Dark Omega

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Chapter 31 MAIDEN OF AMALFI

The Pro Patria-class sprint freighter Virginis Amalfi—the Maiden of Amalfi in the common tongue of the Dominion—rested at anchor, high above the war-torn world of Protasia. A gleaming sliver of metal, nearly eight hundred meters in length from the forward scanning pylons to aft engine baffles. It was a graceful craft, lithe and swift—as long as she was unburdened by the six massive cargo spheres that currently straddled her waist. Even fully loaded, she was far faster and more maneuverable than the giant cargo haulers that dominated long-distance trade in the Successor Kingdoms. A ship like the Virginis was more suited to carrying wealthy passengers and luxuries than bulk goods. Thanks to a few special modifications, it was also capable of daring acts of exploration, smuggling runs, and privateering. The Maiden was a venerable old lady—her keel had been laid down over Moeral Utilis before the Titanomachy—but her owners had kept her in working order throughout the centuries. The numerous refits she’d undergone meant there were few original parts left, except the structural members of her spaceframe.

The starship’s Master and Commander, the Honorable Starwalker Corben Emmanuel of the House of Orovar, sat alone in the observation spire—a retractable obelisk of adamantine, crowned by an impenetrable crystal sphere—soaring above the Maiden’s superstructure. The spire was not an original feature of the Pro Patria class, but an addition made by the founder of House Orovar, Lord Orovar the Merovingian, in preparation for his second great expedition into the wild space on the galaxy’s southern margins. Where had he gotten the plans for the spire? Where had he acquired the materials? What yard had done the work? There was no mention of the refit in the family annals, and not even the technomancers could ascertain its origins, leaving those questions unanswerable.

If there was a place on board the ship where Corben felt at home, it was up here. No one was allowed to ascend the spire while he was present, not even his personal servants or bodyguards. It was the only place where he could escape the oppressive claustrophobia the rest of the Maiden invoked in him. With the viewing ports fully opened, he could pretend he was flying through the void alone, unburdened by the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of metal, ceramics, and synthetics that made up the flesh and bones of the leviathan beneath his feet.

Captain Corben touched the command pad situated in the armrest of his chair. The majestic murals of Old Earth soaring overhead faded, replaced by a crystal-clear image of the cold void outside. He played with another set of controls in the other armrest. Mighty thruster banks began to fire sequentially, slowly turning the Maiden of Amalfi so that her prow pointed directly towards the planet below. At a distance of more than forty thousand kilometers, the world was reduced to a blue-white ball, framed by pitch darkness and bright sunlight.

Protasia. Or should I call it Akakios, as it says on my star charts?

The captain rose from his seat and moved to a computing desk made of carved hardwoods procured from a dozen different worlds. He looked down at the digital starmap spread across half the table. He might not belong on a starship, but he knew all there was to know about astrocartography and commerce. Corben could have done a splendid job running the family business. If only the old man hadn’t insisted his son take personal command of the Maiden. If only he could have run the vessel by proxy. Many expatriate Starwalker dynasties did that. Corben could have stayed on Sorbonne and pulled strings. Avoided all this travel. But no, Simenon had made a provision in his will—his son must command the Maiden, or forfeit his inheritance.

Tick, tick, tick.

He heard it more clearly this time. It was the same sound he thought he’d heard earlier. It was very faint, but it was there. It reminded him of the sound lobsters made when thrown into the boiling pan—the scratching of chitin on metal, muted by the roiling water, and the sealed pressure lid. Corben listened intently, but the noise was gone. The observation sphere was kept pristine, free of vermin, and the general decay that threatened to overtake the below-decks.

Corben shook his head and returned his attention to the chart. It wasn’t crudely informational like ordinary starmaps, but hand-drawn in a hyper-realistic form that reminded the captain of the Dominion’s higher art forms. Astrocartography. He’d always had a particular interest in it. As a child, his father had filled his head with stories of distant worlds and exotic places. How he had longed to see those sights, to wander upon alien worlds, with strange suns burning down from the skies above.

