Chapter 39 A NEW ORDER
Haides lingered for a moment near the magnificent statue of Horus Ascendant in the Red Square. The new statue of the Pantheon’s chief god, made entirely of gold-flecked marble imported from off-world, towered over the broken red figures of the ancestor-paragons of Akakios. A while back, the Coalition had begun demolishing the older statues, meaning to wipe away all traces of the past, but work had halted and never resumed. Haides didn’t know why and didn’t care.
Someone had used spray paint to write slogans on the base of the god-statue. Creative stuff like ‘Free Protasia,’ ‘Death to the Archon,’ and ‘Go home Coalition swine.’ Some in Common Dominion, but most of it in the Akakian dialect of Archaic. It was all very illogical. The invaders didn’t know how to read Archaic—very few people now did. The planet’s name was Akakios—Protasia was the name the hated invaders used. And Horus, High Lord of the Pantheon, Grand Protector of the Dominion, was the chief god of the Akakian people too—tagging his statue was as sacrilegious as it was stupid.
There was clotted blood smeared across the nanocrete foundation. It made Haides think the offender had been caught in the act. Haides squatted down, studied the blood spatter more closely, trying to read the past out of it. There were hair and some unidentifiable fluids mixed in with the blood. They’d found the perpetrator, bludgeoned him with the rifle butts, dragged him over to the statue, and stabbed him repeatedly. The boy put a couple of fingers into the bloody mixture; it was cold and sticky, but not completely dried up. It must have happened a few hours ago. The goo smelled musky and sweet, a particulate distillation of the pain and fear that precedes a violent death.
The boy tilted his head, eyes closed, and listened to what the wind had to tell: a young man, little more than a boy, sneaking through the morning mist, painting his slogans, before defecating at the base of the statue. Two Coalition soldiers coming out of the fog, guided by their scanner set. The boy tries to run, but you can’t dodge pulser beams, and the mist only gave so-so concealment from the multi-sights strapped to their pulse rifles. The boy survives the shot to his calf, so they drag him back. Make him eat his own shit after beating him senseless. Then they gut him with their combat knives and let him bleed out to appease Horus watching from high above—as if the King of Gods would approve of murder or making another human eat feces.
Haides opened his eyes. A quick prayer to Artemis shut out the voices. It was not smart to listen to the wind for too long. If he did, he got headaches and nosebleeds. The dead boy could easily have been Haides, except he would never do something so terminally stupid. Why anyone would risk their life for a chance to scribble on a stone made to look like a god was incomprehensible.
The boy that had been left behind had turned fourteen—or maybe it was fifteen? Days had lost their meaning during the invasion, the years started blurring together after he became alone. He had been born in the autumn, so he could tell approximately when his birthday was by watching the seasons. But one autumn was much the same as the others, and birthdays no longer held any meaning. Only survival mattered. Survival meant stealth. Meant being careful. Meant not attracting attention.
The corpse of the dead boy had been dragged away from Horus and strung up across the chest of one of the ancestor statues that were still standing. The carved red stone depicted an older male, bearded and in his formal robes. Haides didn’t remember who he was—or couldn’t tell him apart from the others. The paragons were almost universally old, wise, bearded, and robed. At one time, he had been holding a staff or scepter of some sort, which probably made him a magister or something. Other than the missing staff, the statue was in better shape than the rest.
Had the Grid been operational, Haides could have used his lock to retrieve information from the planetary databanks. Conjured forth virtual tags to name each and every ancestor in the square, read all their histories if he wanted. Looking back, it seemed so utterly pointless. What use was knowing the names and deeds of old men, long dead, when you didn’t have a home to live in, or food to put on a non-existent table? What had they been thinking?
The majority of the other saintly figures had fared worse—they had either been damaged during the assault on Thira or disfigured by bored Coalition soldiers. The Vaxandii, in particular, were fond of destroying stuff when they didn’t have anything better to do. Better they vented their anger by shooting statues than take it out on the Akakian people.
Perhaps it was the ancestors’ final act of protection—sacrificing their stone bodies so that their descendants might live. If so, they hadn’t helped the careless kid. He hung there, quite dead, strung up as a warning: do anything the Vaxandii disapproved of, and you’d end up like this, dead and strung up. Or maybe strung up first and then left to die. Or maybe like Mother, tortured, raped, and then strung up to die.
Haides wasn’t at all impressed. Years of occupation and a reign of terror that had lasted almost as long. If such tactics were at all effective, you’d think the remaining Akakians had learned their lessons by now. But no, the Akakians continued to resist, and the occupiers kept strangling their host to death.
The Vaxandii were beasts wearing human flesh. Savage, remorseless, and uncompromising. They weren’t bright in the fashion of learned men, but they had a certain low cunning that let them spot trouble readily enough. Ugly, noisome, and stupid, but it was best not to underestimate their ability to spot trouble and deal with it—violently.
