Dark Omega

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Chapter 19 SWEET DREAMS, MAIDEN FAIR

“Why so happy, Marcus?” the Maiden said, her voice soft.

Good question. I just saw Haides’s mother murdered, and I’m feeling happy? He shook his head, trying to get rid of the smile, but failing. “I’m happy because I’m here, with you, at this particular time and place. It’s like a dream come true.” He laughed at his own joke. It felt pretty good. When was the last time I laughed?

“You lie,” the Maiden said. “You laugh because you’re a bad man. One that likes to tie up maidens and have his way with them.”

That just made Marcus laugh some more. “Maybe I am at that. But at least I’m still human, not a soulless machine, so there is hope for me. If I serve the Dragon well, the Gods will surely forgive me, no?”

“If you say so,” she said.

Marcus shook his head. “You do know how to spoil a nice moment, I’ll give you that.” He rose. “This session is at an end.”

A very human, very anxious grimace flashed across the Maiden’s face. It is a return to storage that she fears. Oblivion scares her. Not pain. Not injury. Oblivion.

Marcus reached forward and brushed away a wayward strand of hair, tugging it gently behind one of the maiden’s elegant ears. “I’m not an evil man, Elizaveta. I just do what needs to be done, such is my duty.”

“Cling to your excuses if it helps you sleep at night.”

Marcus gave her a grim smile in return. “Yes, I can see your point. A man must take responsibility for his actions. As must a chimera like you, no?”

“Your point being?”

“You told me you knew what I was. That means you knew what I would do. Yet you chose a confrontational line. Why?”

“So you hurt me because I asked for it? Is that your explanation?”

“I hurt you because that is what I do to prisoners who resist. That I take responsibility for. You, however, were the one that chose not to comply, knowing what would happen. Not entirely innocent, are you?”

“Whatever.”

“I’m not having you returned to storage. You may remain here, unbound, until I return on the morrow.”

“I don’t trust you,” she said warily.

“I have no need for your trust, little one. I just want your information, that’s all.”

“I make no promises. If I can escape, I will.”

Marcus rolled his eyes. “Escape? From the Pentacle? You couldn’t even get out of this room.” He nodded towards the three drones overhead. “You see those three? They are watching you. Very closely. If you, against all the odds, should look like you might get out…” he let the threat hang in the air, unsaid.

“They will terminate me,” the Maiden finished for him. “Is that it?”

“Yes. Such is our watchers’ duty. They will not shy from it,” he said, looking straight into the camera lens of the closest drone.

------

“Can he do that?” Kwame said. “Leave her in there, I mean. She’s supposed to be returned to storage when not being interrogated.”

Balack shrugged, struggling not to let his relief show—this would make things a lot easier if played right. “I think you know the answer to that one, my young apprentice.”

“Dragon Order prerogatives?”

“Something like that. As long as it doesn’t endanger the Pentacle or it looks like she’s about to run away, yeah, he can leave the chimaera in there. Normally, I’d say ‘sure thing, guv’nor’ and lock the thing away the moment the interrogator left, but…”

“She’ll tell Marcus in the morning, and there will be hell to pay,” Kwame finished for his superior. “I wanted to see if I could catch Amaya before she went home. Now we’ll be cooped in her all night.”

“Longer. We’re up again tomorrow. I doubt the staff will bring in a replacement team. This is so highly classified you can’t just bring in anybody.”

Kwame groaned. Balack was right, of course. The standard operating procedure was for one security team to attend one Dark Omega event for the duration. Which was fine, since they rarely lasted long, and definitely not overnight like this.

“But you go right ahead. Don’t let your closest friend and superior officer keep you from your womanly duties.”

“Can we do that? Protocol says…”

Balack silenced him with a quick slap to the back of the head. “Don’t quote protocol on me, boy. I practically wrote the damn thing!”

“Calm down, crazy old person, I was only looking out for you.”

“I can take care of myself, thank you. As long as Marcus is in there,” Balack nodded towards the screen in front of them, “we have to be two. To watch her,” the image zoomed in on the Maiden’s face, “we only need the one officer.”

“You sure?”

“I already said I’d cover for you. Just don’t stay out all night, eh?”

“Thanks, man, I owe you one.” Kwame hurriedly disengaged from his station and made for the door seal.

“You owe me a lot more than one,” Balack barked cheerfully. “Good thing I’m not keeping a list.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’ll show up for that dinner. I’ll even ask Amaya to come. Your wife will like that.”

“I’m sure.” Balack’s lips twisted into a wicked smile. “But dinner isn’t enough. You owe me one hell of a good story come morning.”