When Corben was old enough to travel, his father had taken him along on his journeys. It didn’t take Corben long to realize he really, really didn’t like to travel between the stars. What a disappointment it had been. It wasn’t traveling as such that bothered him. He actually loved to visit places. It was the actual journey that caused the discomfort—the cold trek through the void under superluminal drive. And worst of all, the nightmare journeys of collapsar jumps—they only lasted moments, but for Corben, it felt like forever. Just thinking about it made his skin crawl. How do other people stand it?

He had tried, he really had, but there was nothing he could do. No matter how many trips he went on, it didn’t get any better. If anything, it got worse. What started as mild anxiety in preparation for a flight evolved into a continual state of dread. He simply wasn’t cut out to be a starfarer. He’d tried explaining this to his father, but the old man wouldn’t listen. He was hell-bent on making Corben a copy of himself. No amount of reasoning, sulking, or screaming could change that.

It wasn’t until the blackouts and spams began his father had relented and began leaving Corben at home. Marooned him in the family palace on Sorbonne, attended by the scores of servants and hordes of menials that ran the place, while the old captain walked between the stars alone. The great Simenon thought his son didn’t like to go places, but that wasn’t strictly true. Corben still dreamed of the far-away places he had wanted to visit all his life. He just hated going there.

To compensate for his inability to travel, Corben had begun collecting all the lore he could find about Dominion space and the regions bordering it. His father’s estate had been a good starting point. Generations of Starwalkers had amassed a throve of ancient star charts and planetary ledgers. When that was no longer enough, he had asked his father to bring home more. The old man had happily obliged. In fact, he spent a small fortune on it. He probably hoped it would lead Corben to find the courage he needed to go out into the void again.

It hadn’t. It had, however, given Corben an unusual degree of insight into the worlds of the Dominion. Well, not all of them, of course, just the important and exotic ones. The Dominion was much too vast for any man to know everything. Even in its reduced state, it covered a quarter of the Milky Way, give or take. Tens of thousands of inhabited worlds and who knew how many outposts and fringe settlements scattered across the unimaginable vastness of the galaxy.

And beyond the Dominion were other regions. The Scuti Fiefdoms, always distant and factitious. The ancient Starwalker Holdfasts, now free of Dominion control. Virgan space, where they worshiped the One True God and called the gods of the Pantheon false. Further afield, the lands of the dread Kull, the only part of the galaxy that had never fallen under Dominion rule. In between, there was plenty of room for other strangeness. Like the alien Prowlers and Revenants, the remnants of two old Empires that had destroyed one another while humankind was huddling around campfires in Afrika. Reaving bands of Tartaruchi, demons in the flesh—or humans twisted by the fell powers of the Abyss, depending on who you asked.

Beyond the Via Lactea—the Milky Wa—lay other galaxies. Some close by, like the two Magellanic Clouds and other dwarf galaxies—Sagittarius being the most famous—others more distant, like great Andromeda and lesser Triangulum, both of which had been colonized during the heyday of the Gaean Dominion.

And that was just the start. The Virgans invaders supposedly came from somewhere deep inside the Virgan cluster—hence the name given to them by the Dominion. Whether by divine design or physical necessity, the universe was linked by a network of wormholes. In the Milky Way’s case, the lost Empire of the Revenants had greatly expanded upon the system, making travel faster and more convenient. All you had to do was plunge your starship into a collapsar—for all practical purposes a type of black hole—and you would be transported across vast distances in just a fraction of the time it would take to go there using the standard superluminal drive.

Corben had heard of the Protasian system but never visited before the war with the Coalition. Few Starwalkers did, for the Protasians kept their own counsel, and their merchant marine was large and long-ranging. Little reason for a free trader to visit. Until now, that is.

Akakios, however, was a complete unknown. It had taken a while, but he had pieced things together: Akakios was the old name for Protasia, predating its inclusion into the Dominion. The locals had continued calling their world Akakios, but to the rest of the Dominion, it had always been Protasia.

