Dark Omega

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Chapter 42 RITE OF PASSAGE

Haides headed towards the closest of his hideouts. It wasn’t much, a partially collapsed cellar underneath a burned-out building, but it was dry and relatively safe. He needed to rest and regain his strength. Miraculously he’d sustained no serious injuries, but he was cold, exhausted, and generally beat up. He needed to get out of the stupid hospital clothes and soggy boots. It was past midnight before he was able to finally wring out of the once-sterile uniform—now soaked and caked with dirt—and into the sleeping bag.

Haides made no attempt to get a fire going—he didn’t want to draw attention on the off chance somebody was out there. The light of the fire wouldn’t be visible, but smoke could be smelled even at night. He did heat some water on the portable stove and mixed it with some chocolate powder to make a hot beverage. He had some more biscuits and half a tin of canned fruit that was entirely too sweet.

As he lay there in the dark, Haides pondered his bad fortune. He had felt so blessed, so exhilarated—the excitement of multiple near-death experiences, the adrenaline highs, exploring a subterranean warren in search of treasure. He’d forgotten all about his miserable life and all the bad things that had happened. Despite the danger—and the pain—he’d been happy. Now the good feeling was gone, and he felt worse than ever.

He had been lucky to get out alive, of course. Blessed to have gotten inside in the first place. Extremely fortunate that the drone hadn’t killed him. But the overall feeling was still one of disappointment. He had been high as a cyber-kite, filled with hope, but in the end, he had crashed and burned. Now he was bruised and battered, cold and worn out. All that trouble and so little to show for it, a handful of items stuffed into the satchel, but whatever riches the fort had held, it was gone now, compressed into so small a space it was very nearly a singularity—a black hole.

The boy thought of the grenade he had expended to get in. He wished he had thrown it at the patrol instead. It would have been a waste, but it would have felt better than this. He lay there for a while, completely exhausted but unable to sleep, hating the world like he hadn’t hated it for quite some time. He hadn’t really felt anything of late. Not happiness. Not sadness. Not fear. Not even hate. It felt good, hating something again. Made him feel alive. Haides decided to hate things more often.

Then he remembered the other boy, the careless one—the one who had painted the slogans at the base of the statue of Horus. The stupid, unlucky boy the Vaxandii had murdered. That boy had died, Haides still lived. Nothing like good old hate—and the misfortune of others—to cheer up a fellow who’s down on his luck. The lucky, careful boy fell asleep with a smile on his lips

------

By the time Haides woke up, it was well past noon. He was stiff and sore after sleeping on the cold, hard floor of the hideout. He got out of the bag, stretched a little, took a piss down the hole in the corner of his shelter, had a couple of sips of water from his Coalition-issue canteen.

He crawled outside to have a look. Thira was still a devastated ruin, but the weather had improved considerably. The day was grey and cloudy, but there were little wind and almost no precipitation, just a faint breeze that carried with it a drizzle.

He went back inside. It was pretty cold, so he pulled on some spare clothes he had stashed for just such an occasion. The boots needed to dry out before he could put them on, so Haides settled for pulling a pair of plastic bags over the hospital slippers.

He looked over the loot. There was the pulse rifle. He had carried it slung across the back when the drone blew up and hadn’t had the clarity of mind to dump it as he ran up the stairs. A check showed that the gun itself was operational, despite Haides landing on it. The Syndicate built things cheaply but not poorly. Only twelve rounds left in the charge pack, but that was immaterial—it could be recharged or replaced.

The gunsight, however, was ruined. When Haides fell on top of the gun, he’d landed on the scope, and something had broken inside. It didn’t look broken, but when he squinted into the eyepiece, there was something wrong with how it magnified and marked the target point.

He should have done what Luca had told him to—kept the sight safe in a padded pouch. Haides tired whispering soothing words to the sight’s umbra machina—the ghost in the machine—before testing it anew. There was no improvement. Not that he’d expected it to be, but it was worth a try.

A technomancer might be able to fix the gunsight, but not someone like Haides. He detached the sight from the rifle. The gun wouldn’t be as accurate, but he could fire it just fine with iron sights alone. Or he could sell it. The broken scope might have some value to the right buyer, so Haides set it aside, meaning to take it to market later.

The big box of ration packs was gone, dropped during the backward tumble in the stairwell, and forgotten in a rush to get out. The loss of those rations stung.

That left only the satchel. Haides emptied it on the ground. The box of rations had been overflowing, so he’d opened the excess packets and stuffed the contents into the bag. Four ration packs; that was eight—maybe ten—days of sustenance. His mood improved a fraction.

He’d managed to get hold of eleven vials from a broken medicine cabinet. Three had the green cap of a stimulant. The other eight bottles had complicated names printed on their labels. Haides had no idea what they were. But Himilco, the Cold Market’s self-styled apothecary, would know.

There were some other odds and ends in there as well, including a pair of surgical scissors that could fetch a reasonable price, a fistful of sterile bandages, and a portapad of Akakian manufacture that was not working because the grid was down.