“You’re the best Balack,” Kwame called just as the inner door opened, and he stepped through into the cycle chamber.

“I love you too, Kwame. Now get lost. The Maiden and I need some alone time.” The inner door closed, and Balack was alone. He wasted no time, fishing a black code cylinder out of a subdermal pocket and slotting it into the master security computer.

------

It took Marcus the better part of an hour to reach the topmost level of the inverted pyramid. Going in, security was working to prevent authorized access. Going out, they were concerned with the theft of Pentacle secrets, unauthorized digital copying, savant-mnemonics, that sort of thing. The security staff sped Marcus on his way, nothing but polite smiles and agreeable nods. You fear the Dragon’s wrath. As well you should.

Past the final security point lay the Pentalce’s lobby. Marcus took a detour to relieve himself. Ten hours. If I’m going to stay here all day tomorrow, I need to locate a restroom on a lower tier.

When he was finished, the great hall was devoid of life. Where is everybody? When Marcus had arrived, around noon, there had been thirteen applicants waiting for access, seven Pentacle staff of various flavors, and nine guards.

When he went into the restroom—his first visit in too many hours—there had been a lovely woman with Eurasian features staffing the front desk, and another couple engaged in conversation at the base of the statue of an owl-headed Thoth. Is it really that late? A quick time check told him it was not.

Marcus spotted a Cerberus—one the Pentacle’s security guards—coming out of an accessway with ‘Staff only’ info-sings, both in physical and virtual. With their tall, conical helmets and heavy armor coats, the Cerberi looked like something out of a history play. They even had these halberd-like melee weapons. Marcus wasn’t sure how they would measure up to the real security officers in terms of combat prowess. No matter. I’m not here to fight.

Marcus signaled for the guard’s attention. The man halted and turned to face the approaching legate. He kept his body at an oblique angle, his halberd held at the ready without being threatening. Not too shabby. Unorthodox equipment, but competent.

“How can the security staff be of assistance, Sir?” the guard inquired. His voice was youngish. His identity-tag said, ‘Cerberus Kwame.’

“It seems unusually quiet here,” Marcus put some anxiousness into his voice, “I hope I haven’t inadvertently broken some custom or rule by staying here too late?”

The guard looked at him through topaz-colored lenses. “The Second Pentacle is always open to those of rank and with the appropriate clearances.” He stepped a little closer to Marcus, taking care not to touch him with the business end of the halberd. “Your Dark Omega would allow you access around the clock,” the guard said, voice hardly more than a whisper. “We’ve had reports of a civil disturbance in the Pendulum Gardens,” he continued, speaking more loudly. “Central says that riot police from Aphrodite-Alpha—the capital city of the Aphrodite district cities—are on their way to deal with it.” Marcus nodded him on. “I don’t know what the rioters are after, but it has disputed the flow of traffic. Central bitched at length about how long it would take to sort everything out.”

Marcus nodded. No need for concern then.

A member of the Pentacle staff, a woman wearing the robes of a low-ranking librarian, stepped out the same passage Kwame had. The missing receptionist. She looked a little anxious and flustered. Her long, dark hair, previously perfectly straight and orderly, was not in considerable disarray.

Marcus willed his eyes to see into the emotional spectrum. The result was striking: the woman had very recently engaged in sexual activities. There was the afterglow of desire and passion, mingling with a dose of guilt and a dash of deception.

A late bloomer. Enjoying her newfound attractiveness and confidence by banging a co-worker.

The woman noticed Marcus starting at her and changed course in mid-step, trying to make it look like she wasn’t trying to scurry away. Nice try, but you don’t fool me.

Marcus chanced a sideways glance at the guard. His aura was almost wholly suppressed. The helmet wasn’t just for physical protection: it contained a potent psy-inhibitor as well. Such devices do not come cheaply. Better not get into a fight with the Cerberi. I’ll be at a disadvantage. A handful of them might pose a real threat, should they got close enough. But there will be no violence.

“May I be of assistance?” the woman with the tousled hair inquired.

The guard’s attention shifted away from Marcus, focusing solely on the woman. Marcus was almost certain before, now he was positively sure: they were lovers.

“Librarian Amaya,” Kwame said. “I was just explaining to the Goodman here why the reception area is so quiet. Central says there has been a disturbance. Ground vehicle traffic has been restricted in this zone for the time being.”

“How good of you, Cerberus Kwame,” the woman replied, the tone of her voice a tad too husky to be professional. “I will take it from here.”

The guard did a smart salute with his halberd, a snappish about-face, and marched away. Marcus turned his head to watch him go. So he knows my clearance level. That’s odd. Does he work the lower tiers? The Ninth, perhaps? Did he sneak up here to fuck his lover? Took me an hour, but he beat me to it. That means there are byroads and shortcuts.

