Dark Omega

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Chapter 8 HUMAN AFTER ALL

Marcus pulled his interactive mental compartment back from the neural stream. It had been a vivid experience, watching events as they happened. Much more immersive than listening to a lecture. Like a trip into virtual, but more profound. I became them, Shiloh and Jarra. I could hear their thoughts, feel their emotions. Stand face to face with a legend.

Keeper Kaminsky of the Harbingers wasn’t a man you forgot. The blind legate was one of the Order’s most notable characters. When out of armor, his burned, eye-less face made him instantly recognizable. He had a centuries-long career under the Dragon banner. His victories were many and great, but it was for a single spectacular failure—the loss of his entire division—he was remembered the most.

For many years now, he’d led the Harbingers, once considered the most elite force within the Ordo Draconis. Now it was a unit, small in size and operating a single starship, where misfits and old Knights were sent to die. It still had a fearsome reputation and was called upon to undertake the most dangerous missions, but the band of pariahs had no influence with the Assembly anymore.

Marcus knew that Xerza had some dealings with the blind legate-warrior from time to time. Personally, he’d only met the keeper in passing, exchanging nothing more than polite greetings. Where does Kaminsky fit into this? A mere coincidence? Or something more?

“How are you doing, young man?” Vern was watching Marcus closely, with a worried expression on his face.

“Full psychometric recordings. Amazing. How was it done? Are there more stored in the Maiden’s archives?”

“I told you he’d be fine,” Haides said.

“Based on what? A hunch?” Vern’s voice made no secret of his disapproval.

“I drink, I kill—and I know stuff,” Haides replied. “And this I know: this Marcus Aurelian who sits with us, he is no ordinary man. He is a legate extraordinaire, a scion of Apollo, and a dragonsworn. If anyone has what it takes to make it all the way, it is he.”

What is this? Why the sudden praise? Up to this point, Haides hadn’t been welcoming or forthcoming at all. He was—judging by his psychic aura—cold and manipulative, and not prone to outbursts of praise or showing affection. A change of heart? Or a change of tactics? I must be wary.

“He might be. I’ll give you that, Haides. But rushing won’t do him any good. Slow and steady is better, safer.”

Haides ignored the older man. “Welcome to the Third Circle of Hell, Marcus. You’ve made it here in record time.”

“I do not spy the great worm,” Marcus said, pretending to look for the three-headed serpent—a fearsome beast that lurked in the third layer of Inferno—in the darkness beyond the ring of light.

Vern laughed out loud. Even Haides couldn’t keep a faint smile from his lips—he quickly washed it away with a sip of liquor.

“Am I to understand that the security measures have a dual purpose? That they are intended to keep me safe?”

Haides’s eyes narrowed, but it was Vern who replied. “There are not many who can step inside the mind of another and step back out, unchanged. You’ve proven that you can, and that’s good. But there are ways to check without throwing you into the deep end.”

“There is worse to come. If he’d failed this test…” Haides left the rest unsaid. “Have you heard enough about Akakios and Protasia, Marcus? Can we return to my story now?”

Marcus had a mouthful of conniaco, thinking through his options. Haides was the gatekeeper, but Vern was the architect and chief archivist. The older man was clearly also a psychic shadow, and like Haides, he retained some of his personality. He could be befriended—and manipulated. It would perhaps be possible to play the two against each other. Or find a security hole where their responsibilities overlapped and their priorities differed. The more time Marcus spent with both of them, the higher the chance of gaining an advantage.

“I would like a summary of the rest of the war, but no more deep dives,” Marcus replied, turning back to the savant. “If you would, Master Vern?” On the other side of the desk, Haides let out a faint sigh and settled back into creaking leather, glass in hand. The third one thus far. Definitely fond of drink in real life.

Vern smiled, happy to be lecturing. “Despite stiff resistance, the Coalition Navy had accomplished its mission: the troop conveyors settled into orbit. Sixty Coalition Army divisions dropped onto the surface, opening up three major bridgeheads. Losses were higher than expected. Fully twenty percent of the invasion force was destroyed before they even set foot upon Akakian soil.”

I know what it was like—I was there to witness it. In the darkness, Marcus saw the contours of the Coalition commander center. Dim lighting across metal surfaces, huge holo-displays, and countless monitors, with military officers and data analysts going about their business.

Vern was speaking more quickly now. “The Coalition reached its initial objectives within a fortnight, but the advance ground to a halt shortly after that. Lord-Marshal Maximus was forced to request more ships from the Port Talleyrand Fleet Reserve and another two hundred and forty divisions.

