Dark Omega

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Chapter 41 THE DRAGON’S LAIR

He had done it. He was inside. Three levels below the surface, within the warren of corridors, rooms, and access ways that made up the invisible underworld of the hospital complex. It had to be the lowest level since it connected to the drainage system. The rest of the layout Haides was much less sure of. The problem was the same as before: the Akakian’s reliance on the Grid and their locks meant there were no physical signs or floor plans in sight. Why got to the trouble of putting up physical signs when everything had virtual tags? Why label something ‘2nd Floor’ or ‘Room 301’ when that information—and much more—could easily be displayed inside the head of whoever needed to know?

Granted, the Grid had been down for years, so Haides had gotten used to getting around without artificial help, but this was a new setting: a vast complex with only the gods knew how many levels, buildings, corridors, and rooms. Despite this hindrance, Haides felt confident. He was inside the innermost security perimeter. Had the place been operational, it would have been swarming with staff and security guards. But the facility had been abandoned for a long time. Interior security measures would be at a minimum—if there were any at all. He could explore the place at his leisure, learn how everything connected. The place was so big it had to contain some treasures. Maybe not a dragon’s hoard of gold and magic, but there was no way every single thing of value had been removed.

As the boy padded cautiously along dimly lit corridors, he tried to think ahead, to guess at what lay ahead, but quickly gave up. He didn’t have the faintest clue what an abandoned Dragon Order fort might hold of traps—or treasures. He had to deal with stuff if or when it happened. The best thing he could do was take it easy. No alarms were blaring—no need to rush. Besides, this was by far the most exciting thing to happen since, well, since ever. It made Haides forget about Mother and Eli and Jan, Luca and the Colonel, Nik, his soaked clothes, and the bruises. The longer this escape from reality lasted, the better.

As he had suspected and hoped, there were no active security measures to be found. The old fort was entirely abandoned. The Dragon Order trusted the automated defenses to keep intruders out. Either they thought it impossible to get in—or they didn’t really care if anybody did. That didn’t mean Haides had free reign of the place. There were a lot of locked doors—too sturdy to break through—blocking his progress. In other places, corridors and doorways had been welded shut or otherwise permanently barred.

Haides didn’t attempt to repeat the door-ripping feat. He’d pushed the memory away and refused to be reminded of it—the implications were too disturbing to dwell on. Instead, the boy roamed the sub-levels, getting a feel for the place, figuring out where he could go and not, searching for anything he could scavenge.

After a while, he found some canvas bags full of hospital uniforms. The clothes seemed fresh or close enough to it. Haides stripped and dressed in a mixture of plain whites and sterile greens. The women’s ‘extra small’ sizes fit well enough—a massive improvement over the oversized wet mess he’d been wearing. One of the bags held pairs of disposable slippers, still wrapped. Haides tore open the waxed cellulose and pulled them on—they felt impossibly warm and welcoming. A soft, white bathrobe with a stained sleeve completed the outfit. Using a metal tray as a mirror, Haides concluded he looked like a cross between a surgeon and complete idiot—but a dry, warm, and content one.

He was reluctant to let the wools and boots go. Once he got back outside, he’d need them again. Walking the sleet-covered streets of Thira in slippers would end in frostbite and death. He ended up making an improvised sling bag from the oilskin jacket. He needed the satchel for all the loot he was going to find.

After dressing, Haides resumed the search for valuables. The place had been cleaned—more thoroughly than he’d expected—before it was closed down. Many of the rooms had been stripped bare, leaving no trace as to their original function. Other places were crammed full of hospital gear—beds and other furniture, strange-looking machines, and other paraphernalia—none of which a single person could reasonably lug around.

Eventually, he gained access to an unlocked stairwell by way of the male nurses’ locker rooms. The stairwell’s auto-locks were malfunctioning, preventing them from engaging correctly. The system tried again and again: Haides could hear the locking bolts snap into place, but immediately they would disengage, followed by a sad wail as the system called for help. No one responded. There hadn’t been a mechanic around for a long time, let alone a technomancer.

