Dark Omega

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Chapter 11 THE MISSING INGREDIENT

“I skirted along the edge of the Forbidden Zone. I had snuck around the perimeter many times, but never made any attempts at penetrating the inner security cordon.”

Marcus was in Thira, deep in Haides’s childhood memories. He saw the layers of physical barriers, the patrolling sentry drones, and the automated gun emplacements arrayed around the hospital buildings at the center of the zone. There would be other unseen security measures as well: scanning fields, mines, and booby traps, perhaps. Based on the lack of markings and identification signs, Marcus had a firm idea whose lair it was. The Dragon Order. I’m surprised he managed to penetrate even the outer security layers.

“I didn’t know this area as well as my own part of town, but I’d gone through it a few times before, and knew the general layout well enough. I kept to the parts where there would be less chance of running into patrolling soldiers or roving sentry drones.”

Marcus saw Haides make his way through the zone, moving quickly, confidently, and without attracting attention. He knew exactly where to go and not go. When to turn, when to duck, when to hide. He’s got an uncanny talent for stealth, no question about it.

“It was an awful risk that I took, but I had a mission and could not be turned aside. The resolution of my birthday quandary hinged on my success.”

Marcus switched his attention away from the streets of Thira and back to the Gatekeeper. The boy’s memories pulled at the legate’s consciousness, like wet clay clinging to your boots, before finally letting go. Images of a young Haides sneaking around the ruins continued to play out before Marcus’s inner eye.

Haides took a moment to think. “Mother had not returned to our new townhouse,” he didn’t deign to call it home, “the previous night. I was worried. Worried that my birthday cake would not get done. Worried that there would be no celebration, no present.”

“Jan had followed in Father’s footsteps, so to speak, he was rarely at the house, except for meals or when he wanted something. Most of the time, he was elsewhere, trying hard to be accepted as a full member of the Khiones, a group of ‘freedom fighters’ operating out of the indig zones.” Haides started sliding his index finger along the rim of the glass, ever so slowly. “So it fell to young me to protect the girls and look after the canine.” He swirled the contents of the glass. “I tried my best, of course, but I had just turned eleven and could only do so much. Jan should have been there. He was fifteen and a half when it started, almost a man grown. He knew I couldn’t fill his shoes, but he didn’t care.” The finger stopped, and Haides looked right at Marcus. “I hated him for it. For a very long time, I hated him.”

None of this was your brother Janus’s doing. It’s your own fears and failings, Haides, projected onto the only remaining person to provide you with emotional stability.

“At first, we hadn’t really felt the war. There were no orbital barrages launched against Thira. But as weeks turned into months and late summer became autumn,” Marcus watched as the hill country around Thira went from the arid yellow of summer to the verdant green of autumn, “things started to get more difficult for us. The Grid was down more often than not. Food and other basic supplies were getting harder to come by.” The finger resumed its circling movement. “Father had already been called up for militia service by then.”

Marcus caught a glimpse of Haides’s father, in full battledress, with a rifle slung over the shoulder as he marched away from the house in the hills. I’ll never get a clear picture of the man. Haides has repressed his memories of the father—they are too painful for him even now.

“He came back to the house a few times in the beginning, but his unit was redeployed to meet some Coalition threat or the other. After that, I never saw or heard from him again.” The finger stopped. “Not a single info package over the grid. No written letters. No word of mouth messages. Nothing.” Haides’s voice was cold and dead. “I do not know what became of him. He was most likely either killed in action or succumbed to attrition.”

“It’s a common enough problem in all war zones,” Marcus offered. “Lots of people involved, general mayhem—and very little information to work from. The Surgeon General’s office rarely has the resources needed to sort out every body part found or track down every missing person.”

Haides nodded faintly. “He could, I guess, have survived. Survived and made a new life for himself.” The nodding became shaking. “It’s possible but unlikely. More than a billion people died during the war or in the aftermath. I’m certain he was one of them. A true Akakian patriot. Or a rebel and a traitor to the Archon. Pick the one you like best.” Tap, tap, went the finger against the rim of the glass, waiting for Marcus to answer.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Marcus replied. Not really. It was hard to feel much empathy towards the shadow of a long-dead man—especially one as cold as Haides.

“Don’t be. Father had already abandoned his family before the war. This was just the final act of his betrayal.”

Marcus didn’t reply. Now I do feel sorry for you. You were lost, long before the invasion. Alone and in pain, with only denial to help you cope. I wonder what you would have become if the galaxy was a better place.