“While Maximus sat waiting for reinforcements, the Akakians proceeded to strike back.” Vern made a chopping motion with his hand to underline the point. “The Akakian system defenses had been neutralized, but merchantmen began returning home to join the fight.”

“What use are merchantmen against ships of the line?” When Mikael, First Autarch of the Dominion, had united the disparate human colonies, he had forcibly disbanded their fleets. Trading vessels and system defense ships were permitted, but no star system was allowed to maintain its own space navy. Only the Archons, with their regional military commands, and the Autarch, with his Grand Gaean Fleet, were allowed to command interstellar warships.

“There existed an old treaty, dating back to Mikael’s time that gave Akakios the right to build and maintain its vessel according to old specifications. Those blueprints included an awful lot of military-grade weapons, screens, and other restricted equipment.”

The command center vanished, replaced by a space battle between a Coalition cruiser and her escorts, and a trio of merchantmen bristling with guns and accompanied by a swarm of starfighters.

“The Akakians made life difficult for the Coalition Space Navy for a long time. Not just in-system. There were raids as far away as the edges of the First Administrative Circle. Can you imagine the consternation this caused at court?

“And of course, other enemies of the Coalition were quick to pounce when they sensed an opportunity. The North Stars Union launched yet another campaign to claim former Combine territories, going as far as besieging Nurobi. Even the Concordat started rattling its rusty saber. These border wars caused all sorts of secondary trouble. Smuggling, piracy, sedition, you name it, the Coalition got it.”

Inside his inner sanctum, Marcus took some time to consider the information he’d received. Haides claimed to have been born in the five hundred and fifty-first year after the death of the last Autarch. Haides was ten—almost eleven—when the war came, so that put the start of the invasion around 561 Post Dominion, the year 4019 according to the New Era calendar. There had indeed been yet another Union-Coalition war in the years after that. Piracy—later proven to be state-sponsored Illyrian privateering—had risen to unprecedented levels. Unrest had been rife. Eventually, a coup had replaced the unpopular Archon with a second cousin. They could be telling the truth. I will have to reference the Pentacle’s files to be sure.

“When a second bridgehead looked like it would be destroyed, Maximus was forced to deploy strategic weapons just to keep his forces alive. Dreadful weapons that had lain dormant since the Titanomachy for fear of what would happen should someone be dumb enough to use them again. Thermonuclear deep penetrators rained down on suspected Akakian command posts, area denial weapons scorched entire counties, ‘precision’ deorbit strikes devastated large swathes of the planet’s cities—the list goes on. The Coalition held on to their two remaining bridgeheads, but civilian casualties ran in the millions.

“The Akakians, their pride already wounded, were first horrified, then incensed. The gloves came off, and they rolled out their own weapons of mass destruction. In particular, their precision anti-matter strikes caused the Coalition a great deal of grief in terms of dead soldiers and destroyed machinery.” Vern’s voice had grown solemn.

Anti-matter. That explains the potency of the fireships. Marcus wondered briefly what other technological terrors the Akakians had been hiding in their paradise.

“Six months later, the civilian death toll had risen by a factor of ten. The second of three bridgeheads had been wiped out. Only the arrival of reinforcements saved the last bridgehead from annihilation. The Akakians would continue to try, but the moment had passed. Week by week, more divisions arrived. None too soon, I might add, as of the original sixty divisions, only one soldier in five still lived.”

Images from a hundred battlefields flickered by. Death was no stranger to Marcus, but not on such a scale. The death toll was staggering. The weapons used were banned by treaties and a shared understanding that humanity could not endure yet another war like the Titanomachy.

“With the new soldiers came new leaders. General Maximus, despite having saved the invasion from total disaster, was sent packing. People straight from Archon’s inner circle took command. People like Marshal June Grimaldi, Quartermaster-General Verrigan, and Prelate Zukhov,” Haides interjected.

“Verrigan? The infamous Soul-taker Verrigan? The man that was hunted by Order, across the length and breadth of the Dominion? That required the intervention of the Harbingers to terminate?”

“One and the same,” Haides continued. “Quite the slippery bugger. But that great manhunt came a good while after the Akakian affair, and it wasn’t the Harbingers that got Verrigan in the end,” He smiled briefly, and for the first time, Marcus was inclined to think it genuine.

Vern resumed his lecture, pacing around the circle of light as he spoke, gesticulating to underline his points, touching the Eye of Horus tattoo repeatedly. “With great enthusiasm, the new brass fell upon the defenders with two hundred and forty new divisions, and Horus alone knows how many engines of war. One fell swoop and the battle would be over, the generals told each other. Alas, it was not to be.