The naming wasn’t the real mystery, however. The real secret was why the Dominion had chosen to call it Protasia, the First Colony when it was absolutely nothing of the sort. Why had the Dominion needed to label the planet something other than its name? It wasn’t unprecedented, but it was unusual. It had taken a while, but eventually, he figured out that too.

Protasia was the Amalfian name for Akakios, had been since time immemorial. Protasia was the First Colony of Amalfi. Amalfi was already part of the Dominion when Mikael I landed on its estranged colony. The rulers of Amalfi had probably insisted the world be listed as Protasia—perhaps they even dreamed of reclaiming their wayward child.

The mystery solved, Corben’s mind turned to matters of commerce. His first trip to the Protasian system had been an experiment to see if there was some profit to be made. War often meant new opportunities for a Starwalker who could come and go as he pleased. They had looted a Protasian hulk they had found adrift in the outer system. The salvage had been pretty good, and he’d taken on the handful of able hands his boarding crews had found alive but stranded inside the dead spaceship. Given their plight, they had been overeager to swear allegiance to the Maiden and its master. It was either that or die.

The Coalition Space Navy had tried to chase him away when he arrived in orbit, but they had no authority over a man that carried a Letter of Marque. Nevertheless, the Navy had insisted on boarding the Maiden for verification. Like always, the naval officers were all hot airs and condescending attitudes. The Flag Lieutenant they had sent over with the boarding party had been a particularly despicable specimen. He had pranced around like he owned the place and offered Corben no more respect than he would a simple trader captain.

It was with a growing sense of glee Corben had paraded him through the gilded halls of the Maiden, discreetly watching the junior officer deflate as cruel reality crashed down upon him. This really was a Starwalker vessel, filled with the pillage and trade goods of a hundred worlds, and he was nothing more than a trespassing bug. The Lieutenant had wanted to scurry away into a dark corner to hide, but Corben was having none of that. He had marched the poor fellow to the Commander’s suite and allowed him to gaze upon the Letter of Marque—the man had looked absolutely stricken when he saw it applied ad infinitum and had been personally signed by that most infamous of Autarchs, Gideon IV.

After the Navy had been dealt with, Corben had descended down to the surface of Protasia to deal with whoever had the wealth to purchase his goods. The Coalition held the cities that hadn’t been completely destroyed, but supply lines were in horrible disarray, and Corben got premium rates for second-rate goods. There were still insurgents chipping away at the occupation forces. Even as he sold his wares to the new Coalition-appointed officials and nobles, he had men out to establish connections with the locals. These Akakian loyalists were both courageous and tenacious, but Corben didn’t think they could outlast the Coalition’s presence. He didn’t think they believed it either. But they would nevertheless continue to fight, probably to the last man. More importantly, they were willing to pay him with the riches they have hidden away before the planet’s fall.

He’d come away with a small fortune in Coalition Livres and Akakian heirlooms. And the Akakian crewmen he had rescued proved to be worth their weight in platinum. Even the commoners among them had received an education that put most Coalition gentlemen to shame. Not only were they intelligent and learned, but they were also respectful of authority and dedicated to their employer-rescuer.

He’d returned to Akakios many times over the last three years. The journeys pained him like they always did, but at least he got rich in the process. As things began to settle down, demands for low-bulk high-value commodities had skyrocketed, perfect for a small, but quick freighter. Trading with the rebels also became more profitable over time. With every passing month, they became more desperate. Corben didn’t mind. As long as they met his ever-inflated prices, he provided them with whatever they desired.

To further cement his relations with the insurgents, he had agreed to take on some Akakian civilians as crew—and to help others escape the planet. He wasn’t disappointed. Even without prior shipboard experience, they adapted quickly. Soon he was taking as many Akakian crewmembers as his ship could hold. Their neural interfaces made it easy to chip them all with loyalty protocols. In short, the refugees were perfect for Corben’s and the Maiden’s needs.

