9 Aug

For those who enjoyed ‘On The Imperium’s Secret Service,’  this is a semi-sequel set in the same universe.

Chapter One

They approached from the west, hidden in the night sky, floating down towards the towering CityBlock. No eyes looking up saw them; no sensor system picked up their silent passage as they glided through the sky. The gliders were almost transparent and the shapes of the men under the wings were so small as to be almost invisible. They closed in on their target and no one saw them coming.

Captain Edward Stalker, Imperial Marines, braced himself as their destination came into view. Landing a tiny force of Marines on top of the giant CityBlock was a gamble, but there was little alternative. The Nihilists who had overwhelmed the Civil Guard and taken the entire block hostage wanted nothing, apart from the chance to embarrass the Imperium and demonstrate their willingness to die for their beliefs – taking upwards of eight thousand hostages with them. Rowdy Yates CityBlock had played host to forty thousand registered citizens, mainly class-two and class-three. The Nihilists had forced all, but the children to flee for their lives. Given time, they’d rig the CityBlock to explode, murdering all the children in a single grotesque act of rage against the universe. It could not be allowed.

“Steady,” he subvocalised, as the Marines started their final approach. The winds buffeted them, forcing two of the Marines to fall back as they struggled to compensate. Homeworld had long since lost whatever natural features it had once possessed, buried under the endless cities piled upon cities, creating a weather system unmatched anywhere else within the Imperium. “Link into the UAV and locate the rooftop guards.”

The UAV was a tiny aircraft, barely larger than Ed’s fist. Hovering over the CityBlock, it downloaded its images in short compressed microbursts, allowing the Marines to pick out the handful of terrorists positioned on the roof. Only five of them, Ed noted; the Nihilists had to be more concerned about the Civil Guard battalions outside the CityBlock than they were about the possibility of someone landing on their heads. Not that they were that far wrong, he had to admit. They’d only been able to scrape up twenty gliders before the operation had to be launched, limiting their ability to hit the Nihilists before they detonated their explosives and killed everyone inside the CityBlock. A single mistake could doom the entire operation.

“Go,” he ordered.

Seventeen Marines twisted free of the gliders and dropped out of the sky, falling down towards the rooftop. Antigravity units cut in a microsecond before they hit the solid metal covering the CityBlock, cancelling their velocity and allowing them to land gently. The five guards saw a flicker of movement, if anything, before the Marines took them out with swift savage blows. Ed had worried that some of them might be enhanced, with augmentation that might even the odds against the Marines, but they all seemed to be baseline humans. They certainly died quickly enough.

The Nihilists were the worst of the terrorist groups to plague the Imperium in recent years. Unlike the Secessionists, who wanted to cut the outer worlds free of the Imperium, or the League of Alien Allies, who wanted equal rights for non-humans, the Nihilists simply wanted to kill. But not just simple acts of murder; the Nihilists wanted to kill as many people as they could in public, daring the Imperium to stop them. Psychologists claimed that the Nihilists were merely another sign of the social decay that had been spreading through the Imperium over the last hundred years; paranoids claimed that they were backed by the Secessionists, or even an outside alien power like the Snakes. Ed found it hard to care. The Nihilists were fanatics who had reprogrammed themselves to ensure that they could never be taken into custody, let alone interrogated by the Marines. All that mattered was killing them before they could complete their plans and slaughter thousands of children.

He motioned towards the hatches leading down into the CityBlock and allowed the hard-entry specialists to lead the way. Two more Nihilists had taken up position inside the building, but they hadn’t been in position to realise that anything had happened to their guards. No Marine unit – and only a handful of Civil Guard units – would allow themselves to be caught so easily, but the Nihilists really didn’t care. If they were going to die soon enough, at their own hands, taking basic precautions probably didn’t matter.

“Deploy nanoprobes,” he ordered, as the Marines slipped into the CityBlock. He’d made the call earlier not to risk probing the building, assuming that the Nihilists would have deployed counter-nanotech systems of their own. Now, the Nihilists would realise that they were under attack soon enough, rendering the advantages of restricting intelligence-gathering systems moot. “Red Platoon, follow me; Gold Platoon, follow Sergei.”

The interior of any CityBlock was a maze, filled with thousands of tiny box-like apartments, shopping malls, entertainment zones and eateries, and the internal life support utilities that kept the population fed, watered and in reasonably good health. No force could hope to seal all of the possible routes from the roof down to where the Nihilists had to be hiding, or so Ed hoped; there was little hard data on just how many Nihilists were taking part in the operation. The nanoprobes raced ahead of the Marines, scanning for enemy positions and noting a handful of booby-traps, damage caused by the first strikes and far too many bodies scattered around. A red icon blinked up in his internal retina display as the nanoprobes located a sizable enemy position. Nine Nihilists, gathered in a point that would allow them to deter anyone coming at them from up or down.

“Someone’s been doing some thinking,” Rifleman Lewis commented. “You think the bastards know we’re here?”

“Confirmed,” Specialist Martin Prince snapped. Unlike the rest of the Marines, Prince was outside, watching through the nanoprobes as they spread further down into the CityBlock. “I just lost a handful of probes to countermeasures. They know we’re here.”