“Actual gains were hard-won—the Akakians fought with fanatical zeal and adopted a scorched earth policy. Despite a steady advance, the Coalition forces achieved very little, except mounting losses, burned fields, and broken cities.

“Marshal Grimaldi formulated a new strategy: if the enemy was just going to destroy everything, the Coalition would not waste any more lives trying to take territory. Instead, there would be a massive campaign of strategic bombardment, leaving only a few choice areas untouched. Then the Army would move in and clean out whatever resistance remained.”

Images formed before Marcus’s eyes. Torrents for destruction launched from orbit: utterly devastating against the civilian population, less effective against military targets. This is no longer conquest; it is genocide. Either the Edict is real—it’s the only thing that could cover up the death of a world—or this is the most blatant and convoluted lie ever.

“Akakios burned. Hundreds of millions died as a direct result of the strikes, but the final death toll from starvation, exposure, and disease was much, much higher. It put an end to large-scale organized resistance, but Akakian insurgents continued to fight the Coalition every step of the way—even after the remaining cities had been pacified. Acts of terrorism became commonplace. Supporting the rebels part of Akakian culture. Hatred for the invaders they learned at the teat.”

“Vern…”

Vern ignored the interruption. “Since losing the Archon’s newest planet would be intolerable, the Army divisions were forced to remain to garrison the place. There was simply no other way compliance could be enforced over time. To sweeten the deal, the soldiers were given settlement rights, receiving property taken from Akaikian citizens—dead or alive, it mattered not—according to rank and merit.

“Marshal Grimaldi was named the Countess-Planetar of Protasia—there would be no mention of Akakios ever again. She took the regnal name June I Othrys after her inauguration, choosing to name her new dynasty after the world’s highest mountain.”

“Countess-Planetar? It’s a great honor for a commoner, no matter how successful, to be allowed to start a dynasty. She must have been well connected indeed.” There was some social mobility in the Coalition, but the nobility, with its claims to heavenly blood, was a closed group that only rarely accepted new members. In theory, any commoner could receive a fief and a title from a higher-ranking noble, but in practice, it also required the blessings of the Conclave. Without the backing of at least one priesthood willing to claim they’d found a link to the divine in your genealogy, you’d never be accepted as a peer. You could marry into an existing family—if you had enough money—and your descendants would be counted as nobles, but would be a cadet branch of the original line, not a new dynasty.

“Very well indeed,” Vern confirmed. “She knew the Archon from when they were both young officers, you see, and they remained close even after the coronation. Too close, it was whispered.”

“Vern…”

“Yes, yes. Verrigan got made into Grimaldi’s First Minister. It came as something of a surprise to me at the time. His star was on the rise, and I had assumed he would return to court, to go on to even greater things. Prelate Zukhov was appointed to become Protasia’s new religious leader by the Cardinals of the Conclave. They seemed to think his templars and amazons had made an exemplary effort in reconsecrating the soil of Protasia.

“Protasia was broken up into lesser fiefdoms, with high-ranking officers and Versailles sycophants appointed as rulers. Then each newly made noble took what men remained to him and set about trying to set up a functioning society. How well that went varied. Some succeeded admirably, others not as well, and a significant minority took the opportunity to rape and pillage their newly won lands.

“And that concludes my brief,” Vern said, and without further fanfare, he turned about-face, took a couple of steps, and was gone from the ring of light.

“Satisfied, Marcus? Ready to move on?”

Is this the gatekeeper at work? Did he send Vern away? Marcus would have liked the savant to stay and talk. Not because what the old man said was particularly interesting, more because of the opportunity to study his role within the archives. I can call him back, but not right away. If the gatekeeper is watching me, it is better to wait until a natural opportunity arises.

Marcus smiled at Haides, keeping his private thoughts protected within the confines of the mental fortress. “Not quite. Vern deliberately avoided telling me anything about the Excommunication. Why?”

“It’s part of my story; it’s not Vern’s tale to tell. Come with me to my hometown, and I’ll show you what happened.”

But Marcus wasn’t entirely done with the subject. “They fought too hard, your people. I can understand they were proud, and rightly so, but from what I saw, they fought with fanatical zeal. This brought the Order to Akakios?”

“Among other things, “ Haides admitted.

“The Assembly sent Quaestors. The Quaestors found something, and the Knights followed,” Marcus said. “I saw a Keeper, the blind Harbinger, Kaminsky. He came for Shiloh and Jarra when the Word of Light was mentioned. Is that what this was all about?” Marcus deliberately did not mention his lack of knowledge about this ‘Word of Light.’ It was better to keep the gatekeeper guessing what he knew and not. It sounds like a cult. An unsanctioned church, specific to Akakios, perhaps? One that would not bow to the authority of the Conclave—the Pontifex would not like that.”