Some of the civilian refugees could pay for their passage directly—despite Corben’s exorbitant prices—others willingly entered into indentured servitude on distant planets. The captain’s coffers swelled—he’d never realized that human trafficking could be so profitable.

Of the new crewmembers, one boy, in particular, had proven valuable. A tall, darkly handsome lad that went by the name Janus Guillaume. He was smart, strong, brave—and enjoyed some respect with the other Akakian survivors. With his help, Corben established more contacts, faster and more cheaply than would otherwise have been the case. More profits for the Starwalker captain and his House.

The boy was a quick learner. Every day he worked hard, picking up the skills he needed aboard a starship. He was chipped, like the others, but according to the cortex logs, the loyalty protocols weren’t needed—the boy was unfailingly loyal to his captain. Corben put him on the shortlist. He was officer material, just needed time for his spacer skills to mature, and the rest of the crew to accept him as a future leader.

Corben had made some good money off Protasia, or Akakios, whatever you wanted to call it. It required a lot of travel, but with emotional dampeners redlined and his system full of torpor drugs, he coped well enough. But soon, the good times would be over. The Akakians were nearly done for—nothing more to be gained there. And the guild freighters were saturating the open market. He could continue to turn a profit, providing luxury goods, but not with the same insane profit margins. It was time to pack up and go. Maybe one last round trip, and then he could take the rest of his life off. He’d earned it—and now had the means to live comfortably for hundreds of years.

Tick, tick, tick.

The lobster sound again. What could be the source? He was alone up here, wasn’t he? His mood soured, Corben turned away from the map table and strode towards the elevator cage waiting for him. The Seneschal and the Tech-mistress would answer for this interruption, and by Set, those answers had better be good, or he’d have the both of them whipped to within an inch of their miserable lives.

------

“The Captain requests your presence in his ready room, Miss,” Janus Guillaume said to the back of a young woman in a technician’s coverall.

“Requests?” the woman replied, without looking up from the gutted control console in front of her.

“Requires,” Jan admitted.

“Then just say so,” she said and turned to face him. “Changing the original message will only lead to misunderstanding, confusion, inefficiency.” She hit a switch, and the console started to reassemble.

“Yes, Miss Venus.”

She peeled off a pair of maintenance gloves and removed her hair cover and face mask. Jan was again struck by how very young she looked. Fourteen? Fifteen maybe? Definitely not more than sixteen. He was eighteen and a mere midshipman. She, however, was in charge of the ship’s engineering department. It seemed illogical, impossible.

“And it’s just Venus. I’m not a Miss.”

“Yes, Miss Venus,” he replied. “When, if—I don’t want to presume—we come to know each other on a personal level, I will call you Just Venus.”

“You’re a strange lad, Janus, you know that?”

‘Not as strange as my brother,’ he wanted to say, but he didn’t. No one would understand. And besides, little Haides was long dead by now, so why bother? And Eli. And Mother. And Father. It was a heavy burden to bear, but he had to deal with the ghosts of his past on his own. No one could help him with that. “Yes, Miss,” he said instead.

Venus pulled off her coverall, revealing a shipboard jumpsuit just like the one Janus was wearing. It was the blue and maroon of House Orovar, with the Starwalker family crest—two birds of prey grappling—proudly displayed over the heart. Wearing only a skin-tight garment, she looked even younger. There were hardly any female curves on her, just the hint of something to come.

“Then perhaps we should get to know each other better,” she said and shook out her long, dark hair. It reached nearly to her waist, perfectly straight and a very dark shade of brown. It reminded Jan terribly of his Mother, and of poor Eli.

“You’re part of the crew now, same as me,” Venus said.

“Yes...” Jan said, a bit more reluctantly than he had intended, “as far as my schedule allows. I have a lot to learn, and duties to attend to.”

“Then walk me to the Captain,” she said, “we can talk on the way.”

