Dark Omega

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Chapter 18 AN ACCORD

“We found Mother a few hours later,” Haides said. His voice was as dead as ever. “Or rather, Nik found her.”

“Nik? You mean the canine?”

“Yes.”

“You didn’t mention him again, so I assumed he was back at the apartment or something.”

Haides pointed the finger at Marcus. The gesture was accusing, but his voice told it was more chiding than rebuking. “The family dawg is not in the narrative because you’re not fully committing. If you had just stuck with deep immersion, rather than bobbing in and out, you would have noticed him slinking around.”

“I had some of that earlier. I think I’ll save the immersion for later for when something more substantial than your canine is on the table. No offense intended,” Marcus replied.

“Nik wasn’t back at the apartment. He was with me the whole time. He usually was. He was also a bit shy around other people.” Haides paused.

“Go on,” Marcus said, “don’t be shy.”

Haides grinned at him. “No, that’s an understatement. After Jan abandoned him, Nik became a one-person kind of canine. The Haides kind of canine. You ever had a pet, Marcus?”

“No. I find animals noisome and filthy.”

Haides’s smile evaporated. “He was never sufficiently socialized with other dogs or people when he was little. And of course, then the war came, and that screwed up his head even more. Jan can take the blame for the lack of socialization, and the war trauma I’ll claim was out of my hands.”

“So, your canine slinked away whenever you got near other people?” Marcus asked rhetorically. “Not much use as a guardian then.”

“Guardian? What makes you think he was a guard dog? He was of a rather large breed, but he wouldn’t attack a human unless he was cornered, hurt, and desperate. Maybe not even then.”

Completely useless. A waste.

“He had followed me to the compound, waited for me to return, and then followed Luca and me at a distance. I knew he was out there; he always was. Luca had spotted him long ago, of course. Wouldn’t be much of a scout-sniper if not. Didn’t say anything, though. I don’t think he initially realized that Nik was following me. Took him for a stray dawg hoping for scraps, I suppose.”

“Could we skip a bit forward? To when you found your mother?”

“Certainly,” Haides said and took a large swallow from his glass.

“We’d joined with the other GIs and had worked our way around the Forbidden Zone and were heading east into the area where most of the remaining civilian population was housed—the indig zones the Coalition soldiers called it. The Coalition is big on divvying up stuff into zones. But you knew that already.” Haides reached for the decanter. “This stuff really does warm the soul. Too bad I didn’t discover it before.” He waved the decanter in Marcus’s direction. “More?”

“No, thank you. Just proceed with the story.”

“It’s better if you let me show you, but very well. We were passing through a particularly devastated area, several blocks in each direction completely smashed. Only a few skeletal building frames were left standing. Enormous piles of rubble. Rows of burned-out vehicles. A seemingly endless number of shot-up Akakian defensive positions framed this snapshot of urban warfare in the Twilight Millennium.”

Vivid mental images accompanied his speech, providing Marcus with all the detail than he could possibly desire. “The Coalition Army uses pulse weapons for the most part,” Marcus cut in, “why didn’t the Akakians? You had all this advanced technology, but you stuck with autoguns?”

“Industrial age slugthrowers, space-age autoguns, or pulse rifles—doesn’t really matter much. The pulse rifle is the better weapon, but autoguns are good enough to get the job done. Despite Luca’s confidence in pulse weapons, in a firefight between grunts on the ground, the difference is minimal.”

“I follow you, but if the pulse rifle is the better gun, even if the margin is slim, why not use it?” Marcus pressed. “Even a slight advantage can be the one that shifts the balance.”

“You’ve read too much theory, Marcus. And have too little on-the-ground experience. But I’ll humor you: on an overreaching strategic level, it’s a question of efficiency. Ammunition consumption compared to hit ratio being the most important variable.” Haides lifted a finger to forestall any questions. “For local planetary governments, the equation is complicated by cost. Pulse rifles are slightly more complex, slightly more expensive to make and maintain. The Coalition can count on the Syndicate and the Gilded Rose Consortium to provide them with vast amounts of these weapons, so cost is not really an issue. What matters is to keep weight down, and resupply needs as low as possible; they will almost always be deploying across interstellar distances and dropping from orbit to get to their warzones.”

