Dark Omega

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Chapter 23 RIGHT OF CONSCRIPTION

The attack cruiser Oculus Draco—literally ‘the Eye of the Celestial Dragon,’ as opposed to the Tarot, the Oculus Draconis, which meant ‘the Celestial Dragon’s all-seeing vision’—accelerated at a steady fifty Gees.

The ship had been at rest relative to the Epiphanet system’s primary star when the call from Xerza came through. They had been underway for slightly less than sixteen hours, and their velocity was now about ten percent of the speed of light. This feat was only possible thanks to the techno-magic of the Technocracy. Inertial dampening reduced the ship’s mass to a mere fraction of its real tonnage, and the Casimir drive generated thrust without the need for reaction mass.

Another seventy hours and they would reach cruising speed—half the speed of light. At that rate, it would take them a mere thirty-four thousand years to get to Nuovo Venezia. A blink of an eye on the cosmic scale, but somewhat impractical for humans. Even if they could keep accelerating all the way to lightspeed and thereby enter the marvelous realm of time dilation, compressing their journey to mere centuries, the same thirty-four millennia would still pass in the outside universe.

Fortunately, the technomancers had a solution to this seemingly insurmountable barrier to interstellar civilization. As soon as the ship was far enough out, Agrippina, their helmswoman, would wrap the cruiser in a bubble of causality—for all practical purposes, an event horizon, like that surrounding a black hole. Information could not pass over this threshold, and therefore, the ship’s velocity could not be precisely known—effectively creating quantum uncertainty on a macroscopic scale.

Within the bubble, they were going half the speed of light, but relative to the rest of the universe, they could travel many hundreds of times faster than conventional physics allowed. Alpha Centauri, the closest habitable system to Earth, could be reached in days with a translight drive. The Epiphanet to Nuovo Venezia trip would take only a few generations.

The final part of the puzzle was the collapsar gates, stable wormhole nexuses—created from naturally-occurring black holes by the Revenants—that allowed an object to reach near-infinite speeds relative to the physical universe. If a ship hit a collapsar at the right velocity and angle, it could even manage to catch another collapsar further out and return to the physical universe.

Missing your egress point was not advisable: you’d be caught in interdimensional space until such time as you hit another collapsar by chance. Space was infinite, so it would happen eventually, but you might have to wait a few million or billion years.

Epiphanet had a very conveniently located collapsar, a mere three thousand astronomical units—half a light-year—from the primary. In less than forty-eight hours, the attack cruiser would plunge across its event horizon, disappear from the universe, and reemerge, moments later, hundreds or thousands of light-year away. Several such jumps would be needed to make it all the way to Nuovo Venezia. A couple of weeks, maybe as little as eight days, was all it would take thanks to a well-placed string of these gateways.

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I am the Harbinger. I am the Wrath. I am the fiery breath of the Dragon.

Lord-Commander Kaminsky—also known as Asset Sigma Draconis—again floated in perfect weightlessness within the solitary confines of the psychic null-tank. His two-meter plus frame was curled into a fetal position, knees touching his forehead, arms tightly wrapped around his legs. Freed from the constraints of gravity, his naked body spun ever so slowly without ever touching the walls of the chamber.

The tank had been a gift from Venera Romanov, a particularly grateful—and well-connected—technomancer. In all of the Successor Kingdoms, there were only a handful of people qualified to make such artifacts. It had been constructed according to the most exacting standards, and no expense had been spared when it came to ornamentation.

To Kaminsky, the tank was beyond valuable; it was priceless. It was the only place where he could be alone, truly alone, absolved of the constant mind-chatter of those around him. It was the only place where he could lose himself to the memories, the only place where he could dream of what had gone before—and what might have been, had not the Celestial Dragon chosen Kaminsky to be His tool.

Anton Valeriy Kaminsky. That was my name. Back when I was just another boy of flesh and blood. Before I was taken. Before I was remade. Before my bones became iron, before my flesh turned to stone. Before every human weakness was hammered out of me, leaving only a weapon in the shape of a man.

