for life. If that happened, there would be nothing left worth fighting for.

* * *

Less than ten minutes later, the entire crew was strapped into acceleration couches in the ship’s main control room and Sam Avalon was staring at the tactical holodisplay, watching the blue arrow that represented his missile closing on the red dot of the bandit ship.
“He isn’t increasing his boost,” Devon commented.
“They must not be equipped with g-tanks,” Carlos said. “I’d be surprised if any of them were still conscious.”
“The missile has hit burnout,” Arvid announced. “Still gonna take them before they hit the Transition point.”
Sam thought, not for the first time, how pressing and instinctive the human need for conversation was. Each of them had a computer link and transmitter implanted at the base of their skull and could wordlessly access tactical displays, technical readouts and situational updates from the computer or from each other, yet each of them still felt the need to make such periodic announcements. He didn’t bother trying to prevent it—he might as well have asked them not to breathe.
“We all clear of civvie traffic?” Carlos asked.
“I ran a general area scan when we jumped in,” Devon replied. “Nothing then, let me…”
There was a discontinuity.
For a moment, none of them were aware anything had happened—it was as if they had blinked in unison. Then Sam noticed that the red dot representing the bandit had disappeared from the tactical holotank.
“What the hell?” He blurted, leaning forward against his acceleration restraints. “Where are they Devon? Did they jump?”
“No, they’re just gone,” Devon shook her head. “Our missile too…not a shred of wreckage. What in Gaia’s name?” She looked over at him, frowning in perplexity. “We were just hit with a massive EMP, Sam—all of our sensors were out for almost a second.”
“An Electromagnetic Pulse?” He repeated. “From what?”
“I don’t know, even the cameras blanked out.”
“I can try to get a feed from the Resolution habitats in the Centauri Belt,” Arvid suggested, making the connection without waiting for permission.
The Raven’s AI negotiated with those of the collection of asteroid habitats and within seconds, each of the crew was watching a video feed from an optical telescope located near the inner edge of the belt. Frame by frame the images downloaded into their individual neurolinks, beginning with view of the fleeing bandit craft, its fusion drive glowing like a miniature star. With the next frame, the dart of the intercept missile came into view, a computer-generated outline allowing them to see it against the black background.
The missile drew closer to the bandit ship, and when it was only a thousand kilometers away, something superimposed itself on the blackness, something huge and gray and formless that wiped out everything else in the frame. And then there was nothing.
Raven, Sam ordered the ship’s computer, enhance that image…get me an ID.
Working on it, Sam, the AI promised. There was a long pause, and when the computer spoke to him again, it was with a hesitancy that Sam had never heard before. Sam, I recommend we make for Aphrodite at maximum emergency speed.
“Hey Sam, what gives?” Arvid asked plaintively. “Raven just shut me out of the net.”
“Me too,” Devon confirmed, frowning.
Tell me Raven, Sam ordered.
Let me show you, Sam.
He found himself floating in the darkness, watching the frozen image of the bandit starship, the replay slowed down an order of magnitude below normal speed. It still only occupied the image for a moment, less than a heartbeat, but there was no doubt as to what it was. Basically cylindrical in shape, its fore-end was a gigantic funnel a dozen times the size of the main body, while the aft was a cauldron of fusion fire, an engine so powerful it was contained only with magnetic fields.
Its course passed hundreds of thousands of kilometers beyond the bandit ship, but the unsuspecting starship disintegrated in its wake, torn apart at the molecular level by an electromagnetic field so powerful that it could collect interstellar hydrogen for use as fuel. The intercept missile, another two hundred thousand klicks distant, spontaneously detonated, its explosion lost in the passage of the…the alien. Sam had to force himself to use the word.
But there was no other word to use. No human had built that ship, he was sure. And so, after nearly a thousand years in space, after a century of routine star travel via the Transition Lines, he, Captain Samuel Abanks-Avalon, was the first human to encounter an alien intelligence.
No, not the first…the bandits were the first. Unfortunately for them.
Where is it going? He asked the Raven’s computer.
At its present trajectory, it will skim the outer atmosphere of Alpha Centauri A, Raven told him. Presumably to pick up extra fuel. After that…it is on a direct collision course with the Earth, at over ninety percent of lightspeed.
Sam’s chest tightened as the AI’s words sunk in.
That thing has to be the size of a small planet, he said slowly. If it hits at that velocity…
If it is not stopped, the computer told him, in five years there will be nothing left of Earth but a cloud of rubble.
“Devon,” Sam fairly snarled the words, noticing the shocked expressions on the faces of the others but not caring, “get us to the Transition Point. Fastest circuit back to Aphrodite. Get us home now.”

Life after Imperium

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As you might have seen, I have finished Imperium and with it, the Psi War series…and just maybe, I am finished with the Birthright universe for a while.  I left an opening at the end of Imperium for a future story arc, but honestly, I am itching to write in a new universe with a new history and new rules.  There’s a book I was working on back in the early 2000s called Seeds of Gaia that I abandoned after about 85 pages that I think I am going to go back and finish.  It’s a one-off, self-contained novel, but the universe it lives in is complex and rich enough to spawn its own  series or collection of series.  I wrote 15 novels over 4 different series in the Birthright universe and it may be time to move on.

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.”