Dark Omega

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Chapter 28 SOLDIER FOR A DAY

A while later, maybe six or seven weeks after Mother’s murder, autumn had turned into winter, there was an incident. Haides’s estranged brother, Janus, dropped by. They hadn’t seen him for a while, so both siblings were surprised when he walked into the apartment.

It wasn’t a courtesy call. Janus was all worked up when he arrived, called Eli a fucking whore, a traitor to Akakios, a dishonor to our family’s ancestors, and so forth. The day Haides had feared would come, had come. Jan’s brotherhood of rebels had egged their new recruit on, calling on him to confront Eli, teach the little slut a lesson—like they had her mother. Time to prove his loyalty. The reason the Khiones hadn’t bothered Eli before—they were saving her for a special occasion, for Jan’s rite of passage.

It wasn’t such a horrible plan, really, but it didn’t work out the way the Khiones had planned. Throughout the shouting and name-calling, Eli said nothing, did nothing. Only when Jan was done, did her eyes go black. Literally. No whites, no irises. Solid, black orbs. The temperature in the room dropped sharply. Haides saw frost roses form around his sister’s feet. Psychics. There was no other explanation. His sister was an untrained legate. The boy had suspected before. Now he knew. Eli was a witch, like Mother, rest her soul. Which raised all sorts of unpleasant questions about Father, Janus—and Haides. Questions perhaps best left unanswered.

Jan pissed his pants and ran off without looking back. The last thing they saw of their brother—a puddle of piss freezing solid on the nanocrete floor. Haides cherished that memory for a long time. Helped keep his spirits up whenever his mind threatened to wander into dark places.

With Jan out of the picture, Haides again proposed they join Luca and the 57th, and leave Thira behind. Eli hadn’t said ‘no’ the last time he had brought it up, but she hadn’t said ‘yes’ either. Not for real.

Eli looked at Haides for a long time when he was done telling his convoluted story, which included a whole lot of beating around the bush. The boy wondered if he had pushed his sister too far, or that she might revert to lizard-mode. Or worse, get the black-eyes treatment. But then she suddenly smiled and laughed, and said ‘yes.’

Since they didn’t know when the 57th would move out, brother and sister continued their daily lives. Haides hung around the GIs. Eli spent her days whoring. Or maybe she was engaged in witchcraft. Her brother didn’t want to know. They were living on borrowed time—Jan was a coward, but the Khiones might come back in great numbers—and Haides couldn’t wait to be away from the ruined city.

------

Joaquin, the Colonel, had given orders that the regiment was to keep up the pressure on the insurgents. There was clearly something afoot, and he didn’t want to lose the initiative. Under no circumstance was the enemy to be allowed to consolidate their power base and expand their operations. A shoot-at-sight order went out concerning Preacher Ramush and anyone suspected of being part of the Khiones. Haides’s brother wasn’t on the list. He was secretly disappointed but didn’t want to bring it up. Being known as the brother of a wanted rebel wouldn’t do the boy any favors right now.

The GIs were unusually tight-lipped, but Haides caught the word heresy whispered on several occasions. One time, he overheard Sarge and Luca murmuring about something called the ‘Word of Light.’ They shut up as soon as they became aware of the boy’s presence.

Haides had a fair grasp of what ‘heresy’ meant. It had to do with not listening to the church elders, praying to false gods, secretly worshipping The One God, or being in league with the Serpent of the Abyss. Intellectually, he was not able to fully comprehend the implications beyond ‘evil’ and ‘trouble.’ What ‘Word of Light’ might mean, he had no idea. It sounded pleasant enough, but the Shadow was cunning, and sometimes tricked even righteous people, that much Haides knew.

Asking the GIs about it would only cause trouble, so instead, he went directly to the source, to the Colonel. Haides knew from experience Joaquin was impressed by direct, offensive action. The boy found him in his quarters, lighting a stick of incense in front of a portable shrine of Athena, Thor, and Heimdall—the Pantheon’s warrior trio. Horus was a warrior god too—all the gods were to some extent—but he was swamped ruling the Pantheon, protecting the nobility, and overseeing all of existence.