It wasn’t that bad a haul, Haides admitted to himself. He was, perhaps, being overly glum. If he didn’t think about what he hadn’t been able to bring or the risks taken, he could be content. He stuffed everything back into the satchel and got up. He’d swing by a couple of his stash places, drop off most of the loot, and then head for the market with only a few items in the satchel. Carrying too much stuff to market was a sure way of getting ripped off—or killed.

Then he realized his boots were still wet and that he couldn’t walk to the market in slippers. He would have to set a fire, or it would take forever.

------

The Cold Market—the most prominent black market in Thira—was located right off the old Esplanade. It was less than two klicks from the building Haides had so valiantly defended against the Khiones insurgents nearly three years earlier. There hadn’t been any reconstruction in this sector yet, but it was located inside the perimeter of the settlement zone, which made it an ideal place for people to meet and exchange goods and services.

The Vaxandii masters supported the existence of the market. They were none too particular about who or what they traded with. Even runaways—ranging from loners like Haides to actual members of rebel groups—could come here to buy and sell in relative safety. As long as they brought something of value to the market’s masters, all were welcome. Akakian slaves came on their owners’ behalf to buy, sell, or spy. Merchants from other regions went there to hawk their wares. Scavengers offered up the bits and pieces they had dug out of the ruins of Thira. There were even some off-worlders come to profit from the plight of Protasia, ranging from trader captains engaged in a little smuggling on the side, via criminal cartels come to exploit a new market, to bona fide Starwalkers out to rob everyone blind.

Haides hated the Cold Market. There were far too many people around, none of them with good intentions, and too few places to hide. He had his share of bad experiences with the area. A couple of years ago, he had gotten careless, and been attacked by a mob of older boys, beaten and robbed of everything, the clothes off his back included. They hadn’t killed or raped him, but at the time, Haides hadn’t felt lucky at all. It had happened in the middle of a cold spell, and he had been naked, starved, and injured. He’d come down with a terrible cold that had left him more dead than alive. Somehow he’d pulled through and regained his strength. It was, curiously, the last time he’d been ill, so the experience must have fortified his immune system in some way.

He was more careful after that, but he was still just one boy and a scrawny one at that. He had been shaken down a couple of times after that, but since he never went to market carrying much, he avoided his entire fortune again. Once it became know that he didn’t bring much, he was allowed to pass after paying a token ‘market toll’. The only downside being that when he carried less, he had to come to market more often.

Eventually, Haides had become a familiar face and built a network of buyers, sellers, and ner-do-wells. He was the silent boy that always seemed to find some of the good stuff. Not a whole lot of it, but enough to keep him an interesting man to do business with. That made Haides much less of a target, but going to market was never entirely safe.

Regardless of his misgivings, Haides was forced to come to the Cold market from time to time. To exchange what he had scavenged or stolen for stuff he actually needed: medicines, nutrient supplements, purification tablets, fuel pellets, assorted odds and ends he would otherwise have to do without but rather wouldn’t.

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“And where did you come across these vials, young Master?” Himilco said, in the Archaic dialect of Akakios.

“I found them in an abandoned hospital,” Haides replied honestly, switching over to High Dominion. The Vaxandii didn’t like it when the survivors spoke Archaic. “They had fallen out of a cabinet and rolled under some furnishing.”

Himilco sorted out three of the vials. “These are useless then. They must be kept refrigerated, or the drug loses potency rather quickly.”

Haides nodded. He had thought that might be the case. Better than expected, though—he had feared at least half the vials, maybe all of them would be useless.

“The stims keep for a long time. I can pay you for in Livres. There is always a demand for those.”

Haides could also use the stims but said nothing. He knew from experience Himilco would offer more than he could reasonably turn down. He resolved to keep one and sell the rest. It would have to suffice.

“The rest are harder to resell. My master will be displeased with me if I spend too much of his money to fill my medicine cabinet. I can either offer you a trade-in or part of the profit when—or if—I’m able to sell them on.”

“Half and half. Give me half the combined value in blueweed, and the other half you can pay me as you sell it.”

Himilco chuckled, “You drive a hard bargain, Master Haides...but since you always bring me good items and speak the civilized tongue, I shall say yes. Against my better judgment, I hasten to add.”

They shook hands to seal the deal.

He counted out three Livres for each stim and handed Haides a small opaque bag of blueweed.

“If you must inhale this poison, I’m glad you keep to the blue,” the old apothecary said, voice filled with disdain.

Haides smiled, eyes grim. “I don’t hate my life nearly enough to try anything stronger.”

“That’s what you’re saying now. What happens next year, or the years after?” He shook his head. “Too well do I know where that path leads. At first, it is only blueweed, but sooner or later, you sit there with the obscura pipe clutched between twisted fingers.”

Haides didn’t want to argue with the old slave. Instead, he began rolling a joint of the fragrant blue herb. “You mind?” he asked out of feigned politeness.

Himilco threw up his hands. “Feel free. It’s your life. End it however you want.”