Haides had absolutely no illusions about what would happen if he was caught by Thira’s new overseers. He wasn’t the kind of kid they would let live. If he was seen, he’d be shot. If he was taken alive, they’d make sport of him before putting him down. He’d seen it happen enough times for the message to sink in. The only way was to stay out of sight, out of mind.
The careful boy heard the muffled sounds of two patrolling Coalition soldiers—possibly the very men that had killed the stupid boy—from within the thick Thiran mist. Technically they weren’t GIs anymore. Their units had been disbanded, the soldiers given settlement rights. They were now citizens of the brave new world of Protasia. So that made them, strictly speaking, Protasian militia. In Haides’s mind, they were still GIs—and his sworn enemies.
The patrol wasn’t close enough to cause trouble, even if they had scanners. Haides scurried over to the statue and deftly ascended, so he was level with the corpse. The Vaxandii had stripped the dead boy of any visible valuables but hadn’t done a thorough search. Haides came away with a few minor items, including a sewing kit with plenty of black and khaki-colored thread, spare buttons, and unused pins. New clothes were hard to come by—this find would do wonders for the boy’s wardrobe of worn-out military apparel. The dead boy also had a small grenade—so small it had to be Akakian—stuffed down his shorts. Getting it out was rather odious; death had emptied his bowels. Haides had been through worse for less.
Sliding down again, the boy took a moment to survey the loot. The grenade was roughly half the size of those the GIs lugged. Pre-war Akakian issue, standard fragmentation. Suitable for long throws, only marginally less powerful than the Coalition equivalent. It was filthy but looked fully functional. For some reason, Haides started thinking about a poop grenade his brother had made. He almost giggled, but the moment of gaiety was soon drowned by waves of bile. The boy didn’t have a brother. Didn’t have a sister. Didn’t have a sweet little puppy. Didn’t have a family at all. He had nothing.
His mood fouled, Haides contemplated using this newfound treasure against the two patrolling soldiers but decided not to. The satisfaction would be short-lived, and the act would draw all sorts of unwanted attention. The last thing the boy wanted was to bring more troopers. Blowing up two random grunts wasn’t worth it.
The voices drew nearer. They were discussing the merits of Protasian—not Akakian—women. Both men agreed they were good for looking at and fucking, but that they needed generous amounts of slapping around to be manageable. Both men were also pleased that they had been fortunate enough to be awarded a woman at all. Unless you were an officer, there were no guarantees. Except for the occasional terrorist bombing and sniping, life was pretty good. A lot better than living on their own homeworld by the sound of them.
Their level of agreement and contentment with the post-war situation was touching and nauseating at the same time. The boy was again tempted to use the grenade but put it into his satchel instead. There were other, more rewarding uses for it. It would fetch a reasonable price. Despite everything that had transpired, the Cold Trade—the local black market—was doing brisk business. The grenade was worth a couple of unopened ration packs, at the very least.
The Coalition units that had replaced Luca and his brothers in arms were mostly pressganged scum from the sprawls of Vaxandi’s overpopulated planets. Capable soldiers, but not really colonist material. After receiving settlement rights, these Vaxandii began purging Thira more thoroughly than anyone before them. The 57th Loches and other units garrisoning Thira had been content to keep the pace. The new guys were more diligent. Acting on orders issued by someone called ‘Verrigan,’ the new ‘Viscount of Athens’, whatever that meant, they sought a permanent solution to the ‘Protasian problem.’
Exempting those smart enough to abscond before the purges began, the majority of the adult male population had been rounded up and executed around two winters ago. The Vaxandii were very thorough and efficient, but it still took a while to get rid of several million people. To add insult to injury, the bodies of the dead were processed and turned into a protein base, rather than buried according to the customs of the Akakian people. The Vaxandii had no qualms eating the dead, be they indigs or their own fallen. To Haides, the act was repugnant, but to them, the dead were a source of valuable nutrition—and it removed the problem of deposing of the bodies. A win-win situation on their impossibly overcrowded and resource-poor homeworlds.
Haides knew, from personal experience, that humans could do a lot of bad shit to each other, but even after being abandoned, he couldn’t believe that Luca and the Colonel and the others would have gone along with the purges. That was the real reason they had been sent elsewhere. This Verrigan fellow wanted someone with the right mindset and proper skillset garrisoning his city. The Vaxandii were the perfect fit.
The Akakian men who possessed useful skills were spared. Those ‘lucky’ few were fitted with cranial bombs, neutered, and set to work for their new masters. Technical skills were in particular demand, but there was a host of other jobs, many of them base and laborious, that needed doing. Tasks the masters either couldn’t or wouldn’t do themselves. In essence, the new Thira became dependent upon slave labor.
Younger boys were recruited into ‘volunteer’ companies. They were mind-wiped, chipped with basic combat packages, and received generous helpings of drugs and abuse to keep them in line. These child soldiers were the primary line of defense against another upsurge in rebel activity. The new overlords didn’t want to do manual labor, and they most certainly didn’t want to fight against urban guerrillas. So they solved this in typical Vaxandii fashion by letting the remaining Akakians fight each other instead. Pretty smart, actually.
