Dark Omega

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Chapter 25 NOT A FAIRY TALE

Marcus was back in the ring of light with Haides. Nothing has changed. It’s like I didn’t leave at all. There is no concept of time in this realm of the mind.

“Is something amiss, Marcus?”

Marcus considered a bit before answering. “Not exactly amiss, but something happened yesterday after I left you.” He added a little sigh for emphasis. “My pursuers seem to have caught up with me a little sooner than anticipated. That’s all.”

“Pursuers? Now, why would a member of the Dragon Order have pursuers?”

“My mistress has enemies. And rivals that seek to outdo her. There is no more to it than that.”

“And these particular pursuers,” Haides continued, “are they enemies or rivals?”

“That I do not know. Not that it matters. Enemies or rivals—if they get in my way, I will remove them.” Marcus felt no need to elaborate.

“If I wasn’t stuck in here, I’d take care of them for you, Marcus.” The gatekeeper poured his first drink for the day, then filled his companion’s glass without asking. “Vintage conniaco from the First Circle—of the Coalition, not Hell—today. Nothing outlandish or exotic, just seriously good shit.”

Marcus picked up his own glass and sat back. “Shall we proceed?”

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“You all right, boy?” Luca asked. He pulled Haides to the side, into cover behind a gutted PAX-113 Phalanx. There was a fist-sized hole where an Akakian anti-tank weapon had punched through the armor and hit the AFV’s energy cells. Haides doubted any of the occupants had made it out alive.

The boy shook his head—he was definitely not all right. Mother was dead, and he’d been there to see it happen, but unable to intervene. It was supposed to be his day. A glimmer of light in the dark, to pretend, just for a little while, that there were some life and hope left in their small family.

Now it had all gone to shit. Jan was to blame. Always Jan and his shenanigans. And the Colonel for making her stay the night. And Luca for not bothering to see her home. But especially Jan. He should have stayed at home. Should have escorted Mother. If he had stood by his family, the boy would be eating his cake now, not prowling dusty streets in the company of enemies.

“You shouldn’t have had to see that. I’m sorry. I had no idea.” He handed Haides a canteen.

Luca didn’t understand. How could he? He only saw the result, didn’t have to suffer through it all. The boy took his time unscrewing the cork. He needed time to think. Mother had to be avenged, that was a given. And Haides would have satisfaction for his ruined day. Those responsible would be made to pay. Vengeance or death; it was the way. He’d need help to get his due. That bastard of a brother, Haides could take care—if he got the jump on him. Shoot him in the back or stab him in his sleep or something. Thinking about sticking the knife into Jan, again and again...

But he needed the soldiers to strike at those who had committed the actual deed. No way could a little boy could take on so many armed adults. Even with help, the chances of finding and dealing with the real perps were slim. But he had to try. They had taken something from him, so he’d repay them with interest. And afterward...he would just have to see what happened along the way, but going with Luca to the new place was still an option. He’d take Eli to replace Mother, Luca had already said yes to that. And Nik. No leaving him with the enemy.

Mazzo had his scanner out, searching for nearby dangers. Rovo was providing cover, sweeping his pulse cannon around in circles.

With surprising speed and agility, Sarge climbed up to my mother and inspected her. “Mazzo. Hand me the scanner, I’ll need to do a chem sniff.”

“No nearby indigs,” Mazzo concluded his sweep before reaching up to hand Sarge the device.

“Thanks, Mazzo.” Sarge took the scanner and did something to the control panel. It was no mean feat hand climbing a light pole in full kit while juggling a metal box.

After a minute or so, he slid back down to the ground. “We got us a live one,” he shouted down at us. “Some homebrew explosives wrapped in shrapnel. Nothing I can’t disarm.” He threw the scanner over to Mazzo, unfastened his combat vest, and let it slide gently to the ground. The assault shotgun followed suit.

“I’ll go make a perimeter sweep,” Mazzo said. “So when you blow yourself up, I won’t be around to get hit by the shrapnel.”