After that, they didn’t argue anymore. Himilco continued with work, Haides hung around doing nothing. He’d gossip from time to time, the boy would say nothing. Such was their relationship, the old slave apothecary, and the young runaway. Familiar enough to feel safe, distant enough not to be threatening.

Haides left the Cold Market without incident and picked up the stuff he’d stashed before going in. Halfway on the way through the Shadow Blocks—a badly ruined swathe of the town, shunned by runaways, rebels, and Vaxandii alike, not far from where Mother had been strung up—Haides came across another lone scavenger. He had seen her from time to time but at a distance. They had never closed, let alone talked. She was probably a little older, two or three years maybe, but not much taller than he. Her once-lithe body had turned thin and sickly since the last time Haides saw her. Her blond hair had lost its sheen and was caked with dirt and grime.

The boy found a good vantage point not too far away, one that provided cover from the rest of the ruined cityscape. He set down the pulse rifle to avoid looking too intimidating. Pulled a meal—faux beef and veggie stew—from the satchel and clamped hard on the self-heater. A couple of minutes later, the boy was eating hot stew.

The girl had—as anticipated—followed him. Probably plotting to kill him and steal his things. It was the natural thing to do. Haides made it clear she had been seen and gestured for her to come closer. She did so only reluctantly. You didn’t survive for years out in the Blocks without being distrustful.

“Here,” he said and put the food container on the ground.

She moved forward and grabbed it, then scampered back a few paces. Haides watched her scrape out the last of the food from the container.

“Here,” he said again and threw her a packet of biscuits. “They are dry and taste like dust, but food is food. If you dip them in the stew, they don’t taste so bad.”

She caught the pack in mid-air, ripped it open, and started chewing on the bone dry biscuits. Haides offered her a bit of water to help her swallow. After that, she alternated between dipping the biscuits in the food and drinking from the canteen.

She didn’t speak the whole time.

When she was done, Haides got his kit, grabbed the rifle, and moved out, heading for another hideout.

He took it slow.

She followed.

He let her.

------

The hideout wasn’t much, just a safe place to rest out of the wind and weather. Haides had several just like it. He didn’t stash anything of importance there. Loot, he split between several hidden caches. He also had three spots he used for extended stays. He had more stuff there but was careful not to keep all the eggs in one basket. Having only one place and then having it emptied by someone while he was away would be catastrophic.

He let the poor girl have the candy bar from the ration pack. That convinced her that his intentions were good. Kids and candy. What a potent combination.

Afterward, she went down on her knees.

The boy smiled an uncertain smile at her, made uncomfortable by the close proximity to another human being.

She smiled, trying to reassure him. It made the boy feel sick. Smiles invariably meant treachery.

A razor-sharp blade of surgical steel slid down the boy’s sleeve and into his waiting hand. One item from the hospital he’d kept.

She reached for his belt.

He grabbed her hair with his left hand and cut her a new smile. Jugular blood gushed forth, covering the blade and the boy’s right hand. He held her until her eyes glazed over. It didn’t take long.

He searched through her meager belongings and added them to his own. Then he curled up and promptly fell asleep. It had been a good day.

------

Marcus pulled back from the simulation. The scene left him with a bad taste in the mouth. “And here you claimed no moral taint, Haides.”

Haides laughed. “Believe me, you’ve seen nothing yet. Seriously, what did you expect, Marcus? That we’d become friends? That I keep her around the house and feed her in return for housekeeping and sexual favors? Slap her around a bit to keep her docile, like the Vaxandii did their slave women? Start pimping her in the market for weed money? Is that what you would have done, Prefect Marcus?”

“I...no, but you didn’t have to murder her. Let alone enjoy murdering her. You could have given her the slip, I know you could.”

“Of course, I could. But I’m not a good man Marcus, never claimed to be. I’m a good killer. That’s why the Dragon Order took me in. For my affinity for killing, not because of my piety or altruistic nature. I did kill her. I even enjoyed killing her. The warmth of her blood on my hands and the look in her eyes as her soul left the body...like water to a thirsting man.

“Anyway. I was fourteen, but not at all awakened. That thing between men and women—it didn’t exist for me. Never the most sociable kid, to begin with, I was now adamantly refusing to get close to anyone. I even killed my dear dog, remember?”

“Yes. I remember that quite well. I should not have been surprised by...this.”

“We’re not so different, you and I, Marcus. That’s what I’ve been trying to show you. We are both tools. Loyal servants unto death and so forth. Killers if we have to be.”

“We are not at all alike, Haides. Your bloodthirst set us worlds apart. I will kill in the line of duty, but I do not kill for sport or because it pleases me in other ways.”

“A separation of degree, not kind. I’ve tried to show you who I am, how I became me. My affinity for death and killing is one of the things you have to understand before you’ll be shown the deeper mysteries. But we’ll let the matter rest for now.”

Marcus nodded, not in agreement, but to get Haides moving. He’s even more cold-hearted than I realized. If ever he was truly human, he lost it whatever little humanity he had along the way. What remains is a soul-less killer, hardly more than a machine—less of a person than the Maiden.

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