Women too old to be fertile or too unattractive to be good whores fared no better than the menfolk. Either they had useful skills, in which case they became slaves, or they ended up as proteins on someone’s plate. Younger females were divided as loot between the troopers and officers. Many ended up as trophy wives for the occupiers. Others as communal whores; there weren’t enough women to go around, so organized prostitution was regarded as the next best thing. Wife or whore—Haides wasn’t sure which assignment was the worst.
Girls ended up as child brides. If the settlement effort was to have any effect, every eligible woman must be made to serve, even those not yet old enough to bear children. Not all the husbands waited until the girls became of age before consummating the marriages. Another atrocity added to the tally.
Only the very young were spared—if it could be called that. These kids had their emotions scrubbed before being adopted by the settlers. Neither the Akakian children nor the Vaxandii adults had any say in the matter. Everyone had to find their place within First Minister Verrigan’s vision for the new Protasia—or perish.
Marcus shifted his focus from young Haides’s memories of Thira to the Gatekeeper. “Verrigan again?”
“Indeed. Verrigan had secured the entire region as his personal fief. From the Mastari Mountains with their sky-piercing monasteries to the aqua-habitats of the Agape Ocean, all of the Lake District, and the surrounding valleys. Some of the best real estate on Akakios, much of it untouched by strategic warfare. Thira—or Athens as the Coalition called it now—lay at the heart of it and was to be rebuilt and repopulated according to Viscount Verrigan’s specifications, turned into a new regional capital befitting the First Minister of Protasia.
“Verrigan made Thira into a primary distribution center for ‘retasked’ Protasian civilians. People were driven there like herd animals. Millions were forced to walk across vast distances, to be sorted, processed, and shipped out to where they were needed. Or killed—and eaten—in case they weren’t desirable. As it turned out, there were a lot of undesirables.”
“Why this brutality now?” Marcus asked. “Why take care not to devastate Thira during the invasion, if he was going to completely fuck it over afterward? Why not simply have everyone killed using razor-swarms or viral bombs or some such?”
“Verrigan’s motives were known only to him, as was his true allegiance. He fooled everyone. The Archon. The Conclave. Even the Dragon Order. The killings were not random. They were deliberate, coldly calculated, purposeful. No one understood what kind of beast Verrigan was until it was too late.”
“Ritualistic killings? Yes, that would make sense,” Marcus said.
“Sense? Absolutely not. There was no sense, only utter madness.”
“That was not what I meant, and you know it.”
Haides lifted his glass. “To small, petty victories,” he said and smoothly drained the drink.
“But you survived, Haides. Against all the odds, you not only survived, but you also thrived,” Marcus said. “You were using psychics, weren’t you? Your inhuman accuracy, your ability to stay hidden even when the enemy was using scanners, the precognition...you were a latent legate, untrained, a provocateur in the making, right?”
Haides nodded. “I didn’t think of it like that at the time, but yes. I was an emerging provocateur. I was using my powers regularly and without much effort. I was never properly assessed, so I don’t know what my potential score would be, but well above the Kappa limit at any rate.”
“And you suffered no ill effects?”
“If you want to know if I experienced the onset of Nexus psychosis, physical stigmata, or attracted the attention of malevolent spirits, then please say so. We’re both Dragon Order agents, and we both have Dark Omega clearances. No need to be so coy.”
“Very well. Did you experience stigmata in any form? Did you experience spasms? Did you bleed from the orifices? Did you get sores that would not heal? Did you hear voices? If you did, what did they tell you? Did you do what the voices told you to?”
“I got headaches when I ‘listened to the wind,’ sometimes I would bleed from the nose for no reason. But otherwise, I was blessedly free of taint, spiritual or physical,” Haides gave Marcus a playful look, “any lack of morals on my part was of my own doing.”
“Don’t evade the question, Haides,” Marcus pressed.
“You’re calling me by my name now? Not thinking of me as ‘the construct’ or ‘the persona’? That’s very nice of you, Marcus.”
“You’re still evading the question. Haides.”
“Nothing gets past you, Prefect Marcus Aurelian—no wonder they call you the golden,” Haides said, his mien grim, but his voice containing a hint of ironic humor. “No, I suffered no form of corruption during my stay on the new Protasia. I listened to the voices in the wind, that’s true, but those ancestor spirits were not malevolent. I was rigorously screened upon my acceptance into the Dragon Order, and the Order is thorough when it comes to its legates, so that’s that.”
“You were lucky then. Or strong. Or both,” Marcus concluded.
“Strong? Not at all. I wasn’t weak, but I certainly lacked the strength of character and focus that comes with the conditioning of the mind and the honing of one’s psychic powers. Lucky, I wouldn’t know. Luck is notoriously difficult to measure. Or maybe someone was watching out for me,” Haides said matter-of-factly, avoiding mentioning who or what.
Before Marcus could respond, he was pulled back into the streets of Thira. Rather than resist and risk another confrontation for no reason, he let the gatekeeper pull him under.