Dark Omega

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Chapter 7 FACE OF DEATH

The name ‘Jarra’ was stenciled in capital Common Dominion letters above her right breast. Her mother had named her Jarruvela and called her Little Jewel, but to the rest of the galaxy, she had always been just Jarra. Now she was First Sergeant Jarra, Devil Company, 2nd Assault Battalion, 112th Vaxandi Light Infantry Regiment.

She was locked up tight inside a Devourer-class assault lander parked on the well deck of a massive Coalition’s troop carrier. The rest of her company was there, a hundred plus hulking mesomorph brutes. A geneered offshoot of humanity, the ancients had made mesos bigger, tougher, and stronger than ordinary humans, to better cope with the harsh conditions on the worlds they had been created to settle. Whether by accident, design, or subsequent evolution, mesomorphs had also turned out a bit dim-witted and prone to violence. It didn’t help that most were born into poverty and never received any formal education. My kindred. I left my home on Nightshade to get away from the violence. And look at me now: leading a company into battle.

Jarra and the men and women of her company were currently assigned to the orbital drop elements of the Coalition fleet heading for the surface of a planet called Protasia. Jarra had never heard of the place before. Probably some backwater shithole Archon Guillaume wanted, just so he could brag about having the most worlds under his control.

Their objective was to conduct an assault drop to secure planetary landing sites for follow-up forces. The officers seemed optimistic—no real resistance was expected. Jarra didn’t share their enthusiasm—assault infantry pretty much had the most dangerous jobs in the universe. Drop. Secure the landing zone. Wait for follow-up forces. I’ve been through worse. It’ll be fine.

The rest of the Devourer was filled to the brim with a battalion’s worth of ordinary soldiers, light infantry from the industrialized world of Vaxandi. They were almost universally pressganged, and most of them had only ninety days of basic training, plus whatever time they hadn’t wasted while en route from their homeworld. Jarra found the Vaxandii to be dumb, irreverent, and unsavory—worse than her own people even. Their officers were only marginally more tolerable, better groomed, but equally stupid and ill-mannered.

“Sir,” Jarra snapped to attention with perfect precision as one of the Vaxandii officers made his way down the lander’s port side cargo bay. He was wearing the Coalition’s standard General Infantry Battle Dress, which was nothing more than a self-sealing undergarment, a clamshell cuirass, shin and knee guards, reinforced gloves, and a helmet. Nothing that would seriously impede incoming fire. Hello there, dead man walking.

“At ease, sergeant,” the officer said with deliberate slowness. “I am Captain Kor Amir.” His rank badge said Junior Lieutenant; Jarra took that to mean he had just been breveted to captain for the drop. “I’m in charge of Devil Company now.”

Jarra assumed the at-ease position, legs slightly apart, hands clasped behind her back. So this is the idiot the regiment has assigned as our commander.

“Are the troops ready?” he said in the same maddeningly slow tone. He probably thought Jarra was a dumb as a brick. I wonder what kind of douche came up with the story about the big, stupid mesos. Sort of true, though. She didn’t want to upset the officer’s worldview, so she shouted out a meaningless, “Sir, yes, Sir!” Jarra really wanted this conversation to be over before it had begun.

“Good,” the brevet Captain said, “you make sure the boys and girls strap in. Could get bumpy.” He nodded meekly and backed out of the shadow of the woman towering over him.

Jarra turned to the closest assault squad. “I give him half an hour, tops, after we hit the dirt. They don’t last much longer than that.” Her comment was met by thunderous laughter.

Then the betting started. Very few members of Devil Company thought Brevet Captain Kor Amir would last much longer than ten minutes. Jarra decided to try and keep the poor schmuck alive as long as possible. She had gotten really long odds on that thirty-minute bet.

------

Six and twenty. It’s a miracle. The Black Death had lost two and twenty, nearly half its original inventory of interceptors. Lighter losses than Ajax Shiloh had dared hope for. Plus, most of his birds had quite a bit of ordnance left: the Protasian fighters had proven almost impossible to take down with missiles, so his crews had switched to direct fire weapons after the first failed attempts. We’re going to need every weapon left in our arsenal to get down to the surface.

He twisted his head to look up and out of the Voidraptor’s armored cockpit. Above him towered a Coalition troop carrier. In its cavernous holds, tens of thousands of troopers—an entire assault division and its supporting assets—were readying themselves and their gear for planetfall. Poor schmucks.

“Coming up on the minefields again,” Jubal informed him. Shiloh raised his hand over his head in acknowledgment.