Haides pondered this new development, made his decision, and moved through the door and into the stairwell. He uttered a short prayer to Loki the Trickster as he went, thanking him for showing the way. Same with Artemis, for keeping him kind of safe. And Anubis, for being there, but not being needed.

The stairwell gave Haides access to sub-levels one and two, but not to the surface—the way up was blocked by a massive steel barrier, welded into place. With nothing better to do, the boy resumed searching. With two new levels to explore, he’d find something of value eventually.

After an hour or so—it was hard to keep track of time without a timepiece—he finally found a treasure: a pulse rifle leaning against the wall. The weapon was a standard Mark 210, with a scope attached. Nothing like Luca’s Eye, but decent enough for ordinary rifle work. The charge indicator said sixty, so that meant a full clip, or close to it, depending on the type of charge pack. Some held sixty rounds, others as many as one hundred. It didn’t matter; sixty shots were plenty. And there was bound to be an energy port somewhere that could be used to recharge the pack once it ran out of juice.

Some poor schmuck had left his gun behind when they vacated the premises. Haides wondered what kind of punishment the soldier had received. According to the Coalition Infantryman’s Handbook, it was a shooting offense to abandon your weapon in a warzone. The sentence was less harsh if you lost it during training or transit, for example. Haides slung his newfound gun and didn’t think more of it.

Not far from where he’d found the rifle, he hit the jackpot: a box brimming with ration packs, fifteen all told. All of them read ‘Meal No. 131, Faux beef and mixed vegetable stew.’ One of Haides’s favorites, as far as military rations went. The boy’s spirits soared. He hadn’t found this much food in one place in years. This place was going to make him rich—relatively speaking.

He considered popping one of the ration packs right away but was still kind of full after the improvised crackers-and-icy-water lunch. An average person might have taken the opportunity to feast a little, but Haides was a scrawny kid and used to having little to eat. What little food he had, he needed to scrape out over too many meals. Fifteen ration pack was enough for a month and a half, maybe more, but winter was longer. Feasting, although admittedly tempting, was something he’d regret later.

With his food supply secure, Haides’s thoughts turned to the future, trying to figure out how to get back into the hospital for more plunder at a later date. With a start, he realized he didn’t even know how to get out. The way he’d come was definitely out of the question. Going out on the ground level—or above—was going to be extremely risky, almost guaranteed to get him killed by turrets or drones. He would have to find another underground exit. Until he did, he was effectively trapped inside the hospital complex.

Haides spent another couple of hours exploring the place, mostly looking for a way out, scavenging as he went. He found some odds and ends that he slipped into the satchel, but there were no more hauls like the pulse rifle or the rations. Eventually, he ran out of space: further progress was barred by locked doors or other barriers. Try as he might, Haides couldn’t find the way forward.

As an experiment, he tried using the pulse rifle to take out a door. It worked well enough. He toggled the selector to ‘HI-PWR’ and shot out the lock with three pulses, then pried the door open with a makeshift crowbar he’d made out of a part taken from a hospital bed. This feat gave access to a trio of poorly lit rooms on the second sub-level. At first glance, the new area contained nothing of interest or value. The first room reeked of chemicals and smoke—kind of strange since the place had been closed for years. Haides reeled back out, nearly panicking. But there was no one down in the basement with him. After regaining control of his treacherous body, he went back in.

The room was longer than it was wide. Large fan hoods were mounted above metal benches, with heavy-duty sinks at each work station. All the sinks were filled with ash and scraps of burnt sheets. Having nothing better to do, Haides rummaged through the ashes, looking for something readable. The old country house outside of Thira had two fireplaces. He’d used cellulose scraps to get the fires going on many occasions. If you shoved in too many sheets, they would not burn all the way through to the center. He found a stack of sheets that hadn’t been completely destroyed. It was a transcription of an astral communiqué, written in High Dominion.