“And the Akakian militia had neither the free guns nor the logistical limitations, so they went for autoguns,” Marcus suggested. “For the Akakians, those weapons represented the best mix of cost and efficiency. Dirt cheap and effectively infinite ammo supply.”

“Touché,” Haides replied. “And, despite Luca’s assurances that pulse weapons are better, there are few things as reliable as kinetic energy when it comes to killing people, which is why coilguns are so incredibly popular. But we are digressing and need to get back on topic.”

Marcus gave him an encouraging nod.

“Nik suddenly appeared on our flank and raced ahead. I was still in the lead, so I gave chase. Luca was hanging back, trying to spot trouble before it could find us. I heard him try to call me back, but I ignored it.”

Marcus put his half-full glass on the table.

“I came around a corner—it was quite literally just a corner, a big nanocrete spire the reached five stories into the air—the rest of the building was a collapsed ruin, scorched by fires. And there Nik was, sitting beautifully in front of one of the few remaining light poles. He’d found my mother.” There was a dramatic pause. “Or to be correct: Nik found what was left of my mother.” Haides took another swig of his drink.

“You mean she was dead?” Marcus asked and reached for his own glass. That was insensitive of me. I’m exhausted. I’m getting impatient—and just a bit irritable. Focus.

“Indeed she was,” Haides replied, seemingly oblivious to Marcus’s lack of tact. “As dead as only the dead can be.”

“How?” It seemed right to ask.

“Oh, the ‘loyalists’ had gotten to her. Maybe it was chance, perhaps they went looking specifically for her, I don’t know. Could be that my dear brother Jan had tipped them off to gain some cred.”

Marcus could see why they would do her in. Fraternizing with the enemy had always been a hazardous occupation for women. But pinning the blame on Jan is excessive.

“Whatever the prelude: they caught her and decided to make an example of her. Decided to show the rest of the city what happened to whores selling their sweet succor to the enemy.”

I can see where this is going. Men are very predictable when it comes to ‘punishing’ women, especially for ‘crimes of infidelity.’

“They had tortured and abused her to the best of their meager abilities,” Haides said. “They entirely lacked the sophisticated techniques we two could have employed.”

Images of the scene bled through Marcus’s buffers. For a few fleeting moments, he was there again, in Thira, seeing what they did to Haides’s mother. No, wait. This is different. He didn’t see it through Haides’s eyes but through the eyes of one of the insurgents. How is that possible?

It wasn’t pretty. It went to show what ordinary men and women could do to other people—when they knew they could get away with it. But not so bad on the galactic scale of evil. It paled in comparison to some of the memories Marcus kept locked away in his mind.

“Kept it going until she was all bloody and broken, but still alive. Then they strung her up on one of those big roadside light poles to die.”

There was a particular discipline to the insurgents. They didn’t just have their way with the poor woman, nor did they go berserk and tear her apart. They took their time, breaking her slowly, painfully. An elderly man in a priestly cassock was their guiding star, directing their efforts while keeping the crowd firmly under his control. A local priest? An emerging rebel leader?

“Before they left, they took the time to write ‘whore’ and ‘for Akakios’ and other crap on the ground and on the closest building. All in her blood, of course. Very creative. I’m pretty sure the ancestors were quite proud of them.”

“I…experienced the scene…but how is that possible? How could you know this? You were not there. You found her hanging there, deader than dead, you said it yourself. Are these ‘memories’ stuff conjured from your fears and nightmares?”

“Oh, I was there,” Haides replied, “and I saw every cruel act, felt every second of it. Much more intimately than you just did, since you didn’t immerse. It was the first time my latent psychic abilities fully manifested themselves. There may have been a few minor flukes before, but this was the first time something really happened. In the span of a heartbeat, I felt my mother’s murder play out before me. Sensed her despair, agony, and fear. Saw the stuff she had acquired for my cake rolling about in the dirt.

“I’m a telepath like you, Marcus, but I’m sure you’ve already guessed that. Where we differ is that my portfolio of legate talents also includes some psychometric powers.”

Psychometry. That would explain it. Strong emotions could linger in an area—or cling to a person or object. Those with psychometric talents could pick up on those emotions days—or even weeks in some cases—after the actual events. Marcus had no ability for it, but he knew of one Quaestor who did. He’d heard it said that without this particular boon granted by the Celestial Dragon, the man would never have reached such a lofty position. A handy talent indeed.

