Dark Omega

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Chapter 27 THE NEW RECRUIT

When Haides got back home, it was obvious things weren’t going to work out as planned. To start with, his brother Jan was there. That was as awkward as it was unexpected.

Haides tried telling Jan about Mother, how she had suffered, but the older boy didn’t seem to care. He said she was to blame for her own death. She’d left them all alone, she’d fornicated with the enemy. Janus had kept talking, ranting about how wicked the Coalition was, and how he would fight back. How he’d join the Khiones. How they would lead all true Akakians against the oppressors.

For Jan to join forces with the very men who had tortured, raped, and killed Mother—Haides felt sick to the core. He wanted his brother to understand. That Mother had done the best she could. It wasn’t her fault—if anything, it was Jan’s fault for not filling Father’s shoes. But there was no getting through to the older boy. He just got angry when Haides mentioned Father. And when the younger boy asked where he’d been that fateful day, he got a beating for his troubles. Whatever respect Haides had left for his brother went out the shattered window.

Telling Jan the truth about Luca and the Coalition soldiers was out of the question. Not that Haides wanted him along or anything. Far from it. Luca had said no, and Haides was fully committed to telling his brother that. But he dared not. If Haides tried to paint Luca and the other soldiers in a favorable light, he wouldn’t get off with just a beating. He tried to test the waters, so to speak, but the moment Luca’s name was mentioned, Jan flew into a rage and hit Haides again several times—much harder than before.

Jan stalked the apartment, shouting and pointing fingers. Suddenly it was Luca’s fault. Haides found it very odd since up until that time, Jan hadn’t mentioned the sniper by name—not even once. Now there was no end to the horrible things—most of which Haides didn’t understand—Luca had done to Mother. From what Haides could tell, Jan didn’t even know who Luca was, but was blaming everything the Coalition had ever done on a fantasy enemy that existed only in his mind. It was a strange feeling, realizing your older brother, who you had always admired and respected, was afraid and confused in a way you were not.

But most of all, Jan finally concluded, long after Haides had realized where this would lead, his brother was to blame. If it wasn’t for the damnable cake, none of this would have happened. If his baby brother hadn’t been such a whoreson—as if he wasn’t one himself—Mother would be alive, and Father too. Then he shouted something obscene at Eli before running off, voice all thick and eyes watering.

Jan was deluded, that much was clear. Haides knew the truth. In this particular play, the Khiones were the bad guys, not the Coalition. It made him feel sad, but that didn’t make it less of a fact. He wanted to run after Jan and make him see it too, but in his young heart, Haides knew it wouldn’t work. His brother was a deluded wreck, and nothing could save him.

When Haides later tried to tell his sister about the deal with Luca, that they could go with him to live in a better place, if only she’d open her legs to him, he couldn’t find a proper angle. The boy was only twelve and didn’t understand all that took place between men and women, but he knew enough to know that after the things Jan had said, suggesting that his sister sell her body to the enemy wouldn’t be the right thing to do.

But Haides didn’t really have a choice. He had to tell her. What else could he do? Leave Eli behind without speaking about the deal? That would turn out far worse for her, Haides was sure. Marrying Luca wouldn’t be so bad for her, would it? After pining over the matter for the longest time, he decided to try, despite his misgivings.

He needn’t have worried. Eli didn’t seem to care, one way or the other. She just shrugged and said ‘sure,’ and that was the end of that talk. Haides’s sister had become Eli the Lizard again, sitting motionless in the broken window, soaking up the sun, staring at everything and nothing. If she had started scratching her arms bloody, he could not have been less surprised.

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The next days were tense. Haides was concerned his involvement with the firefight would become common knowledge. But the moment passed. For those that had survived the bloodbath, the boy that ran was the least of their concerns.

A week or so later, the now-orphaned boy skulked around the cold market when he heard a tall tale of what had gone down. The story was a full platoon—or maybe a company—of GIs had set up an ambush for a squad of freedom fighters. Apparently, the Akakians had fought so bravely the Coalition had been forced to retreat with heavy losses.

Soon thereafter, Haides heard other versions, most of them having even less in common with the truth. He sensed a consciousness behind it all, carefully retelling history, twisting events to make it seem like the insurgents were on the offensive, were winning. Haides was kind of impressed. To be able to turn utter defeat into something that strengthened your position was no mean feat. It was the priest. Had to be. He was the one responsible—even more than Jan—for Mother’s death. Haides could feel the man’s presence like a constant physical force. For lack of better words, the boy likened it to having a shadow weigh upon his soul.

Other rumors confirmed Haides’s suspicions. Mother wasn’t the only whore to have been roughed up—but she was the only one done so thoroughly. There was no telling why she, in particular, had been subjected to torture and consigned to death. Perhaps there wasn’t a reason, maybe it was bad luck. Or the will of the Gods. Sometimes telling the difference was hard.