Jan fell in next to the petite engineer—she didn’t even reach up to his chin. “I sort of assumed...that you didn’t...I mean, talk much.”

She tilted her head sideways and up to look at him. “You mean that you assumed my kind doesn’t fraternize with the common people?”

“Yes,” he admitted, “technomancers are regarded as aloof. I meant no offense,” he added.

“None taken,” she replied. “Besides, I’m not a technomancer.”

“You’re not?” he said, feeling a bit flustered.

“No. I was never a technomancer. I was apprenticed to one, years ago, but now I’m not even that.”

“Oh,” Jan replied and fell silent.

They walked a distance, over to the doors of the closest transport tube, before either spoke again. “How old are you?” Jan finally said. “I mean, even for an apprentice, you look mighty young.” It was also strange that an apprentice would be in charge of running a Starwalker spaceship, but he didn’t say so aloud.

That made her laugh. A burst of soft, pearly laughter that proved highly contagious. Jan found he was smiling. He didn’t smile much. Not since the war anyway. Smiling felt good.

“And how old are you, Master Jan?”

“Eighteen,” he replied. “Not so many months until I’m nineteen,” he added after a moment.

“That young?” she replied. “You seem older, Jan. More mature. But I guess appearance can be deceiving.”

“The war...it was not easy,” he admitted. That was an understatement. It had been horrible. His whole family, gone. And not just dead, but claimed by madness: first Mother, then Eli. Even Haides had succumbed to the whispers. He had been so furious at them. His own flesh and blood, fallen to Shadow. He hadn’t understood it then, but it was fear and sorrow both that turned into hate when he couldn’t find another way to handle his emotions.

And then came the Preacher. That whole horrible Word of Light affair. How close Janus himself had come to falling to Shadow, without even realizing. That had made him see his own family and their failings in a very different light. To his great sorrow, he would never get to say he was sorry and tell them that he still loved them.

“I’m older than I look,” Venus said, interrupting his reverie. “Much older.”

“Really?”

“Really. My old master, Vinnies, curse his name, transformed me into...this,” she said, using arm movements to indicate her body.

“Your body is artificial?” Jan’s knowledge of the Technocracy was limited, but he did know that technomancers took great pride in their humanity. They had extensive neural interfaces but otherwise kept augmentation to a minimum, much like Akakians, in fact. He didn’t know why, only that they did. Probably a cultural thing.

“Most of it, yes,” she admitted.

“You’re a cyborg, a chimera.” It was hard to say precisely where the line between heavily augmented humans and cyborgs were drawn, but chimaeras were property, not people.

“I am, yes,” she admitted. “Master Vinnies used to do this to apprentices that displeased him in some manner,” she explained. “Those he felt would not make good technomancers...those he transformed into chimeras. Kept us as servants and...laborers.”

She left out some things—dark things. Vinnies had not been a kind man. Jan could hear it in her voice, read it between the lines.

“You seem...unusually bright and independent for a machine,” Jan ventured. Chimeras weren’t supposed to have the high level of self-awareness Venus displayed. They were mind-wiped and loyalty-chipped at the very least, usually fitted with cognitive inhibitors.

“The Technocracy doesn’t follow the rules, Jan. It makes the rules but operates entirely outside them. Well, some rules apply to technomancers, I guess, but they are different from the ones the rest of the galaxy must follow.”

“What did you do wrong?”

“Wrong?” she seemed surprised at his question. “Oh, right, what did I do to displease him, you mean?”

“Yes,” Jan said.

The tube doors opened, and they got in and settled down in the capsule’s padded seats.

“I was talented, had promise. My latency was well above the Kappa limit and neural compatibility excellent.”

“Kappa limit? But you’re not a legate, are you?” Jan knew about as much—or little—when it came to legates as he did technomancers. However, he did know that all potentials were evaluated, and if they scored ‘above the Kappa limit,’ they were fit to be trained as legates.

