Dark Omega

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“Thira gets a fair bit of morning mist coming in from the lakeside. But on this day, it was worse than usual. My line of sight was down to ten meters, tops. A fine morning for moving about unseen.”

The Gatekeeper’s voice was loud and clear in Marcus’s mind, but the Draconic legate was no longer sitting in the ring of light; he was standing next to a young Haides on the streets of Thira. The thick, damp fog clung to Marcus’s face and hands like a second skin. The surrounding buildings mere shadows in an ocean of white and gray.

“Vern can tell you more about the local microclimate if you’re interested. I would advise against it, though, once he gets going on matters of planetology, there is no stopping him.”

In the ring of light, Marcus shook his head. “Planetology is not the kind of lore I’m after.”

“The sun was up. A pale orb, barely clearing the line of the eastern mountains. It had yet to find the power to chase the mist away, so I would continue to be provided with a measure of cool concealment as I moved deeper into the city.”

There was enough light for Marcus to see by, but there was no warmth in the pale rays of Aethyr, Akakios’s Sol-like star.

“Because I had concealment, I moved more openly than I otherwise would have dared. I kept to the streets, rather than creep along the underground, or go through the ruins. Not that I was completely without cover: the streets were filled with rubble, burned-out vehicles, and other detritus. Sufficient concealment for a young boy on the prowl.”

Marcus followed Haides as the boy moved quickly down a broad street, carefully picking his way across rubble fields and between destroyed vehicles, including some armored fighting vehicles.

“As you’ve no doubt surmised, Thira wasn’t among the strategic yield targets—or I’d be dead. It sat on a lovely piece of real estate, so the Coalition thought to keep it intact. They had to fight for it though, same as everywhere else.”

The low visibility made it hard to make out any details, but all the buildings Marcus could see had been damaged. Some more than others, but none had been left entirely untouched.

“This was a dangerous part of town, firmly in Coalition hands. The soldiers didn’t like locals snooping around. The Forbidden Zone loomed ahead. Soon there would be no turning back. If they caught me outside, they would just beat me bloody. But getting caught inside the Forbidden Zone? That just got you shot on sight, end of discussion.”

The damage to the city looked old. There was no smoke from blazing vehicles or burning buildings. The dust of falling structures had long since settled. There were no rotting bodies, only a smattering of charred and crushed bones. The fighting is over and done with. It’s been months, years even.

“I had become good at keeping a low profile, and I was rather quick on my feet if I dare say. But the Coalition army had all sorts of scanners and drones to help them pick up intruders. Stealth only gets you so far against such countermeasures. And no matter how quick you are, you can’t outrun bullets or dodge pulsers. So a bit of caution was in order, even with the mist cloaking me.”

Haides reached the crest of a low hill and followed a road leading down towards the city center. The mist was less dense here, and Marcus tried to judge the size of Thira. No arcology structures or starscrapers, just a handful of two-hundred-plus-story high-rises protruding from the fog. Not a large city. Below the fifty-mill mark. A colossal flag—the seven golden roses upon an azure field, each representing one of the seven astro-administrative regions of the Coalition of Democratic Star Republics—flew from the topmost spire of one of the highest and most heavily damaged buildings. The Coalition is in control of the city.

The city blocks Haides had passed through hadn’t just been bombed and shelled from afar. They showed clear signs of being blasted with close-support ordnance and were thoroughly riddled with small-arms fire. Entire quarters had been burned to the ground or explosively demolished. Taking the city had required an assault by ground forces, with all the mayhem that entailed. The Coalition may be in control, but the Akakians seem to have given them a run for their money.

Marcus switched his focus back to the Haides-as-Gatekeeper. “What happened?”

Haides sipped his drink. “I was in a good mood. Summer was lingering still, refusing to become autumn, and the weather was favoring my expedition. It was also my twelfth birthday. Well, at least I imagined it was my birthday. I couldn’t be entirely sure since we had no way of accurately keeping the time.”

“So, this was about a year after that last ski trip?” Marcus said and had a sip of his own conniaco.

“A little over a year, but close enough. We were blissful in our ignorance, but even as we enjoyed our summer outing, a Coalition battlefleet was underway to add Akakios to the Archon’s domain. I don’t know the official start date of the invasion, but I remember seeing the fleet settle into orbit in early autumn, like little darts of bright silver straddling the atmosphere, just after we had gone back to school for a new semester.

“My own timepiece had stopped working, along with everyone else’s, after the Coalition knocked out the Grid. Jan had found an antique mechanical clock a few months before, but by then, we had already mixed up the days. A while later, the mechanical clock stopped working too. Try as we might, we couldn’t figure out how to fix it. There was a windup mechanism, but when we tried to turn it, nothing much happened. There was too little resistance. The winding crown didn’t connect properly to the spring or whatever it was that powered the clock. Jan took it apart one day when it rained. Inside were myriad little pieces too small to manipulate without proper tools.”