### Transcription of Astral Projection ###

# Header #

Date-Stamp: 4021.07.06-10:11:23

Transmission Priority Level: Triplex-Alpha

Transmitter: Legate Elixis Suburis

From: Général Bacchus Eiden, Commanding Officer, Protasian Delegation

To: Amalfian High Command

Security Clearance Level: Vermillion-1

Subject: Protasian Rebellion

# Message begins #

All Praise the Archon and the Gods of the Pantheon STOP The Senate of the People of Akaios denies our rightful demands STOP Senate despatched a courier in contravention of blockade STOP When vessel was fired upon, defense orbitals returned fire, resulting in the destruction of Hades-class Terrible Retribution with all hands STOP The accompanying detachment is currently under attack by Akakian ground forces STOP I estimate we can hold out for no more than 72 hours STOP Assume general rebellion to follow STOP Request orders and support STOP May Osiris judge us lightly STOP Bacchus Eiden END

# Message ends #

### Transmission ends ###

Haides carefully pulled at the sheet. He managed to get it loose, but as soon as he turned it over, it broke into myriad fragments. The sheet underneath was severely stained and partially burned. He could barely make out the words in the glare of the torch. The top was too messed up to read, but the main body was—barely—readable.

Akakios has been declared at war with the Coalition STOP Inform the Senate that they are to surrender unconditionally without further delay or face military sanction STOP Arrest all Senate members and key associates STOP They are enemies of the Archon and the Gods and are to be taken into custody pending public execution STOP Naval assets are en-route STOP Ground assets are being embarked STOP All praise to the Archon and the Gods.

The bottom part of the sheet was as badly messed up as the top, but judging from the other message, Haides wasn’t missing out on anything important. He tried to separate the second sheet as he had the first, but the fire had turned the paper into a brittle, near-ash state. It fell apart, as did the sheet underneath. He was able to piece together a part of the message, though, a third transcript, dated a while later, screaming for more ships and men. Signed one Marshal Maxim Maximus.

Haides’s interest in the burned papers faded—reading about war and politics wasn’t very high on his list of stuff to do before he died, so he moved on. The next room was empty, save for rows upon rows of equally empty filing cabinets. Physical files. Impossibly primitive yet incredibly simple and effective. Thinking about the current state of Akakios and the Grid made physical filing sound like a viable option. Physical records didn’t require power or computer hardware to run, couldn’t be hacked or easily copied. With a few dedicated savants to run the archive, it would be almost as good—a little slower—as a computer-run system.

Haides rummaged through the cabinets, but they were all empty, save a single page. It had gotten stuck between two interior separators and escaped notice. Judging by the labeling, it was the fifth and last page of a five-page docket. It was a list of sorts, with names, aliases, and filing references to about two dozen suspected Protasians insurgents. All but three of the entries had a notation in the ‘Status’ column indicating they had been killed or captured.

It was a Dragon Order document, stamped and approved with great bureaucratic panache. The paper listed the name of the attending Quaestor: Tancred Alexander. The name of a real, living Quaestor here, on this world—it made Haides wonder why. He wasn’t an expert on the Order but knew they hunted Shadow-spawn for a living, not obstinate peasants. Why Thira of all places?

There was a familiar name on that list. In the second to last position, it read: Preacher Ramush. In the ‘Aliases’ column, there were two entries, each with a numerical reference: ′Maxentius #1321, Mr. Galatas #43356.′ There was a question mark in parentheses behind the second name. They had left out Killer of Whores, but Haides was one hundred percent sure this Ramush was the same man who had ordered Mother’s death. Torturing and killing women wasn’t very nice, but it hardly constituted grand heresy. So why then, did the Dragon Order kept a file on the man?

Preacher Ramush, like most of the other names on the list, were marked as ‘Deceased.’ They got that part right, at least. Someone with a horrible hand-writing had scribbled ‘Renegade Conclave preacher’ in the ‘Notes’ column. The Conclave reference had been struck through with a different kind of marker. That same marker had, in turn, been used to write ‘Recidivist: Possible Bishop of the Word’. Haides knew what a recidivist was, in a general sense: a person who had willingly turned away from the Gods of the Pantheon in favor of darker powers—or maybe the One God—and consistently refused to amend his ways. He didn’t know anything about any bishops or words, except for that time he overheard Sarge and Luca talk about a ‘Word of Light.’

