“It doesn’t look very comfortable from up here, does it?”
Captain Kevin Vaughn – who was only a Captain by courtesy – turned and smiled at his sole crewmember. Cynthia was a bright young thing, a girl from a diehard Marine family who had insisted on becoming a spacer rather than a groundpounder like her father, brothers or cousins. He had to admire her resistance to peer pressure, even though he privately doubted that she would have survived the Slaughterhouse. It chewed up and broke an alarmingly high percentage of young recruits who made it through six months of Boot Camp.
“The Slaughterhouse isn’t meant to be comfortable,” he said, feeling his legs itch. It was psychometric, the shrinks had said; he’d lost his legs on an operation that had gone badly wrong and had to have them regrown in a tube. “It’s meant to push its victims to the limits.”
He sighed as he gazed down at the planet below. The Slaughterhouse was a confused patchwork of environments, each one possessing its own nasty surprises for unwary recruits, the result of a failed terraforming program. By now, keeping its environment as uncomfortable as possible required a full-time crew, who did everything from replace topsoil to introducing nasty critters from right across the Empire. The Slaughterhouse might break far too many of the recruits, but those who survived were the best damned soldiers in all of history.
“Everything is in working order,” Cynthia assured him. “How long do we have to remain here again?”
Kevin shrugged. The Commandant’s orders had been clear. Polly was to remain behind in orbit after the evacuation, watching and waiting, until something happened. Something had already happened, Kevin had thought rebelliously when he’d been given his orders, but he’d done as he was told. The empty planet below was living history, even if it was a part of history most of the Empire would prefer to forget. Watching it from high orbit was not a particularly unpleasant task.
“As long as we are ordered to do so,” he said, patiently. Cynthia was young. She’d learn patience soon enough. “Besides, it does give us a chance to run all those checks we never managed to do before the state of emergency was declared.”
He sighed, inwardly. The reports had been all too clear. Earth had been destroyed, her society ripped apart by social conflict, then smashed flat as pieces of debris fell from orbit and struck the surface with terrifying force. Kevin had no particular attachment to Earth – he’d been born on a planet hundreds of light years away – but it was still horrifying. Mother Earth might have been a poisoned, polluted mess, home to literally billions of civilians who did nothing but suck at the government’s teat, yet she was still the homeworld of humanity, the planet that had birthed a hundred thousand colony worlds. To know she was gone was terrifying.
Something has been removed from our lives, he thought. He’d heard any number of rumours before the Commandant had ordered the Slaughterhouse closed down, with all of the staff and recruits moved to a secure – and secret – location. And nothing will ever be the same.
“I could bring you a cup of coffee, if you’re busy wool-gathering,” Cynthia said. “Or would you like to find something else for me to do?”
“Coffee would be nice,” Kevin said. “And …”
He broke off as an alarm sounded. “Contact,” he snapped. “Man your station!”
Cynthia obeyed, scrambling into her chair and bringing the sensor console online. Polly was really nothing more than a handful of passive sensors and stealth systems, mounted on a squashed drive unit that had been pared down to the bare minimum. Kevin had no illusions about what would happen if they were detected, even by something as small as a gunboat or a corvette. He and his ship would be blown out of space before they knew they were under attack.
“I have five contacts, all coming out of cloak,” Cynthia snapped. “They must have realised there’s no one here to greet them.”
Kevin nodded, unsurprised. The Slaughterhouse was barely defended, compared to Earth or Terra Nova. No one in their right mind would consider attacking the Slaughterhouse when the reputation of the Marine Corps reached right across the galaxy. But Earth was gone and nothing would ever be quite the same. Who knew what was about to happen now?
“That wouldn’t have been hard,” Kevin said. They weren’t in the best position for optimal observation, but they were close enough to separate individual targets. It helped that the newcomers weren’t even trying to hide. “Give me a complete breakdown, if you can.”
“Three destroyers,” Cynthia said. “All Falcone-class, I think, but one of them has been heavily modified. The other two are light cruisers, probably Peacock-class. They appear to be standard specification, sir.”
“From a self-defence force, then,” Kevin said. That proved nothing. A number of star systems possessed semi-independent self-defence forces. The Grand Senate had regularly considered bills to disarm them, only to run into the threat of outright rebellion. “There aren’t any Peacocks left in the Imperial Navy.”