Images of clockwork mechanisms flashed before Marcus’s eyes. A few looked like they were the innards of a mechanical chronometer, but the majority were more complex, with some bordering on the improbably intricate. What was the meaning of that?

Haides gave Marcus a lop-sided grin. “So we went back to noting down the passage of days on a piece of paper. Eventually, we stopped making marks. Days no longer had any meaning beyond getting to the next, so why bother keeping track of them?”

Marcus saw the townhouse, partially ruined, and stripped of anything of value. There was a small stove. A washing basin. Blankets. A few personal items. Someone had tried to make a home out of it. Not much. A far cry from the cozy house in the hills.

“Had Father been around, he could have fixed the clock in no time,” Haides said. “Not that he would have had any need for such a primitive timepiece. Father had a full cortex upgrade, so he could function quite well without the Grid.”

“Could you elaborate on this ‘Grid’ for me?” Marcus said. Will this bring back Vern? Haides didn’t seem to be technically inclined. I must understand the responsibilities and limitations of each persona.

“Of course. I’ll do it myself. No need to bother Vern with such a small thing.” Again that smile that wasn’t a smile.

“The Grid was, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, the name of the Akakian global information network. Such grids are found on many worlds, firmly controlled by the Technocracy and the planetary nobility. On Akakios, however, the grid was open and free for all to use.

“Almost all Akakians had a neural interface, which in turn connected to the Grid through a small device we called a ‘Lock.’ The lock usually took the form of a wristband or other compact wearable, such as a piece of jewelry. Inside was a low-end AI with an integrated bit-link for connecting to the Grid.”

“So, all of you were linked to the Grid, mind to machine?”

“Indeed, we were, almost without exception. People like my father had a full cortex upgrade, which necessitated an external graft, much like the one bonded to your skull, Marcus. Most citizens made do with a less intrusive interface. I still have mine. Care to have a look?” Haides tapped his skull with one finger.

Marcus raised his hand. “That would be impractical. I’ll take your word for it.”

“The technomancers profited greatly from Akakios’s inclusion into the Dominion back in the day, but managed to lose much of that knowledge: many gestalt nodes were destroyed during the Titanomachy, including the Techno-Tetrarch. Techno-regression became a reality. For the first time since the Interregnum, humanity’s collective knowledge was diminished rather than expanded upon. After that, the pursuit of lost technology became almost like a religion to the technomancers.”

The Technocracy had been—and still was—one of the great pillars of the Dominion, alongside the Conclave and the Collegium. Only the technomancers possessed the knowledge required to construct and maintain the many wonders of technology necessary to sustain an interstellar civilization. Without them, there would be no artificial intelligence, no limitless power, no gravitic manipulation, no superluminal travel, no exo-suits, no void leviathans, no weapons with the potential to destroy worlds.

“Let me guess: the Akakians refused the Technocracy, just as they refused the Archon?”

Haides put down his glass. “I got my first lock when I was six. It came in a purple box—purple used to be the color Akakians used for anything important. “ Marcus could see the scene quite clearly. The lock was a wristband with a square secondary display on top, beautifully engraved and decorated with mother of pearl.

“Father put it on my wrist, then lifted a circlet from the box and fitted it over my head.” A simple thing, a headband of alloys and composites. Nothing to betray its inner complexity.

“It bonded to my skull and started to weave nano-tendrils into my cerebrum. The process took about half a day. I was slightly dizzy during the process and developed a headache that lasted over the weekend. It was a week before the interface had fully matured and merged with my brain. After that, it worked with a minimum of training on my part. It was useful in a million small ways. For telling the time. For finding out where you were and where you should go. For communicating with other people. For querying the info banks. For paying your bills—not that a six-year-old has any. For playing around.”

Marcus could see the Technocracy wanting this technology. Neural interfaces had been standard fare before the Titanomachy almost put an end to them. Now they were experiencing a resurgence throughout the Successor Kingdoms. Is my own skull implant a result of the conquest of Akakios? Was the technology recovered from the ruins of Haides’s homeworld?

“The locks were very reliable. They got their power from body heat and the kinetic energy generated by daily life. They were, if not everlasting, capable of outliving their owners.” Haides had another sip of conniaco. “So you think they’d continue to work even after the attack. But it turned out they could not function without the Grid. Not for very long, at any rate. So when the Grid died, the bit-links stopped feeding the locks with data packets, and like ravenous beasts, they first started misbehaving—and then they died.” He tapped his finger against the silver-crystal glass for emphasis, making it ring with a high, clear tone. “We didn’t understand how much we had relied on them before they stopped working.”

Relying too heavily on technology is never a good idea. Marcus had some cybernetic enhancements, including a cortex upgrade and a psych-ward unit, but overall he preferred to rely on his own innate abilities. In my mind, I trust. The power of technology is nothing compared to the power of a trained legate.

“Is that sufficient data on the Grid to sate your curiosity?”

“Yes. Please continue with your story.”

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