Kaminsky remembered his origins very well. He wasn’t supposed to: the Dragon Order took great pains to mind-wipe and indoctrinate its recruits. In his case, they hadn’t quite succeeded. The Dragon willed it so. I alone he chose. He made me remember so that I could understand His Great Plan. Understand it, so it might protect it from the machinations of heretics and unbelievers.

He closed his blind eyes and looked into the past, piercing the veils of time, recalling events now centuries past with perfect clarity. All the way back to before he lost his vision, before the Lord-Marshal’s madness, before the Release, before Tancred, before Samael, before Xerza, before Haides, back to where it had all begun.

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He had been born on the planet Versailles, capital of the Coalition, one of the great powers of the shattered Dominion, shortly before midnight on October 17th in the four-hundred-and-ninth year Post Dominion.

Being born. That was Kaminsky’s first clear memory. The sudden cold, the glare of the overhead lights, the cacophony of loud noises. The time before that moment, the time spent in the womb, that was just a hazy blur of gyrating warmth, steady heartbeats, and muffled voices, fading back into the murky waters of pre-consciousness. Everything after that, he could recall with almost perfect clarity—a feat made possible not by the computers grafted onto his organic brain, but by the blood of the ancient god that flowed through his veins.

Scions, especially those of strong lineages, often possessed abilities not entirely of this world. In some ways, these abilities were similar to the psychic powers that legates wielded. Both were innate abilities, and both required practice to master. But that was where the similarities ended. Blood abilities were mostly internal, limited to the scion’s own body, whereas legate powers had no such limitations. Learning legate patterns was also a far more time-consuming business, one that required the utmost dedication and discipline.

The House of Kaminsky was descended from Red-handed Ares, the dead god of war. Typically, the children of the ancient war god inherited abilities of a more martial nature, such as superhuman strength, the ability to quickly heal injuries, or an instinctive understanding of tactics and strategy. Kaminsky’s ability was rare indeed; there was no record of anything like it in the family annals. The power of blood-memory—the ability to remember bits and pieces of your ancestors’ lives—was the closest thing. Related, but not the same. The Dragon moves in mysterious ways. But it’s all part of His Great Plan.

Since becoming a Keeper, Kaminsky had looked long and hard for anyone with a similar power—but found none. He wasn’t too surprised—powerful bloodlines were rare in this day and age, the lineages long since diluted by intermarriage and weak rule. All he got was a few records from a thousand years ago that could be a match, but nothing conclusive.

Kaminsky’s father had been a man of great renown in his time: Archduke Valeriy Oleg Kaminsky, ruler of the Second Astro-Administrative Circle of the Coalition—and the right-hand man of the Archon. It was said that Archduke Kaminsky was among the twenty wealthiest and most influential men in Dominion space. One of the great men of his time. Now he is but dust and ashes—hardly more than a footnote in the annals of the Succession Kingdoms.

His mother was Alexandra Adèle Guillaume, niece to the Archon, number thirty-six in the line of succession to le Trône Rosethe Rose Throne of the Coalition. Not quite part of the royal family, but as close as you could come without being royalty. Not only was she born to wealth and power, but she was also a woman of great beauty. As a mother, you had your flaws, but there were good times too.

With parents like that, Kaminsky’s life was destined to be one of extreme luxury and privilege. As a sixth child, he could not hope to inherit, but as long as he served the needs of his house, he would never want for anything. He would have access to the most advanced medical technology available in the Dominion. Members of the high nobility could expect to live in good health for a century-and-a-half, give or take, twice the expected lifespan of the commoners. Even longer, if they were willing the break the Conclave’s ban on artificially extending the human lifespan.

His older siblings were groomed and tutored as befitted their lofty station and their intended roles. The oldest brother, Nikolay Valeriy, was trained from an early age to follow in their father’s footsteps: to become the next Archduke, to carry on the family name, to maintain house honor, to heap glory upon the bloodline. You eclipsed our father in all ways but one—you begat no heirs. Not even the techno-sorcery of the technomancers could help the Kaminsky heir overcome his infertility. There were other ways to reproduce, of course, illegal methods, but a man of Nikolay’s lofty station could not stoop to such lows. Had you been but a baron, then maybe. But an archduke? Impossible.