Ed nodded, rapidly motioning for the Marines to force their way into the elevator shaft. The Nihilists had probably thought that they were clever, shutting down the elevators so that no one could use them. Not too bad thinking, except there was no reason why the Marines couldn’t simply climb down the tubes and use it to take the Nihilists in the rear. Of course, they might have thought of that and rigged the doors…it was what Ed would have done in their position. He allowed himself a grin as Lewis led the way down into the shaft. This was what he lived for.

“Order the surrounding units to move in,” he ordered. Outside, there were upwards of twenty thousand Civil Guardsmen, backed by three armoured Marine companies and a regiment from the Grenadier Guards. Spearheaded by the Marines, Ed had no doubt that they would clear the lower levels very quickly, providing one hell of a distraction. Even if the Nihilists knew that his team was above them, they were still going to have to divert most of their forces to deal with the loudest threat. “Try and locate the children.”

He glanced at the update from the nanoprobes as he lowered himself down the shaft. A small war had broken out inside the sports stadium at the heart of the CityBlock, fought out between different groups of nanomachines, each so tiny that the naked eye could never have picked them up. Simple process of elimination suggested that the main body of the Nihilists – and their hostages – had to be grouped inside the blind spot, where they could maintain control of the kids. They’d driven out the adults to make it harder for their hostages to fight back.

“Putting the debonder on the doors now,” Lewis said. “Activation in three…two…one…now!”

The debonder activated, dispelling the energy field holding atoms together over a radius of two metres. A solid elevator door, armed and armoured to withstand explosions, fire and atmospheric changes simply collapsed into dust. The Marines charged through the hole, their weapons already swinging round to target the Nihilists at the far end of the corridor. There was a brief burst of firing and the Nihilists were wiped out. None of them had time to bring their own weapons around to deal with the sudden threat from behind them.

“Gold reports success, sir,” Sergei reported. “The Point Men are pressing up from below.”

Ed nodded. Ignoring the handful of holdouts on the lower levels, the Marines were securing chokepoints while trapping the Nihilists and pushing the reinforcements up as fast as they could. Ideally, his platoon would wait for reinforcements before proceeding, but that might give the Nihilists a chance to redeploy to face the unexpected threat. They had to move ahead as quickly as possible.

“Continue the attack,” he ordered. “They know we’re here; I say again, they know we’re here.”

The Marines advanced rapidly down the corridors towards the sports centre. A handful of improvised booby-traps exploded in their path, wounding a couple of Marines, but the remainder kept going. Several Nihilists set up firing positions, blazing plasma fire down towards the Marines and forcing them back, at least until the Marines brought up their own HVM launchers. There was no longer any point in trying to conceal their presence; the high-explosive HVMs wiped out the Nihilists defenders before they could retreat.

“See if you can get eyes into the stadium,” Ed ordered, as the Marines pushed onwards. The Nihilists had hostages, so where were they? The stadium could seat ten thousand, according to the infodump they’d pulled from Homeworld’s population monitoring department; had they simply packed the kids in like sardines and left them there? “Where are the bloody hostages.”

“I found some of them” Sergei called. Ed could hear the sound of firing behind his voice. “They’ve got the kids serving as fucking human shields.”

The calculating part of Ed’s mind noted that that was atypical behaviour for the Nihilists. They were more interested in dying for their cause than taking and using human shields, unless their cause had finally started to evolve. The rest of his mind winced at the thought of children dying in the crossfire, a thought he pushed away as savagely as possible. There simply wasn’t time for sentiment.

“I’m moving up behind them,” he said, leading four Marines down a side corridor. The live feed from Sergei’s implants showed terrified children, their hands bound together with plastic ties, cowering in front of the Nihilist positions. Behind them, the Nihilists poured plasma fire from a pair of heavy plasma cannons towards the Marines, forcing Sergei and his men to keep their distance. Marine armour was good, but nothing short of hullmetal could stop a plasma cannon that had been rigged to overload. The kids were already showing signs of sunburn. “Just try and keep the bastards pinned down.”

Orders were rapidly exchanged between the Marines as they slipped into the rear of the stadium. Children were lying everywhere, some clearly knocked around by the Nihilists for daring to object to their role in their grand plans. A pair of Nihilists saw the Marines coming in and reached for their weapons, only to be cut down before they could fire. The team with the heavy plasma cannons started to swing them around, too late. Ed killed four of them personally.

A high-pitched whine blew through the air as one of the plasma cannons started to overload. Ed swore and bellowed orders to the children. “GET UP, GET BACK,” he yelled. The Marines were already moving to clear the way for the children, who were staggering to their feet and starting to run. One of the Marines started to examine the cannon, before cursing out loud and diving for cover. “RUN, JUST RUN, YOU DAMN FOOLS…”

The plasma cannon exploded into a tearing white sheet of flame. Three Marines, trying to cover the children, took the full brunt of the blast and died as their armour overloaded. The force of the blast slammed others against solid walls, breaking bones and cracking armour; a number of kids, utterly without protection, died in a heartbeat as the superhot plasma surge flashed over them. Ed picked himself up and shuddered, cursing the Nihilists out loud. Hostage rescue was always chancy, with the potential to do everything right and still lose, yet it hurt to lose even one.