“Hello, Haides,” Joaquin said, his natural charm threatening to derail the conversation before it began.

“Colonel,” Haides replied, trying to sound older and more mature than he was. He needn’t have bothered; the Colonel knew what he was after already.

“You’ve been snooping around, kid. But you forget they are my men, not yours. They rat on you, every chance they get. You want to know my plan, kid?” the Colonel asked and handed Haides a snack bar.

“Yes,” Haides replied and pocketed the bar.

“Ops plans are secret, Haides—and you have nothing even resembling a clearance,” Joaquin Burness said.

“You never let that stop you before.”

The Colonel looked at the kid for a bit. “Why do you want to know?”

“I already know more than I care to. What I want is vengeance,” Haides said, voice flat.

“I see,” the Colonel said and nodded. Then he told Haides the basics of his plan, clearances, and operational security be damned.

The plan was to have the grunts step up patrols of the indig zones, stir up some trouble, draw the insurgents out in the open. Provoke them into acting before they were ready, rather than sit around and wait for them to seize the initiative.

It was a good plan. It had few moving parts. Similar ploys had worked before, would probably do so again.

“So don’t you worry, Haides. You’ll have your vengeance. The Coalition will see to that.”

“I want to come,” Haides replied.

“You’re not a soldier, Haides,” Joaquin replied. “You have nothing to contribute. Your presence will only endanger the men.”

“I beg to differ,” Haides replied, using a phrase he’d heard grown-ups use often when they wanted to be taken seriously. “My very presence is what you want. I’m the whoreson whose mother they killed. My presence alongside the hated Coalition will only fuel the flames you wish to fan.” He’d practiced the speech beforehand and thought it came out sounding quite convincing.

The Colonel looked ready to protest but didn’t. “You’re right, son. Report to Luca and tell him I want you tagging along.”

Haides made a snappy salute, spun around on the heel, and went looking for Luca. Adults were so predictable.

------

“The Colonel said you could come? I find that hard to believe,” He needn’t have said anything at all: the look on his face told the boy Luca didn’t believe a word of what he’d just been told.

“I’m just relaying the Colonel’s orders, sir,” Haides continued. “He figured that my presence would antagonize the insurgents, even more, that’s why he’s sending me.” Words like ‘antagonize’ and ‘insurgents’ gave extra weight to the statement. The trick, Haides had learned, was to not overdo it. The grown-ups didn’t like that.

“I don’t like it. Not one bit. You’re a resourceful lad, Haides, but you’re not a soldier. You can get killed. You can get one of my men killed.”

“I know,” Haides said apologetically. “I tried to tell the Colonel, but he insisted. He’s a good man, the Colonel is,” he hastened to add, “but he’s an officer through and through. Mission first. Always.”

“For the record, I don’t approve. And I don’t want a replay of your solo foray, so no gun for you.”

“But...” Haides tried, but Luca would not listen to his pleas. It was hugely unfair, and the boy resented it immensely. To go into harm’s way, unarmed. Idiotic.

------

Luca, somewhat reluctantly, took Haides to meet the rest of the team. The old K-company veterans—Sarge, Mazzo, and Roverto—were still with him. They’d been reinforced, bringing the total count to eleven men, one boy—and one seriously big woman. Sarge was nominally squad leader, but in reality, the men were following Luca’s lead more often than not.

Luca had another sharpshooter with him. He wasn’t from the 57th but from the disbanded 62nd. The new sniper wasn’t much for talking, except to mumble or curse at things. Haides started calling him Hash, on account of his sergeant hashes, and that seemed to sit well with the other guys, so it stuck. The two of them made up the scout-sniper element. Despite his superior rank—Luca was still technically only a corporal—it was Hash who lugged the long-range comms set and Luca who called the shots.

Next up were Ribaldo and Vincenzo, both veterans from Mike Company. Ribaldo was your archetypical rifleman, a big, steady fellow that just kept going whatever life threw at him. Vincenzo was a weapon specialist. He had a brutal-looking PIG—Particle Infantry Gun—an overpowered pulser made to crack open armored infantry and light vehicles.

The other newcomers were a mixed bunch.