“Ship-spotter,” Cynthia accused. On the display, the small flotilla moved into orbit, scanning aggressively. “What are they doing here?”
“Good question,” Kevin said. “I have a feeling we’re not going to like the answer.”
The unknowns, whoever they were, were thorough. It was nearly forty minutes of constant scanning before they decided, apparently, that the planet was abandoned. Kevin wouldn’t have taken that for granted, not with the Slaughterhouse; he’d seen entire army divisions carefully camouflaged against orbital observation. There were no shortage of places where the Marines could have hidden their personnel, if they’d remained on the planet. Planets were big, after all. Spacers had a nasty habit of forgetting just how difficult it could be to move from one place to another.
Particularly if there’s an enemy force trying to stop you, Kevin thought, with grim amusement. It can take days to move from one system to another, but it can take weeks to move a hundred kilometres if the enemy is willing to do whatever it takes to slow you down.
Cynthia tapped his shoulder. “What are they doing?”
“I don’t know,” Kevin said, shortly. “I …”
An alarm sounded. “Missile separation,” Cynthia said, swinging her chair back to her console. “Multiple missile separations … sir, they’re firing on the planet!”
Kevin swore. The Slaughterhouse was living history. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Marines had emerged from the Slaughterhouse to fight for the Empire. The structures on the surface contained histories and relics the rest of the Empire, even the military, had chosen to forget. And it was part of a tradition he’d embraced with all his heart, long ago. To be forced to watch it die …
“Airburst detonations,” Cynthia said. “Sir … I don’t understand.”
“Radioactive poison,” Kevin said. Planet-killing weapons were forbidden, full stop. Bombarding a planet was one thing, but actively rendering it uninhabitable … the entire galaxy would rise up in horror. “I …”
He gritted his teeth in bitter frustration as lethal radiation spread through the planet’s atmosphere. Within days, there would be nothing left alive on the surface, unless it was very well protected. Even combat suits would be hard-pressed to shield their users against such levels of radiation. It would be years before radiation levels dropped to the point that anything could be recovered from the surface, then it would need intensive decontamination before it could be touched safely. He sought, frantically, for options, but found nothing.
There was nothing he could do but watch, helplessly, as the Slaughterhouse died.
The law, as the old saying goes, is the true embodiment of society. One can tell a great deal about a society by what it chooses to forbid and what it chooses to permit – and, perhaps more importantly, how it handles crimes.
– Professor Leo Caesius. The Decline of Law and Order and the Rise of Anarchy.
Earth was gone.
Marshall (Detective Inspector) Glen Cheal shook his head bitterly as the unmarked van made its way through Terra Nova’s darkened streets. The sun was setting in the sky, the remaining shoppers hurrying home for fear of being caught outside after curfew. Everywhere he looked he could see the signs of decay and despair; closed shops, abandoned vehicles and armed guards everywhere. It wouldn’t be long, he thought as they drove past a soup kitchen, before Terra Nova followed Earth into the fire.
He caught sight of his own reflection in the wing mirror and shivered. His brown hair was turning grey, his skin leathered and lined after too many stressful years as an Imperial Marshal. It was impossible to escape the feeling that he was old, old and tired. After Hazel had died, after his unborn daughter had died with her, part of him had just wanted to give up on life. Or maybe it was just a reflection of the lost Earth. What was humanity without its homeworld?
“Sandy’s been volunteering at her local kitchen,” Marshall (Detective) Isabel Freeman said, softly. “She says it’s getting harder to find anything, even processed algae.”
Glen nodded, unsurprised. The soup kitchens were the only places still feeding vast numbers of people who had been rendered suddenly destitute by the economic crash, when they’d discovered that all the money they’d invested in the imperial banking system had suddenly evaporated. But with funds drying up everywhere, it was getting harder to ship food from the farms and growth facilities into the cities. It would definitely not be long before the first food riots started, even without the Nihilists pouring fuel on the flames.
“Tell her to stay indoors in future,” Glen said. He rather envied Isabel her skill at managing her work along with a personal life, but right now it just gave her hostages to fortune. His daughter would have been fifteen two days ago, if she had lived. “The shit is heading towards the fan.”