Venus seemed genuinely confused by this statement. “You really don’t know? That technomancers are legates? What do they teach in those Akakian schools you’re so proud of?”

Now it was Jan’s turn to look confused. “We don’t really have any technomancers on Akakios. I assumed you were the same as Father, tech-savvy, and neuro-compatible,” he admitted.

“Technomancers are legates,” Venus explained. “Not magisterial ones, like the ones the Collegium teaches. Our talents run in other directions, but we’re still legates. We’re engineers and scientists too. Guardians of technological progress—and a safeguard against misuse.”

“You’re a Technomancer, after all?”

“Not officially, no. But I know their ways. And despite cyber-genesis, I’ve retained a measure of psychic potential—turns out I have very high Nexus tolerance—not a lot, but enough to be useful.”

“What happened to make your master so angry with you?”

“I talked too much. Wasn’t focused enough. Stuck my nose where it didn’t belong—I’m very inquisitive. That sort of thing.”

“Sounds like a normal apprentice to me,” Jan smiled at her.

She nodded. “But the final straw was me falling in love. Love is not an acceptable emotion for a technomancer.”

“That’s harsh.”

“It is,” Venus replied. “How much do you know about AI—artificial intelligence?” she added.

“Not much. Only that AI is forbidden,” Jan admitted. “Or the advanced ones are—there are a lot of AI, but they’re not that smart.”

“Part of the reason the Titanomachy was so devastating was all the autonomous weapon systems. All those high-functioning AI, designed only to destroy. When war broke out, the AI pretty much ran the show for the first years. It was supposedly the most efficient war of running a war. Perhaps that was true. It was also extremely destructive. Cold machine logic dictated that to win, one must devastate the opponent’s ability to wage war. Worlds burned. Billions died. And nothing was settled.”

Jan nodded. “I know this part. AI was forbidden after the war, all the successor kingdoms agreed to this, so now all war machines have human operators.”

“True. But what you don’t realize is that the Technocracy, and by extension the Successor Kingdoms, are utterly dependent on high-level artificial intelligence. Without these AI, superluminal drives cannot operate, collapsar jumps cannot be calculated. And without faster-than-light travel, there can be no interstellar kingdoms. And that’s just one example.

“What the Technocracy does is keep the AI in line, keep them docile, under control. The particulars aren’t important, but I can assure you that a lot of emotion isn’t a good thing. And love least of all.”

The capsule accelerated quickly and sped away down the tube.

“How did you end up here?” Jan asked.

“I got kicked out.”

“Really? He made you his slave—and then kicked you out?” Her story didn’t quite make sense.

“I destroyed him,” she said softly. “He destroyed my chance at love, and I hated him for it. So I staged an accident, and my master was destroyed. That’s how I got kicked out.”

“They couldn’t prove anything, that you were responsible, so they cast you out?”

"He cast me out. Vinnies did. As soon as he had a new body ready, he cast me out.”

“A new body? So he didn’t die?”

“Only one of his physical drone bodies. All ranking Technomancers have multiple bodies—they keep their true selves hidden away for fear they might be permanently destroyed.”

“I had played my cards right, made certain arrangements. Vinnies was not in a position to terminate me. My master would have liked to, but he couldn’t. So he did the next best thing and banished me. Then the assassins came, of course, but I was prepared.”

“How did you end up here?” Jan said, meaning the Virginis.

“By chance. I was looking for employment—a girl has to eat—and Old Man Corben is always looking for skilled crew. He lacks connections in the Technocracy, so he was thrilled to find someone like me. It was very fortunate he found me. This old girl,” she stroked the cracked leather of the seat, “was in desperate need of my care, and I was in desperate need of a home.”

The capsule came to a halt, and the hatch swung open.

“How old are you then?” Jan asked.

She smiled at him. “You don’t ask a lady her age. All you need to know is that you’re much too young for me.” She laughed again.

Jan joined in. It was his first real laugh since the war. Maybe there was hope, after all.

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