After their little war council, they had doubled back and headed for a group of troop transports that were under attack by Protasian fighter craft. The remaining Voidraptors had struck from behind, routed the enemy, and taken up an escort formation. There was no end to the praise he and his pilots had received for their timely aid. If they ever got to the surface and won this war, a lifetime of free drinks was waiting for the Black Death’s survivors. If we can dodge the firing squad.

“Black Actual to all ships: on me, we’re going to clear a path through those mines. Flight leaders to sweep, wingmen on overwatch. And watch for drones. Actual out.”

Affirmation icons started flashing in front of him, more quickly this time. The slow and the unlucky have already fallen. He opened the throttle slightly, and his Voidraptor sped forward, leaving the lumbering giants behind. Shiloh’s targeting reticule changed from ruby to amber. Good enough. He pressed the firing stud. The Long Toms spat death at the, as yet distant, mines. A mine threat icon blinked and vanished from his targeting visor.

He switched to a new target. He fired again but missed it. Then the mine fired back at him, scoring a hit, but the distance was too great for it to do real damage to the heavily screened and well-armored interceptor. Drone turrets, hidden among the mines, just like I suspected. He adjusted his aim, pressed the stud again, and was rewarded with a distant explosion.

Around Shiloh, the rest of the 134th Interceptor Wing was slicing through the minefield.

------

Shiloh pulled the Voidraptor out of its wildly careening attack run as soon as he felt reasonably sure he was inside the primary point defense belt. The enemy hulk loomed in his sight. It had probably been an orbital factory once, now converted into a makeshift defensive platform. It was bristling with guns but woefully lacking in armor and screening.

He hit the secondary fire stud and Black One’s remaining inventory of hyper-velocity darts ripple-fired into the hulk’s metal surface. The force of the impacts vaporized the super-dense metal arrows, turning them into radiant plasma beams that cut deep into the target. He hit the afterburners, and the interceptor jumped to a hundred-and-eighty Gees of acceleration. Even with the inertial compensation ramped up to the max, he was nearly crushed to death. Only his compression suit and the drugs in his system kept him alive and conscious. But the maneuver had the desired effect: a few seconds later, they had cleared the station and were heading for open space.

“There she blows,” Halcyon mumbled over the intercom, her voice strained after the violent maneuver. Shiloh adjusted his vector, putting more distance between his fighter and the exploding hulk.

Around him, the survivors of the Black Death were hacking the rest of the Protasian orbital defenses to pieces. “Jubal, let the transports know the path is clear.” Shiloh craned his neck to look up at the blue-white orb of Protasia hanging silently above his interceptor. It looked so peaceful, so serene. So that’s what death looks like. Maybe it won’t be so bad? The burning feeling in his gut told him differently.

------

The assault lander bucked and heaved like a wild beast. Anything and anyone not firmly strapped down was tossed about like leaves in the wind. There was screaming, and there was blood. But none of it mine. Nothing to worry about. Jarra looked for the captain. He was in his drop harness, on the verge of panic, but still in one piece. Good, the bet is still on.

She hit the quick-release, and the restraints let go of her tall, muscled body. She took a step forward, flexing her knees a bit as another shock wave hit the lander.

“Sergeant,” Kor Amir screamed after her, his voice shrill with fear.

“Hang on, Sir,” she shouted back, voice dripping with sarcasm, “I’m getting us the hell out of here.”

Jarra pumped her legs as fast as she could, dashing with blinding speed down the cargo hold towards the command module’s access hatch. Too fast. They will know.

But the faces she flashed past betrayed no signs of having noticed her at all. The Vaxandii soldiers were all caught within their own personal waking nightmares: strapped into a metal coffin, trapped inside a dying spaceship, waiting for the end. The giant woman moving faster than humanly possible was the least of their concerns.

Something shook the lander violently. Jarra was suddenly flying, not running. Shit. She slammed into the access hatch with enough force to buckle the metal and crack her body armor. Had she been a normal person, even a normal meso, the impact would have killed her. Nothing natural about me. I’m a freak, an abomination. I’m the monster under your bed.

There was more screaming now, a cacophony verging on mass panic. If the soldiers hadn’t been locked into their harnesses—only officers and non-coms had the authority to release—they’d be milling around the deck now, adding to the chaos and hurting themselves. Fucking idiots. She grabbed the edges of the hatch, closed her eyes, and let out the fear and the anger pent up inside. She strained mightily. Her body became slick with oily sweat. The metal tore.

One of the Vaxandii looked directly at her, eyes big as saucers. He’d just watched the impossible happen: the woman in front of him hard ripped the bulkhead apart with her bare hands. Jarra tossed the slab away like it was made of cardboard. It hit the soldier with enough force to reduce his body to bloody ruin. One less witness.