Judging by the many file references scribbled in the final ‘References’ column, there was a whole dossier on the man. Whoever this Quaestor Tancred was, he’d thought Ramush important enough to gather information about him. Had the rest of the dossier been burned or removed? Haides had no way of telling. He shrugged and put it out of his mind. Heresy was no concern of his. Mother had been avenged, the soldiers had left, the Preacher was dead, and the Dragon Order was long gone.

He considered taking the page, but it had no potential value, so Haides left it where he had found it, then changed his mind and went back to the cabinet. But try as he might, he couldn’t find the sheet again. He knew exactly where he had put it. There was no one else in the room. The smell of smoke and chemicals had cleared too. Only some ash remained of the papers he had looked at. Had he dreamed the whole thing? Was it like that time when he saw Mother murdered?

He didn’t want to think about that, so he went into the innermost room. There was another metal door there, one that looked a lot like the one that had let Haides into the first stairwell. Haides used the pulse rifle again, but it didn’t work as well as it had before. The lock melted, but he couldn’t pry open the door. It was either blocked in some fashion or spot welded from the other side. He could have kept blasting away, but his instincts said it was futile. It was time to pack up, get out, and go home—not that he had a home anymore.

Having covered the sub-levels—at least those portions accessible to him—Haides was sure he wouldn’t find a viable exit down there. Going out above ground presented its own challenges, more specifically the automated defenses, which he’d hoped to avoid, but he was left with no real choice. He had to get that door open, use the stairs, and find a route out that didn’t get him shot.

Haides retraced his steps back to a room where he’d seen some surgical supplies. Among scalpels, scissors, and whatnot, he’d found a meat hook—a strange tool for a hospital. He’d considered taking it earlier but already had a lighter and handier crowbar. With the new, sturdier crowbar in hand, the boy went back to the barred door. He gave the lock another couple of pulses and then shot out the hinges as well. He worked the crowbar around the edges of the door. It took a while, but eventually, he got it open. Not all the way, just a gap along one edge. Peering through the opening, Haides could see the door was indeed barred from the other side. A pair of metal rods had been welded across the face of the door, pinning it to the frame. He pushed the pulse rifle barrel through the crack and fired at the rods a few times until they broke. With the aid of the meat hook, he was now able to pry the door open enough to squeeze through. He was careful not to touch any of the semi-molten edges where the pulser fire had liquified the metal.

Haides was going up the stairs when he was spotted. A drone, hovering deathly silent in mid-air. It was considerably larger than the drones Luca had deployed as scouts. It was also armed. The barrel of a compact—but still lethal—coilgun protruded from between metal jaws. The stylized dragon rampant of the Order was worked into its matte-black hull.

Before he had a chance to react, the drone painted Haides with a ruby red targeting beam. He was a sitting duck in its sights. He threw up his hands in reflex—as if flesh would stop a hypervelocity bullet, or stop it exploding inside his body.

The drone fired.

The coilgun rounds blew up a few centimeters shy of Haides’s chest as if they’d hit a wall—or a telekinetic screen. A spontaneous release of psychic energy had once again saved his scrawny ass. Already off-balance, the force of the exploding munitions sent the boy tumbling backward down the stairs. It hurt like hell, but the fall was a godsend—if he hadn’t fallen, he would have died. Following the burst of ineffectual coilgun fire, the drone self-destructed—a final subroutine in case it encountered a legate it couldn’t handle.

When the ringing in Haides’s head finally subsided, he struggled back to his feet, in time to hear powerful claxons going off. The loud noise provoked another dizzy spell and some dry heaving. The horrible claxons were briefly interrupted by a mechanical voice blearing: “Facility has been breached. Provocateurs within the perimeter. Terminate with extreme prejudice.”

The ‘provocateurs’ was him. Haides couldn’t avoid the fact, no matter how much he disliked it. The ‘terminate with extreme prejudice’ meant that everything left in the fort would be coming for him. He’d overstayed his welcome.

The claxons resumed their blearing. Haides started up the stairs, leaning against the wall, trying not to fall again as his legs threatened to give in, and his head felt like it might explode at any moment. It took a long time to get up to the ground floor. The door there was securely locked and barred.