He rubbed his eyes as they passed a school, now shuttered and dark. In his early years as a Marshal, he’d been called to deal with one riot or another on school grounds when the permissiveness of Imperial society finally led to its logical conclusion. Now, the children were either on the streets or cowering at home, mesmerised by the thought of the onrushing tidal wave of destruction. Earth was gone. There were no longer any certainties in the universe.
Isabel nodded. She was tough, Glen had to admit, certainly tougher than she looked. He’d been astonished when she’d been presented to him as a new graduate, one of the last before the Marshal Academy had been closed for the duration of the emergency. At the time, he’d looked her up and down and concluded she’d slept with one or more of the examiners. Now, he knew better. Isabel was tough enough to survive anything. And warm enough to join a group marriage and become a part of something greater than herself.
Something else greater than herself, Glen thought, tiredly. It was late; he would have preferred to go back to his apartment and sleep until his next shift was about to begin. But the tip-off had been urgent, urgent enough for him to forget the idea of going home and arrange for a raid without waiting for clearance. The Nihilists, God damn their black little souls, had a nasty habit of moving around at short notice before popping up to cause chaos.
The handful of people on the streets faded away completely as they drove into the tangled network of warehouses surrounding the nearest spaceport. Most of the warehouses were completely empty, he knew from the reports. Anyone with access to a starship had boarded it and set out for somewhere safer, somewhere isolated from the coming storm. He didn’t blame them, any more than he blamed the endless lines of civilians waiting to book starship tickets, or even taking short hops to asteroid settlements. Terra Nova, Earth’s oldest colony world, was less densely populated than Earth – than Earth had been, he reminded himself sharply – but it couldn’t support itself indefinitely. Law and order were teetering on the brink of falling into absolute chaos.
“I hope your informant was right, Glen,” Isabel said quietly, as they reached the RV point and parked the van. “The boss isn’t going to be very happy if this is a fuck-up.”
“There’s no point in taking chances,” Glen said. The tip-off had been too good to ignore – and besides, part of him would be grateful if he was suspended or fired. He could have left the star system with a clear conscience. “And besides, if we’d waited for approval from our superiors, someone might have tipped off the bastards.”
He gritted his teeth as he checked his pistol, then carefully stashed it beneath his trenchcoat and opened the door. It was an open secret that criminal gangs had made connections to senior officers within the Civil Guard, paying them for everything from advance warnings of any raids to military-grade supplies. And the criminals often had their own links with the Nihilists. The terrorists wouldn’t give a damn about crime, regarding it as yet another manifestation of the hopelessness of existence, but they’d be happy to trade with the crime lords. If someone had advance notice of an attack, they could use it to hide something while the law enforcement forces were distracted.
Outside, the air smelt faintly of oil and burning hydrocarbons. Glen glanced around, spotted the other vehicle some distance from the target warehouse, then made a hand signal inviting Isabel to join him outside the van. Surprisingly, the Civil Guardsmen had actually managed to be discrete when they moved their SWAT team into position. Normally, there was nothing so conspicuous as a Civil Guard force trying to hide. Glen smiled to himself, then led the way to the other vehicle. Inside, it was a mobile command and control centre.
“Marshal Cheal,” a tough-looking man said. “I’m Major Daniel Dempsey, local CO.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Glen said. “Status report?”
He allowed himself a moment of hope. Dempsey looked surprisingly competent for a Civil Guard officer and, more reassuringly, he was wearing nothing more than a basic uniform. The only trace of vanity was a hint that the uniform was tight enough to show off his muscles. Compared to the lines of fruit salad many officers wore, Glen was quite prepared to excuse it.
“Stealth drones reveal the existence of a low-power scrambler field within the warehouse,” Dempsey said, tapping the console. “Passive scans have turned up nothing. Marshal, but the mere presence of a scrambler field is justifiable cause for a raid.”
Glen nodded, shortly. A scrambler field would make it impossible to slip nanotech bugs inside the warehouse – and, unsurprisingly, civilian ownership was thoroughly illegal. The citizens of the Empire had nothing to fear as long as the Empire was allowed to spy on them at will, Glen had been told. But he’d also been a Marshal long enough to know just how easy it was to take something innocent, something that certainly shouldn’t be a criminal offense, and use it as evidence to get someone condemned.