Angelina Alexandra was also trained to rule. It paid to have a replacement, should the primary heir prove unequal to the task. If not, she would make a good spouse for some Duke or other, securing an essential alliance-by-blood for her house. You did better; you married into the House of Queensland. Your descendants now rule not only the Second Circle of the Coalition but all of the Star Alliance as well.

Lazar Valeriy was groomed for military command. He was expected to rise to the very top of the Coalition chain of command. You earned your Marshal’s baton in the first war against the Panoptic Federation. Too bad, the Archon squandered your victories. But that was the lot of House Kaminsky: to serve lesser men, to fight for them, but not rule. Never that.

Katya Alexandra was promised to the Conclave. She was expected to rise as high within the church as her brother did in the military. That you did—and more. The youngest Kaminsky ever to be anointed as a Cardinal of the Pantheon. The Thrice-blessed they called you in life, favored servant of Freya, Artemis, and Sif. Now you sit at the table of the gods as Exalted Paragon Katya—forgive me that I never found out what you’re the paragon of.

Leontiy Valeriy was the black sheep of the family. Born barely a year after his sister, he showed an aptitude for magisterial powers. In his twelfth year, he was reassessed by the Censors and made a Ward of the Collegium. He endured a brief spell on Terra, but amounted to little, and was eventually discharged. Not even the influence of the Archduke could convince the Incantatrix to give him a second chance. He returned to the Kaminsky homeward in disgrace, forbidden by his father from ever setting foot on Versailles again. Duchess Alexandra welcomed her son home to Voronezh, but his failure hung like a pall over House Kaminsky for years. I remember you most fondly of all. You may have been a disgrace to the family, but you were always kind to me. I have often wondered what became of you after I was taken. Did you run away and become a provocateur? I like to think that you did.

It was hoped that young Anton would show the same kind of aptitude; if he made a name from himself within the Collegium, it would do much to erase the stain upon House Kaminsky’s honor. It, therefore, came as a great relief to both his parents when the auguries were favorable—and unusually consistent: Anton was destined to become not only a legate, but a great legate. Dispatches were sent to the Collegium with the good news—and the Incantatrix replied, in her own hand, that she was certain Anton would do well. Human hubris. The Dragon had other plans for me.

The signs came early. They had known Anton possessed the Nexus gene markers since he was born—nearly all the Kaminsky children did, thanks to their forefather, the dead god Ares—but even the Collegium could not say for sure who would become a legate and who would not. The first manifestations typically occurred during adolescence, usually no earlier than the age of ten. Not so for me.

He had barely turned five when the visitations began: the servants reported hearing a heavenly choir softly singing lullabies to the young scion of House Kaminsky. His mother, being a well-connected woman, knew the secret of what happened to young boys and girls that manifested too early. They are taken away by the Dragon Order, never to be seen again.

Letting the Collegium down a second time was hardly an option. Seeking to preserve the honor of her House, Duchess Alexandra arranged for her physicians to feed her son the torpor cocktail that kept manifesting potentials numbed down. You should not have done that, Mother. You acted against the wishes of the Dragon. Nothing good can come of that.

The drugs proved impractical in the long run; he had become accustomed to them, requiring ever-higher doses to remain docile. The physicians decreed that if they were to continue, irreparable brain damage would be the result. Delivering a damaged boy to the Collegium was, of course, entirely out of the question. The treatments had to stop. Desperate to stave of the inevitable, his mother secretly hired provocateurs—unlicensed legates—to suppress her son’s powers. Ironic. She would disobey the edicts of the Collegium—in the vain hope that I might still turn out as promised. Be the sacrifice the Collegium required.