“It’s more than emotions, Marcus. Everything sticks. Images, sounds, thoughts. Everything. It’s just that emotions stick more. A ruined house can be recalled, as it was when whole, but more so if many people lived there over the years and had strong feelings associated with the place. You’d see the house as they saw it, experience life there through their emotions.”

The Gatekeeper is reading my thoughts again. I can’t deny it. He’s actively trying to pick up stuff I’m trying to hide. There would be less sleep tonight than planned. Marcus would need to work on his mental architecture before tomorrow’s session with the Maiden.

“A useful ability to be sure.”

“Sometimes,” Haides replied. “Unfortunately, it proves to be somewhat fickle. People’s emotions are not exactly accurate. It’s not entirely unlike trying to read a person’s future using the Tarot. If you know what you’re doing, you’re going to get something. But you’re hardly guaranteed to get anything useful.”

“I see,” Marcus said. “I’ve no great insight into divining with the Tarot—I merely dabble. But I do get your point.”

“You do? How gratifying! I never had much control over my psychometry. I get glimpses from time to time—rarely as clear as that first time—but I never developed any greater skill. That’s how it worked for me anyway. “But,” he raised his voice, “I think we should get going again. You’ll never get to where you want to be at this rate. Actually, you’ll never get there at all if you’re just going to listen to me prattle. You need to be there to understand.”

“I think it’s time we had a talk,” Marcus said.

“Go on,” Haides replied, his face a blank slate.

“I’m a magisterial legate, trained by the finest teachers the Collegium can muster. And I’m a servant of the Dragon; the Order has hardened my mind against outside intrusion. It’s like a fortress: the only way in is through the gate, which is fiercely guarded. I don’t allow people like you inside. I’ve gone much further than I’m comfortable with already.”

Haides scratched his well-groomed beard a little. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate your sentiments, Marcus. I really do. They make perfect sense. You are wise to be cautious, and your control over your own mind is astounding. Were I in your shoes, I’d do the same. No, that’s not true. I would never have gone as deep as you have—I’m too paranoid.

“But I think you misunderstand the situation quite fundamentally, Prefect Aurelian. There are secrets hidden in here. Some of them quite dark. The Maiden bears the Dark Omega proudly—and for a good reason. Lord Quaestor Samael would never be so sloppy as to leave such secrets accessible to all. Quite the opposite, this knowledge is rigorously guarded.”

“I follow you.”

“Clever lad. Then you understand that part of the security measure involves a pretty thorough scan of whoever tries to access it. We play around a little, and I try to hack into your brain. Learn your dark secrets. Until I’m sure you are what you claim to be, I can mess around with you literally forever. Or shut you out for good.”

“I was afraid you’d say that,” Marcus said, mind racing. Getting shut out now was not an option, but neither was having his mind picked. There has to be a middle way.

“But giving in to my demands too quickly and easily would be grounds for suspicion in and of itself,” Haides added, a smile creeping into the corners of his eyes.

He really is quite paranoid.

“That’s why I proposed earlier that you should just listen to my story and get to know the place a little better. I thought you got the message, but obviously, you didn’t. So let me rephrase: you have to give me something before I give you something. Quid pro quo as they say in High Dominion.”

Haides made a convincing argument, but Marcus was not convinced, but for lack of anything to add, he said nothing.

“Not saying you should give it all up like a drunk slut,” Haides continued, “but you do need to go down once in a while to keep me happy. Savvy?”

Again the caricature of a Starwalker captain. Is he trying to tell me something? Or is he pulling my leg? Damn you, Haides! Even as these thoughts raced through Marcus’s inner fortress, the Dragon Order legate kept his interactive demeanor calm and reasonable. “I think I do. So that’s what the tale of Haides Guillaume is? An extended mind probe?”

“Yes. There is a bit more to it than that, but yes. So, do we have an accord?” Haides asked.

Marcus picked up his glass from the table and raised it, holding it up before his face. Golden bands were swirling, dissipating, and reforming in the green depths of the liquid.

“We do. But I’m like a shy virgin. I’m going to take it slow and fool around a bit before there is any real action.”

“Suit yourself,” Haides said, “but like all virgins, I bet you’ll come around eventually. Might even learn to like it.” A wicked, playful grin crept onto his face.

Marcus ignored the jape. I’ll play this my way or not at all. On the morrow, I will be better prepared to handle deep immersion. He cut the connection.

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