Following Mother’s murder, it didn’t take long for Jan to find a more permanent place among the insurgents. Up until then, he’d only been a peripheral member, a prospect. Now he was elevated into the company of mother-killers and other ne’er-do-wells. Unsurprising perhaps, given the fact that Luca and his brothers had wiped out a couple of squads worth of rebels, leaving the Khiones critically short on manpower. Small loss to the family. The less Eli and Haides saw of him, the better.

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Following the incident there was a sense of rising tension within the indig zones as the Khiones and their new leader—the name Preacher Ramush bubbled to the surface—used every resource at their disposal to upset the tenuous peace between the Akakian survivors and Coalition occupiers.

Back at the apartment things were also changing. Haides had imagined that Luca would come for him and Eli, sooner rather than later, which would solve everything. But the wheels of the Coalition Army turned slowly, days became weeks, and food ran out. Eventually, Eli began bringing strangers to the house, and food again stood on the table. Young Haides hadn’t seen that one coming.

Eli was a little on the young side in years, Haides knew that much. But these were hard times, and the girl was physically mature, looked like a woman in all the right ways. There was no choice, really. They had to eat, and Eli was their only potential source of income. Haides was, however, worried that Eli’s new profession would attract the ire of the Khiones, which could potentially ruin everything. If they decided to repeat the message, they might even get rid of the bothersome brother at the same time. As weeks went by and nothing happened, Haides figured the Khiones had bigger things to worry about than the daughter of a dead whore.

When Eli had guests, Haides made sure to stay out of sight but to be nearby in case Eli needed him. He was not going to repeat this brother’s mistakes. It didn’t take long for Haides to notice the number of women coming to the apartment. There had been a couple when Mother was working, but nothing like this. If anything, there were more women than men this time around.

Curiosity got the better of him, and Haides decided to spy on one transaction. Both his sister and the customer were fully dressed and sitting around the apartment’s only table. The woman was sitting with her back to Haides, blocking his view of Eli. All he could see was Eli was holding the woman’s hand. They were talking. It was hard to make out the exact words—something about dead children and the woman wanting to kill herself—but Eli’s voice was not her own, that much was clear. It was a man’s voice, deep and sad. He was saying that the little ones were fine, that they would wait for her. There was no rush—there was no time in the afterlife. After that, the woman cried for a long time. Then Eli told her the session was over and that she was not going to kill herself. The woman promised she wouldn’t, and Haides had the feeling she’d keep her word.

After that, Haides kept away from the apartment as much as he could, spent most days hanging around the compound of the 57th Loches Mechanized Brigade, getting to know the people. It was quite the mixed crowd, really. Haides already knew the story of their desperate campaign on the Perseus Front. However, he was still shocked to learn that only a reinforced battalion remained of the original unit—a mere fraction of its original strength.

When the Coalition diverted the 57th to the Protasian warzone, instead of giving them their heroes’ welcome on Versailles, High Command had authorized the inclusion of auxiliaries into the ranks. As a result, the 57th Loches included soldiers from several other Army divisions and independent brigades and Navy personnel from vessels that had been crippled over Protasia. This reconstituted brigade was nowhere near as homogenous or well-trained as the 57th had been. Still, months of fighting together on Akakios had forged the reborn unit into a cohesive whole—or at least as much as could be hoped for.

Brigadier de Cavour was the commanding officer. The man wasn’t particularly clever, to begin with, and his drinking habits didn’t make it any better. He was, however, the spitting image of a heroic commander. The uniform suited him perfectly, and he had great personal courage and a talent for action. When it came to playing the part of the commander, he did so effortlessly and with great panache. The men loved him, not for his military skills, but for being one of them—a man of flesh and blood, cast adrift upon the tides of war.

Colonel Joaquin Bruness Haides already knew. He wasn’t a Lochesian at all, but a career officer from Versailles, the capital world of the Coalition. As the fifth son of a minor nobleman, he had no prospects outside military service. If de Cavour lacked anything as an officer, the Colonel more than made up for his deficiencies. Together they were quite the team: the figurehead king and his cunning prime minister.

Since coming to Protasia, the reborn 57th had lost enough additional manpower to make them a brigade on paper only. Haides asked Luca about it once, but the sniper couldn’t—or wouldn’t—give an accurate figure. Haides tried counting. He eventually concluded the 57th was comprised of around eighteen hundred men and women—about eighty percent were male—at the time, give or take. Way below the minimum operating manpower of a Coalition brigade.

While none of the other soldiers warmed to Haides like Luca and his brothers from another mother had, he made an overall favorable impression and was gradually accepted as a sort of mascot. The fact that the 57th was made up of so many different groups of people helped a lot. As did the news that the brigade was to be given settlement rights on Protasia. It made the men a lot more accepting of changes. And it had made them begin to think of life as civilians, Protasian civilians—the word Akakios was like Luca had said, banned.