It had worked, for a time, but by the time he was nine, fate could no longer be diverted. One of the provocateurs had a mental breakdown of sorts. Caused all kinds of damage to the estates, including the deaths of seven people before he was put down. There is a reason why unlicensed psychics are forbidden. The Duchess managed to keep a lid on things, but word still reached her husband. The Archduke, a man not given to trust, maintained a coterie of agents within his own household. A group that included an astrally capable legate, to keep him informed of important events. When Archduke Kaminsky heard of the incident, he promptly commandeered the fastest ship in the Coalition fleet and headed back to his ancestral holdings. You did not make it back in time, Father. I’m glad you didn’t. You would have done something unforgivable. Of that, I am certain. Better it happened the way it did.

They had come for him in the dark of night—an entire company of Conclave Templars, resplendent in their white surcoats, with the all-seeing Eye of Horus upon their broad chests. Three Ordo Draconis Censors accompanied them; tall, heavyset men in black body armor and crimson cloaks, wearing their hallmark bronze death masks. They marched in, bold as brass, under the watchful guns of ten times their number of Kaminsky household guards. Not a single man or woman dared raise their voice in objection, let alone lift a weapon against the servants of the Dragon. I remember it as if it happened only yesterday. Then again, I remember everything as if it happened yesterday.

“I invoke the Right of Incision,” a deep voice cut through the silence. The members of the Kaminsky Household held their collective breaths, waiting for the next statement, the judgment that could be the end of them all. “Onto the First Degree,” another, fairer voice decreed. Relief showed on every face—the Dragon was merciful on that dark night. “Bring forth the provocateurs—and those responsible for their inclusion into this household,” the third Censor shouted, “or you shall all burn.”

Fear mixed with relief, compelling the crowd to acquiesce to the Dragon’s demands. The corpse of the rampaging provocateur was quickly pulled from its resting place and brought forward. I never liked you. There was something off about you—a wrongness.

Next followed the live ones. Both had been severely beaten and were tightly bound. One of them, an elderly man, well-liked by the manor’s children, had to be carried, such was his state. I remember you well, Yorrik. A child could ask for no better teacher. You held nothing back, gave me your all, and demanded I give back in kind. You treated me like an equal, a fellow human being—not something more or something less—perhaps the one man to do so. The other one, a young woman with defiant eyes, manage to hobble along. She screamed and cursed the Dragon and the Gods, but her defiance amounted to nothing. You thought your tribal tattoos and your spirits would protect you. But your kind cannot hide from the Dragon. No one can.

Two coilgun shots rang out. Two heads exploded as the mass-fused rounds detonated inside their targets’ skulls. A pyre was quickly built and lit. The three dead legates burned while the Censors and Templars stood in silent vigil.

The servants would not touch their beloved Duchess. They pleaded with her to come before the Censors, but even the fear of the Dragon could not make them lay hands on her. Admirable, if misguided, loyalty.

Dawn broke. The pyre was nothing but embers. Still, the Censors just stood there, immobile, unmovable. “Mother,” he had said, “it is time. We must go, or all of House Kaminsky will burn.” You looked at me then, speechless. You seemed defeated. As if life had already fled your still-living body.

Duchess Alexandra finally appeared on the steps, with Kaminsky by her side. She fell to her knees, gently pushed him forward, urging him to walk down the stairs, into the arms of the faceless men. “Go then, to your fate.” He had done so, willingly. “Let it not be said that House Kaminsky went against the Dragon,” he heard her shout.

I turned to look, but you were already dead, your life taken the poison you swallowed. You were not to be judged in life, but He waits for us all on the other side of Death’s Veil. There is no escaping the Dragon’s Wrath. When Anton reached the waiting Censors, they looked down at the boy, seeking, probing, assessing. If I was ever afraid, it was then.

“I invoke the Right of Conscription,” the Censor with the deep voice finally said.

And that was that. The Dragon had spoken—the boy belonged to him now. The Censors turned about without further ado and marched from the grounds, the Conclave Templars following on their heels like obedient dogs. It was the last anyone ever saw of Anton Valeriy Kaminsky.

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