“Funny man. Now go make yourself useful.”

Sarge climbed back up the light pole. It took a while, but he managed to disarm the bomb. Then he cut down Mother. Luca stepped over to help catch her. Between them, they laid her body gently on the ground. Sarge got a thermal blanket from his pack, using it to cover up her nudeness and her injuries. Only her pale, waxen face and her dark, dirty hair were showing.

“It’s best if you go look at her,” Luca said. Most of the water was still in the canteen—or on the ground. “Say your goodbyes. Then we’ll bury her as best we can. She deserves that.” Pause. “And it’s all we have to give.” He bowed his head.

In life, he knew her only as a piece of flesh for sale, but in death, she had truly touched his heart. Would Luca have done differently by her if it was his planet that rebelled and ‘his’ women that gave themselves to the enemy? Young Haides knew the answer to that.

“You all right boy?” Luca asked again.

“I’m all right,” Haides told him, eyes dry, voice calm and steady.

The Coalition sniper looked at the boy for the longest time. Young Haides met his gaze without flinching. Finally, Luca nodded. “Then you can help me avenge her. Help me find the bastards who did this—and then we’re going to kill them.”

Sarge finished wrapping Mother and then instructed Mazzo to go find a spot to bury her.

“I can’t do to them what they did to her. But what I can do, I can do to all of them. One life for all of theirs,” Luca added.

Haides looked down into the dusty street. So simple. He had feared it would take all sorts of theatricals to get the soldiers to help. Luca must have had a really soft spot for Mother. He’d get the daughter as a replacement, so for him, the deal just kept getting better and better.

“Make that ‘we’ son,” Sarge said. “Luca is going nowhere on his own. We do this as a team, or not at all. End of discussion.”

Luca looked about to protest, but in the end, he kept his mouth shut. It was almost too sweet: one man on the hook and the other three were swallowing it line and sink. Proof positive that friendship and loyalty get you in trouble.

Haides watched as they buried Mother in a shallow grave and covered it with rubble. The GIs were strong men. Sarge and Rovo hulking brutes, Luca and Mazzo sinewy and hard. Some of the nanocrete pieces were so heavy they would deter any scavengers, be they human or beast.

Up until this point, Haides had been rather proud of Father’s involvement in the war effort and of his own Akakian heritage. Then and there, any illusions he might have had regarding his own people were banished. They could no more be trusted than the Coalition invaders. All humans were equal: liars, rapists, and murderers the lot of them. Death was all they deserved, painful, bloody death.

Father was gone, probably residing in Hades. Now Mother had joined him. Good for them. Jan had abandoned his siblings, throwing his lot in with the insurgents. For all practical purposes, Haides was now alone, save a useless canine that wasn’t really his and a slightly insipid teenage sister. Without income, they would starve. Without protection, they’d be vulnerable. He needed to play his cards right.

Mother had not been done on-site. They had caught her somewhere else, forced her to a safe location, done their stuff, and come here to string her up. It was an excellent spot, really. Other whores and Coalition sympathizers had to come this way. They’d read the message loud and clear.

The scanner couldn’t locate the perps—there wasn’t anything to scan for. Haides’s fleeting psychic memories were too vague to tell exactly where the safe house was located. He could remember a handful of the people that had been present, most notably of the man in the cassock. Haides was sure he’d seen his brother, Jan, with some of them. That suggested the perpetrators belonged to the Khiones. If he saw them again in the flesh, he’d recognize them, but it brought the group no closer to actually finding their targets.

It was Luca who suggested they use Nik for tracking. Haides had never trained him for anything like that—he could find bits of food readily enough, but to follow a trail of blood? The boy wasn’t so sure.

Luca, however, turned out to be an experienced dawg-man. He’d been a professional vermin-hunter on his homeworld. The feral dire-rats of Loches are not to be trifled with. To help them, the hunters employed packs of powerful canines.