And merely using the field suggests they have something to hide, he thought. But are they really terrorists … or just smugglers trying to get their goods off-planet?
“I will be sending in two teams,” Dempsey said. “And I will assume tactical command.”
“I want prisoners,” Glen said. “Tell your men to stun without hesitation, Major. The Nihilists are rarely taken alive.”
“And one of them might trigger a bomb,” Dempsey agreed. He picked up a helmet, then placed it on his head. “I would prefer it if you two remained here while we carried out the operation …”
Glen made a face. The Civil Guardsmen had made a good showing so far, but the real test would begin when the raid started. He wanted to be on the spot, yet he knew he hadn’t trained beside the Civil Guardsmen. It was quite possible he’d be shot by accident if he inserted himself into the scene before the bullets stopped flying. The Civil Guardsmen were low on enthusiasm and even lower on training.
“Very well,” he said. He took one of the chairs and began studying the views from microscopic cameras inserted around the warehouse. If everything had gone according to plan, the Nihilists had no idea a SWAT team had surrounded them and taken up positions to launch a raid. “Good luck.”
Isabel elbowed him as soon as Dempsey had made his way out of the command vehicle. “You don’t want to take command for yourself?”
“He’s the guy on the spot,” Glen said. In theory, Imperial Marshals had supreme authority to take the lead on any investigation, if they felt like it. But, in practice, it was normally better to let the locals handle it unless there was strong evidence the locals were likely to screw up, deliberately or otherwise. “And his men know him.”
He settled back in his chair and forced himself to watch as the display updated, rapidly. The team had done a good job of surveying their environment, he noted, as well as obtaining the warehouse’s plans from the rental authority. There was only one way into the warehouse, a large pair of double doors on the north side of the building. But, as the Nihilists would almost certainly have the entrance rigged to blow if the wrong people came through, Major Dempsey intended to assault from the rear and blow his way through the walls. Glen rather doubted there was any better options, given the short time they had to mount the raid. God alone knew when the Nihilists would try to move to another location.
And we could try to grab them when they moved, he thought. But that would be too risky.
“They’re moving,” Isabel said. “Team One is assaulting the wall; Team Two is moving to seal the doors.”
Glen took a breath as explosive charges blew holes in the walls. Moments later, armoured troopers ran forward, spraying stun bursts ahead of them. It ran the risk of stunning their own people, Glen knew, but it was the quickest way to clear the building. The prisoners would be moved to the cells, where they could be searched and then woken safely. They would have no opportunity to present a threat to their enemies.
He swore as he heard the sound of gunfire echoing out from the warehouse. Caught by surprise or not, the Nihilists had clearly been prepared – and ready to fight back. He wondered, absently, if someone had tipped them off despite the speed the raid had been organised, then decided it wasn’t likely. The Nihilists were mad, but they weren’t stupid. If they’d expected the raid, they would have rigged the warehouse to blow or cleared out before the shit hit the fan. They had to know that not everyone was as fanatically committed to destroying everything, purely for the sake of destruction, as their leadership.
“Two men down,” Isabel said. “One more injured, but still fighting.”
Glen ground his teeth, helplessly. He hated the waiting, hated having to watch helplessly as other men fought and died. If he’d had a choice, he would have taken a weapon himself and gone into the building, rather than watch the Guardsmen die. But all he could do was wait …
The sound of shooting grew louder. Pushing his thoughts aside, Glen reached for his terminal and began to type out an emergency update. The shooting would attract attention, even now. No one in their right mind wanted to run the risk of one group of Civil Guardsmen turning up to engage another group of Civil Guardsmen. Besides, he had to explain himself to his superiors when they demanded answers. He’d lost quite a bit the moment they opened fire.
“Take the com, tell them to send reinforcements, forensic teams and ambulances,” Glen ordered, as the shooting finally came to an end. One way or another, he was definitely committed now. He would have to pray that the raid had been a success or that his boss was feeling merciful. “I’ll be out there on the spot.”