Jarra squeezed through the opening. It was a tight fit. Mesomorphs in full battle armor clearly weren’t supposed to be entering the command module. Lucky I’m so petite. She tore off her dented cuirass and managed to haul her one hundred and twenty kilos through the access tunnel and into the cramped cockpit. As soon as she stuck her head inside, she could see the debarkation deck through the mono-crystal windows—complete and utter chaos, broken and burning landers, exploding munitions, mutilated bodies. We’re out of time.

The three-man flight crew looked at her, a mixture of confusion, fear, and anger showing on their faces.

“We’re launching,” she informed the pilot.

He tried to protest. Something about launch doors not being open.

“Make an opening,” she growled.

The navigator went for his sidearm. Jarra backhanded him in pure reflex. She struck him, hard, cracking his skull. He dropped his gun and slumped forward, dead or dying. I’m still pumped. Calm down bitch.

She pulled out her own sidearm, a massive .60-cal Blood Eagle revolver. It was a primitive firearm, but up close, it was no less effective than a coilgun. The distinction was lost on the lander crew anyway.

“Take off. Now,” Jarra barked and pushed the Eagle into the pilot’s cheek. He didn’t budge. Could be fear, could be defiance. “Last…” she began. A brilliant spear of light cut through the debarkation deck, destroying several landers and opening a gash in the hull of the dying starship. Planetary defense cannons. They have us boxed in. In thirty seconds, it will be over.

Jarra pulled the trigger. The pilot’s head came apart. She turned to the co-pilot, not quite pointing the smoking gun at his face. “Wanna live?”

He didn’t reply, just nodded, and began working the flight controls. The Devourer shot up and forward, through the tear in the ship’s hull, and into open space.

“Good,” she said and holstered the Eagle. Now take us down to that fucking planet. We’ve still got work to do.”

------

Wing Commander Ajax Shiloh followed the space-grey-and-sky-blue Devourer-class assault landers of a Vaxandi light infantry regiment down towards the surface. It was beyond intense, a descent down into the fiery jaws of hell.

First came squadrons of heavy aero-fighters. They were fast and heavily armed but had no screens. Shiloh’s Voidraptors knocked them from the sky in droves with missiles and pulse cannons.

He lost a couple of ships to high-altitude anti-aerospace saturation missiles. There was nothing to be done about it. The mathematics of war at play again.

Next up were swarms of smaller multirole fighters. They were a threat to the landers, but against the Voidraptors, they were hopelessly outmatched as long as they weren’t allowed to close to knife-fight distances. Brave, but unskilled. Shiloh banked hard left to avoid a duo of enemy fighters, then barrel-rolled to cut inside the more maneuverable enemy craft. They tried to break away, but Jubal walked a string of coilgun tracers through both enemy craft, and they blew apart. Flying that tightly packed is good for air shows, but not for real combat.

On Shiloh’s orders, the remaining Black Death ships pulled up just outside the range of the point-defense flak batteries. The Devourers had no such luxury. They had to make it all the way down to the surface to disgorge the assault battalions. Shiloh watched as lumbering landers passed through a veritable wall of fire. At least half the Devourers were destroyed before they reached their landing zones.

There was nothing more he could do to help them but say a quick prayer to the gods of death. Anubis, guide them. Osiris, lightly judge them. Nephthys, watch over them. Hades, guard them against the Shadow.

------

They almost made it. Only a few hundred meters remained until planetfall, when a flight of enemy aero-fighters flashed by, almost too fast to register. Pulse beams and coilgun tracers flashed back and forth between the lander and the attackers. One of the lithe fighter craft blew apart, and then the enemy was gone, burning away at low altitude to avoid the Coalition escort.

The Devourer seemed strangely untouched, and for a few seconds, Jarra imagined they had passed through the gauntlet, that they were safe. Then she saw the co-pilot, wrestling with unresponsive controls, and realized there would be no landing, but a crash. The cockpit isn’t a good place to be when we hit the ground. She turned around and began making her way towards the rear, toward the troop compartment. Wonder if the captain is still alive?

------

Black Actual watched as a flight of enemy fighters flashed past, firing on a lander on final approach. For a moment, Shiloh thought the Coalition craft would make it, but the Devourer just continued downward until it plunged headfirst into the landing zone. There can be no survivors after a crash like that, can there?

“You don’t have to be an Army general to see that the landing operation is a complete mess,” Halcyon said over the intercom. From her station under the belly of the Voidraptor, she had an excellent vantage point.

“Yeah, it’s a complete blaze,” Axe agreed.

Shiloh cut in. “How about we mess up some more enemies to make the mess complete?”