There was Ivo, who wasn’t really Coalition General Infantry, but a Navy Corpsman from someplace called Hervor. His battlecruiser had been crippled by Akakian forces, and he’d been reassigned to the 57th. Now he was the squad’s medic.

From Lugg, there was Rat, a small, sinewy fellow who couldn’t sit still and whose eyes looked both confused and alert at the same time. Not his real name, of course, but he looked and behaved a lot like one, so that’s what they called him.

Lasar was a beef farmer from a shithole planet called Cyrus, a place whose only claim to fame is to be the place to herd cattle. I had no idea how he ended up in the Coalition Army. He wasn’t saying, Haides didn’t care enough to ask.

Owen—whose real name was Ajax Shiloh—was a former fighter pilot turned infantryman; his interceptor had been crippled over Akakios, forcing him to ditch it. He had been handed a pulse rifle and reassigned to the infantry. Presumably, the fleet didn’t have any need for his service now that the infantry was on the ground. Or maybe they had just run out of ships.

The woman was the final member of the team. Her tag said ‘Cressy,’ but that was a lie. Haides had heard the pilot user her real name, ‘Jarra,’ when he thought no one was nearby. One time he had whispered ‘Jarruvela’ into her ear. She hadn’t liked that. Both of them had golden dragon tattoos over their hearts. They made an effort to keep them hidden. The boy wasn’t sure what it meant.

It was quite the team. Haides couldn’t wait to see some action. If only they’d let me have a gun.

------

She—Jarra—got to Haides just as he was leaving the shitter. One moment he was squinting against the sun and tightening his belt. The next, he got a rock-hard fist to the kidneys. Two meters of mesomorph muscle pounding at a skinny, underage body. He folded, helpless and voiceless. Her other hand clamped around his throat, unrelentingly choking the life out of him. The sun shrunk to a single point, then there was only darkness.

------

When Haides regained consciousness, they were both there, Cressy and Owen—Jarra and Shiloh. She hadn’t killed the boy, just stopped the blood flow to his brain long enough to knock him out. That suggested some real skill, real smarts, under all that brawn.

“He’s coming around,” the giant woman said. Her voice was surprisingly pleasant if a little deep for a woman. Nothing to suggest she’d kill a kid without blinking. “I still think this is a bad idea. It would be better to just disappear him. He’s a nasty little bugger. Not right in the head.”

“He’s just as kid, Jarra,” Shiloh said. “He’s a bit sharp around the edges. But so are we. War does that to us. Breaks us, makes the edges sharp.”

“Whatever,” she said.

The ex-pilot turned to the kid lying on the bed. “Haides. We know you’ve been snooping. And we know you’ve heard some stuff. True?”

“Yes,” the kid croaked.

Jarra snatched a canteen from her belt and tossed it in the kid’s direction. He flinched but caught it. “Drink,” she growled.

Haides had a sip. Then another. “Never mind, Haides,” she said. “Just talk. Or I rip your head off, shove it up your ass, and dump your carcass in the latrine. It’s as simple as that.”

Haides considered being coy, but Jarra’s eyes convinced him otherwise. She wouldn’t do exactly as promised—she’d make it look like an accident. Hit him in the head so hard he never woke up. Strangle him to death. Then drag him somewhere and dump the body. He’d be found the next morning, and the soldiers would shrug and forget all about little Haides.

“I know you go by false names—you’re Ajax Shiloh, and you’re called Jarra, but Jarruvela is your given name. I know you,” he said, pointing at Shiloh, “was a fighter pilot, but I can’t figure out why you’re hiding down here.”

“How do you known that name, Jarruvela?” Jarra demanded.

“I was hiding under the bed,” Haides admitted.

“Under the bed...told you he was a slippery one, Shiloh.”

They weren’t even trying to deny it. Haides was uncertain if that was a good thing, or it meant they were more likely to get rid of him.

“Go on, kid,” Shiloh said.

“So, what’s your story? I’m dying to know,” Haides said, instantly regretting the ‘dying’ part when he saw the look in Jarra’s eyes. “Just curious,” he added in his best innocent-kid voice. She wasn’t fooled, but the pilot maybe was.