“Get the medics up here, now,” he barked. The solid metal in the walls had channelled the blast, directing it against kids and Marines with equal abandon. Even the children far away enough not to be killed instantly had been burned. “Red platoon; follow me.”

The Nihilists had to realise that they’d lost any chance of holding the CityBlock for much longer, he knew. Prince’s nanoprobes were pushing slowly into the stadium, revealing kids – unsurprisingly – and a Nihilist team working desperately on what looked like explosives. Bringing down the entire City Block would be damn near impossible, even with a competent military-trained demolitions expert, but they could certainly tear up the interior, as well as slaughtering all the kids and most of the rescue force. Red platoon followed him as the nanoprobes finally defeated their opponents, providing clear imagery of the stadium. At least the Nihilists weren’t slaughtering kids right, left and centre. They preferred to kill hundreds of people – if not thousands, or millions – in one go.

And they’d set up barricades around all the possible ways into the stadium…

“Follow me,” he snapped, skimming through the CityBlock plans. They were hundreds of years old and probably outdated, but the basic structure couldn’t be changed very easily, if at all. There were rooms they could break into and use the debonder to cut their way into the stadium, outflanking their guardposts. Unless the Nihilists had figured that out for themselves. “Lewis; start cutting through the walls.”

“I think they’re completing the work on their bomb,” Prince said, through the datanet. “The bloody thing has its own swarm of nanites defending it.”

The Marines sliced through the first wall and found themselves almost bowled over by a sudden tidal wave of basketballs. Ed kicked them aside as they reached the second wall and reduced it to atoms, breaking into what looked like a girls changing room. A pair of bodies lay on the ground, both naked, with their throats cut. It didn’t take much imagination to work out what the Nihilists had done to them before they’d been killed. Rape wasn’t a usual part of their operations, but the scrum they hired from the undercity knew no limits, or simple human decency. Ed had grown up in the undercity himself, one of the lucky few to climb out of the gutter and into a decent position, and he had no sympathy for those who chose to stay behind.

“This is the final wall,” Lewis said. The Marines took up position, linking their augmentations into the live feed from Prince’s nanoprobes. “Ready…now!”

The wall fell into dust. A second later, the Marines opened fire, targeting the Nihilists before they could react. Ed was already moving forward, motioning for the Marines to target the Nihilist guardposts before they could start sending people back to trigger the bomb. Ignoring the firing, Lewis checked the Nihilist explosive and smiled, thinly.

“Chemical explosive, linked to a makeshift FAE,” he reported. He held the debonder against the detonator system and reduced it to atoms, along with most of the chemical explosive. A bomb built by a Marine would have a secondary detonation system, but the Nihilists didn’t seem to have had time to set one up. “Very basic design, sir.”

Ed nodded as the firing died away. Homeworld had the strictest gun control laws in the Imperium, but they had never stopped criminals, terrorists and fearful citizens from obtaining weapons on the black market. Even explosives could be found if one had the right connections. Luckily, the Nihilists wouldn’t have been able to move the bomb into the CityBlock in one single operation, or there would have been no stopping them.

“There are more children in this room,” he said, quietly. Most of the kids were crying openly, even the ones who looked almost old enough to start producing children of his own. Ed had known girls who were grandmothers at twenty, back in the undercity. “Get the medics up here and then order the Civil Guardsmen to make sure that the entire block is searched thoroughly. God only knows what other surprises the Nihilists have left behind for us.”

He removed his helmet and ran his hand through his crew-cut hair as the medical teams rushed into the stadium, followed by the investigators. Ed doubted that Imperial Intelligence would be able to find anything that might lead them to the Nihilists who led the movement – whatever else could be said about them, their devotion to operational security was impressive – but it had to be tried. Besides, they might get lucky.

“Seventeen dead, Captain,” Master Sergeant Gwen Patterson reported. Ed winced. He’d feel all of those deaths later, when the combat surge had worn off and he felt human again. His Marines had worked together for long enough to make them a family. “Plus thirty-seven in the Blackshirts.”

“Understood,” Ed said. There was little love lost between the Marines and the black-uniformed Civil Guardsmen. “And how many civilians did we lose?”

“We don’t have a count yet,” Gwen said. “Captain, we could have lost them all.”

Ed knew that, but it was small consolation. The Nihilists had succeeded in at least one of their goals; they’d shocked Homeworld, again. Their next atrocity might kill thousands, or millions. God knew that there were plenty of ways to kill millions of humans in one go.

“Yeah,” he said. He cleared his throat as he stood up. “That’s enough of feeling sorry for myself. Let’s make sure that the Blackshirts are ready to take over this mess.”

“You’d better leave that to Sergei,” Gwen informed him. “We just received a message. The Commandant wants to see you, immediately.”

“Understood,” Ed said. It felt like desertion, but the Commandant’s word was law. Besides, now that the fighting was over, the Marines would be put back into barracks until they were needed again. “Sergei; you have command. I’ll contact you as soon as the Commandant has finished with me.”

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