“Mother had taken to selling her body to keep us fed. I didn’t understand it at the time, but it was the way of things. Father was gone, prices were up, and she had three kids to feed, one of them a big lad that was constantly demanding more.”

One moment I almost feel sorry for you, then you say something like this. What a sad character you’re turning out to be, Haides.

“In the beginning, it was the militia and other Akakians. Mother would go into town for a while and return with food, medicines, clothes, and other necessities.”

Haides’s beautiful mother appeared as an apparition in the darkness beyond the ring of light. Cascades of dark hair fell almost to her waist, revealing more than it concealed. Her age was indeterminate, mature, but youthful at the same time. When she noticed Marcus staring, she gave a little laugh, flung her hair, and danced away on bare feet, leaving Marcus to admire the memory of her curves.

Haides threw Marcus a quizzical look. “The ironic part is that Mother was feeling quite well during this period. There was none of the angst or apathy that normally gnawed at her soul. She rose to the occasion, so to speak. Or maybe she just enjoyed a bit of whoring. Going into town to fuck strangers. Bringing regular customers back to the house for a little more intimacy.” The Gatekeeper chuckled into his conniaco. “In my book, that’s a lot better than sitting around the house crying, watching your kids starve. One of the few things she got right.”

I think she tried her best—wrestling as she was with nascent Nexus psychosis and planet-wide war—and failed. In stark contrast to my own mother, who just ran away for selfish reasons and left us all to rot.

Haides gave one of his minute shrugs and continued. “When Thira was occupied, times became harder for most folk. We thought we had it really rough. The city was bombed and shelled. There were few enough houses left unscathed. Infrastructure was shot to hell. There was little food. The GIs—the Coalition’s General Infantry—treated us like shit.

“In reality, we were bloody lucky. We were not burned to ash by plasma bombs. Nor were we hit with kinetic deorbit strikes, thermonuclear warheads, or any other sort of weapons of mass destruction.

“We had little food, but we had food. Our drinking water was not poisoned by radiation. No strange diseases ravaged the city. In short, we were doing good, relatively speaking.” Haides halted for a moment, looked like he was on the verge of laughing. “I’m as bad as Vern,” he said in an uncharacteristically cheerful tone.

“The actual Battle for Thira didn’t really touch my family. The closest we got was a Colonel toting a company of GIs. They searched through our house, looking for guns. They confiscated an old hunting rifle and a couple of shotguns, but otherwise, let us be. That and the ceaseless chatter of autoguns and pulse weapons, interspersed with liberal doses of exploding ordnance.

“The biggest change in our lives came a few weeks after the battle was over. The Coalition didn’t want people living on the outskirts, so we were herded into town and assigned an apartment in a building that was still standing.”

“I’m betting that undamaged country house of yours was a nice bonus for some ranking officer,” Marcus said.

“Possibly. Probably.” Haides almost smiled. “Mother took to working the Coalition soldiers instead of the militia. She got paid in Coalition livre instead of Akakian drachma, military rations became our primary source of nutrients, and our blankets and other equipment carried the Seven Golden Roses instead of the Six Rods of State.

“You’d think that this fraternizing with the enemy and selling the Archon’s equipment would get the soldiers in trouble. Maybe it did, but they did it anyway. And besides, their executive officer was quite fond of Akakian women, Mother in particular. I guess they had some sort of understanding.”

“That officer, the colonel. He’s the one that came to your house.” It wasn’t a question. “That’s why they left you alone initially, right?”

Haides raised his drink in a mock toast.

“Most Coalition officers are rather zealous in their pursuit of discipline,” Marcus countered. “They are downright infamous for it.”

Haides twitched his lip, in what was probably his version of a lopsided grin. “Could well be, but there are always exceptions. I’ve met more than one Coalition officer who has been willing to bend the rules a little.” He nodded to himself. “They are the wise ones who have realized that morale and loyalty can spring forth from many wells, not just the barrel of a pistol pressed against the back of a man’s head.”

Marcus gestured for Haides to continue.

“Mother sometimes left the apartment to seek work, but she took care to minimize the risks. She would bring Jan with her—if he was around. Not much of a bodyguard, but better than nothing, I suppose. I was entrusted with a compact autopistol—one of several guns hidden away when the GIs searched our home—and told to protect my sister. I did not flinch from my duty.”

How noble of you, Haides. Eleven, twelve years old and quite the selfless hero.

Haides spoke softly, even more so than usual. “On the day before my birthday, she went out but did not return. Jan wasn’t around much, that day was no exception, so she’d gone alone.