“It’s simple, kid. You guys killed the Coalition flagship. It wasn’t my fault, and nothing I could have done would have prevented it, but I was in the vicinity. The Coalition likes to execute people when things go badly. So I decided to become an infantryman, to be all I can be and all that.” He looked over at Jarra. “She’s only here...”

“...to get dicked,” Haides interrupted. “I saw your gear, Ajax, it’s awe-inspiring, especially on so small a man,” he quickly added. It was an awful risk, but he had to break the cycle, get Jarra out of her murderous mood.

For a moment, they appeared to not comprehend his words. Next thing, they both burst out laughing. The moment of danger had passed. The ice had been broken. The boy was safe for now. The question was: should he dare mention the matching dragon tattoos? He decided not to. Maybe later, when he was more confident Jarra wouldn’t break his neck.

------

The only thing the members of the squad had in common was that everyone had volunteered. Technically only Luca had volunteered. Sarge, Rovo, and Mazzo had followed him—it was bad luck for them to become separated. The other sniper came along as a favor to Luca. The rest of the squad had stepped forward, one after another. It wasn’t volunteering in the classical sense, more like a feeling that their time was up. If they didn’t shoulder this one, they would only be assigned to something worse down the line.

The squad’s assignment was to walk around, look menacing, and question the locals. Getting noticed was the key, without making it too obvious they were the bait. Haides would go with the squad, acting the part of guide and snitch. Ensure we rubbed the locals the wrong way, but stay out from underfoot as much as possible.

------

On the fourth or fifth patrol, Haides’s patrol hit pay dirt. It was another uncommonly hot day, entirely atypical for early winter, with no clouds or wind to speak of. Not as sweltering as that fateful day when they’d gone after Mother’s killers, but warm enough sleeves were rolled up, and bodies were all sweaty.

They were doing the usual stuff: stopping random people on the street, going through their papers. Roughed up some guys. Accepted some bribes. Kicked in a door or two. Made a mess of some poor soul’s attempt at making a home for her family. Nothing special—but something was different. They could all feel the tension mounting—the calm before the storm and all that.

Snipers and improvised explosives were a real danger in this part of town. One of Luca’s drones picked up one of the former before he had a chance to fire. Hash took him out with a single long-range shot to the head. They evaded three of the latter with the aid of long experience and Mazzo, their brilliant sensor operator.

Eventually, a group of insurgents tried an ambush, but once again, Luca and Hash picked them up first. A brief firefight followed, but the Coalition squad wasn’t there to win, only to draw attention. They fell back. Came under fire again. Retreated again. Soon the team was involved in a running battle with small bands of insurgents. The enemy knew the area better, but the Coalition had a plan and superior firepower.

The only casualty was Beef Farmer Lasar. An autogun round found its way underneath the armored combat vest. The bullet made a complete mess of his shoulder. Pure bad luck, really. Had it hit the segmented plates, he’d gotten off with a bruise.

Or, if you turned the argument on its head, maybe it was good fortune—because the shot could easily have killed him. Ivo staunched the bleeding, patched him up as best he could, and gave him a few shots of stims and painkillers to keep him going. Lasar lived and could walk, but he couldn’t wield his rifle anymore.

By early afternoon the squad had been hounded all the way back to one of its preplanned rendezvous locations. Over the radio, Luca got reports of rebel activity around the city. An attempt, no doubt, to draw attention, to make sure Haides’s squad go no reinforcements. It spoke volumes about the level of organization and communication capabilities the rebels possessed. This was a unified, highly regimented force, not scattered bands of civilians.

The Coalition troopers needed to get into cover, recuperate, and organize a defense, but the enemy was hot on their heels. They got a breathing space after the insurgents tried to rush the building, and were turned back with rifle fire and grenades.

The building had taken a few artillery rounds on the middle floors and was partially burned, but still structurally sound. Before the war, a local commerce guild had operated out of the first to third floors. The ground floor had held Thira’s most renowned confectionery, and the upper three stories luxurious apartments. None of that remained.