The question was entirely rhetorical but conjured another round of laughter. Too bad we didn’t laugh more when we had the chance.

Black One came around and chased after the retreating enemy aircraft.

------

“Well, Captain,” Jarra said without bothering to face her superior officer, “what do you make of them?”

“Make of who?” brevet Captain Kor Amir replied lamely.

Jarra sighed. “Those guys,” she said, pointing her binoculars at a small group of men trying to move stealthily—and failing miserably—across the darkening battlefield. “The fighter crew. Are they friendlies or hostiles?”

One of the jockeys was kind of cute, so Jarra was inclined to count them as friendlies. She thought she could make out his name patch: Shiloh or some bullshit like that. His distinctions had been deliberately removed, so she couldn’t tell his rank, but it was easy enough to see he was in charge. He was also hopelessly lost on the surface of this world. That’s flyboys for you.

Seeing that no reply was forthcoming from Kor Amir, not this side of midnight anyway, Jarra made the decision for him. “I’ll take that as ‘friendly,’ Sir.”

She walked over to the sentinel manning the heavy pulser and thumped her fellow Devil Company survivor on the shoulder. “Don’t shoot them.”

“Why not?” he replied, sounding disappointed.

“They are friendlies,” Jarra explained. “Let them through.” She thumped him again, harder, to make sure he didn’t forget. Mesos could be a little slow sometimes.

------

It was the machine that had put an end to their sojourn over Protasia. Tekton had informed Shiloh that he could no longer keep the craft flying. They had taken too much damage, Black One was mortally wounded, it was either land or crash.

Shiloh had found them a landing spot and set the interceptor down for the last time. They had debated whether to stay by the ship or not, but the appearance of a column of enemy armor made the choice for them. It was pack up and move—or stay and die. They had to torch the ship, couldn’t let the enemy take it. It was the saddest thing I ever saw.

They had wandered through the ruined countryside for several days, looking for Coalition soldiers, but finding only dead ones. There had been heavy fighting in the area, but the war had moved on. The only live people around was Shiloh and his crew, and an ever-growing number of Protasian soldiers. Maybe some kind of counteroffensive? For all, I know we’ve lost the bridgehead.

Shiloh considered himself to be the best pilot in the Coalition. He also had some leadership skills. But he was utterly useless as a ground commander. Their little band would have been captured or killed, had they not stumbled into the remnants of Devil Company: a few hundred soldiers of the Rose, including several dozen mesos in assault armor, drawn together from many different regiments.

They were led by a towering giant of a woman. The one that got them out of that lander alive. Well, there was that Vaxandii captain, of course, but he was a complete idiot. She pretended he was in charge, and he pretended right back at her. All the soldiers were in on it too. They know she’s their best chance of getting out alive. I know it also.

She, Jarra, was sitting across the table, picking her nails with a bayonet that had been sharpened to a razor’s edge. When first Shiloh had seen her, he had marveled at her size. She was nearly two meters tall. Probably well over one hundred kilos of lean muscle and bone; she had the most toned body he had ever seen. Then it had dawned on him: she wasn’t a baseline human. She was a mesomorph. A transhuman, a descendant of an ancient geneering program, from a time before there even was a Dominion. Mesos were known for their great size and enormous strength. And equally for their great appetites and dull wits.

Shiloh hadn’t met many meso girls before, so his experience with them was limited, but he’d expected dumb and ugly. Jarra certainly wasn’t. Her eyes were shrewd, and her tongue razor sharp. She’s damn pretty. Compared to the hulking males, she was, for lack of a better word, petite. Small, slender, delicate. That’s my type. Usually, that means around fifty kilos, not a hundred and fifty.

“Are you staring at my tits again, flyboy?” Jarra said. “If you want to see them, let me know. I’ll take my top off for you, soon as I’ve rammed my fist up your backside.”

“Err…” was all he could say. Why was it that his wits abandoned him whenever Jarra was near? She must think me a complete idiot.

“You’re actually kind of cute, but you’re too tiny for me. And if I wanted the silent, dumb kind, I would go for one of my own boys. At least they’ve got the right size of gear,” she said in the same slow voice she used with her subordinates.

Great. She has me in the dumb-as-an-ogre category.

Jarra suddenly stood. “Come with me. I’ve something I want you to see. We took a prisoner yesterday, and he’s even more obstinate than they usually are. Keeps going on about ‘the Word of the Light’ and some ‘Prophet.’ I’m thinking heresy, might have to find us a priest or one of them dragon boys, but I thought I’d get a second opinion from an officer. Kor Amir is such a twat, so that leaves you, Wing Commander Shiloh.”