“Night came, and we—Eli and I—were forced indoors by the curfew. I was concerned, and so was my sister. Mother seldom spent her nights outside our apparently. If she did, she would always tell us beforehand and make sure Jan saw to his familial duties.

“I could not sleep. Not even my Eli’s lullabies could pull me down into the dreamlands. Instead, I sat in the darkness, peering out from behind the blinds. The gun never left my hands.

“Mother had told me she’d come home. Told me that she would make me a cake for my birthday. That was the reason she went out that day—to find a few missing ingredients. I told myself she was having trouble finding everything she needed for the recipe.”

Marcus saw Haides’s mother. She was back at the family house, baking—in the nude, save a pair of heels and a half apron. By Draco, where did that come from?

“Mother had probably gone to the Coalition compound. She’d been delayed by the curfew. It seemed the only logical explanation. She would spend the night at the Colonel’s place. It had happened before.”

“I’m sure he’d like that. Good for morale—his own.” Marcus felt a faint tingle of jealousy. Jealousy, an emotion that hadn’t troubled the Draconic legate’s mind for many years.

Marcus’s inner self sprang into action. Anti-intrusion procedures, mercilessly drilled into him, took over. He quickly identified the offender: a small speck of emotion that had penetrated his barriers and taken root inside the inner fortress. The legate grabbed hold of the emotional conglomerate and unraveled it. There will be no more outbursts, no more emotions.

Haides chuckled. “Good one, Marcus. You have humor. I never would have guessed.” The laughter stifled. “I tried to stay awake, but the closer we got to dawn, the harder it became. I finally dozed off and slept fitfully for a few hours. When I woke, Mother was still gone. Jan was not there. It was only Nik, the canine, my sleeping sister, and I.”

The Gatekeeper swirled his conniaco, looking at the light playing through the liquid. “So I grabbed a Coalition GI utility belt, hooked my canteen into it, put a couple of energy bars into my pockets, checked the autopistol one more time, and went looking for Mother. With Jan gone, it was up to me to find her and bring her home. That was my mission. I would not be turned aside.

“I got through the Forbidden Zone without incident. It was only a few blocks deep, but it was much broader. Going around would take too long. On the other side was more Restricted Zone.

“Twenty or more blocks in all directions, all the way down to the city center. This was Coalition territory. It was also where I had to be if I was going to find Mother and bring her home to make the fucking cake she’d promised me.”

It’s not about the cake. Kid Haides is scared out of his mind. He feels alone. Betrayed by his father, abandoned by his brother. Estranged from his sister. The mother is all that stands between him and total emotional ruin.

Inside the circle of light, Marcus’s eyes met Haides’s. In their depths, Marcus saw little that reminded him of another human being.

“I kept going until I reached the compound of the 57th Loches Mechanized Brigade.”

Loches was a well-known world. Located in the Druze Marches, not too far from Akakios-Protasia. It was a member of a manufacturing league, operating outside the stringent bonds of the Syndicate. The Lochesi Metalworks industrial conglomerate produced a range of vehicles, from motorcycles and utility tractors to military AFVs of every kind, up to and including heavy tanks. The planet’s taxes to the Archon were paid mainly in the form of these vehicles. Whoever controlled the Lochesi Metalworks had a great deal of power and influence within the Coalition. Army units recruited from Loches came equipped in the style of mechanized infantry, supported by battalions of tanks.

Haides had moved a distance while Marcus was thinking. Having several minds was quite useful but keeping track of events happening in parallel was a challenge. I’ll follow him around for a while. See what happened all those years ago with my own eyes. Marcus let Haides’s memories flow into his interactive mind.

They paused in the shadow of an abandoned Ravager mech—a bipedal walking tank produced by the Metalworks—bristling with weapons. The walker looked surprisingly intact for an abandoned vehicle. Perhaps its ghost gave up?

Young Haides slipped between the legs of the walker and scampered over a pile of rubble on the far side of the silent war machine. He halted to wait for Marcus to catch up, pointed to something above them—the back of the walking tank was blasted and scorched.

Knowing the GIs wouldn’t be happy if they caught him with a gun, Haides hid his pistol under a piece of broken nanocrete in the shadow of the Ravager—the broken machine was a handy marker. He could have gotten in unseen, but he was there to bring Mother, not to skulk around.

Haides was on the move again, stopping at intervals to listen and scan his surroundings. Marcus followed in his footsteps. After a while, they reached the Coalition compound. The military base had been walled off, using a mix of imported equipment and scavenged materials. The gate rose out of the mist, complete with nanocrete roadblocks and gun positions. Bold as brass, Haides walked forward and made himself known to the guards.

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