The ruined structure provided cover and concealment, with little danger of new fires. It sat in a Y-shaped intersection where the Boulevard of Heroes branched to become the Esplanade and the Champs. This gave the firebase a triangular shape, which was advantageous, given the squad’s limited manpower. Of the two adjacent buildings, one was a complete ruin, and the other one was structurally unsound—small chance the enemy would come from that quarter. Attacking along the Boulevard was tantamount to suicide. To get into the building, the Khiones would have to come across either the Esplanade or the Champs, taking casualties as they crossed.

The defenders had three CAS drones out and up. A fourth had lost anti-grav, so Luca had concealed it among some rubble on the rooflet covering the main entrance. With Luca up on the sixth floor with the Eye, they were pretty well covered. From up there, the two scout-snipers could spot anyone approaching and effectively fire from multiple preplanned positions. It also gave the comm set a longer range.

Sarge put Mazzo and Rovo in charge of each of the two fire teams.

Mazzo got Cressy—Jarra—Ivo, and Ribaldo. Jarra carried a support pulser. Not as intimidating as Rovo’s multi, but actually packing more punch per shot. It was a mounted, crew-served weapon, but Jarra wielded it like it was no more cumbersome than a rifle. It made Haides wonder how strong she really was—maybe she was augmented, it didn’t seem possible for someone of flesh and blood to carry such a heavy load so easily.

Ivo and Ribaldo brought their pulse rifles to the fight. Ivo, their medic, had a compact carbine type weapon, whereas Ribaldo sported a powerful assault pattern pulse rifle, complete with a backpack-type power unit like the one Rovo carried. He could fire all day without spending all his juice.

Rovo took Rat and Owen—also known as Wing Commander Ajax Shiloh. Neither man had any special weapons nor equipment, just their regulation pulse rifles, but Rovo’s multi meant the three of them had as much firepower between them as Mazzo’s four-man fire team. Technically, Lasar was with their group, but he was in no shape to fight.

The teams were stationed close to the leading edges of the building, on the third and fourth floors, respectively. Luca didn’t want both groups on the same level if the enemy brought heavy weapons to the fight. They probably didn’t have anything bigger than a missile launcher, but you could never be too careful

Mazzo’s team watched the Esplanade, Rovo’s the Champs. They would fire separately or together, moving from one side of the building to the other to keep the enemy at bay.

Sarge was lurking alongside Vincenzo and his little piggy-gun on the first floor, just above the main stairwell. He’d set his explosive multi-charges around the perimeter of the main hall and in the stairway itself. When the first rush came, he would trigger the charges. Sarge and Vincenzo would then finish any survivors with flechettes and plasmablasts, then retreat one level up. If they got lucky, Sarge might be able to pull the same trick twice, but it was probably going to be a one-off.

With preparations done, the soldiers rested—and prayed the enemy would oblige and do as they had planned for.

------

Haides was sitting on a bench with Lasar, near the stairwell on the third floor. The injured man was holding up well enough. He still had his rifle, but since he was in no position to use it, the GI was forced to rely on his sidearm.

“Don’t worry, kid. We’ll handle them. The Colonel has a plan,” Lasar said, his voice strained.

The boy smiled at him. Of course, there was a plan. A plan he knew more about than Beef Farmer ever would.

Haides was armed again. Luca had let him borrow me the sliver pistol. Up top, he had no need for it. To Haides, it had looked a lot like a standard autopistol. Luca explained the difference was mostly inside but didn’t go into details except to tell it had low recoil and made minimal noise. It could fire a hundred shots, and Haides had an extra hundred-round mag in his pocket.

The boy showed Lasar the pistol. “Put it away, you won’t be needing it.” He smiled at Haides. What a moron. Of course, I’ll need it. We’ll be needing all our guns if we’re going to survive this.

He was to sit with the cripple until Sarge and Vincenzo retreated up to their floor. Together they’d hold to allow Mazzo’s team to withdraw up to the fourth floor. Next, they’d also retreat, and the reinforced fore time would keep assaulters at bay. The idea was to hold the stairwell for as long as Roverto had ammo remaining and was in a position to fire. If the situation became untenable, everyone would retreat all the way to the roof.

It was as good a plan as any.

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