“If by ‘this’ you mean the invasion of my homeworld and the slaughter of my people,” Haides said, “there were several reasons for that: the Archon, to rule one more world; the Amalfians, to be rid of their old rival; the Technocracy, the secrets of Akakios; the Syndicate, to be rid of the competition; the Conclave, to bring a wayward faith into the fold.”

“But the Order came for the Word of Light,” Marcus said. He still didn’t know exactly what it was, but from what he’d seen when he was with the pilot and the giant woman, it must be related to the Shadow. “I saw Jarra with the prisoner. There was darkness at the heart of the Word of Light.”

Haides inclined his head slightly. “Pitch black. But it is better if you see if for yourself than hear me speak about it.”

“Very well, if you promise to show me, I will let the matter rest for now. Please proceed.”

“One other thing: before you compartmentalized your mind,” Haides said, “I was able to see that you’re in a secure location, under close scrutiny. You have now been motionless, starting at the chimera, for nearly half an hour. Maybe you should form a new mental compartment, to handle the occasional movement, maybe say a word or two?”

By the teats of Horus. What was I thinking? “Yes, of course, give me a moment,” Marcus replied and arranged a third mental compartment, this one for handling the conscious motions of his physical body.

------

“…by now she was begging for me to continue,” Balack added, struggling with how to proceed.

“Begging? Through the gag? It’s not a good story if it’s full of holes, Chief,” Kwame interrupted. “Ruins my suspension of disbelief it does.”

“You don’t know women the way I do. From experience, I could tell she was begging for more. Words were superfluous.” Unfortunately, Kwame was right. He’d tried to be smart, added one twist too many, and now his story was fraying. Unless Balack came up with something quickly, he would get stuck. Kwame would be insufferable if he got stuck. What he needed was a diversion.

As if on cue, the light indicating the status of the ongoing scan shifted from amber to emerald. Balack grabbed the opportunity with both metal hands. “See?” he asked rhetorically. “I told you he was nothing to worry about. All his vitals are in the normal range. A cold fish, but human after all.”

Kwame snorted. “You told me? More like I told you. You’re so full of shit Balack.” He looked sullen for a moment then burst into laughter. “So full of shit. That’s why you’re my man. Never a boring watch with you.”

The good mood was contagious. Balack started laughing too, forgetting for a moment his troubles. “You’re not so bad yourself, Kwame. But keep your pants on and hand me my lunch box instead. I’m starving over here.”

------

In the interrogation chamber, Marcus pulled his hand back from the Maiden. The psychic connection with her archives remained intact—he didn’t need to touch her, but it made the link stronger, easier to maintain.

The Dragon Order legate inhaled, slowly, filling his lungs to the bursting point. He raised his hand and exhaled, breathing forth the fire. Flames, in colors not entirely of this world, wreathed his hand, playing around his fingers as if they were burning.

As a pyrokine, Marcus could manipulate fire, bend it to his will, shape it, make it burn hotter, extinguish it. He could also create flames from nothing, using his willpower alone to fuel them, but doing so was taxing.

When the flames burned white and hot around his fingers, he whipped his hand down, striking the chimera across the face with calculated force.

The construct’s head snapped back. A blackened gash was visible where the chimera’s mouth should have been. Marcus assessed his handiwork, no damage to internal systems, only minor damage to the outer shell. I’ve made you a mouth, Maiden. Now it’s time to spill your secrets.

He stood, towering over the prisoner. “Your mind-tricks are fit only for the unwary and the weak-willed. I am neither. Try it again, and I’ll consign you to the cleansing flames of the Dragon,” Marcus said, adjusting the tone of his voice to indicate he was hoping she’d do just that. I hope you’re enjoying the show, little watchers. I’m putting it on for your benefit.

The chimera’s head came back up, looked up at Marcus with cold, emerald eyes. There was no fear in them—or any other emotion. Afraid or not, you will obey me.

“You will only speak when asked a direct question. Is that clear?” Marcus said, his voice menacing and body language hinting at more violence to come.

The Maiden looked at him expectantly but didn’t reply.

Cocky as hell. Well, I get enough of cocky from Haides, so you’re out of luck. He raised his hand again. She flinched. You’re not an archivist model, are you? I bet you’re a full-fledged familiar with human-like intelligence and feigned emotions. That’s forbidden. He didn’t strike her this time. Instead, he brought a hand to his lips and inhaled some of the ethereal flames still playing around the fingers. Marcus grabbed the Maiden’s long hair with his other hand, leaned forward, as if to kiss the prisoner, and breathed hellfire through the crack in her shell.