“Initiating final containment protocol,” the voice cut in again.

Haides didn’t like the sound of finality in that warning. He had to get away and quickly. Unfortunately, he had no idea how to accomplish that. He started running, or as close to it as wobbly feet allowed. He always ran when things got too thick. Better to run away and try again than stand and die.

Running accomplished little. In between locked doors and barred windows, there was nowhere left to go but up. So up it was, all the way past the twentieth floor of the main hospital building. Until finally, Haides stood shaking with exhaustion at the top of the stairs, staring into a door that must lead onto the roof. Not exactly an ideal escape route, but there was nothing else.

The door went the same way the others had: a few pulses, followed by the meat hook. That got it open. Haides stuck his head through the gap and looked out at the wide-open expanse of the hospital roof.

It was no longer snowing, just a light drizzle of rain, whipped by fierce, cold winds. There were no visible defenses, so Haides squeezed through the opening and got out onto the roof. With one hand shielding the eyes from the driving rain, he looked around, fighting a rising sense of panic. The was a landing platform across the roof. Something was parked on it, partially hidden underneath a canopy of polymer-canvas.

Haides broke into a run, going low and fast, exhaustion forgotten, hoping against hope no gun turrets were covering the roof. Ducking under the canvas cover, he found the ultimate prize: salvation, in the form of a sleek-looking Akakian hopper from before the war.

He tried the handle. The hopper was unlocked. Such good fortune. On the other hand, why would you need to lock a hopper sitting on top of a twenty-story building at the heart of a Draconic fort?

Haides jumped inside and shut the door. It was indeed an Akakian machine, but someone had ripped out the original locking mechanisms and authentication systems and replaced them with crude Syndicate replicas. That was a godsend—without the Grid and a functioning lock, there was no way to get the hopper to run in its original configuration. With only this simple, mechanical fix to contend with, there was a chance—if he could hotwire...

There was no need. A set of keys were dangling from an overhead console. Haides grabbed them, rammed what looked like the right key into the ignition, and twisted it to the ‘Initiate’ position. There was more than a little praying involved. To Horus, Artemis, Loki, the rest of the gods, dead Ares, and all the ancestor-paragons Haides could think of.

The hopper came to life.

Looking over the status board, he saw that it was fully charged. So far, so good. Now he just had to figure out how to fly the damn thing. The last time Haides had ridden in a hopper, he’d been eleven or twelve. Father had shown him the controls and such and let him play around a bit, but he wasn’t exactly a qualified operator.

With determination born of desperation—or perhaps the Gods and ancestors really interceded with the spirits in the machine—he managed to get the grav coils online and the rotors idling.

Then the boy waited.

The fear and anxiety that had gnawed at him were gone, replaced with certainty and purpose. If he tried to run, he wouldn’t get fifty meters before the turrets shot him out of the sky. It had nothing to do with a lack of flying skills. An ace fighter jock such as Shiloh would have gotten no further.

He had to wait. Wait for something to happen. Wait for the opportune moment.

Fifteen minutes after the warning had been issued, the implosion bomb went off deep below the compound. Fifteen minutes. Long enough for any key personnel, such as a Quaestor and his aides, to evacuate. Perhaps using the very hopper Haides was sitting in.

As the implosion effect started to suck everything inwards, Haides pushed the throttle wide open and whispered a final prayer to whatever paragons presided over mad hopper flights. The flying vehicle shot out like a bullet, a fraction too fast for the bomb to suck it back in.

The auto-turrets fired, but with reality being compressed into a microscopic point, their tracking was off. They winged the hopper but didn’t blow it up. The boy tried as best he could to keep flying, but the hopper was a lost cause. The machine came down a few blocks away from the compound.

He crawled out of the rubble, battered but alive. He looked around. Where the hospital had stood, there was literally nothing left. There was a huge circular hole in the ground like someone had taken a giant scoop out of the earth.

It was the strangest thing Haides had ever seen, but he had not time to linger. The implosion and the crash would attract attention. He quickly pulled on the boots and draped the oilskin over his back, slung his loot, and hurried away.

Haides one, Dragon Order nil.

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