“I…” Shiloh replied, desperately trying to find something intelligent to say.

“You don’t have to say anything, dear, just keep your mouth shut unless you have something clever to add.”

“Ahh…” he tried, gave up, and hastened to follow her long strides. Well, at least the view is excellent, he thought, eyes fixed on her firm behind.

------

Jarra hadn’t wanted to go there with the prisoner until an officer gave her the go. So he had. The bayonet had made all the difference, Shiloh was forced to admit. It had been the most sickening display of calculated cruelty he’d ever witnessed. But it had been worth it. Up until the bayonet came out to play, the prisoner wouldn’t talk, not for real. He just kept on going about false gods and the wrath of the Prophet and that sort of nonsense.

He was still a tough nut to crack, even with the blade cutting into him, but he was human, so when his skin began to peel off under Jarra’s expert administrations—Shiloh tried not to think too much about where she had learned to skin someone alive—he’d come to his senses. Gone were the snide comments and the defiance. Gone was the Word of Light this and the Prophet that.

Instead, he was crying and begging like a real human being, even as he explained how he was just one cog in the vast machinery of faith that stretched across the stars. Shiloh figured making Protasia the religious center of the universe was an exaggeration, but he couldn’t quite shake the feeling that they were on to something big.

The prisoner was loyal neither to Protasia nor to the Gods. He served the Will of the Prophet as told by the Word of Light, their Holy Scripture. The Prophet seemed to be both their founder and their current leader, but that would make him impossibly old.

On the surface, it seemed to be a faith not too far removed from the Conclave’s teachings, but it was all a lie. Shiloh was no more a Quaestor than Jarra. They didn’t need to be. The stuff the prisoner told them had been nasty, really nasty. Trafficking with dark spirits, communing with the deepest pits of the Abyss. Something called Ragnarök, the Final Battle, when the Gods would die, and the age of eternal darkness begin. No battle will ever be the final one. There is always one more battle, one more war. The Prophet would, of course, rule this darkness, and his followers would have a special place in this dark hell. That part was so predictable Shiloh almost laughed. Almost.

Jarra agreed this was way above their pay grade, so they had put in the call. By then, their comms were back up and running. They hadn’t lost the bridgehead after all, possibly due to the extra battalions the Reapers had helped escort down.

After a little back and forth between Shiloh and a couple of Coalition officers, as soon as he actually said the words ‘Word of Light,’ a deep voice had cut in over the voice link. “Keeper Kaminsky, Ordo Draconis. Authorization: Dark Omega. Go secure.” The comms set had made a series of strange beeps and switched over to another encryption protocol, one that shut out all other listeners. Only Shiloh and Kaminsky remained.

Dark Omega. Shiloh had heard about it, of course, he’d just never taken it seriously. It was the ultimate clearance level, one that went back to the days of the Dominion. It supposedly ignored all political boundaries and held as much power over the nobility and the members of the Triumvirate as it did the common people. He’d always called bullshit on that one. Now he wasn’t so sure.

They’d been told by this Kaminsky to keep the prisoner away from the men. Not a huge problem, he’d let the Keeper know: after they were done with the questioning, Jarra had put a bullet in his head, and on Shiloh’s orders, the corpse had been burned. The voice on the other end hadn’t sounded too happy about that, but he eased up some after Shiloh told him it was only him and Jarra that had spoken to the guy, and that they’d made a recording of it.

Now they were waiting for someone from the Dragon Order to come pick them and their recording up. Shiloh wasn’t looking forward to it, but there was nothing he could do. He’d attached himself to their ad-hoc aerospace defense section. Dark Omega or not, he didn’t want anyone shooting at the Order by accident. He’d heard what they did to people they didn’t like. He wasn’t sure he believed that either, but it was better to be careful than dead.

Shiloh had waited less than two hours when a matte black dropship without markings came towards their position at low altitude from the direction of planetary north. Shiloh looked down at the tracking display. For a brief moment, the sensors were able to pierce the target’s stealth systems and lock on. Then the screen flashed ‘Dark Omega,’ and everything went dark.

Shiloh lifted a pair of binoculars to have a look at the approaching aircraft. The ship came in at an oblique angle. The side door facing him was open. Someone was standing in that opening. Shiloh zoomed in. A Draconic Knight, his armored exo-suit the same dead black as the dropship. His face shield was retracted. Shiloh upped the zoom again.

The knight was grotesquely disfigured, as if his face had melted, then frozen solid again. He turned his head to look in Shiloh’s direction. He had no eyes, yet his gaze bored into Shiloh’s soul, searching, prodding—finding. The binoculars fell from stiff fingers. So this is what death really looks like.

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