Haides got many questions about his mother—until the men learned she was dead—and later about his sister, which he deflected by referring them to Colonel Joaquin.

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The way Haides saw it, he was doing an important job. Eli was keeping them alive until they had a chance to move. But in the long run, what Haides did was more critical. He needed to earn a place, gain the soldiers’ acceptance, so there wouldn’t be any problems when they moved. Eli was a girl and would make somebody, probably either Luca or the Colonel, a happy man. But Haides was just a scrawny boy. If they didn’t like him, bad things could happen. A single drunk GI could be the end of him.

Haides wanted to mine the GIs for as much gun lore and warcraft as possible. He knew nothing about weapons and war, and too little about staying alive in a dangerous world. A veteran unit like the 57th had loads of battle wisdom to share—but they’d only share it with someone they liked and trusted.

Luca was always helpful, but he was on duty a lot. Rovo was very kind to Haides, but he was a civilian, and the big man wouldn’t teach a kid anything to do with war. Mazzo and Sarge, Haides stayed clear off when he could. They accepted him hanging around, but they would never dream of treating him anything like a soldier. Haides was just a dumb kid that their buddy happened to like.

Haides started out identifying those soldiers he thought would be the most likely to accept a kid asking questions. It was a little touch and go initially, but Haides could be quite charming when he wanted to. He played the kid-brother card for all it was worth, running errands, listening to their war stories, and generally made himself useful. He took care not to be needy or try to get too close. Haides realized, on an instinctive level, that these men were, in their own ways, as traumatized by the war as he was. And so he maintained a polite emotional distance.

Little by little, he got some of the men—he had less success with the women but didn’t understand why—to open up. Next, he got them to teach. With more than a thousand people to pick from and the brigade in garrison mode, there was always someone off duty, someone bored enough to talk to young Haides.

He was an apt pupil. It wouldn’t have qualified as a full military education, but Haides got the basics down pretty good. If he needed to, he could handle basic weapons and care for them. Same with the utility gear the GIs lugged around: everything from field spades to scanners, water purifiers, gas stoves, first aid kits, and comm sets. He picked up all sorts of useful skills that could help him survive under challenging conditions.

When the soldiers couldn’t be bothered to instruct the boy, he’d spend time reading the Coalition Infantryman’s Handbook. For such a small book, it sure contained a lot of useful stuff. There wasn’t a page or passage wasted. Everything was so clear and so well laid out even an illiterate idiot could grasp the basics.

Haides picked up some universally useful tactical knowledge: hit the enemy when he least expects it, hit him hard—and keep hitting him until he’s not moving anymore. This fundamental battle wisdom, combined with the boy’s own ethos of staying hidden as much as possible and running away to fight another day, provided a solid foundation for a boy soldier.

He also learned a little more about the four men that made up what the other soldiers now jokingly referred to as ‘Squad Haides.’ The boy had time to kill, and it made for some fascinating listening for a nine-year-old that had never left his homeworld.

Sergeant Blano—Sarge—had been a sergeant long before meeting any of the others. He’d been with the Lochesi Defense Force for years and years. However, there came a time when he found himself in a peculiar position: either volunteer for Coalition service or be executed for disciplinary infractions. Stuff like accepting bribes, dereliction of duty, striking an officer, that sort of thing. As far as Haides could tell, he was guilty of all that—and more. His military experience made him invaluable to K-company; the Coalition drill instructors they sent to train the recruits only had time to teach new soldiers the basics before they reached their deployment zones. Without Sarge’s know-how, all of Kay-Coy would have died under distant suns long ago.

Mazzo had faced a similar choice. Twenty years of hard labor or volunteer for Coalition service. His background was quite different, though. Mazzo was a Made Man back on Loches, a career criminal, specializing in hi-tech burglaries. This explained his skill with the scanner. He had declined the offer, much preferring to do some time among friends, rather than die on a distant world. But they had put his name down anyway, drugged him, and handed him over. Classic press-ganging. When he woke, he was in space, heading for the Perseus Front. He had tried to object, but it was either go with the program or eat vacuum.

Roverto had been a skilled worker in one of the many vehicle factories of Loches. He was not a volunteer but a draftee. His name had been one of those randomly drawn from the pool of eligible citizens. A bit of bad luck, and suddenly he was in uniform. His courage, strength, and talent for weapons handling had made him a natural soldier. As far as Haides could tell, he actually enjoyed his new life, despite all the death and hardship it had thrown his way.

Luca was a rat-catcher—those rats can grow to the size of a pony—back on their homeworld. When the brigade was mustered, it needed good reconnaissance men. And there are no better scouts on Loches than the vermin-hunters. Luca wasn’t a victim of bad luck or a life of crime, his name was on a shortlist of eligible candidates, and that was that. He’d bidden his old folks and his siblings goodbye, given his fiancé a night to remember, and then shipped out.

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