The effect was as immediate as it was violent. The chimera twisted and bucked, strained mightily against her bonds, before finally releasing a very human scream of pain. It went on for quite some time.

“Please…” she finally muttered.

“You will reply to direct questions, promptly and to the best of your abilities.” He yanked her hair for emphasis. “Or there will be fire and pain—far worse than this little example. Is that clear?”

“Yes,” she replied, barely audible.

“Try again,” Marcus said, his voice cold and hard.

“Yes,” the Maiden said loud and clear. “I will do as I’m told—no more of the fire. The pain…” her voice trailed away.

“Good. I knew you would be reasonable. Now, if you would excuse me for a moment.” Marcus tilted his head to the side and looked straight into the glistening optical lenses of a drone that had descended almost to ground level.

“Whoever you are, back off. I serve the Dragon, and he does not suffer mortals to interfere in his affairs. So unless you are Ares born again…” Marcus said, referring to the long-dead god of war. “Lift your hand against the Dragon, and I’ll invoke the Right of Incision, onto the Second Degree of Separation. You get this one warning.”

The drone floated away to rejoin its brethren overhead.

Cheap theatrics. It’ll have to suffice. Marcus let go of the Maiden’s hair and sat back down. “Where were we? Yes, you had told me your name: Rakel Elizaveta ‘Lizzie’ Taylor. That was your flesh name, the name that came before the metal, the artificial eyes, and the synthetic hair. So tell me, what did Samael call you?”

The Maiden’s eyes became very strange, distant and intense, pale and dark, pained and joyous, all at the same time. “Samael?” she said, her voice filled with a hundred conflicting emotions, emotions a chimera had no right to have. “My love,” she said without a hint of subterfuge. “That’s what he called me.”

“My love? Why would he call you that?”

“Because he loved me,” she replied. There was no irony or sarcasm this time—only certainty.

“He loved you so much he made you his chimera?”

“That’s not how it was. Samael’s enemies…he had no other choice.”

“Let me make a wild guess: he had no choice, and you loved him so much you willingly went into cybernetic slavery?”

“No,” she shouted. “That’s not what I meant. I loved him. He loved me. We had no choice. I had to become the Maiden. It was the only way. The only way we could be together. Together forever!”

Marcus shook his head and took the Maiden’s restrained hand in his.

------

Marcus’s release of psychic energy had set off alarms inside the security crypt. The witchfire had triggered several more.

“Did you see that?” Kwame asked with a mixture of fear and wonder.

“No, I didn’t,” Balack replied with the authority of a senior officer. “I saw only the fire. A fire, pure and bright as any.”

“What?” Kwame tore his eyes away from the screens to look at his superior. “The witchfire? I saw it. You must have seen it too.” His confusion was replaced with a growing sense of panic.

“Don’t,” Balack said and grabbed Kwame’s chin. “Will you listen to me before you do anything stupid boy?” he asked, voice soft and agreeable.

“I don’t have much choice, do I?” Kwame said, his voice muffled by the pressure on his face.

“You don’t,” Balack confirmed. “I saw what you saw. Which was nothing. Do you catch my drift, or must I spell it out for you?”

“So we both saw nothing,” Kwame relaxed a bit, more confused than afraid at this point. “So why don’t we initiate the termination sequence and get rid of this nothing?”

“You have some serious gaps in your basic survival skills Kwame, you know that? Unless we have irrefutable evidence of physical or moral corruption, we can’t touch him. He answers only to the Dragon. If the Dragon is good with him calling down witchfire, then so are we.”

“And here I was under the impression that witchfire was dark stuff, conjured from the blackest pits of the Abyss.”

“It is,” Balack confirmed. “Except Marcus can use it as much as he wants.”

“Until we know for sure he’s been possessed by a dark spirit or is well and thoroughly Shadow-tainted?”

“Indeed. We touch him before that, and the Order will come, not just for us, but for our friends, families, and colleagues as well. And if they are feeling particularly vengeful, they will take their friends, families, and colleagues as well.”

Silence descended. Only the breathing of two men over the soft humming of machinery could be heard.

Kwame finally burst into nervous laughter. “The Right of Incision...I’ve heard stories of entire cities consigned to the pyre just for harming a single Draconic envoy. Always thought that sounded a bit crazy.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that one too. Pretty crazy stuff,” Balack agreed. “Only with this mad bunch, it might just be true.”

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