In no time, Luca had Nik eating out of his hand. It didn’t take long to teach him that following the scent from the blanket that had covered mother’s blood-stained body would earn him endless praise and a steady supply of treats.

Luca had Mazzo fit Haides with a tracker. It looked like a coin, except with some circuitry showing on one side and an adhesive pad on the other side. Mazzo had the boy stick it down his pants and fasten it next to the scrotum. Said no-one would look there, not on a boy.

Mazzo activated two of the CAS drones—Compact Autonomous Surveillance drones—they’d brought along. He pulled them out of their protective tubes—the ones Haides had mistaken for grenade containers. They folded out their turborotors and floated up in the air on miniaturized grav-coils, waiting for commands. Luca put the rolled-up flexi-screen controls into his webbing and had Mazzo connect the drones to the portable scanner. Between the position data in the scanner, my position tracker, and the drones, the GIs would have a good view of the situation on the ground.

Haides took point. Bait again, sticking out his neck, but it was the right thing to. The four soldiers followed at a distance, out of sight, but not out of tracking range. Above, the drones drifted along practically invisible on their anti-grav coils and silent turbofans.

There was quite a bit of interaction between the locals and the soldiers. Quite the barter economy going on. Carnal pleasures were selling very well. Mother had sold herself for necessary supplies—and she wasn’t alone. Other things were in demand as well. The soldiers knew they were going to be settlers soon and wanted to rob the civilians of as much of their stuff as possible before moving on to their designated settlement areas. Food changed hands for precious metals, family heirlooms for some medicines.

For a while, the locals hadn’t dared touch the Coalition troops for fear of retaliation, but that was no longer the case. The Khiones group, in particular, was being antagonistic. They had snipers out and used improvised explosives. The chance of meeting actual insurgents was still pretty low, but they had to be prepared for that eventuality.

The Khiones didn’t seem to care much what the soldiers did to the civilians in retaliation. In fact, they were probably counting on a violent reaction from the Coalition side. They were also actively hawking their anti-Coalition sentiments, urging all loyal Akakians to take up arms, to continue the resistance. And they were mobbing those who ‘fraternized’ it the enemy. It was mostly the women, the women without husbands most of all, that got picked on. The people involved in the black market trade were largely ignored as the rebels needed a supply source as much as everybody else.

They were trying to create a conflict. Force the survivors to take a stand. Mother’s fate was proof of that. Jan was to blame. He should have been there for his family. Instead, he had sided with the people who kidnapped, raped, tortured and killed Mother. And, in effect, made his little brother watch. He might not have been directly involved, but he was guilty by association and neglect.

Luca’s plan was pretty straightforward. They would march into the indig zone, prance around and wait for the rebel scum to come out to play. In case their presence—and the act of giving Mother a proper burial—wasn’t enough to get their blood up, they had Haides, the dead woman’s brat walking point. They wouldn’t be ignored for long.

It was early afternoon, and the weather was fair. People were out and about. Fewer than usual, though. They knew what had happened. How could they not? The Khinoes had paraded Mother down those very streets. ‘Stupid little boy,’ they were thinking as they looked at Haides walk past, ‘walking down the street with a gun in his hand. Can’t wait for some true Akakian heroes to teach the whoreson a lesson.’

The autumn sun was still high in the sky. The hills outside Thira would be green and verdant, cooled by a gentle breeze coming in from the lake. Not so in the city. The ruined streets shimmered with heat. Bone dry red dust was everywhere, getting into everything.

Haides continued down the road, following on Nik’s heels. As he walked, the dirty nails on his left hand clawed bloody gouges into the opposite forearm.

Bright beads of blood welled up and trickled down dust-covered skin. Most of it dried on the way down, covering the arm and the pistol in red lacquer. A few droplets hit the ground, marking the boy’s progress, like in that fairy tale where the maiden Fair leaves a trail of her blood for Artemis to follow. It would not be the last time Haides’s hand ran red.

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