“If you wish, I could request aerial transport from the Pentacle’s hopper pool, that should get you past any difficulties,” Amaya offered.

Marcus turned to look at her, put on a solemn face. “There is no need. I can make my way back to my accommodations on foot. It is not far. I secured lodgings close by for precisely such occasions. Even with the disturbance, it should not take long.”

When she looked like she might object, Marcus reached out with his mind and gave her a little mental nudge. She was a strong-willed woman, but her recent escapade had left her brain in emotional disarray. It was no challenge for Marcus to slip in, uninvited and unnoticed. Her words of protests boiled away, leaving only a warm smile and a polite curtsey.

Marcus stayed connected to her for a few extra seconds, quickly browsing through her thought-patterns, surface memory reservoirs, and behavioral routines. He found what he was looking for readily enough: Chike Kwame. Tall, handsome, fit. Skin the color of dark chocolate, multifaceted cybernetic eyes. Cerberus of the Second Pentacle. Twenty-eight years old. Cleared for duty on the Ninth Tier despite his relative youth. Apprenticed to, and partnered with, Cerberus Superior Astar Balack, the Pentacle’s most experienced security officer.

As an afterthought, Marcus left a seed of attraction within Librarian Amaya’s emotional center. Grafting it to a woman in her agitated state was ridiculously easy. Passion and excitement were already there for the taking, and her attraction to the guard easily subverted. The end result was rather pleasing for such a rushed job. Extremely hard to spot for another legate, yet offering Marcus a deep and subtle channel of influence.

Tonight she will dream of a tall and handsome stranger. Give it a few days, and she’ll be daydreaming about me. Having an ally inside the Pentacle could be worth something later, especially one that was sleeping with one of his watchers. She had chambers in a nearby hab-block, which might also come in handy if Marcus had to relocate.

Marcus left the reception through a heavy door that opened as he walked towards it, passed through the final access corridor, a colonnaded piece of architecture fifty meters long and ten tall. The outer security doors opened, and he stepped into the city. Behind him, the massive doors slid shut with only a soft thud.

------

Cerberus Superior Astar Balack sat alone in the security crypt, watching the Maiden pace around the circumference of the chamber for the hundredth time, searching in vain for some way out. Balack hoped she’d keep walking all night. He’d never get bored watching her; she was perfect in a way no mortal woman could ever be.

He felt a sudden pang of guilt. He really liked young Kwame. They were a good team, him and the boy. The lad wasn’t too bright, but he knew his job well thanks to Balack’s tutelage, and despite his checkered past, he was a decent man and easy to be around.

Balack would have liked to have Kwame on board for this one. But they had been very particular: he was to tell no one, or he would pay the price they had named. He shuddered at the thought. Balack didn’t typically respond well to threats. In fact, he usually reacted with immediate violence. It was the only sure way to deal with bullies—and gangsters.

But these people, they were in a different league altogether. He was street savvy enough to realize that the moment he had found them sitting in his living room, a group of stone-cold killers, chatting amicably with his wife. He shrugged away the memories. He had things to do—and later, places to be.

His cybernetic hands flashed over control surfaces, and the image of the Maiden filled the primary viewing screen. Not a single blemish. Not one. Her sparkling green eyes. The curves. The creamy skin. The flowing hair. It was too good to be true. Only a god could possess beauty like that. She reminded him of the statue of the dead goddess Aphrodite they had on the main temple square over at Alpha Prime. Maybe whoever had made her had modeled her body after Aphrodite’s?

The Maiden stopped her pacing and turned towards the closest drone. Smiled. At Balack, not the drone. She knew she was being watched. What a smile, coming from a machine that didn’t even have a mouth when they brought her out of stasis. It was uncanny, it was. He hadn’t seen a smile as bright since he saw his wife-to-be coming up the aisle in the temple of Freyja on their wedding day.

Imogen. Lovely Imogen. She was too good for him. They both knew it, but she would have no other man. Balack balled his metal hands into iron fists. He felt like a caged beast. He wanted to strike at something but didn’t. There was no point. He was trapped good. No way he could not get out of this one. All he could do was obey—and pray for deliverance. Pray for Artemis to keep his wife safe and for Freyja to preserve the sanctity of their home and marriage.

He looked down at the black cylinder, slotted it into the command console. Balack didn’t know exactly what it was or what it was doing—they hadn’t exactly volunteered that information—but he could guess. Nothing good, that’s for sure. But what can I do? If the servants of the Dragon decide to fight one another over this chimera—what can a man like me do? Pray and hope.

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