He jumped out of the command vehicle and strode towards the warehouse, stripping off his trenchcoat to reveal a glowing yellow jacket. No one liked them, particularly the Marshals who had seen military service before making the jump to law enforcement, because they attracted attention, but the risk of being shot by one of his own snipers was far too high without some clear means of identification. He paused long enough to allow the snipers to eyeball him, then walked towards the hole in the wall. Dempsey met him as he reached the gap into the warehouse.
“It’s a mess, sir,” Dempsey said. “Four of my men are dead, two more badly injured.”
Glen made a face as the Civil Guardsmen carried their dead comrades out of the building and laid them, as respectfully as possible, on the roadside. The two wounded were escorted out next, their wounds already being tended by their fellows. In the distance, Glen could hear the sound of sirens as the emergency services converged on the warehouse. He sighed, then followed Dempsey into the building. Inside, it was definitely a mess.
There were hundreds of shipping pallets everywhere, some already broken open and spilling their contents on the ground. One of them was crammed with rifles, a knock-off of a design that was older than the Empire itself, another held SAM missile launchers, although there didn’t seem to be any missiles. That was odd, Glen noted, as he walked deeper into the building. Normally, the missile launchers were single-use fire and forget weapons. But their mere presence boded ill for the future.
“There are over a hundred crates in the warehouse,” Dempsey said, as several dead bodies were carried past them and out into the open air. “If they’re all crammed with weapons …”
“We might have had a serious problem,” Glen finished. Terra Nova was, in theory, a gun-free zone. In practice, the planet was awash with illegal weapons, mostly bought or stolen from the Civil Guard. But the stockpile before him was enough for a major war and it had all been in the hands of the Nihilists. What had they intended to do with it? “Where did they get them from?”
“This is a transhipment warehouse,” Dempsey said, dryly. “Someone must have shipped the weapons in from out-system, then smuggled them past the security guards.”
Glen shook his head in disbelief. Every year, more and more security precautions were added to sweep everything and everyone heading down to the surface. Every year, more and more visitors were irritated or outraged by body-scans and even close-contact searches. Every year, the number of tourists visiting Terra Nova declined still further, damaging the planet’s economy … and yet, the Nihilists were able to smuggle hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dangerous weapons though security without setting off any alarms.
But we caught them, he told himself. There was no way his boss could refuse to say the raid wasn’t justified, not now. We caught the bastards before they could start distributing the weapons.
He turned to look at Dempsey. “How many did we take alive?”
“None, so far,” Dempsey said. He didn’t seem flustered by Glen’s accusing look. It was far from uncommon for terrorists who had killed policemen or Civil Guardsmen not to make it to the station after being taken into custody. “They all had suicide implants, sir. They died moments after they were stunned.”
“Make sure the place is secured, then have the forensic team go through every last inch of the building,” Glen ordered. “I want every one of them identified, I want to know just who let them through security and why …”
“If we have the manpower,” Dempsey cut him off. “Will your boss authorise such an effort?”
Glen swore. With the threat of food riots, nearly every law-enforcement official on the planet had been diverted to patrolling the cities. Even the backroom experts who made the service work had been forced to remember their basic training as they donned armour and set out to try to make the streets a little safer. It was a recipe for disaster, everyone knew, but there was no alternative. They just didn’t have the manpower to flood the streets with officers, let alone Civil Guardsmen.
His terminal bleeped, loudly. It was Isabel’s ringtone. “Excuse me,” he said, removing the terminal from his belt. “Glen here.”
“Glen, I just got called by the boss,” Isabel said. “She’s sending a team of experts over here, but she wants you to report back to the station at once. I think you’re in the shit.”
“Come back this evening … tomorrow morning and dig me out,” Glen said. He wasn’t surprised. The raid had been a great success, but he would still have to answer a great many hard questions. “And bring coffee.”
“Will do,” Isabel said. “What would you like me to write on your gravestone before I dig you up and pit you back to work?”
Glen laughed, tiredly. “Something witty,” he said. “Take over here; let me know if we took anyone captive. We need answers from them.”
He stepped back out of the warehouse and walked over towards the line of vehicles screeching to a halt. One of them would take him back to the station, probably far too quickly for his peace of mind. He needed coffee and a rest, not a lecture from the boss.
But an Imperial Marshal’s work was never done.